Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shaolin Tamo Buddhist Monk (aka Kung Fu Exorcist) (aka Killer Priest)

                                                  Director: Lam Fook Dai
                                     Starring: Chen Sing, Chia Ling, Kao Fei

The unofficial title for this movie is Shaolin Tamo Buddhist Monk. It has been labeled as alternately Monk, Shaolin Monk, Tamo Monk and Buddhist Monk. It is unknown which is the original or correct title, thus the conglomerate (and long winded) moniker it has since received. Killer Priest (also, Killah Priest) is it's U.S. video retitling. As for the Kung Fu Exorcist title, that was what it was called upon it's U.S. theatrical release. I personally hadn't known that until fairly recently and was searching for what I had thought was this "elusive kung fu/ horror combo" for many, many years, never realizing that I had already seen it long ago. With that discovery came a tremendous feeling of disappointment (I had built up Kung Fu Exorcist in my mind as a so-bad-it's-good cult flick). Certainly there was nothing in Shaolin Tamo Buddhist Monk that justifies it's exploitive U.S. retitling. However the discovery did have one positive effect, it made me dig up my old vhs copy of this silly flick (which I had dismissed some fifteen years ago as mediocre) and caused me to revise my opinion of it.

The film centers on Bodhi Dharma, the fabled Indian (though some say Persian) monk who traveled to China, preaching the ways of Buddhism and being the one who introduced martial arts to Shaolin. What could have been a serious telling of the legend is instead reduced to the level of often ridiculous comic book-like shenanigans. While much of Bodhi Dharma's travels have taken on the status of legend since few of his exploits have actually been properly documented, this film goes the extra mile (and then some) with some supremely silly vignettes. There's an evil wizard who through intensive training, can burn opponents to death with his blackened hand, the wizard's zombified disciples who are color coordinated (both in their outfits and painted skin tones), a particularly over the top use of accupuncture and strangest of all, our hero's ability to communicate through his floating shoe! (though I did find out through research that this was somewhat based on an actual event as after Bodhi Dharma's death, a man had a vision of the monk "returning home" whilst holding his shoe for some cryptic reason).

No two ways about it, Shaolin Tamo Buddhist Monk is a really stupid, bad film. Yet I'm giving it a fairly high rating because it is also a fairly fun, stupid, bad film. For such disjointed ridiculousness, the cast gives it their all. Chen Sing puts forward the most majestic performance of his career as the mystical Bodhi Dharma. It is a perfectly underplayed performance and one that probably deserved a more serious film to go along with it, but nevermind. His lengthy knockdown, dragout supernatural final bout with the evil wizard is very cool stuff. It helps that the wizard is played by the ever present Kao Fei and watching these two fu vets duel was bigtime fun. The film however is stolen by Chia Ling (aka Judy Lee) who's fighting femme opposes Bodhi Dharma after her main squeeze walks out on her in order to follow the mystic monk on the road to enlightenment. She REALLY does not take well to it and her over the top tantrums are a joy to behold. Chia has certainly evolved from the early, dead serious days of Queen Boxer.

Shaolin Tamo Buddhist Monk is definitely something of a cult oddity. It may represent a missed opportunity to tell the classic Bodhi Darma tale in a serious manner but for the tradeoff, we have one of the more unusual head scratchers of 70s martial arts cinema. Still disappointed by the whole Kung Fu Exorcist thing though, but I'll get over it... eventually.

                                                            **1/2 / ****

Sunday, April 22, 2012

High and Low

                                                Director: Akira Kurosawa
                      Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa

I usually try to steer clear of "the classics" since for the most part, they have been covered ad nauseum elsewhere in cyberspace, but I've always been fascinated with Kurosawa's High and Low since it was such a departure for the legendary director. Following on the heals of his twin samurai classics Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa seemed to want to try something completely different. Here he does a no frills film noir/detective thriller. No morality play to be found anywhere. The characters are as black and white as the film grain they are shot on. This lack of complexity at first can make the film appear relatively minor in the master director's cannon, but what it really shows is that Kurosawa was just as capable of doing a straight ahead thriller as anyone else in the business.

Toshiro Mifune portrays Kingo Gondo, a man who built his hugely successful shoe business from the ground up and is now attempting to rest it away from the greedy and incompetent stock brokers who are attempting to oust him. His plans of buying the major share of his company are thwarted when his housekeeper's young son is kidnapped for ransom (they meant to kidnap Gondo's boy, but goofed it). The police led by Chief detective Tokura (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) are brought in as Gondo wrestles with the decision whether or not to pay the kidnappers, knowing that the money it would take would put him in ruin.

The japanese title for this film also translates as "Heaven and Hell" and this may be a more apt description for what is portrayed here. The first third of this film takes place in Gondo's luxurious house that sits above the city (Heaven). Most of the rest of the film (once the chase is on) takes place in the crowded, sweaty streets of tokyo (Hell). That Kurosawa devotes nearly an hour's worth of footage at the beginning to staying securely inside Gondo's house is amazing and again reveals what an assured director he was (especially at this stage in his career). When the story suddenly shifts location, it causes a jolt because the viewer had been lulled into feeling comfortable with the familiar house set (no matter the urgency and angst felt during the tense negotiation scenes). In an oh so subtle way, we are given a true feeling of both Heaven and Hell on Earth.

