I’m back on The Cultural Gutter for another Frolic Afield. Queue up the montages of civil unrest and warfare set to Buffalo Springfield and “All Along the Watchtower,” because Back to the World is a look at Joe Haldeman’s amazing 1974 “Vietnam War in space” novel, The Forever War.
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.
See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
Here’s how to test whether or not you are a true resident of Teleport City: if I tell you there’s a movie starring Richard Harrison, Anthony Alonzo, and Tetchie Agbayani, do you look at me quizzically and shrug, or do you start to shake with giddy anticipation? If it’s the former, then let us soothe the wound by agreeing that you have much yet to learn, and the path before you is rich with astounding discoveries. If it’s the latter, then we are all together as one, like a rag-tag band of misfits soldiers fighting our way across ‘Nam on some mission whose objective is entirely unclear but never the less must be undertaken.
Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.
And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?
In retrospect, I cant believe it didn’t happen more frequently. I mean, combining the American obsession with ‘Nam movies with the American obsession with ninja movies — that just seems like common sense. I’m surprised Cannon, who were kings of both genres, didn’t just spontaneously spawn a dozen movies about ninjas saving POWs without even having to commission the production of them. As far as I know, ninja and “rescue the ‘Nam POW” movies just appeared magically overnight in Golan and Globus’ office, created presumably by a team of elves who had little else to do ever since they helped make that cobbler rich. At the very least, you’d think Godfrey Ho would have gotten in on the action.
Surprisingly, though, there were very few movies that thought to take the proverbial American ninja and plop him down in the middle of a ‘Nam POW movie. Godfrey Ho was too busy splicing ninjas into movies where guys with mustaches fought other guys with mustaches in the jungles of The Philippines, but this was always over the drug trade. So the potentially ripe field of movies about ninjas rescuing POWs from the clutches of the VC remains sadly under-exploited.
However, if you have to have a sole example of the genre, Ultimax Force is as good as you’re probably going to get. It has pretty much everything a “ninjas meets Rambo” movie needs. The plot is pretty bare: four ‘Nam vets who also happen to be ninjas are asked by their old master to rescue one of their ninja brothers, languishing still in a VC prison camp. With that groundwork laid, you get what you need from such a film. There’s a bar room brawl, a cute Vietnamese woman played by a Chinese woman who assists the heroes, a lot of exploding huts, guys falling out of guard towers, sadistic prison commandants, dudes doing the exaggerated “I’m getting peppered with machine gun bullets” dance, and lots of walking or boating through the jungles. Plus the heroes, when they aren’t dressed as ninjas, wear the requisite 80s American adventure wear: acid washed jeans cuffed tight around the ankle, white sneakers, loose fitting checkered shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and of course, headbands. They look like their “rescue mission” checklist included “sharpen ninja swords, to some push ups, stop by Chess King.”
Aside fromt he requisite notes, Ultimax Force does a couple things a little different from your standard Namsploitation movie — apart from, you know, ninjas. Chief among these is the fact that the rescue mission is a dismal failure. Once the prison commander gets wind of a bunch of American ninjas heading his way to liberate the POWs, he just guns down all the prisoners, including the ninjas’ brother. There you go. Problem solved, though it lacks the panache of some of the more flamboyant sadistic prison commanders, who would keep the prisoners alive but do something like crucify them or put them in those half-submerged cages full of leeches. So points off for style, but I guess you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the more mundane “I’ll just shoot ‘em” approach. James Bond is lucky he never ran into this guy. There’s also no talk of government conspiracies or corrupt American businessmen and officers colluding to foil the rescue mission.
Ultimax Force is a pretty low budget but enjoyable trash war film. It delivers on the action and exploding huts and doesn’t bother with much else. While Italian ‘Nam movies are often full of ripe, ridiculous dialogue, Ultimax Force (pretty sure it was Filipino) offers almost nothing in the way of cornball lines. It sticks mostly to gratuitous name calling and those tortured insults that are too convoluted to have come from the mind of a native speaker of English. And the plot is as thin as the dialogue. This isn’t a movie that has a lot to say. Like the ultimax force itself, this movie has a job and gets it done as quickly as possible. It’s only about 80-something minutes long, and most of that time is spent on the point: ninjas mowing down VC. I appreciate that they keep this one lean and mean, especially after more meandering, twisty movies like The Last Hunter.
