January 31, 2013
Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale
Fred Lincoln - 1979
Same Time, Every Year
F. J. Lincoln - 1981
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD
No, not THAT Lincoln, but the filmmaker and actor born Fred Perna, professionally known as Fred Lincoln, Fred J. Lincoln or F. J. Lincoln. There is, however, a guy with a stovepipe hat, in Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale.
What I learned from roughly forty years of my own film history studies is that every movie ever made is important. The importance of that film may change, or may not be apparent at the time the film was made, and might reveal itself in unexpected ways. What was once considered ephemera is in some cases now lost treasure. Back in 1960, who would have predicted that Roger Corman would get retrospectives from the British Film Institute or the Museum of Modern Art. For that matter, it was at MoMA that I saw my first Radley Metzger film, Camille 2000.
As for the harder stuff, I saw a few of the hard core films when they were relatively current, but I claim only a casual interest in the genre. My only reason for seeing Deep Throat was because I was invited to a special screening prior to that film's engagement in Portland, Oregon. I was associated with the Northwest Film Study Center at the time, and I guess someone thought that if the film was deemed obscene by local authorities, I could be of some help in arguing on its behalf. I did see The Devil and Miss Jones because critics went gaga over the ending, a reworking of Sartre's No Exit, where not only is Hell other people, but in this case, a guy who won't get it up for an insatiable nymphomaniac. I also checked out what Radley Metzger was doing under the name of Henry Paris, making harder core movies with greater professional polish.
As for these two films directed by Mr. Lincoln, there is an audience for these films, but it doesn't include me. These movies were made at a time when everyone had pubic hair, guys had chest hair, breast implants were optional, and no one worried about sexually transmitted diseases. The only rubber I noticed were the gloves Serena was wearing while washing dishes. These films were both shot on film, back in the days when people saw such work in real movie theaters, theaters that once showed mainstream theatrical films. The DVDs were made from prints that have scratches and minor glitches here and there, which as far as I'm concerned is great, as it helps create the grindhouse experience. As to why there is interest in thirty year old porn movies, I'm personally at a loss. It's not I'm against the graphic depiction of sex, as much as I get bored when that's all there is. But there is an enthusiastic audience for these films, and I'm not going to begrudge them their pleasure any more than I would accept a critical eye towards what appears to some others as my inexplicable love of Thai horror movies.
Serena is a parody of Cinderella. The titular star washes, irons, mops, and occasionally participates in three way sex until she gets unceremoniously dumped. Clearly, the actors were not cast based on their ability to read their lines. Whatever Fred Lincoln did as a director, his job did not extend to getting China Leigh's speaking voice to be other than a dull monotone, absent of any inflections. There is a moment when one of the girls offer the Prince a specially prepared cigar, and I had to wonder if that inveterate horndog, William Jefferson Clinton, had seen Serena and was inspired in his encounters with Monica Lewinsky.
The spoof title of Same Time, Every Year will be lost on all but the few people who recall the play and film, Same Time, Next Year. A trio of husbands claim to be going to a convention. The film focuses on the wives seeking pleasure with various men, or in one case, each other. Loni Sanders, first seen intimately with real life husband, Mike Ranger, is noteworthy for her expressive face. There is a dinner scene that may well have been inspired by Tony Richardson's Tom Jones featuring cream filled pastry and an actress known as Isolde with a banana. More often than not, during the extreme close ups of penetration, I kept wonder more about the contortions of the cameraman rather than the couples on screen, and the, to say the least, unusual positions of the camera.
January 29, 2013
Sleepy Eyes of Death - Collector's Set Volume 3
Sleepy Eyes of Death 9: A Trail of Traps/Nemuri Kyoshiro Burai-Hikae masho no hada
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1967
Sleepy Eyes of Death 10: Hell is a Woman/Nemuri Kyoshiro Onna jigoku
Tokuzo Tanaka - 1968
Sleepy Eyes of Death 11: In the Spider's Lair/Nemuri Kyoshiro Hito hada kumo
Kimiyoshi Yasuda - 1968
Sleepy Eyes of Death 12: Castle Menagerie/Nemuri Kyoshiro Akujo-gari
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1969
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD
The ninth episode in this series begins with a short review of the origins of Kyoshiro Nemuri. The son of a renegade Catholic priest and a Japanese woman, the result of a sexual devil worshipping rite, Kyoshiro is an outcast at birth. The sound of a crying baby awakens memories best forgotten. A Trail of Traps begins and continues as a Freudian nightmare.
