Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Opium and the Kung Fu Master (aka Lightning Fist of Shaolin)

                                                    Director: Tang Chia
                          Starring: Ti Lung, Chen Kwan Tai, Kao Fei, Li Hoi Sang

Tang Chia spent his career as the Shaw Brothers premier action choreographer. Having worked under both Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang, he had developed into arguably the most reliable assisstant in the studio. Surprisingly he did not direct his first movie until the waning years of the company. He only helmed three features, 1982's Shaolin Prince (aka Death Mask of the Ninja), 1983's Shaolin Intruders and the one being reviewed, 1984's Opium and the Kung Fu Master. All three are standouts with Opium... being his finest.

Opium and the Kung Fu Master tells the tale of Tie Qiao San, one of the famous Ten Tigers of Kwantung. Here he is portrayed as the local town hero and guardian, respected and beloved by all. However, he is holding a dark secret (as the film's title makes abundantly clear); he spends much of his leisure time in an opium den, completely in denial of his addiction. His students try to get him to stop, but to no avail. The film cleverly starts off as light and humorous (even the scenes explicitly showing our hero's addiction are treated as no big deal) only to turn dark about mid way. Stories of his "handicap" reach the ears of a trio of nasties. They wish to control the opium den, get the town addicted and reap the money that will be made from it (at everyone else's expense of course). What has stopped them from doing so is Tie being such a supreme fighter (his ability seems almost super human). But his addiction has left him severely weakened. In short order, they defeat him and kill his main pupil (the one that kept begging his master to quit). Now a little more than a crumpled mess, Tie returns to his blind master who must first help him go cold turkey and then literally start his training from scratch as he attempts to regain his once invincible fighting form.

If this sounds different from your average kung fu flick, that's because it is. Rarely (if ever) has such a righteous folk hero been revealed to have such a fatal flaw, one that he himself perpetuates, no less. The results are eye opening.

Starring as Tie Qioa San is venerable veteran Ti Lung. By this point in his career, Ti had matured from matinee idol to one of the most powerful and charasmatic of all Shaw actors. He instantly brought a sense of strength, authority and respectability to any part he played. This is arguably the finest role ever afforded him at Shaw Brothers. The three villians are played by Chen Kwan Tai, Kao Fei and Lee Hoi Sang; three of the best and most reliable baddies you could ask for. Chen Kwan Tai in particular ha proven to be one of Shaws best actor/fighters, having played both heroes and villains with equal pannache. His last reel confrontation with the rejuvinated Tie (in which Tie uses his slain student's grave marker effectively and profoundly as a weapon) is one of the more memorable and emotionally charged one on one battles ever filmed. Director Tang Chia himself plays the blind master, showing that he is equally adept in front of the camera as he is behind it.

Opium and the Kung Fu Master is simply a martial arts masterpiece from a director who sadly graced us with too few pictures.

                                                             ***1/2 / ****


Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Killing of Satan

                                                   Director: Efrin Pinon
                          Starring: Ramon Revilla, Cecille Castillo, Charlie Davao


Are you a horror fan? (sure, who isn't?) Feeling a little jaded? Feeling a little adventurous? Enjoy your horror with an extra large side dish of cheese? Want to see something completely different? Well then, this film (released in 1983) is just for you...

Welcome to the Phillipines and this heavily "Christian" flavored horror/fantasy/action film, The Killing of Satan. Here is a film that I can truly say is like no other. A bizarre concoction of action, horror gore, sleaze and above all else, a depiction of Satan and Hell that is only rivaled by Mexico's Santa Claus vs The Devil for sheer goofy spectacle.

The (surprisingly convoluted) story starts with Lando (yes, that's his name) returning home from prison to his wife and daughter on an island village only to find his uncle Miguel struck down by The Prince of Magic. Lando discovers that he has inherited his family's magical powers and is enlisted by Miguel to stop The P.O.M. Lando is at first hesitant, but when The P.O.M. sends his minions to lay waste to the village, injure his wife and kidnap his daughter in order to present her to Satan (yes, THE Satan), Lando springs into action and a series of pitched battles ensue.

I was a little put off at first with both the film's tone and pacing. For such an over the top adventure the film presents a gloomy, deadly serious first half that just sort of sits there. There's lots of suffering and crying early on and first time viewers may think it to be some screwy, over baked soap opera. But stay with it, because it's the second half (as Lando finally challenges first The Prince of Magic and then Satan) where things really pick up. Watching the low budget (O.K. no budget) duels between Lando and the evil ones (they can move things with thought and shoot lasers out of there hands) is a sight I won't soon forget. The wildly inappropriate English dubbing serves as icing on the cake.

I am not familiar with director Efrin Pinon, but he seems to have been quite a prolific director in his home country having worked from the late 70s up until the late 90s. If his other films are as much fun as this one, then I'll have to add him to my list of directors I need to check out.

Overall, The Killing of Satan (which amazingly, enjoyed a U.S. vhs release back in the 80s where it likely confounded unsuspecting rental customers) is a truly wobbly inducing experience and is recommended to those who are willing to just go for it.

