Legend of the Sacred Stone (2000)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Retro Puppet Master

Thunderbirds are GO!

Bride of Chucky

Legend of the Sacred Stone

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"...Unless you happen to
have your hand up my ass."
There’s one school of thought that says, if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.

There’s another, similar school of thought that states, my life could end happily right now if only there were a violent kung fu film starring puppets.

Those people of the second school may now make their appointments with Dr. Kervorkian. From Taiwan comes Legend of the Sacred Stone, an all-puppet special effects extravaganza set in China 400 years ago. It’s actually the feature film version of a highly successful TV show, which, along with the fact that we saw it translated to English via Japanese, may explain why it is not the most coherent story we’ve ever watched.

And he's a member of the KISS Army.
Legend of the Sacred Stone opens with a huge battle that takes place on a mountaintop. On one side of the clash is Mo Kuei, a demon-empowered warrior so powerful he can throw his enemies around like they are rag dolls. Of course, his enemies are rag dolls, but take our word for it: Mo Kuei is pretty strong. On the other side are the heads of the six schools, who are all basically over-accessorized pusses, and three holy warriors, who represent the only real hope of defeating Mo Kuei. After Mo Kuei is thrown into the earth he emerges with powers that make him “invincible,” a word this movie throws around quite a bit, usually right before the “invincible” character proves to be quite "vincible." In response to the newly empowered Mo Kuei, the three holy warriors employ their own individual techniques. The first warrior uses “Gentleman’s Wind,” the second uses “Hatred of Heaven and Earth,” and the third uses an unnamed power that involves fireballs erupting out of his body and spikes shooting out of his mouth. We’ll call it “Bad Meal at Taco Bell.”

He may never play the violin again.
This sequence introduces us to the most disturbing thing about Legend of the Sacred Stone: the puppets bleed. This is particularly strange because beyond bleeding and being flexible enough to perform kung fu, these puppets aren’t particularly realistic depictions of the human form. Their faces are completely immobile, and their features are very simplistic -- so much so that some of the characters can only be told apart by their clothing. They just don’t look real enough to bleed. Most other films and TV shows that portray puppets with biological processes do so for the comic shock value, such as Meet the Feebles and Ken Begg’s favorite film, Let My Puppets Come. Legend of the Sacred Stone, on the other hand, is utterly serious. If you'll allow us a bit of a Dave Barry moment, however, we'd like to point out that "The Bleeding Puppets" would make one helluva name for a punk rock band.

Watch out for the evil cyborg nun!
The heads of the six schools take the now-immobilized Mo Kuei to a remote place where they can bury his body, hopefully forever.  Before they can finish, however, the group is attacked by demon warriors called the Unfriendlies. The Unfriendlies ("Now opening for The Bleeding Puppets… The Unfreindlies!") are kind of like skeletons wearing black cloaks, but they also seem to have a mechanical aspect to them, and after seeing what they do to the heads of the six schools we decided the mechanical part of the Unfriendlies are from a blender, and they've been set to puree. In no time flat the heads of the six schools are in about 600 pieces.

To make a long story short, the Unfriendlies make off with Mo Kuei and he never shows up again. No, really. The big bad guy becomes a footnote in the story, while our heroes (an almost completely different bunch than the ones we started with) face off against the Unfriendlies for the rest of the movie. Herein lies one of the major problems for Western audiences -- there's simply too much back story to absorb in ninety minutes. It would be like watching a Simpsons feature film without ever having seen an episode of the TV show. Only, you know, with serious dramatic undertones, mystical kung-fu action, and puppets who bleed when you stab them.

"I'm feeling a little stiff, but otherwise fine."
But wait, it gets even worse. In Chinese all the character's voices are dubbed by one man… even the female characters! And he doesn't really vary his voice by much. As if we weren't having enough trouble getting through the long dialogue passages of non-emoting puppets, most of the time they sound like they're talking to themselves.

