Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Courting the Fantastic: Taiwanese Monster Movies

A Dramatic rescue from THE BOY AND A MAGIC BOX

What is it about weird Chinese fantasy films that strikes a resounding chord deep within me? Just what is that particular reverberation that sends my head spinning? My heart pounding? The hairs on my the back of my neck to raise? Sure as hell isn't the production values, as most of the films I have already discussed, along with those to follow, were never large budget efforts. 

It's got to be the magic in them. Yes, seriously, despite their lack-luster, low-budget productions, almost every film covered in MONSTER! has, for me, moments of utter amazement, excitement, insanity or sheer other-worldliness. It's these exciting blink of my unbelieving eyes that I find so thrilling. The effects may be cheap, and the creature creations absurd, but those very facts it what make these films some of my current favourites.

Then there is the household in which I grew up. Surrounded by various deities (of Western and Eastern realms), Saturday afternoon monster movie shows, 60's kids programs, and a mother who encouraged the consumption of comics, movies, and fantastic literature. I was pretty much destined to fall in love with anything monstrous. But that is for another entry altogether.

Actor, producer, director Lo Lieh
At this point you may as well ask me: what the hell is so different between fantasy films made in Hong Kong in the 60s-90's and those made in Taiwan? As far as I can suss out, the primary reason is reflected in their budgets. Both countries have a lot of the same mythos and tales that have been filmed over and over. There is also the universal acceptance of the unreal as real. For Hong Kong, their productions had all of the heavy hitters behind them with established studios, top billed actors and so forth. Mammoth studios such as Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers, Cinema City, D&B Film Co., and others dominated the Asian market (almost to the point of demolishing the Taiwanese studios altogether in the late 90's). Film companies from Taiwan were (and still are) smaller and less financed. They didn't have the big named stars, altho some famous actors of the day did show up in the 70s. Some famous HK names did produced, direct and star in Taiwanese productions. Famed action director Chang Cheh -張徹- bailed on The Shaw Brothers and lived in Taiwan (and Mainland China after the 1990's) to make the horror film NINE DEMONS and the very Peking Opera influenced Monkey King film THE FANTASTIC MAGIC BABY.  My favourite actor that turned his back on the HK film industry in the 80's would be the incredibly prolific  Lo Lieh -羅烈- whose horror films and wild acrobatic comedies are incredible!

When you have next to no money to work with, you gotta make up the magic with pure moxie. 

So, on to point two then: why do I find these low-budget films fun to watch? Aren't those cheap rubber monster suits and wire-stunts all so fake? Well, yes... but NO. Huh? Okay, consider this: when was the last time you saw a monster rampaging or a human take flight unaided?  Never.  That moment is when you suspend belief. That is the essence of fantasy. Since I gather most of you, like myself, have never seen a space alien outside of those of you who have been "abducted",  I doubt all of the creatures resemble the slathering, slithering ALIEN from Ridley Scott's 1979 classic.  H. R. Giger design of the monster and the suite fabricated by Carlo Rambaldi, as fantastic and unnerving as it,  has since soiled the imagination of a generation of movie monster makers. Why can't a deadly creature from the stars look, well, like a clown (as in the Chiodo Brothers' highly amusing KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE from 1988) or stalks of celery with googly eyes or even a post-cubist variation on an alien invader (see KRONOS, 1957).
The totally alien monster from BOY AND A MAGIC BOX.

Cripes, even a Hello Kitty alien could possible be out there somewhere... waiting to strike at any second.

So, in that frame of existence, a monster resembling a man in a baggy rubber suit can, and will for all intents and purposes for me is REAL.  In fact, I would say that the three-headed, six-armed critter that appears in THE BOY AND A MAGIC BOX is just as unsettling as any computer-graphic ALIENesque fabrication. I don't care if you're a hardened gore/alien/monster/film buff... if you saw this thing screeching towards you in real life you would shit your pants. It's that weird!

