Clutch of Power (Chang Peng-Yi, 1977)

According to his bio on Celestial’s Clan Feuds DVD, director Chang Peng-Yi earned the nick-name, “Taiwanese Chu Yuan” with his many film adaptations of Gu Long novels. It certainly wasn’t because of his cinematic style, if he can be said to have had one.
Clutch of Power tells the story of a group of martial artists fighting each other over a map that records the positions of the Chinese army in the waning days of the Sung dynasty. One particular swordsman, who calls himself the “Spirit of the Sword,” searches for the map not because he cares about the Sung’s impending doom or the invading Mongols, but because of the opportunities it presents him to fight with the top martial artists of China. Filling in the role of the hero is Zhan Yi, a young swordfighter charged with finding a reclusive master, thought to be the only one capable of killing “Spirit of the Sword,” reclaiming the map, and saving China from a couple of centuries of foreign rule. But while Zhan Yi is as upright as such characters can be, the most highly regarded of the martial world fail to live up to the standards taught to their students.
If taken seriously, Clutch of Power is a merciless attack on the authority of elders that totally reneges on its central theme at the end. But then, there’s little justification for taking this movie seriously. One of the major differences between Chu Yuan and Chang Peng-Yi is that Chu seemingly knew that his movies often fell short of the quality for which he strove. Chang doesn’t seem to know much about making a movie. Whereas Chu often tried to imbue his films with an aesthetic sense that marks each as a product of his auteurship, Chang’s films clearly come out of their region and genre. That is to say, they look like Taiwanese wuxia/martial arts films. The images of fighters flipping in the air, silhouetted against a setting sun and fighting in the waning light of a crumbling dynasty all come from the world created from years worth of genre exercises, which took their cues from pulp writers, who took their cues from older pulp writers.

Chang just doesn’t do anything to put his stamp on any of them. I’d not be surprised to hear Clutch of Power was directed by Lee Tso Nam or Ding Shin-sai. Taiwanese Chu Yuan my ass. The only similarity between them is Gu Long.
That’s not to say that I dislike Chang. I’ve liked all his movies I’ve watched thus far. In fact, Clutch of Power is very appealing, or at least should be to genre fans. The fight choreography is good enough, and the pacing moves quite fast without losing the plot completely. The film makers at least attempted coherency, assuming that the English dub accurately represents the film as a whole.

Chinese audiences approach movies like this in a manner that Western audiences might approach films based on Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard or Ian Fleming. Compared to the sprawling narratives of other wuxia authors, Gu Long wrote characters intimately. That somebody might prove himself the best sword fighter in the world, save the Middle Kingdom from evil Mongolians, or explode heads with his chi blasts are largely incidental details; the real appeal of Gu Long comes from characters, dialogue and a Gu’s peculiar style. Chinese speaking audiences wanted movies that felt like Gu Long sometimes more than they wanted films that were actually good.
It’s difficult to understand why the novels and the subsequent films and television serials attained such enduring popularity without knowing the language (only one Gu Long novel, The Eleventh Son, has been professionally translated to English) but Chu Yuan gave probably the best visual representation with elegant, violent, sometimes trippy Shaw Bros. films, usually involving Ti Lung, Derek Yee and Tony Liu. Movies like The Magic Blade were revelatory when Celestial started to release them on DVD. It was like James Bond in ancient China, with Grand Guginol gore scenes and sleazy exploitation being thrust in with martial arts and soap opera intrigue.
Neither knowing the Mandarin (or whatever Taiwanese dialect these movies were filmed in), nor having read the books upon which most of them were based, I cannot tell you whether the dialogue and characterization represent Gu Long well enough that Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences didn’t miss Chu’s visual sense. I can tell you that Clutch of Power is fun to watch, even if it is the low-budget version of what I typically like. For those not fond of such movies, I assure that this will not change your mind.


Castleview by Gene Wolfe

I don’t know who originally said it, but one professor used to tell my class that you don’t read Gene Wolfe; you reread him.

That’s probably the truest thing that ever came out of that particular professor’s mouth. (For your reference, he described himself as a “Zen Lutheran”) It’s also advice I followed with several of Wolfe’s novels and stories. Castleview probably needs a reread because I’m less sure about what Wolfe is getting at than usual. And it was a pretty quick read... for something written by Gene Wolfe.

