Friday, September 24, 2010

Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord

Sometimes, in anticipation of a film, it's possible to over-hype it to yourself, play it up in your mind until, when you finally see it, you're disappointed that it didn't live up to your overheated expectations. Such was the danger with Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord (1972), a film I've wanted to see for nearly a decade. I needn't have worried, though; this is one of those films that defies expectations.

Made by ace Toei director Norifumi Suzuki, it is the story of a sexually inexperienced daimyo (Hiroshi Nawa) who, in 1825, finds himself compelled to marry one of the shogun's many daughters and, oh no, consummate the marriage. Displeasing the shogun is not an option, and the lord's ministers are determined that their boss delivers the goods. They get the lascivious Hakataya (Fumio Watanabe), a samurai well versed in the ways of the flesh, to turn him out. After a three-day intensive with a bevy of multi-racial beauties (including sizzling French import Sandra Julien) and a whole lot of hot sex, our daimyo is transformed into the eponymous horny lord. He becomes sex mad, and, resentful of the rest of his subjects who've been having it off all along, he prohibits everyone else from engaging in his newfound pleasure. Every man must have his member stamped with an official seal; if it's found to have rubbed off, the whole thing must come off. Yikes! Meanwhile, the lord keeps on bonking.

It's truly remarkable how explicit a film like this can get without ever showing penetration or even genitalia. Suzuki was a master of this type of film, and Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord ranks right up there with his nunsploitation classic Convent of the Sacred Beast (see my review of the latter in Asia Shock). Sex and violence are so perfectly intermingled you'll likely become alarmed at how much you're enjoying it. Suzuki's supreme ability lies in seducing the eye before the mind can interfere, allowing the audience to gaze upon rape, torture, giant dildoes and various atrocities and appreciate their artistic merits. I realize how perverse this sounds, but bear in mind the era, the unique flair for S&M that runs through Japanese art and culture and the fact this this is, after all, an exploitation film and not to be taken too seriously. Plus, as I say, Suzuki is an artist and master of the OTT moment; even as people are being beheaded, crucified and castrated, it all works to serve the story rather than being there for mere sensation.

And the whole affair is frequently played for laughs. When you're not getting aroused, you're laughing your head off, a heady mixture of enjoyments. Frankly, words fail to describe this picture. You really just need to see it, and thanks to the good folks over at, now you can. My advice is to click that link and get yourself a copy of this amazing movie.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sword With No Name

Oh pity the terrible fate of Korea's poor Queen Min, destined to die on the end of a Japanese sword in 1895. I was just reading about this incident, the result of palace intrigue and treacherous conspiracy, so this film, an historical drama based on the life of Queen Min, was of immediate interest.

The Sword With No Name (2009) is based on a novel, and, as is the wont of novelists, there is a fictitious character placed at the nexus of things. In the film adaptation, he is Moo-myeong (Jo Seung-woo), a country bumpkin with mad sword skills. Frankly, the character is sketchy at best; we first encounter him snoozing in a boat, waking to gaze, love-at-first-sightedly, at the young, soon to be queen (Soo Ae). Later we're supposed to get that he's really an ace assassin. He gets the gig to murder the beautiful young woman (but of course he's way too in love to do the deed).

Frankly, the film is downright choppy in parts; pivotal scenes are almost elliptical in their execution, leaving the audience struggling to make sense of it all. I got the impression that there was a lot of assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. After all, the story of Queen Min would be a familiar one for most Korean moviegoers. However, Korean film these days is usually geared for an international audience, so such cultural/narrative insularity is surprising. Or maybe director Kim Yong-gyun just isn't much cop at this sort of thing … ?

Moo-myeong devotes his life to protecting his beloved queen, becoming a castle guard to be closer to her. Obviously, things don't end well. It's a doomed lovers tale made all the more poignant when you know what's in store for Queen Min. Along the way there's plenty of sword action and the performances are terrific. Jo Seung-woo overcomes the vagueness of his character with sheer force of will, fleshing him out and making him someone you can get behind. Soo-ae says more with a teardrop than most actresses and Cheon Ho-jin is great as her father-in-law and arch enemy, the scheming Daewongun.

Overall, I'd recommend The Sword With No Name. It's drawbacks are occasionally annoying, but ultimately there's far more good stuff here than bad, plus thrilling fight sequences, tender love scenes, melodrama, conspiracy, turn-of-the-century culture mash-ups (the queen trying on a corset, interacting with Europeans, etc.) and some excellent beheadings. To enhance your experience, I'd advise a bit of brush up on the period. Do a search on Queen Min or Empress Myeongseong (as she was also called), or, even better, read this book. As in all things in life, a little prep goes a long way.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I've never seen Cellular (2004), the Hollywood thriller upon which Connected is based (hey, an Asian remake of a Hollywood picture -- there's a switch!) although I've heard it wasn't good. This 2008 Hong Kong version, however, is nothing short of superb. Director Benny Chan show's us how it's done, bringing his own brand of hyperkinetic action as well as a healthy dose of sustained, edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Louis Koo (Accident, Triangle) plays the Hitchcockian everyman who receives a call on his cell phone from a woman (Barbie Hsu) who's been kidnapped. He tries to hand the phone off to a former badass detective/now traffic cop (Nick Cheung, whom we last saw in The Beast Stalker), but the disgruntled officer thinks it's a prank. Of course he'll realize later that it wasn't and get involved in the case, much to the chagrin of his former underling/now boss (Eddie Cheung). Many jaw-dropping chase scenes ensue.

