At the risk of sounding even more like a broken record than I usually do, allow me once again reiterate a common theme for much of what we discuss here: exploring the vast world of international cult cinema is as frustrating as it is rewarding. Rewarding because, obviously, it opens a whole world — quite literally — of totally outrageous movies that will completely blow your mind, that the average “man on the street” has no idea even exists, and that are packed to the gills with glorious outlandish beauty. Frustrating because, just as obviously, so many of these films — especially one from outside the United States, Europe, and Japan — are so very hard to find even in their country of origin. Similarly, even finding the most basic information on many of these movies, either in print or online, is often almost impossible.
Rambling thoughts inspired by a billboard I pass during my daily stroll to work
This might be the first case of this site ever being timely or tied in with current events. Savor it like a fine tobacco smoked in an antique pipe on a chilly winter’s eve in front of the fire, with a tumbler of single malt close at hand. And then I will thank you to kindly stop smoking in my parlor. Anyway, the impending release of The Great Gatsby, in which Australian director Baz Luhrmann has decided a Jazz age drama demands more pointless CGI than The Hobbit, reminded me of the time my college roommate and I decided, round about 1993 or so, we were going to invent something called Gatsbycore. It was to be a flippant combination of the styles of the Roarin’ Twenties and our own, more familiar (at the time) punk rock aesthetic. There were really only two small problems with the idea: first, we had no idea where to get 1920s style clothing in Gainesville, Florida in 1993 on a $30 a month living budget; and second, we were pretty terrible on following through on weird ideas we had at two in the morning.
It’s time for another visit to that magical land where smarmy cheeseballs can sashay up to any hot dame that strikes their fancy and plant a kiss on her without getting slapped in the face or slapped with a lawsuit. The amazing kingdom where smart suits and cocktail dresses are the norm and endless explosive attempts at assassination are met with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow and a knowing smirk. It’s the astounding universe of the Kommissar X films, among the most enjoyable and most bizarre entries into the spy craze that swept across the world in the 1960s thanks largely to the success of the James Bond films.
When last we left the dastardly, skeleton-suit clad Kilink — self-proclaimed King of Rogues and master of all evil — he was in his secret island lair (well stocked with randomly placed and artfully-posed bikini girls), casually bragging about his super-weapon (a rickety looking laser gun) while harassing a scientist and the scientist’s beautiful daughter, who just happens to be the fiancée of a man whose scientist father was previously murdered by Kilink, causing the man to swear vengeance and thus be granted super powers and a bad costume by a crazy hobo in the cemetery.
When last we tuned in, skeleton motif-clad fumetti anti-hero Kriminal was skyrocketing to fame, and in doing so, seeing the nasty edge that had made him so popular and controversial (so it is possible to be banned in France) softened somewhat to make him more palatable to a wider audience. But no worries, because even as Kriminal began to only kill a lot of people instead of a whole lot of people, another character in basically the same skeleton get-up arrived on the scene to make sure that critics and censors were still incensed by the make-believe actions of a grown man wearing a novelty skeleton body stocking. That hero — and by hero, I mean psychotic mass-murdering terrorist — was known appropriately enough as Killing.
Years ago, Hong Kong made a Tekken movie, but they forgot to secure the rights to actually make a Tekken movie, so it eventually became Avenging Fist, and no one really cared. About the only thing anyone remembers is that Ekin Cheng eventually turns into Sammo Hung. So anyway, fast forward to today, and now someone who bothered to secure the rights to the Tekken name, years after I think the world stopped giving a crap about Tekken, has finally made a Tekken movie called Tekken.
I can’t say for sure whether or not this was the first movie based on a video game whose primary plot was “two characters fight each other,” but I think it might be. If not, it’s pretty close. Street Fighter is best known for being the final film of well respected, Academy Award winning actor Raul Julia, whose final gift to society was himself in a red leather fascist get-up, cackling and flying around and shooting lightning out of his hands. Some people lament the unfortunate timing of this movie and Julia’s death conspiring to turn Street Fighter into his memorial movie. I don’t really see things the same way, though.
In much the same way that many Western audiences have a problem accepting the musical numbers in Bollywood films, North American audiences have always had an issue accepting the central concept behind the Mexican luchador movies: that a bunch of masked wrestlers clad in full wrestling gear would tool around Mexico solving crimes, fighting monsters, and judging beauty contests. The inability on the part of many non-Mexican viewers to accept this as anything other than patently absurd has a lot to do with the way we think of professional wrestlers — in that, we think of them as professional wrestlers. In Mexico, by contrast, these luchadores have less in common with Macho Man Randy Savage and more in common with the likes of Batman Green Arrow, or any of the masked pulp heroes of the early third of the 20th century. They are comic book superheroes. North American audiences that often balk at the idea of crusading luchadores rarely have any issue with comic book superheroes, who dress just as outlandishly and often have superhuman powers to boot.
A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
The final days of the 20th century ushered in many things, and ushered out quite a few as well. After years of dedicated service, the beefed-up action stars of the 80s and 90s were quietly shown the door. This was a horrible turn of events for Olivier Gruner, a man who had made a living throughout the 90s as the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that Jean-Claude Van Damme was the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme, what was poor Olivier Gruner to do? As for Van Damme, his DTV output would eventually lead the former muscles from Brussels to make JCVD, a self-deprecating (and to a degree, self-flagellating) arthouse hit that afforded Van Damme the chance to skewer and wax poetic about his crumbling career while at the same time actually rebuilding it to some degree. With the exception of Expendables 2, Van Damme wasn’t going to find his way back onto the big screen, but the quality of his direct to video output enjoyed a substantial leap forward in terms of quality.