12/20/10

Kunoichi: Lady Ninja (Hitoshi Ozawa, 1998)

The local Fry’s Electronics, where I buy most of my movies, has at least one row in the “action” section of its DVD shelves taken up by movies with titles like Lady Ninja Kaede and Lady Ninja Kasumi and even Ninja Pussy Cat. I assume that the Fry’s employees put these in the “action” section because no family establishment wants a section labeled “subtitled smut,” but the placement nearly counts as false advertising; there’s action in Lady Ninja... movies, alright, but not of the same kind as, for example, Under Siege 2. These discs started to invade American stores a few years ago, an inevitable consequence of digital film and cheap licensing, but Japan’s original kunoichi exploitation was neither digital, nor motion picture; it was literary. Futaro Yamada, a novelist whose works eventually spawned film adaptations like Shinobi: Heart under Blade and Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation, basically created the genre in 1961 with his novel, Kunoichi Ninpocho.
Clip is NSFW

The first film, which I’ve never seen, was made in 1991, with subsequent entries released annually. I’ve witnessed – I don’t now that “watched” would be the correct word – a couple of the early films in the series, and can attest that they look not unlike other low-brow, low-ambition Japanese movies of the 90’s, shot on video or for the video market, with all of the bad lighting, fighting, editing, and erotica that accompanies. The eponymous ninpocho is the reason for the series’ popularity amongst cult movie fans; ninja magic tricks include such moves as deadly vagina bubbles and breast milk. Aside from the horrific, boner-deflating kitsch, the movies are actually rather dull.

But then there’s Kunoichi: Lady Ninja, the first of the series to see an official English language DVD release, courtesy of Tokyo Shock. Apparently the seventh of the kunoichi films and based on Yamada’s novel, Yagyu Ninpocho, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja seems less concerned with the trademark ninpocho than it does hyperactive camera work and visual effects. The movie opens with a narration over maps and faux-historical prints depicting the tyranny of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, whose allies in the Aizu region have vowed to kill all members of the Hori family after they reneged on an arranged marriage. The women of the Hori clan escape to a Buddhist convent, in no way stopping the demonic forces of Aizu from hunting them down. Seeking revenge, the women of the Hori clan enlist the aid of the famed ninja, Jubei Yagyu, and set off to kill their oppressors using their ninja magic, including such moves as the “nipple shockwave.”
Clip is NSFW
Clip is NSFW
From the point that Jubei joins the seven remaining Hori women, the plot becomes incoherently byzantine, with scenes that run off on their own tangents and digressions matched by rapid fire editing that leaves the audience in state of constant bewilderment. The movie maintains a certain air of self-gratification to boot; director/writer/costume designer/star Hitoshi Ozawa not only casts himself as one of the greatest swordsmen of Edo era Japan, he surrounds himself with beautiful women in various states of undress. Purely onanistic film-making is uninteresting; thankfully, Ozawa’s at least thinking a little bit about his audience’s needs as well.

As self-indulgent as the film’s plot, characterization, and length are, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja distills the only interesting element of the series -- pretty girls doing ridiculous, sexually charged ninja magic -- and mixes it with Hong Kong inspired wire-work, costuming by super-80’s mangaka Buichi Terasawa, and cinematography that resides somewhere between mid-90’s Miike and Peter Pau not giving a shit. The result is not unlike Terou Ishii’s Bohachi films, but less misogynistic, a high-pressure blood spurting, spastic and funny trip into an old Japan of sexy ninja girls, grotesque villains, and a male hero written solely for the gratification of the actor who plays him (not coincidentally, also the writer). Ozawa mixes all of the wildest visual elements of Hong Kong wire-fu, Japanese anime/manga, b-rate chambara films and pinku-eiga. Good film-making? No, but it’s fun.

Kunoichi: Lady Ninja also stars b-movie tough-chick Yuko Moriyama, frequent collaborator of Keita Amemiya, in a role besides an alien or a space faring bounty hunter. She’s also one of the few actresses to get away with not showing her nipples. I mention this because I like Moriyama, and her costume, and am happy that it stays on her for the duration of the film.

Not only is Kunoichi: Lady Ninja better exploitation than the recent glut of shinobi themed soft-core on the market, I think it’s probably the best of the series. It definitely carries the most visual panache and the actresses are gorgeous (I like the one who plays Ofue best). The Tokyo Shock disc includes video of the movie’s premier, during which Ozawa calls it a “b-movie amongst b-movies.” Can’t really argue with him on that.

12/18/10

Read in 2010

It's the end of the year, and I'm breaking out a list in lieu of actual content. This will likely become a tradition. An asterisk marks books that I've previously read.

January
1) An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe
2) Houston, Houston We Have a Problem/Souls Tor Double Novel James Tiptree Jr./Joanna Russ

February
3) The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis
4) Backwards Masking Unmasked by Jacob Aranza
5) Parzival or a Knight’s Tale by Richard Monaco

March
6) Laughter in the Dark by Vladmir Nabokov
7) Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor
8) St. Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton
9) The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

April
10) Valis by Phillip K. Dick
11) Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan
12) Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

May
13) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy*
14) The Wizard Knight Companion by Michael Andre-Driussi

June
15) The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
16) He Came to Set the Captives Free by Rebecca Brown
17) The Eye by Vladmir Nabokov

July
18) The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis*
19) The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price
20) Peace by Gene Wolfe*
21) The Florence King Reader by Florence King

August
22) The Cleanest Race by B. R. Meyers
23) Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

September
24) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy*

October
25) One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
26) The Edge of Evil by Jerry Johnston
27) Ghana’s New Christianity

November
28) Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
29) The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

December
30) Blades from the Willows by Huanzhulouzhu
31) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

2010 hasn't quite ended, but I doubt I'll be finishing (or starting) another book within the next couple of weeks, though, maybe, I'll actually have a couple of new reviews, which one or two of you might bother to read.

12/12/10

Love of the White Snake (Chen Chi-Hwa, 1978)

I don’t seek out movies based on the White Snake story because I know that none of them could live up to Tsui Hark’s bizarre, beautiful 1993 movie, Green Snake, my favorite Hong Kong movie (and, for the record, I love Wong Kar Wai, King Hu, Ann Hui, and others more typically considered “good” film makers). For this reason, I’ve not seen the early 60’s Shaw Brothers spectacle, Madame White Snake, despite the presence of the gorgeous Linda Lin Dai and Margaret Tu Chuan -- to boot, Glenn at “A Pessimist is Never Disappointedreviewed it recently, inspiring little confidence. But I also love how Brigitte Lin looks in her earlier films, before Hong Kong film makers cast her almost exclusively as either a frigid killer or a gender-ambiguous sword fighter. She’s so young and pretty in Love of the White Snake that I almost managed to not compare the film to Tsui Hark’s for those moments that she’s on screen.
And boy does Miss Lin see a lot of screen time, much of it in close ups. Director Chen Chi-Hwa clearly knows his assets. I might have watched Love of the White Snake earlier had I known Chen directed the film. Chen is hardly a good film maker, much less well-renowned, known best for directing early Jackie Chan movies like Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (both made the same year as his White Snake). But he’s also dependable, even competent. As far as his resources can take him, Chen actually produces a pretty decent rendition of the White Snake legend.
The basics of the story remain intact: two female snake spirits come to the human world to take a human husband and get a leg up on the wheel of reincarnation. Taoist and Buddhist priests try to split them apart, even as the snake spirits prove themselves more humane than those dedicated to the cultivation of transcendent virtues, resulting in tragedy.
As with any film of this vintage and origin, Love of the White Snake promises bad special effects to the sort of viewer who likes such things, usually achieved through sound cues, bad editing, and uneasy optical printer work. No disappointments here, on that account: the snake transformation scenes rival those in Killer of Snake, Fox of Shaolin (Man Wa, 1978) for the least convincing in Chinese language cinema. But Chen isn’t really trying to make a wild special effects spectacle; he’s making a gently tragic fantasy movie that doesn’t challenge its intended audience, one no doubt already familiar with the story he’s retelling.
As gentle fantasy, Love of the White Snake soothes more than it excites. Slapstick humor tends to undercut conflict throughout the film, at least before the finale. Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (I can’t stop myself from comparing; I’m sorry) imbues the tale with moral dissonance and uncertainty by shifting the perspective to White Snake’s sister/confidant, Green, and by questioning or interpolating various motivations and characterizations. Characters in Chen’s film dismiss moral ambiguity, for the few times that the script addresses the possibility, by citing the depth of their love or their devotion to a code of conduct. Chen’s camera treats sensuality in a most Confucian manner, which is to say, not at all.
But, for all of its inconsequence and its abundant flaws, Love of the White Snake is entertaining light viewing. The locations are all rather familiar -- I’ve seen that zig-zagging white trimmed bridge in everything from Ninja in the Deadly Trap (Phillip Kwok, 1981) to The Last Duel (Ling Yun, 1981)-- but they look pretty good under cinematographer Chen Ching-Chu’s lens. Director Chen and cinematographer Chen seemingly studied King Hu when composing establishing and tracking shots. I mean this as a compliment.
This movie contains no surprises for a viewer who knows what to expect from an impoverished Taiwanese fantasy movie. I do suspect that viewers who like those movies will either be delighted or put-off by the film’s less hyperactive approach compared to others in its genre, depending on the reason why they enjoy such movies. It’s okay, but it just really isn’t as good as Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. And, geez, Brigitte Lin sure is pretty.
By the way, you can watch this movie for free (and quite a few others as well) at Chinese video streaming site, youku.

