Tale from the East, A
Hong Kong 1990
Directed by Manfred Wong.

The First Emperor's quest for immortality leads directly to the comedy relief getting bit on the ass by a decapitated head.

Somebody shoot me. After enduring his painful lack of comedic talent in movies like Mr. Vampire and it's sequels, here is a movie which practically stars Billy Lau. What have I done to endure the vision of his pudgy, bespectacled face for a full ninety minutes? But the funny thing - and here's what frightens me, - is that I think he's pretty good here. Perhaps it's the company he keeps?

Ah, yes, that's it exactly. Because also starring in this supernatural comedy is a pair of funny guys who make paint thinner seem funny, even before you inhale it. It's Eric Kot and Jan Lam, a pair of happy-go-lucky Taoist electricians and prop masters. And it's obvious that someone out there thinks they're funny, because they mug and maw at the camera as if they are loved and they know it. They dress alike, have the same floppy hairstyles, and live together, no doubt in bunk beds -- this is the kind of comedians they are. Imagine if Pauly Shore cloned himself, fell in love, and started living together and you get an idea of how funny these two can be.

But peel away the outer level of smarmy comedy, and underneath is a fun, snappy fantasy adventure inspired by the works Ngai Hong, the writer of countless popular pulp stories and films like The Legend of Wisely and The Flying Guillotine.

A Tale From the East begins with illustrations from a comic book, illustrating the First Emperor requesting the herbs of immortality from the alchemist, Xu Fu. Xu Fu succeeds in creating a pearl of immortality, but then decides not to give it to King Zheng, and instead runs off with a bunch of virgin children and is never heard from again. The pearl shows up again under the Kiangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who gives it to his 14th son, not understanding the significance. The Pearl has, in the intervening years, "absorbed the essence of time and space," and contains great magical powers, which brings us to our story. Which is not set in the Qin Dynasty, nor even the Qing Dynasty, but present day Hong Kong.

A group of friends sit around a campfire, scaring each other with scary stories. In fact they all get abnormally scared by the stories, as always seems to be the case in Hong Kong horror movies. Overhead, the stars are in a special alignment, one which occurs only once every 200 years. The magic of the pearl transports three people from the Qing Dynasty to the present -- a young princess, her bodyguard, and the slavering, bloodthirsty General Shea Hai, the Blood Devil, out to kill them both. It rains, and the party breaks up, but Brother Chu (damn -- Billy Lau) and his sister (hey! -- Joey Wong!) break down and have to go up to an old big spooky house to use their phone. The slobbish hired help won't let Joey use the phone, since they are busy having sex. Joey daintily says, "God damn you nasty fat man," and tries sneaking in instead, with little success. While Brother Chu is waiting outside, he spots a trail of gold and starts picking it up. They are pieces from the warriors armour. When he finally comes up to the warrior (David Ng), they fight, and Brother Chu manages to club him on the head with a wrench and knock him unconscious. Brother and sister decide to take him home with them. Maybe they thought he looked cute attacking them? Whatever the reason, they roar off, and soon have the warrior all cleaned up, and it turns out he is pretty handsome after all.

Meanwhile back at the old house, the power is out and the Taoist Electical Workshop bozos are there. But so is the Blood Demon. One of the boys says, "I have a sinister feeling," but the other dismisses him with a quick "Don't utter things at random." But then when they find the fat man's decapitated head in the fridge ("I don't remember seeing a hair melon before," says one), the Blood Demon attacks and the two wacky electricians have to run for their lives. When they arrive back at their magical electrical shag palace of a workshop, they find they picked up a passenger -- the Little Princess.

Now it's just a matter of the warrior finding the Princess, and when they do, everyone teams up to defeat the Blood Demon. But not before consulting an expert who can explain what is going on, Professor Wesley (Ngai Hong). And why not? He wrote the damn thing, after all.

The Little Princess has the pearl of immortality, of course, given to her by her mother, to whom it was given by the 14th Prince. The Blood Demon is there not only to kill the Princess and her protector but to get ahold of the pearl. He captures the Little Princess, and in the end our heroes lure him to an amusement park for their final confrontation.

A Tale from the East might better be titled, A Tale from all over the place, including as it does a hodgepodge of themes and ideas from eastern and western cinema: the immortality pearl is just the beginning. The Blood Demon wields a Flying Guillotine as his weapon. From western cinema, the movie borrows and/or spoofs Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and more. But there are moments that no other cinema can deliver. One of my favorite moments has to be the horrifying child endangerment that occurs when the two Taoist Electricians drive like maniacs through the street with the young girl on a lap in the front seat. How endearing. And Brother Chu at one point slams on the breaks so he can rush out and get the signature of the "big bust queen," for no apparent reason.

The acting here is nothing to write home about, unless you're like me and like writing about things which cause you pain. Joey Wong sleepwalks through a role which was obviously just a paycheck for her. She is completely beige -- that is to say, she blends with everything and never seems to stands out. David Ng is similarly forgettable as the heroic palace guard.

Which leaves us with, incredibly, Billy Lau. Damn. Why did I like him in this film, after all? I guess the answer is pretty simple. It's because he plays a very solid, real character, who has his own ideas and goals which don't necessarily go with what everyone else thinks is right. He is the classic Hong Kong small guy, always making a deal and trying to make a buck. No matter how serious the events that transpire become, he is always thinking of a way to profit somehow. Everyone starts sneering at him in disgust. But I was so pleased -- time after time, Hollywood movies like to spend a lot of screen time creating a group of distinct individuals, who team up together. Only problem is, once they team up, they lose most of what makes them unique, and all of a sudden everyone shares the same values, and works for 'the group.' Usually there would be one who doesn't, who turns on everyone else, and has to be killed. But here, Brother Chu likes everyone just fine, I'd say even manages to care about them, but still always keeps his own interests in mind, too. How refreshing. He helps out quite a bit, too, but since he has such a crappy attitude about it no one is ever grateful. In the end, I found myself sympathizing with him, the poor guy, the only normal one of the bunch, surrounded by Qing Dynasty time travelers, a boring girl, and two mop headed idiots.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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