Kyoshiro is hired to protect a small golden statue of the Virgin Mary. A seemingly simple setup is loaded, sexually and philosophically. While the character of Kyoshiro is in keeping with the general embrace of the anti-hero in movies in the Sixties, his nihilism may give some viewers pause. Trying to grab the statue for their own purposes is a devil worshipping gang, the Black Finger Group, led by a heretical Catholic priest. To put this film in some historical context, it takes place when there was active suppression of Christianity in Japan. As for Kyoshiro, there is disdain for all religion.
The depiction of Kyoshiro's birth serves as a kind of parody in a story where Catholic belief is twisted around. Certainly, the women who throw themselves at Kyoshiro are not saintly. Kyoshiro's price for acting as escort for the statue is to claim the virginity of a nobleman's daughter. What makes the Kyoshiro Nemuri interesting is that his stated nihilism and apparent sexual chauvinism mask his own idealism. This is also one of the sexier entries to the series, with generous glimpses of breasts and thighs of the several temptresses who get encounter Kyoshiro. But as the opening scene indicates, Kyoshiro has, as some might say, issues regarding women, beginning with his mother.
It should be mentioned that the director of Hell is a Woman, Tokuzo Tanaka, has a truly impressive resume from his time as an Assistant Director. Roshomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Lovers, and Conflagration. I assume there are more films, but this is what IMDb has listed. The last film is significant for elevating Raizo Ichikawa to award winning actor, prior to his starring as a samurai era action hero. But Tanaka seems to have incorporated some of the visual style of both Akira Kurosawa and Kenjii Mizoguchi in the big action scenes.
Reminiscent of the tracking shots in the woods in Throne of Blood, Hell is a Woman begins with a lone horseman attacking several men, with the action partially obscured by bare branches. More akin to Mizoguchi is the use of fog, in this case created by a bomb that destroys a small house in the woods, making it a challenge for the temporarily vision impaired Kyoshiro and his attackers. The final sword fight takes place during a progressively heavy snow storm.
The story might be considered as a variation of Yojimbo. Unlike the Kurosawa film where Toshiro Mifune switches sides, in Hell is a Woman, Kyoshiro does his best not to take anyone's side in a dispute between two rival retainers laying claim on a dying lord's fief. The recurring motif of partially seen action serves as a visual correlative to the characters with hidden motives, never who they first appear to be.
And just when you think things can't get any more perverse, there's In the Spider's Lair. Kyoshiro returns to the small village where he grew up. The remote area is now ruled by a brother and sister, a prince and princess, who love murder, torture and each other. The shogun was hoping exile might make this pair see the error of their ways, but the Shogun's Inspector decides the two are such an embarrassment that death is the order of the day, and Kyoshiro is the perfect guy for the deed. Kyoshiro wants nothing to do with this, but is dragged in when the young ward of a family friend is abducted to be a sex slave to the princess.
The princess also finds herself lusting for Kyoshiro's stud services almost as much as she lusts to kill him. Killing Kyoshiro becomes a point of sibling rivalry between the prince and princess. What gives the eleventh episode a bit of unintended gravity is the frequent talk of the imminence of death. At what point was Raizo Ichikawa aware that he would soon die of cancer? While Kyoshiro speaks of death in a matter of fact manner, I had to wonder what was going on in the mind of the actor who displayed a sense of detachment to thoughts of mortality.
I also had to wonder what would have happened if Raizo Ichikawa had lived, how many more movies there would have been about Kyoshiro Nemuri. In some respects the series was to often repeating story lines about hidden Christians, and sons of renegade European priests who seduced Japanese maidens. Castle Menagerie revolves around the mistress who controls the Shogun's harem, and the attempt to determine which woman will give birth a boy, the Shogun's heir. There is also someone impersonating Kyoshiro, killing men, raping women, and even worse, using Kyoshiro's patented Full Moon sword fighting technique.
The palace intrigue is goosed up a bit with a scene of lesbianism between two of the concubines. What really makes this episode stand out is a scene of ninja dressed in bird costumes and Noh masks. The bird ninjas first are seen leaping down from a wall in slow motion, and with a shot of them superimposed over a sleeping Kyoshiro, creates a dream like quality to the scene. The theatricality is heightened with the scene continuing in a virtually bare, black room, where the masks seem to be floating on their own. While Castle Menagerie was probably not intended to be the last film in the Kyoshiro Nemuri series, there is still a satisfying sense of closure with the final shot of Raizo Ichikawa, back turned to the camera, walking into the distance.
