Yabu no Naka (Hisayasu Sato, 1996)

I first experienced Hisayasu Sato almost a decade ago, with a bootleg of his 1995 gore film, Naked Blood. Not knowing that Sato also made movies with titles like Rape: For Real and Lolita Vibrator Torture, I expected a silly exploitation flick in the same vein as all those cheesy b-movies Central Park Media released as part of their “Asian Pulp Cinema” line. Naked Blood is something else: something much nastier and less kistchy fun.

Thus, when I first became aware of it, the thought of a Sato directed adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, (read it plz) held little appeal. And yet, after several assurances that Yabu no Naka was not the movie I feared it to be, I actually watched it. Yabu no Naka would actually make less sense if a more “respectable” film maker had produced it. That’s something.

Adapting something like “In a Grove” puts the film maker at odds not only with the author -- whose original work will inevitably lose when conflicting with the director’s vision -- but with all of the other film makers who have made their own versions of the story. And Akutagawa’s story invites conflicting readings by its very nature, in spite of the story’s real point being that definitive, objective truth cannot be obtained in certain situations, if it can be said to exist at all. Sato’s telling fills in some of the intentionally unexplained vagaries with what seem to me the least likely explanations, like incestuous love and occult worship of fox demons that require human sacrifice.

Does it sound weird? It would actually be more bizarre if you didn’t know it was based on “In a Grove,” and it only slowly dawned that you were watching a nineties pinku/v-cinema version of Rashomon replete with existential angst and Freudian sexual deviancy. Such descriptions of the film seem at odds with the original story, but Sato’s version actually conveys that absolute truth is, in this situation, hopelessly elusive. Where Akutagawa’s story stressed perspective and possibly lies, Sato stresses ulterior motives, psychological trauma and denial. The end result is the same. There are a few things that can be known for sure -- and many things that can be inferred from those presumed certainties -- but full explanations of what happened, and why, cannot be answered. Sato, perhaps less than subtly, actually makes a point of that.

Of course, Yabu no Naka also works as period-fantasy, although it shows its age in a most ungraceful manner. Particularly with regards to its special effects, but also with its few choreographed fight scenes, Yabu no Naka looks very much the mid-nineties, low budget Japanese movie that it is. Otherwise, the kistchy horror sequences with the silly gore effects and garishly colored lighting are very effective for what they are. If a Takashi Miike fan didn’t know or care about the literary background of this movie, they’d probably still enjoy it for the bleak and violent story it tells, along with the nudity and sexual perversion. Incidentally, Koji Endo, a frequent collaborator with Miike, wrote his first motion picture score for Yabu no Naka.

Hisayasu Sato took a nearly decade long break from film after this movie, eventually coming back to film with a segment in 2005’s Rampo Noir. I didn’t like Naked Blood, but it would be unfair to denigrate it as being completely devoid of artistic worth. Yabu no Naka really is the goofy exploitation version of its source material, but it isn’t just that. It isn’t just about the naked breasts, blood geysers and axe-murdering fox cultists; it asks questions about the roots of motivations and actions, and whether anyone could dissect any situation to the point that such things become clear. Artists ponder such questions. Pornographers generally don’t. Sato is better than I first gave him credit for.


A Review of Alakazam the Great -- Sans Weeaboo-tardery

Saiyuki is the third feature length animated film from Toei studios, directed by Taiji Yabushita, Daisaku Shirakawa, and Osamu Tezuka. Not only historically important as an example of Japanese animation, Saiyuki also inspired Osamu Tezuka -- then a highly respected Manga-ka whose manga adaptation of Wu Cheng’En’s Journey to the West was the source of this particular animated film -- to try his hand at studio animation. This, as many a basement dweller will tell you, led to “Kimba the White Lion” and “Astro Boy,” which in turn became the model for televised animation, which in turn became the basis for the now ubiquitous Japanese animation style known as anime. The point: Saiyuki is an important movie.

Alakazam the Great is a different story.

Oh, yes, it is important in the sense that it is pre-“Speed Racer” and “Astro Boy” Japanese animation localized for the American market. However, it is not in any way a sterling example of the localization process. In a sense, it commits the sin anime fans and even video game fans have railed against for years: it westernizes the material with little regard for the original writer’s intent or for how bizarre it might seem to those previously familiar with the content. On the other hand, Osamu Tezuka didn’t adapt Journey to the West with much in the way of sensitivity or reverence, and the film version of his manga reflects that. Alakazam the Great represents yet another step further away, a customization of a copy of a customization of the original.

