Tag Archives: Kung fu

301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

Recommended

Mi ni te gong dui; AKA Dragon Attack

“If it sounds ridiculous, that’s only because it was.”– Jackie Chan on Fantasy Mission Force (quoted in Keith Bailey, “The Unknown Movies”)

DIRECTED BY: Yen-Ping Chu

FEATURING: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Yu Wang (Jimmy Wang Yu), Yueh Sun, David Tao, Jin Fang, Shiu Bu Lia, Ling Chang

PLOT: Four Allied generals have been captured by the Japanese. Mercenary Don Wen is hired to liberate them, and recruits a team which includes “Old Sun,” escape artist “Greased Lightning,” two kilt-wearing soldiers, con man Billy, and Lilly, Billy’s bazooka-toting on-and-off girlfriend who tags along when she hears about the cash reward. Tailed by rogues Sammy and Emily, the team encounters Amazons and a haunted house on their way to a surprisingly bloody showdown with the kidnappers.

Still from Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Yen-Ping Chu (sometimes credited as “Lawrence Full” or “Kevin Chu”) is the director of sixty-five (mostly kung fu and comedy) films; this is his only effort which is marginally well-known in the West.
  • According to persistent but unconfirmed rumors, a Triad-connected movie mogul ordered a hit on Jackie Chan when he decided to change studios. Jimmy Wang Yu intervened to settle the dispute, and as part of the deal Chan agreed to lend his growing star power to two of Wang’s movies (this being one).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An ambush by ribbon-shooting ninjas? Bloody ghost hands waving wads of toilet paper? Assault of the Road Warrior-Japanese-punk Nazis? Your opinion on this one is as good as ours, and it’s likely to change many times during the movie as some new amazement pops up. We’ll just go with any shot of the assembled team: Old Sun in his top hat, Brigitte Lin in black leather with a bazooka, Billy in his white suit and Elvis sideburns, the kilt-wearing pair of misfits… as weird a group ever formed to fight an anachronistic battle against fascist kidnappers somewhere in Canada, Luxembourg, or Taiwan.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Scottish/Chinese mercenaries; toilet paper ghosts; Japanese Nazis in Chevys

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Packed with kung fu, shootouts, flying ninjas, hopping vampires, and slapstick comedy reminiscent of Benny Hill, Fantasy Mission Force is one of the only commercial entertainments ever released where you can honestly say you have no idea what will happen next. It’s a pulp surrealism masterpiece, set in a previously undiscovered movie universe at the conjunction of the Shaw Brothers, , and the Three Stooges.


Original Cantonese trailer for Fantasy Mission Force

COMMENTS: Although some reviewers are reluctant to discuss the Continue reading 301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

CAPSULE: THE LAST DRAGON (1985)

AKA Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney

PLOTLeroy Green (nicknamed “Bruce Leroy”), a kung fu student in Harlem, searches for a master to achieve “the glow,” while defending a music video hostess from an evil businessman and his army of toughs.

Still from The Last Dragon (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Last Dragon isn’t truly weird, but it’s unusual, quirky, and culty enough to earn an honorable mention, and the recent Blu-ray release gives us an excuse to recommend it to those inclined towards 1980s camp.

COMMENTS: The Last Dragon, a mix of blaxploitation and kung fu tropes performed in the innocent style of The Karate Kid, blooms with camp pleasures. A scene early in the picture embodies the curious aesthetic, which reflects urban audiences’ fondness for East Asian martial arts movies (Shaw Brothers pics were staples of Times Square grindhouses, where cheap chopsocky imports played next to peep shows). In one such theater, an awed “Bruce Leroy” watches Enter the Dragon (eating his popcorn with chopsticks!) among a multiracial crowd who howl at the screen. The disreputable patrons include a transvestite, a Rastafarian indulging in his sacrament, and a couple of teenagers who disrespectfully set up a boombox in the aisle and start breakdancing (!) In bursts giant Sho’Nuff (“the Shogun of Harlem”) and his retinue to challenge the skilled but humble Leroy to dishonorable combat.

