Wet Hot Sake (Yoichi Noshiyama, 1996)

Wet Hot Sake (aka Nurunuru Cancan) probably doesn’t ping as high on the “OMGWTF Japan?” movie list as the work of Miike or Sion Sono for a couple of reasons, the first being purely a matter of circumstance and the second something very peculiar about the way that a lot of western fans consume foreign media, particularly Japanese live-action film. Firstly is the matter of visibility. Strange, mid-nineties Japanese comedies didn’t receive much exposure outside of Asia, and retrospection for foreign cinema often extends only to films recognized by both fans and serious critics as masterpieces, or at least important (genre films are exempt from this gross generalization. Please don’t comment to tell me so, I admit it, but no argument should be based on exceptions). A moderately successful film like this one, in spite of its completely insane premise, doesn’t stand out in a throng that everybody already ignores.

It probably doesn’t help that the only English-friendly dvd release didn’t come from Japan, much less a US distributor, but from Hong Kong mega-distributor Universe, who plastered the CAT III rating all over it.

But what an insane premise indeed! Bar owner Morio Mononobe prides himself on his hot sake, but he finds competition from an outdoor, mobile gypsy bar owner who uses a unique heating method for his sake that adds flavors that men find irresistible. The method involves a leotard, calisthenics and a virgin. See where this is going? To create this special sake, a leotard is filled with sake and a girl’s body heat combined with sweat and, well, other fluids transmogrify the ordinary sake into a miracle drink that not only tastes great, it re-grows hair. So Mononobe decides to try this method of heating with his eighteen-year-old daughter only to find that it doesn’t work. Being thick, he can’t really figure out why. Thus, he and one of his patrons, the perpetually horny Tsuneda, seek after the way to either replicate or best their competitor’s sake.

And most of this gets played completely poker faced. Sure, Tsuneda provides several broad comedic moments, but these are not the rule. Much of the movie consists of ludicrous scenes that neither the camera nor the characters nor the editing seem to take much notice of. The camera often lingers on a scene, reminiscent of so many serious Japanese films that deal with hubris, corruption, and broken familial trust, but always undercut by the events depicted, which never cease to be anything other than ludicrous. The idea itself ought to be ridiculous enough to dispel any fears that Wet Hot Sake was intended seriously. And it is funny, if only in its abject, unrepentant awfulness.

So why wouldn’t Wet Hot Sake, now fairly available to non-Japanese speakers and more than sufficiently weird to classify as a cult movie, be better known or discussed among fans of such? I suspect that much of the interest in Takashi Miike was driven by reports of unwatchable depravity in Fudoh and Ichi the Killer. When that’s combined with his interest in family films and actual, artistically valid cinema, people start to take notice, including people like The Weinsteins, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. Sion Sono seems (at least to me) more consistently interested in making real cinema, but his infamy, at least in the United States, was predicated on the opening scenes in Suicide Circle as well as reports that he spent his off hours performing street poetry and shooting gay softcore videos.

I’m not trying to accuse people who discovered Miike and Sono and the rest during the early-mid 2000’s of being mindless trend followers. But by-and-large there is an expectation -- accompanied by lots of online hype -- of transgressive, weird, or fundamentally effed up film making from Japan; there’s not really much buzz in the West over Japanese high school sports comedies, or anything so mundane, even when they’re really quite good. Wet Hot Sake pulls humor out of a thin, but gross concept utilizing lots of nudity but, for the most part, the actual sex is vanilla, and the perverse elements played solely for laughs. It’s actually not backwards or disgusting enough to fit the stereotype that some movie nerds are trying to convince themselves of, and that’s enough to put it far out of range for their selective viewing, not helped by its age or by the director's obscurity. A decade-and-a-half old sex comedy is obviously not going to be the height of nerd-cred relevancy when Sion Sono just made a three hour long epic about amateur upskirt photographers.

I can see the fun in watching something like Wet Hot Sake, but it is what it is.


