Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tournament

                                                  Director: Huang Feng
                                        Starring: Angela Mao, Carter Huang

Here we have one of the better Huang Feng/Angela Mao team ups. Throughout the first half of the 70s, Angela Mao and director Hung combined for a dozen or so martial arts flicks with a heavy emphasis on more realistic fighting. This 1974 attempt is one of the more exotic ones as it takes place partly in Thailand and features extensive Thai Boxing sequences.

In the film, Angela Mao as usual, portrays the top student at a Chinese martial arts school. This time though, she also happens to be the daughter of the Headmaster who finds himself tricked into a Thai Boxing match that finds his school suffering humiliating defeat, leading to his suicide. After this incident, the students (led by Angela) decide (against the wishes of the other school headmasters) to do a little brushing up on their Muay Thai. This leads to a nice travelog of Thailand and some impressive ring fighting as she attempts to learn a new fighting system while simultaneously restore the dignity of her school.

I was never overly impressed with director Huang Feng. His work always seemed very pedestrian to me; very middle of the road, sometimes even flat. The few times he tried anything dramatic, the scene falls on it's face. This was never truer than the scene (about half an hour in) where the headmaster commits suicide. The sequence is played so over the top (he imagines his colleagues in distorted closeup, degrading him for his unforgivable loss) that it will cause some viewers to collapse in fits of laughter rather than feel any proper sympathy.

What helps his films stand out are the absolutely fantastic fighters that populate each of them. Angela Mao (a real life Black Belt in Hapkido) is incredible as always and is given ample opportunity to display her skills; be it ring Thai fighting (with gloves on), fighting on poles or just some meaningless brawls. Case in point, the terrific duel she has with Whang In Sik. Whang (a Korean Tae Kwan Do black belt) was one of the premier villains of early kung fu cinema and a frequent foe of Angela Mao. Their mid film duel here has nothing to do with the plot, but is a real "wow" to watch and probably the best fight in the film. Co star Carter Wong is another regular whom many here in the west will know as the guy who expands in Big Trouble in Little China. He basically takes a back seat to Angela (as he often does) but still has good screen presence. The fight choreography in this (and all of Huang Feng's films) came courtesy of a young pre superstar Sammo Hung, who also has a fight scene with Angela. Sammo is in my opinion, the best fight choreographer who ever lived and it is for this reason more than any other why Huang's films are so memorable.

The Tournament is a good enough film and a great showcase for Angela Mao, but with more creative and assured direction it could have been a classic.

                                                                *** / ****

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Las Vampiras

                                                Director: Federico Curiel
                            Starring: Mil Mascaras, John Carradine, Maura Monti


I remember growing up as a kid in the 70s watching WWF wrestling on Saturdays. We're talking pre Hulkamania times when the champ was Bob Backlund and other characters included Superstar Billy Graham, Bruno Sammartino, Ken Petera, The Wild Samoans etc. One of the occasional stars that caught my eye was a Mexican Wrestler named Mil Mascaras, The Man of a Thousand Masks. True to his name, he wore a different mask with each ring appearance. At the time (being a mere youngin') I knew nothing about  Lucha Libre wrestlers so Mil (both in appearance and wrestling style) was both exotic and entertaining. I also  remember being told by a friend that Mil was a movie star in his home country...

Fast forward many years later and I finally got to see Mil Mascaras; movie star. And WHAT movies! As I mentioned in a previous blog, he along with his predecessors El Santo and Blue Demon have appeared in some of the wackiest, most bizarre flicks ever made. Las Vampiras, Mil's third film made in 1967 is considered his er, best and is certainly one of the most beloved of all Lucha adventures. And this one has a ringer of sorts in the form of John Carradine, playing 'The King of the Vampires" (I guess they weren't allowed to use the name Dracula). And oh boy, does he ever ham it up in the part.

