Saturday, December 22, 2007


Lam Yue-kit, Heung Chuen-chung and Kim Gee-mei.

THE BARREN VIRGIN (1985) D: Lee Tso-nam

. . . or, The Subject Was Hymenoplasty! A "social disease" film in the fine tradition of U.S. roadshow exploitationers like DAMAGED LIVES (1933) and SEX MADNESS (1938) and MOM AND DAD (1945). In other words, a conservative moral issue fueled by ripe dialogue and fronting an endless parade of "square-up reels" on the part of both the characters and the filmmakers. In other words, sex, son, and lots of it!

The title's misleading though: there are actually two barren virgins put through the wringer here, both of them misunderstood and driven to sins of desperation by the harsh expectations of an unjust society. One, Kwai-len (Kim Gee-mei) is a Hong Kong divorcee with an impenetrable hymen who flees an abusive husband in Hong Kong to live in Japan with the other barren virgin (Lam Yue-kit), a close friend not coincidentally named Mary whose leaking vagina has her terrified that her fiancee's archconservative (and apparently clueless) Singaporean parents—and maybe even her fiancee—will think she's used goods on her wedding night. Quelle horreur!

Repping offense in this gynecological soap opera is Mary's friend Ruby (Heung Chuen-cheung), a likewise appropriately-named scarlet woman who models naked or nearly-naked with snakes, motorcycles, spearguns, banana-yellow surfboards and other phallic metaphors, and snacks on a buffet of promiscuous boyfriends, including one (Chan Kai-jun) who discovers a surprise package on a Caucasian tourist but doesn't let it spoil the fun!

Heung Chuen-chung with accessories.

The barren-esses, meanwhile, turn to the nightclub scene to raise the exorbitant cost of Mary's outpatient hymenoplasty, with Kwai-len substituting her "iron bar" hymen for Mary's less protective barrier right at the brink of nookie with a sleazy old fart.

Despite a Category II rating and distinctive lensing against often dramatic Japanese locales, the abundant toplessness and full frontal nudity here tend to mitigate against any pretense of social responsibility, which was probably the point to begin with. Marbled with the kind of stale, hokey comic relief that one expects from a film of this genre, regardless of country of origin, and the characters ultimately reap their just rewards, as they always have in films like these: some enjoy postnuptial frottage with their abstinent manly men, while others face the direst of consequences (thanks in part to a gweilo "transvertile") in a throwaway bit that reeks of prevailing ignorance about the subject.

But hey, tits galore! as David Friedman might say. And the opening credits—all three minutes, fifteen seconds of 'em—unspool over footage of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Tokyo Disneyland, almost as if to prophecy the innocence that will be lost soon after, but more likely because somebody wanted to get their home movies up on the big screen. The last 90 seconds of this film truly must be seen to be believed.

And remember. It could happen to you. And you. And you!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

EYE FOR AN EYE (1990; Hong Kong)


D: O Sing-pui

When her cop boyfriend (Wilson Lam) puts her supposedly reformed triad father (Foo Wang-tat) behind bars, trading company exec Joey Wong aims to rid the organization of it's dirty ties, but chief goon Jimmy Lung Fong—in a deliciously over-the-top portrait of scumbaggery—has plans for a very hostile takeover. To ensure her cooperation, he rapes her, videotapes the deed, and sells copies to his pals when he's not whipping her, insulting her, killing her relatives, making her watch him have sex with hookers and reveling in her utter defenselessness (which actually lasts longer than logic would dictate).

Lam's conflicted detective is ultimately painted as an ineffectual, emotionally constipated hero-by-accident, which doesn't exactly win back his girl, but hotheaded partner Max Mok—whose unrequited love for Wong is sketched in montage while he sings karaoke to a soaring Dave Wong Kit power ballad (illustrated above and below—thanks YouTube!)—doesn't fare much better when he goes above the law to get things done.

In fact, the filmmakers strongly suggest that triad "troubles" take care of themselves, though to prove it, they go a little nuts in the second half, with catharses and plot twists and fight scenes—including a king sized gang-on-gang chopper battle that spills through a restaurant's windows and into the street, presumably so a fire hydrant can be broken open to make everyone look even cooler fighting in a downpour—piled on at such a ferocious clip that a viewer's emotional circuits might need rewiring after all the yanking around.

Monday, December 10, 2007

And your name is . . . ?

Drew this gal in a hurry about four years ago and for the life of me, I can't remember what movie she's from. All I know is this: it was a Hong Kong movie, shot on video, real cheap. She was a cop, the kind where the actors just sorta show up in their own clothes, dangle a badge holder around their neck from a little chain, and run around the back alleys of Hong Kong with toy guns shooting each other. It must've been late, 'cause I liked this girl's get-up enough to whip out my pencil and start doodling, but a few short years later, I stumble across the sketchpad, and it's driving me nuts wondering who she is and where she was, and why I took little artistic licenses—not sure if she was wearing a belly shirt, definitely wasn't wearing dog tags, and the face is in no way a likeness—to make her and the movie that much harder to ID. But here she is, smudges and all. Click on her and she should sharpen up. Her big-ass North Face-style jacket, the camouflage cargos and the boots are about the only things that I know are in the ballpark. Maybe someday I'll be able to stick a shot from the movie up here so folks can see if I missed by a mile . . .

Monday, December 3, 2007

NARAKA 19 (2007)

NARAKA 19 (2007; Hong Kong)
D: Carol Lau Miu-Suet

Slick but plodding terror tale for teens—based on the wildly popular novel 'The 19th Gate of Hell" by Choi Tsun—about a group of university freshwomen drawn into a "hell game" (in Buddhism, a "naraka" is one of 18 purgatories) via the Short Message Service feature (SMS) on their cell phones, which serve as ersatz user interfaces that help them find weapons, locate exits and earn bonus points. With two of her roommates dead and a third well on her way to insanity, mousy heroine Gillian Chung enters the game in search of answers but ultimately faces demons from her own past. Though told in a way that requires more thought than its intended audience of youngsters might be prepared to give it, the story is nonetheless intriguing if not particularly high on scares, and thanks to some impressive digital effects by Sinai Mountain, holds water for a good long time despite the villain being telegraphed far too early, and an egregious "guest star" dropped into the proceedings for sheer exploitation value.

Gillian Chung

Friday, November 30, 2007

SEOUL (2000; Korea)

Choi Min Soo, Tomoyo Nagase

SEOUL (2000)

D: Masahiko Nagasawa

Japanese cop Tomoyo Nagase, on vacation in Seoul is held over for questioning after he foils an armored car robbery. Meanwhile, Dawn of Nation, a terrorist organization, plots to disrupt the upcoming Asian summit, kidnapping Japan's Foreign Minister to back up their demands. Tomoyo inserts himself into the investigation of hard-nosed Korean cop Choi Min-soo, an unwavering protocol-follower who teaches him the finer points of Korean etiquette along the way, most often at the receiving end of a punch in the face. Choi himself is saddled with obstructive KCIA guys who regularly overrule his authority. Meanwhile, Tomoyo, against the wishes of his handlers, begins to suspect a link between the terrorists, the robbers and the monolithic Korea Japan Union Bank that could spell a deadly threat to Pan-Asian relationships. Slick, solid thriller with crackling action sequences, and a worthy cousin to the seminal 1999 actioner SHIRI, though one rooted less in Tom Clancy-ish techno-fantasy than that film. Writer Yasuo Hasegawa lightly acknowledges Japan's shameful presence in Korea's history, largely through the character of a wizened Korean noodle-stand proprietor whose Japanese fluency surprises Tomoyo, but then in the film's climactic turning point, in which Tomoyo rescues hostages on a city bus in defiance of Choi's orders (and is ultimately joined by Choi in his efforts), this act of Japanese redemption on behalf of Korean innocents seems tantamount to the Japanese (historical revisionists with the best of them) telling the stuffy, face-saving South Koreans to remove the stick from up their collective ass and get over themselves. A minor quibble, considering the film's general intelligence and quality in the face of so many cop thriller genre clichés. Trimming a few of the film's multiple denouements might have helped, though.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


At last! Long overdue confirmation that the people most qualified to investigate leg-tugging ghost children in haunted lakes and sobbing spectres in derelict housing estates are three beautiful women in short-shorts, tank tops and swimsuits! In the first episode of LEGEND ABOUT HUNTING GHOST: SPIRIT IN NIGHT (2002) After introducing hostess/models Eileen Chin, Ann Lau and Hui Wai-san in office Q&A sessions and then letting them introduce themselves wearing swimsuits by a stream, producer/host/flim-flam man Tin Tam takes them for an investigative swim in a resort lake supposedly haunted by the ghosts of drowned children, where a headless plastic doll conveniently placed in the water freaks them out in broad daylight.

