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