January 27, 2013
Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Feris - 2012)
Posted by peter at 08:41 AM
January 24, 2013
Gu Seyeon - 2011
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD
Hard Romanticker begins with the logo of the Japanese studio, Toei. Even without reading the supplemental booklet that comes with the DVD, I was associating this new film with the kind of work Toei was known for forty years ago. I was able to see a couple of yakuza movies, now considered genre classics, through a presentation Paul Schrader made at the Museum of Modern Art, coinciding with the imminent release of the film he co-wrote, The Yakuza. And while the supplemental notes stress a connection between Gu Suyeon's film, and the work of Kinji Fukasaku or Tai Kato, I contend that Hard Romanticker also has a connection with Toei concurrent series of films about juvenile delinquents. But to totally look at Hard Romanticker as a genre film, with the expectations that entails, is a mistake.
An interview at AsianWiki provides some explanation regarding the title, as well as the autobiographical elements. Having a main character with the same name as the filmmaker is cause for speculation. Gu Suyeon frequently employs distance as a means of minimizing the kind of emotional involvement one might have in a traditional genre film. This distance provides a kind of objective stance making the character of Gu, a small time yakuza thug, totally unheroic.
It may not be intentional, but Gu sets off a chain of events that not only exasperates existing gang rivalries, but also causes several gangs to be in pursuit of Gu. It doesn't help that Gu is suppose to be the member of one gang, while serving as a nightclub manager for another gangster, and sees no problem in that situation. While Gu seems to hide in plain sight from the young motorbike riding gang members, his grandmother has no problem finding him. Gu also allows himself to be deluded in his infatuation with a high school girl, encouraging her in her studies, until he discovers she is not the virgin he has imagined. Already an outsider in Japanese society as a Japanese of Korean descent, Gu becomes totally disconnected with what remains of his biological and social families.
While Hard Romanticker is a film about the yakuza, it is not a "yakuza movie" in the way that violence is portrayed. Unlike those films that may depict violent situations as emotionally involving or cathartic, the violence seen here is often simply brutal. Frequently, Gu Suyeon chooses not to show the violence but the after effects, such as the close up of a young woman's face after being beaten by one young gangster, or Mieko, Gu's would-be girl friend, with her clothes torn, and body bruised following rape by Gu. The guys fare marginally better with two of Gu's rivals, also with peroxide blond hair, seen with a bandaged eye and bandaged nose respectively.
Gu Suyeon's visual style is usually of action taking place within an immobile camera frame, usually long or medium shots. One of the few times the film employs more traditional filmmaking technique is in a somewhat comic scene of Gu, revealed to interrupted while receiving a blow job, forced into a rooftop chase by a pursuing gang, wearing nothing but his underpants. For most of the film, as in the life of the characters, life is hard, and hardly romantic.
Posted by peter at 08:22 AM
January 22, 2013
Tai Chi Zero
Stephen Fung - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
I assume that most readers here have at least heard of this film. The concise description making the rounds is a mix of martial arts and steampunk. Even as the film has the unusual blend of a couple of genres, Tai Chi Zero has also been one of the more divisive movies, with critics loving or loathing this film. And I will admit there are some things that I did not like here, but there was more that finally won me over.
I guess someone thought it would be amusing to have superimposed titles for everything, and I mean every building, cave, and even a side door. Even more annoying were the titles that introduced much of the cast: "Look! It's Shu Qi". I mean, it's cool that director Andrew Lau took time for a cameo role as the father of the hero, but it got to a point where it seemed like this who's who in the cast was getting in the way of an actual movie. There are also animated diagrams of the various martial arts moves, as well as bits of narrative that are animated. The effect might be described as Chinese filmmakers creating a Chinese genre movie through the filter of Quentin Tarantino's hommages to classic films.