While the images tell the story of Sun Wukong (or Son Goku, as the Japanese would have it) ascending to the throne of Happy Land, battling with the Jade Emperor, losing to Buddha etc, (it covers the same portion of the story as Chan Jun-Leung’s New Pilgrims to the West) the dialog tells a fairly similar story about a monkey named Alakazam. Buddha is now known as Amo, the Bodhisatva Guan Yin as Amas, and Tripitaka as Amat -- the son of Amo and Amas. The daoist from whom Monkey learns martial arts and magic now goes by Merlin, and nobody makes mention of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Mohism, or Dualism.

Not all of the modifications to the plot happened in the dubbing process. Osamu Tezuka invented a significant other for Wukong, not localization director Lee Kresel. She’s an annoying character, and I’m unsure what purpose she’s meant to serve. The appearance of Hercules is not a contrivance of the dubbing team either. It’s a part of the original version.

Forgiving the people hired by American International Pictures to westernize Saiyuki for doing just that, one is left with a flawed animated film with a cast of capable vocal talent. The flaws in the English dubbing include songs performed by Frankie Avalon and Dodie Stevens. Lacking in energy, the songs feel out of place and kill the otherwise manic pace. One also assumes that footage was excised when it appears, quite randomly, that Alakazam’s lady-friend DeeDee has taken ill. The flaws in the original picture include the problems endemic to all adaptations of The Journey to the West. So much ground must be covered for a ninety minute movie, that pacing almost always becomes an issue. Television usually alleviates that problem (but causes plenty of others) and there are an absurd number of serials based on The Journey to the West. Also, Osamu Tezuka’s fondness for anachronism might not put off everybody, but the appearance of televisions, phones and police sirens (and Hercules) is probably jarring, if not irritating for those less than familiar with his idiosyncrasies.

Really, though, credit is due. The animation is ambitious. It’s fluid, and doesn’t look like generic anime, because there wasn’t such a thing at the time. Looking at Toei’s first film, released in the US as Panda and the Magic Serpent, the leap in technical mastery is striking, particularly the scene where Alakazam plays matador with the Bull King. Also worth mentioning is that AIP didn’t just slap together the reworked script or dub. Hiring real talent like Sterling Halloway (best known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh) and comedian Jonathan Winters -- who actually does Pigsy quite well even in spite of renaming him Sir Quigley Broken Bottom -- ensures that the dubbing is high above AIP’s usual standards seen in Italian muscleman and Japanese kaiju flicks. Speaking of which, Peter Fernandez, the voice of Alakazam when he isn’t singing, directed the dubbing for a couple of those. He also served as English voice director on the “Ultraman” television series, and Ho Meng-Hua’s rip-off of said series, Super Infra-man.

Alakazam the Great can be appreciated as a product of its time, a time well before “DragonBall Z” and “Sailor Moon,” before Ghost in the Shell and “Evangelion.” Anime is now ubiquitous and annoying. People actually write translations of those awful “visual novels” where a girl with giant saucer eyes has space cancer and depends entirely on the hero, who is clearly an avatar for you, until she eventually dies -- and people actually play them to boot. Fansubs can be found with Google, and legitimate, licensed products in Best Buy in every town in America. Movies like Alakazam the Great, Taro the Dragon Boy, and Magic Boy are the start of all that. They were the first wave of international Japanese animation, and the first exposure of what would be known as anime in the west. Fortunately, none of them feel like it.

I’d suggest viewing Alakazam the Great as a piece of sixties kitsch, not as an anime landmark.


A Forced Whimper -- The End of Mike Judge's "King of the Hill"

The final episode of the Mike Judge's much beloved, and long-in-the-tooth "King of the Hill" aired this past Sunday. Well, the final two episodes aired back-to-back without much in the way of fanfare. Of course, Fox runs promos for the upcoming Seth MacFarlane travesty, "The Cleveland Show," at an hourly interval. It's a wonder that Mike Judge and Greg Daniels received any luck, much less acclaim, with such a mild mannered show on a network so taken with vulgarity. Speaking critically, one must admit the shows many failures in the final season -- forced jokes, lethargic pacing, and meaningless subplots drag many of the last episodes into mediocrity -- but even at its worst, "King of the Hill" never disappointed on any account other than its own high standards.

