Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Son of the Black Mass #11: The Human Tarantula

                                                 Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
                              Starring: Raizo Ichikawa, Mako Midori, Maka Sarijo


This incredible samurai film series goes under several different titles. Some know it as the Kyoshiro Nemuri series (named after the main character). Animego (it's official dvd releasing company) has given it the title Sleepy Eyes of Death (the literal translation as far as I know) and this is the name it is now most well known under here in the States. However, back in the mid eighties (which is when I first heard of these films) it was known as Son of the Black Mass and this is the title I'm choosing simply because it's the one I'm most familiar with. Besides, Son of the Black Mass is one of the coolest sounding film titles I've ever heard, especially for a samurai series.

Originally a series of novels penned by Renzaburo Shibate, Kyoshiro Nemuri is the ultimate nihilistic antihero; a red haired masterless samurai who's exsitence is the result of a Buddhist Nun's rape at the hands of a Portugese Satanist (posing as a Catholic Priest) during a black mass ritual. He has a built in hatred for all things Christian as well as anything in relation to the Shogunate. He is also a self confessed womanizer and is not interested in the downtrodden. O.K. Kyoshiro has hatred and/or disdain for just about everything. Of course, when you are an infamous red haired ronin, trouble has a way of finding you. Nemuri has no problem with trouble. In fact, he invites it and will often challenge an oppressor NOT because he is in any way heroic, but out of sheer boredom. Ultimately, it seems that our protagonist is looking for someone skillful enough to kill him. This is much easier said than done since he is the master of the nearly invincible (and ficticious) Full Moon Sword style (he flicks his sword backwards and slowly makes a counter clockwise circle).

A film series began in 1963. The first twelve starred Raizo Ichikawa, one of the most beloved actors in Japan's history. During his heyday in the 50s, he was often referred to as the Japanese James Dean. By the 60s, he had matured into an amazingly intense screen presence. As Nemuri, Ichikawa brought a true sense of fatality to the role. Despite the character being almost completely unsalvageable, one can read a tremendous amount of pain and tragedy in his expressive eyes that gets audiences squarely on his side... in spite of themselves. Sadly, Ichikawa succomed to cancer in 1969 at the much too young age of 37. He continued to make movies right up until the final weeks of his life.

As the film series progressed the stories and images became more bizarre, matching the perverse nature of the books. The final four films are among the finest samurai/martial arts movies ever made. The Human Tarantula, the eleventh in the series made in 1968 (and the last in which Ichikawa appeared in full health) was maybe the greatest of them all. It is also arguably the seediest.

Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda (a veteran director of this series as well as the Zatoichi films and many more), this entry more than any other successfully combines traditional samurai themes with the sheer depravity that is associated with the basic story and mixes in borderline horror elements to make for a mesmerizing viewing experience. The story starts with Nemuri paying his respects at his mother's grave. While staying at the village, he comes upon a particularly loathsome and horrific scene; a castle containing the incestous children of the Shogun. The brother and sister regularly kidnap local villagers and keep them as captives while they devise various ways of killing them. The sister suffers from fits that subside only with the killing of someone in front of her (yeah, it's THAT kind of deal). She immediately falls in love with Nemuri, who rejects her (initially anyway). This in turn enrages the jealous brother who is a master of poison.

I should mention that as nasty as the whole thing sounds, this (and the others in the series) is a surprisingly restrained film. There is no nudity on display here (though plenty is implied) which is especially surprising coming from a Japanese film of this vintage. There's also comparitively little blood on display. This does however contain imagery and cinematography worthy of Bava. It plays as much like a gothic horror film as it does a samurai epic. It's all topped with an eerie music score (using horns and haunting female voices) that sounds like some unholy Japanese version of a Morricone Western riff.

The Human Tarantula may not be the ideal first Nemuri film to see (the fourth one, Kyoshiro Nemuri at Bay is in my opinion, the best starting point), but it is the one that best epitomizes what this series is all about. It is also one of the best martial arts/exploitation films ever to be released from the land of the rising sun.