Even one of the basic plot elements is one of the most overused in westerns, about the railroad coming to town. The town is a small, remote, mountain village. The guy bringing in the railroad is a son of the village, now western educated, and introducing people to electricity and recorded music. And the railroad is not just coming to town, but it's coming in the form of a giant steam engine contraption that not only lays tracks, but also has the ability to tear down buildings as a powerful steam shovel. One of the more interesting aspects to Tai Chi Zero is not simply the inclusion of the train, and a large, steam propelled automobile, but that the machines are inspired by designs by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The Tai Chi comes in the main narrative of a young man, Lu Chan, with a strange protuberance on his forehead, one that enables him to be quite powerful with his kung-fu, but not without deadly consequences. One blow to the head too many, and Lu Chan is encouraged to go the the mountain town of Chen to learn something called internal kung fu. As an outsider, Lu Chan fights several people including the martial arts master's daughter, a little girl, and a guy holding a block of tofu, in order to prove himself worthy. The real kung fu master here is action choreographer Sammo Hung.
The real tension belongs to the conflict between unbending Chinese tradition and the unthinking cultural and political imperialism of the west. While no country is identified, the film's villains are the western educated young man, dressed with a top hat and western clothing while still sporting the Manchu hair queue, and a Eurasian woman, first seen in a military style uniform. The pair are supported by caucasian soldiers, with the endorsement of a Chinese governor.
As much as Tai Chi Zero may be sold as a martial arts fantasy, the film can also be understood as also being about the tensions of contemporary China, holding on to defining traditions, get also getting increasingly westernized. It's also a film primarily made for a younger, more western style Chinese audience that would rather listen to hip hop in any language, rather than the stylings of, say, Teresa Teng. And yeah, there's a sequel, clips of which can be seen during the final credits. I want to see that Da Vinci inspired flying machine.
Posted by peter at 07:37 AM
January 20, 2013
Bernice Liu in King of Triads (Dennis Law - 2010)
Posted by peter at 08:54 AM
January 17, 2013
Nagisa Oshima: 1932 - 2012
French poster for Boy
All I have to rely on is my memory, which isn't always reliable. But my earliest awareness of Nagisa Oshima was probably from one of the British film magazines I use to read in the late Sixties, early Seventies. It may have been a still from Boy, or maybe an article on Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. What little knowledge I had of Japanese cinema was from reading Donald Richie, and seeing a few films by Akira Kurosawa.
What happened next was that the New Yorker Theater had what was probably the first retrospective of Nagisa Oshima's films. I can't pinpoint the date, other than that it was sometime in 1971 or 1972, because the most recent film was The Ceremony. Aside from that film, I also have hazy recollections of Boy, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Death by Hanging and The Man who left his Will on Film. I could well have seen some other films, but it never occurred to me that I'd be writing about films I've seen, forty years later.
Poster for Diary of a Shinjuku Thief
In retrospect, I was a relatively ignorant viewer, not knowing much, if anything, about the various cultural and political issues being addressed by Oshima. But I was dazzled by his challenges to conventional film narrative, and thought of Oshima as the Japanese equivalent to Jean-Luc Godard.
I did find it curious to discover that Oshima interviewed Akira Kurosawa in 1993. In Joan Mellen's interview with Oshima, the younger filmmaker expressed is disdain for the man who personified Japanese cinema for many western cinephiles, making a pointed remark about Kurosawa's most recent film at that time, Dodes'kaden. But this change of heart is not entirely surprising as age has a way of making us feel more sympathetic towards our elders. One can only wonder what films we might have had seen, had Oshima had the same kind of health, or perhaps simple tenacity, that kept Kurosawa active at a time when the younger man could only make one more film.
I would hope that the rest of Oshima's films become available on subtitled DVDs. Most articles on his death refer to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and In the Realm of the Senses, his best known films, to be sure, but not necessarily the best films. What has stuck with me over forty years are the story of a the title character of Boy, faking getting hit by cars as a way of supporting his family, and the marriage scene in The Ceremony, where a family's commitment to formalities means that nothing gets in the way of a wedding, not even the absence of the bride.
Posted by peter at 08:07 AM
January 15, 2013
I am Bruce Lee
Pete McCormack - 2011
Shout! Factory Region A BD
This was the first time that I was aware that Bruce Lee had some German relatives. It's an aspect of Lee's life that is explored to some extent in this documentary, and something that seems to have served as something of a theme in Lee's life. It is this Eurasian heritage that caused Lee to be something of a perpetual outsider no matter where he was, as well as the person who fused Asian and western martial arts, as well as being a globally idolized movie star for a very brief period.
That German heritage dogged Lee as being ineligible to be a martial arts student in Hong Kong, as he was not "pure" Chinese. Lee was also attacked by the Chinese community in San Francisco for teaching Chinese martial arts to caucasians. It is also this mixed heritage that probably plays a part in Lee thinking of himself as a global citizen.