The actors here have worked hard to be completely emotionless, even when they’re supposed to be screaming vengeful, “I’ll get you, you fucker!” proclamations. One of ninjas harbors considerable racist rage against the Vietnamese, but this is never explored as anything more than an excuse for him to get to say things like “slant-eyed mother fucker.” A couple of the other ninja are whiny “dude, let’s just go home and forget this” sort of guys, which while understandable, doesn’t make them particularly compelling adventure heroes. When people fire machine guns, they just make half-hearted yellface and wave their machine guns around wildly, somehow managing to hit people despite their technique looking similar to just flailing a garden hose around. And also, for some reason, the machine guns make pew-pew-pew laser noises. Heroes also die for no reason other than they do incredibly stupid stunts for no reason. Case in point — one guy swan dives off a bamboo platform into the waiting throngs of well-armed VC, who shoot him all to hell before he finally reveals he was also holding a grenade that kills a couple guys. Why wouldn’t you just throw those grenades from cover? Why the swan dive?
Oh, because you’re a fucking ‘Nam vet ninja.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: The Philippines | Starring: Vivian Cheung, Brad Collins, Sauro Cotoco, Vincent Giffin, Eric Hahn, Debbie Henson, Jeremy Ladd, Audrey Miller, Arnold Nicholas, Ronnie Patterson, Patrick Scott, Henry Strzalkowski, Ray Uhen | Screenplay: Joe Mari Avellana | Director: Willy Milan | Cinematography: Joe Tutanes | Music: Willie Cruz
Video game reviews for me, though still a new venture, often end up being very involved affairs, which I enjoy immensely. On the other hand, it means that they take a long time to complete, and so I don’t finish them at the ace I would like to maintain. Gears of War 2, luckily, affords very little in the way of diversionary analysis. It’s loud and stupid and full of violence. The plot is disposable and generic. The voice acting is shouty and stilted. The game play is pretty predictable and designed in a way that causes the entire game to hover somewhere between idiotically enjoyable and tedious. Basically, whenever people write about how crass and moronic video games are, they’re writing about Gears of War. Of course, as with an action movie that could have the same description applied to it, crass and moronic doesn’t mean the game is without its…not exactly “high” or “positive” points… let’s just say that there is some entertainment to be mined from this gibbering buffoon of a game, in much the same way as one can be entertained by an Antonio Margheriti war film.
Back in October of 2003, when I was still gainfully employed as a writer at Toyfare magazine, I was given the following assignment: using my vast and shameful knowledge of things both Transformer and GI Joe, I was to write an article, using a series of pre-determined questions and criteria, pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then as grown men and women. I can’t say I went into the article without some degree of personal bias. I had a huge GI Joe collection when I was in middle school. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because collecting GI Joe figures was a lot easier on a lawn mowing allowance than collecting the much pricier Transformers figures. And for a kid with a big, wooded back yard, the potential play value of GI Joe was considerably more substantial — and yes, I was eleven years old; I played with my GI Joes.
Among the many things that puzzle me in life is the question of why there aren’t more horror films set amidst military conflicts and wars. Not that aren’t any, but there aren’t nearly as many as one might think, giving how easily wartime settings should lend themselves as backdrops to horror films, to say nothing of the fact that it was the landscape of World War I that informed the art and set design on many of the old Universal and German horror classics. That conflict in particular, with one foot in the horror of modern warfare and the other in…well, the horror of 19th century warfare, seems particularly well suited for horror films. The strange combination of Industrial Revolution weapons and vehicles with ornate imperial uniforms, peasants, kingdoms, horse-drawn artillery, and of course, No Man’s Land, trench warfare, bombed out old European buildings and castles — horror films set amongst this carnage seem to practically write themselves, and yet wartime horror films are all but non-existent.
