If there is any problem with High Kick Girl, a low-budget karate fest from Japan, it’s that it’s a terrible movie. If you can overlook that one flaw, then High Kick Girl is pretty decent. However, even if you can’t get over the fact that this movie is a study in incompetence due to inexperience, it’s still possible to wring from the mess a healthy degree of respect for what they were trying to do. Alas, if only good intentions always resulted in good movies. The dream of High Kick Girl was to take the Japanese martial arts movie back from the fumbling hands of CGI-heavy fantasy films and boob-heavy sexploitation stinkers full of AV idols flopping about and calling it karate, and return the martial arts film to the stewardship of people who actually care about it. And make no mistake — I thoroughly believe that everyone involved with High Kick Girl genuinely cares about martial arts and making good martial arts movies. They just aren’t capable of doing so, at least not yet.
My odyssey through the strange world of Russian fantasy films began in earnest many years ago, when I moved to a prominently Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood and started prowling around the DVD stores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Up until then, I’d caught glimpses of this strange and wonderful looking avenue of cinema in the form of dubbed and edited American versions of the films, where Ilya Muromets became The Sword and the Dragon and Sadko became The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. These movies made regular rounds on broadcast television back when I was a kid, and I loved them without having any idea they were Russian fantasy films tailored by crafty American distributors to become nationless adventure spectacle. They were colorful, they were full of monsters, and they had lots of guys with swords running at each other. When I crept a little closer to old age, I decided I wanted to find the original versions of the films — much as I did with Eastern Bloc science fiction films — not just to see what had been changed, but also to see them in a better quality than I’d enjoyed on independent broadcast television with rabbit-ear antennae reception.
Although Manhattan’s Chinatown is the best-known of the city’s many Chinese enclaves, other pockets of settlement that draw far fewer tourists and don’t really cater to non-Chinese speakers exist all over the five boroughs. The biggest, most crowded, and most interesting to explore is the Chinese neighborhood in Flushing, Queens. Sitting in the shadow of Citi Field and the remnants of the World’s Fair, Flushing is a massive Chinese neighborhood with a dense concentration of restaurants, shops, and arcades. It sees far fewer tourists than Manhattan’s Chinatown, so navigating it can be a little trickier if you don’t read and speak the language. Many signs have no English translations (some have Spanish translations), and many shop proprietors speak very little, if any, English. But fortune favors the adventurous, and you can generally get along just fine so long as you recognize the fact that, unless you are Chinese, you are the minority here.
“I think we can put our differences behind us… for science… you monster.”
Portal 2 is a game that gleefully flies against all the wrong-headed assumptions about games — both from within the gaming community and from its many critics in the world of politics and moral watchdogging. It is a bloodless, essentially non-violent video game with a female protagonist. And it was a massive hit with an appeal that made it popular with both committed and casual gamers alike. It’s a game that dismisses the notion that games have to cater to the baser human desires for blood and guts, and that games have to be designed for what the industry erroneously defines as its audience: white, heterosexual guys who actively dislike — or are at least extremely uncomfortable with — women, and by extension, female characters in games. The massive success of Portal 2 proves these time-honored conclusions are, if not totally incorrect and blind to a massive and largely unacknowledged diversity, at least increasingly creaky, old-fashioned, and out of touch with the industry’s shift into a mainstream form of entertainment. And hell, even if they were correct, those are not assumptions that should be played to anyway.
Watch enough of the types of movies that regularly occupy the screens here at Teleport City, and at some point you will undoubtedly find yourself lifting your arms up into the air toward yon’ heavens and, in a booming and suitably epic film sounding voice, beseeching Jehovah himself. “O Lord!” you will cry, “O Lord, how in the name of all that is twisted and unholy did this film ever get made?” For the very existence of some films, if not exactly a pox ‘pon the very arse of Almighty God Himself, are at least perplexing in their existence. Who, you ask the hideous phantoms that haunt you whenever you are left too long by yourself (the phantoms look like Mick Jagger in Performance), in their right mind would have ever green-lighted this film? You are especially likely to ask yourself (and your inner demons) this question if, like me, you consider “go out with a hot chick and party and drink free booze with her and your pals” or “stay at home and watch made for Sci-Fi Channel original movies all night,” to be a legitimately difficult decision. A night of movies in which Stephen Baldwin saves humanity? OK, I think I’ll out to the party. But a night of movies in which Daniel Baldwin saves humanity? I might just have to stay home that night.
My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.
Japan’s occasional flirtations with an interest in vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a bizarre mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign — a dichotomy that is almost certainly (in my eyes) born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can import and read home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign on Japan, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a fun horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The very foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is basically a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up and steal women.