Does it come in 3D?

 I guess that if somebody saw earning potential in resurrecting Sex and Zen, a new iteration in the once annual Kunoichi Ninpocho series was inevitable. I reviewed the last entry in the venerable series, Hitoshi Ozawa’s Kunoichi: Lady Ninja, last December, making mention of its odd mix of anime and Hong Kong aesthetics with the expected sexually charged (and unquestionably misogynistic) kunoichi magic and endless supply of female nudity.

It occurs to me that the absorption of Hong Kong’s once signature action style throughout the world has rendered the observation that any movie of recent vintage imitates “Hong Kong wire-fu” moot. It was a little surprising that Ozawa did it in ’98, but probably the most notable thing about Kunoichi: Lady Ninja was how unlike the rest of the series it was, with all of the splattery gore effects and wire-assisted leaps. The rest of the series had little in the way of outrageous visuals besides the eponymous ninpo; the swordplay and stunt work generally looks rather typical of what one might expect from Japanese v-cinema of the day.

Now that mimicking HK fight choreography, editing, and wire effects is de rigueur throughout the world, and especially in Japanese b-movies featuring gravure idols and porn stars, there’s a bit less novelty here. In fact, the trailer for the upcoming Kunoichi Ninpocho: Kage no Tsuki looks almost indistinguishable from any other low-budget Japanese movie of its type for the first half of the trailer. Then the poison queef of cgi lotus petal doom happens.
Wikipedia claims that there was a 1964 movie based on Yamada’s novel, so – let’s just assume that Wikipedia isn’t just making shit up – the first adaptation would actually be either a predecessor or an early part of the “pinky film” genre. Either that or it’s a standard chambara/ninja film that fails to adapt the original novel. Or maybe Yamada wrote a generic story about lady ninjas and the newer movies just ran in their own direction, spraying deadly breast milk and vagina bubbles in the process. However it happened, Kunoichi Ninpocho is now one of those rare things that spans multiple generations of cinema, and it seems to owe it all to that hilarious lady ninja magic.

Though it looks like this new iteration covers up the actual nudity with glowing cgi. Maybe it's just for the trailer?

I’m looking forward to Kunoichi Ninpocho: Kage no Tsuki mostly for the presence of Yuri Morishita in adorably ersatz ninja garb. And frankly, it’s about time that Japan resurrected this ridiculous little cultural oddity. I’ll take it over Frankenstein Girl VS Zombie Girl.


Conan 2011 trailer analysis

Al Harron over at The Blog that Time Forgot sums up the feelings that most of us Robert E. Howard fans must have had while watching either of the two trailers for the upcoming film based on his most famous character, Conan. Which is to say: none.

I will not belabor the points Taranaich makes on his blog. He’s a more strident defender of Howard and his creations than I could ever claim to be, and he strikes me as better read in the pulp era of SF and fantasy than I plan to be. But he’s so, so right that I have to reiterate some of what he’s said here.

When I first saw the trailer for John Woo’s Red Cliff, I practically lost my pants, my personal climax coming around the half-way point when we see a brief shot of Guan Yu standing in front a wall of shields, his signature guan dao held behind his back, as he is depicted in those figures that every Chinese restaurant in America has as a decoration, his impressive beard blowing in the wind. To a fan of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the Dynasty Warriors video games for that matter, that’s a powerful image, and the trailer is filled with them. Zhuge Liang fanning himself stoically; Sun Quan’s face illuminated by the light reflected off his blade; flaming arrows shot en masse in the night sky; I know these events from the novel. I know that John Woo is promising a movie pleasing to my sensibilities, both as a fan of historical films and as a lover of one of China’s best known heroic narratives.

I tried to maintain an optimistic outlook for this new Conan film. I actually liked John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian, but it is not an adaptation of Howard, which the producers of this new film claimed they would make. The announcement that a relatively talented hack (Marcus Nispel) would direct did much to defeat those efforts. I tuned out when Jason Momoa was cast as Conan. Old modeling pictures from his “Baywatch” days saw to that.
I'm getting "gigantic mirth" from this one.
It was unfair to Momoa; having seen how he looks in the film, I think he’s a very reasonable choice. But that trailer. Lord, where do I begin.

