Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Monday - Saviour of the Soul

So yeah, I was originally going to be going over superhero movies based on American comics. I will still get back to that eventually. But I realize that right now, it's more fun to hunt down obscure Hong Kong movies that intrigued me and maybe introduce them to an audience that might also find them interesting.

So today's movie is "Saviour of the Soul" from 1991, starring Andy Lau (apparently not the same person as Andrew Lau, who directed last week's featured movie), Aaron Kwok and Anita Mui (best known to American audiences for her roles in Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Legend of the Drunken Master" aka "Drunken Master II"). Once again, while I had large portions of this movie on VHS, I ended up reviewing the entire film on Youtube, from which I pulled the fuzzy scans. Sorry.

I first discovered this movie while channel-surfing in Korea on my second tour there. It was the craziest mish-mash I'd ever seen, part romance, part comedy, part kung fu action (with cartoonish moments). I taped about half of it, but as it was broadcasting on a Chinese language network with no subtitles, I had no idea who these people were or why they were fighting. I only knew that it was like nothing I'd ever seen before, almost like a live-action cartoon.

And through the miracle of the Internets, I find out that the movie is apparently based on a Japanese manga, although it's hard to determine which one (a review on Amazon says it's inspired by City Hunter, but if so, it's one of the loosest adaptations I've ever seen). I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given that one of the main characters looks as if he stepped right out of a Final Fantasy video game.

That's Aaron Kwok as the villainous Silver Fox. The film opens as Fox breaks his master Eagle out of the World's Weirdest Prison; he defeats dozens of machine-gun wielding guards with only his sword and a bullet-proof poncho. Eagle relates the story of how he was captured by a woman named May, a city cop/assassin(?) who blinded him with thrown knives. Eagle makes Fox swear revenge before dying.

Turns out, May works with a couple of guys named Chin (Andy Lau) and Koo (Kenny Bee), who are both in love with her. Koo has proposed, but May has been putting Koo off, hoping Chin will find the courage to declare his own feelings. Meanwhile, May's crazy sister (both roles are played by Anita Mui) tells her that Fox is coming for revenge, and that May should send both men away for their own protection until Fox is dealt with.

May rejects her sister's advice. Shortly thereafter, Fox kills Koo, but is forced to flee when May blinds him in one eye with a knife. May decides to protect Chin by telling him she has no feelings for him and was going to marry Koo. She then goes into hiding, leaving Chin to care for Koo's teenage sister.

A year later, May's sister (tired of Chin constantly questioning her as to May's whereabouts) tells Chin that May is posing as Pet Lady, who hides behind a mask and for whom a contest will be fought later that night. Chin heads off to the Pet Palace and fights for the hand of Pet Lady, who has legendary powers of healing. When he finally convinces her to unmask, he is disappointed to find she is not May.

Shortly thereafter, he realizes that May has been the reclusive tenant of the apartment across the alley from his, and manages to reach her just in time to save her from an attack by Fox, in an incredibly entertaining and ridiculous fight sequence.

But not before Fox manages to inflict a terrible curse on her. He inhales a special toxin named Terrible Angel, which causes his skin to go pale and his eye to turn blue.

The drug makes him temporarily super-strong and blazing hot. He can also turn immaterial, passing his body through that of another and transferring the effects of the drug to them. Apparently, if one is not adapted to it as Silver Fox is, the effects are more deleterious. May loses all her strength, and is told that in 24 hours, she will become a mind-controlled puppet of Fox. He will then have her kill Chin.

Chin takes May to a hospital, but they can do nothing. Desperate, he takes her to Pet Lady, but even though he accedes to her demand to crawl through broken glass, she refuses to help. Defeated, Chin takes May back to his apartment, where he tells her that he has turned on all the gas, which will ignite and kill them both when the 24 hours is over. They will never be parted again.

Which is of course the moment that Silver Fox chooses to make his final attack.

"Saviour of the Soul" is a strange beast, combining action, drama, romance, and broad comedy into one insane roller-coaster ride. The action is exciting, but also cartoonishly broad, with crazy weapons like a bullet that steals all the oxygen out of a room and a yo-yo that turns into a sword with a springy blade so flexible that it can wrap entirely around an opponent's head and sword before stabbing him in the eye.

Unfortunately, this is all accomplished on a horribly low-budget. So while the film occasionally features some breathtaking compositions (which highlight the romantic fantasy nature of the story)... also features some Batman tilt-a-cam shots, laughably fake CGI effects and other cheap shortcuts (as well as horrible translations in the subtitles). For instance, at one point, while under the effects of Terrible Angel, Fox gets caught in a mirror. For some shots, they used a decent split-screen effect...

But for quick action shots, they took the expedient method of just gluing a picture of Silver Fox to the mirror (it's much more obvious in motion than in this crappy scan):

So in the end, by American standards, "Saviour of the Soul" fails on almost every level. Its comedy is too broad, its drama too melo-, its epic moments compromised by cheap effects and an overstuffed plot. The movie is ultimately too cheap and uneven to convince anyone who doesn't already love Hong Kong Cinema that there is cool stuff waiting to be mined out there.

However, for people who are already familiar enough to overlook its shortcomings and love its considerable strengths, "Saviour of the Soul" is an absolutely unique,over-the-top experience. It's my kind of crazy.

1 comment:

Bufbaf said...

I know I'm late to the party, but OMG THANK YOU!

I've seen this movie so frequently as a kid, and I loved it. It's name was "Silverfox" over here in Germany, and I never managed to find it anywhere on the Internet. By random chance during a messageboard discussion I found an image of it on your blog, finally letting me find out its US name!

Again, thank you, so glad I found this :)