Monday, April 3, 2017

King of Snake (Taiwan, 1984)

We live in cynical times.

So cynical, in fact, that even the more softhearted among you might have a hard time buying into King of Snake’s testament to the love that a giant mutant snake can feel for a lonely little girl named Tingting. Can your indifference perhaps be overcome by the film’s theme song, a sappy ballad that is surely the Taiwanese equivalent of Michael Jackson’s “Ben”? How about the insipid instrumental score, which makes ample use of the “bells” setting on a cheap 1980s keyboard? No? Well, like it or not, we’ll all just have to deal with this giant monster movie that aims to warm the heart as much as chill the spine--making it the one thing on this earth closest to a kaiju version of Old Yeller.

King of Snake begins with young Tingting (Tracy Su Hui-Lun) discovering the snake she will later name Moser while net fishing with the two awful little boys who are her constant companions. Tingting takes Moser home and smuggles him into her bedroom. There follows a series of sitcom-like sequences that involve her trying to hide Moser from mom and dad. Meanwhile, a rapport develops between the little girl and the snake which mostly involves Tingting saying things to which Moser, like a muppet, can only nod vigorously in agreement.

We then switch to a mysterious government laboratory, where scientists are endeavoring to end world hunger with a substance called R19 that can cause produce to grow to five hundred times its normal size. Let me here reassure those of you that have never seen a movie that these kinds of schemes always succeed perfectly without any unforeseen consequences. Except, in this case, the scientists have neglected to consider one important factor: the army of terrorists who burst into the lab and gun down everyone in sight.

One of the scientists, Helen Lin (Wu Feng), manages to escape with the special chamber that the scientists use to administer R19 to helpless lab animals. A car chase follows, during which Helen tosses the chamber into the roadside greenery before her car plunges off the road and explodes in midair. (I think that when this happens in movies it’s because the car is momentarily confused as to whether it is a car or an airplane, thus suffering an identity crisis that makes it combust.) By the by, Helen is the girlfriend of Dr. Li, the inventor of R19, who is played by Danny Lee. And Danny Lee is in King of Snake because King of Snake is a movie that screams for the presence of the star of Super Inframan, The Oily Maniac, and Mighty Peking Man. As with those titles, Lee’s presence here serves to establish the psychotronic pedigree of a film that might otherwise be indistinguishable from Last Year at Marienbad.

Anyway, as Tingting is unusually outdoorsy for an ostensibly lonely little girl, she is nearby at the time of Helen’s crash, engaging in a kind of off-road roller skating that involves skates with tractor-like treads. This activity sent me immediately to Google, where I found that, according to a 1936 issue of Modern Mechanix, these tractor skates were invented by a Japanese teacher for the very purpose they are put to in King of Snake. So we might give that teacher partial credit for Tingting finding the chamber and taking it home. Unable to distinguish it from the completely generic, transparent plastic box that it apparently is, she decides to use it as a house for Moser and puts him in it. She then turns to her studies, oblivious to all of the bleep-bloop-bleep sci-fi noises and bolts of lightning that are coming out of the chamber. When she finally turns around, Moser is about twenty times his original size.

From this point, King of Snake gets a little crowded, with everybody but the Scientologists coming after Tingting and her family with the idea that they either have the formula for R19 or know of its whereabouts. These include the terrorists, who answer to a mysterious, cat-petting figure named Chen Chung, agents of the Taiwanese government, the police, and the military, who, of course, want to use R19 as a biological weapon. Whenever any of these fools get too rough with Tingting, the loyal Moser comes to the rescue, drawing attention to himself and his unusual size in the process.

The problem for Moser is that the limits of his snake anatomy leave him with little other mode of defense than to simply bash his head into things. This becomes more problematic once Moser reaches his full, gigantic size—especially given Moser’s tendency to get a little carried away when angered. When the terrorists kidnap Tingting, Moser’s attempts to stop the car in which they are traveling result in the destruction of a bridge and the crippling of a nearby dam—the latter of which causes a catastrophic flood that kills thousands of civilians. Later, when it is determined that the terrorists have taken refuge in an office building, Moser heads downtown, only to wreak more carnage, the human toll of which--including a disco full of flashily attired dancers--is depicted in bloody detail.

All in all, the last half hour of King of Snake is pretty gonzo, alternating between scenes of giant monster rampaging, violent police shootouts, disaster movie style carnage (something that, judging by this and War God, the Taiwanese really had a thing for), and, of course, touching moments of bonding between a little girl and her snake. Throughout all of this, Tingting protests to anyone who will listen that Moser is her friend, that he is “nice” and “cute”, but it is not long before the karmic calculus of both monster movies and “boy and his dog” stories combine to put a number on his days. Which brings us to…


The scene of a weeping and disconsolate Tingting saying goodbye to the dying Moser actually left me a little verklempt, but that is only because the filmmakers set it to Ennio Morricone’s “Jill’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in the West. This same cheat was pulled in Country of Beauties and, while again very effective, it here stinks no less of unearned pathos.

That said, I have to say that King of Snake is a lot more breezy than it is cloying, although it invests an awful lot of effort in being the latter. The miniature effects, while crude by the standards of a Toho or even a Toei Studios, are made up for considerably by the frenzied nature of the monster attack scenes. Moser tears through the tiny sets like a snake on fire, smacking down one structure after another like a giant, scaly bullwhip. At the same time, the effects crew, taking a page from Reptilicus, mostly limits his depiction to that of an angry head poking up over the horizon. This approach is okay, of course, provided there is some kind of visual payoff at some point—which the spectacular shot of the raging Moser coiling around the skyscraper in which Tingting is being held captive unquestionably is.

So, having revealed King of Snake’s tragic conclusion, am I now obligated to issue a trigger warning for those sensitive to the depiction of harm to animals? Well, to be honest, I am one of those people, and if, given a choice between this film and dreck like Calamity of Snakes, another Taiwanese movie in which the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of real snakes is graphically depicted, I come down decisively on Team King of Snake. It may be a lot less wholesome than it wants you to think it is, but at least it’s not sleazy or exploitive. A snake could do worse.

[NOTE: Yes, I know that Godfrey Ho cut-and-pasted KING OF SNAKE into THUNDER OF GIGANTIC SERPENT. I haven’t seen that movie because I know better.]

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