Cast: Wong Yuen San, Candy Yu, Unicorn Chan
Country: Hong Kong
Year of release: 1977
Reviewed from: UK DVD
I challenge you - I really do challenge you - to walk past a DVD called Deadly Snail vs Kung Fu Killers, priced at a full 97p, and not buy it. Can’t be done. There is no way anyone with any interest in cult cinema could pass up the chance, for less than a quid, to watch a film with a title like that.
Most sources seem to agree that this film dates from 1977, although I have also seen it listed as 1975. The only date on screen is a caption imposed by Ocean Shores Video, from whence this UK label obtained their transfer evidently. That says 1981 but of course that’s just the date of the US VHS release.
Deadly Snail vs Kung Fu Killers is one of the strangest kung fu films I have yet seen, displaying all the weirdness of a 1990s Tsui Hark film but with the production values of a bottom-of-the-barrel, sub-Shaw Brothers 1970s flick. It’s ridiculously over-ambitious but manages to struggle by somehow. It also has an insanely complex plot and a dubbing soundtrack where characters’ names change from scene to scene.
Our hero is Chang Fu (Wong Yuen San aka Tony Wong who was apparently also in Inner Senses and Jackie Chan’s Project A2 but must have done other stuff in the intervening 25 years), an orphan who lives with his mean old uncle and aunt (although ‘uncle’ is often used as a generic form of address in Asian countries, this is actually his late father’s brother, although other relationships are vaguer). There is a passing mention of Chang Fu not knowing that he is the real heir, implying that the uncle lives off his late brother’s wealth illegally, but this is never really explored. The uncle (Wu Jiaxiang) and aunt live in a large house with their cowardly, ne’er-do-well son, variously addressed as Wang Cha, Wang Chai and Wei Chai (Tien Ching: The Ghost’s Revenge, Executioners of Death). Chang Fu lives in a little hut and seems to function as a servant to the family and there is also a female servant, Cha Ma/Shao Ma, who is engaged to Wang Chai but is actually carrying a torch for Chang Fu.
With me so far? Because, you know, we haven’t even got to the deadly snail yet.
Walking on the beach, Chang Fu picks up a large sea snail and takes it home, where he has a dream of a young woman standing on the back of a giant snail, repeatedly saying, “Please help me.” As she is translucent and about 18 inches tall, I think it’s safe to say this was indeed made in 1977, some time after 25th May in fact. Chang Fu is persuaded to cut himself (actually he bites his finger) and allow a few drops of his blood to fall onto the sea snail. It’s tricky to work out what is going on here but this ‘frees’ the Fairy Princess inside. Or something.
The uncle banishes Chang Fu to his shed (I think) but Shao Ma takes him some food. For this, she is beaten and when Chang Fu sees the marks on her arms he runs onto the beach to vent his frustration at the world whereupon an old man’s face appears in the sky and says, “Luke, trust your feelings.” No, actually he says something even better. He says, “Chang Fu, happy days are here again.”
I kid you not.
The Fairy Princess (Candy Yu aka Yu On-On: Chivalrous Killer, Daughter of the Devilfish) lives under the sea with her two sisters but we don’t know the names of any of them as they only ever call each other ‘Sister’ (in fact, even Chang Fu later addresses the Princess as ‘Sister’ which suggests it’s actually her name - and presumably her sisters’ names too). We can tell they’re under the sea because there are large clam shells everywhere and a constant stream of bubbles falling from the ceiling. The Fairy Princess conjures up a vision of Chang Fu, declares her gratitude to him and her love for him, and flies off up towards the human world. Her sisters say they will help her if she calls.
She prepares some top-class Chinese food for Chang Fu which he finds in his hut and assumes is Shao Ma’s doing, but the next day he sneaks a peek into his own home and spots the Fairy Princess (this bit reminded me of a similar scene in Tah Tien). She tells him that she wants to serve him because he is a kind man and that they should get married - which they do. Somehow. She then magically transforms his hovel into a respectable (but still small) home, using some surprisingly good wire effects and stop-motion photography.
