Neuchâtel 2022 Review: DEMIGOD: THE LEGEND BEGINS, Epic Battles in Sprawling Puppet Adventure
Chris Huang Wen-chang directs a classic martial arts fantasy from Taiwan.
You will believe a puppet can fly.
Demigod: The Legend Begins
The film enjoys its international premiere at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival. It will screen again on Thursday afternoon.
Epic battles, gorgeous visual effects and deadly combat sequences go a long way toward making Demigod: The Legend Begins resemble a classic martial arts fantasy adventure.
Directed by Chris Huang Wen-chang, the dramatic story, leavened by a modern-day approach to the dialogue, can easily distract the viewer into forgetting that it's all enacted by highly-detailed puppets. Of course, you can never truly forget that the characters are all puppets, no matter the "blood" that comes gushing out of them or the lighthearted profanities that come out of their "mouths." The story is a fantasy, however, so that enables the filmmakers to give their puppet characters agency, so to speak, within the world that has been created for them.
Young Su Huan-jen is a doctor, but that is secondary to the training he is receiving from his Master to become a great swordsman. Somehow, though, he has incurred a very large debt, due to his habit of borrowing books and then not returning them on time.
On the few days he has time off each month, he works furiously as a physician to earn money to pay off his debt. When the opportunity to heal a powerful yet ailing figure arises, Su Huan-jen cannot resist the temptation to make some (relatively) easy money, which is when his troubles truly begin as he gets drawn into an epic battle between warring clans. (Full disclosure: this is not the official synopsis, but just what I gleaned from trying to pay attention to the plot.)
To my mind, the story elements are familiar -- impetuous young swordsman, cranky old master, warring clans -- and serve merely as a framework for the fantastical production design and very lively puppets. In the early sequences, the rakish humor douses the proceedings with a cheerful spirit; as the narrative moves onward, the raised stakes become more apparent and the mood and tone shifts appropriately to match.
Periodically, the pace becomes sluggish and the story veers into territory that's more serious than it needs to be. But that's perfectly fine; just wait a few minutes and something different will pop up, offering further ways to demonstrate that puppets are not really like you or me.