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?
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.
Look, I never said I was proud of the things I liked when I was kid, alright? And I’m even less proud of some of the things I watched now, some twenty years later, all excited about realizing how stupid they are only to realize that while, yes, they are pretty stupid, I still don’t dislike them nearly as much as I probably should. The fact of the matter is that those movies I saw as a wee sprout camped out on the floor of my friend’s house soaking in the warm glow of satellite television absolutely will not budge from their lofty spot of “fun” no matter how much rational thought and taste I apply in my vain attempt to dislodge them, and you all know that I am, if nothing else, a man of impeccable taste.
If you ever want to see a scene that perfectly captures a heady air of decadence and mania without going all over the top and Caligula on you, look no further than the scene in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture that introduces us to the opulent gambling parlor operated by the enigmatic Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Centered above the main gambling floor, the shot assumes a bird’s eye view of the hall and its inhabitants as it spiral downward into the fray, where people drink, gamble, and flirt with an orgiastic glee as the delirious music swells. It’s an incredibly effective and a perfect way to sum up this oddball noir drama set in the indulgent underbelly of Shanghai just prior to World War II.
Shanghai at that time was the hub of Asia, a rich seaport that every country wanted to control and where every two-bit con artist, hustler, adventurer, gambler, mercenary, and romantic could go to chase their dreams of fame, fortune, and power. It was Weimar Germany in Asia, complete with a citizenry too bleary-eyed from the decadent lifestyle prevalent in the city to realize that fascism and war was knocking on their door. The city was split up among various foreign powers all vying for increased control of the city. France had their own concession, but the International Settlement was the hub of Shanghai, and it was controlled largely by the British tai pans with input from American and French representatives as well as, as the war progressed, Japan and Germany. The population of Shanghai was truly diverse, comprised of the aforementioned nationalities as well as a massive number of Indian Sikhs, Russians and Eastern European Jews seeking asylum from the Communist Revolution and escalating Nazi persecution, respectively. The Chinese inhabitants were largely second-class citizens banned from entry into the city’s most popular places, though a number of the country’s most powerful and most famous native criminals flourished.
Set against this backdrop is the story of The Shanghai Gesture, the archetypal story of a collection of “damned souls” collected together to smoke and betray one another. Sitting in the center of the web is Mother Gin Sling, owner of one of the largest gambling and drinking establishments in the city. Ona Munson is obviously not Chinese, but if you watch old movies dealing with Asian characters, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. However, The Shanghai Gesture opts for an almost absurd approach to itself. Everything is larger than life and informed by von Sternberg’s penchant for the highly stylized, artistic approach of German expressionism. Thus Ona Munson isn’t just a Caucasian actor in fake eyelids. She’s an over-the-top near-parody of the commonplace Caucasian actor masquerading as an Asian character. Her costumes are wild, her hair and eye makeup greatly exaggerated. I doubt this was any sort of political or social commentary on whites playing Asians as much as it was simply part of von Sternberg’s overall absurdist aesthetic.
Enter into the picture British tycoon Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who wants to shut Gin Sling’s debauched palace down to make room for his own plans for the city. Rounding out the cast of characters caught in the web are Charteris’ naive daughter (the always intoxicating Gene Tierney) who becomes corrupted by the pleasures and sins offered at the nightclub, brassy blonde Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) who comes to Shanghai and ends up getting a job at the nightclub, and suave ladies’ man con artist Doctor Omar (Victor Mature), who seduces both Phyllis and Victoria Charteris, who goes by the nickname Poppy, as a not-too-subdued allusion to an addiction and to the original story’s original setting. The Shanghai Gesture was originally a play set in an opium den, but when it made the leap to the silver screen, censors balked at the idea of having it set in such an unsavory place. Since gambling was considered a more Hayes Code-friendly vice than opium smoking, they made the switch. Sir Guy and Mother Gin Sling try to outmaneuver one another, resulting in a Lunar new Year’s feast in which Gin Sling calls together to corrupted souls that form the nucleus of the story and reveals a series of dark secrets that she hopes will keep everything and everyone under her control.
