Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thirst

Who says vampires can't get it on? Not me, and certainly not Park Chan-wook, Korean auteur extraordinaire (The Revenge Trilogy, JSA, Three ... Extremes). He's also jettisoned the whole fang thing, but otherwise the standard lore is in place (the blood is the life, no sunshine, superhuman strength, etc.). And yet this one element, sex, opens things up considerably, plot-wise, making for a more intimate, complex and unpredictable story of a man, a woman, and their sexual/vampiric relationship.

The man in question, a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho), volunteers to become infected with an ebola-like virus as part of a drug trial in Africa. Sang-hyun (get it? Sang is French for blood) is inadvertently transfused with some vampire blood that keeps the virus at bay, but, of course, makes him a vampire in the process. In keeping with convention, Sang-hyun's genesis involves a heightening of the senses, but this time out, that extends into his pants. Yes, in addition to a newfound thirst for blood, he discovers he's also got a hankerin' for some good old fashioned poontang. This leads him to pretty yet troubled Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) who becomes his first girlfriend (although she's married to someone else ... ). However, Sang-hyun never fully abandons his moral nature, and his inner conflict, reminiscent of Louis from Interview with the Vampire, makes his character that much more compelling.

What I found most striking about Thirst was the way the film defied my expectations. I've seen a lot of vampire films, but this one kept me off balance throughout. Park Chan-wook takes the "rules" of vampirism (clearly borrowing from Anne Rice) and turns them sideways, defying audience expectations while working within the parameters of the genre. As I say, he brings human sexuality into the mix (thus eliminating the need for the penetrating fang), and we all know how complicated things can get when that happens. The line between human and vampire is blurred to the point where genre predictability is all but obliterated.

Thirst won the jury prize at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival last Spring, the second Cannes award for Park Chan-wook (he got one for Oldboy in 2004).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Total Film's 60 Greatest Movie Books

Guess who made the list? Asia Shock is #23.

A particular kick, as this is my favorite Brit mag. I even went to the considerable expense of securing a subscription. I also enjoy sending them insulting emails castigating their staff for occasional mistakes regarding Asian film. Being British, this is no doubt the reason for their warm embrace.

Anyhow, thank you, Total Film!

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Kim Ji-woon does it again (see previous post). This time out, the genre-hopping Korean director serves up a heapin' helpin' of what I would call "kim chee ramen western." Yes, in an affectionate nod to the Dollars Trilogy of Sergio Leone, Kim delivers a fast-paced, wildly exotic horse opera set in Manchuria in the 1930s filled with gun-slinging Chinese outlaws, opium-smoking prairie prostitutes, marauding Korean bandits, thieves, psychos and revolutionaries ... oh, and the Japanese Imperial Army, all in constant motion via motorcycles, trains, trucks, jeeps and, of course, horses. Lots of horses.

At the center of it all is the irrepressible Song Kang-ho (The Host, The Quiet Family, The Foul King, Thirst, JSA, Secret Sunshine, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder, etc. etc.) as Yoon Tae-goo, The Weird. While robbing a train he comes into possession of a treasure map (which becomes the operative MacGuffin of the piece). He's a two-pistol shooter, greasing, hmm, maybe 100 guys throughout the picture? 200? (The mortality rate in this movie is off the chart.) Then there's Jeong Woo-seong as The Good (a bounty hunter named Park Do-won), doing a slick Korean version of Clint Eastwood. And finally we have Lee Byeong-heon as The (very) Bad Park Chang-yi, channeling a sinister Alain Delon by way of Prince (trust me, it works -- you've just gotta see it). These guys go round and round, winding up in a three-way standoff similar to their original counterparts in the film's namesake. Along the way we get many an homage to the Leone trilogy including a scene involving metal plating used as a bullet-proof vest, as well as a bit where someone's hat is shot off, then continually shot out of reach.

Kim Ji-woon was also influenced by Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). "I wasn't particularly aiming to make the Western genre popular in Asia," he told an interviewer at Cannes last Spring. "It's enough that I can revive the Manchurian Western genre in Korea."

There's so much lead flying through the air in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it could pass as a weather condition. Some might feel the action sequences go on a bit; that all depends on how you feel about action sequences. Fortunately, Kim's are the best in the business: Inventive, thrilling, outrageous. My advice is don't fight it, just sit back, relax, and let the madness sweep over you. As contemporary Korean westerns go, you really can't do better.

EDIT: I recently purchased this DVD of the film. It's the shits. Terrible, blurry transfer. Clearly somebody downloaded a low-res, compressed version, pressed it on disk and distributed it to vendors who don't bother to check out their foreign titles. DO NOT BUY THIS DISK.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Bittersweet Life

Korean director Kim Ji-woon is one bad mutha ... [**Shut yo mouth!**] Only talkin' 'bout Kim! The guy defined family-based black comedy with The Quiet Family (1998). Then he went all freaky deaky K-horror on your ass in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). And here, in 2005's A Bittersweet Life, he proves he can make operatic gangster pictures with the best of 'em.

Lee Byeong-heon (JSA, Three ... Extremes) stars as Sun-woo, a suave mob enforcer who finds himself on the shit list not only of a rival gang, but that of his own boss. (The latter tends to happen when the boss asks you to look after his hot young girlfriend, even when you don't make a move.) Before long our boy finds himself being beaten, stabbed, shot, even buried alive. This doesn't sit well with him, his thoughts turning to revenge. To do the job right, he's going to need more than the standard array of melee weapons commonly used by Korean gangsters -- he'll need firepower and lots of it. Sun-woo's quest for guns takes him on a bizarre odyssey, the film's only comedic set piece, featuring one of the goofiest looking guys in Korean cinema, Oh Dai-soo (Oldboy, A Bloody Aria).

A Bittersweet Life hits all the right notes. Slick urban settings mask what is essentially a cruel tale of bushido similar to Japanese films like The Secret of the Urn or, indeed, Cruel Tales of Bushido: A trustworthy retainer is subjected to the whims of a capricious lord and made to suffer for being nothing less than a paragon of loyalty. Blend this with Korean cinema's uniquely kinetic flair for screen violence and you've got one hell of an exciting picture. Lee Byeong-heon is on fire, one minute pouncing like a jungle cat, the next blasting away like some Peckinpah anti-hero.

