Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Third Generation Ureme 6

                                                 Director: Kim Cheong Gi
                                        Starring: Han Jeong Ho, Kim Jong A
I initially came upon this super obscure film series in the mid nineties. Ureme (which stands for Thunderhawk in English) was a series of eight ultra low budget children's sci fi action comedies that began in 1986. I had first read about these in Damon Foster's 'Oriental Cinema' magazine (come to think of it, it's still the ONLY place I've ever read about them) and was able to obtain the first and sixth entries from a grey marketeer who charged far too much (as was always the case back then).

Ureme was apparently Korea's local answer to the beloved Japanese anime and live action shows of the '70s as it combined a Henshin Hero known as 'Beperman' with an animated transformer robot. For a fan like myself, this sounds ideal and for the most part it is. The thing that nearly ruins the whole deal for me is star Shim Hyung Rae. As far as I know, Shim was a very popular comedian among children and since that was the series' targeted audience, I'm sure he went over well with the young locals. That's fine but for a much older (and at least slightly more mature) 'foreign devil' like myself, he comes off as an extremely unfunny, borderline mentally challenged doofus. Throughout the initial entry, I found myself hitting the fast forward button frequently as his comedy (cough!) took precedence over the super hero sci fi material. Afterwards, I couldn't help but feel that maybe this wasn't really my thing afterall. But I did remember that Damon's reviews got more positive as the series progressed, so I gave it another go. Which brings us to our featured review, 'The Third Generation Ureme 6'.

Right off the bat I knew that this was going to be a much more enjoyable experience as for this one entry, Shin Hyung Rae was replaced by the more subdued Han Jeong Ho. Han though still playing the same goofball main character, did not generally resort to unbearable facial contortions and actually came off as semi-superheroic in human form. Ironically the very things that made him more bearable to me likely disappointed the Korean kiddies who must have badly missed their 'beloved' regular star. The comedy itself was kept to a relative minimum this time, which allowed for it's sci fi story and no budget, yet oddly compelling special effects to take center stage.

The story (as near as I can figure out since these films are in raw Korean language only) features our heroic Beperman and his sexy female sidekick, Dae Illie (I THINK that's the character's name) getting caught in a war between good and evil alien civilizations who want to use Korea's forest backdrop as their battlefield. The battle eventually moves itself to one of the aliens' home planets.

The entire film sports an unapologetic toy-like (literally) visual style. The alien landscape that dominates the second half appears to be a two dimensional drawing or painting that the live actors share, George Melies style. The transformer robot is (as it is in every episode) a cartoon. Most incredible (in every aspect of the word) of all are the dino robots that the bad aliens use to dispatch our heroes. They are literally store bought wind up toys! I realize this all sounds intolerably junky, but somehow these 'effects' appealed to me on a child-like level that I found utterly irresistible. Perhaps this coincides with my either overly simplistic or overly complicated brain function (I'd prefer to think it's the latter) but either way, I found myself rewinding these climatic scenes many times. Hey, that has to be worth something...

'The Third Generation Ureme 6' can be a very entertaining experience, provided you know what you're getting into in advance. Sit back late one night (the later, the better) and revel in it's creative, childlike charms.

                                                             Rating: 7/10

Click on the link to watch a highlight clip:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dreaming the Reality

                                              Director: Simon Yun Ching
           Starring: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Sibelle Hu, Ben Lam, Eddie Ko Hung

This sadly neglected masterpiece is in my opinion not only the best of the many Moon Lee/Yukari Oshima pairings, but the finest Girls With Guns/Battling Babes film ever made.

The plot consists of two parallel and seemingly disparate story archs. The main story involves two women, Silver Fox (Moon Lee) and her 'sister', Kat (Yukari Oshima) who have been raised as orphans since childhood to be assassins by their 'Foster Father', Fok (Eddie Ko). They are contract killers without emotion, working completely independently outside the law. After accidentally killing a busload of children (a tough scene to watch) during an ambush, Silver Fox begins to have feelings of guilt. Later, a mission in Thailand goes awry and the two sisters are forced to separate. During a police chase Silver Fox hits her head, falls into a lake and wakes up an amnesiac. The second story concerns an ex HK cop named Lan (Sibelle Hu) who runs a bar while attempting to deal with her drinking and gambling habits. Her brother, Rocky (Ben Lam) is a (wait for it) boxer (Thai Boxer, actually) who runs afoul of a local gangster who wishes to manage him.

For first time viewers, this parallel story arch may cause them to feel initially that they're watching a notorious Godfrey Ho cut and paste job (the edits between scenes are admittedly choppy), but stay with it as the two stories do merge just past the mid way point as Silver Fox stumbles into Lan's bar, still not knowing who she is. She's put to work there as she attempts to sort things out. It isn't long however, until "Foster Father', Fok sends Kat and a 'brother', Scorpion to find (and terminate) their missing 'sister'. Fox having recovered her memory, now finds her two worlds colliding.

The film's director, Simon Yun Ching has been really tough for me to pinpoint as he's gone under so many different names (including this film, where he's dubbed Tony Liu), but near as I can tell, he is the same man responsible for this, 'Angel Terminators 2' 'That's Money' (which I reviewed just a few films ago) and the way over the top comedy "The Big Deal'. Assuming my info is correct (which I'm not 100% sure it is) then Yun is THE unsung hero of the Girls With Guns movement. He more than any other seems to have been able to channel the talents of his fighting femmes and extracted every ounce of charisma that each possesed.

