War God

Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.

A few years later, in Thailand, producer/director/totally insane guy Sompote Sands teamed up with the Japanese effects pioneers at Tsuburaya Productions (founder Eiji Tsuburaya was basically to Japan and miniature work what Ray Harryhausen was to the US and stop-motion animation) to make a series of Thai adaptations of popular Japanese tokusatsu properties — or costumed superheo and stunt shows. Although he would build his empire on the backs of Ultraman and Kamen Rider (and then claim that empire extended to dominion over the original Japanese versions with which he’d had nothing to do), he was also keen on creating his own rather unique interpretations of the tokusatsu and kaiju genres, mixing Thai mythology and flavors into the giant monster stew and giving us movies like Tah Tien, Noble War, and the accursed Magic Lizard.

It seems like Hong Kong should have gotten into the game sooner, but with a film industry far more advanced than Thailand and a cinematic culture every bit as rich as Japan, I guess they didn’t feel the need to jump on the giant monster bandwagon all that quickly. Tragic swordsmen and Bruce Lee had kept Hong Kong audiences more than satisfied throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, but by the end of the Bruce Lee era, even though the kungfu film was still going strong, cross-cultural exchange was becoming impossible to deny. Plus, as popular as martial arts and swordsman movies were, there were very few of them fit for children. So in 1975, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio unleashed their take on Japan’s Kamen Rider, called Inframan, and followed it up a couple years later with Mighty Peking Man, their own version of King Kong (or given the final product, maybe more like their own version of Konga…or The Mighty Gorga.

And then there was Taiwan.

In the 1970s, Taiwan started producing a uniquely Taiwanese type of film that basically combined all of the above. There were the flying swordsmen and martial arts like Hong Kong, the mythological characters and ancient gods like Thailand, and the monsters both giant and regular sized of Japanese tokusatsu — all smashed together and spiced up with that sort of incomprehensibly insane glory that seems to have been Taiwan’s stock in trade. Among the most astounding of their accomplishments was a 1971 film called Tsu Hong Wu, which contained everything from aerial combat between Chinese dragons to a showdown between a giant devil and a heroic yeti. The footage of these kaiju battles would be recycled almost as many times as Japan recycled the destruction footage from Tidal Wave and Last War. Dozens of these types of myths and monsters movies were made, and it’s as tantalizing as it is frustrating to ponder the inevitable dozens more yet to be unearthed and returned to circulation, ragged and washed out though the eventual prints may be.

One of the most legendary and sought after of these Taiwanese films, something glimpsed only in shoddy scans of old lobby cards and newspaper ads and long thought to be nothing more than a clever hoax with a dash of wishful thinking, was something called War God — and it was so sought after not just because it was another (presumably) crazy Taiwanese monster movie, but also because it was a movie that pitted giant bug-eyed aliens against an Ultraman-like defender of the Chinese lands: the legendary general turned deity, Guan Yu.

I will admit that this search and obsession were not mine. I drifted through life ignorant of the existence of War God. Had it been otherwise, I surely wold have been driven mad in my Quixotic quest to track it down. Not that I didn’t already have my own burdens to bear, mind you, but the heavy lifting on this one was done by others. It wasn’t until sometime in 2009 that War God first appeared on my radar thanks to the triple-section-staff attack of Tars Tarkas, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and WTF-Film (now Exploder Button). By the time War God fever had me flushed and furiously fanning myself with my lemon-scented handkerchief, the archeology had already taken place, the thrilling chase with the Nazis through the desert had already wrapped, and all I had to do was lazily tap a friend on the shoulder and ask, “Terribly sorry to impose, good chap, but might you forward along a copy of that film to me? In return, I can give you a movie where a South American drug lord employs in his struggles against heroic American commandos the services of a midget who can shoot lightning from his fingertips.”

So it is that we come, at this late date and at long last, to our own discussion of War God, having allowed I hope enough time to pass so that those who deserve the credit have been able to reap the rich rewards of being “the first lot of fellows to write about that movie.”

