Saturday, March 29, 2014

Podcast on Fire's Taiwan Noir Episode 12: The Ghostly Face and Little Hero

Neither my or Kenny B's affections for Polly Shang Kwan can be overstated. And, as if in perversely obstinate demonstration of that fact, we have turned the latest episode of the Taiwan Noir podcast into a filibuster length, intercontinental mash note to the loveable Taiwanese star. Among the discussed films is The Ghostly Face, a Taiwanese/Indonesian co-production that is one of Polly's best and most unusual films. And speaking of unusual, what discussion of PSK would be complete without touching upon the awesome Little Hero? Which means that you once again get to hear me gleefully recount that scene where she battles the giant rubber octopi.

Give us a listen won't you? You can either stream the episode or get details on how to download it here.

And, Polly? If you're out there, call us, okay?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Eight Immortals (Taiwan, 1971)

As a vintage Taiwanese fantasy wuxia film, The Eight Immortals is both pleasantly different and pleasantly the same. It’s different in that it boasts a fanciful structure that makes it something of an anthology film for its first half. This, however, does not prevent it from featuring everything that we come to such movies for in the first place -- hence, the pleasant sameness. And by that I refer to oodles of hyperbolic mystical hijinks, ranging from beast-hatching flora to Taoist whammies delivered via drawn on hand rays.

The film opens on two itinerant story tellers relaying to a gathered crowd the story of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. This they do aided by movable illustrated panels which are displayed in a grid-like, wooden frame. I couldn’t help but be reminded by this of the Japanese tradition of Kamishibai, which, along with other such proto-comic-strip modes of narrative, makes up part of a long tradition of Asian picture storytelling. The tale spinners gleefully introduce the Immortals one by one, via a series of vignettes in which each performs an act of kindness for the benefit of some hapless mortal. In most cases, the immortal introduces himself by singing a whimsical song.

In simplified terms, the Eight Immortals are Chinese mythology’s equivalent of saints, celestial beings of supernatural power who watch benevolently over the affairs of men and intervene when necessary -- which, in the interest of a robust mythology, is quite often. The movie introduces the leader of the immortals, Lü Dongbin (Lui Woon-Suen), in an episode in which he intercedes to unite the star-crossed lovers Tu (Chang Ming) and Pai (Chang Chi-yu). The impoverished Tu hopes in vain to buy Pai’s freedom from a brothel to which she has been sold by an unscrupulous relative, but what this ultimately requires is for Lü Dongbin to assume the guise of a boorish customer and slap Pai silly, leaving dark black palm prints on both of her cheeks. Her market value thus depleted, she is returned to Tu, whereupon Lü Dongbin magically removes the marks before disappearing into a print of himself on the wall.

From there we meet Iron Crutch Li (Oi Yau-man), whose crutch we see serially transformed into a sort of aerial floatation device, a powerful magic weapon, and a peach tree with supernaturally healing properties. Elder Zhang Guo (Lu Wook-Suen) rides a donkey backwards and helps the owner of an ale house unearth a particularly exquisite cask of wine. The handsome Chang Hsiang-Tzu (Fung Hoi) uses his enchanted flute to help a displaced family make their way across a foreboding tundra, using it to make a magnificent golden bridge appear across the span of a deep ravine. Immortal Ching, we are shown, carries with him a magic fan, while Immortal Tsao favors magic castanets.

Last but not least, we are introduced to the lone female immortal, Fairy Ho (Sally Chen Sha-li), who looks down from her perch in the heavens and sees that all is not right on the mainland (searchers for political allegory make of this what you will), thus setting the non-episodic portion of The Eight Immortals in motion. It seems the land has fallen into the despotic hands of a cannibalistic demon king (Cho Boot-lam) and his sorceress queen (played by an actress whom I could sadly not identify) who take great pleasure in literally feeding on the populace, while, of course, taking time out for defiling the women. Pai and Tu from the beginning of the movie also come back into play at this point, she having been thrown into the King’s dungeon, where she is tortured mercilessly, and he valiantly leading a makeshift resistance army against the King’s forces. Fairy Ho attempts to intercede, approaching the king under the guise of friendship and bringing with her a giant peach that splits open to reveal a snarling boar’s head. This, however impressive, does not appear to have whatever effect that Fairy Ho intended, as she is summarily captured by the king, who steals her two powerful sutras with the intention of using them as weapons.