I picked up A Bittersweet Life on a region-2 Tartan Asia Extreme disk back when Tartan was still a UK entity. It can still be had as a Japanese import, but let's hope the new US-based Tartan Palisades label decides to release it here. If you like Asian gangster films, you'll definitely want this on in the collection.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Inugami Family

Nobody loves a good murder mystery more than me. My all-time favorite is The Last of Sheila, and until recently I've never seen anything to rival it. But now I've seen The Inugami Family, and I have to say this Kon Ichikawa film from 1976 comes damn close. For one thing, like Sheila, it features a double denouement (a convincing-yet-fake one, then the real one). I love that! The film is masterful in its misdirection, seemingly assuring you you've figured it out, only to confound you time and again. This is the essence of a great mystery, and you get it in spades in The Inugami Family.

Adapted from a novel by popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo, the story kicks off with the death of a wealthy patriarch and the dark doings that follow hard upon. Before his will is even read, one of his lawyers is murdered with a poison cigarette. And once the peculiar contents of the diabolical document are read out, the bodies really start to stack up. There are gruesome shocks and surprises around every corner in this wonderfully creepy whodunit extending to decapitation, horrible facial disfigurement, mistaken identity, incest, infanticide, rape, torture, kidnapping and, of course, murder. Wrap it up, I'll take it!

Obviously, this being a mystery, I don't want to give any more away than I have to, so this blog entry will have to end here. A region-3 copy of the film can be found here. Otherwise, if you've yet to commit to a region-free DVD player, you're left to wonder ...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tora-san

So what's Tora-san, a bumbling traveling salesman, doing on a blog called Asia Shock? What's so shocking about him? Well it may come as something of a shock to those new to the film series (an amazing 48 installments from 1969 to 1996) just how hilarious, multi-dimensional and downright grok-worthy this low-level yakuza huckster really is.

I'd seen a Tora-san film years ago, when my awareness of Japan and Japanese film was still somewhat green, and I confess I just didn't get it. I wondered what all the fuss was about (Tora-san is a national treasure in Japan). I believe I characterized the series as "tepid" in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades (a sin for which I've been chastised by fellow Japanese film nerd D. Trull). But sitting down with the new box set from AnimEigo (films 1 - 4) provided a what-was-I-thinking? experience unlike any in recent memory. I fucking LOVE Tora-san!

A number of elements combine to create the unique and, sure, I'll say it, heart-warming Tora-san experience. First off, there's the performance of the films' star, Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928 - 1996). Vacillating wildly between street-wise scammer, moony schoolboy, angry drunk, lighthearted drifter, caustic upbraider, foul-mouthed joker, kind-hearted caretaker, weepy penitent, violent hothead, and forlorn loner, Atsumi deftly blends the strands into a complex yet seamless and fully-realized character. When he's not getting up to this or that wacky scheme, he's falling for some beauty who considers him charming yet ultimately just a friend. Then there's his family and an odd assortment of neighborhood characters, all endlessly sympathetic yet wary of their fractious friend. These folks reside in Shibamata in Katsushita, Tokyo, a nostalgic locality centered on a Buddhist temple, and it is the dumpling shop run by his aunt and uncle which serves as Tora-san's home base between sojourns (for he invariably wears out his welcome and winds up hitting the road).

Based on a TV series, the first film was an instant hit, featuring a guest appearance by the legendary Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Ikiru). The guest star thing became a feature of the series; eventually, everyone who was anyone in Japanese film turned up in a Tora-san picture including the great Toshiro Mifune (he's in #38). The second film in the series features the prolific character actor Eijiro Tono, as well as Tsutomu Yamazaki (whom you'll remember from Tampopo and High and Low). In the third installment, look for Bokuzen Hidari, that ubiquitous, rubber-faced old man you've seen in so many Japanese films. In addition, Shochiku contract actor and Ozu's go-to guy Chishu Ryu has a recurring role as the head priest at the local temple, forever castigating Tora-san for his shortcomings.

My advice to anyone who digs Japanese film is to go pick up this box set. It's great, features informative liner notes, and the sales will encourage AnimEigo to keep putting out more. Like the old saying goes, they just don't make 'em like this anymore, and in these uncertain times, you never know when stuff like this will poof out of existence.

Abayo!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Onimasa

In terms of volume, Hideo Gosha was far from an impressive filmmaker. With a mere 24 films to his name over the course of three decades, he would seem something of an underachiever compared with his contemporaries. But then you see his films, and realize that quality so outstrips quantity as to lift him to the upper echelons of the Japanese filmmaker elite. His 1960s samurai films alone stand among the finest in the genre. In the 70s he turned to yakuza films; in the 80s he specialized in what could best be described as "women's pictures," centering as they did on geisha, yakuza wives, serving girls and lady assassins.

Onimasa (1982) is the first of Gosha's 80s films, and for those familiar only with his earlier genre outings, it might come as something of a shock. There is no tension like we feel in Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast; gone is the bold, sprawling action of The Secret of the Urn, Goyokin and Tenchu; nowhere do we find the labyrinthine intrigue of Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron and Hunter in the Dark. With Onimasa we move from exterior to interior, to an intimate portrait of behind-closed-doors life in a small-time yakuza gang.

The primary figures, under whose skin we will get in all the depth that 2 1/2 hours affords, are boss Onimasa (Tatsuya Nakadai), his wife Uta (Shima Iwashita), and Onimasa's adopted daughter Matsue (Masako Natsume). There's also Onimasa's natural-born daughter Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi), who figures in the story more as a spoiled princess MacGuffin than a viable character. The story moves from 1918 through the 20s and 30s, during which time we observe internecine conflicts, gang rivalries, an outbreak of typhoid fever, a railway strike and a somewhat disturbing dogfight (is it fake or not?). The leisurely pace and exaggerated performances, particularly from Nakadai, take some getting used to and may not be to everyone's liking. However, the film has a lot to offer and, according to AnimEigo (who recently released Onimasa on DVD), it's "considered in Japan to be Hideo Gosha's best-known film."

The supporting cast features Isao Natsuyagi (Samurai Wolf, G.I. Samurai) and Koji Yakusho (Dora-Heita, Kamikaze Taxi), two excellent actors whom I discuss at length in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. There's also the inevitable Tetsuro Tamba (he was in everything). And, of course, you can't go wrong with luminaries like Shima Iwashita and Tatsuya Nakadai. While Nakadai's performance here is unusual, it tends to grow on you, so by the time of the grande finale (a Gosha specialty), you're behind him 100%.