12/7/10

Gallants (Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng, 2010)

Nostalgia is a powerful ally of entertainers these days, though seemingly few critics really offer reasons why. Personally, I think that across the broad spectrum of entertainment choices, audiences have grown tired of the pretense that defines the 2000’s aesthetics. Particularly, I think that the self-indulgence of film makers and their attempts at world-building in action films has grated on the audience for such movies. I think the artificiality of digital film making has alienated some, and, the recent infatuation with “3D” notwithstanding, many more have grown bored by what cgi and “digital backlots” offer. But nostalgia also traps some films into either over-indulging in reference or getting their homage completely backwards or simply wallowing in redundancy, which is usually no better.

I also think that Gallants is the only movie I’ve watched this year that deserved its hype. Kung Fu fans typically bemoan the dearth of quality films in the genre, tired of and inundated by the flood of ponderous, digitally enhanced and pretentious wuxia films produced either by or for the mainland Chinese market. Aside from some of Donnie Yen’s recent output, very few Chinese martial arts films deviate from a formula set by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and very few of those execute that formula well.

A Focus Films picture produced by Andy Lau, Gallants received considerable praise from fans and critics online. The set-up – two aging martial artists running a gym-turned-restaurant while awaiting their beloved master to awake from a coma while the arrival of a meek, scrawny real-estate agent accidently stirs up trouble and gets caught in a shady land-grab scheme – sounds very little like the stuff of Shaw Bros. films by Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. But directors Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng work references to classic martial arts films (zoom lens! Wacky nick-names! Freeze frame! Introductory on-screen text! Random musical cues!) in nearly surreal ways, and before you know it, the film becomes a classic martial arts film involving rival schools, training montages, and more-or-less grounded choreography.

I, and I imagine many other fans, expected that the shining point of Gallants would be the presence of old-school actors in big roles performing classic fight choreography. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung Siu-Leung (reintroduced to contemporary viewers as “The Beast” in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle) play Dragon and Tiger, the over-the-hill martial artists who save weak real-estate agent Leung (Wong Yau-Nam) and begin to teach him martial arts. Goo Goon-Chung, a character actor/regular heavy from the Shaw studio, has a cameo as a police officer. Teddy Robin Kwan, a legendary composer responsible for scoring a number of classic Hong Kong films, plays Master Law, and former Shaw Bros. beauty (read: sex symbol) Siu Yam-yam has a role as his doctor. Lo Meng and Chan Wai-Man play villains who, maybe, aren’t so bad. Choreography comes from The Master star (and veteran action director) Yuen Tak. It reads like a cast list from twenty-five years ago. An effin’ awesome cast list.

But, while the fight scenes and cast of actors from the golden age of martial arts movies delight, Gallants actually side-steps most of the expectations that one would have for a movie consciously appealing to nostalgia for classic Shaw Brothers mayhem. Leung, the loser real-estate agent, used to be a bully. Powerful martial artists like Dragon and Tiger are old and broken down. Master Law is a (hilarious) vulgar old man. Their training from the awakened Master Law is arduous and old fashioned, but they aren’t really training to take on the bad-guys, although that’s their given reason. The rival school, based out of a posh modern gym, wants to make money by glamorizing martial training and represents a philosophy of martial arts as different from that of Master Law as their training methods.

That isn’t to say that Gallants is not sentimental about its heroes (and bad-guys). Chen, Leung, and Lo Meng break out their skills for some brutal fight scenes. They are both vulnerable and intensely powerful. And Master Law, randy and scarily strong, is all too mortal. There’s a paradox here -- all great characterization comes from contradiction -- that makes these characters compelling. In fact, Gallants might be the only truly character driven slap-stick martial arts comedy.

The eventual pay-off from these conflicts is hardly overstated, a stark contrast from the more calculating, overtly old-fashioned Ip Man films. There’s a personal, almost intellectual catharsis that belies the situation comedy and bone-crunching fight scenes on display. As many other critics have pointed out, this makes Gallants the most unmarketable film ever. But it’s also one of my favorite films of the year: a sentimental, sweet-natured movie that doesn’t play its hand too soon. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung are marvelous in their roles (it’s no secret that the hey-day of the genre allowed few opportunities for real acting even for those capable of it), and Teddy Robin Kwan steals every scene he participates in.

My problem with John Woo’s Red Cliff was that it tried to be an old Hong Kong movie, and it felt dated and weird because it was so self-conscious. Gallants does what many old-school kung fu movies do not, presenting its martial artists not as god-like symbols of power in a comic book plot, but as real people battling in an uncaring, nonsensical world. And it’s funny. Unlike Woo, Kwok and Cheng have successfully made a relevant film that looks back at Hong Kong cinema without trying too hard or winking at the viewers. It’s a fresh while being nostalgic, and fun -- the only movie to really get nostalgia right.

12/5/10

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I don’t write as much about fiction on this blog as I would like, which is my own fault; I built this blog on reviews of outrageously weird and, very often, poorly made movies. But I like good movies too, and good fiction even more. I review Gene Wolfe’s novels in hopes that people will read my gushing praise and want to read them. But I don’t review books by Nabokov (whom I love, inordinately) and other respectable, "mainstream" authors for a number of reasons, one of them being that enough people, many smarter than I, have already written reams on their work to which little can honestly be added.

A few weeks ago, though, an acquaintance began to discuss his reading habits, which he admitted veer mostly towards “trash” (he reads an obscene amount of Robert Jordan and David Eddings, neither of which I would really call “trash”), but he sometimes reads more serious fiction, like, y'know, Fight Club and Choke. When discussing Flannery O’Connor, he admitted that he found her too depressing to read for pleasure. I asked how then he could read so much Chuck Palahniuk, and his response was along the lines of “because I never get the impression that he really means it.” I resisted the urge to tell him that that was what made Palahniuk trash in comparison to the earnest and unpretentious, if generic fantasists that he enjoys.

Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel, obsequiously categorized as “Southern Gothic,” as though the term ever meant anything. Hazel Motes, a recently discharged soldier and the last of a family of preachers boards a train to Taulkinham, where, inspired by blind preacher Asa Hawkes, he preaches the Church without Christ from the hood of a broken down car that seems to continue running on little more than faith. Hazel Motes wants to rid himself of Christ, who haunts him “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark." He meets an assortment of those characters that only O’Connor could get away with imagining -- the simple but nasty Enoch Emery, whose “wise blood” acts as a sort of warped prophetic (not the Miss Cleo sort of prophetic) mystical impulse, and failed blind street preacher/conman Asa Hawkes and his debauched daughter.

