Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Blind Menace

Well, it's happened again: A rare film I had to beg, borrow and steal to secure a copy of has now, once again, been released by a major distributor. This always fills me with conflicting feelings: pissed off that I had to work so hard for something now widely available, yet gratified that others will have no problem enjoying this fine film.

Such a film is Shiranui Kengyo (1960), available now from AnimEigo as The Blind Menace. I wrote a review of this film in my book Warring Clans, Flashing Blades, from which I will now lazily quote (what, I gotta come up with original blog content for you? Buy the damn book, already!). The central character is a man named Shichinosuke, "a sinister, scheming blind masseur played with dark exuberance by the incomparable Shintaro Katsu. Shiranui Kengyo was the first film to showcase Katsu's unique blind man act (somewhat more exaggerated here), but this anma is the polar opposite of the actor's most celebrated sightless characterization, Zatoichi. Shichinosuke, rather than wandering from town to town, gambling, giving massages and protecting the innocent, is more inclined towards thievery, rape, extortion and murder, all employed in the service of his ruthless rise to the top."

Elsewhere I write, "Released in 1960, the film was an instant hit, elevating Katsu to full-fledged movie star. The film's success rested largely on Katsu's brilliant performance as a vile, Richard III-like villain. Like Richard, Shichinosuke's handicap fuels his rage and ambition to rise in a world where the deck is stacked against him, relishing the liberties his treachery allows him with those in the sighted world, particularly the ladies."

Then, toward the end of the review, I say: "Simply put, if you're a Shintaro Katsu fan, you have to see Shiranui Kengyo ... it's one of those holy grail pictures, not necessarily a samurai film proper, but nevertheless essential to aficionados of the genre." (Say, this guy's good!)

If I were you, while you're on Amazon buying a copy of The Blind Menace, I'd also pick up a copy of Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. Then, when that stuff arrives, go get a six-pack, kick off your shoes and get ready for a good ol' Japanese film nerd-out time. You're welcome.

(The Blind Menace streets June 15th, 2010.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


She's a robot. She's a geisha. She's ... well, you know. Written and directed by Noboru Iguchi, the guy responsible for Machine Girl (as well as less-than-memorable titles like Doctor's Enema and A Larva to Love), Robogeisha is essentially a live-action cartoon aimed squarely at the 10 to 14-year-old demographic. This wouldn't be a problem if Iguchi were talented enough to bring out the 14-year-old in me (it's not that hard, I have to say).

Unfortunately, he isn't. Every performance is so exaggerated, every gag so overdone that one can't even lose oneself in the outrageousness of it all -- the film is too busy trumpeting its own outrageousness. Literally. Someone gets fried shrimps jammed into their eye sockets. Immediately the victim screams, "Oh! She jammed shrimps in my eyes!" Or a bionically modified girl shoots half a dozen shuriken out of her ass and the guy who gets them in the face makes a similar announcement. It's as if the director isn't sure you're getting it, that you can't possibly process what just happened (because, of course, it's SOOOO outrageous), that it has to be announced after the fact. This happens continuously throughout the picture.

Don't get me wrong, the gags are indeed outrageous, and often quite inventive. Swords lunge out of womens' mouths and armpits; geisha wigs are tricked out with "wig nepalm;" girls shoot bullets from their breasts, as well as "milk from hell" (which, of course, melts peoples' faces off); one robogeisha projects a circular saw from her mouth with which to murder a prominent politician. Done a bit more deadpan, this stuff might have worked (or at the very least worked better). As it is, it all plays like a twisted, bloody take on a Saturday morning kid's show.

But hey, that's just me. You may indeed be thinking, "twisted, bloody take on a Saturday morning kid's show? I'm there!" In my case, I tend to enjoy OTT antics in films, and if you know me (or if you've read any of my books), you know I'm no snob. The bone I'm picking with Robogeisha is purely a matter of presentation. With a little more work, it could have been a campy romp, instead of what amounts to a mad dash from one jaw-dropping set piece to the next.

So you tell me. Am I being too hard on Robogeisha? Am I just some old fart who doesn't get it? Give it to me straight, folks, I can take it.

