Sunday, May 10, 2009

Snow Girl and Others

I am hoping to get through a bunch of Shaw Brother’s films this month and jot down some quick thoughts on them. Why? Because they are there, of course. I have a pile of unwatched Shaw DVDs that nearly reaches the moon and it is time to make a small dent in it. Most of the DVDs are still back home gathering dust but a number of them made the journey with me. To make this Blog entry a bit longer I am also throwing in for no additional cost some mini-mini reviews of some non-Asian fare I have come across lately. In fact I have been watching a lot more non-Asian than Asian films recently. First up is Vengeance of a Snow Girl.

Vengeance of a Snow Girl
Director: Lo Wei
Year: 1971
Time: 117 minutes

Vengeance of a Snow Girl is a somewhat long winded wuxia tale that ultimately takes on a surprising poignancy. The Snow Girl seeking vengeance is played by Li Ching, not exactly physically the most formidable or fearsome of actresses. She is about as tall as a roll of Charmin and just as soft with large beseeching eyes that would make a doe cry. She began mainly as a dramatic actress and quickly acquired the nickname “Baby Queen”, but with the popularity of the martial arts film all the Shaw actors were expected to pitch in and Li Ching had her share of action roles. All that said, Li Ching is quite good in this wrathful role bringing her acting chops to one of wuxia’s more memorable heroines.

In the dark a red hooded figure quickly flits from roof to roof , but the eyes make clear who is behind the masked face and what the gender is (though later the not too observant kung fu men seem to think she is a man – gender recognition rarely being a learned skill in many martial arts films). She darts into the room of Ge Hong and steals one of his deadly Golden Claws thus setting in motion a standard tale of revenge but with enough twists and curiosities to make it intriguing. Since she was a young girl Bing trained with two hermits in order to gain the requisite skills to avenge the murders of her mother and father at the hands of four martial arts masters. Now she feels ready to return the favor. She is at a slight disadvantage though as she is crippled and only able to walk aided by her two jade crutches (weapons within needless to say), but her kung fu is great and she can all but fly. Visually she makes a lethal looking killer – walking crab like she appears monstrous in her hate and at times when director Lo Wei speeds up her crooked walk she has a certain Ju-on quality about her.

Ten years previously Ximen Chong (Lee Kwan), Tong Hong (Ku Feng), Ge Hong (Wong Chung-shun) and Gao Yun (Tien Peng) demanded that Bing’s father turn over the Jade Phoenix Sword to them for safekeeping and upon his refusal they kill him and his wife. In the shadows this is witnessed by Bing as she submerges herself for hours in ice cold water to both escape and to protect the sword– this turns out to badly damage her legs. Now in an explosion of hatred she wants blood. One of the three killers Gao Yun feels great guilt for his actions and sympathizes with his would-be killer and further complications arise when one of his son’s (Yueh Hua) falls hard for Bing (after first thinking she was a he). Gao tells his son that she can be healed – but as in all wuxia stories it won’t be easy – she has to go to a mystical snow field with a hot water spring – but she will be instantly frozen to death unless she has a magical pearl that resides inside a volcano with her – but she will burn to death in the volcano unless she is wearing heat resistant armour (looking amazingly like asbestos suits) that is the property of a Prince. The journey begins even knowing that when she can walk no one will be a match for her killing skills. Meanwhile, Tong Hong and his spoiled daughter (Chiao Chiao) are after Bing and the Jade Phoenix. Good production values and some great location shooting, the film could have used a little better editing and some better action choreography but it’s the plot rather than the action that makes this a satisfying outing. Btw – keep an eye out for Sammo in red as one of Tong’s henchmen.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Non-Asian