                                                         *** / ****

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Baron Prasil (aka The Fabulous Baron Munchausen)

                                                 Director: Karel Zeman
                        Starring: Milos Kopecky, Rudolf JelĂ­nek, Jana Brejchova


The name Karel Zeman is not widely known among fans of fantastic films and that's a damn shame as in my opinion, he just may be the most innovative special effects man that ever lived.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1910, Karel Zeman has been referred to as the Czech George Melies, but he was actually more than that. He was the master of whatever type of effect he chose to use, be it stop mation animation, life sized props, forced perspective (to present size and depth; he is particularly adept at this), there was no apparent optical trick that  Zeman couldn't master. These effects were not "realistic". Of course, they were not intended to be. His work was not based in Hollywood style realism. Often, his films looked like sophisticated childrens' books come to life. It takes some adjusting to those unfamiliar with his techniques. Many will claim they look fake, but that's the whole point. Once a viewer properly tunes themselves in to what Zeman was doing, they will be able to understand just what a master craftsman he was.

During his time (between the late 1940s and the late 1970s), Zeman made many, many shorts and features. Not all were masterpieces, though all are worth seeing. Among his best were the celebrated short, "Inspiracion" which incorporated glass figurines, "An Invention of Destruction" (aka The Fabulous World of Jules Verne) a black and white fantasy where the overall look of the various effects strikingly resembled the original wood engravings of Verne's book and especially Baron Prasil which I consider to be his greatest achievment and one of the best pure fantasy film ever made. It is an incredible visual experience in which every frame looks like something out of a two dimensional painting. It is one of those films you just want to stare at...

Munchausen (for those who don't know) was an 18th Century German officer who was known for telling extremely tall tails and attempted to make people belive they were true. No one did, but they found his outrageous yarns entertaining. This film version tells primarily of his stories of being the first man on the moon and conquering the Turkish army singlehandedly.

This was one of many filmed versions actually. Two other notable ones were the visually sumptuous, but deadly dull 1943 German lensed film (this was the Nazis attempt at bettering America's Wizard of Oz and Great Britain's Thief of Bagdad) and Terry Gilliam's somewhat hit or miss 1988 adaptation, centering on mostly different tales than what had previously been shown. None of these others can come close to matching Zeman's vision.

Speaking of Gilliam, he was one of Zeman's biggest fans. His animation on Monty Python was heavily influenced by his idol's work.

                                                          **** / ****

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lady Tarzan (Tarzan Sundari)

                                                           Director: ?
                                                     Starring: Jamuna


This is one of my favorite Bollywood features. It combines unintentional (?) laughs, bad movie making (terrible editing, fight scenes where the punches clearly miss by at least a foot) with a great sense of pacing and a lively atmosphere; making this a fast, breezy and highly enjoyable two hours of decidedly Psychotronic movie watching.

The story starts with a wealthy man riding in his car with his young daughter. As they cross a bridge, they are ambushed by a trio of wildly over the top thugs, possibly sent by the man's conniving business associate (I can't tell for sure as though the film is easy to follow, there are no English subtitles). He is beaten while the daughter is unceremoniously tossed over the bridge and into the rapid waters below. Floating upstream, she lands in the jungle. In short order, she discovers that she's capable of having a rapour with the animals (mammals only, not reptiles as is clearly shown). As the years pass (!), she grows from petite young girl into a six foot amazon. Meanwhile, the father now fully recovered (it shouldn't have taken NEARLY so long to do so, but never mind) sends out a rescue team in the hopes that his daughter is still alive. The head of the expedition finds her and it's love at first sight. The two (well mostly her) battle nasty natives and poachers before being captured by a viscious tribe of... well more natives. The leader of the search party had previously run afoul of them and had to fight off the advances of the tribes' queen. She now finds him in the embrace of Lady Tarzan and hell hath no fury... Anyway, our couple are rescued by a herd of elephants (who are the closest of all of Lady Tarzan's allies) and they battle their way out. All that's left is for our heroine to decide if she wants to return to her rich parents or stay where she is as queen of the jungle.

Essentially, the film is a showcase for the towering presence of six foot tall actress Jamuna. I admit that I am not familiar with Jamuna aside from this film, but she does a nice job of carrying the picture (both literally and figuratively) on her shoulders. She absolutely looks the part and throws all she has into the role both in the action department (where she convincingly swings from the branches, crushes natives and battles several oponents at once, making them all look like dead weights) and in the er, tenderer sequences. The film makes sure that it very carefully scans her impressive figure in various shots, somehow keeping it less trashy than it might have been. Jamuna OWNS this movie and it is all the better off for it.

From a cinematic perspective, Lady Tarzan may not be the best example of Hindi exploitation filmmaking. However, you'd be hard pressed to find one that's as much pure fun as this.

                                                      *** / ****

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Rebellious Reign


                                                   Director: Fong Cheung
Starring: Jimmy Lee, Norman Chu

The genesis of this martial arts epic is an intriguing one. It was originally conceived in the early 70s as a project for Bruce Lee. It was to be his first in an early period setting. When Bruce passed in 1973 it (and several other would be projects) was shelved. But the story (based on true characters and events) was a strong one and in 1979, Lo Wei (who was to have been it's director) dusted the script off and decided it was time to film it. Of course by this time, the period martial arts craze was in full swing and had been for some time. The plot was hardly as original at that point as it would have been some six or seven years earlier. Still it was a solid, character driven script. Better late than never...