                                                             **** / ****

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Goose Boxer

Director: Ming Chin
Starring: Charles Heung, Lee Hoi Sang, Kao Fei

This is one of my favorite independently made (non Shaw Bros., non Golden Harvest) kung fu films of the 70's.

Goose Boxer was released in 1979, right at the height of the kung fu comedy craze which had started with the Jackie Chan/ Ng See Yuen hit, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and cemented with the duo's followup smash , Drunken Master. It was one of seemingly hundreds that popped up at the end of the decade. I personally have something of a love/hate relationship with kung fu comedies. Most of the comedy in these films felt forced and unfunny, sometimes eye-rollingly so. But I tolerate it because the martial arts in the best of these is so great. However, once in a while I'll come accross one that's actually clever and funny. Chan's The Fearless Hyena and Sammo Hung's The Victim are two such examples. Goose Boxer is a third. While still plenty goofy, much of it's humor is derived more from the characters' situations than cheap mugging. There's some truly hilarious stuff going on in this picture which seemingly goes to show how much more successful this type of thing is when the filmmakers pay half as much attention to character and story development as they do the combat.

The story follows the plight of a hapless goose roster (Charles Heung) who one day witnesses a murder at the hands of a mysterious White Crane master (Lee Hoi Sang). While later immitating the Crane master's style, the goose roster inadvertently helps a loser martial arts teacher wannabe win a fight. The goose roster is then hired to teach the wannabe's school. The White Crane killer comes upon the school and sees the goose roster as a perfect patsy to lure out his enemy (another Crane master played by Kao Fei).

The previous paragraph only scratches the surface of what goes on in this wild and creative farce. The film perfectly balances it's many characters and situations so that it never seems as convoluted as it actually is. Much of the credit must go to director/choreographer Tommy Lee (here listed under his Chinese name, Ming Chin). Lee has only directed a handful of films (usually serving as actor/choreographer) and none of his other directed efforts were as sharp and precise as his work here.

The cast all handle their roles perfectly. Star Charles Heung had spent the early part of his career in serious roles in various bashers (The Big Showdown aka Kung Fu Massacre is a highlight). Here he shows good comedic range. He's no Jackie Chan, but he makes for a personable and believable put upon hero. He is perhaps best know for his role as a bodyguard in the chow Yun Fat vehicle, God of Gamblers. Lee Hoi Sang gets the gets the choice part of the evil Whie Crane master. It is probably his best role as he gets to be alternately menacing and amusing (more the former). Lee had a good career, starting out as a Shaw Bros. heavy and graduating to roles in films like Chan's Project A series. The ubiquitous Kao Fei is perhaps the best known here among kung fu film enthusiasts. He has appeared in countless period martial arts films of the 70s and modern action films of the 80s, almost always as a villian. His bout with Lee Hoi Sang in this film is one of the better ones you'll see from this period.

Goose Boxer is great fun. It's plot is consistently involving and it's characters interesting and well drawn. It's also one of the most creatively silly kung fu movies I've ever seen. How creatively silly? Well. I'll leave you with this example: For the film's climatic battle between Charles Heung and Lee Hoi Sang, the goose roster mistakes a sex manual (titled The 108 Techniques) for a kung fu instructional manual and bewilders the White Crane master (as well as himself) with maneuvers that somehow don't seem quite right...

                                                       ***1/2 / ****

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope

                                            Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
                                        Starring: Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Nami

For years, I had heard rumors about this film. It was so rare that I only ever had a vague discription about it and it sounded almost too cool to be true; that Sonny Chiba portrayed a karate fighting policeman who's also a werewolf!

Fast forward to about a year ago and I finally got a copy of this rarity; from an uncut (!) T.V. print. So after all those years of buildup, was it as good as advertised? Well, mostly yes...

The story concerns concerns Chiba as a descendant of a tribe of Lycanthropes who have heightened abilities whenever there is a full moon. Our hero works as a detective, trying to solve a multiple murder case and runs afoul of a major conspiracy involving some crooked politicians (an oxymoron if ever there was one) as well as a mysterious cult-like group who call themselves J-CIA. Their objective is to rob Chiba of his special wolfian (?) powers... by stripping the blood right out of his veins! Gotta admit, this sequence made me flinch.

