Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dirty Ho

                                                  Director: Liu Chia Liang
                                    Starring: Liu Chia Hui, Wong Yue, Lo Lieh


Once you get past the title (which reads like some unholy mixture of Dirty Harry and Blaxploitation), what you have is one of the great period martial arts films. This is no surprise considering it's director is Liu Chi-Liang, arguably the finest director who ever lensed old school kung fu movies. Alone amongst his peers, Liang has created strong, quirky, character driven epics that are enhanced by some of the best and most complexly choreographed kung fu action sequences ever seen. "Dirty Ho" is one of his best which means it's also one of the best martial arts movies ever made.

The story concerns Wang Qinqin, the eleventh son of the emperor (played by Liu Chia-Hui aka Gordon Liu) who is incognito as he is to be named the heir to the throne and is fearful of retribution from one of his thirteen brothers. Posing as a jewel connoisseur and art collector, he buts heads with street con man, Ho Chih (the Dirty Ho of the title, played by Wong Yue) and decides to cleverly use him to flush out his enemies.

It is a simple, alomst sitcom-like plot. But from this premise, Liang creates some of the most amazing kung fu set pieces ever lensed at Shaw Bros. studio. What makes them so great here are their subtlety. Throughout the first half, Wang must hide his skills for fear of giving himself away, both to Ho and his enemies. He manipulates his supreme fighting skills so that it appears he isn't fighting at all. This comes to a head in an incredible scene where Wang and Ho visit a wine connoisseur (played by #1 Shaw heavy, Wang Lung Wei). He and the waiter (Hsiao Ho) have been hired to kill Wang.  As they quietly drink and discuss the various wines, a furious battle goes on that no one in the restaraunt (including Ho) are made aware of. Some viewers may be put off by this sequence (and the previous ones) and will shout things like "Just hit him!". But for those of us who have seen tons of "Just hit him!" films, we can appreciate such fantastically subtle "fight" scenes. The finale features an all out battle in a windswept deserted town that is pretty much the pinnacle of Shaw Bros. action set pieces.

But the real reason this action comedy works so well is because of it's two leads. Liu Chia Hui and Wong Yue are both terrific actor/fighters. They prove to be perfect foils for each other with Hui's subtly conniving Prince constantly outwitting Yue's brash, unsophisticated thief. The comedy plays itself almost to perfection, except for one glaringly bad throwaway scene (featuring a goofy, misfit gang) that occurs late in the film and threatens to derail the project. Fortunately, the scene is brief and the movie immediately recovers from it.

In short, "Dirty Ho" is a must see, especially for viewers who think kung fu movies of the 70s are either A) "Damn you, you killed my teacher!" or B) goofy, slapsticky martial arts comedies. For those people, this film should prove to be an eye opener.

And in case the title doesn't have you snickering, check out the film's ad line, "You haven't lived until you've fought Dirty Ho... and then you're dead!"

                                        **** / ****

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Santo vs las Lobas (Santo vs the She-Wolves)

                             Director: Jaime Jimenez Pons/ Ruben Galindo
                          Starring: El Santo, Rodolfo de Anda, Gloria Mayo

This 1972 shocker is one of the most underrated and most atypical of the Santo pictures.

By this point, the Lucha Libre series was in a slow but steady decline, both in quality and audience interest (which of course go hand in hand). This one reflects the period, with it's faint made for T.V. Movie of the Week look. The werewolf makeup is also a hit or miss affair with some of the actors having hardly any lycanthrope makeup at all; as if there was no money left to properly dress them all up which was probably the case. There's also an uneven feel to the story itself. This is likely attributable to the fact that there are two credited directors (rarely a good thing in any type of movie).

Yet despite these flaws, "Santo vs las Lobas" still makes for strangely compelling viewing. This film contains a genuine feeling of horror and dread that cannot be found in any other Santo picture. In other wrestler vs monster films the monsters though always treated seriously, are never actually viewed with any genuine fear (well, not by me anyway). What we have here however, is an actual blood and guts horror film that just happens to feature a masked Mexican wrestler in it. It's almost as if Santo had been displaced in a Paul Naschy feature. The horror elemnts are surprisingly atomospheric and for once, you actually fear for our silver masked hero's safety.

The story concerns the appearance of Lucan and Luba, the king and queen of a satanic werewolf cult that have reappeared with their clan of male and female lycanthropes. Their objective (wait for it) is to conquer the world. Enter Santo, el en Mascarado de Plata who teams with a decendant of a family that once fought off the werewolf invaders to stop them. Added to the danger is that Santo himself was bitten in an early film attack and must defeat Lucan before the coming of the red moon or else he will join the ranks of said beasties.

