I’ve seen some weird movies in my time but I have never seen anything even remotely like Legend of the Sacred Stone. There have been plenty of puppet shows turned movies in the past, an endless series of Muppet Show movies, Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles; There was even a puppet porno called Let My Puppets Come. There have even been scores of gimmic driven martial arts movies in the past. Who could forget the armless, legless double whammy of Crippled Masters? Take my word for it when I say, there has never been a bloody, complicated wuxia starring a cast entirely made up of puppets.
I’m still torn about what I watched. I don’t quite know how to address this movie. It’s completely foolish to watch. The notion of puppets acting out dramatic scenes as well as complicated fight scenes is ridiculous. But there are also extremely intricate and cool special effects to compliment the characters’ special kung fu abilities. It’s also gory. Yes! These puppets bleed. I was shocked! Legend of the Sacred Stone easily qualifies as one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. It falls squared between a heavily special effects laden Andrew Lau martial arts epic and Thunderbirds Are Go!
400 Years ago in China, a demon powered warlord, Mo Kuei, threatened to destroy Wulin, where our heroes live. The heroes of Wulin assemble to fight Mo Kuei on a mountaintop where he proceeds to stomp the crap out of them. Mo Kuei’s powers render the heroes to doll parts with the exception of three heroes who use their individual super powers to kill Mo Kuei. Afraid that Kuei will be a problem again, they strap him down to a rack and prepare to move him to a cave where he will be sealed away forever. Before they can do this, though, they are attacked by ghostly demons called The Unfriendly, and Kuei’s body is stolen for nefarious purposes. The Unfriendly hope to use his power to find the legendary Stone of Heaven that grants wishes.
Got it? Not that hard to follow, right? Put all of that out of your mind. The movie shifts gears and this whole set up is barely mentioned for the rest of the movie. We shift to several characters who spend the rest of the movie struggling against The Unfriendly. Everybody wants the stone of heaven now. Lord Jian wants it to restore his good looks, ruined in a fight with The Unfriendly. To get the stone, you need to two keys and Jian’s daughter, Ru-Bing has one of them. Get the stone and you can get to the mirror of Pu-Ti, which destroys souls. One of the heroes from the beginning of the movie, Su, agrees to help Ru-Bing get the key and the stone so he can get to the mirror and destroy the soul of Mo Kuei forever. Lots of fights and dazzling special effects follow. If things weren’t crazy enough already, it turns out that The Unfriendlies can also look like anyone they want, so a heavily convoluted story heaps on another needless level of complexity as everyone fights everyone and we, the viewers lose track of what is going on.
Legend of the Sacred Stone is such a strange idea for a movie, but it turns out that the English subtitled versions have a lot working against them. Based on a wildly popular Taiwanese puppet show called Pili, the movie takes many of the characters and ideas and boils them down to a crazy mishmash of ideas that, taken out of context, make very little sense. While watching it, it struck me that the spoken language dialog wasn’t any kind of Chinese that I’d ever heard and it turns out that I was right. The subtitled DVD originates from a Japanese language translation and going from Taiwanese to Japanese to English muddles things further. You’re left with a mildly coherent narrative by the point that we westerners get to see it. Also take into account that the show has been running since 1985 and everything established in the opening 20 minutes had probably been built up over years of Taiwan programming. So all this said, the story is nearly incidental. You can try and follow what’s going on, but you’ll only be left frustrated.
What are we left with? Puppets.
I saw trailers for this movie five or six years ago, so I knew somewhat what I was getting into. The casual observer might expect fight scenes on par with Team America as two puppets savagely slam themselves against one another until the script calls for a victor, but you’ll be surprised by what actually happens. Range of motion is a bit of an issue when you’re working with pieces of foam rubber and a skeleton made of sticks but these puppets fly around, punch, kick and cast spells with an impressive degree of puppetry skill. Coordinating the epic battles could not have been an easy task. As for the CGI special effects, they’re outstanding! There are times when the CGI is blatantly obvious, but when beams of light, phantom daggers and ghostly demons are flying around everywhere, it’s very easy to get swept away by the magic.
The movie is not without hilarity, though, and on this level, it’s hugely enjoyable. It tries so hard to be a melodrama with heavy themes of loss and heroism. The script itself is completely without a sense of irony, as if at no point did anyone ever consider that what they were making was the most elaborate puppet show ever. However, these puppets bleed. It’s insane. The opening 20 minutes, an epic fight on a mountaintop as the Wulin heroes take on Mo Kuei, is startling in the amount of on screen blood. This took me completely by surprise. Many of the Wulin heroes are torn apart and reduced to their individual arms and legs. As Kuei is defeated and strapped to the rack, an iron bar crosses his neck to hold his head down and a geyser of blood erupts from the wound. While the battle rages on below, as hundreds of other evil puppets fight Wulin puppets, boulders slide down on them and sweep them away like the rag dolls they are. The madness is blinding at times.
English subtitled discs have about a half hour cut from them and the subtitles are often a furious barrage of Engrish but Legend of the Sacred Stone is one of the most bizarre examples of foreign film esoterica that begs to be seen. It takes itself so seriously and winds up looking completely foolish in the process. If for nothing else, see it for the novelty value.