Von Sternberg, who honed his skills at creating decadence in films like The Blue Angel, expertly creates an air of sated over-indulgence in which sin and seduction has become so commonplace that the inhabitants of the city have lost all moral bearing. The sets are grand and spectacular despite this being a relatively low budget production filmed entirely on sound stages. Nothing is realistic, but everything is believable. It has a tremendous sense of style that creates grand scope where there might otherwise be none. Ona Munson’s Gin Sling wardrobe is outlandish and gorgeous, and Victor Mature looks picture-perfect as the chain-smoking Arab playboy in a smart suit and fez. Walter Huston also appears every bit the staunch and condescending British authoritarian, though he manages to invest his character with a sense of dignity and reserve that keeps him from becoming unlikable. This is largely a plot and character driven piece, and the actors have complete command of the characters and dialogue.
Despite the machinations and air of decay, there is also a sweeping sense of romance, though it’s hardly the sort of romance that makes the covers of romance novels. The Shanghai Gesture exaggerates the state of Shanghai at the time, but only just, and the whole thing take son a dreamy, almost narcotic appeal. It’s hard not to want to lose yourself in the neon-drenched back alleys and glittering nightclubs, even though you know it’s ultimately going to destroy you. There are worse ways to go, after all. More than anything else, this movie is about creating a particular atmosphere. You can’t take your eyes off the movie. It completely pulls you into this bizarre Sodom and Gomorrah of alcoholics and romantics, crushed souls and vengeful rivals.
Release Date: 1941 | Country: United States | Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Phyllis Brooks, Albert Bassermann, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Ivan Lebedeff, Mike Mazurki, Clyde Fillmore, Grayce Hampton, Rex Evans, Mikhail Rasumni, Michael Delmatoff, Marcel Dalio | Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg | Director: Josef von Sternberg | Cinematography: Paul Ivano | Music: Richard Hageman | Producer: Arnold Pressburger | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts, a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next, then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a mild sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt, like Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. Anyway, Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
You know how some people say if they go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leapt back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed my then newly discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. They thing they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.
Hot on the heels of the spectacular High Crime, director Enzo Castellari and actor Franco Nero take another stab at the burgeoning poliziotteschi genre, this time eschewing the popular “cop on the edge/Dirty Harry” approach and instead turning to the template established in 1974 by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The primary difference between the two is that Bronson’s character was a man of peace pushed to violent extremes, constantly grappling with the morality of vigilantism even in the face of his family suffering a truly nightmarish crime. Franco Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, by contrast, gets roughed up by some crooks and almost instantly launches a campaign of murderous violence against them without any real philosophical debate. It’s like he was already a well-mustached powder keg of vigilante vengeance just waiting to be unleashed. Instead of confronting the moral ambiguity of vigilantism through the doubts of its protagonist, Street Law elects instead to address it on a slightly more meta level, one in which the hero’s actions aren’t questioned by the hero himself but instead by the fact that, at the bloody end of all things, he is just as frustrated and unfulfilled as he was at the beginning.
Sector 7 is the very worst kind of movie with which to be confronted. OK, maybe not. Maybe What Happens in Vegas is the very worst kind of movie with which to be confronted, but since that’s not the sort of movie I seek out, and Sector 7 is, then the wounds I suffer at the hands of Sector 7 leaves a much deeper scar than any injuries I may have suffered while confined to a seat in a bus where they were playing What Happens in Vegas. Sector 7 is the person who should be your friend, but when you are dangling over the precipice and it is holding on to you, it suddenly flashes an evil grin and lets go, allowing you to fall to your death puzzled by this betrayal. Also, you are falling into lava. Sector 7, you were a flashy, big budget monster movie set on an oil rig and fronted by a wickedly cute actress with decent biceps. How could you do this too me? How could you be so very bad on pretty much every single level?
It’s popular in modern film criticism, both professional and amateur, to look back with a knowing snicker at what we perceive to be the profoundly obvious homoeroticism present in many — if not most — of the beefy, oiled up action films of the 1980s. It’s also popular to wonder whether all this musclebound gay subtext is actually there, or whether we, from our perch in the 21st century, simply inject it in ourselves. The answer of course, is probably yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t there, queer cinema would be stuck with a really boring filmography.