Starring Ming Lun Ku, Hsin Tang, Ling-Ling Hsieh, Yu-Hsin Chen
Directed by Hung Min Chen
Science versus religion. Fact versus faith. Of all the forms this great debate has taken over the millennia, none may be more bizarre than an extremely obscure 1976 Taiwanese giant monster flick about super-sized spacemen smashing cities and spitting in the face of Earth’s smartest scientists until an old man of great faith wills a statue of a regional deity to life that grows to Godzilla size and saves the Earth like a Chinese opera version of Ultraman.
If this is the first you’ve ever heard of War God: The Big Calamity (aka Zhan Shen), that’s probably because I wasn’t exaggerating when I described it as “extremely obscure.” Information is scarce, reviews are few, and prints of the film are hard to come by even in its country of origin, even on the notorious “grey” video market. The best print I found appears down a few generations taken from an Eighties Chinese VHS subtitled in both Mandarin and English (as was the custom when Britain controlled Hong Kong) with a letterboxed picture oddly cropped just enough on both sides to clip the subs on either end, making an already somewhat obtuse film a tad more perplexing to comprehend.
I consider it a crime that this film is so obscure and it took me so long to discover its existence. If, like me, you’re a fan of giant monster movies and berserk b-movies, then War God: The Big Calamity is an absolute must-see and worth going out of your way to find.
Family patriarch Chao is elderly, widowed, and desperate to finish sculpting a statue of the god Guan Yu before macular degeneration claims his eyesight. He is a man for whom nearly every word is either a declaration of his faith in the great majesty that is Guan Yu or a polite lecture directed at his adult children for putting too much value into worldly things such as work over family, living a carefree lifestyle, and, of course, that pesky little thing called science.
His son is a workaholic scientist employed by a government research group that appears to be one flying jet car away from being the Hong Kong branch of the Science Patrol from the original “Ultraman” series. He puts all his faith in science until his science proves fruitless in his efforts to combat intergalactic invaders, at which point he turns into a whimpering wreck down on his knees next to dad praying for a giant Chinese war god miracle.
The man literally invents the laser gun in a matter of hours, a world-changing scientific achievement done on the fly; but because these handheld laser pistols fail to kill ruthless space giants, he reacts as if his entire life has been an abject failure in pursuit of a worthless cause.
His sister is a reckless party girl prone to mocking both her straight-laced religious father and working stiff brother for not living it up like her. Until the night she gets sucked up into the sky and deposited back down to Earth with a message from unfriendly aliens from the angrier than usual red planet quite displeased that our atomic weaponry some way, somehow, who knows exactly, threatens their home planet. You better believe she’ll also be down on her knees hoping that dad’s devotion to Guan Yu will save us all when the Martians come to town.
Imagine for a moment if this were an American movie. Imagine an elderly Kirk Cameron, widowed and going blind, spending his twilight years obsessively whittling what he hopes will be a perfect statue of Jesus Christ, all the while perpetually scolding his adult children for their far too secular lifestyle. That statue then comes to life and transforms into The Amazing Colossal Christ, kicking the behemoth backsides of a trio of arrogant atheistic alien attackers, thus proving once and for all the superiority of faith over the fallacy of science.
You know what? I’d pay good money to see that version, too.
I should probably take a sec to explain who the heck this Guan Yu guy is for the uninitiated. Guan Yu was a legendary Chinese general who died in 220 AD and over the centuries has gone from being lionized in history for his military valor to being outright deified as the epitome of loyalty and righteousness. Typically depicted as an imposing red-faced figure adorned in an ancient military uniform and wielding a traditional Chinese bladed pole weapon called a Guan Do, statues of Guan Yu can be found throughout China and Southeast Asia, quite prominently in police stations where he is particularly revered.
And when little green men from outer space begin thrashing the Hong Kong skyline with sadistic glee, Guan Yu will be the first god on the scene to wage a holy war of the worlds.
Did I call them “little green men?” Sorry. These maniacal bio-mechanical Martians are several stories tall and white as can be. We’re talking Michelin Man spacesuit bodies with big bulbous helmet heads sporting antennae, bulging red bug eyes, and comic strip mouth slits; they speak with warbling reverberating voices that sound like a robot having a seizure. Spaced Invaders and that episode of “Married with Children” in which little green men with big heads invade Al Bundy’s home to steal his stinky socks for rocket fuel sprang to mind as I stared slack-jawed at these absurd-looking intergalactic destroyer of worlds portrayed as so unstoppable it literally takes a god to defeat them.
Another scientist dubiously touted as one of Earth’s best and brightest will theorize that their whiteness has to do with how they react to the rays of the sun. I believe this was also the same alleged genius who touted the size of their heads as concrete proof that they must be amongst the wisest beings in the universe. Ooooookaaaay. Good sciencing there, pal. Turns out he’s not entirely wrong, though, at least about the sun part. The second the sun begins to set, one Martian loses his powers so dramatically the other two must carry him back to their flying saucer like frat bros holding up a drunken buddy.
