Category Archives: Film & TV

Abhay

There are, of course, serious and contemplative films from India. There are some modern Indian films that are subdued, intelligent, and thought-provoking. It is highly unlikely we will ever review any of those films. Within the confines of the type of film I’m likely to review from Bollywood (which would be any film that is as silly or fantastical as the films we review from any other country), it’s almost redundant to describe them as “somewhat over-the-top.” If the average Bollywood film is always over-the-top, then a Bollywood “cult” film — action, horror, martial arts, or something of that genre nature — is going to be twice as over-the-top as its more mundane but still over-the-top peers. With me so far?

So it is no small claim when I say that, even within the context of over-the-top Bollywood cult films, Abhay manages to be still more over-the-top than the rest of the pack (technically, this is a Tamil rather than Bollywood film, but let’s not nitpick at this juncture). I don’t know what film classification happens above and beyond over-the-top. Perhaps there isn’t one, in which case “Abhay” is destined to become an adjective, a descriptive term for a movie so completely nutso that even over-the-top film shake their head in admiring disbelief.

Abhay first came to my attention when I was flipping through the meager selection of Indian films for rent at the local underground video store. Yes, yes, I know. World of Apu and Langaan and all that. Not what I was looking for. Suddenly, I was greeted by a cover featuring a screaming bald man, covered in tattoos and brandishing a huge knife, flying down the side of a skyscraper. At the top of the box, an employee of this particular video store had slapped a white label then scrawled a simple message in black Sharpie: “Completely Bonkers!!!”


I was sold. In my world, there’s no greater critical endorsement than “completely bonkers” followed by three exclamation points. It’s an even better public relations blurb than when all those punk bands would take out an ad in Maximumrocknroll adorned with fake critical slagging to the effect of “‘Filthy and horrible’ — Our Moms.” With considerable glee and a jaunty song in my heart (something by Kraftwerk, I believe, probably from the Computer Love years), I trotted up to the counter, paid my rental fee, and rushed home giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the disc looked like a team of hyperactive cats had been tap dancing on it. I don’t even know what you can do to a DVD to get it as scratched up as this one. Without much optimism for the outcome, I put the disc in my DVD player and confirmed what I feared: this disc wasn’t going to play. Putting it in the DVD drive of my computer yielded slightly more encouraging results, but not wanting to watch half the movie only to find it sputtered and died on this player, too, I advanced forward a little bit and confirmed that no matter which player I used, it was either going to not play at all or freeze up around the hour and a half mark.

With great sadness weighing down my heart, I returned the disc the next day, and the store confirmed that they too could not play the disc (though that didn’t stop them from putting it back out for rental). I used my free rental credit to rent something uplifting and spiritual (probably something where Paul Naschy turns into a werewolf), then returned to my humble hovel to seek out my own personal copy of Abhay. Heck, Indian DVDs only cost a few bucks anyway, so it wasn’t like I was taking a huge gamble. The tiny bits and pieces I’d seen as I tested the rental disc seemed to support the notion that I wouldn’t be disappointed by owning my own copy. A couple of days and $8.99 later, I was filled with a sense of euphoria once more as the package showed up from India Weekly, this times sans thousands of gashes and scratches on the surface of the disc.


Imagine my shock and woe, then, when after an hour and half of absolute joy, the disc sputtered and died in the exact same spot as the rental disc. “What sorcery be this???” I exclaimed incredulously. How could such a thing be? A little research on the internet soon turned up the answer: The disc, released by a company called DEI, was defective. Or rather, most of them were. The vast majority of people who bought the disc found that it died at exactly the same spot as my rental and purchased copy. Despite the fact that Abhay, from the half of it I saw, is prime material for release in the United States, no domestic company had snatched it up, presumably because they were saving their money for more movies about heroic cricket players. Thus, it was looking like there might be no way of ever seeing the second half of the movie short of buying a hundred Abhay discs and hoping one of them would turn out to be playable.