Certainly, some exist, and perhaps I’m the only one who look sat the battlefields of past wars and sees potential for horror-themed entertainment. Chalk it up to my childhood obsession with Weird War Tales comic books, those oft-mentioned on this website stories about skeletal Nazis drifting across war-ravaged, mist-enshrouded landscapes while a terrified GI crouches in a trench. Or my personal favorite, the one with a cover where a centaur is attacking a Panzer. What the hell was going on with that one? I guess if I had my millions, I’d blow a lot of it on the usual stuff people blow easy millions — top hats, monocles, stuff like that — and the rest I’d devote to remastering and releasing on DVD obscure Eurospy films mostly for myself, and to producing a long series of horror films set during the two World Wars and featuring green fog and skeletal specters clad in tattered military uniforms. Heck, it’s better than losing it all to some shyster investment banker.
Anyway, like I said, there aren’t many horror films set amidst wars. There was one about two guys stuck in a trench in WWI, I think. And I’m not sure I count Manticore, even though I seem to have watched that movie like a dozen times. There are thousands of films in my “to watch” pile, including many incredible classics, and I never get around to viewing them. How is it, I ask myself, I continue to fail to watch these films but have seen Manticore and Zoolander like ten thousand times? But other than a precious few, and discounting movies that feature soldiers but are not set in actual wars, this weird little subgenre with which I’m obsessed remains curiously unpopulated. Maybe it’s because most horror films are incredibly low budget affairs, and they simply can’t afford the costuming, props, locations, and scenes of battle that would be required to properly set the stage. Maybe horror film screenwriters are just young, and they don’t know enough about such conflicts to use them as a backdrop for a film — not that not knowing much has ever stopped a screenwriter, especially a horror film screenwriter. Their offenses against even the most basic of police procedures are long-running and often astounding.
Perhaps war is simply a horrible subject in itself, and lending a supernatural air to it is seen as tasteless. Ha ha ha! Yeah, I know. The genre that gave us sub-genres like torture porn, slashers, and Rob Zombie is worried about offending the sensibilities of the world’s remaining Great War veterans. Perhaps, then the problem is that the people who have ideas for World War horror films (One or Two, either would be effective), like me, are lazy, like me, and the scripts remain as little more than half-finished ideas inside their heads. I also tend to wonder why there are so few movies about the American Revolution, what with it being kind of a big deal not just in American history, but in shaping the course of the world as a whole. I suppose the rest of the world isn’t as excited about watching a cast of thousands in powdered wigs run at each other with matchlock rifles and bayonets. Maybe I’ll do an American Revolution horror film.
Among the few battlefield horror films we find the Korean production R-Point, set during the Vietnam War and involving, among other things, spooky ghosts, cemeteries, swamps full of corpses, and a spooky old French Plantation mansion. Unknown to many of my generation and later — and probably earlier than that — South Korea had the second largest contingent of non-Vietnamese troops in the conflict, after the United States. For them, the conflict in Vietnam played out much like an extension of the Korean War, with the North Koreans playing a role on the side of the North Vietnamese. Over the course of the war, and starting in 1964, South Korea sent over 300,000 troops into Vietnam, where they developed a reputation for being highly skilled and effective combatants — so much so that the Americans looked to Korean theaters for guaranteed safety while the North Vietnamese warned their troops to avoid engaging Korean battalions if at all possible.
Sadly, very little of that effectiveness seems to be on display in the troops that make up the special squadron of this film, unless we are measuring their effectiveness at screaming, flailing, falling down, and blubbering like little babies at even the slightest of inconveniences. R-Point centers around a group of soldiers who are assigned the task of traveling to a remote station — Romeo Point — to investigate the disappearance of a previous platoon of Korean soldiers. The previous group was presumed dead as a result of some sort of guerrilla attack until a distorted, bizarre distress message was radioed in by an unidentified member of the platoon.
The assembled task force includes pretty much all the war movie stereotypes: the stoic CO, the world weary veteran, the nerdy radio operator, the blowhard, so on and so forth. I don’t know the Korean equivalent of a guy from Brooklyn who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and is probably nicknamed Brooklyn, but I’m sure whatever it is, this movie had one. Stoic Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo Sung) leads the bunch and is one of the only guys with any sort of stand-out personality — that personality being “stoic guy.” Things start of predictably enough, with the task force traveling up river to R-Point, only to be ambushed by a Vietcong commando. After an intense firefight, they discover the commando is a woman. Badly wounded, Choi orders her shot to finish the job, but no one can bring themselves to do it, instead leaving her to die a slow death — which seems considerably worse, if you ask me.
