... aka: 夜之祭
... aka: Devil Design
... aka: Ghost Map
... aka: Gui tu
... aka: Ritual of the Night
Pan Yung Min
1276 China in the setting for the lengthy (nearly 40 minutes long!) prologue. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, is in the middle of expanding his Yuan dynasty deep into China and ruthlessly massacring any detractor along the way. Though the Mongols have been generally successful, pockets of resisters from the Sung dynasty have sprung up all over. General Ku-Shah (Ying Bai) is tasked with finding these people and killing them before they can pose a threat to Yuan. Upon completion, he's been promised a special reward: Royal marriage to a princess. A battle between Mongol and Chinese armies finds the former easily winning after slaughtering the Chinese troops and decapitating their leader (Chun Ku). The Mongol forces then ride on until they locate an abandoned village and settle there for the night.
There, Ku-Shah and his deputy, Ha-Tou (Han Hsieh), have an interesting conversation about how their spiritual beliefs seem at odds with their constant killing. To Ku-Shah, war is an "inevitable necessity to achieve one's ends" and the creator has made all men to fill predestined roles. God's chess game has but one king and his loyal men. Everyone else is meant to be "dispensable" and thus were created solely to die, which makes it perfectly fine to go around slaughtering them. They're not dead people. They're "destroyed objects."
The arrogant warriors in the midst of celebrating their victory are about to face their comeuppance as the destroyed village they end up in happens to be haunted by the evil spirits of those they'd previously slain. A lumpy-faced, cackling female ghost shows up and men are slashed, impaled with bamboo poles and forced to commit harakiri. Another has his own hand possessed a la Evil Dead 2 (only seven years earlier), which then attacks him and forces him to sever it, yet continues to live on. The Mongol warriors killed return as clawed, hopping vampires in wonderfully atmospheric scenes filled with lots of wind, backlighting and fog. Eventually, all of the Mongolian troopers are either killed or flee, but the narrator informs us that some of them will live on as evil spirits themselves.
We jump ahead 300 years to the Ming dynasty. The country has been led into turmoil due to a corrupt king, a drifting away from Buddhism toward amorality and the rampant use of black magic. The site of the Mongol warrior murders is now the village of Yen-Poi-Yi, which has been haunted by the ghost of Mongol warrior Ku-Shah for the past three centuries. As a result, the village has dwindled down in population considerably and there are only a handful of people still living there. With the arrival of an exorcist comes renewed hope and people start moving back there by the droves. Elder Uncle Lee (Hsiang-Ting Ko) suspects these new arrivals are phonies, especially after they ban mute orphan Lien-Hua (Doris Lung Chun-Erh), whose parents have been killed by the demon, from their festivities due to her presumably being bad luck. Uncle Lee is correct.
While the white-haired exorcist puts on quite a show for the villagers with a lavish parade, chicken blood, fire, smoke, acrobatics and giant spell papers, he's easily blown up / killed by the ghost of Ku-Shah. Everyone flees the village once again, leaving even fewer people than before. Just when things don't seem like they could get any worse, Yen-Poi-Yi is stricken with the plague, killing many of the stragglers. However, traveling monk Ou Ming (Chun Shih) arrives just in time to help. Ou Ming has made it his life's mission to re-introduce Buddhism to the people of China and thus save their souls. He orders all corpses and contaminated materials burned, even if that does upset some of the locals, then concocts an effective vaccine that saves everyone else. After he helps them repair their damaged homes. the sound of playing children laughing is heard around the village; a sign of hope that a new era is about to begin.
Ou Ming has decided that his direct path to Buddha and his final task will be to take on the Ku-Shah demon, thus freeing the tortured, murderous spirit from limbo and setting Yen-Poi-Yi on a path to recovery. In preparation, he shaves his head and then meditates while Lien-Hua gives him a full body tattoo, which will act like a suit of armor during battle. However, he's fully aware going in that this battle is most likely to cost him his life regardless. Sigh. The things we must do for Buddha.
Imperfect, poorly paced and heavy-handed at times, this is still a pretty neat little film which fuses history, religion, war, horror and drama. One thing it is decidedly not is a martial arts or action film as it's categorized on many websites, so don't go in expecting such. Despite the low budget, it's fairly well-made, has its heart in the right place, is often extremely atmospheric (particularly the first half hour) and also boasts some surprisingly creepy distorted sound design and synth music, which may have been stolen from other sources. There are issues with the editing throughout. Some scenes appear to have been clipped short, which may be due to only a heavily-damaged print being available to view. We'll perhaps never know for sure. The chances a 40+ year old Taiwanese genre movie is going to be fully restored at this stage of the game is slim.
Long-forgotten and seldom viewed these days (as of this writing, it doesn't even have the 5 votes necessary to clock a score on IMDb and has just two ratings [including the one I just sent in] on Letterboxd), this was released theatrically in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand and distributed on VHS in a number of countries. There was a U.S. mail order release from World Video & Supply Inc. in 1990, but it didn't come with English subtitles and was falsely promoted as Hong Kong action when it's Taiwanese horror-drama. I also found a Korean video and this was probably also released on VHS in Hong Kong and / or Taiwan. I'm not exactly sure where the English subtitled print came from.