Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Intikam Benim (aka Vengeance is Mine) (aka Big Risk)

                                                   Director: Cetin Inanc
                                       Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Emel Tumer

First, I have no idea what the correct English translated title should be. My subtitled dvdr says "I Am Vengeance", the sleeve reads "Vengeance is Mine" and the trailer calls it "Big Risk".

Regardless of the English title(s), Intikam Benim is yet another winning (as in bat-shit crazy) teaming of director Cetin Inanc and star Cuneyt Arkin. Both of them were considered on the downside of their respective careers and were apparently slumming it by 1983 (when the film was released). Most local fans and critics consider their best work to be from the 1960s and 70s. For this fan however, their eventual teamings in the first half of the 80s produced many of the most entertaining features that either man has made. I've seen eight or nine of their teamups from this time period and have yet to be anything less than amazed by them. This effort is no exception.

Intikam Benim stars Arkin as Eagle Murat, an ex top cop now a boozer after hearing of the death of his identical twin brother. His brother was an undercover narc who got a little too close to the gang he was investigating. Upon visiting a past informant (covered head to toe in bandages - he got too close as well) Murat learns his brother is alive. Immediately sobering up (that was easy!) Murat goes undercover to learn of his brother's whereabouts. Along the way, he gets help from a goofy "hip" (and James Bond wannabe) cab driver as well as a mega hot hooker who's advances Eagle keeps spurning. This leads to a few comically sped up skirmishes. When Eagle finally does come upon his brother (also Cuneyt Arkin), he finds him as a hopeless addict (forced upon him by the gang he was investigating). The now disgraced brother promptly shoots himself in the head, causing Eagle to turn vigilante and single handedly decimate the gang and it's insane, knife wielding boss.

It is the last half hour where Eagle launches his assault, that the film really comes to life. It is quite simply among the most dizzying no budget spectacles you are ever likely to see. Eagle attacks by car, by motorcycle, by speedboat (in order to infiltrate the baddies island fortress) and by all matter of handheld weapon. Between the riotous editing (including what may be the most sudden and most confusing final shot ever filmed) and the awkward use of stock footage (probably lifted from various Italian action films), I was literally left sitting with a blank stare on my face for several minutes after the word 'Son" appeared.

                                                            ***1/2 / ****

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thunderbolt Fist

                                                Director: Chang Yi Hu
                                  Starring: Tieh Wah, James Nam, Shih Szu

Pivotal, early basher from 1971. This film appears to have bridged a gap between Wang Yu's groundbreaking 1970 film, The Chinese Boxer (widely regarded as the first empty hand martial arts movie) and the legendary King Boxer (aka 5 Fingers of Death) from later in 1971. Thunderbolt Fist contains not only many of the same plot points as it's counterparts, but more than a few of the same faces and names, both in front of and behind the camera.

The story starts at the end of the Chinese Revolution. A small village is under siege by a gang of evil Japanese fighters who are attempting to take over the land. Their leader is defeated by the villager's top fighter in a tournament match. Disgraced, the gang has him murdered. His young son escapes to the mountains where after many years of hard training with his band of rebels, sets out to avenge his father's murder and regain the town for the Chinese.

Ultimately, Thunderbolt Fist will draw comparisons to the aforementioned King Boxer (both of which shared the same production timetable) and as such, it comes up lacking. The direction by Chang Yi Hu is competent and provides for a fast paced adventure, but it lacks the well drawn characters and buildup of tension that Cheng Chang Ho so brilliantly devised with his masterpiece. Compared to King Boxer, Thunderbolt Fist is a very much by-the-number production. This is exactly what King Boxer would have been like had it been in less capable (less visionary) hands.

One advantage that this film does have is the presence of a female martial artist, portrayed by Shih Szu. As the hero's sister, Shih is very engaging in the part and even get's to briefly perform some Robin Hoodesque deeds. As the main hero, Tieh Wa just doesn't quite cut it. A good actor and decent fighter, Tieh's looks are best suited to villainous roles or as second billed to the lead. As the main star, he just doesn't have enough charisma to fully pull it off. As the lead Japanese villain, James Nam does an excellent job here. A Korean born veteran of early 70s martial arts films, Nam has always brought a sense of realism to his roles, be it hero or villain. With his slightly crossed eyes and inner intensity, Nam conveys rage and sheer hatred like few others in the genre. By the time he recieves his ultimate come uppance in the ring (via a graphic flying kick that goes clear through him!), you find yourself fully cheering along with it.

Overall Thunderbolt Kick stands as a pretty good (and pretty bloody) basher for it's time. It isn't a classic, but fans can do worse than this one.

