Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chinese Hercules (aka The Kid in Pier) (aka Freedom Strikes a Blow)

                                                  Director: Ta Huang
                              Starring: Chan Wai Man, Yang Sze, Fan Chiang

What we have hear is a case of false (or at least somewhat misleading) advertising. For anybody who's not yet seen this 1973 basher, you are led to believe that Yang Sze (aka Bolo Yeung) is the star of the film. The trailer and poster focus exclusively on him. Hell, the title even refers to him, right (the U.S. title does, at least)? Well never mind any of that because Yang Sze is litttle more than the main villain's top henchman. His actual screen time here amounts to only slightly more than his appearance in Enter the Dragon. That said, Bolo does leave an impression. He cuts quite an intmidating figure here, more so than in perhaps any other film I've seen him in. When he fights, you believe it. Unfortunately, he only has a few and they are all in the second half of the feature.

The main star of Chinese Hercules is Chan Wai Man (aka Michael Chan). Chan has had a long career in Hong Kong cinema, having played heroic parts early on and mostly villainous ones at the later stage. Though a good convincing fighter, I never thought that he made for a very personable hero. He always seemed to me to be better as the bad guy. Arguably his most memorable role was as the Ninja Leader in Chang Cheh's 5 Element Ninja.

The first ten minutes may actually be the best part. Chan plays a fighter who is training hard in order to defeat his girlfriend's obnoxious, bullying brother. The brother drunk, discovers Chan and his sister together (though innocently so). Enraged, he challenges Chan. In the ensuing fight, Chan accidentally kills the jerk. Horrified by what he did, he runs away. Arriving on a beach, he smashes his hands on a rock (ouch!) and goes into self imposed exile. After that opening, the film pretty much goes downhill. Chan winds gets a job at a shipyard. He finds that his co workers are being harassed and taken advantage of by the new boss, a crooked gangster. Chan (as is usual in this sort of thing) refuses to fight. Instead, it is a co worker who stands up to the boss and his crooked henchmen. Though he wins the initial fight, the worker is later killed by the top henchman (Yang Sze). Still, Chan refuses to do anything. Finally his girlfriend tracks him down to inform him that her brother's alive and he need not feel so guilt ridden (this part of the plot feels made up on the spot). With a clear conscience, Chan confronts the boss.

The fights are all O.K. with the penultimate battle between Chan and Yang being the best. Overall, not a terrible basher, but I expected better considering the hype. The film's biggest fans are likely the ones who first saw it in Grindhouses back in the early 70s. Reportedly, it was a huge hit on New York's 42 Street.

                                                               ** / ****

Saturday, July 30, 2011

3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty Men)

Director: T. Fikret Ucak
Starring: Aytekin Akkaya, Deniz Erkanat, Yavuz Selekman

Along with Turkish Star Wars (The Man Who Saves the World) this is probably the most infamous of all the Turkish Pop films.

For a long while up until the point of this film, Turkey has had a fascination with superhero adventures. Most of these resembled American Cliff Hanger serials of the 1940s, but spiced with sex and violence and amped up with their patented go for broke, high energy, Guerilla style of filmmaking. At their best, the results were irresistible. 1973's 3 Dev Adam while not the last superhero film that the Turks made, can be seen as the culmination of this particular (and peculiar) subgenre.

In 3 Dev Adam, we have DC Comics' Captain America (minus his shield) teaming up with Mexico's living legend Lucha Libre hero, El Santo against Marvel Comic's Spiderman. Yes Spidey is the bad guy and unlike the other two, he doesn't really resemble the comic book. Apparently as a more recent (at the time) comics character, Spidey wasn't very well known in Turkey. Hence, the change in personality. Here he is a sadistic, bushy eyebrowed nutjob who can seemingly clone himself on the spot as he's being killed (at least I THINK that's what's going on). He also spins not one web. One odd thing about Cap. and Santo is that they seemingly do not wear their costumes in order to hide their identity (they appear and fight as often in street clothes as in costume). The reason? Cap explains that Spider is a childlike maniac who wears a mask and would be driven crazy by another masked man. O.K. ...

