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August 29, 2013

Schoolgirl Report Volume 10: Every Girl Starts Sometime

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Schulmadchen-Report 10. Teil - Irgendwann fangt jede an / Sexy Schoolwork / Smartie Pants
Walter Boos - 1976
Impulse Pictures All Regions DVD

In the truth is stranger than fiction department was recent news about a Chinese man who convinced a woman that her vagina was haunted. Of course this man had the tool to get rid of those ghosts. In the one vignette that is dumb but sort of funny, a couple take their cues from The Exorcist. Sefie just can't find a way to be alone with her boyfriend. He comes up with the idea that she pretend to be possessed. He poses as the friendly, visiting exorcist. Alexandra Bogojevic gives it her all, contorting her face, flashing her panties and breasts, among other body parts. Miss Bogojevic was game enough to previously appear in Salon Kitty and the humorously titled, Has Anybody Seen My Pants?. Not surprisingly, she actually had a substantial acting career with a different name. If anyone involved in the making of this film had read about that Chinese guy, they could well be thinking that nothing in the Schoolgirl series was ever that ridiculous.

The various stories are held together by a classroom discussion about "legislation and morals". And while I know that the whole point of this enterprise is to make money by showing young women in various states of undress, with a pious pronouncement at the end of encouraging said women to make their mark in the future, the setup begs for a different movie. We have a group of baby boomers, the first generation of German born after World War II, and they aren't talking about what really should have been on the table if you are going to talk about the thornier questions regarding legislation and morality.

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I looked at the older actors and wondered how many of them were Nazis, and how many would admit their support of Hitler. One character, the father of one of the students, describes his bad leg as "a gift from Adolf", so it's not like the subject is entirely avoided. I guess the film I'm looking for is the Schoolgirl Report by R. W. Fassbinder or Michael Verhoeven.

It is telling that three of the stories are about the schoolgirls involved with men old enough to be their fathers. Not that I'm going to begrudge any guy who's able to score with a young hottie, but middle aged guys were probably the target audience for these movies, and they weren't looking to be reminded of what they were doing thirty or so years ago.

OK, I'll back off. Anyways, while the goof on The Exorcist will elicit a few chuckles, some might gasp in horror at the sight of a young woman with unshaven underarms. I can imagine a bunch of guys getting together with at least one six-pack for each of them, watching this film, and commenting on the grooming of these girls. One scene invites this kind of discussion as one of the girls, shall we say, picks at her carpet as a prelude to a personal moment of ecstasy.

Anyways, enjoy the specially chosen screencaps. You're welcome.

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Posted by peter at 06:19 AM

August 27, 2013

A Company Man

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Hoi-sa-wan
Lim Sang-yun - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I'm not giving anything away here in describing the basic plot. A contract killer begins to have second thoughts about his choice of work. Unfortunately for him, the company he works for does not have any plans to let him quit, or leave the company alive. What is interesting about the way Lim Sang-yun tells what is essentially a familiar story is how the ordinary is emphasized. The characters all describe what they do as "just work". There are bravura moments in the shoot outs that bookend A Company Man, but otherwise there is nothing that appears glamorous in the locations or in how characters dress.

There is a familiarity to seeing men and women in blue suits, required to have badges that are electronically scanned for entrance to the workplace. The company, one that specializes in metal fabrications, might be a front, but as one cop puts it, it is an ordinary company, at least in appearance. For all anyone can tell, the business here could be insurance. There is the hidden entrance leading to a labyrinthian path to a darker office, where you are met by own older woman, tending to her knitting when she's not cleaning recently used guns. As for the front company, even the receptionist is packing heat.

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Unlike some of the recent Korean films that show off the glitzier side of Seoul, the street view here is of run down buildings, small shops and restaurants, people just getting by. The hitman, Hyung-do, walks by a street covered many times over with old, torn posters. A twenty year old poster is spotted of a former teen idol, now a single mother with two children in her late teens. There are personal implications to this scene, but in the larger view, that contrary to surface appearances, all life and work is transitory.