I Devote a Category to General Snobbery for a Reason

Nobody will believe me, but I didn’t write that review of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne to troll Bioware fanboys. That people actually bothered to comment on it surprised me, especially hyrulehistorian, who got burned in the review but commented with a dignity that seems lost throughout much of the digital buzz that is the internet. A good example of somebody without said decorum is J, who called me a pretentious twat and told me to go re-read Tolstoy. (In his defense, he apologized for the name calling soon after)

I admit to having left comments on other blogs that might be read as inflammatory, insulting, and rude, but generally, I take a person’s whole internet corpus into consideration before doing so. After all, my own blog contains writing that’s embarrassingly bad, or fails to convey the points that I thought I was making. Since the Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne review doesn’t fit that description, it’s safe to assume that J’s comments were based on the single post that he probably read only in part. Would a blogger on the order of J’s description of a pretentious twat (Tuesdays with Morrie, Tolstoy, Heller, etc.) devote part of his blog to reviewing video games or movies like Amazons, Pagan Love Song, or anything directed by Hisayasu Sato?

My blog, my criticism, and my interests are thoroughly middle-brow. But my academic background is in literature, film and theatre (in that order), and I could write a review about Synecdoche, New York critiquing the interplay of formal and thematic elements. I don’t want to. I might do the same for the kung fu movies I review as well, but I generally don’t spend too much effort since there isn’t really that much there to critique. In a sense, kung fu movies share a cultural demarcation with those generic fantasy books that get dumped on in my Tomoe Gozen review. They take mythical, even archetypical icons, images, and stories, often unique to the geography from which they come, and genericize them. The difference is that I usually like kung fu movies.

Writing about things that I like is immensely fun as long as I’m explaining why I like them. Could I show how Chang Cheh is only about as technically skilled as a B-rate Hollywood film maker of the same era? Sure, but there’s no point in that. I could just as well point out Robert E. Howard’s repetitious vocabulary, but I think that it’s forgivable in the context of what and where he wrote.

Is it pretentious to like just anything? Not as long as you keep it in perspective. If somebody wrote an ignorant screed about Night of the Hunter I would comment to tell such a person that they were wrong, not because Night of the Hunter is a favorite of mine, but because the critique itself was ignorant. If somebody were writing about Tsui Hark’s Green Snake and didn’t care for it because its special effects are unconvincing and the pacing spastic and the acting distinctly hammy, I might not even care. I don’t love Green Snake because it is a great movie (although as far as I’m concerned it is a great movie).

I don’t look down on people who like Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne for whatever reason. The review was an excuse to rant about the unpleasant relationship between fanboys, franchises, and literature, as well as get some kicks out of Gaider’s poor prose. On some level, it must be strange to see somebody advocating an unjustly ignored Gene Wolfe novel, making fun of IGN for being tasteless, and writing a few hundred words on a Taiwanese wuxia movie based on a pulp novel all within a period of about ten days. The mere fact that I like some popularly derided things doesn’t mitigate that I like others that are more commonly considered sophisticated; neither does an appreciation of complexity prevent my enjoyment of simple things. That is the highly subjective concept of “taste,” and on a blog devoted to talking about various media, some of it not well represented and some of it viciously defended, it must be understood.

You must decide yourself why you like what you like. I am thoroughly unprepared to tackle such an issue in a broader social or psychological perspective. I do consider taste a useful social construct, but neither my blog, nor anything else I do online is about actually proving my credibility in that area.


Game Review: Retro Game Challenge

Pseudo-retro games are still in fashion as of this writing, but it’s clear that they’re a passing fad since the only ones that sell are downloadable games for the major consoles that either receive extensive coverage from major gaming sites and publications or were highly regarded classics that everybody played as a kid. If these games were selling based on genuine appeal rather than hype, word-of-mouth would’ve spread Retro Game Challenge like the clap. Unfortunately, the Japan-only sequel will never see a release in the States.

Retro Game Challenge is based on the Japanese television program “Game Center CX,” which never aired in the United States. It’s developed something of a cult following through fansubbing, and it actually is a fun little show. Comedian Shinya Arino is challenged to complete various Famicom games, which usually frustrate, annoy, and inevitably kick Arino’s ass. In between are segments on retro arcades and pachinko machines and weird romantic visual-novels aimed at pubescent girls -- things of that nature. But the program’s real meat comes from the Famicom game challenges, which is the focus of the game.

Retro Game Challenge has the player playing as himself as a grown man whom Arino, depicted as a mad-scientist/wizard or some-such, has sent back in time to beat challenges in Famicom games as they are released, promising to send the player back after he completes all the challenges. It’s silly, and since the game shows only adult Arino’s almighty disembodied head it’s a bit creepy looking too, at times. It’s meant as a framing device, and the game keeps it up pretty well. Young Arino hangs out with the player’s younger-self avatar while they play games, usually offering some annoying commentary.

