The Mad Monk. with Stephen Chiau Sing-chi, Ng Mang-tat, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, and Kirk Wong Chi-keung. Directed by Johnny To Kei-fung. On Empress and Newport circuits. CHIAU Sing-chi may be Hong Kong's number one screen comedian, but even his presence can't turn The Mad Monk into a passable comedy. A martial arts farce set in the Sung Dynasty, the film is a confusing quagmire of special effects, action scenes, madcap burlesque, and pseudo-Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. The movie seems to have everything but an interesting story and sparkling sense of humour. Chai Kung, the so-called mad monk played by Chiau, is a character familiar to Cantonese folklore. Kind of a Buddhist Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, he has been the subject of numerous motion picture comedies, most notably a series of six films starring Sun Ma Chai between 1964 and 1966. The Mad Monk of 1993 bears little relationship to its predecessors, at times seeming like an imitation of Tsui Hark's Chinese Ghost Story. The same frenzied action; the same kind of monsters and demons; the same incoherence; but minus Tsui's style. ChingSiu-tung served as martial arts director on both, and while the action sequences are skilfully handled, they don't really fit into Chai Kung's tale. Bucking the current nostalgia craze, The Mad Monk doesn't even utilise the Hong Kong audience's familiarity with the material to parody the old pictures. That's perfectly all right, if only the film-makers had created something interesting in its place. But, they haven't. The picture opens in heaven, and a tackier vision of paradise would be harder to find. A rainbow stairway, masses of clouds, and ethereal synthesised music. At first I found this hilarious, thinking the movie was a send-up of the cheap special effects of60s Hong Kong movies. But, after viewing the film for a few minutes, I wasn't so sure the tackiness was intentional. Chiau is a celestial spirit who is sent to earth as part of a heavenly dare. He believes that human beings have the power to change their fate, a concept that is heresy in the land above. In order to gain re-admission to heaven, he has three days to change the destiny of a prostitute (Maggie Cheung), a beggar (Anthony Wong), and a tyrant (Kirk Wong). The movie traces Chiau's exploits; his descent from Valhalla, his rebirth on earth and his transmutation from celestial spirit into Chai Kung, the ''mad monk''. But describing the script in such terms assigns the film a linear quality which it does not possess on screen. The storyline simply fails to make much sense and ultimately detracts from the comedy. Every once in a while there's an amusing moment. Chiau is suitably moleitau (nonsensical) when he is transformed into a ghost wearing a white, flouncy costume with huge pink lips; or when he is crowned King of Heaven in a ceremony that pokes fun at - andnearly approaches in ridiculousness - the Miss Hong Kong contest. And there are nearly a handful of witty moments. Chai Kung paraphrasing China's Public Security Bureau chief by announcing to an angry mob of women attacking Maggie Cheung: ''Whores can be patriots, too!'' Or Maggie, flirting with a customer, exclaiming,''I really like you, but in the next lifetime, OK?'' In a movie about reincarnation, that amounts to a true declaration of love! Unfortunately, such insights are few and far between. The cast is largely wasted. Maggie is called upon to do very little other than run around yelling ''Yeah!'' (in English); and the role played by Ng Mang-tat, Chiau's number one sidekick could have been excised from the script with little noticeable effect. But the biggest waste of all is the talents of Chiau Sing-chi. In the end, I walked away from The Mad Monk with a strong sense of nostalgia - nostalgia for such classic Chiau comedies as All For the Winner, Legend of the Dragon, and Fight Back to School.