For the revised project Lo Wei went with the producer tag, but did not direct (a good thing as Lo was always something of a hack director who benefited greatly from the star power that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan lent). Instead he turned over the directing chores to Fong Cheung. Cheung has apparently only directed a handful of films himself so the choice seemed like a dubious one. However, it turned out to be a solid move as Fong was able to keep the politically charged script from bogging the picture down.

Replacing Bruce in the lead was Jimmy Lee (aka Lung Fong). Jimmy has had a long career spanning from the 1970s through the 90s in all kinds of films from old school kung fu to modern day action. This is one of his few lead perfs and he delivers. He's not Bruce, not even close (then again, who is?) but he was solid and diplayed a higher level of martial arts skills than previously shown.

In it Lee plays Nie Kan Yao, a Ming patriot who with the help of other patriots/rebels attempts to bring down the Ching dynasty. His way of accomplishing this is to befriend the dying King's fourth son (played by Norman Chu) who is scheming to discredit the thirteenth son, the one whom the King favors to be his successor. Managing to gain the fourth son's trust, Nie assists him in his royal plot while also gaining power and evidence for a rebel uprising.

This is a powerful and dramatically charged film, much more so than most made at the time. The fight choreography (courtesy of Alan Chiu) is outstanding and scenes showing the inner workings of the Ching are consistently intriguing. Some viewers were put off by the lack of a happy ending, but again this was based on true events and these things rarely provided a positive outcome.

But as strong as this movie is, I did have one major problem with it (and I mean aside from music swiped from Disney's The Black Hole used during tense moments). After all of the careful planning and various plot setups, the finale seems to come straight out of nowhere. It's as if the filmmakers just lost patience with the whole thing (I can just imagine Lo Wei "overseeing" it all by yelling, "too much story, fight! fight!!"). It feels like there's a reel (or possibly two) missing just before the final battle. It's an 86 minute film that feels as if it were edited from a 106 minute cut. This is really a shame as it reduces the film from being one of the finest kung fu movies ever to... merely great.

That said, when the finale does happen, whoa mama! It is twenty minutes of supreme martial arts mayhem like few others. Having sat through thousands of kung fu movies over the past two and a half decades, this battle is easily in the Top 20, maybe even in the Top 10. It is an incredible thing to behold, highlighted by a performance for the ages by Kwan Yung Moon. Dubbed "The Mad Korean", Kwan truly lives up to his billing as he goes positively ape shit, kicking everybody and everything in sight (including his own men!) with a ferocity I had not seen since, well since Bruce himself.

The Rebellious Reign despite it's flaws, is a film that any self respecting kung fu film fan needs to see. It may not be what it could have been had Bruce Lee been involved, but what we are left with is still plenty impressive..

                                                        ***1/2 / ****


Monday, June 6, 2011

Insan Avcisi (Manhunter)

                                                Director: Duygu Sagiroglu
               Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Turgut Ozatay, Tarik Simsek, Yavuz Selekman


This film is often mistranslated as Heart of a Father. That I'm pretty sure is a different Turkish action drama; one I've yet to see.

Lensed in 1978, Insan Avcisi is one of the best examples of the modern day Turkish action/exploitation pics to come out of that decade. The Turks during this period were heavily influenced by both American and Italian films and this one is no exception. It appears to be most strongly influenced by the seminal down and dirty Charles Bronson vigilante pic, Death Wish as well as the violent and stylish Italian Mob movies being churned out by the likes of Fernando Di Leo and Enzo Castellari. While Insan Avcisi isn't on par with either in regards to style and technique, it (like the best of the Turkish Pop films) does exhibit a crazed energy level and go for broke attitude that makes the others appear almost tame by comparison. It also ups the ante in the nasty department. In one scene, the hero's pregnant wife is murdered by a long knife that's thrust right into her belly. Also (in the film's most notorious scene) a baddie is placed in front of a table saw that proceeds to slice him in half, the long way, from bottom to top!

Starring in this heavy duty celluloid smackdown is the ever present Cuneyt Arkin. This film came during the peak of his popularity as he was splitting his time between making modern action/revenge pics and over the top period epics (see my review of Battal Gazi Geliyor). This is also just prior to  his lean years in the 80s where he was featured in often incomprehensible (though oddly even more entertaining) cinematic oddities (see my review of Vahsi Kan). Alternately stoic and crazed, when Arkin is the hero it spells bad news for the heavies.

The story concerns Arkin as a cop who discovers that one of his fellow crime stoppers is dirty and in league with an international crime syndicate. Before he has a chance to act, his family is gruesomely dispatched (the aforementioned pregnant spouse). Swearing revenge, (understandably) he resigns from the force and goes on a hunting spree.

Technically well made, Insan Avcisi is a sure bet for Cuneyt Arkin fans who want a little meat to go along with the expected (and then some) dose of Turkish-style action, violence and general nastiness.

                                                                 *** / ****