Oh, misery! I cried out to the heavens! Why have the Gods forsaken me? Why does the cruel, cold universe not want me to see Abhay? Dismayed at this disheartening turn of events, and reconciled with the fact that I would perhaps never get to finish a movie that freezes up right when the main character turns into a cartoon and starts spinning a slutty pop star round and round on his big Jim Bowie knife, I curled up with a bottle of rum and watched Odin instead, but its salve did little to assuage the pain.


Some days later, the sun dared peek once more through the grey lining of clouds obscuring my horizons. Tease me not! I cried out to the sun, for twice now he had let the warming rays of Abhay fall ‘pon my face only to snatch them away at the last second. Or more specifically, around the 5,400th second. On this day, a haggard man wandered out of the desert and, in between ingesting peyote and disappearing inside a sweat lodge covered in old cowhide, he said to me, “Why don’t you just buy the Tamil DVD? It’s the same movie, only in a different language you can’t speak.” Anxious yet dubious, I cashed in my defective DVD credit with India Weekly and ordered the Tamil release of the DVD, which goes under the name Aalavandhan. And lo the clouds did part and angels blew ‘pon trumpets of gold, for I was finally able to watch the entire movie without the specter of a defective disc throwing ice-cold water down my back when I least expected it.

But even then, there was a single tear rolling down my cheek. For although the disc worked and I had finally managed to watch this movie, I noticed that the non-defective disc was a slightly censored version that had been trimmed of several moments that were present on the watchable parts of the defective disc. Once more I threw my arms toward the heavens ‘pon high and bellowed with frustration and rage as the heartless Fates looked down from above and laughed at me as they pelted my face with cold, cold rain — but nary so cold as the coldness of their hearts.


I don’t usually go into a review of a particular DVD or aspects of that DVD, focusing instead on the film itself as something independent from its presentation on a disc. In this case, however, I feel like I should preface the proper review with some quick notes about the differences between the disc you can watch and the disc you probably can’t (a few copies play fine, some play fine for a while but suffer severe “rot” and become unplayable a couple of months later, and most like mine are simply defective right out of the box), if for no other reason than I seem to have spent so much time trying to get a playable copy of the damn thing.

The first notable difference is in the spoken language, though it you speak neither Hindi nor Tamil this is going to be of minor concern. Given the multi-lingual make-up of India, either language could be considered the “correct” language. It’s a Tamil film, but the Hindi audio track is just as authentic. The difference is in the English that appears throughout the film, which is slightly better in the defective DEI/Hindi version than on the non-defective Tamil version. The English subtitles are also better on the DEI version, both grammatically and aesthetically. But these are pretty minor quibbles with which one could live, especially considering the fact that the whole “disc will self-destruct at the 90 minute mark” thing overrides benefits like “subtitles marginally better.”

It’s the trimming on the Tamil disc that really steams my monkeys. There are several scenes of drug use that are central to the plot but edited out of the Tamil version. It fouls up one’s comprehension of what’s going on in a film that is already pretty bizarre. The notable edits come when title character Abhay (called Nandu in the Tamil version) seeks medication from a drug dealer and is instead shot up with heroin (leading to the film’s lengthy, highly entertaining freak-out and hallucination sequence) and when slutty pop star Sharmilee gets him all coked up. In both instances, the actual use of the drug is excised from the film, causing it to jump abruptly. It’s not like you couldn’t figure it out, but it’s still really irritating. There’s also a point in the Abhay-Sharmilee sequence where Abhay discovers he has been given a container of Ecstasy and offers it to Sharmilee. This too has been cut, along with a few lines of dialogue associated with the exchange. These seem like small cuts, but each moment is crucial to explaining what happens next. Without them, the film suffers and seems poorly edited rather than just poorly censored (similar to how criticism of jarring edits in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head are, in fact, short-comings of random cutting after the fact to fit the film onto one laser disc, rather than deficiencies in Woo’s original editing, which is quite fluid and smooth and doesn’t do things like randomly jump to a car-chase and shoot-out at the end without explaining what the heck happened to get us to that point). If there are additional cuts beyond these, I can’t say since this is where the DEI disc stops playing.