Guan Yu is a character — or rather, a man who eventually became a character — much storied in Chinese history. In reality, he was a late Han Dynasty era general for warlord Liu Bei. Together, the two of them would prove instrumental in the civil war that collapsed the Han and plunged China into the Three Kingdoms period, which went roughly from around 220 AD to about 280 AD when the fledgling Jin Dynasty finally got a handle on things (or as much of a handle as you can get on a country the size of China). Guan Yu could have gone down in history as “a pretty good general” had not his fierce personality and battlefield bravado been lionized in the classic Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is from this tale that most of what is passed off as fact about Guan Yu actually come, beginning his transformation from historical figure into a folk hero and, eventually, a fairly major member of the Chinese pantheon of gods.

He is not, contrary to misconception fostered by video games (and, uhh, I guess movies with names like War God), the Chinese god of war, at least not in the same sense as someone like Mars or Nike. Maybe a bit more like Athena. Portrayed as a red-faced man with a massive black beard and halberd, Guan Yu’s fearsome visage graces the interior of just about every police station in Hong Kong, where he is regarded as a patron deity and defender of those who adhere to the code of brotherhood and justice. So cops and more than a few soldiers pay their respects to Guan Yu. So too do quite a few triads, whose ideas of brotherhood and justice may slightly askew of those held by the cops but are no less fierce.

For most of his career in Hong Kong cinema, Guan Yu was little more than a small ceramic statue in an alcove in a police station. Starting more or less with John Woo’s sprawling epic Red Cliff, which told (err, more or less) the story of a battle that occurred in 208 AD that pitted Liu Bei and Guan Yu against Yu’s former master (a warlord by the name of Cao Cao), Hong Kong and China suddenly found themselves possessed of Guan Yu fever. Also in 2008, director Daniel Lee made his own Three Kingdoms movie, called…err…Three Kingdoms, casting venerable Shaw Brothers superstar Ti Lung as Guan Yu. In 2011, Hong Kong’s de facto King of the Kungfu Film Donnie Yen starred as the legendary general in the biopic The Lost Bladesman.

But it all starts here, so to speak, with Guan Yu’s appearance in War God, a co-production between Hong Kong and Taiwanese film companies. Although I invoked the name of Ultraman when initially seeking for a comparison/inspiration for this movie, it’s obvious that the actual inspiration was the Japanese film series Daimajin, about a scowling stone god who upon being prayed to by oppressed peasants, comes to life so he can step on evil samurai and kick over some buildings. The parallels between those movies and this one are pretty substantial, though in the case of War God, corrupt samurai and murderous daimyo are replaced by…well…giant bug-eyed space aliens. So I guess it’s sort of like it Daimajin wandered onto an Ultraman set. Or it’s suspiciously close to a Sompote Sands film where the director thinks to himself, “You know who really needs to teach these space monsters a lesson? An ancient god. Let’s see what Hanuman is up to.”

Our movie begins with Chao — and I’m sorry, but I really don’t recognize any of the actors in this movie, and English language translations of the credits have proven awful difficult to come by — an old man who is honoring his recently deceased wife by attempting to carve the most perfect statue of Guan Yu imaginable. As if losing his wife wasn’t enough, Chao is further beleaguered by failing sight and a space scientist son named Chai Chun (Gu Ming-Lun) who scoffs at the old superstitions. Oh, and a wayward daughter, Li Un (Tse Ling-Ling), who has abandoned the old ways in favor of motorcycles, mild juvenile delinquency, and dancing to — believe it or not — Carl Douglas’ much overused hit single, “Kungfu Fighting.” And you thought American movies were the only ones who could abuse that song. When crazy stuff like flashing lights in the sky and boiling rain and anti-gravity (maybe the makers of this also saw Last Days of Planet Earth) starts happening, the forces of science are powerless to explain what the hell is going on, but old man Chao knows the score and dutifully keeps carving his Guan Yu statue.

Eventually the cause of these strange phenomena is revealed: gigantic bug-eyed space aliens have decided to take over the Earth, and it turns out that the sum total of human technology and military might is unable to stop them. The only thing standing between us and annihilation is the whittling project of a blind old man. Luckily, the deity Guan Yu is impressed by Chao’s loyalty and faith and so decides to materialize on earth in a gigantic form that will make him more than a match for those scoundrels from outer space. What happens next is about what you would expect: protracted battles between giant monsters in which miniature tanks, buildings, and recognizable landmarks are stomped on or kicked over.