Next up, they attempt to peel apples in front of a mirror in order to see the faces of their future husbands, but in each case they appear to be stuck with Tim Tam when he moves into the shot to tell them they’ve broken the peels. Finally, a visit to a condemned high-rise apartment building in Kuala Lumpur for a session of “plate spirit” (essentially a Quija game involving an overturned up on a sheet of Chinese characters) allows Tam to play the ace up his sleeve, video glitches subtly present throughout the videogramme suddenly pay off when a sobbing spirit—conveniently located in the room adjacent to the one where they decide to play the game—pounds on the connecting door and, wouldn’t ya know, blacks out the camera! In the right frame of mind, this is cheap fun, and one indeed wonders how Tam keeps a straight face in view of the flagrant con-artistry he and his crew are perpetrating, much of it unwittingly confirmed by a mystic “master” that Tam interviews at the end of the film. Reality-program production techniques are hindered by excessive waving of off-camera flashlights at the actresses for effect.

After the obligatory preface in which new hostesses Yu Lam-lam, Cheng Yan-yi and Lee Hak-lei postulate the existence of ghosts while modelling swimwear by the pool, LEGEND ABOUT HUNTING GHOST 2: HORROR NIGHT next entry in the earnest Malaysian “reality” series proceeds to offer scant evidence of the supernatural and plentiful implications of wishful thinking and off-camera crew tampering, as Tin Tam—who now actually seems to believe in the antediluvian myths he’s shoveling—drags his gullible cuties around to remote and/or witching hour spook sites (like a haunted lake, where they get to wear swimsuits again) in the wee hours of the morning when they’re way beyond tired, then yells something like “What was that?!?” at a bubble in the lake or a squeak in an old house, then presents the resulting stampede from the scene as evidence of the paranormal. Priceless!

Hostess Lee’s conviction that her cellphone was stolen by the graveyard ghost—all too readily encouraged by Tin Tam, who seems to know right where they’ll find it—and hostess Cheng’s “possession” by the estate ghost illustrate how easily reason can be ditched in favour of delirious group-think that favours urban legends for which there is clearly no evidence. But Tim Tam will have none of that . . .

Sporting a sleazy new porn-producer hairstyle and hopping into the director’s seat, Tam opens LEGEND ABOUT HUNTING GHOST 3: SPIRIT by reading viewer mail complaining that the show has yet to find an actual ghost and that the female hostesses are needlessly dressed in skimpy attire. His response? Smaller bathing suits and shorter shorts!

Like their predecessors, hostesses Christine, Cat and Chan Yi-yi (the only one with prior film experience, having appeared briefly in the 2000 Sammi Cheng vehicle SUMMER HOLIDAY) are introduced in their swimwear, then taken on Tam’s patented tour of the not-so-supernatural. Stop-offs this time include a delapitated colonial mansion—conveniently littered with “evidence” like joss sticks, yellow-paper talismen, ancestor tablets, and rotting papier-maché figures—where a couple of girls (but not the cameraman, of course) spot a figure at a window; a murky pond where the girls conduct an investigation by floating around on an inflatable alligator;

and finally back to the office where a “phone call to hell” pretty much flatlines, though Tam’s paranormal “expert” claims there’s plenty of evidence that they’re “getting close” to the spirit world. But just how close? Perhaps we'll find the answer in . . .

LEGEND ABOUT HUNTING GHOST 4: THE SPIRIT ON EARTH. The fourth installment in this Malaysian pseudo-reality series is just barely the most effective, though its predecessors score higher on the sex appeal scale. Tim Tam’s “adventure team” in this one is comprised of a more intriguing mix of faces (who understandably take billing by first name only), including a lovely Indian girl, Karen, who speaks fluent Cantonese and wears the most revealing swimsuit. On the whole, though, the outfits are on the conservative side for this outing (perhaps Tam got his wrist slapped for Chan Yi-yi’s skimpy bikini in Part 3?). Tam pushes Karen, Elvi and Shirley harder than he did the ladies in previous episodes, probably because he’s yet to prove anything outside of the attractiveness of young models in swimsuits. At a “mining pool,” he responds to their unwillingness to swim out near a yawning vertical mine shaft surrounded by twisted rebar—even after his bribes and threats—with a real gem: “Girls nowadays are harder to force.” The derelict building in this one is an old hospital, and as usual, they find nothing in it of a supernatural nature, but the place is genuinely creepy and the girls show more genuine fear than any of their predecessors. In fact, it’s a little uncomfortable to see them put through such an emotional wringer in pursuit of something that anyone with common sense knows does not exist, but it’s effective because of it. A shuffle here; a creaky water pipe there; a flashlight shining on a rafter: these are Tam’s evidence of the paranormal. Well, those and a few “invisible” crew members who can make noises or break things while “everyone” is seemingly in the same room.

Fifth and (to date) final entry in this ridiculous series—LEGEND ABOUT HUNTING GHOST 5: CATCH THE OIL GHOST—ditches the formula of the previous four. No more swimsuits, no more short-shorts, no more adventure teams. Instead, a single hostess (who opens the show wearing a lovely sheer black shirt) interviews a woman, seated behind obscured glass, who relates the story of her husband being possessed by a trio of “Blackmen,” oily, boxer-short-clad child-spirit-demon-thingies that disguise themselves as his mahjong buddies, and who are known to break into houses to steal things and rape women (funny how such distasteful, male-dominated activities in near-third-world shitholes are also conveniently attributable to ghosts). This tale is re-enacted with cut-rate actors (one of whom, Eileen Chin, was actually a hostess in the first episode). In the “reality” portion of the show, the hostess ventures out to the boonies, where the men in a remote village—most of whom look unemployed, drunk and all too willing to cater to the producer’s wishful thinking—gather at night to hunt a “Blackman” who has, according to the flimsiest yokel evidence, been giving them troubles with break-ins and raping (always blame the ghost. Yeah, that’s the ticket!). They arm themselves with with cell phones, guns and machetes and, in more evidence of Tim Tam’s out-dated flim-flammery, very nearly catch the little beasty before it disappears into the forest. Oddly, the deliberately gauzy glimpse of the thing reveals it to be nearly identical to the version shown in the dramatization! Coincidence! You decide.

