Hell has always been popular cinematic fodder. Italian strongman Maciste has conquered it (twice, at least), Claude Rains has managed it, and Nollywood has done its best to make a basement look like it (see Die Danger Die Die Kill’s review of 666: Beware! The End is At Hand). Still, when it comes to off-the-wall interpretations of the subject the countries of Asia have something of a monopoly. That all seems to have begun with the inimitable Nobuo Nakagawa (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan — reviewed on Teleport City here, and WtF-Film here), who persevered against a studio in a death spiral to produce Jigoku, an avant garde guignol masterpiece and perhaps the quintessential “hell” movie. Twenty years later acclaimed Nikkatsu roman porno director Tatsumi Kumashiro paid his respects to that film with The Inferno, a lavish Toei epic that matched Kumashiro’s own experimental flair with gobs of big studio production value.
In 1971, audiences were delivered the message that the freewheelin’ sixties were over, and so were the innocent fifties for that matter, when long-legged Clint Eastwood stepped onto the screen as “cop on the edge” Harry Callahan in the groundbreaking crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Other tough-as-nails cops and private eyes followed in Harry’s cynical footsteps, including Shaft, Serpico, and a guy named Popeye Doyle. This new generation of cop film was a marked departure from past crime films, where guys like G-Man Jimmy Stewart would walk proudly through spotless backlots dispatching ne’r-do-wells with precision shots from six-shooters balanced on their wrist. They were a return to the hardboiled, world-weary detectives of the 1940s. Callahan and his compatriots were angry, disillusioned, and cynical.
If there is any problem with High Kick Girl, a low-budget karate fest from Japan, it’s that it’s a terrible movie. If you can overlook that one flaw, then High Kick Girl is pretty decent. However, even if you can’t get over the fact that this movie is a study in incompetence due to inexperience, it’s still possible to wring from the mess a healthy degree of respect for what they were trying to do. Alas, if only good intentions always resulted in good movies. The dream of High Kick Girl was to take the Japanese martial arts movie back from the fumbling hands of CGI-heavy fantasy films and boob-heavy sexploitation stinkers full of AV idols flopping about and calling it karate, and return the martial arts film to the stewardship of people who actually care about it. And make no mistake — I thoroughly believe that everyone involved with High Kick Girl genuinely cares about martial arts and making good martial arts movies. They just aren’t capable of doing so, at least not yet.
Honey Britches has so many things going wrong for it that you can’t help but look at it as a work of fine art. I mean, this is the sort of movie you watch and think to yourself, “Gee, with some formal training and more money, this director could be as good as Hershel Gordon Lewis.” The film opens with “credits painted on a wooden fence,” which I soon found to be the most popular opening credits style for ultra low-budget hicksploitation films, usually accompanied by banjo music or random sounds of pig squealing — sometimes both. It is during these credits that you realize the theory about the director one day being as accomplished as HG Lewis are just fantasies, because up comes the name Fred Olen Ray. Well, up comes his name in certain versions. In other versions, his name does not appear, and we’ll explain why in a spell.
Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
Rest assured that I’m going to attempt a formal review of Hunterwali in the paragraphs below, though I have to admit I’m tempted just to leave you with the blunt summation I gave my wife after watching it, which went as follows: “Amazing. It was like two and a half hours of people yelling at each other and fat ladies dancing, and then, at the end, a dog rode a horse.”
The whip-wielding female avenger Hunterwali is a frequently recurring character in South Asian film, going back at least as far as Fearless Nadia’s initial turn in the role back in 1935. This 1988 version is a Pakistani take on the legend, fronted by one of the day’s biggest stars of Pakistan’s rough and tumble Punjabi language cinema, the generously proportioned Anjuman. Also on hand are the two other biggest stars of Pakistan’s Punjabi language cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, who, along with Anjuman, were teamed together with such numbing frequency that it sounds like it was near impossible to see a movie in which the three didn’t appear. The insanely popular Rahi alone was like a one man industry, starring in over 500 films between his debut in the mid 50s and his assassination in 1996.
It probably goes without saying by this time that the version of Hunterwali I had access to had no English subtitles. Subtitles, however, are for the weak — or so I have come to believe. Of course, it’s easy for me to take that stance when I can avail myself of the detailed summary provided by Omar Khan over at The Hotspot Online. Given the insane contortions of Hunterwali’s plot, I am indeed in his debt.
Still, summary aside, the most important thing that I need to communicate to you about Hunterwali is that, for the uninitiated, it will likely come across as the most yelling-est movie ever. During its first act it seems as if not a moment passes without someone pointing a finger and bellowing defiantly at someone else, usually with that someone else in turn pointing their finger and bellowing back. I have since learned that these screaming verbal sparring matches -– known colloquially as barrak –- are a standard feature of these Punjabi action films. It’s as if every man and woman in the film were played by 1970s era Dharmendra, but a version of 1970s era Dharmendra who has somehow been fused with the great and powerful OZ, so that every one of his full-throated utterances comes equipped with its own cavernous reverb. In keeping with this, Hunterwali as a whole, while not as sleazy, shows much the same commitment to subtlety seen in Pashto efforts like the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb, complete with an absurdly profligate use of shock zooms and frequent thunderclap sound effects to denote important plot points.
The film does calm down a bit after the first act, settling into a middle bit rich with masala melodrama. At this point it might seem like the movie was less concerned with Hunterwali’s exploits than it is with the question of whether she will settle down and become a dutiful wife and daughter. To underscore this, Hunterwali is provided with a twin sister, Bano, who, by contrast, is every bit as demure and devout as Hunterwali is aggressive and hoochified. (Needless to say, Bano always keeps her head covered and her body hidden underneath loose fitting garments.) Those used to Western portrayals of these type of fantasies of female vigilantism might be forgiven for thinking at first that Hunterwali intends to celebrate its heroine’s flaunting of gender norms. However, the deep conservatism of the film soon becomes apparent, demonstrating that, while the makers may not be above using Hunterwali’s scandalous behavior to titillate their male viewers, they also clearly intend to show that a heavy price must be paid for it.
This price comes in the form of a handsome young fellow whom Hunterwali falls for after he helps her fend off a gang of would-be rapists. In defiance of her father, who has already arranged for her to marry a family friend, she runs off with the man, only to find that he is far from the honorable gentlemen that he initially seemed. In communicating the depths of this guy’s depravity, the movie uses an interesting moral shorthand. Of course, we already know that things aren’t going well once he takes Hunterwali home to reveal that he lives in a cave lair. But, once he is revealed to be in cahoots with the gang of would-be rapists, we notice only too late that that cave is lined with magazine pinups of Madonna, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Beals and — hey, is that Phoebe Cates?
Hunterwali manages to escape from the rape gang, but, because she has disgraced her family, feels she has no recourse but to commit suicide. However, her father then shows up on the scene and prevents her from doing so, preferring to handle the job himself by putting a bullet in her head. Bano then also makes the scene and throws herself between Hunterwali and her father, taking the bullet meant for her sister. Dad then turns the gun on himself and blows his own head off. This jaw dropping sequence comes to a close with Hunterwali promising the dying Bano that she will take her place, which will entail playing wife to Bano’s new husband, a righteous police inspector played by Mustafa Qureshi.
As might be expected, the combination of married life and the business of being Bano quickly starts to chafe on Hunterwali, and she is soon back to her vigilante antics in full force. This happily leads to a final act chock-a-block with violence, gore and absurd animal stunts, as she hunts down the members of the rape gang one-by-one and shoots out their eyes before hanging them from the rafters of their Rape Cave.
The final set piece sees Hunterwali closing in on the leader of the gang — her former paramour — with the assistance of her two ani-pals, a horse named Moti and an adult German Sheppard named Puppy. The gang is momentarily able to subdue the two critters and get the drop on our heroine, but only until the resourceful Puppy is able to free Moti from his bonds and go riding to the rescue.
As well as another fine addition to the South Asian Animal Stars Hall of Fame and some truly amazing — and shiny! — outfits worn by Anjuman, Hunterwali boasts an ear-hectoring, Bappi Lahiri-esque disco score that will keep you tapping your toe right up to the very moment you shoot yourself to make it stop. What can I say, this movie really is the whole package… of what, though, I have to confess I’m at a loss to say.
The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.
This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
The new movie is a mixture of faithfulness to the original and material revised or creating anew for younger, more modern audiences who probably have no idea who Akira Kurosawa was. The basic premise remains intact. A hairy samurai (Hiroshi Abe, with unenviable task of stepping into Toshiro Mifune’s woven sandals) and a princess (played by tempestuous pop star Nagasawa Masami) are in hiding after a disastrous defeat at the hands of an enemy army. They also happen to be in possession of most of the gold from the royal treasury, hidden inside innocuous looking bundles of sticks, which they need to transport across the warzone and into the territory of an allied clan.
That much remains the same. But here, things begin to diverge from Hidden Fortress. In the original, they are accompanied by two bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing rednecks who offer to guide them to safety but mostly just want a share of the gold (or all of it, if they can steal it). In the remake, only one of the duo is a bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing redneck. The other is a hustler of questionable morals, but he’s also young and handsome, possessed of a certain tendency toward honorable behavior, and is played by boy band pop star Matsumoto Jun. In a nod perhaps toward focus group style filmmaking, The Last Princess devises a romantic subplot for the prickly peasant and the noble princess. I can’t claim much familiarity with either of the young stars, but my impressions based on this movie are that Matsumoto Jun might be a boy band member, but he’s also pretty decent an actor. You know, like Justin Timberlake, but with more unkempt facial hair. Nagasawa Masami, on the other hand, seems to struggle to keep up with both her surprisingly passable young co-star as well as the solidly talented Hiroshi Abe. Abe, for his money, is doing the best Toshiro Mifune impersonation he can, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Rounding out the cast of heroes is Japanese comedian Miyagawa Daisuke. With the one scheming peasant transformed into a dashing hero-in-waiting in need of a shave, the full weight of odious comic relief falls upon Daisuke’s shoulders. I’m not a particularly big fan of comic relief characters, partly because they’re almost never funny. Even in the original Hidden Fortress, the bumbling hick shtick was prone to wearing out its welcome and becoming abrasive. Daisuke still tends toward the irritating, but he’s a fairly adept performer and manages a few funny moments, so that already makes him better than most comic relief characters. Still, at least for me, the moments of the film where his character disappears were welcome.
Hidden Fortress was the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a straight-forward, swashbuckling adventure film, and The Last Princess is similarly filled with sword fights and feats of daring. Yeah, a good portion of the adventure is marred by the over-use of CGI (the director was previously an effects supervisor), but at least it throws itself into the action scenes with energy and gusto. The finale is pretty fun up until the moment it feels the need to deliver a gigantic computer-generated explosion (which, apparently, manages to kill almost no one despite demolishing an entire mountain). Ending with a giant explosion was maybe effective back when movie makers used actual explosions, but climactic CGI explosions are considerably less thrilling. Still, the movie has enough other thrills to make up for it.
All in all, even given my initial hesitation to embrace a remake of one of my favorite movies, I thought The Last Princess came down solidly on the side of entertaining. It’s well paced, decently acted, and mostly fun. It even manages to have a human moment or two, which is rare in rollicking special effects blockbusters. In fact, despite the spectacle and sword fights, the film’s best moment is one in which defiant farmers refuse to stop their joyous celebration, even though the killjoy evil samurai demand all fun cease. I could have done without as much CGI, but that’s something all us old timers say about every movie. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more that adequate adventure cinema, and that’s what it is. Which was OK with me, because that’ really all I was asking of it.