In the film, Drac... I mean the King of Vampires finds himself caged by one of his lovely vampire brides. She is attempting to unseat him as... Queen, I suppose. However, one of her "sisters" objects, wanting to free her jailed king. This leads to a challenge and much of the film (indeed the entire middle section) features the shapely vamps (all wearing matching tight green outfits and small capes) prancing around in a mucho bizarre ritual before squaring off, using torches as weapons. Enter our thousand mask wearing hero to get to the bottom of things...

The word "camp" doesn't begin to describe the bewildering madness that ensues. This, like most Lucha Libre epics really needs to be seen to be disbelieved. And the very sight of the aged Carradine (voice dubbed in Spanish) bellowing and faking madness (it's all part of his plot, you see) while confronting the ever stoic masked Mexican wrestler is a sight you will not soon forget.

Las Vampiras emerges as a heavy duty slice of South of the Border cheeze that makes for perfect 3:00 am viewing. Appropriately, that is the time I found myself writing this review...

                                                       *** / ****

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kurutta Yaju (Crazed Beast)

                                               Director: Sadao Nakajima
                      Starring: Tsunehiko Watase, Jun Hoshino, Takumi Kawatani


First, I have to send out thanks to Patrick Macias, who first reviewed this absolutely amazing (and elusive) little film in his "Tokyo Scope" book as well as August Ragone who was kind enough to alert me that it was finally making it's dvd debut, ending my nearly ten year search.

Now that I've finally seen this manic masterpiece, all I can say is WOW! Not only has it met my decade long expectations, but actually surpassed them. Shot in real time and clocking in at a lean and mean 78 minutes, this has got to be one of the greatest low budget chase flicks I have ever seen. The story concerns an ex race car driver turned jewel thief (played by Tsunehiko Watase) who while attempting a getaway, finds the bus he's riding hijacked by a pair of nasty but bumbling bank robbers. As the robbers bicker and argue with themselves and the passangers, Watase's character sits quietly in the back row, hoping to avoid being noticed. It doesn't last and soon everyone is at each other's throats and it isn't long before the bus driver dies from a heart attack (naturally), causing Watase to take the wheel. This despite the fact that his poor eyesight had previously caused him to wipe out on the race track. Meanwhile, Watase is being followed via motorcycle by his ever faithful woman, determined to help however she may. Throw in an incompetent police force trying everything to stop the runaway bus from road blocks to kamikaze style car launches and you have a film that is a step away from throwing a complete cinematic conniption.

This incredible movie (in reality as much a black comedy as it is a straight action fest) was directed by Sadao Nakajima, a relative unknown to me. The only other work  I had seen of his was Watari the Ninja Boy, a children's superhero/ninja/monster show made in 1966. Digging deeper, I discovered he made some wild films in the 70s like Bakamasa Horamasa Toppamasa ( a Yakuza picture), Bodo Shimme Keimusho (prison flick) and something called Nippon Sex Ryoko which costarred Swedish actress Christina (They Call Her One Eye) Lindberg. If these films are even half as wild and entertaining as Kurutta Yaju, then Nakajima is a director I really need to investigate further.

                                                          ***1/2 / ****

Monday, March 21, 2011


                                                   Director: Kirk Wong
                                        Starring: Tony Leung, Adam Cheng

Here's a sadly neglected action masterpiece from 1988. This was one of many well made variations of Brian DePalma's The Untouchables that Hong Kong was churning out during this time period. Among these were Johnny To's The Big Heat and David Lam's The First Shot. However, Gunmen (the only period variation on the theme) may just be the best of an impressive lot.

The film's director was Kirk Wong who's penchant was for gritty realism as displayed in the pioneering gangster film, 'The Club'. Wong would later go on to direct Jackie Chan's Crime Story as well as the U.S. lensed The Big Hit. For Gunmen, Wong mostly set aside that aside and instead opted for sweeping period detail and beautifully shot action sequences to create what is easily one of Hong Kong's better action dramas of the 80s. This is no faint praise considering it was released at the peak of John Woo's and Tsui Hark's filmmaking powers. Indeed, Gunmen can take it's place alongside of such better known efforts as A Better Tomorrow and Peking Opera Blues. It should be noted however that Tsui Hark is listed here as Producer and with his penchant of interfering in many a young directors' work, it may go a long way to explain why this looks and feels more like one of his films than Wong's.

