Another good film with a shit title, Key of Life (2012) involves the intersection of an ace hit man, a suicidal loser and a meticulous magazine editor looking to get married (the latter is female). Things get interesting when the two guys wind up swapping identities, and the editor lady falls for one of them. Plot twists abound, and two hours just fly by. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll stop now, leaving you with a rather brief and unsatisfying blog post. Oh well. Just check it out (coming soon to Netflix).
OK folks, here’s a Hong Kong shocker so disgusting I was literally jumping out of my chair (and by literally, I mean literally, not “almost” as the word has come to mean in the minds of many). There’s a jump scare just seconds into Murderer (2009) that's so repulsive, I almost (there, see the difference?) had to look away. Nevertheless, I was standing behind my chair and that’s saying summat … I’m no babe in the woods when it comes to shocking Asian cinema, so if this flick got under my skin, chances are it’s gonna mess with you as well.
Aaron Kwok plays Ling, an amnesiac cop who’s trying to figure out who’s framing him for a string of serial killings, as well as the horrendous near-murder of his partner (the latter lies jacked-up in the hospital for the majority of the film, having been done over with a power drill and tossed off the roof of an apartment building). It doesn’t help things when Ling discovers the power drill in question (the weapon of choice in all the murders) in the pump room of the apartment building, then notices his own (same model) is missing. As the film progresses, we find ourselves deeper and deeper in “is this guy just fucking nuts?” territory. When the denouement arrives, it's so outlandish, you’re really wondering whether this is all just a weird fantasy playing out in Ling’s head.
But man, the gory bits are truly disturbing. They could have just shown the long, black hair hanging out of the oven; we would have gotten that there's a head in there. We really didn’t need to see Ling open it and look inside to find the contents cooking … Meanwhile, Ling himself is no saint, and as the pressure and paranoia grows, he winds up doing some nasty things himself. The film is a moral quagmire, and nothing is as it seems. I love it!
As in the previous post, I award no points for originality of title. But in Murderer, I sense a yearning for the good old days of 80s/90s Category III madness. Director Roy Chow (Nightfall) is just getting started, and, I predict, is one to watch. However, Murderer is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, so you might want to wait ’til after the movie to order that pizza …
A couple of posts back I mentioned a Korean horror anthology, and here it is, Horror Stories (2012). I really wasn’t in the mood — it’s a screener, and I always feel obligated to watch ’n blog when someone sends me one, but then I put it off because it becomes that thing I have to do, and I’m so immature that I go into avoidance mode. So the thing has been sitting there for weeks, but I finally forced myself to watch it.
And you know what? It’s really good! No points for the title, but if you like Asian horror, you’re sure to enjoy this creepy quartet of stories (plus a somewhat disturbing frame story) directed by a half dozen k-horror filmmakers. As is often the case with omnibus horror flicks, the frame story involves someone telling scary stories that are then acted out. In this case, the teller is a teenage girl who’s been kidnapped by a serial killer.
The first tale involves two little kids who may or may not be in hell. It’s the most jump-scare heavy of the vignettes, courtesy of director Jeong Beom-sik (Epitaph). The second installment involves a serial killer on a plane. This is probably the weakest of the four, directed by Lim Dae-woong (Bloody Reunion). Number three concerns a young bride-to-be and the wealthy man who thinks she’s good enough to eat … literally. Finally, we have a mini zombie epic that takes place almost completely in a speeding ambulance.
You know, in the years since I wrote Asia Shock, I’ve found myself watching such films less and less. Seems kind of unpleasant anymore. But then I’ll watch one, and I get sucked right in all over again and wind up having a great time. Go figure. Thanks to Shade Rupe for sending the screener, courtesy of Artsploitation Films. BTW, lest we forget, I coined the term “artsploitation” in Asia Shock back in 2006. You’re welcome.
If you’re looking for an homage to the grand old Toei exploitation pictures of the 70s, you can’t go far wrong with Yakuza Hunters I and II (2012). First off you have scrumptious Japanese cult actress and former adult video star Asami Sugiura (RoboGeisha, The Machine Girl) running around half undressed (in the first film at least), killing yakuza by the dozen. Her character (conveniently named Asami) was formerly a sukeban (girl gang) boss until her best friend betrayed her and started moving coke for the mob. Things got ugly after that and, well, the ex-friend and the yakuza gang are on her shit/hit list.
Be warned, these films contain oceans of blood and extreme gore — the second film opens with a woman being raped with a chainsaw … yeah, really. And fairly graphically. This shit ain’t subtle. There’s a vicious streak running through these films (particularly the second one) that’s rather repellant. But you can’t say they don’t go over the top. Way over!
The first film is more satirical and sexy, the latter darker and meaner (a baby is put to the sword, various horrible mutilations, etc.), so depending on your inclination, you decide which one works for you. I liked the first one better. Asami has a bunch of other girls who help her with her yakuza hunting, and they tend to run around in skimpy outfits and fight with samurai swords. Yosh!
Asami likes to chop off the pinkies of every yakuza she kills and wears them in a bandolier across her chest (see photo above, click to enlarge). Something about a strikingly hot chick wearing fingers — it’s an image you won’t soon forget. And she has superpowers! She can catch bullets and wing them back at you with the same force, and you don’t want to know what happens when she flings one of those fingers …
Supposedly these films were going to be a trilogy, but wound up condensed to two titles. However, you could be forgiven for thinking there are indeed three films, as the first one has been released with two different titles: Yakuza Hunters: Final Death Ride Battle and Yakuza Hunters: The Ultimate Battle Royale (the second picture is out as Yakuza Hunters: The Revenge Duel in Hell, as well as just plain Yakuza Hunters: Duel in Hell).
Been checking out some not-so-great Japanese films of late. Normally I try to write positive reviews about films I like, but this time out, instead of the Moet & Chandon I normally dispense, well, you're getting lemonade.
First off is Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad (2008). Except it ain't a squad, just one chick in a bikini. And half the time she's covered up in a Man With No Name poncho and cowboy hat combo. She's hot enough, and radiates a tough, Meiko Kaji vibe, but the film is based on a video game, and beyond the zombies and the swordplay, there's not much else on offer.