The film that we have here, though, is produced in part by Spike TV so the emphasis here is on Lee's evolution as a martial artist. A lot of talking heads, including daughter Shannon Lee, who is one of the credited producers, wife Linda Lee Cadwell, a few former associates, and celebrity fans like Mickey Rourke and Kobe Bryant. Way too much time spent on the paternity of Mixed Martial Arts. Way too much time on Mixed Martial Arts fighters. The evolution of Lee's martial arts, from classical Wing Chun to Lee's hybrid dubbed Jeet Kune Do, is of interest. Whether Jeet Kune Do inspired caged matches in Las Vegas seems a bit beyond the point.
Another one of those talking heads is Gina Carano. Yeah, she's attractive, and she can probably kick my ass with minimum sweat. But what I would have like to have seen would be a few minutes of Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong child movie star. And for that matter, what was the artistic influence of father Lee Hoi-chuen, an actor with a considerable filmography of his own? Martial arts may have been what Bruce Lee may have used to define himself, but Lee is remembered primarily by his movies.
As long as it wasn't couched heavily in academia, I would have liked to have seen a film using Paul Bowman's book, Theorizing Bruce Lee as a starting point. Bowman, does offer a little bit of cultural heft to I am Bruce Lee. It is Bowman who discusses some of the cultural influences on Lee's life, as well as the political aspects to Lee's first two starring Hong Kong films in regards to the British and Japanese characters. For myself, Bruce Lee's legacy is primarily cinematic, one that first opened the doors to the world for martial arts movies from Hong Kong, which in turn paved the way for a younger generation of western educated filmmakers, including some with greater artistic aspirations. Without Bruce Lee, it is doubtful that there would be world wide interest in Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar-wai, or that Wong would be making a movie about Lee's teacher in Wing Chun, Ip Man.
January 13, 2013
Jean Gillie and Sheldon Leonard in Decoy (Jack Bernhard - 1946)
Posted by peter at 08:49 AM
January 10, 2013
Dome Karukoski - 2010
Artsploitation Film Region 1 DVD
There's a shot in Lapland Odyssey that perfectly encapsulates the relationship the main character, Janne, has with money. Bluffing his way into breaking the frozen ice on behalf of a female underwater rugby team, Janne is thrown into a swimming pool by one of the young women. His payment of a Fifty Euro bill escapes from his clothing. Janne is underwater, desperately trying to grasp the bill, as out of reach as a slippery fish. For Janne, money seems to come and go, but is never held onto for very long, especially when it really needed.
The first few minutes are an introduction to Lapland, a part of Finland with bitter cold winters, and high unemployment. The history of Janne's small town is one of men who's dreams of success end in the worse kind of failure, followed by suicide by hanging one's self from an infamous dead tree. Not only is Janne unemployed, but he can't even fulfill the single task of his day, assigned by his wife, Inari, which is to buy a digibox by 5 p.m.
His nine year relationship with Inari now is pending on his ability to go out on a freezing Friday night and somehow return with a digibox by Saturday morning. The odyssey is the road trip Janne takes with his two best friends, where even when something goes right, the trio find a way to screw things up, as the old joke goes, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The 125 mile trip in zero degree weather is one of desperate measures, and the rug pulled out from under Janne mostly by his own foolishness. I was frequently reminded of Nicolas Cage's character in Raising Arizona and his pursuit of Huggies diapers. Lapland Odyssey has something of the vibe of an early Coen brothers film, with its men too easily dismissed as losers, and its streak of pitch black comedy where death takes a pratfall. Nothing shows self-delusion quite like the scene where Janne stands at an empty city streetlight during a very early morning hour, with a bucket and squeegee in hand, with the certainty that he can make a couple of Euros wiping the window of the next car to stop at the otherwise idle intersection.
There might be something in the reindeer meat, as one of Lapland Odyssey's competitors for the Jussi award, the Finnish equivalent to the Oscars, was Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Both films are diabolically funny, sometimes quite irreverent. As it turned out, the movie with the naked Russian with the paintball gun won over the movie with roundup of old, naked Santas, with Lapland Oddysey winning for Best Film, Direction and Screenplay for writer Pekko Pesonen.