What my friend didn’t grasp, and what I think many no longer have the tools to understand, is how hysterically funny all of the nastiness -- and believe me, O'Connor pulls few punches when describing vile and bizarre behavior -- in Wise Blood really is and was intended to be. O’Connor flexes her satirical wit throughout the novel, though never so thoroughly as when Hawkes’s daughter, Sabbath, writes to an advice columnist: “Dear Mary, I am a bastard and a bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven as we all know, but I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?" The response: "Light necking is acceptable, but I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life."

As one might guess from that exchange, there is an uneasy marriage of theological concern with humor, and O’Connor never relegates religion to subtext. The theme of the novel is intentionally perplexing, and the humor is a major reason why. Motes is a preacher and cannot escape that. When he visits a prostitute who mistakes him for a preacher, he insists that he is not. She responds with “That’s okay. Mama don’t mind if you ain’t no preacher.” Hilarious, yes, but the statement also sets up the horrific battle between Motes’ will and the pervasive notion of predestination that continues to burden Christianity in America.

I find it difficult to picture a Catholic like O’Connor agreeing with John Calvin, and she doesn’t, really. One of the worst misreadings of Wise Blood holds that Motes’ seeks penance out of grace; in reality, Motes resists grace by trying to atone for his sins. Even in his penance, he seeks to escape from the blood of Christ. But there is another thread at the end of the novel, a flickering light of hope from behind his dark eyes, which suggests that grace works through Hazel Motes even if he flees from the invitation it presents him.

It’s a testament to O’Connor’s skill that Wise Blood is rather easy reading, filled with paradox and mystery and bizarre characterization. The grotesque is unpleasantly real, and unlike the fabricated weirdness of many contemporary writers. I'm pretty sure I've been to Taulkinham; in fact, I'm pretty sure I live there. It’s probably the most brutal fable ever told, part of trend in literature that has fallen almost entirely out of practice but for the likes of McCarthy and Wolfe.

12/3/10

Cladun: This is a Review

Earlier this year I made a list of six games that I wanted to play (in English, legally, on physical media) that I doubted would ever see release in the US. Two of them, both published by NIS America, actually did make it to the English language market, but only one of them made it onto store shelves. My voracious gamer friend, RockManXZ24, assures me that ZHP is awesome, but for purely financial reasons, I haven’t played it. Rather, I’ve made do with Cladun: This is an RPG, the other NIS America dungeon crawler which got left in the lurch as a downloadable game on the Playstation Network.
Thankfully, Cladun has enough content and customization that I haven’t grown bored with it since its release in September. It’s the very definition of niche: retro graphics, optional retro soundtrack (like 2009’s The Dark Spire), noticeably Japanese aesthetics, video game meta-humor, randomized gameplay elements (mainstream critics and gamers seem to hate these) and a focus on number-crunching customization and dungeon crawling. PSP exclusivity does Cladun no favors; the system does quite well in Japan, maintaining a reputation as a gamer’s system, but American gamers never took to it, except for those who bought it with the intention of installing custom firmware (ie tech-savvy software pirates and software pirates with tech-savvy friends). It almost feels like the game was tailored precisely to my tastes, since I share an affinity with the misunderstood and underappreciated as all nerds do.

The game starts off with lots of talking. A girl named Pudding, suffering from a terminal disease, runs off to the magical world of Arcanus Cella, a sort of personal universe for its creator, Despina the witch. Her childhood friend, Souma, follows her there to try to protect her, but she wants to go treasure hunting, while new characters frequently show up to act as merchants and party members. The story ends whenever the player decides to leave Arcanus Cella, with the resulting conclusion depending on how much progress the player has made. I started to skip the story sequences early on, as I don’t play a game like this for story. Of the writing, I faintly remember references to JRPG and anime tropes -- cosplay and "Dragon Ball" and loathsomely young heroes -- some of which I assume the localization team contributed.
I’m too busy creating characters and making runs on the 99 level randomly generated dungeon to really care that much about the catatonic story-telling or the goofy dialogue that presents it. Much like From Software and Atlus’ recent PS3 title, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Cladun offers a sprite editor, which has prompted people to come up with some brilliant facsimiles of anime and video game characters in faux 8-bit pixel art. I can’t resist character creation, which was enough to save even the broken Soul Calibur series, at least in my eyes.

There are a number of classes, each of which have different level up bonuses depending on whether they are the main character, or a sub-character placed on the “magic circle.” The magic circle is Cladun’s approach to character customization, in which characters are equipped like items on a grid, which often bequeaths special bonuses to them as they gain experience. The actual gameplay is in real-time (unlike the average turn-based roguelike or dungeon crawler), so the player controls one character and equips that character with shields, weapons (swords, axes, or staves), and armor, as well as deciding on which magic circle to use and which characters to place on it. While the characters on the magic circle earn experience and bonuses, depending on which magic circle the player picks, and what area he places the character, the main character receives bonuses and protection from the characters on the magic circle. Sub-characters can equip artifacts that might increase the main characters attack, defense, or skill abilities, while also absorbing damage for the main character.
Outside of customization and party builds, the gameplay feels something like Diablo by way of The Legend of Zelda. The game derives its momentum from the promise of number-crunching, level-grinding mathematical progression, but the actual dungeons feature real-time combat that necessitates attention. Running around and slashing enemies with wild abandon will get your character killed off fast, as the enemies can do considerable damage and there are traps littering the floors of every dungeon. The combat itself is fun, but it has the added benefit of rare loot drops. The real meat of the game is its character and party building.

I hate that NISA relegated Cladun to a PSN download. I recognize the difficulty in releasing physical media on a console as plagued by piracy and indifference as the PSP, but Cladun is a really fun game that genuinely deserves better. As much as the faux-retro fad irks me, I think that Cladun: This is an RPG actually transcends the obnoxiousness of its retro persona. It is a perfectly good game, and would be regardless of graphics. It might not be as visually creative as 3D Dot Game Heroes, or as deftly nostalgic as Retro Game Challenge, or as thematically coherent as Half Minute Hero, but, ignoring the retro-graphics and music, Cladun is something that some of us can’t get enough of: a number-crunching grind-fest that appeals to the inner OCD at the heart of, I believe, anybody willing to play video games into their adult years. There are so many options for character customization, and then to customize characters by using previously customized characters and adding to them rare items culled from runs in the randomly generated dungeon.
Cladun: This is an RPG caters to the sensibilities of retro-gamers in terms of its graphics and music, but the actual gameplay system is as complex as anything else published (or developed) by Nippon Ichi or its American branch. It’s part of a recent revival of interest in genuinely challenging games, and might have reached a wider audience if not for the digital distribution, a double edged sword that cuts manufacturing costs while ensuring that nobody but the devoted will discover the product. It’s a shame. Cladun is a fast paced, deep, and easily understood dungeon crawler.

11/10/10

Hong Kong Godfather (Wang Lung-Wei, 1985)

I never thought I’d write a review of Hong Kong Godfather because I’d never thought Best Buy or any other brick-and-mortar store would stock it, a strange Hong Kong movie whose major appeal was, one assumes, its rarity. It sits next to House of Traps (Chang Cheh, 1982) on my shelf devoted to Shaw Bros. movies, one of several that I never thought I’d see in its full, uncut form, much less on an NTSC Region 1 DVD.
Allow your humble blogger a moment to bask in the glory his good fortune. Shaw Brothers films like this have had a difficult history in the States, shuffled between distributors and even treated with indifference by fans who bought the Region 3 DVDs from Intercontinental Video (among others) unwilling to shell out money on a disc for a movie they already own. I understand, friends, I really do. Hong Kong Godfather never received a Region 3 release, but was announced as a future release from the now defunct BCI. When BCI closed, Funimation, another company under the same corporate umbrella, announced that they would release the remaining Shaw Brothers titles from BCI’s library.

