Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween from 4DK and Pop Offensive

If you've listened to Pop Offensive more than once, you know that it tends to be pretty upbeat in tone. This past Thursday's episode, however, was something else entirely. It was our Halloween episode, which we programmed with an interest toward creating a slow burning sense of dread and unease. And now it's available for streaming from the Pop Offensive Archives 

This is good new for your, because, if I may say so myself, the Pop Offensive Haunted House is the ideal musical accompaniment to your Halloween activities, whether you are cowering at home or dragging it up on the town. I mean, where else will you find a mix that combines Johnny Cash, Throbbing Gristle, Charles Manson, Kylie Minougue, The Misfits, Donovan, and Ennio Morricone?
That's right, people. We Pop Offensive'd Halloween.

So please avail yourselves, and consider this digitally preserved episode a Halloween gift from Jeff and me to you. If you need something to read while listening, the full playlist for the episode has just been posted on the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Friday's best pop song ever

Tonight! The POP OFFENSIVE HAUNTED HOUSE will eff you up!

Look, you know it and I know it: if you don't listen to the Pop Offensive Haunted House--streaming live from tonight at 7pm PT--all of your friends are going to call you a baby. And they'll be right. So waah waah waah, you big baby. Why don't you just run on home to your mommy? Baaaaaby.

Of course, I apologize. Because I don't need to bully you into listening. Because another thing we both know is that the Pop Offensive Haunted House is going to be awesome. How could it not, with all the scarifying songs about murder, madness and mayhem that Jeff Heyman and I have lined up for you? The only thing more scary is the thought of missing it. SO DON'T.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tomorrow Night: Let the Pop Offensive Haunted House give you the creeps!

Let me make one thing clear. I  don't dislike children; I dislike their parents. After all, kids don't ruin everything, their parents do. Take Halloween for example: Do you think that kids, if left to their own devices, would use the holiday as an excuse to turn themselves into walking advertisements for Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks? Hells no. They would be out there trying to scare the shit out of one another. AS GOD INTENDED!

In that spirit, Jeff Heyman and I have endeavored to make tomorrow night's Pop Offensive a Halloween episode that is anything but family friendly. What we came up with is a witches' brew of death obsessed trash rock, hillbilly murder ballads, off-putting art brut oddities, grisly industrial nightmares, and morbid novelty tunes to put you in state of deep unease appropriate to the occasion. In other words, if you want to hear "Monster Mash", you'd best turn elsewhere.

To listen to what will surely be an episode of Pop Offensive like no other, stream us live from the 9th Floor Radio website starting at 7pm Pacific tomorrow night, October 29th. If you miss it--or if you simply want to save it to listen to as you go about your Halloween activities--you will be able to stream an archived version of the show here.

Oh, and if you live within a stone's throw of the Laney College campus in Oakland, you can try to pick up our ghostly 100 watt signal at 96.9 on the FM dial. But if you hear ominous voices in the static urging you to commit horrific acts, you didn't hear it from us.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Kung Fu Wonder Child (Taiwan, 1986)

I know. It’s unbelievable that, in seven years of writing for 4DK, I have until now failed to review Kung Fu Wonder Child. The fact is that it was such an obvious choice that writing about it began to feel like a fait accompli. I myself was surprised to find that I hadn’t covered it.

I discovered this oversight during preparation for an upcoming episode of the Taiwan Noir podcast in which Kenny B and I provide an overview of the Peach Kid series. Kung Fu Wonder Child is generally considered to be a spiritual sibling of the Peach Kid films because, like them, it (a) stars gender-bending actress Lam Siu-Law in its titular male role, (b) it is very 80s (glam metal hairdos, perky synth-pop soundtrack), and (c) it is very silly. It also, like them, is representative of two prevailing trends in Chinese martial arts cinema at the time, one being the increasing reliance on flashy special effects spurred by the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain, and the other the prevalence of kung fu comedies that combined martial arts action with broad slapstick involving lots of people (and animals) peeing, farting and shitting on one another.

The threat in KFWC comes from a rogue holy man (Lee Hoi Hing) who, ensconced within his creepy graveyard lair, is accumulating all kinds of arcane magics toward unknown nefarious ends. When the priest suspects a gifted young village boy, Hsiu Chuen (Lam), of stealing some of his tricks, he dispatches his ghoulish minions to take care of him. Meanwhile, Hsiu Chuen encounters Hai Chiu Hse (Yukari Oshima), a girl whose father and sister are being held captive by the priest. Joined by Hsiu Chuen’s grandfather Hua Won (Jack Lung Sai-Ga) and the requisite pair of bumbling disciples, they set off to confront the evildoer. All in all, it’s a simple plot that nonetheless allows for the introduction of a lot of peripheral characters, among them a guy named Master Crazy, because that is the kind of movie that this is.