Both Moon and Yukari look absolutely incredible in their sleek uniforms and dark shades and each give wonderfully subtle perfs. The relationship between these two unrelated 'sisters' leads to some wonderfully subtle moments, all of which are merely (and mysteriously) hinted upon. When Yukari notices Moon giving a longing glance to a happy couple, she mumbles, "This game doesn't suit us". As Moon attempts to drink her Bloody Mary, she hears the screams of the dying school bus children (again, very powerful stuff). Yukari notices her hesitation and without fliching swaps drinks with her. When Moon asks Yukari, "What would you do if I were to die?", Yukari without showing an ounce of outwardly emotion, simply responds "I'd die with you". In a film filled with such gory, hard hitting action (including a WOW of a finale), it is these brief exchanges which prove the most breathtaking. Most mysterious of all is a brief dream sequence where Moon envisions Yuakari as a policewoman who begins firing upon her. This is never explained and it is all the richer for it. Moon and Osh are matched here by Sibelle Hu in by far the most memorable role of her career as the wise cracking ex-cop (Hu apparently to some degree, channeling Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Her wonderfully quirky, over the top comedic perf proves to be a perfect foil for the dark somberness of her two co-stars (her lone shared sequence with Yukari is especially memorable). Eddie Ko portrays the loathsomely evil Fok to perfection. An absolutely hissable character, the 'Foster Father' proves to be one of the great villains in HK cinema history and Ko is more than up to the task.

Despite the admittedly too long and too numerous Thai Boxing sequences, 'Dreaming the Reality' emerges as one of my all time favorites. It's mixture of blistering action set pieces, powerful, subtle drama, potently memorable characters, top notch acting chops from all involved and strong production values make this absolutely essential for any fan of the genre.

                                                                Rating: 9/10

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Club

                                                  Director: Kirk Wong
        Starring: Chan Wai Man, Tsui Siu Keung, Kent Cheng, Kao Fei , Kwan Yung Moon

"Without a doubt, the best Gangster film to come out of Hong Kong is The Club"

When you see a quote like this from the film's star, it may initially come off as the rantings of an egomaniac. But in the case of one Michael Chan Wai Man, there is much foundation for such a bold statement. One of Hong Kong cinema's true tough guys, Chan not only starred in this pivitol gangster saga but as an apparent triad member himself lived it to a degree as well, lending this film an uncomfortable air of autobiographical realism that must have sent viewers reeling.

In the film, Chan plays an honorable gang member who helps open and run a new glitzy nightclub (The 'Club' of the title though there could well be multiple meanings behind the film's naming). It doesn't take long for opposition to rear it's ugly head and Chan finds himself slowly under siege not only from a rival gang, but from within his own network as well.

No two ways about it, 'The Club' is one of the toughest and most uncompromising films ever made. It is the very antithesis of the later John Woo/Heroic Bloodshed type of filmmaking and much credit should go to director Kirk Wong. There are no loving Leone style closeups nor the beautiful slow mo Peckinpah shootouts that populated Woo's films. Wong's camera is simple, direct and unforgiving. The air of sleeze and grunge is so thick, you could slice it with a katana. It is about as unromantic an atmosphere as could be asked for. Wong also fills his film with some disarming imagery; from the nude female club dancers (complete with rubber monster masks) who dance to the tune of Fleetwood Mac's 'Tusk' (!) to the disturbing slaying of Chan's friend in a hotel (uncomfortably juxtaposed with a vigorous sex scene between Chan and his Japanese squeeze), the sound of the slaughter ultimately being drowned out by outside construction workers.

The characters likewise are treated matter of factly, as if everyone is resolved to their situation. As Chan's character looses everything he holds dear, his reaction (hotheaded though he may be) is not one of sympathetic emotion but rather of steely resolve. In the finale as he attempts to single handedly confront his gang rivals in the very nightclub he had helped establish, he is suddenly joined by his closest confiidant (suavely portrayed by Tsui Siu Keung) who had previously refused to get involved. Wong does not allow this moment to be romanticized. Their exchange is a brief, wordless one that more than gets it's point across as the two casually and robotically storm the club, swords and knives in hand. The final effect is as chilling as it is gripping.

It's really a shame that a film as important as 'The Club' has yet to surface uncut and remastered in any format. It is an important and seminal film in the development of the modern Heroic Bloodshed genre and deserves far more attention than it has so far received.

                                                           Rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Love On Delivery

                                               Director: Stephen Chow
                           Starring: Stephen Chow, Christy Chung, Ng Man Tat

 I still remember reading the buzz about 'the new kid" as far back as 1990 (in an issue of M.A.M.A.). Stephen Chow was reportedly as clever as they come and had quickly taken over the Hong Kong box office with his debut comedy, 'All For the Winner'. It was a spoof of the gambler/triad films that were flavor of the month. Well, I never cared much for that genre and as it turned out, I was lukewarm toward Chow's spoof. I felt similarly underwhelmed with the followup, 'God of Gamblers 2' and just plain disliked Fist of Fury '91 (which as the title suggests, was a goof on the Bruce Lee classic). I figured that Chow's brand of comedy simply wasn't for me. Still, I did find myself watching more of his movies just out of curiosity and found a few that I actually liked quite a bit (God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai', 'Hail the Judge', 'From Beijing With Love' and the more recent 'Shaolin Soccer' and 'Kung Fu Hustle') and a few more that I didn't care for ('The Sixty Million Dollar Man' in particular, was a painful viewing experience). O.K. so Stephen Chow films run hot and cold for me. Some I don't care for and some I liked quite a bit, but none quite living up to his 'genius' reputation... with one huge exception...

Released in 1994, 'Love on Delivery' features Chow as a timid delivery boy who falls for a beautiful woman (Christy Chung) who's path he crosses as she attempts to fend off the advances of a sleezy judo instructor. Too physically and mentally weak to properly stand up for her, Chow seeks martial arts tutilage from a crippled kung fu master (Ng Man Tat) who unfortunately, turns out to be a no-nothing swindler who takes the naive delivery boy for all he has while teaching him utterly useless martial arts moves (including riffs on everything from 'The Karate Kid' to 'Ultraman!'). Ultimately donning a Garfield mask (one of the most hilarious images ever captured on celluloid) he challenges and defeats the Judo instructor by basically outlasting him. Wishing to reveal himself the next day, Chow is foiled when he finds every single man in town 'owning up' as the mysterious Garfield hero. Making matters worse, Chung as it turns out already has a beau, a nearly invincible karate expert. Finally making his feelings for Chung known, Chow challenges his rival to a ring match.