(Robogeisha streets June 7th in the UK courtesy of Cine Asia.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Gimme a black comedy where bodies stack up faster than they can reasonably be disposed of. Now make it in Thailand and populate it with a cast of hilariously quirky characters. And, if you must, give it a dumb-ass title.

That film is Pen-ek Ratanaruang's 6ixtynin9 (1999). And before you ask, no, the film has nothing to do with the sex position. It refers to a bit of confusion caused by a 6 on an apartment door that keeps flopping over to become a 9. Clearly the much-better (and Hendrix-referencing) title "If 6 were 9" never occurred to anyone. However, what did did come of Mr. Ratanaruang's efforts is a tasty, twisty Thai take on Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave (1994).

Tum (Thai soap star Lalita Panyopas) finds a box of money on her doorstep. As we all know, this means trouble. Tum's not exactly what you'd call a tough customer, but she nevertheless possesses some impressive survival instincts. Plus she's just been canned from her job and could really use the cash. Therefore when the inevitable thugs show up to retrieve the loot, they get more than they bargained for, setting off a chain reaction of murder and mayhem.

Now you might be thinking, "Oh brother, been there, done that." But you haven't. Pen-ek Ratanaruang was one of the originators of the Thai film boom of the late 90s and is known for his unique style, applying inky black strokes of comedy with a light, deft brush, creating a vibe I'd call "Thai/indy." 6ixtynin9 is more kinetic and plot-driven than his most well-known film, the moodier, dreamier Last Life in the Universe (2003).

As mentioned earlier, the film is made memorable by its wonderful assortment of kooky characters, each played to a naturalistic perfection by the talented cast. Tum's nosy neighbor Pen (Sirisin Siripornsmathikul) is a hoot, a Thai cougar who's having it off with a young cop (uh oh). She always turns up at the wrong moment and at one point has a hilarious discussion with her cronies as to what to do with an inconstant lover (hint: It involves a knife and a food processor ... ). Tum is also forced to deal with the drama queen antics of her friend Jim (Tasanawalai Ongarittichai), a beautiful girl who's unlucky in love and ready to open a vein over it.

But I've said enough. If you haven't seen that many Thai films, I'd definitely recommend this one. If you saw Last Life in the Universe and found it dull, try 6ixtynin9. Thai-flavored black comedies don't get much better.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Remember Harry Caul, Gene Hackman's character in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974)? Well imagine Harry and his team decided to go beyond mere surveillance and actually worked as a hit squad, murdering people by way of elaborately planned and untraceable "accidents." Now imagine Harry and his guys are Chinese and you've worked your way around to the inventive psychological crime thriller that is Accident (2009). Produced by Johnnie To and directed by Cheang Pou Soi, Accident blends the narrative arc of a heist film (big job goes horribly awry) with the paranoia and meticulousness of The Conversation, throwing in enough twists and turns to keep you guessing throughout.

The crew: Brain (Louis Koo, above), Fatty (Lam Suet), Uncle (Stanly Fung), and, for want of a character name, Hottie (Michelle Ye). They're good. Very good. We see a bit of their handiwork in the opening sequence, wherein they maneuver their target into "accidentally" offing himself. In public, in broad daylight (and quite bloodily, I might add). Later, Brain is upset because Uncle left a cigarette butt at the scene. Yeah, he's that anal. But I guess you have to be in his line of work. Soon they're on to the next job, and it's here that the well-oiled machine begins to break down. Plus, it looks like another faux-accident hit squad has set their sights on Brain ...

Director Cheang Pou Soi worked under Johnnie To as an assistant before donning the director's cap some ten years ago, and while there's a confusing moment now and again, Accident nevertheless delivers the goods as a more cerebral, insular and subtle Hong Kong crime film than you might expect. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Yang Ik-joon isn't at all like the character he plays in Breathless. And that's good for him. And us. In fact, it's good for anyone within punching, slapping or kicking distance. For Sang-hoon, an enforcer for a local loan shark in a squalid, unnamed town somewhere in South Korea, is a swirling maelstrom of verbal and physical abuse, lashing out at any and all comers (as well as innocent bystanders, friends, old men, women, children, you name it). We eventually discover the childhood trauma that is the source of Sang-hoon's seemingly bottomless rage and realize that, like everyone else, he's a mixed bag. There's actually a human being lurking beneath that brutal facade; will its gradual emergence lead to well-deserved destruction, or to somehow equally well-deserved redemption?

