Sunday, September 20, 2020

Xi shen bao chou (1983)

... aka: 撞鬼
... aka: 喜神報仇
... aka: Attack of the God of Joy
... aka: Attack of the Joyful Goddess
... aka: Attack of the Venoms
... aka: Five Venoms Attack
... aka: Ghost, The
... aka: Revenge of the God of Joy
... aka: Zhuang gui

Directed by:
"Chang Chih" (Cheh Chang)

According to the opening scrawl, the "joyful goddesses" of the title are doll props used in traditional Chinese theatrical productions. According to tradition, the dolls are not to be placed facing upright in trunks or else disaster will occur. After a bit of kabuki theater featuring elaborate costumes, dancing, flipping, jumping, hair whipping, overuse of a fog machine, sword play, blood and a real chicken having its neck twisted and head ripped right off we're whisked away to the Spring Breeze Teahouse in "a (nameless) small southern country" (this was filmed in Taiwan) where a Chinese opera show being put on by a traveling troupe of Hong Kong actors is taking place. From here, the story becomes so convoluted and involves so many different people that the plot breakdown I'm about to provide may be even more confusing for you to read than it was for me to write. You've been warned.

The powerful Commander Tam (Yung-Hsiang Chin) shows up and is instantly smitten by the graceful, delicate actress performing on stage. Embarrassingly for him, it is theater tradition to have men play the roles of female warriors and the actress he's just been admiring is actually Choi-Won Yu (Sheng Chiang); a heavily made-up, effeminate man in drag. He immediately swings his affections over to Yuk-Yung Fa (Bi Fung Chen), the troupe's sole female member, whose beauty is admired by most of the tea house's male employees. However, Yuk-Yung has been the inseparable childhood sweetheart of the troupe's most handsome actor, Yuk-Lau Bak ("Li Chung-I" / Chung-Yi Li), so she's not exactly on the market. Not that the Commander cares about any of that. He's powerful, rich and is used to getting whatever he wants.

Commander Tam invites scheming theater owner Fung-Sang Suen aka Big Boss (Shih Chen) and his actors to his home for dinner, where he offers up a gold watch to his actress crush. She tries to refuse it but is forced to take it as not to offend him. Big Boss is then pulled aside by the Tam's chief henchman Chu (Yun Lan) and informed that if his female star doesn't submit to the Commander then none of them will leave town alive. He gives the director 100 dollars for his assistance. Big Boss then goes to Yuk-Yung with the proposal but she quickly shuts him down ("I'm an actress, not a prostitute!") When her boyfriend finds out what's occurred he threatens Big Boss and then he becomes even more enraged by his flamboyant male co-star, who's always hitting on him. Yuk-Lau demands he be replaced. Thinking he's getting a bit too big for his britches and knowing the Commander may make good on having them killed, Big Boss decides he needs to have Yuk-Lau silenced.

As not to implicate just one or two of them, Big Boss and the show's director, Kam-Kuai Cho ("Lu Fong" / Feng Lu), devise a scheme where every member of the troupe must take part in Yuk-Lau's murder. They stage it during a bloody show before a live audience as a prop knife is replaced by a real one, Yuk-Lau is stabbed once on stage, carried off backstage and then strangled, suffocated in a sack and stabbed by each and every member of the troupe to ensure everyone has blood on their hands. Literally. The only member in the know unwilling to take part is Tiger Ngai ("Lee Chien-Sheng" / Chien-sheng Li), a struggling young bit part actor Yuk-Lau befriended. However, they snatch him up, put the knife in his hand and force him to take a jab, too. This all goes down while an oblivious Yuk-Yung is on stage performing. His body is hidden inside a trunk before they relocate it beneath the floorboards.

Meanwhile, servant girl Chan (Chung-Fei Hsu) flips a joyful goddess upright in a trunk, a mistake that gets her bitch slapped by den mother Madam Fuk (Yin-Shang Liu). As a result, Chan goes mad and starts walking around alternating between acting like a giddy child and being in some kind of zombie-like trance. An examination by a doctor shows that she's somehow managed to get herself pregnant despite being a virgin. As the pregnancy rapidly advances (she's like 9 months along just days later), Big Boss instructs Madam Fuk to get rid of her. Late one stormy night, she tries to do just that when the crazy girl is conveniently struck dead by lightning! That enables Big Boss and the other guilty actors to frame the dead Yuk-Lau for her rape and murder. And just like that, they've successfully covered up their murder. At least as far as the authorities are concerned. Yuk-Yung still doesn't believe he had anything to do with it and continues to reject Commander Tam.

Yuk-Lau's vengeful ghost returns for revenge. The actor picked to replace him as the production's lead warrior "Phoenix" dies on stage from a minor fall. And then two more members of the troupe are found dead: one hanging by flimsy strands of paper, the other stuffed in a trunk along with a doll. The group perform an exorcism ritual that doesn't look much different than their usual stage shows and involves (admittedly impressive) acrobatics, dance, incense, fire and a large paper vase. It's unsuccessful.

