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.
They said it wouldn't last. Of course, they were talking about my recent, whisky-infused-gummy-worms diet. And they were right. Meanwhile, my pal Jeff Heyman and I are coming up on our fourth Pop Offensive over at Oakland's 9th Floor Radio, and there is no end in sight. People like the thing, apparently.
Is it possible, you might rightfully ask, that there is enough retro pop, dance and film music of a sufficient level of awesomeness to sustain us, or will Jeff and I be left gasping in a barren pop cultural landscape leeched clean of all grooviness, the victims of our own unchecked consumption? There is only one way to find out: keep shoveling those nuggets into the boiler and make full speed toward the horizon!
Pop Offensive #4 airs this Wednesday, July 30th, at 7 pm PDT. You can stream it live at 9thfloorradio.com and tweet your objections, raves, or sympathies to us at @FOURDK. Oh, and don't forget to check out our fun filled new Facebook Page.
I excel at nothing if not creating derelict FaceBook pages. Some say the old places are haunted, perhaps with the ghosts of would-be friends floating in the limbo of your incessant waffling ("not noooow", they moan) -- either that or they're honey traps for Nigerian dick pill pirates. In any case, the new and blindingly official Pop Offensive FaceBook page is nothing of the sort. "Popping" (see what baby did there?) with a wild variety of pics, clip, and links -- including to downloads of past Pop Offensive episodes -- it's the closest thing online to experiencing Pop Offensive live, with it's fun-focused mix of retro pop, dance, and movie music from around the world. If I were you, I'd head on over there and like the shit out of it right now!
Last night's tweet-along by the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down crew to Zodiac Fighters was a concatenation of sharp wit and dull-eyed confusion. We could see what was happening, but we weren't always sure why it was happening, or, more importantly, why it was happening to us. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, you can now follow our addled thought processes step by step in the Storified transcript linked below:
The debut of distinguished fightress Polly Shang Kwan as a subject of the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down is as auspicious as Santo's was back in May. And tonight is the night! The stars are favorable, the planets are aligned, and all signs point to ZODIAC FIGHTERS, a full version of which is linked below (be sure to forward through any pesky ads at the beginning).
All you need to do is log on to Twitter tonight -- that's Tuesday, July 8th -- at 6pm PDT, fire up the movie and, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, join in what will no doubt be a pretty freewheeling conversation. I'll be looking forward to hearing from you!
That's right, comrades. Once again comes the time for us to assemble and press ourselves to the hard work of nattering along to silly movies on the internet. The night is Tuesday, July 8th, at 6pm PDT and the film is the hallucinatory Taiwanese fantasy martial arts romp ZODIAC FIGHTERS, in which the adorable Polly Shang Kwan leads an army of animal themed kung fu warriors against Lo Lieh and his medieval shark-mobile. As the trailer below demonstrates, it contains more than your annual allowance of crazy, and continues on from there:
As always, all you must do, come the alloted time, is sign in to Twitter, fire up the movie via the link that I'll provide here, and, using the hastag #4DKMSD, join me and a host of other wits, wags and scoundrels in what will undoubtedly be a very lively conversation. Believe me, this is the one not to miss. Did I mention the flying sharks?
Why "Pop Offensive", you ask? Simply put, the experience of listening to Pop Offensive reaches such extremes of sublimity that it can only be expressed in the language of warfare and violence. To wit: Last night, Jeff Heyman and I once again strafed our unsuspecting listeners with a merciless barrage of head wrecking pop, dance and movie music from around the world, leaving them with sucking chest wounds of pure pleasure. Sound like your idea of a good time? Well, the good news is that you can now either stream the episode from the 9th Floor Radio archives or download it, podcast style, here.
Produced by Shaw Brothers’ Malay language division under the direction of Nordin Arshad, Ago Go 67 hews very closely to the template set by the “pop review” type of films -- think Pop Gear, or Live It Up -- that were issuing from Britain during the 1960s. We have two nice kids with dreams of stardom, disapproving parents, slick music biz types, rapturously frugging teens, and just enough of a plot to serve as the connective tissue between numerous musical vignettes showcasing the hitmakers of the day. Along the way, those of us at a historical remove from the proceedings are given an alluring snapshot of the Beatles-influenced “Pop Yeh Yeh” movement that was exploding throughout Malaysia at the time.
A pair of popular young actor/singers, Aziz Jaafar and Noor Azizah, respectively play Johari (“Joe”) and Fauziah. Fauziah works days as a shop girl while Joe labors at a stable with the film’s designated comic relief (S. Shamsuddin). Nights, however, are dedicated to practicing with their beat band, Dendang Perindu, which, as far as I can tell is played by the real beat band Dendang Perindu. This is an activity that Fauziah must keep secret from her father (Ahmad Nisfu), a blustering martinet who loudly objects to the youth music of today with all of its “yeah yeah yeah”-ing and such.
