Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dragon and Tiger Joint Hands

 Director: Yueng Jing Chan
Starring: Anthony Chan Keung, Shut Chung Tin, Cheung Kam, Hsieh Hsing, Jack Long Sai Ga

After being rescued from the hangman's noose for a crime unbefitting the punishment, Chinh Hsiang (Anthony Chan Keung) returns to his village home after a three year absence. There he discovers local bully turned tyrant, Tien Pioa in league with the Japanese and bleeding the poor farmers for all they possess. At first Chihn refuses to help fearing it would merely cause more problems. However, the killing of his school's teacher (Jack Long) ultimately causes him to rethink his stance. 

This is a solid Basher containing characters and plot points that are brought into sharper and more detailed focus than one is accustomed to seeing in these films. Director Yeung Jing Chan (who doubled as producer here and whose few credits span the entire spectrum of the Hong Kong action biz, ending with 1992's Gambling Ghosts Are Ready) does well to keep the material feeling fresh. This type of story has been told countless times before, but rarely was I as caught up in the characters' plights as I was here. Unfortunately, it couldn't quite sustain it's tension and by the final reels, it felt like a bit of a stretch (Chinh ultimately takes what feels like an exorbitant amount of time before deciding to go into action). But that is forgiven when faced with some of the best fight action of this period. All of the many battles are quite exciting and unpredictable (always a plus with these things) and build well up until the finale which is particularly vicious. 

All in all, Dragon and Tiger Joint Hands is a well done little spitfire of a film with good work put in by all involved. Old School Fu fans in particular will enjoy watching a young Jack Long in pre-Seven Grandmasters style punch and kick action.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two Toothless Tigers

Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Shun Yee, Wang Lung Wei,  Chung Fat, Lee Hoi San

I've always said that I can enjoy or at least bare with a bad Hong Kong movie as long as the action is good. Sammo Hung has done several that fit into this category (the Lucky Stars films immediately come to mind), but never has there been a more extreme example of this than the awkward and downright dull Two Toothless Tigers... which just happens to contain some of the finest fight footage ever filmed.

The plot of this surprisingly disinteresting caper centers around restaurant owner, Pao (Sammo) and his dimwitted nephew, Ah Chin (Yuen Shun Yee).Chin it seems, is not in tune with the ways of the world and through his naivete (to put it politely) continuously gets himself in trouble with the local thugs. Attempting to impress a gang with his cooking talents, he instead unwittingly insults one of the lower ranks. Trying to make peace, Chin is tricked into trashing an antiques shop and finds himself owing much financial compensation and facing jail time as a result. As a solution to this little problem, he gets himself involved with a scheme to procure a treasure map from a vicious criminal...

While the basic plot is a flimsy shaggy dog-type deal, it is certainly workable enough to create some magic considering the amount of talent involved. That the end result is as uninspiring as it is, is surprising to say the least. I've watched this film twice all the way through (the second time in preparation for this review) and I'll be damned if I can remember some of the tired shenanigans that go on in the first half. This is flat filmmmaking, plain and simple. Luckily, the picture is somewhat rescued (by my account, anyway) by several insanely great martial arts bouts. After being lulled to a near comatose state throughout the first fifty-odd minutes, these fights are a truly jolting shot of adrenaline. I can't emphasize enough how amzing these bouts are, even by Sammo's normally sky high standards. The highlight here may be the prelim bout between bad guys Wang Lung Wei and Chung Fat. This brief, but explosive bout ranks as one of the finest and most breathtaking ever (yes EVER) and the others rank close behind. To say it's a shame that there weren't a few more of these populating the pic would be a tremendous understatment.

Ultimately, Two Toothless Tigers tried very hard to get me to dislike it, but the mind blowing battles that populate it's second half prevented me from doing so... if only just barely.

