You know I said you'll see nothing like Team America: World Police? I lied. Made in 2000, but falling firmly into the "hyperviolent puppets behaving badly" genre is this feature from Taiwan. Though here they're rod puppets rather than marionettes, and the genre is kung-fu, not Hollywood action. Director Huang comes from a long line of puppeteers; his grandfather brought the concept to Taiwanese TV in the 70's, with a show so popular that at one point 97% of the audience watched it. This film topped the home box-office, a rare feat for a local production, but still only pulled in one-third of its $10m budget - who knew dolls were so expensive?
It revolves around - yes, you guessed it - a sacred stone that can grant wishes, with the minor side-effect that it kills the wishee. Thus, horribly disfigured Lord Jian wants his daughter to wish for his complete recovery and infinite strength, which seems callous; why not just find a condemned criminal? Anyway, the good guys start off by suppressing Mo Kuei, an all-powerful villain who then vanishes from the plot. There are also the Unfriendlies, who look like the Grim Reaper and can take their enemies' form, a trap-laden underground complex and many high-octane action sequences. Just in case you've forgotten, these all involve puppets.
However, the film also seamlessly integrates CGI and digital work, plus physical sets and pyrotechnic effects (not least, tiny blood squibs), leaving the overall effect nothing short of spectacular. Particular praise for editor Hsiao Ru-guang, who proves that you can use rapid cuts and still have a coherent scene. This makes it all the more a shame that one guy does every voice, including the daughter, leaving this aspect feeling cheap and badly-done. The story is unfocused too, though that's par for the course in the flying fantasy genre and the end result remains a small-scale masterpiece. It certainly dims my admiration of Parker and Stone's "originality" significantly.