Friday, July 29, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Demigod, the Legend Begins

Instead of wire-fu, this martial arts epic uses glove-fu and CGI animation. The art of Budaixi, Chinese glove puppetry, is alive and well in Taiwan, where Pili Puppetry has been a television hit since the mid-1980s. It turns out some of the world’s best wuxia comes from the independent nation of Taiwan. Su Huan-jen is one of its great heroes. Fans get his stand-alone origin story in Huang Wen-Chang’s Demigod: The Legends, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As the film opens, Su Huan-jen is still young and slightly irresponsible. Yet, he still manages to help a big Wookie-like animist god win his battle against his more reptilian rival. Su is already deeply in debt to library, so he jumps at the chance to heal its patron, the Lord of Globe Castle. Unfortunately, this provides a perfect opportunity to frame the young apprentice for the Lord’s murder.

The Lord’s adopted son knows Su didn’t do it. The Princess isn’t so sure, but the Lord’s sinister brother is thrilled to finally have access to the book of cosmic knowledge Su had been searching for. All the chaos is an open invitation for rival Lord of the Evil Kingdom to invade, so Su will have a real war on his hands.

Huang really is one of the best martial arts filmmakers working today. He just works with puppets rather people. Screenwriters Huang Liang-hsun and He Yuan-yu give us a story worthy of vintage Shaw Brothers, if they could have afforded the giant kaiju special effects.
Demigod even manages to surprise us with a couple twists. The sets, costumes, and design work are spectacular, especially the library. Of course, the puppetry martial arts are totally cool. That’s what the Huang family does best.

The Huangs are a genuine Taiwanese artistic institution, who are widely popular throughout most of Asia. Huang’s equally cool
Arti: The Adventure Begins screened at a previous Fantasia, but it hasn’t had much American exposure yet. Frankly, their films are exactly the sort of work Asian specialty distributors should be pivoting to, as Mainland and HK cinema sinks into militant propaganda. (Honestly, films from regime mouthpieces like Jackie Chan are losing their luster and their palatability.)

So, enjoy some wuxia you can feel good about. Plus, there are puppets, who get totally bashed and bloody. Highly recommended for fans of martial arts and puppetry,
Demigod: The Legend Begins had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.