Thrilling Bloody Sword (1981) Thrilling Bloody Sword / The Thrilling Sword / Heaven Sword / Shen Jian Dong Shan He (1981) -****

     I know very little about the Taiwanese movie industry, and none of it seems adequate to explain how or why a film like Thrilling Bloody Sword could exist. Let me tell you, it’s been way too long since a new-to-me movie left me in this state of ecstatic bafflement— with this overwhelming feeling of “Why was this made?! Who was this for?! What the fuck even is this?!?!” I suspect that the makers of Thrilling Bloody Sword— producers Chin Chan-Liang and Wang Ying-Hsian, writers Chang Hsing and Cheng Chen-Long, and director Chang Hsin-Yi— conceived of it as a fantasy adventure film in the Western style. For one thing, it’s a story of heroic warriors, embattled kingdoms, and evil magic in a setting almost totally divorced from the Martial World of the Chinese wuxia tradition. And for another, it incorporates characters, incidents, and plot threads from a wild grab-bag of Occidental sources (or at any rate, sources occidental to the Sinosphere), including the Brothers Grimm, the 1001 Nights, Fritz Lang’s interpretation of the Ring Cycle, and possibly even the early chapters of Exodus! But it filters all those influences through such a thoroughly Chinese sensibility that few actual Western viewers will be anything less than gobsmacked by it.

     I-Mei, queen of the Wu Shien kingdom (Fanny Fang Fang-Fang, of Monkey War and The Woman Who Eat People), is exceedingly pregnant. Unfortunately for her and her husband, King Gau-Shien (Chin Han, from Champion of Champions and Finger of Doom), supernatural forces have taken an interest in their child, and no sooner does I-Mei go into labor than a mysterious fireball descends from outer space and… I don’t know. Re-impregnates her, maybe? The upshot is not only that the queen dies giving birth, but that she gives birth to something that in no way resembles a human infant. It’s more like a colossal knockwurst, pulsating with the beating of a hideous heart. Gau-Shien understandably assumes that some deviltry is afoot, and orders the sausage-thing destroyed at once. However, his chief advisor (probably Chin Shih, of Sexy Palace and Flying Dongdado Bat Demon) fears that doing so might call down even more terrible karma on Wu Shien, especially since the hellish hotdog is technically a prince or princess of the blood royal. So instead of ordering a weenie roast of imperial proportions, the advisor floats the thing off down-river in a basket, throwing in a finely worked jade necklace, too, in the hope of propitiating both it and whatever spirits caused it to be born.

     The basket containing the Knockwurst of Nightmares eventually runs aground on a reedy bank, where it is found by (are you ready for this?) the Seven Dwarves of the Happy Forest. These diminutive doofi— let’s call them Husky (Pang San, of Hello Dracula and Child of Peach), Stoogey (Hsu Pu-Liao, from Kung Fu of Drunk Shrimp and The Crazy Monk), Beardy (Liang Erh, of Five Beautiful Witches and Snake Woman’s Marriage), Scraggly (Henry Lu Yi-Lung, from Kung Fu of Eight Drunkards and Island Warriors), Cutie (Huang Hsi-Tien, of Scary Devil and The Magic Ring), Poncey (Chiang Sheng, from The Five Deadly Venoms and House of Traps), and Doc (Lee Kwan, from Chinese Connection and Fists of Fury)— used to be the commanding generals of the San Miaur kingdom, before the evil wizard Shiah-Ker (Chang Yi, of The One-Armed Swordsman and Shaolin Invincible Sticks) cursed them to their current, militarily useless guises. He’d no doubt have done worse, too, but the Happy Forest is protected by a sort of magical ECM device that jams all attempts to cast spells into it. Anyway, when the dwarves discover a giant sausage in their territory, they naturally fall to arguing over how to cook it. But while they’re bickering about that, a very strange thing happens. Queen I-Mei’s chorizoid spawn spontaneously explodes, leaving behind what appears to be a perfectly normal newborn baby girl. The dwarves aren’t interested in having that for dinner, so they resolve to raise the child as their collective daughter. After much disputation, they settle on the name Yaur-Gi.

