DEMON OF THE LUTE is another of those comic-book style wu xia films from the early 80's, in the same line as Holy Flame Of The Martial World, BUDDHA'S PALM and to a degree the Yuen Clan comedies such as MIRACLE FIGHTERS. In other words, you should expect a fast-paced film packed full of outlandish characters with strange martial arts skills and weird weapons, and for whom gravity is largely optional.
The opening credits are done in a very cool pop-art style with manga-esque drawings of the characters and bright colours set to a Sam Hui tune (or cheesy Heavy Metal guitars on the Mandarin track!). After this is a notice that "this martial arts film is dedicated to children". Awww :) I'm not sure if it's meant to be a children's film, but it could probably pass as one in Hong Kong (western audiences would probably consider it too violent to show to little kids). It's possibly the cutest martial arts film I've seen anyway!
The story involves a "demonic lute", whose strings are made from dinosaur ligaments, which can create devastating music when played by a sufficiently skilled martial artist. After disappearing for 20 years, it has reappeared in the martial world, wielded by the titular "Demon Of The Lute" who wants to rule the jiang hu (as villains generally do). All that stands in his way is: lovely swordswoman Feng Ling (Kara Hui), orphan Flying Monkey (Chin Siu-Ho), a jolly thief (Philip Kwok) and his daughter (the cutest little kung fu kid ever) and... actually quite a lot of people :p But to defeat the lute they must find the fire bow and fire arrows, the only weapon(s) capable of destroying it - and many obstacles and adventures lie in their way.
First-time director Lung Yi-Sheng does a great job, showing an aptitude for the job that makes it regrettable he only directed two films. The story is handled well (despite being the usual complicated madness these films offer, it is never hard to follow and characters are well developed), and there's some great camera work and other visuals and the action in the film is wonderfully staged, showing constant invention and ambition, with some scenes that rival Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain for delerium (which I'm sure was the aim - this feels like Shaw Brothers' response to ZU). Unfortunately somebody went overboard smearing vaseline on the lens to hide the wires in quite a few places, leaving large areas of the screen blurred and hazy (probably worse than having visible wires - which there often are anyway :p). Although most of the action is of the "smoke and wires" variety, there is a modicum of real fighting and stunt work in there too - mostly done by Chin Siu-Ho, who was in great shape in this period.
There are a few spots where the film slows down a little, breaking the otherwise relentless pace - these scenes could probably have been trimmed, but there's only a couple and the film does run longer than most of its' ilk (over 100 minutes) so they're not at the expense of anything else.
The cast all do a good job, with Chin Siu-Ho and Kara Hui getting the bulk of screen time, followed by Philip Kwok and his young sidekick. The little kid nearly manages to upstage everyone - I'd like to know who it was and what became of them (I'm not even sure if it's a boy or girl - seemed female to me, but the subtitles kept saying "he", and at that age it can be hard to tell!). Jason Pai Piao also does some shameless scene stealing with a wonderfully OTT performance.
For those that were first drawn to Hong Kong cinema by the early 90's wu xia, it's great to find films like this in the Shaw Brothers' catalogue, which prove that Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung weren't the only people exploring the extremes of wire-based action in the 80's. I'm almost tempted to give it 9/10 for its inventiveness and ability to produce a grin even on a jaded viewer like myself... it's probably losing a whole mark just because of that bloody vaseline on the lens, to be honest! That shouldn't stop fans of comic-book style fantasy martial arts seeking out the film forthwith though!