There is a point somewhere in this post, and I’ll get to it eventually. but first we are going to have to visit an old friend.
Way back in the days of The Bad Movie Report, I reviewed The Magic Serpent, which prompted several “This movie isn’t that bad” e-mails (You may have noticed I’ve moved to much less specific branding in my golden years). It was an AIP-TV import I had first encountered when somebody who was programming Kung Fu Theatre either didn’t know or didn’t care that this wasn’t their typical Chinese chop-socky material. Optimist that I am, I hope that whoever got stuck running control on that weekend thought, “Screw it, I want to see this,” and slapped it in.
The Magic Serpent is not even remotely a martial arts movie; it’s an action fantasy fairy tale, and in these modern times it is possible to track down the movie in its original widescreen format and language, which is when you discover that its real title is Battle of the Dragons. Given that one of the dragons is a fire-breathing toad, you can easily visualize some polyester suit in a projection room grumbling “Dat ain’t no dragon! Dat’s a toad!” and changing the title on behalf of us poor, easily confused Americans.
Basically, villainous Yuuki Daijo (Amatsu Bin) kills the virtuous Lord Ogata with the aid of evil wizard-type Orochi-Maru (Otomo Ryutaro), and takes over his kingdom. Ogata’s son Ikazuchi (Matsukata Hiroki) is rescued by the wizard Dojin (Kaneko Nobuo) and trained to one day return to his rightful position. Naturally, Orochi-Maru was Dojin’s former student gone bad, and he returns to kill his old master and Ikazuchi, succeeding with the former, but not the latter. Ikazuchi will be joined in his quest by a young lady named Sunate (Ogawa Tomoko), who is looking for her long-lost father, and I’m sure you’ve already figured out who that is.
It’s a fun movie. What really attracted me in the first place is its desire to wow the viewer with its fantasy elements, using 1966 technology. Flying people? Don’t use wires, use rear projection. When Ikazuchi wins a fight by getting his head cut off (really) we get to see some really bad matte lines.
There’s lots of camera trickery involving still photos and double exposure, tricks that were being employed up into the 90s. By the time we get to the final battle, between Ikazuchi’s fire-breathing giant toad and Orochi-Maru’s water-breathing dragon, we’re at least into more familiar FX ground, guys in rubber suits trashing miniature buildings. Here’s the TV version:
These are all things critics will decry as “cheesy special effects”. But I was thrilled that Toei even attempted to do something like this, and my thoughts were, “Man, if only the technology and budget were better…”
Well, now it’s 50 years later (like it or not), the technology and budgets are better, and people are still bitching about “cheesy special effects”, even if the FX guys who worked on Battle of the Dragons would have given certain body parts to achieve even one second of what is on display in our next offering, 2016’s League of Gods.
League of Gods is based on yet another million-page 16th century novel, The Investiture of the Gods. Like its better-known (in the West, anyway) brother, Journey to the West, it is a work of shenmo, or “gods and demons” literature, and after the success of several Monkey King movies, it was likely thought that a big budget, FX-heavy movie version was a good bet.
According to Wikipedia’s entry on Investiture of the Gods, it is a “romanticised retelling of the overthrow of King Zhòu, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty“. If the accepted author of the novel, Xu Zhonglin, were able to watch this movie, he would claim his version was absolutely realistic in comparison. Now, the Shang Dynasty fell in 1046 BC, but accept that the first image you will see is a flyover of the land, showing mystic floating warships besieging Lord of the Rings-style walled cities. (You’re also going to find out that there are three suns, so there’s a distinct possibility we are not in Kansas anymore).
As in the novel, King Zhou (Tony Leung!) seems unduly influenced by his concubine, Daji (Fan Bingbing) who is in reality the demon Nine-Tailed Fox. In the novel, her true identity was masked from Zhou, but here she is quite open about it, since we will eventually find out that Zhou, as a child king, was so obsessed with owning the world that he allowed himself to be possessed by the Black Dragon. Of a piece with those strange floating warships is Daji’s tails, which seemed to have been made by an ancestor of Dr. Otto Octavius, all sinuous segmented metal, with an eye and rows of teeth at the end.
Then we meet some of our heroes from the opposing city of Xiqi, Lei (Jacky Heung), the last mystic warrior of the Wing Tribe, and Xiqi’s prince Ji Fa (Andy On), riding with their soldiers in a cart drawn by rhinosceri. Their goal is to rescue the last members of another mystic tribe Zhou is attempting to exterminate, The Invisibles. This group of Xiqi guerillas is visited by the wizard Jiang (Jet Li!), who tells them that when the three suns converge, the Black Dragon will descend, causing an era of darkness for the next 18,000 years – and only the Grand Elder of the Invisible Tribe knows how to kill the Black Dragon.
Dudes, this is all in the first seven minutes of the movie. Try to keep up.
