The Eight Immortals (Chan Hung-Man, 1971)

I probably should feel somewhat remiss that before I watched this movie (and subsequently perused a Wikipedia entry) my only knowledge of the eight Taoist immortals came from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, where he plays a young Wong Fei-Hung who learns “eight immortals drunken boxing” from Beggar So.
The Eight Immortals is an anthology film, telling traditional tales of the immortals before bringing them together for an action-packed finale. The film uses a framing device to tie them together – a pair of itinerant story tellers in contemporary (for 1971) Taiwan entertaining their listeners with music and banter. They begin with the tale of Lu Tung-Pin, who helps a woman to reunite with the man she loves. Then there is the tale of Iron-Crutch Li, whose crutch turns into a peach tree, which bears fruit with curative properties. And it goes on from there.
The film’s raison d’ĂȘtre begins about half-way through, after introducing the eight immortals and the incidental characters who will be reunited for the finale – an assault on the manor of the evil “red demon from the Chinese mainland.” The red demon kidnaps women, extorts enormous amounts of capital from the peasantry, and is actually a pig-demon in disguise, whose queen is a rat-demon. It is not difficult to guess that this is intended as a thinly disguised dig at the PRC.

This portion of the movie is also relentlessly grim, and contrasts starkly with the introductory scenes in which the immortals sing and crack jokes while helping ordinary people with their ordinary problems. The first part of the film resembles the sort of whimsical fairy-tale films of Alexander Ptushko, while the second part is like a Harryhausen effects show-case by way of Chang Cheh. The Red Demon not only rapes the kidnapped servant girls, he eats them, and the film graphically shows the latter. One servant girl – the now married young woman helped by Lu Tung-Pin in the film’s first segment – is tortured and branded on camera. When the eight immortals succeed in killing the red demon’s queen, her true form is revealed with a cross-fade from the actress to a dead rat. A real dead rat – with its head crushed in a pool of blood.
The cognitive dissonance caused by the whiplash between the lackadaisically paced introductions of the immortals and the brutal finale is the result of the film’s production origins and era. 1971 was the year of Chang Cheh’s The New One-Armed Swordsman, easily the most violent and bloody Chinese language film of its time, and a considerable financial success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese genre films had grown increasingly violent since the beginning of Shaw Brothers’ “New Wuxia Century,” which brought the sensibilities of Chang Cheh to the forefront of a genre normally reserved for child-stars and cute teenage starlets like Fung Bo-Bo and Connie Chan, respectively. The violence and sadism in The Eight Immortals is clearly intended to keep the movie relevant, as far as violence and sadism can be characterized as such.
While the general zeitgeist of early seventies genre film explains the finale, it is the involvement of Taiwan’s CMPC production company that explains the earlier sequences of the immortals and their interactions with the mortal townsfolk. The Central Motion Picture Corporation was the Kuomintang’s subsidized film unit which introduced ideologically tinged films and film movements, such as the wave of “healthy realism” melodramas from the 1960’s. The introductory sequences usually serve the purpose of “promoting morals,” like respect for elders, rendering fair service, reciprocity, etc. Even the story-teller framing device can be read as the promotion of humble means of entertainment during a time of modernization.

But it’s fairly obvious that the major selling point of The Eight Immortals was not the inculcation of national values, but a wacky, violent, special-effects driven fantasy. And the effects can get very, very weird. Miss Ho, the lone female immortal, at one point attacks the red demon with a giant peach, which opens up to reveal a huge pig’s head, which spits a dart out of its mouth. Iron-Crutch Li uses his crutch as a flamethrower. The demon-queen, fearing an immanent loss to the immortals and their army of angry peasants, lifts up her shirt and shoots poison gas from her belly-button.
The long and violent action sequence will probably be of most interest to the audience to whom Fusian tried to sell The Eight Immortals, and that audience will probably yawn for the first half of the movie, if not balk at all of the singing (and there is a lot of singing). But I actually quite liked the first half for all of its quaint whimsy and old-fashioned moralizing. The barely concealed political posturing is funny too, and if the action is sparse for the first half, the assault on the Demon King’s manor is a masterpiece of absurdity. The Eight Immortals is a fun movie in the same vein as the stupendously silly Monkey Goes West series from Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng-Hua.

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