Director  Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (who also lensed Sister Streetfighter and Karate Bullfighter aka Champion of Death) keeps things moving at a good (though typically haphazzard) clip with a fair amount of action and nudity (Chiba's wolf powers make him a hit with the ladies, of course) as well as LOTS of gore (again, this played uncut on Japanese T.V.!). However as good as it is, there are two problems I had with it that keep me from enjoying it as much as I may have. One is a surprisingly low count of karate duels. This isn't a prerequisite for me enjoying the film, but when I watch a Sonny Chiba film from 1975, I tend to have expectations, y'know? The other problem I have with the movie is that Chiba never physically becomes a werewolf! His powers come from within you see and never manifest on the outside. That was a letdown though thinking about it, I'm not 100% sure that Chiba wouldn't have induced giggles if seen with fangs and covered in facial and body hair. Who knows, maybe the filmmakers felt that way themselves at the last minute? As it is, he does get to fight another Lycanthrope (one created artificially by the J-Cia via Chiba's transfused blood)) that's also decidedly light in the makeup department

All in all, Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope may not be quite on the level of The Executioner or The Streetfighter (my two favorite Chiba films), but it does make for good gory, sleezy (and occasionaly downright strange) fun. Just don't expect any werewolves.

                                                      *** / ****

Thursday, May 19, 2011

To Kill a Mastermind

                                                   Director: Sun Chung
                   Starring: Dang Wai Ho, Ku Feng, Lau Wai Ling, Wang Lung Wei

Sun Chung stubbornly remains one of the lesser known Shaw Bros. directors. His name does not generally resonate the way that his contemporaries, Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang do. This is really a shame because although his output hasn't been as proloific, the quality of each of his films has been the equal of anything done at that studio. Some of the films he's best known for are the superior, melodramatic kung fu flicks, Avenging Eagle and The Kung Fu Instructor, the Billy Chong vehicle, A Fistful of Talons and the gory horror cult favorite, Human Skin Lanterns. Basically if it's a film directed by Sun, it is worth seeing.

This film, To Kill a Mastermind was lensed in 1979 and sandwiched between Avenging Eagle and Kung Fu Instructor. Unlike the other two films, it was not a hit (in fact it bombed) and was until very recently considered a lost film with only fuzzy, blurry bootlegs to judge it upon. Fortunately, a better print surfaced on Youtube and is now available in the grey markets. The reason it failed at the Box Office is most likely attributable to the fact that unlike the others, it didn't feature a name actor in the lead. No Ti Lung or Fu Sheng was to be found here. Regardless, To Kill a Mastermind ranks right up there with the others mentioned; as potent a film as anything else the director has done.

The story is about the reformation of the dreaded 7 Evil Spirits Clan. They at one time, ruled the land and now it's leader (played by ever reliable Shaw heavy, Wang Lung Wei) along with some new members has launched a comeback of sorts. Enter General Yang Zhen Yu who is sent to elminate the Clan both from without and within. He has a spy working to sabotage the inner workings of it's members by cleverly staging various ruses, thus allowing distrust to reign in the hope that the Clan will methodically destroy themselves. But even within the elaborate scheming, things aren't as they appear. We're talking double crosses galore, right up utill the finale where the identity of the secret, unseen Grandmaster is revealed.

From this tricky, twisty plot, Sun unleashes an amazing visual feast. His films are consistently some of the best looking of all Shaw epics. One of his strengths is the mise en scene. He brilliantly films his stories with clever use of scenery, shot through wide camera angles, that the conflict itself seems to take on a life of it's own; almost overshadowing the individuals involved. The martial arts choreography though very good, tends to rely on more wirework than that of his contemporaries. This is occasionally distracting, but the fighters and choreography (courtesy of veteran Tang Chia) are extremely sharp, so this isn't a problem.

To Kill a Mastermind is an upper echelon Shaw Bros. kung fu movie that is in desperate need of rediscovering... as is Sun Chung himself.

