A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
No genre is so simple that it’s well suited by being made a genre, just as no individual member of a race is justly served by being made part of said race. But in the quest to classify or define easy descriptions, these broad-sweeping categories are the best we people can come up with. It is a concept that dismisses any sense of variation or individuality, and while I admit that generalization is often a necessity for making it through everyday life, it’s also a big part of why we tend to miss out on so much wonderful stuff. Take the Spaghetti Western, for example, or the Western, since that’s how most people tend to see it. I can’t even begin to process the number of people I’ve spoken to who hate Spaghetti Westerns even though they’ve never seen one. They equate the Western with polished American films, with John Wayne or Gene Autry, or they simply hate country music, thus they hate cowboys, thus they hate Westerns. An entire genre of film is then dismissed despite the fact that there are hundred of films that break the mold, that would prove entertaining to these people if they could only get over the fact that the people in them are from the wild west.
“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell
When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.
Inhabiting the skin of hard-drinking steamer captain Alan Gaskell, Clarke Gable is picture perfect as he struggles to pilot his ship from Hong Kong Harbor to Singapore, doing his best to avoid rip roaring typhoons and marauding Malay pirates. This being an adventure movie, of course, he will successfully avoid neither. But he will look damn good while failing. As the tough talking, hard drinking ship captain who trades sneers and insults and kisses with Jean Harlow’s chain smoking, street tough “China Doll” Portland, Gable crackles with energy and charisma. And Harlow’s somewhat obnoxious Portland matches him sneer for sneer, insult for insult as they ply the waters of the South China Seas with a superb cast of characters, including the drunk writer, the sailor with a dark past, the wide-eyed rookie deckhand, the elegant lady, the wise old mentor with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet permanently grafted to his head, and of course the jovial businessman who ends up being a dastardly traitor.
Much of the film is taken up with banter and witty exchanges between the principals, all of whom perform remarkably well. The setting is exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be aboard an old steamer ship — one possibly laden with a secret shipment of gold — sailing across the China Seas while one dons a tux, drinks champagne, and worry about pirates? It’s a picture perfect old-school adventure setting, and that and the chemistry between the actors as they rattle off the whip-smart dialog is all this film needs to propel between its two main action setpieces. Using just the old sets and practical effects, China Seas manages to successfully convey both a ship-rattling typhoon and a pirate attack. Both sequences deliver the thrills with ease, though ultimately this is a movie carried entirely on the shoulders of Gable, and he’s more than up to the task.
If there’s any weakness in the film, it’d be Harlow’s China Doll. Most sassy femme fatales have some characteristic that makes them worthy of redemption, or at the very least, we can understand why the hero would destroy himself over this woman. But China Doll is less fatale and more just irritating. While Harlow delivers clever dialog and obviously works incredibly well alongside Gable, I found I had a hard time understanding why Gable was so haunted by their relationship with one another. And this coming from a man who willingly and actively seeks out dangerous women I know will destroy me and plunge my life into a state of decadent destruction. It’s real easy to believe the scenes where Gable looks like he just wants to haul off and dump her overboard, but less so the scenes where he supposed to be struggling with the smoldering flame of their love. But whatever — that’s love, right? And when I point this out as a potential weakness in the film, I also need to point out that it’s an extremely small weakness, and the sheer force of personality and the interplay between Gable and Harlow is more than enough to carry the film over any tiny rough patch it may hit.
Mystery, pirates, exotica, typhoons, romance, rum drinking, and Clark Gable’s pencil thin mustache and perfect old-school tough, dashing guy hair all get drawn into a script that is lean and streamlined but never crude or lacking in elegance, making China Seas cracking good adventure romance cinema from the golden age of the silver screen.
Release Date: 1935 | Country: United States | Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, William Henry, Liev De Maigret, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy, Soo Yong, Carol Ann Beery, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Lebedeff | Screenplay: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness | Director: Tay Garnett | Cinematography: Ray June | Music: Herbert Stothart | Producer: Albert Lewin | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
I haven’t seen a whole lot of Bollywood films, but those I have seen, on the whole I’ve liked. I’ve seen just enough of them to act like a shocking poseur among my immediate circle of acquaintances and work colleagues. “Slumdog Millionaire? Very impressive, but really only a Western distillation of the vibrancy and colour of a real Bollywood film. Also, I got the Amitabh Bachchan reference so clearly I am better than you.” I’m not proud of such behaviour, but then it’s not difficult to feel intellectually superior to most of the people I encounter at work. Just having seen a theatre production without any songs in it is enough to mark me out as an ivory-tower elitist in my office.
Simply calling Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay “a Pakistani film” would likely send any serious minded booster of that nation’s cinema into paroxysms of despair. The Pashto language film industry that produced Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, which serves an overwhelmingly male audience in the country’s northern border region, is considered to be pretty much the absolute gutter of Pakistan’s film making culture. For Americans, you’d have to imagine meeting a person from a foreign country whose only exposure to American cinema was through seeing Manos: The Hands of Fate, and who tried to characterize the whole of the U.S.’s filmic output based on that.
As I am now, so too was I as a child: a very forgiving viewer. I’m sure there is some sort of mathematical algorithm that can predict exactly what amount of cool stuff (as defined by me) a movie has to have to make me forget the probably greater amount of boring stuff in it, but I haven’t been good at math since seventh grade, so I’ll leave it to the eggheads with their supercomputers and pulsating frontal lobes to figure that one out. Suffice it to say that my brain, caffeine and alcohol addled place that it is, has a tremendous capacity for screening out the crap in a movie and only remembering the bits it thought were entertaining. It’s the sort of mental agility that allowed me as a child and continues to allow me as an adult to squeeze enjoyment out of bloodless stones that crush others. That’s why I can watch a movie like Treasure of the Four Crowns or Ator: The Fighting Eagle and walk away, unscathed, and perhaps even mildly satisfied with what I’ve just seen.
I learned two important things from this psychotronic adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel, Die Blaue Hand. First, you can’t casually watch one of these Edgar Wallace movies from Danish film studio Rialto. Turn away for five seconds, and when you turn back to the television, you will be completely lost. They are so fast moving, and so insanely convoluted, that you have to concentrate on them with an intensity usually reserved for deriving the Unified Field Theory. The second thing I learned is that while quantity doesn’t equate to quality, featuring double the Klaus Kinski in your film is a sure thing. He shows up here as twin brothers, and unfortunately, that lead to the aforementioned distraction as I started daydreaming about what Crawlspace would have been like if Klaus Kinski was slinking around, peeping on…Klaus Kinski!
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date. Circadian Rhythm, in case you haven’t heard about it, is…well, almost a total mystery. It’s not surprising if you’ve never heard of it. Despite starring a number of people who went on to healthy careers in television, and despite the fact that the internet will write in depth about almost anything no matter how terrible and low budget, Circadian Rhythm is either almost totally ignored by the types of people who would usually review a movie like Circadian Rhythm, or there are reviews but they’re buried under thousands of search returns for actual medical and biological articles about circadian rhythms, those biological clocks that keep the bulk of society waking up and going to bed at roughly the same time.