Lost picture show

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 1996, 12:00am

Back in the days of silent films, producers sometimes tried to salvage flops by re-writing the inter-titles, thereby transforming leaden melodramas into riotous farces.

With the advent of talking pictures, this option no longer exists. And even after massive editing and rewriting of dialogue, there is little even the most creative genius can do to make the proverbial silk purse out of a turkey.

Dr Wai In The Scripture With No Words is a textbook case - visually scrumptious but textually as inept as its English name. Known in Chinese simply as The King of Adventure, this Indiana Jones-style blockbuster has everything going for it but lacks a credible plot. And even a major salvage operation, involving re-shoots by another director and a new story structure, fails to make it work.

Director Ching Siu-tung, who choreographed the action scenes with Ma Yuk-shing, shows great visual flair in telling the tale of Dr Wai (Jet Li Lin-kit) in pre-World War II China. With young sidekicks Takeshi Kaneshiro and Charlie Young Choi-nei, the trio battle evil Japanese spies in a race to discover the whereabouts of the magical 'Scripture With No Words', a Buddhist tome that possesses unspeakable powers.

The journey takes them from the archaeological sights of Xian to the night clubs of old Shanghai and the Great Wall. Along the way, they encounter continually a mysterious beauty (Rosamund Kwan Chi-lam), who may be a treacherous Japanese secret agent. If the plot sounds familiar, try Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Chinese characteristics.

However, Dr Wai and his cohorts are such immature, shallow figures that it gets in the way of appreciating the magnificent action scenes.

There are occasional flashes of humour, both intentional and unintentional. A Buddhist priest attacked by the villains is urged in English subtitles: 'Lama, cut the crap.' The film-makers might have been wise to take the advice.

This at least is how the story goes in the 'original' version being released in Korea. For the Hong Kong market, an uncredited Gordon Chan Ka-seung and, finally, Tsui Hark were called in to make radical revisions with the addition of a modern story set in a local publishing company.

Jet Li is now an author who pictures himself as the hero of his historical martial arts novel, King of Adventure. Kwan, the novel's 'mysterious lady', is his soon-to-be ex-wife; sidekicks Kaneshiro and Young are colleagues who commandeer Li's computer and compose a few chapters themselves. The film inter-cuts the modern and historic tales, transforming Indiana Jones into Romancing the Stone.

This is certainly an intriguing literary device, but it does virtually nothing to improve the overall quality of the movie. The added dimension fails to give the juvenile antics added depth, with the characters equally immature no matter what their era or profession. Dr Wai In The Scripture With No Words, Newport circuit