... aka: 수정인
... aka: Crystal Man
... aka: Portrait in Crystal
... aka: Sujeong-in
I've thus far reviewed a few Shaw Brothers films on this blog that aren't considered horror by most other websites but I think should be considered. Yes, these are usually heavy on martial arts and fantasy elements but many of them also have very pronounced horror content that should not be ignored. In fact, a lot of them are as much in the realm of horror as the other genres they're often classified as. This one, for instance, features ghosts, black magic and lots of blood and gore, and even has scenes featuring cannibalism, decapitation, dismemberment and skull-faced fiends bursting out of the cemetery ground zombie-style. The HK Movie Database lists this as simply a "drama" and it's just "kung fu" according to Hong Kong Cinemagic. A proper classification would be something more like "action / fantasy / horror" in my humble opinion. There are quite a few other Shaw movies that fall into this same gray area that I still need to take a look at, but I'm definitely open to including more of these some day. We horror buffs need to reclaim what is rightfully ours!
An opening narrator explains the magical properties of crystals and warns that artists using this material must be very careful not to cut themselves and get blood on their sculptures or else it may come to life. Long Fei (Jason Piao Pai), who's retired from the martial world and now lives a peaceful, tranquil existence up in the mountains working on his art, and his assistant Fatty (Wong Chun), who is indeed fat should you be wondering (he's also bumbling, goofy and cowardly just like most chubby characters in these films), finally finish a beautiful goddess statue out of crystal, which has taken five years to complete. Feeling it is missing something, namely a soul, Long Fei ignores the superstitions and adds a little blood into the mix. Soon after, a ghostly woman - played by Yu-Po Liu and referred to as Crystal Portrait or just Crystal in the subs - is going around killing people with machine gun-like sprays of crystal shards. Coincidence?
When word gets back that Long Fei is responsible for the portrait, the clan the first few victims belonged to, led by the always-masked Poison Yama (Wei Hao Ting), plot revenge. They send some guards out to kill them, but Long Fei and Fatty have since split and are hiding out in the woods. Poison Yama's son (Yu Hsiao), who works in a sort-of archaic lab housed in a giant tree, stays busy gathering up rare ingredients as he searches to find a way to create the "perfect poison." At the lab, they dissect frogs and mice, milk venomous snakes and add dried plants to a skull cauldron. They're recently been working on a poison made from rattan and a rare ivy that speeds up parasite production in a victim's body, leading to a severe case of bloating and one's stomach exploding. And, yes, the filmmakers were kind enough to demonstrate this for us a few times.
Poison Yama's son is in love with village girl Zi Juan (Yu-Fen Wu), who helps to gather rare plants, but she refuses to marry him unless he gets out of the poison-making business. After all, what's the point of shacking up with someone who's one breath, prick or small accident away from death at any given moment? However, that issue is swiftly resolved when Crystal swings by to dismember him and sink a sword into his skull, using his own severed limb even. Now even more pissed, Yama Sr. decides to put his poisons to use. Wrongly believing rival Prince Tian Di (Jung Wang), another long-retired martial artist, is somehow involved, Yama uses his gas to kill his entire staff.
Meanwhile, Long Fei and Fatty are still on the run, but two of Poison Yama's henchmen - White Judge and Black Judge - and some other goons are hot on their heels. Our heroes charter a boat and barely manage to get off (using an impromptu zip-line across the sea) before it explodes. They then luckily avoid stopping at an inn run by some pale-faced psycho cannibal who serves unsuspecting clientele human flesh before killing / decapitating them. Along the way they find an injured girl (who turns out to be Crystal minus her shimmering mask) and help her to another inn run by a horny old woman (Mo-Lin Yu) who tries to seduce Fatty. The bad guys track them down, set the inn on fire, kidnap Fatty and take him to "Phantom Island," where all kinds of bizarre set-pieces unfold.
We first get a graveyard battle between our heroes and a clawed, faceless female ghost with extra-long arms. Long Fei then has to travel through a mystical cave to save an injured Fatty's life. There, he meets Jade (Hsiu-Chun Lin), who takes him to meet Du Sha (Szu-Chia Chen), the leader of an all-female sect of skull-masked professional assassins. Crystal was once among their ranks, but it's not clear what hand they may have had in her resurrection, if any. The women's lair contains a training center for potential new recruits, which is filled with deadly booby traps, various torture devices and a dungeon filled with dirty, drooling female "idiots" who've failed their training regimen. Poison Yama, who has some nifty weapons like a skull staff that shoots poison gas and a bone harp that plays deadly music, eventually finds his way there, as does Prince Tian Di.
This lightning-fast wuxia, utilizing lots of disorienting quick cuts, zips right along from one scene to the next with a lengthy fight around every turn. It's filled with bloody action set pieces and the stunts, wire work, acrobatics, swordplay and fight choreography is of a high standard. Best of all, this is a visual marvel from the first frame to the last; a truly eye-filling spectacle of impressive beauty. The art direction here is absolutely stunning and it's brilliantly enhanced by the lighting, cinematography and use of color. Aesthetically this earns A's right across the board and, if such a thing as the Horror Oscars existed, this would be a shoe-in for a lot of the technical categories.
The only thing really missing here - and unfortunately it's a very important thing - is a decent script. Nearly everything is needlessly complicated and it's impossible to keep tabs on (or even really care about) all of the thinly-drawn characters, their motivations, the clan rivalries, the constantly switching allegiances and double-crossing, silly plot twists, etc. While this does try to explain things in more detail toward the end, chances are you'll have already checked out of the plot long before then.
Best known for his bonkers cult classic Infra-Man (1975), which Roger Ebert singled out as his favorite monster movie of all time, director Hua also chipped in a segment apiece for the first three entries in Shaw's five-part Criminals series (which were all based on true crime incidents) and directed a few other genre films: The Gory Murder (1978), Bloody Parrot (1981) and Kung Fu Zombie (1981).
The uncut version of this runs only 77 minutes. There was no VHS release here in America and I could actually only find a single video release, on the J&J Home Video label out of Korea. The 2007 DVD (which comes with English subs) is from Intercontinental Video Limited / Celestial Pictures, who also released many other films in the Shaw Brothers catalogue.