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.
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.
The slower Jackie Chan gets in his old age, the more he has to figure out what the hell it means for him to still be making movies. He’s given everything for his art, everything to his fans. He’s broken down, beat up, and will be lucky if he can remember his own name or walk in another ten years. Chan has sacrificed himself, his family, and just about everything else. I’m not saying whether this is good or bad, worth it or not; merely that it occurred. You can play armchair psychologist if you’d like, analyzing how the fact that he was abandoned by his parents (who sold him to a Peking Opera school, where he met Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Kwai, among others) has driven this insatiable need on his part to be loved and accepted by fans while crippling him when it comes to close personal relationships (his marriage was a sham and his flings with sexy female starlets were constant fodder for Hong Kong gossip rags). He’s cocky and egotistical (though honestly, wouldn’t you be the same way if you were him), but he’s also nervous and humble around certain reporters and throngs of fans. If you’ve ever seen an ignored and lonely puppy desperate for attention and reinforcement, then you’ve seen Jackie Chan in interviews.
Back in 1996, it seemed so unlikely that of all the action heroes in Hong Kong, Donnie Yen would be the one called on to foil Satan’s foul schemes. But now it makes a strange kind of sense that Donnie Yen would, well, not so much punch the Devil in his face as knee the Devil’s Envoy repeatedly in the ribs and once in the jaw, because here we are and Donnie Yen is the state-sponsored inheritor of Bruce Lee’s sifu and nunchaku. Who else is left?
Normally, when I write a review I try to divorce it from too many self-referential internal affairs — largely because I’ve learned the hard way that such references age poorly and make little sense a year, two years, or whatever down the road. On occasion however, it’s probably worth exercising my right to be inconsistent, and this seems like one of those times when it might be somewhat appropriate to pad this thing out with a preamble, as this is the fist time Teleport City has published a video game review. It’s not because we had any particular aversion to such forms of entertainment — I just didn’t really play them, and no one had ever offered to write about one for us. I was never particularly good at video games, and it turns out I’m still not very good at them. When I was a kid, I’d waste some time on the Atari and later the Nintendo Entertainment System, but that never lasted terribly long. I was bad at most of the games, and anyway it was sunny outside. While I’m not one of those condescending “you should get out more often and stop playing video games in your mom’s basement” assholes, the fact remains that I had more fun stomping around in the woods, falling out of trees, and getting chased by wild dogs — possibly because I was more adept at each of those things than I ever was at Missile Command.
I had to watch this movie more than once to verify that George Lazenby actually has more dialog than just, “Hmm? Hmmmmm,” mumbled with that smug chin-in-the-air look as if to say he has discovered something important and must now jut forth his chin and stroke it slyly. Who the hell does he think he is? Mr. Bean? He does have a few other lines, but for the most part, he just hums through the whole movie. I know this isn’t the best way to kick off a review, but come on! Speak, damn you! This isn’t Quest for Fire.
The pain and glory of watching a Thomas Tang movie is that you never know what you are going to get, but it will almost always be stunningly terrible. Tang, for those fortunate enough to require an introduction, is part of the unholy trinity that also includes director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai, film makers in only the broadest and most liberal definition of the term. Their specialty, often working in concert, was to take part of one cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, splice it together with parts of a second cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, pepper in some original footage — usually of ninjas, hopping vampires, or white dudes (and by “white dudes” I mostly mean “Richard Harrison”) — then dub the entire thing into English in a lackadaisical attempt to make some sort of halfway coherent plot out of the mess. Using this formula, a guy like Thomas Tang could make ten or twelve movies out of just a couple movies, with very little production cost. By the time people paid to see whatever Frankenstein monster resulted from the process, it was too late for them to be pissed off. Thomas Tang — or Godfrey Ho, as the case may be — already had your money.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on an amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.
“Mr. Moto is a very difficult fellow to kill.” — Mr. Moto
1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto, starring Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as a witty, karate-chopping Japanese man of mystery, introduces us to the budget films version of Charlie Chan. It seems that the specific nature of Mr. Moto changes as the series progresses, and while he is an adventuring spymaster later in the series, at least for this first film he is identified as an import-export businessman who, like Bulldog Drummond and Nick and Nora Charles, dabbles in detective work and sleuthing as a hobby. But while it’s fair to compare Chan and Moto, other than the detective work and the fact that a white actor is playing an Asian, Moto and Chan are pretty different, both in terms of character and the movies they inhabit.
World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.