The pace is relentless and the tension taut throughout. Barbie Hsu's histrionics become occasionally tiresome, but what's the poor woman to do? Her loved ones are being threatened and brutalized by bad guy rogue Interpol dudes after … well, you gradually find out what they're after and why. But it doesn't really matter. What matters is wild action, OTT stunts and high tech hijinks all delivered with style and a sense of humor. Are we reinventing the wheel here? No. Is this an important film that will change the way you look at life? Probably not. Is it a top-notch cinematic thrill ride from one of the best action directors in the business? Oh yeah.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Samurai Vendetta

Raizo! Katsu-shin! Chushingura! Tange Sazen (sort of)! If you don't know what I'm talking about, you probably won't enjoy Samurai Vendetta (1959) as much as those who do. But that's how it goes with some samurai films: The filmmakers assume a certain amount of background knowledge on your part because, after all, you're Japanese, right? Why else would you be watching it? Surely no gaijin would be interested in this stuff. It was to remedy this cultural myopia that I originally wrote Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves and then, a few years later, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades (which includes, funnily enough, a review of Samurai Vendetta). You're welcome.

And you're doubly blessed, as the good folks at AnimEigo have seen fit to release Samurai Vendetta featuring their unique brand of onscreen annotation and cultural/historical supplemental materials. Armed with an AnimEigo edition of a samurai film and my books, you're gonna be just fine.

So what's it all about? Essentially it's a love triangle between real-life samurai Horibe Yasubei (Shintaro Katsu), made-up samurai Tange Tenzin (Raizo Ichikawa) and mutual love interest Chiharu (Maki Chitose). I should point out that while I normally write Japanese names Western-style, here I've retained the Japanese form of surname first for the two male characters in order to point out the similarity between the name Tange Tenzin and Tange Sazen (the latter being the famous one-armed, one-eyed ronin character originally created by novelist Fubo Hayashi in the 1920s). Why point this out? Because Tange Tenzin is similarly mutilated over the course of the film, making me wonder what the author of the original story, Kosuke Gomi, was playing at. A one-armed swordsman named Tange? Dude, it's been done.

Historical events such as Horibe's thrilling duel with the Murakami brothers at Takadanobaba in 1694 and the revenge of the Loyal 47 Ronin in 1702 provide a backdrop for the two men's mutual longing for Chiharu (as well as their own bromance -- being samurai, of course, they barely speak a dozen words to one another throughout the movie). Along the way, many cruel and treacherous acts are perpetrated against Tange and Chiharu. Horibe's big wound is he doesn't get the girl (that's not a spoiler -- you learn this fairly early on).

On the minus side, Raizo's swordplay, never the strongest, comes off much worse next to that of Shintaro Katsu (aka Zatoichi), particularly when Raizo's forced to play it left hand. And then there's the regrettable casting of Maki Chitose. I don't know whose cousin or niece or sister-in-law she was but frankly she's a drip, and definitely not up to the more dramatic moments of the script. So uninspiring is her performance, one wonders why the two samurai would fall so utterly for such a homely, insipid woman. Where's Masayo Banri when we need her?!

Overall, though, Samurai Vendetta is a decent film. Somewhat more melodramatic than what you're used to getting with Katsu and Raizo -- Sleepy Eyes of Death this ain't. But there's no denying this is one picture that's positively steeped in bushido, adhering to the code of the samurai to the bitter end. The original Japanese title, Hakuoki, translates as Chronicle of Pale Cherry Blossoms, a more fitting title I think. While there are plenty of vendettas to go around, the film is ultimately more concerned with the beautiful melancholy symbolized by those falling petals, that of untimely death.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Man, that's what I'm talking about. Excellent film. I love murder mysteries and I love Korean film, so this one was made to order, but Mother (2009) is a downright fantastic film into the bargain. Director Bong Joon-ho revisits the bleak, rural noir setting he conjured so deftly in Memories of Murder (2003). But whereas that film was based on South Korea's first (and still unsolved) serial killer case, this film presents the full mystery set including the denouement, providing an overall more satisfying film experience.

On paper it's, well, paper thin: Mother (Kim Hye-ja) tries to save her simpleton son (Won Bin) who's been sent up for a murder he's clearly too sweetly retarded to have committed. It's a small town with seemingly no potential perps except maybe her son's sleazy friend (Jin Goo). Where do you go from there? This is clearly no Agatha Christie affair featuring an assortment of colorful characters with means and motives. However, as mom investigates, she starts uncovering the town's nasty little secrets in a Blue Velvet-y, pick-up-a-rock-and-see-what's-squriming-there kind of way. Her gentle, gradual flaying of the community reveals all sorts of unexpected things, including issues pertaining to her own past. It's all very sordid and dark and utterly engrossing. By the time the credits role, two hours have slipped right by -- you've been utterly rapt.

It's difficult to say much more for fear of spoiling something. Best to just sit down and let the film envelop you like a dark dream. Bong Joon-ho got a lot of attention for his 2006 monster mash The Host, but for my money it's the crime stuff at which he truly excels. Mother is a modern murder masterpiece not to be missed.