Monday, March 24, 2014

The Eight Immortals (Taiwan, 1971)

As a vintage Taiwanese fantasy wuxia film, The Eight Immortals is both pleasantly different and pleasantly the same. It’s different in that it boasts a fanciful structure that makes it something of an anthology film for its first half. This, however, does not prevent it from featuring everything that we come to such movies for in the first place -- hence, the pleasant sameness. And by that I refer to oodles of hyperbolic mystical hijinks, ranging from beast-hatching flora to Taoist whammies delivered via drawn on hand rays.

The film opens on two itinerant story tellers relaying to a gathered crowd the story of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. This they do aided by movable illustrated panels which are displayed in a grid-like, wooden frame. I couldn’t help but be reminded by this of the Japanese tradition of Kamishibai, which, along with other such proto-comic-strip modes of narrative, makes up part of a long tradition of Asian picture storytelling. The tale spinners gleefully introduce the Immortals one by one, via a series of vignettes in which each performs an act of kindness for the benefit of some hapless mortal. In most cases, the immortal introduces himself by singing a whimsical song.

In simplified terms, the Eight Immortals are Chinese mythology’s equivalent of saints, celestial beings of supernatural power who watch benevolently over the affairs of men and intervene when necessary -- which, in the interest of a robust mythology, is quite often. The movie introduces the leader of the immortals, Lü Dongbin (Lui Woon-Suen), in an episode in which he intercedes to unite the star-crossed lovers Tu (Chang Ming) and Pai (Chang Chi-yu). The impoverished Tu hopes in vain to buy Pai’s freedom from a brothel to which she has been sold by an unscrupulous relative, but what this ultimately requires is for Lü Dongbin to assume the guise of a boorish customer and slap Pai silly, leaving dark black palm prints on both of her cheeks. Her market value thus depleted, she is returned to Tu, whereupon Lü Dongbin magically removes the marks before disappearing into a print of himself on the wall.

From there we meet Iron Crutch Li (Oi Yau-man), whose crutch we see serially transformed into a sort of aerial floatation device, a powerful magic weapon, and a peach tree with supernaturally healing properties. Elder Zhang Guo (Lu Wook-Suen) rides a donkey backwards and helps the owner of an ale house unearth a particularly exquisite cask of wine. The handsome Chang Hsiang-Tzu (Fung Hoi) uses his enchanted flute to help a displaced family make their way across a foreboding tundra, using it to make a magnificent golden bridge appear across the span of a deep ravine. Immortal Ching, we are shown, carries with him a magic fan, while Immortal Tsao favors magic castanets.

Last but not least, we are introduced to the lone female immortal, Fairy Ho (Sally Chen Sha-li), who looks down from her perch in the heavens and sees that all is not right on the mainland (searchers for political allegory make of this what you will), thus setting the non-episodic portion of The Eight Immortals in motion. It seems the land has fallen into the despotic hands of a cannibalistic demon king (Cho Boot-lam) and his sorceress queen (played by an actress whom I could sadly not identify) who take great pleasure in literally feeding on the populace, while, of course, taking time out for defiling the women. Pai and Tu from the beginning of the movie also come back into play at this point, she having been thrown into the King’s dungeon, where she is tortured mercilessly, and he valiantly leading a makeshift resistance army against the King’s forces. Fairy Ho attempts to intercede, approaching the king under the guise of friendship and bringing with her a giant peach that splits open to reveal a snarling boar’s head. This, however impressive, does not appear to have whatever effect that Fairy Ho intended, as she is summarily captured by the king, who steals her two powerful sutras with the intention of using them as weapons.

As depicted here, the Eight Immortals are a jocular bunch, wiling away their time not spent bailing out humans by hanging out in the gazebo of their floral garden and trading good natured insults. However, once they catch wind of Fairy Ho’s fate, they prove themselves none too jolly to dole out violent payback. The Eight Immortals, thanks to its fairytale tone, indeed seems at times like a children’s film, until you consider all of the bloody slicing and dicing that takes place in its final act, not to mention a harrowing scene of Pai’s torture at the hands of the demon king. Perhaps it’s just that the Taiwanese produce a more hardboiled breed of child than we do here in the States, where you can’t even punch a little kid in the face without someone making a big deal about it (jk). In any case, suffice it to say that, with that final act, The Eight Immortals gives us everything we ask for from movies of its ilk in terms of amped up violence and cheap but colorful fantasy spectacle.

Happily, The Eight Immortals was directed by Chen Hung-min, whose credits include Little Hero and the Taiwanese portions of Mars Men, the international version of Sompote Sands’ Giant and Jumbo A, so you know we’re in good hands when it comes to the aforementioned “cheap but colorful fantasy spectacle”. This could be said to include a scene of the queen conjuring a giant puppet bird of prey to attack the resistance forces before emitting a stream of pink poisonous gas from her navel. Hand rays are of course employed, as are flamethrower palms, while people die and turn into weird weasel-like creatures and the king uses one of Fairy Ho’s sutras to emit a mighty wind from a gargoyle head perched atop his headdress. Meanwhile, the filmmakers try to distract you from the silliness of some of these effects with pure onslaught, placing brightly garbed, sword-slinging extras slashing, leaping and tumbling in every available corner of the frame. This tumult reaches apotheosis with a death duel between Lü Dongbin and the demon king that takes place high in the heavens, the opponents leaping about in the clouds.

The Eight Immortals elicits a lot of good will with the performances of all of its titular players, all of whom bring the Immortals’ benevolence and good humor to palpable life, as well as with its charming framing device. The best of these films display a generosity amid their cheapness, a desire to deliver maximum thrills despite a minimum of material means, and, as with its two story tellers, who so manifestly delight in the spinning of their tale, I think I detect a similar glee within The Eight Immortals. Yes, I hereby decree that, like mirthful, benevolent gods, the Taiwanese film industry of yore has once again gifted us from on high with a trove of beguiling dime store wonderment.

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