Friday, February 29, 2008

Slaughter in San Francisco - 1974

Last year (2007) when Fortune Star/Joy Sales announced that they had picked up the video rights to a number of Hong Kong movies from the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a stir of excitement in the fan base. Though many of these films had already been released on DVD, there were enough titles that had never seen the light of day in the digital age to create a hunger in the stomach – in particular the films from Angela Mao and many from the early days of Golden Harvest – the production company behind Bruce Lee and later Jackie Chan. This fan fervor was fed when the distributor reached out to this base by asking them which films they wanted to have released first and how they wanted them presented. This P.R. move turned out to be partially an empty gesture unless the overwhelming response was to ask for most of these films to be released only on VCD – often with no English subtitles – and with no attempt to clean up the print source. When you see this shoddy effort, it only makes you marvel more at what Celestial has done with the Shaw Brothers films for all the critical quibbles aimed at them. At the same time though it is rather nice to see films such as Queen’s Ransom, Back Alley Princess, Broken Oath, Chinatown Capers, Naughty Naughty and Stoner finally available - all fine films that I have seen on video ages ago. I thought it was time to finally stop buying some of these releases and actually watch a few. Below is the first of what I hope will be many.

Slaughter in San Francisco (a.k.a. Yellow Faced Tiger, a.k.a. Karate Cop) - 1974

This film directed by Lo Wei presents a San Francisco not often seen by visitors – a San Francisco where everyone speaks Cantonese and practices kung fu. Apparently, Lo Wei had initially hoped to use this as another vehicle for Bruce Lee but the two had gone their separate ways by the time it got to production. Still, Lo Wei opportunistically brought in Chuck Norris who had faced off against Bruce in The Way of the Dragon. Other than that, a young Sylvia Chang and the unusual setting for a Golden Harvest production there isn’t much to recommend about the film. It has many of Lo Wei’s sore points – a clunky disjointed plot and poor action choreography – but none of his strengths – the visual style that he brought to many of his Shaw Brother films. This film has been available for a long time in an English dubbed version that reviews I read indicated had some bad camp value with Norris speaking in a British accented dub – but even that small pleasure is missing in this version.

Instead of Bruce Lee, Lo Wei turned to Don Wong (Wong Dao) for his lead role as a cop patrolling the streets of San Francisco (sadly no Karl Malden guest appearances). Don Wong had a solid if far from spectacular career in many Hong Kong martial arts films from the 1970’s to the 80’s. He portrays Wang, a stolid unsmiling cop, who is partnered up with an African-American – called John Sumner in the US version but the cringe worthy “Blackie” in the English subs. One afternoon they come across a woman crying for help and upon investigating they witness two males trying to rape a Chinese woman (Sylvia Chang). After beating up the culprits, Betty tells them it was all a joke and they were just playing a game – clearly not one covered in Hoyle’s. She is a spoiled ABC who prefers the company of husky white men with nice cars and dangles cigarettes from her sulky mouth.

A few days later Wang’s partner is kidnapped by a group of white men and taken to the beach for a beating – why? – who knows – but Wang shows up in time to give them a kung fu lesson but kills one in the process. Instead of getting a medal for saving his partner, Wang is booted out of the force and has to of course take a job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. I am only surprised it wasn’t a laundry. Later Blackie is killed and the cops try to dump it on Betty’s parents – but Wang investigates on his own. This leads him to a narcotics gang headed by Chuck Norris – finally showing up about half way through the film.

Norris was still fairly new to film and still played the heavy in those days – and he had yet to acquire the fine subtle acting skills that he later brought to Walker Texas Ranger. Here he is a typical thug adorned with cigars and a fedora who says things like “I know two types of people. My friends or dead people” or “Men from our family only play with women with yellow skin, we never marry them.” With his shaggy hair and shaggier chest, he looks like a stock porn actor from the 1970’s. At the climax, Norris and Wong take it to one another and no prizes for those who guess who wins. The fight has some good moves but is most interesting for the fact that though both take a good beating no one seems to have a mark on their bodies.
The VCD quality is fairly poor – it is widescreen but with tiny subs that are a chore to read at times and interior and night scenes are extremely murky.