Carrying this out even further, the Godzilla series features everyday people living along side monsters as tall as a skyscrapers, and there are alternate cinematic realities that, given 80's ROGER RABBIT or the recent Disney film ENCHANTED, will blow your mind if they were real. So, it's the fact that these "things" shouldn't exist at all in our reality which fill me with such joy. It's utterly insane that these beings so REAL to the characters in these fantasy films that sells the product.

Chinese fantasy film, be they mythos or horror filled with magic and monsters, will always hold me transfixed. Possibly it's my lack of any kind faith whatsoever that draws me into their spell. Taoist monks, the Shens, The 8 Immortals,  the variants on Buddhism, peasant folk magic, and numerous mythologies have beguiled me as a child well into... well, into the present. The dualistic nature of these varied faiths fascinate me. And then there are the monsters....

The Four Auspicious Aspects of Taiwanese Fantasy

First of all, lets lay down the major rule for any MONSTER! article: I don't count myself as a scholar of any film director, actor or genre.  I'll leave that to other folks in those fields. Prime examples are the films of Jess Franco, or the numerous samurai and Japanese ghost films I watch on a regular basis. There are other critics and scholars whose work speak for those subjects quite elegantly.

To borrow from a Gahan Wilson cartoon: "I paint what a see, child"  ... you know, just substitute the word paint for write. You get the picture. Some folks see a crappy, "kitschy" or cheesy ham-fisted attempt at wonder, while for me it's a attempt to fashion darn good-looking purse out of a sow's ear.  It's the same feeling I hold for the film of Ed Wood... but that's better left for another article I'll never get around to writing.

And so it comes to categorizing these films. I really  shouldn't have to, but it will make for writing about them quicker and easy for me. I am not getting paid for this blog, so you'll have to digest what I feed you.  And little bites are usually best.

I can break it all down to four basic sub-genres:  The Martial Arts & Mytho Madness of Wu Xai Pian, The Horror Films, The Hopping Jiangshi and other Fantastic Critters, and The Supers. Each of these categories work, altho, more times than not, their motifs and themes are often blended. What makes this a frustrating entry into my blog is that as the days go by I find more and more films from the 70's and 80's that were once thought lost.  While there are still films like DEVIL FIGHTER that have yet to surface, oddballs like THE DEMONS IN FLAME MOUNTAIN (1978), SAVIOUR MONK (1975), and RETURN OF THE KUNG FU DRAGON (1976) have recently mushroomed around my house.

Seems like I'd never get this article done if I don' t start now.

I will make this brief. For those of you who would love to delve deep into the territory of Wu Xai Pian films, may I suggest Googling it. I did, and found this entry.  In the meantime I am going to crib Wikipedia for the next few paragraphs:

"Wuxia (simplified Chinese: 武侠; traditional Chinese: 武俠; pinyin: wǔxiá [ùɕjǎ]) is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms like Chinese opera, manhua (Chinese comics), films, television series, and video games. Wuxia is a component of popular culture for many Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.

The word "wuxia" is a compound word composed of the words wu (武), which means "martial", "military", or "armed" and xia (俠), meaning "honorable", "chivalrous", or "hero". A martial artist who follows the code of Xia is often referred to as a xiake (俠客, lit: "follower of xia", "hiệp khách") or youxia (游俠, "wandering xia", "du hiệp"). In some translated works of wuxia, the martial artist is sometimes termed as a "swordsman" although he may not necessarily wield a sword.

Typically, the heroes in Chinese wuxia fiction do not serve a lord, wield military power or belong to the aristocratic class. They are often from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. Wuxia heroes are usually bound by a code of chivalry that requires them to right wrongs, especially when the helpless or the poor are oppressed. The wuxia hero fights for righteousness and seeks to remove an oppressor, redress wrongs, or to bring retribution for past misdeeds. The Chinese xia traditions can be contrasted with martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai's bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America's Westerns."

