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