Played at Fantasia 2022 July 23, 2022
Demigod The Legend Begins, is a visual treat. Not only do we get to watch Taiwanese glove puppet theatre on the big screen, but also the story is epic! Through the magic of editing, these characters come alive.
However, I must wonder if Bunraku is the appropriate term to use to describe this style of puppetry. The motions of these medium-sized dolls are achieved via hiding the puppeteers with simple tricks of the camera. Instead of watching a stage show, we are watching it though the eyes of the cinemtographer–where we have medium shots and closeups of the characters instead of wide shots to show these action figures in motion. In truth, this technique is the centuries-old tradition of budaixi—Chinese opera using glove puppetry. This movie updates the music with modern day electric guitars, and I’m fairly sure one song is taking cues from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”
When a robe needs to look like it’s rustling, good ol’ fashioned fans are used. When the background needs to come alive, we have CGI replacing those green screen moments. Also, we have some well placed smoke effects and cups of blood to splash around when needed! The presentation is as good as those classic wuxia Hong Kong films from the 80s. But I can’t help but chuckle when they move off camera like a Muppet. That’s okay; Demigod The Legend Begins is not meant to be as perfect as other films using marionation.
The company that updated this style is Pili Entertainment. They produced the well-known Legend of the Sacred Stone, a wuxia movie that’s a spinoff of the self-titled Pili on Taiwan TV; both have garnered a modest following and because of the love of this unique genre, it has been translated and offered online for fans to view.
The effort behind the production is on par with The Dark Crystal. Here, marionettes are utilised to delve into historical fantasy. These heroes and villains are nowhere close to controlling the Ten Kingdoms (whether Taiwan is historically considered part of China), but to do so means achieving a type of god-hood that this movie gives an origin story to.
Demigod, The Legend Begins may well be a prequel to Legend of the Sacred Stone, because Su Huan-jen is part of the cast. He’s not the same character in this work. Neither is he a skilled martial artist. Instead, this film shows that his trade is with medicine. After getting framed for the death of the Grand Master of the Five Mountains, he’s on the run. After delivering a potion to this Lord, he thought this king would feel better.
But when his family finds him dead the next day and the advisors blame Su, this doctor can either plead his case to clear his name or find the culprit! Just who he finds kills his master, and things only get worse. When considering he’s bad at returning library books, he will find no one to help. The debt he accrued has those administrators going after him! Somewhere in that library of his is also a tome to help the next king achieve power.
Hopefully, Big Tail can help. But he doesn’t enter the story until Su climbs a holy mountain to seek guidance from the spirit world. This adorable giant looks like a cross of a shaggy dog and a mountain goat, and all I can say is he’s no yeti. His relationship with Su is shaky. Without his teachings, Su can’t become something greater than what he currently is. The only problem with this act is that it’s heavily steeped in Buddhism and Hindu philosophy. Not everyone knows how these beliefs shape the worldview. Even I had to search for what anātman means.
This protagonist is becoming a celestial, and as for whether Demigod The Legend Begins promises more cinematic tales–or if it’s a lead-in to the main Pili series–all newcomers can do is to find episodes and decide if it all fits.
3½ Stars out of 5