Monday, September 21, 2009

Thrilling Sword (Taiwan, 1981)

Oh, Thrilling Sword. Where have you been all my life?

I’d actually never heard of this film until a few weeks ago. It was Keith from Teleport City who steered me toward it, doing so with the conspicuous lack of introduction or qualification that clues you in that you’ve been made privy to something truly special.

And special it indeed is; essentially the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves re-invented as a low-budget Taiwanese fantasy wuxia, during which not a moment passes without some kind of crazy visual realized by way of crude-but-colorful bargain basement special effects. This seems like an entertainment directed mainly at the kiddies, though one that also includes a few elements that would seem more appropriate in one of the Shaw Brothers’ visceral 1980s horror films.

To wit, the film’s opening scene, in which we see the Queen of the Wu Shieh Kingdom writhing in the throes of labor as the King paces anxiously in the background. What we know that they don’t, thanks to a staggeringly slapdash miniature shot, is that, at that very moment, a flaming comet is rapidly making its way toward the castle. Just as it seems that Her Highness is about to pop, that comet flies through the window and, with fateful accuracy, plants itself right up the Queen’s baby maker. Seconds later, an object that looks like a giant, veiny potato launches out of her nethers with such force that you’d think her uterus was spring-loaded. The startled King regards his now-expired wife and the veiny -- and now pulsating -- new addition to his household, and then orders his guards to take the potato and “throw it away”.

This the guards do by placing the potato in one of those floating cribs that seem made especially for the purpose of casting away unwanted royal newborns in old Bollywood movies. The potato’s journey downstream is a brief one , however, as it is soon intercepted by a band of dwarves who excitedly and repeatedly refer to it as “a big flesh ball”. These dwarves, by the way, are portrayed by normally-sized actors, whose diminutive size in relation to the other players is realized by the magic of either having those players stand on boxes below frame or the actors playing the dwarves doing their acting on their knees.

The dwarves cart the flesh ball back to their home, where they engage in a spirited debate over how best to cook it -- until it cracks open and a human baby comes out of it. After some apparent confusion over the baby’s sex, the dwarves decide to name her Yaur-Gi and keep her as their own, raising her in the cottage they share with a talking puppet chicken. Yaur-Gi grows up to be a beautiful young maiden, played by the actress Fong Fong-fong, and soon has a chance encounter with a handsome prince (Lau Seung-Him) whom she instantly falls in love with.

Meanwhile, a his-and-hers pair of evil sorcerers, Gi-err (Elsa Yeung Wai-San) and Shiah-ker (Chang Yi), seek to trick their way into the King’s good graces by secretly setting loose a one-eyed suitmation demon on the kingdom. They then exterminate the beast, becoming heroes and winning the king’s favor in the process, resulting in them both receiving positions of influence in the King’s court. Their next move is to conjure up a nine-headed serpent to wreak more havoc, but that plan is foiled by the handsome prince, who repeatedly stabs the serpent in each of its heads until it’s dead.

The Prince is now the toast of the fickle King’s court, much to the dissatisfaction of the two sorcerers, and is feted at a banquet where Yaur-Gi sneaks in to get a further gander at his handsomeness. It is under this circumstance that the King lays eyes on Yaur-gi and is somewhat creepily moved by her resemblance to his dead wife. Sorceress Gi-err rushes back to her magic mirror -- which in this telling is not a mirror at all, but a giant, boogity-looking idol with light-up eyes -- and is told that, not only is Yaur-gi the fairest of them all, but she is also the King’s daughter. Gi-err and Shiah-ker then scheme to abduct Yaur-gi and hypnotize her into accepting Shiah-ker’s marriage proposal, thus making him heir to the throne. Before they do that, however, they exact some payback against the handsome Prince, turning him into a stupid looking suitmation bear.

