Tag Archives: Hong Kong

CAPSULE: MAD DETECTIVE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

FEATURING: Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin

PLOT: An insane detective with psychic abilities comes out of retirement to help with the case of a missing policeman whose gun has been used in several murders.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You’ll find the word “weird” thrown around a lot in regards to this movie; if you’re a longtime devotee of the genre, however, you’ll find Mad Detective resides at the low end of that scale. Once you get your feet under you and understand the rules of Detective Bun’s madness, you’ll find it to be little more than an entertaining police procedural/character study with a semi-supernatural gimmick.

COMMENTS: You would think that Detective Bun’s perfect record solving crimes using his psychic powers would make him an invaluable asset to the Hong Kong police department. Ultimately, however, his madman stunts, like attacking his fellow cops and cutting off his own ear as an impromptu present for a retiring superior officer, become too disruptive for the constabulary to tolerate, and he’s forcibly retired. But when a sticky case comes along, Bun’s preternatural sleuthing skills prove too great a temptation to resist, and a former partner tracks him down to pick his broken brain.

The underlying mystery in Mad Detective isn’t particularly convoluted; only the obscuring mist of Bun’s madness hides the solution. From the audience’s perspective, the confusing thing is that many of the characters that appear onscreen may only appear in Bun’s hallucinations, which can throw you off (at least momentarily, since the reality of the situation is almost immediately quickly resolved). You see, when Bun looks at someone, he sees not only their physical body, but also a manifestation of their personality made flesh. To add another twist, he also sometimes sees people who aren’t there at all. And his method of crime-solving requires him to spark his psychic abilities by recreating the crime in dangerous ways: if a victim was thrown down the stairs while packed in a suitcase, he zips himself up in a soft-sided luggage and has a partner throw him down a flight of stairs, emerging at the end with a “eureka!” Mad Detective works as a schizophrenic character study rather than a typical mystery or procedural—and it works exceptionally well. It even ends with a climax that manages to put a surreal new spin on the Lady from Shanghai-inspired hall-of-mirrors shootout. Good stuff.

Johnnie To (Drug War) is a prolific action director who’s one of the few remaining in Hong Kong to carry on the legacy of John Woo. Wai Ka Fai (who co-wrote the script) is better known as a screenwriter, but directs and produces films occasionally. I have no idea how the divided up the directorial duties here, but it seems likely that To handled the action-oriented set pieces. It’s a shame this movie didn’t start a franchise; To and Fai could have brought Bun back to solve an entire slate of bizarre cases (a la Detective Dee).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If the insanely inventive and entertaining ‘Mad Detective’ weren’t so weird — and in Cantonese — hordes of action geeks would be lining the block to see it.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by short film director Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WICKED CITY (1992)

DIRECTED BY: Tai Kit Mak (AKA Mak Tai Kit, Peter Mak)

FEATURING: Jacky Cheung, , Michelle Reis, , Roy Cheung

PLOT: Members of a secret government agency in Hong Kong charged with destroying shapeshifting “monsters” investigate a new killer street drug nicknamed “Happiness.”

Still from Wicked City (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is some admirable craziness here, but the combination of needlessly arty Dutch angles, poor pacing, and uneven special effects doom City‘s List aspirations. (A less murky print than current thrift-shop-VHS quality transfer would have helped).

COMMENTS: Wicked City is shot in an unreal neon-noir style, with hazy pale-blue lighting with accents of red and green, and the camera constantly tilted to one side to suggest an off-center universe. It’s an affectation that quickly becomes annoying, since we need no encouragement to view a world in which characters say lines like “as you know, my mother was a monster”—and mean it literally—-as fantasy. There are some amazingly clipped scenes: one minute, two agents are sitting in a busy go-go bar. One says, “I think there are monsters here” and in the very next shot the entire human clientele lies dead. Such rushed exposition adds a dreamlike quality to the proceedings. Although the plot, which involves mixed loyalties, betrayals, and a human-monster-monster love triangle, is too silly and obvious to be gripping, there are some wacky action set pieces. A courtesan turns into a spider lady, cutlery flies through the air of its own accord, agents lock hands to create an anti-monster magnetic field, our heroes employ Schwarzeneggeresuqe quips against a killer clock (“how time flies!”), and the climactic battle takes place on the wings of a jet liner in flight. Best of all is the scene where one of the monsters has sex with a pinball machine—not on a pinball machine, with a pinball machine. Overall, Wicked City‘s effects are cheap, and the tone is B-movie operatic. Still, it’s probably as much fun as Hollywood’s Men in Black, and significantly weirder.

Wicked City is an adaptation of a Japanese novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi (who also wrote the source material for Vampire Hunter D). It was more famously adapted in Japan as an anime in 1987. Hong Kong New Wave baron produced this live-action version. Because the film bears many of his hallmarks (fast-paced, effects and stunt-heavy fantasy), some speculate that he may have had an uncredited hands-on role in the direction (as is often suspected of films the prolific Hark produced).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The action/fantasy scenes lack the kinesis and wildness that come in the work of other contemporaries of this era such as Ching Siu-Tung and the film’s producer Tsui Hark.”–Richard Scheib, “Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review”

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dani,” who said “. I found it on VHS in a thrift store and it blew my mind.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

Mo

“Any way you slice it, The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is a massive experience. For some, it’s massively unpleasant. For others, it’s massively bizarre. And for adventurous horror fans craving intensity, it’s massively entertaining.”–Stephen Gladwin, liner notes to the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Boxer’s Omen

DIRECTED BY: Chih-Hung Kuei

FEATURING: Kao Fei [AKA Phillip Ko, Phillip Kao], Bolo Yeung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong

PLOT: Chan Hung, a gangster, sees his brother paralyzed in a kickboxing match with a cheating Thai fighter. Later, he is rescued from a rival’s ambush by an apparition of a Buddhist monk. Chan Hung travels to Thailand to challenge the evil boxer, but while there he discovers that a local Buddhist temple has prophesied that he will defeat a black magician who has waged a longstanding war against the holy sect.