Speaking of Meiko Kaji, there’s Female Convict Scorpion (aka Sasori, 2008). Nope, she's not in it. Yep, it’s a remake of the Japanese exploitation classic. It’s a Japanese/Chinese (mostly Chinese) co-production, and a bit too torture-porny for my taste. The original was campy, sexy and outrageous. This one is just kind of a bummer. If you enjoy seeing women being cruelly mistreated, with nary a nod or wink, this is your flick.
Lastly, we have Karate Girl (2011), probably the best of the bunch, although when there isn’t karate happening the pace slows to a crawl (endless scenes of villains saying villainous things very slowly). It stars real-life karate champ Rina Takeda. She’s extremely cute and demure, and she can kick your ass eight ways to Sunday. You don’t see that much karate in movies anymore, so this was a nice change of pace.
Next up: A Korean horror anthology I received a screener for …
Ever since Netflix hired me to tag films for them, I've been getting an unofficial education of sorts. Initially, I was hired on as an Asian film expert, but soon enough things started to splay out, and I found myself assigned to all sorts of cinematic stuff, a veritable grab bag of filmic experience. In addition to numerous kung fu fight fests, I've seen everything from 70s skin flicks to hip hop high school romps to Kazakhstani historical epics.
And documentaries. Lots of documentaries. I've screened documentaries about eels, prescription drugs, film criticism, Steve Jobs, New York cabbies, forensic science, black punk rock bands, Sturgis -- you name it. But seeing as how this blog is dedicated to Asian film, I give you … another kung fu flick. Don't get me wrong, I really liked this movie -- I just wish they'd send me a Japanese film every now and then (haven't seen one since Sadako 3D back in July).
Anyhow, the film I want to discuss is Champions (2008). This film, set in the 30s and concerning a group of martial artists and runners who seek to compete in the Olympic games, was clearly made to rev up the masses for the actual Olympic games of 2008 (there's even a reference to the year inserted into the script). Therefore, it's a bit (or rather very) propaganda-y (yeah, that's a word I just made up). The cheery, let's-go vibe is quite strong at the outset (think hoo-rah, song-and-dance set pieces) but soon enough, things get down to some serious kung fu ass-kicking. Beneath the rah-rah, there is a film eager and capable of opening a big old can of Mantis Grip/Eagle Claw Fuck You and Die in Pieces You Bastard.
There are two villains, an unscrupulous martial arts master and a gangster, and they create most of the conflict in the film. What's most compelling is the size of the opposing groups. On the protagonist side we have Cheung Fung (Dickey Cheung), the smart-allecky upstart, and Kwan Shue Po (Xio Miao), the righteous one, as well as a whole host of locals with skills. And, of course, the bad guys come in waves. This is one of those films where, at any given moment, tons of people flood the screen.
What I used to hate about kung fu films was the elaborate, over-choreographed fight scenes. But recently, and certainly in Champions, there's been a movement away from such tiresome exercises, toward a more compelling (and lightening-quick) style of fight sequence. Fights still go on a bit, but now there's such a melding of speed and technique and wire-fu, plus (taking a page from Hollywood) explosions -- it's POPCORN time!
So if you get Netflix, Champions is coming your way (they give the films to me for tagging slightly before they put them online). I was never a subscriber before they hired me, but now that I've had a chance to check out their offering, I'm impressed with the number of Asian film titles on offer (tons of Korean flicks). I can see why people are tossing their cable boxes and opting for streaming services. Viva la revolution!
Ip Man (1893 - 1972) was a Chinese martial arts master who famously trained Bruce Lee in the Wing Chun school of kung fu. There's been a spate of Ip Man movies over the last few years, and I just saw the latest one, Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013). Now I'm not the biggest kung fu flick fan, but I have to say I genuinely enjoyed this one. It features the creative efforts of director Herman Yau and star Anthony Wong who, together, gave us such classic 90s Category III films as Ebola Syndrome and Eight Immortals Restaurant: Human Meat Roast Pork Buns (aka The Untold Story). Mr. Yau sure has come a long way since then; this is a high profile, mainstream affair with great production values and a transporting period setting (post-war Hong Kong).
Anthony Wong has been my favorite HK film star since forever (see Asia Shock for details), so seeing him as Ip Man in his later years (Wong is getting up there himself) really made the film for me. Wong has such gravitas, and it feeds perfectly into the role of a noble, charismatic kung fu master living out the last years of his life in 1950s/60s Hong Kong, teaching a group of students (who become his de facto gang) and kicking ass in spontaneous street brawls and within the notorious Walled City of Kowloon.
Keep an eye out for the girl selling barbecue pork buns -- that's an inside joke. And appreciate the use of digital effects to enhance the story. This is a particularly sophisticated take on the martial arts genre, with warmth and insight seldom seen in such pictures. (Geez, was that condescending enough?)
Saw this Thai gangster flick called -- wait for it -- The Gangster (2012). Actually there are a bunch of gangsters in it, but the main character is a super-tough guy named Jod (Krisada Sukosol Clapp). All of the gangsters portrayed were real guys, and the film is intercut with old farts who knew them reflecting on their hijinks.
Actually, "hijinks" is way too light a word for the kinda shit these guys get up to. This is one of the more violent films you're likely to see any time soon. It starts out in the early 60s, when it was just knives and clubs and Elvis hair (these guys had a serious hard-on for Elvis) and runs into what looks to be the early 70s, by which time it was all long hair and guns … lots of guns.
Violence doesn't just explode in The Gangster, it erupts! And, of course there are the usual turf wars and rivalries within gangs leading to treachery. The ending is a bloody barn-burner. I don't want to be Mr. Spoiler, so I'll just say it plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, if you get my meaning. OK, so I spoiled it for the English majors, but the rest of you nudnicks are in for a shock.
I didn't know what to expect with The Gangster. I'd never heard of it; Netflix assigned it to me. But I'm really glad I saw it, and I encourage those who like Asian cinema and gangster films to give it a go.
Just when you thought you'd seen the last of Sadako, that creepy, long-haired ghost girl from all those Ring films, well here she comes again. And in 3D no less. Seems the Japanese are taking a page from the Hollywood playbook and providing a sequel no one was asking for.
