It's a martial arts puppet movie from Taiwan. Imagine a wuxia epic, done in absolute seriousness... but with puppets.
What's still more interesting, although I didn't know it at the time, is that this didn't spring out of nowhere. It's a spin-off of a well-known TV show called Pili that's been running since 1985. A heavily edited version even made it across to America in 2006 and ran briefly on Cartoon Network. Taiwan has a tradition of glove puppetry that's called budaixi and it seems that that fed into this, although I suspect the CGI magic effects are a more modern addition.
The results look terrific. The first five minutes, in fact, are one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. These are some badass puppets. They fly, spin and cast spells. They get dramatic close-ups and reaction shots. They unleash moves on each other that would cripple Jackie Chan. It's hilarious, obviously, but they're doing it with such conviction that you have to admire it. There's nothing even remotely cheap-looking about all this, with the puppets themselves being rather beautiful and their surroundings looking every bit as good as Gerry Anderson used to insist on. In fact, it looks so good that after a while I effectively forgot that I was watching puppets and was simply following the story.
There's one production oddity, though. I think the same guy voiced all the characters, including the attractive girl. His name's Vincent Huang and he's not a convincing woman.
Unfortunately after that dynamite opening, the film got slow. There are some cool villains, but they largely drop out of the movie and it becomes just people talking to each other. There's a Sacred Stone that grants wishes, which isn't as exciting as it sounds because it's merely the Macguffin and furthermore using it will kill you. There's someone who wants to gather their spiritual energy at a mountain summit. There's... a lot of talking. It made me sleepy. I was trying to pay attention, but nothing seemed particularly urgent. This might have something to do with the fact that the demon powered warlord, Mo Kuei, who was single-handedly beating the living daylights out of our heroes in that sensational opening sequence, drops out of the film during Act One, never to return. The plot thereafter focuses on some different (and less violent) people. Now it takes a lot for me to start complaining that a film doesn't have enough mindless action, but this is mindless action with superpowered sword-wielding kung fu puppets. That's got to be worth an hour and a half of anyone's time.
There's also a girl called Ru-Bing, which makes for amusing subtitles. "Do you want me to do anything for Ru-Bing?" "You like Ru-Bing, do you not?" I suppose she's lucky she wasn't called Li-King or Su-King.
However the film picks up towards the end. The villain becomes more villainous and one of the major characters dies a moving death with beautiful CGI light effects. It then ends with more puppet-fighting, which is cool, and by the finale I was properly awake and feeling quite positive about the movie.
I liked the baddies best. They're all facially deformed, because ugly people are evil. There are some demons called the Unfriendly, who don't get as much to do as I'd like but they still made me laugh. They're supposed to be funny and they are. Then there's the other dude, whose ambitions are: (a) to become all-powerful, (b) to get on the cover of Vogue. "After I've changed, I'll be better-looking than ever." (Okay, he doesn't mention Vogue magazine, but you get the idea.) The hero puppets are beautifully made and always lovely to look at, but the grotesque ones are far more entertaining.
There's also something that felt to me a little like a cultural aversion to killing, as I also thought I saw in Devils on the Doorstep. They might hesitate to kill their enemies (e.g. the Unfriendlies), although admittedly in another case their justification for this is that taking reincarnation into account means that killing's not final enough. In a thousand years, nothing will have changed and he'll be the same as ever. That's what I call taking the long view.
Oh, and I love the name "Unfriendly". It's a sweetly genteel way to refer to an army of disgusting skull demons.
Apparently this film exists in two DVD editions. The original Taiwanese cut is two hours long, but doesn't have any English subtitles. The Japanese cut on the other hand is twenty minutes shorter and has English subtitles, so that's the one that Westerners (including me) tend to have watched. It says it has a 129-minute running time, but that includes the special features. Considering all the troubles I had with the plot, I suspect the original Taiwanese cut works better. I've also seen claims that the English subtitles are deliberately bad for comic effect, although I'm not sure what they mean by this.
Would I recommend this film? Not strongly, or at least not in the Japanese cut. What about the first five minutes? A must-see. I also admire the fact that this film exists at all, while it's impossible to deny that the production values and artistry are top-notch. This isn't some cheap piece of obscure straight-to-DVD rubbish. On the contrary, it's an accomplished piece of work and something well worth experiencing. These are serious puppets. They bleed! Admittedly their faces are completely immobile except for the mouth occasionally twitching as they talk, but that's merely a stylistic choice. If you like surrealism, this is your bunny.