Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).
Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.
Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.
Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.
House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.
Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.
House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.
On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.
What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?
While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.
As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.
I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.
The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.
I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.
Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”
The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.
The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.
Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.
Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.
Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.
Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.
Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.
House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.
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
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty hard on the whole concept of CGI in movies. Part of this, as I’m sure you can surmise, is the old crank in me who still thinks special effects should be executed with miniatures, and stunts should actually be executed by living stunt people. But more than it simply being a reactionary current running through my brain, my distaste for CGI stems simply from the fact that it is so colossally overused. Movies like that Van Helsing thing or those wretched Star Wars prequels or the new Die Hard movies stick it in anywhere and everywhere, making their films so artificial while striving for some sort of sweeping realism that the end product completely loses the ability to astound or engage on even the most basic of levels. In effect, the movies mimic the experience of watching someone else play a video game. Plus, a lot of the effects just look crummy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened in some ways to certain uses of CGI. Used properly, it’s quite a potent brush in an artist’s arsenal, especially if it’s employed to detail or augment rather than dominate a scene. Alternately, some film makers have gone the opposite route and rather than making films that fail to be realistic because they employ too much CGI, they disregard any pretensions toward realism by using computer generated sets, characters, and effects to create a completely alien world in which special effects don’t have to worry about mimicking real life. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is one of the first films to employ this style of film making, and since the aim is to create a world that is pure fantasy, even if it’s based on something recognizable as some concept of the real world (or in the case of Sky Captain a well-documented future that never came to be because we were too anxious to walk around with our gigantic t-shirts and pants down around our knees), I don’t really have any problem with the CGI.
Vying for the right to claim the title of “first CGI-staged adventure” is the French production Immortel, based on a comic book by Yugoslav-born graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Bilal, who moved to Paris when he was a lad, became a mainstay in the world of French science fiction comic books during the fecund decade of the 1970s, when artists like Moebius and many others were creating something of a renaissance around science fiction and comic books. Bilal’s first substantial work as a comic artist was Legendes d’Aujourd’hui written by Pierre Christin, a trilogy that was published between 1975 and 1977. He worked steadly as an artist and in 1980 began publishing his next notable trilogy, The Nikopol Trilogy, which he both wrote and drew. As I am an illiterate, the original graphic novels are a complete and utter mystery to me (they’re on the list to read, but so are so many other things), and so I’m left to judge this computer-generated science-fiction adventure purely on it’s own merits, and let me just say that despite some truly gorgeous art design (which is becoming a staple of CGI adventures and thus, less of an excuse for glossing over other short-comings), the merits of Immortel are few and far between.
Like Sky Captain, which for the record I loved, Immortel places a cast of live actors in a CGI world, in this case the New York City of the future where city planners and automobile manufacturers seem to have been heavily influenced by the Moebius designs used in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. As is often the case with comic book adaptations, we’re given almost no background as to how the world has become the way it is or why anything that is about to happen is going to happen. As viewers can discern from holographic graffiti that shows up from time to time, there’s apparently some sort of revolution against the growing ubiquity of genetic engineering, but this conflict seems woefully underrepresented in the movie if it is meant to be some sort of motivating factor for any of the action. Instead, we seem dropped into the middle of the story and expected to either already be familiar with everything because we read the comic, or we’re expected simply not to care because hey, pretty pictures. If it’s the former, then all I can say is why bother making a movie, especially one as expensive as this one apparently was, if no one is going to care about it except people who are already fans of the graphic novels? If your defense of the film’s atrocious writing is that you have to read the comic first, then the screenplay has failed. You should be able to construct a story that covers the basics.
We learn that for one reason or another a giant floating pyramid has appeared over Central Park, and everyone wonders what it could be. Inside, three very poorly rendered CGI Egyptian gods lounge about until one of them, Horus, departs for the mortal realm for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — though they seem to mostly involve him trying to get laid. I guess that’s as noble a motivation as any. Meanwhile, a blue-haired amnesiac named Jill (Linda Hardy) who we keep getting told isn’t human arrives in the city and is cared for by research scientist Dr. Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling). Exactly who Jill is — or who Dr. Turner is — seems not to be important enough for the film to care very much about developing. All we know is Jill can’t remember something and a guy who dresses like Darkman shows up from time to time to utter those inane cryptic statements that are supposed to pass for wise and knowledgeable. Eventually, some guy named Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) falls out of a passing cryogenic prison barge and is revived by Horus so that Horus can use Nikopol’s body to go searching for a little sexy action.
And meanwhile still, some terrible-looking computer generated cop is investigating a series of serial murders, but I can’t remember exactly what the hell was going on with those. I think they were supposed to be people with whom Horus tried unsuccessfully to merge, resulting in their heads exploding. Horus/Nikopol eventually stumbles across Jill and decides she’s the one, which leads to a series of fairly casual rape scenes that aren’t played with nearly the gravity they should. As is often the case in movies, the woman who is raped ends up falling in love with the rapist, in this case Nikopol, who at least manages to convince her that it’s not entirely his fault since he has the lustful spirit of an Egyptian space god in his head. She falls for him despite the fact that he shows absolutely no personality whatsoever, and never once does anything interesting other than look good with his shirt off. Eventually, a hammerhead shark hitman tries to kill Nikopol, and everything ends with a big flying car chase and journey into some “cross-over point.”