     Seventeen years later, Yaur-Gi has grown up to look exactly like her ill-fated mother, and seems remarkably well adjusted considering that she’s evidently had no human contact in all that time apart from her own seven dads. But although Yaur-Gi has never heard of loneliness, that doesn’t stop her from feeling it— or from noticing it at last when she finally gets the chance to meet somebody new. That opportunity arises when Yur-Jun, the prince of Yur Chin (Liu Shang-Chien, from The Sword of Justice and Witch with Flying Head), passes through the Happy Forest on his way to the capital of Wu Shien as a goodwill ambassador for his royal father. Yur-Jun has occasion to save Yaur-Gi from tumbling into a fast-flowing river, and the girl falls in love with him before she knows what hit her. The prince is a perfect gentleman, though, and comports himself so impeccably that all seven of Yaur-Gi’s irascible fathers come around to him by the time he goes on his way. The dwarves even concoct a scheme whereby Yaur-Gi can visit her beloved, sending her under Husky’s guardianship to take up a temporary position as a handmaid at Gau-Shien’s court. That will have unexpected ramifications later on, when the king’s chief advisor recognizes Yaur-Gi’s necklace as the one he left with the Andouille of Ill Omen, and notices the girl’s resemblance to Queen I-Mei.

     Meanwhile, Wu Shien is being terrorized by a monster that looks almost like something out of Big Man Japan. Using its power to cast the shadow of a beautiful girl, this creature lures the randy young men of the kingdom to a grisly death, and even heroes of the mundane, low-level variety are helpless against it. Fortunately, an exorcist by the name of Gi-Err (Elsa Yang Hui-Shan, from The Guy with Secret Kung Fu and The Nude Body Case in Tokyo) has volunteered her services as monster-slayer, together with those of her even more formidable friend, the wizard Shiah-Ker. Yes, that Shiah-Ker, and you’re quite right to suspect skullduggery with him on the scene. The reason why Shiah-Ker and Gi-Err are so confident of their ability to destroy the monster is because they conjured it up in the first place, with the aid of their supernatural patron, the arch-demon Ah Du. The magicians plan to make themselves indispensable to Gau-Shien by having Ah Du send them monsters to dispatch on a regular schedule. As the king grows ever more dependent on their sorcery, he will progressively reward them with concomitant political and military power, until finally they’re in a position to usurp the throne of Wu Shien.

     There’s one factor that Shiah-Ker and Gi-Err have left out of their calculations, however. Prince Yur-Jun’s arrival at the capital coincides with the emergence of another of Ah Du’s monsters, this one a nine-headed, fire-breathing hydra. Yur-Jun insists upon fighting this menace himself, and kills it handily despite its behind-the-scenes puppeteering by Shiah-Ker. This is a perilous development for the scheming sorcerers, and not just because it threatens their monopoly as royal monster exterminators. Yur-Jun, remember, represents a neighboring kingdom, so his intervention could become the seed of a formal alliance between Wu Shien and Yur Chin. Something will have to be done about the interloping prince. Something like turning him into a bear, for example, and banishing him to the outskirts of the Happy Forest.

     The dwarves are dismayed at first to see a sun bear (one of the more aggressively predatory bear species, despite its relatively small size) nosing around their homestead, but before they muster the nerve to act against the transfigured prince, a True-Seeing fairy of their acquaintance (Hsia Ling-Ling, of The Vampire Dominator and The Imperial Sword Killing the Devil) informs them of the bear’s real identity. Husky and Yaur-Gi have returned home from their visit to the palace by that point, and the girl is understandably heartbroken over Yur-Jun’s plight. The good news is, the fairy knows a cure for involuntary transmutation; the bad news is, it’s pretty arduous. Yur-Jun will have to be boiled for a week in a broth of magic herbs within a sealed iron cauldron, and if the lid is removed before the treatment runs its course, the prince will die just as surely as if he’d been boiled under ordinary circumstances.

     Back in Wu Shien, there’s been a development of far greater importance than people who don’t read fairy tales might initially grasp: Gi-Err is informed by Ah Du that she is not, in fact, the fairest of them all. Naturally, she wants to know who holds the title instead of her, and thus do she and Shiah-Ker learn of Princess Yaur-Gi’s existence. An heiress to the throne of Wu Shien obviously complicates the magicians’ usurpation plans, so finding and neutralizing this mysterious princess becomes their top priority, even leaving aside Gi-Err’s feminine jealousy. Worse still, that reorientation of the villains’ schemes occurs just as a bit of slapstick tomfoolery disables the dwarves’ magical Slick 32 rig, leaving the Happy Forest open to Shiah-Ker’s scrying. Nor is there anything now to prevent Shiah-Ker from teleporting right in while Yur-Jun is incapacitated, and teleporting out again with Yaur-Gi. Gi-Err and Ah Du figured on killing the inconvenient princess once they had her in their clutches, but Shiah-Ker has a better idea. By placing Yaur-Gi under a charm, he can make the girl marry him, and then blackmail Gau-Shien into abdicating his throne, so that Shiah-Ker becomes king all nice and legal-like.