Monday, November 26, 2007

GYPSY ANGELS (1980/1994)

GYPSY ANGELS (1980/1994; United States)
D: Alan Smithee

Diggin' into the vault for this one. Ahhh, the memories. Brother, you just ain't seen bad acting until you've seen a pre-Wheel of Fortune Vanna White, playing the leather jumpsuit-clad squeeze toy of a macho barnstorming pilot (executive producer Gene Bicknell, who looks a lot like John Sayles but acts like Merle Haggard) defiantly proclaim: 'Well let me tell you one thing mister, I am one fine stripper. Real kinky, you know what I mean? Yeah, you betcha!' If the bellbottoms, aforementioned jumpsuits and Lyle Waggoner on display here are any indication, this is a movie the top-billed Vanna (at least Gene correctly surmised nobody would pay to see him) would likely have preferred to keep buried in the past, since most of it was shot in 1980 before she realized she was better suited to decorating game show sets. Not only can she not act, but she appears to be on the verge of puking during her big love scene with Gene (in which she innocently begs 'Love me. me.') To her credit, Vanna does reveal one of her vowels during that same romp in the hay. Otherwise, toss this one a Golden Turkey Award.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Hal Lindsay, false prophet

D: Robert Amram, Rolf Forsberg

"It's almost as if we had an unconscious desire to see the biblical prophesies fulfilled," frets narrator Orson Welles, ominously, in this classic piece of Christian fearmongering. Quietly insane evangelical minister Hal Lindsay attempts to marry revelation to then-current affairs in an effort to prepare us for the Armageddon that lies just around the corner. Obviously, with 30 years of hindsight, we now know he was wrong, and continues to be wrong, but had really swingin' fashion sense circa 1976.

Many actual scientists and deep thinkers appear on screen in LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, and you'd be forgiven if you felt that some of them (who are clearly talking along evolutionary lines) were being taken out of context to support Lindsay's crackpot theories. Lindsay's apocalypse is scotch-taped together out of all the Bad News® that was available at the time of production. Thus, Lindsay's world was set to end as a result of any number of nasty afflictions. Recombinant DNA! Brazilian killer bees! Viruses from Hell! Atheists and witches run amok! And, as Orson says with deathly gravitas, "Nucular" Holocaust. It's Hal's nauseating belief that if you don't have hardcore Christian faith, then your ONLY possible options are witchcraft, astrology, transcendental meditation, Hare Krishnas or the Rev. Sun Myung-moon's wacky Reunification Church! In any case, Hal sez you haven't got a prayer.

The late, great Orson Welles

As always, Hal saves the best for last, enlightening us as to the coming of the antichrist, a figure he believes is alive today (at least as of 1976), and who would achieve omnipotence through seemingly good deeds and the establishment of world peace before enslaving everyone with microchip implants supplied by the then-fledgling computer industry. Or something. Apparently, only those who heed Hal's book and movie can avoid falling under the spell of this evil megalomaniac. He then proceeds to illustrate his argument with imagery designed to stoke the usual cold-war paranoia: before or around 1982, sez Hal, Russia and China will invade the middle east (didn't happen, at least not the way it's predicted here), the European market will grow to a prophesied ten member nations (25 and counting and still no Armageddon), and the "nucular" bombs will rain from the skies like the falling stars seen by the biblical John on his island retreat (well, we're still waiting!). Nonetheless, this allows the filmmakers to go mad with stock footage, a delirious and depressing exercise in escalating doom that runs a full six minutes, unnarrated. Oh, the humanity!

Just because radical fundamentalists love to fulfill prophesies, or see fulfillment where none rationally exists, doesn't mean the prophets were right. It just means that we'll always have to live with people like Hal, desperate to prove their "faith" has substance rather than just keeping it to themselves, and actually learning from it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007


FLASH POINT (Hong Kong/China; 2007)

D: Wilson Yip Wai-shun

Re-teaming of the director and star of SPL and DRAGON TIGER GATE is an extra lean, meaty police revenge thriller that treads familiar ground but builds to a protracted action climax that's sure to please fans of mixed martial arts, a school of increasing interest for producer and action director Donnie Yen, not to mention one of the most popular and profitable sports in the world at the time of the film's release. Story has venemous Vietnamese brothers (Ray Lui, Collin Chou and Xing Yu) hardballing their way into territory controlled by Hong Kong gang boss Ben Lam and his compatriots. The near-mortal wounding of Lam convinces the other three to seek justice from Organized Crime & Triad Bureau detective Donnie Yen, a one-man tornado to wants these guys disposed of in the worst way. Yen apparently finds his badge a little restrictive and his deep cover operative (Louis Koo) increasingly at risk of exposure. When gang honcho Ray Lui (in a solid comeback performance) is finally captured, the brothers start eliminating witnesses and eventually sniff out the mole in their midst. Koo survives their attack, but they kidnap his girlfriend to ensure that his memory fails at the trial, and when Lui walks free, Yen's snatches the guy up for delivery to the big showdown. In time, bodies are pushed beyond the limits of known human endurance, just as they have been in Hong Kong action cinema for decades, and Yip's camera swoops and glides to capture the elegant ferocity of these duels without a flurry of smash-cut editing constructing the fights for him. What Hong Kong cinema needs is more movies like this to balance the current lean toward romantic comedies and show that the former colony's film industry hasn't lost touch with the martial artistry and screen action design that have placed it on the international stage

Ray Lui

Friday, September 14, 2007


THE EXODUS (Hong Kong/China 2007)
D: Edmond Pang Ho-cheung.

The opening shot, a slow, meticulous dolly backwards down a hallway, says it all. It begins with a tight closeup of a pair of alluring female eyes in a photograph. The subject of the portrait is revealed to be Queen Elizabeth II, and beneath it stand two men in swim trunks, goggles and flippers who light up smokes and casually redirect a Hong Kong police officer who has unwittingly entered the doorway at screen left. These must be cops, pre-1997, and as the frame continues to open up, we notice two, then three, then four of these "frogmen" beating a suspect with mallets and phone books as he struggles violently to flee.

"All the hatred of this world are caused by men," claims one of the film's female characters, but as evidenced by this gorgeous opening shot, much of it happens under the watchful eye of condoning women, and in pondering the question of why the female almost always outlives the male, as well as what they talk about when they go to the ladies' room together, writer-director Edmond Pang, along with co-writers Cheuk-Wan-chi and Jimmy Wan Chi-man, have crafted a sleek black comedy that, strangely, doesn't manifest most of its inherent dark whimsy until well into the final reel.

Nagged by a condescending mother-in-law who only sees value in a man who runs his own business, and long ago demoted to a desk job as a reward for interdepartmental whistle-blowing, bored and complacent Tai Po police sergeant Simon Yam—who we later learn was the redirected officer in the opening sequence—begrudges a favor to a fellow officer and agrees to take a statement from a peeping Tom (Nick Cheung), who foams profanely about a top-secret organization of women plotting the elimination of the male species, one unsuspecting rube at a time. Yam thinks little of it, until the report disappears from the evidence room and the suspect one-eighties his story after a visit from a prickly female senior officer (Maggie Shaw). Eager to learn why such a patently ludicrous story would need to be hushed up, he soon comes to the realization that Cheung was telling the truth!

Artfully directed and photographed (by Charlie Lam Chi-kin) with an emphasis on static, contemplative frame compositions the seem to grow organically from the modernist yoga-zen architecture that dominates the locations, but the concept begs for a playfulness that the filmmakers seem to avoid until the last ten minutes of the picture. The build-up is played with such a straight face that sequences which all but confirm the existence of the assassination club pass with nary a raised eyebrow. Perhaps that was the point, but the shift in tone is nonetheless jarring. Yam underplays nicely throughout, as if his character knows all too well how ridiculous his mission might seem to those looking in. Fine music score by Gabriele Roberto features exceptional piano solos by Aiko Takai.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, T.V. Carpio


D: Julie Taymor

Ever have a particularly strong memory play out in your head while you were listening to a cherished song on your mp3 player? You know the routine: the song isn't necessarily about you or your particular fragment of history, but nonetheless there's the movie unspooling in your mind with it's own soundtrack, if only for a few minutes.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, the latest film from renowned stage director turned film director Julie Taymor seems to be built almost entirely on the effortless ability of virtually any song in the back catalogue of The Beatles to evoke a certain time, a certain place, a certain frame of mind in virtually any listener. Taymor chooses these moments wisely, if rather obviously: they're pretty much the cultural touchstones that have all but replaced actual history in the minds of recent generations, in no small part becauce they've formed the backbone of nearly every Big American Movie about "the sixties" to come down the pike. As such, they're cliches, but set to the music of The Beatles, they're magic, and besides, cliches are what works best in any good musical. Like most of the recent crop of stage musicals based on pop repertoires (Abba, Rod Stewart, Queen, Billy Joel), the story here would be a dreadfully thin, left-of-center oversimplification without them.