It was hard for me at first to pinpoint exactly why this particular film worked so well for me when some other Chow vehicles didn't. Aside from the brilliant superhero riffs, what it seems to really come down to is heart. Chow's delivery boy was a likeable character (whereas I found many of his other portrayals in previous films annoying) and I found myself actually caring about this guy's plight and wanting him to succeed. Chow is actually a very good actor and here he shows that with a well drawn character placed in well thought out situations (ridiculous as they may be) he can be a compelling presence. It certainly didn't hurt that I found the constant stream of sight gags a riot (perhaps this was in part because they were less specifically Cantonese than usual?). Again, seeing Chow appear and do battle in an oversized Garfield mask has to be seen to be fully appreciated. The final boxing match also featured some unusually funny and clever gags (a highlight here is the two announcers with nothing in the ring to comment on are reduced to reading from a Playboy book, substituting the two ring opponents names with those of the two lovers in the book!). I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the mid film office brawl (where the Karate master first shows what an imposing martial artist he is). The choreography in this sequence as well as it's sheer impact, easily rivals anything I have seen in Hong Kong cinema and shows Chows affection for that genre as well.

'Love on Delivery' is far and away, my favorite Stephen Chow comedy. Admittedly, I haven't seen all of his films, but I can't imagine any being as funny, touching, exciting and clever as this one. It's one of my favorite Hong Kong movies.

                                                                  Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

One By One (aka Kung Fu Powerhouse)

                                              Director: Leung Siu Chung
                                       Starring: Kam Kang, Yasuaki Kurata

Kuo Fu, a notorious drug smuggler, escapes from a chain gang work camp. Problem is, he's still chained to another prisoner who insists on following him even after their chains are broken. Kuo suspects his unwanted follower is an undercover cop and he may be right...

O.K. what we have here is a remake of the controversial classic 1958 American feature, 'The Defiant Ones' with Kam Kang and Yasuaki Kurata replacing Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier. Not buying it? Yeah, me neither. What director Leung Siu Chung has apparently done is to take the basic idea of two desparate criminals who can't stand each other, but are forced into a tenuous relationship due to a mutual need for survival and used it as a flimsy plot device to showcase his two leads beating the stuffing out of each other and anyone else that gets in their way (mostly cops and rival gangsters). So, is that enough to sustain an entire feature film? Well yes, if it's done as energetically as it is here. The action comes fast and furious, never feeling dull and repetitive as it might have. Despite the deadpan seriousness of the performances, there is also an oddly sadistic sense of humor going on as Kurata keeps coming up with new and unique ways of offing Kam (or at least evading him once their binds have been cut). The overall effect keeps things fairly dynamic and unpredictable despite the very obvious plot device (who honestly didn't see the 'surprise' revalation of Kam's character coming from a mile away?).

Considering that this is basically a two man show, it's a good thing that both stars were up to the challenge and really gave it their all. I've never been much of a fan of Kam Kang, but this is easily one of his most dynamic perfs. Credit the director for seemingly bringing whatever charisma he may have to the forefront. The film however, belongs to Yasuaki Kurata. In this decidedly black comedic role, Kurata as Kuo Fu gets to be both utterly ruthless and to an extent, sympathetic. Despite the fact that the character is ultimately shown to be a true villian, his charasmatic presence is enough to get audiences on his side... at least to a degree. Kurata's formidable lightning fast karate kicks are on full display here. So fast in fact, that Kam and the rest of the cast appear almost sluggish by comparison (what I wouldn't have given to have seen Kurata battle it out with Bruce Lee in a film...).

'One By One' despite it's paper thin premise, adds up as an entertaining basher. At worst, it would make for a solid second bill in a Grindhouse double feature.

                                                                            Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

That's Money

                                              Director: Simon Yun Ching
                  Starring: Yukari Oshima, Hui Ying Hung, Max Mok, Ng Man Tat

Here's a really fun action comedy. It co-stars my favorite fighting femme, Yukari Oshima and supplies her with one of the best and most diverse roles of her career.

The plot is about as throwaway as it gets. Yukari and Hui Ying Hung (aka Clara Wai) work as secretaries at a detective agency run by Hui's brother (Ng Man Tat) and his assisstant (Max Mok). When Ng's character stumbles upon a large sum of drug money, he finds himself and his employees under siege from the gangsters (the rightful owners of said drug money as you could have guessed).

Director Simon Yun Ching (here going under the alias of Benny Wong... at least I THINK that's the deal) is one of the great underappreciated craftsmen in the 'Battling Babes' subgenre in general and Yukari Oshima's persona in particular. After this, he would go on to make The Osh's two best films, 'Dreaming the Reality' and 'Angel Terminators 2' (both starring fave tag team partner, Moon Lee). He more than anyone seemed to 'get' Yukari's unique talent and ability and displayed them in the most spectacular way possible in each film. Here, he initially dresses her in office attire that includes retro blouse with flowing skirt and spectacles. When she fends off a gangster, she has him cower and crawl under her fully exposed leg. Later in an attempt to rid themselves of a new hire that Hui sees as a rival for Mok's affection, Yukari briefly dresses in butch slick back hair and black leather outfit. She then pretends to 'come on' to her, going as far as feeling her up (!) before the horrified newbie flees. Both disguises are striking and so diverse that you can momentarily forget you are watching the same person. Interestingly, although shown to be the toughest and most dominant fighter of our heroes, it is Yukari that ultimately gets kidnapped, tortured (via spiders and lizards!) and in need of rescuing. Osh manages to make each extreme work perfectly. It really is a shame that she wasn't given more opportunities to display this kind of range. Hui Ying Hung plays off Yukari nicely as her more emotional, slightly less mature, but no less capable counterpart. She doesn't quite give off the same spark with Osh that the aforementioned Moon Lee does, but as a veteran of later period Shaw Bros. classics ('My Young Auntie', 'Martial Club', 'Legendary Weapons of China') she is more than capable in the part. Her distinct kung fu maneuvers contrast well with Yukari's harsh karate.

