Attack of the Joyful Goddess
Hong Kong 1984
Directed by Chang Cheh.

Never put baby dolls face up in the trunk, they might kill you. Oh, and its also a bad idea to kill one of the actors and bury them under the stage. But you probably knew that.

Attack of the Joyful Goddess is a tale of lust, murder, and superstition gone wild. Lily Fa and Handsome Liu are the stars of a "grotty group" of opera actors that perform in "trash-holes." She's a real beauty, and he's a real upright guy, even loaning money to bit players like Tiger when he's down on his luck. Trouble comes when the local Commander cruises the opera house looking to get laid.

The Commander first sets his sights on Rainbow, but once he figures out that Rainbow is a man playing womans roles, he shifts his attention to Lily. The commander's men make it plain to the manager: If Lily doesn't submit, no one in the opera troupe will leave alive. They offer the manager a nice cash incentive to give to Lily Fa as a little incentive. "What I'm asking you to do, doesn't make you a whore," he says unconvincingly. She still refuses, being betrothed to Handsome. So, the manager starts cooking up a scheme to kill Handsome.

Meanwhile, young seamstress Jenny, while helping backstage, foolishly turns the Joy God upright in the trunk. The Joy God is a doll which is used in the opera for small infants. A number of superstitions have risen up around this doll. Since Jenny has turned it right side up, she's dead, dead, dead. It's only a matter of time.

The manager convinces everyone to agree to kill Handsome, the only two dissenting voices being Tiger and Mouse (both behave true to their names, of course). They stab the crap out of Handsome and bury him unceremoniously under the stage, which, given the amount of superstitious stuff they believe in, does not strike me as a particularly good idea. Sure enough, he comes back from the dead. It's hard to tell sometimes whether it's the Joy God or Handsome that's killing off the members of the troupe, but I suppose it's all the same in the end. One man dies on stage jumping over a wall performing Ferocious Tiger Village, another one is found hung by streams of paper, and so it goes.

The opera troupe brings in a new lead from out of town, Master Shaw, who arrives and takes every opportunity he can find to take his shirt off and walk around in his suspender pants. We know he's going to be a hero like Handsome when he starts putting down the cross-dressing Rainbow. He takes an interest in protecting Lily Fa, and pretty soon he knows what happened. He calls on the Joy God to take vengeance on the other actors, as if she wasn't doing that already.

To counter the influence of the ghost, the manager determines to mount Qingshi Mountain, in which Master Shaw will play the role of Guan Ping, a powerful warrior and stepson of the famous, deified warrior Guan Yu. Since ghosts fear the God Guan Yu, it is thought that performing a play which features him will protect the troupe. The play itself is about vanquishing demons. When the actor playing the demon appears on stage, breathing fire, he finds out the hard way that Joy Gods aren't particularly afraid of Guan Yu.

The Commander hasn't forgotten what he wants, though I certainly did. Anyway, his men come back and force the actors to perform a show at the Commander's mansion, after which he is to marry Lily Fa. The manager grovellingly agrees.

Before performing at the Commander's, the actors must first "break stage," an important opera ritual that is happily described during the opening credits of the film. There are many different variants to the ritual, which is intended to drive away devils of ill-fortune. A typical "break stage" ceremony would involve three actors, who appear on stage as spirits. One carries a whip and a tablet, another quickly puts on a mask while unseen by the other actors. The stage is sprayed with chicken blood and the blood of a black dog. In this film we learn that the actor must twist the head of a chicken only once to kill it -- twice is bad luck. Anyone hoping to find in the ending credits that no chickens were harmed during the making of Attack of the Joyful Goddess will be sadly disappointed.

The dramatic climax comes during a performance of Golden-Coin Leopard. In it, Master Shaw plays the Panther Sprite, who locks in combat with the Monkey King, played by Tiger, using tridents. The actors who perform this play would traditionally burn a joss stick and kow-tow to the image of T'ang Ming Huang, to protect them during the dangerous jumps and fights they would perform in this opera while carrying the tridents. This time, they certainly need it. The Commander thinks that Lily Fa is going to marry him right after the performance, but instead, the furniture starts floating, things explode, and a grand melee ensues. Ghosts, animated corpses, flying chairs, fire-breathing spirits, possessed actors, soldiers, and an angry doll engage in a bloody brawl to the bitter end.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.

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