Sho’Nuff, who says things like “kiss my Converse, sucka!” and dresses like a samurai pimp in an outfit stitched together from leftovers from a Michael Jackson music video, is The Last Dragon‘s batty heart and soul. Hero Bruce Leroy, who walks through Harlem streets wearing a conical bamboo hat and is mocked by his streetwise companions for being a “jive coolie,” doesn’t make nearly the same impression. Leroy is played by Taimak, who was hired for his considerable martial arts prowess rather than his inconsiderable acting talent. His lack of emotion is put to good use, however; his flat line readings make him a true ghetto outsider, someone who has devoted his life to absorbing stoic Asian philosophy rather than learning how to smooth talk girls. Which is bad luck for him, as the girl in his life turns out to be none other than 80s bombshell Vanity. Vanity doesn’t get to do much other than be endangered and pretty, but she undeniably lights up the screen. Other characters include Leroy’s wisecracking younger brother (who also has a crush on Vanity) and a gangsterish video game magnate with a wannabe pop star girlfriend (she’s a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, with less talent than the two combined). You should also watch closely for bit parts by a young William H. Macy and Keisha Knight Pulliam (“The Cosby Show”‘s Rudy).

The Last Dragon was criticized for its predictable “damsel in distress” plot, but its crazy cartoonish characters and remarkable set pieces (including the aforementioned grindhouse showdown and a climactic battle where Sho’Nuff and Leroy glow while fighting) made it into a box office hit with younger audiences. Its legend only grew when it became a pay cable programming staple. Watch it for nostalgia, or to see what your parents thought was rad when they were teenagers. On a technical level its not great moviemaking, but as a guilty pleasure, it’s a blast.

The alternate title Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon naturally raises the question, who the hell is Berry Gordy? Turns out Berry was the founder of Motown records. He put up the dough for this one, and made sure that acts he controlled found their way onto the soundtrack (Debarge’s horrid “Rhythm of the Night,” featured prominently here, became a #3 Billboard charting hit). Why Gordy thought his name would bring kids into the theaters is a mystery. Vanity, thy name is Berry Gordy. (Well, in this case that’s confusing, but you get the idea).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly wigged-out kung-fu disco extravaganza…”–Time Out London

LIST CANDIDATE: MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jimmy Wang Yu

FEATURING: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kang Chin

PLOT: A blind master of the “Flying Guillotine” searches for the One-Armed Boxer, disrupting a martial arts tournament in the process.

Still from Master of the Flying Guillotine (1977)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Indian yogi warrior, whose arms extend to double length, tips this exuberantly goofy exhibition of martial mayhem into the “maybe” category. Kung Fu Hustle was Certified Weird for its postmodern comedy, while Ninja Champion made the List on a “so-bad-it’s-weird” platform, but if a” mainstream” martial arts film makes the List, this will be it.

COMMENTS: When you pop a kung fu movie into your DVD player, Master of the Flying Guillotine is what you are hoping you will see. Nonstop fighting with just enough plot to tell you who to root for; imaginative, athletic choreography that gets the adrenaline pumping; memorable characters; and perfectly-spaced WTF moments that snap you awake whenever your interest starts to wander. The kind of movie where a bizarre gizmo—the titular flying guillotine, a sort of decapitating cross between a frisbee and a beekeeper’s hat—steals the spotlight from the human characters. It’s pure entertainment, and a pure celebration of the athleticism of the performers, who dance in a deadly ballet with perfect timing. They don’t look real, but the fights are much more beautiful than the Hollywood action product, which generates spurious excitement with fast-cut editing.