And here it is. I watched Hong Kong Godfather again recently, free of the giddy anticipation of my first viewing. It’s a bad movie in some respects. The acting is never less than hammy and Wang Lung-wei’s direction straddles the line between cheesy Hong Kong new wave and typical Shaw Brothers cheese. Wide angle lenses, blue filters and location shooting sit uneasily next to fast zooms, cardboard sets and in-camera editing. The mise-en-scene contributes to the dated look, not only with some cheap looking interior sets but with hilariously dated eighties fashion. Norman Chu’s mullet beats out the abundant gratuitous violence and full-frontal nudity for the uncontested title of the most obscene aspect of the movie.

Watching the film critically also reminded me that Hong Kong Godfather represents the last, valiant effort to make the Shaw studio relevant and up-to-date with the rest of Hong Kong cinema. The studio more or less abandoned film production shortly after this film, which seems at times like an attempt to emulate the contemporary 80’s Hong Kong film even though it also feels like a throwback to Chang Cheh’s early 70’s gangster films with its constant, bloody melee fighting.

The movie follows triad members Lung, Wei and Wen (Norman Chu, Leung Kar-Yan and Richard Chung) as rival gang leader Hei Lan (Wong Chung), newly returned to Hong Kong after escaping murder charges in the United States, dismantles their gang and connections in the criminal underworld. Wei, formerly known as Mad Dog Wei, has retreated from the underworld to fulfill his wife’s dying wish, attempting to make a living as a florist while raising his teenage daughter. Wen left the gang to become a police officer, but the three brothers reunite at a birthday party for their boss, Han (Shek Kin).

The birthday scene sets up one of the films more interesting characters, Rotten Chi, a nasty gangster who abuses his power. For all of Lung’s philandering (he’s referred to as “Playboy Lung” by most of his fellow gangsters) and for all of the illegal activity the gang engages in, they’re a romanticized, benevolent criminal organization. Chi, however, will do anything to get ahead, including the murder of Boss Han. While Han laughs off Hei Lan’s attempts to bully him, Chi sees an opportunity and begins to conspire against his benefactors, eventually murdering Han. The murder of their beloved father figure forces Wei and Wen to return to a life of killing in order to avenge him.

The plot could easily be transplanted into a medieval Chinese setting, replacing the criminal world with the martial world, and result in a wuxia movie. Even much of dialog sounds like the stylized repartee of a historical film, as in the scene where Hei Lan and Han trade passive-aggressive aphorisms and metaphors in an attempt to one-up each other. The “three brothers” motif can be seen in everything from the classical Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to Shaw’s “New Wuxia Century” film The Magnificent Trio (Chang Cheh, 1966).

But Wang Lung-Wei breaks from Shaw tradition with location shooting and scenes where his characters act something like real people. Hong Kong actually seems like a real place instead of a studio set, and the finale takes place in what looks like the same mall as that of Jackie Chan’s Police Story, released the same year. The best characterization and acting goes to Sam Wai’s Rotten Chi. Wai actually plays the character well, with as little bathos as one is likely to find in a movie like this. His character has one of the wider dramatic arcs and is blessed with the screen time to convey it. I almost wish the movie were more about him.

The other reason Hong Kong Godfather received so much attention is its violent action scenes. There’s so much machete chopping that it verges on absurd, especially the long and ridiculous finale. Other notable instances are a graphic child-murder (a dummy standing in for the child actor gets thrown through plate glass) and abuse against Wei’s teenage daughter. The infamy is deserved.

I enjoyed Hong Kong Godfather, but it doesn’t compare well to the films of John Woo and Ringo Lam, which is one of the reasons why it failed to gross even in the same league and why the Shaw studio turned to television. I’ve only seen one of Wang Lung-Wei’s other directorial efforts, 1992’s CAT III Escape from Brothel, which is a far worse film than Hong Kong Godfather, though equally violent (and far more misogynistic). Wang just wasn’t the sort of auteur that could compete with the 80's wave of "real" film makers. He's the sort of auteur that stages scenes of rape and infanticide.

11/1/10

Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan 水浒风云传

Some people online distribute the rom to this impressive post-mortem (released in 1999!) Genesis/MegaDrive beat-em-up under the title “Beneath the Clouds.” I’d guess that these people got that from putting the Romanized characters into babelfish. If you’re sort who reads my blog, you might recognize Shui Hu Zhuan as one of the great literary accomplishments written in the classical Chinese vernacular, or you might better recognize it under its English title, The Water Margin. You might also recognize "Feng Yun" as the Chinese title for the comic book/film series we English speakers call "The Storm Riders." What does any of that trivia have to do with the game? Nothing, really. Maybe I’ll email Lightwing23’s wife and beg her to translate the title into something that makes sense, then lord it over the rom distributors and reviewers who have referred to this game as “Beneath the Clouds” for about three years.
I love beat-em-ups only a bit less than I love console/computer role playing games. The two genres seem diametrically opposite in terms of design, and might really have been back when the side scrolling beat-em-up was a viable genre, munching up quarters in arcades and pizza parlors and Wal-Mart lobbies. But I also know that you can beat Kingdom Hearts 2 by pressing the “X” button over and over again, at least according to RockManXZ24, who claims to have done that (and he actually likes the Kingdom Hearts series), which puts it in the same vein as the more mindless beat-em-ups. In fact, I think that the recent, torrid affair between Japan and Capcom’s Monster Hunter shows the greatest marriage of the two forms. There’s no lock-on feature for combat, the games really don’t play well outside of co-op, and the difficulty can be utterly insane. At the same time, the amount of equipment and customization rivals that of Diablo 2, the champion of grindfests.

One could also point to small games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (both of which feature character levels and inventory systems) as more likely successors to the beat-em-up -- they undoubtedly are -- that also adopt conventions from the broader role-playing genre. But I think these are too clever for their own good. "Scott Pilgrim," though I liked the movie and what little I’ve played of the game, is overexposed, and watching the animals crapping in Castle Crashers is only funny until, like, the 9000th time you see it. I miss the earnest goofiness of the fantasy themed brawlers from the late eighties and early nineties.
I also love kung fu movies, but the Chinese themed brawlers made by Capcom (Dynasty Wars, Tiger Road) just aren’t as good as their later games, like the immensely goofy Knights of the Round. The good thing about the recent proliferation of unlicensed Chinese game ROMs is that they developed beat-em-ups that directly imitate the better Japanese games, sometimes competently, while adapting historical events and pulp literature. Shui Hu Fung Yen Zhuan apes Knights of the Round, with similar characters, animations, enemies and gameplay. The player can hit treasure and health power-ups to split them into smaller pieces, as in Capcom’s Arthurian brawler, and the there is a balanced broadsword wielder, a speedy fighter who uses a saber, and a battle-axe brandishing tank. The characters walk from left to right, beating whatever enemies get in the way, then fighting an end boss.
Shui Hu Fung Yen Zhuan provides only a few levels, but they’re long, and the game adds some inventory management in the form of Gaunglet-esque magic items that the will do massive damage to all enemies on screen. Cut scenes in between levels tell a story in early Tecmo style, which I couldn’t follow because I don’t know Chinese. I breezed through the whole game rather easily (the game gives nine credits and extra lives come easy), but the animation and graphics being a cut above, for example, The Yang Warrior Family made for an enjoyable, if mindless experience.
The real fun of beat-em-ups is their complete lack of fairness. Unlike a rougelike, which screws with the player’s expectations to the point that it’s unfair, the beat-em-up is unfair in spite of being straightforward, making progress its own reward. Of course the constant flow of enemies will kill the player, and of course the items that can save him or her from certain death will be scarce. If the game doesn’t offer cool graphics and enemies it doesn’t work -- the player needs some motivation to continue walking right and pressing “a” -- but this one actually offers some of the best looking environments on the Genesis, rivaling the SNES ports of King of Dragons and Knights of the Round, and the boss sprites are huge, detailed, and also ripped off from Capcom games.

This is not the pinnacle of the genre on consoles, that honor belongs to Treasure’s Guardian Heroes for the Saturn. This is still a really fun game. It’s hard to believe that it was released the same year that the Dreamcast debuted and a real shame that there are so few of its kind developed these days.