The film is, to be kind, a disaster, albeit a somewhat attractive and interesting one. Sky Captain proved that you needn’t jettison a coherent story to have a beautiful movie, and it also proved that even one-dimensional characters can be fun. The characters in Immortel don’t even have one dimension. There is absolutely no depth to any of them, and we’re never given any reason to care about them or understand their motivations. They simply progress through the mess of a narrative because that’s what they have to do in order to get to the end of the movie. Who the hell is this John guy with the bandaged face? Who is Jill? What’s the deal with Horus? Don’t bother wondering, because the film never gets around to even providing a hint about any of the characters. About the biggest amount of development comes after Horus has raped Jill a couple times and, upon deciding it’s about time for him to hit the ol’ dusty trail, says something to the effect of, “Yeah, that was kind of dickish of me, wasn’t it? Oh well!” And then we’re supposed to maybe even like the man-god after that.
The best thing I can say about any of the characters is that Linda Hardy, who plays Jill, is beautiful. Not the best actress, but this probably isn’t the sort of movie by which to gauge her talent. Even experienced actors have a hard time performing in green screen CGI movies, and Hardy wasn’t a very experienced actor. But man is she gorgeous. I admit though that I have a thing for chalky white women with blue hair and lips. Admittedly, a fetish that does not find much of an outlet in the real world. I already had a thing for that gal on Farscape, a show that actually gave me two blue women. I guess that guy who plays Nikopol is all right too, but man alive is his character ever a drip. He’s the most boring and uninspiring revolutionary leader I’ve seen in many a film. He’s adept at reclining in bed and in bathtubs, which is probably what he should stick to.
One hot chick and one hot but boring guy can’t save a film this sloppy. With a hopelessly muddled and half-baked story (adapted and directed by Bilal himself, who should probably stick to writing comic books if this is an example of his skill as a script writer and film director), one can at least hope for some eye candy, and I mean besides Jill’s breast-revealing mesh top. The art design, as I alluded to earlier, draws heavily from The Fifth Element, which in turn drew heavily from Blade Runner and, given that Fifth Element director Luc Besson is French, probably just as heavily from the original Nikopol comic books. Immortel takes the same basic look and feel as the Luc Besson film but drains it of most of the color in favor of an icy blue palette. The backgrounds, vehicles, and Blade Runner wannabe costumes are all pretty good, but there are also a lot of CGI characters in this film, and they represent a major stumbling block in the overall visual impact. CGI work was apparently farmed out to a bunch of different studios, and the result is an uneven mishmash of skill levels that range from wonderful (sets), to average (the CGI detective, shark headed hitman, and a bartender) to downright embarrassing (a fat mayor and his assistant, plus Horus and the other Egyptian gods, who look like something out of an unpopular Playstation game circa 1996). Unfortunately, the worse the realization of the CGI character, the more time they seem to spend onscreen.
It probably goes without saying, but the conversion of French comic book dialogue into English language movie dialogue makes for some ripe lines, my favorite being Nikopol’s limply delivered hissy fit toward Horus. The closest thing I can think of to describe the dialogue is in some of those late 1990s Hong Kong films where they were fond of performing a lot of lines in English, but without a script written by someone with a native grasp of the language. As a result, everything sound stilted, much sounds laughable, and some things are just downright puzzling. In other words, it sounds just like that weird, awkward dialogue characters mutter to one another in video games, and is delivered with much the same listless lack of enthusiasm.
So what, if anything does this movie have going for it? Well, in its own deeply flawed way, it’s a fascinating failure. There’s certainly a lot at which to gaze, not the least of which would be the character of Jill herself. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching movie where just about nothing works. The dialogue is awful, characters are all but non-existent, and attempts at philosophy and meaning come out sounding even more half-baked than that new age hokum they spewed out in the second Matrix movie before everyone prepared for the life-or-death war by raving all night long. Immortel proves that a much-revered graphic artist doesn’t necessarily make a good filmmaker. I really don’t know what fan reaction to the film was, though I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they must have seen what a mess it was along with the rest of us. I gather that not much from the original graphic novels made it into the “story” of this film, but since the graphic novelist himself is the creator of the movie, there’s no one to blame but papa. He showcases a keen eye for design and some truly gorgeous shot composition, but it takes more than that to make a movie.
And yet, as you’ve probably guessed, I still lean toward saying you should check it out. I’m always fascinated by ambitious films that fail utterly to achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves. And what better place for poorly realized grandiosity wrapped in pompous claptrap and aspirations of greatness than a big, expensive sci-fi CGI film based on a supposedly important comic book by a French guy? But you know what? They gave it a go, and the train wreck they produced is an interesting train wreck to explore. It’s frustrating that a potentially great movie is buried somewhere amid this mess, but you can at least spend some enjoyable time sifting through the pieces. And heck, if nothing else, you can treat the whole movie as some really boss van art, or just sit and stare at Linda Hardy.
Release Year: 2004 | Country: France | Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling, Yann Collette, Frederic Pierrot, Thomas M. Pollard, Joe Sheridan, Corinne Jaber, Olivier Achard, Jerry Di Giacomo | Screenplay: Enki Bilal, Serge Lehman | Director: Enki Bilal | Music: Goran Vejvoda | Cinematography: Pascal Gennesseaux | Producer: Charles Gassot
Stanley Tong sucks. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement on this Hong Kong director, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life, and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but first and foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars uninteresting and dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah together in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over.