Sadako 3D (2012) is about a guy named Kashiwada (Yusuke Yamamoto) who wants to resurrect Sadako. He manages this by throwing a bunch of girls down the same well she crawled out of. Then he makes a video of himself being killed by the ghost and somehow, even though he's dead, manages to post it online. And guess what happens if you watch it? Yep, you DIE. Our Miss Ghost reaches right out of your cell phone and pushes you out the window (or whatever).
Seems that although Sadako is back in action, she needs a human host to inhabit, and has chosen pretty high school teacher Akane (Satomi Ishihara). But Akane has powers of her own ...
Actually, the film isn't that bad. It's got some good jump scares and a very interesting innovation on the Sadako brand towards the end involving a monstrous, quasi-insectoid variation on the young lady that's truly unsettling. Plus the usual array of 3D gags where stuff jumps out at you -- always fun. Should be streaming on Netflix any day now.
Years ago I saw a Hong Kong flick, Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976). The gimmick was this device, a head-sized ring with concealed blades you could throw like a frisbee, and it would land on some guy's head and somehow fall down to his neck. Then you'd pull on the attached chain and -- well, you get the picture. The flying guillotine had a sack attached to it so the head would be conveniently contained.
Years later (last year), Hong Kong filmmaker Andrew Lau Wai Keung thought it would be a good idea to revisit this whole flying guillotine concept. And you know what? He was right. The Guillotines, an effects-heavy action jaunt, rocks the steampunk/action tip, but I had a problem: Not enough flying guillotines! No sooner is the concept offered up than it's largely abandoned for other story elements.
So it's like this: You've got this elite group of assassins called ... wait for it ... The Guillotines. They all employ the flying guillotine one way or another (there are various models). The emperor sends them on a mission and, well, you'll see … everything goes horribly wrong. The guy they're supposed to eliminate, a cult leader, is in fact a righteous dude. Moral dilemma!
You know me, I usually only review films I like, so if I'm talking about The Guillotines, it's a good bet (even if you never heard of it). It's also a tearjerker (at the end) so your girlfriend will like it too. Dude, what are you waiting for?
Sometimes you start watching a film and you just know there's a big twist ending coming. And you're pretty sure you've figured out what it is. And then the twist comes and it's totally not what you were expecting. That's awesome! And Nightfall (2012) is just such a film.
The great Nick Cheung plays an ex-con named Wang (incorrectly listed as Wong on IMDb, plus the HK disk subs I saw had Yang -- go figure) who's just done 20 years for a rape/murder he may or may not have committed. In fact, finding out whether he did it or not is one of the main objectives of the film. Then there's the brutal murder of a famous symphony conductor right after our mystery man (who hates the conductor for some reason) gets out of the joint. This comes to the attention of Detective Lam (Simon Yam), a depressed widower who lives for his job. He's going to get to the bottom of things, and the whole backstory gradually unfolds, taking us deeper and deeper until we reach the devastating denouement.
Extra points for Cheung and Yam -- seeing these guys go up against each other is pure Hong Kong film bliss. Yam is getting up there in years (he runs slowly and painfully in chase scenes), but he's still got it. Readers of this blog may have noticed I mistakenly called him "Simon Lam" a few times (I've since gone back and fixed that). I apologize; I must have been thinking of his unforgettable performance as the title character in the notorious Category III nasty Dr. Lamb (reviewed in Asia Shock).
If you like HK film, police procedurals, mysteries and don't mind a bit of ultraviolence (the opening scene is fairly brutal), you can't go wrong with Nightfall, a stylized and truly absorbing piece of film-making.
This was one of the first films assigned to me by Netflix -- yes, that's right folks, they're paying me to watch movies (and then enter metadata into their system; it's a part-time, freelance gig, but in these tough times I'm glad to have it).
A refreshingly upbeat, steampunk take on the period martial arts film, Tai Chi Hero (2012) is actually a sequel aka Tai Chi 2: The Hero Rises, renamed for an unsuspecting (and presumably uncaring) Western kung fu film viewership. It starts off with a lightening fast recap of the previous film -- man, those subs just fly by. For a slow reader like yours truly, it was more than a struggle to keep up!
And the pace stays pretty breathless throughout. The eponymous hero of the story is one Yang Lu Chan (1799 - 1872), famed innovator in the practice of Tai Chi (not the slow kind your Chinese grandma does in the park -- this is the quick-as-a-whip, ass-kicking variety). He gets married to bitchy yet beautiful Yu Niang (played by someone named Angelababy), and she proceeds to train him in her family's secret kung fu method. Meanwhile, her black sheep brother Zai Yang returns to the family full of secrets. He's an inventor and has created a fantastical flying machine (that apparently made a big splash in the first film).
There are numerous subplots, one in particular involving, of all people, Peter Stormare, the freaky Norwegian fellow from Fargo, here playing another heavy, a representative of the East India Company. Unfortunately, his storyline has less impact if you didn't see the first film.
If you're into Hong Kong film, watch this space; Netflix seems to be sending me HK films at a 3-1 ratio to Japanese films (sadly no Korean films -- someone else does those). As usual, I'll only be writing about the films I'd recommend (2012's The Treasure Hunter didn't do much for me, for example -- see? It ain't here). Next up: HK crime flick Nightfall.
Finally got to see the 1962 version of Kurotokage (which is Japanese for "black lizard"). It's an adaptation of the infamous 1934 detective novel by Edogawa Rampo more famously interpreted six years later by Kinji Fukasaku (featuring a drag queen in the lead role).
It is the story of a beautiful master criminal, the eponymous Black Lizard (she has this tattoo … ) and her arch rival, superdetective Akechi Kogoro. It is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), full of twists and turns, disguises, kidnapping, extortion, human dolls and human sofas (you'll see). Saw it on Turner Classic Movies of all places, so I should give them a shout out.
The film's director, Umetsugu Inoue, used to make a lot of musicals, and while the material here is far from such fanciful fare, song and dance are nevertheless inserted into the film (thankfully in dribs and drabs). The theme song features the word kurotokage sung to a quasi-James Bond melody. The Black Lizard herself, as well as her henchmen, have a worrying tendency to lapse into dance moves at odd intervals.
Yet somehow it works. It's just so over-the-top, the screen so saturated in color, the acting so hammy, the overall feeling so heightened that you can't help but get swept up in the nansensu. Now I understand what Fukasaku was trying to top with his version, why his film was so ridiculously campy and bizarre (and then there was that added LSD factor … ).
