Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Red Heroine

Last weekend, while the Hollywood studios decided to settle for one underwhelming new release, the local programmers in the Boston area gave us more exciting repatory bookings than we could possibly watch - Hitchcock at the Brattle, Peckinpah at the Harvard Film Archive, and the annual Films at the Gate program in Chinatown. I got to a couple of the Peckinpah films, and may catch some Hitchcock tonight - on the one hand, the Sox-Rays game should be great; on the other hand, I hate missing Hitchcock on the big screen; gripping hand may be that I do have Stage Fright (like pretty much all Hitch's movies) on DVD, even if I've never watched it.

The only bit of Films at the Gate I got to was Red Heroine, but that was a ton of fun - I love silents and martial arts, so seeing a free movie with Devil Music Ensemble accompanying was a no-brainer. They're touring with it, and it's worth seeing just for curiosity's sake.

I wrote to DME to make sure I got the right names (or as close to right as possible), and they pointed me to this article about the film's return. The six-part history of early kung fu cinema at the end is a great read.

I've also finished off four more reviews from Fantasia. I'm kind of surprised these movies aren't falling out the back of my brain like I expected them to, especially considering all the "seventy-five movies in 21 days? How can you keep them straight?" comments I got. It turns out that it's not all that difficult to keep Shamo, Robo Rock, Be A Man! Samurai School and Trailer Park of Terror from running into each other; they're pretty darn distinct.

Hongxia (Red Heroine)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2008 in a Chinatown Empty Lot (Films at the Gate)

People have been discovering martial arts movies for as long as there have been movies. Jackie Chan and Jet Li made a splash in America during the 1990s, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took critics by storm soon after, but fans knew that this was nothing new. Their parents had discovered Bruce Lee, and he had his own antecedents. Once you get much past 1960s Shaw Brothers, though, stuff gets harder to find. The trail more or less stops at Red Heroine, a wuxia film from 1929, not because it was the first ever made, but because it's the oldest to survive.

Film preservation was a low priority in the early twentieth century, after all - few treated movies as more than disposable entertainment until far too many had been disposed of - and in China, both the Nationalist and later Communist governments discouraged fantastic film of any kind, fearing the superstitious image it projected to the rest of the world (a restriction that held up for some time; last year's The Matrimony was a rarity in being a ghost story from mainland China). So the preservation of Shanghai-made adventures like Red Heroine was even more hit-and-miss, with most of the people who made such films moving to British-controlled Hong Kong, leaving them orphaned. As a result, the image quality of this presentation leaves more than a bit to be desired. The copy currently on tour is a PAL digital file with the left and bottom parts of the image cropped off, and the print it is taken from appears to be warped in some spots.

The movie itself is about Yun Ko (Fan Xuepeng aka Xueming), a poor girl whose village is being overrun by an army from the west. Wealthy merchant Hsia Ching Chong (Hsu Ko Hui) and his daughter Chang Cheing (Wang Chu Ching) offer to take her with them as they flee the invasion, but Yun Ko can't leave her elderly grandmother. Her cousin Chong Che (director Wen Yemin) arrives to help, but it's too late - Yun Ko is captured by Ching Che Mang (Sao Guanyu), the general of the invading army, who tries to take her for a wife. She's rescued by White Monkey (Wang Juqing), an old hermit who offers to teach her martial arts so she can take her revenge. Three years later, that will come in handy - the refugees have returned to their homes, but occupying general Ching Che Mang now has his eyes set on Chang Cheing.

I apologize if the names are a bit mixed up - the intertitles were, as mentioned, frequently cut off, and crappy English subtitles are apparently a kung fu movie tradition that goes back eighty years. The characters are visually distinct enough that the names don't really matter, and include a number of familiar archetypes: The decadent general in his ornate robes, his snaggle-toothed adviser, the martial-arts master with the long white beard (and long white eyebrows, of course). The naked slave girls (well, wearing flesh-colored bikinis that the lighting often causes to blend into their skin) are actually further than HK action movies tend to go these days. There's even some gravity-defying stuntwork as Yun Ko soars through the air and teleports in a cloud of smoke.

The action is good enough that I wish there was more of it. The opening act is in constant motion from the army's approach to Yun Ko's rescue, and the big action finale has Fan Xuepeng looking pretty good, holding off the General's bodyguards even as she's losing weapons and the Tartar army arrives to engage the invaders. It's not the crazy wire work of later decades, but still fairly fast-paced and athletic. In between, the movie slows down quite a bit, with Yun Ko disappearing except in Chong Che's flashbacks while we see what the village is like during its occupation, and the story feels somewhat padded, as Hsia Ching Chong's family takes center stage. Training scenes to keep Yun Ko in the forefront, a staple of later kung fu movies, would not have been unwelcome.