Though the broad humor doesn't always mesh with the excellent, hard hitting action and violence, 'That's Money' is still in the upper echelon of the late '80s fighting femme series. Seek this one out, especially if you're an Osh enthusiast.

                                                                     Rating: 8/10

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Diabolical Dr. Z (aka Miss Muerte)

                                                 Director: Jess Franco
                             Starring: Estella Blain, Mabel Karr, Howard Vernon

When it comes to Jess Franco, I wouldn't call myself a fan of his so much as a curious onlooker. The man has made so very many films (most of which I'll admit I haven't seen and in some cases, probably never will) that it's almost beyond comprehension. He's made some good movies... and a ton of crap. But perhaps the best thing Franco has ever done (in my casual opinion, anyway) is the fetishistic freak-fest, 'The Diabolical Dr. Z'.

The film opens with the creepy, wheelchair bound Dr.Zimmer pleading with his associates to continue the work of the loathed Dr.Orloff (referencing Franco's earlier and likewise recommended film) in using surgical mind control in order to 'cure' criminals. He is immediately shot down by his peers (one going so far as to call him a Nazi) and promptly succombs to a heart attack. He whispers to his daughter, Imra in his dying wish that she continue with his experiments. She agrees and secretly plots her revenge on the doctors who 'killed' her beloved father. After faking her own death and changing her identity, Imra finds what she feels is the perfect instrument of said revenge in the form of  Nadia aka 'Miss Death'; a night club performer dressed in mostly see through attire with spider limbs covering the naughty bits. Her act depicts her capturing men in her 'web' (literally) and clawing them to death with her unusually long fingernails. Imra has her captured and hypnotized (using dear old dad's forbidden techniques). Dousing her nails with poison, Imra sends the hypnotized Nadia out and one by one she seduces each unsuspecting doctor before dispatching them with her poisonous 'claws'.

'The Diabolical Dr. Z' (actually it's original title, 'Miss Muerte' is much more apt) proves that Jess Franco can make a beautiful looking low budget film when he wants to (something that is rarely in evidence in the 150-plus 'epics' he had done since). Franco uses moody, suggestive B/W photography to supremely unsettling effect. There are many fine set pieces from the opening prison escape, to Miss Death's surreal stage show, to the murder on the train. Franco films these sequences expertly, so much so that you have to wonder if this is the same Jess Franco that is responsible for so many other er, movies.

This film was also the first of Franco's to feature the freaky femme fatale concepts that would be fleshed out (no pun intended) to pornographic extremes in later pics. Here it is merely used as a very kinky plot device. The idea of the sultry female with 'dangerously' long fingernails that both intimidates and attracts men is a well worn concept, both visually and in literature, but the idea to actually feature said appendages as an instrument of death in a movie is truly male fantasy taken to it's most demented extreme. The whole business is handled so bizarrely matter-of-fact that it can make first time viewers' shake their collective heads in disbelief. I know I did...

                                                                  Rating: 8/10

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tai Chi Chuan (aka Secret of Tai Chi)

                                                  Director: Chick I Hung
                                   Starring: Xian Gao, Liang Guo, Hoi Yin Lee
One of my earliest exposures to Mainland China martial arts cinema, thanks to a timely vhs release by Ocean Shores.

An evil general orders an attack on a small clan that had been opposing him. The matriach is killed and only a few survive. These include an ex General and his two sons... who naturally swear revenge. Wrecklessly attacking the a portion of the General's army, the sons watch their father get mortally wounded, but are saved by a Shaolin monk. As he dies, the father explains to one of his sons that he was adopted and that his real father was also a General who was offed by the same baddie. They  swear double revenge, but now are wise enough to go into hiding. They retreat to a secret cave where they can plot and plan. One day while gathering food, the two heroes witness two woman "dancing". Attempting to get a closer look, they are found out. The ladies explain that they are practicing Tai Chi. Their father explains that he too is an ousted General (alot of that going around) and agrees to teach the two vistors this unusual martial art and help prepare to get revenge.

The story is simple and predictable, a little too much so for this fan. But this is how it was for these early Mainland China epics. There was really no originality to speak of. Any fan of the genre has seen this story dozens of times (if not more so) in various Hong Kong and Taiwan lensed features. What does set this (and other Mainland films) apart from it's city dwelling brethren are the breathtaking country side settings and amazing (and plentiful) martial arts sequences, performed by actual lifelong practitioners (as opposed to Hong Kong where many of it's biggest stars where taught expressly for feature films). Although it's flowery Tai Chi and Wushu movements may take a little getting used to at first, ultimately it makes for terrific viewing. Of course as I mentioned in my review of 'Undaunted Wudang', there is a tradeoff of sorts as the very things that make these fighters so impressive also make them less personable. What you'll come away with here is remembering the action scenery, but not so much any one actor (no Fu Sheng or Chen Kwan Tai to be found here) and certainly not the dime a dozen plot (which truth to tell, I needed to rewatch just to remember what the story here was actually about).

Ultimately, "Tai Chi Chuan' will appeal to hard core martial arts film fans and perhaps to actual Tai Chi practicioners as the film is as much a Tai Chi lesson as it is a story bound film. Casual action fans may not be as into it, but for kung fu addicts, it easily serves it's purpose.

