Monday, January 31, 2011

The Deaf Mute Heroine

                                                        Director: Wu Ma
                            Starring: Helen Ma, Tang Ching, Cheung Chok Chow

This 1971 film is simply one of the best to have ever come out of Hong Kong. It took me a number of years to track this one down after having first read about it. In some cases, finding a particular film after having searched for many years will lead to disappointment. Often, it will not live up to the hype surrounding it or the anticipation that was built up in my mind. Happily in this case, it has actually exceeded expectations in every way. This is a beautifully rendered sword film that I have viewed numerous times and if anything, found it more impressive with each successive viewing. What has impressed me the most is the visual presentation. Though it is a straight ahead gory sword/action movie, it visually manages a distinct dreamlike quality normally associated with more artsy films. The combination is both exciting and hypnotic.

The Deaf Mute Heroine was lensed by prolific director/actor, Wu Ma. His credits as director have ranged from early sword movies, to 70s kung fu epics, to the more modern action and fantasy films of the 80s. As an actor, he will often play comedic, buffoonish characters. Many will know him best as the Taoist ghost hunter in A Chinese Ghost Story. Of all of the films that Wu directed, this undoubtedly is his masterpiece.

The film stars Helen Ma, one of the many female sword fighters in Chinese cinema of the late 60s. Not quite as petite as her counterparts, she brings just the right physical presence to the role.

The story concerns a deaf mute thief who in the film's incredible credit sequence, massacres a gang and robs them of  their gold. What her motivation is, is never explained. Does she rob from thieves only? By doing this, she incurs the wrath of another gang, ruled by a female fighter who manages to strike the deaf mute with a poison blade. Escaping, the deaf mute is nursed back to health by a peasant fellow who is unaware of just who she is. She is softened by his kindness and seems ready to settle down with him, However, her past (both recent and distant) has a way of catching up with her...

While the print I have is a decent one, here's hoping that a complete, remastered print surfaces in the near future. This film deserves the Criterion treatment.

                                                      **** / ****

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Battal Gazi Geliyor

Director: Natuk Baytan
Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Reha Yurdakul, Birsen Ayda

Ah, the joys of Turkish Pop Cinema. I first discovered this unique brand of cinema roughly ten years ago through the book "Mondo Macabro" by Pete Tombs. Until then, I had no idea that films were even made in Turkey, no less the amazing quantity that had poured out of there from the mid 60s through the early 80s. It took several more years for me to start tracking these hard to find films down but once I did, I was hooked... big time! Not everyone however, will share my enthusiasm. On a technical level, they are not "good" movies in the traditional sense. O.K. for the most part, they are terrible. Most appear to be shot almost guerilla style and contain camera work and edits that would probably make Ed Wood blush. They have little to no redeeming value whatsoever as "cinema". But what these films lack in technical knowhow, they make up for in sheer chutzpah. In all my life, I have never seen more energetic (or just plain crazed) movie making at any time, anywhere. On a bubble gum level, they are supremely entertaining. Everything in these films is played over the top in the most maniacally gleeful way possible. They ran the gamut from superhero adventures to period actioners to tough guy melodramas etc. One of the best examples of their period pics is this film, Battal Gazi Geliyor.

This film tells the exploits of a real life (and seemingly invincible) Muslim folk hero, played by Cuneyt Arkin, THE Turkish leading man, action star. Cuneyt Arkin was (I believe) originally a doctor who became a romantic lead in the 60s before morphing into an all out action star. The sheer number of films that this man appeared in is mind boggling. Most reports have it in the hundreds, but it could well be over a thousand. It literally seems like he's in 50% of all Turkish pop films made from the late 60s on.

The film plays like an Italian Peplum on 'roid rage. Though based on historic fact, it resembles something more like a crazed comic book version as our hero faces a black robed Catholic gang that's pillaging the countryside, taking time to nail hapless local women to crucifixes and laughing lustily while doing so (of course). Employed by the villains is a Viking-like character who uses a Trident to impale three people to a tree as well as an Asian martial artist who has an exciting duel with Battal Gazi near the film's climax. Battal shows off his prowess in brutish hand to hand fights as well as a supernatural ability with the bow and arrow. He also bounces over ten feet off the ground with ease, thanks to a hidden trampoline. The film does slow down a bit during it's second half as Battal's father (also played by Cuneyt Arkin!) is captured. But this allows our hero to don a disguise (which should have fooled no one, yet somehow fools everyone) in order to infiltrate the castle before doing some major stormin'.

Battal Gazi Geliyor serves as a perfect introduction to Turkish Pop Cinema in general and to the ubiquitous Cuneyt Arkin in particular.

                                                     ***1/2 / ****

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Executioner (aka Hell Fist)

Director: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Makato Sato, Ejii Go, Yasuaki Kurata

Since Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba recently celebrated his birthday (at the ripe young age of 72) I thought that for my first ever blog entry, I would review my all time favorite of his films; the 1974 karate exploitation comedy "Jigoku Ken" literally translated as "Hell Fist" but known here to us Yanks as "The Executioner".

The film was Chiba's followup to his legendary "The Streetfighter" (aka Sudden Attack: The Killing Fist) and for this project, he was teamed with noted exploitation director, Teruo Ishii. The teaming would seem to be a match made in jigoku as Ishii strongly disliked martial arts movies, laughing them off as being silly and unbelievable. In truth, Ishii was much more comfortable directing erotic-grotesque features such as "Horrors of Malformed Men" and "Shogun's Joys of Torture" and wanted nothing to do with this project. Unfortunately for him, he was under contract with Toei and couldn't refuse. The result; what was initially to be a straight ahead modern karate/ninja film was elevated to an action/exploitation masterpiece. Ishii (in an attempt to show his displeasure with the material that was forced upon him) loaded the film with wild, over the top fight sequences, nudity, gore and a genuine air of anarchy previously unseen in a Japanese martial arts film. To Ishii's horror, the local audiences ate it up, making this both Ishii's and Chiba's biggest financial hit up to this point.

The story (as it were) concerns the police hiring three local tough guys; a ninja (Chiba) a hired hitman (Makato Sato) and a jailed sex addict (Eiji Go) to stop a Tokyo drug dealer and his gang. Unfortunately, the three antiheroes do not get along and freely focus their bad behavior on each other with Go's character getting the worst of it. The three of them are kept in line by the police commissioner's pretty and sexy daughter (who takes a liking to Go, much to Chiba's chagrin). The bad guys have hired some particularly nasty and loathsome European fighters, one of whom is a cannibal. During the final seige on the gang's headquarters, our threesome are joined by an overzealous karate student, played by Yasuaki Kurata (who has made a living playing Japanese villains in countless Hong Kong kung fu features). Kurata's appearance in the final half hour seems to come out of left field, as if the filmmakers decided at the eleventh hour that another fighter was needed for the filnale. Sadly, Kurata and Chiba never get to fight side by side. This is perhaps the only disappointment in what is otherwise a supremely enjoyable exploitationer, one of the best ever made anywhere.

So successful was this movie that Toei immediately commissioned the beleaguered Ishii to do a sequel, the even more irreverent "Executioner 2". More on that one later...

                                                     **** / ****