Rating: 5/10


Friday, June 13, 2014

Vengeance Is Mine

Director: Lam Chin Wai
Starring: Yukari Oshima, Ben Ng Ngai Cheung, Lung Fong, Pai Ying

Here's a fairly slow paced and incredibly cheaply made production that was shot on videotape (ugh!) and intended as either a direct to video release or possibly made for t.v. (the HKMDB lists it as the latter). Sounds pretty lousy, I know. So, why would anyone be interested in watching it? The answer, because it stars Yukari Oshima. Yes STARS Yukari Oshima as in The Osh finally gets the lead role all to herself after years of taking secondary (or even lesser) roles in so very many films. And this little cheapie flick proves what we die hard Yukari fans had long suspected, that our heroine could not only carry an entire production all by her lonesome, but would be as compelling as any screen actor or actress around in doing so. 

 Once you get past the terrible look and casual pacing of the film, you will discover a tour de force Osh performance, one written to allow her to transform from innocent victim to murderous avenger. Yukari portrays Angel Lee, a newly married Asian American who finds her blissful honeymoon interrupted by five masked thieves. They murder her husband in front of her and then take turns raping her (the camera carefully concentrating on Osh's ever expressive eyes and clenched fists, allowing the viewer to experience the pain and horror along with her). Now all but dead inside, Angel sets about finding her assailants. Initially agreeing to help the police in their investigation, Angel grows increasingly bitter and desperate as the years go by without a single lead. All the time staying put eerily at her dead husband's residence, Angel finally decides enough is enough. Training herself in various forms of self defense, she slowly goes from rumpled and sad victim to ultimately striking looking avenging... well, angel. Tracking down her assailants, she discovers they are now all doing very well for themselves as rich businessmen through their ill gotten gains. Attaining assistance from her sister in law, an aspiring model and actress who's been lured into the seedy world of porn filmmaking coincidentally by one of Angel's attackers, our avenger goes into action. In ever increasing brutality, she gorily shoots and stabs her way through the ranks of each now well to do enemy. During this process, it is clear that Angel has "come back to life", her pained expressions giving way to the kind of cold, yet wildly determined stares that only Yukari can convey. The police chief feeling sorry for her plight, decides to briefly look the other way while gently trying to persuade her to hand over the evidence she gathered (and that they infuriatingly could not), but she refuses. By the time Angel shows up at the head baddie's estate, she is clad in black and looking like the baddest little lady on the face of the earth.

Again, it really is a shame that the choice was made to film this on videotape as it contains one of the awesome Osh's finest and most majestic roles. The action itself is only second rate (perhaps the biggest casualty of the absence of nitrate), but Yukari's amazing intensity here easily makes up for it. Appearing in nearly every scene, this film allows her the most screen time of her career (the only other film I can think of where she takes the loan lead is the 1991 drama, The Angels which annoyingly enough, was also shot on video!) and will have fans lamenting that she wasn't given more opportunities like this throughout her nearly seventy (!) film career.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, May 23, 2014

It's Now or Never

Director" Chan Kwok Hei
Starring: Sharla Cheung Man,  Alfred Cheung, Cynthia Khan, Ng Man Tat

It's Now or Never is one of the hidden gems of Hong Kong cinema. Many outside it's country of origin have not heard of this wonderful oddity. I got my first and only exposure to this title via the fun genre book, "Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head". Penned in 1997 by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, it largely covered ground that most hard core buffs were already familiar with (if even just recently so in some cases). This movie however, was an exception and after finally viewing it, it's easy to understand why this bit of craziness was so championed by the authors.

The film opens with a bang, Over the driving beat of The Surfaris' Wipeout, we are introduced to a gang of early 1960s-style Teddy Girls led by Rose (Cheung Man) and her little sis, Tracy (Rain Lau). Always looking for trouble (of course), this lot frequently finds it. In this instance, they start a major brawl at a dance over boyfriend thievery.Hauled off to jail, they are quickly bailed out by Rose's father, Wong Tat (Ng Man Tat) who puts on a sob story for the ages that reduces many of the cops to tears. As we soon learn however, Wong is no martyr. On the contrary, he is quite the gigolo who often entertains his clients in his own bedroom... with his daughters in the next room no less. The girl gang draws the ire of a tough, vindictive policewoman (Chan Hui Ying) who has made it her business to shadow their every move. Rose in the meantime, has caught the eye of nerdy, lovesick cop, Shing (Alfred Cheung). The real trouble however comes in the form of Loan Shark Wong (Wong Chi Keung)  who on the behest of a jilted client, means to shake down gigalo papa Wong over mucho unpaid bills. In a bid to help Daddy Dearest, Rose enlists the smitten Shing while offering herself to the shy mama's boy as gratitiude.

