Foxy Spirits
Hong Kong 1991
Directed by Wu Ma.

Wu Ma, a true master of supernatural cinema both as an actor and director, here does both as he presents his own version of the traditional boy meets fox tale, updated with a little kung-fu, a little black magic, and a big heaping cup of cheesy special effects.

When our story begins, a group of men, lost in the desert, come across an oasis filled with beautiful maidens. But all is not what it seems, as they are in fact being bewitched by a ravenous group of foxes. The Hunt King (Wu Ma) suddenly appears and fox maidens are dispatched switftly. Their leader gets away.

The Hunt King is in the employ of the Wei family, a family of furriers going back generations. They were once quite powerful, but have been in decline for some time. Now, His Majesty (T'ien), the master of all foxes, wants the Wei line to be exterminated forever. And more importantly, he wants their chop, which has the magic ability of preventing a dead fox from reincarnating. The chop's magic will keep him alive, after having been injured by the Wei family 448 years ago. He isn't looking too good, however -- apparently a 448 year old wound makes your face look like a rubber mask of a wolf skull.

I should mention that a chop is the family seal -- it's sort of like using a stamp to put your name on something instead of signing. These are still used in the place of signing a document, check, or what have you throughout eastern Asia. The concept makes me a little nervous. I mean, if someone steals your chop, they pretty much have free reign to sign whatever they want and no one can detect it is a forgery.

The foxes conspire to rid themselves of the Wei family, which is conveniently down to one person: Wei's 10th son, Brother Ten, who is out on a boat with his friend, drinking wine and reading poetry. Two fox sisters open up their own kind of brothel boat and lure them on. One of the sisters is -- yes, I'm afraid so -- she's Joey Wong. And once you see that, the rest of the plot sort of becomes self evident, especially after you've watched enough of these. While she's beckoning from the balcony you can predict --

Number Ten is a scholar, not very bright, and will behave like a little puppy in love
Joey Wong will inexplicably fall in love with the dopey scholar
Joey Wong will cross her boss at crucial moments to save the scholar's life
They won't live happily ever after
So with all the above suddenly a given, what's there to look forward to? Well, with Wu Ma at the helm, we can enjoy the details, the little variations, the depreciating humor, and the action scenes. And hey, enjoy them I did.

Brother Ten becomes possessed by Joey Wong (called 'Snow' in this one), and has to be caught and cured, by another eccentric fox hunter, a tough woman with a hook for a hand, named 'Meat.' Meat injures Snow, and Brother Ten is so worried about her fever that he builds an igloo to put her in.

In the meantime, the wolf villainess has put on a red robe which has two pointy twists of fabric on the top, just in case she didn't look satanic enough. She basically busies herself yelling at Snow about falling in love with a human, and killing people. It's a living. When Meat is unable to defeat her, and properly protect Brother Ten, it's up to the Hunt King to step up and take over. He takes Brother Ten in as his student and teaches him the art of hunting wolves. In one scene, he shows him how to eat wolf shit. "If it's spicy, that means it's a tough wolf," he explains, helpfully. He also does another one of his by now mandatory rap song-and-dance numbers, much like he did for A Chinese Ghost Story, this time about wolf hunting.

Eventually, the evil wolf woman has had it with Snow waffling around and not killing Brother Ten like she's supposed to. Snow, in her tender way, convinces her to give her nine more days. "I'll kill him slowly, so he won't be in pain," she suggests, though it is my understanding that a slow, lingering death isn't necessarily the most humanitarian way to end a life.

In the end, Brother Ten must save Snow, Hunt King must save Brother Ten, and Snow must save them all, though the drama of the final conflict is lessened somewhat by how completely cheesy the rubber-masked Master of Foxes looks when he finally re-awakens.

Foxy Spirits mixes and matches bits and pieces from dozens of different supernatural tales, without latching on to any single one for its inspiration. The romantic element of the story is similar in feel to stories told in the Liaozhai of Pu Songling. This is the fourth film directed by Wu Ma which explores the boundries between the living world and the supernatural one. Looking at all four films together, The Dead and the Deadly (1983), My Cousin, the Ghost (1987), Picture of a Nymph (1988), and Foxy Spirits (1991), one can see a general downward progression in their overall quality. That's not to say that Foxy Spirits is a bad film, but it does suffer in comparison. There is certainly nothing new here. It's as if we have finished exploring the themes of possession and affection between worlds, and now we're just playing with them.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 06, 2004.

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