There is a surprising level of sadism in this film, so it's not for kids. Right at the opening, Spider and his gang have a woman buried up to her neck at the beach. They then use a motor boat blade to kill her... slowly, with her blood splashing on the female member of the gang. Later (in the film's most hilariously infamous sequence) Spider has a man tied up in the basement of his hideout and has the man's face eaten away by... a Guinea Pig! Even stranger things happen later when as Spider is having a swinging time gettin' his thing on with his main squeeze, the scene cuts to a closeup of two little porcelin gnome figurines. For absolutely no apparent reason, they turn toward each other and giggle! This is about as WTF a moment as I have ever experienced while watching a movie. I had to rewind it just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.

Filled with action, energy, gore, sleeze and bad Spidey behavior, 3 Dev Adam is as entertaining as no budget filmmaking gets.

                                                          *** / ****

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Miss, Please Be Patient

                                              Director: Lee Hyung Pyo
                   Starring: Kim Tai Chung, Jeong Yun Hui, Kwan Young Moon

For awhile now, I had been aware that Korea had it's own martial arts movie industry back in the 70s and 80s, somewhat similar to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Unfortunately, my exposure to them has until recently, been very limited. This is mostly because they've been tough to track down. Another reason however, is that word of mouth has been fairly negative. I kept hearing the same two complaints; terrible plotting and bad fight choreography. When I finally caught up with a couple of them, I found myself in agreement. So when I had the chance to catch Miss, Please Be Patient, I didn't exactly jump at the chance. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised.

Miss, Please Be Patient is a 1981 modern action comedy that's actually alot of fun. It stars Kim Tai Chung. Kim is a terrific martial artist who Hong Kong fans will recognize as one of Bruce Lee's stand ins in Game of Death as well as taking the starring role of Bruce Lee's brother in the Game of Death 2 (aka Tower of Death) which I consider the best of the Lee exploitation films (hardly high praise, but better to be the best at something bad than worst at something good). Kim also played the ghost of Bruce in the absolutely terrible film, No Retreat No Surrender. Miss, Please Be Patient is a good vehicle for Kim as he gets to show off his humorous side without sacrificing the action. The film also features "Mad Korean" Kwan Young Moon as a villainous henchman though surprisingly, he's not given that much to do and does not have the really big time match with Kim's character that I was expecting.

As far as the plentiful fight scenes go, they're very good. Maybe not quite up to the standard of what was being shown in Hing Kong at the time, but much better than my previous exposure to Korean martial arts cinema. If there are more Korean films like this one, I'll need to check them out.

The story has to do with Kim's character getting involved with a rich girl. They meet "cute" and have several run ins before deciding they like each other, blah, blah, blah.  Turns out, she is the daughter of a man who runs a shipbuilding company. He is killed by his assistant who then kidnaps her.  Kim along with the woman's ass kicking femme friend sets out to rescue her. In one scene, Kim goes undercover as a woman; NOT a nice sight! Well, at least this proves that Jackie Chan didn't have the market cornered for such things.

Containing a few genuine laughs to go along with the mucho fight scenes, Miss, Please Be Patient shapes up as a winner for fans of modern day martial arts action comedies.

                                                         *** / ****

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Santo and Blue Demon in the World of the Dead (El Mundo de los Muertos)

                                               Director: Gillberto Martinez
                                            Starring: El Santo, Blue Demon

This 1969 Lucha Libre feature is an early team up of Santo and Blue Demon, though it could hardly be considered as such as Blue is relegated to little more than cameo status. It wasn't until the 70s where these two would truly obtain Dynamic Duo status. At this stage, Santo was the star and Blue Demon was second banana and in some cases barely that. This angered Blue to no end as he was the superior ring wrestler and openly resented being the under card. To make matters worse, he was often cast as the villain in these earlier pictures. Essentially in films like this one, Blue was the Lucha equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield. In reality, this had more to do with El Santo's status as a living legend among fans so Blue had to grin (or rather grimace) and bare it.

This was another Santo pic that portrays his masked ancestor in Colonial times (something previously shown in Santo vs the Diabolical Axe and Santo vs Baron Brakola). The story centers on Damiana, a 17th Century Devil worshiping witch who has created an army of undead warriors in order to defeat the ancestor of El Santo - the Silver Masked Hero (dressed in Colonial gear yet still with the mask on!). Damiana fails and is burned at the stake along with her warrior creations. Fast forward to present time and Damiana's spirit has taken over the body of a young woman. She revives her undead warrior servants (as wrestlers, of course) and gains possession of a cabalistic dagger and sets off to destroy the descendant of the Silver Masked Hero. Ultimately in order to destroy Damiana, Santo must travel to Hell itself.

