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.
The final days of the 20th century ushered in many things, and ushered out quite a few as well. After years of dedicated service, the beefed-up action stars of the 80s and 90s were quietly shown the door. This was a horrible turn of events for Olivier Gruner, a man who had made a living throughout the 90s as the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that Jean-Claude Van Damme was the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme, what was poor Olivier Gruner to do? As for Van Damme, his DTV output would eventually lead the former muscles from Brussels to make JCVD, a self-deprecating (and to a degree, self-flagellating) arthouse hit that afforded Van Damme the chance to skewer and wax poetic about his crumbling career while at the same time actually rebuilding it to some degree. With the exception of Expendables 2, Van Damme wasn’t going to find his way back onto the big screen, but the quality of his direct to video output enjoyed a substantial leap forward in terms of quality.
Attempts to revive and revise the Japanese karate movie started in 2007, with this tale set in the early 1900s of guys kicking each other in the face really hard. Japanese films are mostly terrible these days, and Japanese martial arts films have almost ceased to exist, with there being little more to the genre anymore than CGI movies or no-budget T&A stinkers starring busty AV idols as ninjas. So a bunch of karate guys woke up one day and thought to themselves, “you know, maybe we should be the guys making karate movies.” While their efforts remain small scale enough so that we can’t trumpet them as a revolution or the rebirth of the Japan Action Club, the results are still promising. Not always good, but promising.
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.
Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.
Old Hong Kong movies use the presence of a Taoist priest as a license to print crazy, despite the real world practice of Taoism’s emphasis on quiet contemplation and equilibrium with nature. As these filmmakers would have it, that age old philosophical tradition is all about people shooting cartoon lightning bolts out of their hands, repelling one another with weapon strength, supersonic laughter and, of course, watermelon monsters. In short, exactly the type of religion that might get me to turn my back on my secular ways once and for all.
Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.