Friday, May 6, 2011

OMG War God!

Also reviewed at Tars Takas.NET.

“Try as I might, it’s very hard for me to imagine this movie being anything other than awesome.”
That was me, back in October of 2009, talking about the 1976 Taiwanese fantasy movie War God. If you’re a fatalist like me, you’ll recognize that those words couldn’t have been more designed to be eaten than if they’d been sprinkled with jimmies. At the time, however, I felt safe in uttering them, due to the fact that there seemed little chance that I would ever actually see War God. Furthermore, they were conveyed via the internet, where it’s common practice to throw the word “awesome” at things that are either contingent, lost to the ages, or completely imaginary. Truthfully, it is only in such a limbo state that we net rats actually allow ourselves to enjoy a thing -- knowing as we do that, should it beat the odds and actually make its way into our waking world, the cruel mathematics of nerd expectations will guaranty that it’s made of 100% Fail.

War God came to my attention by way of the evil Tars Tarkas, a dedicated hunter of tantalizing-sounding lost films who’s a great friend to have if you like having, not even carrots, but hazy, low resolution photographs of carrots dangled in front of your nose all the time. From the materials that Tars unearthed, the film appeared to be a Japanese style giant monster mash -- directed, no less, by Chen Hung Min of Little Hero fame –- in which a battleship-sized version of the revered historical figure-cum-deity Guan Yu protects Hong Kong from a trio of equally mammoth alien invaders. For Tars as for me, the mere sight of the faded old lobby cards and publicity stills was the only spark needed to fuel an enduring obsession. The mere idea of War God had us dancing around excitedly like two grown men for whom the idea of a film featuring a man in a rubber monster suit giving a thumping to another man in a rubber monster suit while standing amidst a field of model skyscrapers was somehow both new and novel, while, in reality, we were two grown men who had seen literally dozens upon dozens of such films. This is the sort of thing that is, within our particular circle, referred to in hushed tones as The Sickness. And we had it bad.

Given the inevitable and stratospheric raising of hopes that such self perpetuating hysteria engenders, it’s conceivable that the absolute worst thing that could have happened to us was that War God would actually surface one day, and that we would then be forced to consider its relative puniness within the shadow of the towering mythology we’d built up around it. And dammit, it was fun building up that mythology: spewing all that hyperbole, venting all of that unfounded speculation, saying “awesome” a lot. Why did fucking stupid old War God have to come along and ruin it? But come along it did.

But, having come, did it really ruin anything?

As a production, War God’s timing is interesting, as it is indeed a monster film very much in the Japanese style that happened to come along at a time when, in Japan, not only had the Kaiju Eiga genre disappeared from theater screens, but the special effects driven Tokusatsu boom -- so prevalent on Japanese TV during the early 70s -- was seriously on the wane. Before I’d seen the film, this fact lead me to wonder whether War God might have benefited from the work of some underemployed Japanese special effects technicians (after all, it’s not as if there wasn’t precedent for such a thing). Upon seeing the film, however, and observing the relatively crude nature of its model work and costumes, I began to suspect that this was not the case.

The film focuses on an ensemble cast of characters, among whom are Chao, an aging sculptor who, in order to keep a promise made to his late wife, is racing to complete what he proposes will be a “perfect” statue of the warrior god Guan Yu. Working against Chao is the fact that he is rapidly losing his vision to glaucoma. Still, the devout senior labors on, convinced that, once completed, the statue will be infused with the spirit of Guan Yu himself. Meanwhile, Chao’s son, Chai Chun (Gu Ming-Lun), is a “space scientist”, who, in stark contrast to the decidedly old world feel of his father’s cluttered studio, works in a stylishly antiseptic, space-age laboratory, where he and his staff torture bees in order to replicate the hypothetical environments of other planets. Not surprisingly, Chai Chun is baffled by what he sees as his father’s superstitious beliefs, even at one point -- for the benefit of those in the audience who prefer things on the nose -- protesting that “there is no god in the twentieth century.”

So it doesn’t take long to see that War God is going to present itself as a parable pitting the opposing values of faith and science against one another… and not that much longer to realize that it’s a fixed fight. Like a Chick tract, War God has one, and only one, message to impart. And that message is that Team Faith is the one to be on. When the introductions are over and the shit starts to get real, Team Science again and again proves that it has neither explanations nor solutions, and, in its most shining moments, can only act as a kind of pit crew for the forces of Team Faith. Also at issue is modernity itself, as exemplified by Chai Chun’s troubled younger sister, Li Un (Tse Ling-Ling), whose lack of moral grounding leads her to pursue such decadent pastimes as riding around on a motorcycle and dancing wantonly in a public park to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” -- not to mention making her the ideal candidate to be the messenger through which the forces of evil will speak when they arrive. (I have to admit, though, that, despite the film’s nominal agenda, War God’s funky, wakka-wakka guitar soundtrack makes modern life, circa 1976, seem pretty damn cool.)

And the trouble that arrives does indeed have a decidedly punitive, Old Testament quality to it. Mysterious lights in the sky are followed by a series of nightmarish atmospheric and physical anomalies. Boiling rain falls from the sky, gravity fails us, and even time itself starts to run backward without warning. Finally, a flying saucer arrives in Hong Kong and dispatches forth three mammoth-scale Martians, who declare their intention of punishing the human race for its warlike ambitions. An ultimatum is made, demanding that the Earth destroy its nuclear arsenal within 24 hours, and then the Martians set to literally swaggering about like a trio of cyclopean juvenile delinquents, randomly smashing with their gigantic clubs whatever fixtures of Hong Kong’s skyline come within their path.