Posted by peter at 07:03 AM
January 08, 2013
Tong que tai
Zhao Linshan - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
There is something charmingly old fashioned about how transitions from the two centers of action are handled in The Assassins. A map is shown with with a some basic drawings and titles to indicate General Cao's estate. The camera pulls back, travels a bit, and closes in on the castle of the emperor. It's a hokey device straight out of classic Hollywood.
The marquee name here belongs to Chow Yun-Fat as the aforementioned General Cao. If that name has any familiarity, Cao is one of the main true life characters from China's Three Kingdoms period, around 200 A.D. Films about that period comprise a genre of their own as far as Chinese language cinema is concerned, almost the equivalent to the multiple accounts on Hollywood films about Wyatt Earp, Jesse James or Billy the Kid. Seeing a film like this brings to mind how Andrew Sarris discussed how while films like Statecoach or The Searchers were considered classic westerns, they were appreciated best by those who loved the genre. Likewise, in these Chinese period movies, John Woo's Red Cliff is arguably the best of this particular genre, yet in the films that have followed, the better films have more than sumptuous costumes and spectacular battle sequences against a backdrop of palace intrigue.
This movie really belongs to Liu Yifei, a young actress who is the true center of the action. As Ling Ju, Liu plays a girl kidnapped and placed in grueling conditions to be trained as an assassin. Her target is General Cao. Ling Ju is positioned by unknown people in power to be Cao's mistress. The film becomes a story of impossible love as Ling Ju finds herself with conflicting feelings about Cao, and her longtime love for Mu Shun, her childhood friend, kidnapped as she was, also trained to kill Cao, but now living as a court eunuch. Things turn out badly for everyone, especially for those with the most noble of intentions.
The scene where Ling Ju first encounters Cao is almost magical, with Ling Ju standing in front of the palace, with snow swirling around her. In both this scene and near the end, Ling Ju is dressed in red, the only character to dress in such a visually striking manner. And really, there is little reason to look anywhere else when Liu is onscreen. And while it's not not the same as when Kirk Douglas carries Lana Turner in his arms, and dumps her in the pool, but there's a visually similar moment with Chow carrying Liu, only to unceremoniously dump her on the bed.
One might argue that The Assassins is almost like a show biz saga, where everyone has a part to play. Not only are the two assassins disguised as members of the royal court, but others disguise their true feelings and functions. Even the emperor would rather spend his time in song. The analogy presented here is displayed best by a scene in which the emperor is seen singing behind a screen, as a large, projected shadow. Masks are used in a couple of scenes, most notable during the final battle worn by the emperor and soldiers.
The title translates as "Bronze Sparrow Terrace", a tall building constructed by Cao as a way of displaying his power. While Zhao Linshan may have overdone the use overhead shots in the beginning of the film, the assured visuals in his feature debut come from ten years of making commercials. Relying less on gimmicks and wire work, the screenplay is by Wang Bin, a solo credit following his hand writing two films for Zhang Yimou - Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
Posted by peter at 07:25 AM
January 06, 2013
Edmond O'Brien and Viveca Lindfors in Backfire (Vincent Sherman - 1950)
Posted by peter at 08:22 AM
January 03, 2013
Long Arm of the Law
Sheng gang qi bing
Johnny Mak - 1984
Fortune Star All Region DVD
In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards presented a list of the 100 best Chinese films. Long Arm of the Law came in at sixth place, above King Hu's Dragon Inn, and below A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Johnny Mak's film also was recently included in a series of Hong Kong noir films curated last year by Johnny To in Hong Kong. At the time the film was originally released, it was nominated for seven Hong Kong film awards, including Best Picture, winning awards for editing and the supporting performance of Shum Wai.
The kind of crime film that's recalled here is closer to some of the American crime films of the Forties, influenced by Italian neo-realism and the greater immediacy of bringing cameras out of the studios and into the streets. Some of the footage of this gang of mainland crooks trying to hit the big time in a Hong Kong heist looks more like a documentary than something staged for a narrative film. The idea of the camera as a tool for documentation is echoed by shots of surveillance cameras and monitor screens. In one of the flashier scenes, someone is seen with a small Super 8 camera, filming a murder taking place in a shopping mall.
The film takes place at the time when mainland Chinese, legally or not, would go to Hong Kong to make the kind of money impossible to earn at home. The quintet here is a team of former soldiers, led by Tung, who has established himself in a derelict section of Kowloon. The amount of money anticipated is relatively modest after the five way split, but enough for support the kind of life the four mainlanders have known. Things go wrong from the start when one of the gang is killed trying to cross the border.