China Strike Force was supposed to be his big comeback film, his grand return to Hong Kong, and at least financially he was successful. The movie made a lot of cash at a time when Hong Kong films were still recovering from an industry collapse that sent everyone reeling for over a decade. China Strike Force had a lot going for it. First, there was Aaron Kwok. For years, Kwok was plagued by his pretty-boy teen idol image and questionable choice of unbuttoned shirts covered in metallic blue feathers. It held him back and kept him from ever being taken seriously as a legitimate action star. Then he got a few years older, the wrinkles started to show here and there, and while he may still be a handsome lad, he started to get the age and character that would enable him to finally break through. A few more pounds and a few more scars and he’d be set to join the Hong Kong action set without looking out of place among the traditionally grizzled veterans. For whatever reason though — probably his unwillingness to give up tight sequined shirts and boas and such — he never really clicked, or he hit at a time when the action star was a thing of the past.
And then this film has Norika Fujiwara. You’d have to try real hard to find more of a knock-out than this woman. She was a model and a television actress in Japan before getting her big break in this film, and in getting her break, we’ve all received a break as well because she’s gorgeous and not nearly as untalented as most other models-turned-actress. Throw in direct-to-video American action king Mark Dacascos, and you have one of the best-looking casts around. I’ve always thought Dacascos deserved to be a bigger star than he was. Why is a guy who moves this well, who can act at least halfway decent, and who is a striking guy to boot, going direct to video? It’s unlikely at this point he’ll ever catch his break. Instead he’ll be doomed to a life not unlike Don “The Dragon” Wilson, which is at least a good doom. I wish I could be doomed to be pretty damn rich after making an endless string of low-budget action films.
China Strike Force itself has a pretty typical plot. Dacascos plays your run-of-the-mill young gangster guy who is intent on taking over the business, does not care for the tradition of honor, etc etc etc. These guys have been in about every gangster movie ever made in any country, but some old fart always trusts them, only to get shot in the back when the time is right. Aaron Kwok plays Darren, a hotshot cop who is always annoying his superiors. He has a partner who barely does enough memorable stuff to result in anyone remembering his name. He’s only there to die, as in one of the most contrived scenes even for an action film, the movie takes a break from all sorts of shooting and jumping about to feature a scene where Darren and his partner go out for dinner, and Darren asks his partner “So your wedding is soon?” They might as well flash up a big red “This guy is going to die!!!” subtitle. Everyone should know by now that in a cop film, the cop who is retiring, getting married, about to have a baby, or just bought a boat is always going to get wasted. It’s a time-honored tradition. Handled properly, it can be kind of funny. Handled without any finesse whatsoever, as it is here, it’s just plain annoying. As if that wasn’t predictable enough, he’s also marrying the chief’s daughter.
While the cops pal around, we learn that Dacascos plans to increase his underworld power by selling drugs. As is par for the course in this type of movie, the aging gangster who took Dacascos under his wing hates drugs and vows that his organization will never be a party to the selling of such foul goods, since we all know the triad dudes of the 60s and 70s were basically saints. Extortion, murder, prostitution, slavery, gun smuggling — these are all noble ventures, but drug peddling is right out. This news irks Dacascos’ partner in America, played by hip hop star Coolio, who is apparently not a fan of Weird Al Yankovich. Coolio plays your very stereotypical jive-talkin’, cigar-smokin’ hustler who’s only task in this movie is to say “Holy shit!” and “Cuz” or however you spell the slang for “cousin.” He’s pretty good at doing that, and luckily nothing else is demanded of him. To no one’s surprise but the old guy, Dacascos plots with Coolio, who’s character is actually named Coolio, to off the old man and take the business over.
Also thrown into the mix is Norika, who is an undercover Interpol agent trying to get info on the old man’s operation. Of course, no one knows she works for Interpol, as that is the general idea behind being undercover, but even someone who is still surprised by the plot twists in a Girls Gone Wild video can tell from her first scene that she’s an undercover cop. One thing I like about a film like China Strike Force is that I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for anyone. It’s all so plodding and obvious that it’s impossible to ruin any surprises. An underworld assassination at a big fashion show gives the film an excuse for two important things: a lot of sexy women parading about in skimpy panties, and the film’s first action sequence, in which Aaron Kwok chases the assassin through the streets of Hong Kong using a variety of vehicles. At one point, Stanley Tong even has the gall to completely rip off his own “moving motorcycle” stunt from Supercop, though he manages to screw it up more this time around by using a lot of wires to make the whole think look goofy instead of cool.
The first action scene sets the stage for what you can expect from the rest of the movie: something just isn’t right about it. Sure, there is a lot going on, but it just doesn’t click. The wires are employed so they can go “over the top,” but it winds up looking silly. In a fantasy film I don’t mind wires and flying. In a reality-based action film, I think they look out of place but can still be used with great effect. In this, however, they are used very clumsily, and they detract greatly from the potential impact of what could have been cool fights and action sequences. Actually, now that I rewatch it, the first action sequence is the best one in the movie. It almost, but not quite, achieves a flow and if nothing else is kind of cool because the assassin guy gets run over, hit by cars, punched, kicked, thrown off moving trucks, and even jumps off a giant bridge — yet he still shows up later in the movie only to get killed in the most boring, mundane way. Way to give us a potentially cool character then treat him like an afterthought. Thanks, Stanley.