The film's much-touted musical/fantasy sequences are fuel for daydreams, as one would expect from director of TITUS and director/designer of Broadway's LION KING refit, but many of the songs that frame them were never intended to forward a narrative, and they'd more than likely stop the plot cold if it weren't for Taymor's dazzling visuals completing the character arcs within these sequences more effectively than her unquestionably talented cast of singers, who look more 60s-as-we-remember-it than 60s-as-it-really-was, and often need only be present in a scene surrounded by the director's dreamy phantasmagoria and singing a typically evocative (but non-narrative) tune for us the audience to grasp their evolution.

Of course, without the music, there's about as much plot here as you'd find in any stage musical based on any pop act's back catalogue (paging Abba!), and the plot is this: idealistic early 60's goody-goodies become late-60's cynics, burnouts, protestors and veterans, full stop. That old chestnut has pretty much turned up in countless major movies about "the sixties" made in the last 20 years, but the timeless quality of the music keeps us from ever caring that Taymor and 69-year old writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (THE COMMITMENTS, STILL CRAZY, umm...NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) are just running down a checklist of important signifiers of the decade, and coating each with a gorgeous new lacquer.

Taymor's cast of actor/singers (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Martin Luther and Dana Fuchs, the latter two both debuting here as Joplin and Hendrix refurbs respectively) is impressive across the board—as are the numerous guest stars, including Bono, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, but as an avowed fan of Hong Kong cinema and Cantonese pop music, I'll give special props to T.V. Carpio as the bisexual Prudence (bad with men, yearns for the ladies). Carpio's mom is famous Hong Kong diva Teresa Carpio, and it's obvious T.V. has inherited her mother's pipes, particularly during her opening rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" a yearning ode to lesbian love.

T.V. Carpio

This is a director's picture all the way, and one very much worthy of the big screen experience. The ground it covers may feel well worn, perhaps a bit pat, but Taymor and her team of designers and effects engineers dress it up in a such a beautiful new wardrobe, it'd be a pity to not see it writ large, while appreciating its artistic intensity rather than its philosphical/political underpinnings, because the latter are, naturally, better suited to the history books.

Monday, September 10, 2007


D: George A. Romero

In an age where everyone's dying to tell a story, to make themselves known, and increasingly fitted eight ways to Sunday with the means to do it, it should come as no surprise that a reimagining of George Romero's DEAD franchise would be a timely affair, particularly now that it's been liberated from studio interference.

This time out—his 146th if I recall correctly, and I think I do—Romero's trademark unexplained zombie apocalypse rises up while the protagonists, a bunch of pretentious film school students and their besotted professor, are shooting a low budget monster movie deep in the woods outside Pittsburgh. The one in Ontario, Canada, that is. Armed with the videographic weapons of the digital age—cell phone cameras, DV cameras, Webcams, security cameras, Myspace and YouTube videos— and the knowledge that the end is nigh, the group sets out in their grimy Winnebago (with the "W" logo rather lazily taped over by Romero's set designers) to document the mayhem with an eye to uploading the results so that people can see the truth this bunch believes the world is being denied by the mainstream media, which has almost immediately attempted to put a positive spin on the plague.

Folks who like to piss all over Romero's last zombie flick, the narrative-driven LAND OF THE DEAD (which really wasn't that bad), will find much to savour here now that he's working to his own specs on a comparitively modest budget and freed of a standard narrative. There's a sense of urgency and nausea (and, of course, calculation) in the hand-held camerawork— much of it performed by cast members—that has been largely absent since Romero's original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

That to achieve any of this Romero's characters had to be pretentious film-school students (and their besotted professor) was a bit of a bother, but in this age of untrusted media conglomerates and ubiquitous, listen-to-ME "personal reporting," I suppose it is the most topical route to catch up to the zeitgeist. But the concept wears a bit thin over the course of 90+ minutes, though by then you've invested enough in these characters to at least see how, or if, they die. The whole cynical "are you gettin' all this on your stupid camera?" ethical-moral routine is present and accounted for as pretty much everyone takes a shot at their student "director" (Joshua Close) for his seemingly callous drive to capture every gruesome moment on video. A brief snippet of Close's character talking to the camera is about all we're given to suggest he's NOT motivated by a filmschoolian lust for fame, and it's barely enough to convince. Indeed, the entire film is set up as a patchwork documentary pieced together from various sources by the director's girlfriend after he's no longer capable of finishing the project. Indeed, the film's opening title isn't DIARY OF THE DEAD, it's THE DEATH OF DEATH. Clever, if not particularly inventive. Her switch from loathing his decisions to finishing the project in his honour—replete with a horror-film score because she feels she needs to "scare you"—is just a bit too tidy (and quite how she does it is never explained, even though we're supposed to be watching the final results)

As stated, a lower budget apparently couldn't deny Romero the services of the folks at KNB Effects Group, and their gore doesn't disappoint in the least! A few little bits of CG are evident in the head shots, but that's acceptable in this day and age. Overall, though, the zombies meet some very inventive demises this time out, via defibrillator paddles, acid, scythes, gunshots, you name it. An attempt to be all meaningful in the final scene rings a bit hollow, but the effect used to put it across is exceptionally well done.

The film's most memorable character is bound to be Samuel, the deaf-mute Amish man who proves rather handy with his little chalk-board, with which he communicates with the protagonists when they stop at his farm, and sticks of dynamite, with which he dispatches three undead ghouls before turning around his chalkboard, where's he written an introductory "Hello, I'm Samuel" that he punctuates with confident little nod of the head! Priceless.


VEXILLE (2007, Japan)
D: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)

2077. Ten years after Japan withdraws from the U.N. in opposition to legislation banning continued development of advanced robotics and biotechnology, the entire country has become an impenetrable fortress: no one gets in, no one gets out.

The discovery of a human limb made up of an unknown artificial biology—severed from his own body by a Japanese agent trying to shake off the film's exo-suited heroine clinging to it as the pair dangle from the wing of an airplane that has just torn through a towering chateau (!) on U.S. soil in the film's jaw-dropping opening sequence—forces the American government to greenlight a covert infiltration using members of S.W.O.R.D., a high-tech special forces unit clad in gadget laden battle armor.

The chosen super-soldiers have got a three minute window, and they're almost immediately hit by a violent welcoming party, but one of them makes it through. She's Vexille (voiced by Meisa Kuroki), and she soon discovers the entire country is a barren (and flat!) wasteland, with once-pulsing Tokyo nothing more than a vast, teeming, shantytown populated by the victims of a government biotechnology experiment gone horribly, morally south.

In a brilliant set-up for the climax, Vexille's commander and his minions are briefly able to run surveillance of the secretive country, but a biometric scan reveals only two actual human beings among the hundreds of thousands clearly populating the former metropolis, including those aiding Vexille in her mission, which suddenly takes on a much greater importance for the future of mankind.

Director Sori (billed this way on screen), the effects director on Shinji Aramaki's groundbreaking APPLESEED (2004), takes the helm for this gorgeously grim cyberpunk ethics lesson. The moral implications of man and machine reaches its apex here: this is a world in which science has gone far beyond the melding of man and machine into the realm of slowly evolving mankind into machines via a cyber-virus disguised a Heavy-Industry controlled government as a cure for another less-threatening malaise. In VEXILLE, the final vestiges of humanity are wiped out during a few moments of agonizing convulsions, and the newly-minted android is ready for conversion into just about any variety of domestic or military machinery. This ain't your afterschool anime, kiddies.