Why does Conan pirouette? Who are these characters? Is this supposed to be Cimmeria? Stygia? Xuthal? Zamoria? Who’s the chick with big sword? What’s with Rose McGowan’s hair? And here’s the big one: why does this look so much like every other sword-and-sorcery made in the past ten years?

As a fan of Howard’s stories, I can see a lot that looks not quite right. But more importantly, as a fan of fantasy movies, I can see nothing particularly compelling in either the teaser or longer official trailer. The market for these movies has reached full saturation, and the only reason to watch this movie would be to see Howard’s Conan on screen.

But, as a fan of Howard, I see a lot that looks not quite right. I see very little that looks like it came from Howard’s stories. See the problem?

The film makers are in a difficult position here, more so, I think, than Peter Jackson or John Woo or even M. Night Shyamalan were when they made adaptations of pre-existing narratives. The richness of Howard’s stories is not in the bloody violence or the copious naked flesh. My favorite Conan stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails”) combine the raw, uninhibited energy of Howard’s prose with melancholy elements of cosmic horror. Howard fans very often like his work because of what’s under the surface, hiding in between the lines. People who don’t know Howard, or only know his characters second-hand, think that Conan is some sort of moronic Aryan ubermensch who runs around in furry underwear killing people who get in his way. The latter notion lends itself well to the current wave of juvenile summer fantasy flicks, and it looks like that’s what Marcus Nispel set out to make.

Taranaich explains that as a fan of Howard, there’s little in either trailer, outside a bowdlerized line from “Queen of the Black Coast” (“I live. I love. I slay; and am content”) that would tip a Conan fan off to the fact that this is a Conan movie. It’s not made for us or even with us in mind. But who will actually want to see it?

A few people have asked me why Howard’s fans always seem so defensive, so protective of reputation and legacy. The obvious answer is that we think he’s besieged by false assumptions, bad adaptations, and a general misunderstanding of why he’s so popular even now, decades after the first publications of his work. In short: because of movies like this.

But this is the problem with film adaptations in general. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, while a fun movie in its own right, hardly gets to what makes the Arthur Conan Doyle stories compelling. While I really like Jackson’s LotR trilogy, it’s a poor substitute for actually reading Tolkien. But at least it seemed as though they tried, and at least some of the essence was captured in those adaptations.

So, “the book is better.” Remember that tired, tired phrase. Please.


Adrenaline Drive (Shinobu Yaguchi, 1999)

The Movie Trading Company branch situated next to a Blockbuster Video closed not terribly long after I turned sixteen and actually learned how to drive. I hated driving (still do), but the next nearest Movie Trading Co. after that one closed was located outside of Stonebriar Mall, at the northernmost part of Plano, although it’s a local peculiarity that everybody refers to anything north of Legacy road as belonging to Frisco. So, for the last two years of high school, my weekends followed a basic template. I would pick up a friend after work on Friday for dinner and a movie. I would pick up said friend after work on Saturday, eat lunch, and head to “Frisco” to buy cheap, used DVDs.

Looking at it now, you wouldn’t know how much more fun browsing the stacks at Movie Trading Co. was at the time. It’s so much more cleanly and efficiently organized these days, like a Half Price Books. Back then, it resembled the sort of independent used book stores that seem so depressingly rare these days: random titles misfiled, DVDs of questionable licensing sitting next to new and mainstream studio releases, region 2 and 3 imports incompatible with North American players mixed in here and there, the staff likely oblivious to what they actually had on their shelves.

I had recently discovered Japanese cinema. My friend was a terrifyingly voracious Tenchi Muyo fangirl at the time, and Miyazaki and Momoru Oshii films enthralled us equally. But I had begun to collect Zatoichi films at the time, thanks to the proliferation of DVDs from Home Vision Entertainment and Media Blasters; my interest in anime, as is often the case, began to wane as I grew older. I took the lead in buying anything with the word “samurai” in the title, or with a Japanese sword on the cover, which is how we came to see Six String Samurai and the indescribably terrible Reborn from Hell: Samurai Armageddon. She would pick out stuff like Wasabi, because it had Jean Reno on the cover, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake. We eventually started grabbing Hong Kong movies, and delighted ourselves with Dragon Gate Inn almost as often as we scared each other with Category 3 movies like Naked Killer, though that was a joint effort in embarrassment.