One of the gang members reflects on his girlfriend, now a nightclub hostess, with scenes that present village life in China as idyllic. Indeed, the four mainlanders find themselves overwhelmed by a Hong Kong that offers so many possibilities, and requires constant negotiation, especially as the planned heist can not be carried out, and they are immediately spotted by the police. Making things more treacherous is that the local crime boss they work with is himself caught between the mainland gang and the police as a known informer.
When the mainland gang does a hit in order to get some immediate cash, Mak creates an audacious scene. The policeman known as Fatso is shot on a mall balcony, overlooking an ice skating rink below. Fatso's fall is broken up into several shots. Once he falls on the ice, populated with skaters, the camera follows Fatso as he slides around the ice rink. An overhead shot reveals a design of red stripes made from his blood.
Another scene may have influenced John Woo just a couple of years later. Tung and three gang members argue about another gang member who needs to go to a hospital for a life saving operation. The argument escalates into a four way "Mexican standoff" as each of the four holds a gun against the head of another.
There are several notable action set pieces, made at a time when scant attention was paid to Hong Kong cinema. What one is left with, though, is a parable about the illusion of money buying happiness. As the mainlanders learn, everything comes with a price, and usually that price is more than imagined. Even worse, when the surviving gang members are trapped with no where to go, they are given away by one very real rat.
January 01, 2013
Kenji Misumi - 1961
One of the funniest reviews of a film is Dwight MacDonald's lacerating look at The Greatest Story Every Told. While anybody could get a couple of laughs from mentioning the stunt casting of Shelley Winters and John Wayne in cameo appearances, there was also the more serious question about how one portrays Jesus on film, as well as presenting the concept Christianity in a way that is both theologically sound as well as good cinema. Watching Buddha made me think of MacDonald, as well as Paul Schrader's essays on religion in film.
Buddha is probably most famous for being the first Japanese movie produced in a 70 mm process, in this case Technirama, which meant taking enlarging film shot in 35mm. Clearly taking cues from Hollywood, this is a big religious epic that wrongheadedly mimics what makes films like The Ten Commandments so questionable regarding matters of faith while being so entertaining in their sincere silliness. On the downside, it may have been the size of this project that kept Kenji Misumi from being able to employ his usual style as seen in the Zatoichi series. That the DVD appears to be taken from a video tape, from the English dubbed version using B movie voices, adds to the fun.
If one was unfamiliar with Buddhism, one might think from this film that Buddha was the Jesus of India. While the film loosely relays the familiar story of young Siddhartha discovering the sufferings of life, and meditating for several years in the woods, the characters keep on mentioning the Buddha as the savior of the world. The film gets it right in the short hand explanation of Buddhism regarding the equality of all people, regardless of class or gender. Still, the way the story is told is pure Cecil B. DeMille.
Much of the film is devoted to the rivalry between Siddhartha and Devadatta, that is to say that Devadatta is always in competition in matters of love and faith. Both men are princes, but Devadatta gets confused with the Prince of Darkness, carrying a trident, and generally stirring up shit wherever he goes. While Siddhartha is off meditating, Devadatta rapes his wife, before initiating a campaign to discredit Buddhism. The most obvious nod to De Mille is seen in the very large temple Devadatta constructs using accident prone slave labor. One of the more zany scenes of Siddhartha involves the attempt by a gang of ghostly maidens dressed in diaphanous saris to seduce the not yet enlightened Buddha, followed by a gang of Daiei studio's lesser monsters hoping to chase Siddhartha from the forest. Once Siddhartha is enlightened, we no longer actually see actor Kojiro Hongo, but instead the shadow of a man, or the Buddha from an extreme distance. I'm not sure whether this is out of respect to certain Buddhist sects that disapprove of any art work depicting Buddha, or if it's simply the influence of a film like Ben-Hur, where Jesus is heard but not clearly seen.
Some may find it odd to watch Japanese actors, dubbed in English, as Indians. The experience might be considered analogous to watching Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie running around as Persian royalty. While the cast is not overly star heavy, we have Raizo Ichikawa, Machiko Kyo, along with future Zatoichi star, Shintaro Katsu as Devadatta. There is a passage that reads, "The voice does the Buddha's work". For this English language version of a Japanese movie, the recognizable voice of Buddha belongs to Peter Fernandez.
Posted by peter at 08:57 AM