It's Now or Never is that rarest of animals; a perfectly realized black comedy from Hong Kong. Director Chan Kwak Hei takes what would otherwise be thoroughly repellant material and manages to brilliantly weave a lightning fast satire that's as subtly hilarious as it is fun and exciting to watch.There is nary a false note to be found anywhere. Chan's nutty masterpiece has been compared to the works of John Waters (which appears to be the main influence here), but it manages to connect it's dark humor with it's strong entertainment value more effectively (and yes, subtly) than Waters has ever manged.

The cast as well, are all note-perfect. The gorgeous Cheung Man (Sharla Cheung) is an actress I'm familiar with, but have not been overly exposed to. This was due to her appearances in films that I wasn't too terribly interested in (early Stephen Chow comedies, various gangster melodramas). Seeing her in this movie is something of a revelation. Filmed in loving closeup, Cheung's Rose is one of the great ice queens; heartless and conniving, the character is ultimately softened (somewhat) by the selflessness of her would-be suitor. Ng Man Tat has appeared in so many comedies during this period (he was a regular sidekick in the aforementioned Stephen Chow pics), that he must have been one of the most in demand character actors in the industry. He is at his loathsome, scene stealing best here and it's to his credit and the film's that you feel some measure of sympathy toward this morally bankrupt character. Playing Little Bun, Rose's closest ally, Cynthia Khan gets to take a break from her action diva status and nearly steals the film. Playing against type as a wimpy, man hungry gang member, Khan is a riot as she attempts to get out of various fights by threatening to use her deadly Eagle Claw Kung Fu and getting her lovely rear end handed to her in each instance. It is no coincindence that she finally reveals her inner courage against a man as she applies her Eagle Claw to the groin (all that's missing is a shot of two eggs cracking as in the classic Fu feature, Invincible Armor).

It's a crime that a film as striking and original as It's Now or Never has yet to receive a dvd release (laserdisc and vcd only). It truly is a lost gem of a film that deserves rediscovering.

Rating: 8/10

and the trailer is pretty amazing, too...

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bloody Mafia (aka Red Mafia)

Director: Ca Sa Fa (Casanova Wong)
Starring: Ca Sa Fa
Ca Sa Fa (birth name, Kim Yong-Ho but better known around these parts as Casanova Wong as I'll be referring to him from this point on) has always been one of my favorite screen kickers. Many consider him second only to Hwang Jang Lee and I'd certaintly concur with that. There are times where I think he's even Hwang's equal. The Korean super kicker (and ex Marine) was featured in many a Hong Kong martial arts pic of the late 70s and early 80s where his amazing skills were put to good use (see The Master Strikes elsewhere in this blog). I was aware that he worked onscreen in his native South Korea as well, but was completely unaware of this nasty little number, Bloody Mafia until recently. It was to be his last screen appearance (to the best of my knowledge) and on top of that, he sat in the director's chair for this one as well.

Normally here is where I'd give you a brief rundown of the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of those films that came sans any kind of english friendly translation; no subs, no dub, nothin'; just raw Korean and unfortunately I don't speak the language. Your fearful er, fearless author here was going to press on regardless as it seemed a straightforward enough story UNTIL I came across an actual plot description from the website "Rare Kung Fu Movies" which I'll share here assuming (hoping) they don't mind;

"Kang-ho is a man who believes loyalty is the highest human virtue. He befriends Geo-ryong who takes him into the mob led by Chung Dong-nam. Kang-ho becomes an underworld celebrity when he infiltrates and destroys a powerful international drug cartel. Geo-ryong falls for Kang-ho's younger sister Hye-rim. Meanwhile, Kang-ho and Geo-ryong try to mentor Oh-bong who tries to leave the organization but the organization attacks him before they can take him under their wings. He narrowly escapes death and is moved by their friendship. When the two friends realize that Dong-nam has been using his men for his own gain, they are angered beyond words and decide to attack him on Geo-ryong and Hye-rim's engagement day. But tragedy befalls them when Geo-ryong is killed. The sight of Geo-ryong's body devastates everyone at the party. During the final confrontation between Kang-ho and Dong-nam, Oh-bong sacrifices his life to save Kang-ho. Kang-ho deals the final deadly blow to Dong-nam for Oh-bong and Geo-ryong."

