One of the most beautifully photographed Shaw Brothers movies, Descendent of the Sun unfolds like a Chinese fairytale awash with rainbow colours and charming, handmade, George Méliès style special effects. The opening clips from The Monkey Goes West (1964), A Maid from Heaven (1963), The Goddess of Mercy (1967) and Madame White Snake (1962) place it amidst the pantheon of classic Shaw Brothers mythological epics, but spot the plot parallels between this and the tale of a certain last son of Krypton…
In Fairyland, where celestial palaces float swathed in fluffy pink clouds, righteous superhero Yuen Jan Ji (Ngai Fei) and his fairies vanquish the Devil (Wong Lik). This cosmic battle is destined to reoccur in the mortal world, after heaven births two supernatural babies. The good “Solar Baby” falls to earth inside a glowing glacier and is discovered by a kindly woodcutter (Cheng Miu), who raises him as his own son. Growing up, Shih Sheng (Fan Siu Wong, later star of The Story of Ricky (1991)) quickly discovers he’s not like other boys. For starters he can make barren peach trees sprout fruit, levitate chickens into the cooking pot, lift a cartload of tree trunks off his captive dad, and start fires with his mind. He also vexes local bullies by being invulnerable and super strong.
Years later he grows into a handsome lad (Derek Yee, now an acclaimed art-house auteur) and rediscovers the magical cave where resides a heavenly obelisk carrying the spirit of Yuen Jan Ji. Revealing our hero’s real name is Yuen Ying, the spirit teaches him how to control his yin yang energy, and thus fly across the sky and blast psychedelic energy beams from his palms. Far out, man.
When corrupt government officials raid his village for slave labour, Shih thrashes them with his superpowers and hides out at the celestial palace ruled by a beautiful Princess (achingly lovely Cherie Chung). Wisecracking handmaidens Bao Er (Yeung Jing-Jing, star of Shaw’s excellent Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983)) and Bei Er (Yau Chui-Ling) give him grief for inadvertently freeing her caged birds. But Shih magically retrieves the errant birdies, then charms the palace parrot into reciting the erotic verse Dreams of the Red Chamber. This rib-tickling stunt persuades the Princess to make him the palace houseboy.
Meanwhile, the Princess’ uncle, the Prince Regent (Lung Tien-Hsiang) secretly presides over a black magic cult called the Intelligence Clan. “I want to kill all the stupid people in the kingdom!” he barks to his minions. His pioneering eugenics programme involves a conveyor belt of babies being subject to evil experiments, preserving the strong and eliminating the weak. Realising his niece is close to discovering the truth, the Prince Regent sends in a band of hired killers. A quick-change into his shiny gold costume and Yuen Ying saves the day, preserving his Clark Kent alter-ego as the palace klutz. His heroic deeds spread across the heavenly kingdom, as the plucky Princess falls hopelessly in love with her mystery superman.
But then the Prince Regent stumbles onto the glowing green egg that brings Evil Baby Mo Ying (yes, that’s his full name) to Earth. Exploding from his shell as a death-ray spewing, black clad baddie (Ku Kwun-Chung), he is every bit Yuen Ying’s equal. Worse, he knows his kryptonite-like only weakness: a solar eclipse. Together the villains plan to unleash a “solar holocaust”, using the blood of a righteous woman (guess who?) to trap the sun, so darkness will reign forever…
Including scenes where the Princess pulls a Lois Lane and fakes a leap off the palace ledge to draw out her hero, or takes a moonlit flight with Yuen Ying across the heavens, the Shaw Brothers were definitely out to imitate Superman: The Movie (1978). Nevertheless, Descendant of the Sun stands well in enough on its own two feet and has proven enduringly popular. Partly because for many years it was one of the few Shaw Brothers movies easily accessible on videocassette.
Running a mere eighty-three minutes, its plot speeds by as if someone spliced the first two Superman movies together with Chinese fairytales, a few Shakespeare comedies, and Hong Kong kiddie comics, then pressed the fast-forward button. Old-fashioned when compared to rival studio Golden Harvest’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and not as ambitious in its subtext, this still spins a ripping yarn and with veteran Chu Yuan at the helm, features moments romantic and sublime.
Thankfully, Cherie gets more to do in Descendant… than model beautiful costumes, since it is the Princess’ ingenuity that finally saves the day. Similarly Derek Yee gets a rare chance to break away from stoic heroism and indulge in some goofy comedy. This includes his running feud with those bossy handmaidens and a funny bit where Shih Sheng is trussed up inside a flying harness, forced to model for a portrait of his own alter-ego.
Chu Yuan’s poetic touch is evident in a poignant exchange between princess and peasant inside a fog and flora filled enchanted cave. He goes all out showcasing the artistry of Shaw’s production team, with amazing sets and model work recreating a children’s storybook world. A centrepiece wizardly duel recalls The Sword in the Stone (1963) with combatants transforming into a scuttling crab, blood-drinking tree, flying carpet, a magical axe and… garden shears. Ghosts, ghouls and flesh-eating zombies come out to play for the memorable finale, while connoisseurs of cartoon laser beams will delight in the cosmic duel which transforms the screen into a psychedelic lightshow.