To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
I have a friend who is a huge, HUGE World War II history buff. My Dad is similarly fascinated with that conflict, so between the two of them, I have picked up a certain smattering of interest in the terrible events of 1939-45. Not much, but enough to get highly annoyed at my fellow countrymen who only remember we ever had a war during international sporting matches to reinforce their own xenophobia. Enough to be able to tell the difference between a Spitfire mk I and, um, other types of Spitfire. Enough to know that the snazzy B3-style flying jacket I recently acquired is of the sort worn by B-17 bomber crews, and is somewhat inaccurate because it has two pockets instead of the correct one. Enough to come off as an enormous nerd, in fact, without the swathes of useful, in-depth information that makes being known as an enormous nerd worthwhile. I do though like to think I cut quite a dash in the sort of clothing once worn by the crew of the Memphis Belle. Speaking of which (see what I did there), if you go to the Imperial War Musem Duxford, you’ll see a B-17 named Sally B. This is the last airworthy B-17 in Europe and, in fact, starred in the 1989 movie Memphis Belle as the titular aircraft. Today she still has the rather demure nose art of that famous plane on one side, and her own sexy naked lady (the original Sally B, we assume) on the other.
Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
Indian spy movies from the 60s tend to be delightful despite themselves. The typical Bollywood film’s emphasis on communal values and lack of irony made them ill suited for portraying the kind of smirky hedonism so often displayed in Western examples of the genre. As a result, big budget, mainstream espionage thrillers like Aankhen featured mother loving, teetotaling heroes who stood out against such decadent trappings as almost a kind of rebuke. Meanwhile, in the genre ghetto of India’s B movie industry, attempts were being made at churning out spy films that hued a little closer to the European model. Unfortunately for these films, while the attitude might have been there, the cash wasn’t. Given that, the end products were frequently films that tested the notion of just how sparely represented the basic tropes of the spy genre could be in a film without it falling short of being a spy film at all.
The Devil’s Man is a really quite odd — not to mention staggeringly cheap — little Eurospy film from director Paolo Bianchini, the man who spoiled Superargo for everyone with his limp sequel to Superargo vs. Diabolicus, Superargo and the Faceless Giants. It’s one of those Italian genre films in which the actors walk through it as if in a dream, reacting to situations in ways that no human being ever would simply because that is either what the script required of them or because they were given no direction as to what a more sensible course of action might be (ad libbing was obviously outside the pay scale). Remember that scene in Nightmare City where the woman quite improbably stands stock still and screams while a zombie pokes her eye out with a stick just because that was what was required in order to pull off the cheap prosthetic effect? Well, I was going to say that that is representative of the degree of logic informing The Devil’s Man, but, on second thought, that at least makes sense on some level.
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date. Circadian Rhythm, in case you haven’t heard about it, is…well, almost a total mystery. It’s not surprising if you’ve never heard of it. Despite starring a number of people who went on to healthy careers in television, and despite the fact that the internet will write in depth about almost anything no matter how terrible and low budget, Circadian Rhythm is either almost totally ignored by the types of people who would usually review a movie like Circadian Rhythm, or there are reviews but they’re buried under thousands of search returns for actual medical and biological articles about circadian rhythms, those biological clocks that keep the bulk of society waking up and going to bed at roughly the same time.
If Neon City is an example of American-made post-apocalyptic science fiction that strives for a more realistic, bleaker tone than is usually seen in Road Warrior rip-offs, then Cherry 2000 is a very interesting companion piece that comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It envisions a future not terribly different from the one in Neon City — in which some manner of apocalyptic disaster has left large swathes of the United States lawless and scoured, while pockets of urban civilization seem to chug along despite the blight surrounding them — but where Neon City is an exercise in bleakness and some cursory attempt at realism, Cherry 2000 gleefully embraces all the excess, quirks, and questionable art and design decisions that embodied the 1980s, resulting in a film that comes across sort of like a post-apocalypse film as imagined by Patrick Nagel.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, I think everyone had given up on Rutger Hauer becoming some awesome super cool megastar, and “everyone” included Rutger Hauer himself. On the one hand, that’s too bad, because there for a while, he was a genuinely cool dude, good looking and charming but with something cruel and disturbing about him. There was no wonder a lot of the spooky ladies (and a fair number of lads) with whom I hung out with back in the day were loopy for Rutger. I’m pretty sure we had plans, at some point, to make a movie featuring Roy Batty in his little leather booty shorts from Blade Runner teaming up with Sting’s Feyd Rautha in his little metal thong thingie to… I don’t know glisten as they traveled from town to town, solving people’s problems.
The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.