Drawing inspiration from several gangster genres (the horse's head gag from The Godfather is recreated here using a pig's head... with intestines added for good measure), Wong's direction is ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious for the film's obvious miniscule budget.This tends to give off a level of cheesiness that seems to be at odds with the dead serious and sometimes melodramatic tone of the film. Adding to this are several long soft core sex scenes. I get it, it comes with the territory. But it felt like there was at least one too many and they each went on for several minutes. Even Wong himself has a randy sex scene with a nightclub singer and soon to be girlfriend... and eventual ex-girlfriend. True, he finally lives up to his Casanova moniker, but this isn't exactly the kind of "action" I want to see our director/star involved in. I want to see Casanova Wong, the boot master, not the booty master. Fortunately, there's plenty of the more traditional action as well as there are a half a dozen or so fights scenes (possibly more, I lost count) on display and they are nothing less than spectacular! These are probably the best fight scenes I have ever seen in a Korean production and that alone makes this film a must-see. Wong may be a bit older, but he shows no signs of aging as he and his co-stars (including one who fights with crutches!) all show amazing form and lightning fast speed combined with choreography that matches the best of that in Hong Kong movies of this vintage. Only some choppy editing takes away from it just a tad. There's also a fair amount of gore on display, particularly the gruesome moment where Wong chomps part of a rival's nose off!

I need to mention one particular moment that may have been the single cheesiest thing I have ever seen in a movie (let that set in for a second); Wong's introduction to his would be squeeze takes place in (appropriately) a nightclub. In the background, you can hear Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You playing and I at first assumed it was being used for mood music. But nooo, as the camera drew closer it became obvious that the nightclub singer herself was supposed to be singing this to Wong! Never mind that the song sounds like it's coming from another room rather than from her vocal chords and never mind that it was obvious she didn't know the english lyrics (I have no idea what she was actually singing)... The final effect was truly an out of body experience that nearly had me on the floor laughing. My goodness...

Did I mention that the plentiful fights are spectacular?

Rating: 5/10

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lethal Hunter (aka American Hunter)

Director: Arizal
Starring: Chris Mtichum, Bill Wallace, Ida Iasha, Mike Abbott

When it comes to heaping helpings of mindless action fun, few director's aim to please like Indonesia's own Arizal. One of that country's most noted and productive filmmakers, Arizal (gotta love that single name moniker) directed over fifty films and countless t.v. episodes dating back to 1974. Among his most noted pictures here in the West are the wonderfully goofy and full throttled cheese fest, The Stabilizer (which incredibly recieved an official U.S. dvd release via Troma) and the gory, freaky action/horror pic, Special Silencers (starring Barry Prima). Seeking more international appeal, the director was able to lure B-action film fave Chris (second son of Bob) Mitchum. The pairing seemed to have brought out the best in both. They first merged their talents in the 1986 nasty, downbeat, yet outrageously over the top revenge epic, Final Score. Two years later, they re-teamed for Lethal Hunter (re-titled American Hunter outside of Asia). This time, Arizal mostly ditched the dark atmosophere for a more devil may care approach and added heaping helpings of martial arts mayhem.

Mitchum plays Jake Carver; lethal hunter of badguys... and all 'round cool-cat. Jake finds himself at odds with a nasty gang who are trying to get their hands on a microfilm which contains sensitive information that can wreak havoc on Wall Street and could concievably bring a total collapse to the western world.

