The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks 2

It took me a long time to review this movie because it took me a long time to getting around to watching it. The first film was refreshingly fun, if sleazy and stupid. Given that Hong Kong’s Category III soft-core period piece was previously moribund outside of the direct-to-VCD/DVD market, the overwhelming positive reception from English speaking fans was really to be expected; they celebrated The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks as a throwback to the days of Michael Mak’s Sex and Zen. Little did they know that in a couple of short years, Hong Kong would unleash 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (which is breaking box office records in its home territory as I write this), or that the sequel to The Forbidden Legend, released a scant few days after I posted my review of the first, would recall another aspect of older Hong Kong film making: the quick cash-in.

As mentioned in my previous review, The Forbidden Legend movies are based on the D. H. Lawrence-esque, Ming Dynasty era novel Jin Ping Mei (in English: The Plum in the Golden Vase), and so the audience, presumably familiar with the story either from reading the original or viewing one of the numerous film adaptations, knows that the nice young Ximen Qing of the first film will become a sexually voracious murderer at some point in the narrative. The first movie ended with Ximen’s seduction of the beautiful Lotus, the killing of her husband, the dwarf Wu Da-Lang, and Xinem taking Lotus as his second wife.

The second film opens with Ximen admitting that he is a sex-addict, in case that was not obvious after the events of the first film. Those familiar with the source material will know what comes next: Ximen’s growing obsession with kinky sex and his disregard for the feelings of his wives and concubines causes the women in his life to fight with each other, and Wu Song comes to avenge his brother’s death. Moon, Ximen’s first wife, enlists her maid, Plum, as a sort of double agent to sabotage Ximen’s affections for his other wives, while Ximen continues to murder even his friends in order to get to their wives.

This is all fairly in line with the source material, but after the funny, mostly light-hearted first film, the contrast is jarring, sometimes disturbing. Like the first film, every scene is draped with naked flesh, but the tone of many scenes is nastier and cruel. To punish one of his wives, Pinky (whose husband Ximen paralyzed and forced to watch his carrying on with his Pinky before killing him) Ximen organizes a gang-rape. Lotus, it is revealed, had feelings for Wu Song, though she also pleasures herself as she watches Wu getting beaten to a pulp after Ximen, Moon, and Plum frame him for attempted rape. Plum poisons Ximen with an overdose of aphrodisiac, partly as revenge for his having tied her up so that one of his servants could have his way with her.

The novel by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng used all of these elements to comment on sexual politics and the role of women in Chinese society. The film has no pretense of doing such, so the rough and sometimes violent sexuality serves only to titillate, which it will, assuming that the viewer is a budding pervert like Ximen Qing. The only sex scene that resembles those of the previous film is an early one in which Qing and Lotus use grapes as erotic objects, with Lotus actually shooting grapes into Ximen’s waiting mouth (this is actually more or less from the novel). Otherwise, the bondage and rape and depravity become a somewhat painful reminder of the grimmer films from the early nineties, like Li Han Hsiang’s 1991 adaptation of the same material, The Golden Lotus “Love and Desire.”

The biggest surprise here is the inclusion of Winnie Leung, an actress who appeared most often in Jackie Chan movies and other innocuous fair, as Plum. Unlike the Japanese porn actresses who do most of their scenes sans-costuming, Leung shows only as much skin as one would expect from an otherwise respectable mainstream actress (which is still rather a lot, to be honest). She’s awfully pretty, though too old to convince as a teenaged Plum, and while she can actually act, the film’s only reason for existing is to show tits and ass and pubic hair. She didn’t want to, apparently, which makes her role in the film odd.

But Leung's casting is merely a symptom of the real problem with this movie: it was designed entirely to cash in on the success of the first, regardless of how well it fits as a sequel. The cinematography in the first recalled those earlier films, with soft lighting highlighting some creatively staged sex scenes. But even that is absent here, as the film is shot in a mostly serviceable, utilitarian manner. It looks like a straight-to-video digital picture; the first was digitally filmed too, but it at least aspired to the higher production values of its inspirations.

Hong Kong cinema aficionados who want to see this story told well will have to look at one of the other adaptations, and those who want to see a fun throw-back to the playful smut of the late eighties and early nineties should watch the first. Or better yet, watch Sex and Zen or Yu Pui Tsuen for the hundredth time. The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks 2 is rough, unpleasant going for the most part, and there are no chopsticks this time. Bummer.