                                                             ***1/2 / ****

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ginseng King (aka The Three Headed Monster)

                                              Director: Chu Chin Wang
               Starring: Cynthia Khan, Ying Chieh Chen, Ming Yu Chi, Shun Chien

This heavy duty slice of Far Eastern weirdness is a textbook example of what this blog is all about. This is one of those films that when viewed through Western eyes, will cause one to utter "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore".

The Taiwan lensed film from 1988 tells the tale of a one thousand year old living Ginseng and initially about the attempts to capture it (if you eat it, it will extend and improve your life... or something like that). But the thousand year old living root is nearly impossible to corral. Watching these early scenes with what appears to be a midget or a small boy in a Ginseng man costume, running around the woods and avoiding everyone, made me think of a demented version of "The Gingerbread Man" children's book. He is finally captured by a weird group of ninja like fighters led by Taiwanese beauty, Cynthia Khan (the only recognizable face in this film and star of several Hong Kong action flicks of the late 80s and early 90s). However, the group is followed by a small boy who has befriended the Ginseng King and needs him to save his mother (I'll get back to the reason she needs help; it deserves it's own paragraph). The gang takes Ginseng to an evil, ogreish three headed monster who intends to eat him in order to live forever. It turns out that Kahn's warrior woman is an heiress and is under duress since triple dome is holding her mother hostage (lots of mother-in-peril stuff going on here). She has a change of heart and decides to aid the young boy in destroying three heads and saving Ginseng. But is it already too late?

O.K. back to the reason the boy's mother needs help. But you may need to sit down before reading this part. You see, early in the film during the chase, the Ginseng King lost one of his whiskers which landed on a nearby coffin. Legend has it (according to the pre credit narration), that his whiskers are powerful enough to bring life back to the dead. It does and up from the coffin rises... a Nazi zombie. Yes, I said a Nazi zombie. Exactly what a Nazi was doing in Taiwan is anybody's guess. How do I know that the zombie is a Nazi? Well, every time it bumps into something (which it does frequently) it pauses to do a Nazi salute and shout "Heil Hitler!" in broken English. No, I'm not making this stuff up. The Nazi zombie terrorizes the boy and his mother before being stopped by a Taoist Priest because the Priest was wearing a swastika on his robe (well it was a Chinese peace symbol before the Nazis got hold of it). But not before putting the bite on mother. I sincerely hope you were sitting.

The film does lose some steam after the incredibly loopy early scenes, but it is still quite the jaw dropper, complete with some fairly grim final moments (especially considering that for the most part, this movie played like a Family film).

Ginseng King plays out not unlike "The Neverending Story", but it is such an esoteric, low budget (and faintly psychedelic) wonder that it stands on it's own and casts a spell on any who watch it.

                                                              *** / ****


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the Run

Director: Alfred Cheung
Starring: Yuen Biao, Patricia Ha, Charlie Chin

I first heard about this film when it came out in 1988, courtesy of the fanzine, M.A.M.A. (Martial Arts Movie Associates). The review (written by Bill Connelly) was a very positive one, but at the time I was mostly interested in fight films and wasn't too keen on seeing a moody melodrama. Besides, the idea of a film starring Yuen Biao in which he doesn't perform a single martial arts move seemed absolutely perverse. "How good can this be?" I naively asked myself...

Fast forward a few years and after having read several more equally hyped reviews, I finally got my hands on a video dupe of what has turned out to be one of the best, most adrenalizing  and certainly bleakest films ever to come out of Hong Kong. To put it mildly, I was floored.

On the Run is one of those films that directly addressed the fear and anxiety of the impending 1997 takeover by Mainland China. It did this via a Film Noir sophistication that I had not previously seen in a Chinese movie. This is one of the very best examples of Film Noir ever made at any time, from any country. I've watched it many times over the last twenty or so years and it has never ceased to awe me.

In the film, Yuen Biao plays a cop who asks his estranged wife (who also works in the police department) to  hold off on their divorce long enough for him to leave Hong Kong. She is assassinated by a httwoman from the Mainland (played by Pat Ha). Yuen chases and catches her only to find that she was hired by his own police chief (played by Charlie Chin). Seems Yuen's wife was investigating the corrupt chief and got a little too close for comfort. Now both cop and hitwoman must flee together to avoid a similar fate.