So there you have the frustrating circumstances. You can either have the uncut movie on a disc that won’t play, or you can have a disc that will play but contains a censored version of the film. I’m thinking of cobbling together my own version composed of the first 90 minutes of the Hindi disc and the last 90 of the Tamil disc, but then that sort of seems silly since I have them both lying around anyway. I’d like to see DEI either repress and re-release the film or just have a US company pick it up and distribute the uncut version. Until then, unfortunately, the trimmed Tamil version is the best we have. Which is a shame, really. Silly technical hitches like that shouldn’t mar what is an otherwise completely mind-blowing, thoroughly bonkers, and immensely enjoyable mind trip of a film that manages, as I said earlier, to be even more crazy and insane than the usual crazy and insane films India has to offer.

Kamal Hassan stars as heroic moustachio’d Vijay (always with the heroic Vijays, aren’t they), commander of a crack squadron of commandos who specialize in combatting terrorism. More important to the story, however, is that Vijay is about to marry gorgeous newscaster Tejaswini (Raveena Tandon, of Ziddi infamy). On this joyous occasion, Vijay decided he should visit his psychotic brother, Abhay (Nandu in the Tamil version) in the mental asylum and tell him the good news. I’m not sure what sort of reaction Vijay was expecting from the gibbering, bald nutcase (also played by Kamal Hassan, thanks to cinematic and shaving magic) who murdered their stepmother when he was twelve years old, but Abhay doesn’t take the news too well. In fact, he immediately proclaims Tejaswini to be a man-eating succubus who must have her throat slit in order to save Vijay. All things considered, Vijay decides against inviting Abhay to the wedding, obviously afraid of what sort of Best Man speech the guy would make. Abhay is obsessed though, and he soon orchestrates his escape from the asylum and begins a completely bizarre and violent quest to track down and murder Tejaswini.


Director Suresh Krishna and writer/star Kamal Hassan set lofty goals for themselves. Abhay was to concentrate heavily on the world as perceived through the eyes of its titular drug-addled psychopath, which means that there are ample opportunities to ratchet up the weirdness. To realize Abhay’s hallucinations and insanity, as well as facilitating Hassan playing dual roles without relying on age-old split-screen trickery that can give us so many Amitabh Bachchans in a single film, they tapped the visual effects wizardry of Das Chinmay, Sylvan Dieckmann, and George Merkert — who between them have logged major special effects work on big-budget Hollywood films like Serenity, Superman Returns, Poseidon, Starship Troopers, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Total Recall. Regardless of what you may think of those movies, there’s no denying that Hassan and Suresh Krishna were calling in some visual effects big guns, putting forth a vision that far exceeded anything ever attempted in Indian cinema, where effects work is often crude. The result made Abhay one of — if not the — most expensive Indian movie of all time. A huge amount of hype surrounded the film and the many special effects it would boast. Expectations were sky-high, and Abhay was poised to be the biggest release of 2001.

And it might have been, if many people had bothered to see it. Apparently, to be a big release, people have to actually show up for your release. Instead, and for a variety of reasons at which analysts can only guess, audiences shied away from the film, and it wasn’t long before the biggest film in Indian history became one of the biggest flops in Indian history. Like Megaforce, except that the effects are better, the movie is actually good, and Kamal Hassan never kisses his own thumb and thrusts it lovingly toward the camera.


Still, box office failure and critical and audience puzzlement at just what the hell Hassan was trying to do doesn’t mean the film isn’t spectacular, especially from the viewpoint of a cult film fan. It packs in a ton of breakneck action, some quality acting, and some absolutely inspired freak-out scenes. In particular, viewers go along with Abhay on a protracted heroin binge that is realized on-screen by everything from a seven-foot-tall Ronald McDonald wise man to Abhay turning into a cartoon character so he can engage in a bone-jarring kungfu fight with an animated version of Tejaswini. It’s absolute delirium, and for the most part the film manages to keep the frantic pace. Only once, during a lengthy flashback detailing the events that lead up to Abhay murdering their mother-in-law, does the film stumble. The flashback is interesting and essential, but far more drawn-out than it needs to be. The highlight of the overlong flashback scene is a prancing, dancing half-naked village idiot who keeps you thinking that the film is going to delve into weird pedophile territory, though it never does. The guy is just a harmless weirdo. Hassan could have chopped this sequence in half and had an even stronger film. As it is, it serves as a bit of interesting back story in a sequence that gets tedious, but at least it recovers for a blowout of a finale.

