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.