Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Demons in the Flame Mountain (Taiwan, 1978)

I think it’s safe to say that, without the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the world of weird Taiwanese fantasy martial arts films would be far less rich. The Demons in the Flame Mountain is an interesting example of a movie that employs characters and situations from that 16th century tale, but without incorporating the well known band of travelers at its center. Indeed, Monk Xuanzang, the Monkey King, Pigsy and the rest appear here by reference only, surrendering the spotlight so that some lesser characters might step to the front of the stage. For this reason, the movie might be termed less an adaptation of Journey than it is a spin-off of it.

The action here focuses on Red Boy, the son of Princess Iron Fan and her husband, the Bull King (who, in the English dub, is referred to as “Cow Devil”). These figures are all taken from the episode in Journey to the West that, previous to the time of The Demons in the Flame Mountain’s release, had already been brought to the screen four times -- three of those times under the title Princess Iron Fan (one of those being an animated feature made in 1941, and another the second entry in the Shaw Brothers’ popular Journey adaptations made during the mid 60s).

Anyone who’s watched enough of these movies won’t be surprised to learn that Red Boy, who fought against Xuanzang and his disciples in the novel, is in fact played by a young woman, the actress Au-Yeung Ling-Lung. When we catch up with the character, we find that he has renounced his demon ways and is now a disciple of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In the grand tradition of low budget Taiwanese fantasy movies, Guanyin is depicted as having an omnipresent cartoon aura over her head and residing in a minimalist set that is made up almost entirely of machine generated fog and colored lighting.

When Red Boy comes to Guanyin in this setting, it is to report that all is not well in the worldly world. It seems that an imposter posing as Red Boy has been causing trouble in the villages around the mountain of pure flame known, appropriately, as Flame Mountain (said mountain being one of the unfortunate results of the mischievous tear that got the Monkey King banished from Heaven in the first place). Gaunyin instructs Red Boy to head down and clear his name.

Soon after setting foot on the Earthly plane, Red Boy finds that the troubles blamed on him are in fact being caused by a twin brother who he had not previously known existed called Yellow Boy (also played by Au-Yeung Ling-Lung in a dual role). Yellow Boy, it turns out, has been abducting young men from the surrounding areas and forcing them to labor for him in the Flame Mountain, with the intent that, by their labors, he will somehow himself become a god. (I may have missed something there, but that’s the gist of it.) The trouble is that working conditions inside the mountain, it being made of flame and all, are not that great and, as a result, many of these young men are dying. The villagers, having been convinced of Red Boy’s innocence, beg for him to intercede with his brother and free their sons.

Upon being approached by Red Boy, Yellow Boy at first greets him warmly, but when the former fails to be swayed by his “join me and rule the world” pitch, the yellow one orders three of his most deadly warriors to dispatch him. These warriors include Turtle Man -- who has all the powers of, well, a turtle, I guess -- Green Leaf Maiden, who is shown shooting spider webs out of her mouth, and Silver Vase Man, who, true to his name, carries around a silver vase that he tries to trap people in. (“You’ve a lovely vase there”, says Red boy.) For his part, Red Boy has an array of supernatural powers of his own with which to combat these foes, including the ability to shape shift and become invisible. He also possesses a devastating magical weapon that is, depending on which character's dubbing you believe, called either the “esteemed” or “eastern” fire, which enables him to exhale an inextinguishable blast of flame. It is in those sequences wherein Red Boy battles and defeats this strange crew, filled as they are with oddly imagined and cheaply executed movie magic, that The Demons in the Flame Mountain achieves some of its most memorable “wait, what?” moments.

That battle out of the way, Red Boy’s next plan of action is to extinguish Flame Mountain using the magical fan possessed by his mother. Unfortunately, it turns out that Red Boy’s parents basically can’t stand him and aren’t about to consent to him using it. In a flashback, we’re shown how, after a pregnancy that lasted twenty years(!), Red Boy emerged from his mother's womb as a ball of fire that then careened wildly throughout the countryside, leaving untold damage in its path. So it’s understandable that there might be some ill feelings. Red Boy then employs deception to get his hands on the fan, but when caught and confronted by his mother, cannot overcome his filial loyalty and returns it to her before completing the task.

Guanyin, despite her whole reputation being based on a tendency toward mercy, can’t understand why Red Boy hasn’t just blasted Yellow Boy and his folks with the “Esteemed” or “Eastern” Fire, and so punishes him for not getting the job done by stripping him of his powers and banishing him to the mortal world. Now left with no place to call home, Red Boy goes once again to his parents and pleads with them to welcome him back into the family. They really do hate him, though, and basically tell him to fuck off. At this point it seems that Red Boy can only accomplish his mission and redeem himself in the eyes of those who have turned their backs upon him by making a supreme sacrifice.

On paper, The Demons in the Flame Mountain certainly sounds like it has all the elements of a pretty moving little yarn, seeing as it basically concerns a child’s outmatched quest to gain acceptance from a family who have cruelly rejected him. However, the things that prevent it from being so are several-fold. One of those things is its outright goofiness. Like a lot of these Taiwanese fantasies, the movie seems to be pretty squarely aimed at the toddling set, and as such contains a lot of jaunty cartoon music and zany under-cranked action. Its few fight scenes are so comically sped up, in fact, that it is sure to have martial arts purists gripping their temples and running in any opposing direction. Basically, this is like Journey to the West reimagined as a Peach Kid film without the piss jokes. There’s also the fact that the version I watched was subject to an English dubbing job that is truly heinous, albeit pretty much par-for-the-course for dubbed chop sockeys from this period. (I have to wonder, though, why anyone even bothered, as this is hardly prime “Kung Fu Theater” material.)

Still, The Demons in the Flame Mountain is marked by that collision between the fantastical, unpredictable imagery of Chinese folklore and the cut-rate economics of Taiwanese B moviemaking that makes so many films of its type charming if ultimately resistible. I’m a sucker for a cartoon aura, after all. But, then again, I have to wonder if a properly translated and subtitled version of the film might tug at the heartstrings a little more effectively. Not that any of you are looking to movies like this for catharsis, mind you. But if one must get in touch with one’s inner child, how much better could it be if one could do so while watching a cross-dressing girl have an under-cranked kung fu fight with a humanoid turtle?


Tars Tarkas said...

So this is the film George Lucas stole the final lightsaber fight from Episode 3 from...

Todd said...

I find the special effects in this one more convincing, though.