Later, when Wang Chai encounters the Fairy Princess washing clothes by the river, he is smitten with her and follows her home, but Chang Fu finds them and chases Wang Chai away. (So let’s get this right, the Fairy Princess can paint and decorate a room with a flick of her finger but she cleans clothes by whacking them with sticks at the riverside. Right.) What is confusing about this situation is that Chang Fu and Wang Chai refer to each other, in the Chinese manner, as ‘brothers’ even though they’re cousins. This threw me for a while. Also around this time, Shao Ma spots Chang Fu with his new bride and is understandably upset.
Wang Chai hires four local thugs to help him kidnap his beautiful ‘sister-in-law’ but the Fairy Princess’ magic defeats them; she creates a copy of herself in bed, which the thugs wrap up in a blanket. When Wang Chai unwraps the blanket, the person inside is the head thug. Convinced that the girl is a demon, Wang Chai and his cronies return to Chang Fu’s hut. “You know,” says the snivelling little shit, “if you put dog’s blood on a demon, it goes.” But the Fairy Princess send them packing again (with their bottle of dog’s blood), scaring them with visions of a hideous green face and (briefly) a fox. The five idiots retreat, pursued by cutaway shots of a glow-in-the-dark, joke-shop skeleton and glowing coloured balls of fire.
“Chang Fu is a real pain in the arse,” says the uncle, when he hears about this. “He’s gone too far this time.” He sets out with his son and the four thugs to confront the young couple but every time they think they have caught and bound Chang Fu, the Fairy Princess magically makes him swap places with Wang Chai or his father.
Suddenly we cut away to a dark, spooky forest where a fellow with long hair and a painted face trains in the martial arts under the tutelage of an old man with a head-dress designed like a snake. I think the younger chap’s painted face is intended to make him actually resemble a snake, but really it just looks like he’s been to the village fete and told the face-painter, “Can I be a snake please?”
I think these two are snake demons, and in the absence of any other possibilities, that’s what I’m sticking with. (At the start of the film we saw a snake on the beach near the sea snail, so there’s some sort of conflict there.) Anyway, Painted Face (as I might as well call him) sees a vision of Chang Fu and the Fairy Princess and flies off to the mortal realm (or whatever) to sort them out. Arriving at Wang Chai’s house, he transforms himself into an old monk (with yin-yang symbols on his robes) and offers to banish the demon: “I’ll call on the 49 frogs to attack the sea snail. They’ll use their power to destroy the demon.” Both versions of the character are played by an actor with the unlikely name of Unicorn Chan, a close friend and associate of Bruce Lee with credits that include Fist of Fury and Fury of the Dragon.
And indeed, in a room which seems to be some sort of shrine, he gets himself a bowl of live frogs and, after his eyes have glowed green and a snake-tongue has stuck out of his mouth, all the frogs jump down his throat. The Princess senses the new danger, confronts the monk and they are magically transported to a cave where, 57 minutes into this 90-minute kung fu-titled picture, we get our first actual kung fu fight.
The second fight follows almost immediately, when the Princess realises that Wang Chai and his thugs are beating up Chang Fu so she transfers her spirit into her husband who thereby becomes a kung fu master and kicks those rascals’ arses.
There is then some guff about the Princess’ powers being due to a silver ring but this seems to be a reference to the snail shell although it’s powers are not explained and its size seems to vary from scene to scene. Shao Ma, blinded by jealousy, volunteers to get the ring for the monk and borrows it on the pretext of needing to cure a sick relative. We then get another couple of fights: the Princess battles Painted Face Snake Guy in the clouds while Wang Chai and his thugs chase Chang Fu who falls over a cliff and lies still, although it is not confirmed that he is dead.
When Shao Ma sees the Fairy Princess in shackles, surrounded by flames and snakes - and don’t ask me where this is - she vows to find and return the McGuffin, which is a ‘silver ring’ at this point but still seems to actually be a snail shell. She visits the monk’s room but he catches and kills her and turns her into a skeleton which he then makes disappear. Which was all a bit uncalled for.
Chang Fu, who was evidently only stunned, comes to and hears the Princess’ voice telling him to throw the snail shell into the sea, which he does. I don’t know, maybe there are two snail shells. Maybe there’s even a silver ring. Who the hell knows what is going on by now?