As depicted here, the Eight Immortals are a jocular bunch, wiling away their time not spent bailing out humans by hanging out in the gazebo of their floral garden and trading good natured insults. However, once they catch wind of Fairy Ho’s fate, they prove themselves none too jolly to dole out violent payback. The Eight Immortals, thanks to its fairytale tone, indeed seems at times like a children’s film, until you consider all of the bloody slicing and dicing that takes place in its final act, not to mention a harrowing scene of Pai’s torture at the hands of the demon king. Perhaps it’s just that the Taiwanese produce a more hardboiled breed of child than we do here in the States, where you can’t even punch a little kid in the face without someone making a big deal about it (jk). In any case, suffice it to say that, with that final act, The Eight Immortals gives us everything we ask for from movies of its ilk in terms of amped up violence and cheap but colorful fantasy spectacle.

Happily, The Eight Immortals was directed by Chen Hung-min, whose credits include Little Hero and the Taiwanese portions of Mars Men, the international version of Sompote Sands’ Giant and Jumbo A, so you know we’re in good hands when it comes to the aforementioned “cheap but colorful fantasy spectacle”. This could be said to include a scene of the queen conjuring a giant puppet bird of prey to attack the resistance forces before emitting a stream of pink poisonous gas from her navel. Hand rays are of course employed, as are flamethrower palms, while people die and turn into weird weasel-like creatures and the king uses one of Fairy Ho’s sutras to emit a mighty wind from a gargoyle head perched atop his headdress. Meanwhile, the filmmakers try to distract you from the silliness of some of these effects with pure onslaught, placing brightly garbed, sword-slinging extras slashing, leaping and tumbling in every available corner of the frame. This tumult reaches apotheosis with a death duel between Lü Dongbin and the demon king that takes place high in the heavens, the opponents leaping about in the clouds.

The Eight Immortals elicits a lot of good will with the performances of all of its titular players, all of whom bring the Immortals’ benevolence and good humor to palpable life, as well as with its charming framing device. The best of these films display a generosity amid their cheapness, a desire to deliver maximum thrills despite a minimum of material means, and, as with its two story tellers, who so manifestly delight in the spinning of their tale, I think I detect a similar glee within The Eight Immortals. Yes, I hereby decree that, like mirthful, benevolent gods, the Taiwanese film industry of yore has once again gifted us from on high with a trove of beguiling dime store wonderment.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Red Detachment of Women (China, 1971)

While presenting challenges of its own, Red Detachment of Women may have the power to redeem ballet in the eyes of those of us who have suffered through one too many performances of The Nutcracker. Instead of dancing tea leaves and sugarplum fairies, imagine pitched battles featuring severe, uniformed female dancers, all giving literal meaning to the term “bullet ballet”, with pliés that end in bayonettings and pirouettes that wind up to the hurling of grenades. All that alongside enough fruity, highly stylized scenes of terpsichorean hand-to-hand combat to make Chang Cheh wish he was born a woman.

Of course, Red Detachment of Women is not just a ballet, but also an opera, with much of its dialogue sung in the classical Chinese style. I’d venture that Chinese opera is an acquired taste to even the most liberalized Western ear, and the shrill stridence with which the film’s three leads -- prima ballerina Xue Jinghua, Qingtang Liu, and Song Chen -- deliver the libretto might provide an even more implacable obstacle to that acquisition. Xue, for her part, spends the entire film in a state of righteous fury which, thanks to her ear piercing range, is enough to blow your hair back whenever given voice to. Still, Red Detachment compensates immeasurably for any ear rending by being a fascinating and, at times, beautiful visual document, its painterly visuals and rigorously formalist compositions giving every frame the look of a Maoist social realist painting sprung into full Technicolor life.

Red Detachment of Women is basically a filmed version of a 1964 ballet of the same name that was in turn based on a 1961 dramatic film which was also of the same name. It is one of eight “Model Ballets” produced during the Cultural Revolution, in that it was deemed sufficient in its ingestion of Maoist Kool-Aid to be officially made part of the cultural cannon. This means that it was performed a LOT, with even Richard Nixon taking a gander at it during his historic visit. Reports have it that Nixon liked it, but when presented with something that is screaming for approval with as scary of an insistence as Red Detachment of Women is, what else is he going to say?

The film begins with peasant girl Wu (Xue Jinghua) making a violent escape from the clutches of the evil landlord Nanbatian (Chengxiang Li), who has imprisoned and tortured her for her failure to pay rent. (Here in San Francisco, tenants of rent controlled apartments would gladly accept such treatment over eviction.) Nanbatian’s minions catch up to her, however, and whip her mercilessly, leaving her for dead in a rain soaked field. Hong (Qingtang Liu), a military officer, comes upon her and nurses her wounds, then points her in the direction of a military camp where a new, all female army detachment is being trained. Wu arrives at the camp and is greeted with open arms by the detachment’s commander (Song Chen), who, after hearing of her treatment by Nanbatian, ceremoniously presents her with a rifle.