Master is a series of bouts (many from the tournament which occupies a large portion of the film’s middle) between a wide variety of combatants, each distinguished by a gimmick or quirk worthy of a professional wrestler. So what better way to impart the flavor of the Flying Guillotine experience than to run down the fight card? After an opening prologue where the Master demonstrates the efficacy of his favored weapon against mannequin heads (along with showing off his incendiary grenades, his penchant for jumping through rooftops, and his ability to magnetize birds), our opening bout pits the fantastically arrogant Dancing Thai against four guards with shields and clubs. Next on the undercard is Dancing Thai vs. Eagle Claw Girl Fighter, followed by Master of the Flying Guillotine vs. One-Armed Hungry Homeless Guy (not very competitive). The tournament proper looks like this:

  • Staff Guy vs. Segmented Staff Guy
  • Belly Shirt Sword Fighter vs. “Wins-Without-a-Knife” (who actually has a knife, and uses it to win—“very smart,” observes the One-Armed Boxer from the sidelines)
  • Rope Hair vs. Mongolian Mustache (a draw)
  • Northern Daredevil vs. Iron Crotch
  • Eagle Claw Girl Fighter vs. Pantsless Monkey
  • Java vs. Flying Rope, fighting on poles over a of thicket of blades
  • Tornado of Knives vs. Extendable Arm Yogi
  • Tiger and Crane Fist vs. Thai Dancer
  • One-Armed Snake Fist (not to be confused with One-Armed Boxer or One-Armed Hungry Homeless Guy) vs. Praying Mantis
  • One-Armed Snake Fist vs. Master of the Flying Guillotine (unscheduled)
  • Master of the Flying Guillotine vs. Tournament Organizer (unscheduled)

After the tournament ends, things really kick into high gear, starting with One-Armed Boxer vs. Two Disciples (in a pink flashback); Dancing Thai vs. One-Armed Boxer Sidekick; One-Armed Boxer vs. Extendable Arm Yogi (and his pet owl); One-Armed Boxer vs. Dancing Thai (my favorite fight, in a burning house); One-Armed Boxer vs. Wins-Without-a-Knife; and of course, the grand finale, One-Armed Boxer vs. Master of the Flying Guillotine, battling in a booby-trapped coffin shop.

You’ll be exhausted by the end.

The 1977 release date listed here is actually the year the dubbed version was released in the United States (where it played screens at the same time as Star Wars, which would have made for the absolute coolest double feature possible for a twelve year old boy). The original release date is unknown, as this was an independent production and no one bothered to keep records at the Hong Kong box offices at the time, but 1975 seems like a good guess. The movie is an unsanctioned sequel to the Shaw Brothers’ 1975 hit Flying Guillotine, which also spawned two direct sequels and several other rip-offs. Confusingly, it’s also a sequel to Jimmy Wang Yu’s One Armed Boxer. Master also went under the title One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… snags the viewer’s attention by lacing its martial-arts high jinks with a compelling weirdness.”–Nick Rutigliano, The Village Voice (2002 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard who dubbed it his “favorite weird Kung Fu pic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BUSHIDO MAN (2013)

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles

DIRECTED BY: Takanori Tsujimoto

FEATURING: Mitsuki Koga, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi

PLOT: A martial arts master eats meals based on the diet of his next opponent so he can better understand and defeat them.

Still from Bushido Man (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The fights are good, but it’s annoying that the movie has no hunger to pursue its kung foodie premise, giving us instead six courses of contextless seriocomic battles and a meaningless final boss for desert.

COMMENTS: “Plot” is too strong a word to describe Bushido Man‘s story. The film is just a series of incidents connected by the thinnest noodle of a premise, almost an anthology of fight scenes. The bouts themselves are energetic mini-stories that should entertain fight fans. The comedy, not so much—although the campy English dubbing adds a level of humor that would not be present in the original, and I did like the gag with the Master’s obviously fake mustache. Toramaru, our putative hero, is touring Japan, battling the paragons of six different martial styles: kung fu, stick fighting, nunchaku, swordfighting, yakuza knife fighting, and pistol. According to the movie’s premise, before each battle he eats a meal to better understand his enemy, but this unsustainable idea quickly breaks down: by the second battle, the meal is already nothing but an excuse for a dumb pun (munching on cheesesticks = upcoming stick fight). Why we should care about this unofficial tournament is anyone’s guess; the movie is disinterested in exploring characters’ motivations or generating sympathy for them.