Character design here is more fully developed than technology allowed on APPLESEED; character faces in particular are much more naturalistic and, because the story demands it, ethnically correct. And where the earlier film dazzled with its gleaming mega-city and shiny robots, VEXILLE's animators have applied the same attention to detail to the crowded Tokyo slum, which resembles nothing so much as a bustling city-wide street market rich with telling details: rusted sheetmetal, weathered wood, a cobbled together existence for a people who are all to aware they're soon to lose the last remnants of their culture, their humanity.

Of course, like APPLESEED, VEXILLE also has exo-suits, albeit pared-down versions, and they're cool and shiny and loaded with options, but the film's undoubted standouts are the "jags," humoungous, screaming, burrowing wasteland worms made up almost entirely of scrap metal and failed "experiments," cast-off robots and machinery that, in assimilation, finally find a purpose: to assimilate more of the same, ultimately inside the massive barriers that surround Tokyo. The jags also figure heavily in VEXILLE's signature setpiece, in which Vexille and rebel leader Maria and her motley, dwindling crew undertake a hair-raising, theatre-rumbling mission to infiltrate the offshore headquarters of the company responsible for virtually ending the Japanese race. It's a sequence packed to exploding with rapid-fire action, incredible detail and an ever-escalating series of seemingly insurmountable threats, all set to a pounding techno score by APPLESEED maestro Paul Oakenfold. Indeed, the film pushes things a bit too far during the final moments of this sequence, with one limping character chasing another limping character who has just survived the inferno of a full-speed helicopter crash. But it's a minor offense, and that might be more easily overlooked on the small screen which, somewhat sadly, is probably where the majority of westerners will be able to experience it.

One thing's for certain: with animation technology now capable of creating such richly, minutely detailed environments and such subtle degrees of character realism, and also capable of emulating the language of live-action so convincingly that you nearly forget you're watching a cartoon, the dawn of a new anime age may be just around the corner.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hong Kong: Outside In #4

POWAQQATSI (Cannon/MGM, 1988)
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Cinematographer: Graham Berry, Leonidas Zourdoumis

Hong Kong: Outside In #3

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Paramount, 2003)
Director: Jan de Bont
Cinematographer: David Tattersall

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My name is Grace Lee...

Well, it's about damned time. THE GRACE LEE PROJECT finally hits DVD. Women Make Movies has finally put a price tag on this that puts it within reach of the home viewer. Definitely worth the 20 bucks.

You can order it here

In THE GRACE LEE PROJECT, filmmaker Grace Lee manages to cram a textbook worth of insight into a scant 70 minute running time, and, with a sense of humor akin to that shown by Morgan Spurlock in SUPER SIZE ME, presents a litany of telling observations about growing up female in a diasporic Asian (largely Korean) culture that, to hear the myriad Grace Lees on display tell it, almost unwittingly turns its young women into closed-minded do-gooders who, even when they do muster up the gumption to rebel, only do so out of fear of losing face for their parents and the greater community. In other words, girls who never seem to have any true sense of independence or freedom, and basically the polar opposite of the filmmaker herself - a self-professed (in the film) non-believer from a Christian Korean family who dated and married a Caucasian (also in the film) and decided on a career that all but guaranteed a hard-scrabble existence (although this film should change all that). Nonetheless, her own parents, a soft-spoken, humble couple, are featured in the films opening moments and if they harbor any feelings of embarrassment about their daughter's life choices, it's not evident on screen.

The film will probably resonate best with Korean women ages 25-35, as Lee genuinely seems unable to find a Korean Grace Lee that deviates far from familial and societal expectations ("quiet, soft spoken, Christian, petite, intelligent, really nice and with 3.5 years of piano lessons"), and those she does highlight are hard-pressed to define what makes them "different" from what their generic names imply. Nonetheless, all the subjects, while sharing essentially the same existential quandary, which itself is more a symptom of their upbringing than their parents' choice of name, still manage to betray little eccentricities and repressed desires to subvert the system, so to speak. Women of Chinese extraction, most notably Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs ("Grace X"), are also featured prominently and tend to come off as the most atypical of the bunch in one way or another, perhaps because of the culture's longer presence in the west, perhaps not. Another Chinese Grace Lee who came from an abusive adopted home and in turn took in an abused woman and her three daughters later in life, provides much of the emotion of the doc's final 20 minutes.

No film about young Korean women made by a young Korean woman could possibly sidestep the issue of religion, what with Christianity an ever-present force in the diasporic Korean community. Lee makes no bones about her thoughts on the subject in sequences involving a P.K. ("Pastor's Kid") who has her entire life planned out while still just a teenager, most likely unaware of the hidden machinations that conspire to keep her on the path she's "chosen." In voice-over, Lee says she envies the girl's unsullied and eager acceptance of her future ("marriage at 25, three kids each spaced five years apart), but the images presented on screen subtly suggest the director knows that life may throw up unexpected obstacles to challenge her glassy-eyed optimism. The girl's father is shown operating a modest but dedicated church out of his backyard and she dutifully quotes the requisite scripture to explain why this is acceptable, while the sharp-eyed viewer will no doubt see plain evidence of a split within this particular Korean community's church that has probably given this Grace Lee an even narrower world-view.

Continuing the theme, Lee meets a Pastor's wife and, in one of the film's more obviously calculated moments, shows her explaining how young girls can always get a "do-over," should they lose their virginity, during a discussion of the dreaded S-word at a Christian youth group meeting. Nice.

In the end, the audience is left with many excellent avenues for discussion. For as alike as these women are in both name and social conditioning, life will throw many of them in fascinating new directions - if only they'd have the encouragement of a community, and the courage of Grace X, to see where they lead.

THE GRACE LEE PROJECT, though it lacks the marketing power behind docs like THE CORPORATION, SUPER SIZE ME or the collected works of Michael Moore, easily joins their ranks as one of the most entertaining pop-docs of the year.

After a screening in Toronto in 2006, Grace Lee answered questions from the audience (four of whom were Grace Lees, including two from the film), including the inevitable query about a sequel. She claimed she was done with the subject, but I couldn't help but think of Michael Apted's 7-UP series. Obviously, a GRACE LEE PROJECT every seven years might be overkill, but at least one follow-up, say in ten years time, would be an ideal way to see how these women, many of whom are still at crucially undefined moments in their lives, have turned out in comparison to the expectations both they (and others) have for themselves in the film.

Rex says you gotta see this one, and here's the sneak peak to prove it:

Hong Kong: Outside In #2

THAT MAN BOLT (Universal, 1973)
Director: Henry Levin/David Lowell Rich
Cinematographer: Gerald Perry Finnerman



Fred "The Hammer" Williamson (as Jefferson Bolt): "I'm gonna even it up for Sam. Tell 'em I'll be in Hong Kong. I want them to know where I am and what I'm doing, so they'll come looking for me. That way, I'll find them."


Friday, August 17, 2007

"I surrenduhrrr!!"

Kudos to Colin Geddes over at Kung Fu Fridays for uncovering this little gem on Youtube. It's a segment of "Movie World" hosted by venerable Hong Kong film critic Paul Fonoroff, and it deals with the dubbing of English movies into Cantonese and Hong Kong movies into English back in the halcyon days of the late 80's. Best of all, those of use who first experienced John Woo's seminal THE KILLER in its English dubbed incarnation can finally put faces to the "voices" of Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hong Kong: Outside In #1

Director: James Fargo
Cinematographer: Rexford L. Metz


Camilla Griggs, Chuck Norris, Lloyd Kino

The philosophy of Chuck Norris (as Josh Randall): "Hong Kong. A borrowed place on borrowed time. The British run it for now, but in 17 years, the lease runs out and the People's Republic is the landlord. But this is a city of survivors, and whatever happens, Hong Kong will always be THE place."

