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..

                                                                  *** / ****