The cast all put in strong performances led by Tony Leung Ka Fai and Adam Cheng, cast as main hero and villain respectively. Leung would go on to have a long career in Hong Kong, both on film and T.V. He also starred in the critically acclaimed French film, The Lover. Cheng had previously appeared in many martial arts films, notably Shaolin and Wu Tang, The Sword and Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain. Here he traded in his matinee idol looks for a harsh and menacingly villainous turn. I was also impressed with Waise Lee as one of Leung's policemen/war comrades. I always thought that Lee tended to overact, but here for once he gives a good, subdued perf.

The story starts with the end of the Chinese civil war of the 1930s (?). Four soldiers have survived brutal torture. After the war, one of them (Leung) goes to Shanghai and becomes a cop. He reassembles his war buddies to form a separate division called Gunmen in order to battle the drug cartel that is being led by the same vicious ex-soldier (Cheng) who had previously tortured them. This leads to a very impressively filmed showdown gun battle that without giving anything away, includes one of the more memorable main killings I've ever seen.

Featuring strong melodrama that helps puncuate the action, Gunmen comes highly recommended to anyone who's a fan of Woo's and Tsui's films that were made in the second half of the 80s. You will not be disappointed.

                                                     ***1/2 / ****


Friday, March 18, 2011

Vahsi Kan (aka Turkish First Blood)

                                                   Director: Cetin Inanc
                          Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Emel Tumer, Huseyin Peyda

Director Cetin Inanc has had a career that spanned five decades in his homeland of Turkey, covering all sorts of films (Action, Drama, Westerns). However he is best known (here in the West, anyway) for a series of wild and incredibly incomprehensible low budget films he did in the 80s with actor Cuneyt Arkin. The duo's most notorious work is The Man Who Saved the World (dubbed Turkish Star Wars as it actually lifted scenes from Lucas' epic). That however, was just the beginning of the cinematic assault on the senses (to say nothing of sensibilities). Here we have Vahsi Kahn. This film is more or less a remake of Stalone's First Blood, but with the distinct Arkin/Inanc stamp on it (meaning it's absolutely insane!).

Cuneyt Arkin plays Riza, a wanderer who is returning to his village home when he runs afoul of the local gangster's sadistic gang. Riza is harassed, captured and tortured until he freaks out (as only HE can) and escapes to the mountains. The army is sent in to find him. The head gangster wants him dead because of what Riza had done to his son. The "son" is a crazed, bloodthirsty quadripolegic whom the father has hidden away (once seen, this character will not be easily forgotten). Eventually, Riza encounters and befriends a woman (played by regular Inanc/Arkin alumni Emel Tumer) who is the survivor of earlier massacre, courtesy of said gang. Her character is murdered, sending Riza into even greater rage (if that were possible).

The rest of the film is full of wild, crazed, over the top action, combined with awkward edits, bizarre close-ups and disorienting camera angles. In other words, your typical Inanc style action. As always, Cuneyt Arkin is a one man army. A real life Black Belt in Karate, Arkin may not look pretty but when it comes to bigtime butt kicking, he has no peer.

Running at an amazingly brief 70 minutes, Vahsi Kan makes for breathlessly bizarro and supremely Psychotronic viewing.

Several years later, Inanc would revisit this material with Korkusuz, a Rambo remake. More to come on that one...

                                                       **** / ****

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Aces Go Places (aka Mad Mission)

                                                    Director: Eric Tsang
                                  Starring: Sam Hui, Karl Maka, Sylvia Chang

This 1982 action/comedy/satire is one of the key early titles of the modern Hong Kong action movement. Released by Cinema City (a then major new movie studio), this was the first in a series of all out spectacles that broke new ground with it's combination of comedy and (at the time) state of the art stuntwork which took Hong Kong movie audiences by storm.