Onimasa won the prestigious Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress and the Japan Academy Prize for Best Art Direction.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Classic Chambara in NYC

If you're in the New York City area and dissatisfied with the current crop of sequels, remakes and sequels of remakes at your local cineplex, might I suggest something wholly other and altogether subarashi (fantastic)? Starting December 11th, The Japan Society will be presenting a new series, The Double-Edged Sword: The Chambara Films of Shintaro Katsu and Raizo Ichikawa. Opening night, it's Samurai Vendetta starring both Katsu and Raizo (a fine film, reviewed for your convenience in my latest book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades). The film will be introduced by series curator Chris D., author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, with a reception and book signing to follow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Detective

Every now and then a movie comes along with a twist ending so unexpected and exhilarating, it elicits an involuntary "Wow!" The problem, however, is just how to write about such a film in a way that will capture your interest without ruining that "wow" moment. Fortunately for you, I have a bit of experience in this area ...

The film is Oxide Pang's The Detective (2007), a seemingly by-the-book noir set in the seedy Chinatown of Bangkok. Hong Kong film star Aaron Kwok (The Storm Riders, After This Our Exile) plays Chan, the classic destitute gumshoe who takes a case that turns out to be far more than he'd bargained for. He's hired by a strange man who claims a woman is trying to kill him. Interesting. In the standard formula, a woman hires the detective, and later turns out to be the femme fatale (The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown). Here the woman at the heart of the mystery is established as a murderous creature right up front. Or is she? Getting to the bottom of of it all will involve digging through layer after layer of intricate backstory as we follow a corpse-strewn path to that final "wow" revelation.

Occasionally the story loses momentum, but only temporarily, nothing detrimental. At one point, mystery fans will feel sure that the whole thing is going to wrap up leaving gaping plot holes unresolved. But therein lies the genius of the film: The ending sows up everything so perfectly and unexpectedly, well, I won't belabor the point.

If you're wondering why we're in Bangkok, yet everyone is speaking Cantonese, it's due to the unique style of twin Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny. Hong Kong natives, they relocated to Thailand and started making films a dozen years ago. Oxide goes solo here, and the film is closer in feel to Bangkok Dangerous (1999) than the more slick and effects-laden The Eye (2002). This being Thailand, there are elephants and durian on hand. The dingy back streets of Bangkok's Chinatown (hmm, Chinatown -- wonder if that was a conscious reference?) lend a gritty, exotic feel to the proceedings, although the by-now-tiresome washed-out palette tends to drain away some of the vibrance of the setting. In any case, it's all a heady concoction of old tropes and new innovations sure to dazzle fans of the mystery thriller.

So hopefully I've succeeded in whetting your appetite for a little Southeast Asian Noir. Like the durian, it's funky and pungent, but for the discriminating cinematic gourmand, delicious and uniquely satisfying.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Red Angel

Anyone interested in World War II really owes it to himself to check out some Japanese WWII pictures. It's quite a different perspective from the losing side, and while there were plenty of films made with a hurray-for-us-anyway-we-did-our-best sensibility, the ones I find most compelling are those that strip away the heroics and patriotism and examine the reality of war. Such films include Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition trilogy, Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp and Yasuzo Masumura's Red Angel (1966). While less well-known than the others, Red Angel nevertheless stands alongside these classics in terms of its virtuosity and shocking veracity.

The angel of the piece is an army nurse, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), shipped off to Manchuria to work in field hospitals in 1939. Her first day on the job, she's raped by one of the patients. He turns up later on a table with a hole in his belly and, despite his despicable act, Nurse Nishi takes pity on him, lobbying for extra care even though he's a goner. Yes, she's a sweetheart, a loving, giving woman whose compassion for the men she encounters extends above an beyond the call of duty. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say you will never forget this movie or the character of Sakura Nishi.

Red Angel doesn't shy away from controversial wartime issues including the harsh realities of triage, comfort women, drug addiction, rape and disease. The film deals frankly with amputation (complete with an extended bone-sawing sequence) as well as the fate of the limbless survivors; according to one armless man (Yusuke Kawazu, right), guys like him would never see their families again (due to the Japanese government's policy of stashing multiple amputees away in convalescent hospitals so as not to expose the dark verities of war). The special care Nurse Nishi provides this poor unfortunate makes Florence Nightengale look like a candy striper.

Director Yasuzo Masumura was attracted to the dark side of human nature (one reason he's a personal favorite); it is an ever-present component of such wildly divergent yet consistently excellent films as Giants and Toys and Black Test Car (corporate espionage); Manji (lesbian love); Blind Beast (ero-guro); A Lustful Man (Edo-period sexcapade); and Yakuza Soldier (Shintaro Katsu as a drafted thug). Masumura studied film in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and AD'd under Kenji Mizoguchi. He liked working with Ayako Wakao, casting her in Manji, A Lustful Man, and yakuza flick Afraid to Die.

Back when I acquired Red Angel, it was only available overseas on a region-2 disk. Fortunately for you, the good folks at Fantoma have released it here, along with Blind Beast, Manji, Giants and Toys and Black Test Car. I can't recommend these pictures enough. It kills me to think of all the other Masumura films never released on DVD, but what can you do? Well, you can blog about it and hope the manufacturers take notice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bad Guy

Having enjoyed a number of films from controversial Korean director Kim Ki-duk (The Isle, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Samaritan Girl, 3-Iron, The Bow -- well, actually, I didn't enjoy The Bow), I thought I'd go back and see one I missed, 2001's Bad Guy. I'd initially avoided it because of the storyline: A pimp forces a woman into prostitution. Yawn. However, we're talking Kim Ki-duk here, and it occurred to me that I'd probably underestimated his ability to take a simple story and fill it with nuance and complex emotion. I was right.

So you've got Han-ki (Jo Jae-hyeon), a fearsome tough guy who never says a word (a recurring motif in Kim's films). In his case, it could have something to do with that big, ugly scar across his throat -- sliced vocal cords? (In point of fact, he does say something eventually, but I won't say what.) He takes one look at pretty college student Seon-hwa (Seo Won) and it's all over: Love at first site. However, he's a violent dude with a gangster past, and the best he can think of is to grab her, on the street, in front of her boyfriend and a throng of bystanders, and plant an extended, angry kiss on her lips. Needless to say, this doesn't go down well with anyone, least of all a group of passing soldiers, who insist he apologize to the young lady. Their way of insisting involves beating the shit out of him, but our bad guy ain't talking. Seon-hwa spits in his face and everyone disperses. But does this incident dampen Han-ki's ardour? Not a bit of it. It rather stiffens his resolve.