Those weekends were exciting because we rarely knew what we would actually see when we popped in a DVD. I felt like trying that again, so I went back to that same Movie Trading Company, only to find that their selection was far more limited. Or maybe my expectations are far harder to challenge these days. The movies are now separated by genre -- no more finding The Bride with White Hair sitting next to Be Cool -- and, browsing the “martial arts” section, I saw not a single movie about which I had not already read a review, preview, or online essay.

I would have left empty handed had I not seen a box marked for clearance, and sitting on top of it an eye-catching cover for something called Adrenaline Drive. The copy on the front had gushing praise from newspaper critics, and the description on the back of the box sounded like a rowdy gangster comedy. And I’d never heard of it. Two dollars spent, I was pretty happy with the results of my trip.

The film starts with Sotaru Suzuki, meek-and-mild auto-delivery boy, rear-ending a nasty, middle-aged gangster Kuroiwa’s car due to the distracting abuse of his boss, who flees, leaving poor Sotaru to deal with yakuza. Too timid to do anything else when confronted with Kuroiwa’s intimidation, Sotaru finds himself in the yakuza’s den. He’s told to make tea by one of the gangsters, but the stove doesn’t work. Kuroiwa takes him from the kitchen to discuss payment for damages to the car, while another hapless lackey makes the tea. Then there’s a gas explosion.

Mousy nurse Shizuko Sato is on break, reading a magazine at a convenience store not far from the yakuza den. She rushes to the scene to help, but the entire gang, except for Kuroiwa, appears dead. Sotaru is slightly injured, and stuck in an ambulance with Shizuko and Kuriowa and a case with a hundred million yen and then some. Kuroiwa, in spite of his injuries, has no intention of going to the hospital and relinquishing the money, so, strapped to a gurney, he kicks the ambulance hatch open, pushes out Sotaru and Shizuko, and causes the driver to wreck, the ambulance falling into a roadside stream. Checking out the accident, Sotaru grabs the case of money, and agrees to split it with Shizuko. “This money belongs to nobody now,” he tells her.

And so the two split the money, and plan to never see each other again, but Kuroiwa survived, as did some of his gang who were absent when their office exploded. Kuroiwa sends his minions to find the money, although they plan to keep it for themselves, and narrowly evading them, Sotaru and Shizuko find themselves together again, pretending to be married, and spending their money on makeovers, fancy dinners, and an expensive suite in an out-of-the-way semi-rural village. But Kuroiwa is recovering fast and on their trail, and his gang is tenacious, if stupid.

I guess that I expected something like Katsuhito Ishii’s Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl. Adrenaline Drive is something more conventional. Indeed, the situations seem pretty much by-rote. With her newfound wealth, Shizuko transforms herself from a demure, pretty girl in glasses to a confident, pretty girl with contacts and a cute cocktail dress. Sotaru, still rather timid, has burgeoning feelings for Shizuko, who seems coyly interested in him. The transformative power of wealth gets some ample play here.

Adrenaline Drive is a romantic comedy in the guise of a crime movie, with the typical romantic arc of “I’ll let you become insanely frustrated before admitting how I really feel” at its center. There’s precious little adrenaline, though there’s lots of driving and, more importantly, genuine charm. The performances are as near perfect as they could be. Masanobu Ando and Hikari Ishida make a winsome couple, and provide a grounding for the cartoonishness of the breezy, thoroughly unbelievable plot. There’s a real appeal to the idea of coming into money, abandoning an unfulfilling job and hitting the road with an attractive stranger. If the protagonists don’t win the audience’s sympathy, the audience will feel little but envy for the characters. Ando and Ishida win the audience over.

I really thought I was buying one of those wacky, inexplicable movies for which Japan is infamous when looking at Adrenaline Drive. I got a gentle, deadpan comedy instead. There’s something enchanting about the rural locations and almost constant hand of fate (i.e. the writer) in the story. To use a cliche, it's that quality that elevates an otherwise routine movie. And that sweetness made for a nice change of pace, and for expectations averted. Mission accomplished, on that account. I only wish that I hadn’t watched it alone.


