Wu Yen

directed by Johnnie To
& Wai Kai-fai
(Milkyway Image, 2001)

This year's Asian American International Film Festival offered an unusual treat from Hong Kong director duo Johnnie To and Wai Kai-fai. Known for successful contemporary crime stories and comedies, they now draw upon their vast cultural heritage to craft a cinematic effort that is distinctly different. Wu Yen, the result, can be called a historical period fantasy/comedy, and a more delightfully clever and colorful production would be hard to find.

Set during the Warring States Period some 2,500 years ago before China was unified under the Qin Emperor, Wu Yens' plot draws upon an old folk legend that has been a staple of Cantonese opera and the subject of several previous Hong Kong films. In this most recent incarnation, the story concerns a love triangle in which the eponymous female outlaw warrior Zheng Wuyen (a.k.a. Chung Mo-yim, a.k.a. Wu Yen, played by Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and Yinchun, a fox spirit (translated as Fairy Enchantress), who can magically shift from male to female personas (performed by Cecilia Cheng Pak-chi), contend for the heart and hand of the Emperor Qi (fascinatingly played by a woman, Anita Mui Ying-fong). When manifesting in a male body, Yinchun loves Wu Yen. Out of jealousy that the object of her affections is fated to marry the Emperor, the fox spirit "mars" Wu Yen's face with a red birthmark-like "love-curse," the spell of which can only be broken if the rather callow and irresponsible Emperor can learn to love the true spirit within the amazon's body.

Aware of her matrimonial predestination, Wu Yen persists in her struggle to make this union come to pass. Yinchun, in true archetypal, trickster fashion, instigates mirthful, farcical palace intrigues (which involve much switching of disguises and imprisoning), antics that get interrupted when the Qi Kingdom twice suffers attacks by rival states. Wu Yen can save the day if she can be persuaded to lead the Emperor's troops each time, heroic acts that the Emperor depends upon repeatedly. That the Emperor eventually resolves his political, romantic and nuptial dilemmas, maturing and attaining wisdom in the process, remains a given. The delight comes from watching the relationships evolve as the characters interact in their highly quirky and vivid ways hilariously complicated by the presence of Emperor Qi's many times great Ancestral Spirit Huan, a rather incompetent but well-meaning entity (also played by Anita Mui in a remarkable dual role).

Wu Yen, a cinematic example of a Cantonese genre called "moleitau," verbal nonsense comedy that relies on quality writing of rapid-fire dialogue, witty ripostes and punning, exemplifies the form even while expanding it to include ribald repartee, broad and low-brow humor, anachronistic gags and biting satire of every social convention and custom.

No sacred cows go unscathed in sequences involving gender-bending, cross-dressing and role reversals. The three leads, all huge stars in Hong Kong, perform brilliantly, especially Anita Mui (in her two roles), convincingly conveying male swagger, bombast and goofy self-indulgence while avoiding tiresome caricature, communicating a broad range of expressions with her face and body alone. Mui's best scene involves a double drag in which the Emperor must take on the disguise of a concubine -- an utter joy to watch while this amazing actress portrays a man playing (badly) a woman.

Sammi Cheng and Cecilia Cheung also acquit themselves well, holding their own against Mui's bravura presence. Cheung's character, with fox spirit powers, ably handles opportunities for multiple gender-switching and moments of moral confusion. Cheng's amazonian yet tender-hearted Wu Yen shines, handling the graceful, realistic sword-play martial arts, the expression of a wide range of emotions and wacky slapstick/physical comedy with equal ease. The movie offers memorably funny set piece sequences, especially those involving Ancestor Huang's lovable bungling. A parody of the Olympics really stands out, being particularly apt and prescient since Beijing won the right to host the big event in 2008.

The production values of Wu Yen truly dazzle with the archaic time period effectively evoked by the gorgeous sets, costumes, props and Raymond Wong's superb musical score. The special effects were rather simple and basic compared to sophisticated Hollywood-style CGI, but they proved perfectly adequate to convey the magic called for in the story. The brilliant creativity of this film also manifests in the delicately rendered shadow puppet scenes set to woman's chorus. These superb interludes served to narrate plot background and to enact Wu Yen's magical and battle scenarios that demonstrate her heroism. This clever way to solve budget problems and be artful simultaneously makes Wu Yen unique. Nothing in Chinese film quite like it has been done before. Likewise, the movie's complex gender mixings and social conventions stretched to the limits in its pointed satirical barbs that serve to hold up a visually splendid exotic mirror in which to contemplate implications for our present day, make Wu Yen a treasure.

Review by Amy Harlib, (c)2001