The new score by Devil Music Ensemble keeps things upbeat in the meantime. If nothing else, the soundtrack is an impressive feat of endurance on the musicians' part, remaining high-energy without much of a break for anyone in the trio during the film's full ninety-minute running time. They don't go for a specifically "asian" sound, and do a very nice job reacting to what's on-screen, punching things up during the action sequences and keeping everything moving during the talky middle section. They're not above having a little fun reminding the audience what some of these visuals would later evolve into, either: The buck-toothed "chief bodyguard" gets a few mocking notes when he first appears, and the audience loved the whipping noises they worked in the first time White Monkey breaks out the kung fu.

(If you're reading this in September through November of 2008, Devil Music Ensemble is touring with the movie; check their website to see when they are playing near you. Other shows may be scheduled at later dates.)

To be completely honest, Red Heroine is significant by happenstance rather than design or even merit; it was not the first martial arts feature nor likely the best of the period. It just happens to be the earliest that is still around in its entirety. It's got some weaknesses, to be sure, but fans of the genre should check it out if the opportunity presents itself: Both the movie and the new soundtrack are fun, and it's a chance to see the wuxia film in its embryonic form.

Also at HBS.

Shamo (Gwan Gaai)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Though they often wind up on American shelves labeled as just "Asian", the movies that come out of the various countries in that corner of the world tend to have distinct flavors. With the world getting smaller for all of us, it is therefore not a complete surprise that we're starting to see more obvious crossbreeds like Shamo (and Sasori, also at the festival) - garish Japanese craziness mixed with brutal Hong Kong action.

Shamo is based on a manga by Izo Hashimoto, but relocated to Hong Kong for this film (while most of the characters are given Chinese names in the spoken dialog, the Japanese names are used in the subtitles, so that's how they'll be referred to here). It tells the story of Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who is sent to prison at the age of sixteen for the brutal murders of his parents. While inside, he's initially gang-raped, but soon meets karate master Kurogawa (Francis Ng), who molds him into an extraordinary fighter. Upon release (he was sentenced as a juvenile), he just wants to find his sister Natsumi (Weiying Pei), whom he fears has fallen into a life of vice, much as he has. He finds prostitute Megumi (Annie Liu) instead, and enters the world of mixed martial arts to try and raise his profile so that Natsumi can find him, which exposes him to a whole new group of characters: Sugawara (Masato), the reigning champion; Konuzuke, the man behind the LF ("Lethal Fight") league; Fujiyoshi, the big guy who becomes Ryo's manager, and Ryuchi Yamasaki (Dylan Kuo), the half-blind trainer trying to start a competing, less corrupt organization.

Director Soi Cheang's debut feature, Dog Bite Dog, had a reputation for shocking violence and bleakness, and while I haven't seen it to compare, I suspect that Shamo is a little more mainstream. It's still by no means a sanitized, comfortable movie: Ryo and Megumi live squarely in the underbelly of Hong Kong, with Ryo frequently coming off as little more than a caged animal. The world of LF is suitably garish, with Konuzuke happily treating fighters as mere grist for the mill, and the most brutal violence generally reserved for those who deserve it least.

Full review at EFC.

Robo Rock

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Every once in a while, when I'm looking at the Japanese offerings at the video store or a genre festival like Fantasia, I have to stop and wonder - does all this stuff really get a theatrical release over there? I don't know. By the time they cross the Pacific to fill slots at a festival or a small video distributor's release schedule, who knows which are the mainstream hits, the direct-to-video releases, or the Japanese equivalents of a Sci-Fi Channel TV movie? For all I know, Robo Rock is some friends with a consumer HD video camera shooting guerrilla style before handing it off to their other friends who can do wonders with a small CGI budget. It has that feel at times.

There aren't many robots at the start. The film is narrated by Masaru Higawara (Shun Shioya), a slacker-type working as a "handyman" - basically, someone who does odd jobs for a variety of clients. Those jobs are assigned to him by "mediators", in Masaru's case, shady club owner Ibuse (Kenichi Endo). He lives with his girlfriend Kiriko (Minami), a tattoo artist who only knows one design, and hangs out with Kou (Shoichi Honda), another handyman who does more dangerous work. Things are running at their usual just-short-of-disaster level when he teams with Kou to deliver a rare vinyl album that is more than it seems. And then there's Etsaru Nirasawa (Yuichiro Nakayama), a bespectacled otaku who claims to be from the Disaster Prevention Center. According to him, certain doom is headed toward earth and only Masaru's voice can activate the long-lost "Land Zeppelin" giant robot, which is the only hope of stopping it.

