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Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I've been in a martial arts movie mood lately, especially of the occasionally outrageous 1980's wuxia variety, and this particularly crazed Taiwanese flick managed to more than fill that need.

For those not in the know, wuxia is perhaps the most venerable of the martial sub-genres, bearing a rich history spanning centuries of literature and other arts, with its best-known examples for western audiences being the elaborate CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004). Modern wuxia films are genuine spectacles, replete with high-flying wire-work meant to symbolically embellish the heroes' already considerable skills, romance and lavish sets and costumes, but the earlier examples of the form were often cheaply made and hastily shot, rife with over-the-top melodrama and much chewing of the scenery. But, if you ask me, that's what makes the old school examples a million times more fun than their modern descendants, and MATCHING ESCORT is a balls-out riot of superheroics and unintentional (?) hilarity.

First of all, as near as I can determine, the title MATCHING ESCORT has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the film's plot, so that's a win right out of the gate. And unless you're a regular watcher of films of this sort it's rather easy to lose track of what's going on in the story, but I assure you that it does have a linear narrative, albeit one that contains many elements that make not one lick of sense. The basic plot is once again the tried and true revenge saga, this time involving a very girly young woman named Pearl Fan (played by Cheung Ling of WOLF DEVIL WOMAN infamy), who, as a child, is forced to constantly wear heavy shoes of metal with no explanation from her dad.

Child abuse or training device: the metal shoes are locked to our young heroine's feet.

As the years pass, Pearl Fan gets used to the metal shoes and can move about as nimbly as a monkey while wearing them, and when she takes them off her agility and speed become downright superhuman.

Then comes the day when a pack of the evil sword-wielding assholes requisite for this kind of story show up at her dad's house and proceed to kill seventy-three family members and house staff, except for Pearl Fan, who is entrusted with a precious family heirloom — the Jade Lovebird pendant — and unwillingly spirited away by a loyal retainer. The retainer is swiftly killed and our heroine soon finds herself framed for her family's murder, so now she's on the run from both the legitimate authorities and the clan of mysteriously-motivated killers. Disguising herself as a boy (rather unconvincingly, but you just have to let that go) — one of the major tropes of the genre in stories featuring female heroes — Pearl Fan is chased to and dumped over a sheer cliff by the killers, who leave her for dead. But what they don't know is that she has fallen into a deep cave that resembles and even-lower-budget version of H.R. Pufnstuf's Living Island, where resides an hilariously kvetchy old crippled hermit named Uncle Strange. No, seriously.

Uncle Strange: Yoda he ain't.

Initially quite irritated at Pearl Fan for her unplanned landing in a vat of vaguely mystical potion that he'd been preparing for twenty years, a potion that would have somehow enabled him to exact revenge upon the villain who crippled his feet and cast him into the cave, Uncle Strange is moved by our heroine's desire for revenge of her own and so agrees to take her on as his pupil. (It soon turns out that Pearl Fan's quest for vengeance neatly/conveniently dovetails with that of Uncle Strange.) As this is a wuxia martial arts film, it has less to do with hand-to-hand styles than swordsmanship and more "romantic" action playing up the hero's grace and moral purity, so Pearl's training, such as it is, involves little more than a tad of hand techniques that will later allow her to catch and break sword blades with just two fingers (her later-displayed utter badassery with a sword is not explained but is accepted as a given for the genre's requirements).

A clearly not amused Pearl Fan demonstrates the bitchin' two-fingered sword-catching move.

She is also subjected to a regimen of assorted potions, strange fungi (Awright!) and unguents that grant her the necessary skills of a typical genre hero (the aforementioned 20-years-in-the-making potion presumably being some kind of Asian super-soldier serum), and she's ready to get down to the serious business of killing when Uncle Strange dies after physically transferring his energy to her (and hilariously freezing in position with his arm outstretched and a wild look on his face when he croaks). Once back in the outside world, Pearl Fan displays all the attributes one expects from a wuxia superhero, and her skills with a sword would make even the most adept of Jedi turn chartreuse with envy.

The newly-badassed Pearl Fan hands out free passes to the netherworld on a lonely beach.

The rest of the film is a series of genre trope-laden, dizzying and unrealistically bloody swordfights against her enemies and it's a hell of a lot of leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun getting to the inevitable outcome. The wild and utterly impossible acrobatics and swordplay are piled on quite generously, making the film a definite precursor to the kind of thing we so enjoyed in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, only cartoonishly gorier.

Bad guy "Simon Cloud" meets his deservedly gory demise.

Our heroine, mowing down bad guys like weeds.

You've gotta love the heroine's moments of balletic poise in the brief moments between whirling arms and clashing steel.

There's also a disguised traveling prince — accompanied by the by-then-stock annoying comic relief servant whose basic character is meant to invoke Jackie Chan, only much more broadly — who's on hand to provide a love interest that literally goes nowhere and serves virtually no purpose to the story, so the less said of him the better.

The superfluous prince and his annoying servant.

(Oh, alright...Regarding the whole prince sub-plot, the story's Big Bad is revealed to have his eye on ruling the country and aims to kill the prince as part of his plans, but that sub-plot is given very short shrift and really doesn't add anything to Pearl Fan's narrative since you know going in that she's going to win in the end, so the governmental overthrow angle is totally superfluous.)

The film's ultra-flamboyant-looking Big Bad, who is quite appropriately named — and I'm not making this up — Lord Rouge.

If all of this sounds only slightly goofy and not like anything all that special, that's because I have thus far neglected to mention the overall "fairytale on mushrooms" feel and approach of the piece. There's not one single frame's-worth of realism in it and its look fuses low-budget cheapness with garish colors and occasionally weird-assed sets (Uncle Strange's cave being something straight out of a kiddie show's idea of "scary"). And of course all of the aforementioned physical impossibilities, and the ever-popular running-on-water move all add up to a heady cornucopia of wuxia junk food of the highest order.

Wire-work fun at its most endearingly cheesy.

Though nowhere near as brain-wrenchingly out of its mind as actor/director Cheung Ling's legendary WOLF DEVIL WOMAN (which I will definitely get around to reviewing one of these days), MATCHING ESCORT is a stone hoot and should be shared with friends and family as soon as possible. And although there is spewing arterial spray (translation: pressurized gallons of bright red paint) and some dismemberments here and there, the gore on hand is not scary at all and would only be disturbing to the youngest of viewers. I would not hesitate to show it to kids if seven and older, so use that caveat as a guide. Me? I plan to show this to my nephew, Nate, as soon as possible, and I also think my niece, Cleo, would totally dig it because it's about a "lady hero" (as she would have put it when she a tad younger) and it has violence. This film could easily have run on the late, lamented Channel 5 Saturday afternoon DRIVE-IN MOVIE weekly kung fu showcase of the early-through-mid-1980's with no editing for content, but that was then and this is now, so if run today the film's split-second decapitation and hand-lopping would likely be cut. If I had to rate this, I'd give it a PG, but the wussified MPAA would likely insist on a PG-13 or a wholly undeserved "mild R." RECOMMENDED.

The excellence that was Cheung Ling.

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