                                                                 **1/2 / ****

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mantis Fist Fighter (aka The Thundering Mantis)

                                                 Director: Wing Cho Yip
                                        Starring: Liang Chia Jen, Eddie Ko,

One of the most memorable of the late 70s kung fu films. It provided genre fave Liang Chia Jen with arguably his quintessential role and contained what is certainly one of the most shocking climaxes in the history of old school martial arts cinema.

In Mantis Fist Fighter, Liang portrays Ah Chi, a well meaning, but somewhat simple minded student of a kung fu school. He openly opposes the local thugs, making fools out of them in the process. This incurrs the anger of the gang's leader, a feared Eagle Claw master (played to ferocious perfection by Eddie Ko). Concerned about Chi's actions, the headmaster dismisses the rambunctious student. Chi then befriends a boy martial arts prodigy who also has been giving the gang all kinds of trouble. It turns out the kid's grandfather is a noted Praying Mantis practitioner. Chi begs the old master to teach him, but is turned down. Only through the Grandson's help does Chi manage to trick the old master into taking him in as his student and the three of them form a strong bond.

Up until this point, the film plays like a typical post Jackie Chan kung fu comedy. A good one, but nothing really exceptional. It isn't until the final thirty or so minutes that the film's true heart of darkness is revealed (and we are talking pitch black, here). Because of Chi's and the boy's continual trouble making ways, the Eagle Claw master seeks out the grandfather and after a lengthy battle, kills him. Upon return from town, our heroic, but mischievous pair come upon the dead master. What we expect is for the two of them to briefly grieve and then swear revenge (as is typical in these films). What we get is something decidedly different. The pair's shock and grief is profound and over the top. So much so that the boy becomes ill and passes out. Chi brings him to a friend, a fish vender to help him get well. However the gang has followed the pair. They murder Chi's friend (who blames Chi as he's dying) and capture Chi and the boy. They are both tortured and the boy dies. This is where Chi's mind snaps. In a fit of guilt and sheer rage, he goes completely mad. He transforms into a twitching, frothing, growling animal and lays waste to the entire gang. He also becomes cannibalistic and after killing the Eagle Claw leader, begins to dine on him.

There was reportedly much audience shock when it first hit Hong Kong theaters in 1980 as well as when it was released to stateside theaters two years later. This ending was as savage and disturbing as anything yet shown in kung fu movies of this vintage. To see Liang's slow witted hero get put through the ringer like that and watch him come out the other end as nothing less than a sub human beastie, literally tearing the villain to shreds with the final act of cannibalism was and is a breathtaking viewing experience. It's a downer, but one that will send your jaw smacking to the floor.

Directed by Wing Cho Yip and and with fight choreography by madman Robert Tai (who helped develop and choreograph the early Venom Mob films), Mantis Fist Fighter is a film with an ending that can still pack a whallop, even after multiple viewings. Essential for old school kung fu buffs.

                                                              *** / ****

Monday, August 8, 2011

Purana Mandir (The Old Temple)

                                        Director: Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay
                Starring: Mohnish Bahl, Ajay Agarwai, Aarti Gupta, Puneet Issar

Purana Mandir is one of the best and most important examples of Hindi horror, courtesy of the Ramsay clan. The Ramsays (Director brothers Tulsi and Shyam along with their Producer father, F.U.)struck local box office gold with this feature which re energized a sagging Bollywood film industry. Local films playing there were not reaping the profits they once were and it needed a shot in the arm. This 1984 feature provided just that by mixing in for the first time, gory horror and lewd (though censored) sexual overtones. Though frowned upon by the local media, it did extremely well at the box office, proving that some well made exploitation can go a long way no matter what region of the world you live in.

The film begins with a very effective flashback. Saamri, a vile vampiric, essentially subhuman sicko is (after much difficulty) captured by townsfolk. Brought before the Sultan and read the laundry list of his awful exploits (the very worst is his habit of digging up fresh corpses and eating them), he is unhesitantly put to death. Despite calls for Saamri to be burned, the Sultan elects to have him beheaded. In response, Saamri places a curse on the Sultan. All of his female heirs will die in childbirth. Fast forward some two hundred years to modern times, (1984, though still suspiciously stuck in the 70s) and the Great, Great... Grandaughter of the sultan (played by Aarti Gupta) finds herself in love. Her father knowing of the curse, attempts to chase her boyfriend (played by Mohrish Baal) away but to no avail. When the boyfriend gets wind of the goings on, the two lovers set off to the castle, along with his kung fu fighting friend (Puneet Issar) and his friend's girlfriend in order to rid the family of it's curse.

The Ramsays prove to be masters of low budget filmmaking here. The castle sequences are very moody and atmospheric, with some commendably creative camera work at hand. This has the look and feel of a true gothic horror film.

