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?
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.
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.