I even dedicate entire months to Chinese Fantasy films on my cable access program "Late Night Video Double Feature" which has been on and off the air since 1989. Just listen to me blab away about some film in this opening clip from one of my shows:

There are a few prime examples of this popular genre, the most dear to me being the brilliant 1983 Hong Kong film ZU: WARRIORS OF MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Tsui Hark. This film set the standard for all hyper-kinetic swordplay and flying people action. The Taiwanese equivalent is Chung-Hsing Chao's  equally energetic 1986 THE MAGIC OF SPELL.  As much as I love that film and speak of it often, I will not cover it in this entry, saving it and other films that fall into the category of "The Varied And Exciting Dynamic Adventures of The Boys of the Peach". Expect that installment sometime in April (ha!).

I stumbled across THE BOX AND A MAGIC BOX and would have dismissed the film altogethr except for the fact that the very hint of "magic" drew me to it. That and the date. This is a 1976 Taiwanese film that meant there was a chance of seeing early pre-ZU Chinese fantasy action.

Within the first minutes we have a sky spirit (Zhū Qiǎo - the Phoenix 朱雀 ??) that descends to Earth to announce something before being driven off by a white-bearded old wizard (see clip below). I assume that's what happened because my copy of the film had English subtitles for the first five minutes and then some jerk adjusted the framing for this VHS full frame 4:3 copy of this movie and all of that vital info was lost to me.

What follows is 45minutes of confusion as the tale has something to do with the pairing of two individuals for an auspicious night of love making so that a "special" boy would be born. Or at least two with the third on the way. The timeline is somewhat skewed, but this is a fantasy film and the early appearance of who I think is Erlang Shen (二郎神) - a three-eyed Immortal - and The Monkey King - 孫悟空 does add some hope for additional zaniness to follow.

Our hero, a young boy, faces death when his father, a high court official, wants nothing to do with him once is mother is found to be pregnant AGAIN even those she has been chosen to be married off to the Monkey King.  I think. The rightfully worried young boy's mother is imprisoned in a stone cell and her two sons are set up to be executed.  Our Boy Hero and his younger brother are set upon my palace guards and become separated once they are chased into a forest. As our hero tumbles off a cliff to meet certain death, he is saved by a fairy (aka flying folk, not a tinker-bell type of spirit) and given a magic box that he must protect. Our young hero must battle his way to the Palace in Heaven where the 8 Immortals and the Monkey King dwell to rescue his mother.

I checked my watch: 45 long minutes wherein only three fantastic beings and some goofy wizards have made their appearence. Hmmm... then out of the blue our Young Hero is attacked by a three-headed dragon. All Hell breaks loose for the rest of the film. The dragon snaps up the boy in it jaws and carries him, high up into the sky.  Luckily for us, the magic box produces a sword for the boy to use against the monster.

After some frantic action the flying horror is dispatched mid-air and the boy floats to earth seemingly unfazed by his epic confrontation. The dragon on the other hand falls to earth and causes a volcano to explode. Our lad has about two minutes to dodge falling trees and so forth to catch his breath before a Lion Dog (石獅 -?) attacks him.  The creature gouges and tears into the child and even the helpful fairy, who saved the boy from his previous appointment with death, is stomped on.

As luck would have it, just as the Lion Dog is getting the best of the two humans, the magic box produces a fierce two-legged dragon that defends his master and chases off after the lion. In the meantime a three-headed and six armed giant come out of nowhere and, sword in hand, confronts the Boy. The magic box is again helpful in producing a another sword for the young warrior as well as giving him the ability to become non-corporeal to the monster's spastic attacks.

The Dragon dispatches the lion the same time the boy mortally wounds the giant. Phew! Okay, time for a breather as our heroic dragon helps his master to his feet (see photo at the beginning of this entry) and then vanishes back into the magic box. With those fearsome critters out of the way what's to stop the Boy from rescuing his mother? Well, Monkey that's who!

More action ensues!