But far more than wires and missed character opportunities is the glaring problem that has plagued Stanley Tong’s films since he first stepped behind the camera. He has no sense of pacing or rhythm. Tong started his career as a stuntman, and while we all know he can dream up and even perform some cool stunts, being able to properly film them is something else entirely. Tong’s action sequences never find a groove. They always feel disjointed and, as a result, awkward and sloppy. Part of the problem here is that he’s trying to make a kungfu action film with a cast that doesn’t have much kungfu skill, but even that can’t wash away Tong’s own lack of directorial skill since he brought the same plodding sense of confusion to action scenes involving Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, both proven commodities. What it boils down to, then, is that Stanley Tong just isn’t a very good director. Or rather, he’s an astoundingly mediocre director who makes astoundingly mediocre movies.
Anyway, lots of action film cliches follow. Rather than pay the assassin, who seems damn near indestructible and would seem to be a worthwhile investment, Coolio just kills the guy. Mark Dacascos does indeed kill the old guy and start selling drugs. Aaron Kwok’s partner does indeed die tragically. Aaron falls for Norika and, in an attempt to give us more T&A, has a pointless, out-of-place daydream about massaging her thigh. I’m all for T&A, male and female, but come on. Put a little effort into working it into the film. I mean, they had the T&A scene where Norika infiltrates Dacascos’ and Coolio’s gang by showing up in a tiny string bikini then stripping down to nothing to prove she isn’t wearing any wires or anything. That was an okay excuse for some T&A.
Eventually, Aaron and Norika close in on Coolio and Dacascos so they can have the big action blow-out. Just as Stanley Tong can’t direct an action scene, so too does he always blow the finale of his films. Supercop has both Yuen Wah and Ken Lo for Jackie and/or Michelle to fight, so they knock off both those guys in about one second in very offhand manners, and leave Jackie to face… an old guy. Police Story IV gives us an underwater fight scene — funny but fairly disappointing — before having Jackie slip around with a fake shark. Then of course Rumble in the Bronx completely forgot to even have a finale, so we just get Jackie Chan driving a hovercraft to a final showdown with… another old guy. This is worse than when the big final scene in Game of Death ended up being Bruce Lee versus… Gig Young. At least Gig Young was middle aged.
This time around, Tong tries to deliver an action-packed finale, but once again his own lack of skill as a director trips him and everyone else up. Mark Dacascos is a genuine martial arts bad-ass, or at least he can pull it off wonderfully on screen. So God forbid we include him in the final fight scene. No, let’s kill him off in the usual goofy, offhand manner. Let’s crush him with a purple pimp car dangling from a helicopter. Then let’s have a huge kungfu fight between the three people with the least amount of kungfu skill. Aaron Kwok versus Mark Dacascos could have been pulled off, and with a different director it might have even looked good. Coolio versus Aaron Kwok is about the stupidest damn fight scene I’ve seen in a long time, and that includes the fight scene in The Matrix where that woman jumps up in the air and strikes the most absurd looking “pouncing chicken” stance I’ve ever seen while she hovers and the camera pans around her.
Since Coolio and Norika are no martial artists, and Aaron Kwok is a passable on-screen kungfu star at best, that means we have to have a big gimmick to make up for the lack of interesting fight choreography. Tong’s answer? Have the whole fight scene take place on a teetering pane of glass dangling from a crane hundreds of feet up in the air. It might sound exciting at first, but think about it, and let me use this pro wrestling analogy. Many years ago, WCW had a pay-per-view match between the dull Dustin Rhodes and the even duller Blacktop Bully. The gimmick of the match was that the whole thing was going to take place on the trailer of a moving truck. It might have sounded cool at first, but the end result was two guys moving very, very slowly while trying to keep their balance as the truck poked along various lonely highways at speeds in excess of ten miles an hour.
This finale is that wrestling match. Norika, Coolio, and Aaron all scoot about very gingerly while trying not to fall off the glass. From time to time, one person or another will dangle off the edge or try to kick someone. And then Coolio finally falls, but only after one false change of heart. You know, where the villain is about to die, begs the hero to save him, and once being saved immediately reverts back to his dastardly ways. Heroes always fall for that shit. I mean, before you flew around with the purple pimpmobile dangling from a helicopter, he was selling crack to nine-year-old kids. Now all of a sudden he’s maybe not that bad a guy? They only do this so the hero can kill the villain without looking like a murderer. How many action movies end with the hero refusing to kill the villain, only to have the villain suddenly produce some weapon, thus justifying the hero turning around and offing the guy? It’s a weak cop-out. People want their bloodlust satisfied, but you also can’t just have a hero who hauls off and shoots people after beating their ass. In the end, Coolio falls off the glass and Norika and Aaron fall in love for no real reason. They were only together about two days, and most of that time was spent being hoisted around on wires and pretending Coolio knew kungfu.
The big problem with China Strike Force is how average it is. It’s impossible to completely blast it and say it’s awful, because it’s not. At the same time, it sure as hell ain’t a good movie. It’s just… bland. Poorly directed. Awkwardly paced. Horribly choreographed. Completely cliche. In the hands of a good director this could have been a good movie. In the hands of someone as incompetent as Stanley Tong, the movie never manages to rise above a mundane level. It takes a talented director to elevate poorly written action film nonsense into something memorable, and Tong does not have the tools for the task. As such, China Strike Force remains an unsatisfying, though not completely unentertaining, failure.