It was created by Cinema City executive Karl Maka. Instantly recognizable for his bald head and goatie, Maka was a comedic actor in several kung fu comedies in the late 70s. Being a fan of the Hui Brothers' (Michael, Sam and Ricky) "Mr. Boo" comedies and aware of the squabble amongst them, he invited Sam to join him in his new venture, a satire of the James Bond series. The teaming of the two was a masterstroke and one of the great mismatched duos was formed.

In the film, Sam Hui plays King Kong (renamed Sam in the dubbed version), a cat burglar who steals a fortune in diamonds and then finds himself persued by "The Godfather" (a Brando impersonator) who sends the notorious international bandit, White Glove (a European Jewel thief reminicent of David Niven's Phantom in The Pink Pnather) to retrieve them. Karl Maka plays conniving, yet bumbling cop, Albert Au (renamed Kodijak in the dubbed version in an obvious reference to Kojak), White Glove's sworn enemy. The film features his attempts to first track King Kong down and then get him to reveal the location of the stolen diamonds. However, once they find their collective paths dogged by White Glove and various other characters, the cop and thief form an alliance. The film also stars actress Sylvia Chang as Ha Tung, a hot tempered police woman who winds up having a love-hate affair with Maka's character (in subsequent films in the series, the two get married and have a child). Chang is very appealing in this role and plays off Maka perfectly, making for a very memorable squabbling couple. The climax of the film features a group of toy car bombs that was later ripped off wholesale in the Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool.

Filled with broad, yet sharp wit and some still amazing car and aerial stunts, Aces Go Places is a perfect introduction to the Hong Kong action comedy genre. Later Hong Kong action comedies were able to trump this in the action and fighting department, but few were able to strike the near perfect balance of amazing stuntwork and dead-on satire with such memorable, likable lead characters that make this film (and it's sequels) so much fun to watch.

On another note, it also features one of the most memorable theme songs I've ever heard featuring a fuzz guitar riff that recalls the Bond theme while playing over it is a whistling main tune that will stay with you for days after (in a good way, that is).

                                                           *** / ****

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bajing Ireng dan Jaka Sembung (The Warrior and the Ninja)

Director: H Tjut Djalil
Starring: Barry Prima, El Manik, Rita Zahara

Barry Prima was Indonesia's top action star. Throughout the 80s, Prima  (real name Bertus Knoch) starred in a series of very popular low budget action/fantasies that mixed wizards, demons, foreign invaders and a healthy dose of gory, over the top martial arts action (in real life, he was a black belt in Tae Kwan Do). Arguably, his most popular character was that of Jaka Sembung (renamed as simply The Warrior for foreign export), a comic book created freedom fighter of which five films were lensed. Each film's core story involves Jaka Sembung's running battle against evil Dutch invaders and their various attempts to pillage Indonesia's land and it's people. What's a bit of an eyebrow raiser is that in real life, Prima himself is of mixed Dutch ancestory (on his father's side)!

The Warrior and the Ninja is the third of the five films and my favorite of the ones I've seen (I have yet to catch up to the fourth and fifth entries). While it's not quite as epic or gory as the first two; "The Warrior" and "The Warrior and the Blind Swordsman", it has a higher action quota with some long and very entertaning martial arts bouts. This one has our hero costarring with another well known local character, Bajing Ireng (called the Black Squirrel in the dubbed version; she's the Ninja of the film's title). The Black Squirrel is a kind of female Robin Hood/Zorro type character who's exploits initially lead the Dutch colonists to mistake for that of Jaka Sembung. Eventually the two team up to take on the local villians that the Dutch employed. These include an evil witch and a fighter who is eternally sitting in the lotus position. Yes, he fights while in that position, too! During the bloody, action filled climax, the female ninja defeats the witch by literally ripping the skin off of her face! This was one of those "did I just see what I think I saw?" moments that had me hitting the rewind button a couple of times.