The cast is awesome. I was pleased to see several actors in this film who also appear in my favorite Yasuzo Masumura film, Giants and Toys, but whom I've seldom seen elsewhere. Chief among them is Hiroshi Kawaguchi who, if you've seen G&T, you'll remember as the young protagonist. OK, so he was in Masumura's first film, Kisses, and Kunio Watanabe's Chushingura and Ozu's 1959 remake of his own Floating Weeds, but I havent' seen those yet! I've got 'em, just haven't seen 'em (Japanese film is vast and deep). Perhaps I'll do a Hiroshi Kawaguchi retrospecive next …
Anyhow, Kawaguchi plays a supporting role as Black Lizard's chief operative (clearly no longer the leading man he was in the late 50s). Playing the Black Lizard herself is none other than Machiko Kyo, who everyone remembers as the noblewoman raped (?) in Rashomon. It's fun to see her here, in such a completely opposite genre, twelve years on and still stunning. Akechi Kogoro is portrayed by familiar face Minoru Oki (The Great Killing, Irezumi, Watari Ninja Boy, Yakuza Law: Lynching). And if you're particularly up on your Japanese character actors of the period, no mistaking Masao Mishima (Late Spring, Life of Oharu, Revenge, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, Harakiri, Illusion of Blood, Samurai Rebellion and on and on -- BTW, I've reviewed most of the films mentioned in this paragraph in my books).
If you're really into vintage Japanese cinema and you missed Kurotokage on TCM, I guess it's a little cruel to go on and on about it -- unless you're affiliated with one of those exclusive online film-sharing clubs, I can't imagine how you're going to see it. It's owned by Janus film (read Criterion), so perhaps they'll release it some day. Until then, we can only live in hope ...
What's this, yet another Johnnie To flick? What am I, curator of the Johnnie To film festival? Actually, it ain't me; GreenCine keeps sending one after another. Guess they're trying to provide me with an impromptu retrospective. And with a filmmaker this good, I hardly mind.
So I just screened Breaking News (2004), a bit of a departure from the To films I've seen heretofore, in that it seeks to lightly satirize the Hong Kong crime film genre, and even inject a bit of social commentary. This is very different from the eight or nine other To films I've seen, all of them action-packed yet generally dour affairs. He acquits himself admirably, but the story suffers from a somewhat claustrophobic location (most of the film plays out inside an apartment building) and repetition (too many cops firing down too many hallways/stairwells at the same half dozen bad guys).
That's not to say there aren't some stunning set pieces. Take the opener, for instance: Mr. To kicks things off with a seven-plus minute continuous crane take that has us peering into windows, prowling the streets, peering around corners, as a tense undercover stakeout explodes into a classic million-bullet gun battle (with some grenades thrown in for good measure).
As with all To films, the cast is strong. One guy who I think has been in every single To outing I've seen is fat, greasy character actor Lam Suet. He's a scream, always delivers. The hero here is the great Nick Cheung (Exiled, Beast Stalker, Election), and as usual, he's a maelstrom of energy as the unstoppable cop. Making things a little easier on the eyes is Kelly Chen (Infernal Affairs), playing the media-savvy police official who manipulates a hostage crisis to improve the image of the police department. She's the machiavel to balance out Nick Cheung's noble warrior.
Overall, I'd give Breaking News an A-. As usual, To gets everything right, but it would have been more fun if we could have gotten out of that damn building!
Another day, another great Johnnie To flick. This time out, it's Running Out of Time (1999) featuring Andy Lau as a master criminal/terminal case who enjoys his final days mindfucking a police detective while pursuing a revenge-oriented agenda against a criminal gang. As usual, not much on paper, but Master To works his magic and it becomes an exciting, can't look away thrill ride.
Unlike the last Johnnie To film I reviewed (scroll down), Lau isn't a homicidal maniac. Just the opposite: He goes out of his way not to hurt or endanger anyone (although he seems to -- he's full of surprises). However, he is his usual, magnetic self and you're rapt whenever he's on screen.
Running Out of Time is full of twists and turns that it would be criminal to reveal, so, as I often do, I urge you to just watch it and let it happen. If you're a fan of Hong Kong crime flicks, trust me, you won't be disappointed.
Way back in 2001, Johnnie To made this fine Hong Kong actioner. OK, so the title's not so hot, but such is the power and talent of this filmmaker, and his cool-ass cast, that despite zero character development I was immediately sucked in.
Andy Lau is electrifying as the grinning psychopath Tok, an up-and-comer in the realm of world-class hitmen. Leading the field is the mysterious Japanese loner Ito (Takashi Sorimachi), and we get to see the handiwork of both men in elaborate set pieces that open the film. I'm no gun nut, but the use of firearms and various other incendiary devices in this film transcends standard action movie tropes, approaching something like fine art.
Also of interest to me was the blend of languages and locations. We run all over Asia, from Kuala Lumpur to Macau to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Singapore. If you're like me, and use foreign films for vicarious sight-seeing, you won't be disappointed here.
Tok is Chinese but speaks fluent Japanese, as does the two killers' mutual love interest Chin (Kelly Lin), who's actually from Taiwan. In situations where Chinese or Japanese don't apply, English is the default, and we hear quite a lot of it. I'm a language guy, so it's interesting to me to analyze just why various members of the all-Asian cast would be speaking English to one another. For example, the Hong Kong cops (like Simon Yam) speak it as a legacy from colonial days, whereas other characters do it because they simply don't speak the other's native tongue.
Anyhow, this combination of action, travelogue, and linguistic melange makes for a perfect trifecta of Asian entertainment. Good old Johnnie To -- haven't seen a stinker yet!
Yesterday I lost a good friend, Ric Menello. I only ever met up with him three times, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but we'd been obsessive email pals for years, ever since my first book came out in 2005. He read it and reached out to me, and I will be forever in his debt; the guy was a walking film encyclopedia, and I learned enough from him to cover several film history courses. He was a rare friend, a wonderful guy.
Ric initially made his name in the 80s, directing influential videos for Def Jam artists such as the Beastie Boys (You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party), LL Cool J (Going Back to Cali) and Danzig (Mother). More recently he collaborated with James Gray on the scripts for We Own the Night and Two Lovers (Gray was so gracious as to give him a writing credit for the latter film). As so often happens, things were looking up for Ric; 2013 was to be his year. But a dickie ticker said otherwise.
