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Deadful Melody
AKA: The Magic Lyre
Yuen Biao and Brigitte Lin
AKA: Six-Fingered Strings Demon
AKA: Deadful Music
AKA: Devil Melody
Year: 1994
Director: Ng Kin-Mun
Action: Mang Hoi
Cast: Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Yuen Biao, Tsui Kam-Kong, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Lin Wei, Wu Ma, Chan Lung, Chung Fat, Mang Hoi
  The Skinny: A paint-by-numbers wuxia fantasy centered around an enchanted musical instrument/weapon. Concert performances are best avoided.

    It's ancient China, and there is much trouble in the world of martial arts. Everyone wants to get his hands (some of those hands six-fingered) on a magic lyre that can be used to make people explode. The current owner of the lyre is Snow (Brigitte Lin), whose family was killed by the leaders of the martial arts world when they attempted to steal the lyre from her father. Now, sixteen years after the massacre, she is seeking vengeance upon her enemies, which include Master of Fire, Six Fingers, Master of Ghost, Tung Fong Pak, "Hard Hearted Witch" Ha Ching Fa, Hon Suen, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, etc., etc.
     Snow has a plan to ensnare her foes. She sends the lyre to Hon Suen, hiring security guard Lui Lun (Yuen Biao) as the courier. With the lyre now out in the open, Snow's enemies pursue it, giving her opportunity to kill them. Lui Lun, accompanied by his recently retired father, is caught in the middle of these machinations. He has to fight off danger from all sides, not the least of which is the romantic threat of Master of Fire's feisty protege Tam Yuen Wah (Carina Lau). Then, when Lui Lun finally delivers the lyre to Hon Suen's lair, there's much commotion involving blazing musical instruments, explosions, death, and mayhem. His father is killed, and Lun blames the death on Snow. Snow has discovered, however, that Lun is her brother, long presumed to be dead.
     Lun's friend, a monk, explains to Lun that his father adopted him and that Snow is indeed his sister. Lun angsts mightily, but eventually reconciles with Snow. But while Lun is still good at heart, it becomes disturbingly clear to him that Snow has been a little too long in the revenge business for her own mental stability. Teaming together, they face their foes for a final all-in battle featuring a cast of hundreds.
      While Deadful Melody has many of the ingredients of a classic early-1990s Hong Kong wuxia film (including lurid characters, a convoluted plot, a ridiculous title, exploding fountains of water, gratuitous dismemberment, intrigue, betrayal, plucky heroism, and a cross-dressing Brigitte Lin), this movie sadly comes across as an also-ran when compared to films like Chinese Ghost Story or Swordsman II.
      The first problem is Brigitte Lin, typecast as Snow. Although she puts forth as much effort as ever, Lin isn't given a role that really stretches her, and her performance is inevitably same-old, same-old. At one point in the film, it seems the character of Snow has become too corrupted by thoughts of revenge and that some reckoning might be in order. But the ending, which fails to tie everything up in case there might be a sequel, fails to deliver on this foreshadowing. Consequentially, Snow "gets away" with her actions, and (more importantly) her character is not fully fleshed-out.
      Yuen Biao doesn't fare much better as Lui Lun. He's not helped by the fact that his character is pure archetype, without any defining qualities. But even bearing this in mind, Biao's performance is unconvincing. He certainly puts forth effort, bringing plenty of his trademark athleticism to performance. But, like his role in the first Once Upon a Time in China film, he just doesn't feel right. He looks too old to be the feckless youth he's meant to be, and he doesn't have the sort of charm that has allowed Jet Li and Jackie Chan to play characters much younger than they really are.
      Deadful Melody also doesn't make use of its comic assets like Wu Ma as Master Fire and Carina Lau as as Tam Yuen Wah. Wu Ma has been in some great roles and performs game in silly red makeup and a wig, but the script isn't exactly his friend. And while she provides much of the life in the first half of the film, Lau is absent for most of the darker second half, and the film suffers for it.
      As for plot, Deadful Melody kicks off with plenty of momentum, and the large cast suggests the grand complexity of films like Swordsman II or The Blade. But unlike those films, Deadful Melody gets bogged down quickly in laboured exposition, and the plethora of characters (mainly bad guys) only leads to confusion over who is who and how they fit into the scheme of things. And while Swordsman II was carefully paced so that dramatic tension built gradually to an emphatic crescendo, Deadful Melody just doesn't develop beyond the standard kung fu revenge template.
     The good news is that the action is very entertaining, though it relies on explosions, wires, and quick editing rather than awe-inspiring martial arts moves. If you like Chinese cinema action at its most hyperbolic, Deadful Melody will provide as many plasma-arcing explosions as you could ever want. And it's always easy to delight in Brigette Lin looking entrancingly murderous. (Stuart McDonald 2005)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Tai Seng Home Video
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy of Winson Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen