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Cave of the Spider Women
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by Jay Seaver

"Vintage Chinese pulp."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: As a fan of a fair number of things that intersect in "Cave if the Spider Women", I'm curious to what extent China is re-embracing, locating, and restoring the silent fantasies made in Shanghai before much of the movie industry fled to Hong Kong. Even in incomplete form, these movies are a lot of fun, ripe for rediscovery by those who like Asian action or silents, let alone the combination.

This one is a tale from The Journey to the West, with virtuous monk Xuanzang (Jiang Meikung) charged with fetching a set of sacred scrolls from India. On the way, he and his party meet a group of beautiful women whose leader (Yin Mingzhu) apparently sees him as a potential husband - although, given that she is actually a spider spirit, he should probably be more cautious, considering what those arachnids often do to their mates. Trusting as the monk is, it may be up to his half-human disciples Pigsy (Zhou Hongquan) and Monkey King Sun Wukong (Wu Wenchao) to extricate him from this situation.

The restored version from the National Library of Norway runs about an hour and is missing both the first reel and some footage in the middle, but that doesn't make it particularly difficult to follow, especially for those who are already familiar with Journey to the West. The chapter gains indicate that it was originally a serial, but the restored feature version doesn't regularly do much to catch the audience up; director Dan Duyu figures you're there for action and gets to it, even if there is a slightly episodic feel.

Because of that, Cave of the Spider Women is primed to deliver a delightfully pulpy experience, and the filmmakers seldom let the audience down. Anything can happen where the Monkey King's magic is involved, and the spider women are delightfully two-faced villains, sweet and seductive around Xuanzang (but not so much as to break decorum or be obviously hiding something) and dryly discussing murder with their cackling, deeply-tanned, loincloth-clad henchmen in the kitchen. The action is delightfully larger than life, with giant weapons, frantic jumping about, and the sort of morbid slapstick and weird transformations you either roll with or brand yourself a sourpuss.

The film has a fun, energetic cast as well. Yin Mingzhu was a popular model before taking to the screen, and she makes her character a casually-charming villainess, and she's not alone; all of the spider women with any sort of active part deliver all one could want. Jiang Meikung gives the monk an almost feminine air but manages to be more likable than ineffectual despite his pure-heated, passive role. Wu Wenchao is a manic, ever-moving Monkey King, not just one of the first to play this mischief-maker on screen, but one of the best.

The film was a hit in China, but the makers of this kind of movie soon devalued for Hong Kong and did not bring copies of their films with them, which is why it and many like it wound up lost. Hopefully the newfound acceptance of these fantasy adventures will not just see new ones made, but an effort to recover these older films, because if "Cave of the Spider Women" is in any way representative, there's some great pulp to be shared with the world there.

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originally posted: 05/30/15 16:59:07
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Directed by
  Dan Duya

Written by
  Dan Duya

  Meikung Jiang
  Mingzhu Yin
  Wenchao Wu
  Hongquan Zhou

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