Given the uninspired direction, the film’s sundry flaws become impossible to ignore. The English language dialogue, of which there is quite a lot, is ludicrous. Who wrote this crap? I mean, it’s English. I recognize the words, but it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like English that was spit out of one of those online translation things that can get the vocabulary but fails utterly to comprehend nuances and grammatical rules. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue was recorded at a level barely audible to dogs and mice, let alone humans. Whenever a hip hop song plays — and they play often — suddenly it’s like you have the volume on eleven, but when they go back to speaking, everything is silent again. Thus watching this movie is a constant battle with the volume control. And speaking of English, what the hell is up with Mark Dacascos’ character? How are you going to become the lord of a vast Chinese criminal underworld if you don’t speak a lick of Chinese? Even people of Chinese ancestry I know who grew up in America know at least a few words in their grandparents’ tongue, but this guy doesn’t know a single phrase. Surely the Chinese triads would not be overly accommodating of a new boss who murders other bosses, can’t speak any Chinese, and brings Coolio to all the parties.
The film’s other big short-coming is, of course, the pacing. Stanley Tong can do no right when it comes to figuring out how to pace and stage an action sequence. He cuts when he should stay still, he shoots in close all the time so we can’t see anything. He never finds a rhythm or a flow for the action. He loves to go over the top, but only in ways that are ludicrous rather than breathtaking. The many action scenes in this film range from pedestrian to lumbering. You spend the whole scene waiting for something to be done well, then all of a sudden it’s over, leaving you with an empty feeling and no sense of satisfaction. And then sometimes it’s all too ludicrous, even for a Hong Kong action film. When Dacascos and Coolio are down at the docks watching the boys unpack a Ferrari or one of them other fancy sports cars, Aaron shows up and spoils the fun, leading to a completely unbelievable scene where Dacascos takes off in the sportscar and Aaron luckily happens upon a passing truck full of forumla one race cars which, despite the highly explosive nature, apparently ship fully gassed and ready to go. Of course, this all happens after the part in that first fight/chase scene where he rides a motorcycle up the flat vertical surface of a delivery truck’s rear door. I think he repeats that nifty trick at the end of the movie as well.
The finale, which is by and large a ripoff of the helicopter finale from Tong’s earlier Supercop, is hardly the pay-off I was hoping for. It’s not cool or original. It’s just, well, stupid. From the whole “car dangling from the helicopter” bit, to Mark Dacascos being killed without ever facing off against the heroes, to the completely disjointed and uninteresting “fight” between Norika, Aaron, and Coolio, Tong certainly tries a lot of stuff, but none of it works. To add insult to injury, Tong’s reliance on the most obvious and awkward of wire stunts makes it impossible to enjoy even on a visceral level. On the plus side, however, Norika looks great in her leather fightin’ outfit.
The acting is passable, but the roles aren’t very demanding. Aaron Kwok was coming along, but as of this film he was not quite there physically or in his acting skill. Norika is basically there to look good and kick some ass, and she is OK at both. When she has to act, it’s only the shallowest of deals. Even a paperdoll could pull it off, so no complaints. Dacascos is alright, but if he’s going to be a Chinese gangster, even one from America, he should have learned to fake his way through some Cantonese. Coolio is playing a stereotype, and you have to be really untalented not to pull that off. Everyone else is pretty forgettable. Aaron’s partner is so bland that when he dies, you hardly notice. His fiance is every bit his match in blandness, so that even though she loses her future husband and her father (not the same man), it really doesn’t matter all that much. The movie punctuates this by completely blowing her off at the end in exchange for a kissing scene between Norika and Aaron, which of course comes out of nowhere.
The only thing memorable about this film is how good it might have been if someone else had directed. As has always been the case, Stanley Tong was given all the pieces for a great film and just couldn’t make them fit together. I should have come away beaming and saying “That was great!!!” Instead, I walked away slowly thinking, “Well, that was average… I guess.” Awkward drama, awkward comedy, and awkward action sequences are tenuously strung together in what proves to be a very average film. Sure, it’s better than watching a Mario Van Peebles film, but around the same time as this movie was made, guys like Johnny To were raising the bar and giving us enjoyable, well-made action films and making Stanley Tong’s lack of skill even more glaring. He has no style, and he has no substance. In the end, China Strike Force, like most of his movies, is a bland and somewhat tedious exercise in paint-by-numbers film-making on the level of some of your more uninteresting direct-to-video action films. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again.
Release Year: 2000 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Aaron Kwok, Norika Fujiwara, Lee-Hom Wang, Ruby Lin, Coolio, Mark Dacascos, Ken Lo, Paul Chun, Siu-Ming Lau, Jennifer Lin, Benny Lai, Li Hsueh Tung | Screenplay: Stanley Tong, Steven Whitney | Director: Stanley Tong | Cinematography: Jeffrey C. Mygatt | Music: Nathan Wang | Producer: Andre Morgan, Stanley Tong, Barbie Tung | Original Title: Leui ting jin ging
I love fairy tales. Not the happily-ever-after stuff that makes you feel good about yourself. No, I’m talking the black stuff. dark and twisted, meant more to terrify children into sleepless nights than to lull them into a soothing night’s slumber. Tales where the kids don’t outsmart the witch, where they do end up in the oven, and no one lives happily ever after. Given our increasingly crass and cynical society, I would seem, at first, that this sort of twisted tale would be popular, but as they often require some degree of imagination and appreciation of both the subtle and the fantastic, most people would simply rather watch shit blow up. When someone does attempt to carry that sense of the macabre over into a modern day fairy tale, it can happen with mixed results. At their best, they come out looking like Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb or City of Lost Children. More often than not, however, they just come out looking Troll.
