Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Return of the Demon (1987)

The thing about film spoilers is that they generally garner one of two reactions: ambivalence or abhorrence (I suppose a mix of the two is possible, as well).  Some people don’t mind knowing plot points ahead of time.  They’re content with taking the trip, any twists being non-essential to the overall experience, so they just sort of shrug their shoulders if they know what’s around the next bend; it’s all good.  Others lose their minds if they know as little as the color of a movie protagonist’s car (or if he/she/it has a car), let alone the identity of Keyser Söze.  To them, a first-time viewing is an escapade, something where not knowing what’s coming bolsters the exhilaration of it.  I seem to fall somewhere in the middle (how one manages to fall between the median and the extreme, I won’t analyze today).  Knowing the ending of, say, The Bridges of Madison County, wouldn’t go far in ruining my watching of it (I haven’t seen the film, incidentally).  Yet, if a big twist were revealed to me for something like Game of Thrones, I would tend to get pretty upset.  

I’m not too interested in getting into the arguments of who’s culpable in spoiler prevention, because they usually simply irritate me (as if a person should stay off the internet entirely if they don’t want to know the outcome of a film [though, admittedly, one should exercise some level of discretion in what they look at beforehand and learn to manage their outrage if something is spoiled], or worse, should have known about what was coming by being in on some pre-adaptation property we (but very importantly, not they) knew nothing about however many decades ago [the irksome attitude of the tiresome fanboy]).  I’m of the opinion espoused by the late, great Roger Ebert, who said that the first time you watch a film, you should let it wash over you.  And that’s generally how I look at spoilers.  I want a film to feel like a wave crashing over me; each one may hit with what feels like equal force, but they’re all individual in a way (crucially, how they affect you), like snowflakes.  I respect that some folks feel that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination, and I can respect that.  But I would also counter (perhaps snottily) that not all spoilers come at the end (read: the destination).  Plus, the destination is still a part of the journey, by definition.  Nitpicking?  You bet.  It’s one of those subjects that can be hotly debated for hours with little common ground found, because it’s all based on personal preference, which is why I’m only giving you a rough idea of how I approach the subject, not how I think you should approach it (and okay, maybe I did argue for or against a stance a little bit more than its opposite).  At any rate, I could list what happens in every scene of Wong Ying’s Return of the Demon (aka Mo Ghao Yi Zhang) and not spoil a damned thing about it.  For better or worse.

Four treasure hunters accidentally unleash a wizard/ghost/demon (Dick Wei) who was entombed inside a statue of Buddha.  The Monster (that’s how he’s named on IMDb) has to collect souls in order to reincarnate himself.  The adventurers are quickly joined by sorcerer Kin (Charlie Cho) and his young (very young in comparison) assistant Mak (Mai Te-Lo) in hunting down and destroying the evildoer.

This film owes a lot to the first two Indiana Jones films.  The characters dress like they’re in a period piece (I’m guessing mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, though nothing is ever specified that I could pick up on).  The whole premise is a mixture of pulp adventure with supernatural/fantasy elements.  It’s very violent (often gruesomely so).  It also has a sense of humor about it, and that’s putting it lightly.  It’s these last two components that mark the film as either bogglingly odd or distinctly Chinese, depending on your perspective (and maybe both at once), because they are both amplified to stratospheric levels and placed side by side with and/or on top of each other with little to no transitions between them or regard for tonal consistency.  It has scenes of spiked, metal “helmets” being hammered onto characters’ heads.  It has characters drinking dog urine.  It has gory impalement.  It has a cross-eyed, newsboy-hat-wearing lock picker (Siu-Ming To).  It has a heart squirming with maggots.  It has a character switching bodies with a German shepherd in order to track the villain (never mind that he then simply has canine habits while in human form [including, but not limited to, peeing on trees] and may turn into a werewolf at some point [which can happen, I guess]).  It’s unusual in how it flows tonally.  And by “unusual” I mean it in the sense that it doesn’t, really.  We’re set up to follow the protagonists in High Adventure fashion, but they’re treated like slapstick clowns, by and large.  Nevertheless, when actual violence happens to them, it’s brutal and serious.  To an American viewer, this can be confusing and even offputting, especially if it’s something to which you’re unaccustomed.  Westerners may allow for comedy in their violent films or violence in their comedy films, but typically, the one outweighs the other (the genre/subgenre steering the proverbial ship).  To have them both heightened to this degree, though, certainly makes for unique viewing (or maybe just a different flavor for those ensconced in Asian film aesthetics already).

With that in mind, this is the sort of film for which the plot is little more than a skeleton on which the filmmakers just want to hang gag sequences.  Now, I’m not versed in the work of Charlie Cho, but I get the feeling this is kind of his shtick.  And in fairness, it’s the same sort of setup that goes back to some of the great comedies of Hollywood’s golden age.  Think of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy or Horse Feathers, and you get the idea, more or less.  However, the American films of this type would attempt to tie these scenes into the plot a bit more than herein (not always, but usually), and they understood the importance of brevity.  Even the greatest joke in the universe will get old if it goes on too long, and some of these scenes in Return of the Demon do their best to stop the film dead in its tracks.  Consequently, the focus falls on the spectacle of the visual gymnastics and the beating of some not-quite-dead horses.  Thus, a viewer’s enjoyment of this film will rely on their willingness to go along with it, and those with a touch more patience will get a proportional amount more out of the movie.             

MVT:  The exuberance on display is infectious.  Unfortunately, keeping the energy jacked to the hilt the entire run time is also exhausting.  You decide.

Make or Break:  The egg scene, featuring the extraordinarily captivating Emily Chu, is a feast of charm and absurdity (and like all feasts, one can overstuff oneself).  Pared down and better woven into the narrative, it might have been a classic of onscreen comedy, but as an overlong tangent to the film it’s actually in, it’s a flash of brilliance rather than a roaring flame.

Score:  6/10  

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