Yang Ik-joon wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Breathless (2009), a film it took him three years to make. It is his directorial debut. A better name for the film would have been "Vicious Cycle," for that is its underlying theme: The time-honored family tradition of cyclical abuse. They say charity begins at home; so does watching daddy beat mommy to a pulp, or witnessing thugs break daddy's nose for not paying his debts. The takeaway for the child in such circumstances is either A) this is wrong and I will never be this way, or B) this is how things work and as soon as I'm big enough, I'm going to do the same. Both viewpoints are expressed by the variously damaged characters in Breathless. Clearly Sang-hoon has opted for plan B, but Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi), a high school girl he encounters early in the film, is a strong adherent to the A option. This doesn't mean she isn't tough as nails, but hers is a toughness of character. So when Sang-hoon accidentally spits on her in the street, she doesn't let it go. She demands the terrifying thug make amends. Thus begins a unique and unpredictable relationship. Elsewhere, Sang-hoon is trying, in his churlish, awkward way, to develop some kind of bond with his small nephew Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo).

While I'm no stranger to violent Korean cinema, I have to admit I was a little wary at the start of this picture. The opening scene begins, in medias res, with a guy beating a woman in the street. Before long, Sang-hoon appears and pounds the guy into the ground. Turning to the bloodied woman, he spits in her face and slaps her repeatedly, asking her why she takes such abuse. It's as if Yang Ik-joon has posed himself a challenge: Create an utterly repellent character and then make him sympathetic. He succeeds, of course, by gradually peeling back the layers of scar tissue until the core person is revealed. Yang has said that Breathless is partly autobiographical, inspired by friends and family members he grew up with in Namgok-dong, a poor town in Chungcheong Province. "Breathless is a story about Korea," he says, "a story about a family. People were able to relate because families are similar, although the degree of family problems vary of course ... it was an exorcism for me." Indeed, the cathartic power of this film is formidable. I came away emotionally exhausted, yet at the same time exhilarated. I suppose you could say that's one definition of great cinema.

In the year since Breathless' release, Yang has been invited to 60 film festivals and received 23 prizes (from the Deauville Asian Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival, Tokyo FILMeX, Fant-Asia Film Festival, etc. etc.). The praise is well-deserved and Yang Ik-joon is a name to remember.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Insect Woman

Before you ask, no, this is not a sci-fi movie about some half bug/half human woman. Nor is it a remake of Shohei Imamura's 1963 film of the same title. No, this film is a bizarre world of obsessive desire and psychological torture teeming with rats and the odd vampire baby. Getting interested? Bear in mind the only available print looks as if it was left out in the sun all summer and then taken for a drag around the parking lot, as well as having huge Spanish subtitles seared into it. But even with all that, you won't be able to take your eyes off this gloriously, deliriously weird and wonderful movie.

The Insect Woman (1972) was directed by Kim Ki-young, the Korean cult auteur who gave us The Housemaid. Here, a dozen years later, he revisits the central theme of that picture, namely a middle-aged man's adultery with an unstable young woman and the subsequent destruction it wreaks upon them and the man's family. Both films were based on true crime incidents and work well as a set; The Insect Woman, to use a cliche, is like The Housemaid on acid.

And so we have Myeong-ja (Yoon Yeo-jeong), a 19-year-old girl who's recently lost her father and isn't taking it well at all. Now she's forced to work as a bar hostess and is quickly tricked/forced into prostitution by two very unsavory women. Being a virgin, she of course falls madly in love with the man who violently deflowered her, Dong-shik (Namgung Won). His industrialist wife Soon-jo (Jeon Kye-hyun) wears the pants in the family and, soon after learning of the affair, puts Myeong-ja on salary as her husband's concubine. But don't get the idea she's anywhere near pleased about having to share her husband; castrating bitch that she is, she drugs him and arranges for a quick vasectomy (OK, not quite castration, but not as far as Dong-shik is concerned ... ). Dong-shik's teenage son and daughter are a perverse pair; he's a strict Buddhist who eats only honey, while she spends her time playing piano and breeding rats.