A subplot involves a crazed fighter who emerges from a volcano (Sembung's master had previously put him there). His body is now made of molten iron from his imprisonment. In crazed fits, he goes around killing people by hugging them, thus burning them to death. Knowing a good thing when they see it (?) the Dutch enlist this local looney to destroy Sembung. This leads to an intense mid film fight in which Jaka eventually wins by striking the Iron Man so hard that he splinters into a hundred bloody pieces!

As you may have guessed, this is one wild, ridiculous, over the top movie (as are it's prequels). What it lacks in budget (the miniatures used look like toys), it makes up for in it's sheer go for broke attitude. I have not seen any of the comic books that these films are based on, but I imagine that the films try very hard to emulate them visually. Prima is very good and makes for a memorable hero and the film's local setting lends it a particularly exotic feel for us Westerners. Overall, this is great bloody, silly fun that comes highly recommended.

                                                         ***1/2 / ****

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eleven Samurai

                                                 Direstor: Eiichi Kudo
                       Starring: Junko Miyazono, Koji Nanbara, Huseyin Sayan


Director Eiichi Kudo is hardly a household name, even to fans of Samurai cinema. His career has spanned decades, hitting many peaks and valleys. He didn't even want to direct period samurai films, feeling he wasn't experienced enough in the field. His preference was directing often quirky, modern Yakuza pics. Regardless of his insecurities with the jidai geki genre, he churned out a trio of gripping films that can be considered among the best sword movies ever produced; 1963s Thirteen Assassins, 1964s The Great Melee and 1966s Eleven Samurai.

Shot in gritty black and white, Eleven Samurai tells a seethingly bitter story involving the despicably arrogant (and quite cowardly) brother of the Shogun who while out on a deer hunt, crosses over his boundaries and shoots an arrow into the back of a farmer who was in his way, killing him. When the local clan's lord repremands him, the Shogun's brother kills him as well. To cover up his heinous act, he turns the blame on the slain clan lord, placing the clan's future in jeopardy. The clan then decide to secretly send eleven of it's best samurai to plot and (with the help of a sardonic ronin) ultimately attempt to ambush the half crazed Shogun's brother. Of course, things don't always go according to plan...

Though it breaks no new ground, this is one of the more harrowing samurai tales I've seen. It pulls no punches in it's depiction of the depth of the hierarchy's hypocrisy and the anger, frustration and despair suffered by the samurai is palpable. Of course this does well to fuel the action scenes and the twenty minute finale (which like it's title, echoes Kurosawa's Seven Samurai by being staged in pouring rain) is as savage and realistic a display of disorganized chaos as anything ever attempted.

Featuring a typically stirring score by the maestro himself Akira Ifukube, Eleven Samurai is an undiscovered classic that like director Kudo himself, deserves far more exposure than what it has been given up until now.

                                                     ***1/2 / ****


Friday, March 4, 2011

Bedmen Yarasa Adam (aka Turkish Batman)

                                              Director: Gunay Kosova
                        Starring: Levent Cakin, Emel Ozden, Huseyin Sayan

The 1966 camp classic Batman series had a profound effect on the world movie market. The Phillipines had several eye opening variations, including James Batman. This combined both the Batman and James Bond characters (both played by local comedic actor Dolphy). In 1991, the Phillipines struck again with the far less entertaining Alyas Batman and Robin. In 1968, Mexico released Bat Woman which featured the breathtakingly beautiful Italian actress Maura Monti fighting crime and monsters while wearing a purple cowl and cape with matching bikini. In 1990, South Korea unleashed Super Batman and Mazinger V which combined live action with crude anime.