Upon arrival at R-Point, they discover it to be a vast lakebed, now largely drained and overgrown, not to mention prone to severe bouts of ominous fog. After holing up in a decaying French mansion, they set about searching for some trace of their comrades. It isn’t long, however, before things start to get really weird. Soldiers start catching glimpses of other people disappearing into the shadows or running through the treeline. A group of Americans chopper in one night and deliver further ominous warnings about R-Point, detailing the location’s long history of slaughter and mass graves. And then one by one, members of Choi’s detachment start vanishing, turning up dead, or going insane.
There is much that R-Point does incredibly well, and several things it does poorly. So as to end on a high note — because I really did like this movie — we’ll tackle the negative first. And nothing stands out as a bigger negative than the behavior of the soldiers. They quickly degenerate into a state of shrieking and crying and falling over, becoming largely indistinguishable from one another, as well as becoming keenly irritating. I don’t expect people not to be scared when they are being hunted by ghosts and staying in a creepy old bombed out mansion, but one expects at least some degree of discipline and training to be on display at some point. But almost from the very beginning, with the exception of Choi and grizzled vet, Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son), the entire group is crying, cowardly, and incompetent. A better balance between soldiers trying to get their heads around their increasingly macabre circumstances and soldiers who are overwhelmed by it would have made for a much better movie, and one that deals with the complexity of entering a warzone and coming face to face with literal ghosts in a much more intelligent fashion. Instead, the movie becomes a long succession of crying, scares staged around dudes squatting over the latrine, and guys going, “Wait! Where did Corporeal So-And-So go???”
The film also falls back on the now-tired old Asian horror film chestnut of a spooky girl with long hair, which is a shame after the film goes through so much trouble to set itself up as something wholly different from the usual piles of Ring-inspired spooky girl horror films from Japan and Korea (among others). What really makes this a crime is that she is so blatant and obvious a presence in a film that otherwise relies very heavily on the effective exploitation of half-seen shapes in the shadows and momentary glances of something that was maybe there, maybe not. Shoehorning the female ghost into things not only undercuts the basic mystery, but seems wildly out of place, as if a producer somewhere along the way panicked and insisted that they put a female ghost with long hair into the film at some point. Her scenes are weak not just because she is photographed with such solidity, but also because the film doesn’t seem that committed to her presence, as if it is shrugging and saying to us, “Look, I didn’t want her in, either, but that producer insisted. Stick with me, and we’ll get to more scenes of creepy caves and ghostly soldiers pretty soon.”
So those are the negatives — provided one takes the appearance early in the film of an anachronistic DHL deliveryman in modern, bright yellow uniform to be amusing but ultimately harmless — and each negative is acutely noticeable and undermines the film in a way that can’t really be ignored. Because of these, I can understand people dismissing this film as an interesting failure. But it can be made up for if the movie exhibits strengths in other categories, and in that regard, R-Point succeeds admirably. First and foremost, this movie is creepy. Really creepy. The initial reveal of the French mansion that will become Choi’s base of operations is incredibly effective, fading into view as the sun rises on a gray and foggy day, and looming over the soldiers like the embodiment of all the death and decay perpetrated by the war. As far as the “old dark house” trope of ghost films go, this place is one of the best.
But it’s not left up to the mansion to shoulder all the creep factor. Drawing perhaps on the influence of Apocalypse Now in making the jungle seem surreal and eerie, R-Point works wonders with its surroundings, bringing out not just the fear of wartime attack in the jungle, but a very palpable sense of supernatural dread lurking behind every banana leaf and twisted root. The endless swaying fields and swamps of R-Point itself are equally as spooky, allowing any number of half-seen bugaboos to come and go in the corner of your eye. Among the most effective of these is a scene in which one of Choi’s men becomes separated from his search team, only to catch up with what he thinks is them, silently moving forward through the weeds and ignoring his attempts to catch their attention. Slowly, each soldier crouches down to take cover, fading into the brush around them and disappearing. It’s a damn good scene and really plays to this film’s strengths far more than the gratuitous female ghost nonsense.