Lim's ability to portray a recognizable mundane environment helps make the action scenes stand out. This makes the final shoot out, in the office, more extraordinary. Even with the knowledge that he knows all will be trying to kill him, Hyung-do shows up, confronting his co-workers. One arm hidden behind their respective backs, and an exchange of courteous words, does not hide that these formally dressed office workers all have guns, and are ready to kill Hyung-do. Beyond the bullets, knives and other implements to maim and murder, is a critique of an almost universal culture that places loyalty to the work place above anything else.

The former teen idol seen in the poster, Mi-yeon, is a pivotal character in the story. At a couple of points, songs performed by her character are on the soundtrack. It would have been better had, the songs also been subtitled as they would have presumably added a commentary to the action. Yes, I know that translations of songs aren't easy, between choosing the best words, or keeping lyrics that rhyme. Maybe I'm the only one of the non-Korean speaking viewers who feels like he's missing something here. Untranslated song lyrics aside, this is a fairly solid debut from writer-director Lim.

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Posted by peter at 08:13 AM

August 25, 2013

Coffee Break

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Jeon Mi-seon and Han Suk-kyu in Christmas in August (Hur Jin-ho - 1998)

Posted by peter at 07:42 AM

August 22, 2013

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! The Sensational Films of Shintoho

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Yellow Line (Teruo Ishii - 1960)

Mark Schilling - 2010
Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche

Like Mark Schilling's book on the Japanese studio Nikkatsu in the mid-Fifties to early Sixties, this book on Shintoho covers most of the same time period. Both books were originally issued to accompany retrospectives curated by Schilling for the Udine Far East Film Festival. There may not be a direct connection, but a few years after the Nikkatsu book was made available to the general public in 2007, Criterion began issuing sets of Nikkatsu films from that era on DVD. Will someone do the same for Shintoho? One can only hope. In the meantime, we have the first English language book providing an overview for this short lived company, and the scattershot availability of a few subtitled DVDs mostly available through, shall we say, specialized sources.

While Shintoho, an offspring of the well established Toho, began producing films in 1947, Schilling covers the years from 1955 through 1961, when Mitsugu Okura took over as production head. Instead of pricier films by filmmakers, major names like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Ichikawa and Kurosawa, Okura chose to make cheaper films by younger directors. These new directors were often the former Assistant Directors to these "Golden Era" filmmakers. There was also an emphasis on attracting a younger audience, interested in a more visceral kind of entertainment. While Schilling compares Okura to Roger Corman, I think Okura has more in common with the founders of American International Pictures, Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson, especially in the way that studio specific genres were created to appeal to the growing youth market.

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Sexy Line (Teruo Ishii - 1961)

The book is divided by chapters, with a studio history, and a look at several of the top directors, actors and actresses. Best are the interviews with several Shintoho veterans, all in their seventies or eighties. There is a poignancy to Michiko Maeda's story. The first of Shintoho's stars to be sold on her sex appeal, Maeda's stardom was based in part on wearing skimpy outfits. After being persuaded to take a different kind of role, in a period costume drama, Maeda's career was cut short based on her alleged refusal to hike up her skirt inappropriately for that kind of film. Maeda may well have set the example for other Shintoho stars to not challenge Okura or those who acted on his behalf. Others interviewed include actor Jerry Fujio, director Yoshiki Onoda, and assistant directors Eizo Yamagiwa and Akira Aono.

Schilling also puts to rest the myth that Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku was both Shintoho's last film or that it was directly a cause of the studio's bankruptcy. The studio was said to almost always be on financially shaky ground. Being smaller than the other studios, the closure of Shintoho was also due to the combination of television becoming more available nationwide, along with a declining audience, the same factors that ended production at the classier Daiei Film Company ten years later. As for Jigoku, the production cost was in keeping with other Shintoho films, with Nakagawa knowing how to make the most with a limited budget.

Being originally intended for the Udine Far East Film Festival, the book is in English in the front half, with Italian text in the second half. It is the front half that also has film stills, posters and photos of several of the Shintoho veterans. At this time, Nudes! Gun! Ghosts is newly available online from the Italian company Libro Co. Thanks to festival director, Sabrina Baracetti, I've been able to get a couple of previously issued books on Ann Hui and Asian musicals. I hope that especially for those who can not make the voyage to Italy, that more festival books will be issued. Those whose taste in Japanese cinema leans towards the more classical films might still be dismissive of the the films covered here. For myself, I can't get enough Ghost Cats!