The special effects range from competent to outstanding, and though the film obviously revels in visual flash, it seems for the most part to be justified by the plot. And even when it’s just indulgence, it’s still pretty fun. The bulk of the effects are up to the standards of Hollywood productions of the time (2001), and they set a new benchmark for the quality of effects work in Indian films in much the same way Star Wars did in the United States and Zu Warriors did in Hong Kong. The animated sequences are also a real treat, though the animated versions of Raveena and Manisha Koirala aren’t nearly as sexy as the real things.

The martial arts choreography isn’t spectacular, but it’s still pretty good, and there are a couple stand-out action sequences, such as a car chase that sees Abhay leaping from vehicle to vehicle and the final showdown between the two brothers, that really make Abhay a stand-out action film as well as a screwed-up acid trip of a movie.


Highlighting the action is the fact that the cast performs quite solidly. Top Tamil star Kamal Hassan is wonderful in his dual role, creating two characters so individualistic and unique that you never once even realize you’re watching the same actor in dual roles. Vijay is stable, caring, but determined to protect his bride from his brother. Abhay is a scenery-chewing madman with a tendency to turn into a cartoon. Hassan is hardly a typical matinee idol. He lacks the rock-hard abs and sculpted male model body that so often passes for “tough guy” in the movies. Anyone who’s been in a scrap knows that most of these preening pretty boys are useless in a pinch. What you want is a guy like Kamal Hassan, boasting the same sort of body Joe Don Baker had in the 1970s. Yeah, sure, he ain’t got a six-pack. There’s a bit of a spare tire around the waist. But you never have any doubt in your mind that this guy could kick your ass while downing half a dozen beers without spilling a drop. He’s not buff, but he’s solid, and you know he’s tough. That he’s an engaging performer only sweetens the deal.

Raveena has little to do other than be occasionally stalked and menaced by Abhay while she looks ravishing, but one of my favorite actresses, Manisha Koirala (Dil Se, Company) has a hilariously grotesque part as a sleazy, sex-crazed, cokehead popstar who tries to bed Abhay before ending up on the bad end of one of his drug-induced hallucinations. She appears in a weird musical number, then shows up for the hotel scene, which she plays out almost entirely in English. I love Manisha. Love her to death, but man, acting in English is not what you might call one of her strong points. I have no idea what she thought she was doing. Bad as it is, though, it’s still pretty entertaining (and not as bad as all the English-language acting in the Hong Kong film Gen-Y Cops). Kitu Gidwani appears in flashbacks as the manipulative mother-in-law, while Anuradha Hasan plays the saintly real mother of Abhay and Vijay, who appears frequently to Abhay as a sort of ghostly Ben Kenobi hallucination.


The music is a non-entity most of the time. There are a couple run-of-the-mill numbers that simply wash over you and are rapidly forgotten. The only musical scenes that matter or are in any way memorable are Abhay’s hallucination about dancing with Sharmilee, and then Sharmilee’s utterly bizarre African-themed stage performance. The background score is…well, I don’t remember a thing about it, honestly. I don’t suspect audiences were coming (or not coming) to Abhay for the music.

Hassan’s script wastes no time, and even at three hours, he keeps the film skipping effortlessly from one crazy moment to the next. Hassan has a reputation as one of Indian cinema’s bolder and more unconventional risk-takers (placing him in the company of men like Ram Gopal Varma), and Abhay was certainly a risky movie. It’s equal parts psychological horror, Hong Kong action film, fantasy effects film, and musical comedy — even Indian audiences accustomed to seeing every genre imaginable crammed into a single film didn’t really know what to make of Abhay’s gloriously madcap combination of ingredients. Although it’s a financial failure, as a piece of mind-blowing phantasmagorical entertainment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film more enthusiastic and strange than Hassan’s big-budget ode to schizophrenic kungfu insanity. It’s a bit bloated, definitely way over-the-top, wildly imaginative, and as a result, an absolute joy to watch — if you get to watch it at all.