Other effective scenes include the discovery of a downed helicopter, a swamp full of decaying bodies, and Jin’s exploration of a cave. In each of these scenes, as with the one above, the film draws its strength from the feeling that something might be there. The juxtaposing of very familiar wartime iconography — the HUEY helicopter, the fact that the soldiers moving through the weeds look almost exactly like the statues in Washington DC’s Korean War Memorial — with things that are otherworldly and not quite right. It infuses the entire film with a sense of creeping unease, that odd feeling one gets when one realizes that something they thought was familiar has been transformed into something recognizable buy also wholly alien in nature. Had R-Point stuck to that, instead of falling back onto the now unwelcome female ghost cliche, it would have been a great movie. Even with these missteps, though, it manages to be a good movie, if somewhat disappointing because it’s obvious how much better it almost was. If nothing else, it proves that the combination of war with supernatural horror makes for some striking, effective imagery.
Director-screenwriter Su-Chang Kong, who also wrote the thriller Tell Me Something, wasn’t terribly experienced when he penned this script, and that perhaps goes a long way to explain the failure of the film to avoid the ghostly girl cliche and do something more with the soldiers than make them cry and complain and whine about going home because they are scared. Man, the more I think about that, the more it irks me. Still, when his script is strong, it’s really strong, and for the most part, he keeps the horror oblique and never fully explained. At times, it seems like Choi, and then Jin, might know more than they are letting on. At no time is the exact nature of what is haunting, possessing, and killing them fully explained. This makes the horror much scarier. Attempts to lend some explanation through the appearance of the female ghost collapse, and R-Point would have been better off never offering any clear explanation at all.
As a director, Kong fares much better, even though this was his first film. Working with cinematographer Hyeong-jing Seok (Kilimanjaro), Kong creates a thoroughly eerie atmosphere without resorting to lots of CGI. He allows the camera to linger just as often as he employs fast editing to imply ghostly appearances. Kong is also successful at turning everything into something spooky looking, including the jungle, the decrepit mansion, an old cobweb-covered radio unit, and a crumbling temple choked by vines. He also keeps the film well-paced for the most part — though even solid direction and art design has a hard time interesting me in yet another scene of two guys getting scared while squatting over the latrine. For the most part, though, R-Point moves at a slow pace punctuated by moments of surprising wartime violence or chilling horror film imagery. It’s too bad that Kong the screenwriter lets down Kong the director from time to time.
There’s little point in analyzing the acting, as most of it is comprised of guys crying, falling down, and begging to go home. I mean, you certainly believe these guys are scared, but it gets annoying. It also makes it hard to tell who is who — which actually works to the film’s advantage when the soldiers have their revelation about the first soldier to die. The non-blubbering, non-hysterical acting is largely left up to Woo-seong Kam as Choi and Byung-ho Son as Jin. I’d never seen Kam in anything before, or since for that matter, and he has few films to his credit despite being quite good in his role here as a man attempting to hold onto his sanity and decipher the weirdness occurring around him. Byung-ho Son I’d seen once before, in 1999′s Yuryeong (aka Phantom Submarine). He’s also quite good here as the older, more experienced soldier trying to hold the force together while they all go to pieces and Choi becomes obsessed with figuring out what the hell is going on.
R-Point is a decent entry in the war-horror film, creating many incredibly effective scenes but ultimately proving to be a bit of a disappointment because it’s almost a great film, which is often worse than just being a bad film. This is one of those movies that just needed one more revision of the script to really make it something special. Still, if you can get over how great the film could have been, you can still enjoy how good it is. Not without noticeably flaws, many of which are large enough to make not liking the film perfectly understandable, R-Point still manages to be creepy as hell in many places and an interesting film to think about. It also seems to know when it’s doing something right, and when it’s doing something wrong. Less female ghost with long hair, more war-horror would have been a vast improvement. R-Point still succeeds at being scary, and at having a little more going on upstairs than the usual horror film — especially when it comes to transposing supernatural horror on top of real world war horror, and letting the decay and spookiness of one frequently stand in for the other. It’s just too bad that, like the soldiers in the film, it couldn’t prevent itself from taking those missteps it so obviously recognizes as such.