The above scenario also allows the opportunity for a lot of fun spook show elements—not all of which have much utility to the plot, such as a pair of orphaned vampire babies who appear to have briefly popped in from one of the Hello Dracula movies. This also means that there is an abundance of cartoon lighting--perhaps as much as there is urine--shooting out of everybody at everybody. The evil priest, in particular, seems to be using his palm rays to slow roast his captives in a pair of over-sized urns. And while I earlier credited Zu with inspiring the effects-dependent fantasy kung fu boom, there is no escaping the Hollywood origins of the face-hugging beastie that attacks Lam Siu Law or the light saber that the evil priest produces during the climactic fight. A giant flying worm that looks like it is made from the world's largest pipe-cleaner, however, is all Kung Fu Wonder Child's own.

About the time that I was first getting into writing about cult movies, Kung Fu Wonder Child, along with films like Kung Fu Zombie and Taoism Drunkard, was considered to be the gold standard of batshit crazy martial arts cinema. And it can’t be said that it doesn’t have the pedigree: It’s writer, Cheung San-Yee, in addition to also writing the loopy Polly Shang Kwan epic Little Hero, had earlier directed the mind-suplexing Thrilling Sword, and its director, Lee Tso-Nam, could also claim Magic Warriors as parts of his filmography.

Nonetheless, re-watching Kung Fu Wonder Child now only reminds me of oh how much I have seen since my first viewing of it. For example, having recently revisited the first Peach Kid film, Child of Peach, which is both furiously paced and expertly realized, I must report that KFWC pales ever-so-slightly in comparison. Part of this is due to its relative sidelining of the always charming Lam Siu-Law; ascendant ass-kicker Yukari Oshima (who would become a figurehead of the “girls with guns” subgenre with films like Angel) is a damsel in little need of rescue, and so leaves Hsiu Chen with little to do in the way of chivalrous derring do. There is also a sense of childish indulgence to Child of Peach’s toilet humor that makes KFWC’s more adolescent, mean-spirited approach seem somewhat tiresome by comparison.

All of which is not to say that Kung Fu Wonder Child does not deliver its share of dazzling visual hocus pocus. Indeed, its most noteworthy achievement is a climactic composite sequence involving a cell animated dragon that is executed with admirable precision. There are also a lot of goopy practical effects employing pulsating bladders that rival the work of Cronenberg in their visceral repulsiveness. The fact that the film seems relatively normal in comparison to some of the films I've seen since testifies only to the cornucopia of riches that the broader category of Taiwanese fantasy films offers. Because, believe me, Kung Fu Wonder Child is not a normal film by any standard. That it focuses on Yukarim Oshima fighting vampires and cartoon dragons to the detriment of its titular flying, fire-breathing, monster-battling child is not a criticism that I can level against it with a straight face. Truly, there are no losers here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ana Antar, aka I Am Antar (Lebanon/?, 1966)

During the 1960s, Lebanon rivaled Egypt as one of the biggest producers of popular cinema in the Middle East, matching it both in terms of output and technical acumen. At the time, the Lebanese film industry was dominated by a resolutely commercial, crowd-pleasing aesthetic, one that gave rise to colorful pan-Arabic co-productions like Frank “Dawn of the Mummy” Agrama’s Essabet El Nissae. Also representative of this trend is 1966’s Ana Antar, which includes among its star attractions a Syrian comedy duo and a Lebanese pop singer/sex symbol. Indeed, I momentarily entertained the notion that Ana Antar was another of Agrama’s directorial efforts, until I learned that it was helmed by another Egyptian, Joseph Maalouf, who also directed the Ismail Yassin vehicle The Adventures of Ismail Yassin.

Like Essabet El Nissae, Ana Antar is a lighthearted crime caper with a distinct swinging sixties vibe owing in large part to its seductive pallet of rich Eastman Color hues. In it, Nihad Quali and Doreid Lahham play investigators charged with solving a series of jewelry robberies that, unknown to them, are being committed by a nightclub singer who is under the hypnotic control of her unscrupulous psychiatrist. “Doreid & Nihad”, as they were called, rose to prominence on Syrian television in the early 60s before going on to star together in a series of 21 successful theatrical features, usually with Quali playing the straight man to Lahham’s antic character Ghawar. As was often the case, they are also credited with writing the screenplay and dialogue for Ana Antar, with Maalouf taking credit for the story.

