Dandelion Sword, The
Taiwan 2003
Directed by Liu Ching-Ming.

In their mountain retreat in a suburb of Taipei, the U Theater troupe practices Tai Chi, meditates, takes long walks, and plays the drums. Teetering on the edge between theater troupe and religious cult, the group develops shows and takes them to the people, walking up to 900 kilometers in one month some years ago to bring their performance to all parts of Taiwan. They tour internationally and have had great success with their blend of mysticism and drum. THE DANDELION SWORD is one of their most recent efforts, and the first that combines drumming and dancing with a coherent story, a story that seems better suited to a martial arts movie than a world music concert.

U Theater was founded in 1988 by Taiwanese stage actress Liu Ching-Ming because she felt she was too westernized and needed to re-educate herself about Taiwanese culture. She was later joined by drumming master Huang Chih-wen, who emphasizes the spiritual part of drumming over the physical. Before collaborating on THE DANDELION SWORD, they developed a show called Summoning the Ocean, which was essentially a drum and dance spectacle around a vaguely New Age mystic theme, and Meeting with Vajrasattva, which was more of the same but with a more specific theme: attaining enlightenment.

This theme continues with U Theater's THE DANDELION SWORD, which has now been relased on DVD, with English subtitles. THE DANDELION SWORD is about a master swordsman, who defeats all his enemies. He meets an elderly man on the road who encourages him to discard his sword and face the only enemy he has not yet defeated -- himself. The swordsman leaves his mother and goes on a journey of self discovery, fighting off pythons, phantasms, and even a lion before at last attaining enlightenment.

The performance is quite exciting to view, the drums are necessarily quiet compared to the sound that they must generate in a live performance. The actors are incredibly agile and strong. The swordsman is played by several different performers, no doubt a necessity because of the extreme physical demands of the role.

The troupe consists of a little over a dozen men and women, all strong and striking presences on the stage. It is a bit disheartening to think of the weak and too-skinny actors and actresses that are cast in Hong Kong productions these days and compare them to this group of strong and athletic performers.

The English subtitles are hardly necessary. Dialogue is spare, and all of the text that appears on screen is also included in a small booklet that comes with the discs. The DVD also includes a second "angle" to switch to if your DVD player has that capability, so if you watch THE DANDELION SWORD a second time, you can see the production from a different view. The second angle includes no close-up shots and for the most part simulates the static view you would have if you were in the audience (and had the cheap seats).

If THE DANDELION SWORD has one weakness, it is in its vary nature: the "drum spectacle" style of performance is getting a bit tired. It's been around since the early eighties in World Music circles with the Japanese Taiko Drum group KOTO. This led to an international "boom" in Taiko drumming, and naturally extending from that other types of drumming gained in popularity as well. Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, won "Best World Music Album" in 1991 for his PLANET DRUM, and produced a bunch of drumming albums for international world beat drummers. The percussive Broadway show STOMP is still playing, and the drum spectacle has even been played for laughs by BLUE MAN GROUP. In other words -- been there, done that. But for all its virtuoso drum playing, THE DANDELION SWORD doesn't linger unnecessarily on it. The second scene features the full ensemble drumming, and it drags on far too long, but the other scenes are varied enough to sustain the interest of even the most drum-fatigued viewer. The swordsman's battle against a phantasm at the end of act one and his fight with a lion toward the end of the second act are particular highlights, and they don't include a single drum between them.

Perhaps realizing that big drum shows alone are not enough to sustain audience interest, U Theater is continuing in the direction THE DANDELION SWORD has suggested, and is collaborating with the Shaolin Temple for their current production, A Touch of Zen, which opened in Taipei last month to great acclaim.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 21, 2005.

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