Of course, the rescue attempt doesn’t go as planned, winding up in a battle between Jiang and the Nine-Tailed Fox, with the Grand Elder of the Invisibles sacrificing himself so Jiang and the rest can escape – though Jiang is hit with “reverse aging” curse, so that every time he uses his powers, he gets younger. One of the Elder’s eyes holds the secret, though: The Sword of Light must be found, so Lei heads out on a pilgrimage of discovery and hope. Jiang gives him three bags that he will need on his journey, and here is where the movie will lose a lot of people.
Their first alarm bell is going to go off when Jiang summons the first of Lei’s companions from the Pool of Light, and it turns out to be Naza, a greedy magical waif who is also totally CGI. The first bag is for Lei himself, and it contains a magical plant, onion-headed, cyclopic and one of the poorest examples of CGI in the movie. Well, not that poor, I guess, but the choice was made somewhere to make it deliberately cartoonish, which leads to a sequence involving Lei, Naza, the plant and a giant desert centipede which would not be out of place in a Looney Tune.
The second bag is a undersea dragon prince that Naza once kidnapped from his kingdom, and though Naza likes to torment him, he can also breathe a gas at the CGI runt that puts him to sleep and turns him into an adult (the always-welcome Wen Zhang). The second encounter is with a geomancy-hurling warrior named Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), the third bag being his long-lost dog, Sky Howler. Naza keeps whinging about his lost fire wheels, Jian splits to find his golden armor, and Lei continues to look for the Sword of Light. Complicating matters is that the villainous General Panther (Louis Koo!) has animated a life-size marionette (Angelababy) to spy on Lei. Panther steals her memory every sunrise, giving Lei an opportunity to help her retain her memory, and thus get this spy on his side.
Naza takes an extended side trip to that undersea kingdom (he’s a CGI baby again at this point), where he once more takes on the undersea kingdom, which is aching for a return match (and the King wants his son back, too). If you made it past the CGI Weed and the Wile E. Coyote Desert Centipede chase, this is the second place where the movie might lose you, played for extremely broad comedy. The breaking point might be where Naza pulls out his ultimate attacks, which involve a near-infinite stream of piss and literally explosive farts. It’s another sequence for the kids in the audience. Be patient, it will soon be over.
All roads lead to Xiqi, as it were; Lei finds the Sword of Light, meets up with Naza and Jian (who both have grudges against Nine-tailed Fox and are spoiling for a fight) as the three suns are beginning to converge, and Zhou’s warships are descending on Xiqi. At this point, Jiang, in attempting to defend his city, has used so much power and gotten so young he forgets all his magic. Big battle scene, especially when the fallen General Panther is resurrected by Fox as a gigantic Macfarlane action figure, and our three superpowered warriors must take him on.
I look at this scene and I think, I would have totally bought those action figures.
And then the movie ends.
Or, actually, there is a Marvel-style fancy credit sequence, then a Marvel-style teaser scene, then the final credits.
The first thing I did after the cliffhanger end was to visit IMDb and assure myself that there was a sequel coming – that end, straight out of the Desolation of Smaug playbook, certainly pointed toward it. And that’s when I started seeing the opinions of my fellow amateur critics. The complaining about the CGI. The guy who saw Jet Li had star billing, and was disappointed there was no punchity-punch. This is the guy who in those pre-Internet days would have called up the UHF station during The Magic Serpent to demand they should have run The Master Killer for the third time that month instead.
League of Gods has its flaws, but a lack of action is not one of them. If you’re allergic to CGI, stay away – I doubt there is one frame in this movie that is 100% real. It may be one of the most West-friendly Chinese action movies I’ve seen in a while, from the Marvel flourishes to plentiful use of bullet time effects (and I love bullet time). It’s the comedy sections that are going to put your typical action movie bro off. “Oh fuck, it’s Jar Jar, and this time he’s a baby!”
In my About page, I lay out my movie watching philosophy, and it’s pretty simple.
Now, I have a very simple approach to movies. The movie presumes to entertain me, and I agree to be entertained. I don’t necessarily need to be edified, or educated, or uplifted; if those happen, that’s gravy, I appreciate that. But honestly, that’s all I ask: to be entertained. To be taken somewhere else for a while. That’s all. It’s not hard.
I find movies like this, the Monkey King movies, and Jupiter Ascending tremendously entertaining. The so-called “peak visual” movies. These are artistic visions, layered onto the screen, depicting other worlds and possibilities. That we have managed to come to this point technically is astounding and satisfying. There is a reason I chose these two movies for a compare-and-contrast. Motion picture technology has come this far in my lifetime. I won’t be able to see what’s possible in 50 more, but that’s exciting to contemplate. What hasn’t changed in 50 years is people’s attitudes toward these movies. That a scene that doesn’t live up to expectations taints the entire movie. And that dissatisfaction with a movie is somehow equal to the heat death of the universe.
If you don’t like these movies, that’s okay. There plenty of other movies out there for you. But don’t come round here trying to tell me they’re the worst movies ever made. That’s stupid, and only shows you haven’t seen near enough movies.
This is where I’d normally tell you to put some pennies in my pocket
at Amazon to buy the movies, but I guess we just
can’t have nice things.