If you are a seasoned viewer of Japanese tokusatsu shows, then the 120 foot tall aliens won’t phase you. But even for old hands at this sort of entertainment, seeing these familiar villains face off against a towering Guan Yu in a miniature Hong Kong is pretty fantastic and surreal stuff. And just like the Daimajin films I’m convinced served as the true model for this film, War God is studious in depicting the collateral damage that would come from such a clashing of titans. In the Majin movies, even those the scowling stone god is summoned to protect and avenge are in danger of being caught in the cross fire (crossfire, in this case, being his giant stone foot crushing you). Similarly, innocents are caught and killed in the battle between Guan Yu and the space aliens, which gives War God a slightly darker edge than most entertainment of this style, despite the wild concept and colorful palette.

If you are wondering now if War God could possibly be as incredible as the concept promises (and if you don’t think the concept of a giant Guan Yu slicing up space aliens is incredible, then I doubt you and this website are going to have much a relationship), you can rest easy no matter how many times you might have been burned in the past by great sounding concepts/titles that ended up attached to pretty terrible movies (Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, I am looking at you). War God takes a little while to get going, but just as all the faith-vs-science family drama is about to really start to get on your nerves, the movie is smart enough to deliver the goods it knows we came for. And once the giant gods and aliens have at each other, War God is a feast.

Not surprisingly, the current print in circulation is beat up, fuzzy, and washed out, but it’s not difficult to see the wonder beneath the tattered presentation. The space aliens are suitably silly, but Guan Yu looks mighty, as do the miniature buildings and spaceships. This is thanks largely to on-loan Japanese special effects expert Takano Koichi, who came to Taiwan after working on a number of high profile Japanese special effects projects, including Ultraman and King Kong vs. Godzilla. While the man is no Eiji Tsuburaya, Takano Koichi was still an able effects man, and his know-how combined with Taiwanese enthusiasm for throwing any and every phantasmagoric thing they could onto the screen made for some grade-A carnivals of viewing. War God looks like it was his Taiwanese swan song before moving back to Japan to work on the popular Monkey series and some later Ultraman series. While War God does not possess the “everything including the kitchen sink” abandon of some of the earlier Taiwanese films on which Takano worked, like the incomparable Tsu Hong Wu, it’s probably his most visually accomplished work and a fine gift to leave Taiwan.

Director Chen Hung-Min is another familiar name attached to this once mysterious cinematic chimera of a film. He directed a lot of middle-of-the-road kungfu films that never the less occupy cherished places in my heart since I saw many of them when I was doing my serious crash course exploration of kungfu films back in the early 1990s. Movies like Soul of Samurai aren’t pantheon films or anything, but Chen’s work always entertained me (though at the time I had no idea he was Taiwanese and not from Hong Kong). However, the thing that earns Chen a spot on the Teleport City Mount Olympus — besides War God, that is — is his 1978 Polly Shang-Kwan Ling Feng vehicle Little Hero, one of the finest examples of the strange sort of ideas that were commonplace in Taiwanese martial arts films of the era. My first experience with Little Hero nearly melted my brain, and decades later it still pleases me to no end. For one man to have given me Little Hero and War God? Well, that is a debt I can never repay, a gift whose preciousness can never be summarized.

The script by Lam Ching-gaii, who usually works as a director, is pretty heavy-handed. As befits a film like this, everything and everyone is painted in the broadest, clumsiest strokes imaginable. Chao isn’t just faithful to Guan Yu. He’s the single most devoted follower of the red-faced god who ever lived. And his son isn’t just skeptical about religion. He’s the king of the atheists. And science can’t do squat in the face of…well, anything. It’s amazing that this movie even allows the scientists to figure out how to use a doorknob without collapsing to their knees and begging forgiveness for ever having doubted religion. Despite all that, it’s hard to take War God‘s message of “faith conquers all, even space aliens and UFOs and laser beams” all that seriously even if it was written in earnest.

If there is anything to regret about this movie and the story of Guan Yu, it’s that other popular Chinese folk heroes didn’t get promoted to godhood. Because I would love to see a movie about a forty-meter-tall Wong Fei-hong or Ip Man throwing down against an army of super monsters. Other religions could benefit from this approach to their mythologies. Zeus and Odin are remembered thousands of years after their religions died out because those faiths were full of awesome monster battles. I know Christianity has had a good run, but when all it offers is a grouchy god smiting people and his hippy son telling everyone to be cool, I can’t help but wonder where the parts are in which Jesus grows to 150 feet tall and knocks over some ancient Jerusalem landmarks while fighting a giant lizard.

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