Friday, April 19, 2013

Odd Couple (aka Eternal Conflict)

Director: Liu Chia Yung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Liu Chia Yung, Liang Chia Jen, Dean Shek, Mars

Easily one of the best kung fu comedies of the late '70s, it's also one of the cleverest that I have ever seen.

Two aging kung fu masters, The King of Sabres (Sammo Hung) and The King of Spears (Liu Chia Yung) have a yearly encounter to decide who is the er, greatest in all the land. Unfortunately for them, each duel ends in a draw. After years and years of this, the two of them decide to recruit and train young pupils to continue the battle for them. In a brilliant move, Liu's student is played by Sammo and Sammo's by Liu. After rigorous (and largely unappreciated) training, the two students prepare to face off, only to be kidnapped by a gang led by Old Yellow Dog (Liang Chia Jen). Seems Old Yeller (sorry, couldn't resist) was previously defeated by both 'Sabres' and 'Spears' and has been looking to get even with them ever since.

Starting with 1977's 'He Has Nothing But Kung Fu', Liu Chia Yung has proved to be an excellent director of kung fu comedies. He never quite reached the level of excellence in this department as his older brother Liu Chia Liang, but he was able to carve quite a niche for himself in his own right. 'Odd Couple' is one of his best, maybe his very best. It is one of the few from this time period that can stand alongside the work of his elder sibbling as well as those directed by Sammo himself (the film to be honest, more resembles Sammo's work than Liu's causing me to question if this weren't actually a joint directing job), not to mention those of Jackie Chan.

Both Sammo and Liu look to be having the time of their lives here. The enthusiasm each shows in their dual roles is infectious and permeates the entire production (though it must have caused some major headaches for the editor when 'all four' of their characters are required to share the same sequence). Liang Chia Jen is intimidating as the scarred (both externally and internally) villain, showing he can play this type of role with equal intensity to his more common heroic turns. If you're looking for a sour note here, then look no further than Dean Shek. Watching Shek is akin to sitting through a Jim Carey comedy. You realize that the talent's there, but he plays each of his comedic roles so far over the top, that it becomes eye rollingly awful.

From the amazing opening credit sequence (which suspiciously resembles that in big brother Liang's masterpiece, 'Legendary Weapons of China', made three years later), to the well timed comedy to the absolutely incredible weapons and hand to hand duels, 'Odd Couple' is about as good as kung fu comedies get.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kill the Shogun

Director: Lee Doo Yong
Starring: Gang Dae Hui, Choi Chong Ming, James Nam, Bae Soo Cheon

O.K. where has this wonderful all-out fight fest been hiding? Apparently, it was hiding in plain view as I had it in my collection for several years after having bought it on Amazon for next to nothing. It just sat there collecting dust as I had no idea what it was I so casually obtained. Not until I started to read up on it did I discover that this was one of the top Korean martial arts movies of it's time... and it supposedly featured a cameo by non other than the baddest super kicker of them all, Hwang Jang Lee! After beating myself up for not having watched it sooner, I promptly put the thing in my dvd player. I was not disappointed.

The film is set in 1904 during the Japanese occupation of Korea in which it's populance found themselves brutilized, humiliated and kept in makeshift camps. A pair of heroic locals (Gang Dai Hui and James Nam) decides to fight back, setting off a brutal series of battles that ultimately threatens the entire Japanese army. After Nam's character gets captured, he is convinced to switch sides with the promise that his friend will be spared. Things don't go quite as expected...

I was really taken aback at just how much fun 'Kill the Shogun' was. O.K. the drama was uneven to say the least (early melodrama quickly giving way to mildly goofy shenenigans and featuring a raw fish eating main villain that is as crazily over the top as could be imagined), but I think this was the correct way to go. Director Lee Doo Yong gave me the impression here that he felt the over seriousness could sink the production and went with a livlier approach. Perhaps Lee wasn't capable of handling the material any other way. Regardless, he does manage to keep things moving at a quick clip and in this type of film, that tends to be more important.