Each of the fights, on the other hand, offers an extra tidbit of interest, whether it’s an interloping turtle or a Zatoichi tribute. Things get weirder after the hero defeats the pistol master (who dresses as a Hollywood cowboy) and a side plot develops. Toramaru decides to go after a legendary weapon: wristbands rigged to fire bullets when you throw a punch. The original footage with the fist-guns, featuring a female fighter who is not one of Toramaru’s opponents, looks like it was taken from a different (unfinished?) movie. Koga wears a Van Dyke in the scenes before and after this one, but he’s mysteriously clean-shaven when he watches her dispatch a gang of generic badies. His customary facial hair returns for the rest of the movie. That’s an indication of the careless way Bushido Man is assembled from leftovers, which might strike you either as insultingly shoddy, or endearingly unpretentious, depending on your mood. The acquisition of these pugilistic firearms sets up a truly crazy, bloody finale, however, which “ends” with a closing credits gag that’s sure to catch you off guard.

Bushido Man lured me in with the promise that it would mix food porn with classic kung fu fights, sort of “Iron Chef” meets The Man with the Iron Fists. The actual experience was more like watching MMA bouts interrupted by Ramen noodle commercials.  Of course, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food entertainment, and Bushido is heavily salted with absurdity. Just expect that you’ll be hungry for something a little more substantial a few hours after downing this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film as a whole tosses in enough ‘off the wall’ ideas that stick, producing a rousing good time. Inventiveness,  even when the concepts are at their most absurd, add a lot of character to the picture and keeps the viewers constantly guessing what might happen next.”–Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight (festival screening)

184. NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

“The script… for one thing, it would be written in twice translated English. So we would be sitting there looking at it saying ‘what the hell does this mean?’ for one thing. And then Godfrey would sort of explain the plot, in his kind of hyper, babbling way, and then we’d sort of make it up on the spot and try to figure out for him what he wanted. Then they’d splice it together and really the only time I’d see what he was going for was when I’d see the thing in the dubbing studio when we’d come back a month later when it was edited. But even then, as you know, they really really don’t… make… sense. There’s the merest suggestion of a hint of a plot somewhere in there. But no, it was very much making it up as we went along.”–Actor Ed Chworowsky on the experience of working on Godfrey Ho movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Jack Lam, Bruce Baron,  Pierre Tremblay, Richard Harrison

PLOT: Rose infiltrates a diamond-smuggling ring intending to kill the three men who raped her. Rose’s ex-lover George, an ex-Interpol agent, leaves his new wife to help her attain her vengeance. Meanwhile, another Interpol agent, who is also a ninja, gradually kills off other ninjas who, though a convoluted scheme, are behind both the smuggling operation and the rape.

Still from Ninja Champion (1985)
BACKGROUND:

  • Ninja Champion was selected to go on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies in the 5th Readers Choice Poll.
  • The 1981 movie Enter the Ninja (with Sho Kosugi and Franco Nero) was a modest exploitation hit that introduced Western moviegoers to the concept of the stealthy Japanese assassin. In the early and mid 1980s there was a mini-craze for ninja movies, which producers Joseph Lai and Betty Chan and director Godfrey Ho attempted to cash in on by making dozens of movies with “Ninja” in the title. Ho’s methodology was to acquire older martial arts movies (some unfinished or unreleased) and shoot new footage involving ninjas, which would then be clumsily spliced into the older film to make a new movie. This filmmaking technique is known as “cut-and-paste,” and Lai’s Hong Kong-based IFD Films and Arts Limited released almost a hundred of them before the fad died out.
  • Godfrey Ho may have directed IFD movies under other pseudonyms, and sometimes cut-and-paste movies have been attributed to him although there’s no clear evidence Ho worked on them. The Internet Movie Database credits Ho with directing 119 movies. Of these, 50 incorporate the word “Ninja,” including such titles as Ninja the Violent Sorcerer, Ninja in the Killing Fields, Ninja Terminator, Clash of the Ninjas, Bionic Ninja, and Full Metal Ninja.
  • According to the website Neon Harbor, the base film to which Godfrey Ho added the ninja footage to create Ninja Champion was a Korean movie called Bam-eul Beosgineun Dogjangmi (translated as Poisonous Rose Stripping the Night).
  • Prolific, down-on-his-luck B-movie actor Richard Harrison contracted to make a few movies in Hong Kong for Ho; unbeknownst to him, the footage he shot was cut up and used in approximately twenty-one new pictures. He was sometimes re-dubbed so he could speak lines related to the new plot. In multiple movies (including this one) he plays an Interpol agent named Gordon who is seen delivering orders to field agents while speaking into a telephone shaped like popular comic strip cat Garfield.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Normally, you would say the image of two Caucasian ninjas engaged in a duel to the death while wearing headbands that read “ninja” would be hard to beat. In this movie, however, the unforgettable image has to be Nancy Chan’s topless scene, where the luminescence of her diamond-studded breasts makes the bottom half of the screen look like someone smeared Vaseline all over the lens.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s two weird movies in one, as a ridiculous Korean rape revenge martial arts movie gets a Godfrey Ho makeover with an overlaid Interpol/ninja plot that turns the original from a baffling trifle into a truly deranged and nearly incomprehensible example of exploitation cinema.


