The conclusion to the 19th century fairy tale, SNOW WHITE, as written by the Brothers Grimm, features the wicked stepmother crashing the wedding of her stepdaughter, Snow-White, and the handsome prince, only to be forced by the groom to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead of exhaustion. It’s awkward enough to dance by yourself at a social function – one person’s dance of passion is another person’s full-body dry-heave set to music – but it’s even worse to wear scalding footwear while doing so, and totally ruthless to do it to death (for perspective, the Guinness World Record for the longest dance by an individual is more than 120 hours). As a loose adaptation of the aforementioned fairy tale, the 1981 Taiwanese film, THRILLING BLOODY SWORD, doesn’t feature any abuse quite so cruel or protracted, but it does have ominous cave lighting and a character with a head shaped like a butt.
Inside the palace of the Ku Shien kingdom, royal onlookers are gathered for the birth of a new heir; the king paces as his wife, the queen, endures a painful labor. Outside, a meteor passes through the night sky before landing inside the mother’s body. On impact, the womb violently ejects itself to the floor and the queen instantly dies. Looking at the throbbing, watermelon-sized lump of flesh, the grief-stricken king erupts in anger and orders his advisor to banish it to the wilderness. A group of servants abide the order, wrap the bloody womb up in a basket with a protective a jade amulet, and send it downriver.
As they wash themselves in the river near their home, two of the Seven Dwarves of the Happy Forest are alarmed to find the floating basket, and they deliver it back to the group’s house. Apparently believing it to be a wholesale hunk of deli meat, the dwarves argue about the best way to cook and consume it, but the dinner talk stops when one dwarf pokes it and the womb splits apart in a puff of steam to reveal a human baby. The unexpected dads name the baby Yaur-gi and they raise their new daughter up to the age of 17 years old (collecting years of child tax credit payments along the way).
In the intervening years, a pair of sorcerer-exorcists, Shiah-ker (Yi Chang) and Gi-err (Hui-Shan Yang, a.k.a. Elsa Yeung), has set their sights on infiltrating Ku Shien kingdom and executing a power-grab. The overwhelmed king, unable to quell a recent rash of one-eyed demon attacks, hires them to resolve the matter. As the best team for the job (they set the demon loose to begin with) they prove their mettle by exterminating the demon with ease. The grateful king appoints both sorcerers to important royal posts, which draws the immediate concern of his long-time, trusted court minister. The evil duo, under the direction of the secretive and malevolent spirit-idol Ah-Du, plans a further series of deceptions and monsters to weaken the kingdom and help them consolidate power. When the brave and skilled Prince Yur-juhn (Shang-Chien Liu) joins the fray and takes up arms against one of their fiendish creations, their plan is put in jeopardy and in the process, Yur-juhn earns the fawning adoration of young adult Yaur-gi (Fang Fang-fong). Will Ah-Du and its minions destroy the kingdom, or will the pair of young lovers — with the help of the Seven Dwarves, a powerful forest fairy (Ling-Ling Hsia), and a legendary “thunder sword” — set things right and win the day?
Working under the banner of the incredibly named production company, Lusty Electric Industries – whose only other contribution to cinema was the 1989 Hong Kong action film, BURNING AMBITION – director Hsin-Yi Chang serves up a vibrant spread of genre elements: monsters, martial arts, spooky lairs, pyrotechnics, shapeshifting, swordplay, glowing eyes, rooster puppetry, special effects, and light comedy. To cycle through even a few examples would spoil too much about the inspired insanity that makes the film such a joy to watch. It should be said that if you’re a fan of the action movie (and video game) trope wherein the protagonist combats a series of mini-bosses before a final showdown, you’ll enjoy the escalating creativity with which the filmmakers imbue their characters along the way. Even if the fight choreography isn’t quite on par with its genre peers of the day — it predates more polished wuxia action-fantasy films like ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD by a couple of years — THRILLING BLOODY SWORD’s aesthetic emphasis on colorful lighting and effects along with rough-and-ready creature design still makes the battles enjoyable.
Despite the film’s many delights, Hsin-Yi Chang was not overly prolific as a director; this may be his most renowned work (at least in some cinephile circles of North America). He had five credits as an assistant director in the early 1970s before assuming the head job for his first feature, 1978’s THE LADY CONSTABLES with Angela Mao, and he churned out another nine films in four years before that well ran dry. His main bread and butter was stories and screenplays, collecting 69 writing credits over a two-decade-plus career in Taiwan and Hong Kong, including collaborations with directors Joseph Kuo (THE 18 BRONZEMEN) and Tso Nam Lee (SHAOLIN VS. LAMA, THE CHALLENGE OF THE LADY NINJA, and KONG FU WONDER CHILD).
If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’ve either seen this film or you may want to see it. The best way to watch this, if at all possible, is to see it with a crowd of rowdy people on the biggest screen possible. For some of you, that might mean a night at your local repertory movie theater and frankly, if they have the gumption to put THRILLING BLOODY SWORD on the program, drop whatever plans you have and attend the screening. The next best avenue is to grab the recent Blu-ray release from the fine folk – e.g., podcaster, filmmaker and author, Justin Decloux – at Gold Ninja Video. It’s packed with bonus features, including a commentary track with world pop-cinema stalwart, Tars Tarkas (of TarsTarkas.net) and an interview featurette on the subject of Taiwanese pop-culture with comic book historian and convention panel producer and moderator, Jessica Tseang. The first run is sold-out, but you can currently pre-order it in a double-package with 1978’s REVENGEFUL SWORDSMAN, and given Decloux’s careful curation of past release titles, that film probably kicks all sorts of ass too (and with any luck, in the weirdest way possible). While you’re waiting for it to arrive, check out the late Todd Stadtman’s review over on Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!
THRILLING BLOODY SWORD is that rare cinematic low-budget fever-dream that, simply through the sheer force of its visuals and unique approach to storytelling, will make you feel like you took powerful psychedelic drugs as you watch it. Need to enhance your creative thinking in the workplace? Start your day by micro-dosing a scene or two from this film. Good luck and stay safe out there.