Both Mifune and Nakadai give terrifically subtle perfs, causing one to realize just how broadly they played their characters in previous Kurosawa films. Mifune is pensive and rarely raises his voice except when the tension becomes unbearable. We feel his conflict in not wanting to pay the kidnappers and sacrificing all he has, yet at the same time realizing he must pay (it would be unthinkably heartless for him not to). Nakadai's Takura is one of the great undersated portrayals I've ever seen. As the film progresses, it is made clear that along with getting the child back safely, it is very important to him that he retrieves as much of Gondo's money as possible simply because of Gondo's great and selfless sacrifice. Takura is determined to do right by him and the audience is made to feel comfortable by the detective's (and really, his entire force's) actions. In the dark and brooding world of Film Noir, to have that rare picture that dares to show an almost casual air of goodness in it's protagonists without losing any of it's tension or seediness (or believability, for that matter) is very refreshing.

It's debatable whether High and Low is one of Kurosawa's masterpieces, but it is as enjoyable a viewing as any he has done and that has to count for something.

                                                                ***1/2 / ****

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Intikamci (The Avenger) (aka Turkish Road Warrior)

                                                    Director: Cetin Inanc
                                Starring: Serdar, Eva Tachas, Hussein Existent

By 1986, actor Cuneyt Arkin went into semi retirement leaving director Cetin Inanc without his megastar ringer. For the first half of the decade, this pair were responsible for some of the most breathtakingly nutzoid no budget action pics ever to be seen by human orbs. So began Inanc's search for a new star. He quickly found one in muscle bound body builder, Sedar. Sedar had no prior acting ability (as was quite obvious), but he looked the part and in these films, that was all that was required. With his new "star" in place, Inanc forged ahead with another series of action packed nonsense, often remaking Hollywood productions. Their first collaboration was a remake of Rocky with a Rambo retread soon to follow. The one I chose to review Intikamci, is somewhat atypical as it serves as something of a melodramatic potboiler as much as it is an action/revenge picture.

Serdar plays a drifter who returns to the town of his birth to find the murderer of his father. He discovers the killer to be a rich and powerful gangster who is running the town with an iron fist. Complications arise when Serdar falls for the gangster's defiant daughter (she runs with a biker gang). As word spreads of Serdar's intentions, all manner of assassins are dispatched to finish him.

At first I thought this was going to be an uncharacteristically dull picture as the early scenes tended to drag. But once things got rolling, I found myself fairly absorbed in the story and this served to heighten the sense of tension during the action scenes The action while over the top as always, has a slightly grittier feel that seems to harken back to the 70s style of Turkish filmmaking.

As the lead, Serdar is competent. He is a good screen fighter and does have a kind of stone faced charisma. Unfortunately (and perhaps unfairly) he will be compared to Cuneyt Arkin and  really there is no comparison. Arkin was a professional actor who's talents were actually well above this material. He breathed a near psychotic rage into each and every one of his performances. Serdar on the other hand... he's just sort of there. As cardboard cutout action heroes go, he'll do.

Overall, Intikamci adds up as another no budget Turkish delight and a good bet for fans of this extremely peculiar subgenre (of which I am one).

Incidentally, I have no idea where the Turkish Road Warrior title plays into this except maybe Sedar's vaugely Mad Max like outfit and his slightly souped up car possibly resembling Max's Interceptor (though that could be a stretch).

                                                                **1/2 / ****

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

7 Man Army

                                                 Director: Chang Cheh
            Starring: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kwan Tai, Fu Sheng, Chi Kwan Chun

1976 was an incredibly ambitious year for prolific director Chang Cheh. Having released the long, sprawling "Boxer Rebellion" which featured a cast of hundreds of extras, he then assembled a dream cast to end all and placed them in a WW2 backdrop for 7 Man Army.

The story takes place during the second Sino Japanese invasion and details the encroaching Japanese army's attempt at gaining a stronghold of a particular strategic spot along The Great Wall. The base is defended by seven nameless soldiers who manage to hold off the entire Japanese army for five whole days before eventually succumbing.

With a strong main story, an apparently large budget at his disposal and a Shaw kung fu cast to die for, 7 Man Army should have been a Chang Cheh masterpiece. Instead, I found it to be one of the biggest disappointments I've had watching a movie in some time. For all of the praise that is heaped upon Chang, this film did much to reveal his shortcomings as a director. His attempts at strong drama and pathos for the most part, fall flat. Not everyone will agree with my views here, but the weight of the drama is so bloated that the film ultimately collapses under it. This was true for many of his early efforts such as The Savage 5 and Blood Brothers (aka Dynasty of Blood). It's also a surprisingly slow paced affair as well, which was also a recurring problem with the worst of Chang's early output. Of course, films like this one are highlighted by their actions scenes, but even here they tend to run hot and cold. Although the WW2 backdrop made for a visually pleasing change of pace, Chang doesn't really make the best use of it. The gunplay though fairly savage, is surprisingly uninvolving. As war movies go, I've seen far more exciting skirmishes than this. It merely adds to the flatness of the whole picture.

Still, I didn't completely dislike the film. It was fun just to see this mega cast interact with each other. The natural chemistry is as strong as could be expected. Along with the headliners (David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kwan Tai, Fu Sheng, Chi kwan Chun), we have the likes of Liang Chia Jen, Li Yi Min,  ever reliable Wang Lung Wei and a pre superstar (Gordon) Liu Chia Hui as a Japanese villain. For long time fans, it is a joy to watch so many favorites crammed into one picture.

Ultimately, 7 Man Army is an ambitious misfire. It should have been rousing entertainment but unfortunately, it just couldn't steer clear of it's own heavy handedness long enough to be what it could have been.

                                                                        ** / ****