While visiting a recording studio at the behest of a slick music biz type played by Kuswadinata, the kids in Dendang Perindu see a poster for a record company sponsored talent showcase that just may provide them with their big break. It just may also provide Ago Go 67 with the opportunity to present us with a string of musical performance clips by groups with names like Wan Intan & The Mods, M. Ishak & The Young Lovers, The Terwellos, and Orchid Abdullah & Les Coasters.
One thing I learned from Ago Go 67 and my subsequent research into same is that the associations between Malay singers of the era and the bands who backed them up were somewhat transient, with the bands allying themselves with whichever performer opportunity -- or, perhaps, commerce -- smiled upon at that moment. For example, The Rythmn Boys (sic), who here perform behind singer S. Mariam, became one of the most in-demand backing bands on the scene after winning a Dave Clark 5-themed talent contest, and resultantly played with a number of different artists. On the other hand, singer Siti Zaitan, who here beams through an energetic, spy-themed number called “Alam Seni” to the accompaniment of The Hornets, was more often seen fronting a group called The Firebirds.
Despite defying the prevailing naming conventions, Denang Perindu ultimately win the big break we all knew they would. Unfortunately, as fate and the necessities of three act structure would have it, it is at this time that Fauziah’s father chooses to bring the hammer down on her musical activities. Providing further complications is Salvia, the singer for a rival band played by Malay sexpot Norma Zainal, who has unwelcome romantic designs on young Joe. It will take all of the moxie these teens can muster to make sure everything is set right before the producers of Ago Go 67 see fit to cram in another uninterrupted block of musical performances.
While Fausiah’s dad getting all het up about it provides the required note of generational tension, there really isn’t much on display in Ago Go 67 that one could imagine presenting much of a threat to the status quo. The music is undeniably fun, but lightweight, perfectly suited to the wholesome prancing of the clean cut -- shirts and ties for the boys, knee-length jumpers for the girls -- dancers who shimmy along to it.
This is not to say that there are not standouts among the performances, the aforementioned Siti Zaitan & The Hornets’ being one of them. On top of that, there is the striking androgyny and haunting vocal of D4-Ever singer, D. Hatta, who came into this world as one Mohamed Hatta Abdul Wahab (like some Jewish American singers, Malaysian singers of the era appear to have had a tendency to deracinate their stage names -- perhaps understandably, given the racial strife that was gripping the country at the time). Elsewhere, Blind singer S. Jibeng -- rather than presenting himself as an inspirational figure like so many other disabled artists before him -- seems to be milking his condition for pathos with the song “Nasib si Butah” (“Blind Luck”). He starts by dropping his cane onto the set from off-screen, as if by accident, and then scrambles for it pathetically on the ground before launching into his mournful tune.
Also bearing mention is the level of musicianship on display in Ago Go 67, which is exceptional. The guitar instrumentals of groups like The Ventures and, especially, The Shadows had an enormous influence on Southeast Asian beat groups at the time, which is given ample testament here. The resulting prominence of busy and interweaving, melodic guitar lines requires a lot of lightning-fingered picking on the part of the axemen in these groups. This, of course, does not cancel out the need for showmanship, as equal prominence is given to lots of choreographed guitar moves -- a tradition that I wish would return, along with the practice, abundantly in evidence here, of conveniently labeling the kick drum head with the band’s name.
A movie like Ago Go 67 was likely seen as a quick money maker for Shaw, unworthy of the vibrant color lavished on its Hong Kong productions. Still, one can’t help wishing it could have been otherwise, especially when considering the delightfully campy designs of the individualized sets on which each group performs. All of the staple elements of 1960s variety show mise-en-scène are on view: the giant musical notes, the ascending rampways to nowhere, the stylized street scenes populated by bizarre, human-like effigies. Singer S. Mariam is even provided with an on-stage vanity table and mirror, into which she stares with delicious melancholy, like a Malay Francoise Hardy, brushing her hair absently as the intro plays. What M. Ishak & The Young Lovers did to have their song, “Menari Go-Go”, simply performed in someone’s backyard, I’ll never know.
I think it goes without saying that Ago Go 67, which is currently available in its entirety on YouTube, is a real treat for fans of world pop, be it of the musical or cinematic variety. If, like me, you are a fan of both, it is a little slice of heaven. As an added bonus, the steadfastly formulaic nature of its plot renders subtitles completely unnecessary. For example, I don’t need to speak Malay to know what Fauziah’s father, predictably humbled and chagrined at the film’s end, is saying. Darn those crazy kids!