The film's director was Alfred Cheung. Cheung had previously been known for mild comedies. There is literally nothing in his resume that even remotely hints that he's capable of something like this. It's maddening that he didn't get more opportunities to do this kind of movie. Or perhaps, he shot his dramatic load all in one picture?

Yuen Biao turns in arguably the role of his career as the bitter, embattled cop. Though his character is ultimately a sympathetic one, it is not without it's dark side. Case in point, he is initially enraged that the hitwoman murdered his soon to be ex-wife NOT so much for any apparent feelings he had for her, but because through her sponsering, she was his one chance to get out of Hong Kong! Pat Ha plays the hitwoman with an icy grace that's quite breathtaking to watch. Initially cold and distant, her character eventually warms a little to Yuen and especially Yuen's young daughter. These scenes with the young girl are especially clever since this was the woman who murdered her mother! The fact that you are allowed to somewhat forget this is a tribute to just how powerful and strangely charming these scenes are. Charlie Chin had spent the majority of his career in various comedic roles (He was a prominent member of Sammo Hung's Lucky Stars cast). Here he turns in a powerful performance as the lead villian that makes you realize that he was likely and sadly miscast in all of those comedies. His equally corrupt police gang are played by Yuen Wah, Phillip Ko and Lo Lieh, again all prominent martial arts actors playing brilliantly against type by not throwing a single punch or kung fu kick and instead scoring knockouts through the force of their performances. There is apparently alot of untapped acting talent among some of the old school pugilists.

On the Run is one of my favorite films and one of the best I've ever seen, period.

                                                        **** / ****

***************************** SPOILER ALERT ************************************

I have two copies of this film, both of which were censored in two very different ways. The first version is the old, murky and oop vhs dupe I had which removed much of the blood (turns out there was plenty of it). When I finally purchased the dvd five or six years ago, the violence was left in (and the picture quality was greatly improved), but I was surprised to find the final two minute sequence showing our two main characters escaping by boat omitted. In it's place was a brief and hastely inserted text announcing that they were arrested and serving hard jail time. While this omission should not be a deal breaker for anyone thinking of getting the dvd (this movie is just too good regardless), it is a major annoyance that should not have been allowed. Hopefully someday a US company will purchase the rights to this superior film and reinsert the final sequence where it belongs.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Maki's 13 Steps

                                               Director: Naito Makoto
           Cast: Etsuko (Sue) Shihomi, Sonny Chiba, Misa Ohara, Hiroshi Kondo

The film opens on a particularly grim scene. Two young women are tied to railroad tracks, topless and spread eagle. Into the frame appears an all female gang, obviously the ones responsible for the girls' predicament. As they torture and beat the two unfortunates (and threaten to do worse), the scene grows even grimmer. Suddenly, the "festivites" are interrupted by an approaching lone figure, dressed in a long white overcoat. It is Etsuko Shihomi. The music swells as she (in an amazing low angle shot) throws off the coat to reveal a black uniform, complete with red gloves... and the number 13 prominently displayed on her shirt. As the credits roll, she single handedly lays waste to the entire girl gang AND the accompanying male gang that arrive on the scene , ready to attack our (super) heroine. Punches, kicks, flips and a gory eye gouging (for good measure) are all on display as the freeze framed credits continue to roll. Over the carnage, a superhero ballad plays, sung by Shihomi herself. Could this be the greatest opening sequence in the history of action cinema?

Amazingly, it only picks up from there. The term "action packed" has been overused ad nauseum, but it applies here in spades. There is barely a slow second in this economic 78 minute action classic and it never once gets tedious to watch. The action builds properly and exhilaratingly, thanks to the sure hand of director Naito Makoto. I'm unfamiliar with Makoto's work and he appears to have directed only sporadically over the last several decades. But if this film (full title; Maki's 13 Steps; Young Nobility) is any idication, he should've been give many, many more opportunities.