Story wise, this is one of the strongest Santo adventures. The early colonial scenes are very well done and quite gripping. The Silver Masked Hero's running battle with Damiana's undead servants in modern times are both excitingly choreographed and unintentionally comical (the pipe organ theme starts and stops as if someone lifted the needle on a phonograph, which is likely how it went down). The final scenes in the Netherworld are eerily effective with constant wailing voices and color tinted film. Alas, there was one giant goof up. At the very climax, the film effectively splices in scenes of flying spirit creatures from the Mario Bava directed Hercules in the Haunted World. We cut back to the new footage and how are the spirit creepies portrayed? By a trio of wrestlers with  shmatas on their heads! Ugh!

You know even with this embarrassing gaffe, El Mundo de los Muertos may still be one of my favorite films featuring the Man in the Silver Mask. The rest of the film is just too good for it to be ruined so easily. Blue Demon fans will be disappointed, but otherwise this is a highly recommended adventure that sadly has yet to be English subtitled for us Spanish language impaired fans.

                                                             *** / ****

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Age of Assassins (aka Epoch of Murder Madness)

                                               Director: Kihachi Okamoto
                                 Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Eisei Amamoto
Every once in a while, I'll come across a movie so great, so exhilarating, so note perfect in every aspect of it's being that it will actually anger me that I hadn't heard about it sooner. This is the case with director Kihachi Okamoto's black comedy/action/satire masterpiece, Age of Assassins.

Okamoto's reputation here in the U.S. consists entirely of his samurai work (Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, Kill, Red Lion, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo...). Sword of Doom in particular is a beloved title having been a big hit in New York's art houses throughout the late 60s and 70s. However, what many do not know about the eclectic filmmaker is that he is at least as well known in his home country for several masterful modern day black comedies. This one, Age of Assassins is considered by some to be his greatest work. After seeing it with my own disbelieving eyes, I'm inclined to agree.

It begins in a mental institution. It is being run by an evil mastermind (played by character actor supreme, Eisei Amamoto). He intends to use the crazies as assassins in order to spark fear and paranoia amongst Japan (and perhaps ultimately, the world). His prospective "client" is a Nazi spy/war mongerer (much of the dialogue between the two of them is spoken in German). To demonstrate his ability, three random victims are picked out of a phone book with the promise that they will be killed in less than 48 hours. The first two assignments go off without a hitch. The third one... not so much. The target is a schleppy, near sighted teacher with athlete's foot (played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai) who through his own clumsiness manages to kill his attacker. Finding himself further targeted by all manner of crazed assassins, our "hero" goes on the run while trying to figure out who is trying to kill him and why.  Along the way, he gets help from a mixed up cab driver (his smog belching jalopy that they ride in is one step away from the junk heap) as well as a spunky female reporter who may not be what she appears to be.

To reveal much more of the plot would be doing a disservice to this wonderful film. It winds up taking more twists and turns than almost any other movie that comes to mind. It is a dizzying wonder to behold, right up to it's final shot.

Tatsuya Nakadi gives a wonderful performance here, managing to be both hilariously quirky and subtly clever, sometimes within the same shot. Watching his character go from awkward geek to suave agent is nothing short of astonishing. It is significant that his character's physical transformation occurs much sooner than his behavioral one. Originally meant to be nothing more than a disguise, his psyche changes with such subtlety that you scarcely notice the transformation until it is nearly complete. Truly a tour de force performance from one of Japan's greatest actors.

Filled with wild camera work, crazed closeups, dizzying edits, amazing for their time action sequences and a terrific sense of pacing courtesy of director Okamoto, Age of Assassins is simply one of the best films I have ever seen and the fact that it's not a huge cult item is a crime. If ever a film deserved to be rediscovered and given the royal dvd treatment, it is this one.