Ric and I really bonded over Japanese film. He knew everything about classic Hollywood and Eurofilm, but Japan was his particular passion. He was a big Hideo Gosha booster, and was forever enthralled by Masaki Kobayashi. I recall pining with him for the lost Kobayashi film I Will Buy You (about corruption in professional baseball), and how excited we were when we learned that Criterion will be releasing it on disk in April. We shared so many obscure yet passionate fascinations in the realm of Japanese cinema. We both were big fans of character actors like Makoto Sato and Kei Sato (no relation). We gossiped about what really went on between Hibari Misora and Kinnosuke Nakamura. We beamed with joy at the success of Tatsuya Nakadai's protegee, Koji Yakusho. It was a fucking two-man Japanese film nerd convention!
BTW, I was sitting next to Ric when I saw Tatsuya Nakadai live at the Film Forum -- one of the best nights of my life. I'll never forget it: Ric was at the head of the line outside when we got there, in front of Vernon Dobtcheff (I inadvertently insulted him by assuming he was John Neville). We got in first and sat in the front row, just a few feet from the venerable Nakadai. Ric told me to go say hi to Teruyo Nogami, Akira Kurosawa's script girl, which I did. What a night.
Anyhow, what do you say when you lose someone? You can never put into words what you feel and felt, all the thoughts and interactions you shared. So I'll throw it to someone else, someone I never met but who seems to have a handle on late-era Menello. Long live the Mayor of Flatbush!
I know what you're thinking: "What, another non-shocking Asian film post? Jeez, Galloway's really lost it. I come here for gore!" Well I admit there's been a bit of mission drift lately. This blog has come to encompass my samurai film thing as well. But I usually don't write up a film unless I think it's worthwhile, so you might want to keep reading about this film, heart-warming tear-jerker that it is. I know terms like "heart-warming" and "tear-jerker" get a bad rap these days. Everyone is so hip and cynical -- it's just not cool to get emotional at the movies. But this film really warmed my heart (and jerked some tears, I'll confess) in a good way. Maybe I'm just getting sappy as I get older, but I had a great time.
The film was The Rickshaw Man (1958), a Toho production starring Toshiro Mifune. The film was directed by Toho's own epicmeister Hiroshi Inagaki (although the film is not an epic) and features a fine supporting cast including Yoshio Inaba, Bokuzen Hidari, Hideko Takamine and Chishu Ryu.
The film is set around the turn of the 20th century. Mifune does his blustery tough guy routine, a la Gonzo in Red Lion or Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, as the title character, Matsugoro, or Wild Matsu as he's known around town. He's a troublemaker, always getting into brawls and taking on all comers. He's a pain in the ass, but he's got a good heart. When a close friend dies, leaving a wife and small son behind, Matsu steps in to provide a male role model (although keeping a respectful distance from the widow whom he, of course, worships from afar).
We observe Matsu's life and death and it's all very sad in the end, but overall the film is suffused with such a joy in just being alive and having a shared human experience in a small Japanese town -- it's very transporting. That's what I appreciate about Japanese period pictures: You can't get much further away from contemporary 21st century America than, say, Tokugawa-era Japan. People speak of escapist entertainment -- well it doesn't get any more escapist than this in my book. So what are we waiting for? Let's bust out of this mother!
Tamao Nakamura was born July 12, 1939, the daughter of famed Kabuki star Ganjiro Nakamura. Although she was brought up and trained in the world of Kabuki, young Tamao realized early on that, as a woman, she could only rise so high in her father's profession. Tamao’s initial ambition was to earn a college degree in order to broaden her options in life. She entered Kyoto Joshi Gakuen Junior High School as a freshman, but was soon scouted by Teruo Hagiyama, a director from Shochiku studios.
In 1953, Tamao was used as a child actress in Keiko To Yukie. After this experience, young Tamao’s dream shifted from a college career to one as an actress. Daiei’s top male star, Kazuo Hasegawa, just happened to be Tamao's uncle, and took young Tamao under his wing at the studio. It was there that she met Shintaro Katsu. Tamao graduated from Kyoto Joshi Gakuen Junior High School and officially entered Daiei studios as a full-time actress in 1954. Her debut film, Zenigata Heiji – Yurei Daimyo, starred, surprise surprise, uncle Kazuo. Following her debut, Tamao and Katsu started seeing each other, and before long the two were an item.
Coincidentally, the hot young heartthrob on the Daiei lot, Raizo Ichikawa, had been a childhood friend of Tamao’s. A very interesting relationship developed between Raizo, Tamao and Shintaro at Daiei. In Tamao’s recent book, she describes how she had fallen deeply in love with Katsu fairly early on, but was too shy to tell him. To complicate matters, Tamao was also well aware that Katsu had other favorites at the studio. Tamao felt that a "new face" like herself had no business trying to compete for the attention of an exciting actor like Katsu.
Three years passed. One day, Katsu's manager informed Tamao that Katsu was very interested in her romantically and asked if she felt the same. Her answer was a big “YES!” Tamao remembers Katsu as a beautiful man, and Katsu remembered her as a lovely and well bought up lady. He was particularly fond of her cute smile on the studio lot. Tamao’s brother was also a well-respected and popular Kabuki actor. Since Katsu performed frequently as a Nagauta musician on the Kyoto Kabuki circuit, he had been aware of Tamao prior to her arrival at Daiei. Tamao and Katsu's first major film as co-stars was Shiranui Kengyo, but this was not the two young lovers' first film together. Tamao first appeared with Katsu in the aforementioned Kan Kan Mushi wa Utau in 1955, when she was 16 years old.
When Shintaro Katsu was 29 years old, he caught a live Kabuki performance of the play Shiranui Kengyo in Osaka at the New Kabuki Theater (Shin Kabukiza). He loved the play and decided it would make a great film vehicle for him. In pursuing his plan, he enlisted the help of director Nobuo Uno at Shochiku Studios. Shochiku had plans for a movie version of Shiranui Kengyo starring Kanzaburo Nakamura (who had starred in the stage version) but since Uno and Katsu were acquainted (through Katsu’s father), Uno agreed to shoot the film with Katsu.