Despite being a world away, Japanese horror draws on very similar, almost universal, elements of horror to lay on the scare. In a similar vein, there are creepy fairy tale elements that exist above and beyond culture and geography and become part of globally understood and shared heritage. While in college, I was reading a book simply called Japanese Tales, that was a collection of bizarre Japanese fairy tales, and it struck me that, despite the fact that many of these existed as oral legends at a time long before Japan was in regular contact with the nations of the West, the stories were very similar in tone. Everyone understands a witch luring innocent youths into the woods, or monsters who take the form of humans.
My favorite was about a woman who struggled much of her life with a tape worm. She managed to survive the parasite and eventually give birth to a young son who grew up to become a tremendously powerful general and leader of men. Great were his deeds, and he soon ruled the land. A neighboring warlord invited the great warrior to his court one day for a celebration of their new alliance. At the feast, the neighboring warlord offered up bushels of walnuts (or was it chestnuts?) for all to eat — it was, after all, the commerce crop that kept his province prosperous. The great warrior, however, refused to eat the walnuts. When the host warlord grew angry and felt insulted, the great warrior threw off his helmet and exclaimed “I can’t digest nuts! I’m my mother’s tapeworm!” He then promptly turned into a tapeworm and slithered off. The best part of the whole weird story, however, was the final line, which went something like “Back in his homeland, his family was devastated and his province plunged into chaos. Everyone else agreed it had all been a good laugh.”
I bring this up because I feel the Japanese surrealist horror film Uzumaki draws heavily upon the tradition of the creepy fairy tale. There is something fantastic and mesmerizing about it all, and something unsettling and distressing lurking just under the surface. I forgot where I read it, perhaps in an interview with Clive Barker, but someone said that the most effective way of creating a sense of dread is to take something familiar and slowly transform it into something alien and threatening. The best example I can think of is the closet monster. How many times have you opened your closet to get something out? Your shoes, perhaps, or an elf you’ve been holding prisoner? If you have a closet, chances are you open it at least once a day, maybe more. It’s a familiar place. But let it get dark out, let it be pitch black and three in the morning when you wearily gaze over from the comfort of your bed and realize the closet door is open.
Suddenly it’s not so familiar. It’s a gaping black maw, noticeably dark even in the dead of night. Suddenly what was once familiar to you begins to take on a sense of dread. What if something comes out of there? A monster, or a killer, or that damn elf? And what’s that shadow? I think it’s just my shirt thrown over the vacuum cleaner, but it sure looks like an ax wielding homicidal maniac. I once spent an entire night scared witless as a youth, covers tight around my neck as I stared in horror at what was most definitely the shadow of Weird Harold from Fat Albert come to kill me. Okay, so maybe not everyone gets freaked out in the middle of the night by shadows that bear a vague resemblance to Weird Harold, but you get my meaning. Nothing makes a person panic quite like suddenly finding yourself in a strange situation when you thought you had everything under control.
Uzumaki is set in a sleepy working class town somewhere in the Japanese countryside. There’s nothing particularly weird about the place. Hell, even though it’s in Japan it’s not that much different than a small blue-collar town in America. It’s downright idyllic, right up until the opening narration that tells us of the unspeakable nightmares the town contains. Director Higuchinsky has nothing on his resume before this film, but he proves right out of the gate that he is a master of subversion, taking a beautiful small town and immediately making you anxious about it. We then meet cute high school student Kirie, our narrator. She’s a pretty average schoolgirl — a few friends, a few enemies, a nerdy goofball who keeps trying to make her fall in love with him by employing such tactics as jumping out and trying to scare her at every possible opportunity. Her dad is an accomplished pottery artisan, and her boyfriend is a moody teen who will one day join an emo band. The two of them are hassled by a Barney Fife-esque local cop who has nothing better to do than bluster at teens who ride two to a single bike.
En route to meet her beau, Shuichi, she spots his father crouching in an alley. Attempts to get his attention fail, as he is intently videotaping a snail slithering up the wall. Already things are weird. Shuichi is acting weird as well, though not so weird as to be taping hours worth of snail shenanigans in extreme close-up. But he seems afraid, and he talks of running away, fleeing the town, which he feels has a rotten core. Kirie is confused but also a bit excited by the idea of dropping everything and running off with her childhood sweetheart. At this point, the film is shaping up to be just another schoolgirl horror film, the sort of watered down, one step above Goosebumps stuff that has been big business in Japan for the last couple years. You know, whenever anyone has the brains to make a movie for adolescent girls, it’s always a huge hit (remember Titanic), and yet people only seem to remember to do it like once every ten years or so. You’d think by now they’d understand that the girls are bored shitless and want a little something thrown their direction.
Don’t be fooled. Uzumaki is just getting started.