     Of course, Yur-Jun is going to have a thing or two to say about that just as soon as the dwarves finish boiling the bear off of him. And luckily, that cute little fairy has some ideas on how a hero of sufficient mettle could acquire the power to defeat Shiah-Ker and Gi-Err before they can complete their takeover of Wu Shien. First of all, she knows where to find a cache of enchanted arms and armor that belonged to a legendary warrior of ages long past. Not only would that equipment enable Yur-Jun to fight his enemies on a more equal footing, but it would also help him to gain a formidable ally. The generals of San Miaur aren’t the only ones whom Shiah-Ker has cursed over the years, you see. He also once imprisoned a rakshasa (Chien Te-Wen, from World of the Drunken Master and The Vengeful Vampire) within a magical coffer, and left him under the guardianship of a self-dismembering meat demon. By freeing the rakshasa, Yur-Jun would not only be multiplying the wizard’s foes, but also ensuring the gratitude of a being not normally inclined to cooperate with humans— and Tin Ker-Bel knows where the coffer is hidden, too. None of that is going to be easy, naturally. In addition to the aforementioned meat demon, Yur-Jun will have to face frog monsters, pterosaur people, and a squad of bronze-skinned warriors with just one vulnerable spot apiece. But he’ll also have the benefit of Tin Ker-Bel’s True Sight to guide him toward the most efficacious path to overcoming the obstacles before him, along with the aid of three wandering peplum heroes who show up out of nowhere to assist with the bronze men despite receiving neither names nor back-stories.

     Those three guys are worth looking at a little more closely than their minor and purely instrumental roles in the film would normally imply, because they neatly exemplify how Thrilling Bloody Sword synthesizes its Eastern and Western influences. When I call Yur-Jun’s single-use sidekicks “peplum heroes,” I mean that pretty close to literally. All three men are dressed in those over-one-shoulder minidress outfits that one sees so often in movies set in the world of Greco-Roman mythology, and the axes that two of them carry are pretty specifically European in the details of their design. But their long, flowing hairdos and the tight discipline with which they fight as a team point instead toward the Martial World heroes of wuxia, while the fortuity with which they show up exactly when and where they’re needed, as if guided by Fate, is common to both traditions.

     Something similar can be said about most of the more significant characters, too. Although Yaur-Gi is, in many respects, a Snow White analogue, she shares her odd origin with the Chinese godling Nezha. Yur-Jun starts off as a typical-seeming wuxia hero, but establishes his credentials by reenacting the second labor of Hercules, endures the prince’s ordeal of transformation from “Snow White and Rose Red,” and touches one base or another from the exploits of every Western swordsman hero from Siegfried to Conan. The unearthly being whom Yur-Jun frees from magical imprisonment is obviously based on the lamp-bound genie in the 1001 Nights (this seems like a good time to remind you that the oldest version of the Aladdin story explicitly identifies him as Chinese), filtered through the derivative one in The Thief of Bagdad, but he’s dressed for India, and the monster makeup that Chien Te-Men wears while playing him derives from old Buddhist and Hindu depictions of rakshasas (which is why I decided to call him that instead of a genie). The wildest single example of Thrilling Bloody Sword’s East-meets-West sensibility, though, might be Gi-Err’s costumes. At one point, she shows up sporting exactly the same fantastical golden headdress as Frank Frazetta’s Moon Maid, but her favorite outfit makes her a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation of Cleopatra. I’m fairly certain this is the only time I’ve ever seen Hollywood Orientalism copied by Asian filmmakers for whom it qualifies as Occidentalism instead.

     It should be clear by now that Thrilling Bloody Sword is downright zany in its willingness to throw together one damned thing after another, irrespective of how or indeed whether they might be made to fit together. It’s also technically guilty of numerous misdeeds that would annoy the hell out of me coming from a less unabashedly demented film. For instance, one would expect the supernatural intervention into Yaur-Gi’s birth to mean something eventually— especially since the same sort of thing caused Nezha to be born with precocious physical abilities and the wisdom of a great sage. Nothing whatsoever comes of it, though. The Seven Dwarves of the Happy Forest are the gooniest sort of comic relief during most of their screentime, slapping and bonking and berating each other like 233% of the standard allotment of Stooges. And Plot Coupon quests of the sort that consumes most of Yur-Jun’s time after he regains his humanity normally try my patience very quickly. None of those objections mean much to me, however, in the case of Thrilling Bloody Sword, which overwhelms critical faculties and niggling rationalism alike with the sheer exuberance of both its theft and its invention. I mean, how often do you get to see Siegfried have a wire-fu fight against a chattering teeth toy the size of an elementary school desk?



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