10/24/10

White Crocodile Queen (H. Tjut Djalil, 1988)

Indonesian horror films become infinitely scarier after watching Mondo Macabro’s incoherent interview with Barry Prima (which can be seen on their excellent DVD for The Devil’s Sword), in which he states that the rural people who often made up their largest audience really believed in the stories they told. Obviously the idea that a large portion of people live in fear of detached, baby eating heads and rapacious female sea deities is unsettling, yet the real horror comes not only from placing yourself in the shoes of somebody who lives in a world in which gods and demons lurk behind the drudgery of everyday life, but in living in a world in which a film maker can convincingly realize such horror with basically z-grade effects and film technique.
White Crocodile Queen comes from H. Tjut Djalil, the director behind Mystics in Bali and Lady Terminator, who made a number of films for the export market. Lady Terminator, for instance, is an Indonesian take on James Cameron’s Terminator, only with a lady -- a lady who happens to be an incarnation of the South Seas Queen rather than a cyborg. Mondo Macabro put that movie (along with Mystics in Bali and Dangerous Seductress) on DVD with an English language track, which is actually as close to its original language as anything else, since it was designed for export and shot without sync sound, and all Djalil’s readily available movies feature Caucasian actresses. White Crocodile Queen, not having been dubbed, exported, or filled with white women, was presumably meant for local audiences.
White Crocodile Queen opens with a birth, a scary birth. Marta’s wife sits at the edge of a river straining to give birth to twins. A white crocodile puppet with a red, plastic gem on its head arrives first, and Marta is just so proud. His wife then gives birth to a little girl, who, not being made of rubber, is considerably cuter. As the new parents admire their offspring a spear shoots through the mother’s chest. Sumarna, Marta’s rival, wishes to take his magic plastic gem and is willing to kill him to do so. A badly choreographed display of Silat ensues, ending when Sumarna stands on Marta’s shoulders and pees on his head.
The opening credits roll against the now grown White Crocodile Queen, played by the late Suzzanna, holding court in her underwater kingdom, while poachers walk about the lake shooting crocs with shotguns. This disturbs the personified crocodiles, while the only human in the hunting party to object is Sumarna’s daughter, Murti, which sets her up as a sympathetic character. This event leads to the Crocodile Queen deciding that it’s high time for her to seek revenge against Sumarna for the death of her family, an endeavor in which she enlists her little, human sister, Larsih, now the town’s clothes dealer/village bicycle.

Larsish attracts the attention of both Sumarna and his son, whose strangely infantile method of seduction involves him asking her to help him dress and scratch his itchy balls, which causes some badly acted tension in Sumarna’s household. Larsih, being another sympathetic character caught up in a plot beyond her control, likes Sumarna’s son well enough that she doesn’t want to murder him, but at the behest of her older, demi-goddess sister, delivers him to be eaten by crocodiles. The crocodile spirits then cause Sumarna to kill his youngest son, his henchmen, and supernaturally posess his daughter Murti. During all this, Murti’s boyfriend seeks the help of the village elder, who happens to be Marta’s brother, who mostly gives bad advice and reminds everyone that they should “trust Allah,” which must be pretty difficult when a pissed off crocodile goddess and her slutty little sister have it in for you.
Lead actress Suzzanna plays both the Crocodile Queen and Larsih, both fitting roles given her status as a simultaneous horror icon and sex symbol of Indonesian cinema. Surprisingly enough, Larsih receives a surprising amount of mercy and sympathy from the plot given that she’s a whore, and sexually powerful women typically come to grizzly ends in Indonesian horror/fantasy movies. It’s not at all surprising then, that the Crocodile Queen’s ransom for Murti involves having sex with her boyfriend or that she comes to her grizzly end shortly after this scene.
In Fear Without Borders: Horror Cinema from Across the Globe, Stephen Galdwin asserts that Indonesian cinema’s treatment of women functions as a model for the social order prescribed by the “New Order” regime which would eventually begin a censorship campaign against sexually charged films. This contradicts the Mondo Macabro documentary on Indonesian exploitation cinema that asserts that Indonesian film makers hid political criticisms behind their fantasies. No offense to Pete Tombes, but I side with Galdwin. Horror film in particular often functions as both a parable and nightmare of conservative values, visualizing behaviors that conservatives fear and possibly desire within a moral framework that will eventually punish those who engage in them. There’s a reason the virgin is usually the only one to survive.
As a supernatural revenge flick, White Crocodile Queen delivers with ridiculous special effects, gore, and sexuality coexisting uneasily with slapstick humor, an odd, Bollywood-style music scene, and unintentionally funny continuity errors. Special effects consist of badly handled optical printing, bubble machines, gallons of fake blood and rubber crocodiles with whom various actors valiantly wrestle. Ludicrous scenes include Sumarna running over his own child while hallucinating (he thinks his son is actually Marta’s zombie) and Murti attempting to molest her mother, Sumarna’s wife, while possessed. Infanticide and incestuous lesbian rape would be horrifying were the execution not so risible, and the film never becomes so ridiculous that it goes beyond “risible” to become outright hilarious.
I have to wonder, given the holiday season, whether Indonesian audiences found this as scary as I did The Exorcist when I first saw it at thirteen, though one of these has aged better than the other (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which I mean). One of the joys of seeking out strange films comes from finding things to earnestly enjoy in movies that nobody cares about or even likes anymore (Barry Prima hates his films, and, I think, the anybody who would claim to enjoy them), but for whatever its strange images and local mythology are worth, I can only claim to enjoy White Crocodile Queen with a healthy dollop of the sort of sarcasm that too many refer to as “irony.”

10/19/10

Dream Sword (Li Chao-Yung, 1979)

One of the most recognizable tropes of wuxia fiction is “clan intrigue.” Based only on the variety of films available in English, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the martial world, the underground coalition of criminals, martial artists, travelling swordsmen and professional mercenaries in pre-modern China, is filled with more drama than a chat-room for expecting drag queens. But the heroes are usually outsiders, interlopers caught up in the machinations of rival clans and beautiful women with ulterior motives, written by authors whose byzantine plots all but resemble Rube Goldberg projects in their structure.
But there are not many films that deal directly with the formation of a martial arts clan, nor the way that they attain prominence within the martial world. Li Chao-Yung’s Dream Sword is actually the only one I’ve seen covering this subject. The Dream Sword is a trio of fighters, Hsia Hsang Chou, Fan Chin, and Li, who take aim at the “Six Powers,” an alliance of clans whose influence over the martial world the Dream Sword’s members deem unjust. Hsia Hsang Chou, Dream Sword’s founder and the originator of its martial arts forms, actually has other reasons for wanting to destroy the Six Powers, and Li, who never gives his full name, has ulterior motives for wanting to join Dream Sword. The only one who really devotes himself fully to the group’s stated values is Fan Chin, but even he changes after gaining power, wealth and fame. He takes a defeated enemy’s silk clothes, because he “doesn’t want to look like a simple woodcutter anymore.”

Secret identities, vengeful former lovers, and treacherous best friends and students are all par the course for even bad wuxia movies, but Dream Sword not only reconfigures them into an unusual plot, it actually uses them to real effect rather than as excuses for fight scenes. Other films in the genre make notice of the way that power corrupts, but few ever extrapolate that to the obvious conclusion that you must be corrupt to some degree in order to actively seek power. Li Chao-Yung and screenwriter Chu Hsiang-Kam subtly allude to the cruelty in the protagonists’ methods even before the finale, in which their whole little empire crumbles. The direction and writing are unusually deft for a Hong Kong/Taiwan production of the era.

It’s also rather well acted, albeit in a melodramatic style that verges in multiple scenes on outright theatrics. Lung Fei (at least a few of you would recognize him as the Evil Betty from Kung Pow: Enter the Fist), in particular, plays his character with a lot of warmth and he never looked better in a fight scene than he does here swinging an axe around like a madman. And the fighting is almost constant and mostly well shot and consistently well choreographed by the consistently good Su Chen-Ping.