Things take a bizarre turn at around the one-hour mark when Dong-shik finds a baby in the refrigerator of the house he's sharing with Myeong-ja. The couple are overjoyed that they can raise some kind of baby together, but things soon turn from bad to worse as psychosis, razor blades and hordes of white rats bring about the deaths of several of the main characters. Oh, and did I mention the baby's a vampire?

As in The Housemaid, a two-story house is used to symbolize the dichotomy between the more stable world of the ground floor and the neurotic emotional hothouse of the upper chambers (Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray were known to use this symbolic device as well). And of course, this being 1972, the sex scenes are a bit more interesting. One memorable moment finds Dong-shik making love with Myeong-ja on a glass table covered with multicolored candies ... shot from below.

The Insect Woman can be had as part of a region-3 box set. The box contains four films and an informative booklet in Korean and (wonkily translated) English. For fans of Korean cinema, this is a very cool edition to your film library. Kim Ki-young's films were a big influence on contemporary directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho; it's a shame so many of them have been completely lost or only exist in diminished capacity (another of the films in the box, Goryeojang -- considered by some critics to be Kim's masterpiece -- has whole reels missing, leaving us in the dark with only the soundtrack). However, such is the strength of Kim's cinema that even with these hindrances, one can still become utterly absorbed, captivated and amazed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun

It isn't often that I watch a film and then immediately watch it again, particularly one as emotionally wrenching as Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. OK, so the second time I wanted to hear Linda Hoaglund's excellent commentary. Nevertheless the story itself is packed with twists and reveals that provide a very different, yet equally compelling, experience the second time around.

Made by Kinji Fukasaku in 1972, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun ranks with Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (1959-61) and Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959) as one of the finest Japanese anti-war films ever made. If your awareness of Fukasaku's films stops at Battle Royale (2000) or his groundbreaking Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973-4) yakuza series, be prepared for a revelation: This director, known primarily in the West as a purveyor of innovative screen violence, was in fact passionately anti-war. Along with Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto, Fukasaku got a firsthand look at the horrors of war as a young man, picking up the body parts of his school friends after an air raid at the age of 15. Like Okamoto, these early experiences informed Fukasaku's use of violent imagery in his films, particularly in the case of Under the Flag of the Rising Sun.

The story concerns Sakie Togashi (Sachiko Hidari), a war widow who, 26 years after the conflict, is still uncertain as to the nature of her husband's death. Official records were either burned or hastily prepared, and it falls upon her to investigate the matter, seeking out the four surviving members of her husband's unit. Thus ensues a series of confounding, Rashomon-like flashbacks, each told from the viewpoint of one man, colored by his own personal agenda, and all utterly contradictory. Sgt. Togashi (Tesuro Tamba) was either a valiant leader who died gloriously in battle, a ghoulish human flesh peddler, or something in between. Gradually, through his wife's efforts, a clear picture finally emerges, but don't expect a happy ending.

The film is unflinching in it's depictions of starvation, disease, insanity, cannibalism, inter-rank brutality, summary executions, dismemberment and the like. As it happens, the Japanese high command had a tendency to disregard the fate of soldiers stranded in places like New Guinea, and the gruesome realities of survival in such a situation are laid bare. It's not an easy film to watch, but then the truth is never easy, particularly the truth about war.

Although a contract director for Toei for most of his career, Fukasaku made Under the Flag of the Rising Sun independently, having secured the book rights with his own money. Shooting guerrilla style, using found locations and hand-held cameras, Fukasaku was simultaneously developing the gritty style that would make his jitsuroku yakuza saga Jingi Naki Tatakai so uniquely visceral. No, there's no Bunta Sugawara in the platoon, but you can't miss a strangely mute Isao Natsuyagi alongside Tamba.

