Scorpion King
(Jie zi zhan shi) (1991)
Directed by David Lai

Artistic Value: * *
Entertainment Value: * * *

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In 1920 Hong Kong, Fai (Kar Lok Chin), an inattentive student obsessed with drawing comics and becoming a martial artist, abducts an indentured maid from her master to save her from being given to an evil villain who sells women into prostitution around the world. This fiend, in order to retrieve the girl, then commands his underlings to search for Fai, who has himself taken a job in his uncle's restaurant.

David Lai's Scorpion King is an odd and uneven film. Set in a nicely designed, frequently anachronistic past and featuring a host of outlandishly exaggerated characters and a variety of peculiar situations, the movie is often entertaining, but, just as often, it loses its focus and grows somewhat dull.

The movie's peculiar characters are perhaps its greatest appeal. Fai himself is hardly a typical action hero. He begins the movie as a helpless weakling who is bullied by his classmates, is inattentive to his chores, and botches most everything he does. While his intentions are good, he is so lazy and unmindful that he does not seem to accomplish much of anything. The villain, a gold toothed paraplegic draped in lavender furs, is a snarling, cackling fiend much like countless other antagonists in numerous other Hong Kong films, but he is so wildly overdone and so extremely vile that he is consistently enjoyable to watch. It is a shame he is not in more of the movie. The weightlifter under whom Fai trains wanders through his garden, past plaster reproductions of Greek statues, wearing a tank top and white hot pants while pontificating on the virtues of eating meat at every meal and the evils of consuming rice. The villain's son, the Scorpion King of the title, is a sneering, sadistic bully, a skilled martial artist, and a swaggering dandy with a strange hairstyle that looks like a combination of something from the 1980s with an early Twentieth Century Chinese queue. Even Fai's simple, kindhearted uncle turns out to be more than he seems. There is hardly a character in the film who is not absolutely entertaining because of his exaggerated strangeness.

What is more, the action sequences are generally well choreographed and are frequently very funny, although I am not certain whether they were actually intended to be humorous. The son of the villain, for example, fights using the "scorpion stance." He drops down onto his hands and one foot, curves the other foot over his back, and scampers about from side to side. Fai, having learned martial arts by cleaning heated woks, cooking noodles, and studying the drawings he made of the movements of the Scorpion King, comes up with his own stance, the "eel tactic," to counter that of his opponent. Having seen an eel writhing on the ground, Fai decides to attack his enemy by flopping about on his stomach like a fish out of water. Fortunately, he is, by the time he must fight the nearly invincible Scorpion King, no longer the pathetic weakling he was at the film's beginning, having earlier discovered and joined the weightlifting school run by the carnivorous body builder.

Much of Scorpion King is slow moving, but its various oddities so enliven it that the film never completely loses the viewer's interest. It is, consequently, entertaining despite its severe limitations.

Review by Keith Allen

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