The Fantastic Magic Baby [紅孩兒] (1975)

Starring Ting Wa-Chung, Lau Chung-Chun, Chiang Tao, Cheung Chuen-Lai, Woo Gam, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-On, Ku Kwan, Teng Jue-Jen, Chen I-Ho, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Chao Li-Chuan, Siu Wong-Lung, Lee Lung-Yam, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh and Journey to the West!

In a career full of intriguing and entertaining films, Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby is one of his most interesting and unique. On the surface, it is an adaptation of a story from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Like Chang’s Shaolin Cycle films, The Fantastic Magic Baby honors and preserves the legacy of a Chinese tradition, showcasing the beautiful movements of the Peking Opera as only a Chang Cheh film could.

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, the basics are all present in the film. The Monk Tripitaka (Teng Jue-Jen) is traveling to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India with his companions Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun), Bajie AKA Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and Sha Seng AKA Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk). Demons and other devious entities catch wind of their travels and seek to imprison them in order to eat the monk’s flesh, which can supposedly prolong their lives 1,000 years. In this particular story, it is Princess Iron Fan (Woo Gam) and the Ox Demon King (Chiang Tao) who desire the monk’s flesh. They send their son Red Boy (Ting Wa-Chung) — the fantastic magic baby of the title — to capture Tripitaka for their pleasure. Red Boy is perfect for the mission because he has recently mastered the Three Types of True Fire, which are so powerful that not even the Monkey King can withstand them.
Sometimes I see Shaw Brothers films derided for being studio-bound (not here at Silver Emulsion, of course!). The Fantastic Magic Baby was shot entirely on studio sets, but instead of this being due to a budgetary concern or some other reasoning, the choice here is purely artistic. Peking Opera is traditionally performed on a single, sparsely dressed stage, but given the Shaw treatment its stories can play out on a much more fantastical level. By solely using constructed sets, the film retains its roots as a Peking Opera, but it can also transcend its limitations through the power of cinema. This allows for an appreciation of both forms to take place simultaneously in The Fantastic Magic Baby, and it makes for a unique, engaging film experience for anyone interested in both arts. It’s a wonderful stage play seen through the eyes of Chang Cheh, who brings the story to you in a way that places you amidst the action, the closest you could get without literally being on stage with the performers.

The Fantastic Magic Baby also reflects the storytelling method of the Peking Opera by moving a good portion of its plot forward through action and movement. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the film at all, almost everything happens through a series of choreographed fights. And boy are these choreographed fights great to watch! Li Tong-Chun (a famous Peking Opera performer and friend of Chang Cheh, according to the HKMDB) and Lau Kar-Leung handled the action. I don’t have any confirmation but I’m fairly certain the duties split into Li crafting and communicating the operatic elements, with Lau translating them into something that would work seamlessly in the cinematic arena. They both succeeded admirably, and the wealth of action on display is truly wonderful to take in (much of which is performed in long takes that showcases the intricate choreography).

But what is well-choreographed action without some incredible performers to bring it to life? The actors of The Fantastic Magic Baby do a phenomenal job, and since some of them seem to have only acted in this one movie, I’m guessing they made their living as actual Peking Opera performers. Lau Chung-Chun is a standout Monkey King, precise and agile as only the best in the business can be. Ting Wa-Chung is equally great as Red Boy, and Cheung Chuen-Lai performs incredible feats as Dragon Girl. The Shaw actors — notably Fung Hak-On, Tsai Hung and Philip Kwok in his Shaw debut — also hold their own considerably well. The stage is a performer’s place to shine, and Chang Cheh has crafted a film that showcases its performers’ abilities remarkably well.

The Fantastic Magic Baby also adapts the fantasy elements of Journey to the West very well. Stone men and other monsters come to life and many fights play out atop fluffy clouds. Clearly the special effects work of 1975 Hong Kong is unable to fully bring the ideas expressed in the novel to vivid life, but by staging the film as a tribute to the beauty of the Peking Opera, this doesn’t matter. It removes the concerns of FX quality, even to viewers in the future, because it is artistically everything it sets out to be.

The film only runs about 61 minutes, but it is accompanied by a pair of actual Peking Opera performances that play after the feature. Seeing them directly after the film is a revelatory experience. Where the film felt somewhat stagey, seeing the opera performances reveals just how much extra cinematic touches were employed by Chang Cheh and his crew to fully realize the potential of a filmed version of the Peking Opera. The lack of input by Lau Kar-Leung on the opera fights really stands out and makes his contributions to the film more easily appreciated (if you didn’t already appreciate them!). The removal of the film’s sets and costumes is felt as well, and the story is much harder to follow because of this.

Peking Opera began in the late 1700s, so in some ways I imagine the film was both meant as a love letter and a window in for younger people who might not immediately connect with the aged art form. As such, The Fantastic Magic Baby is a fantastic film that does exactly what it sets out to do. If you’re looking for a Shaw Brothers film that’s a little different than the usual fair, definitely check out The Fantastic Magic Baby!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Pao Hsueh-Li’s The Taxi Driver! See ya then!