Han-ki eventually gains total control of Seon-hwa, through a series of machinations I leave to you to discover. And eventually, a relationship of sorts develops between them, even as he watches her turn tricks through a one-way mirror, at one point with one of his own henchmen. It's a strange, dark tale of obsession and degradation, and whether you consider it a misogynist fantasy or a genuine love story, there's no denying Kim's ability to suck you in and hold you, riveted, until the final frame.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Mansion of the Ghost Cat

This classic Nobuo Nakagawa spooker holds many a key to the J-horror genre of recent years. Notable, that, as it was made in 1958. Many tropes and features of the modern Japanese horror film, considered so unique and cutting-edge by contemporary Western viewers, go right back to Nakagawa (and beyond). Here we have the horrific apparition of the vengeful lady ghost, the elaborate backstory, even the old corpse-in-a-wall revelation (utilized to great effect in the Korean shocker Phone).

Less familiar is the Japanese folkloric tradition of the bakeneko, or "ghost cat." The bakeneko, a demonic shape-shifter, often poses as a human, wreaking revenge on behalf of a dead owner. However, the line between human ghost and ghost cat tends to get somewhat blurred in film, most notably in movies like Kuroneko (see my review in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades) and Demon of Mt. Oe.

In Mansion of the Ghost Cat, a choleric old Chamberlain strikes down his Go master when the young man accuses him of cheating. The Chamberlain proceeds to slay the Go master's mother and grandmother (world-class asshole that he is). The Go master's beloved cat somehow melds with the spirit of his grandmother and proceeds to wreak bloody revenge on the Chamberlain and his kin. But the curse extends to all the descendants of the Chamberlain, and therein lies the connection to the modern-day (late 50s) frame story. Yes indeed, the old granny/cat isn't finished yet ...

Any fan of modern J-horror (and K-horror) owes it to him/herself to check out some Nakagawa pictures. Here's a partial list (although IMDb is always a little dodgy with their Japanese film data). A more comprehensive list can be found here, but you have to be somewhat conversant with the Japanese language.

If you only see on Nakagawa picture, make it Jigoku (Hell). It's on a Criterion release, so you won't have any trouble finding it. You'll just have trouble sleeping later ...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two from Tartan

Or rather Palisades Tartan, as the US-based Palisades Media Group has seen fit to resurrect the venerable UK Tartan DVD label (following its lamentable demise last Summer). Why should you care about this? Because of the many great films in the Tartan Asia Extreme catalog including Audition, Battle Royale, Dead or Alive, The Eye, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs, The Isle, Joint Security Area, Marebito, Oldboy, Phone, Ringu, Shiri, A Tale of Two Sisters, Tell Me Something, Tetsuo: The Ironman, Three... Extremes, Triad Election, Versus, and Visitor Q (all of which you should have seen by now).

The good folks at PT were nice enough to send me the first two releases from the revivified Asia Extreme line, so it behooves me to oblige them (and you) with a review. The two titles are P (2005, Thailand) and The Butcher (2007, South Korea).

P
Yeah, I know, I hate the title too. Letters, numbers, they make even worse movie titles than vague crap like State of Play or Away We Go. In this case, P is the name of a particular go-go bar in the Soi Cowboy section of Bangkok. Soi Cowboy is where all the farangs (white foreigners), as well as hordes of Japanese and other Asian guys, go to pay for sex. (Check out a novel called Bangkok 8, you'll spend a lot of time there.)

So what's a pretty young thing like Dau (Suangporn Jaturaphut) doing in a place like this? The usual: She's come from the provinces to earn money for her sick grandma back home. She's a virgin and none too pleased with the ugly turn her life has taken. First day on the job, she's turned out by the farang owner of the bar, and, before long, she's dancing and servicing the customers like the rest of the girls. But our little Dau is not your typical country bumpkin-turned-Bangkok-pro. Since childhood, her grandmother has schooled her in the ways of Khmer sorcery, and right about now she's deciding she's had enough, and it's time for others to start suffering ...

Unfortunately, our Miss Dau breaks certain cardinal rules laid down by grandma, and winds up releasing a demonic doppelganger that goes on gory killing sprees while she sleeps. Things get out of control and, well you'll see.

I would categorize this film more as "supernatural drama" than straight-up horror. For one thing, Suangporn Jaturaphut is just too cute to be all that frightening, for all the efforts of the lighting and effects guys. And the tone of the film is more mellow, gentle even, than a horror film should be. This I attribute to writer/director/editor Paul Spurrier, a British former child actor who seems more interested in relationships and cultural resonances than scaring the shit out of you. Which is fine by me -- he does an admirable job, and, once I adjusted my expectations, I found myself really enjoying the picture. But then again, I'm a sucker for Southeast Asia ...

The Butcher
I've said it before and I'll say it again: No wonder real snuff films cost so much -- the fake ones are crap! Or perhaps I'm just not the fake snuff film type. Because as fake snuff films go, you can't really fault The Butcher. Its innovative use of first-person P.O.V. (via a head-mounted camera) puts you in the driver's seat (or rather under the wheels of the car) as the victim of a trio of relentless psychos with cameras (one of whom wears a pig's head the whole movie and squeals accordingly). First you quake with fear as a couple of your fellow victims are dragged away to another sector of the dilapidated industrial compound in which you're being held, only to hear their agonized screams accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a laughing chainsaw. You and your wife are next ...

All sorts of nastiness ensues, and it really is unbearable. Unbearably boring, that is. And annoying. I can only take so much incessant, horrified screaming. I had to turn the volume way down low just to get through it (I don't know how the crowd at last year's New York Asian Film Festival managed it). Here we have methodical violence pushed to it's furthest extreme, and after 75 minutes one hits upon a philosophical truth: Brutality is ultimately mundane. There's nothing particularly inventive about cutting someone's hand off or pulling out their entrails and their eyeballs. Shocking? Sure, but once you get past the shock, where do you go from there? Nowhere, that's where. But hey, that's just me. Like I said, I'm not the torture porn type.

I'll give The Butcher credit for improving on the notorious Guinea Pig movies. This being a Korean film, the ferocity factor is definitely jacked up past the threshold of that Japanese franchise, making the latter look positively sedate in comparison. If you liked the Guinea Pig flicks, you'll likely go gaga for this. I can't say how it might compare with those horrendous August Underground films, of which I've only read in the pages of Rue Morgue Magazine -- I'll leave such decisions to the true gore hounds out there.