And the games in the collection are excellent 8-bit titles. Only here’s the thing: none of them ever appeared on an 8-bit console. Like Mega Man 9, these are new games developed to look like old games, and they’re all surprisingly good, if derivative. The first available game, Cosmic Gate, is a blatant Galaga knock-off. Guadia Quest is obviously Dragon Quest. Rally King plays like any number of NES/Famicom era racing games. Haggleman is surely based on something I’m not familiar with (Ninja Jajamru-kun?). Haggleman 3 is Ninja Gaiden with a weapon/customization system.

The benefit of hindsight allows the developers at Namco-Bandai to avoid some of the more annoying aspects of 20-year-old game design. Guadia Quest is interesting, in this respect, because aside from the option to save anywhere, it really doesn’t. The menu system still requires three or so buttons to speak to somebody, which is one of the things about which people who dislike 8-bit role playing games usually complain.

So why exactly would somebody want to play intentionally antiquated video games? Nostalgia is the main factor. The game goes to great lengths to evoke such feelings, not only through the games themselves (which are fairly short, except Guadia Quest, naturally, which can take up to fifteen or twenty hours, depending on how you play it) but the meta-game/framing device. In the main hub, the player can view a fake gaming magazine based (I think) on “Famitsu,” which contains hints on beating the game, and Arino will offer hints and rumors that he hears at school. The bottom DS screen is used to show Arino and the player’s gaming space, which is a very Japanese looking living room.

One of the problems with XSeed’s localization is said living room. It’s hard to think of myself as a young Japanese boy. The images of the cartridges look like Famicom cartridges rather than the generally larger NES carts. I do like that they changed “Famitsu” to “GameFan,” and the editors in said magazine are usually well known figures from game journalism. Seeing Dave Halverson (who originally started GameFan, as well as founding Gamer’s Republic, and most recently Play) and Dan “Shoe” Hsu (long time editor for the late Electronic Gaming Monthly, billed as Dan Sock) actually amused me, and not just a little. I get the impression that the localization team ran out of resources and couldn’t actually localize as much as they wanted. The “GameFan” issues are really pretty fantastic -- better, definitely, than their attempts at imitating NES era Engrish.

But besides nostalgia, these games offer something in short supply from modern games. They are simple, unpretentious fun. It’s unintuitive to describe fake-retro games as unpretentious, but they are. The interesting thing about 8-bit graphics is that, more than any other era, they represent something iconic about the whole “video game” thing. Developers now make games that are virtually indistinguishable from films that consciously appeal to video gamers (Transformers 2, Gamer, and G. I. Joe come to mind most readily). It’s not just nostalgia at work when a game accurately replicates the look of NES and Master System games. Convincing 8-bit graphics and design are just quintessentially video game, and that is appealing in and of itself.

It should also be mentioned that unlike the show -- which draws entertainment from Arino’s tormented attempts at beating old, difficult games -- Retro Game Challenge doesn’t try to torture its players. Even Rally King, the racing game that nobody likes (except me) utilizes mechanics that are far more nuanced than anything in similar 8-bit racing games. But still, I wouldn’t recommend this game to anybody who doesn’t actually like old NES games. There’s nothing here to the order of Legacy of the Wizard or Battle of Olympus, but these games, for all their concessions and adjustments for the current audience, will frustrate those who don’t actually like this style of game design.


Nine Demons (Chang Cheh, 1984)

Probably the best known and least liked of Chang Cheh’s post-Shaw Brothers films, Nine Demons looks worse from having Chang’s name on it. Chang revolutionized the face of Hong Kong cinema and classic kung fu more than once; first with his films of masculine bonding and violence, like the iconic One Armed Swordsman, and again with his troubled youth films, probably best exemplified by Dead End. In the late seventies and early eighties he was nowhere even close to being a mega-hit director, though. American fans by and large love those films best, but Chang never performed to the same standard he did in his early career.

In spite of the incredible on camera talent in films like Crippled Avengers, Chang never really topped his older films in terms of thematic or visual weight. Crippled Avengers is an awesome kung fu movie, but it doesn’t compare to Golden Swallow. Golden Swallow is an awesome kung fu movie, but it’s also an awesome movie too. Same for The Assassin. By the time that he was finishing his tenure at Shaw Brothers, Chang had completely gone off the deep end and made The Weird Man, a film so strange that the only other comparable film he made at Shaw Brothers is Fantastic Magic Baby.

