Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
The Pinky Violence films of Norifumi Suzuki represent one extreme of the tendency of Japanese exploitation films of the seventies to combine a very high level of craftsmanship with an unflinching preoccupation with human behavior at its most sleazy and mysteriously perverse. I’ve found some of his films very difficult to get through, while others — such as Convent of the Holy Beast and the film I’m discussing here, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom — I was able to ride out on a seductive wave of Norifumi’s combined visual imagination and sheer audacity. However, unlike Shunya Ito, whose distinctive vision lifted the Female Prisoner Scorpion films damn near the level of art, Norifumi produced trash that, while littered with artistic touches and surprising moments of beauty, never really quite rose above the level of trash. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike Ito, he had a habit of punctuating the episodes of exaggerated sexual violence that characterize much of his work with moments of direly unfunny juvenile comedy, a mixture that in most cases added up to one pretty noxious cocktail.
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
Kaala Sona is another example of the Basmati — or “Curry” — Western, that Bollywood take on the Western that seems to draw more on the European model than the American for its inspiration. Of course, the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay, released at roughly the same time, is considered the gold standard of that genre, and Kaala Sona follows along much the same pattern. Like Sholay, for instance, it’s a Western in feel rather than period, setting its action in the present day while taking advantage of some of the still relatively untamed regions lying within India’s borders. Such an approach allows both films to highlight a favorite Bollywood theme: the urbanized ne’er-do-well who, in being called upon to defend a rural community from a destructive outside force, has his soul awakened to the simple and essential virtues embodied by that community. (In more recent films, that urbanized ne’er-do-well tends to be, more specifically, a Westernized product of the Diaspora, but same idea.)