Throughout this, the makers of War God take great care to show us the collateral damage wrought by this massively scaled carnage. Even once our giant hero makes his appearance and enters the fray, with all the requisite building smashing that such a titanic battle would require, we are constantly cutting away to shots of the terrified and helpless tenants of those buildings being crushed and suffocated. (The only other time I’ve seen something similar attempted in a kaiju film was during the Shibuya sequence in Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: Revenge of Iris.) This tends to contribute to War God seeming just a bit more grim and mean spirited than your typical Ultraman episode, but also makes sense within the context of the times. The English translation of War God’s promotional materials provided over at the excellent Achilles Girl in Actionland blog indicates that the film was originally marketed, at least in part, as a disaster film. And, indeed, these aforementioned aspects of the film echo to a great extent the smug, God’s eye moralizing of Irwin Allen’s disaster epics of the period, in which, no matter how random nature was in its depredations, it always took great care to ensure that the “bad” people –- the unscrupulous developers, the adulterers, and especially those foolish mortals hubristic enough to think that they were above harm -- got especially fucked up. This, then, is the unique fusion that War God accomplishes, melding in equal parts the sensibilities of the 1960s Kaiju Eiga and the 1970s Hollywood disaster drama.

Alongside these darker tendencies, War God also displays a keen sense of comic book melodrama. Coming after a tense buildup, the final and expected transformation of Chau’s statue into the giant avenger of the film’s title comes not a moment too soon, and at a pitch clearly designed to illicit rapturous cheers from the peanut gallery. From this point on, the film dedicates a generous portion of its running time to the apocalyptic, real estate decimating battle royal at hand -- at the end of which, not just the forces of Team Science, but even the Martians themselves must concede the invincible power of God. Such quivering tribute on the aliens’ part, of course, elicits no mercy from Guan Yu, and they are soon reduced to offal by the slashing of his gigantic guan dao.

You know what? Despite my fears, War God actually lived up to my expectations. After all, as I indicated earlier, the thing that is most awesome about War God is the idea of War God, and the filmmakers here honored that idea to the best that their means and abilities would allow. The film’s pacing is breathless, it’s distinctions between good and evil deliciously stark, and it’s doling out of cheap special effects and miniature carnage just about as generous as one could hope for. Of course, these virtues might be harder for us to appreciate from an adult remove. But I think that, if any kaiju fan out there had seen this film when he or she was a kid, back when they first saw all of those Godzilla movies that are now so close to their hearts, they would have loved it, and would still love it today. It all goes to show that sometimes these films that seem from a distance like potential lost gems can, once found, prove to be gems in fact, however minor.

This review is part of a special crossover event between 4DK and TarsTarkas.NET. Be sure to check out Tars' take on War God over at his site.


Keith W said...

So...better than Magic Lizard?

Todd said...

Well, it depends on your tastes. There are no scenes in War God in which a water buffalo craps in anyone's mouth. For some this may be a minus.

Anonymous said...

Story about global warming again on the news.
The gods have the freedom to rapidly accelerate global warming because of unregulated Chinese industrialization. And they are using it.
Whereas US industrial regulation combined with automotive smog devices had contained, the shameful emmissions at the hand of Italian capital which financed this chinese growth will ultimately kill our planet.
The gods must abjectly hate the Italians:::They ruined our cultures, eliminating Old Worlds around the globe, they destroyed our societies and now they will be used to ruin the planet.
Intelligent design:::Everything the gods do has purpose. There was purpose in the Italian boot, the Scandanavian penis, the sheep of Europe and the SFBA Beast. Chinese/Asian slanted eyes is yet another. Designed to make them/some look evil, they are a warning to other races. What is occurring with enviornmental degredation is living proof.
Never forget the shameful experience we each had in 2008 when the Chinese desperately tried to clean up the envionment in Beijing.

Recall the $5 trillion Republican scam where W set up the evil Democrats to sign the credit card receipt.
Expect some portion of the $5 trillion stolen from the United States creatively went to the Catholic Church, positioned to bitterly complain they lost their affluent white parishoners for poor Latinos and this is all their doing anyways.
I always suspected there has been a skim on the US General Fund all along and I was right. And the gods are using these clone host fakes to kill Planet Earth, financing China industrialization. The puppeteer pulling the strings, ironically.

Jesus is a false god.
There is no Satan. The world around us is all the god's doing:::You have to be tested with temptation.
Christianity is a test.
Muslim misery? The gods claim they are trying to "help you". The gods control everything, choreograph all that we see, including Isreal's relationship with Palestine, an "obligation" for their money-grubbing acceptance of the Evil Empire's billions. They also control the Italians, victims of the Moorish invasion/rape of their women, positioned in charge of this false reality through Christianity.
The gods created all this to position this reality you experience today.
"Earning" is temptation. It is a lie leading people into Damnation. Any hope of the Muslim world regaining the power they once had is long since over and it will never, ever return. Their acts 0f terrorism are only hurting them in the eyes of the gods.
The gods claim they are trying to "help you", but they also stoked your pride with your regional superpower status of centuries ago, rendering their efforts today merely destructive, a very bad sign. This means the gods have major problems with your people.
Never forget:::The gods work in mysterious ways. A mortal trying to understand may envoke their wrath. You shouldn't need to.

I believe the gods relocated the Jews to another planet before the Holocaust began to give them additional time before Earth fell into the social decay Christianity and the United States is responsible for. I suspect this favor included some/many of the Native America peoples as well.
Unfortunately for Muslims you didn't have the favor necessary to be allowed such generosity. I believe it is due to your mysogyny, your belief women are inferior to the men. This does not include veiling, which is a positive for the people and helps maintain decency within your society.
Orthodoxy is always the best course of action because, as I have repeated, old is mostly good and a little evil, while new is mostly evil and a little good. This applies to Islam as well.