The most jaw dropping of them all (at least of those so far discovered) was Turkey's Bedmen Yarasa Adam. This 1973 black and white sleezey, no budget action masterpiece delivers more thrills in it's scant sixty two minute running length than all of Hollywood's Batman films combined. This dynamic duo are not only hired detectives, but a pair of voyeurs who drop by nightclubs between assignments to watch the local strip acts. The wild eyed look on Boy Wonder's face while watching the topless hotties perform leaves no guesswork as to what's on his mind. Sadly for him, it's the Caped Crusader who gets all the action. This includes doing the "Batusi" with his regular girlfriend AND cheating on her regularly with strippers and any other lovely that he can get his bat mits on. However, it's not all fun and flesh as an evil criminal organization (more closely resembling Bond villians than your typical Batman baddie) wants to do in our oversexed heroes by murdering their women (I'm sure their's more to it than that, but my print is without English subtitles)! This leads to some great fight scenes; some of the best that I've yet seen in a Turkish action film. They are wildly acrobatic encounters that are reminicent of Italy's Three Supermen adventures.

Bedmen Yarasa Adam is great stuff from beginning to end. It's as enjoyable an hour of pure, cheap thrills as you're likely to spend in front of the (Bat) screen.

On a sidenote; the Batmobile (cough!) here is merely an ordinary convertible. This in itself is not unusual for one of these Turkish no budgeters, but it did lead to a moment that caused me to hit the reverse scan button. Our dynamic duo (dressed in street clothes) catch up to a carload of crooks. The heroes leap out of their car, instantly in costume! That's either a great trick or terrible editing. I'd rather think it's the former.

On another sidenote, there's also a (so far) lost Turkish Batwoman film called Ucan Kiz. Apparently (judging by it's poster art), our heroine is topless. This film needs to be found...

                                                     *** / ****

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kamen Rider vs Shocker


O.K. NOW we're talking! There are few things that I enjoy more than a 1970s Japanese live action superhero show. Come to think of it, there may be nothing that I enjoy more than a 1970s Japanese live action superhero show. Although there had already been many produced in the 60s (Starting with 1966s Ultraman and Ambassador Magma, aka The Space Giants), the boom didn't really hit until 1971. That boom was an absolute explosion. There were literally hundreds of these programs. I started watching/collecting these shows some twenty years ago (concentrating specifically on shows from that decade) and even now, I'll occasionally hear of a title that's brand new to me. The ocean runneth that deep. The grandaddy of them all  undoubtedly was Kamen (Masked) Rider.

Created Shotaro Ishinomori, Kamen Rider told of an evil organization called Shocker that was creating cyborg monsters with the intention of (wait for it) ruling the world. Their prize creation, a captured motorcycle racer whom they transformed into a grasshopper-like cyborg, escapes and turns on the organization with the intent of stopping them. The rest of the 98 (!) episode series shows the running battle between Kamen Rider and Shocker's monster-cyborg of the week. Kamen Rider was portrayed by Hiroshi Fujioka. Unfortunately, Fujioka sustained a major leg injury from a motor cyclr accident in episode #9 or #10 and after several episodes showing him only in cyborg form, the decision was to temporarily replace him with a second Kamen Rider portrayed by Takeshi Sasaki. Sasaki took over the role for thirty or so episodes until Fujioka returned. Eventually toward the end of the series, the two teamed up to eventually defeat Shocker. Also in the cast were Jiro Chiba (Sonny's younger brother) as an FBI agent who battles alongside our heroic cyborgs and Akiji Kobayashi (whom most will know as Captain Muramatsu in the original Ultraman) as Fujioka's friend/assistant.

A popular move with many superhero series was to film one or more accompanying theatrical short films as a companion piece. The first of these was "Kamen Rider vs Shocker', a dizzyingly entertaining 30 minute film that's one of the most purely enjoyable movies I've ever sat through. The story of this wonderful short film concerns Shocker's attempt to steal Professor Daidoji's GX Device (a gravity defying machine) and our two heroic Kamen Riders' battles to stop them. In addition to fighting various reborn cyborg monsters that they previously defeated in the series, this film introduces a new menace called Hercules Fish Freak! (hey, that's what the subtitles read).

Supreme fun as both a straight ahead, low budget superhero adventure and as pure tongue in cheek camp (in the 60s Batman tradition) Kamen Rider vs Shocker is as good as it gets.

                                                      **** / ****