Still from The Boxer's Omen [Mo] (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio made a fortune in the 1970s with their cheaply produced, widely-distributed kung fu films, and came to dominate the local film industry. By the early 1980s the kung fu fad had died out, however, and the studio started losing ground to competitors who came to represent the “Hong Kong new wave.” The Boxer’s Omen comes from a period when the studio was searching for a new cash cow; horror films were a natural candidate. Expensive (by the Brothers’ standards) spectacles like Omen did not help stop the studio’s slide, however, and in 1986 the Shaws stopped making feature films altogether and segued into television production.
  • “Black magic” films had been a popular Shaw Brothers subgenre since 1975’s Black Magic. They were set in East Asian countries like Thailand (exotic locales to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong set) and involved evil spells that required gross-out ingredients like pubic hair, human milk, and vomit.
  • Mo (The Boxer’s Omen‘s Chinese title) is actually a sequel to Gu (1981), a film that is seldom seen in the West.
  • This was the second-to-last film in the career of director Chih-Hung Kuei, who had a “respectable” exploitation movie résumé that included “Brucesplotation” hits like Iron Dragon Strikes Back (with Bruce Li), the creature feature Killer Snakes, and the women’s prison sleaze of Bamboo House of Dolls. After retiring from directing in 1984 he immigrated to the United States and opened a pizza parlor (!)
  • This film was legendary, but almost never seen in the U.S. until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Covered in maggots which buzz like bees, a nude woman is magically birthed from the sealed corpse of a crocodile after an elaborate and disgusting ritual involving (no joke) a regurgitated chicken rectum.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eel vomiting; flying-head strangler; nude crocodile zombie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDThe Boxer’s Omen is pure Shaw Brothers desperation and delirium, an excessive black magic oddity that holds nothing back, with gratuitous nudity, kung fu, rough sex, vulgar Buddhist mysticism, and ample viscera.


Original trailer for Mo

COMMENTS:If you’re looking to take a break from “deeper” weird Continue reading 236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

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.)

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: 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)

13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)

AKA Kung Fu, Kung Fu-sion

“It’s good to go over the line.  It’ll be boring if it doesn’t.  Following reality is not refreshing for me.”–Yuen Woo-ping, fight choreographer for Kung Fu Hustle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chow

FEATURING: Stephen Chow, Qui Yuen, Wah Yuen, Siu-Lung Leung

PLOT: The Axe Gang, hatchet-wielding hooligans garbed in black-tie evening wear, terrorizes Shanghai in the 1930s. Only the poorest areas avoid falling under their thumb—neighborhoods like Pig Sty Alley, a tenement building where every other resident seems to have one-in-a-million kung fu powers.  When an incompetent ersatz gangster tries to extort protection money from the residents of Pig Sty Alley, he accidentally sets in motion a series of events that brings the Axe Gang into conflict with the poor fighters, with explosive results.
Still from Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Stephen Chow worked his way up from the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry, starting in television (including a stint as a children’s TV host). He became one of Hong Kong’s most popular comedians, specializing in a verbal style of comedy called “mo lie tau” (roughly, “nonsense”), which relies heavily on puns, wordplay, incongruities and non sequiturs. He began directing in 1994.
  • Chow’s previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001), was supposed to be his breakthrough film in the West, but distribution was botched by Miramax and the picture became only a small cult hit on DVD.
  • Chow coaxed many older actors from the kung fu’s heyday out of retirement to star in major roles in Kung Fu Hustle. Qui Yuen (who played the part of “Landlady”) was one of the few female martial arts stars of the 1970s and had a small non-speaking role in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Wah Yuen (“Landlord”) has over one hundred acting credits, mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was at one time Bruce Lee’s stunt double. Siu-lung Leung (“The Beast”) was at one time considered third only to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as a martial arts star, and had been retired from the film business since 1988.
  • Kung Fu Hustle was the most profitable feature in Hong Kong cinema history. In its US theatrical run it opened as the #5 movie in the country and became the highest grossing foreign language film of 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many memorable images in Kung Fu Hustle that it’s impossible to determine a consensus favorite.  The vision of two harpist assassins who strum their instruments to summon swords and warriors is a strong candidate, because their poetic menace draws a strong contrast to the lighter and less serious tone of the rest of the film.  Other contenders include the Axe Gang’s Broadway dance number, the Landlady’s whirling Road Runner legs, and a beatific Buddha in the clouds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kung Fu Hustle begins with a brutal and atypically realistic gangland slaughter on the neon-washed streets of Shanghai, and to celebrate gaining control of the city, the Axe Gang breaks into a carefully choreographed Busby Berkeley style fox trot, waving their tomahawks in the air. From this moment, the viewer realizes that they are in the hands of a maestro for whom reality is almost infinitely malleable, and who’s willing to switch cinematic styles at the drop of a hatchet to produce the effect he needs. Chow’s direction drives the movie through numerous stylistic incarnations, from absurd visual comedy through a ballet of breathtakingly beautiful and unreal violence, while quoting everything from Wong Kar Wai to The Shining and The Untouchables to Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes,” yet never loses its grip on the story or alienates the viewer with its madcap diversions.

U.S. release trailer for Kung Fu Hustle

COMMENTS:Kung Fu Hustle is likely to be the most commercially successful, mainstream Continue reading 13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)