A wizard is stealing the souls of the local townsfolk, trapping them in urns that he keeps in a cemetery hideaway. Operating solely in the shadows of the night, he leans on his tools of deception and a crew of creepy sycophants to continue his strange harvest. Through some non-specific means, this growing collection of souls will one day help him to enhance his own supernatural powers. By most metrics, this behavior makes him an evil wizard and a total asshole.
However, after the wizard’s recent capture of a martial arts master and his daughter, their remaining daughter and sibling comes to find them. Her pursuit leads her to meet a trio of young, happy-go-lucky kung fu “kids” who enjoy playing pranks on the authority figures in their lives when they’re not practicing their martial arts craft. Working together, the group uncovers more about the wizard’s treacherous plans until a spectacular final battle that may have you asking yourself: “wait, was that a kids movie?”
Following in the footsteps of Taiwanese actresses and martial arts stars Angela Mao and Polly Shang Kwan before her, Hsiao Lao Lin carved out a successful acting career in Taiwanese and Hong Kong films during the 1980s and 90s. She is known among many cinephiles as the star of the “Peach Kid” films – specifically, CHILD OF PEACH (1987) and MAGIC OF SPELL (1988) — which were loosely based on the Japanese folklore figure, Momotaro, a boy born from a giant, magical peach. But before taking on that particular role of a young boy who performed bad-ass martial arts, the actress was featured in 1986’s KUNG FU WONDER CHILD (alternately titled KONG-FU WONDER CHILD), as a totally different boy who performed bad-ass martial arts. In these three films, plus MAGIC WARRIORS (1989), the fantasy themes, simple familial character relationships, wacky humor and overall tone are fairly consistent throughout, even when the stories change. From what I would guess, this is one of the main reasons these films get banded together as four distinct entries in a common series.
Prior to this film, director Tso Nam Lee had more than 30 directorial efforts to his name, including CHALLENGE OF THE LADY NINJA (1983), SHAOLIN VS. LAMA (1983), and THE TATOO CONNECTION (1978) starring Jim Kelly. A workmanlike director who specialized in lean, energetic movies in the action and martial arts genres, he collaborated with screenwriter Hsin-Yi Chang (21 films) and cinematographer Yan-Chien Chuang (26 films) at a frequent rate, this film included. Given that, it’s hard to say whether those years of putting grisly endings on the screen for heroes and villains alike was a tough pattern for this group to break, but a bit of that nihilism trickles into KUNG FU WONDER CHILD despite a younger target audience.
There’s an aspect of the film’s ending that is every bit as surprising as it is cynical for an otherwise kid-friendly film. It does not reach the heart-wrenching, weepy depths of Artax succumbing to the Swamp of Sadness in THE NEVERENDING STORY (1985), no. The filmmakers’ aim may have been to highlight the importance of personal sacrifice towards collective goals, but the result (along with the absence of any denouement) left a darker impression than one might anticipate for a film that spends the preceding 80+ minutes pummeling its audience with pee jokes and a parade of bare asses.
Settling on a single word to describe the style of humor in this film (“juvenile” comes close) undersells its awful charms; the comedic sensibility is largely built around childish pranks, people peeing their pants, dusty flatulence, a vampire face-planting in animal shit, vomiting, creepy guy perversions, and a dog pissing on a guy’s face. Also, many butts. Some people might check out because of the over-reliance on bathroom humor, but if one or all of those things constitute your idea of your funny, make sure to wear a snug shirt to hold your guts in place when your sides split from laughing.
Most of the screen time is dedicated towards the aforementioned collective hijinks of two kung fu school disciples and their pal, Hsiu Chuen (Hsiao Lao Lin), the grandson of the school’s cook. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the grandfather cook (Jack Long Sai Ga) is also a master martial artist, and he constantly reprimands his eager grandson for showing off his burgeoning fight skills. Hsiu Chuen is more advanced than either of his friends, despite not being enrolled in the school and covertly watching classes from afar. In Taiwanese action-fantasy film terms, this was like stealing cable in the 1980s or mooching off a Netflix account nowadays and spoiling a TV series for your buds. Not cool.
It’s the demonstration of these skills plus a meal-time infraction at the school that causes Hsiu Chuen to run afoul of the school’s head-master. The school’s ornery staff – along with his own grandfather for chrissake — decide that instead of the typical corporal punishment where they would simply kill him or chop off his appendages for his misdeeds, he’ll fight for his life. Not in a fair contest against earthly humans, though. That would run the risk of being boring (cinematically speaking). Instead, they transport him to a miniature temple called “Heaven’s Gate” – a spooky astral plane of sorts – where he has just five minutes to vanquish the mystical enemies that await. Once there, Hsiu Chuen tangles with a face-hugger creature straight out of the ALIEN franchise and a giant, flying fuzzy bug-eyed worm with fangs. Only through his skill and courage does he survive and return to the material world.
This “Heaven’s Gate” scene is exemplary of the film’s overall kitchen-sink effort. The filmmakers are throwing all sorts of ideas at the wall to see what sticks – no matter how zany or ill-advised — and the cast and crew are eager to make it work. There’s cool visual design via the costuming, hair and make-up that helps portray distinctive characters, especially the various bad guys. (And among the bad guys, especially the guardian/gargoyle dude with the Bruce Vilanch / Tulsa Doom hair). Magic spells and attacks are manifested as colorful light beams protruding from faces or fists, making use of the decade’s optical effects we know and love. There are gooey, pulsating make-up and special effects. The action scenes on the whole are energetic and entertaining, and the fight choreography is coherent and well-executed, punctuated by good wire work and some brutal bumps by the stunt people. No one performer necessarily stands out, but due to the way Tso Nam Lee integrates the film’s fights with the effects and storytelling, anyone who watches the film is likely to come away with a favorite scene or sequence in mind (if not more). They really are quite novel and memorable.
If you can get past the occasional silliness and the clunky English dub, KUNG FU WONDER CHILD is a breezy 90 minutes of martial arts and magic mayhem that serves as a good primer for the proper “Peach Kid” film series and the vibe of 1980s Taiwanese fantasy action films in general. To that point, be sure to check out the Taiwan Noir podcast for insights and informative discussion on these films (and others) from Kenny B and Todd Stadtman (of Die Danger Die Die Kill), included below.