Watching the finale Sunday night, I reminded myself of that. It was bad: a perfectly acceptable mid-season episode with a tacked on ending to signal the end of the series. One would think that after thirteen seasons, there would be not only more closure to the series' running gags and themes, but some sense of finality. Instead of going out with a bang, the series fizzles on a whimper.

There were good episodes in the last season, certainly. The episode about the Canadians that move into Boomhauer's house for the summer hilariously sends up the mostly fictional tiff between America and her northern neighbor with lawn mower contests and the best line of the season ("I stayed in the killing fields of Laos for two extra years just so wouldn't have to immigrate to Canada!"). But most of the episodes repeat gags while the characters suffer from the redundancy. Take the episode where Peggy tries too hard to be cool to fit in with the rich, snobby parents she meets taking Bobby to cotillion. Why do we need yet another example of Peggy trying too hard? This has been done more than once -- in the episode where Bobby wants to go to a coed sluber party, and in the episode about "Harlottown," and in the episode where the Hill family changes churches.

"King of the Hill" is one of my favorite shows, so please forgive me for writing passionately about it. You see, I know people like Hank and Peggy Hill -- my parents, my neighbors and my old scoutmasters. No television show has ever captured the sort of people that actually inhabit an environment like that of small towns in Texas and then ruthlessly caricatured them in such a sweet, endearing way. Among the criticisms lodged at the show by liberals, especially towards the latter seasons, was that Hank was always right, that the writers essentially excused bad parenting from Hank and Peggy, and that the whole show celebrated what they considered a decadent, flag-waving redneck lifestyle. These are incredibly silly by themselves, but the irony comes from conservative critics who decried the stereotyping of Texans and gentle ribbing of Hank's uptight nature, believing it underhanded contempt. Of course, none of this is true. Hank is naive (he and Peggy don't understand why Boomhauer has a camcorder in his bedroom, for example) but he isn't stupid. Bill, Dale and Boomhauer -- the object of more pointed satire -- all have moments of clarity, and even wisdom. Peggy's persona of self-confident, pseudo-intellectualism seemingly masks deeply rooted insecurities and usually make her the object of derisive humor, but she isn't just putting on a show; she really is that confident.

The point of the show was not to push a political agenda, but to be funny. There is great humor in Hank's uptight, sheltered perspective and in Peggy's mix of eccentricities and earnest fulfillment of her role as a Texan lady. There is humor in Cotton Hill's bitter, borderline insane drive to hell-raise and girl chase well into his golden years. The show is more about its characters, who are sympathetic no matter their deficiencies, and deficient no matter their capabilities. It is television that shows people as people. How many other shows even try to do that, much less with conservative, semi-rural Texans?

More than anything else, "King of the Hill" chronicled the way that its characters coped with life, with disappointments, even with death. At the same time, Greg Daniels and Mike Judge and their writers always found the humor in such things. Even the episode where Hank's father dies made me laugh, even as it made me very, very sad. To that end, it was the opposite of animated comedies and bland, by-the-numbers, yet vulgar sitcoms with which Fox attracted an audience.

The final episode -- a somewhat half-assed story about Bobby joining a meat appraisal team and Hank buying him a junior "Char King" (a grill) so that they could cook steak together -- left me underwhelmed. It doesn't show any of the brilliant truth that made the series so fascinating, opting for a fairly silly plot that involves a bus-hijacking by a rival meat appraising team. The final moments, which brings the entire neighborhood together to eat steak, recalls the end of season eleven. In that episode, Lucky and Luanne get married, after Hank convinces them not to sue him or Dale to finance an impractically lavish wedding. The wedding scene not only provides cameos for all sorts of minor characters throughout the series (including Chuck Mangione!) but the ending, where Hank and his friends comment, about how Hank just gave away a bride, and how that's really something, proceed to open up a beer. "Yup."

That should have been that: a wedding. All comedies end with a wedding. Comedy is about life; weddings not only celebrate the joining of two, but look forward to the creation and fulfillment of new lives. It fits; a broad reading of Shakespeare will illustrate how well. For Hank to have decided he has just done something, and to continue doing as he does every other day, resonates far more than the trite, almost saccharine ending of the series finale.

