“The Legend of the Owl” was directed in 1981 by Shaw Brothers star David Chiang, famed for his roles in the likes of “Blood Brothers” and “Vengeance”. The film was somewhat of a family affair, also featuring Chiang’s brother Paul Chun, and being scripted by his half-brother Derek Yee (who recently directed the excellent “One Night in Mongkok”). A period-set martial arts spoof which could politely be described as lunatic, the film really couldn’t have been anywhere but Hong Kong, and is a classic example of the madcap style popular during the 1980s.
The film begins at a yearly secret auction held by mysterious master criminal The Owl, at which he sells slaves, art and valuable objects from around the world (including the Mona Lisa, which is dismissed as being ‘nothing special’). After being challenged by a customer to kidnap and sell the Emperor’s favourite 36th concubine at his next event, The Owl promptly has the poor woman grabbed. When one of the Emperor’s trusted royal guards dies trying to get her back, the task is passed to his son Fan (David Chiang), who teams up with his father’s friends Hsiao Li (Barry Chan) and Shark (Eric Tsang) to rescue her before she can be sold.
To say that “The Legend of the Owl” is a film with a bizarre sense of humour would be a woeful understatement. Basically a non-stop onslaught of throwaway gags, the film is a riot from start to finish, with Chiang and Yee not so much tickling the viewer’s funny bone as jolting it with electric shocks. Thankfully, the film is wonderfully creative, with a good number of hilarious comic set pieces, sending up the wuxia and other genres quite cleverly – for example, through a wacky though spot on lampoon of the traditional Inn brawl, and a sequence early on in the film where The Owl writes a message and puts it in a tube, which proceeds to fly through the countryside, past a couple in bed, bathing beauties and fighters engaged in a duel. As well as the expected slapstick and physical humour, the film is also overflowing with pop culture references, showing scant regard for its period setting or indeed for logic of any kind by parodying the likes of “Jaws”, “Star Wars” and even “Alien”. All of this works very well, and although with so many gags the viewer scarcely has time to blink, it certainly manages to amuse throughout.
The generic plot itself is pretty straight forward, and although it inevitably gets lost amongst all the wackiness, Chiang ensures that the film still bumbles amiably onwards at a good pace. What it lacks in narrative sense it more than makes up for in unpredictability, and the viewer is kept glued to the screen, if for nothing else then to see what piece of insanity comes next. As such, the film engages, thanks in no small part to the charisma of the three leads, all of whom are on great form and who seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. Also helping to keep things entertaining is the fact that Chiang throws in a good amount of action, and although none of it can be taken seriously, mass brawls and the involvement of ninjas are always very welcome additions to any film. His direction is pleasingly kinetic, and he gives the film a colourful, surreal look that fits the mood perfectly. Special mention must go to The Owl himself, whose crazy mask and red and gold costume are almost worth the price of admission on their own.
Although “The Legend of the Owl” may make for rather exhausting viewing, it successfully tramples all over the fine line between genius and madness. For those enamoured of the uniquely chaotic style of Hong Kong comedies the film is a must see classic, and works well not only as an on-target spoof of the form, but also as an incredibly fun piece of nonsensical cinema in its own right – and after all, what’s not to love about a film where during the final duel between the hero and villain everything stops for a quick burst of Elvis music and dancing?
David Chiang (director) / Jamie Luk, Tung-Shing Yee (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Chun … Knight
Yasuaki Kurata … Chong Tin – Knight’s master
Tung Ng, Eric Tsang, Hsieh Wang, Sing Chen, David Chiang