Since Shiranui Kengyo is now considered a legendary work, it's no surprise that there have emerged differing accounts of who exactly had the original idea. The studio manager and president of Daiei at the time, Masaichi Nagta, has laid claim to the inspiration, as have a host of others.
When Shiranui Kengyo opened in September of 1960, it had an immediate impact and was a stunning success for Katsu as an actor. Katsu's performance in Shiranui Kengyo, that of a blind masseur who murders and schemes his way to the top, was so compelling that it paved the way for the character most associated with Katsu, Zatoichi (26 films and a television series).
A new type of film icon was taking shape, one whose charisma and screen presence overshadowed his lack of typical matinee idol looks. That icon was Shintaro Katsu, and his performances ushered in the dawn of a new era of the "bad dude" in Japanese cinema. Katsu had also acted in a few stage plays that fed into his emerging image, such as Shamisen Yakuza. By 1961 Katsu had made the title film in what would become his first blockbuster series, Akumyo (Bad Reputation).
As for Tamao, certain protocols had to be instituted to balance the couple's growing popularity with their deepening relationship. For one thing, the two actors had to arrange their dating in a somewhat more discrete manner. Tamao recalls her two-year courtship as a heady and exciting time. On the release of Akumyo in 1961, Katsu officially proposed to Tamao in a night club in the Gion district, Kyoto.
In September of 1954, the alluring Kabuki performer Tamao Nakamura came to work at Daiei. She debuted in Zenigata Heiji – Yurei Daimyo, a well-known Edo-period cop series. Also, Katsu's older brother Masaru became a contract player at Shin Toho studios, taking the stage name Tomisaburo Wakayama. Soon Nakamura, Wakayama, Katsu and Ichikawa would all be big stars, their personal and professional lives intertwining for years to come.
Katsu appeared in three movies in 1954 and, due to the popularity of jidai-geki (period dramas), acted in another ten films from 1955 to 1958. One of these films, Kan Kan Mushi wa Utau (1955), also featured the stunning Tamao Nakamura. Here the future Mr. and Mrs. Katsu met and acted together for the first time.
In 1956, Katsu first appeared in color in the motion pictures Tsukigata Hanpeita: Hana no Maki and Arashi no Maki, both directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. Katsu continued to play minor rolls alongside then top Daiei stars Kazuo Hasegawa and Raizo Ichikawa throughout 1956-57. Then in 1958, at the age of 27, Katsu took a step up the movie star ladder with larger roles in Daiei’s first Vista Vision movie, Yukyou Gonin Otoko, and first all-star Cinemascope feature, Chushingura (Loyal 47 Ronin). In contrast to his high standing in the flamboyant Nagauta/Kabuki community, Katsu’s popularity in movies at this time was still somewhat less than phenomenal. However, he continued to work steadily, appearing in over 10 movies in 1959 alone.
With 1960 came Katsu's first leading roll in Gentaro Bune, directed by Kunio Watanabe. Katsu negotiated with Daiei to have the female lead, the wife of his protagonist character, played by Tamao Nakamura. The two had already been in ten films since 1955, but this picture offered their first opportunity to act as a husband and wife.
While Shintaro and Tamao were by now something of an item, and Tamao was no doubt pleased with the idea of appearing as the wife of her boyfriend, she was not as enthusiastic about the project itself; Gentaro Bune was a rather low budget, black and white affair, not the kind of film an up-and-coming actress would normally jump at. Nevertheless, Tamao wound up co-starring with Katsu in the picture.
Just as Kabuki and Nagauta had kept their important relationship for centuries, so Katsu and Tamao had come together as if fated to. To the Japanese movie industry of their day, they were the ultimate movie star couple, Japan's very own Dick and Liz. They were attractive, talented, appeared in films together and embodied the glamor and excitement of the modern Japanese cinema. Throughout the years, Tamao weathered many ordeals as a result of her husband's outrageous life style, yet throughout it all she remained a loyal and loving wife, until the day of his death. Shortly thereafter she famously stated, “If I were born again, I would certainly marry Katsu again.”
With a movie contract with Daiei Studios in his pocket, Katsumaru was ready to carve his new screen career. However, little did he know that another great opportunity was about to come his way: In 1954 Katsumaru toured America, performing Nagauta with his father’s Kabuki troupe (along with older brother Masaru). Despite the fact Katsumaru had just signed with Daiei, father Minoru insisted he join the US tour in order to experience that great land of opportunity, America. The troupe embarked in late January and toured the USA for the better part of ten months (according to Katsu’s autobiography, Ore -- in reality, the tour terminated in June).
The first stop on the US tour was Los Angeles. Katsumaru was surprised by the enthusiastic reception he and his family received. Together with the arrival of Seven Samurai and Musashi Miyamoto that year, Japanese culture was definitely a hip ticket. While Katsu talks at length about the great experiences he had on tour in his autobiography, no articles appeared in the Japanese press about the tour; only a handful of small articles in American newspapers mentioned it.
While in Los Angeles, Katsumaru took the opportunity to visit 20th Century Fox studios. A guide showed him around the lot, and paused to point out an elegantly disheveled young actor in t-shirt and jeans. “That’s James Dean,” he said, “one of the most promising young rising stars in the industry.” Katsu later recalled Dean as having “not even combed his hair. He looked like he just woke up, just wearing jeans, a wrinkled shirt, and some slippers, I thought: that’s a movie star?!”
Nevertheless, young Katsumaru was struck by Dean’s aura of star power, as well as his decidedly rebellious persona. This was no preening matinee idol. Here was a dynamic young actor whose unique style and passionate performance would launch him to superstardom the following year in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Gazing at James Dean on the Fox lot that sunny winter day in LA, something changed in Katsumaru. With just a glimpse of Dean, the 22-year-old shamisen player from Tokyo was completely inspired. In the coming years he would channel this inspiration, developing his own rebellious persona in films like The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi monogatari), Bad Reputation (Akumyo) and Yakuza Soldier (Heitai Yakuza). Each of these films would spawn numerous sequels, placing them among the most beloved films series in Japanese film history.
According to Katsu’s autobiography, he returned to Japan in October of 1954. However his first film for Daiei Studios, Hana no byakko tai, was released that same month, so it’s more than likely that, as other sources have it, Katsumaru returned in June.