In their day, Doreid & Nihad were compared to Laurel and Hardy, which, looking at them now, seems a little dubious. While Nihad, rotund and mustached, could arguably pass for a Middle Eastern version of Oliver Hardy, Doreid looks a lot less like Stan Laurel than he does Groucho Marx, while at the same time exhibiting the jittery hipster mannerisms of a young Woody Allen. Here he plays renowned private investigator Antar, who is recruited by harried insurance investigator Hosni (Nihad) to help him put a stop to the jewelry robberies that are costing his superiors a lot of money.

I can’t say for sure that Antar is ironically named after the revered 6th century poet and warrior Antarah ibn Shaddad, though I suspect he is. What I am sure of is that he is intended as a vehicle for spoofing all of the secret agent tropes of his day. It’s all here: the shoe phone, the contact lens that doubles as a camera, the swank bachelor pad laden with booby traps, the exotic yet dangerously impractical weapons (among them a gun that shoots backwards), the oily self-regard, all signaling to us once again that the 60s were a time when no barrier of geography, language or culture could stand up to the contagious influence of James Bond. It also bears mention that Antar has a girlfriend, Salwah, played by the charming Egyptian actress Hala El Shawarby, who serves as both a loyal helpmate and a comic foil.

Ana Antar’s credits play over an arresting expository sequence that clues us in to something that Antar, Hosni, and Salwah are yet to learn. Shot with a distinctly Bava-esque lighting scheme, these scenes show a pretty young nightclub singer, Halo, being hypnotized by her psychiatrist, Dr. Sabri. She leaves his office in a trance and is next seen methodically lifting a set of diamond encrusted jewelry from a posh home. These she returns to Sabri, who adds them to what is obviously a growing collection. The caddish Sabri is played by Shafiq Hashim, a Lebanese actor and musician who, at the time, was married to the world famous belly dancer Nadia Gamal (who is not related to or to be confused with world famous belly dancer and actress Samia Gamal). Halo, meanwhile, is played by popular Lebanese singer and actress Randa, who is afforded four musical numbers throughout the film.

Antar and Hosni’s investigation eventually leads them to the nightclub where Halo is performing, whereupon Hosni’s boss, Abu Nour (Khaled Kharanouh), immediately falls for her—as he well should, given he is exactly the kind of blandly handsome romantic lead that always gets shoehorned into comic vehicles like this. Meanwhile, we learn that the receptionist in Abu Nour’s office, Suad (Dadnd Jabour), is working for Dr. Sabri and has been keeping him informed on the progress of the investigation. Being a maniacal control freak in the classic B movie villain mode, he sets out to throw them off his scent by any means possible. All of this, of course, still leaves time for Antar and Hosni to get involved in a series of absurdist comic vignettes, including a bit where an eccentric woman serves them an invisible meal which they then, in an abundance of courtesy, elaborately mime eating.

Sadly, the version of Ana Antar that I watched lacked English subtitles, so I am in no way equipped to judge just how funny Doreid & Nihad’s dialog is. However, their cadence and body language alone is enough to tell me that Doreid is meant to be the wise-cracking operator of the two, while Nihad is the oafish one who is most likely to be on the receiving end of the movie’s many slapstick humiliations. At one point, after being brutally beaten by a pair of Sabri’s gunsels, he stumbles back to Antar’s apartment, only to be subjected to the gauntlet of crude booby traps meant to ward off intruders. (Yes, there is a boxing glove on a spring and bucket of water propped over the door. Yes, I laughed.)

In many ways, Ana Antar’s combination of glamour and goofiness, along with its good natured desire to entertain by whatever means necessary, reminds me of the Mexican spy spoofs of its era--which is in every way a compliment, given that those films, being so open hearted and almost reckless in their inclusiveness, are, to me, the definition of “world pop cinema”. As with Cazadores de Espias or Las Sicodelicas, Ana Antar’s makers, while putting their comedic foot forward, do not renege on their covenant with the audience to also make a film that fully functions as a thriller. Thus the film gradually works its way around to a satisfyingly action-packed climax, starting with Halo leaving behind a telltale red scarf at the scene of one of her robberies. This prompts Antar to make a visit to her psychiatrist’s office, which unwittingly put him at the mercy of Dr. Sabri, who hypnotizes him in an effort to turn him against his friends. Much chasing and shooting follows. And also lots of things that are a very bright shade of red.

Despite understanding exactly none of its dialog, it is easy for me to praise Ana Antar, because it looks amazing. I took me twice as long to watch as it should have because I was tempted to make screen captures of every individual shot. Of course, if you are going to make a film that combines mid-century design with saturated colors and a lot of pop art-inspired, modernist camera compositions—and that also includes lots of nightclub scenes and go-go dancing, it is literally guaranteed that it will be a film close to my heart. I am just that shallow.