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Black Cat Mansion (Nobuo Nakagawa - 1958)

Posted by peter at 07:01 AM

August 20, 2013

Floating City

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Fu cheng
Yim Ho - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

At the very least, I would recommend Floating City as a reminder that there is more to Chinese language cinema than genre films. Well Go USA also deserves kudos for providing a US release. For a good number of viewers, the film will also serve as something of a history lesson about the last decades of Hong Kong as a British colony. That the film also is from the point of view of a Chinese man growing up in those years also serves as a counter-balance to such films viewing Hong Kong from western eyes such as Love is a Many Splendored Thing or The World of Suzie Wong.

Yim's story is taken from from those who lived during that era, a fictionalized account of race, class and national identity. Chun, as a baby, is sold by his mother, who has lost everything else sailing alone to Hong Kong. Adopted by a fishing family, Chun lives on a small boat. The docking area is packed with other small boats owned by other fishing families. They are considered a marginalized class in Hong Kong, with only a few leaving the boats to work and live on land. After a failed attempt to learn how to read in a church school, the illiterate Chun bluffs his way into being an errand boy for a large British firm. Chun eventually rises within the company, gaining a formal education, finally becoming the Chinese face of the company following the handover of Hong Kong.

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The film begins and ends on water. Chun shares with his adoptive mother how to write the ideogram for sea. Water serves as the source of life and the cause of death for people whose livelihood depends on catching fish. Historically, Hong Kong developed its importance when international trade was done by sea. Chun's family is Christian, and there is also a scene of baptism.

Racism comes from both sides as the half-Caucasian Chun is called "Mixed" by some of the members of his own family, and "Half Breed" by a British boss. Aaron Kwok's hair is given a reddish tint in the lead role. Even as he rises within company ranks, including invitation to an exclusive British club, Chun feels like he's an outsider. Sometimes his outsider status is forced on him as when he learns that he is considered an alien, even when in possession of a British passport.

One of the best scenes, though, is of Chun's wife, Tai, also a former boat person. Invited to a Christmas party, Tai hides her deafness by removing her hearing aid. Escorted by the socially adept Fion, Tai awkwardly smiles as the other wives compare Chun with their husbands. When a maid comes in with tea, it is Tai who takes the pot and serves the other wives, revealing that even with even with the outward appearance of upward mobility, there is an ingrained sense of social inferiority.

The scene is also one that makes me wish that there was more of Charlie Young as Tai. As the British boss who both helps and hinders Chun's entry into the world of business, David Peatfield comes off as thuggish, and the comments about his character's name, Dick, are equally unsubtle. There are also times when Chun's ascent is too elliptical, in need of some explanation. There is also the wonderful scene showing Chun and his British business mentor in a car accident, revealing all there needs to know about how class and race worked in colonial Hong Kong. Yim also includes documentary footage from the various points in the story, the best of which show the various tensions between the British and Chinese.

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Posted by peter at 07:38 AM

August 18, 2013

Coffee Break

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Emily Mortimer in Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie - 2007)

Posted by peter at 08:32 AM

August 15, 2013

Samurai Pirate

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Dai tozoku / The Great Bandit / The Lost World of Sinbad
Senkichi Taniguchi - 1963

I confess - the English language title grabbed me. It's a great title full of promise of action and sword fighting. The movie isn't quite what I imagined, but it's still pretty good. Mifune is neither a samurai nor a pirate, as much as he is an adventurer. Accused of piracy, Sukeza, escapes execution and decides that, OK, he'll be a pirate. He's got a ship and a crew, but not much luck. A storm destroys his ship, and drowns most of the crew. The scourge of the Pacific, The Black Pirate sails by and snatches the treasure chest Sukeza vainly attempts to hold onto. Washed ashore, Sukeza finds himself in a strange country entangled with intrigue at the palace, and catches the attention of the beautiful princess.