During this period, the Japanese film industry was dominated by six studios, namely Toho, Shin-Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Shochiku and Daiei. It was not uncommon for movie studios to own their own theater chains, and during the mid-50s Toei theaters began the practice of double feature releases. Soon other studios followed suit, releasing two movies at a time, a trend that created a demand for new stars. Into the void stepped the newly-dubbed Shintaro Katsu (named by Eiichi Tanaka, a pupil of Katsu’s father).
Joining young Mr. Katsu at Daiei were two more new faces, Raizo Ichikawa (a Kabuki performer from the Kansai region) and Takeshi Hanayuagi (an actor from the Shin-pa school, a modern theater at odds with the stylized traditions of Kabuki). Japanese newspapers at the time featured articles about the threesome, notable for their varied backgrounds in Nagauta, Kansai Kabuki and Shin-pa respectively.
Raizo Ichikawa, or simply Raizo (as he came to be known by legions of adoring fans), was not officially contracted with Daiei at first, but was nevertheless treated as an up-and-coming superstar, due to his dazzling good looks and reputation in Kansai Kabuki. Katsu, on the other hand, was still a raw youth and treated as such. In his autobiography, Katsu talks about the location shooting of Hana no byakko tai: “Raizo had a private car for himself, and I had to take the bus.” During filming, Katsu apparently refused to play a dead man in one scene and had a little argument with the director (a trend that would lead to his eventual clash with Akira Kurosawa many years later). Raizo was contracted for 300,000 yen per film, while Katsu was contracted for only 30,000 yen. At that time, Daiei had no intention of making Katsu a star ...
Years ago I attempted to write a biography of the legendary Japanese actor Shintaro Katsu (aka Zatoichi). The idea was to co-write it with my friend Tatsu Aoki, a noted jazz and traditional Japanese musician. He'd written the liner notes for some of the early Zatoichi DVD releases and is a subject matter expert in all things Katsu. Well, through no fault of Aoki-san's, the book project failed. However, I recently came across what little did get written and thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog. So with that, I give you the first installment of Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years.
Long before pop culture phenomenon Zatoichi was born to Japanese cinema, the man who gave him life, Shintaro Katsu, made his first appearance on the world stage. The year was 1931, the date November 29. His father, Minoru Okuyama, named him Toshio (his older brother Masaru was born in 1929). Minoru was a player of shamisen (three string Japanese lute), specializing in a classical music style called Nagauta. You may be familiar with the Japanese classical theater, Kabuki; Nagauta music was developed alongside the Kabuki theatrical tradition.
The original form of Kabuki theater came to Kyoto in 1603, and by 1750 was an established, and very popular, entertainment among the merchant class in Edo (Tokyo). As both Kabuki and Nagauta developed, the performers and presenters formed family-oriented clans, claiming their own original styles and forms. Minoru Okuyama belonged to the Nagauta classical music family of artisans called Kineya (today they are called Kene-ie). Minoru became a senior accredited master at the age of 15 and received his performing name, Katsutoji Kineya.
Minoru’s family lived in Fukagawa district, one of the hearts of Edo arts, but they lost their house in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and had to move to Chiba (near Tokyo). Minoru’s wife, Yaeko, came from a family that operated a noted cuisine house in Chiba. She was a popular beauty in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t long before she caught Minoru’s fancy -- his house was across the street from her family’s restaurant. Soon love flowered and the two were wed. Minoru and Yaeko were enthusiastic about their children’s artistic education, taking young Toshio and Masaru to Kabuki performances, Bunkaku puppet plays and dancing shows. After awhile Minoru brought the family back to Fukagawa.
Toshio started elementary school in 1938. However, the boy continued to attend Kabuki performances; late nights meant he usually didn’t make it to school until noon. (In Katsu’s autobiography, he confesses that another reason for him being late to school was that he was always wetting his bed.) Young Toshio was a daddy’s boy, his father spending as much time with him as he could. Normally the father of a traditional performing family at this time didn’t come home everyday, so it was always a treat to spend time with dad.
Since Toshio had been exposed to Kabuki plays from the age of two, he’d developed a talent for imitating the various Kabuki stars of the day and performing for the other kids. He started his Shamisen training quite early, at age seven, formally apprenticing to his father. In 1944, Toshio entered junior high school, but only temporarily; a U.S bombing raid on Tokyo destroyed the family home. In September, the family moved to Nikko, just north of Tokyo. The family moved back to Tokyo in 1947. Some time after the family’s return to Tokyo, the house they’d bought caught fire and with the insurance money, they were able to build a new house behind the historic Meiji-za Theater. Also, Yaeko opened a new cuisine house called Okumura.
Once in his teens, Toshio became a full-fledged Kabuki performer playing Shamisen. He and older brother Masaru began performing regularly and soon were making a living as professional musicians. Toshio received the accredited name Katsumaru Kineya II, becoming an official “made man” for the Kineya family in 1951. (Some records like Japanese Who’s Who have his official accreditation date as 1948, at the age of 17, but his autobiography places it at 1951.)
This was also the time of an important relationship in the newly-dubbed Katsumaru’s life. He was involved in a very intimate relationship with a Geisha named Shimako. She was devoted to Katsumaru and, according to him, played a significant role in his Shamisen development. Due to the circumstances, Katsumaru being performer and Shimako a geisha in the same circuit, the family disapproved of their relationship and eventually dissolved it. (An entire chapter of Katsu’s autobiography is dedicated to Shimako.)
The lives of Kabuki performers in those days were usually quite busy, flashy and expensive. A 20 year old master performer like Katsumaru got around quite a bit, and in the most expensive districts in Tokyo. He spent many an evening out with actor Ken Utsui, one of his close friends; they loved the Tokyo nightlife and did quite a bit of drinking together.
In 1953, Tamao Hayashi, a daughter of famous Kansai Kabuki actor Ganjiro Nakamura, made her film debut at Shochiku studios. Before long she would become Mrs. Shintaro Katsu, and remain so for the rest of Katsu’s life. Also in 1953, a movie actor named Haruo Tanaka encouraged Katsumaru to pursue a movie carrier, taking him to the president of Daiei Studios in Kyoto. President Masaichi Nagata knew Katsumaru’s father well, and he arranged the camera test the same day. A month later, Katsumaru received a letter from the studio, offering him a contract as an actor. This was his ticket movie stardom.