The Princess’ sisters - Sister and Sister - sense that she is in danger and go looking for her. There is some sort of reference to their being punished if they visit the human world, which probably has some connection with red-robed guards who walk past their shell-decorated boudoir, but if there is some sort of Neptune father-figure whom they must obey, he is neither seen nor referred to. Arriving at Wang Chai’s house, the two women declare “Release my sister at once...” “...Or we will utterly destroy you.”
The monk promptly transports them to his magic cave where they face a succession of kung fu demons. The first starts out as a wooden box before transmogrifying into a bloke who has a skirt and ruff made from what looks like seaweed. He also has a thatch of orange hair and a proboscis atop his head which cruder critics than myself might think resembles a cock. After fighting the two princesses with a stick, he turns into a completely red version of himself who is fairly obviously a fire demon.
A third demon joins in who starts life as a log, is brown and makes creaking noises when he moves so he’s a wood demon. After a quick fight, he turns back into a log which then becomes several logs which float in the air threatening the two princesses in a sort of unspecified loggy way. The red demon then explodes and is replaced by a water demon (long white sleeves and sloshing sounds when he moves) and something that is probably a rock demon, just because it’s grey. So that’s fire, wood, water and rock - but what the hell was that first one?
Anyway, all five demons then gang up on the sisters but are defeated by some sort of fuzzy glow that surrounds them, like on the old Reddy Brek advert, and the final face-off is against the old guy with the snake head-dress (remember him?). He turns into a giant snake and then explodes. A final shot shows Chang Fu and the Fairy Princess happy together. But the real upshot of the above is that the film’s climax, exciting and kung-fu-packed as it may be, is a fight between two minor characters whom we have previously encountered in one short scene more than an hour ago and five unidentified, previously unseen bad guys.
Does all of that make some sort of sense? Of course it doesn’t! And while part of the blame must undoubtedly lie with the English translation, there’s no doubt in my mind that the original film was probably just as bizarre. The production values are naturally cut-price, including some impressively blatant ‘exterior’ studio shots. And the action, when it does finally arrive, is about as bland and forgettable as possible.
But the title alone is enough to justify this film’s existence. The title and the make-up on Face-Painted Snake Guy and the sequence when the monk swallows 49 frogs and the glow-in-the-dark joke-shop skeleton and the terrifying floating logs and the something-demon with a willy on his head. Ah, there’s a dozen reasons to watch this film. It’s insane but strangely compulsive.
Hueng Ling seems to be yet another of those Hong Kong directors (or rather, director’s names) who never made anything else. This film, originally called Tim Loh Daai Poh Ng Hang Chan, has also been released in the States as Deadly Snail vs Kung Fu Killer - in the singular - which makes just as little sense as the UK title.
This 2004 release by Dragon DVD/Soulblade says it is digitally remastered but I find that one of the more questionable claims I’ve read recently. The list of extras includes both ‘Soulblade trailers’ and ‘Dragon DVD trailers’ which is accurate but hardly worth listing as two separate features. For the record, the trailers are: Dance of the Drunk Mantis: Drunken Master 2 (“From the director of Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and the action director of the Matrix trilogy”), Tsui Hark’s Green Snake, Secret Rivals Part 1 (“This is a kick-ass movie”!), The Mystery of Chess Boxing, Martial Arts Master: Wong Fei Hung, Legend of the Drunken Tiger, Secret of Tai Chi: Tai Chi Master, Kung Fu Zombie and The Loot. Sadly none of these are original trailers, they’re all just clips cobbled together by the DVD company with fancy graphics over the top. There is also a ‘2005 Showreel’ (surprisingly unlisted among the ‘DVD special features’ on the sleeve) which consists of clips from (deep breath) Leg Fighters, Tai Chi Master, Bloody Fist, Prodigal Boxer 1 and 2, Bloody Fight, Of Cooks and Kung Fu, Mar’s Villa, Flash Legs, Yoga and the Kung Fu Girl, Heroes of Shaolin and My Kung Fu 12 Kicks.
MJS rating: C-
review originally 10th April 2007