This, of course, was partly the fault of Fox. The network canceled, then commissioned new episodes, then canceled again. Mike Judge's most recent project, "The Goode Family," aired its final episode on ABC even before "King of the Hill" aired its finale. Judge intended to make "King of the Hill" on the opposite side, gently teasing goofy, self-important left-wingers while showing them as genuinely well meaning people. Unfortunately, left-wingers are neither as funny nor as endearing (to me, at least) as uptight conservatives, and judging from his show, Mike Judge doesn't have the affection for them necessary to make sweet fun of the Whole Foods customer, the fashionable environmentalist, the unquestioning Obama supporter.

Thus, a great series ended with a forced whimper. It is still one of the best things ever made for television -- an extraordinary, undervalued contribution to American culture. I say that unironically. Mike Judge will make more good things, God bless him.


Expanding Collection and Fortuitous Timing

I don’t want to bore anybody with an account of my recent financial situation, in part because relating a blog post to a recent event (the recession) dates it much faster than I’d like and in whole because it’s a boring subject about which nobody wants to hear me whine. But fortuitous timing has allowed me to fill out my video game collection with games, good and bad, from the previous console generation without much cost.

While movies are generally my entertainment of choice, I’m actually so nerdy that I can’t settle for just one girl repellent fixation. Video games fit quite nicely with my collections of weird science fiction and fantasy novels, my kung fu movies, and epicuriousness. So when I discovered that I possessed an unused Gamestop gift card, (graduation present from several months ago) I headed straight to their website, to see which Gamestop location had which games that -- should I own them -- I might actually play.

The interesting thing about Gamestop is the price they ask for their used Playstation 2 and Game Boy Advance games. For PS2 games, it has gone lower and lower in the past year, to the point where I can buy a relatively rare game, used, for anywhere from two to ten dollars. GBA games, popular and unusual, can cost anywhere from six dollars (Riviera: The Promised Land) to twenty (Summon Night: Swordcraft Story; I own the sequel). The Final Fantasy ports are even more expensive. I ended up buying Yggdra Union, Mystic Warriors, and Orcs and Elves (a DS port of a cell phone game), all for fewer than twenty dollars. Since I still have store credit left, I plan to head over to a different location and purchase Riviera, King’s Field or Wizardry, and possibly the GBA version of Mazes of Fate. I’ll have gained six or seven games for thirty dollars. It’s an incredibly nice feeling to have picked up a good handful of games because Gamestop would rather have money than excess stock, even if they’re still expecting animu fans to shell out twenty dollars for mediocre GBA games. The economic environment isn’t pleasant or sunny, but at least it offers a chance to round out my collection of Koei crap and Sting developed RPGs.

The mall is a strange place. Gamestop and Barnes and Noble used to be the only stores I would go inside; the theater was the last resort, a place I’d only go to see a movie if there were no other available showings. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place to find a video game specialty shop, but there it is, a "Console Gaming Exchange" store, housing an absurd collection of games for nearly every system released in the United States. If I wanted to, I could have bought an N-Gage. Serious -- an N-Gage. (I could have bought the only English version of Xanadu Next too) I really had to convince myself that I shouldn’t buy Record of Lodoss War for the Dreamcast, which was hard, because it looks quite fun. Now, Record of Lodoss War cost about fifty dollars, and thinking about that, I have to wonder: do nerds even come to buy games here? Games like unusual Dreamcast RPGs and the imported Super Robot Wars games are priced according to collectability, but wouldn’t it be easier to buy them off ebay than to drive to the mall? It might even be cheaper too.

I have no desire to collect games for the sake of collectability, which is the mentality I wrestle with as a collector of movies. I own From Software's PS2 launch games not to say that I own them, but because I actually play them. Eternal Ring actually appeals to me. Maybe if I just wanted to have it for the sake of having it, I'd have bought it from an ebay seller or from the specialty shop with the manual and original packaging. I bought it about eight weeks ago from Gamestop for two dollars in an "artless" case. To be honest, I really wouldn't want to pay any more.

This whole post is quite topical. It'll be obsolete very quickly. Incidentally, I like the title. It sounds Engrish.