The Invincible Constable (Chan Siu-Chen, 1993)

The Invincible Constable is, like, the fourth movie I’ve seen based on The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants, and it is absolutely nothing like the previous three, none of which is like any of the others. The novel follows Bao Zheng, historically a well respected official during the Northern Song Dynasty and subject of uncountable folk tales that detail his prodigious detective skills; The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants seems to spend more time on the heroic associates he keeps, if the movies are any indication.

I have not read or even sampled the novel, as translations span well over four hundred pages. The movies are definitely not the best way to experience the story, as they’re all wildly different. King Cat (Hsu Tseng-Hung, 1967), Shaw Brother “New Wuxia” take on the story, is a murder mystery with several characters that don’t appear in the other movies, but has many of the same events. Cat vs. Rat (Lau Kar Leung, 1982) is a kung fu farce with blistering choreography and terribly hammy comedic performances from Adam Cheng, Gordon Liu, and Alexander Fu Sheng courtesy of the Lau brothers. House of Traps (Chang Cheh, 1982), like much of Chang’s latter Shaw films, has the Venoms crew acting out a plot complicated enough to defy description.

The Invincible Constable, the second most recent film based on the story (I haven’t seen Gordon Chan’s 2003 Lunar New Year comedy, Cat and Mouse), is one of those b-rate Hong Kong wuxia movies featuring Cynthia Khan in a mitigated role and Yen Shi Kwan as a barely present villain. Anthony Wong gets prominent placement on the VCD cover, but not in the actual film, which is disappointing.
The movie starts with Bai Yutong (Lee Chi-Hei) infiltrating the imperial palace to more-or-less prank his rival, Zhan Zhou (Lam Wai) who received the imperial title of “Royal Cat” and acts as a bodyguard/gofer for Judge Bao. Angry at the disturbance, Zhan follows Bai, who calls himself the “Royal Rat,” back to his island hide-out, where he finds himself embroiled in intrigue involving Bai’s four brothers, their two friends, Yue Hua (Cynthia Khan) and her unnamed elder brother, and the villainous Sir Pang, who harbors a grudge with Judge Bao. The rest of the plot is impenetrable, but it involves arson, underdeveloped romantic entanglements between Zhan and Yue and Bai, and a treasured sword stolen by Bai in order to (again) prank Zhan. I didn’t follow how the plot involving Sir Pang (Yen Shi Kwan) related to the rest of the film, but much of the running time is taken with Zhan trying to track down Bai.
For all of the supposedly serious parts of the plot involving arson and intrigue and deadly feuding, there’s a lot of anachronistic dialogue. Characters “page” each other (paging services in Hong Kong were once a highly complicated ordeal, as can be seen in Wong Kar Wai’s Cheungking Express), and the characters occasionally reference contemporary technology. It’s occasionally funny.
The actual product wears the same low-budget look of other b-movies of the time and genre. Modest production values resemble those of The Thirteen Cold Blooded Eagles (Chui Fat, 1993) and Zen of Sword (Yu Man-Sang, 1992), which also star Cynthia Khan with Yen Shi Kwan playing a cantankerous, mostly absent villain. The Bai brothers in The Invincible Constable, for what it’s worth, include Alex Fong, and it’s always nice to see him.
It’s all so slight, though, which is the problem with all of the movies based on The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. I can only wonder if the actual novel is worth reading for its inherent quality or if it stays in print and widely read because of its status as proto-wuxia. The nice thing about The Invincible Constable is that it has some nice action scenes. Wire work was the prevalent style for action in such movies in 1993, and with a couple of exceptions, it looks pretty good here. The doubling is well concealed, although it seems like Lam Wai and Lee Chi-Hei actually have some athletic skill, and the abilities of Khan and Yen in this arena need no explication. The final fight on the beach actually looks pretty good.
Sadly, there’s not enough of that action. Cat vs. Rat at least had the good sense to bolster its lame comedy with wild fight sequences.