That’s not to say that I dislike those movies starring the Venom crew. I love them all, but strictly as cinema, they don’t compare well with Chang’s older films.

All that is to point out that Chang’s descent into relative irrelevancy in his home country was long and slow. And then there’s this: his worst film. Nine Demons isn’t helped by its English dub, which makes it impossible to take seriously. The story itself isn’t unpromising. The son of a wealthy person’s butler is killed when disgruntled servants decide to usurp their employer’s wealth, and makes a deal with the devil in order to save the life of the wealthy man’s son, with whom he’s friends. But the powers the devil grants him cause him to commit crimes as heinous as those of the people who tried to kill his friend, and the interlopers who justify their meddling as justice are true counterparts. One justifies his alliance with evil by his good intent; the others seek justice only for their own benefit. Both sides are playing a game of justification that is inherently dishonest.

The end of the film sees the protagonist give up his evil powers after a bloody battle with his enemies, allowing him to take the proper path of reincarnation. It ought to be a great ending. Why isn’t it? Well, it’s because the protagonist, referred to as Joey throughout the film in spite of its later Ming dynasty setting, is wearing purple spandex and back flipping through colored smoke.

Some people think Chang Cheh was a closeted homosexual, others think he had an unhealthy fixation on the male form. Either way, the problems with Nine Demons come in part from his love of gaudy costuming and artifice that made some of his later films look like insane drag shows. Cheng Tien Chi, as Joey the demon, wears purple tights, a gold trimmed vest, gold eyeliner and a bat crown. Roland (yes, another very Chinese name), the only swordsman who doesn’t want to kill Joey, wears billowy white pants and a cape, but no shirt. A gang of swordsmen like to color coordinate. There’s not a single woman more made up or ornamented than the men, not even Joey’s love interest.

Chang utilizes dissolves, jump cuts, wire work, lighting, and sets to convey the fantastical elements without the benefit of expensive special effects work that Tsui Hark brought to Hong Kong that same year with Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. Other film makers have used the same tools to evoke the fantastic and supernatural, like Sergei Parajanov. Chang Cheh is not Parajanov (lol). Much of his lighting is as gaudy and variegated as his costuming, including such wonderful effects as “disco strobe light.” His demons are child acrobats in blue grass skirts that transform via jump cut into flying skulls that suck blood.

In fact, the kids are probably the most unsettling thing about the movie; the child actors basically impale somebody and drink the red glop that drips from the pole in one scene. What sort of parent, one wonders. It’s probably too ludicrous to be anything other than… ludicrous. But still, that’s some weird stuff.

Okay, it’s a very bad movie. The dub makes it worse (“y’know, baddies always end up hacking themselves, for the money”) and it comes from a once respected director long past his prime. It should be stated, though, that Chang had attempted fantasy time and again, never getting it right. His ambition always exceeded what he was able to get on screen, but making a movie like this wasn’t a result of his creative atrophy. Shaw Brothers didn’t really give him carte blanche as far as his budgets, and he certainly couldn’t afford it with his independent productions. Nine Demons is rubbish, yeah, but had Chang had the film making passion of his youth and been given unlimited resources it might not have been. The actual fight choreography is quite respectable, and while the fantastic elements aren't well realized, they could provide startling images if handled well. There’s even a potentially interesting morality play buried underneath the mess of Chang Cheh’s direction and the crappy special effects.

As it is, though, it’s only good for a laugh. Nine Demons at least goes crazy with bad lighting and special effects. Chang’s previous Attack of the Joyful Goddess is a better movie that’s less fun to watch.


Avatar is crap.

Don't watch it. It's too late to teach James Cameron a lesson, but at least you won't have to sit through all three hours of his boring attempts at sensory overload and political activism. "FernGully in space" isn't really it. It's more like "Dances with Profoundly Stupid and Unsubtle Racial/Political Bullshit."

Even the Vatican hates this shitty movie.

Armond White says this in his review: "Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt."

There's really nothing else to say. Fuck that movie.

It's also pro-animal rape.


