The Wizard of Oz must be confusing to a young child. You have the good witch, and the bad witch, and the witch’s sister. Then there’s Oz who is kind of like a witch and then all the supporting roles, and musical numbers. Watching The Wizard of Oz as a seven year old must be a lot like how I felt watching The Land of Many Perfumes as a 52 year old.
The two films are similar in that they are both epic, magical, technicolor, road movies, starring a rag tag bunch of friends determined to get to their destination. It seems like both movies were intended for children but I’m not sure. The Land of Many Perfumes has a scene just like the Wizard of Oz where the trees come alive and grab people, but unlike in The Wizard of Oz, The Land of Many Perfumes’ trees crush their victims in an eruption of sparks and turn them into skeletons that topple to the ground.
There’s another scene where our heroes are trapped in a magic ring of fire like Brunhilda. One of our heroes is the monkey god who jumps into action and flies up into the sky where, much to everyone’s chagrin, he puts out the fire by urinating on everyone. Who exactly is the appropriate target audience for that?
The Land of Many Perfumes is based on the 16th Century novel Journey To The West, which in turn is based on even older legends. The story is an integral part of Chinese culture. There are operas and movies and many varied retellings of it. The fight scene’s in The Land of Many Perfumes are set to the classic clanging of cymbals and gongs from traditional Chinese opera. I pride myself on eclectic musical tastes but man that clanging is rough.
The Land of Many Perfumes is loosely based on just a portion of the novel but even so any attempt to recount the plot or summarize what happens in the film would take quite a few pages. Over all it is basically a comedy of errors that resembles a Danny Kay or Bob Hope movie. Half of the characters in The Land of Many Perfumes can transform themselves to look like the other half of the characters.
At the center of it all is a young Buddhist monk who everyone either wants to kill or marry, or both. He is traveling with three companions, a half-man, half-pig named PaJe, an elegant bearded man named Friar Sand, and the Monkey God. Together they must suffer attacks from an entirely female cast of characters. There is the queen of The Land of Many Perfumes who wants to marry the monk, her daughter the princess who also wants to marry him. Then there are the forest spirits who want to kill him for some reason, and then there are the 1000 year old scorpion spirit and her partner the 1000 year old snake spirit who want the monk for themselves. You don’t want to be the subject of these dangerous two ladies attention. The only weapon that can defeat them is the moon king’s chicken. Luckily the chicken shows up later in kaiju form and makes a bloody mess of them both.
An odd thing about the original novel as well as the film is that most of the characters seem to be omnipotent or at least close, sort of semi-potent. The monk’s goal is to find a sutra that the Buddha has told him to retrieve and it seems as if anyone of the characters could simply zap themselves to where the sutra is and zap back. The monkey god spends the whole movie teleporting all over the universe, but if he just zapped the sutra into their waiting hands there wouldn’t be a story or a giant, killer chicken.
Visually the film is bright with super saturated color and plenty of pyrotechnics. The costumes and especially the elaborate hairdos are sight to behold. There are some crazy special effects that may fall a bit shy of seamless but they are still quite entertaining.
There’s a musical number too. The pig-man sings a sort of smug ode to himself in the bath house. There is some synchronized dancing in the palace court as well. A little something for everyone. There is even a moral of sorts. Several of the characters learn that the presence of the opposite sex makes them crazy. The message avoids blaming either gender and instead focuses on how we all are easily distracted from our purpose by romance. I think Buddha would be pleased with that.
The film was made in 1968 and directed by Meng-Hua Ho. It’s one of four films that the Shaw Brothers made based on parts of Journey To The West.The Land of Many Perfumes is the fourth in the series after The Monkey Goes West, Princess Iron Fan and Cave of the Silken Web. The Shaw Bothers vast filmography is a compendium of Chinese culture and history. It may be filtered through the glamour and spectacle of pop but it is there none the less providing a rich foundation for the elaborate productions the Shaw brothers are famous for.
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