                                                          **** / ****

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Woman Avenger (aka Fatal Claws Deadly Kicks) (aka Killer Bs)

                                                Director: Lee Tso Nam
                                      Starring: Hsia Kwan Li, Peng Gang


Hsia Kwan Li is hands (and feet) down one of my favorite female martial artists. Tall and amazingly flexible, she can throw some of the best kicks ever seen on film (her standing back kicks are especially impressive). She also was a fairly accomplished actress as well with the ability to play both dramatic and comedic roles. The fact that she's also quite easy on the eyes certainly doesn't hurt either. Hsia learned at the Lu Kwang opera school at the same time as several members of the Venom Mob and it's a real shame that she didn't follow her male counterparts to Shaw Brothers as I feel she'd have given Hui Ying Hung a run for the money as Shaw's kung fu queen (though this could have been due to Venom's director Chang Cheh's seeming unwillingness to cast female martial artists). Instead she teamed with director Lee Tso Nam, one of the best of the independant kung fu filmmakers. Hsia's initial role for Lee was a supporting part in Shaolin Wooden Men and her performance was so impressive that as a followup, she was immediately given a starring role in 1979's Woman Avenger (as a quick sidenote, I have no idea if this or Fatal Claws Deadly Kicks is the film's true original title while the Killer Bs moniker is merely a ludicrous vhs retitling).

Woman Avenger starts off with Hsia and her character's husband being ambushed by a gang of thieves. He is murdered and she is raped. Surviving this horrible scene, she manages to reach a Buddhist temple where she learns various martial arts techniques from a nun. She then departs the temple and going undercover as a man (always a lame gimmick in kung fu films and especially so in this case), hunts down the gang, going through their ranks one by one. These are in ascending order; Butterfly Knives, Broadsword, Spearman, Dragon Fist and finally the gang's ferocious leader Twin Section Boxing (played by Peng Gang who also served as the film's fight choreographer). Initially suffering defeat, Hsia is rescued by another female fighter and trained in Twin Boxing so that she may ultimately take down the leader. This is pretty significant in that Hsia's character has not one, but two female teachers and not one male hero is in sight.

This was quite a star making vehicle for Hsia and she takes full command it. While the role may not be quite as memorable as that of the comically spoiled, bullying character named Phoenix that she played in Lee Tso Nam's next film, The Invincible Kung Fu Legs, Woman Avenger may be the stronger picture overall and also affords her sole leading role (as opposed to Inv. KF Legs where she played second lead to Tan Tao Liang). Her beauty and incredible skills are displayed to perfection. Peng Gang was so effective in this film and had such good chemistry with Hsia, that Lee recast him as villian in KF Legs.

Strangely enough, Hsia never followed up the Lee Tso Nam vehicles with anytyhing much. She appeared in precious few films after that (and none in a starring role) before appearing in a tiny role in Tsui Hark's Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain where she throws not one kick. After this, Hsia seemingly disappeared from the industry for some ten years. She reappeared twice in 1992 in a pair of low budget Taiwan pictures; Lady Killer and Revenge for my Son. If nothing else, these two adventures proved that her flashy, showy fighting techniques would have translated well in a modern day setting. After this, she disappeared again, seemingly for good this time.

As I understand it, she wound up returning home to Taiwan where she currently splits time between appearing on T.V. and running a restaurant.

Despite having been given too few chances to showcase her skills, at least we can thank director Lee Tso Nam and Woman Avenger for helping to expose (albiet far too briefly) one of the most memorable fighting femmes ever to appear in Chinese martial arts cinema.

                                                        *** / ****

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Three Fantastic Supermen

                                                 Director: Frank Kramer
                             Starring: Brad Harris, Tony Kendall, Nick Jordan

This 1967 action packed spy comedy from Italy is one of the most purely entertaining superhero adventures I have ever seen. It threw together elements from T.V.s Batman series, Mexico's Lucha Libre films and the spy movie genre (all of which were at the peak of their respective popularity) and blended them (while also managing to satirize them) into an extremely pleasing concoction.

The story deals with a pair of likeable acrobatic thieves (played by Tony Kendall and Nick Jordan) who form an uneasy alliance (if you even want to call it that) with an FBI agent (played by Brad Harris) who is looking to bring down an evil scientist who is in control of the Universal Reproducer, a machine that as advertised can copy seemingly anything... including people. The trio's red superhero (?) outfits are bullet proof (but not flame proof) and come with suction cups on the feet in order to climb up walls and ceilings. They are also equipped with yo yos as weapons (long before the Sukeban Deka ladies were to use them). Guns are a no-no with them.

Though it didn't even make a dent here in the States, The Three Fantastic Supermen was the start of something pretty big throughout Europe and other parts of the world. A long series of sequels followed including a Hong Kong Shaw Brothers co production (Three Supermen in the Orient) and several Turkish productions (the best of which is the very entertaining Three Supermen and Mad Girl). I admit I haven't seen every one in this series, but I have seen most of them and while I found each entry entertaining, this initial installment is easily the best.