                                                                   Rating: 5/10

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Empire on Fire

                                               Director:Maman Firmansyah
                             Starring: Mike Abbott, Atut Augustinato, Nina Anwar
When it comes to perverse action films, few countries can match Indonesia for sheer outrageousness. This entry, 'Empire on Fire' may not feature as much over the top action and gore as say the Jaka Sembung series, but it makes up for it (depending on your taste, that is) with an eyebrow raising display of sexual violence and general bad behavior.

Once again, The Dutch are the enemy as nasty invader, Bogart (Mike Abbott, who made a career out of playing American bad guys in many Hong Kong movies of the '80s including 'Fatal Termination', 'City Hunter' and 'A Better Tomorrow 2' as well as a fair share of Godfrey Ho cut and paste pics) invading the Indonesian countryside with (oddly) his army of local villains. As per the usual pillaging, they kill all the men and rape the women (as one particular shot so graphically demonstrates, showing one soldier leaving a burning hut while fixing his uniform. The following shot shows a woman stumbling from the hut bleeding down her legs!). It climaxes with the beheading of the local leader in front of his surviving people. After the siege, Bogart claims himself king of the land and sells off the survivors as human slaves (what a guy!). Fast forward a few years and the son and wife of the slain village leader break up one particular slave auction in order to rescue one named Mira. They believe that she is the one who can bring down the evil Bogart (exactly why she is the chosen one is not made clear, to me anyway). To 'train' her for this, she is put through all manner of sexual tortures in order to toughen her up so she can withstand Bogart's violent rape sessions. These include laying her on a red hot slab of rock and then pounding her vagina with a slab of wood until she looses feeling in it (I'm not kidding)! After more plot contrivances including another Dutch General whom Mira has had a previous encounter with and secretly wants to kill even more than Bogart, the nasty baddies all get their comeuppance in appropriately bloody and gory fashion.

As you may ascertain from the above plot rundown, 'Empire on Fire' is not a film that's recommended to children... or adults with scruples for that matter. It's depiction of rape (and the heroine's training to withstand it) is so outrageously matter of fact that my brain eventually became numb to it, much like Mira's vagina (yeah I went there... I don't care anymore). What makes the proceedings even odder is the way everything is portrayed. The action (which includes a fair amount of entertaining martial arts battles) are as gory as one may expect, yet the 'violent rape' sequences (there is no nudity in this film, btw) are portrayed as little more than flowery romantic encounters worthy of a love story!

Though the plot gets overly complicated in the second half with at least a couple of characters too many, 'Empire on Fire' still adds up to bizarre, action filled and head shakingly wrongminded entertainment. When it comes to culture shock for this New Jersey native, Indonesian exploitation films can 'shock' like few others can.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I Love Maria (aka Roboforce)

                                           Director: David Chung, Tsui Hark
        Starring: Sally Yeh, John Shum, Tsui Hark, Tony Leung Chui Wai, Lam Ching Ying

Producer/Director/Actor Tsui Hark at the peak of his creative output, tackles this oddly lighthearted variation of Paul Verhoven's much darker 'Robocop' with a nod to Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' (which also featured a robot duplicate of a female character named Maria).

The film follows the ironically named Hero Gang, a villianous organization that threatens to send it's giant transformer robot out to reek havoc on Hong Kong if the city doesn't fork over a ton of cash. With the police helpless, a trio of bumbling heroes go into action. They are an eccentric inventor (John Shum), a newspaper reporter (Tony Leung Chui Wai) and an ex-gang member determined to right his ex-mates wrongs (Tsui Hark). The Hero Gang in the meantime have created another decidedly different robot. This one is patterned after female gang member, Maria (Sally Yeh). This robot is sent after our goofy protags, but it malfunctions and is reprogrammed to go after it's creators instead.

'I Love Maria' is a film with a particularly troubled production history. How troubled? Well the film was originally to be produced by Tsui Hark and directed by David Chung. However at some point near the end of filmmaking, meddling Tsui took over director's reigns and reshot chunks of footage. Exactly how much is uncertain, but it must have been extensive as in the original cut, Tsui's character is not in it! That's right, a major character is wriiten into a film just as it was near completion, yikes! That this is scarcely noticeable in the final cut is admittedly a tribute to Tsui as a director, but it begs the question as to why this was done in the first place. Was the original film that bad or was this yet another case of Tsui the producer forcing his will on one his young director's works (a common theme for Tsui at this stage of his career which for better or worse, must have been utterly maddening for whichever director he placed his stamp on). The end result, is (as would be expected) a pretty uneven affair. The early portions of the film are dedicated to our mismatched heroes through a series of subdued 'Lucky Stars' like misadventures. As usual, I could have done without much of this, but at least the three leads are charismatic enough to make it watchable. Things pick up in the second half however and feature some impressive action setpieces and fun low tech special effects. There is also a good natured feel to the overall film (belying it's problematic production) and this helps make it very rewatchable.

Of the cast, the film belongs to Sally Yeh who turns in a incredible dual performace, possibly the best of her career. Utterly and wonderfully ruthless as the female gang member, she is completely charming and believable as the reprogrammed fembot. (and looking extremely chic as both). She also gets to briefly show off some great martial arts moves which made me realize that she could have had a successful career in the 'Girls With Guns' subgenre if she had chosen to go that route. It also makes me lamment further that her standout martial arts battle sequence in 'Peking Opera Blues' was mysteriously cut out (it can be glimpsed over the end credits).

Overall, 'I Love Maria' is far from perfect. As a comedic robot adventure, it isn't as much fun as 'Aces Go Places 2' and as a superhero adventure, it falls short of 'Super Inframan'. Still it is an enjoyable little sci fi action comedy, just one that feels like it could have been even more. I'll take it as is, though I'll admit that I'm very curious to see David Chung's original cut. But that's unlikely ever to surface.