White Haired Devil Lady (Zhang Xinyan, 1981)

The problem with a movie like White Haired Devil Lady (aka Sorceress’s Wrath) is that there are so many points of interest that it’s hard to know where to begin. Great Wall produced it, and it appears to have location shots taken in the Mainland. This implies certain things not only of its historical importance (there weren’t many martial arts films or Hong Kong co-productions filmed in Mainland before Zhang Xinyan’s Shaolin Temple) but of its political intents, coming not only from an avowed left-wing studio but possibly with the blessings of the PRC censor board. It’s also director Zhang Xinyan’s third (maybe fourth) adaptation of a Liang Yusheng novel, in this case the same novel that provided the basis for Ronny Yu’s celebrated The Bride with White Hair. It’s difficult to even keep up with the movie when each scene reminds one that they aren’t watching a typical wuxia movie. The silly part: White Haired Devil Lady is a typical wuxia movie in all the ways that actually matter.

The story begins with a corrupt government official transporting his ill-gotten gains with an escort from Wudang’s martial arts school. Stopping at an inn, he is confronted by chivalrous bandit Lien Nichang -- known to most as White Haired Devil Lady because of her silver-hair wig. She not only takes the gold, but injures the Wudang swordsman in a way that renders him incapable of using his sword. Insulted, he informs the rest of his martial clan, who are rather incensed, but not especially willing to go hunt down scary white-haired bandit women.

Another of Wudang’s itinerant swordsmen, Cho Yihang, travels back to his hometown after hearing of the insult his brother-in-arms endured, though not the circumstances leading to it. Along the way, he stops for shelter in a cave, and finding a beautiful woman inhabiting the cave, befriends her. Since she isn’t decked out with white hair during the day, Cho Yihang has no idea that the woman to whom he is so attracted is actually his potential enemy, Lien Nichang.

Joining some government troops in an attempt to capture Nichang, he realizes that he’s fighting the woman he loves, and after brief deliberation, switches sides and kills the government troops. The army’s commanders use this as leverage against the Wudang School to coerce them into aiding their fight against Nichang. Cho is torn between his admiration and devotion to Nichang and his sense of loyalty and obligation to his School/religious order and comrades. If you’ve seen The Bride with White Hair (and I find it difficult to believe you’re reading this if you haven’t) the outcome of this tension should will not surprise.

I admit my inadequacy as a critic of left-wing Hong Kong studio films; whatever sort of political viewpoint White Haired Devil Lady promulgates, if it actually does so, flew far over my head. It seems like the sort of film that China’s censors would surely dislike, with its flying swordswomen and characters far more concerned with their personal issues than with the fate of the nation. In that sense, White Haired Devil Lady is the exact inverse of, for example, Holy Robe of Shaolin Temple (Tsui Siu-Ming, 1985), whose major theme is the necessity of giving up on personal desire for the good of the state, or “the people,” as it is referred to in such films. But the location shooting definitely looks to be in the Mainland, and while the Hong Kong Film Archive catalog doesn’t mention the PRC as a shooting location, it does note that action director Teng Ta’s only other film credit is for, The Spy in the Palace (Huang Yu and Yu Pei-yung, 1981), another obscure film from the consolidated left-wing mega studio/distribution group, Sil-Metropole.

White Haired Devil Lady has a very old Hong Kong feel. Its opening musical sequence feels more like what one might see in the Mandarin language wuxia films of the late sixties (such as Zhang’s earlier film, The Jade Bow) than it does similar sequences from PRC propaganda. Similarly, the costumes, acting, and cinematography all recall the stagy glamour of 1960’s Hong Kong period pieces. Were it not for the fight scenes, one might guess it was made in the early seventies at the latest. One early fight scene contains one of the more interesting swordfights in a movie of this kind, and the latter fight scenes attempt cinematic effect with snappy editing -- all the better to hide the necessary stunt doubles. Those stunt doubles do some fantastic work.

It definitely doesn’t resemble, in any way, Ronny Yu’s bizarre take on the story. It’s a very mannered, old-fashioned film. The leads don’t sizzle with sexual chemistry. There’s a sub-plot going on for about half of the film’s running time that’s interminable, but out of (I’m guessing) textual fidelity, the film sees it through, too respectful of the original author’s work to just get on with the plot proper. The fighting is bloodless. The passion doesn’t exist. It’s both toothless and neutered. The denouement left me wondering, “So what?”

It’s a very interesting movie just because of what it is. White Haired Devil Lady will probably amuse fans who want to see all the disparate factions of Chinese language cinema (or martial arts films) but it’s a very dated film, as it was when it debuted in 1981. I have a lot of good will toward it. It should make for an interesting triple feature with The Jade Bow and The Patriotic Knights, the director's other (largely uncelebrated) adaptations of Liang Yusheng.