Monkey War (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982)

In case you liked New Pilgrims to the West so much that you wanted a sequel, you should know that Monkey War has floated about on the vhs/bootleg market for some time now, albeit sourced from a print bereft of subtitles. On the plus side, if you know Mandarin or simply know the story well enough from either reading the novel or seeing any of the other movies, this one shouldn’t pose too much trouble for lack of translation.
In this version, the wandering Pilgrims come across a group of people forced to build massive palatial structures for the local warlord under the auspices of a pair of Taoist wizards. Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy decide to find out what the Taoists are about, doing so by disguising themselves as icons after eating the food sacrificed on the altar in front of them, and spying then on their ritual, which involves lots of dancing and cheesy music. They continue to eat the food on the altar, and the gig is up after Monkey pees on the Taoists. At this point in their journey, Monkey has urinated on everyone: his enemies, his friends, himself, and Buddha. If you’re around Sun Wukong, you should expect to get pee all over yourself. But who doesn’t know that by now?
The priests challenge the monk, Xuanzang, to a contest of theurgy. It goes well for them, as they summon storm gods, angering Monkey. Monkey then astral projects himself up to the gods and persuades them to help Xuanzang and the oppressed peasants by beating the storm gods until they do what he says. So while the pair of priests calls down rain, Wukong pees on them... again; the gods then provide rain (which is dragon spit, which still sounds better than more Monkey-man pee) for Xuanzang, causing a riot. The priests escape.
The priests then come to the spider cave, wherein the spider vixens use their magic to capture the pilgrims, mostly by appealing to their baser instincts. They turn their cave into a palace, and have little problem enticing Pigsy with their (naked) human forms. But instead of eating the monk as they had originally planned, the head spider wants to marry him. Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy solve this problem the way they solve all problems: they start killing. This is one of the wilder fight scenes I’ve seen in a Taiwanese movie of this era, really topped only by the finale of Attack of the Joyful Goddess (Chang Cheh, 1983) in terms of sheer weirdness. The crowning moment comes when the lead spider-vixen leaps onto the shoulders of a subordinate spider-vixen, who then turns into a giant, fire breathing spider puppet. The multi-colored disco lighting adds to the insanity of the whole thing.
As if that weren’t enough material for any single movie, Monkey War still has a third act, in which the Taoists priests -- yes, they evaded death once again -- catch the attention of evil bat-people, who then mess with the pilgrims for reasons I haven’t fully figured out. Honestly, I don’t remember any of this from the book or from any of the other Journey to the West themed movies. The bat people segment is truly strange, involving a lot of mistaken identity and magic transformations that make the whole thing quite difficult to follow without knowing Chinese. But it provides an opportunity for a man in drag to play an ugly woman, a gag repeated quite often in Chinese language films.
TarsTarkas.net wrongly took Monkey War for a compilation of television episodes masquerading as a feature film. Although that’s wrong, Monkey War is so episodic that it’s an understandable mistake. In a good way, though, one might think of it as picaresque (in the broadest sense of the word). It captures pretty well the idea that these magical creatures and slightly incompetent monk wander in and out of celestial drama and infernal plotting, although the way that they solve the problems leaves a bit to be desired. In Ho Meng-Hua’s films, the deciding factor in every conflict is Sun Wukong’s trickery. He’ll cause havoc while Sandy or somebody else runs off to get the heavenly flame thrower (for real, that’s the resolution in Cave of the Silken Web) or somehow tricking whatever demon or sexy lady demon that wants to eat them (so to speak) into no longer wanting to eat them. In both Chan Jun-Leung films, the pilgrims solve problems mostly by fighting -- no real deception or even thinking involved. On the plus side, the actual fighting isn’t bad. I’m not sure who did the choreography. The Hong Kong movie database says Wong Chi Sang, which I couldn’t verify.
New Pilgrims to the West moved at an insane pace, and Monkey War does as well. It works better in the sequel, but really, nobody ever watches a movie like this expecting quality. This one’s filled with bad wire work, chroma-key deficient blue screen, and some very strange costumes. But like any movie of this type, it’s seemingly cheerful disregard of quality is winsome. A Journey to the West movie that doesn’t entertain would be a greater affront to the text, which was never sacred in the first place.
Flash, Aahh-Ahh


New Pilgrims to the West (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982)