Incidentally despite the film's title, it is mostly the male wolves that our hero combats.

                                                         *** / ****


Saturday, February 19, 2011

100 Shot, 100 Killed (aka Ironfinger)

Director: Jun Fukuda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Mie Hama, Ichiro Arishima, Akihiko Hirata

One of the pleasures I get from being a fan of rare foreign action/exploitation films is that no matter how long I've been a fan, something previously unseen and unheard of will suddenly appear out of nowhere. Such is the case with this 1965 movie, "100 Shot, 100 Killed".

This was one of Toho's 007 inspired capers. Most of these have never been seen by Western eyes, so I was especially shocked to come upon an English dubbed print! Most likely, it was an international dub job that never reached the states. It was retitled "Iron Finger" in an obvious attempt to satirize a certain Bond film that was released earlier in the year.

Directing the film was Jun Fukuda, the other Godzilla director. His work with the Big G was often loathed by purists, but he did do two of my favorites in the series, "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster" and "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla". Here, he displays a cool, breezy style that he was likely best suited for. Watching this film, it's obvious that he was more at home doing this sort of thing than working in the Kaiju universe.

The cast is made up of plenty of familiar faces and it will be fun for Kaiju fans to see these actors for once, in something that doesn't center around a giant monster stomping around a miniature set. The two main stars are Akira Takarada and Mie Hama. Takarada gets the chance to really ham it up in his barely semi serious role as an Interpol agent. Mie Hama (playing an explosives expert) has never looked lovlier or sexier. She was one of my early childhood crushes after having gawked at her in "King Kong Escapes". Joining them as a third wheel is talented physical comedian Ichiro Arishima as the often put upon chief of police. Most in the U.S. will know Arishima as Tako in "King Kong vs. Godzilla". Also along for the ride is Akihiko Hirata as a double crossing agent (though admittedly, he's given little to do). They all give energetic performances as it's clear they had a good time working on the project.

Featuring a great shoot 'em up, blow 'em up finale and a fun music score by Masaru Sato (who scored everything from Godzilla vs the Sea Monster to Kurosawa classics like "Yojimbo" and "The Hidden Fortress") "100 Shot, 100 Killed" makes for solid, lighthearted spy movie entertainment. It may also give viewers some small idea of what "Key of Keys" was like before Woody Allen turned it into "What's Up, Tiger Lilly?".

                                                          *** / ****


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Five Shaolin Masters (aka Five Masters of Death)

                                                   Director: Chang Cheh
     Starring: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Fu Sheng, Chi Kwan Chun, Meng Fei, Wang Lung Wei

This particular movie from Shaw Brothers studio is a special one for me. It was not the first kung fu movie I ever saw, but it officially kickstarted my 25+ year love fest with these films.

By 1983, I had already seen a couple of Bruce Lee's films as well as several lesser Lee-alike efforts. Then I saw "The Five Venoms" (aka Five Deadly Venoms) which was my first exposure to Shaw epics. I also saw "Shaolin Handlock" and a few others. For the next two years, that was more or less the extent of it. I considered them exotic novelties and didn't really dig that deep (having little idea just how deep this movie ocean went). Then in the summer of 1985, I picked up the book "Martial Arts Movies from Bruce Lee to the Ninjas" written by Ric Meyers, Bill and Karen Palmer and Amy Harlib. I couldn't put the book down. Something just clicked for me. And since many of them were now playing on T.V. I bought a bunch of blank videotapes and went to work big time on this genre. The very first one I taped was "Five Shaolin Masters". I could not have possibly picked a better introduction to these films, it was perfect.

Released in 1974, the story centered on the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Manchus and the escape, survival and ultimately the revenge of it's students. Many films both before and since have explored this story, but most of them tell stories of the two most famous survivors, folk heroes Hung Si-Kwan and Fong Sai-Yuk. This particular film however, told the story of five other historically lesser known, but no less important escapees who banded together with others to essentially form the makings of what would eventually become China's underworld (although this part isn't really touched on in the film).

From this premise, legendary director Chang Cheh and action choreographers Liu Chia-Ling and Liu Chia- Yung mounted a non stop action fest that put to shame much of what had come before. Though the choreography may appear a bit slow compared to what was to come some years later (this was after all one of the earliest "style vs style" attempts), it is still a lot of fun to watch now. Of the five masters themselves, David Chiang and Ti Lung were a very popular duo, co-starring in dozens of Shaw films over the past several years. Fu Sheng was a rising star who would soon prove to be arguably the most popular of all Shaw actors. Chi Kwan Chun was a young veteran of several previous Shaolin epics. Meng Fei had previously starred in several independently made bashers before appearing in this epic. The villains were a vrtual who's who of veteran and upcoming stars; Chiang Tao, Fong Hark-On, Liang Chia-Jen (who would later go on to become a popular heroic actor), Ngai Hung-Chik and most notably (and making his debut here) Wang Lung-Wei, who would go on to become Shaw's #1 bad guy.