Once returned to human form with the help of the dwarves, the Prince is faced with the task of rescuing Yaur-gi from her zombification. Thus, with the assistance of a wee sprite (Ha Ling-ling), is he set off on a quest for an enchanted weapon, known as the Thunder Sword, and a magic box which turns out to contain a genie and a bunch of other stuff. The sword, once obtained, turns the Prince into an S&M togged magic warrior who looks like he stepped out of a Frank Frazetta painting. Thus enabled, he sets off for a climactic wire-fu and cartoon laser beam rich confrontation with the forces of evil.

Now, the above is comprised of waaay more straightforward plot summarization than I normally like to go into. But Thrilling Sword is the kind of movie where it seems better to simply document its contents than to weigh it against any conventional notions of quality or entertainment value. This is a film that contains “a big flesh ball”, impregnation by comet, 100 percent more suitmation monsters than you’d ever expect to see in a Taiwanese swordplay movie, all the hand-launched cartoon laser beams and lightning bolts you could hope for, giant genies and tiny fairies depicted by way of charmingly subpar optical effects, fart gags involving a chicken puppet, and giant talking idols with flying heads.

Even I have to admit that this is a weird movie – but not because I haven’t seen any of these things before. In fact, beyond the comet rape business, I’ve seen most of them -- but in Indian movies, not Taiwanese ones. All in all, Thrilling Sword seems like a perfect marriage of the Chinese wuxia genre and old Bollywood fantasy films like Homi Wadia’s Char Dervesh and Babubhai Mistry’s Saat Sawal Yane Hatim Tai, complete with a lot of the same low rent technical wizardry. Perfect in that, while -- in addition to Taiwanese cinema’s special gift for pure WTF -- you have all of the charm and naïve wonder of those Indian films, those films’ more languid approach to storytelling is here replaced by the breathless pacing and purely action-driven nature of Chinese martial arts cinema.

True, it would have been nice if Thrilling Sword had included a spiderweb-themed musical number involving Fong Fong-fong and Elsa Yeung Wai-San, but I’ll take that as a fair trade-off for the film’s bracing eighty-plus minute running time. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bollywood and all of its long-winded trappings, but once in a while it’s just nice to get your crack-brained Arabian Nights style adventure in a single, bite-sized serving. Even if the side dish is something that looks like a giant, bloody potato.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

This looks utterly fantastic.
Our hero's warrior outfit does look very much like a less clothing liberated version of Mike Grell's Warlord to me. Must be the helmet.

Keith said...

This one is something else, ain't it? Me and a friend used to drive the 90 minutes to Orlando to go this Vietnamese grocery store that had thousands of movies for rent. You could rent them for a week for 50 cents. Grabbed Thrilling Sword pretty much at random, thinking it was going to be some sort of Shaw Brothers style sword epic. Yes indeed.

TheDoug said...

Those looking to acquire this Thai classic, can do so here:
AKA: Thrilling Bloody Sword.

Michael Barnum said...

I am so going to buy this movie!

Todd said...

You won't be disappointed.

Tars Tarkas said...

I am jealous your print looks way better than the one I have! This is one of my favorite Taiwan films so far, I'm in the middle of writing a review as well.

Todd said...

I tweaked the images a little to make them look better on the site, so it might not be all that better. Can't wait to read your review!

Anonymous said...

Hey there Todd,
I couldn't find any e-mail address on this blog so I'll try to contact you through this comment or maybe some of your readers could help me out:

I'm trying to buy this movie, preferably on VCD (if there is any VCD of this movie) but I can't find anything at all.

Could you please help me?

Greetings Chengfaust

Todd said...

I'm sorry, Chengfaust. There doesn't appear to have been a DVD or VCD release of this film as far as I know. The existing copies seem to be mastered from an old VHS tape. I would keep my eye on the gray market and auction sites. I'm sure you will find it eventually.

Todd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd said...

For instance:

Chengfaust said...

Thank you very much Todd.
Well, to be honest I expected something more ... "collectable"?

Am I right that the seller linked in your last comment burns the DVD by himself? Don't get me wrong, but I don't know if I want to pay money for something like that. I'll think about this and see if this is worth my money.

Greetings Chengfaust

Todd said...

Okay, I'll just go back to being a writer now.