Li Chao-Yung also (co)directed Jade Dagger Ninja, the movie I previously reviewed. By comparison, Dream Sword shows much more ambition, both with its plot and its thematic content. As a fan of these movies, I often find that I’m an apologist as well, defending them from critics not too different than those of pre-war China, who sought to censor wuxia novels and movies for corruption of the youth. If Dream Sword never rises above the level of lowly genre entertainment (and in spite of being very good, it doesn’t) at least one can call it entertaining. There’s a lot of breathless creativity to the fight choreography and even in some of the filming. The film strikes a sort of melancholy tone that would not be out of place in a decent western or jidai-geki.

Granted, I also liked Jade Dagger Ninja.

10/12/10

Jade Dagger Ninja (Li Chao-Yung and Tien Peng, 1982)

I gave this movie a shot after seeing a number of collectors call it a must-see. Given that most kung fu movie collectors gather movies for the sake of owning them rather than watching them (I’m really not kidding about this), that’s a huge compliment. Granted, the plot really doesn’t make that much sense, and some of the acting is rather terrible. But, I also admit, I overlook deficiencies in artistry and technique when it comes to wuxia movies of this vintage, especially with movies as entertaining as Jade Dagger Ninja.
Usually I prefer to watch wuxia in Chinese; something about dubbing movies based on Gu Long and Jin Yong novels into English never sat well with me. In the case of this film, and a few others (Pearl Cheung’s, for example) I make an exception. The dubbing team for Jade Dagger Ninja chose to have some fun, one assumes with the dubbing process, which includes the following immortal line: “You guys are supposed to be the four kings, huh? Well you’re no four-king good!” Deathless, brilliant, amazing, stupid: these are just some of the words one might use to describe such writing.

The makers of Jade Dagger Ninja actually intended the film as an adaptation of a novel from Gu Long’s Lu Xiaofeng series, though the above line sounds like bad a Groucho Marx imitation than it does Ian Fleming influenced wuxia. Since I don’t know Chinese, I can’t tell you which of the many novels this movie apparently adapts, but I can tell you that it’s based on whichever novel involves Lu Xiaofeng (played here by Tien Peng) searching for his wife’s killer while aiding a local martial arts clan in their fight against a vicious gang intent on stealing a potion that grants its owner martial arts prowess while also turning them green and growing their hair and causing them to speak in the same lion’s roar sound effect over and over again.

As movies in the genre are wont to do, Jade Dagger Ninja actually makes more sense after repeated viewings (or after one has read the book it’s based on) than it does when reduced to a plot synopsis. The basic gist of it is that a martial arts clan holds an artifact called (in the dub) the “purple jade badger,” which holds an elixir that will improve its users kung fu. The leader of this clan invites various important types from the martial arts world to witness the marriage of his daughter (Doris Lung), but various guests show up more or less to steal the jade badger. In the meantime, the Hearbreak Red gang tries various methods of ruining the happy occasion, murdering invited guests and sending a nymphomaniac swordswoman to seduce the groom (a stoic Tien Ho). Lu Xiaofeng pretends to represent his master, but is actually there in hopes of finding a lead on the whereabouts of his late wife’s murderer.

The story, of course, twists itself into a giant ball of conflicted character motivations and plot points and doesn’t so much resolve as simply end after a giant showdown in which Lu finally gets a shot at his wife’s killer.

Li Chia's The Lost Swordship is one of my favorite Taiwanese Gu Long adaptations, because it doesn’t feel like a sub-par Chu Yuan/Shaw Brothers knock-off. It used locations shots that would have been impossible in Hong Kong to create a different atmosphere than Chu Yuan’s urban other-world of studio sets and fog machines. One of the most irritating things about Taiwanese film makers of the era is their belief that they could do Chu’s gimmick on a budget even more impoverished budget than what a Shaw Bros. career director received. Chu Yuan productions, at their worst, look pretty cheesy and cheap, but they never look like they’re made of cardboard, like those in Jade Dagger Ninja.
Li Chao-Yun, co-director of Jade Dagger Ninja, actually made more ambitious films, (including Everlasting Chivalry, based on Gu Long’s Chu Liu Xiang stories) which were, broadly speaking, better films than this one. But I can’t help liking Jade Dagger Ninja, at least partially because I love writing its nonsensical title. The statuette which holds the elixir is clearly not a badger and there are neither ninjas nor daggers in the movie. The dubbing, which includes that awesomely terrible “four-king” line, is consistently weirder than a movie that already seems to not take itself very seriously.

In all honesty, I’ve not watched a kung fu movie for action scenes in a couple of years now. Maybe I’m jaded. None of the martial arts sequences in Jade Dagger Ninja excited me, much less surprised me, though I wasn't expecting to see a weapon that resembled the Full Moon Scimitar from the Shaw Brothers film of the same name. I still like wuxia movies, though, particularly for their characters. Tien Peng, director and star of numerous Taiwanese action films, really exemplifies a sort of cocky, obnoxious hero that I’d hate to see played by anybody except scrawny Tien Peng. He’s not a great actor, but he fits so well in these cheap productions, in part because he comes off so much like a poor-man’s Ti Lung. It’s also fun to see Tsung Hua completely not caring about his role. He plays a drunkard but lets his fake beard do his acting for him.

Purely as an exhibition of bizarre dubbing and strange, cheap Taiwanese film making, Jade Dagger Ninja really comes in second only to Nine Demons. But, short praise it may well be, it’s a better, more competent film than Chang Cheh’s worst. Your enjoyment of Jade Dagger Ninja might be directly proportional to how much alcohol you imbibe while watching; the phrase “your mileage may vary” has rarely been so apt in describing a film.

10/7/10

Tastes like Filler

I try to break myself of habits I find obnoxious in other people, but sometimes doing so requires a serious change in the way that I formulate sentences and make points when speaking or writing. I’m thinking specifically about the way that certain people express their outrage as a question to which they expect no answer. It’s a lonely game of emotional Jeopardy; you’ve already got the answer -- it’s right in front of you -- but you’ve just got to respond in the form of a question. A typical format: “What were they thinking?” Among the church ladies I spent an inordinate portion of my childhood surrounded by, it typically takes the form of “How dare they?” although this also seems to apply to middle-aged “Tea Party” women, who are, usually, more or less the same people as those church ladies that made my childhood so humorless. You might ask if what I describe is not a rhetorical question (some of you, no doubt, are asking rhetorically), but the answer is “no,” since calling such a question rhetorical implies some sort of rhetorical efficacy.

That brings us to the subject of this fine product: Naruto Jutsu Power Energy Drink. Filled with entrepreneurial spirit and spurred by a general lack of good taste, some corporation or other saw an opportunity to make money using the methods of other soft/energy drink bottlers, breakfast cereal manufacturers, and religious denominations; that is, by targeting a demographic and tossing at them a ridiculous product in line with a current trend.

This is the answer. But, still -- and please excuse my volume, Mr. Trebeck -- why the balls does this exist?
I know I bitch about these licensed Energy Drink things all the time and, looking back at some of those previous examples, can see an emerging formula. I talk about how much I hate marketing ploys unrelated to food somehow being used to sell it; I complain about the subject of the ploy; I run down the product. But complaining about Naruto is, like, so 2008 (not coincidentally, Boston America Corp. first sold this product that year). And once a subject tethers itself to a formula, the writing process suffers from repetition. If I hate writing something over and over again, you guys must hate reading it, or at least I hope you do and will hold me accountable in the future.

But – and this is the answer to those of you who exclaimed “why another energy drink rant?!” – Naruto Energy Drink is surprisingly inoffensive. It tastes more or less the same as Red Bull, and now that the Naruto fad has run its course, the continued existence of a crappy, licensed energy drink is more funny than annoying.

In fact, its pure laziness won me over. It tastes so bland and generic that it probably comes in a dozen different and unrelated packages based on cartoons and video games. What even makes it a “Naruto” themed drink? Nothing, except the can, maybe. The infamous Stephen Seagal brand energy drink makes a point of containing goji berries in its “Asian Experience.” (It’s also funny when they try too hard.) Not so with Naruto Jutsu Power. The drink is, quite literally, filler.

And -- oh, hey-seuss, I just have to ask -- why am I even writing this?

