Monday, July 25, 2011

General Invincible (Hong Kong, 1983)

To the extent that I can understand it, the basic plotline of General Invincible is fairly generic. Of course, in these old school wuxia films, the plots tend to matter less than the grace -- or, failing that, the insanity -- with which they’re pulled off. That said, General Invincible succeeds in pulling a little bit from both column “A” and column “B” -- provided your definition of “grace” can be stretched to include Chinese period costumes that draw equally for inspiration from the Baroque era and the Spiders From Mars.

General Invincible appears to be the final star turn of the mysterious Pearl Cheung Ling, coming directly on the heels of her lead role in Invincible director Cheung Paang-Yee’s The Elimination Pursuit (aka Three Famous Constables) and immediately preceding her supporting role in that most comically leering of all the skeletons in Jackie Chan’s closet, Fantasy Mission Force. That last, if available filmographies are to be believed, was her final major role. And it suits her that she would end her screen career on such a bizarre note, as it serves to make that career overall seem that much more dreamlike and maddeningly ephemeral.

In the case of General Invincible, we get to see a relatively sober and intense side of Pearl, one that contrast with the unfettered goofiness of her portrayals in self-directed efforts like Wolf Devil Woman and Matching Escort. This still leaves room for Pearl’s character to be afflicted with seizures that call upon the actress to roll her eyes around and literally foam at the mouth, so the term “relative” needs to be kept in mind. Said circumstance also leads to a recreation of the scene in Wolf Devil Woman where Pearl chomps down on her leading man’s hand. Seems you can take the Pearl Cheung Ling out of Wolf Devil Woman, but you can’t take.. well, you get my drift.

Pearl here plays the daughter of a nobleman, the lord of the “Southern Castle”, who is assassinated by a gang known as the “Black Group”, whose leader (Tien Feng) seeks to take over whatever fanciful version of ancient China we’re being presented with in this instance. A broody free spirit who wants to distance herself from the Martial World’s constant warring, Pearl at first resists when her father’s loyal aide presses upon her to seek revenge. However, that aide’s bloodily committing ritual suicide before her eyes seems to provide the necessary motivation, and she is soon hitting the vengeance trail with her mute servant in tow. Along the way, she receives intermittent assistance from a handsome renegade swordsman (Zu’s Adam Cheng Siu-Chow), and intermittent hindrance from Ruh Yuh-Bai (Ding Laam), a leggy female minion of the ruthless Black Group who Pearl soon sees as a rival for said renegade swordsman’s affections.

Throughout her journey, Pearl is dogged by visions of her white-haired old master, who constantly harangues her with opaque encouragements like “sincerity can break the gold stone!” He further instructs her, no less cryptically, to look beyond the “border of emptiness”, which, it turns out, refers to skills that can only be learned from standing at the threshold between life and death (I think). When Pearl finally accomplishes this, during a moment of extravagant martyrdom, it is like General Invincible is suddenly being directed by Jodorowsky. The sea runs red, waterfalls flow backwards, and flowers instantly wither on the vine. At the end of it all, Pearl has had magically bestowed upon her “the fastest eyes in the world”, which will prove handy, as the secret weapon of her nemesis turns out to be the barely visible “Crystal Sword”.

This being a fantasy wuxia starring Cheung Ling, you would be right in assuming that the magic weaponry and techniques don’t just end with those mentioned above. Throughout the film, both Pearl and Adam Cheng wield something called the “Shapeless Sword” and also use a technique called “Shooting Star” that causes their swords to spark like downed power lines. The villain, for his part, uses something called “Magic Diving” to hand zap his opponents, and also has a delightful, mad-scientist-style subterranean lab in which ever newer threats to the righteous are being developed. And, of course, the films sees many instances of people flying, as well as of people throwing their swords and then riding on them like surf boards.

But, as suggested above, such things are par for the course in a Cheung Ling film, just as are wildly flamboyant costumes. Though I think that, on that last count, General Invincible may have topped all previous comers. The white poodle wigs and ornate, shiny gowns with poofy sleeves -- as well as Cheung Ling’s elaborate, jeweled head pieces -- all suggest sort of a 1970s Ken Russell take on the court of Louis XIV, with a heavy debt to the sartorial excesses of British glam rock. Cheung Ling alone has several costume changes and, while the film is briskly paced, the anticipation of her next blindingly colorful and absurdly impractical outfit would be enough on its own to keep any viewer glued to the screen.

Call me greedy, but the fact is that 4DK is just too epic of an endeavor to have only one muse. Yet Pearl Cheung Ling still holds a special place of honor in the pantheon, standing proudly alongside such awe inspiring female icons as Polly Shang Kwan, Jyothi Laxmi and Maura Monti in her Batwoman bikini. To find out why, one need only pick at random from her cinematic oeuvre, perhaps by utilizing some kind of dart board and blindfold ritual. If your point were to land on General Invincible, you could certainly do worse. And by the time you got to the part where Pearl engages in a magical battle with her former master, a sequence rife with crude animation and people going airborne in the lotus position, you would totally get it.


Anonymous said...

Nice review, Todd! This is definitely Pearl's tour de force, even though it's perhaps more uneven and rough around the edges than even her previous films. But with scenes such as her crucifixion, she definitely created a powerful and totally unique wuxia film.

BTW, Pearl loved this character so much (based on a novel by Gu Long, Angry Sword and Wild Flower 怒劍狂花) that she played the role again in a self-produced TV series the following year.

GoldenPigsy said...

I need to see these Pearl Chang TV serials. I really, really do.

Incidentally, I would describe the scene where Pearl finally reaches "transcendency" as King Hu after a bong hit. But that's me.

Todd said...

"King Hu after a bong hit" definitely works, too. Well said. I wonder how difficult it would be to see those old TV serials of hers (seeing as I'm as yet merely at the "wondering" stage, rather than the "actively looking for" one.)

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, tudou (that's potato in Mandarin) is you're friend. But be warned, no subs and, from the little I've seen, not as unique as her films.

Todd said...

Thanks, Dave! But, name aside, why is their logo crying?