Plot: demi-gods quarrel over dominion, until a semi-devil appears…
Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens Of Heavenly Mountains (or 新天龍八部之天山童姥 back at home, for brevity’s sake Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens hereafter) is a fantasy wuxia from that fertile decade-long period from the early eighties to, give or take, the mid nineties when Hong Kong dominated the genre and seemed to deliver one classic after the other. Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is not necessarily lesser known but certainly one of the lesser celebrated examples of the form. Which is strange because as far as sheer spectacle goes Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is absolute top of the line. What must have held this back from reaching a broader audience must have been the tome of a source novel which, admittedly, is labyrintine and convoluted to say the very least. Regardless, Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is a lavish Golden Harvest special effects extravaganza on an epic scale with ornate production design, massive sets, and hundreds of extras starring not one, not two, but three queens of Hong Kong cinema - one and all elegantly dressed and with impeccable make-up. Allegedly Jin Yong was none too pleased with Cheung Tan’s treatment of his beloved novel. And who can blame him? Even with a basic understanding of what the source material is supposed to be about Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is nigh impossible to follow.
The man most directly responsible for the Hong Kong fantasy wuxia revival was Vietnam-born Hark Tsui. His triptych of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), and Green Snake (1993) breath new life into an old genre and rejuvenated it for an entire new generation. Hark’s prime works were based on classic Chinese literature and Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is no different. It is very, very loosely based on the 1963 Jin Yong novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Jin Yong was the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, co-founder of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao in 1959 and one of the "Three Legs of the Tripod of Wuxia" together with Gu Long and Liang Yusheng. From 1955 to 1972 Cha wrote 15 of his most celebrated works, earning him the reputation of the greatest and most popular wuxia author of all time. Aside from his wuxia novels Cha worked as an editor of literary works next to writing essays and non-fiction works on Chinese history. Many of his 15 novels were adapted at various points for the big and the small screen. Shaw Bros took the lead in adapting Yong novels resulting in films as The Brave Archer trilogy (1977-1981), The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (1978), A Deadly Secret (1980), Legend of the Fox (1980), The Emperor and His Brother (1981), The Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1982), Ode To Gallantry (1982), and Royal Tramp (1992). It wasn’t the first time the novel had been adapted for the big screen. Shaw Bros first attempted it with The Battle Wizard (1977) and producer Siu Sang tried it a few years later a second time with Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1982). The adaptations vary in how faithful they are to the source material and in the case of Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens, it follows the general contours of the story chronicling the travails and adventures from two of the novel’s three central protagonists.
China, the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Demi-god Tsiu Yiu Tze is living in seclusion on the Piaomiao Peak of Mount Heaven in Central Asia with acolyte Li Chong Hoi (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia). He has been poisoned by his arch enemy Ting Chun Chou (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung) and is dying. In what will be his final piece of chess Tsiu Yiu Tze is looking for a suitable, virtuous candidate to transfer his divine essence into. The prospect of their master’s imminent demise sets off a fierce power struggle in Lingjiu Palace (靈鷲宮) between aspirants Mo Han Wan (Gong Li) and Li Chau Shui (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), both exiled members of the Sing Suk sect, who are and have been, embroiled in a bitter dispute over who is the rightful heir to the coveted Tin San the Eternally Youthful title. As Mo Han Wan and Li Chau Shui occupy themselves with quarreling over territory and dominion in an increasingly destructive manner in their consecutive confrontations; Ting Chun Chou is allowed the place and freedom to consolidate his power in the realm by annihilating whichever sects and smaller clans stand in his way. Futher complications arise for Mo Han Wan when her deep (and unrequited) platonic love for Li Chong Hoi corrupts her supernatural powers.
Caught up in the mystical power struggle is a young and ambitious underling by the name of Ah-tsi, or Purple (Sharla Cheung), who gets giddy from the idea of presiding over her sect, even though she’s too young to understand exactly what that entails. Purple is initially loyal to Ting Chun Chou, but eventually switches alliances once she realizes his profound malice. Green (Liu Kai-Chi), a second exiled Sing Suk sect underling, has her own aspirations to power. Meanwhile at the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province, China, young Buddhist monk and librarian Hui Chok (Frankie Lam) is instructed by the abbott to guard the sacred Yi-ken sutra scroll from any and all who might seize it for their own purposes. He’s also given a scroll and told to seek out the woman it depicts. Through no choice of his own Hui Chok becomes the recipient of Tsiu Yiu Tze’s mystical powers. When Purple, who had been nothing but a distraction to Ting Chun Chou, comes in possession of both of the Yi-ken sutra and the Buddhist monk that knows how to decipher it, the scales of power have tipped. The only way for Hui Chok to save the world and everybody in it is by uniting the quarreling sisters in one front against their far greater common foe, the warlord Ting Chun Chou.
Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (林青霞) was an experienced veteran from over 100 movies and a Golden Harvest regular. Early on in her career Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance, but towards the late 1970s she veered towards historical drama, war, and action productions, becoming a pillar in period wuxia in the eighties and nineties. She was a frequent collaborator with director Chu Yin-Ping in her earlier days before her reinvention under Hark Tsui with Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). She’s most remembered around these parts for the creaky ghost romance Ghost of the Mirror (1974), and Love of the White Snake (1978), as well as her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) and Swordman II (1992) heralded her second career nexus. Lin was a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee but didn’t win one such award until Red Dust (1990). Arriving at the end of her career Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is so kind to put Lin in a white wig, lest anyone forget that she was The Bride with White Hair (1993), in both the original and its sequel. Like many a silent film actress Lin conveys everything, and frequently much more, with her eyes than other actors do with dialog and gestures. Norman Tsui Siu-Keung was a Shaw Bros veteran who played a variety of roles in offerings as diverse as The Flying Guillotine (1975), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Duel to the Death (1983), and Sea Wolves (1991). He partook in two earlier adaptations of the same Louis Cha novel with The Battle Wizard (1977) and Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1982). Frankie Lam Man-Lung and Ku Tin-Yi on the other hand both had a completely unremarkable career trajectories.
Sharla Cheung Man (張敏) was a Jing Wong discovery that debuted in the cross-genre gem The Magic Crystal (1986) some eight years prior. As a fixture in fantasy wuxia and period costume martial arts Cheung (often using her Man Cheung alias) made appearances in Swordsman (1990), A Chinese Legend (1991), Legend Of the Liquid Sword (1992), Holy Weapon (1993), and The Buddhist Spell (1993). Prior Cheung had starred in other Louis Cha adaptations Royal Tramp (1992), and The Sword Stained With Royal Blood (1993). As Ah-tsi, or Purple, Cheung plays her usual role of the wily and duplicitous youngling. As the youngest of the cast (not considering the uncredited child actress playing Tin San the Eternally Youthful) Purple’s giddiness and giggliness seems all the more genuine. As the least versed in martial arts it was a sensible decision in casting Cheung in the role of Purple. The dynamic between her and Taoist monk Hui Chok is obviously meant to invoke the coupling of Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung in Hark Tsui’s infinitely superior A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). It never develops into anything substantial beyond an initial meet-cute. That there is no romantic subplot between Purple and Hui Chok is beneficial as it doesn’t add to the already convoluted main plot.
The odd woman out is twice Golden Rooster and the Hundred Flowers Awards winning Gong Li (巩俐), a respectable Singaporean-Chinese actress primarily known for drama and romance. Just the year before Li had starred in Farewell My Concubine (1993), the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, that was infamously banned in China. Li used her starpower to lambast the government-sanctioned repression and censorship from the People's Republic of China. Li is renowned for her prominent role in bringing Chinese cinema to Europe and the US. Despite her popularity and good reputation Li never ventured into Hollywood due to her not mastering the English language. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005) and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) being more of an exception in that regard. Gong Li allegedly savaged Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens on release, and swore to never do wuxia again. In more recent years Gong headlined the 2011 Chinese-Hong Kong remake of the Nancy Myers romcom What Women Want (2000) with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Li made her long overdue return to fantasy wuxia with The Monkey King 2 (2016).
To say that Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens has a lot of ground to cover to get to its mainplot would be an understatement. The opening 5 to 10 minutes are confusing for anybody not vaguely familiar with the basic plot outline to Louis Cha’s epic novel. Names of sects, locations, characters (both good and bad) and martial arts spells are thrown about at such reckless pace that it takes notes just to differentiate between everyone. Granted, it wasn’t the easiest job for Cheung Tan to condense the Cha novel, or the portion which they chose, into screenplay form. With so many characters, places, allegiances, character relations, and supernatural powers to cover Cheung Tan has done an admirable job under the circumstances. Which doesn’t change the fact that it will be almost completely incomprehensible to anybody not familiar with the plot, especially since all of the novel’s character names have been changed. All principal players are accounted for: Tsiu Yiu Tze (Wuyazi), Li Chong Hoi (Li Qingluo), Li Chau Shui (Li Qiushui), Tianshan Tonglao (Tin Shan the All Powerful and Eternally Youthful, or Tin Shan Kiddy as some translations put it), Azhu (Green), and Azi (Purple) and the story’s central antagonist Ding Chunqiu (Ting Chun Chou). Needless to say exposition isn’t the screenplay’s strong suit and there’s not nearly enough time to properly establish each character, their relation to the others, and their individual objectives. Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is hard to follow when you’re familiar with the novel.
In spite of its labyrinthine screenplay Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is at least pretty to look at. The production design matches that of a Shaw Brothers wuxia of the day and Golden Harvest obviously spared no expense. There are even a few stylistic nods to Hark Tsui’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Gong Li, Sharla Cheung Man and Ku Tin-Yi all wear colorful robes, gowns, and veils and the movie is bathes in Mario Bava and Dario Argento-esque hues of blue, red, and orange. At points it tends to get a bit too carried away with the blue tints and near-constant fogginess. The choreography by Poon Kin-Kwan is fast-paced with plenty of wirework, acrobatics, and gravity-defying physics and includes regular martial arts, sorcery as well as swordplay. The visual and optical effects are good more often than they’re not and the breakneck pace keeps things exciting. That Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens was afforded Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Gong Li, and Sharla Cheung Man as its three leads is a victory in and of itself. Win's Movie Production Limited - established just 4 year prior - might not have commandeered the kind of budgets that Golden Harvest but that didn’t stop both companies from working together. Both eventually became biggest film companies on the Hong Kong cinematic landscape when Shaw Bros went under. Obviously does Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens at no point approach the artistry and craftmanship of a Hark Tsui production, but maybe it should have.