Category Archives: Film & TV

Chinese Ghost Story

There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s stories explore the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for her boss demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story.

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Gangs of Wasseypur

The small town of Wasseypur is located in northeastern India, absorbed in many ways by the larger city of Dhanbad. Wasseypur is sort of the Newburgh, New York or Camden, New Jersey to Dhanbad’s New York City or Philadelphia — a small, incredibly dangerous, largely lawless enclave attached to the outskirts of a much larger town. Or maybe like one of the many towns controlled by narco-syndicates south of the border. It was a coal company town. In the case of Wasseypur, it’s lawlessness was derived from when the British packed up and called it a day, and India was once again a sovereign nation. The coal mines, which had been entirely British-owned, were turned over to India, but they were basically dumped into the laps of a lot of people who may have been skilled laborers and assistant managers but had no experience whatsoever with how to run a single mine, let alone an entire network and industry. Sort of like the United States freeing its slaves with no real interest in actually equipping them for life, Great Britain folded its flag and wished the Indians good luck.

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Asambhav

It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.

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Cultural Gutter: A Halting Fire

My time has come. Another Frolic Afield over at the Cultural Gutter. A Halting Fire takes a look at the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, a show with subject matter — the micro-computing revolution of the early 1980s — near and dear to my heart. It’s also about the unwillingness of so many modern television shows to commit to an emotion other than a sort of listless misery.

Oh, What a Lovely War

On August 4, 1914, Germany declared war on and subsequently invaded Belgium, a declared neutral in the escalating conflict between France, Russia, and the allied countries of German and Austria-Hungary. Europe at the time had been spoiling for a war, and the Byzantine tangle of pacts, treaties, and agreements ensured that it was only a question of when, not if, the entire continent would find an excuse to kit up and march off to battle. That excuse came in June of 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian radicals. And so the dominoes fell. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia was allied with Russia, who had no choice but to declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany was allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so declared war on Russia. France, which had treaties with Russia, thought about staying neutral in the matter, but that became a moot point when Germany declared war on them, launching an offensive that bulldozed its way through Belgium en route to France and brought the United Kingdom into the war as a result of a pact Britain had with Belgium.

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Cultural Gutter: Einstein and the Bearded Lady

Time for another Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, where I am writing Einstein and the Bearded Lady, about the Czech science fiction comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove) from 1970. The film asks the question, “What would men of the future be willing to risk to make sure women don’t have too much body hair?” Silliness ensues.

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Devil Rides Out

His names are legion. His name is Legion. But maybe you know him as Scratch, or Ol’ Gooseberry. The Devil himself, if you will. He’s one of the most compelling literary figures of all time, despite, I imagine, the original intentions of the writers of the Old Testament. Poet John Milton turned the Devil into a brash anti-hero in Paradise Lost, and for many intellectuals who see religious fundamentalism as stifling to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s remained in his cool cat corner with lots of stories being written about him. Something about Lucifer lends to storytelling. It’s his unpredictability, perhaps. You never know if you’re getting the wretched evil Devil or the suave rebellious one. Or the witty one or the comedy one. With Jesus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Jesus. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Jesus — Christian or not, you can admire some crazy dude from Nazareth who took on both the Romans and the religious establishment, told people not to submit to a corrupt priesthood, and then said you shouldn’t always be bashing each others’ heads in. But where do you go from there? That’s why the only people who ever tried to write the further adventures of Christ were the Mormons.

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Deadlier than the Male

The phrase “in the wake of James Bond’s success” is probably the single most over-used phrase in any examination of the flood of spy films that flowed freely onto screens worldwide in the wake of James Bond’s success. Unfortunately, facts are facts and while the Bond films certainly were not the first espionage thrillers to grace the silver screen, they remain to this day the most popular and influential. While many of the films that followed Dr. No and From Russia with Love were very different from those two seminal Bond movies, there’s little doubt that Bond opened the doors, paved the way, and made producers a lot more interested in green-lighting spy movies. Nowhere was this truer than in Europe, where spy mania swept the continent and resulted in hundreds of espionage and caper films taking full advantage of the wealth of gorgeous European locations and equally gorgeous European screen sirens.

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No Masterpiece Without Madness

Frolicking afield once again, for my monthly article over at The Cultural Gutter. “You Can’t Make a Masterpiece Without Madness” takes a look at the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the tale of how director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune never got made, and how that story of “failure” is oddly inspiring and uplifting.

They Were 11

They Were 11 is an interesting take on sci-fi anime from the eighties, and definitely a marked departure from the space operas overflowing from the previous decades and the wham-bam sci-fi actioners that defined the eighties. There is really only one action scene in the entire movie, and that’s a pie fight. Yet despite the dearth of robots on roller skates shooting cannons at each other, They Were 11 is an engaging, tense, and engrossing piece of science fiction that makes you feel like it’s action-packed even though it isn’t. The basic premise was derived from an old Japanese story about a group of children at a playground who suddenly realize that there is one more child there than there should be. There’s a good chance the extra kid, whichever one he may be, is some sort of monster.

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