The novel is named after its setting, a fictional small Illinois town named Castleview, which is named after its local phenomenon: a castle that appears in the horizon. The inhabitants of Castleview include such ordinary people as the Howards. Tom Howard manages some sort of plant or factory, and is selling the family home to relocate with a better job. We learn of his death in the prologue. His wife, Sally, is a homemaker. His son, Seth, is a starter on the high school football team. His father in law, Robert Roberts, is a car salesman, and getting a bit too old for his job. Recently arriving are Will Shields and Ann Schindler, and their chubby (at least in her own mind) teenage daughter, Mercedes Schindler-Shields. Will bought the car lot, and is Robert’s boss. Ann wants to buy the Howard home. Mercedes likes Seth. Seth at least likes Mercedes enough to make out with her.

But others live in Castleview too, like a giant man who rides an eight legged war horse, and according to legend, kills with his eye. There are unseen trouble-makers who terrorize Lisa and Wrangler, the owners of the girl’s camp Meadow Grass. A strange man named Mr. Fee seems to disappear and reappear at will, and professes a non-Christian religion whose church he would like to build on the Howard family’s property. The long-dead Long Jim consorts with the inhumanly beautiful Viviane Morgan, who might well be a fairy, and hates her brother even more than she loves him. There are sightings of a Sasquatch. And vampires.

Wolfe’s stated purpose for this madness is to show that the contemporary world has not changed so much from the immediate post-antiquity ages as we think, and that the people of what we broadly refer to as the Dark Ages pondered much of what we who consider ourselves sophisticated and urban also find ourselves thinking. He practically slaps the reader with these themes in certain passages, but just because this novel seems more thematically direct than his others doesn’t mean it actually is.

The events of the novel, starting with the appearance of a specter reminiscent of the king of Norse gods, are weird enough. When the illusory castle of the skyline apparently exists, if not as a shared hallucination, than as physical space, what are we as readers supposed to make of it? Is the author telling us that such things as ghosts and fairies actually exist, or that elements of contemporary are analogous to such things? Does Dr. Van Madadh speak for Wolfe in that regard? (Supposing Wolfe speaks vicariously through the mouth of any character is a dangerous move) It gets stranger with Mr. Fee, a character described in bizarre terms and even more bizarre scenarios, who seems to exist solely to cause trouble, both in the narrative and for the reader. What is the book that Mercedes finds with the sword? Preferring the sword, Mercedes forgets the book immediately and so does the narrative. Is Will Shields really the descendant of Arthur?

Nobody ever really clarifies the plans of the fairy people, or what they really hope to accomplish. The appearance of the Green Man at the end of the battle between the citizens of Castleview and the fey folk might be a clue, but if followed to (one of) its more reasonable conclusions, using this moment as a key to understanding the whole narrative makes Wolfe’s purpose for this book far more complicated than it would otherwise be. Castleview contains some of Wolfe’s most direct prose, and it’s still frustratingly obtuse.

But as a fantasy and a horror story, Castleview delivers on its promises. Assuming that you like ghost stories or contemporary fantasy, Castleview is worth reading simply because it’s about as well crafted as such things come. Be aware, though, that in its final chapters, the novel really demands that the reader know what the author knows about its various mythological subjects. Wolfe isn't frustrating because he thinks his reader stupid; he's frustrating because he apparently presumes that we're smart enough to figure him out.

And he's an acquired taste. As far as the Wolfe oeuvre goes, this is probably the deep end of the pool; I admit it is over my head. The Wizard Knight explores similar themes and contains a similar mix of Norse mythology and medieval romance, and is generally considered accessible, even inviting. But for those who fancy themselves Gene Wolfe’s followers, Castleview is worth a read. And a reread too.


Pagan Love Song (Robert Alton, 1950)

Is it possible to make a thoroughly wholesome, family friendly movie based solely on sex appeal? Robert Alton tried to answer “yes” to that very question with his 1950 musical, Pagan Love Song. Musicals, of course, often use song-and-dance as visual metaphors for sex, but Esther Williams did it better, because her musical sequences usually involve swimsuits and underwater writhing. Originally, Pagan Love Song was going to star Cyd Charisse, with Stanley Donen set to direct, but Charisse’s pregnancy and Williams’ dislike for Donen ended those plans. With Williams on board, a new script was written, choreographer Robert Alton placed as director, and a new leading man was found in Howard Keel.