I’ve posted numerous reviews of Taiwanese fantasy films since I started this blog, more so than any other genre. I know that I’ve referenced New Pilgrims to the West in at least a few of those reviews, as well as movies like Dwarf Sorcerer and Young Flying Hero. Because they so often share cast members, directors, and fight choreographers, it becomes easy to think of the Taiwanese fantasy films of the eighties as an unofficial franchise -- as though wacky-ass-Taiwan-fantasy were a reliable brand name. That so often Chui Ching-Hung and Chan Jun-Leung directed the same people in these movies, and that they look very much like each other regardless of subject matter or even setting might justify this thinking to some, but it is obviously the thinking of somebody far removed from the intended audience looking at these films in hindsight. It is an outsider’s view.
New Pilgrims to the West compounds the issue by adapting Wu Cheng’en’s The Journey to the West. Even in the occidental entertainment world, The Journey to the West has received (poor) treatment at the hands of people who don’t know what to do with it. Witness Alakazam the Great, the Americanized release of Japan’s third feature length, color animation, Saiyuki (Osamu Tezuka, 1960), and bear in mind that it is only the first example. More recently, Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom bastardized the plot until it was unrecognizable outside of a few names and characters. (Although the movie’s only purpose was to get Jackie Chan and Jet Li on screen together, at which it succeeded) Why do these movies do this? Because as literature, The Journey to the West is filled with esoteric Buddhist thought, Chinese idiosyncrasies, and pee-pee jokes. It’s not easy to make such a mix palatable for a foreign audience.
But in a sense, New Pilgrims to the West helps itself by adapting such a story, because it happens to be one I am familiar with, having read it in translation and actually played a small part in a theatrical adaptation. (As you might have guessed, the moniker “GoldenPigsy” came from this) Knowing the story as I do, the film’s insane opening -- filled with laser beam shooting arhats and monkey men and Buddha -- not only makes perfect sense, it makes me laugh. By contrast, I know quite well the folk lore behind Child of Peach came from, but still cannot fathom how such a movie exists.
The film skips the early events of Sun Wukong’s (Lau Seung-Him) life, and jumps right into his battle against the Jade Emperor and his bet with Buddha (Tong Wai), which he loses. As the tale goes, he is imprisoned until the monk Xuan Zhang frees him, along with two other immortals reincarnated as a pig-man (Boon Saam) and an ogre (Fong Ching). The movie ends after the heroes climb fire mountain, although the sequel, Monkey War, recalls the episode with the spider vixens. And who doesn’t love spider vixens?
They're trying to bread Pigsy for a flash fry.
Yes, it is strange, Bajie.
For the most part, New Pilgrims to the West provides fun for people who either like bad movies, or like to laugh at them. It probably set the record for the sheer number of matte shots in any Chinese language movie up to that point, and there’s no shortage of animated rays or wire work either, none of which is particularly well done. A few venerable genre stars appear, like Chen Kuan-Tai as the Bull King and Angela Mao as his wife. More surprising is Ivy Ling Po, the star of so many Huangmei Opera movies at Shaw Brothers, appearing as the Bodhisattva Guan Yin. It’s not as embarrassing as Betty Pei’s role in War of the Wizards -- Ling Po doesn’t have Richard Keil pawing her hair, at least -- but she hardly seems to be doing much besides collecting a paycheck.
But the movie itself really isn’t any worse than, say, Buddha’s Palm (Taylor Wong, 1981) on a narrative level. This statement seems wrong when one adapts a classic of Chinese literature and the other a goofy old Cantonese serial, but it isn’t so much about plot as about focus. New Pilgrims to the West blows through its plot with the subtlety and nuance of a Cantonese wuxia serial. Compare it to the Ho Meng-hua’s more competently scripted films, which often had delightful comedic scenes to go along with the special effects and the fighting, and Chan Jun-Leung’s attempt pales. In Monkey Goes West and Princess Iron Fan (both 1966), which cover more or less the same material as New Pilgrims to the West, the pilgrims seem like actual characters, while Chan Jun-Leung directs them as comic book archetypes, trading dialogue and motivation for mere gesture. We know Pigsy is a pervert because he’s always pawing at women, but we never see that as another facet of his gluttonous personality, as we do in the earlier films. (And in the centuries old novel)
But the actors certainly give it their all. And the amusing scenes where Ha Ling-ling and Angela Mao “play” the part of Sun Wukong show more ambition than the occasionally spotty direction and cinematography. Lau Seung-Him’s makeup does most of his acting for him, but he’s respectable for keeping a straight face, much like he did in Thrilling Sword. Elsa Yeung is always welcome as a villain, much as she also was in Thrilling Sword. She could play a villainous woman or a slutty heroine (see Challenge of the Lady Ninja); she plays Princess Iron Fan with a lot of frigid anger.
As an adaptation of The Journey to the West, the film misses the mark, joining the ignoble ranks of Monkey King with 72 Magic (Fu Ching-Wa, 1976) for bad Taiwanese monkey movies. These movies visualize the superficial aspects on film without much concern for anything else. The good news for the outsider is that when the events described are this weird, a visualization of them is inherently entertaining, no matter how low-budget or just plain bad it is as cinema.