Then there is Maki herself, portrayed by the incomparable Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi. Shihomi is easily one of my favorite fighting femmes and this is her masterpiece. As Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba's top student, she combines the cute girl next door looks with an absolute ferociousness to her performances that is quite alarming, even to those already familiar with her work. So strong and so thorough is Shihomi here that by the climax where she alone confronts a gang of fifty or so Yakuza with the line, "Maki and her 13 steps will send you all to hell!" you fully and unhesitantly believe that she can and will do just that.

The story basically shows the running battle between Maki and her girl gang as they butt heads with a powerful Yakuza gang. Along the way, Maki incurrs the vengeance of a spoiled gang daughter she had previously humiliated and confronts her equal, an ex boxer who turns out to be an honorable fighter. Both characters go from foe to tenuous ally as the Yakuza head alternately dishonors both. This makes for a great, twisty tale to go along with the almost constant karate confrontations.

Maki's 13 Steps (even with subtitles I am not certain what the 13 Steps is all about, but nevermind) comes with my highest recommendation. Where for art thou, Etsuko Shihomi?

                                                           ***1/2 / ****

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tough Guy (aka Kung Fu the Head Crusher) (aka Revenge of the Dragon)

                                            Director: Joseph Kong Hung
                            Starring: Chen Sing, Henry Yu Yung, Cheung Lik

Firstly, this film is known by more aliases than a secret agent. As far as I can tell, Tough Guy is it's true original title. Kung Fu the Head Crusher (referring to the main hero's ability to kill by grabbing his opponent's skull and squeezing it like a vice) is it's most well known title here in the States and in England (and my favorite of all the akas). Revenge of the Dragon is it's generic video retitling. There is I believe, at least one more title that it goes under, but I can't think of what it is right now.

Released in 1972, Kung Fu the Headcrusher (as I prefer calling it, even though it's wrong) is one of the better early bashers. The story and premise though formulaic, are just different enough to keep things  between fights interesting (or at least tolerable). Fortunately, time between fights isn't very long and when the battles do come, they are some pretty viscious encounters.

The film stars Chen Sing (aka Chen Xing) whom I consider one of the scariest dudes to ever work in action films, martial arts or otherwise. Looking not unlike a Chinese Charles Bronson, Chen attacks each of his many roles like a wild man, always with a maniacal growl to go along with his short, but imposing stature. Be it hero or villian (he's the hero in this one, btw) you just know his opponent is in for a rough time. Simply put when Chen Sing is in a film, look out. Co starring is Cheung Lik. Cheung is not the most personable of actors, but he is one of the best fighters I have seen in these early Punch and Kick flicks. He is a very good martial artist with fast kicking ability and great use in this film of the nunchaku (he uses two simulaneously). Among the rest of the cast, I spotted Fong Hark On and Mars. Fong has spent a two decade career as one of the nastier bad guys in Hong Kong cinema. With his perpetual sneer, it's easy to see why. Mars started his career as a stuntman and occasional second banana, comic relief (which is what he plays here). He would go on to become one of Jackie Chan's top stuntmen and can be seen in many of Chan's 80's films. Actually, both Fong and Mars appeared in Jackie Chan's Police Story. It's kind of fun to see them together here, a dozen or so years earlier.

The film's soundtrack is an interesting one as it borrows liberally from the classic Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Specifically, it incorporates the "Cheyene" theme and this suits our main hero in a decidedly odd, yet appropriate way.

The story is about a pair of cops (Chen Sing and Cheung Lik) who are tasked to stop drug runners. Chen goes undercover as a prisoner to help break a gang member out. He ingratiates himself to the gang and with Cheung staying near but out of sight, gets to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, Chen's ruse is discovered and he is captured and beaten. He escapes just in time to stop the latest shipment and a fierce battle ensues, ending with Chen and the gang's number one enforcer battling it out in the mud. Great old school knock down, drag out stuff to be found here.

As a sidenote, there is a running gag in the film concerning the gang's boss (a slightly built fellow) who continually experiences... eh, let's say erectile disfunction when in bed with his summoned women. I'm guessing that this was meant to be comedy relief, but it just comes off as strange in an otherwise dead serious flick.

                                                          *** / ****