As it turns out, Samurai Pirate doesn't resemble either samurai movie or a pirate movie. Between the plot, and the costumes, this is the Toho Studios attempt to make something like an Arabian Nights fantasy, the kind of film that was a staple of Universal Pictures in the Forties and Fifties. Aside from taking place in some kind of mythical pan-Asian country, there is the rivalry between a good wizard and a bad witch. The good wizard isn't entirely pure hearted, easily distracted as he is by a woman's well rounded breasts. The bad witch, known as Granny, is hardly someone you'd want for an elderly relative, with her concoctions of poisons, and ability to stare at people, turning them into stone. There's also the court advisor who schemes to take over the throne, and dozens of attractive young women kidnapped to become dancing slaves.

Director Senkichi Taniguchi is not a filmmaker with the kind of reputation of Toho best buds Akira Kurosawa or Ishiro Honda. Maybe turning down the chance to direct the original Godzilla wasn't a great career movie. What seemed funny at the time, was the recutting and dubbing of a spy film by Woody Allen, transformed to the better known What's Up, Tiger Lily?. From what little I've been able to read, Taniguchi's original Key of Keys is pretty entertaining on its own, but any subtitled viewing is unavailable at this time. Even the website Toho Kingdom doesn't give Taniguchi the kind of love it has for, say, Jun Fukuda.

1963 was a typical year for Toshiro Mifune, with four films released, most famously Kurosawa's High and Low. Frequent Kurosawa co-star Takashi Shimura is also in Samurai Pirate, barely seen in the last few minutes as the king slowly dying of poison. It's worth mentioning that Shimura and Mifune were together in Snow Trail, Taniguchi's film from 1947 that established Mifune as a star in Japan. Samurai Pirate is also notable for the first teaming of future Bond girls Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi. Hama plays the most appropriately named Princess Yaya. It is Kumi Mizuno who almost steals the movie from Mifune and company as Miwa, the female rebel leader, willing to take up the sword to fight with Sukuza.

Other than that it was retitled and dubbed into English, I don't know much about the American release version. I'm assuming some of the bawdier bits involving the breast fixated wizard were trimmed. Judging from the subtitles, the dialogue was not quite so earthy. I'm pretty certain that fifty years ago, when Mifune takes off on a giant kite to invade a castle, the youth of America didn't hear one of the characters express concern if our hero took a leak before taking flight.

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Posted by peter at 08:34 AM

August 13, 2013

Wither

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Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wicklund - 2012
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD

Is it acceptable to punch a woman in the face? Does it matter how hard? I guess the rules of etiquette and general good manners are immediately dropped when the woman in question is a ravenous zombie. And maybe the guys who made Wither aren't necessarily misogynists, but it seems to me that the women in this film get the worst of it - decapitation, a large screw through the head, brains bashed in with a rock, or the indignity of getting slammed in the kisser with a shovel and getting buried alive.

Maybe I'm just disappointed that a movie that features four reasonable attractive young Swedish babes is totally lacking in nudity, gratuitous or otherwise. There is blood and guts. Lots of blood and guts. Actually, I was kind of glad when the girl with the lip ring had her upper lip bitten off. Not that it improved her looks, but I Just don't find lip rings all that attractive. I found that lip ring to be almost as annoying as that New York Yankees baseball hat worn by one of the guys, neither forward nor backwards, but at a tilt to the side. These are kids who are nowhere near as hip as they think they are. Turning into flesh eating zombies who kill each other was the best thing that could happen to these young men and women, although I did feel some affection for the tall blonde.

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I'm not a fan of these "cabin in the woods" movies, and that includes Cabin in the Woods, although I can appreciate the Lovecraftian spin attempted there. For myself, there's Evil Dead II, and then there's everything else. I just can't suspend disbelief in a genre that is predicated on people being stupid. That includes having a weekend party at an abandoned house in a remote woods, or going into the basement alone in said house. The main couple of this film, when faced with the choice of running for their lives on a dark, rainy night, through the woods, or staying dry inside the house with their friend who is planning to make at least one of them his midnight snack, choose to stay indoors.

Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wicklund have gone on record to proclaim their love for Sam Raimi's first Evil Dead. There's a visual tribute to Raimi in the form of shots of gun blasts through the head or other body parts, the camera peering through those gaping holes. Laguna and Wicklund should be credited for not making the story unnecessarily elaborate or self-referential. Wither is the kind of film best appreciated by genre fans, and I have no problem with that. I'm just a guy who likes having different kinds of films thrown my way, keep tabs on different kinds of films and filmmakers. One of the seemingly ingrained cliches of the genre is reversed - the characters are in cell phone range. Having a working cell phone doesn't seem to improve anyone's chances for survival as the undead are a persistent lot, and it's hard to resist being a zombie's happy meal when those voracious creatures used to be your best friends.

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Posted by peter at 06:21 AM

August 11, 2013

Coffee Break

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Christopher Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino - 2012)

Posted by peter at 10:02 AM

August 08, 2013

The Grandmaster

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Yi dai zong shi
Wong Kar-wai - 2013
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

It wasn't so much that I was impatient to see Wong Kar-wai's newest film, as much I only want to see the most complete versions of his films. That The Grandmaster has been shortened for a North American audience is indicative of a misunderstanding regarding both the film, and the audience that appreciates Wong's work. Sure, there are several fight scenes, beautifully choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, and that should come as no surprise to anyone fleetingly familiar with that name. But above all, this is Wong's movie, and martial arts takes a back seat to meditations on the more abstract ideals of love and honor.

It would have been arch to title this film, "In the Mood for Kung-Fu", but like Wong's most acclaimed film, he revisits the themes of unrealized love and nostalgia for an idealized past. The Grandmaster is less a biographical film about Ip Man, as much as it is also about the violent history of China in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Ip's relationships with several other martial arts masters. One of the most important relationships is with Gong Er, the daughter of a nationally recognized master. Ip's story is in part set aside for Gong Er's quest to preserve her father's legacy, especially when a top disciple takes a post on behalf of Japan during World War II.

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Lest I take too much for granted here, Ip Man known remembered primarily for being the one to teach a young Bruce Lee martial arts, as well as introducing the Wing Chun school of fighting to Hong Kong. Ip has also been the subject of a series of films by Wilson Yip and Herman Yau, more traditionally narrative and biographical, although all of the films are fictionalized to various degrees. It should be noted that Ip's son, Ip Chun served as a consultant here as he has done on other films about his father.

As far as the fighting goes, there are close-ups of that well positioned fist, or the fabric torn out by a knife. There are also the feet in kung-fu slippers, sliding in the snow, the coil of burning incense, and the rain drops bouncing from Ip Man's white hat. The Grandmaster is often exquisitely, even breathtakingly filmed. Frequently, the dominant colors are burnished brown, black, white and a hazy grayish blue. Tony Leung might be nominally be the star, but it's Zhang Ziyi who is lovingly photographed here. In extreme close-ups, the stories are told between Leung's eyes which seem to only know sadness, and Zhang's beautifully curved lips.

Wong Kar-wai may look the part of the hipster with his ever present sunglasses, but his films are about looking at the past. In one of the voiceovers, Gong Er frames her addiction to opium as bringing her back to a time when she was happiest. It's one of several moments that recalls the policeman in the first part of Chunking Express wondering if love has an expiration date. On a greater scale, what Wong is looking at here is how people survive and adapt with great historical shifts, whether it's a former royal executioner who becomes the bodyguard to a martial arts master's daughter, or an older man from southern China who literally fights his way to establish his school in Hong Kong.

Posted by peter at 08:25 AM

August 06, 2013

The Guillotines

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Xue di zi
Andrew Lau - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A generous budget and computer generated imaging, plus the inclusion of Jimmy Wang Yu, don't make up for the charm of the Shaw Brothers martial arts movies with their often rickety special effects. The film is also something of a tribute to Lau's roots, beginning his career for the Shaws thirty years earlier. This is certainly a handsome film, but I wish I could say it was more exciting.