Evil Zone 封神領域エルツヴァーユ

Japanese developer Yukes had one thing (a cynical lot would say only one thing) at which they excelled, and that thing was fast-paced, cinematic fighting games whose appeal lies more in their personality than their actual fighting systems. “Gamers” in the USA probably know them best as developers of the original WWF Smackdown, a pro-wrestling simulator which boasted (you guessed it) a fast-paced, cinematic engine.

But Yukes also made one of the few games that I genuinely like to watch more than play: Evil Zone, or, if you pretend to know Japanese, Eretzvaju. Evil Zone caught my attention and that of others because it embellishes so much of its visuals and presentation with the conventions of Japanese animation, all genres more or less represented. And really, it’s almost difficult to explain just how enmeshed Japanese animation and Japanese video game fandoms were in the nineties, especially in the west, where video game magazines like Die Hard Game Fan and Gamer’s Republic featured whole sections devoted to anime news and reviews. This is the second draft of this post; the first included, around this point, a nearly eight-hundred word digression on this subject.

You, the readers, have been spared the torment of a ramble about decades old anime for the sake of brevity. So we jump straight into the problems – oh, the problems. The fighting system utilizes only the directional pad and two buttons, one for attack and one for defense. Which attacks the fighters use are based on distance and which directional button the player presses. Attacking at close distance usually results in three hit melee combo, and at a distance, the standard attacks are all projectiles. Pressing a directional button while attacking will usually send a projectile that either stuns or knocks the opposing character to a distance. Pressing “down” while attacking executes a trapping attack that will result in a brief cinematic sequence, which generally does a good bit of damage. The fights generally boil down to each character blocking until somebody either gets caught in the trapping attack or one of the characters manages to launch an effective stunning projectile, which generally opens up an opportunity for that trapping attack or maybe a throw.

The player can also hold the attack button to charge. The charge bar is actually the length of the player’s current health, so the lower the player’s health, the faster the charge. The charge can be used in one of two ways. The player can throw a slow moving projectile that, if it connects, will initiate another cinematic attack that causes absurd amounts of damage, but the player can also use the charge to boost a regular projectile. Again, the strategy for this is roughly the same as executing the trapping attacks.

The fighting system is quickly mastered and is fairly dull. When I first played Evil Zone, I tried to do evasion attacks and rushes, neither of which are really as effective as throwing projectiles and waiting for the opposing fighter to make a mistake. The melee fighting is ineffective, for the most part, and the characters all play the same since they all have projectiles that stun and trapping attacks. The only differences come from which directional key causes the stun attack. Character preference stems mostly from the character designs.

But what character designs they are! As mentioned, I really like Evil Zone when I’m watching it. The presentation here is incredibly fun. The story mode is actually done as anime, each fight representing a new episode, and each story mode featuring some hilariously dead-on parody of the animation genres associated with the characters. Danzaivar, the tokusatsu hero, utilizes everything from ultimate attacks to henshin code words to satellite laser guns that shoot enemies during charge and trapping attacks. Every character introduces new episodes and the game even collects the world-building and character data in an encyclopedia for the player’s perusal.

It’s uncanny how closely the game imitates the tropes of various anime. The story for Setsuna, the magical school-girl, even includes some vaguely sapphic overtones that would have been unusual in a localized game in 1999 (though the localization team at Blue Sky software changed her age from 14 to 21, understandably), and the character themes resemble anime themes in all ways except the lack of vocals. The best story line is actually for Keiya, an onmyoji who fulfills the bishonen badass archetype to a tee, whose “episodes” take the form of a write-in advice show. The characters he fights write in before each episode with some ludicrous problem or other, Keiya renders his advice with deadpan snark. The voice actor for Keiya, Chris Wilcox, stands out from the rest; his delivery is pitch-perfect.

The whole idea of a context sensitive fighting system is cool, and I like a lot of the attack animations. And the graphics were great for a 1999 Playstation game. Unfortunately, the fighting engine is underdeveloped. There are also some problems with the localization. Voices often fail to sync with the animation, leading to some very odd timing during the in-game conversations, and translating what were originally English, German, Latin and Welsh words from Katakana leads to some very odd spellings. “Cocytus” becomes “Cocotus” and “Claiomh Solais” becomes “Klau Solas.” If that’s nit-picky, well, I’m a nit-picker. If you like vintage anime and video games, Evil Zone is an enjoyable diversion, even if it’s a mediocre game whose charm will be lost on the uninitiated. Yukes seems to have used the basic idea for their recent licensed titles, but those really don’t have the same personality or tongue-in-cheek appeal of Evil Zone.