Amazons (Alejandro Sessa, 1986)

Roger Corman produced so many Sword and Sorcery flicks from the 80’s that you would think at least one of them would be worth taking seriously, or at least one of them would have a plot worth rehashing for the sake of people who have not yet seen all of them. You would be wrong. Out of all those terrible movies filmed for Corman in South America, Amazons, is... another.

Ostensibly based on the Charles Saunders story “Agwebe’s Sword,” Amazons stars Ty Randolph, a student of karate fully capable of being naked on film, as Dyala. Dyala is chosen by the Emerald Queen to find the sword of Azundati of which Dyala has had prophetic dreams. On the warpath is the wizard Kalungo (Joseph Whipp), who can shoot people with poorly animated lightning. Azundati’s sword supposedly trumps Kalungo’s magic, and so Dyala sets out to find it with the help of Tashi (Penelope Reed), another young amazon with whom Dyala has feuded in the past. Tashi’s mother, Tashingi (Danitza Kingsley), had fought with Dyala’s mother over a man, losing one of her hands in the process. The animosity passed from mother to daughter, Tashi plans (with her mother’s instruction) to kill Dyala once the magic sword is retrieved and return it to her mother, whose allegiance lies not with the Amazons, for whom she acts as a general, but with Kalungo. Just assume how it ends. You’ll probably be right.

It’s a quest movie. Where it should shine -- the unusual places, characters and circumstances encountered along the way; the exhibition of physical skill; the growing relationship of fellow travelers with deep seated resentment for each other -- it does not. Although Penelope Reed seems to take her role seriously enough to actually try conveying emotions and internal conflict and motivation, her earnestness only makes the rest of the production look worse in comparison. The viewer never receives any clue as to the spatial relationships between various places nor the time that it would take to cross from one location to the other: a terrible mistake in a film about a journey, an even greater mistake when there’s a subplot about the impending threat of a murderous sorcerer waiting to attack at any moment.

Looking at the ineptness of the action sequences and special effects, the odd pacing and lack of chronological sense, it becomes clear that the only thing Argentinean director Alejandro Sessa could do was ask women to be more or less naked on film. Whenever things get boring, it’s time for a virgin sacrifice, attempted rape, gratuitous bathing scene, or cheesy soft-core between Kalungo and Tshingi. Aside from the various unnamed Argentinean women who bare their breasts, the trio of Ty Randolph, Penelope Reed and Danitza Kingsley all look nice enough in an eighties-porno chick way -- all bleached out in the head and silicone enhanced, with all the latest in Amazonian cosmetics and hair care products.

We’ve established that Amazons is a bad movie. Its technical qualities are abominable. It exists solely to show big, fake boobs. In terms of both budget and artistic vision, Amazons is actually more impoverished than the usual Roger Corman produced sword-and-sorcery film from the eighties. Now the question: why is any of this worth pointing out?

My favorite movie review from Tomoe Gozen author Jessica Salmonson is not one of her critiques of Japanese jidai-geki (which are fantastic), nor one of her reviews of horror movies (which she handles with good humor and insight). It is her review of Amazons, because of the information she shares about how it was made. I would not otherwise have known Amazons an adaptation of a story, nor that Charles Saunders had been a Black Panther, nor that he wrote the screenplays to Amazons and its sequel, Stormquest. Now it might interest those who don’t know Saunders as a writer of fiction to know that he sets his fantasies in a uniquely African milieu, and with that knowledge, the casting of nothing but big-haired, bleached-blondes might seem inappropriate. Certainly, names like Tashingi and Azundati don’t sound the way their actresses look.

Also worth noting is that Saunders is a capable pulp writer, and that whatever he intended while writing the screenplay (which is quite different than writing a novel or story) probably came out quite differently on screen. Of course, I don’t know enough to say that with any certainty, as there were plenty of examples (Deathstalker, Sorceress, Barbarian Queen) of how Amazons would turn out. But in brief moments and isolated lines and action scenes that probably sound more ambitious on paper than they look in execution, one gets the impression that Mr. Saunders attempted to write a quality film.

But other than presumably butchering its source material far worse than even the various adaptations of Robert E. Howard over the years, Amazons fits in nicely with the other movies of its ilk. As such, it will please those who want to watch women in barbarian bikinis slaughtering men who slaughter less violent women. Cinema masochists will like it too.