That’s really all there is to it. The plot, if it can be described as such, involves Keel as a school teacher from Ohio who inherits a Tahitian plantation, and meets an attractive half-native woman (Williams) whom he attempts to hire as a house keeper, not realizing she’s actually a wealthy landowner with perfect English. After teasing him for a bit, she eventually befriends him, and falls in love with him. And then... well, that’s just about it. The movie only runs 76 minutes, and a good portion of that is either comedy gags or singing, or Williams in a bathing suit. There’s a whole lot of screen time devoted to Williams and her bathing suits.

All this probably sounds like I’m down on Pagan Love Song, but my only real problem with it is the music, which mostly sounds like the sort of thing one might hear in any Hollywood musical. It’s bland compared to the setting, and Alton only takes advantage of the south sea milieu for a single sequence involving lots booty-shaking women in grass skirts. The greatest sin: Pagan Love Song has no pagan love song.

It actually did well enough when it was released, one assumes due to the star power of Williams and Keel. I think that as bad a film as it is by contemporary expectations (it has a 4.2 weighted average at IMDb) there’s an amusing quality to its feigned innocence. The “water ballet” that plays out in Howard Keel’s imagination is so transparent it becomes funny, although I’m sure that it was pretty hot fifty years ago. The fact that any problems between the characters resolve themselves within minutes (and usually a song) adds to the silliness.

But in 1950, with the memories and consequences of WWII still too recent to be regarded as history, musicals like this one fulfilled a very important fantasy. The white people in Pagan Love Song spend most of their time lolling about without a great deal of clothing (Keel and Williams were both very fit at the time) while beautiful brown people run around with even less clothing, doing all the manual labor. Teaching the native children proves easier than teaching unruly schoolboys in Ohio. Tahiti shows no wounds of the fighting (the location shooting was done in Hawaii) from just a few years prior.

It’s a narrative feature of musicals that incredible gifts of athleticism and musicality come naturally to good people. We never see any hard work going into the music sequences that simply happen in the middle of Singin’ in the Rain or Summer Stock, both of which are about the production of musicals. If you’re good, you can sing good (grammar intentional) in the world of Hollywood musicals. Pagan Love Song is the same, only with the additional promise that uncorrupt paradise exists. Because everybody is so inherently good (maximizing the amount of song and dance) and because the film has no concerns other than showing its pretty people, Pagan Love Song has no conflict. Unless you’re enamored with the leads, it’s boring when it isn’t being stupid.

Stanley Donen actually would challenge the expectation of the genre with Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (one of my favorites), so it’s kind of a shame that he didn’t have any chance to make something out of this movie. It’s a standard, stupid musical for which I have some ironic affection. Probably worth watching for a laugh if you can catch it on Turner Classic Movies, but if you channel surf a bit while it’s on, I won’t blame you.


The Legend of the Generic Title

Localization isn't easy. I think that everybody can at least agree on that. Nobody ever agrees on how mainstream appeal and fan service should be balanced, though lately, the situation has improved. Remember the early days of DVD and Dimension's releases of various Jackie Chan and Jet Li classics? It's easy to forget that only a decade ago, nobody could expect original language/subtitles or an uncut version of a Hong Kong film on DVD. But even now, distributors screw up in really weird ways, particularly when they try to market these films. Knowing that most customers at brick-and-mortar stores probably won't buy a Tang Dynasty retelling of Hamlet with a bunch of foreign people doing fancy, flighty kung fu, it should surprise nobody that The Weinstein Company's subsidiary, Dragon Dynasty, tried to make Feng Xiaogang's clunky Oscar-bait, The Banquet, seem like a more conventional wuxia/fantastic martial arts film.
But did they really have to give it a title reminiscent of the most uncreative kind of pulpy fantasy?

Not to pick on it too much, but "Legend of the Black Scorpion" combines the three words nobody with any taste ever wants to see in sequence. "Legend," in spite of the logical evidence to the contrary, is actually an anagram for cheese. You have no reason to complain about a cheesy movie if it's known as "Legend of the..." because it tells you what you're getting right in the title. Another problem: "Black Scorpion." That wouldn't be so bad, were it not preceded by "Legend of the," which makes everything sound worse. If I saw a movie which said "Deathhammer Valkyrie Bikini Vixens" and picked it up only to find "Legend of the..." in tiny script, my estimation would rapidly diminish.