The other philosophy of Chuck Norris (as Josh Randall): "Never let your girl handle your piece."

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Just came into possession of a small pile of Korean theatre flyers via the globetrotting Ms. Saigon, and thought this one from Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS was kinda cool. I'm no fan of Michael Bay, but I do love movie posters in languages not my own. In moviehouses in my neck of the woods, they give you these shitty little magazines filled with studio press-kit rewrites, "interviews" that are really just...blowjobs-in-disguise, upcoming DVD review-lets that largely parrot sleeve copy, and for whatever reason, horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. Basically, crap that can be read in thoses few moments you've got before the movie begins. Well, in Korea, you get these cool little 9' x 12' one-sheets with just the information you need. Sure, it's still studio fluff, but compared to some of the reading material I've seen in theaters, this is marketing minimalism. I'm sure Korean theatres have plenty of other tie-ins going on, but since I've only seen these little flyers, I can live in my bubble a little bit longer.



Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"God Forgives. The Brotherhood doesn't."

Well, it took nearly a decade, but the powers that be, somewhere in the offices of MGM, have finally realized the Craig Baxley's 1991 magnum opus STONE COLD is worthy of release on DVD.

Bar none, this film, which launched the DTV career of ex-Seattle Seahawk Brian "Boz" Bosworth, is the most underrated action movie of the 1990's. Maybe even of all time. Seriously. American movies designed around sports or martial arts stars all too often make the fatal mistake of getting mired in "messages" or, worse, pandering to the pre-teen set. In a sense, both are what effectively killed Jeff Speakman's big-screen career around the same time STONE COLD was in wide release. Speakman, a real-life ken-po boogie master ("I got the pow-uhh"), had roughly the same acting ability as The Boz, but his debut film, THE PERFECT WEAPON (1991), was a dull slog through Buddhist-y believe-in-yourself-as-you-kick-ass righteousness, and his followup, STREET KNIGHT (1993), which Cannon ultimately sent straight to video despite high production values and a solid supporting cast, was really just another after-school special about the perils of street gangs. By the time Speakman tried to go "dark," with veteran stunt-coordinator Rick Avery's directorial debut, 1993's THE EXPERT, the damage was done, though Speakman has remained a quality also-ran of the DTV market ever since.

And so has The Boz.

But it wasn't the quality of Boz's debut film that sent him to the ranks of the Blockbuster shelf-fillers. Box-office performance probably had something to do with it, but that in no way implies a bad movie. Like Speakman, The Boz simply wasn't a household name, nor was he as well known as the producers probably thought he was, but if nothing else, his comparatively affordable salary simply meant more money for some of the goddamned coolest practical stunts ever to burn across the screen. Reportedly, the producers had only ever planned on making something that would be an easy sell to the big cable networks (thus the film's 1.33:1 aspect ration, matted on the new DVD), but when Baxley turned 74-year-old Walter Doniger's tight screenplay into a lean, mean motherfucker movie in which everyone and everything gets shot and blown up, they knew there's be at least some money to be found in a theatrical release. And so it went...

A few of the tightasses I worked with at a daily newspaper at the time were fish-eyed that I could give this silly-sounding movie such raves in an extended review, but when I passed around the screening cassette a few months later, most of them suddenly realized the greatness they'd missed on the big screen. Those who didn't lived sheltered lives...

I mean, not only do you get a pro-football novelty-athlete-du-jour in the lead role of a supercop who infiltrates a scuzzy gang of bikers with access to heavy artillery (including military choppers!) and plans to blast up the state senate, but you get not one but two of the greatest screen villains of the past 20 years, Lance Henriksen as gang leader Chains and William Forsythe as his vicious second-in-command Ice. And with veteran hollywood stunt coordinator Baxley at the helm after two above-average mid-budget actioners—ACTION JACKSON (1988) and I COME IN PEACE (1990)—it's a safe bet the action scenes won't just amaze, they'll friggin' cut your arms and legs off and weld you into a steel tank and drop you into the bah-yoo, son.

And now that we live in an age where heavily and obviously computer-augmented "practical" stunts in a film like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD are considered welcome throwbacks to old-school 80's action pictures by critics who really oughtta have better memories, it's nice to put in an true old-school action movie and see what it was like when stunts were done entirely for real.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Dead Air

Kinda like the FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD title better, but PLANE DEAD will have to do. Good zombie fun, with what appears to be something resembling an actual budget...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

There'll be blood...on the floor...when Super Snooper opens the door...

One of the best bits of news I received last year was news that an old favourite—Sergio Corbucci's SUPERFUZZ (1981) aka POLIZIOTTO SUPERPIU—was finally getting a legitimate Region 1 DVD release this February. A special edition no less, although what ultimately hit store shelves was not what many fans were expecting. The R1 DVD of Superfuzz turned out to be the U.K. cut of the film, which lists among its offenses: PAL speedup, additional and extended scenes which screw up the pacing a bit, music replacement, alternate voices from the U.S. version, missing narration, and more.

Also, the distributor didn't port over the interviews with Corbucci's wife and actor Sal Borgese from the Italian disc, opting instead for a bio of Terence Hill and clips from other films (but NOT Superfuzz, oddly enough).

Saigon says skip this baby and get the Italian DVD instead (see below).

While some folks may have fond memories of SUPERFUZZ from it's endless airings on HBO in the network's early years, I was one of the few, the proud, to have seen it first run in a theatre, geek that I was. And what would possess a small-city 12-year-old to place a fluffy, often puerile Italian comedy made by people he'd never heard of above all other fare—even RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—playing the local multiplexes that summer?

Well, the theme song definitely had something to do with it, which is why I posted it over at Youtube, taken from the awesome Italian DVD of the film that came out a couple of years ago: :D

I'm sure there was more to it than just a groovy title track, though. But for my money, rarely has a theme song so infectiously encapsulated the personality of a film. After all, this is a film about a Miami cop (Terrence Hill) who gains superpowers when he accidentally shoots a Nasa rocket out of the sky after firing a warning shot to scare a freeloading alligator out of his police canoe on a routine call to collect on parking tickets at a swamp shack in the everglades! THE LEOPARD this ain't. By the end of the movie, Hill and Ernest Borgnine are floating on a giant chewing gum bubble over sunny Miami. In between is all manner of humour that perhaps only a 12-year-old could love.

When I discovered the uncut, anamorphic widescreen, 5.1 Italian DVD about two years ago, after years of fruitless wading through listings for bootlegs on eBay and shoddy "official" fullscreen releases from the U.K. and elsewhere, I was in a deep nostalgic haze for several hours, thanks in no small part to an ever-present all-region DVD player. Not having seen the film since that theatrical showing 24 years prior, I was pleasantly suprised to discover how little of this film I'd actually forgotten over the years. That said, I'd highly recommend sourcing out the Italian DVD while it's still in print. It contains the original U.S. English language track, a beautiful transfer, and the aforementioned interviews.

If you like Corbucci's sillier stuff, or just about anything with Terrence Hill in it, then POLIZIOTTO SUPERPIU will be money well spent.

From Giallo to Jjakpae

I remember a couple of years back, a Korean movie called SPY GIRL took heat for essentially being a feature-length advertisement for the fast food chain Burger King, and while one of the chain's restaurants was featured prominently throughout the film, part of me couldn't help but appreciate the verisimilitude it brought to an otherwise dull picture. I mean, in real life people work at Burger King, and Harold and Kumar went to White Castle, so why bother "creating" a Burger Shack or a Burger Barn that people will know is fake when there's a chance the real deal might not mind being in your movie? And besides, it didn't feel as insidious as MAC & ME. At lest the makers of SPY GIRL were largely in control of their project, and the heroine didn't defeat the villains by throwing juicy, flame-broiled Whoppers® and succulent Tendercrisp® Chicken Sandwiches.