Kirie learns that Shuichi’s father has become obsessed with spiral designs, surrounding himself with them, dedicating his life to staring at them and ranting about it all when he isn’t bust videotaping the spiral design on snail shells. His madness has reached the point where it is starting to tear the household apart, and Shuichi suspects there is a force behind it all that threatens the whole town. At school, in the meantime, things aren’t much more normal. When Kirie isn’t being accosted in the bathroom by the leader of the resident girl gang, who sings the praises of being the center of attention, of being the focus of the spiral, she’s sitting in a science class attended by a kid who only shows up to school on rainy days and is covered by a thick, dripping goo. Why they let him only come into school on rainy days is less puzzling then why they would let a kid covered in gallons of effluvia just take his seat. Hell, we didn’t even tolerate the kid who always had the gooey, unnaturally green ball of mucous clinging to the very edge of his nostril. I know if I had showed up for chemistry glass all dripping with goo, there would have been a good chance they would have made me hit the showers, or at least that emergency eye wash fountain for the kids too clumsy to not get iodine in their eyes.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Shuichi’s father is eventually overcome by his mania and commits suicide — by cramming himself into a washing machine and twisting his body into a taffy-like spiral. This upsets Shuichi’s mother, and the matter is made worse during the funeral when the clouds from the crematorium spiral up into a massive, misty whirlpool that also has a tendency to form a likeness of the deceased’s anguished face. Shuichi’s mother breaks down, and soon she too is obsessed with spirals, but with their elimination rather than their collection. She begins by slicing off her own fingertips, and then after a later midnight visit from a friendly neighborhood centipede, realizes there is a part of her inner ear that is also a spiral. The jagged shard of a broken vase can dig that out, though.
As Shuichi helplessly watches his parents self-destruct, Kirie begins to notice her father too is becoming a nutcase, and the girl gang leader at school has started styling her hair into massive swirls. A local Poindexter teams up with Kirie and Shuichi to crack the sinister mystery, but of course, just as he makes a huge discovery, he’s killed in a grisly car wreck. If the overall freakish atmosphere of the movie thus far hasn’t convinced you this is something more than schoolgirl horror, the graphic gore might bring you around. While we’re not talking Dawn of the Dead here, the movie refuses to pull punches with the gore, and when someone dies, they die horribly. The bizarre events in the town eventually attract the attention of the outside media, and a news van arrives to do a “can you believe this shit” type of story that is made even meatier by the fact that the gooey kid and his friendly neighborhood tormentor have just gone and transformed into giant half-slug half-human creatures and spend the day squirming up and down the side of the high school. The film crew meets with an equally unsavory fate as they attempt to leave town, resulting in some decapitation and a cute, perky newscaster left with her eyeballs dangling by the optic nerves.
Kirie and Shuichi want desperate to either fight against or escape from the growing hurricane of spiral-related madness, but they don’t even know what to fight against or where to start. There is no creepy old wizard living at the edge of town, or secret government lab, or anything at all to give them the first clue as to what the hell is happening. As she struggles desperately to make some sense of the chaos, Kirie’s life is completely shattered when Shuichi himself begins to exhibit rather strange spiral qualities.
The end is a disturbing jolt to the system, to say the least. At first, it will leave you sort of pissed off and thinking “what the hell?” kind of like Blair Witch Project. Unlike the end of that film, however, which gets stupider as time goes by, the final burst of gory insanity in Uzumaki grows increasingly unnerving the more it sits in your mind. Ultimately, the film ends with the same close-up and snippet of narration with which it began, turning the film itself into one giant spiral. It’s a feeling not unlike the one you might get from a particularly good episode of Twin Peaks, like the one where they finally reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer. It will confound and anger some, while others will simply sit back and think, “Holy cow!” to themselves as they realize the disturbing power of what they’ve just seen.
First and foremost, Uzumaki is a visual film, but unlike a lot of current films that rely on slick visuals as nothing more than eye candy, the surreal atmosphere of Uzumaki is a central tool with which to weave the tale. It’s not just thrown on for the hell of it. There is an actual purpose, and Higuchinsky knows how to use the visual aspect of the film with the deftness of a scalpel-wielding surgeon, and I don’t mean Dr. Giggles. Every shot, every set, every quirky pice of music, is perfectly exploited to create a sense of lurking dread. Like a seedy circus sideshow or run-down midway, Uzumaki is undeniably gorgeous and frighteningly grotesque and disorienting. It is, as I discussed earlier, a disorienting warping of the familiar, mundane world into something threatening and dangerous. For his first time out as a director, Higuchinsky is astoundingly successful. WHile Lucio Fulci always talked about creating the feel of a surreal nightmare in his films, he was only ever able to accomplish it in tiny bits and pieces. A moment here, a moment there, then back to the tedium of watching Ian McCulloch intone, “But that’s crazy!” Higuchinsky manages to capture that same nightmarish mood, but he sustains it throughout the whole movie and never exhibits any of the slapdash qualities that undermined Fulci’s own attempts at such a mood.
Some of the scenes don’t even strike you as bizarre until they are over and you’re going, “Wait, what the hell?” In a casual, offhand manner, the film will just randomly throw in background characters who are walking in reverse, or in a particular eerie scene that doesn’t even hit you as eerie at first, Kirie and her friend are walking down a hallway having a typical schoolgirl conversation while, on either side of the hallway, students stand at attention, still as statues, gazing off into nothing. There is never any acknowledgment of these things, making them even more intriguing, sort of like that weird hippie you can catch sitting in the background of various episodes of The Young Ones. I didn’t even notice him until years later, but now that I know that he’s sometimes there, squatting in the corner, it’s equally amusing and disturbing. Watch the very first episode, Demolition, and you’ll see him during a scene around the television set. It’s kinda creepy.
