05 December 2007
Imagine being entirely ignorant of Moses and watching The Ten Commandments and you’ll have a rough idea of what watching The Goddess Of Mercy is like for non-Buddhists. Now take out all of the scenes where Moses acts like a jerk, and you’ll start to grasp how the film’s shallowness.
Made as a co-production with South Korea, "Goddess" tells the story of religious icon Kuan Yin, he bodhisattva of compassion, who, in her earthly form of Li Miao Shan, brought Buddhism to ancient China and ascended into heaven. Shaw Brothers knew that their Chinese (and, I assume, Korean) audiences would already know the story of Kuan Yin, so they replaced all of the exposition with spectacle.
The result is a movie that, by 1967 Shaw Brothers standards, is chock-a-block with special effects — magical bridges appear from nowhere, force fields protect besieged peasants, battles rage over wide-open plains. Filmed mostly in South Korea, Goddess takes advantage of the new scenery and delivers some nice outdoor visuals.
The downside to all these glamour shots is a painfully simplistic story that neglects to fill in the important details. For example, we never see Miao convert to Buddhism. In one scene she says she’s interested and later on she’s a committed follower.
Any film about religious struggle needs to live in the grey areas where faith falters; how else are human audiences going to sympathize with the characters? Goddess, however, banishes grey and only recognizes black and white. Miao and the other Buddhists are presented as unfailing saints while non-believers twist their Snidely Whiplash mustaches and cackle over slaughtered farmers.
The closest Goddess comes to critiquing Miao is in a odd dance number. After Miao and her dancers finish singing the praises of Buddhism, her militaristic father (Kim Song-ho) beats out a vicious martial tattoo while his soldiers dance and sing a pean to killing and murder. It’s an odd scene, but it has more life than the rest of the film.
While shooting in Korea, Shaw Brothers made the film twice. Once with longtime Chinese box office queen Li Li-Hua in the starring role, and a second time with a Korean actress taking the lead. Celestial has only released the Hong Kong version so far.