Sometimes, though, it's the little product placements that can get out of hand. Have a look at these stills from Ryoo Seung Wan's THE CITY OF VIOLENCE and see if you can guess what he probably has cases of in his garage.

(a word of warning: this first one's tricky, so you may have to stare at it for a long, long time to feel thirsty spot the placement)



Still not certain? Well, they do get a little more difficult from this point on:




And if you think this next shot is here just because I loved watching this beautiful girl kick both of our heroes' asses, you'd be half right. But look closer...

I'm not entirely convinced even Sergio Martino wouldn't consider this a bit much...

When the mercury dips below zero.


Gave Bandit Thongdee's MERCURY MAN a spin tonight.

It was alright. Just.

At the time of its release, I believe this first foray into the Thai superhero genre was one of the more expensive movies ever made in the country, but it's dismal box office performance there didn't bode well for its producers' hopes that it would "go international" or have the box-office muscle of Sam Raimi's SPIDERMAN, a film it so obviously has been modelled on, right down to the lead character's sinewy-rubbery costume, which can be easily duplicated in a computer.

Mind you, it's flawed enough that it probably never stood a chance of cracking the international market anyways. Glossy production values aside—and they're often rare in Thai cinema—there's a weird sense that the whole thing is some kind of thinly-veiled propaganda. After having part of a mystical "Solar Mercury" amulet embedded in his chest, a hot-shot fireman (Vasan Kantha-u) must learn to control his temper (in a country known for silencing dissent, no less, not to mention alienating religious minorities) if he's to defeat not only various hooligans around the city, but also a small band of Muslim extremists led by a dude named "Usama" who unfortunately looks a lot like Richard Lynch in INVASION U.S.A. The terrorists need the amulet, paired with it's sister—the "Lunar Mercury"—to aid in their plans to attack the literal and symbolic American interests around the country (Hello, massive McDonald's & Hard Rock Cafe product placements!!). Interestingly, the film features a little boy with psychic powers who opens the film by demonstrating his ability to stop a stopwatch at will. Funny that they'd need a scene like that...

For the money the filmmakers spent (which still wasn't much by American standards), everything looks pretty good, but the computer effects are hobbled on occasion by a clear misunderstanding of the laws of physics (like the car that Mercury Man kicks into a billboard, where it becomes stuck rather than crashing through!). Yes, I know it's a fantasy, and I can indeed accept Mercury Man's metal-based powers allowing him to "fly" between metal objects without the aid of machinery or ropes or webs, but billboards can't stop cars!

The cast is generally quite dull, but I've come to expect that in Thai cinema. Pretty faces, but not much expression, not unlike the ones that Mercury Man must suppress for fear of catching on fire, as his crotch nearly does when he cops a few glances at a Penthouse magazine tucked away in his drawer.

The action choreography, by Prachya Pinkaew and his ONG BAK/TOM YUM GOONG team, are the main reasons this is watchable, but there's a certainly a recycled feeling about them now, with only the more expensive costuming and modern-looking locations differentiating them from those seen in the earlier Tony Jaa films. On top of that, there's one hell of a lot editing going on in these sequences. Every connected blow is followed by an immediate cut to a closeup or a long shot, which tends to make you wonder just how many stunt doubles are being disguised with every splice. Fans of BEAUTIFUL BOXER, the life story of transgender Muay Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphon, might enjoy watching her, largely undoubled it would seem, kick the snot out a batch of evildoers in white lab shirts.


And the final fight between Mercury Man and the villain's right hand babe, who's absorbed the power of the Lunar Mercury amulet, is worth watching for any number of reasons.


Though undoubtedly intended as an A-list picture in its homeland, and indeed, with its slick visuals and breezy pace, feeling and looking much more like one in comparison to a lot of the sloppily made crap that passes for populist cinema there, MERCURY MAN is nonetheless best viewed with lowered expectations, particularly if you aren't familiar with Thai cinema, otherwise you'll inevitably be tempted to actually compare it to the American superhero films it so brazenly wants you to.

Monday, June 4, 2007

“We’re not JUST Vegas dancers. We’re trained commandoes.”

In a previous entry, I stated that if TV’s SOLID GOLD dancers had made a movie, that movie might have been JAILBIRD ROCK.

But whilst perusing the “DVD Blowout” standees at a local department store, I came across Kenneth Hartford’s HELL SQUAD (1987), a movie I’ve been desperately wanting to upgrade to DVD since the inception of the format, and one of the last remnants of my musty old VHS collection. As the DVD looks to be mastered from the VHS tape, this was more of a lateral move than an improvement in quality, but for a rare gem like HELL SQUAD, beggers needn’t be choosy. The world is fortunate to have this on disc at all. Only it probably doesn’t know it yet. Silly world.


HELL SQUAD is the really the movie the SOLID GOLD dancers would have made if they’d made a movie. And unlike JAILBIRD ROCK, I doubt they could have made this one any better than it already is.

Film history is littered with projects made by people who fancied themselves auteurs-in-waiting. People who thought they had ideas that could only find true release on celluloid, ideas that could change the way the world appreciates cinema, change the way the world thinks.

Those people did not make HELL SQUAD.


HELL SQUAD, on the surface, appears to be the kind of film someone wagered someone else they couldn’t make. And so they made it. And they won the bet. This isn’t a movie that was pitched to anyone other than a bunch of guys sitting around a poker table who probably though the guy behind the idea would forget the whole notion by the next morning.

Well, Kenneth Hartford didn’t forget his little notion, and HELL SQUAD shall forever remain his crowning achievement, a film so good, he’s not seen fit to make another film since. Although, in all honesty, anyone who’s seen Carlos Gallardo’s 1976 Phillipines exploitationer HUSTLER SQUAD will certainly know where Hartford got the idea.

Our story begins with the test detonation of an “Ultra Neutron Bomb,” a weapon capable of vapourizing out all living organisms without harming man-made structures like buildings and cars (ostensibly so future generations, or aliens, will have less digging to do to piece together a cultural history of the planet earth, but really because it saves a shitload of money in special effects make-up)

Moments later, at the Middle East Consulate, ambassador Mark Stewart (Jace Damon) argues the merits of the U.N. bomb with his anti-war son Jack (Glen Hartford), who plans to go back to the U.S. to warn the world, but no sooner is he out the door than he’s kidnapped by terrorists driving a pea-green ‘71 Plymouth Fury. Jack is promptly chained up, and a rather fey Arab in a big wicker Peacock chair (not unlike Charlie Lum!) demands the “Second Phase Fuel Formula” for the Ultra Neutron bomb. In 30 days. Or he’ll kill Jack.

Faced with the prospect of losing his peacenik son, and unable—for reasons not clearly defined—to call down the wrath of the American military complex or the Central Intelligence Agency, Stewart turns for help to his assistant Jim Rather (Walter Cox), who quickly puts into action an ironclad plan to cut through all the red tape, bring the ambassador’s son back alive, and wipe out the terrorist threat to the civilized world.

Showgirls, baby! Vegas showgirls!


In short time, Jim tracks down the lead dancer at the Imperial Hotel, Jan, played by the lovely Bainbridge Scott, a bottle blonde who looks and sounds like a hot young Cathy Moriarty, but with half the talent. Jan rounds up her girls, and Jim makes the pitch: $500 a week plus $25,000 each upon their return.

Accepting the challenge but kept ignorant of the true mission, they begin their training, which consists of an obstacle course with four obstacles (including tires and a wall), lessons in chopping wood, and firing F-16 rifles with little instruction on how to actually hold the weapons! Soon after, as the girls lounge in the pool in their bikinis, they’re numbers are whittled down to the eight who will complete the mission. Their cover? Dancers, of course, at a club in “Karajan,” an Arab country entirely represented by stock footage.

