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  Demons of the Flame Mountain Better Red than Dead
Year: 1978
Director: Tyrone Hsu Tien-Yung
Stars: Au-Yeung Ling-Lung, Hwa Fang, Woo Gam, Lee Tao-Hung, Chang Chi-Ping, Chui Yuk-Sang, Poon Ai-Kei, Yeung Lit
Genre: Drama, Martial Arts, Weirdo, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: After a life of mischief, mighty mythological child superhero Red Boy (Au-Yeung Ling-Lung) reformed. He now serves Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy in the Celestial Heavens alongside fellow heavenly host, Dragon Girl and a talking parrot whose exact duties are unclear though it has a wisecrack for every occasion. When an imposter posing as Red Boy starts causing trouble in the mortal world, the Goddess sends the young hero down to Earth to save mankind. Arriving in a small village, Red boy is shocked to discover the guilty culprit is his long-lost twin brother, Yellow Boy Panta (also Au-Yeung Ling-Lung). It turns out Panta has been enslaving local men to toil atop Flame Mountain as part of an obscure plan to unearth something lost in translation that will make him a god.

Within the strain of Chinese films about the exploits of the mythological Monkey King lurks a further sub-genre devoted to Red Boy, his one-time nemesis turned good guy sometimes referred to as the Red Kid or Red Child or other variations thereof. Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh told the story of Red Boy’s spiritual journey from magical mischief-maker to heavenly hero in The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975) while more recently Isabella Leong revived the role with gusto pitting supernatural kung fu against laser-gun toting alien invaders in Jeff Lau’s genre-bending A Chinese Tall Story (2005). What all Red Boy movies have in common is the role has never once been played by a man but rather, disconcertingly attractive actresses. As is the case here with actress Au-Yeung Ling-Lung giving a spirited performance in dual roles. Even so, given the truly heinous English dubbing only devotees of Chinese fantasy films will likely find anything of interest here.

Fans of cult Japanese television show Monkey (1979) may find themselves on familiar ground, although the Taiwanese-made Demons of the Flame Mountain is not strictly speaking a martial arts film. What action there is, is of the undercranked, comically sped up variety likely to make kung fu purists recoil in horror. More open-minded viewers may respond better to its storybook simplicity, pantomime sets and colourful costumes. The special effects are certainly primitive but ambitious, adding that layer of eye-catching surrealism relished by fans of Asian cinema. Yet for all the cartoon death rays, shape-shifting duels and abundant strangeness, the film is undeniably talky and staid. In fact the course plotted by director Tyrone Hsu Tien-Yung is less fantasy adventure, more tear-jerking melodrama.

The film’s central theme is the tension between filial loyalty and morality. Like all great heroes, Red Boy nobly spurns an offer to rule the universe at his brother’s side but cannot bring himself to kill Panta. Instead, he resolves to extinguish the fire atop Flame Mountain using a magic fan stolen from his unrepentantly evil parents, Princess Iron Fan and Bull King. This unearths a deep well of resentment from the parents towards their son, as the pair proceed to imprison, berate and psychologically bludgeon the conflicted young hero. For her part, the Goddess of Mercy proves far less understanding than her name suggests, surprisingly perplexed why Red Boy has not blasted his family into a million pieces. As punishment she strips him of his magical powers and the third act finds him wandering powerless among mortals, shunned by friends and family before driven towards a supreme sacrifice. It is all meant to instruct young viewers about noble Buddhist virtues, but the film doles out mixed messages and after an hour’s worth of family feuding and tearful reconciliation, one longs for a good magical punch-up.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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