According to the press materials, The Butcher will be released October 27th, just in time for Halloween. Good thing, that, because this would be a great film to have on while kids are coming to your door for handouts. All the screaming will create great ambiance, and a glimpse of the screen will surely freak their little worlds. Just hope some concerned parent doesn't pull a Charlie Sheen and call the police!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Lustful Shogun and his 21 Concubines

If you thought Bohachi Bushido was a good example of sexy jidaigeki, have I got a much-better (and sexier) movie for you: The Lustful Shogun and his 21 Concubines. The story concerns a horny shogunal kagemusha (double) who bonks his way through the ooku (royal harem) of Edo Castle. There's ever so much lovely female flesh on display here, along with all manner of inventive sexual activities employing dildos, midgets, paintbrushes, and a talented pekinese. We also meet a tattooed nun, a lady thief and a couple of Chinese eunuchs. But what we get most of is lots and lots of good old fashioned rumpy pumpy. Yes, whatever complaints you might have about this film, "I didn't see enough fucking" will not be one of them. Frankly, I had no complaints at all; laughs, beautiful women, political intrigue, sword action, and every sex position imaginable -- what's not to like? Sure, the whole affair is decidedly softcore -- no full frontal nudity or penetration -- but there's no denying the Japanese pink film genre's determination to deliver everything but.

The film was directed by Norifumi Suzuki, who, together with Teruo Ishii (he directed Bohachi Bushido), churned out some amazing exploitation films for Toei studios during the late 60s/early 70s. But for my money, it is Suzuki who deserves the mantle of superior filmmaker. While Ishii had his moments, his output was uneven in the extreme, whereas Suzuki always delivered consistently well-made and thoroughly entertaining films.

Featured here are Toei's reigning fleshpots of the period, Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto (as the lady thief and a hot noblewoman respectively). Then there's the stunning Yayoi Watanabe as Ukiku, the peasant girlfriend of our impetuous impostor (played with enthusiasm by Shin'ichiro Hayashi). Toru Abe is the manipulative minister who set up the whole imposture for his own ends; his wife and virgin daughter are soon defiled by his priapic protege.

I won't pretend The Lustful Shogun and his 21 Concubines is anything more than a panorama of prurient pleasures with some goofy gags and sword fights thrown in, but hey, it's better than 90% of the crap down at your local cineplex, so why not check it out?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Attack the Gas Station

I often speak of the amazing violence and rage of late 90s/early 00s Korean film, and Attack the Gas Station (1999) is a prime example. While far more light-hearted than something like Peppermint Candy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, this comedy nevertheless exhibits the same explosive quality, a product of nearly a century of political repression.

The story is straightforward enough: Four tough misfits from divergent backgrounds (a baseball player, a rocker, a painter and a formidable goofball) decide to rob a gas station, and wind up staying all night. They've hit this place before, you see, trashing it in the process, and the boss is wise; he's given the day's receipts to his wife, leaving nothing for our petulant protagonists. So they decide to hang around and collect what comes in. Fair enough, but things get complicated, as employees and difficult customers are held hostage, local cops get suspicious, and conflicts develop between the fearsome foursome and a collection of high school bullies, gangsters and scooter-driving Chinese food delivery boys. Tension mounts, and what started out as a simple premise becomes an epic of political allegory and high farce (with tons of fighting, property damage, huge bowls of noodles and bad singing).

Fans of Oldboy will recognize Yu Ji-Tae, the villain of that film, here with his hair dyed white as Paint, the artistic member of the group. The aforementioned formidable goofball is played by the unforgettable Yu Oh-seong, who also turns in a great performance in the poorly-titled yet compelling gangster saga Friend (Chingoo, 2001).

I saw Attack the Gas Station years ago, thought of it quite a bit since and finally bought a copy. I suggest you do the same. You'll love it, plus you never know when this stuff will go out of print. One thing: The dimwits at Media Blasters set the default audio to the English dubbing. Do I have to tell you to switch it to Korean and turn the subs on? Good, didn't think so.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tokyo!

You'll never forget this guy (above), although his is the least of the three vignettes that make up this cinematic triptych featuring the directorial talents of Michel Gondry, Leos Carax (both French), and Bong Joon-ho (Korean, he who gave us The Host). Manhole boy here is Merde, the so-called Creature From the Sewers (of Tokyo, of course), played with aplomb by the talented French actor Denis Lavant (he was great in 2005's steamy slow burn Wild Camp opposite the very hot Isild Le Besco). We learn more than we ever wanted to know about Merde, and while Lavant's performance is engrossing, it can't overcome the tedious, static tone of the piece.

Better is Gondry's bit. You'll remember him from such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, so so) and Be Kind Rewind (2008, horrible). (More intriguing to me is Gondry's claim that all his dreams are lucid, and he directs them as he would his films -- I guess I should see his 2006 film, The Science of Sleep). Anyway, his deal concerns a hapless young couple trying to make their way in the big city (that would be Tokyo) until the girl makes a remarkable and unexpected transformation ...

Best is Bong's entry, about a thirty-something hikikomori (shut-in) who falls in love with a pizza delivery girl and learns true values (it's a lot better than it sounds). I'd recommend the film just for this segment -- however it's the last one so you might as well watch the other parts as well.

Keep an eye out for some familiar faces, like Nao Omori, forever remembered as the title character in Miike's Ichi the Killer; Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata, Hana, Sukiyaki Django); and the great character actor Renji Ishibashi (Watcher in the Attic, Audition, Crest of Betrayal, Dora-heita, and many more).

The vignettes are far stranger than I was expecting. Refreshing that, as I was dreading some drab, meandering, mumblecore thing. Only the Bong piece truly utilizes and reflects Tokyo's sense of place -- the French films use it more as a backdrop. But all in all, I'd say I'm glad I saw Tokyo! and feel sure it will appeal to fellow Nipponophiles.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Grave of the Fireflies

When we think of war, we tend to think first of the violence, death and atrocities, the soldiers, bombs, planes, tanks, guns, the whole grand theater of destruction that is war on the large scale. But what of the survivors? Their tears? Their grief? The untold agonies they must endure? Imagine the unbearable anguish of having to look on, helpless, as your dearest loved one slowly dies before your eyes, and there's no one there to help. If you find all of this depressing, then I'd advise against viewing Grave of the Fireflies (1988).