As far as the plot goes, it is simple but effective. The movie is based on a series of horror comics by writer Ito Junji, a proclaimed H.P. Lovecraft fan, and the influence of Lovecraft is obvious. Like his inspiration, Ito’s stories are difficult to translate onto film. They are simply too far out there. This problem has plagued countless would-be screenwriters and directors who took on the unenviable task of turning brilliant H.P. Lovecraft stories into incredibly lame movies. Consider that a number of Lovecraft’s stories revolve around creatures who are so intensely terrifying that merely glancing at one is enough to drive someone mad. If you make a movie about such a beast, you either have to show it — which will inevitably be a big disappointment — or not not show it — which would also be a big disappointment. Lovecraft created a fear that simply could not be lifted off the page or out of your own mind.
Likewise, Ito’s stories often defied easy adaptation. Despite the difficult source material, this is a damn effective film that manages to communicate an intangible yet overwhelming horror without ever having to show it. Lovecraft would have been proud, I think. Sure there are kids who turn into creepy slugs, people with weird eyes and hair that spirals up forty feet and continuously swirls around. Sure heads are crushed, people are gutted, and bodies rot before horrified onlookers, but these are all symptoms of what is happening. In the hands of a lesser storyteller or director, the fact that the film never reveals the nature of the seemingly supernatural madness would be a big let-down, but scriptwriter Nitta Takao, armed with Ito Junji’s story and Higuchinsky’s inspired direction, uses the ambiguity to augment the film’s nightmarish tone. It’s truly a stunning feat to have pulled off.
The movie also never tips us off as to what actually happens to our heroine, Kirie. When last we see her, she is in what is, at best, a dire situation, but the closing repetition of the opening narration would imply that she somehow cheated fate. If so, how? We never know, and while that would be a weakness in some films, it’s the reverse here, like never finding out why the birds were attacking people in The Birds. Is it possible that Kirie, who was teased about never being the center of attention, was somehow the focal point of the spiral madness? Was she the eye of the hurricane? Or was she simply insane, dreaming up this whole bizarre scenario in her head? The film is constructed in such a way than any explanation would fail to be as effective as no explanation, leaving the viewer with a lingering feeling of chill and glorious discomfort.
Higuchinsky also uses music brilliantly. The soundtrack is a combination of sappy toy piano sounding “young kids in love” music and off-kilter horror/carnival music. It works further to subvert the feel of the film when you have this quaint and innocent scene of a young girl clinging to the boy she’s loved her whole life while dippy lovey dovey music plays in the background as they ride the bike in slow motion. It’s sweet tot he point of being goofy, but it becomes heart-breaking in a way since you know any second the creepy carnival music is going to start up and no one is going to be very happy.
The cast is up to the task of fleshing out this bizarre world. Hatsune Eriko is great and sympathetic as Kirie, while Fhi Fan as Shuichi is moody, dreary, and detached. At first it almost seems like it’s bad acting, but then you start to think about how many of these self-absorbed mopey guys you knew in high school, and you suddenly realize the kid has nailed it. Unlike the mopey kids in high school, at least this guy lives in a town that is cursed with a madness involving lots of spirals and bloody deaths. Everyone else is basically there to die horribly and go insane, and they all do it well.
The effects are great as well. Actually, the effects are somewhat archaic looking in spots, but once again the director makes it work marvelously for him, turning what should be a drawback into another strength. Competently done but somewhat awkward computer effects serve to embellish an increasingly alien and surreal landscape. The gore effects are bang on, grisly and realistic, and the make-up effects to create the slug people is also great. Unlike those twits who made the updated version of The Haunting, Higuchinsky knows better than to make a movie where there are effects for effect’s sake, and they are the central point to the movie being made. Higuchinsky wants to creep you out, and he is smart enough to know that special effects are just one of many means to that end and not the end themselves. Just like the stylish direction, the special effects are not there just as eye candy. They have a job to do, and they execute it wonderfully.
Uzumaki is a surprising film, and that makes me happy. Like a fairy tale of old, it seizes you from the outset and pulls you deeper and deeper into a world that is too weird to look at but too enticing to turn away from. Even during the quiet moments and build-up scenes, there is enough tension and uneasiness to keep the movie sailing along. When the end hits, it hits hard, and I guarantee the whole thing will stick in your mind a long time after you’ve finished watching. Of course, my guarantee means nothing. It’s not like I’m going to give you an oven mitt if you find yourself dissatisfied. I only have two oven mitts, and I need them both because one is always dirty.
The most refreshing thing about this movie is that it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. While you can place in the company or H.P. Lovecraft and Twin Peaks, it’s still quite different in many ways. It’s a movie that knows how to lull you into a sense of security, then spring untold amounts of indescribably freakiness ‘pon you. I love a movie that keeps me guessing and thinking, and Uzumaki delivers on a cerebral level, at least for a dolt like me. Uzumaki is a film for people who like to be messed with, who like to be unnerved, who like to get depressed and disturbed by a film out of nowhere, days or weeks after they’ve seen it. You’re sitting there, thinking happy thoughts, and all of a sudden you start thinking about the gruesome “slide show of death” that helps close the movie, and all of a sudden you just feel creeped out. It’s the sort of movie that will be appreciated by people who also appreciate sinister carnival midways and those ringmasters who speak of black things and always seem to have midget henchmen dressed as Aladdin walking behind them playing the squeezebox. It’s a movie for people who just simply delight in the torment of sheer weirdness and surrealistic horror.