As noted in Asia Shock, J-horror and K-horror are film genres wherein just about anything can be haunted; video cassettes, cell phones, computers, you name it. In this Korean film from 2005, guess what? It's a pair of shoes. But make no mistake, this ain't your grampa's The Red Shoes, the boring 1948 Powell/Pressburger flick about a ballerina (although the film does involve ballet -- a thematic nod). In fact, the shoes aren't even red, they're pink. They're plenty wicked, though. Rip your feet right off, they will, as well as possess you with the spirits of killers and eventually drive you insane. Pump it up!
As usual, there's a decades-old backstory that's gradually revealed over 100 minutes or so, in this case dating back to the bad old days of Japanese occupation. The main character is a single mom who may or may not have done away with her asshole husband. She lives alone with her tiny daughter in a dingy apartment across the street from a haunted subway station (where she finds the shoes and thus embarks on her harrowing journey). It's a fairly outlandish premise that nevertheless works. I had my doubts at first; things were moving pretty slowly and once or twice I considered bailing. However something about the film held me, and I found myself gradually sucked in (although the pacing is a little uneven throughout).
I would really only recommend this film to folks who are really into Asian horror. It might be a bit too bleak and/or slow for your average film goer. Still, worth a look I think.
This Korean high school/gangster genre mash-up had me laughing out loud, and that's saying summat. No wonder, then, that it was the most successful comedy of 2001, although if you're not Korean, or haven't seen a truckload of Korean films, you might be a little freaked out by all the violence -- I'd estimate around a thousand slaps, kicks, punches and whacks with a baseball bat in the tidy 98 minute run time. What's likely to throw the average Western viewer is which slaps are supposed to be funny, and which ones are just plain wrong. The key here is in determining who deserves to be slapped. It is a generally understood concept in Korean culture that there are some people who just need to be slapped. Repeatedly. However, there are those who don't, and in doing so you do them, and the society at large, a disservice, and deserve to be slapped. See how this can all spiral out of control? In My Boss, My Hero, that's exactly what happens.
So you've got mid-level mob boss Do-shik (Jeong Joon-ho), a youthful-looking guy, well-respected, but he never finished high school and his status-conscious boss wants him to go back and graduate -- a straight-up fish-out-of-water comedic premise. But during the course of the story, myriad themes and social issues are explored, extending to the proper application of corporal punishment, corruption in the educational system, school bullying, sexual harassment, teenage prostitution, homosexual persecution and bad karaoke. Oh, and did I mention all the slapping?
Bear in mind that teachers slapping their students around has long been the norm in Korean schools (maybe it's changed, but as of 2001 it was still S.O.P., even in the Gangnam high school where the story is set). As I've mentioned before, Korea has had a rough go of it over the last hundred years -- a brutal colonization by Japan, then the civil war and subsequently a series of dictatorships, both north and south. Institutional violence has been inculcated into the culture (and they were a tough lot even before the 20th century). It's important to keep all this in mind when watching a film like My Boss, My Hero; underneath it all, they're just people like us, with the same loves, lusts, allegiances, and sense of right and wrong. Maybe a little more slap-happy …
Much of the laughs come from the casting of very funny, and funny-looking, actors. Several guys in this flick, you start laughing just looking at them. It's refreshing! Get a goofy-looking guy to play a goofy guy -- go figure, it works. Then make the goofy guy do the human tripod thing (a traditional Korean discipline/torture in which one is forced to balance on two feet and forehead, hands behind back -- also employed in the films Friend and Attack the Gas Station).
I gotta get more into Asian comedies. I wasn't disappointed by Wakeful Nights and you won't be with My Boss, My Hero.
Another Kiyoshi Kurosawa picture, another devastating Koji Yakusho performance. Don't know what I'm talking about? That's OK, it really doesn't matter; such is the immediate, visceral nature of film, all you need do is lend 100 minutes to the screen and you'll get it. I'm forever throwing out names and dates and production trivia, but in the end, it's all about the images, the conjured floating world playing out in our eyes. Such is the paradox of film criticism: The better the film, the less you need say about it.
Hey, where are you going? I was only kidding! What you should know is this: Retribution (2006) is a moody, haunting supernatural thriller very much in the mode of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). I was a big Kiyoshi Kurosawa booster at one point, but stuff like Charisma (1999), Seance (2000), Bright Future and Doppelganger (both 2003) left me so cold and bored that I sorta drifted away. That said, I found Retribution to be a refreshing return to form.
What's it about? Oh drowning, mostly. There's a serial killer on the loose in Tokyo who likes to drown people in sea water (go figure). The detective on the case (Koji Yakusho) seems to have a personal connection to the case -- this backstory comes gradually, inexorably to the fore, along with a ghost. That's all I'm willing to say at this time …
Retribution is kind of an amalgam of Kurosawa's two finest films, Cure and Pulse. From Cure it takes the serial killer/police procedural thing; from Pulse, the sense of creeping, inevitable spiritual doom. It stands not quite so tall as its forebears, but is a worthy entry and worth a look.
Hooray! Animeigo has released the third and final batch of Sleepy Eyes of Death films (see my reviews of the first and second). The box contains the final four of 12 excellent samurai films starring the incandescent Raizo Ichikawa. You get #9 A Trail of Traps, #10 Hell is a Woman, #11 In the Spider's Lair, and #12 Castle Menagerie. I review #9 and #12 in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. I thought they were going to include those reviews in the box, but I guess they forgot. (They did use a quote from this here blog for a box blurb.)
The later SEOD films were particularly dark, with devil worshipers and psychotic elites around every corner. Through it all, our Nemuri Kyoshiro (Ichikawa) cuts a shining path with his sharp wit and patented Full Moon Cut. I threw on Trail of Traps as soon as I got the box and found it every bit as enjoyable as the first time I saw it, maybe more.
This one's a no-brainer, folks: Ya gotta get it. Specialty outfits like Animeigo are on their last legs these days -- you won't just be getting a bunch of lively, bizarre and thoroughly entertaining samurai films, you'll be helping to sustain an important cultural resource. I don't know about you, but I've been stockpiling disks for years -- I don't want to be at the mercy of the cloud, and someone else's idea of what I want to watch. Maybe they'll offer these films, maybe they won't. All I know is I got mine and you should get yours ... before it's too late.