Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fantastic Sword (Hong Kong/Philippines, 1976)


The Fantastic Sword is one of those interesting international hybrids that I’m always happy to stumble upon, a co-production between Hong Kong and the Philippines that, if certain unverified internet sources are to be believed, may also have had some South Korean involvement. My theory is that each of the countries involved wanted to make an entirely different kind of movie, and that it was somehow agreed upon to honor all of their wishes. Interestingly, it turns out that none of those movies is one for which the title The Fantastic Sword would be wholly appropriate. The original title, however, is Mahiwagang Kris, which, from my perspective, is appropriate, because, like much of The Fantastic Sword, it makes no sense.

Shot in the Philippines with a largely Filipino cast, the film is set in a mythical kingdom called Barangbang, which appears to be just a normal rural Filipino village but for the fact that it is ruled over by a sultan and has a princess. Magiting (Ernie Garcia), a humble fisherman’s son, and Princess Mary (Gina Alajar) are in love, yet Magiting is nonetheless forced to compete with Mary’s other suitors for her hand in a competition staged by her father, the Sultan. The winner of the competition will be the one who presents the Sultan with the most impressive gift, which means that a bunch of snooty, well-to-do fops line up at the Sultan’s door with all manner of ostentatious baubles.

Not having the means to purchase such trinkets, Magiting resorts to what he knows best, fishing, and, in the process, manages to catch a fish that surprises Magiting by begging for its life in a tiny little fish voice. Once freed by the kindly lad, the fish reveals itself to be a mermaid, who, as a token of her gratitude, gifts Magiting with a special charm. This charm, she says, will transport its user “into the modern world” when a “special prayer” is spoken –- said prayer being, “Please take me to civilization”, which does not denote a high opinion of Barangbang on the mermaid’s part.



Magiting takes the charm back to the Sultan, who is duly impressed and prepares to declare Magiting the winner of the Princess’ hand. Unfortunately, one of the other suitors happens to be Atingan, an evil sorcerer with both the midget henchmen that such a vocation entitles him to and the ability to conjure forth suitmation dinosaurs by shouting magical incantations at the Fire God. In this case choosing less flamboyant means, Antingan spikes the Sultan’s grog with a potion that causes him to instead declare Antingan the winner. Quickly realizing his error, the Sultan then beseeches Magiting and his daughter to take the magic charm and flee, which they do. Antingan and his minions, however, are right on their tail, leaving the lovers no choice but to utilize the charm to transport themselves to the modern world. This part of The Fantastic Sword actually reminded me a lot of the Asylum’s fake Thor movie, which I had watched half of the previous night. (Does anyone really ever watch a whole Asylum movie?)

With the sound of wakka wakka guitars welling up on the soundtrack, Magiting and Mary suddenly find themselves in 1976 Manila. Getting right into the swing of things, they go out for a night on the town, stuffing their faces at a fancy restaurant. Unfortunately, Magiting and Mary REALLY don’t get the whole money thing, and their resulting desperate circumstances lead them to be swindled by a con artist who purchases Mary’s jewelry for a briefcase full of Monopoly money. Eventually they are bailed out by a nightclub owner who hires Mary as a singer and Magiting as a dishwasher. After a brawl in the nightclub one night, Magiting is discovered by a boxing promoter, who encourages him to pursue a career in the ring.



From this point, The Fantastic Sword hurriedly rifles through the entire menu of typical boxing drama convolutions. Magiting quickly establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with in the boxing world, and begins his rise through the ranks. Mary begs him to quit the fight game, but he refuses, saying that he wants to provide a better life for her, and that this is the only way he knows how. Then, right on cue, the promoter demands that Magiting throw his next fight. Of course, when the fateful day comes, Magiting finds at the last minute that his sense of pride and basic decency won’t let him go through with it, and he goes on to handily win the bout. This in turn puts him on the shitlist of the promoter, who comes after him with his goons, demanding that he make good on the money lost, even if it means pimping Mary on the street to do it. Of course, unlike in a more gritty boxing drama, Magiting and Mary have the option of getting out of this predicament by simply beseeching the magic mermaid to return them to Barangbang, which they do.

As if recovering from a fugue state, The Fantastic Sword then deposits us right back in the movie that it initially presented itself to us as those now-strangely-distant-seeming few moments ago. Things in Barangbang, they are now very bad indeed, with the Sultan imprisoned and Antingan declaring himself in charge. And at this point, 75 minutes in, when we have finally fallen silent after screaming “What about the fucking Fantastic Sword?” at the screen to the point of hoarseness, the mermaid steps forward to direct Magiting toward the hiding place of the Holy Sword, the only weapon that will give him any hope of defeating the sorcerer. And despite the name, once retrieved, the Holy Sword does prove to be pretty fantastic, shooting lasers, enabling Magiting to fly, causing waterfalls to run backward, and also doing all of the expected sword-y things, like slicing people to gory ribbons. Yay!

In the few remaining minutes of The Fantastic Sword, Magiting then undertakes a quick succession of heroic trials, all to the end of freeing both the Sultan and now Mary, who has been captured by Antingan and given a potion to turn her into a fugly hag. Happily, most of these trials involve fighting monsters: a gruesome witch with a flyaway head, a man in a dinosaur suit whose shortcomings are hidden by having the fight take place in near total darkness, and finally, in the glorious full light of day, a bat creature who briefly grows to gigantic size before being once again shrunken and trounced by our hero. Taken as a whole, this final act makes a nice trailer for the movie that all of us who have seen The Fantastic Sword likely wish it could have been.





The Fantastic Sword was directed by Hua Shan, who may or may not be the same Hua Shan who directed Inframan. (The film is conspicuously absent from any of the filmographies for that Hua Shan that I could find online.) The fact that he would have been working with a much smaller budget here than on any of his work for the Shaw Brothers makes the task of spotting stylistic similarities difficult, but the fact that one brief special effects sequence in The Fantastic Sword is strikingly similar to one in Inframan leads me to lean toward the conclusion that they are one and the same man.

And on the topic of the film’s cheapness, I have to say I was a bit surprised by just how threadbare The Fantastic Sword is, especially given the somewhat epic aspirations of its concept. I thought the point of international co-productions was to produce films on a more lavish scale than either country’s film industries could produce on their own, or in this case, at least, beyond the scale of the typical Filipino production. Yet The Fantastic Sword makes even a homely, homegrown Filipino fantasy film like Boy God look fancy by comparison.

Also tough to parse is how, with so many hands on the purse strings, the go ahead could have been given for a film burdened with such a poorly conceived script. Of course, it might be that The Fantastic Sword is meant to be some kind of allegory, using the evocation of a magical, more simple time to point out the comparative evils of our modern world. However, this agenda would likely have been better served than by simply presenting us with a digressive, Cliff Notes version of Kid Galahad during the second act. And to bookend that second act with hints at what could have been a rollicking, Filipino version of a Barry Prima movie is just plain cruel.

Still, there is a madness to this film that is appealing; a limit crashing, free associative quality that makes it as unpredictable as the rambling monologue of a raving hobo. While I can’t condone the utter mess that The Fantastic Sword makes of itself, I do respect the fact that it took me to places that, based on how it initially presented itself, I was totally not expecting to go. Now, please take me to civilization.

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