Enraptured by the thought of gunning down capitalists, and now, thanks to the Red Army, armed and certified to do so, Wu joins the detachment in their first mission, which is to raid Nanbatian’s estate and rescue the rest of his captives. Commissar Hong provides subterfuge for the operation by showing up at Nanbatian’s birthday party in the guise of a white suit and pith helmet wearing fancy man. In the end, they are successful, though Wu’s itchy trigger finger almost compromises the mission. For this she is relieved of her weapon, but one gets the sense that she just may get a shot at redemption during the last act.

The fight scenes here, while not at all aiming for realism, are nonetheless surprisingly exciting, marked by lots of high flying acrobatics and intricate choreographies of feigned violence. One sequence showing the charge of the women’s detachment, armed dancers leaping by in seemingly endless procession, some spinning like dervishes with colorful flags in hand, is breathtaking. No cautionary tale this, the message here is “War is awesome”, especially when it’s waged against such deserving parties as the leering Nanbiatan and his crew of willing capitalist thugs.

It seems that no matter where you go in world popular cinema, there is no more satisfying ending than that which features an armed raid by the heroes upon the fortified lair of a mustached villain. Even life under communism cannot slake an audience’s thirst for such spectacle, and so Red Detachment of Women -- daintily, musically, but, above all, energetically -- delivers it in spades. After Nanbatian attempts a raid of his own upon the military camp, the Red Army, Women’s Detachment in the lead, launch a devastating counterattack, aided by an armed mob of Nanbatian’s newly freed peasant captives. This decisive rout reaches a fine point with Wu fiercely singing admonishment at both Nanbatian and his chief crony Ou Guangsi (Wan Qiwu) before shooting each in the back as they flee. Hong, meanwhile, having been martyred in the attack, is paid solemn tribute by all in the detachment as the curtain -- figuratively -- falls.

While it left me mildly transfixed, I could see how all of Red Detachment of Women’s declamatory acting and stylized posturing could be welcomed by some as an unintended caricature of authoritarian rigidity, even if it’s one that is at times a little frightening. The hysterical pitch of the film could easily be seen as symptomatic of the period of brutal cultural suppression in which it was made. The frozen, wide eyed countenances of the actors, which were likely intended to communicate both vigor and revolutionary fervor, are just as evident of mania. In other words, if you want Maoist kitsch, you’ve got it, but in order to treat it as such, there is an awful lot that is hard, unforgiving, and aggrieved -- not to mention beautiful -- within Red Detachment of Women that must first be ignored.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Revolver Rani (India, 1971)

Only the most enfeebled among you will be surprised to learn that contemporary relevance has nothing to do with why I choose to review a film on 4DK. Nonetheless, it is always interesting when some far flung obscurity that I’ve set my sights on turns out to have some. In the case of the 1971 Telegu actioner Revolver Rani, that relevance comes from the fact that current Bollywood “it” girl Kangana Ranaut has chosen to star in a satirical remake of it as her follow up to this year's widely praised Queen.

Those who are familiar with Telegu action films of Revolver Rani’s particular bent -- we’ll call them “vengeful cowgirl” movies -- know that they are ripe for satire. Yet satire, at its best, needs a target that is earnest in intent, and Revolver Rani leaves a lot of doubt as to just how seriously it takes itself. For instance, there is its title sequence, a riot of proto-South Park cut out animation that sees a rapidly spinning Vijaya Lalitha picking off baddies like tin ducks in a carnival shooting range. It’s funny, but also captures perfectly the feel of these movies: antic, breathlessly hyperbolic, and more than a little spastic.

And speaking of Vijaya Lalitha, a warning: those of you who, like me, come to Revolver Rani hoping to see a showcase for that diminutive South Indian dynamo might at first feel like they’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. This is due to the unwritten rule (I’m assuming it’s unwritten, though perhaps it was inscribed on a banner above the studio gates) that Superstar Krishna and his hair had to appear in every Telegu film made. Krishna, I’m happy to say, only dominates the first half hour of Revolver Rani and then, I’m even happier to say, is killed -- though, unfortunately, along with his dog, Peter, who showed a lot of promise as an anipal. This all occurs in the course of Krishna defending his sister, Lalitha’s Rani, from a rape attempt by the band of trigger happy grotesques he has fallen in with. Afterward, Rani -- thanks to Vijaya Lalitha’s unique features and command thereof -- adopts the look of a rabid Keane painting and swears her blood revenge, at which point Revolver Rani becomes the kind of movie we like.

