Fantasia XXVI Review: DEMIGOD: THE LEGEND BEGINS, Fantastic Wuxia Entertainment For A Different Medium
Chinese opera a la glove puppetry (a.k.a. “budaixi”) is nothing new if you’ve been exposed to this kind of entertainment in the last forty years or so. I’m a Westerner, so obviously when I caught wind of Thunderbolt Fantasy over on Crunchyroll, I was amazed at what I saw, which provides what little background knowledge I have to collect on the art, to which I now get to add Chris Huang Wen-Chang’s latest endevaor, Demigod: The Legend Begins.
The film is a family effort out of Huang’s Pili International Multimedia and Puppetmotion Entertainment label with Huang Liang Hsun producing, as well as serving as screenwriter alongside He Yuan Yu, and featuring the work of late legendary puppeteer, Vincent Huang. For this, fans are invited to the story of Su-Huan Jen, who, upon embarking on a climb up one of the five mountains of Wulin, accidently interfering in a battle between two demons, ensuing a series of consequential events that will soon tie him to a greater destiny he is yet to fully be aware of.
Until then, his day-to-day norms remain more or less unchanged as Bandou Land, serving as its prospective physician in order to pay off his massive debt for borrowing too many books. One day, Jen is sought after by the daughter of Lord Yu Lin of Globe Castle to help treat his wounds. For Jen, it’s a task that could come at the price of betraying his master who has forbidden him from engaging the martial world for any reason, lest he use his training for anything other than self-defense. However, it’s a offer that Jen may not be able to turn down when Lord Yu Lin makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
Par for the course here is Jen’s access to the Limitless Celestial Book at the Fantastic Academy – a book that soon becomes the target for a sinister evil lurking in Globe Castle that soon emerges following a tragic event, framing Jen and forcing him on the run. With time running out, it’s up to Jen to put the pieces together in order to prepare himself for the ultimate battle across space and time when a force of evil appears to combine the aforementioned book with the castle’s prized Key To The Five Mountains to unlock a divine power.
At the core of the story are elements pertaining to friendship, family, and betrayal in the name of one’s lust for things like power or catharsis. All these get explored in some form or another in Demigod: The Legend Begins which is definitely a different medium for folks who are used to live-action performances by people. The puppets are mostly dead-faced with jaws that move minimally to invoke speaking during the voice performances, and so it takes a while for things to strike more emotively.
Until then, viewers, for the most part, have to rely on the film’s visual aids, with the puppeteering as the film’s main centerpiece. The action sequences and movements are done really well, blending wuxia-style choreography inspired by the likes of The Storm Riders and Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain, or any number of titles that come to mind from your own wuxia moviegoing experience. There are some moments that are truly comical, as well as compelling, including one during Jen’s training montage where he is gifted by a Qilin ahead of the climactic final battle. The film’s score is an absolute plus during this moment.
There’s a distinct richness to this kind of production, and I think it’s worth exposing to broader audiences on more platforms beyond Crunchyroll. Anyone who is familiar to the works of stalwarts like Tsui Hark, Wong Jing, Manfred Wong, and Andrew Lau will certainly take a liking to a Demigod: The Legend Begins, given the chance, and if there are more stories to invest in for the heroic endeavors of Su-Huan Jen, I’d be pleased to check them out.
Demigod: The Legend Begins screened for this year’s Fantasia Festival last week as of this article.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.