Then there are the plentiful fight scenes. I've been critical in the past of Korean choreography being inferior to that in Hong Kong films. Well, that theory gets kicked to the curb big time here. Simply put, what's on display is some of the most exciting hand to hand (and foot) duels that I've ever seen in a 70s martial arts film. For once, the choreography does juctice to the supreme Tae Kwan Do fighter/actors. The battles are all fast, crisp and built up for max impact, culminating in a twenty minute tournament (of sorts) finale that is as ferocious and hard hitting as it gets. I am completely unfamiliar with star, Gang Dae Hui (the only other credit I could even find for him was another Korean film called Jailhouse, released the same year) but whoever he is, he's a very strong presence who lends equally well to the head bashing and thesping scenes. If these are in fact his only two screen credits (and they may well not be), then it's a damn shame. I've been a fan of James "mr. Rage" Nam ever since first seeing him as the complicated villain in 'King Boxer'. He proves here to be just as adept at portraying complicated heroes.

Despite my minor hesitance with the film's drama, 'Kill the Shogun' makes for a frentically fun old school martial arts experience, one that no self respecting aficiondo should miss.

Oh, and as for the Hwang Jang Lee cameo? He can be spotted during the finale, getting his rear end handed to him by Gang (Hwang's the one dressed in red). It took a second viewing before I even recognized him.

Rating: 7/10


Friday, April 5, 2013

Requiescant (aka Kill and Pray)

Director: Carlo Lizzani
Starring: Lou Castel, Mark Damon, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Barbara Frey

Dark, moody, amazing, curious, trippy, hypnotic, facinating; 'Requiescant' is all of these things and a good deal more. When I first became a fan of Spaghetti Westerns many moons ago, it was for their decidedly unorthodox approach to the genre. In many cases, they didn't much resemble Westerns at all (which for me is a good thing) and merely used the Old West as a backdrop to tell some violent, highly unusual and at their best hauntingly told stories, filled with bizarre and visually arresting imagery. This film may be the greatest example of that.

The film begins with the masacre of an entire village of Mexican peasants at the hands of deranged, sadistic ex-Confederate Officer, George Ferguson. The only survivor is a small boy, left for dead after a bullet grazed his head. Wandering the land in shock, the boy is discovered by a  religious family who pick him up and adopt him as their own. Fast forward a decade or so and now a grown man and going under the name Requiescant (Latin for Rest in Peace), he learns that the family's rebellious daughter (his 'sister') has left to join a traveling theater company. Promising to bring her back, Requiescant discovers quite by accident that he has a near supernatural ability with a pistol. He discovers his 'sister', now employed in a brothel owned by none other than Ferguson. As he attempts to free her, Requiescant eventually learns of his heritage and embraces his destiny. 

The ubiquitous Carlo Lizzani made precious few Westerns (his only other venture in the genre was the entertaining, though far more traditional 'The Hills Run Red') and that's really a shame as he proved here that he can make one that's as compelling (and certaintly as eccentric) as any of his genre peers (Leone, Corbucci, Tessari...). Among the film's highlights are a tense drinking/target practice sequence between Ferguson and Requiescant, Requiescant returning to the scene of the massacre and having his memory restored amidst dozens of skulls and bones (which has a faint Holocaust feel to it, though I'm not sure that was Lizzani's intention), a particularly inventive saloon duel using a pair of nooses (this may be the highlight of the film) and Ferguson's ultimate commuppance. Every sequence in the film is handled with great precision and assurance (though there's some awkward editing which suggests that several scenes were cut; I have heard that the original print ran several minutes longer than any being offered on home video and am very curious to know if this was the case).

Star Lou Castel brings a memorable quiet confidence to his portrayal of the title character. By all reports, Castel was a strange fellow who stayed in character throughout. Mark Damon (cast against type) delivers what may be the performance of his career as the somewhat sickly looking, faintly gay and almost vampiric Ferguson. It is one of the great perfs in the genre. There was considerable hoolpa over the appearance of director, writer, poet and overall eccentric, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Playing a Priest who is also in line with the Mexican rebels, Pasolini in fact, does not have much to do in the film as his character tends to float in and out of the picture, offering a few choice words and a gaunt stare.

'Requiescant' is an amazing viewing experience. It was one of those few times watching a movie where as soon as it ended, I wanted to watch it again, immediately. Not everyone is as enamored with this film as I am (I have read reviews that alternately have called it "silly" and "dull"). For me, it was positively mesmerizing. A favorite, to say the least.

Rating: 10/10