Clip from Ninja Champion (courtesy of Mill Creek Entertainment)

COMMENTS: Ninja Champion doesn’t necessarily make it onto the Continue reading 184. NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE KUNG FU DRAGON (1976)

Ju Ma Pao

DIRECTED BY: Yu Chick-Lim

FEATURING: Polly Kwan (as Sun Kuan Rin Feng), Cheung Lik, Li Chung-Chien, Hsiao Wang

PLOT: A teenage princess learns kung fu so that she can return from exile inside a magic mountain to claim her kingdom from usurpers.

Still from Return of the Kung Fu Dragon (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This colorful costume fantasy martial arts adventure brandishes a couple of bizarre characters, a convoluted epic plot containing a couple of unintentionally surreal digressions, and editing and dubbing problems that sink below even the usual low standards of the genre. With their warriors flying through the air and doing improbable double backflips while delivering stuttering threats in dubbed English, almost all of the 1970s chopsocky movies are at least a little bit weird; this one contains enough extra strangeness to qualify as a noteworthy movie of its type, though not enough to challenge for a place on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Ah, , the weirdest of the martial arts! You never see a devotee of judo using her martial prowess to put her hands all over a street vendor’s stock of steamed buns, or a karate master hanging out with an red-nosed androgynous dwarf who looks like Bjork’s stunt double. Even American kickboxers look dignified by comparison. But it’s the on-the-cheap craziness of the comic book kung fu inspired by Bruce Lee’s Seventies box office success that makes this short-lived but demented sub genre so lovable. Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is, at the same time, one of the most ambitious and the least competent of Taiwan’s action offerings of the period. There’s a childishness to the gaudy presentation, with the bright colors and wizards and princesses and invisible dwarfs, which suggests that Dragon may have been aimed at Taiwanese kids, although of course in the US it played drive-ins and UHF “Kung Fu Theater” venues rather than kiddie matinées. Dragon is constantly throwing so many new characters and twists at you that, if the story wasn’t ultimately such a generic rightful-ruler-returns-from-exile-to-depose-tyrant affair, it would be nearly impossible to follow. Much is made of certain plot devices—e.g. a magic jade dragon staff that somehow allows the evil interloper to finally attack the peaceful island kingdom—that simply disappear later in the tale. The editing doesn’t help the continuity: the aforementioned staff is seen in closeups alternated with shots of a bunny running through the underbrush (to show, we eventually gather, that the wizard is ambushing a hunter as part of the invasion scheme). The schizophrenic editing serves the castle-storming sequence well, at least, as the camera cuts from one individual melee to another and captures the chaos of battle. But even here there are odd inserts, such as when an archer shoots a flying man (?) out of the sky. Neither character was seen before that shot, and neither is seen after. The most jarring moment comes in the middle of the film, when one of the characters, who has taken time out for some martial training, suddenly starts popping into frame, high-kicking in front of a Chinese chess board backdrop, then disappearing. We assume this expressionistic sequence means to stress the analogy between learning to fight and intellectual tactics. But immediately afterwards, another set of characters stumble upon an actual game board set up in the middle of the wilderness—and when their evil imperial pursuers find them the ensuing battle is a stylized kung fu/chess hybrid. It’s that kind of movie; the disdain for realism is amusing and refreshing, but it can also be frustrating and disorienting. Dragon‘s wild cast of characters include, among others, two princesses (well, one is a fake princess who’s also referred to as “the Black Girl” for reasons that are never explained) and an evil usurper who’s given to highly inappropriate bouts of maniacal laughter. The chief bad guy is a wicked old wizard with a beard so long that he has a servant girl whose sole job is to carry it around for him twenty four hours a day; but, he’s not even the weirdest character. That honor goes to the comic relief, an effeminate dwarf with bizarre ponytails and a red nose who can turn invisible (although we in the audience can see him perfectly well whenever he does). In the eyes of the filmmakers, of course, all of this plot and characterization was just necessary filler and carrier for the fight scenes. They are frequent and energetic and, although they lack the athleticism you’d see in some of the better Shaw Brothers productions of the period, they should satisfy chopsocky fans. All in all, Kung Fu Dragon is a frantic, somewhat disorienting experience that should appeal to gonzo martial arts fans; if you’re not already a devotee of the genre, or if you require a plot that makes sense, you should stay far away.

Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is in the public domain in the U.S. and can be viewed at the Internet Archive, among other Net sources. I viewed it on Mill Creek’s fun Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack Collection, which also contains the action oddities Kung Fu Arts and Ninja Champion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything is thrown into the cauldron for this one (dig the magic mirror & the burning gravel!), which means there are enough crudely imaginative elements to make Return of the Kung Fu Dragon strangely viewable at best.”–Joe Burrow, The Action Mutant Reviews (DVD)

129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)

Ai no Mukidashi

“Nothing is more important than love.”–Shion Sono on the theme of Love Exposure

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Nishijima, , Sakura Andô, Atsurô Watabe, Makiko Watanabe

PLOT: Yu Honda, the son of a Catholic priest, falls in with a gang of upskirt photographers in an attempt to generate sins he can confess to his father. One day, while dressed in drag after losing a bet, he falls in love with Yoko, a man-hating schoolgirl who believes him to be a woman. He strives to woo her despite the mistaken identity, but a mysterious girl named Koike and a brainwashing cult seem intent on preventing Yu from ever winning Yoko’s heart.

Still from Love Exposure (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sono’s original cut of the film was six hours long. At the request of producers he cut it down to two hours but felt the result was incoherent; the current four-hour run time is a compromise.
  • Sono reportedly wrote the part of upskirt photography guru “Master Lloyd” with Lloyd Kaufman in mind.
  • “Miss Scorpion” was a recurring character from a 1970s Japanese women-in-prison film series.
  • Despite winning awards at multiple Asian film festivals as well as a FIRPESCI international film critics awards, Love Exposure‘s long running time made it anathema to theatrical distributors. The movie finally saw a very limited run in U.S. and Canadian theaters in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some will doubtlessly be impressed by the bloody castration scene, but a less shocking image marks the centerpiece of Love Exposure: “the miracle,” the moment when the wind blows up Yoko’s skirt and reveals her alabaster underthings, giving Yu the first erection of his life. White panties—a symbol of sex masked in the color of purity—are the most important recurring image in Love Exposure, even more so than crosses and hard-ons. As Master Lloyd explains while pointing to a bronze relief image of a spreadeagled woman with a swatch of white silk covering her nether portions, “Anything you seek can be found here, in the groin.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there is some crazy stylization—slo-mo bullets following a schoolgirl through Tokyo and a dysfunctional family posing with a giant cross in the desert—what makes Love Exposure‘s mad heart tick is the plot that piles crazy on top of crazy. Any story that incorporates Catholic guilt, ninja panty-peeking photographers, kung fu and samurai sequences, mistaken identity subplots, and teenage cult kingpins, plays it all as a romantic comedy, and has to run for twice the length of an average movie just to fit in everything the director wants to say, is bound to be a little weird.