Also, the black scorpions really aren't a particularly large plot point in The Banquet, and it really isn't a giant cheese fest. I understand that a good portion of the audience that Dragon Dynasty caters to wouldn't be interested in a period drama that takes its cues from Shakespeare. But still, that's one damn goofy title.
Dragon Dynasty isn't the only the distributor to make that mistake. New Line Cinema actually helped produced Kim Young-Jun's 2005 wuxia film, Shadowless Sword, which received fairly good coverage from fans who were reminded of the fun that early nineties Hong Kong used to offer. Now, Shadowless Sword sounds plenty evocative to me, but somebody at New Line decided that "Legend of the..." simply made it better. I still think it sucks.

This practice of simply dropping "The Legend of..." before an adjetive and a noun began with Dimension's release of Swordsman 2 as "Legend of the Flying Swordsman," for which there are actual, justifiable reasons. The same cannot be said of Sony's retitling of Corey Yuen/Wong Jing's weird unofficial adaptation of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" manga, New Legend of Shaolin. The original title sounds generic enough, but Sony's new title makes it sound like what a bunch of marketing shills have mistaken for a generic kung fu movie title. That's worse -- I'm sure of it.

Not every martial arts movie receives the lazy designation as a legend of whatever. Equally popular in the days of Dimension Home Video releases were titles that went "The __________" -- you can insert your own tough and/or cool sounding word. The most annoying was "The Legend" because it has "Legend" in the title, and the film it was applied to, Jet Li's comedy kung-fu vehicle Fong Sai-Yuk, deserved a more interesting title. In a fit of sheer ridiculousness, when Dragon Dynasty re-released it, they did so under the title, "The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk." Bleaaoashdoaghdfhahaghagh.

Ugh. The worst of these actually came in the form of "The Enforcer." The dubbed, cut version of another Corey Yuen/Jet Li collaboration (Wong Jing was involved too), My Father is a Hero, Dragon Dynasty actually offended many fans when they re-released the Dimension DVD almost completely unchanged, without any audio options or even substantial bonus content. Now, if you'll notice, "The Enforcer" doesn't sound anything like My Father is a Hero, and while the intended title is damnably cheesy, "The Enforcer" just doesn't say anything at all.

Not to pick too much on Dragon Dynasty, but their recent release of the big-budget period epic, Battle of Wits, received one of the worst re-titles of the bunch. Aside from not being a martial arts film, Jacob Cheung's Warring States era drama highlights the battles not only of armies and strategists, but of the era's prevailing philosophies. What did Dragon Dynasty choose to call it?
Yes, making your movie sound stupid will really help sales there. So, a battle of warriors? I'm glad you guys cleared that up. I might have thought I was watching a battle of intellectuals, or a battle of actors, or a battle of underpaid People's Liberation Army in costume. Also, thank you for reminding us that a guy who choreographed stunts and fight scenes for one hit movie, also worked on this one, even though his input clearly wasn't a driving creative force. Awesome work, guys.

Dragon Dynasty looks like its going under. Bey Logan stepped down from his position within The Weinstein Company (DD was his project) just a few days ago. Let's wish them good luck in the future, and shed a quick tear for all the movies that they didn't have a chance to release, and then package in a totally silly or intentionally misleading fashion. No matter what, the fantastic visual quality, bonus features, and erudite commentary that often accompanied their releases will be missed.

Finally, if anything annoys me about kung fu movies, its the title "Faster Blades, Poisonous Darts." I don't know when this title first came into being, but it's used on all sorts of movies. IMDb is still confused to this day whether "Faster Blades, Poisonous Darts" is the Cheung Pang-Yi film, Lone Ninja Warrior (and this one has a billion other informal and bootleg titles) or the Chu Liu-Xiang film starring Adam Cheng, Night Orchid (which is also known as Demon Fighter, etc). Granted, the incompetence of IMDb's staff and users will one day be immortalized in song, in the great halls of nerd-Valhalla. I understand there will be Mountain Dew.

I could go on; I could tell stories of bootlegs with titles like "Chessboxing Matrix" and "Thugs, Hoes and Scrillah," but there's no need. For all of its problems, many of us love this genre. But the hobby would be more fun without the stupid re-titles.