And since we're on the subject of The Monkey King (which could well be another future entry), I should point out the famous literary character of "Monkey" has been immortalized in animation (from the 1940's to the present), as well as film and TV shows produced in numerous countries (I might add that in Great Britain you had a chance to see "Monkey Magic" in the 80's as a Japanese TV show badly dubbed. It was very popular and has sold a lot of VHS tapes [which I bought in the 90's], DVDs, and I'm sure a complete set of BluRays are available. Again, why this crazy TV show was never exported to the USA is beyond me.)  As for the Taiwanese film market in the 70's, we had MONKEY WITH 72 MAGIC, as well as the insane MONKEY WAR (1985, Ds: Ling Chang, Leung Chung) which is another crazy film to add to your list you need to see. It's co-directed by Pearl Cheung (aka Ling Chang) the sexy mastermind behind still more crazy cinema like the astounding WOLF DEVIL WOMAN films, THE DARK LADY OF THE BUTTERY (KUNG FU), anda few other films.

I am left to wonder just why THE BOY AND A MAGIC BOX was never released Stateside. If it had been made in the 1960's there could have been a chance I would have seen it on a Saturday afternoon on one of Cleveland's numerous UHF monster movie shows. But with a production release of 1975, it came too late for proper distribution in the USA. Two well-informed and respected film historians weighted in:

"By the 1970s, the TV market for import fare had dried up; AIP was no longer AIP (here comes METEOR!), late-night TV had abandoned movies for the most part in most markets, and the distribution/syndication companies that had made the 1960s such rich movies-on-TV viewing had either been absorbed, expanded into theatrical (Seven Arts, etc.), or dissolved." [Stephen Bissette, 2011]

"There were no distributors negotiating with Hong Kong or Taiwanese film companies for tv syndication packages. Could be wrong, but AIP never acquired any Chinese fims. I’ve read there was an effort in the 1970s to keep kung fu films off television because they were “too violent” and this problem would have extended to Chinese fantasy films as well. World Northal broke the barrier when they brought the Black Belt Theater packages to tv in 1981, and others followed." [John Grace, 2011]

The popularity of kung fu films made it doubly hard to see these films released in the States in a dubbed format. Possibly the closest film to fall within the definition of Wu Xai Pian that I personally know (that was released in the late 70's) was THE STORY OF RED TEMPLE LILY. In this film there is high drama, some nice fight scenes, and a young boy makes friends with a giant eagle. Not much in the way of fantasy, but kind of close.

WAR OF THE WIZARDS is another film that comes to mind. It is a  mildly entertaining Japanese/Taiwanese co-production from 1983 and starred American actor Richard "Jaws" Kiel.  Not purely a Chinese production, it was released over here by 21st Century Films to cash in on Ray Harryhausen's  CLASH OF THE TITANS as well as playing up Kiel's fading popularity. WAR OF THE WIZARDS features a "Phoenix", a giant rock monster, and various demons and, well, Richard Kiel.


High adventure also drives
Hsin Yi Chang's 1981 film THRILLING BLOODY SWORD, a film that is crazier than the better known KUNG FU WONDER CHILD for which he wrote the screenplay. As with most of the Wu Xai Pian genre, it a twisted fairy tale that begins when a young queen who is impregnated by a beam of heavenly light. She gives birth to a gooey pulsating egg, which is disposed by her servants by tossing it in a river.  A group of "dwarves" discover the fleshy vessel and upon quarreling over how to eat it, the egg shakes violently. The container splits open and within the pile of post-natal goo they find a young godling. The child soon grows into a handsome young man, and when fitted with a skimpy set of armor and a magic sword he ventures into the fantastic world. Giants, demons, fairies, and other entities are there to greet him. Highly recommended!

Other films include:
FAIRY AND THE DEVIL (1989?) - features giant kaiju action lifted from an earlier film (something not uncommon in these films).

IN THE BEGINNING (1979) - Chinese immortals vs Bad ol' people-crushing Devils!

RETURN OF THE KUNG FU DRAGON(1976) - featuring pagoda-crushing kaiju action!

That's it for this installment. As per all my blog entries I will no doubt do some post-publication editing as I see fit. Never consider one of my published works as finished. I am always monkeying around with it (corrections, alterations, etc.).  That's the beauty of electronic over paper publishing.

As one final note: my observations and knowledge of these films come from watching them, making assumptions, and reading up on what I can find out them. DO not in any way think I really know what I am talking about.

Back in two weeks.

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