Top-billed "Chen Tien-Su" / Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi appears at around the fifty minute mark as Yuen-Hing Siu, a new actor / expert knife thrower unwittingly brought onto the cursed show. During a performance, the ghost hits his hand and makes him throw his dagger into his co-star's throat. The ghost then kills two defectors in a graveyard, using its intestines (which he shoots out of an open wound in his stomach) as a weapon! Several characters suffer from hallucinations (including a large doll hand bursting out of the pregnant girl's stomach) and, at one point, the joyful goddess grows to large size, levitates out of its trunk, floats over to an altar and then pisses all over it (!?)

Not weird enough yet? Just wait until the last ten minutes when a supernatural brawl erupts during a stage show at the commander's home. A man is chased around a room by a levitating couch, stuffed deer head, miniature sail boat and fruit bowl (!!) before being hung by a ceiling light fixture. War paint forms over the actor-warriors faces before they do battle with armed guards. Gunshot wounds and sword cuts heal themselves and the dead are resurrected as a zombie army. The ghosts of some earlier victims return, including the gay diva, who transforms into a female vampire with huge fangs, claws, an Exorcist tongue and stretchy arms. A fire eater's head explodes and his body evaporates. A man is dissolved by white foam. A corpse turns into a paper doll. And the doll itself turns into a fighter who shoots blue lasers out of her fingertips, spits acid, fights with a fire hoop and blows people up. As if this isn't disorienting enough already, it's shot with constant fog, poorly-done jump cuts and time lapse effects and kaleidoscopic red, green and blue flickering lighting. Yow.

Still not strange enough? Well, this is also so homoerotic that it could probably take on new life as the FREDDY'S REVENGE of Hong Kong kung fu movies. The portrayal of the flaming queen, who wears gowns and heavy make-up, speaks in a high-pitched / whiny girl's voice and hits on basically anything in pants with no discretion whatsoever, could certainly be viewed as offensive. However, the camera otherwise spends an awful lot of time lingering on good-looking, bare-chested young actors while the few female characters (including the lead) are always conservatively-dressed and pushed off into the background.

The guys never button up their shirts and always seem slathered with baby oil. The male characters come on to one another and jokingly hit on each other. Ricky Cheng's character walks around shirtless with suspenders holding his pants up, invites the gay queen to his room for drinks so he can scare him and is constantly shown suggestively sucking on the tip of his daggers (!?) And then there's Yuk-Lau's heartwarming relationship with bit player Tiger. You kind of just have to see it unfold and watch their scenes together, but let's just say he gives him more loving glances, and touches him more, than he does his own girlfriend. At the end, Yuk-Lau is proudly standing shirtless next to his "amigo" in the afterworld perfectly content seeing his woman walk off with another man. Was this fully intentional or was someone dealing with some unresolved sexuality issues here? I guess we'll never know.

I have no clue how to rate this one. On one hand, I would call this something of a misfire... only I have no clue what they were even shooting for in the first place. It makes little sense, has too many things going on at once, too many characters and cheap-looking sets, poor editing and highly variable (and typically pretty damn bad) special effects. On the other hand, it's filled with Shakespeare references, usually pretty entertaining and interesting (even the backstage drama has moments to enjoy) and has plenty of off-the-wall nonsense going on at most times. The costumes are great, it's unpredictable and, though there is less action than in many similar films, it kind of makes up for that with all the gymnastics. You could very well hate this one and I would fully understand why. Then again, you could be like me and find just enough to latch onto to make it all worthwhile.

The director (who also produced and supervised) is perhaps the best known director to ever work for Shaw Brothers and has a number of classic film titles on his resume, including The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Brave Archer (1977), The Crippled Avengers (1978), The Five Venoms (1978) and the delightfully bloody Five Element Ninjas (1982), which enjoyed frequent U.S. TV airings under the title Super Ninjas and was one of my favorites as a kid. Chang was also tapped to co-direct Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a bizarre kung fu vampire collaboration between Shaw and the then-on-the-decline British Hammer Studios. Goddess marked a split between Chang and Shaw as he and some of his frequent collaborators, including several Five Venoms alum, went on to form a new production company called Hong Kong Chang He Motion Picture Co. Ltd. This was the new company's first release of around half a dozen.

Goddess didn't set the box office on fire back in the day and is seldom viewed nowadays, despite being easier to find than a number of other similar films. It was first given a VHS release by Ocean Shores in the early 80s under the title Attack of the Joyful Goddess and was called Revenge of the God of Joy on the Korean VHS release. It later made the DVD rounds under the new title Attack of the Venoms. By that name, it was released on a 2005 double feature DVD with Monkey Fist, Floating Snake (1980) by EastWest and then made its way onto another double feature DVD as part of BCI/Eclipse's "Kung Fu Theater" line. There, it was paired up with Men of the Hour (1977; aka: Black Hercules vs. Yellow Tiger).

Though the print I viewed from online distributor Digital Media Arts / Asian Crush, which is in Mandarian with English subtitles, lists only Chang as director in the credits, many sources also list stars Feng Lu and Sheng Chiang as additional directors. That's entirely possible, though they are officially credited only as "action directors," along with Cheng. There's also an English-dubbed version available on the market that renames all of the characters but that's probably best avoided.


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