The lead actors are very good across the board with the biggest accolades going to Ajay Agarwai as the terrifying Saamri, one of the greatest horror villain's of modern cinema. Both scary and repulsive, Agarwai seems to relish the role and consequently owns every scene he's in. Aarti Gupta is very beautiful and became a semi regular in future Ramsay features. Puneet Issar was obviously chosen for his physique and his martial arts backround as he is by far the best fighter I've seen in Bollywood pics. His fights here are brutal, bloody and just realistic enough to work (though nobody will mistake these battles for those in Hong Kong films of the 80s).

As is usual with Bollywood exploitation of this time, there are several bewildering musical numbers. I personally have never been a fan of films where song and dance numbers break out of nowhere (you will never catch me watching an old MGM Musical), but the numbers here are at least tolerable. Besides any musical scene where the woman is bumping and grinding to the point where it appears as if she's having sex with an invisible man can't be all bad.

Then there is the unfortunate comedy relief. Having seen tons of Chinese Kung Fu movies, I'm quite used to terrible over the top humor that seems to persist in cinema from the Far East. Apparently, the Middle East isn't immune to such things, either. Here we have Jagdeep. Jagdeep was by all accounts a beloved comedian in his home country. Let's just say his talents do not translate so well here in the West. In Purana Mandir, there is an entire subplot that is a parody of Sholay, one of the most popular films ever to come out of India. Inserting these unconnected scenes into an otherwise action packed horror film can cause unsuspecting viewers to feel a sense of Vertigo. But these exploitationers were designed to entertain local audiences first and formost. Just another case of culture shock for this Yank.

Despite the comedic subplot, Purana Mandir is still tremendous fun. It is arguable that the Ramsays have since surpassed this  action horror musical with even more outrageous efforts, but this debut is still one of their best. Highly recommended. Just watch out for that infernal Jagdeep!

                                                                   *** / ****

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Director: Lee Hyeok Su
Starring: Polly Shang Kwan, Kim Jeong Nan, Kim Young In

Here's a fun martial arts fantasy film from South Korea (yep, as soon as I complain about Korean martial arts films, I start seeing some good ones). It stars Polly Shang Kwan (aka Shang Kwan Ling Fong), an unheralded martial arts femme fighter. Polly had a long career that started in 1967 when she appeared in King Hu's classic Dragon Inn and continued in earnest until her retirement in 1980. Her appearances were many and varied. While she never achieved the legendary status of Angela Mao Ying,  she was just as important in the history of the femme fighter in Chinese martial arts cinema. In a way, Polly can almost be seen as the anti Angela. While Mao Ying was almost always intense and ferocious, Shang Kwan even when playing deadly serious parts, always came off as perky and spunky. Her enthusiasm for each of her very many roles leaps off the screen. It is quite obvious she gave every part her all and it is these attributes that have endeared her to long time kung fu movie fans. For this film Tigresses, she takes her considerable skills to South Korea.

Tigresses opens as a Great Lord is betrayed by his assisstant who has alligned himself with a group of mercenaries. His retainer helps his two young daughters (one a five year old, the other an infant) escape. They are split up to avoid detection. Fifteen years later, the elder daughter (Polly) returns to destroy the betrayer, now Lord of the land himself and claim the throne as it's rightful heir. Donning a ninja like outfit and calling herself The Black Leopard, she goes through his ranks of martial arts mercenaries. The first is a master of hypnosis. He is given a taste of his own medicine as he is first rendered dizzy by Black Leopard's leaping (flying, actually) ability before being killed by her Crane style fighting. The second fighter is a master of disguise and invisibility. She makes him visible by using her ability to emit smoke from her hands (!) and then proceeds to beat the stuffing out of him. The third is a weapons expert. He attempts to dispatch her by breathing fire (!!) only to be frozen to death when she emits freezing vapor from her hands (!!!) turning him into a block of ice. Out of desperation, a fourth mercenary is hired; a woman with skills that match our heroine's. However, it is revealed that she is her long lost sibling from the film's opening (which explains why the film's title is plural rather than singular). Reunited, the sisters confront their father's assassin and his guards.

Though the by the numbers plot is too obvious for it's own good, the film is saved by it's plentiful action scenes which while hardly the most realistic of confrontations (to put it mildly) are all fun to watch if you're willing to go along with it. The use of South Korean landscapes also lends a welcome bit of exotica to the proceedings, especially for those who have seen perhaps one too many kung fu epics from Hong Kong and Taiwan and want to see something that's visually a little different.

Tigresses shapes up as a good vehicle for Polly Shang Kwan and makes for winning go for broke 70s style martial arts film viewing.

                                                                  *** / ****