As I mentioned earlier, the HVE disk of Under the Flag of the Rising Sun features an engaging and informative commentary track courtesy of the translator/subtitler, Linda Hoaglund. I first became aware of Ms. Hoaglund while writing Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, quoting from an interview she conducted with Masaki Kobayashi. She's subtitled scores of Japanese films, including plenty by Kurosawa (both Akira and Kiyoshi), Kon Ichikawa, Hiyao Miyazaki, Sabu, Kore-eda and on and on, as well as writing articles, conducting interviews and producing films.

Anyhow, I urge everyone to see Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. It's one of those films that brings home the atrocity of war, something people seem to need constant reminding of; only in this way will we be able to avoid it in the future. Oh, and it totally makes up for Message From Space and The Green Slime!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi

It is my great pleasure to announce, if you didn't know already, that AnimEigo is releasing Tomu Uchida's five-part "Zen and Sword" version of Miyamoto Musashi (1961-65). For fans of Japan's Greatest Swordsman, this is definitely a cause for celebration. Uchida's sprawling epic film series adheres faithfully to Eiji Yoshikawa's sprawling epic novel (well, as faithfully as possible given that the latter weighs in at 970 pages). At times the films follow the book page by page, even line by line. This makes for a far different film experience than Hiroshi Inagaki's more well-known three-part saga starring Toshiro Mifune (1954-56). Indeed, apart from the first installment and a few other key events, the two film series are remarkably dissimilar. While the Inagaki films take more liberties with the source material, the most striking difference lies in the performance of the two stars. Don't get me wrong, nobody loves Toshiro Mifune more than me, but when it comes to emotional range and screen intensity, I gotta hand it to Kinnosuke Nakamura. His steadily mesmerizing performance is the strongest selling point of the Zen and Sword Miyamoto Musashi.

If you bought my latest book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades (and if you didn't, that link goes right to Amazon wink wink), you'll know something about Kinnosuke Nakamura (I included a biographical sketch of this most beloved of jidai-geki stars right at the front and reviewed half a dozen of his films). At one point I said, "Toshiro Mifune had a natural talent, keen instincts, and quick reactions; Tatsuya Nakadai is the master thespian, cool and chameleonic; Shintaro Katsu was bold and genuine; Raizo Ichikawa had versatility and a perfectly poised heroic persona; but when it came to communicating sheer emotion, often in complex combinations, nobody did it like Nakamura." You need go no further than the Zen and Sword series for ample proof.

As I mentioned earlier, the first film in the quintilogy (it's a word now) covers the same ground as the Inagaki version, beginning with the Battle of Sekigahara and following the teenage Musashi (then called Takezo) and his loser buddy Matahachi (Asao Kimura) as they make their way from the corpse-strewn battlefield towards an uncertain future in the new Tokugawa era. Matahachi's bitch-on-wheels mama-san (Chieko Naniwa) gets it into her fool head that Takezo is somehow responsible for her son's death (even though he isn't dead) and her quest for revenge is a running gag throughout the series. Meanwhile, Matahachi's fiance Otsu (Wakaba Irie) winds up falling for Takezo while Matahachi runs off with older-and-bolder Oko (Michiyo Kogure). Takuan the Know-It-All Priest (Rentaro Mikuni) eventually takes the wild Takezo to Himeji Castle where the young mountain madman studies to become a great samurai. One down, four to go.

Over the course of the remaining films, we find Musashi (a different reading of the kanji for Takezo given him by the Lord of Himeji) confronting scores of opponents, his battles ranging from single combat with sword masters to full-on melee with scores of attackers. It's all too sprawling and epic-y to describe in detail here. The labyrinthine, Dickensian plot has all the many main characters becoming interconnected with one another (if they weren't already) and by the final battle between Musashi and arch rival Kojiro Sasaki (a bewigged Ken Takakura), you feel as if you've been on your own journey of thrilling adventure and discovery.

If you're new to samurai cinema, this Musashi series is a great place to start. If you're already into the genre, trust me, you've got to have it. Just plain excellent.