Release Year: 2001 | Country: India | Starring: Kamal Hassan, Raveena Tandon, Manisha Koirala, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Milind Gunaji, Kitu Gidwani, Anuradha Hasan | Writer: Kamal Hassan | Director: Suresh Krishna | Cinematographer: Tirru | Alternate Titles: Aalavandhan

For Y’ur Height Only

When it comes to humorous material, For Your Height Only pretty much writes itself. I wrote in the review of Nigahen about what I call the Something Weird Phenomenon — when a movie’s basic description turns out to be far more entertaining sounding than the movie itself. The Filipino action film For Your Height Only can be summed up as, “A three-foot tall midget superspy in a leisure suit uses a boomerang fishing hat, jet pack, and kungfu to tear a bloody path through the criminal underworld.” One would think, with a description that fabulous, that surely For Your Height Only would be another example of the Something Weird Phenomenon. It is a monumental feat, accompanied by angels blowing mightily upon trumpets of gold, that For Your Height Only manages to live up to and perhaps even surpass the expectations instilled in the viewed by so striking a summary.

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Fire and Ice

OK, let’s talk some Dungeons & Dragons before we dig into the film review proper. It’ll help you understand the background which makes it possible for me to so love a film like Fire and Ice as much as I do. It’s also one of those inevitable subjects, and it’s best we get it out of the way now. Geeks and nerds will always bring it up. For us, D&D is sort of like heroin is to skinny rock stars. You go through a period of brief flirtation, end up heavily addicted to the point where it destroys your social life, and you sit around, all high on your drug, saying things that seem deep and philosophical to you but are really just idiotic, like, “Man, what if you put a Portable Hole inside a Bag of Holding?” or, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Gary Gygax was here right now?”

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Disco Dancer

It’s difficult to grapple with actually getting one’s head around a movie of this nature, which seems to have been made under the premise that if you took the combined gaudiness and sparkle of Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu, and that movie where Jeff Goldblum runs the disco and Marv “the Leatherman” Gomez dances in the parking lot, then all that would be missing was, you know, an extra little dash of sparkle and over-the-top camp value. And kungfu fights. Leave it to Bollywood to not only make a tacky, eye-searing, completely delirious disco film, but to feel like they need to jack it up on steroids, complete with the overwrought melodrama and breakneck shifting of genres that one comes to expect from a Bollywood production.

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Yor, the Hunter from the Future

Doing a quick survey of Yahoo, Google, and the external reviews linked to from the Internet Movie Database will turn up a body of reviews almost unanimous in their disdain for this movie. Yor, The Hunter from the Future certainly isn’t an unknown movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person out there, even among aficionados of bad movies, who doesn’t feel that it probably should be an unknown movie. Sometimes it seems like the lone voice in post-apocalyptic wilderness is the guy who writes for www.antoniomargheriti.com, though even the film’s own director has publicly stated that the film is awful. Given that I am apparently one of the two members of the Yor fanclub, it behooves me to write a decent defense and review of this maligned slice of early eighties Italian exploitation.

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Zombie 3

Many people will list Plan Nine from Outer Space as the undisputed king of movies considered so awful they’re wonderful, and I’ll give the devil his due. That’s a damn fine film. But if I were to update things a bit, I wouldn’t hesitate to install Zombie 3 as the new reigning king of bad film. Mere words fail to capture just how truly entertaining this horrid piece of tripe is. For those who don’t know the story, Lucio Fulci raked in the big bucks with his tropical island romp Zombie, and like any decent director taking orders from a greedy producer figured why not cash in on the success and do a sequel. The proposed Zombie 3 was troubled from the get-go.

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Clans of Intrigue

It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.

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Battles without Honor and Humanity

battles-03

If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.

What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.

But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.

Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clich├ęs – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.

It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.

Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927’s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.

The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.

When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.

If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.

When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.

At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.

Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.

Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.

That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.

Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.

Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.

By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.

If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.

If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.

It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.

Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.

Scars of Dracula

And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.

And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.

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Taste the Blood of Dracula

Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.

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