Shamo (Soi Cheang, 2007)

I don’t know how to feel about a movie like Shamo. Soi Cheang’s previous movie, the brutal, bizarre Dog Bites Dog, in no way indicates how deeply strange and silly his brand of nihilism could sink. And, to be fair, Cheang likely gets weighed down by his source material; Japanese manga has few rivals for bitter juvenile nihilism, its fiercest competitor being Japanese video games of the mid-to-late nineties. By all accounts, Izo Hashimoto’s manga makes no sense while dealing with rote themes of existential angst, guilt and violence. Its plot makes no sense when judged by the commonly accepted rules of storytelling, by the standards of verisimilitude, or, from what I hear, other manga in the same genre.

The film starts with the arrest of Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who, apparently without trial, begins serving time in prison for the murder of his parents. The other prisoners physically and sexually assault him. The warden torments him, taunts him, assuring that even though his sentence is only for two years (Ryo is a minor and was sentenced as such) he will never live down his crime. His baby sister visits the prison to tell him that his aunts and uncles have seized all of the family property, leaving her nothing, and that she plans to move to a city to find work as a hooker. Ryo understandably tries to commit suicide, although less than understandably attempts to do so by ramming his head into a broken urinal. Before he can fatally smash his head into the jagged broken porcelain, a pebble thrown by new inmate and prison yard karate instructor Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng) breaks the apparently deadly rough edge of the damaged toilet. Kurokawa, jailed for assassinating Japan’s prime minister while working with Yukio Mishima’s Tatenokai, wants to teach Ryo how to fight.

If all this sounds utterly insane, it might interest (or annoy) the reader to know that this is just the set-up. The aimless narrative matches characters drawn in short-hand, characters that come in and out of the story as the plot necessitates. Character motivations are not so much opaque as fuliginous. They aren’t just hidden from the audience; the characters seem even less aware of why they’re doing what they do. The film boasts several unresolved sub-plots, each as underdeveloped as the main narrative, and the dialog often veers towards the expository yet somehow manages to obfuscate both characters and narrative.

It sounds like a mess – it is – but I can’t help loving it. One of Hong Kong’s most peculiar genre’s is called “mo lei tau,” which literally means something along the lines of “makes no sense.” It’s a sub-division of comedy best exemplified by Stephen Chow and various light-weight Lunar New Year films that feature huge casts comprised of TVB stars. But I think that movies like Shamo need a designation of their own along the same lines. Shamo is a Hong Kong comic adaptation, but it’s also one in a long line of tournament themed martial arts films. It has a lot in common with the b-movies made before the hand-over, when HK movies were still cult territory in the west, viable oddities for an audience of die-hards in their native country. Its lunatic energy makes less sense than anything by Stephen Chow. Shawn Yue was, at the time of its making, a teeny-bopper heartthrob, but he plays the sort of role that Alexander Lo Rei or Terry Fan Siu-Wong might have essayed for Lam Nai-Choi in the early nineties. And that’s kind of great.

Shamo is a bad movie, but it’s no less watchable than other films of similar origins and ambitions, whether violent tournament films like Young Kickboxer or manga adaptations like Riki-Oh. The aesthetics are new, with the wacky costuming (I want Ryo’s hoodie, the one silk-screened with portraits of everyone from Eckin Chang to Charles Barkley, though I would never, ever wear it in public) and hair-styles, but the movie is of a kindred spirit as those which only the die-hard fans used to watch and enjoy.

So take this for what it’s worth, Hong Kong exploitation fans: Shamo earned my good will. Forget about narrative structure; this is lunatic film making that will alienate most sensible people after the first rape scene. But the combination of a hilarious performance from Francis Ng, nonsensical characterization and the relentless violence and pessimism make for the sort of weird, transgressive movie that helped make Hong Kong cinema so appealing to those of us who don’t mind forgoing what could be charitably described as quality storytelling for purely mind-bending film making. Soi Cheang can do better, and has, and will. But I ache for movies like Shamo as much as I ache for classically styled kung-fu and wuxia flicks, cast-of-thousands historicals, and ineffably strange fantasies. We’ve gotten quite a lot of the latter, what with all of these wing chun themed movies in the wake of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and John Woo’s Red Cliff and Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin. I’m thankful that Shamo provides some contemporary representation for the sort of movie that leaves me feeling healthfully guilty over what I just watched. All that sank must, hopefully, converge; everything old ought to be new again.