                                                                      Rating: 6/10

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (aka Zatoichi Meets His Equal)

                                              Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
                                         Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Wang Yu

The twenty six films that compliled the original Zatoichi film series which starred Shintaro Katsu were among the best samurai films ever made which means they were some of the best in world cinema, period. Filled with action, biting satire and a dash of warmth when applicable, these short (by Chanbara cinema standards) epics are some of the most re watchable in the entire genre. Viewing several in a row gives off the feeling that you are watching choice pieces of an even greater whole (and of course, they are plenty enjoyable on an individual basis as well). Yet despite the greatness of nearly every entry, when it came time to team Blind Ichi with another famous sword character, I felt they came up comparitively short. The first of these, 'Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo' should have been great fun (at the very least). Instead while not a bad pic, it was arguably the weakest entry in either franchise. The second, 'Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire' was better, but still felt like a forced way to reprise Tatsuya Nakadai's 'Sword of Doom' character. Again a good film (and a bloody one, too), but I wouldn't call it one of the great ones (there are some who disagree, though). The third attempt however, was the charm as 'Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman just may be the best film in the entire series.

Directed by genre vet  Kimiyoshi Yasuda, this effort imported Hong Kong's top action star Wang Yu and his very popular one armed character, Fang Kang and told a dark tale of  eventual spiritual and emotional 'blindness'. At the start, we see Fang Kang (here renamed Wang Kang, perhaps due to an ongoing dispute between Wang Yu and at the time parent company Shaw Brothers who owned the rights to his films and characters) tired of a life of constant violence and bloodshed, deciding to visit a friend in Japan. On his way to a temple, he encounters and befriends a Chinese couple and young son who happen to live their as foreigners. Things almost immediately go bad when the group happen upon a local samurai procession. Not understanding the customs, the boy does something to offend the Japanese lord. Shockingly, they are about to kill the small boy right then and there, but for Fang's intervention. After cutting down the advancing samurai, Fang and his new found friends come under siege. The parents are killed and Fang and the boy both flee. Happening upon the scene is Blind Ichi who wisks the boy away while Fang awaits at the Temple for their return. Both the blind swordsman and one-armed swordsman find their individual paths dogged and through a combination of outsider treachery and a terrible misunderstanding (language barrier) our two heroes find themselves in a tragic faceoff where only one will survive.

At it's heart, this film is about cultural and language barriers and the terrible consequences that can be caused from a simple misunderstanding. It is a powerful film, perhaps the most powerful of any Zatoichi film and easily the deepest of the One-Armed series (as would be expected being a Japanese production). Katsu's blindman is at his most world weary as he pieces together the situation, only to wind up being confronted by the very man he so desperately tried to help. Wang Yu's one armed man may not seem like exactly the same character as he did in his own series, but this is likely due to an attempt to acclimate Fang Kang into a new setting. Some Shaw purists scoffed at his character's treatment here, but I think Yasuda showed a good deal of respect. The scenes with Fang are extremely well handled as it's obvious the film crew had studied the Chinese films closely what with his trademark impossibly high leaps and 'Basher' style martial arts moves well represented. Indeed there is abundant action featuring both stars and watching their distinct styles together is a real treat. If there is a disappointment to found, it's that our near supernatural duo do not fight side by side at any point. Also, Hong Kong film fans were understandably distraught over Fang ultimately dying at Ichi's hands (note: there is apparently an alternate Chinese language cut which has yet to surface that features additional Wang Yu footage that puts his character more to the forefront and shows him winning the climatic battle). Being a fan of Wang Yu and Kung Fu movies in general, I can understand this. But taken as a one-off type deal, this movie is a masterpiece. It's as good as Asian Action Cinema gets.

                                                                       Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Angel Terminators

Director: Wai Lit
Starring: Yeung Pan Pan, Carrie Ng, Kenneth Tsang, Hui Ying Hung

 Here's a sadly neglected late entry in the 'Girls With Guns' cycle.

 In it, 70's kung fu faves Yeung Pan Pan and Hui Ying Hung play a pair of Dirty Harriet detectives who will go to any extreme to solve a case or bust whatever lowlife scum they happen upon. When Hui is called away, Yeung sets her sites on a mob kingpin (played by Kenneth Tsang) who is returning from Thailand to reclaim his empire, bringing with him some international sleezeballs in the form of genre faves Michiko Nishiwaki (who cuts off her pinkie Yakuza style after a blown mission) and Mark Houghton (who has made a career out of such parts). A subplot involves Tsang's former mistress (Carrie Ng) who has left him to marry another man... who just happens to be a young up and coming policeman.

Having been lensed in 1992, 'Angel Terminators' offers a particularly rough and ready melding of both the 'Girls With Guns' and 'Heroic Bloodshed'  genres. Along with the expected bloody shootouts that dominated the post John Woo scene, it features many terrific fight sequences among it's more than capable cast as well as some of the most insanely dangerous looking stunts I have ever seen (yes, EVER), highlighted by a climatic jump from rooftop to telephone line some thirty feet off the ground (all in one medium angle shot that appears to have been done without a safety net) that is the pinnacle of death defying filmmaking. The low budget and poor editing do the pic no service, but can't detract from the mind roasting action on display.

The cast truly give it their all here. Yeung Pan Pan started out in period martial arts films like 'Two Wondorous Tigers' in the late 70s before moving on to the modern day action that would dominate the HK movie scene. This is one of her few starring roles and it's really a shame that she wasn't given more opportunities to take center stage as she was definitely up to the challenge in every respect. A martial artist since the age of 4, Yeung's fighting skills and fearlessness regarding stuntwork are absolutely second to none. She also displays some strong acting skills as late in the film, she is captured and drugged and is forced to go through cold turkey ala Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle in 'French Connection 2'. Hui Ying Hung made her claim to fame by being featured in Liu Chia Liang's classic Shaw Brothers films like 'My Young Auntie' and 'The Lady is the Boss'. She was never able to replicate her Shaw success in these later films, but her supreme martial arts skills and natural charisma elevate anything she appears in. Kenneth Tsang is perhaps best known for playing the owner of the taxi cab company in Woo's 'Better Tomorrow' films. He plays a memorably slimy villian here, seemingly under control through much of it only to ultimately reveal his inner rage It's a thoroughly hissable perf. Carrie Ng's glamorous beauty serves her well here as the doomed love interest and she proves to be... let's say, a good sport as the target of Tsang's frustrations. Bad guy supreme Dick Wei shows up at the end to offer a brief, but welcome high energy scuffle as he takes on both Yeung and Hui.