Religulous (2008) – Bill Maher has long been one of my favorite political humorists with his scathing wit and anti-establishment sentiments. Much of my pleasure was no doubt due to how in synch we were regarding our total contempt for Bush and his cronies – but Maher puts his money where his mouth is. When nearly all the media became shameless cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion Maher constantly questioned it from the beginning and received lots of heat and hate mail for that. Now he turns his attentions to another very sensitive subject – religion – and in Religulous he takes great pleasure in skewering the big three – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This is a documentary of sorts I suppose – but certainly not an objective one and for those who find religion and humor irreconcilable they should stay far away from this or they will just get pissed off with his smarter than thou attitude. Maher is an agnostic and finds religion to be one of the most dangerous forces in the world today. Here again I am in basic agreement with his views though religion to me is a two-sided head – it can clearly be a force for good but it all too often falls into the hands of fanatics, blow hards, charlatans and nuts who use it for political and moralistic agendas as well as for financial gain. With so much of the hatred around us today being spawned by religion it makes this film relevant if nothing else. And it’s funny.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – I have to admit to approaching Wes Anderson’s films with some trepidation. They are such intentional oddball curiosities that I worry that if I don’t “get it” it may imply that I am just not hip enough to understand his unique vision – but strangely enough though I probably don’t really get it I always end up liking his films – Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But a wandering narrative, a thick air of lassitude and a dead pan delivery makes appreciating Darjeeling even more challenging than usual - but as in his other films by the end I was a captive of the mood he weaves. To a large degree what happens in Anderson’s films don’t really matter all that much – the pleasures are derived from his wonderful marriage of music, framing, detailed sets, gorgeous cinematography and moments of pure lump in your throat cinema. This is a simple story of three brothers in search of their mother in a trip across India (that is as kind to the Indian Tourist Board as Slumdog was scary) but of course it turns into more than that – it becomes a search for themselves. It begins with one of those marvelous Anderson moments – Bill Murray is running to catch the Darjeeling Limited and suddenly out of nowhere Adrian Brody passes him by and makes the train. Murray doesn’t and perhaps Anderson is symbolically waving goodbye to Murray who has been in most of his previous films – but in retrospect it is kind of unfortunate that Murray missed the train as this sort of unflappable humor is his forte. The DVD includes a short called Hotel Chevalier that wasn’t shown in the theater but is a prelude to the film (and has Natalie Portman taking her clothes off) – it is a lovely mood piece as well – it almost felt like a Leonard Cohen song of unresolved love.

The Inglorious Bastards (1978) – coincidentally I read that the next Quentin Tarantino film was somewhat inspired by this 70’s Euro production. Not that his film Inglourious Basterds follows the same plot but it was a film that he liked and he wanted to pay homage to it by using a similar title. Directed by Enzo Castellari, the film follows five allied troops during WW II who were on their way to a court martial before they are able to escape during a German attack. They decide to head for the Swiss border but on the way they fall into a situation in which they have to decide whether to continue to the border or do the right thing and kill lots of Nazis. No prize for guessing which way they go! It wouldn’t have been much of a movie otherwise. The American stars were Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson. Enjoyable enough I guess though hard to see where QT’s passion comes from.

Seth Rogan has become my kind of leading romantic man – what that says about current times I am not sure – but the dissolute overweight slacker persona that he takes into most of his films seems to have hit a chord out there in movieland. I liked Knocked Up quite a bit but both of these films are a definite step down.

Pineapple Express (2008) – Rogan tries his hand at action comedy with mixed results. A male bonding film between two and later three dimwitted potheads has its moments but feels too conventional even as absurd as its premise is. Rogan’s character witnesses a murder and his special brand of weed leads right back to him. He and his dope dealer (James Franco) go on a muddle headed run but eventually have to face the fact that their druggie ways have ruined their lives. Yikes – did the Motion Picture Board make them insert that awful maudlin scene along with a couple other buddy buddy ones? It takes a John Woo turn towards the end that is more than a bit unbelievable but still fun to watch.

Zack and Mimi Make a Porno (2008) – this film answers the quaint question – can two platonic friends make a porno together and fall in love. And the answer is Yes! Porno brings them together – porno saves their lives – porno is the answer for all of love’s knotty questions. Zack (Rogan) and his life long friend Miri (an adorable Elizabeth Banks) need to pay off a lot of bills and so decide that the only thing that will bring in money quickly enough to stave off being thrown out of their apartment is making a porno and selling it to all their old high school classmates. Makes perfect sense. So they gather a motley cast to do so (among them Jason Mewes, Traci Lords and Craig Robinson – the warehouse superintendent in the TV show The Office – he also is in Pineapple Express). This felt like a major step down for director Kevin Smith and though I am not sure if this was a straight to video production it sure felt like one.

Greenwich Village (1944) – Visiting New York City in the 1920’s from far away Kansas, Don Ameche gets off a tour bus in the heart of Greenwich Village and life is never the same as he joins a transvestite revue with his spot on imitation of Judy Garland. O.K. not quite, but within a week he finds himself a girl (Vivian Blaine) and is a composer of a Broadway hit show. Only in New York my friends. This is a pretty standard musical from 20th Century Fox with a few solid but not really memorable numbers. What will probably attract a modern day audience more than the two leads are the cast surrounding them – the wonderful Carman Miranda has three numbers all adorned with various high setting head wear and a male black dance group called The Four Step Brothers have one sizzling number that just makes you smile. But best of all is William Bendix, one of the great character actors of his day, doing a soft shoe in a Roman toga. Bendix could be chillingly nasty (The Glass Key) or your best buddy (the long running TV series Life with Riley) or even Babe Ruth (The Babe Ruth Story) and here he brings substance into a pretty insubstantial but mildly enjoyable film.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were co-stars for a bunch of MGM hits going back to the 1930’s when Judy appeared in three of Mickey’s Andy Hardy series and then later in higher profile films. Recently a box set of some of these big hits was released and I got around to watching two of them. I’ve never been a huge Garland fan – that is until she opens her mouth to sing and then zing – when she sings it is like she is having a religious experience but her religion is show business. Both of these are terrific films – not for the plots which are as flimsy as a grass hut but just for the great numbers and the warm chemistry between these two teenage stars.

