I’m going to be on a podcast soon where the topic of the week is Jet Li movies. There are still many I haven’t seen, so I wanted to fill in a couple of blanks before recording. DR. WAI IN “THE SCRIPTURE WITH NO WORDS” from 1996 seemed like an important one to get to because it’s directed and choreographed by the great Ching Siu-Tung (his directorial followup to WONDER SEVEN, although he choreographed A CHINESE ODYSSEY: PART ONE – PANDORA’S BOX in between). He’s perhaps best known for directing A CHINESE GHOST STORY and action-directing A BETTER TOMORROW II, SHAOLIN SOCCER and HERO, but I also love his outlandish, heightened style in movies like NAKED WEAPON and one of Seagal’s weirdest, BELLY OF THE BEAST.
In the epic opening scene I was ready to get seriously Ching Siu-Tunged… there’s like a hundred guys pulling a giant mechanical ox that looks like a He-Man vehicle, and the guy driving it goes rogue and makes it fart a fire ball. But I quickly found that Ching’s usual fantasy historical period setting of The Martial World is a story-within-a-story, intercut with the marriage troubles of its supposed author, filling his martial arts adventure fiction with childishly autobiographical symbolism where he’s the hero and his wife is the villain.
Li stars as the titular Dr. Wai, I think, except they say his name is Chow Si-kit and then almost always call him “King of Adventurers.” He’s a famous author of pulp adventures, writing his stories at a cubicle in a newspaper office. When his divorce leaves him with writer’s block, two younger writer/co-workers, Shing (Takeshi Kaneshiro, HERO, RED CLIFF) and Yvonne (Charlie Yeung, BANGKOK DANGEROUS, KUNG FU KILLER) try to help him.
So it’s clear very early on that, although this will have some cool stuff in it, it just cannot possibly match the strong vibe I enjoy in Ching’s movies. Usually there is no wink, no tongue in cheek, no sense of his understanding of how ludicrous anything he’s depicting may or may not be. It’s completely unmoored, and seems absolutely sincere. But here, everything that’s cool and Ching-like is in the context of being a guy’s immature fantasy.
Chow Si-Kit’s wife Monica (Rosamund Kwan, THE MILLIONAIRES’ EXPRESS) has left him, I think for a movie star (Collin Chou, THE MATRIX sequels, DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE, IRON PROTECTOR)? And she’s mean about it. So Chow mopes and sits at his desk with his head in his hands and is basically useless. Shing tries to convince him that this could be great for his art because “The torture of life is the food of creativity,” but it doesn’t help, so Shing and Yvonne look at what he has written on his computer and start adding to it.
Within the story Chow is King of Adventurers, who seems like he’s also a writer – one of his signature fighting moves is to pull out a fountain pen that fires a cable into an enemy’s gun trigger and prevents them from firing. He does this in a fight where there are numerous pages fluttering through the air and his punches gather stacks of them on the ends of his fists. And then he uses the pen to autograph his opponent’s face.
With this writer hero and some supernatural weirdness, it kind of seems like a less deranged version of a SEVENTH CURSE type adventure. But they definitely have Indiana Jones in mind. He’s after a sacred wooden box that’s deadly to people who look inside, and following puzzles and clues to a hidden Tibetan scroll called “The Scripture With No Words” that the Japanese are also looking for, because it can supposedly tell the future. Representing Chow’s feelings about his wife, she shows up in a fictional version named Cammy who is actually an evil spy.
There’s a guy who’s called a “masked hero” because he wears a large basket on his head as a disguise, and King of Adventurers is way ahead of him. He and Shing follow the guy into a secret lab and find out the location of the box, but they get attacked by a giant mutant rat, which is a pretty hilarious puppet I pretty much guarantee will give you a laugh. I guess this must be a rat who looked into the box – rather than melting people like Indy’s Arc of the Covenant, it will fuck up your face real bad and make your head bulge, or turn you into a swarm of crude CGI metal balls that then disappear. So I liked that.
It’s a big production, so there’s flashy stuff like when a train gets derailed and crashes through a village (I laughed when he yelled to look out because he doesn’t know how to drive a train), and the climax involves the Great Wall opening a stairway to a secret chamber. Among the many colorful gimmicks are a fight with animated fire whips followed by actual flaming swords. Another highlight is the fight where he uses an umbrella as a weapon, splashes a giant wave of water at his enemy (who fires a bullet through it), and launches the stretchers from the umbrella to stick into him like a pin cushion. Chow also breaks through a brick wall like Kool Aid Man. Since the Japanese are the enemy, he has a fight against a bunch of ninjas and then one against two sumo wrestlers.
Luckily, once you get a ways into the movie it starts to lean much more into the fictional world, and even the real-world stuff becomes more interesting; for example, the real Monica is touched that her ex-husband saves her life, and while he’s in the hospital she herself rewrites the end of the story, recognizing that the villain is based on her. And though the idea of them mending their marriage seemed to far-fetched, I was a little moved by the melodramatic way their tortured love played out in the fantasy version. And I was even won over by the blurring of the story and the reality – King of Adventurers yells “Monica!” when Cammy is threatened, and the fictional Shing says, “She isn’t called Monica in the novel.”
Only after watching the movie and researching it for this review did I notice this information in its (positive) Variety review:
“Pic exists in two versions, an international one (screened at AFM) which is entirely concerned with our hero’s adventures in ’30s China, and a domestic one which occasionally crosscuts to modern H.K., where the same leads double in contemporary roles. Running time is the same, with extra period footage added to the first to make up the difference.”
On one hand, that international one sounds more like a movie I would like. On the other hand, obviously the one I watched is the story Ching was interested in telling – shouldn’t I accept that? If the blu-ray I rented had asked me if I wanted to watch the Hong Kong cut or the international cut, obviously I would’ve gone with Hong Kong. And isn’t that kind of disrespectful for them to think we won’t want some meta thing so they need to give us the story-within-the-story? Isn’t that like saying, “These guys won’t get BOWFINGER, we’ll just give them CHUBBY RAIN”?
Well, I guess I would’ve liked that better too. Anyway, Ching Siu-Tung’s Jet Li Is Chow Si-Kit the King of Adventurers in DR. WAI IN “THE SCRIPTURE WITH NO WORDS” is not my favorite Jet Li or Ching Siu-Tung movie, but at least it’s something. You gotta respect something.