 'Angel Terminators' is truly a hidden gem. It isn't perfect, but it's a real blast of modern Hong Kong action that no self respecting fan of the genre should miss. It comes highly recommended.

*** / ****

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lionman (Kilic Aslan)

                                                 Director: Natuk Baytan
                          Starring: Cuneyt Arkin, Bahar Erdeniz, Yildirim Gencer

I only recently started taking notice of just how many period pieces Cuneyt Arkin appeard in throughout the '60s and '70s. And from the ones I've viewed, they all seem to be lensed around the same wooded area and utilize the same castle. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Afterall, I've seen countless Hong Kong Shaw Bros. films and have seen the same indoor sets I don't know how many times. This type of thing when it's visually pleasing (and in both cases, they are) can give off a feeling of comfortable familiarity. I've come to really enjoy Arkin's 70s period escapades, be it rumbling in the jungle or stormin' the castle. Of the many that I've so far seen, Lionman is the wildest and possibly the best.

The story: The King is murdered by a rival who assumes the throne himself. He also kidnaps the murdered majesty's child and unbeknownst to the kid, raises him to be his own son whilst keeping the mother locked away. A twin child however is led away to safety... into the jungle. There, he is essentially raised by lions until adulthood. Filled with superhuman beast-like strength (he literally roars) and discovering through a band of rebels his true heritage, our Lionman storms the castle and discovers his twin brother who in turn learns of HIS heritage from their captive mother (who is quickly 'silenced' permanently). The reunited brothers go after the illegitamte king (and murderer of both of their parents). During the fracas, the faux king douses the lionman's hands with acid. Barely managing to escape, our hero and his rebel friends make it back to their fort where the lionman gets a makeover from the local blacksmith; a pair of razor sharp, iron 'lion claws'. Now fully 'armed', our heroes return to the castle to settle some unfinished business with the faux king.

Veteran director Natuk Baytan keeps the way, way over the top adventure moving at a rapid (or more accurately, rabid) pace, even by normal Turk pop standards. Yet despite the blazing pacing as well as it's low budget and extreme cheeseball factor (the scenes with the our lionman both as child and grownup interacting via splitscreen with his lion kin is an absolute hoot), this film has an undeniably epic feel, no doubt due to it's authentic scenery and castle backdrop (which Baytan puts to great use here, despite the familiarity of it). The result is akin to a fever dream mishmash of period genres, served up in maniacally ridiculous fashion.

At the center of it is one of Cuneyt Arkin's most memorable roles (which is REALLY saying something). Showing no shame whatsoever and holding nothing back (as usual), he attacks the man/beast role with a crazed, over the top vigor (even by HIS standards) that must be seen to be believed. Most actors would shun doing such free spirited pantamime, but not our beloved Cuneyt. And as silly as his facial expressions tend to be, he still lends the part a level of power and authority that only he can. It's a perfomance for the ages (well, one of many from him).

Lionman is a must see for Turk Cult fans as well as action packed period cheese fest enthusiasts. It's easily one of the most entertaining from this genre that I've yet seen and may even displace Battal Gazi Geliyor as the perfect introduction to the insane joys of Turkish Pop Cinema.

                                                                   ***1/2 / ****

Monday, September 3, 2012

People's Hero (aka A Public Hero)

                                              Director: Tung Shing Yee
Starring: Ti Lung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Elaine Jin, Paul Chun, Wong Ban, Tony Leung Ka Fei

With the mega success of A Better Tomorrow, long time star Ti Lung found his floundering career re energized and throughout the second half of the '80s, he was a much in demand actor for all manner of modern crime action/dramas. Though he never overtook fellow ABT co-star Chow Yun Fat in the popularity department, he may have actually recieved the meatier roles during this period, albeit in decidedly smaller films. This one, 'People's Hero' which takes it's inspiration from 'Dog Day Afternoon', is one of the best examples of that.

Tony Leung Chui Wai and Wong Ban play a pair of bumbling would-be bank robbers who out of desperation, attempt a moring heist. It almost immediately goes awry when Wong has an epeliptic fit. With things going south, one of the 'hostages', a notorious ex-con named Sonny Koo (Ti Lung) decides to take over the proceedings and use the situation as a means of negotiating to get his tough girlfriend out of prison (and she wants nothing to do with him). Things are further complicated by infighting between the sympathetic hostage negotiator (Tony Leung Ka Fei) and the cold blooded head detective (Paul Chun) who simply wants Sonny dead.

Clocking in at a lean 82 minutes and shot more or less in real time, 'People's Hero' is a tight and nearly note perfect thriller. I wasn't sure how I would feel about this movie going in as I was underwhelmed by Ringo Lam's highly regarded 'City On Fire' and was reluctant to give another non- John Woo HK crime flick a try (this was around 1990), but this tense, character driven film really did the trick for me. Director Tung Shing Yee is known mostly for his later, flashier, classier productions like 'Full Throttle' and 'C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri', but here he shows a mastery of gritty crime filmmaking that makes me wish he had revisited this genre more frequently (only recently has he returned to his roots with the surprsing 'Shinjuku Incident' starring a much cast against type Jackie Chan). The ensemble acting is all high caliber, led by the towering presence of Ti Lung who may have turned in the best performance of his career here. Initially intimidating, we learn as the film progresses that his Sonny Koo is not the heartless, cold blooded killer that he was portrayed as. It's an extroadinary perf and one that should have furthered his career. But when the film came out, it was up and coming co-star Tony Leung Chiu Wai as the in-over-his-head thief that received all of the accolades. This isn't the first time that Ti Lung found himself somewhat in the shadow of a young up and comer (see 'A Better Tomorrow' for the most notable example).