In no time at all, they’ve arrived at their hotel in “Karajan” which bears a striking resemblance to the Imperial Hotel in Las Vegas, but which one dancer takes great pains to remind us is (cough, cough) not the Imperial Hotel in Las Vegas.

“Well, I read on the plane over here that there’s a water shortage,” sez dancer/commando Gail. “Plenty of oil in this country, but little water, so I suggest we fill the tub and all get in at once.”

So do I, Gail, so do I.


Anyways, the bathtub giggles are soon interrupted by mysterious telephone orders to head out to “Kajmal” to pick up some jeeps at a storehouse crawling with nasty Arabs. Donning their standard military issue uniforms of red berets, tight shirts tied at the belly and khaki short-shorts, the girls engage their swarthy enemies (”Terriss!” as Bainbridge calls them) in a pitched gunfight that leaves not a single Arab standing.

It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of battle. But their scrubbing is short-lived, as another mysterious phone call sends them back out on another mission, this time to a military encampment in which two of the ladies commandeer a tank so as to better blow the shit out of everything and kill even more Arabs than they did the first time. It’s only after they’ve decimated the place that they realize the ambassador’s son isn’t there.


It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of battle. Again. The phone rings with another mission, but Jan, now savvy, refuses the mission.

Since this is an undercover op, the Hell Squad takes their kick-kick-thrust-turn-kick routine to the Arabic bar that serves as their cover and which coincidentally resembles the Fez Club in L.A., where they promptly one-up the local bellydancers with a tight display of their Vegas glitz.


It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of dancing in a bar full of drunks who’ve never seen Vegas showgirls before, but before they even get in the tub, they’re sent out on another mission, only this time, there’s no target to destroy.

So what do they do? They head back to the bathtub, where they sing their battle hymn:

Hell Squad, Hell Squad, we’re the best
Don’t ever put us to the test,
We’re a hell of a fightin’ machine,
We are tough and goddamn mean!”

The festivities are interrupted by yet another phone call that sends them out after another non-existent target.

Thus, after a long day of pointless missions and bathing, the Hell Squad hits the sheets, but their slumber is short lived, as armed terriss break in to their room and march them off to an audience with a nasty shiek called The Shiek, played by Marvin Miller.

Marvin Miller!

Now, you may not be familiar with his name, or even his face, but you might know Miller’s voice, which graced not only the narration of the second GODZILLA movie, GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER (1955, aka GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN), and the first Gamera movie GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (1966) but also the Japanese import cartoon PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT (1958), the Japanese disaster epic SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973; aka TIDAL WAVE), as well as voices for UPA’s GERALD McBOING BOING and MR. MAGOO shorts, not to mention Frank Capra’s famous Bell Laboratories shorts OUR MR. SUN (1956), HEMO THE MAGNIFICENT (1957) and, most famously, the voice of Robby The Robot in the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), a gig he repeated decades later in Joe Dante’s GREMLINS.

HELL SQUAD was Marvin Miller’s final film.

In it, Miller adopts a sort-of Northern Afghanorussian hybrid accent which he uses to intimidate the Hell Squad—who are all chained in their underwear and lingerie to the wall of his torture room which is probably not unlike the ones used by Uday Hussein back in the day. He also uses a tiger on a leash, but in punctuating his angry words by stomping his feet, he stomps on the tiger’s tail and the tiger eats him, allowing the Squad the opportunity to break free of their chains and fight their way out. Lingerie kung-fu ensues. Seriously.

Lingerie Fu!

Hitching a ride in the middle of the desert with a the only helpful Arab in the entire film, the girls arrive back at their hotel, but before they even set foot in the tub, the final call comes in. This time, it’s the real deal. The mission to save the Ambassador’s son.

“Wear swimsuits and snorkels,” commands Jan.

Exotic Locales!

Turns out, the Ambassador’s son is being held in a castle from an old Roger Corman movie, and the girls have to swim across a lake—well, crawl, really, since it’s barely deep enough to cover their knees—to gain access to the castle. After that it’s smooth sailing: crawl through some tunnels, harpoon some Arabs, grab the Ambassador’s son, crawl back across the lake, light a convenient trail of gasoline that blows the castle to smithereens, then jiggle down an airport runway in their bikinis to catch up to the rescue plane as the terriss shoot at them from a pursuing jeep.


Stunts! (take that, Jackie Chan!)


Make no mistake. HELL SQUAD is drive-in trash. But it’s clear the filmmakers never intended it to be anything better, nor were they trying to mock any genre conventions. Clearly they had a little bit of money, access to Vegas locations and a a few willing strippers (these girls ain’t real Vegas showgirls) plus a legendary voiceover artist and character actor with one foot in the grave.

Evidence that HELL SQUAD’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek—as if the whole concept wasn’t enough—can be found in this high-lahr-ious sketch routine that occurs when Jan literally unmasks a cross-dressing traitor in their midst.

Jim: How did you know it was Ann…or Andy?
Jan: It had to be someone in our immediate group. Quite frankly, Ann…or…or Andy was the only one beyond suspicion, besides yourself Mr. Ambassador
Various Hell Squad Members: Well, thanks a lot Jan. That’s really great. Really, Jan.
Jan: I’m sorry gang, but thanks to those weird midnight phone calls, I wasn’t even sure of myself!
Jim: Well, how did you finally zero in on Ann or…Andy?
Jan: When I went to the ladies room right after Ann…or ANDRE had left.
Hell Squad Member: The ladies room?
Jan: Yeah, the toilet seat was up
(music sting)
Jan: Well? Everybody KNOWS that a man has to lift the toilet seat to go to the bathroom! Listen you girls, take Ann…or ANTHONY…downtown to police headquarters…
Ambassador Mark: Wait a minute! What IS your name?
Ann or Andy: FRED!


Never gets stale.

The largest boom mic encroachment EVER!

Somewhat surprisingly, HELL SQUAD didn’t exactly ignite the careers of its principal cast or crew. Not only was it Marvin Miller’s last film, it was also Kenneth Hartford’s, although by all accounts, he’s still alive, and probably still happy that he won that bet. Bainbridge Scott went on to appear in 1990’s DEATH CHASE, directed by David Prior, a middling hack better known for employing has-beens than breaking out up-and-comers, though he would have better luck with some Canadian chick named Pamela Anderson four years later in RAW JUSTICE. She then turned up a couple of times on TV’s MURDER SHE WROTE in the early 90’s, and hasn’t been heard from since. Of all the girls playing the Hell Squad, only one, Maureen Kelly, went on to an appearance on the TV show ROSEANNE. Walter Cox stayed in B-movies for several years.

There was one other bit player in HELL SQUAD who went on to some measure of fame:


He’s the Korean guy on the right. His name’s Phillip Rhee and after this, he would go on to co-star with Korean Bruce Lee clone Jun Chong (aka Bruce Le from Umberto Lenzi and/or Lee Doo-yong’s BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE) in Lee Doo-yong’s SILENT ASSASSINS (1988), which also starred Linda Blair and Playboy Playmate Rebecca Ferratti, who was allegedly paid quite well as one of the infamous female “guests” to Prince Jeffri of Brunei (along with Hong Kong starlet Yolinda Yan and others). Rhee would soon after make his name with a series of four BEST OF THE BEST films throughout the early 90’s before dropping off the radar.

Come to think of it, though, probably the most interesting person in the cast is the woman who plays Ann before she’s unmasked as Andy, Jennifer West. While she’s a moderately better actress then nearly anyone in the Hell Squad, she’s probably better known for her lengthy career in hardcore porn, often under the name Sally Ballgargle.

I got this last bit of info from the Internet Movie Database.


No, really.

Now Playing at a Bargain Bin Near You!

Related Link:
HELL SQUAD at Amazon