At time of writing (February 2011), the movie arm of Marvel Comics has three big budget summer blockbusters due out this year. Thor, starring Black Swan and Captain Kirk’s dad; Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Agent Smith and Johnny Storm; and X-Men: First Class, starring Mr. Tumnus and January Jones’s tits. Marvel has become quite the movie powerhouse since the first X-Men movie over a decade ago. This is all a far cry from back in the day, when Marvel was giving away the rights to their properties for the price of a deli sandwich, and not even a good deli either. This led to such classic fare as the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series, Albert Pyun’s unique take on Captain America and that Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four that was too awful to be released – of course the same could be said of the big-budget Tim Story version, but that didn’t stop them.
Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.
Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either.
Nostalgia. It’s a dangerous thing, especially when applied to something you haven’t encountered for over 30 years. Take, for example, my favourite TV show as a kid; I lived and breathed The Six Million Dollar Man. I had two different Steve Austin action figures (one with a grippy hand, one without), a rocket ship thing that folded out into a bionic surgery table, some sort of evil robot with a claw and interchangeable face masks*, and even a Jamie Sommers action figure (it was not a doll. Shut up. SHUT UP!). I would spend hours during school playtimes attempting to run in slow motion while making the nininininini…. noise. I’m sure I looked like a complete buffoon, but I didn’t care.
Rest assured that I’m going to attempt a formal review of Hunterwali in the paragraphs below, though I have to admit I’m tempted just to leave you with the blunt summation I gave my wife after watching it, which went as follows: “Amazing. It was like two and a half hours of people yelling at each other and fat ladies dancing, and then, at the end, a dog rode a horse.”
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.