Both Brad Harris and Tony Kendall (real name Luciano Stella) had already appeared in the Kommissar X adventures and their strong chemistry built from that spy series carried over well here. Even though this is the debut feature, you get the strong feeling that these two actors are very familiar with each other. This was to be Kendall's sole appearance in the series while Harris returned for the third film (Three Supermen in the Jungle). Their presence was missed in the subsequent entries. The third wheel was portrayed by Nick Jordan (real name Aldo Conti). In real life, Jordan was reportedly a thief with strong mob ties (the story goes that he had to be let out of jail just to appear in this film!). He only appeared in one other film in the series and was apparantly murdered at some point in the 90s (I know, it's a downer). Many have found his mute acrobatic character annoying, but I genuinely enjoyed his performance. His cheerful and giddy approach to the character was something I found contagious. Of the rest of the cast, I really took notice of Gloria Paul, a tall and amazingly beautiful British actress whom I was not that familiar with.  I discovered that Miss Paul was (is) a well know actress,singer and all around entertainer. She currently has performance clips all over youtube which she may be distributing herself (though I'm not sure of this). Sadly, she is not given much to do in this film, but I certaintly appreciated each scene she was in.

Directing this film with a super charged enthusiasn was Frank Kramer (real name Gianfranco Paralini), a noted veteran of both Peplum and Western pics. Not all of his films were successful, but many of them were quite good and fine examples of their respective genres. This film may be his finest hour (at least in this so-called critic's opinion).

Filled with some amazingly acrobatic (and far ahead of their time) martial arts battles and punctuated with a goofy but enjoyable music score, Three Fantastic Supermen is great fun and a definite favorite. I've watched it several times and it's silly thrills have never failed to put a smile on my face.

                                                        ***1/2 / ****

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Calamity (aka War God)

                                                Director: Chen Hung Min
                          Starring: Yu Ming Lun, Tse Ling Ling, Cindy Tang Tshin


This is just the kind of movie that made me want to start a blog in the first place. It's a 1976 Kaiju Eiga from Taiwan that was until recently, not thought to have existed. I first heard about it a year and a half ago and it sounded like some half baked urban legend (a giant Guan Yu battling giant aliens... really?!). Then a few black and white photos appeared revealing it to have been an actual movie, albeit a very much "lost" film. Then for a brief time a youtube clip showing a battle sequence magically appeared before shocked, disbelieving fans. So not only did this nearly mythical film exist, but it may not be quite so lost after all! It wasn't long after that that the full movie became available, with english subtitles no less. So for a film that has garnered near legendary status, did it live up to expectations? In a word, YES!

Calamity has a first half that actually plays more like an ecological end of the world tale than a monster movie. The story centers on Zhao, an elderly sculpture who's stricken with Glaucoma and finds himself nearly blind. All his life, he has attempted to create the ultimate sculpture of Guan Yu, the mythical Han General who's Civil War battles helped to cause the collapse of the Han Dynasty. Zhao is fearful of an imminent "calamity" and is hopeful that his ultimate sculpture of the "war god" will provide the people with protection when the time comes. At odds with him is his son, a noted scientist who does not share his father's beliefs. Throughout the first half, there are looming threats of an alien invasion (the tried and true threat of nuclear harm is behind it) and it is actually treated in a serious, subdued manner. However, once the invasion begins, all credibility is (joyously) thrown out the window as a trio of giant bug faced aliens beam their way down from their spaceship and strut their way into the city, making it their personal playground. All hope seems lost until Zhao with one final prayer, watches as his statue transforms itself into a giant, living form of the spirit of Guan Yu. The final 25 minutes is one looong running battle that is nothing short of kaiju heaven for fans like myself.

I would really like to know who's idea this film was, because it plays exactly how it reads, like some demented masterpiece. The aliens act almost comically over the top (though not eye rollingly so) and the very idea of a giant Guan Yu... it's tough to put into words just how crazy this concept is. The idea seems to be some unholy combination of Ultraman and Dai Majin, but even that doesn't quite do it justice. The fact that the character is played dead serious (complete with Peking Opera style fighting and posing!) just makes the proceedings all the more wonderously bizarre.

Calamity is a lost film that truly lives up to it's legend. It's quickly become a favorite of mine and would make for a great double bill with Inframan. In short, Calamity = big time fun!

                                                           ***1/2 / ****