Trailer for Love Exposure

COMMENTS:  For four hours Love Exposure bounces back and forth between poles of purity and perversion, suggesting both the fetishistic Continue reading 129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)

CAPSULE: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Tsui Hark

FEATURING: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng

PLOT: When court officials begin spontaneously bursting into flames as her coronation

Still from Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

approaches, Empress Wu suspects a conspiracy and hires the one man she believes can uncover it: Detective Dee, whom she imprisoned years ago for treason.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are some strange fantasy elements (an talking deer courtier called “the Chaplain”) existing alongside historical material (Empress Wu and Dee himself are real figures), when you get right down to it, Detective Dee is probably only as weird to Western eyes as Indiana Jones was to Asian eyes.

COMMENTS Detective Dee does just about everything above average, and it does one thing really well: art direction.  From the skyscraper-sized Buddha being built for the Empress’ coronation to the flooded underground city where lowlifes go to hide when the heat is on to the everyday pageantry of the Chinese imperial court, Dee is a fantastic looking film, and it’s always a pleasure to watch the film’s ass-kicking characters cavort across these carefully rendered backdrops.  The fight sequences (orchestrated by cult choreographer Sammo Hung) are typically spectacular—the scene where Dee kicks a leaping stag in the head as he flies by is amazing—but they sometimes lack spontaneity and soul, feeling over-studied and over-crafted.  (I admit to a prejudice here: I miss the balletic martial artistry of the old Shaw Brothers films that relied solely on the performers’ athleticism.  But I accept that wire fu is here to stay).  The abundant CGI effects are of acceptable quality, a few years and a few million dollars behind contemporary Hollywood standards; fortunately, they are mainly used for artistic rather than realistic effect.  The only place where Dee drops the ball a bit is in the plot.  Continuity and clarity are not qualities one expects to see highlighted in Hong Kong fantasies, but considering that this one is explicitly couched as a “mystery,” the audience might have expected a little more misdirection and revelation.  Instead, clues pop up arbitrarily, sending our detective to yet another exotic locale where enemy agents await him in ambush.  And with the introduction of various rebel factions and their separate schemes that may or may not be related to the main mystery, the plot gets confusing, without being particularly intricate.  Still, those are minor objections, easily solved by going into the movie with the expectation you’re going to be watching a detective who solves riddles with blows from his feet and his magic mace, rather than his mind.  Among its weirder features, Dee sports a talking deer with symbols scrawled on his head, robed robots, a kung-fu battle on top of two teams of thundering horses, and a character named “Donkey Wang” who disguises himself using acupuncture.  Dee isn’t a game-changing epic, but it is a two-hour mix of history, fantasy, pageantry, mystery, novelty, intrigue, spectacle and thrills—and that’s a lot for your entertainment dollar.

University of Texas-educated director Tsui Hark is one of the most important figures from the Hong Kong New Wave, basically founding the modern fantasy wuxia genre with his groundbreaking Wu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983).  He has also been enormously important as a producer, financing and guiding odd fantastical projects like the unforgettable A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).  Before Detective Dee, Tsui had helmed a number of financial and artistically disappointing features since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.  This film has been widely hailed as a return to form by the beloved fantasy icon, and a prequel is already in the works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing is meant to seem real in the Chinese ‘Detective Dee,’… [it] entertains us because it is so audaciously unreal.”–Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Demarbre

FEATURING: Phil Caracas, Maria Moulton, Murielle Varhelyi

PLOT: The Son of God recruits retired Mexican wrestler “Santos” to help him defeat the

Still from Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)

vampires who are preying on Ottawa’s lesbian population.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s defiantly odd, but not consistently funny or entertaining enough to rank among the all-time greats.  If you saw any two-minute stretch of JCVH selected at random, you might be convinced that this was a work of camp genius; but string 45 such segments together, and the comedy value runs a little thin.  It’s a hard movie to peg: in its own way, given its low budget, its a sort of masterpiece, and at the same time it’s sort of a disaster.  I think that if it had offered us one less overlong kung fu battle, and one more song and dance number, it might have had a shot at exalted weirdness. Ultimately, though, just as the tone is more irreverent than blasphemous, the style is more zany than weird, and that should keep it off this particular List.