My rating for this film: 5.5

Friday, February 08, 2008

Chocolate (Thailand, 2008)

I took some much needed time out from searching for Gillian Cheung pictures to watch this just released film. You know, the thing that shocks me most about this HK sex scandal (other than their bad taste in men) is how skanky Cecilia looks - movies really are magic.




Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Hallelujah. Girls with Guns are back with a big fat old fashioned no hold back kickfest that will bring on orgasmic hot flashes for those of us who worshipped the likes of Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Khan, Michiko Nishiwaki and Kara Hui in the 1990’s. Tough, resilient women who could make a roomful of men cry for their mother. Those days are gone in Hong Kong, but at least for some 90 delirious minutes it is back in Thailand. Actress Yanin "Jeeja" Wismitanant is the real deal with years of Muay Thai training behind her and a fervent desire to make a go of it in a man’s action world. The bruises and cuts she received while filming are testament to this. With a facial resemblance to Yukari Oshima, Jeeja also has many of her physical skills – extremely quick and limber kicks, acrobatic moves and a risk taking attitude. She doesn’t emit Yukari’s power yet, but for a debut performance this is spectacular beginning with hopefully more to come. Of course, Jeeja is more likely to be compared to her countryman and inspiration Tony Jaa, but at least at this point she doesn’t come close to his ability to overwhelm you with his moves – i.e. no running across the heads of a line of men. Still, this one-two punch makes Thailand the action capital of the world for now – at least for those who like their action real and rough.

Chocolate is directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who was the guiding force behind Ong-Bak, Born to Fight and Tom Yum Goong, but unlike those films he actually gives this one a decent if not complicated story line that has at least a bit of characterization and sentiment. On the other hand there may be those who find the premise offensive. Not only is the main character autistic, but her toughest challenge is fighting another person who is autistic - this one practicing a shaking break dancing form of kung fu. It will be interesting to see how the US distributors handle that angle after someone picks it up.

Zin (Ammara Siripong) is a tattooed moll/enforcer/collector for a nasty Thai kingpin of crime. When a Japanese Yakuza (Hiroshi Abe) invades his turf, Zin falls for him and the two fall quickly into bed. The Thai kingpin doesn’t appreciate this and forces the Yakuza to return to Japan – not knowing that Zin is carrying his child. Zin leaves the gang – leaving her big toe behind as payment – and sets up home right next to a Muay Thai training facility. The child is a girl – Zen – who turns out to be autistic, but she grows up like any girl in Thailand – loving her mother, eating chocolate and watching Tony Jaa movies on TV. The only difference is her “special” skill as some autistic children have – extremely acute hearing, rapid fast reflexes and an ability to incorporate any fighting style into her being. Her quick reflexes allows her to swallow buzzing flies and catch balls (and knives) thrown at her from any direction.

Year’s later mom comes down with cancer and she and her portly friend find a black book with outstanding debts owed to her mother. They decide to collect them. Fortunately for the viewer these men don’t want to pay them back and they all own small businesses – ice factory, chocolate wholesaler and meat market – with lots of employees who think it will be fun smacking around a young clearly disabled woman. They couldn’t be more wrong. The three different locations create lots of opportunities for various weapons and acrobatics as Zen bounces around like a ball on speed as she smacks them all down to size. Like most martial arts films of this nature, the fights get bigger and more complex as they progress – the best most bone breaking being left for last.

The Thai kingpin comes back into the picture and in the finale Zen has to take on hoards of oncoming men in a scenario that will likely remind many of the finale in Kill Bill. But it shifts from this interior set up to an astonishing set piece that takes place on the multi-level ledges of the building – so purely Hong Kong that I almost wet my pants – as dozens of men chase after Zen to only go crashing below hitting every ledge and sign along the descent – absolute hold your breath and pray stuntwork. Taking a page out of Jackie Chan, the film accidents roll over the end credits and they are painful to watch. As much as I love this stuff, there is a part of me that feels like this is feeding Christians to the lions for entertainment – but if so – bring on more lions. This one ranks right up there with the best of the Hong Kong Girls with Guns films and it just felt so good.

My rating for this film: 8.0