Legend of the Sacred Stone (can you believe we have to start another synopsis for this picture?) more or less centers around Lord Jian, a former nobleman whose family (with the exception of his loyal daughter, Ru-Bing) was killed by the Unfriendlies years ago. Jian himself was disfigured by the demons (earning him the nickname "Mister Boneskin" -- which could easily be an album name for The Bleeding Puppets), and his remaining days have been spent plotting revenge and searching for a way to restore his former good looks.

Get this guy on
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy STAT!
To this end, Jian -- who gets our votes for The Puppet Most Likely To Make You Vomit -- asks Ru-Bing to recruit the legendary martial arts master Su Huan-Jen (one of the few continuing characters whom we saw in the opening battle) in the cause of retrieving the Heaven Stone. Bear with us, because this is where the movie becomes the plot equivalent of a Legend of Zelda video game. Retrieving the Stone requires two keys, of which Ru-Bing has one. Together the keys and the Stone will provide access to the Mirror of Pu-Ti, which can dispel souls. Su Huan-Jen knows that finally destroying the evil soul of Mo Kuei will keep him from ever reincarnating again. Huan-Jen therefore agrees to help out, if only to keep the Unfreindlies from acquiring the Heaven Stone.

While Su (yes, he's a Boy Named Su) and his sidekick Ching Yang Zi -- who is apparently the world's deadliest zither player -- seek the keys and the Heaven's Stone, Ru-Bing visits her father's old friend Ao Hsiao Hong-Chen, a bitter hermit (but, you know, in a hunky sort of way). Ao, who just happens to be master of the "Imperial sword arts," agrees to aid Ru-Bing as well. There's a bit of rivalry and past bad blood between Su and Ao, though it's difficult to tell why through the translation. Suffice it to say that Ao is one puppet who acts like he's got a rod up his ass.

Next on FOX:
When Muppets Attack!
All of these plot elements come banging together in the middle when two things are revealed: first, that the power of the Heaven Stone is to grant wishes, though the wisher must sacrifice his own life as a part of the bargain. The second revelation is that the Unfriendlies can impersonate anyone they choose. That's right, friends, in a film with a muddled translation, limited voice acting and puppets so closely modeled on one another that it's difficult to tell the characters apart, the audience is now called upon to comprehend a story in which we're not sure if we're watching the actions of a character or that character's doppelganger. No offense to the members of our puppet readership out there, but stolen-identity plots are hard enough to pull off with human actors. Puppets should stick to highly identifiable physical traits, distinctive clothing, and nametags where possible.

The Unfriendlies use their shape-changing powers to impersonate the various members of the cast, thereby pitting would-be allies against one another. There are several climactic fight scenes, lots of showy pyrotechnics (both digital and physical), and a couple of weepy death scenes in which puppets clutch one another as they croak. The End.

"...And it will be two days before
Geppetto can carve a replacement!"
The question we asked ourselves when we purchased this movie was: sure, it has puppets kicking ass, but are they any good at it? Rod puppetry is an ancient and revered art, sure, but can the sight of one finely-painted wood-and-cloth figure beating the tar out of another stir the blood in the same way as a good Jackie Chan or Jet Li flick? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is . . . sort of. It turns out that talented puppeteers and filmmakers -- and speaking technically, they are very good -- can actually make puppet combat compelling. The inspiration here is obviously the work of Ching Siu Tung (Chinese Ghost Story, Hero), and a scene of bridge combat is ably stolen from Last Hero in China. But no level of technical prowess can quite dispel the images we have of the Thunderbirds running through the backs of our heads. Suspended somewhere between the realism of live actors, and the escapist removal from reality supplied by animation, where you can believe just about anything (see Samurai Jack), puppetry action scenes may never quite satisfy. It really doesn't matter how much red food coloring you pump through their little foam rubber bodies.

Own it!

Review date: 02/20/2004

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