These hoodlums against whom Rani is now pitted, I want to point out, are led by a sharply dressed Mr. Big named Vikram, who suffers from a heart condition that causes him to erupt into violent coughing fits whenever he gets too worked up. As a signature disability for a villain to have, this falls somewhere below a hook hand or eye patch in terms of desirability, as it simply leaves the audience anticipating him conveniently dropping dead during a pivotal moment in the narrative (I’ll never tell).

Adding a nice Magnificent Seven aspect to the typical “ride, rumble, shoot, then dance frenetically” structure of these films, Lalitha’s Rani decides that, to combat the gang, she must first form one of her own, and so rides off in search of suitable candidates. This she does to the accompaniment of the theme tune that music director Satyam has conjured up for her, which consists of basso male voices chanting the English word “vengeance” over a Morricone-esque backing. (By the way, Rani and her crew stay true to their rough riding cowpoke ways despite this film being set in the present day; there are cars and everything.) Rani first recruits a towering strongman for her cause, and then a carnival knife thrower. The vetting process basically involves Rani seeing the amount of grace with which they accept her beating the shit out of them. There’s a street boxer who doesn’t make the cut, but his high strung manager ends up tagging along for comic relief purposes. I think this is same actor to whom I referred in my review of James Bond 777 as “Tollywood’s answer to Jagdeep”.

While there are many familiar faces both in front of and behind the camera in Revolver Rani (many of whom I sadly can’t put names to) one of them is definitely not director KSR Doss, the man behind so many of the Telegu films I’ve covered. Instead a character by the name of KVS Kutumba Rao is in the director’s chair, which affords me the opportunity to momentarily break from my Doss fixation and get some sense of which of the vengeful cowgirl movies’ quirks were specific to the genre, perhaps based on audience expectations, and were not a symptom of one director’s particular madness – to establish a base line for 1970s Telegu action cinema, so to speak.

And the fact is there is little to distinguish Revolver Rani from one of Doss’ films in terms of pacing (frantic) or violence (also frantic -- and cartoonish), though the camera work does not quite approach Doss’ level of insane restlessness. There are also not quite so many of the upskirt shots that Doss was so fond of, though the one that I caught is pretty in your face. And by that I mean right up in there.

Vijaya Lalitha executed a flying scissor hold on my heart from the time I first saw her, in 1972’s Kaun Saccha Kaun Jhoota, back in 2009, and there is nothing in Revolver Rani that could chill my affections. Here the actress again exhibits that same peculiar combination of flitting, bird like movements and bug eyed intensity that, paired with the unrestrained mania of her fighting style – whether with whip, karate, or freestyle wrestling – makes her a signal figure in world action cinema. The only loss here is that we get to see little of Lalitha’s equally frenetic dancing, beyond a scene where she executes the old “infiltrate the villain’s hideout by posing as a nautch girl” gambit. The item girl duties are instead taken over admirably by the actress (Kavitha, perhaps?) who portrays Krishna’s nautch girl girlfriend, Lilly.

And then, of course, because no Telegu movie would be the same without her, Jyothi Laxmi shows up at the last minute for a number in which she demonstrates that sexy dancing and making really ugly faces are not mutually exclusive.

Once gathered, Rani and her gang go about the business of picking off Vikram’s rapey minions one by one while interfering with their various criminal enterprises (a diamond robbery in one case, sex trafficking in another). They then ship each minion’s corpse to their boss in a crate, complete with a nasty note. And, in case you were wondering, Rani does refer to herself as “Revolver Rani”. This activity attracts the attention of both Vikram and the Police Commissioner, who does nothing but listen to the latest tale of Rani’s exploits before staring dreamily off into the middle distance and repeating her name. All comes to a head in a showdown at Vikram’s lair that climaxes with Vijaya Lalitha wrestling a lion. And, yes, that is pretty fucking awesome.

Had I known those five years ago when I watched Kaun Saccha Kaun Jhoota that there would turn out to be many, many movies like it, all of them starring Vijaya Lalitha and/or Jyothi Laxmi, I would have thought my life had become some kind of strange and wonderful dream. And still today, a film like Revolver Rani sends me into an intoxicating reverie, a world very much like that film’s credit sequence, where a pixie-ish firebrand with Sailor Moon eyes spins like a dervish while sending greasily pompadoured, mustached men flying toward every point on the horizon, guns blazing and limbs a blur. True, the inclusion of two musclebound male sidekicks takes the action spotlight off of Vijaya Lalitha a little bit, but the fact that she fights alongside them as an equal (though they rescue her on occasion, she in turn rescues them) makes me respect her even more, and Telegu cinema as a whole for walking the walk.

Now the question: Will I see the remake? The trailer for the film, predictably, shows us a Rani who’s much more dependent upon hardware and fire power than Lalitha’s version. Tell me that Kangana Ranaut wrestles a lion and we might be able to do business.