It's hard to know who the target audience is for this feature-lengh anime tale of a brother and sister trying to survive in WWII-torn Japan. Too heavy for kids, too dismal and heartbreaking for anyone else, it's a wonder anyone would want to watch it at all. And yet it's a film that should be seen, if for no other reason than to remind us all just what the human cost of war really amounts to.

Grave of the Fireflies is fairly apolitical (the filmmakers scrupulously avoid any form of didactic statement, focusing solely on the protagonists' efforts to survive) and thus serves as a universal tale -- these could be any two kids in any war-ravaged land. Maybe modern kids should watch this film, regardless of the trauma it might inflict; by simply presenting a narrative that no doubt actually occurred a thousand times over, the ultimate tragedy of war comes across more clearly than in any war film (or anti-war film) I've ever seen. My advice: Keep a box of kleenex handy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Big Man Japan

Last year I had a chance to see Big Man Japan at the San Francisco International Film Festival. However, I had a scheduling conflict: I was in Tokyo on the day of the showing (scouting images for Warring Clans, Flashing Blades). I was somewhat bummed, as this was the one film among that year's SFIFF offerings I most wanted to see. Now, having seen it, I realize I needn't have bothered.

The simple fact of the matter is that Big Man Japan, for all its low-key, indie quirkiness, simply doesn't work. Chief among its problems is precisely its low-key, indie quirkiness. This is ostensibly a film about kaiju, giant monsters. Mere mention of the genre immediately engenders images and expectations ranging from the kinetic to the phrenetic -- certainly not the pathetic. Big Man Japan, while well made and lovingly executed, is nevertheless so downbeat and deadpan as to sap any and all energy from a story about a sixth-generation super hero who, with the help of massive jolts of electricity, grows to gigantic proportions to fight an array of bizarre, enormous creatures who routinely plague the more built-up parts of Tokyo. There's a monster that uproots tall buildings with its big, rubber-band arms; a fella with a big ol' eyeball on a stalk growing out of his crotch; a smelly, squid-like thing whose chief talent appears to be arguing; a humongo-demon-baby; hell, there's even a big Riki Takeuchi head bouncing around on a single, muscular leg. And through it all we have Hitoshi Matsumoto, our writer/director/star, portraying the Big Man as a likable looser, a slacker who doesn't get it and does a substandard job of giant superhero-ing (he's frequently upstaged by his similarly-enormo grandad).

Matsumoto is clearly taking a cue from Watchmen -- real-life superhero, hated by the public, trying to deal with personal problems and generally having a tough time. It's a shame he opted for a dull, documentary format to explore what could have been a genuinely engaging fantasy adventure film with deconstruction, social commentary and really weird monsters into the bargain.

In four words: Great concept, crap execution.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Warring Clans, Flashing Blades review

Some encouraging words from Matthew Caron over at hip NYC blog Vol. 1 Brooklyn. I was just in Brooklyn last year, visited some friends in Flatbush. Gotta get back over there ...

Anyhow, thanks Matthew!

Star of David: Beauty Hunting

OK, so I'm still shockable (see previous post). However when it comes to 70s Japanese exploitation cinema, it would appear that I've become almost completely jaded. Take, for example, Star of David: Beauty Hunting (aka Star of David: Hunting for Beautiful Girls), a late entry from 1979. Here we have a tale of a handsome young sociopath who idolizes Hitler and indulges in serial rape, torture and murder. Oh you'll get your money's worth with this dark little ditty (adapted from a manga, or more precisely gekiga, by Masaaki Sato). In addition to the standard trifecta already mentioned, there's a fair amount of Japanese rope bondage, a bit of necrophilia, some unique scenes of father-and-son psycho-killing, and lots of humiliation (anyone for forced urination?).

And through it all, I hardly batted an eye. This could be due to a certain slickness of production -- the film was directed by Norifumi Suzuki, my favorite Toei exploitation filmmaker (who, in fact, made this film for Nikkatsu). Suzuki was a consummate pro, and a master of tastefully made tasteless films. He had an arty flair that could make just about any abomination palatable (see his Sex and Fury and Convent of the Sacred Beast for other examples). However, one gets the impression that even Suzuki was growing tired of all the lurid horribleness. At one point, in what seems an effort to take the edge off, he inserts a cameo of Bunta Sugawara and Kinya Aikawa, stars of the uproarious Torakku yaro (Truck Guys) film series (ten of which Suzuki directed in the mid-70s). There they are, cruising down the highway in their colorfully painted dekotora, their dialog significantly raunchified for the purposes of the picture (some nonsense about judging a woman's private parts by the size and shape of her nose).

Star of David: Beauty Hunting is a good flick if you're looking to get your kinky psycho freak on, but beyond that, well, let's just say it's an acquired (tastefully tasteless) taste.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cruel Tales of Bushido

You know, I've seen a lot of samurai films in my time, so it's not every day that one comes along and blows me away. But that's just what happened yesterday. The film? Cruel Tales of Bushido (1963), directed by Tadashi Imai. Jidai-geki superstar Kinnosuke Nakamura turns in a devastating performance -- or should I say half a dozen or more -- portraying a succession of ancestors stretching from the dawn of the Tokugawa period (early 17th century) right up to the present day (the present being the early 1960s). In each vignette, a male member of the Iikura family is forced to endure some humiliating, if not downright heinous, demand from his feudal lord. Each time he submits, following the strict tenets of bushido, the "code of the warrior." Things ratchet up with each succeeding generation, the cruel treatment becoming mind-bendingly sadistic. Imagine the worst thing you could do to a man -- yep, that happens in this film. And through it all, the Iikura men obediently comply, never standing up, never fighting back. Are they all model samurai or merely pitiable fools?

While director Imai, an outspoken leftist with a flair for didactic, political statement films, pushes the cruelty envelope throughout the film, there's no denying that such abuses were not uncommon. Indeed, Imai asserts that such practices are ongoing, tracing the same abusive lord/vassal relationship to the modern, corporate world. While I wasn't crazy about his Adauchi (Revenge, 1964), I have to say this film is an unqualified masterpiece, a timeless tragedy and a crowning achievement

Cruel Tales of Bushido won the Golden Bear award at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Laying low

Sorry for the paucity of posts recently. I've been reading a lot and not looking at any particularly shocking films, Asian or otherwise. No, wait, I tell a lie: The Savage Innocents (1960), Nicholas Ray's eskimo saga, has some pretty shocking footage of actual polar bear and walrus hunts. That was hard to watch. (This is also the film that inspired Bob Dylan to write the song Quinn the Eskimo -- for its star, Anthony Quinn -- covered by Manfred Mann in 1968. Seeing the film clears up strange lines like "ain't my cup of meat.")

