Monday, February 16, 2015

DVR Diary: THE WEIRD MAN (1983)

The English title pretty accurately describes what you'll see in Chang Cheh's film, the last the legendary martial-arts director made for the Shaw Bros. studio, but I had a feeling the original Chinese title wouldn't be so tantalizingly prosaic. I ran the original through a couple of online translation programs and discovered that Shaw Bros. intended some sort of play on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Google produced "Theurgy and the Sundance Kid" while Bing offered "Avatar vs. Cassidy." Since The Weird Man is not a buddy movie, the studio may have hoped to convey the dual nature of its protagonist, but that's just my desperate guess. After some perfunctory court intrigue, featuring bad acting by the dubbing artists I heard on the El Rey broadcast, we're introduced to Yu Ji, a Taoist priest with the power to heal. The picture sets him up as a Christlike figure, or else people from the Christian world are likely to see him that way. The powers that be scheme to destroy him, while he tells his five disciples that he's destined to die so he can be reborn. He is challenged to produce rain for a drought-stricken city or die on a pyre. He refuses to perform on demand, but the skies open up just as his pyre is lit. The people demand that Yu Ji be spared, but he's decapitated instead, smoke billowing from his neck. This, apparently, is just what he planned.

Yu Ji's disciples are under strict instructions on how to treat his body. They manage to snatch the head and body and reunite them in a mystic pool, the corpse floating toward the head until it reattaches. The hirsute priest is restored and assumes a meditative pose as his new body literally springs to life: a younger, clean-shaven figure in a loincloth. If anyone in the picture is a Weird Man, it's this guy. Yu Ji has gone to all this trouble in order to become an omnipotent mischief maker. He can possess other people's bodies -- actor Ricky Cheng Tien Chi dons drag when he takes over women -- and use them to fight the bad guys. Try to slice him and he strikes back with silk scarves, soap bubbles, balloons, etc. His only vulnerability is that he must touch base with his old body once each day, once a disciple has tapped old Yu Ji's forehead three times. That done, he can promptly return to wherever he was making mischief before. If it is not done, is that the end of the Weird Man? Unfortunately, we never really find out. Chang Cheh apparently expects us to find the title character's cavorting hilarious or else, at the end of the line with Shaw Bros., he doesn't give a damn anymore. I found it all too reminiscent of bad sci-fi comedies where aliens have all sorts of wacky powers, usually including telekinesis so they can levitate people, just because ... you know .. they're advanced! In the title role, Ricky Cheng Tien Chi and his perpetual smirk are pretty insufferable, but I must admit that the film as a whole has the same sort of allure that a trainwreck has. It was terrible, but I couldn't look away. That may be a recommendation for some people, and it's definitely as close to one as you're going to see here.

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