Babes on Broadway (1941) – this one falls into that musical sub-genre that might be labeled “Let’s Put on a Show”. The old timers are beginning to realize that their style of vaudeville has fallen out of fashion and are having a hard time making ends meet. So naturally their musically proficient offspring decide to put on a show in a local barn to raise money – and not just any show but one with songs like "How About You" and "Babes on Broadway". They end up on Broadway of course in a sizzling show that dazzles. Directed by the great Busby Berkeley with a load of songs from Judy.

Girl Crazy (1943) – with even a cornier plot than Babes, this one has teenage lothario Mickey being sent to a boy’s agricultural college out west by his wealthy dad to keep him away from girls. Fortunately for us Judy is the daughter of the Dean of the college (the always welcome dithering Guy Kibbee) and Mickey and Judy soon cross swords and eventually hearts. June Allyson and Tommy Dorsey also show up to entertain. Some amazing songs from the Gershwin brothers here – "Embraceable You", "But Not For Me", "Fascinating Rhythm" – but the best is saved for last – a gigantic Busby Berkeley choreographed number to "I Got Rhythm" with a stunning vocal from Garland.

Honey West TV series (1965) – claiming to be the first TV show with a female action detective Honey West only lasted for one year. Perhaps the audience wasn’t quite ready for a kung fu hottie with a pet ocelot. Or perhaps it just wasn’t that great a show. I have gotten through about half the series and haven’t really decided yet. Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet) is a cocktail of oozing sex with a stiff upper cut – usually dressed to kill with various gadgets hidden on her in hard to find places. So far though the show seems to be making a big miscalculation – perhaps they thought they had to to be palatable to the audience of the sixties – but in nearly every episode she walks into a trap and is captured only to be rescued by her smarmy male partner (John Ericson) who would look much more at home in a gigolo bar. Honey feels like the female version of Peter Gunn – cool jazz – and as portrayed by the stunning Francis it’s a neat flashback to when people were still stylish, drove big cars and never looked worried.

And as a reward for getting this far, here is a literary recommendation: Death of a Red Heroine (2000) by Qiu Xiaolong. Qiu has written a series of five detective novels all featuring Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Department beginning in the early 1990’s. I have all five of them and had been waiting for the right moment to begin reading them. The right moment felt like the other day. Chen is a man torn between duty to country and his real love for poetry which he has had published (and quotes extensively through the book). He is in charge of a special squad which tackles the difficult cases and perhaps none more so than when a young woman’s body turns up in a remote canal. To some degree this is a basic police procedural – find out who the victim is and then gather evidence to discover the killer. But the book is so much more than that as it explores the Byzantine intricacies of Party politics and a rapidly changing China. It really makes for fascinating reading. The author is an interesting figure in his own right – he wrote a book about T.S. Eliot (Chen wrote a dissertation on Eliot), has published poetry and was a critic of Tiananmen Square that forced him to stay in America where he now works. The book is very critical in many ways of China present and past and I was wondering how the heck he had gotten away with it until I realized that he was living in the U.S. I believe these books were written in English by Qiu and they are poetic at times in their own right – I love small passages such as when he is asked to recite some poetry at a dinner thrown by his subordinate and Chen replies “Don’t ask me to read anything. My mouth is full of crab. A crab beats a couplet”.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Two More from Union Films


Last night I dreamed of Brigitte Lin. Odd. I have a friend who dreams of her from time to time. Was it in Chungking Express in which one of the characters ponders whether you can catch someone’s dreams? I wish I could remember this one better. I did when I first woke up but then I fell back to sleep for a few hours and there were only wisps of it remaining when I woke up again. I recall that Brigitte was a Goddess who came to visit me and tell me something important but I don’t recall what it was. Perhaps an apology for The Three Swordsman?

Here are quick reviews of the two other DVD’s I picked up of films from Union Film Productions. Wish I had ordered a bunch more as these two were quite enjoyable as well. Maybe I was just in the mood for period action films.

A Girl Fighter
Director: Yeung Sai-hing
Year: 1972
Country: Taiwan
Duration: 86 minutes

This is the fourth of these Union Film productions that I have watched starring Polly Shang-kwan but while she is at best a co-star in the others, in A Girl Fighter she is clearly the main focus and her often lead co-star Tien Peng is only around to support her. Like the others, the film has loads of action (choreographed by Poon Yiu-kwan, co-credited for action in A Touch of Zen) but it also has a clear dramatic narrative that may have been mildly influenced by a classic Western (Rio Bravo).

