The Human Goddess Review
I recall once seeing Hong Kong’s action maestro John Woo being interviewed at the BFI more than a couple of decades ago, where he pondered whether it was time for a change in direction and make something lighter - perhaps even a musical. I suddenly had visions of Woo channelling his directing skill away from the usual balletic gunplay that audiences had grown to expect and instead orchestrating some elaborate Busby Berkeley style showstoppers. This obviously never came to fruition, with the Shaw Brothers alum sticking instead to the high-octane thrillers that had made him world renowned.
More recently, Jackie Chan also surprised audiences on the same stage by bursting into song during an interview and crooning his way through a couple of numbers. Chan may have trained at the Peking Opera School early in his career, but for UK audiences those singing talents have been largely confined to playing over the end credits of his action masterpieces – where we usually see those painful looking outtakes of stunts gone awry.
While Western audiences may be more accustomed to watching spectacular martial arts from Hong Kong over the years, the prolific Shaw Brothers dabbled in a variety of genres over several decades from the 1950s onwards. They produced nearly a thousand movies during that time, ranging from traditional Huangmei operas to Wuxia epics. One of their biggest female stars was the talented Ching Lee – who sadly passed away earlier this year - had a career that spanned 60 films. This filmography included several musicals for the Shaw Brothers, such as The Mermaid (1965) and quirky fantasy The Human Goddess [Xian nu xia fan] (1972).
Directed by Shaw Brothers regular Ho Meng Hua, The Human Goddess sees Lee playing Seventh Sister, who is sent down from the heavens to check out life in the mortal world - or early seventies Hong Kong to be precise. Wandering the streets, her romanticised view of what earth must be like is soon changed, as she witnesses poverty and people struggling to make ends meet, allowing some social commentary to creep into the film about Hong Kong during that era. She comes to realise that not everyone who crosses her path is virtuous either, by observing a robbery and getting unwanted attention from a couple of goons. Coming to her rescue is kind-hearted Dong (Feng Chin), who later explains that he runs Zili’s orphanage with his best friend Bull (Peng Peng), but confides that it’s under threat of closure by unscrupulous cigar chomping land developer Xu Caifa (Peng-Fei Li). Unless considerable debts are paid off in the coming days, the children will be thrown out onto the streets. Seventh Sister feels compelled to help with his plight and Dong rapidly finds himself falling for her charms.
We learn that Seventh Sister has a penchant for bursting into song at every opportune moment, whether it’s standing on a balcony or walking besides Victoria Harbour. When she belts out a tune, it’s not just the local children who stand completely enchanted, even passing birds swoop down to take a closer look. These bright and breezy sequences provide the perfect showcase for Lee's vocal skills, even though the choreography might not be as polished as some of those Hollywood classics. One notable musical number, where the cast warble “we all have a pair of hands”, has Seventh Sister teaching some youngsters the virtues of working hard to make life better. There’s also a bizarre “lets put on a show” scene where most of the cast take to the stage for a charity gala - and even the six other goddesses come down to lend a hand.
Rather like Samantha in Bewitched, Seventh Sister possesses magical abilities, enabled in this case by some slight hand movements. This comes in very useful along the way for righting wrongs, or just causing general mischief. It allows the film to indulge in a plethora of slapstick, some of which works better than others. This being a Shaw Brothers release, there’s also some kung fu thrown in for good measure. The tone is uneven to say the least, with a few moments of broader humour that seem out of place in a film that is essentially quite sweet-natured. It could have done with being slightly shorter too, one scene where Dong is humiliated by a magician seems superfluous and doesn’t further the story.
Visually the film is very dated, not just down to the garish threads worn by various characters, but the quaint optical FX. There’s a sequence where Seventh Sister uses her mystical powers to soar over rooftops in a flying car which may have proven a step too far for the special effects department – watch out for some truly woeful miniatures and back projection. Despite the film not always quite hitting the mark, the cast work hard to entertain and the charm of leading lady Ching Lee really shines through.
The Human Goddess has not previously been available in the UK, so the new Blu-ray from 88 Films – forming part of their Asia Collection - marks the film’s belated debut. Hong Kong based company Celestial Pictures now own a large proportion of the Shaw Brothers film library and this release originates from their restored HD master.
The transfer is free from any obvious defects, such as specks and lines, and preserves the original “Shawscope” 2.35:1 ratio. Colours of the costumes and interiors appear suitably vibrant throughout, though the clarity of HD unfortunately in this case only further accentuates some terribly dated optical effects work.
Audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0, with the original Mandarin soundtrack accompanied with English subtitles. There are no discernible issues such as background crackle.
The disc is light on additional material, but there is a colourful slipcase and reversible sleeve featuring alternate Hong Kong artwork, together with liner notes by Calum Waddell which discusses 1970s Hong Kong cinema.
The Human Goddess is released by 88 Films and is available now on Blu-ray.