'People's Hero' is a fine, rare example of '80s Hong Kong action filmmaking that doesn't rely on martial arts battles or slow motion gun fights to draw it's audience in. Recommended..

                                                                  *** / ****

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kadin Hamlet (Female Hamlet)

                                                 Director: Metin Erksan
                           Starring: Fatma Girik, Sevda Ferdag, Reha Yurdakul

Director Metin Erksan was one of Turkey's most celebrated directors throughout the '50s and '60s. He is responsible for some of that country's great fantasy dramas including, 'Yilanlarin Ocu', 'Suzuz Yaz' and 'Kuyu' for which he was named 'Best Director' (sadly, none of which have I had the chance to get acquainted with... yet). Here in the States, he is for better or worse known for his entertainingly cheesey 'Exorcist' remake, 'Seytan'. In 1976, he embarked on possibly his most challenging film, a modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'... with a woman as the title character. I've had this film in my collection for over two years, but have not bothered to watch it until now. Having been so unfamiliar with Erksan's work, I went into this film expecting some awkward, yet hopefully enjoyably silly pic. I couldn't have been more wrong...

Attempting to translate the work of Shakespeare to film and not have one's self come off as appearing foolish is daunting enough. To do what Erksan has done here would seem like nothing less than an attempt at late career suicide. Low on budget with the majority of the movie taking place outdoors (including a beach retreat scene with 70s disco music playing in the background!), 'Kadin Hamlet' had the makings of a disaster on an epic scale. Yet somehow Erksan turns what easily could have been a complete embarrassment into an abstract work of art. Nearly every scene rings true to the original literary's intention and much of the visual sensibility is striking. I became completely engrossed in the familiar drama, realizing I was watching a master filmmaker in full command of his surroundings.

Still as tightly done and visually stunning as it is, 'Kadin Hamlet' would not have worked without a strong actress in the lead. enter Fatma Girik, a prolific actress (later turned politician) whose performance as Hamlet would make or break the picture. She attacks the role, lending it both the necessary intensity and sense of grandeur that was so vital to it's success. It was a completely convincing performance even during the 'mock' insanity sequences and staged musical section (which serves as the film's centerpiece). Girik's mastery in front of the camera equaled Erksan's work behind it.

'Kandin Hamlet' may not be 100% successful (it's a filmed interpretation of Shakespeare afterall; how could it be?), but it does make for compellingly bizarre viewing. It also shows why Metin Erksan was such a highly praised and revered craftsman in his home country. If he was able to make this material work so well, one is left figuring that he was capable of just about anything.

                                                                   *** / ****

Monday, August 13, 2012

Close Escaoe

                                              Director: Chung Wing Chow
                        Starring: Max Mok, Aaron Kwok, Yukari Oshima, Dick Wei

Back in 1991-92, I was venturing into a Korean owned video store that among other things, was renting recent (at the time) Hong Kong movies (unfortunately with Korean subtitles that sometimes obscured the English ones). For a mere buck, I was able to keep the film for a week. Not a bad deal. So each week for a couple of years, I rented three movies per week and copied them onto a 6 hour blank vhs. A good way back then to increase my collection, especially since I was on a strict budget (and let's face it, I'm ALWAYS on a strict budget). At the time there were quite a few films I never heard of that I took a chance on because of a certain actor ot actors in them. This one, Close Escape I rented because it co-starred Yukari Oshima, probably the best fighting femme in '80s Hong Kong cinema. I figured, "what the heck. even if it turns out to be bad it still stars 'The Osh' and that's certaintly worth a buck...".

The plot; a man named Lam dying of cancer, needs to raise money so that his younger brother, Wai Leong can complete medical school. His way of raising said cash is to join a gang that is planning a diamond heist. During a dispute, Lam is killed but not before he successfully hides the stolen jewels. Wai happens on the scene and is promptly framed by the gang for the murder (yep, things are not going too well) and finds himself on the run. Realizing that he had been given counterfeit jewels, the enraged gang leader sends an assassin after Wai, who by this time has aligned with a police detective friend.Wai also runs into a female Japanese reporter named Miko whom after initially distrusting, eventually finds himself falling for.

Yep, the plot is a convoluted and only semi involving pot boiler. Aaron Kwok and Max Mok were the two main stars and they were (as usual) fine, but nothing special. I never found either actor to be particularly compelling and if I end up watching a movie featuring either, it's for reasons other than that they are in it. This film truly comes to life when Yukari Oshima enters the picture. 'The Osh' is always incredible, whether the film itself is or not. Her role as the reporter/plant/love interest here is one of her best. She gets to be tough and vulnerable and pulls both off with conviction.

'Close Escape is directed by Chung Wing Chow who does a decent job of keeping the proceedings moving along. What this film benefits from in a big way is the action choreography from none other than 'Venom Mob' alumni Kuo Chui (aka Phillip Kwok). Kuo was one of the Shaw Brothers' top fighter/stuntmen in the latter half of the '70s. His fight and stunt work behind the camera matches what he had previously done in front of it and then some! The action that takes place during the second half is absolutely terrific with the finale being one of the best I have ever seen, rivaling the best of Sammo Hung's and Yuen Kwai's output. Dick Wei appears in the film as a villainous henchman and he has never been tougher or more menacing. His climatic bout with Yukari is positively brutal, rivaling his work in 'Yes Madam' and hers in 'Angel' (yes, THAT good as the clip I added below will attest to).

Close Escape is one of those films where you will need to be patient with a fairly slow and workmanlike first half. If you do, then you will be well rewarded with some incredibly hard hitting action and a top notch 'Osh' perf.

                                                                 *** / ****