The War God | aka Calamity (1976) Review

The War God | aka Calamity (1976) Review

“The War God” Theatrical Poster

Director: Chen Hung-Min
Cast: Ku Ming-Lun, Tse Ling-Ling, Chen Yu-Hsin, Lung Fei, Cindy Tang Hsin, Tseng Chao
Runnning Time: 91 min. 

By Paul Bramhall

The chances are if someone was feeling in the mood for some kaiju action, the go-to country would be Japan. The likes of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidora have practically come to define the genre, and of course the word ‘kaiju’ itself is Japanese, directly translating to ‘strange beast’ (which further translated onto the big screen, usually means giant monster!). If you were willing to tread a little off the beaten track, then Korea also had its own offerings, with the South delivering Yongary, Monster from the Deep in 1967, and the North unleashing Pulgasari in 1985. Even Hong Kong occasionally got in on the action, with the Shaw Brothers studio producing Mighty Peking Man in 1977. However one country that rarely gets mentioned when it comes to kaiju flicks is Taiwan.

While Taiwan may not be known for its kaiju output, that didn’t stop director Chen Hung-Min from having a crack in 1976. Trained in Japan under the Toho and Toei film studios, Hung-Min worked mainly as an editor during his 30-year career spanning the 1950s through to the 1980s, however upon returning from Japan in the late 60’s he occasionally stepped into the director’s chair as well. Debuting with the landmark Taiwanese swordplay flick Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters in 1968, Hung-Min would go onto direct a further 18 productions over the next 12 years, many martial arts themed, concluding with 18 Secrets of Kung Fu in 1980.

It was 1976 though when Hung-Min seemingly threw caution to the wind, and thought “to hell with it, I’m going to make a flick that has a 30-foot-tall Guan Yu (you know, the famous Chinese deity that Donnie Yen played in 2011’s The Lost Bladesman) battle it out with a trio of 30-foot Martians on the streets of Taipei.” It’s an undeniably ludicrous concept, however one that somehow got greenlit, becoming known as The War God. Much to my surprise, and I suspect anyone else that checks it out, The War God plays things alarmingly straight during its initial scenes.

Ku Ming-Lun (Men of the Hour, 12 Baldheaded Beauties) plays a space scientist who’s partial to torturing bees with radiation, bright light, and other such technologically advanced methods. Outside of work he has plenty of stress – his sister, played by Tse Ling-Ling (The Black Justice, Tiger & Crane Fists), has been led astray, spending her time riding around on a motorbike and getting down to Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting in the park. His sculptor father, played by Chen Yu-Hsin (The Mighty One, The Angry Hero), meanwhile is suffering from glaucoma, however is insistent he finishes sculpting the perfect statue of Guan Yu, believing it’ll be infused with the God’s spirit once done. In fact the only one willing to give Ming-Lun a break is his fellow scientist crush, played by Cindy Tang Hsin (One-Armed Boxer, Queen of Fist), who’s empathetic both to Ming-Lun and his father, acting as a voice of reason between the pair.

Everyone’s stress levels are tested though when the rebellious Ling-Ling is abducted by the Martians, and all manner of strange phenomenon starts to occur. Gravity disappears, time runs backwards, and even boiling rain starts to fall from the sky. Ming-Lun insists science has the answer, and begs his father to evacuate to safety, however his belief won’t be tested. If he can finish the Guan Yu statue, the God’s will protect them. So the scene is set for an early Taiwanese classic imbuing the dramatic themes that emerged during the new wave, pitting the youths trust in science and rejection of tradition against the aging populations beliefs in the God’s who protect them. I have to confess it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I enjoy a good drama as much as the next guy, so resigned myself to the fact that the movie I wanted The War God to be is quite far removed from the movie it actually is.

Then, the Martians arrive. What has, up until this point, felt like a sincerely serious sci-fi drama about inter-generational family conflict using other worldly interference as the backdrop, suddenly becomes something entirely different.  For all of the serious talk about the vast intelligence the Martians hold, when the trio finally arrive in Hong Kong in all of their bug eyed wobbly suited glory, they proceed to swagger around the streets like teenage hooligans tanked up on a few too many hard ciders. Their highly advanced weapons turn out to basically be over sized clubs, and one of them I swear didn’t stop bellowing out distorted evil laughter for the entirety of their screen time (even doing a bit of a dance after causing some Martian mayhem). It’s a complete change in tone, and the absurdity of it is nothing less than hilarious.

As basic and cheap as the suits are, everything else is surprisingly well done. They have a sizable miniature set to stomp around with nicely detailed buildings, even if the toy cars leave a little to be desired, however by far the most entertaining aspect is that literally every structure seems rigged to explode. Basically anything that the Martians set their clubs to, or even stand on for that matter, explodes upon impact. I actually felt rather concerned for the men in the suits, since they literally spend a large portion of the runtime having explosions go off right next to them, with only a layer or 2 of rubber to protect themselves from the blast. Regardless, I’m sure they’d all lost a few pounds by the end of filming. One at least seems wise to the fact that it’s probably not the smartest idea to have explosions going off in your face, so noticeably turns his massively oversized head in the other direction whenever his club is about to strike.

As the title alludes to, despite the best effort of the scientists (including the creation of a completely useless laser gun), ultimately it’s Yu-Hsin’s prayer to Guan Yu that brings the statue to life, turning it into a kaiju sized guandao wielding alien ass kicker. Even the Martians themselves seem concerned upon his arrival, pointing out “It’s the God of China, he must know kung fu.” While information online is lacking as to who’s actually playing Yu Guan, I’d place my bets on it being popular kung-fu flick actor Lung Fei (Born Invincible, The Dream Sword). Watching a giant version of Yu Guan taking on a trio of Martians delivers all of the entertainment value you’d expect, with action choreography by He Ming-Hsiao, who previously handled the action on the likes of Shaolin Kung Fu and Fairy Fox.

Assuming it is Lung Fei, he does a stellar job of brandishing the guandao in the confines of the set, where it seems it would be incredibly easy to accidentally smash one of the miniature buildings that surround him. The Martians proceed to take blows from the unstoppable Yu Guan in a series of wobbly rubber suited falls, often in slow motion so it looks even more ridiculous, and almost always into the remnants of a building so that the impact of the fall can destroy whatever’s left. I’ll give the set designers and Ming-Hsiao their due, they really worked together to ensure almost nothing would be left standing by the end of the lengthy confrontation. I’m not sure if it was an intentional artistic choice, but the fact that so much stuff explodes also results in parts of the fights playing out in a smoky haze, which made things looks that little bit more epic than the budget alone would have allowed for. 

While I initially resigned myself to The War God being another of those movies where the idea of it turns out to be far more entertaining than actually watching it, with just a little bit of patience Hung-Min delivers a movie that truly delivers on the promise of a giant Chinese God battling it out with giant Martians. While Guan Yu has been interpreted for the screen many times over the years, it’s safe to say that his appearance here is unlike any of his other big screen outings, adding an almost gonzo flavour to the experience (just minus any intentional irony). Whether you’re into kaiju, science fiction, or even kung-fu, The War God is one of those curiosities that lives up to its wild premise, and for that it’s worth checking out.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10