Ironically in it's country of origin, this movie was considered the beginning of Chang Cheh's downfall as a director because it started his trend of stressing action over story and character development. Contrarily to  fans here in the States, it began his true ascension in the genre for precisely the same reason.

Five Shaolin Masters proved indeed to be the perfect introduction to kung fu movies and watching it again, it is just as thrilling and entertaining as the day I first saw it.

                                                     **** / ****

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Genocide - War of the Insects

                                              Director: Kazui Nihonmatsu
                  Starring: Keiksuke Sonoi, Yusuke Kawazu, Kathy Horan, Chico Roland


Until recently, this was an uber obscure Japanese sci fi film that only existed in it's original language and was never subtitled. Amazingly however, within the last couple of years an English dub was discovered from an International print. The original thought was, "Great, now we can finally understand just what the hell is going on in this crazy flick!" Yeah, about that...

Even in (badly dubbed) English, "Genocide - War of the Insects" is one of the most convoluted and impenetrable films I've seen in a long time. The story in a nutshell, involves a Hydrogen Bomb which goes missing off the coast of an island in the Pacific and the attempts by the American military and Russian spies to find it; each for their own reason. The subplot involves a crazed female WW2 concentration camp survivor who has developed a string of killer insects that she intends to release upon the world.

The previous paragraph only scratches the surface of the nuttiness that ensues. This is one whacked-out, mamma jamma of a movie.

This film is definately a mess, BUT it's an enjoyable mess. I may have been bewildered, but never bored. This is a fun film to watch as long as you know what you're getting into. I think it's more Psychotronic than truly bad. It is an amazingly downbeat affair (there are no likable characters to be found here, save for a neglected, pregnant wife) that doesn't seem to offer the stamp of the film's director, Kazui Nihonmatsu who also directed the ridiculous "X From Outer Space". What does give Genocide's quality away is it's screenwriter, Susumu Takaku. He was also the screenwriter for director Hajime Sato's terrific, "Goke - Bodysnatcher From Hell" and that film does indeed bear a strong resemblence to "Genocide". So similar are the two films in both form and execution (though Goke is definately the better of the two) that they would make for an appropriate double bill.

Another link between Goke and Genocide is American actress Kathy Horan. In Goke, she plays a half crazed widow of a Vietnam Vet. In Genocide, she plays the completely crazed Holocaust survivor/ insect breeder. Not much is known about her except her appearance in these two films and a small role in "The Green Slime", all three being lensed in 1968. She also fills out a bikini quite nicely.

Filled with eye catching cinematography and an impressive score by veteran composer, Shunsuke Kikuchi (who among many others, scored Sato's "Terror Beneath the Sea" and "Golden Bat" as well as the Gamera movies) "Genocide - War of the Insects" shapes up as a challenging (as well as challenged) viewing experience.

It's exposure was recently enhanced when Cinematic Titanic added it to their live show. Haven't seen their riff yet, but am certainly looking forward to it.

                                                        **1/2 / ****

Friday, February 11, 2011

The One Armed Boxer (aka Chinese Professionals)

                                                   Director: Wang Yu
                           Starring: Wang Yu, Tien Yen, Tang Hsin, Lung Fei

Jimmy Wang Yu was Hong Kong's biggest action star prior to Bruce Lee. Though not actually a martial artist himself (he was a champion swimmer and overall athlete), he made for a compelling screen hero who starred in (and sometimes directed) a series of astonishingly mounted action epics that really pushed the envelope of human endurance. Film after film featured scenes of mass slaughter that few were able to match.

Then Bruce came along and showed audiences what actual martial arts looked like on screen and almost overnight, Jimmy became somewhat obsolete. Though he kept making movies well into the mid seventies, his glory days (at least at the box office) were well behind him.

"The One Armed Boxer" made in 1971 (the same year as Lee's first film "The Big Boss") was something of an all out, kitchen sink attempt. It was a combination of two previous Wang Yu films, 1967s "The One Armed Swordsman" (the first Hong Kong film to feature a nihilistic antihero) and 1970s "The Chinese Boxer" (considered the first film to use unarmed combat). In it, Wang Yu portrays the top student in a "good" martial arts school who's in your face attitude causes him to butt heads with a "bad" school that deals in drug trafficing and other unsavory antics. The bad school marches into the good school, looking for redemption against Wang's character and is thoroughly trounced. Then, the film gets... weird...

