It’s taken me 4 or 5 viewings to work out what the hell’s really going on but I suppose a film that makes you work a bit is more rewarding - not necessarily though, in this case it’s probably the best policy to forget about the mind-bending intricacies of the plot and just enjoy the spectacular visuals on display, otherwise you’ll be reaching for the aspirins. I haven’t read the Jin Yong novel this was based on but I suspect Poon Hang Sang tried to cram as much of it into an hour and a half as he possibly could.
The story is about a master (who’s face we never see for some reason) who’s got three students, namely Gong Li, Brigette Lin and evil Brigette Lin (they’re twins!), Unfortunately the master’s on his last legs due to being poisoned so he sets up a magical chess game and who ever wins it will receive his unbeatable powers. While this is going on you’ve got Norman Tsui as a power crazy villain going round taking over various clans and causing general turmoil in the martial world - after he destroys the Shaolin Monastery an innocent young monk (Frankie Lam) is given the special Shaolin manual to look after by the abbot. Unfortunately this leads to him getting captured by the lovely Cheung Man who is working for Big Nose but secretly harbours plans to become all powerful herself and is constantly trying to get hold of different kung fu manuals (with hilarious consequences!). While all this is going on Gong Li, evil Brigette Lin and Big Nose are wrangling for power between themselves, what it boils down to is whoever gets hold of the Master’s powers will rule the martial world - but who will he give em to?
Despite the complex plot there’s still a lot to enjoy in Maidens From The Heavenly Mountains and it’s one of my favourite new wave films - mainly due to the spectacular visuals. If you don’t like flying swordsmen and laser beam style chi weapons this might not be the film for you, there are times when the fighters stay grounded and fight with swords and they aren’t badly done (although the editing can be so lightning quick that you can’t really see what’s going on until an arm or head goes flying off). The more magical styles of fighting are executed really well though and look as good as any comparable film - as Gong Li says to evil Brigette Lin “Let’s fight... In the Sky!”. Other new wave films utilise fantastical elements like this but few of them (with the possible exception of Legend of Zu and Magic Crane) pull it off as well Maidens Of The Heavenly Mountain. I’ll just briefly mention the cast - Norman Tsui is great as the over the top villain and makes full use of his maniacal evil laugh, obviously old Big Nose lends a bit of creditability to any film he’s in but for me it’s the ladies who keep me coming back for a rewatch, Brigette Lin is brilliant as always in her twin roles and has rarely looked more beautiful, the gorgeous Gong Li does a decent job (in the only martial arts role I’ve seen her in) and Cheung Man gives as good a performance as I’ve seen from her as she does a convincing and fairly funny balancing act between good and evil, good stuff. The fact that Brigette Lin plays two characters and two actresses play Gong Li’s character (she gets younger as she regenerates, don’t ask) adds to the confusion though, you’ve got to concentrate!
1994 saw the end of the New Wave boom in Hong Kong, I suspect that this was because Maidens of the Heavenly mountains used up the worlds supply of blue filters, fake smoke and wires! Still I’d strongly recommend it if you’re not averse to more fantasy based wuxia and beautiful women - count me in!