Seriously, though, that the makers of Ana Antar, despite working with a limited number of minimal sets and an obviously modest budget, managed to create of film of such visual allure speaks very well of their industry as a whole—and guarantees that I will be ardently seeking out more films of its type in the future.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Zan-e Khoon Asham, aka Female Vampire (Iran, 1967)

It is impossible to discuss Zan-e Khoon Asham without making at least passing reference to last year’s festival favorite A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both are Iranian films, one made in 1967 and the other in 2014, which make lady vampires their subject matter. Making any parallels beyond that, however, is somewhat problematic. While Girl is an artistic film rich with formal beauty and layered metaphor, Zan-e Khoon Asham, at least in a narrative sense, is clearly something different-- while its aesthetic ambitions are rendered difficult to gauge due to the available print of it looking like it was videotaped off the screen of a television that was submerged in a dirty swimming pool.

The film begins with big city hotshot Jahangir (played by Mostafa Oskooyi, the film’s director) arriving from Tehran in the city of Nishapur, where he spends the night with old friend Bahram (Mehdi Fat’hi) in the orchard of Mashti, a kindly old farmer. It is here that Jahangir first lays eyes on and gets royally sprung by Mashti’s teenage daughter Golnar (Mahindokht). Bahram tells him that she is bad news; her brother was said to have been taken by a jinn and she herself is suspected to be possessed as a result. Jahangir then helpfully explains to Bahram the western notion of the vampire. Yeah, like that, he basically replies.

Still, it seems that no amount of dire portents can quell Jahangir’s horniness, and so he arranges a late night tryst with Golnar at the tomb of Omar Khayyam where, if I am interpreting the suggestively evasive camera maneuvers correctly, he takes her virginity. The next morning he breezily takes off back for Tehran, promising the naïve Golnar that he will marry her upon his return. This despite her protestations that she might be pregnant.

If it has not already been made blindingly clear that Jahangir is a cad of the first order, it will be when he returns to Tehran and engages with a colleague in a dialogue about the place of an ugly woman in society that is straight out of In the Company of Men. He then makes short work of seducing Parvin (Homayoondokht), the new wife of another associate. Before long it is quite obvious that he has no intention of returning to Golnar, much less in marrying her. This is not lost on Golnar, and a castigating letter soon arrives from Bahram telling Jahangir that the heartbroken girl has wandered out into the wilderness and been found dead. Oh, and there’s also something about two bite marks on her neck.

No sooner does the sun set in the sky than Jahangir is confronted by the vampirized Golnar, who warns him that she will kill any woman that he falls in love with. Then Parvin vanishes and Jahangir, as the prime suspect in her disappearance, is forced to flee from the police. Once apprehended, he is thrown into a darkened cell, where he is soon cornered by, not only Golnar, but Parvin, who has also turned into a vengeful bloodsucker. The scene, it has to be said, is quite chilling, although it is hard to say how much of that is due to cinematographer Maziar Parto’s shadowy compositions and how much is due to Zan-e Khoon Asham’s current distressed state. The film, after all, is something of a ghost in itself, which makes watching it tantamount to a kind of occular haunting.

If the film’s titles are to be believed, Zan-e Khoon Asham was the first feature produced by Iran’s Theater Anahita. This sounds about right, because, like many maiden efforts of nascent film industries, it often seems more invested in the simple act of visual documentation than of storytelling, bursting at the seams with ancillary distractions like musical numbers, recitations of classical poetry and one very long wedding sequence. Because of this, the film is helped by its ravaged condition as much as it is hurt by it. That murkiness and erosion serves as a constant reminder to us of its rarity, and thus helps to justify our interest despite its digressions.

That said, I’m afraid I’m going to have to spoil Zan-e Khoon Asham’s ending, as to review the film without discussing it would be irresponsible. In short, it is a narrative cop-out of almost admirable audacity. You see, it turns out that Golnar and Parvin are not really vampires at all, but just pretending to be vampires in order to teach Jahangir a much needed lesson. Of course, for them to pull off this ruse has also required the participation of virtually all of Jahangir’s friends and associates, as well as many of the random people that he has encountered since returning to Tehran.

As insulting as this preposterous reveal is, even more so is the filmmakers’ assumption that Jahangir being pranked in this manner is enough of a karmic payback for us to forgive his transgressions and accept him taking Golnar, the young girl he ruthlessly exploited and abandoned, into his arms for a climactic smooch as some kind of happy ending. By no means is Jahangir an asshole, they seem to be saying, but rather a lovable rogue. And this brings to mind another parallel between this film and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well as a key difference: Both films address the treatment of women in Iranian society. Girl, however, does so in the form of commentary, while Zan-e Khoon Asham merely serves as evidence.