Somewhere in the mess of images I just sat through is a movie… probably. There’s no discernible plot or meaning, but there was a lot of color, movement, blood, and smoke. Portrait In Crystal is a Shaw Brothers production, but not one of their typical kung fu epics, it’s one of a lesser-known subgenre of wacky black magic shenanigans the brothers made in their later years. I think eventually they had made enough money to take a few crazy risks. Brother Run Run could just give a director some cash and tell him to make something flashy. Portrait In Crystal is indeed flashy. It’s an eye-popping bonanza, or more to the point, it’s an entire body-popping bonanza. Quite a few people swell up and explode into bloody chunks of red paint and fabric.
It was directed by Shan Ha in Hong Kong in 1983. The whole thing is a bit like a nonsensical MTV video. There is some stuff that just seems like it was thrown in for effect. At one point, the screen goes black and a high-contrast silhouette appears before us with rainbow colors floating through it. I don’t know why, but it’s pretty.
If you are lucky, when you sit down to watch a Shaw Brothers production, it will be comedy-free. If you are not lucky, it will feature a comic character. In the history of humanity, there isn’t much worse than the Shaw Brothers' idea of comedy. Often, it comes in the form of a squinty-eyed, buck-toothed buffoon who incessantly bows and says “eh” between every word. It’s like a Chinese version of a black-faced minstrel.
In Portrait in Crystal, we are spared this indignity, but we are given another dreadfully common trope, that of the “funny fat guy.” The Show Brothers' “fat guy” is always very strong, very stupid, very clumsy, and very hungry. He wobbles around the screen trying either to woo the ladies or find a free meal. To add insult to injury, his movements are often punctuated with a kettle drum. In Portrait in Crystal, the main character's assistant is one such fat guy.
The film is one of a pile of films about the legendary Wong Fei-hung, a real person who lived in China from 1847 to 1925. He was a martial artist, doctor, acupuncturist, and activist. His life story has been told and retold, exaggerated, and mythologized into a series of heroic tales featuring superhuman feats of courage and skill. He’s a favorite of Jet Li. Wong Fei-hung is to Jet Li as Ip Man is to Donnie Yen.
In Portrait in Crystal, Wong Fei-hung is not only a supernaturally talented kung fu practitioner, but a talented sculptor as well. The film opens with Wong Fei-hung completing a crystal statue of a woman. He accidentally gets a little blood on it, and then it becomes an animated, murdering menace flying around and cutting people up.
The film consists of everyone trying to either kill the crystal sculpture, or kill Wong Fei-Hung, or kill each other. The movie ends when everyone is dead, except for the titular character, of course. One of the more endearing qualities of almost all the Shaw Brothers' films is that epilogues are simply not allowed. The instant the bad guy dies, the movie is over. “The End”, not one more word.
You can’t watch Portrait in Crystal for the characters, dialogue, plot, or theme, none of that makes any sense at all, but there is some pretty good fight choreography and some really strange situations. Such as the one shown above. This is the sort of film where you are better off just letting go and letting Run Run take the wheel.
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