Review: Chinese Gods (1976)

Directed by:

Distributed in Australia by:

Weird. This is a real oddity. A feature length animation released during the Shaw Brothers heyday, the 1970s. Unlike Japan, Hong Kong isn’t known for its booming animation industry. This is one of the very few (and the earliest) to have been made; it’s rushed, rough and a tad incomprehensible — and also quite a bit of fun.

The filmmakers have clearly used the creative freedom of animation to explore some of the more fantastical elements of Chinese mythology that wouldn’t really translate to live action. It also means that they can resurrect Bruce Lee in animated form, as a super strong god with a magical third eye (he puts in just about his best performance). While the Shaws live action films could often overcome their measly budgets and quick shooting schedule, these short cuts are quite noticeable in the animated form. Some of the animation is not too bad, but most of it is truly awful. Frames are often looped ad nauseam to kill time, but the experience is quite hypnotic. The film is so charmingly primitive and energetically ragged in its cheapness, that it wins you over (well, it won me over).

Chinese Gods is made up of assorted classic Chinese myths and folklore, but while it did reawaken my interest in the subject, it tries to cram in so many stories and morality tales that it become quite confusing, and when paired with what is probably the worst dubbing I have ever heard (where’s the emotion guys?) it makes even less sense. Essentially there are lots of creatures and wizardry, and lots of fighting; and it’s all done with a heavy dose of style: distorted perspectives, elongated limbs, and trippy effects. Animated Bruce is actually pretty cool: even as a drawing his appearance (quite late in the film) manages to enliven the proceedings. Watch out for his truly psychedelic battle with a nine tailed fox spirit.

It’s clear that they haven’t really hit on a Hong Kong style of animation, because there isn’t really a consistent style to the piece. Some of the character design will be familiar to those who’ve seen historic Chinese scroll paintings, while appearing to have been ‘borrowed’ from Disney. As you would expect there is also quite a large nod towards Japanese anime, especially Tezuka’s early work. Along with the varying styles on display, it is not quite clear if this is a kid’s film or not. It often feels like a morning cartoon, but it’s more violent and bloody then you would expect. There are illusions to Chang Cheh’s heroic bloodshed films, and all the shape-shifting and flying clouds brought back memories of Monkey. I don’t think this film made much of an impact at the box office, but it does feel like an early relation to the fantasy boom that was to come later (films like Chinese Ghost Story and Zu Warriors). I’d have to say, then, that it does have its place in Hong Kong cinema history, even if it’s a forgotten one.

It’s nice to get the chance to see something like this; it’s just a pity it was in such poor condition (full screen, poor print, bad dub). It’s such a one off, that even in this state, it’s pretty much a must see for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

5 little imps with drilling heads and evil intent out of 10.
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