There's a lot to Robo Rock that feels kind of rough. The cast, for instance, often seems to be imitating something else: Shioya's Masaru is the would-be rocker with more enthusiasm than talent; Minami is the shrew that constantly belittles him. Nakayama is doing something of a sad-sack variation of the role Masi Oka plays on Heroes, and Shoichi Honda... When his Kou first appears on-screen, saying little but blessed with an impressive afro, my first thought was "Tadanobu Asano's stunt double". There's also a pair of gangsters, "Alpha Tom" and "Beta Tom", who are flamboyant and quirky in the exact way a person might expect. The actors do well enough following the templates, but can't for the most part bring them to individual life.

Full review at EFC.

Sakigake!! Otokojuku (Be a Man! Samurai School)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Tak Sakaguchi was at the Fantasia screening of Be a Man! Samurai School, and every once in a while, the writer/director/star would pause the Q&A, ask if we wanted to see some action, and engage in a little stage fighting with another stuntman who was in town as a guest of the festival. That was a big crowd-pleaser; and it's what Sakaguchi is best at. He's not exactly bad at comedy, but he does tend to fall back on what he knows.

Here, Sakaguchi plays Momotaro Tsurugi, one of a number of students starting the new year at the little-known but highly-exclusive school of the title. There's also clumsy Tyuji Tomaru (Shin'taro Yameda), and scarred Genji Togashi (Shoei), who cries out "grit!" to show his desire to have the school make him a man. Less enthusiastic is Hidemaro Gokuji (Hiroyuki Onoue), who comes from a long line of samurai and yakuza but prefers a far less violent lifestyle himself. This, of course, will not be found at Sakigake!! Otokojuku, which is every cliché about abusive teacher-student and upperclassman-freshman relations turned up to eleven. And that's before the return of Omito Date (Hideo Sakaki), an expelled student looking for revenge.

Those who've seen Cromartie High School will note that Sakaguchi is in somewhat familiar territory for his writing and directing debut: As in Cromartie, much of the movie, especially in the first half, is episodic, a group of loosely linked sketches that are generally pretty amusing, although some jokes might be getting lost in translation. The casting sometimes seems strange, too - none of the actors playing teenagers appear to be under twenty-five; thirty-two year-old Sakaguchi actually comes the closest. There's this weird sequence in the middle when bulky, full-mustached Genji is on a blind date with a girl who actually looks like a schoolgirl, and Western audiences might not be sure how to react - are we supposed to take it at face value of this being a mis-match because the guy is ugly, should we just overlook the fact that it looks like he could be this teenage girl's father, or is this some sort of gag on how Japanese movies often seem cast high-school boys with actors five years older than the actresses playing high-school girls? That segment lands with a thud, which is unfortunate, because a lot of the other jokes work.

Full review at EFC.

Trailer Park of Terror

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The director was candid during the Q&A following the film, saying that it took the various groups trying to develop the Trailer Park of Terror comic as a movie several attempts before they hit on an approach that worked. And even then, they weren't totally satisfied with the approach they wound up taking - they really tried to avoid making it a movie where six teenagers take a wrong turn off the main road and... Well, you know. That's just what wound up working.

The detour they take in the rain leads to a nasty trailer park, one which disappears and reappears so that its ghoulish residents can take more victims. The "queen" of the park is Norma (Nichole Hiltz), who once aspired to leave the place but instead wound up making a deal with the devil (Trace Adkins) to kill its residents, only to find herself trapped with them forever. The latest bus to have mechanical troubles contains Pastor Lewis (Matthew Del Negro) and the six troubled teens he's been at a retreat with: Gothy Bridget (Jeanette Brox), wiseass Alex (Ryan Carnes), gay Michael (Ricky Mabe), sex addict Amber (Hayley Marie Norman), porn addict Jason (Cody McMains), and drug fiend Tiffany (Stefanie Black). They run into Norma, who seems like the only one there, but the trailers she sends them to are occupied by ghouls far less gregarious than her.

There are plenty of wonderful people who live in trailer parks; as you might expect, none will be featured here. The residents of the park are pretty disgusting human beings when we first meet them in a prologue, and Timothy Dolan's script has fun translating every trailer-trash stereotype they can think of into a worthy horror-movie villain fitting with the theme. You get the junkie, the slut, the morbidly obese woman, and the small-time crook. The most stomach-churning is probably Ed Corbin's Sgt. Stank, who probably made his homemade jerky from roadkill before death gave him a new calling.

Full review at EFC.

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