9/29/10

Red Cliff parts 1 and 2 (John Woo, 2008/2009)

John Woo’s The Killer introduced me to the wider world of hong kong movies when I was only eleven years old, so I love John Woo and always want to give him the benefit of the doubt, even after movies like Paycheck, which takes the not-uncontested title for the worst cinematic butchering of Phillip K. Dick ever. Like most of us who write about Hong Kong movies on the internet, my education in Hong Kong films began with Tai Seng VHS tapes, which housed films that differed from Hollywood in ways both inexpressible and, unfortunately, now wholly familiar to general audiences. Lots of younger fans (many my own age) watch movies like The Bride with White Hair or Dragon Inn – movies which blew my mind when I saw them at fifteen – and, if they don’t quietly wonder over all the fuss they’ve read or heard, they assume that a whole host of pretentious, deluded old-timers have convinced themselves of metaphorical alchemy. Our gold seems, “for all intensive purposes,” like shit to them.

The appreciation of wild visual creativity in older Hong Kong movies fast evaporated in a climate where so many of their visual idioms appear even in bad movies, and without the context in which most of us watched them, the ambivalence ought to be understandable. I say this because if I had seen Red Cliff back when I was eleven-years-old, it would probably be my favorite movie ever. It has outrageous violence, manly bonding, a little bit of sex, epic declamations of intents to conquer and subjugate or to defend against conquer and subjugation. Of course, these things are also true about Zach Snyder’s 300. A lot of movie goers express ambivalence (if not outright animosity) for 300 too, but Snyder’s film would have been wholly different if made in 2000 rather than 2006, before The Matrix and Kill Bill and a host of imitators exerted a largely unstated influence on the way that Hollywood studios approach action.

Woo is a victim of his own good fortune. Of all the Hong Kong film makers who went to the States before the handover, Woo found the most success. He made his own brand of action accessible to Western audiences just before they became inundated by wire work, balletic martial arts, and colorful (albeit digitally affected) cinematographic experimentation. In the meantime, genre films in Hong Kong underwent their own transformation, in part due to ailing local industry and in (greater) part due to integration with mainland China. Adaptations of Jin Yong and Gu Long novels, with their flying swordsmen and romantic intrigues, migrated almost exclusively to television while film makers courted international favor with historical spectacles in the wake of the Academy Award nomination for Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

Into this giant mess, Woo decided to make his return. Red Cliff, based on one of the most infamous military upsets in Chinese history and literature, is yet another cast-of-thousands historical epic with an all-star cast of respected thespians and one unusually pretty woman, a two-part exercise in bloody violence, male bonding that verges on homo-eroticism, and self-indulgent allusions to history and the classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In a lot of ways, this movie is more John Woo than any of his other movies, to the point where it looks like a Chang Cheh movie on a budget that the late godfather of Hong Kong cinema never got to play with. Zooms, telephoto close ups and heroic imagery flow through the movie even faster than the fake blood in its bloody battle scenes, and the numerous scenes in which two hardened warriors gaze at each other with expressions of admiration as they train troops, practice martial arts and play music stop just before the seemingly inevitable physical affection. The action, its wire effects painfully obvious and its choreography entirely unreal, looks not terribly unlike one of those Hong Kong movies that Hong Kong doesn’t really make anymore.

Red Cliff divided people, not only on the basis of its merits but on its portrayal of the characters from the Three Kingdoms. Zhang Fei, historically, was a capable government administrator who enjoyed wine and composed highly-regarded calligraphy. In Luo Guangzhong’s novel, he is an impulsive drunkard. Red Cliff tries to marry the two in a scene where the normally loquacious Zhang sits quietly and writes calligraphy, which Zhou Yu, meeting him for the first time, praises. Zhang Fei gets really pissed at the interruption and yells at him. This scene is meant as comedy, but while watching it with an almost entirely Chinese audience, it elicited groans and head shaking disapproval. Equally questionable is the treatment of Cao Cao, who conducts a full-scale invasion of Sun territory over Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiao Qiao. This hardly fits the historical image of the highly ambitious and educated Cao or the literary image of the overweeningly prideful usurper.

I, of course, would not have known that even a decade ago, when my only knowledge of the Three Kingdoms came from playing Dynasty Warriors 2 with my friends. Contentious issues of movie-action trends and historical accuracy aside, the real meat of the movie is Woo's depiction of warrior-bonding, battle tactics and massive action scenes. And in all honesty, Red Cliff is nothing more or less than John Woo making an old-fashioned historical epic in his very particular style. Which is to say that it is cheesy, unsubtle and, from a certain perspective, lots of fun.

And that, ultimately, is what makes Red Cliff difficult to rate. To those who came to these kinds of movies after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, it feels all too familiar, while older fans who often say that they want a return to form actually want a return to that feeling of otherness that Hollywood stole by co-opting so much from foreign sources and that the circumstances surrounding China and Hong Kong have ultimately run into the ground. It is the search for that otherness, for that strange creativity, for that transother cinematographic experience that lead many in the mid-2000’s to label South Korea the “new Hong Kong” and to further explore Asian film in its myriad of genres and origins.

I like Red Cliff. Take that for whatever it is worth, which probably isn’t too much. It appeals to that kid in me that likes to see Guan Yu running on a phalanx of shields, slicing riders off their horses while a make-shift military compound burns in the distance. For many people, that sort of thing isn't enough any more.

9/8/10

Game Review -- Bushido Blade 2

It’s a shame that so few people take the time to look back at the company that SquareSoft was before it merged with Enix. I think the last time I saw people discussing Square’s older output was after Threads of Fate became available for download on the PSN, but that game is more notable for being the last of what many of us once referred to as an “Action RPG” on the Playstation than an example of SquareSoft acting against type.
Square’s prolific publishing and development on that system, unfortunately, seems largely reduced to its three Final Fantasy titles, the Final Fantasy Tactics spinoff, Xenogears, and, among those who fancy themselves connoisseurs, Vagrant Story and maybe Parasite Eve. You would think that the company developed and published RPGs exclusively during the mid-to-late nineties, but, in fact, the company’s output became more varied on the Playstation than it had been since their early days publishing for the Famicom and Japanese home computers. They developed and published an excellent horizontal scrolling shooter, Einhander, experimented with mascot themed cart-racing, and released a gaggle of fighting games by developers Dream Factory and Lightweight.
Fighting games at the time were about as far removed from RPGs as you could get (unless you actually liked Culture Brain’s Flying Warrior series) and the ones that Square published were esoteric even by the standards of fighting games. Tobal No. 1 and Tobal 2 by Dream Factory required split second timing to perform combos, and Bushido Blade and its sequel actually attempted something I don’t think had ever been done before: they tried to simulate actual sword fighting.

Lightweight, the developer of the Bushido Blade series, had only one idea, and it was actually pretty interesting. It also has the added benefit of being original. I have not played the first game, and have very little desire (or money) to track it down. But I do have a copy of Bushido Blade 2.
The first thing that I notice after booting the game is the hilariously goofy “FMV” (that’s the 90’s era game nerd acronym for “Full Motion Video” as opposed to, y’know, video that isn’t full motion), rendered in above-average-at-the-time CGI. The direction is almost unbearably cheesy, matched by an equally silly electric guitar score and some of the ugliest character design on the Playstation. Ostensibly set in contemporary Japan, Bushido Blade 2 features characters who wear Edo-era Japanese attire, cowboy outfits, purple leisure suits, Victorian-era dress suits, and underwear to wage a centuries old war between rival feudal clans -- a conflict that somehow transplanted itself into rival martial arts schools in contemporary Japan. The incongruous character design and nonsensical story are almost typical of lower-tier Japanese games of the time, though one character in particular, a jive talkin’ black man with an improbably large afro, purple suit, and bling, is tin-eared even by those standards.

