What does one say to these early 80’s era Hong Kong/Taiwanese fantasy films that has not been said dozens of other times? Particularly on this blog, weird Asian fantasy movies receive probably more attention than they’re worth.
War of the Wizards boasts something that most of the others do not: Richard Kiel. Yes, “Jaws” from The Spy Who Loved Me, Mr. Larson from Happy Gilmore, appears in War of the Wizards. It was also released on video in the United States with an awful English dub that wasn’t handled by the usual team of Hong Kong dubbers, and possibly a slight rescoring to boot. Checking the IMDb page (which I’m almost fully confident is incorrect) it was directed by Sadamasa Arikawa, an effects man who worked on various Godzilla movies and the “Monkey” television series, with cinematography provided by Sokei Tomioka, another effects specialist. Arikawa never directed again, and Tomioka is generally thought to have retired after working on Ho Meng Hua’s Mighty Peking Man in 1977. Neither is known to have been active in Taiwanese cinema. Frankly, I don’t think they were involved in this film either. More likely is hkcinemagic’s credit for Cheung Mei Gwan, a director responsible for more than a couple gimmicky Taiwanese martial arts films. I make a big deal of this because my tape seems to be missing the opening credits.
Anyways, the movie itself follows Tai, a fisherman who finds a magic bowl at the bottom of a lake. The bowl gives him whatever he wishes for. He wishes for money, buys a restaurant/manor, and lives the life of a wealthy nobleman. This attracts the attention of wizards and martial artists who attempt to steal the magic vessel from him, each one doing the other in until a pair of attractive female fighters remain. Instead of simply taking the bowl from Tai -- which would be absurdly easy given their ability to kill skilled warriors by throwing stuff at them -- they decide to marry him. Tai, being a huge ass, decides to show off that he’s marrying two hot sisters by parading them down the street in a palanquin. A couple of Taoists see this, and start shooting the palanquin with magic rays. Tai stops this, because Tai is an idiot and doesn’t know to listen when addressed by benevolent religious kooks.
The Taoists attack his wedding procession not out of maliciousness, but concern. The brides are actually fox spirits -- ancient Cathay’s ever present predator of scholars and other sorts of silly, bungling men -- who serve another, far more powerful fox spirit. Of course, the more powerful of the fox spirits shows up, kidnaps her two followers, and tries to kill Tai, who is saved by a Phoenix. Taking him to the top of a mountain, Tai learns magic from a magic scroll and an old man, who also gives him some cool clothes and a sword. Tai then sets off to kill the fox spirit, her giant rock monster, and Richard Kiel. There’s only ten minutes left in the movie by this point, so let me spoil it further: he succeeds.
What a badly made movie. Movies like this make movies like Child of Peach look good... as in objectively good. The movie is a mess of badly executed composite shots, static camera work, cheap wire effects and other sorts of visual effects that look terrible. The narrative is sloppy enough that I was simultaneously reminded of other films (O Sing Pui’s 1987 film, Golden Swallow, for instance) and how much better those other films are.
Belonging to that brief cycle of fantasy films made in Taiwan in the 80’s, it seems that the film makers wanted to really stuff their movie with more special effects than any of the competition. The weirdness of the low budget imagery is pretty spectacular, even if it is inept and the film surrounding it isn’t much fun. The phoenix looks to have been constructed out of paper and the amount of times that the effects are painted onto still shots is surprising in a professional product, but even worse are the repeated shots that are utilized throughout the movie. The battle between the hero and a gang of doppelgangers stands out for abusing both repeated shots and composite shooting in a really bad way. It doesn’t hold a candle to the bizarre fight between the Phoenix and a giant stone monster, which looks less like a fight and more like the stone monster thing is clumsily trying to copulate with the Phoenix while drunk.
It’s kind of sad to see Betty Pei Dee reduced to this. She was great in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, and she spends her time in War of the Wizards looking like she’d rather be off somewhere making out with Lily Ho. The other funny part of the cast is Richard Kiel, who looks hilarious standing next to Betty Pei Dee. He could use her to pick his teeth. Kiel’s big scene involves him beating up on the leading man with a pair of steel gloves, hence his name, Steel Hands. (Creative, no?) For the most part, the cast (few of whom I recognized, or even thought I might recognize) play their parts with cheerful disinterest, with only Kiel and Pei Dee standing out for any particular reason.
Fans of less outlandish martial arts movies or Asian set historical films would do well to steer clear of War of the Wizards. It’s b-movie charms don’t really get the same mileage as those in Thrilling Sword and New Pilgrims to the West; neither does War of the Wizards really come close to the level of film making seen in Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. But if all you want is seventy minutes of weird, crappy movie, you could settle for many a less weird and crappy movie than this one.