I have my own theory that the Martians being white might be a touch of veiled racism. Keep in mind the British still controlled Hong Kong at the time, they’ve often been portrayed as villains in Chinese cinema, and the moment they find themselves confronted by a skyscraper-sized Asian god, one of these superior albino alt-Mars aliens instantly stereotype Guan Yu by declaring that since he is Chinese, he must know kung fu.
Before the “Big Calamity” begins, the off-screen aliens will first show off their omnipotence via the cheapest, funniest camera tricks possible: people hot-foot it as “burning” rain falls from the sky, time briefly runs in reverse (i.e., they merely reverse the film), bonfire flames change color, people and things float on wires as gravity is shut off.
Those scenes visualizing the loss of gravity are priceless. A paperboy watches as the newspaper he tosses zips straight up to the top floor of an apartment building (yet, he never leaves the ground). A milkman keeps grabbing bottles of milk that try floating away. A little girl continues peddling as her bike slowly floats upwards.
After 40 minutes of debating science and faith and random acts of weirdness, a flying saucer that would make Ed Wood’s heart grow two sizes too large zips by on a string, randomly disintegrates a cow in a rice field, and beams down a trio of bobble-headed Martian city stompers in all their ridiculous glory — and I do mean “bobble-headed.” Their alien head helmets bobble about, nearly popping off more than a few times. War God: The Big Calamity finally escalates from being a modestly amusing slice of schlock cinema to a true gift from the b-movie gods that must be seen to be believed.
I have never seen monsters in a kaiju movie act this giddy while destroying a city. The Martians behave like bratty children bullying humanity, rubbing their superiority in our faces like big meanies the entire time. Vibrating with uproarious laughter as they smash skyscrapers using their laser-shooting staffs, waving those staffs in celebratory fashion while marching a path of cataclysmic destruction, sometimes skipping with childish glee as they reduce Hong Kong to rubble. A glorious sight to behold.
The Martians plan to destroy the entire world. There are only three of them. They can only work days, too. If their goal is total world decimation, it’s probably going to take a very long time. But, hey, at least they’ll have the time of their lives annihilating us.
The miniature work was done by a special effects artist who, fittingly, worked on the “Ultraman” series in Japan. It really shows in how the city sets look not quite up to Godzilla movie standards; yet, it’s still far better than you would expect from a low-budget Taiwanese monster movie, especially given how endearingly cheesy the alien costumes appear and the toy cars look more Playskool than Hot Wheels in terms of quality.
One of the staples of classic Japanese giant monster movies is the scenes of the military rolling out soldiers, tanks, missile launchers, fighter jets, etc. I can only assume that the British and Chinese governments were too busy arguing over who was supposed to send whose troops to fight the Martian menace threatening Hong Kong because no military ever makes its presence known. No wonder a Chinese god had to step in. Guan Yu even wins the argument of church vs. state in that regard.
The first Big Calamity proves something of a stalemate. Guan Yu fights more defensively, twirling his Guan Do and doing forms without making much contact with the equally cautious Martians. Guan Yu appears a bit off his game, a little stiff, possibly because he was merely a block of wood just a few minutes earlier. Think about it. You don’t bring Pinocchio to life and immediately sign him up for the Kumite.
The sun begins to set, and the Martians decide to call it a day while vowing to return tomorrow to pick up right where they left off. Guan Yu returns to statue form so the vision-impaired old man can realize that his devoted deity was not at full strength because he foolishly hadn’t finished painting on Guan Yu’s eyes. I guess, in a weird sort of way, Guan Yu went into the initial battle fighting blind. The moment Chao paints on the eyes, he proclaims that the statue is perfect and Guan Yu is finally “in epiphany.” If by epiphany he meant a ferocious red-faced war god ready to kick a gang of godless gargantuan gweilo all the way back to their angry red planet, then yes, he is truly in epiphany.
I was also in epiphany watching the climactic 20 minutes of non-stop action and unhinged insanity. An anything goes, no holds barred, bunkhouse battle royale, logic is banned from ringside. Continuing with the wrestling analogy, the Big Calamity turns out to be something of a squash match as nothing the Martians do has any real effect on Guan Yu, and the Chinese war god mostly toys with them before crushing, smashing, slashing, and dismembering them. Guan Yu 3:16 opens a can of whoop ass on Degeneration M.
The aliens cross their laser streams, somehow creating a rope net that drops from the sky upon the mighty Guan Yu, who instantly either electrifies or super heats the ropes to escape. Not sure exactly what happened there, but then I’m not exactly sure what happened for most of this movie.
One of the Martians reveals psychic levitation powers and attempts to fling a building containing a couple making out inside who I can only assume are deaf, dumb, and blind or had simply decided that since they’re probably about to get exterminated by aliens, this might be their last chance to get some nookie.
Did you know if you decapitate a Martian, his head just starts bobbing in mid-air while the headless…
You know what? I’m not even going to attempt to describe the Big Calamity in words. You can’t do it justice with mere words. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I’ve already written more than two thousand words about War God: The Big Calamity. Now here’s just a 90-second taste of the insanity that speaks for itself, and believe me when I tell you it only scratches the surface of the unhinged lunacy this little known gem offers.
Prepare to experience epiphany.