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.”


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.


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.


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?