A Taxing Woman (1987), Juzo Itami's follow-up to Tampopo, starring, once again, his wife Nobuko Miyamoto and the great Tsutomu Yamazaki (the cowboy trucker in Tampopo as well as the kidnapper in Kurosawa's High & Low) wasn't what I (or anyone back in 1987) was expecting. While the previous film had been frothy, fanciful and funny, this film, about a gung-ho tax inspector and her unexpectedly complex relationship with a crooked, yakuza-related business man, is a bit long and somewhat downbeat. Fine film, just not as funny as I thought it would be. Incidentally, the real yakuza didn't take kindly to Itami's portrayal of them -- he wound up getting knifed for his efforts. True story.

Tiger Shark (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) are big, manly movies courtesy of legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks. The former is all about the perils of the commercial fishing trade (lots of sharks!) and stars Edward G. Robinson doing a cheesy Portugese accent and falling in love with with the wrong woman. Body parts get chomped left and right in this flick, as well as a hook in the face and other instances of nautical nastiness. Only Angels Have Wings has Cary Grant as a mail courier based in Brazil (or some Brazil-like country) who, with his rag-tag gang of fliers, risks life and limb to get the mail (or whatever) to remote, mountainous, always-dangerous locations. Jean Arthur is sweet on him, his ex is Rita Hayworth (in an early and rather embarrassing performance) and his men represent a stable of great character actor talent from the period. Also, look for once-huge silent star Richard Barthelmess in a rather unrewarding role as a hated, black sheep pilot.

The Japanese word maborosi translates as phantom, vision, illusion, and also sounds like the English word morose. So with the film Maborosi (1995), we have a subtle, haunting meditation on love, loss, grief and starting over in a small Japanese fishing village. The original title is Maborosi no hikari which means something like "phantom light" -- a reference to a tale told by an old fisherman toward the end of the film. In other words, there ain't no ghosts. An arthouse slow burn, this film gets slower and slower as you go. Only the atmoshpere saves it. See what you think.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) isn't a Japanese film, although it's all in Japanese and stars Japanese actors. It's Paul Schrader's tribute to famed novelist Yukio Mishima (who famously committed seppuku in 1970 following a doomed political misadventure). The film follows Mishima's life while meandering in and out of stagey interpretations of several of his stories, drawing obvious parallels throughout. One reason to see it is the great Ken Ogata in the starring role. Another is Kenji Sawada (Samurai Reincarnation, Hiruko the Goblin, Happiness of the Katakuris) in one of the vignettes. If you would like to see the real Yukio Mishima in a movie, he starred as a feckless yakuza in Yasuzo Masumura's Afraid to Die (1960), did a blink-and-you'll-miss-him bit as a human doll in Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard (1968) and had a small role in Hideo Gosha's Tenchu (1969) wherein he ... wait for it ... commits seppuku!

Black Test Car (1962) was recently released on disk by Fantoma. It's an industrial espionage film concerning rival car companies and all the skullduggery their corporate spies get up to (like bribery, blackmail, prostitution, kidnapping, assault, you name it). Directed by one of my favorite Japanese directors, Yasuzo Masumura, this film makes a great double feature with his Giants and Toys (1958), another corporate saga, albeit a much funnier one (though still fairly dark) about the battles between three competing caramel companies.

And I have to admit I was completely charmed by My Neighbor Totoro (1988), an anime feature from Hayao Miyazaki. So much so, in fact, that I bought a copy for a neighbor's 2-year-old daughter (who was herself completely entranced). It's hard to describe: The vibe is so sweet and gentle and filled with such a genuine sense of childlike wonder. I was really surprised by the degree to which it moved an old curmudgeon like me. Go figure.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Warring Clans, Flashing Blades OUT NOW!!!

OK, it's official. My new book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion has hit the street. Order it now from Amazon.com or, better yet, demand that your local bookstore carry it. Yeah, that's the ticket -- insist, perhaps with a bit of menace in your voice, that they place a sizable order with Stone Bridge Press for this particular title. Then mention, with a certain sinister silkiness, that said purchase will help them stay in business (if they know what's good for them). A little bit of such friendly persuasion will help me and will go a long way to solidifying your reputation around the neighborhood as a formidable strongman on his way up.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and, as the Brits say, put some stick about!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sleepy Eyes of Death Vol. 1

Just got an advance copy of this four-disk box of samurai madness and mayhem. This is one of the finest samurai series ever (12 films starring the great Raizo Ichikawa), filled with action, intrigue and a certain cynical swagger. And best of all, the accompanying booklet features two reviews from yours truly (taken from my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook).

Raizo Ichikawa plays Nemuri Kyoshiro, a half-breed ronin who digs the ladies and has no patience with the machinations of evil men. His daddy was a renegade Portugese priest who defiled his Japanese mother in a black mass. Understandibly, he's got issues with Christianity (as well as a thick head of red hair). A homeless wanderer, he's forever winding down that windy way toward whatever labyrinthine entanglement might await. He's proud and caustic and known for his existential bon mots. Sometimes, he lets his sword do the talking ...

I really can't recommend this series enough. When I first became aware of it, only the first half-dozen installments were available (on out-of-print VHS tapes from AnimEigo). I scoured the internet to get them, it took years. Then, gradually, the rest of the series became available on gray market DVDs. (I should mention that Raizo died during the making these films, and there were a couple more made afterwards, starring a then-raw Hiroki Matsukata.) Now, at last, perhaps due in part to my efforts (?), AnimEigo has begun to release the series on DVD. I couldn't be happier.

So run, don't walk, to your online or local DVD retail outlet and scoop up this fantastic box set. You won't be disapointed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peppermint Candy

Director Lee Chang-dong made Peppermint Candy in 1999 and, in common with many a Korean film of the period, it positively shakes with rage. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 had had a two-fold effect: While it undeniably left many a Korean citizen in the shit financially, it opened doors for filmmakers. To quote myself in Asia Shock, "Big corporations pulled out of the movie biz, private investors came in, and a new atmosphere of creative freedom and artistic daring nurtured the birth of a new wave of phenomenal South Korean films." [p. 17-18] That's how it is in this crazy world: Turmoil leads to creativity. Remember Orson Welles' famous speech in The Third Man? "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- and they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Peppermint Candy opens with the suicide of a disillusioned man (he stands before an oncoming train with predictable results). We then look on as his life flashes before his eyes ... backwards (just like they say it does in all the esoteric books). Bear in mind this is a full year before Christoper Nolan's Memento. Was something in the air, or did Nolan just steal the idea outright?