The basic plot setup serves as an excuse for what is really just one long chase and fight sequence. The film hits the ground running a mere two minutes in as a flabby local crashes his motorcycle through an office (guns a blazing) in order to steal the all-important microfilm. From there, the chase is on. There is scarcely a moment that goes by when there isn't some form of exciting and/or humorous mayhem occuring on screen. Awkward, yet energetic bouts that often give way to some painful looking stunts (the influence of 80s style of Hong Kong action on full display) as well as some really dangerous car stunts and even an unbelieveable mid film helecopter chase and bout (though admittedly, this sequence was a bit more exciting in concept than in execution). Arizal for the most part paces the proceedings well, never allowing it to become tedious and dull. Just when you think the chases may start to become repetitive, a major martial art bought or two is inserted.

As for Chris Mitchum; like his older brother Jim, Chris acclimated himself well to the B-movie action scene of the late 70s and 80s. He's not the iconic actor that dear old dad was, but he really gave it his all in each of his many films and this must have sat well with Arizal as he had young Mitch perform several of his own dangerous stunts like hanging on to the top of a speeding car and shattering through a window bare chested. The exception being when it came to the stunts he simply couldn't physically do (no more hilarious an example than in his first scene where his double had to do a back flip to avoid a bullet). He obviously is not an accomplished martial arts fighter (on screen, anyway), but the various local extras certaintly did their best to make him look convincing. For a ringer, Arizal brought in mega-kicker, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. A dependable bad guy (one exaggerated sneer from him is all it takes), Wallace was given a lot of respect here by not only out dueling Carver's sifu, but for the most part, Carver as well (their penulimate bout on a train serves as a highlight). Mike Abbott (star of many Joseph Lai/Godfrey Ho films of this period) is effective as the beefy muscle headed co-conspirator. Peter O'Brien is known for playing the lead in Arizal's The Stabilizer as well as Rambu (yes, as in Rambo) in the infamous, The Intruder. Here he is playing of all things, a whimpy bad guy whom Carver eliminates early on. Ida Iasha plays Carver's love interest (she's the one whom the bad guys are after for the all important micro film) and proves to be a good sport as she is kidnapped not once, not twice, but thrice by the baddies! Repeatedly roughed up (including a torture by shaving cream sequence that was alo used in the Hong Kong hit, Tiger on Beat released the same year) and under almost constant threat of violence of some sort, she is perhaps the ultimate damsel in distress character. It reads horribly, but like the rest of the film, is so over the top that it becomes more comical than anything else.

If you're a fan of cheesy over the top 80s style action, then Lethal Hunter is all you could ask for and then some. Highly recommended!

Rating: 8/10

A special thanks to Jack J. and his wonderful blog, Backyard Asia for uploading this trailer:


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Monster Snowman (aka Half Human)

Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, Akemi Negishi, Sachio Sakai, Nobuo Nakamura

Toho's second ever Kaiju film and until fairly recently, one of the hardest to view in it's original incarnation. As had been reported ad nauseum, the film was part of a self imposed ban on Toho's part as it allegedly equated the films native populance with the Burakumin; lowly outcasts who have been linked to among other things, inbreeding. Though it was never made explicit, it was felt that it was close enough to be considered offensive and thus the ban hammer was lowered on the proceedings. Fortunately in recent years, a dupe started floating around the grey markets with a fan subbing following suit so we hard core collectors can finally see it as initially intended.

The story is told via flashback to a reporter by five members of a mountain expedition that came upon a primitive tribe who worship a a Yeti-like creature and his offspring. When a circus hears of the legend, they capture the passive and peace loving creature. When it's son attempts to free his father, it is shot dead causing the benevolent beast to become understandably enraged and quite vengeful.