Normally in these school vs school epics it is the bad school that is superior, causing the main hero to develop a special technique to defeat the baddies. Not so here. Now it is the villainous school that must come up with something. That something is the decision to hire a gang of mercenaries. This utterly bizarre group includes a fanged Japanese karate master (the leader, looking something like a giant vampire bat) Muay Thai boxers, an Indian Yogi who walks on his hands (circling his opponent at great speed), and Tibetan Lamas who "inflate" due to great control over their "chi". This group completely massacres the good school. Only Wang Yu survives (after having his right arm cleanly chopped off by the fanged karate master). Escaping, he meets a kindly old master who teaches him the nearly invincible one armed technique ("We will need to kill all the nerves in your arm. Should even one survive, it won't work"). Then, it's revenge time.

I've seen literally thousands of Hong Kong movies, but I don't think I've ever seen a wilder or more amped up flick than this one. It is not only arguably Wang Yu's masterpiece, but one of the most purely insane action movies ever made. It can be enjoyed both as a straightforward basher and as an unintentionally (?) hilarious farce. It is 90 minutes of crazed, energized action that ultimately made me feel like I got my head caught in a pinball game.

In 1975, Wang Yu lensed a sequel, the more well known "Master of the Flying Guillotine". Though that film may have featured even wilder concepts and characters, overall it can't quite match the sheer adrenaline level of the original.

                                                     **** / ****


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Champions of Justice (Los Campeones Justicieros)

                                                  Director: Federico Curiel   
  Starring: Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, La Sombra Vengadora, El Medico Aesino,  Tinieblas

Mexico's Lucha Libre film series truly lives in it's own enclosed little universe. Film after film portrays real life wrestlers as out of ring crime fighters going against assorted vampires, werewolves, zombies, mad scientists, aliens, you name it. If there was an otherworldly menace, you can bet that at some point, a masked Mexican wrestler has combated it. There has never been a film genre quite like these no budget wonders. Try to imagine Ric Flair and/or Hulk Hogan stepping out of the ring (always in character) to lay the smackdown against an army of werewolves bent on destroying us all and using mostly wrestling holds to get the job done (hey, that sounds like a great idea actually!) and you have a vague idea of just how outre these films are.

I have seen dozens of these films and of all of them, this one "Champions of Justice", made in 1970 at the peak of these films' popularity is probably my favorite. It is the Luca Libre version of "The Superfriends" as it teams five of the most popular Masked Mexican Wrestlers as a superhero team. They are led by Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras (the Man of a Thousand Masks), La Sombra Vengadora, El Medico Aesino and Tinieblas. Cocpicuous by his absence is the most famous of all masked wrestlers, El Santo (The Man in the Silver Mask). Unfortunately, Santo was tied up in other projects and couldn't appear in this one. One man who wasn't shedding any tears over this was Blue Demon. Though he and Santo often appeared together on film as a team, offscreen they were fairly bitter rivals with Blue always relegated to second banana status. With Santo out of the way (so to speak), this finally gave Blue leadership status.

The story of this one concerns a mad scientist and his plot to kidnap our heroes' women (who are all in a beauty contest, of course). His way of accomplishing this is by taking his midget wrestler assisstants and atomically enhancing them into Super Midgets, each decked in a red outfit and cape and with a giant "M" on their chests... no, really! The rest of the film consists of a series of kidnappings, chases, battles, more chases, more battles, etc. All this set to a blaring (and wildly inappropriate) jazz soundtrack that only adds to the otherworldly cheeze of the whole spectacle. If you're a fan of this stuff (and honestly, who isn't?) this epic is all you can ask for.

Incredibly, this was followed by a pair of sequels ("Return of the Champions of Justice" and "Triumph of the Champions of Justice") that while not quite as entertaining, actually trump this film in sheer weirdness.

Here's a mid film fight sequence. If this clip doesn't convert you, then nothing will.

                                                     **** / ****

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hong Kong Godfather

                                                 Director: Wang Lung Wei
                              Starring: Liang Chia Jen, Tsui Sui Keung, Shih Kin

By the early 80s it was clear that the Shaw Brothers studio, famous for producing some of the most celebrated martial arts movies was on it's last legs. Having been Hong Kong's box office champs throughout the 60s and 70s, they found themselves overtaken by Golden Harvest and their upcoming superstars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. These two (along with others) helped usher in the modern day comedy/action genre that became all the rage. The Shaws couldn't compete, they were suddenly seen as dinosaurs by as early as 1982. More's the pity since some of their finest films were produced during this period. Epics like "Five Element Ninja". "Legendary Weapons of China" and "8 Diagram Pole Fighter" couldn't make a dent at the local theaters (though all three are considered classics by fans here in the States). By the end of 1985, the mighty Shaw film cannon was essentially no more. They reverted to T.V. production and film distribution, but their movie making days were over.