Actually, the flashback sequences only cover the last twenty years of the man's life, from 1979 to 1999, but nevertheless serve as an historical and cultural through-line for the repression and upheaval of Korean life during this period. Fresh out of high school, he's in the army, hunting down political dissidents. Then he's a cop, interrogating suspects using enhanced interrogation techniques we're all familiar with by now (hint: you're naked, handcuffed, and your head is in a bathtub full of water). Then he's a business owner, but not for long ...

And through it all, he is haunted by the memory of his first love, a sweet young thing who worked for a confectioner making ... wait for it ... peppermint candies. Because of the backwards narrative, we first encounter her on her death bed, only to meet her younger incarnation much later -- an emotionally powerful scene.

This is the second Lee Chang-dong film I've reviewed -- a link to the other review can be found here. He's a remarkable filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Entrails of a Beautiful Woman

Back in 1986, Nikkatsu released a pair of notorious films, Entrails of a Virgin and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman, through their Roman X adult video label (an ignoble successor to the once-great Roman Porno line of erotic films of the '70s). I reviewed Entrails of a Virgin in Asia Shock, but never got around to screening the other one until yesterday. (I suppose it's a testament to the repellant nature of these films that one was enough to hold me for several years.)

Both films feature a plethora of sleazy sex scenes, probing the outer boundaries of anyone's concept of "softcore pornography." But what makes these films truly stand out is the presence of a "sex monster," a creature seemingly conjured by the perveted lusts of the various human characters, a hideous consequence of thier crazed rutting. In Virgin, the creature is a demon who grows ever more powerful (and tumescent) as he stalks the horny members of a photo shoot holed up in a farmhouse overnight. In the less-sexy and far more violent Beautiful Woman, it is a violated woman who becomes the beast, a six-foot hermaphroditic monstrosity seemingly turned inside out. When the big, red, gooey thing decides to defile a cruel yakuza wife, it grows a mutated member most closely resembling the baby alien from Alien (in flagrante, the little fella behaves in much the same way as he did with poor John Hurt).

I can't, in all honesty, offer any good reason to see Entrails of a Beautiful Woman. But then, who needs a good reason?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Infection

Nothing is what it seems in this low-budget, "it was all a dream ... or was it?" shocker from 2004 starring the charismatic Koichi Sato (memorable for his portrayal of deadly, real-life Shinsengumi member Hajime Saito in the previous year's When the Last Sword is Drawn).

Infection is required viewing for fledgling filmmakers looking to break into the horror genre. The hospital "location" appears to be the dingy sub-basement of some old government building, and the set designer did little to spruce it up. As it happens, the grime on the walls serves to heighten a sense of looming dread. Think about it: a dirty hospital. That's the last place you'd want to spend any time, particularly if you were sick. Using little more than lighting, lots of fake blood and viscous green goo, as well as the abilities of his talented cast, director Masayuki Ochiai (Shutter, Parasite Eve) creates an aura of claustrophobic menace in a run-down hospital where low morale, incompetence and exhaustion lead inexorably to malpractice, contagion and insanity.

Did I mention there are ghosts? A crazy old granny runs around the wards seeing them in mirrors, but is she really crazy? Those swings in the park out front seem to be swinging themselves ...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Female Demon Ohyaku

Let's get something straight right up front: "Ohyaku" is bad romanization. What's the H doing in there? That's not how you render Japanese into English (there are conventions for such things). The proper spelling would be "Oyaku." However, the O is most likely an honorific, so it would more properly be "O-Yaku." So there.

Anyhow, this is a pretty good flick if you enjoy bloody revenge, Toei exploitation-style, in a jidai-geki setting. O-Yaku (Junko Miyazono) is an acrobat desired by many a horny old samurai and her boss keeps arranging these after-show meetings with them. But our O-Yaku's no whore, and lets these guys know it in no uncertain terms. One creepy fellow, a government official, takes her rejection particularly badly and ends up torturing her, beheading her lover with a guillotine, and finally shipping her off to Sado Island to work in the mines (while trying to fend off scores of male prisoners). Now she's out for revenge, and boy does she get it.

Junko Miyazono went on to star in Nobuo Nakagawa's even more ferocious Quick-Draw Okatsu the following year, a film I review in my forthcoming book Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion (which ships from the printers June 17th and will appear in retail outlets a few weeks thereafter). She's also good in Hideo Gosha's Samurai Wolf as a blind biwa-playing boss of a courier service (that one's in the book too). So I guess what I'm saying is I think you should buy my book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Assault! Jack the Ripper

Looking for something exciting, professionally made and downright shocking? You can't go far wrong with Assault! Jack the Ripper. This thrill-killer thriller is filled with thrilling kills and killing thrills, although Jack the Ripper is nowhere in sight (this being 1970s Japan). In his place is a mild-mannered pastry chef who inadvertently discovers that murdering women with his bitchy waitress girlfriend gets them both very hot. His weapon of choice? You guessed it, a cake knife. As we soon learn, it's far more brutal murdering a woman with a dull knife (particularly when thrust into her nether region and slowly dragged upwards, as is the killer's wont). After awhile our moody young anti-hero forgets about his girlfriend and goes solo, slicing up women from all walks of life. He even does a Richard Speck on a bunch of nurses. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is getting rather perturbed, being left out of all the fun. Will she play it cool, or wind up another body on the pile? You'll find out ...

The film was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, whose Black Tight Killers you might have seen. He worked at Nikkatsu as an AD under Seijun Suzuki before going solo in the 60s. He worked with Meiko Kaji on the Stray Cat Rock series and directed one of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Grudge Song. Hasebe was eventually pressed into service on Nikkatsu's Roman Porno line, where he made a string of disturbing rape films and, of course, Assault, Jack the Ripper.

A tip o' the hat to the good folks at Mondo Macabro for releasing this forgotten gem of violent pink madness (along with bonus features to help get viewers up to speed on this 70s-era sub-genre of sexy, frequently transgressive film).