Review Date: 3/13/01
Director: Chris Huang
Voices: Vincent Huang
Wow. An amazing technical and artistic feat - it's like "The Thunderbirds" on crack. I'm not overly familiar with this form of classical Chinese puppetry, so it's difficult to review it fairly. This is essentially your traditional Chinese swordplay epic with some science fiction elements (namely supernatural monsters) thrown in, and it's all performed with hand puppets of varying scales. The story is a bit obtuse and hard to follow due to the lack of English subtitles, but basically it's about a group of master swordsmen who, after many adventures, end up battling the forces of darkness when the creepy villain gets his hands on a magical or extra-terrestrial artifact (possibly the sacred stone of the title). It transforms him into a super powerful being and a huge effects laden fight goes down. Also, this is not necessarily for the kiddies, as it features torture scenes, violence towards women, decapitation and dismemberment, and a fair amount of blood.
First of all, the puppetry is truly incredible. I mean, these puppets are actually performing kung fu and swordplay! How cool is that? The costumes are excellent and the miniatures are superb. The cinematography and choreography are also outstanding. A beautiful film in every regard. Unfortunately, after the novelty and fascination of seeing kung fu puppets wears off, the film starts to fall apart under a more critical eye. This is almost entirely due to the voice talent and the pacing of the film. Now I don't know if this is a stylistic thing or a traditional aspect of this kind of puppetry, but one guy did the voices for all of the characters, and they pretty much all sound the same except for the heroine and the villain (which were a higher and lower register, respectively). This is not Mel Blanc, folks. Listening to the heroine's voice is just downright grating. (in this respect I felt like I was watching "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood") The voice acting isn't overly expressive, and the characters also speak very slowly and rhythmically, as if reciting poetry. This gets VERY tedious when conversations between two puppets take ten minutes or longer - especially when you don't know what they're saying! Additionally, all of the voices were recorded with reverb, so they always sound like they're speaking in a large empty room or a cave. Even the commentaries in the supplemental material were recorded in an echo chamber for some odd reason. It's definitely distracting. And finally, the film tries to rely too heavily on uninteresting and unnecessary computer animation. The physical effects are all very impressive, whereas the computer effects are either very good or very bad, and almost always overdone. So, I can recommend this film for fans of fantasy who are tolerant of and open to art-house filmmaking mentality, but I fear that its dreadfully slow pacing and annoying audio will turn off a lot of people.