But then, games of this era were in the middle of an awkward creative adolescence, moving from being fairly simple forms of entertainment to incredibly complicated multi-media pieces. When appraised only as a game, Bushido Blade 2 is one of the most interesting fighters of the time. The developers attempted to make an actual simulation of sword fighting, with character movement based on actual martial arts techniques (clearly motion captured by people who understand their functions). The animations actually emulate the inertia of a chunk of metal swung into or drug across somebody’s corpus in a way that at least feels accurate relative to the player’s role behind a controller. The only other fighting game that attempted “realism” at the time was Virtua Fighter, but even that game had health bars and, perhaps, slightly more questionable kinesiology than Bushido Blade 2. But then, Bushido Blade 2 also allows characters to jump around like they're on wires.
Each weapon has three stances, high, low, and mid-guard, and to score a killing hit, the player has to pass the guard. Scoring a hit is not that easy, particularly against opponents with long weapons like Yari spears, Naginata, or No-Dachi. Selecting a weapon appropriate for your character is critical. Obviously, physically weak characters do not perform well with heavy broadswords; less obvious is that certain characters have special stances when using certain weapons. With a good character/weapon combo, the fights are just a matter of timing and strategy. I won most of the matches by attacking during the up or downswing of the opponent’s attack.

The matches start out with the player fighting generic “ninja” enemies before fighting playable characters, which generally put up a better challenge. These matches are great fun by themselves, and the gimmicky modes (first person mode being the worst) superfluous to the experience they offer. The basic fighting game could work exceptionally well as a quickly played online game for portable systems, but with Square Enix as focused as it is on expanding their market share in the west and original developer Lightweight seemingly defunct, that isn’t likely to happen.

Lightwing23 cajoled me into this review with an e-mail in which he mentions the existence of a game based on Spike TV’s embarrassing television series, "Deadliest Warrior." I would rather play Kabuki Warriors, Lightweight’s infamously bad follow up to Bushido Blade 2, than anything that will encourage Spike TV to continue making episodes of that rancid series. The characters in the "Deadliest Warrior" video game can kill each other with a single good hit, which I guess reminded Lightwing23 of Lightweight’s early output, but, from what I can tell based on YouTube videos and reviews, the fighting system better compares to Dream Factory’s Ehrgeiz. The game also looks bland, artless, and crass, which means that it’s nothing if not a faithful adaptation of its source material.
Both Bushido Blade games could be described similarly. But at least they've got personality.

8/29/10

Korean Dragon Ball: The Review -- The Reckoning

If you actually think about it -- believe me, I can understand if you have not -- Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball is one of Japan’s strangest cultural exports and should have been the least likely to achieve lasting popularity. Of course, it wasn’t immediately welcomed. The first attempts to dub and export it were considerable failures, and it wasn’t until Funimation, a Texas based entertainment company, dubbed and released episodes of the anime series in syndication under the title “Dragon Ball Z” that it found its audience. Even then, it didn’t become really popular until Cartoon Network included it in its Toonami block of afternoon programming.

I was an early fan. I woke up at six a.m. on Saturday mornings to catch “Dragon Ball Z” on what was then the WB network on channel 33, before the nationally broadcast Saturday morning cartoons aired. “Dragon Ball Z” was filled with huge, muscley guys with huge, spiky hair doing martial arts and shooting fireballs. The female characters had tons of cleavage and characters would die or have their arms ripped off and Goku went to hell for a few episodes. My parents would have been horrified if they knew what I was watching, but this was before the word “anime” meant anything to most people.
This movie looks horrible
But while the episodes that comprise “Dragon Ball Z” were unusual to me when I was kid, the earlier story arcs, referred to as “Dragon Ball” in the United States, still strike me as incredibly strange. Loosely based on Wu Cheng-En’s The Journey to the West, Dragon Ball began, supposedly, as a way for manga-ka Akira Toriyama to create a series less westernized than his previous works. But while The Journey to the West was a Buddhist fable filled with topical political and moral commentary, Dragon Ball seems driven more by Akira Toriyama’s desire to just draw whatever he felt like. References to King Kong, tributes to Jackie Chan movies, dinosaurs, giant robots, villainous armies in Soviet style regalia, aliens and busty females -- these are a few of his favorite things.
This movie is horrible
Que terrible!
So it is understandable that James Wong and 20th Century Fox would try to make sense of the giant mess that is Toriyama’s world building by opting for a generic, semi-sci-fi environment when they filmed DragonBall: Evolution. Granted, they also missed everything that made Dragon Ball popular, including themes that resonate just as strongly with American audiences as they did with the Japanese. But Dragon Ball was popular enough world wide that live action film adaptations were attempted in other countries. Chan Jun-Leung’s DragonBall: The Magic Begins is well known as terrible movie, but it isn’t one of a kind.

At one point, the South Korean Dragon Ball movie was my Holy Grail, that ever elusive bad movie that I thought I would never get to see. I have it. Really. And after watching it, I have a new respect for Chan Jun-Leung’s technical skills as a film maker.
Korean Dragon Ball (hangul: 드래곤볼), or Goku Fights, Goku Wins (Ssawora Son o gong, Igyeora Son o gong), is a lot like the Korean Street Fighter television series, in that both intend to visualize their source material as literally as possible on a prohibitive budget. Korean Dragon Ball visualizes the first story arc of the Dragon Ball manga in a manner that is frequently weird, inappropriate, ugly, and hilarious.

The movie opens with a theme song sung by a children’s choir, and then proceeds to follow the storyline probably all too familiar to fans who have read the manga, watched the anime series, the movies and played the video games. Bulma finds Goku living alone in the wilderness, finds out that he has a dragon ball, and convinces him to travel with her as a bodyguard so that she can collect all seven and summon the Dragon who will grant a single wish.
The film follows them up to the end of story arc with Pilaf. I’ve never figured out what Pilaf is supposed to be. Is he an Alien? A troll? Nobody seems to know. The film is slavishly loyal to the manga’s storyline, the only exceptions made being what the film makers apparently knew better than to try. There are no dinosaurs; the film makers replaced them with guys in robot suits. Sadly, Goku does not transform into Oozaru. Thankfully, very little of the nudity and crass sexual humor from the manga was included, though director Wang Yong appears as Master Roshi and does the “dirty old man” bit pretty well. As with "Korean Street Fighter," I was surprised by the sheer amount of wire work. There are some talented stunt performers (the guy who plays Yamcha does a Jackie Chan inspired stunt where he ducks underneath a car as it drives over him), who are more or less upstaged by bad special effects.
It's safe to say that director Wong Yong didn't know that much about making movies, or at least not good ones. The cinematography and mise-en-scene match their cheapness with garishness.
Watching anything that slavishly translates material from one medium to the other raises one of those irreducible questions that is always the hardest to explain. In this case, that question is, “why?” What is the purpose of retreading this particular story -- itself an imitation of centuries old literature, and a spastically referential one at that -- when one can experience it not only in its original form, but in video games and animation and even in other live action films? The obvious answer is that film and game studios wish to exploit it, but that doesn’t explain why the audience remains so willing to return to the same story.
Proverbs 26:11 comes to mind, and Dragon Ball, with its messy pan-Asian setting filled with bits and pieces of generic manga tropes and amalgamated references to other fragments of the greater pop-culture world, certainly fits the image. Maybe the reasons why so many keep asking for more is no more important than the reasons why film makers and game developers choose to exploit it. Dragon Ball’s enduring popularity seems inexplicable because it’s inexplicable. Korean Dragon Ball strikes me as a half-hearted attempt at cultural appropriation, to officially plant the Taekgukgi in the soil of Akira Toriyama’s never-never land. It isn’t terribly unlike certain American and European fans who, when arguing about the validity of the then upcoming DragonBall: Evolution, insisted that Goku not only could be played by a Caucasian actor, but that the character himself was an Aryan superman when in his "Super Saiyan" mode.
Dragon Ball, or Deulaegon Bol, I should say, is influenced by the same things that influenced Akira Toriyama’s original manga. In a sense they deserve each other. Korean Dragon Ball is a professional product that feels like a fan film based on a manga that itself seems too bizarre to have come from a professional author, much less one of the most internationally successful in his field. And after all that, I’m less sure than I’ve ever been of why I actually wanted to watch this movie, or why I care about Dragon Ball, or why anybody else does either.
Oolong's infamous wish: used panties.