Saturday, February 11, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 13: Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain and Sex & Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy

Oops, I skipped Mookie and Bruce wound up going first this round! Not that it really matters, because this is not a real game as opposed to a game-shaed thing, but fortunately fate made it up to Mookie.
Bruce rolls a 17 and lands in the Tsui Hark zone, specifically Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. I don't tend to give a lot of thought to connecting the figures with the movies - maybe for "season 2", I'll try to have the figures be more in-character - but this did make me ponder that about five years separated Bruce Lee's death from Tsui Hark's first film as a director, and, dang, does that seem like a great what-if!
Mookie, meanwhile, rolls a 20! That gets him to Sex & Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy, which I was kind of annoyed didn't play Boston back when 3D was at its peak and Chinese film distribution in the US was just starting to take tis current shape. I was mistaken to feel that way.

The rule with 20s is that you get a freebie from the recent arrivals shelf, but I kind of forgot that, so Mookie benefits from a Halloween viewing of Army of Darkness.

So how did this weird round work out?

Shu Shan - Xin Shu shan jian ke (Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Even beyond Tsui Hark remaking this film 20 years later, it's fun to look at this and the big fantasy adventures he would make in the 21st Century and see how those are what he wanted to do all along - he did this right at the start of his career, and it's just taken circumstances this long to catch up, between Mainland Chinese financing and more accessible effects.

For as much as watching this forty years later is to imagine what he would be doing with modern CGI - he stages these scenes the same way modern directors do, a generation ahead of time - it often seems to take its inspiration from Saturday Serials as much as anything else, a regular barrage of action that tosses soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) into a newer, crazier situation every fifteen minutes or so, teaming him first with an aloof master (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and then an equally overwhelmed monk (Mang Hoi). The pacing kind of feels like a serial edited down to a movie, a combination of zipping from one episode to another to sort of running in loops as the crew goes to and from the Ice Queen's Palace, the sort of quest that there are lots of stops on and a roundabout path that occasionally allows the good guys to fight each other.

The action's a ton of fun, though, starting with classic period swordplay done exceptionally well - Corey Yuen and star Yuen Biao are handling a lot of the martial arts, and Yuen gets to play off Sammo Hung in the early going - to increasingly crazy and abstract wire fu that Tsui and his crew put together well. For all that Tsui is anticipating later digital blockbusters, he's still building monsters with papier-mache and ingenuity, with a demon represented by a dyed-red sheet being stretched over faces and other shapes a standout for being exceptionally practical but nevertheless very cool. Effects have got to both communicate and look cool on screen. The martial-arts team does darn good meshing weightlessness and momentum throughout.

This is also about the right time to be a star-making performance for Yuen Biao, who previously seemed to be one of his classmates Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's favorite sparring partners but got few lead roles; he's got a charmingly earnest persona here, a puppy dog audiences will happily follow who slips easily into screen fighting in a way that seems natural. He pairs well with Mang Hoi, a different sort of naive (there's a real delight in movies like this where the action feels like it's following sidekicks until they come through), while Adam Cheng and Damian Lau are a more abrasive odd couple as the masters. A lot of folks get underused - even with two roles, one wants more Sammo Hung, for instance, while Brigitte Lin doesn't show up until 45 minutes in and has little to do, which is also when Moon Lee makes her first appearance and makes the audience wish that the filmmakers knew what they had and gave her a bigger role.

Underneath, there's something going on about war wearing down the gates of Hell, making it possible for demons to escape, but Tsui's not looking to make something that deep, even if he does see how that might strike a chord with viewers. He's just trying to make the big wuxia action he wants to see on screen, and honing his chops for when he'll have the right tools.

3D Yuk po tuen: Gik lok bo gam (3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy)

* (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

Look, I'm not going to tell you that the original Sex & Zen was a good movie - although it apparently played the Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings at the Allston Cinema (remember that?) just before I made this into a full-time movie blog so I don't have any record of what I thought, though I remember it as mostly good fun, a Category III film built to entertain as well as titillate. This reboot from 2011 is more porn-y, not much more than excuses to stitch its sex scenes together.

The main problem, though, is that it's mean. There's not much joy in its sex, just selfish lust and cruelty; though Ruizhu (Hara Saori) initially intends to learn from the Prince (Tony Ho Wah-Chiu), the latter is a despot and the former picks up his attitudes quickly enough, and the audience is left to get its vicarious pleasure in watching people be victimized, with the story taking increasingly violent as it moves toward the end.

The filmmakers certainly seem to be having fun with their 3D and virtual backlot tools, at least - this was during the period when folks were shooting with actual 3D rigs, and it's just professional enough to be watchable - the cast (many imported from Japan's adult film industry) understand their particular sorts of sex appeal and play to it, and while the non-digital scenery is not elaborate, it doesn't immediately strike one as cheap.

It's not fun, though. There may be some who get some thrill out of erotica leaving them feeling kind of gross, but that's not for me.

Army of Darkness

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Army of Darkness wasn't quite my first big cult film - I'm of the age that inhaled Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school - but it hit me just right in college, and was probably my favorite movie for a long time. I don't know how many copies of it I've purchased - a VHS, probably 2 DVD editions, an HD-DVD, a Blu-ray, and now this Shout Factor 4K disc. This will probably be the last, unless I find a 35mm print at a yard sale somewhere, and what are the odds of that?

I occasionally worry that I'll outgrow it, but it never quite happens. The jokes are still good. Sam Raimi stages action and slapstick as well as anybody ever has, and has a unique ability to blend the two so that they both impress without undercutting each other (someone should have put him and Jackie Chan together at some point). Bruce Campbell taps into this unique dumbass persona that makes Ash weirdly relatable whether he's being a moron or weirdly competent. It's earnest in its love for old Harryhausen films but is its own thing rather than a slavish recreation.

Why? I think because it came at a very specific point in this team's careers. This was probably not not meant to be one last project right at the point where they were still folks screwing around but had just graduated to having a real crew, making a movie for fun before everyone got professional, but it sure feels like it exists at that turning point, and that's a large part of what makes it a blast. It's why even the studio interference works in the movie's favor; rather than sulk, Raimi made that absolutely bonkers ending.

I don't love it quite as intently as I did in college and soon thereafter; I can't. But I appreciate it as fun in a way that is awful hard to accomplish on purpose.

Mookie really lucks out with that 20, doesn't he?

Mookie: 43 ¼ stars
Bruce: 51 ¾ stars

Next up: A big jump forward in time, a couple more favorites, including a bit more 3D.

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