COMMENTSJesus Christ Vampire Hunter is a stew of pop-cinema leftovers, mixing kung fu with horror, Mexican wrestling and even scraps of blaxploitation, all seasoned with a hint of sacrilege.  Like all peasant cuisine, it will be comfort food for many, but offend some refined palates—it’s definitely an acquired taste.  The technical aspects effectively evoke the feel of late seventies/early eighties exploitation movies, with drab urban cinematography, sound obviously added in post-production, and even a cheesy “waka-waka” funk theme as the heroes cruise down the highway. The action scenes are a problem here: for one thing, there are too many, and they’re too long. They’re just competent enough to remind us that they’re not quite up to snuff; Phil Caracas’ Jesus shows reasonable high-kicking athleticism, but he’s no action hero, and it would have been funnier and more endearing if he’d been clumsier. At any rate, the movie can’t be accused of false advertising. The campy/sacrilegious title scares off the squares and the fundies (though it’s obvious the filmmakers are clearly fans of JC’s philosophy of love and tolerance, if not proponents of his divinity). More to the Continue reading CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER (2001)

CAPSULE: CITY NINJA [TOU QING KE] (1985)

AKA Ninja Holocaust; Rocky’s Love Affairs

DIRECTED BY: Yeung Chuen Bong or Liu Li Shen

FEATURING: Cassanova Wong, Chen Wei Man, Chia Che Fu?

PLOT:  Two men, one a boxing champion and one a destitute but talented up-and-comer, seek two necklaces, each with half of a Swiss bank account number engraved on it, for two different criminal organizations.

City Ninja

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This is one crazy chopsocky, but “over-the-top,” “shamelessly exploitative” and “incoherent” are more accurate adjectives to describe it than “weird.”

COMMENTS: From the opening scene where a wandering farmer fights off a horde of ninjas who randomly disappear or explode when defeated, you can be sure that this is a movie that places action and violence far above coherence and logic. You may have seen that coming, but what might surprise you is how much sex gets thrown into the mix. Both of the dual heroes gets several sweaty couplings with his main or subsidiary squeeze, and the flick even throws in a gratuitous Caucasian stripper groupie hired for her cultural willingness to show skin (the Asian girls demurely cover their naughty bits behind a frosted shower stall, soaking wet kimono, or a lover’s flailing limbs). The sex scenes are extra steamy for this type of movie, and even lead to some soap-opera style histrionics when one of the fighters is confronted by the girlfriend he dumped in front of the Other Woman; she pulls a gun on him while informing him she’s pregnant. The director views plot as a necessary evil that gets in the way of fight and sex scenes, yet he tackles a complicated story with two different strands and many moving parts. The result is that he rushes from fight scene to sex scene and back, and fits in exposition when he has a spare moment; there are several times when the viewer gets totally lost because the movie fails to establish which plotline it’s exploring at the moment.

Though the sex makes it stand out from the pack, chopsockies rely on flying boots, not heaving breasts, and City Ninja delivers memorable melees in spades. The combatants are lightning fast, the fight choreography is excellent, there’s comedy that actually works, and the mini-scenarios can be delightfully absurd. Best is a brilliant billiard room brawl with a kabuki-faced acrobat/poolshark that morphs into a mud-wrestling match; there’s also a remarkably executed scene where a boxer fights off attackers by manipulating his girlfriend’s stockinged legs as she sits on his shoulders. It’s far from high art, but it’s crazy and fun, and you have to admire the pure devotion to exploitation movie principles.

The IMDB credits Godfrey Ho as writer of Ninja Holocaust. Godfrey may or may not have been involved, but it certainly has that convoluted Ho vibe. The plot description and reviews make it clear that City Ninja and Ninja Holocaust are substantially the same movie, but the listed credits for the two films differ. I don’t feel particularly compelled to do the detective work necessary to straighten the credits out. Though it has two different heroes and can be difficult to follow, City Ninja does not appear to be spliced together from two different movies, as some assume based on it’s rumored association with cut-n-paste master Ho.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie is dumber than a box of dog biscuits, but it’s also a lot of fun. You never have to wait for something ridiculous to happen and the flick is never boring.”–Mitch, The Video Vacuum (DVD)