One of the great joys of watching movies from countries and cultures with which I have maybe, at best, a passing familiarity is discovering their language of film — both in their mainstream as well as their fringes. There is a thrill in discovering how differently one country, one region, one filmmaker can interpret how to employ this medium we love so dearly. How something familiar — a movie — can become something enigmatic, how the concept of what constitutes a narrative and for what purpose it should be employed varies so greatly. They draw on local customs and theatrical styles, local folklore and legends, and of course local tastes. How to frame a shot, how to deliver a line, how to interact with the camera, how to make a set or film on location, what constitutes a cinematic narrative — it’s amazing how many different ways these things can be done.
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.
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.
There are those among us who, in a moment of moral weakness, find themselves unwilling or unable to turn away from a grisly situation. As to the psychological motivations behind this tendency, they are legion and vary from person to person. Perhaps it is a desire to affirm that someone is worse off than you, that even though your rent is overdue and your daughter is hopped up on the goofballs, at least you’re not a corpse being yanked out of some twisted, smoldering wreckage along the interstate. Perhaps, instead, it is little more than a reflex reaction symptomatic of the seemingly insatiable human hunger for spectacle, however grim it may be. And finally, it may be that some of us look out of guilt — that we are torn between not making a gawking spectacle of suffering and ignoring suffering. Whatever the case may be, the urge is there, commonplace, and hardly solely the purview of the misanthropic. It manifests itself in a variety of forms, everything from slowing down to stare at a traffic accident to greedily devouring the sensationalist news about the sordid downfall of a celebrity. Or, in my own peculiar case, it manifests itself in a complete inability to not watch Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf every single time I run across it on television.
The two Michaels. Way cooler and more obscure than making obvious, played out jokes about the two Coreys. Michael Beck and Michael Pare — these two guys were both pegged at the beginning of their respective careers as the next big thing. Both sported a brooding, introspective air of mystery and toughness much like James Dean. Both were good looking, but not too good looking. And they were both pretty good actors when they inhabited a certain type of character. Beck swaggered into national consciousness in 1978, clad in a leather vest and bopping his way through one gang after another as he tried to lead his Warriors back to their home turf at Coney Island. A few years later, in 1984, Michael Pare burst onto the scene in similar fashion as the mysterious 50s rocker Eddie, who may or may not have faked his own death to escape the harsh lights of fame.
Back over at The Cultural Gutter for a Frolic Afield. Where is All You Angels? stared out as a jokey celebration of my favorite music video, Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys.” Things quickly spun out of control into an exploration of William S. Burroughs, LGBT rights, the mundanity of queer cinema, dayglo jockstraps, north Florida summers, and what a counter-culture loses when it wins its biggest battle. Also, we try to decipher just what the hell anyone was thinking when they made Arena.
Hell has always been popular cinematic fodder. Italian strongman Maciste has conquered it (twice, at least), Claude Rains has managed it, and Nollywood has done its best to make a basement look like it (see Die Danger Die Die Kill’s review of 666: Beware! The End is At Hand). Still, when it comes to off-the-wall interpretations of the subject the countries of Asia have something of a monopoly. That all seems to have begun with the inimitable Nobuo Nakagawa (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan — reviewed on Teleport City here, and WtF-Film here), who persevered against a studio in a death spiral to produce Jigoku, an avant garde guignol masterpiece and perhaps the quintessential “hell” movie. Twenty years later acclaimed Nikkatsu roman porno director Tatsumi Kumashiro paid his respects to that film with The Inferno, a lavish Toei epic that matched Kumashiro’s own experimental flair with gobs of big studio production value.
At this point, I don’t think there is much cause to recount the ninja craze that swept the world in the 1980s (you can piece together the story from our reviews of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja). From Hong Kong to Japan, Bollywood to the United States and of course Turkey, these black-clad shadow warriors fanned out and did that really rapid baby-step ninja run into our hearts. Although the ninja originated in Japan, and Hong Kong produced more ninja films, for my money the United States was still ground zero for eighties ninjamania (many Hong Kong ninja movies were made purely to export to the United States, as often as possible, with as many different titles for the same movie as distributors could dream up). But while the US was inarguably the capital of ninja fanaticism in the western hemisphere, we were not entirely alone. In the snowy northern land known as Sweden, a man named Mats-Helge Olsson was building a sizable filmography of hyper-violent, mostly terrible action films that shocked and disappointed his countrymen. That Mats Helge would make a ninja film was inevitable. That he made two is unfortunate.
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. It was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels before the rose-tinting set in after his death), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis writing down. So on and so forth. Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name — Robert Markham — never came to fruition.
Here’s a good example of why you need to take care in how you make snap judgments about things (as in, judgments made quickly and potentially without all the facts, not judgments where it’s judged to be appropriate to wag your head and yell, “Oh snap”). Before sitting down to watch it for this review, I’d never seen Crusher Joe. Not only had I never seen it, it never even occurred to me that I might want to see it. I’d heard of it, seen it around, but I never bothered with it. And I handled it in this matter for one reason and one reason only: the title sounded kind of lame. I mean, Crusher Joe? Wasn’t he in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out? Wasn’t he one of the ham ‘n’ eggers the old WWF would trot out for their Saturday Night Main Event when they wanted someone for a superstar to beat? I think Crusher Joe used to tag team with Leapin’ Lanny Poffo.