One of the last (and until recently, toughest to find) films the Shaws produced was "Hong Kong Godfather", a modern day crime/action/drama that actually predated similar films by the likes of John Woo (who's groundbreaking smash, A Better Tomorrow was still a year away). Watched today in retrospect, it really is a shame that the studio folded as this film proved that they could have continued making genuinely great movies... if only there was an audience to go see them.

This film starred kung fu movie favorites Liang Chia Jen and Tsui Sui Keung. Liang (nicknamed "Beardy" by fans) was an especially popular and personable actor who seemed equally capable playing period kung fu heroes or modern day action stars. The "Godfather" himself is portrayed by longtime genre actor. Shih Kin, best known for playing Han in "Enter the Dragon".

The director was Wang Lung Wei, one of the great screen villains of kung fu cinema. Stepping behind the camera for the first time, he displayed a surprising degree of professionalism here; never betraying his lack of experience.

This admittedly formulaic gangster drama about betrayal and revenge starts off slowly with lots of exposition. The first major skirmish doesn't take place until the 40 minute mark. But once it does cut loose, man oh man! There are moments of violence on display that are shocking, even to a longtime viewer like myself. There was a particular moment halfway through the film involving the Godfather's young grandson (who looks to be under 10 years old) that actually made me stare in disbelief over what I just saw. The highlight of the film is the ending and is it ever a doozy. A ten minute finale in a mall that is pretty much the last word in sheer brutality. Dozens are dispatched with knives and cleavers with blood spraying ever so freely. It's probably one of the bloodiest confrontations I've ever seen.

Incidentally if that shopping mall at the climax looks familiar, it should. Just a few months later, it was trashed by Jackie Chan in "Police Story".

                                                        *** / ****

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Prophecies of Nostradamus (aka Catastrophe 1999) (aka The Last Days of Planet Earth)

                                                Director: Toshio Masuda
                         Starring: Tetsuo Tanba, Toshio Kurosawa, Kaoru Yumi

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time for Toho. They were riding the (figurative) wave  of "Submersion of Japan", one of the biggest box office hits in the studio's history. Released in 1974 during the height of America's disaster movie cycle (Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno), it was a frighteningly believable epic which took the country by storm and launched the (far less successful) Television series "Japan Sinks".

Looking for a followup, the studio brass took note of a #1 best selling book by Ben Goto based on the prophecies of Nostradamus. This they decided, would be the perfect vehicle for their next blockbuster disaster epic. It was, and then some...

In what can only be described as one of the most purely freakish and outre films ever made, this movie showed in no uncertain terms how Nostradamus' predictions about the end of the world will happen; step by jaw dropping step. We witness such sights as giant snails in the backyard, wild plants in the subways, LSD freakouts, suicidal biker gangs, radioactive cannibals, snowstorms in Egypt and (in what has to be one of the most nightmarish images in the history of the movies) a giant hole in the ozone that when mixed with enormous pollution problems, causes the sky to act as a giant upside down mirror reflection.

At the center of it all is the great actor Tetsuro Tanba, playing a descendant of a 17th century man condemned for preaching the words of Nostradamus. His performance is about as "subtle" as anything else in this movie.

The film did indeed become a huge hit in Japan. That is, until a No Nukes group bitched and moaned about the treatment of survivors of radiation as subhuman monsters. This happens twice in the film. First in the New Guinea sequence where a tribe of aborigines are depicted as monstrous cannibals. The second sequence near the end of the film, shows the aftermath of global annihilation in the form of two mutant "monster" children fighting over who gets to eat a snake. After editing these two sequences out, Toho decided to place the film in it's vault out of fear of greater backlash. Oops!

There are actually three major edits of the film. The full length 114 min. print (Prophecies of Nostradamus), an 88 min. edit that was dubbed and sent to Hong Kong and other oversees regions (Catastrophe 1999) and further edit released in America under the title The Last Days of Planet Earth. This version (which until recently was the one most often viewed) is a terribly edited, horribly pan and scanned deal. Needless to say, either of the first two versions is preferable.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the fantastic score by Isao Tomita, considered one of the great ones ever composed for any Japanese Kaiju film.

The Prophecies of Nostradamus is an incredible, one of a kind movie experience. You may not like it (I loved it, personally), but you will not soon forget it.

                                                    **** / ****