Saturday, 16 November 2013

Snake Fist of A Buddhist Dragon (1979)


Dir. Henry Cheung

If Henry Cheung is able to read this, I apologise for the comments I'm about to make. But with only this film on his IMDB page, any film connected to producer Joseph Lai and director Godfrey Ho causes me to wonder if the director's name is actually a pseudonym. I rented this film under the belief that Ho, infamous creator of numerous cut-and-paste ninja films made from pre-existing material, directed it. He is said to have written this, and it's still a film "produced" by Lai. I have many guilty pleasures that aren't really that guilty. But there's only two in cinema for me so far that have become obsessions - nineties anime, sometimes great, more interesting when it's a fragment of a story that never got an ending, always fascinating even when bad, and c-level martial arts films with poor English dubs and terrible DVD transfers. Joseph Lai could in fact become the first producer to get his own tag on this blog because of my obsession with his films. I love the martial arts films because they are, except the occasional dull one, completely unpredictable. They exist with clear traits different from other martial arts films. English dubs that sound silly and for some reason always seem to have an accent I presume to be Australian when I could be deluding myself. Ridiculous martial art skills used in even basic situations like chopping wood. Jump cuts and tricks straight from Georges Méliès magic films. The only real sour note with Joseph Kai, depending on your tolerance to exploitative content, is the sexism more pronounced in a genre where, in Chinese and Taiwan cinema, there are very strong female characters in the stories too. You have to bare it in mind with his films, sleazier than what martial art films usually are, clinging over some scenes in this one despite one of them having a great trick from a character of spitting needles from his mouth. These films feel more and away more interesting than other trashy sub-genre work though because of how creative and bizarre they are, let alone the fact that the performers and actors are solid martial artists even in technically mediocre work.

The story begins with a group of Chinese rebels having to protect itself when an evil Manchu organisation kidnap a female member for information on dissidents. From there its somewhat pointless to try to explain it because of how vague and all over the place it becomes. It does involve revenge. An orphan raised at a Shaolin temple who is taught martial arts. Behaviour that frankly doesn't seem logical to what real human beings would do. And befitting how Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho used to make new films with pre existing footage, a big chunk of this one is made from fight sequences that are clearly from other work, existing ones or, as Lai and Ho did as well, unfinished projects, padding out a plot from it. It becomes shambolic very early on, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing with Snake Fist of A Buddhist Dragon. There is something curious and utterly entertaining about the recycling of previous material to create new things, beyond sampling to references, the seems glued together to make this film's eventually collapsing plot work fascinating to look at rather than to mock. Barely held together with characters like White Tiger and absurd moments, usually in the many fight scenes, this feels like viewing the footage of all the pulpiest martial arts films in its purest form, churned together into a single movie. Cutting out lifeless moments when the pace sags or when it was no longer entertaining to watch on of these films because it descended into dull, expository dialogue with no gain to it.

Even with the "bad" martial art films, I've found that many still have so much to enjoy and get from as entertainment. Brief moments, even when the plot is threadbare and the swearing filled English dub for this film is hysterically poor, shining out. A fight scene that is still exceptional in terms of the agility of the performers, a rudimentary visual effect or wire work trick, like a flying tray of food at one point, all of which evokes a childlike wonder, that even a bad film can still be memorable in a special way, mixed with the adult glee of exploitation cinema and z-grade pop culture where anything can happen around the corner even if the plot's obvious. Things happen not quite as you would expect them to in this film, and it's fun because this happens. Unlike other genres, where the things that entice viewers (gore, sex) can too easily mingle with tedious, time eroding paces and forced-out plotting, the immediate advantage of even a film like this one, that the actors are still more athletically superior than even many in Western action films, and have no qualm with acting out the most brutal, ridiculous and showboating stunts on a shoestring budget, is always engaging even if the film itself is in shambles from the get-go. Even in a film like this you get all the theatrics crossed with a culture steeped in well taught martial arts whose history and beliefs still seep into a work written by Godfrey Ho. Physical people doing psychical fighting, back flips, kicks, elaborate counters and strikes. Physical stunt falls. Physical visual effects from wires to the clear camera edit, by human hand, where a person disappears and reappears a distance further in a peculiar, near stop motion effect. Even the regurgitation of pre-existing material, for a buck, and the dub are physically made, the battered print of these kinds of films, on DVDs by third-grade companies long gone, adding  to their material rawness.

As two sides collide, the good Chinese rebels and the Manchu group, the cacophony of material is compelling as if sticking random pieces of these films together into a Surrealist's cut-up martial arts film project. Where you can have razor blade sewn into your cape to slash at people, but don't fear it stabbing into you as you were wearing it. Where you can get a hostage released by sneaking into the villain's lair and cutting all his hair off in his sleep, more significant as he is legitimately dangerous when he's sober and not drinking. The vulgar, messiest and trashy of material can be the most inspiring even if it's to amuse oneself, and a film like this, and the many I can get second hand in a martial arts section of a nearby store, remind me that looking at the bottom of a barrel can be just as creative and fanciful.

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