1976 | Hong Kong, Taiwan
Director: Chen Hung-min
AKA: 戰神; 關公大戰外星人; Zhan shen; The Big Calamity; Gwan Gung vs Aliens
Kaiju—giant monster—films may have 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, Taiwan, 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 out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s East 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. However, it bears more of a resemblance to that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even has more to do with the not-quite-as-giant giant monster series Daimajin. Plus there’s a dash of Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. 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, Thai producer/director/totally insane guy Sompote Sands teamed up with Japanese effects pioneers Tsuburaya Productions (founder Eiji Tsuburaya was 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 superhero 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), Sands 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 along with huge doses of slapstick comedy and pee jokes, giving us movies like Tah Tien, Noble War, and the accursed Magic Lizard.
It seems like cinematic powerhouse Hong Kong should have gotten into the game sooner, but with a film industry more advanced than Thailand and a cinematic culture every bit as rich as Japan, maybe they just didn’t feel the need to jump on the giant monster bandwagon all that quickly when people were still happy to thrill to Jimmy Wang Yu as a vengeful, tragic swordsman. However, by the end of the Bruce Lee and swordsman era, even though the kungfu film was ascendant, cross-cultural exchange was becoming more common, and the Shaw Brothers studio was collaborating with and recruiting Japanese talent. In 1975, Shaw Brothers unleashed their take on Japan’s Kamen Rider, called Inframan, and followed it up a couple of 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).
And then there was Taiwan.
In the 1970s, Taiwan started producing a uniquely Taiwanese type of genre-bending film that basically combined all of the above. There were flying swordsmen and martial arts like Hong Kong, mythological characters and ancient gods like Thailand, and monsters both giant and regular sized of the 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 more 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 rediscovered prints may be.
For years, one of the most sought-after of these MIA Taiwanese films, something glimpsed only in shoddy scans of old lobby cards and newspaper ads and often 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.
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 general working for warlord Liu Bei. The two of them proved instrumental in the civil war that ended the Han Dynasty and plunged China into the Three Kingdoms period, 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 epic tale that most of what is passed off as fact about Guan Yu actually comes, beginning his transformation from a historical figure into a folk hero and, eventually, a major member of the Chinese pantheon of gods.
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. 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 exactly the same sense as someone like Mars or Nike. Maybe a bit more like Athena. Cops and soldiers often pay their respects to Guan Yu. So too do quite a few triads, whose ideas of brotherhood and justice may be slightly askew of those held by the cops but are no less fierce.
For most of his Hong Kong film career, Guan Yu was little more than a small ceramic statue in an alcove in a police station. However, starting more or less with John Woo’s sprawling epic Red Cliff—based on the story of a battle that occurred in 208 AD and pitted Liu Bei and his general Guan Yu against Yu’s former master,a warlord by the name of Cao Cao—Hong Kong and China suddenly found themselves possessed by 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 Kungfu Films, Donnie Yen, starred as the legendary general in The Lost Bladesman.
They could get pretty wild, this new generation of Guan Yu films, but none of them came close to the sheer phantasmagorical weirdness of 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 more direct 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 their buildings. The parallels between those movies and this one are substantial, though in the case of War God, corrupt samurai and murderous daimyo are replaced by giant bug-eyed space aliens. So I guess it’s sort of like if Majin wandered onto an Ultraman set. Or it’s dangerously 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!”
The movie begins with Chao (Chen Yu-Hsin) 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 also beleaguered by failing sight and an unfilial space scientist son named Chai Chun (Gu Ming-Lun) who scoffs at the old superstitions. Oh, Chao is also cursed with 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’ overused hit single, “Kungfu Fighting.” And you thought American movies were the only ones who could abuse that song!
When crazy flashing lights in the sky and boiling rain and anti-gravity start plaguing the planet, 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 the sum total of human technology and military might is helpless against them. The only thing standing between humanity and annihilation at the hand of a gang of aliens who strut like George Jefferson is the whittling project of a blind old man.
Luckily, the Guan Yu is impressed by Chao’s loyalty and faith and decides to materialize on earth in a gigantic form that will make him more than a match for those rascals from beyond the stars. 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 villains face off against a towering Guan Yu in a miniature Hong Kong is pretty fantastic.
As in the Daimajin films, War God is not shy about depicting the collateral damage that would come from such a clashing of titans. In the Daimajin movies, even those the scowling stone god is summoned to protect and avenge are in danger of being caught in the crossfire (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.
If you are wondering 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 I 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 get on your nerves, the movie is smart enough to deliver the goods it knows we came for. 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 tatters. The space aliens are suitably silly, and Guan Yu looks mighty, as do the miniature buildings and spaceships. This is thanks largely to on-loan Japanese special effects expert Takano Koichi. Koichi came to Taiwan after working on a number of high-profile Japanese special effects projects, including Ultraman and King Kong vs. Godzilla. While he may not be Eiji Tsuburaya, Koichi was still an able effects man. His know-how, combined with Taiwanese enthusiasm for throwing any and every batshit 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. War God does not possess the “everything including the kitchen sink” abandon of some of the earlier Taiwanese films on which Takano worked, such as the incomparable Tsu Hong Wu, but it’s probably his most visually accomplished work and a fine gift to leave Taiwan.
Director Chen Hung-Min directed a lot of middle-of-the-road kungfu films that nevertheless occupy cherished places in my heart. Movies like Soul of Samurai aren’t pantheon films or anything, but Chen’s work usually entertained me. However, the thing that earns Chen any award you can give him is the 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. For one man to have given the world Little Hero and War God? That is a debt we can never repay, a gift whose preciousness can never be summarized.
The script by Lam Ching-gaii, who usually worked 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. 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-foot-tall Wong Fei-hong throwing down against an army of super monsters.