Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chinese Magic (Taiwan, 1983)

It could be said that Chinese Magic lives up to its name, in that it provides, through its action, a fairly comprehensive catalog of all of those elements drawn from Chinese folklore and the like that a Taiwanese film purporting to depict Taoist magic might comprise. We have lots of wire assisted flying -- sometimes while seated in the lotus position and sometimes not -- , ghosts, fighters being paralyzed by having little pieces of parchment affixed to their limbs, a creepy little talking frog, voodoo dolls, mystical weapons, cartoon magic auras, people turning into pigs, and the “paper troops”, crude paper cutouts that, when thrown, transform into a quartet of kung fu zombies in head-to-toe body stockings. The film also seems to be attempting to incorporate into the conventions of the typical Taiwanese fantasy martial arts film elements of the Shaw Brothers’ at-the-time successful, and considerably nastier, black magic films, as evidenced by the “Devil Baby”, which is essentially a spontaneously birthed (think Alien) malevolent flying fetus.

Our headliner here is the actress Shih Szu, who was a big martial arts star over at Shaw Brothers throughout the 70s, before she returned to her native Taiwan in 1980 to see out the remainder of her career within the Taiwanese film industry. Lovers of classic Shaw kung fu films will find that she’s not the only familiar face on hand, as the film also features Chen Hung-Lieh, who appeared in dozens of films for the studio while contracted to them during the 1960s, among them the seminal Come Drink With Me, and Chuen Yuen, whose credits for Shaw include appearing alongside Shih Szu in The Lady Hermit and The Thunderbolt Fist, among others. The presence of such first rate talent insures that what action in Chinese Magic there is that doesn’t involve wires and cartoons is pretty well paced and executed, which, along with the expected level of wire and cartoon assisted fantasy kung fu craziness, makes for a briskly entertaining, if not particularly remarkable, watch.

I usually look forward to these Taiwanese movies because they offer me the rare opportunity to watch something, in the course of my 4DK related viewing, that is more or less guaranteed to be either dubbed or subtitled in English, even though the latter case generally means small, fuzzy, burned-in subtitles tiered underneath Chinese subs that are presumably just as difficult to read for those who can understand them. Unfortunately, the fact that the VHS sourced disc I watched Chinese Magic on featured English subs that were often crowded down below the border of the frame meant that I had to rely on my usual methods of educated guestimation, enlightened fabrication, the I Ching, and dream analysis to figure out what was going on to a degree much greater than I had initially hoped.

In any case, I feel pretty confident in saying that the plot involves Shih Szu’s character, Shao-Ying, being called upon by her master, Hsu Tu-Shang, a female priest, to put an end to the supernatural shenanigans of the evil master Hsu Tui-Shan (Chen Hung-Lieh). The reason that Shao-Ying is the fighter for the job, you see, is that she is the one with the most mastery of the magical spells necessary to the task. There is also a lot of talk about virgins in Chinese Magic, and virgin’s blood, and virgin’s menstrual blood in particular, so I think that the fact that Shao-Ying is a virgin also has something to do with it. In fact, we soon see that Hsu Tui-Shan basically uses virgins for batteries, having his minions supply him with a constant stream of untouched belles from the surrounding villages so that he may sap them of their life force and thus strengthen his own. Anyway, it seems that Hsu Tui-Shan killed the father of Shao-Ying’s master, and stole from him a book of special spells that is allowing him to become ever more dangerously powerful. (Would you like fries with that McGuffin?)

Meanwhile, and elsewhere, the brother (I think) of Shao-Ying’s master, Yun Chung-ho (Ko Keung), who is also a magical kung fu master, takes under his wing a cocky young male disciple, Lo Fei (Chou Shao Tung), who is apparently also a virgin. This is important because Shao-Ying and Lo Fei each possess one half of a magical yin-yang mirror that is the only weapon that can truly defeat Hsu Tui-Shan. The catch -- and don’t ask me why –- is that, although it is somehow important that both Shao-Ying and Lo Fei be virgins, in order for them to effectively wield the mirror –- and they indeed must wield it together, Wonder Twins style –- they must first fuck each other. Which eventually happens, of course, though not until after a lot obstacles and comic resistance (They’re in love, but think they hate each other. Hilarious!) have been overcome. When it does, it is high sexy time –- or at least as sexy a time as can be had within a film industry as conservative in its standards of censorship as Taiwan’s. Chinese Magic is actually pretty sexy for a Taiwanese kung fu film, but don’t expect anything on the level of what the Shaw Brothers were doing in some of their racier efforts at the time. Just to aggressively stomp upon whatever hopes you might still be nurturing vis a vis that subject, that means no nudity. Whatsoever.

 Hey, we totally just did it. Yes!

While the first sexual experiences of many people result in only shame and regret, Shao-Ying’s and Lo Fei’s results in them being able to shoot deadly cartoon laser beams out of a big yin-yang shaped mirror. Thus is the villain vanquished, only to have Shao-Ying’s master make a melodramatic, last minute revelation that results in Chinese Magic being yet another rousing martial arts film that ends with everybody crying. (Hint: Shao-Ying’s master? Not a virgin.) There is no reason for us to cry, however, because, short of some guys in rubber monster suits, the movie has everything you could hope to expect from a Taiwanese weird fu film, Paper Troops, creepy talking frog, Devil Baby, and all. Not to mention that one of its climactic moments involves someone throwing a jar of menstrual blood at the bad guy. Now that really is magical.


Poptique said...

Oooo, sounds good. Loopy Taiwanese chop-sockey fantasy always comes up trumps, and I one day I hope to own a remastered bluray of Thrilling Bloody Sword.

The likelihood of this becoming a reality is slim, to say the least...

Tars Tarkas said...

Whoa, Sand People!

Word verification: cruster

Todd said...

Poptique: Needless to say, I'd love to see someone put out a nice quality disc of Thrilling Sword, too. One of my all time faves. While we're dreaming, let's shoot for the stars and hope for a heavily supplemented Criterion edition. I'd like to hear a commentary track by the cyclops demon, and see a featurette on the special effect wizardry that went into the creation of the veiny potato thing. All in all, it would be $40 well spent.

Tars: I don't recall there being any sand in this movie, but there were people. And frogs.