Seeing an outrageous cult movie on DVD is one thing; seeing it projected from a 35mm print on a huge movie theater screen is another. In your living room, Buddha’s Palm might be a mildly headache-inducing oddity from the twilight years of the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. In a movie theater, it’s a mind-altering hallucinogen, stuffed to bursting with wizard battles and wuxia action and edited with a head-spinning propulsiveness that can make you wonder if shots, scenes, or entire reels have gone missing.
I’ve seen a lot of Shaw Brothers films, but none of them like this —which probably just means I haven’t dipped deeply enough into the studio’s 1980s catalog, which chronicles a time when the studio ventured further into low-budget genre territory, borrowing ideas from American horror and science-fiction films and incorporating them into very Chinese narratives. Buddha’s Palm has animated FX that are strongly inspired by the Star Wars movies — at one point someone switches on a lightsaber, and, I swear to god, the sound-effects editor swiped a snippet of audio from The Empire Strikes Back, including Darth Vader’s breathing, to match the visual — but it has its own charms, too, including the out-of-nowhere appearance of a strange sort of dog-dragon hybrid that perhaps anticipated Falkor in The NeverEnding Story. It’s completely phony, of course, just two guys in a suit. (I kept imagining Secretariat from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson up there with the swastika-blasting grandmasters, with a huge grin on my face.) But it’s also raggedly impressive, like something you’d want to applaud if it appeared in a live performance on stage. And then there’s the killer combo of a very big man carrying a very small one (a child? a dwarf? I couldn’t tell you, officer; it happened so fast) who squirts skin-burning acid from a, erm, sizable pimple on his chin. Yeah, holy shit.
At times it all seems kind of … let’s say inept and desperate, but then again there are moments so perfectly judged — like a breathtaking decapitation near the climax — that you know there was talent at work here, though probably squeezed by time and money constraints that made just getting this thing in the can a herculean task. It’s amazing, especially in a theatrical print with those trademark Hong Kong-movie subtitles that force you to swivel your head back and forth like you’re taking in a tennis match just to scan every word from the lower-left-hand corner of the screen to the lower right. I’m just trying to say: I had a fantastic time with this. I’ll never forget it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again — at least not without a crowd — but does it exponentially increase my interest in this period of the Shaw Brothers catalog? You bet.