The idea of the guillotines is certainly eye catching. Metal devices that look almost like flying sickles, are hurled towards a person, wrapping around the neck completely like dog collars from hell, with internal blades that decapitate the unlucky victim. Then there is the fraternity known as the Guillotines, an elite squad working on behalf of the emperor. The film takes place a short time after 1735, the era of the Qianlong Emperor. The Guillotines are considered expendable by the new emperor, in favor of using western means to enforce his rule - guns and cannons. The one female Guillotine, Musen, is kidnapped by a rebel gang known as the Herders, led by a man known as Wolf. The Guillotines are led by Haidu and Leng, two childhood friends who are also lifelong friends of the young emperor. When Musen is considered a traitor, the loyalties of Haidu and Leng are tested.

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Wolf kidnaps Musen in response to the death of his own love, a woman warrior, Bailan. The two actresses, Li Yuchun as Musen, and Vivien Li as Bailan, visually make the greatest impression. Thematically, there is a sense of connection to the Infernal Affairs trilogy, with stories hinging on male camaraderie and loyalty. There is frequent discussion about the sense of brotherhood. Haidu and Leng are shown as children as part of several flashbacks, showing how they were chosen for their court positions, with the now adult men discussing how their lives might have been different had each been given the other's role. The ethnic conflict between the Manchu court and Han Chinese might be perplexing to those unfamiliar with Chinese history.

Even while the story is not always compelling, there is something impressive about the Shanxi locations, a mountainous region in mainland China. Although there are thematic elements that The Guillotines shares with past films by Andrew Lau, he came to the production replacing Teddy Chen. The cast is mostly newer, lesser known pan-Chinese actors from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Li Yuchun is the one to watch, having made her mark with three action films, previously appearing in Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Li is also heard on the soundtrack with a Hong Kong Film Awards nominated song, and is definitely one to watch.

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Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

August 04, 2013

Coffee Break

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Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes - 1930)

Posted by peter at 09:30 AM

August 01, 2013

The King of the Streets

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Jie Tou Zhi Wang
Yue Song & Zhong Lei - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Sometimes relying on an old-fashioned story is fine. In the case of The King of the Streets, the story is frankly a pastiche of familiarity, with the prodigal son winning back the approval of his father, saving the orphanage, and facing off against his best friend who is now with the bad guys. There's enough here for a film set in contemporary Beijing to recall older Hollywood movies where a wrestler or boxer gets back in the ring and redeems himself following the disgrace of killing an opponent. The audience that will probably most enjoy this film may not be too concerned with originality. And that's OK.

Feng emerges from prison, eight years after killing a boy. The boy, who had a knife, was one of about two dozen guys who attempt to kill, or at least beat up, the unarmed Feng. After saving a young woman, Yi, from a gang of thugs, Feng helps out at the orphanage where she works. The orphanage is on land coveted by a developer. The developer's son, who squandered funds gambling, is attempting to intimidate the orphanage's owner with hired goons. Feng discovers that his former best friend is now working for the son. Feng also looks out for the grandmother of the boy he killed, and tries to reunite with his father, a taxi driver. Yi demonstrates that she can do a few hard hitting moves herself, but for the most part leaves it to Feng to handle the assortment of badasses who threaten the orphanage.

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Martial artist Yue Song made the film to showcase his talents, which include having a hand in the direction, and the screenplay, as well as playing the title role. How much of the film should be credited to Yue or to co-director Zhong Lei, I wouldn't be able to say. There are some nice visual touches which should be acknowledged. There is noticeable use of lateral tracking shots. One nicely done scene is of Feng having dinner in the small restaurant run by an old friend. The camera tracks left as the friend goes to the back to talk to his wife, persuading her to let Feng stay with them briefly. The camera tracks back to the right to see that Feng has left the table. The main strength of the filmmakers is when they are able to tell their story visually.

Bruce Lee is mentioned a couple of times in comparison to Feng. Yue is probably hoping to the kind of martial artist who becomes an international star. The fight scenes are too frenetically cut for my tastes much of the time, and I really can't distinguish one style of fighting from another. Almost counter-intuitively, where Yue and his filmmaking team really shine is in expressing a sense of loneliness amidst the bright lights of Beijing. While Yue's attempt at giving the character Feng some mythical attributes at the end of the film is a misstep, the main narrative works as a kind of parable about contemporary China, where the quest for fame and money have pushed aside Confucian values.

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Posted by peter at 07:00 AM