There are movies that truly defy any sort of conventional criticism or even basic understanding, and Thrilling Sword (Cheung Sang-Yee, 1981) is one of them. Out of the many Western films that have used and abused images and genre aesthetics from Asian films, I have been able to make some sense of what the film makers hoped to accomplish. Even DragonBall: Evolution makes a bit of sense if you attempt to defeat your imagination so thoroughly that “high school Goku” sounds like a good idea. Not only is it totally incomprehensible, but Thrilling Sword also adapts the very occidental fairy tale, Snow White, making it one of a fairly small number of Chinese films to even bother with another culture’s storytelling.
Not that it’s a particularly faithful retelling of the tale.
The movie opens with a scene of a woman in labor, the wife of a ruling warlord, or some such. A falling star shoots through the night sky (it’s a pretty awful looking wad of paper that’s dropped over an equally ugly miniature of the castle) through the roof of the castle, and into the woman’s uterus. She then births a bright red, squishy looking egg that pulses as if it were a beating heart. Not wanting it, the king tries to get rid of the egg, which falls into the possession of seven dwarfs. They hatch the egg, name the child inside of it Yaur-gi, and decide to raise her as their own child.
Up to this point, everything has been pretty close to the fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm, with the exception of the pulsating egg thing. This is where it stops. We are treated to a scene inside of an inn, as a giant, startlingly ugly looking cycloptic lizard wreaks havoc. We then cut to a scene of the now fully grown Yaur-gi as she goes about her chores, and Yur-Juhn, a prince disguised as a traveling knight errant, comes across her. They immediately take a liking to each other, but Yur-Juhn has urgent business and must leave. In the mean, a pair of magicians -- male and female -- comes to court, pledging to defeat the monster that was causing trouble at the inn, which they do. Gaining the trust of the locals, they are not suspected when they start to cause havoc in an attempt to subdue the people for their planned hostile takeover of the region. Utilizing the power of a stone idol, they control a fire breathing, multi-headed dragon that starts killing villagers. Yur-Juhn -- hero that he is -- defeats it.
While all this is going on, Yaur-gi becomes lonely and wants to see her prince. She leaves the dwarfs and shows up at the palace, where she is recognized as the daughter of the local ruler and therefore a princess. Seeing a way to seize control, the male half of the wizard-duo places the princess under mind control and plans to marry her. The prince then has to find a magic sword and armor to save her and the movie is nearly endless fighting until the incredibly strange, hilariously protracted finale.
As previously asserted, any attempt to critique this film as piece of cross-cultural adaptation will prove more or less self-defeating. Thrilling Sword is one of the daftest movies I’ve seen since I started actively seeking out weird kung fu movies six years ago. While something like The Forbidden Kingdom can be castigated for taking an entirely wrong approach to its source material, director Cheung San-Yee’s approach to Snow White is so indescribably grotesque that mere lack of fidelity is no longer a reasonable complaint. There are so many baffling elements -- the startlingly nasty human egg, the uncommonly vacant characterization, the scene where a sword is shoved into an orifice meant for little other than expulsion of the body’s worst filth -- that it’s hard to say for certain what the film makers intended, and whether or not they succeeded.
Of course, that also makes it hilarious. Although cheap and inept, there’s a lot of entertaining stuff in Thrilling Sword. The visual effects consist of optical printing, wire work, rubber suits and other in camera effects, all of which are that special combination of earnest and bad that makes them cute rather than grating. Similarly, the dwarfs are played by actors who are clearly not dwarfs. They play scenes without other actors against sets with an enlarged scale, while scenes with other actors are shot from an angle, doubtlessly with the actors portraying non-dwarfs standing on boxes and the actors playing dwarfs doing so on their knees.
Of interest to the fans of kung fu movies and Taiwanese exploitation films will be Chang Yi and Elsa Yeung as the villains, as well as Chiang Sheng’s role as action choreographer. The leads -- played by Fong Fong-fong and Lau Seung-Him -- aren’t anywhere nearly as interesting, which is surprising since they both put in respectable work in New Pilgrims to the West and Monkey War (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982). But what will probably irk fans of less fantasy-oriented martial arts movies is that the fight choreography itself isn’t all that great, and neither is the way its filmed or edited. The exceptional physical talents of Lau Seung-Him and especially Chang Yi are more or less upstaged by badly executed wire work, visual effects and rubber suited monsters.
The fantasy elements recall the films of the genre’s past. The visual effects are similar to those seen in the Cantonese serial adventures of the 1960’s, while the rubber monsters reflect a peculiar trend in martial arts films from Taiwan. Rubber suited monster-cum-wuxia films have mostly been the purview of Taiwanese film makers, reaching back to the late sixties/early seventies with films like Young Flying Hero (Tong Chim, 1970) and Devil Fighter (Pan Lei, 1969) -- movies that clearly took cues from popular Japanese kaiju films like Daimajin (Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966) and The Magic Serpent (Tetsuya Yamauchi, 1966). Sadly there’s only one giant beast in Thrilling Sword (and it only figures into one scene) but it’s also necessary to note that this is part of a resurgence of fantasy themed martial arts films in the early eighties, and it’s one of the only ones to include any monsters at all.
Thrilling Sword is a huge mess of a fun time, so long as you know how to enjoy bad movies. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, and it pales in comparison to similar films that were coming out at the time, notably Shaw Bros. fantasy wuxia like Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983) and Taylor Wong’s update of Buddha’s Palm (1982). But at the same time, few movies adapt Snow White into an ancient Chinese setting with bat monsters, exploding demon statues, and laughably ugly magic armor and Plexiglas swords. It’s worth tracking down if you like obscure, pointlessly weird cinema, even more so if you actually enjoy it.
Just don't show it to your children.