27 Apr REVIEW OF BUDDHA’S PALM (1982) BY BRENDAN DAVIS OF THE BEDROCK BLOG
Buddha’s Palm stars Derek Yee as Long Jianfei, a man who loses it all and finds himself the disciple of one of the most feared masters of the martial world: Flaming Cloud Devil, played by Alex Man Chi-Leung. The story unfolds in the shadow of a great battle on Tian Shan that left Flaming Cloud Devil blind and the jianghu in a state of uneasy peace. The threat of Flaming Cloud Devil’s return, prompts the leader of Ten Thousand Sword Clan, Heavenly Foot, to assemble forces against him. The movie follows the adventures of Jianfei and his companions (played by Kara Hui and Candice Yu).
This film puts a smile on my face every time I view it. All that is fun and exciting about wuxia movies is in Buddha’s Palm: grudges, wild techniques, feuding sects and broken hearts rooted in misunderstanding or deception. But it adds a look and feel that draws on its manhua source material and early 80s fantasy and science fiction to create something totally new.
Early in the movie Jianfei obtains the son of the golden dragon (an egg with a brilliant red energy inside) and the golden dragon dagger. When he draws the former it hums and looks like a green lightsaber (almost a full year before Luke’s green saber was introduced in Return of the Jedi). A lot of Buddha’s Palm has that feel. If you were alive in 1982, a lot of the effects, sounds and colors will be familiar.
This creates a rich and intimate world that blends influences for a visually delightful experience. The locations are evocative and exciting to explore, but more importantly, they feel connected. The sets produce a dark and misty forested landscape sprinkled with caves, temples and eerie manors. But the sets also sparkle with metallic guardians and brightly ornamented lairs.
The level of magic and fantasy present in Buddha’s Palm is considerably higher than many earlier Shaw Brothers wuxia. There is a creature in the movie that serves as a companion to the heroes named Dameng. He appears to be a pixiu, longma or similar flying creature and looks like something right out of Jim Henson’s workshop. He is also surprisingly entertaining and adds to the movie’s overall feel.
The martial arts in Buddha’s Palm are gloriously exaggerated. Perhaps most notable is Heavenly Foot’s, Heavenly Strong Foot technique. He is able to extend his kicks and enlarge his leg as he strikes, unleashing a flow of green Qi energy against his foes. His leg reaches across rooms and down from great heights and can also strike with crushing force. The Buddha’s Palm technique itself is a rotoscoped blaze of flaming red.
Like a lot of movies from this time, it can shift tone rapidly and is peppered with humor. But it does a very good job at key moments of using that rapid-fire energy and the contrast for truly arresting displays of power. For instance, when a group of sect leaders make hilarious excuses to disguise their cowardice as they confront Flaming Cloud Devil, this is followed immediately by a shot where he rotates in the air reciting a mantra that I found breathtaking. If the whole film were serious in tone, I think I might not have been as struck by that moment.
Buddha’s Palm veers into parody but in a way that I think fans of wuxia can appreciate. There is a self-awareness in the narration of the movie that is witty but not overbearing. In one example when a character is easily betrayed by another, the narrator says “I think he seldom reads wuxia fiction.” The narration is done with affection and adds to the experience rather than take away from it.
Perhaps the best part of the movie is Lo Lieh as Bi Gu of East Island. In my opinion, this is one of his most endearing performances. Just as a concept, Bi Gu is a funny character, but Lo Lieh’s facial expressions and physical antics add so much to the joy of the movie. Kara Hui as the impatient and blunt Qiu Yu Juan is also quite memorable.
Buddha’s Palm is a film willing to take chances. Its unfiltered inventiveness and borrowing may cross too many lines for some viewers, but it is one of the most entertaining films in the genre. Its gonzo wuxia style is hard to resist.
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