Though not quite on par with the best of Toho's 50s output, Monster Snowman is well made and at times quite gripping. Honda does well to continually shift our sympathies; first towards our innocent snow beast who loses everything through the greed and callousness of man and then towards our adventureres who find themselves on the wrong end of the monster's blind rage. There are some really nice atmospheric sets on display and the design of the snowman and his son are excellent, by far the best ape design effects man Eiji Tsuburaya ever created (causing me to wonder just what the hell he was thinking with his various Kong designs some years later). Unfortunately because of the scale of the creature (roughly nine or ten feet tall), there were some issues when it came to scale. Most of the time it worked well but there was at least one instance that displayed a terrible traveling matte in order to make the suitmation appear larger than it actually was (traveling mattes were never among Tsuburaya's fortes). Fortunately, the effect was used sparingly. It was nice to see the stars of Godzilla reunited here. Akira Takarada was was in fine understated form though he got better in later years when his characters were allowed to loosen up a bit (particularly in Monster Zero and Godzilla vs the Sea Monster). Momoko Kochi allegedly was not happy working in the Kaiju genre and later would pursue and excell in a stage career. An intense actress, she brought a level of class to each of her too few film roles. 

As with the original Godzilla and later Varan, American distributors got hold of Monster Snowman and eliminated much of the Japanese actors, opting instead to insert a home grown lead. In this case, it was John Carradine playing a scientist who also becomes our new version's narrator. He and his cohorts never leave the single tiny lab room in which they discuss and discuss... and discuss things we see in the film. Retitled Half Human, it is an exercise in deadly dulldrom that even the original footage can't fully enliven.

Regardless in it's original form, Monster Snowman is if nothing else arguably the best of the surprisingly numerous Yeti films of the 50s (ranking just ahead of Hammer's The Abomidable Snowman of the Himalayas). In it's US form as Half Himan, it's not completely without interest, but it's definately the worst of the Toho American re-edits (and those who have seen what was done to Varan will know just how weighty those words are).
Monster Snowman - 7/10
Half Human - 3/10

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Champion Operation


Director: Lau Hing Chuen
Starring: Suen Kwok Ming,  Tang Ho Kwong, Norman Tsiu Siu Keung

 First saw this little spitfire of a film back in 1990 on an Ocean Shores vhs dupe (dubbed in English, no less) and I wasn't overly impressed with it. At that time, I was so enamored with the John Woo romantic slo-mo style of gun action that I just couldn't adjust to this type of thing which bore more of a resemblance to Johnny Mak's groundbreaking 1984 exercise in cold, gritty realism, Long Arm of the Law (a film I hadn't yet seen). It was a case of one-and-done. I stashed the thing away, forgot about it and eventually lost it (an unintentional casualty of my vhs purge of about ten years ago when I needed space just to walk around in my bedroom). Having gotten ahold of another copy recently, I now realize that sometimes when it comes to watching genre films, timing can be everything.

This tale of a running battle between cops, high profile gangsters and low profile Mainland immigrant criminals may be of slight budget (nowhere more apparent than in an early boat explosion that was quite obviously lifted from another film; reminding me of many a no-budget Turkish action epic from this period) and contains the absolute cheapest, cheesiest english credit sequence I have ever seen in a movie, but it has guts and energy to spare. Though the action comes fairly infrequently when it does come, it never ceases to shock and amaze. To wit; a mid-film police raid that feels almost hysterically out of control, a sudden and very nasty broken bottle shoved into a happless femme's face, several stunning chases including an extended car stunt which rivals anything done in the 80s (yes, Jackie Chan insanity included), solid 80s-style fight scenes (though not enough of these for my liking) and a properly explosive finale where no one is spared. In other words, when it's on, it's on.

It's interesting to see Suen Kwok Ming and Tang Ho Kwong together as they look so much alike that they could have switched characters mid-film and I may not have noticed right away. Both give energetic perfs and have just enough charisma to keep you interested in the proceedings when the action lets up. Norman Tsui however, is wasted in the role of the Godfather-like crime lord. I kept waiting for him to spring into action (something, anything), but his role is limited to essentially deep thoughts and heavy coughs. That's about it. His appearance alone is enough to give the character the proper amount of weight, but it really is opportunity lost, here.

Despite it's shortcomings which includes an extremely confusing final shot (did the events in the movie actually take place or was it being watched on T.V.? Huh???), Champion Operation shapes up as a grungy good time for the undemanding fan of Hong Kong action during it's peak period.

Rating: 7/10