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Dead can dance
A region 2 DVD review of ATTACK OF THE JOYFUL GODDESS by Slarek
 

Somewhat misleadingly marketed as a martial arts actioner, Attack of the Joyful Goddess (aka Attack of the God of Joy, aka Assault of the Joyful Goddess) must rank as the oddest release so far from the new masters of cheapjack kung-fu film transfers, 55th Chamber. And I mean that as a compliment.

The story kicks off when the cast of a travelling Chinese Opera group are visited backstage by the Commander of the local militia, whose always-gets-what-he-wants status they, as visitors, are blissfully unaware of. This is why they advise him to bugger off when he tries it on with leading lady Lily Fa, having first made the mistake of attempting to woo effeminate female impersonator Rainbow. But the Commander has fallen for Lily and wants her as his concubine, so has his gun-carrying representative inform the group's manager that if Lily cannot be persuaded to succumb to his charms, then the entire company will be killed. This presents a serious problem for the manager, as Lily is in love with leading man Handsome Liu (no, that's his name, not my personal opinion of his devilish good looks), and is unlikely to co-operate while he is still around. The proposed solution is to Kill Liu, and to avoid any of the company being shopped by their innocent colleagues it is decided that everyone should have a hand in the murder. You would NOT want these guys as your work colleagues.

Now up to this point this has been a fairly mundane and familiar drama of wealthy officials who abuse their power and those who are prepared to make a stand against it, laced with a dollop of backstage melodrama, all of which is made harder to take by a ropey English dub and a severely cropped print (more on that later). But once the decision has been made to kill Liu the film shifts into a different gear, and the sequence in which he is dispatched – when even the most reluctant participants (the aptly named Tiger and Mouse being the main two) are forced to do their bit – is handled with macabre aplomb, with the added bonus that no-one opens their (dubbed) mouths. With Liu's death, supernatural elements that were only hinted at in the first half (simple-minded, virginal Jenny becomes mysteriously pregnant after turning a Joy God doll face upwards in its trunk, a notoriously unlucky move we are informed), move up to centre stage and Liu's spirit returns to point Lily towards the truth and cast members begin mysteriously dying in rapid succession.

All of which proves surprisingly engaging, if not always completely coherent, with Jenny giving explosive birth to a human-sized Joy God, which may or may not be working with Liu or actually be Liu – it certainly has it in for the murderous troupe and the corrupt Commander. This comes to a spectacular head in a climax that has to be seen to be believed, a mind-boggling mixture of smartly choreographed kung-fu, cheap special effects, drug-trip imagery and hallucinogenic editing, as Liu, Tiger and Mouse box and kick their way to vengeful justice, and the human-sized Joy God doll unleashes supernatural fury on all and sundry in what almost amounts to a cinematic Peking Opera spectacle. Honestly, if you start on the film and it doesn't grab you, then you still ought to shoot forward to catch this – it's unlikely you'll have seen anything quite like it.

It's this second half that makes Attack of the Joyful Goddess much more than an interesting curio, and to be honest is almost enough to move it into the realms of the must-see were it not for...

sound and vision

OK, I'm on my fourth release from budget martial arts label 55th Chamber now and I have to admit that I'm almost getting used to the grubby quality of the prints and transfers, though that doesn't mean I like what I see. Once again this looks like it's been hauled off of an NTSC VHS tape with all of the image and sound issues that would suggest – contrast is all over the place, there is ghosting on movement, and dust, dirt and scratches are never far away. The picture also intermittently gets the judders, and the digital blocking in a few of the final shots is quite spectacular. But the biggest problem of all has to be the cropping of the original scope frame down to a constrictive 4:3, pushing faces, action and in a couple of cases the person who is talking right out of the picture, which actually makes some scenes difficult to follow. And this is not just your usual pan-and-scan crop, no sir. You won't be able to see this on most CRT TVs with their overscan issues, but if you have an LCD or plasma then spin through to about 21:30 and watch the bottom of the screen carefully and you'll catch the very top of what looks to be Chinese subtitles on two shots. This means that the transfer is not just cropped at the sides, but at the bottom as well, which would account for the shots in which there is plenty of head room but no chins or, in one case, mouth. Strangely, it's that bizarre final scene where the picture looks its best, the colours in some shots looking surprisingly strong.

According to my amp, the sound is 5.1, but don't let that familiar decimal fool you – this is mono through and through, a little fluffy at first and a lot more fluffy for the final third. As ever we only have the English dub, and if you enjoy these for the comedy value then there's plenty of material here, with sentences broken up into clunky segments to match mouth movements done in a range of ever-changing accents, from faked American drawls to Middle England prim to barely disguised 'cor blimey' cockney. The dialogue itself is sometimes a riot, from Liu's description of the troupe as "this grotty group playing trash holes" to reaction to Jenny's inexplicable pregnancy: "Pregnant? You mean she's with child?" Star Trek fans will be particularly amused at the doctor's response to being asked how this could have happened when he tells the inquisitor, "I'm a doctor, not a detective!"

extra features

No surprises here. The Attack of the Joyful Goddess UK Promotional Trailer (1:09) was probably knocked up in the 55th Chamber offices, while the Image Gallery (0:57) has some interesting promotional stills. there's also a promo for other 55th Chamber releases and a couple of web links.

summary

Checking this film's user rating on the IMDB it is, at the time of writing, shockingly low, but is also the result of just 7 votes, and I'll bet six of them were expecting an all-out kung-fu film and a better print. Personally I rather liked it, specifically for Liu's gruesome murder, the increasingly bizarre second half and that completely nutball climax. If some enterprising soul were to track down a decent print with the original Chinese dub and do a proper job of the transfer then I'd buy it in a second. The film certainly deserves better handling than it gets here.

Attack of the Joyful Goddess
aka Attack of the God of Joy
aka Assault of the Joyful Goddess

Hong Kong 1983
92 mins
directors
Cheh Chang
Feng Lu
starring
Sheng Chiang
Hsu Chung Fei
Cheung Lee
Chien Sheng Lee
Feng Lu
Chien Tien Su

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 cropped
sound
Dolby 5.1 mono
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Trailer
Gallery
distributor
55th Chamber
release date
Out now
review posted
6 June 2005