It looks like a relaxing night for the Lio family of needlework and reading when a local bully breaks in with the intention of raping the wife. When the husband and family elders try to intervene they are killed and so is the wife. So much for a quiet evening at home. The killer is Kim Teng-jiao (Law Bun), a nasty brute whose father Zhang-peng is the big shot in the county with vast hoards of men at his bidding. And no one messes with his boy if he wants to stay healthy. When the authorities advertise for someone to help them capture Teng-jiao they get no takers until a diminutive figure shows up to offer assistance. The authorities look askance at one another because Sima Mu-rong is not only small but also of the female gender. But she soon shows them her fighting skills by taking on four guards and embarrassing them. She gets the job. No resume required.

Like most spoiled bullies, Teng-jiao is taking up space at the local brothel, The Spring Whorehouse. After killing a few of his drinking buddies and smacking him up more than a little, Sima takes her man to the local jail to await transportation for trial. This is the real meat of the story as Sima and six guards attempt to take Teng-jiao across hostile territory with dangers everywhere as the father has every intention of getting his son back. Sima gets some surprising assistance from Geng (Tien Peng) who is related to the Lio’s and also from Captain Dong (played by Miao Tien with his usual stern authoritative presence). Numerous fights occur and the small band of brave men and one woman who refuse to give in slowly dwindle one by one.

It is always enjoyable coming upon actors like Miao Tien (a.k.a. Miu Tin) in these old films. He had quite the lengthy career and filmography stretching from King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen until he became a favorite of Taiwanese new wave director Tsai Ming-liang who used him in a bunch of his films - Rebels of the Neon God, The River, The Hole, What Time is it There and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (in which he watched himself on screen as a much younger man). He died in 2005 at the age of 80.

My rating for this film: 7.5

A City Called Dragon
Director: Tu Chong-hsun
Year: 1969
Country: Taiwan
Duration: 90 minutes

Director Tu Chong-hsun’s A City Called Dragon is an intriguing link between King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). Tu was Hu’s assistant director on both of those films and Hu’s influence in this film is apparent everywhere – from the main theme of the film (rebellion against authority), the slow drawn out tension of certain scenes, the tracking shots, the percussive soundtrack, the action style and most primarily in his iconic use of actress Hsu Feng. Hsu Feng debuted while a teenager in Dragon Gate Inn as the young girl, but it was in A Touch of Zen that she earned her legendary status as the chivalrous very deadly female warrior fighting for freedom against immense odds. Clearly her character in A City Called Dragon is modeled on Miss Yang from Zen and could almost be the same character at an earlier stage in her life.

A Touch of Zen notoriously took three years to be made and nearly bankrupted Union Film when it tanked at the box office. Hu constructed a small town for the setting and then let it sit in order to give it an aged look. His patience in waiting for the correct shot became legendary as in one such instance when he waited months until some flowers bloomed. It was likely during one of these breaks in which this film was made and though I would have to go back and see it again, the sets in this film looked very much like the ones in Zen and the old mansion is used very much in the same moody haunting manner. But all that said, this is no A Touch of Zen. It is missing Hu’s elegance and poetic rhythm as well as his insights into character, religion, politics and gender. Still I quite enjoyed the film though I admit much of that came from my appreciation of Hsu Feng who the director poses beautifully with sword in hand time after time in a near beatific light.

The film takes place during the Sung dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) with Emperor Hsiao Hsia in power and rebels, who are based in the Tai-hun Mountains, fighting for their freedom. Miss Shang is on her way to Dragon City to make contact with rebel Chen Young who has secret plans to hand over to her to take to the rebel stronghold. Before reaching the town, Miss Shang learns that Chen was captured and killed along with 80 members of his family by the Mayor (Shih Jun – the scholar in A Touch of Zen). Her mission now changes to finding the secret plans and killing the Mayor. Everyone in Dragon City is under suspicion and as soon as she enters she is followed by a coterie of peddlers sending rhythmic signals to one another. She has to kill one of them in order to escape their watching eyes but this alerts the authorities to her presence and the entire security apparatus begins to search for her. Just to be safe, the Mayor requests the assistance of Wuo, a vicious killer with a wicked laugh who works for the Emperor. But all is not as it seems. The film is perhaps too deliberately paced but it creates a tense claustrophobic atmosphere and a mood of solitary heroic desperation. The main fault is that the final fight takes place at night and much of it is lost in the darkness – whether due to the transfer or the original is hard to say.

My rating for this film: 7.5