Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tuo gu gui jian lang yan (1977)

... aka: 鼉鼓鬼劍狼煙
... aka: 譔鼓鬼劍狼煙
... aka: Warlock of the Battlefield
... aka: Zhuan gu gui jian lang yan

Directed by:
Hsing-Lai Wang

During the latter part of the Song Dynasty (which would put this sometime in the 1200s), war has ravaged rural China. Captain Chuan-Chung Yang (Don Wong), Lieutenant Tung Li (Ming Lun Ku) and some other army men are dispatched to a village where Chuan-Chung had grown up due to reports that a band of traitors have been slaughtering the citizenry. When they arrive, they find there's a whole lot more going on there, and it's a lot more insidious than they imagined. For starters, the locals are apprehensive about even discussing what's going on. In fact, nobody will, including Chuan-Chung's childhood sweetheart Yu Hua (Bao-Yun Tang), who's been tearfully awaiting his return all this time. Second, most of the villagers have already been wiped out by what the locals will only identify as a plague. They don't elaborate beyond that. The army men are repeatedly warned to leave if they value their lives but as they've been ordered by the courts to find out what's going on, and Chuan-Chung's has a connection to the area and people there, they decide to risk their lives to find out the truth.

While the village looks like any other area ravaged by war during the day, by night all kinds of supernatural horrors occur. All of the dogs in the village have gone crazy and are on the attack. There are strange, unexplainable bursts of very strong wind. Haunting noises, bangs, howling and moaning echo through the dark and all of these sinister sounds seem to be coming from a nearby battlefield. Villagers keep turning up dead with holes on their faces and necks and sometimes the bodies disappear. After witnessing much of this, Chuan-Chung discovers some of the villagers assisting a group of black-robed men secretly digging up graves... yet most of the caskets are empty. Lt. Li attempts to evacuate the village, but the headstrong young captain is determined to get to the bottom of things first.

As more people are killed, Chuan-Chung tries to get his former best friend Ah Te (Kun Li) to spill the beans but he too refuses, claiming he'll be putting his wife Shou Lan (Bao-Lien Yin) and their new baby at risk in the process. In actuality, he's a bit of a coward and scared of dying. However, when Chuan-Chung is seriously injured, Ah Te has to briefly step into a leadership position. The "plague" turns out to have been caused by a Royal Guard deserter and an evil warlock / grave robber who've managed to create an army of vampires (seen rising up from the ground zombie style in one scene) to do their bidding. After Ah Te is killed and the slow-witted, good-natured Scabby (Ko Pa), who's beloved by the entire community, is attacked, an exodus of the entire village is planned. Li takes them all to safety but Chuan-Chung, feeling responsible for some of the deaths having not pulled out earlier, stays behind to take on the bad guys. He receives some unexpected help.

I bet you never knew that there was a kung fu version of I Am Legend, did ya? Me neither until I watched this! While this unusual unknown movie is hardly a faithful adaptation, it clearly borrows a lot of ideas and inspiration from Richard Matheson's classic novel. It features similar vampire-like ghouls, people barricading themselves inside at night because that's the only time the dead attack and both war (the cause of the pandemic in Legend) and dust (which helped spread the pandemic in Legend) play prominent roles. Of course, Legend centers around Robert Neville, potentially the last man on earth, while this has more characters and a different explanation behind the cause of the plague. Being from Asia, the origins are, naturally, rooted in black magic.

Usually falsely categorized as an action movie when there are only a handful of noteworthy kung fu scenes, this concentrates much more of its time on atmosphere, mystery, character development and horror. The protagonists are well-defined and likable, there are some good character arcs and the premise about a community who've all but given up and accepted their fate finally finding the courage to fight back and band together to defeat an evil threat is enjoyable. The director occasionally indulges in some stylistic techniques. Shots of a crow picking at a corpse on the battlefield and a barking dog are tinted red, usually only brief flashes of vampire faces are shown, the camerawork is often jerky, an effect that distorts and stretches out the picture has been applied to most of the horror scenes and there's a lot of flashy, quick-cut editing. Usually these little touches work, but not always.

Unfortunately, this is prevented from being as enjoyable as it otherwise would have been by (recurring theme here!) the poor quality of the only available English-subtitled version, which to my knowledge was sourced from an ancient Hong Kong VHS release. That VHS release appears to be the only time this was ever issued on home video. The fact most of the film takes place at night and the print is very dark renders most of the night scenes next to impossible to make out. The plot is also extremely confusing at first due to the very inadequate (and sometimes cut off) subs, though if you stick around for about 30 minutes or so it (mostly) starts making sense. I'm still going to give this the benefit of the doubt and award it three stars as none of the above is the film's fault.

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