Monday, July 28, 2014

Feng Shen Bang (Taiwan, 1969)

Feng Shen Bang is widely translated as "Investiture of the Gods". This, to me, says that, were it the start of a trilogy, it would precede Profit Sharing Plan of the Gods and then, finally, Severance Package of the Gods. That aside, because it is awesome, the Italians had the good sense to acquire it and re-title it Na-Jan il Piccolo Titano, which means "Na-Jan, the Little Titan". In calling up associations to the Titans of Greek mythology, they thus establish a vague connection between the film and Italy's own long tradition of peplum cinema.

It was this Italian version of Feng Shen Bang that I had the opportunity to watch (it's not an easy film to track down in any form) and, while I thought that hearing one of the languages of romance issuing from its familiar Taiwanese faces might prove especially distracting, it turned out that I was merely swapping one brand of incomprehensibility for another. In fact, there was enough going on in the film visually that, for the most part, I was able to ignore the discrepancy altogether.

Like the many Journey to the West films, Feng Shen Bang is based on a piece of classical Chinese literature -- Fengshen Yanyi, a 16th century novel written by Xu Zhonglin -- and concerns a celebrated figure from Chinese mythology. That figure is the deity Nezha, also known as Na-zha, Na-ja, Nata, or -- if you're Italian, apparently -- Na-Jan. Or, if you're a fan of martial arts cinema, Na Cha. Na Cha has made quite a few appearances throughout Asian cinema, and was last seen here at 4DK in Monkey King with 72 Magic, a Journey to the West film in which he made a bit of a cameo. He was also played by Alexander Fu Sheng in Chang Cheh's Na Cha the Great.

Feng Shen Bang is an origin story of sorts, and starts with the birth of Na Cha to noble parents, which -- in a nice Thrilling Sword-like touch -- is heralded by a spherical meteor crashing through the ceiling and chasing everyone around his mother's chamber. Once issued, he is promptly handed over by his dad, a general played by Got Heung Ting, to an old sifu (Seung Feung) for safe keeping. From this point on, Na Cha is for the most part played by the child actor Yau Lung, who is both cute as the dickens and looks like he is having far more fun than should reasonably be allowed. We then watch as the master, with the aid of two comely female disciples, gives Na Cha kindly schooling in all of the magical arts necessary to being a divine protector.

The first test of Na Cha's power comes when he is returned to his homeland to find the people there suffering under a devastating drought. Going straight to the source, he sets out to confront Neptune himself, who here apparently has domain over precipitation as well as the seven seas. And it is here that we are given our first look at Feng Shen Bang's own delightful brand of magic, as the antler sporting Neptune (Chang I-Fei) rules over an underwater realm with a populace that is half human and half seafood platter. Present are crab-men, prawn-men, fish head men, and a cowardly, constantly caterwauling advisor played by an upright walking turtle. Determined to stop Na Cha's advance, Neptune sends forth his son (Fung Hoi), who transforms into a giant flying dragon, only to be defeated by the gleeful Na Cha, who first rides him like a rodeo bull.

It is probably relevant here to mention the co-directing credit shared on Feng Shen Bang -- with Lin Chung-Gwong, the director of a trio of Chinese language Kamen Rider films -- by Yamanouchi Tetsuya, helmer of the relatively obscure Japanese kaiju film The Magic Serpent. It is also probably relevant to mention that Feng Shen Bang is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a martial arts film. Those coming to it with hopes of seeing any kind of kung fu action, even the silly wire-assisted kind typical of Taiwanese fantasy films, will be catastrophically disappointed. What it is, rather, is a pure fantasy adventure film that fits very well into Taiwan's distinctive take on the kaiju genre while at the same time, thanks to its pedigree, also boasting the well-heeled flavor of the Japanese variety. What it also is, unmistakably, is a children's film, so I will spare you any overwrought what-the-fuckery over the ways in which it differs from whatever is in this context considered a "normal" film.

Since no film is marred by the appearance of shapely women in toned down S&M wear, Na Cha next tussles adorably with the amazon forces of Sin-Thien (Lily Chen Ching), the "Wind Goddess of the Mountain", who resides in a groovy, skull-shaped cave. Neptune and his fearsome army of sashimi then marches forth from the parted sea, seeking revenge against the boy god for the death of his son. For reasons untranslated, Na Cha sacrifices himself to Neptune for the sake of his people. The old Master then revives him using an effigy that appears to be made of yams, at which point he is suddenly a strikingly androgynous teenager (played, in fact, by the young actress Tse Ling-Ling). It is at this point that Na Cha is granted the thing that every Westerner who has any knowledge of Na Cha first associates with him: the Wind Fire Wheels, those flaming spurs he affixes to his heels in order to fly through the air. A spectacular battle follows, replete with enough cartoon auras and lightning bolts to make you want to slap your mama.

There is plenty of weirdness to be found in Feng Shen Bang for those who are looking for it, but it is a decidedly laid back kind of weirdness. Missing is the exploitative edge found in so many Taiwanese fantasy films, replaced by an enlivening sense of wonder, and even of celebration. I'd go so far as to say that those among you who have spawned might even want to watch it with your children, granted they have an accelerated knowledge of Italian. Mama mia!

Which brings me to the issue of Feng Shen Bang's scarcity. Having not seen it in its original Chinese language version, I'm not sure how reliably I can claim to have seen it at all. Certainly, some changes were made in the Italian version, most noticeably a new score featuring a lot of regrettably Orientalist musical cues, but I can't say how many. All I can do is put on my magic antlers and hope that this one surfaces sooner than later.

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