Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain

starstarstarstarhalf

“Cool!” battles “Eh?”, and comes out ahead – albeit only after a lengthy struggle.

Going in, I knew this had a reputation for incoherent plotting, but after 10+ years watching HK movies, I figured I’d cope. Wrong: I sank within two minutes. An incomprehensible opening voiceover makes this feel like part 17 of an ongoing series; from there on, characters, sects, and magical kung-fu abilities (such as Shifting Stance, which lets you blink in and out of reality, or the self-explanatory Melting Stance) arrive with rush-hour frequency. Basic principle: various factions struggle for martial arts supremacy. Central to these battles are four women, who initally fight among themselves, before realising they must band together to face the ultimate enemy. If I said more, I’d be engaging in wild speculation.

The fact that you don’t really know who is good, evil or any point in between does hurt the film, and every scene with dialogue seems to make things worse. Just to confuse things even more, Brigitte Lin plays two of the women, though Cheung Man perhaps does best as the feisty, light-hearted Purple, whose ambitions exceed her actual skills. Lose any desire to understand what’s happening: the sets and costumes are spectacular, and the fights are imaginative, despite cheesy visuals, and sound effects that appear to have been lifted from Return of the Jedi. Instead of following the plot, try to copy the cool magical gestures of the characters. We did. :-) Maybe some day, we too will be able to regenerate a torso from the severed stumps of our legs…

Dir: Chin Wing Keung
Star: Gong Li, Brigitte Lin, Cheung Man
a.k.a. Semi-Gods and Semi-Devils

Her Name is Cat

starstarstar

“A mix of the horribly effective, and the plain horrible.”

Clarence Ford seems to be after a PG-13 rated version of his hit, Naked Killer, reining in the sex while keeping the action. That it doesn’t succeed is more due to staggering ineptness in the superfluous attempts to give it emotional depth. Any movie is in trouble when someone says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” never mind a kick-ass action flick. Fortunately, that side is luscious, well-staged and shot, and it’s this that saves the film from being a disaster. The above rating is thus a composite: 4.5 for action, 1.0 for drama, divide by two, and round up for the wildly gratuitous, wholly inaccurate, very non-PC poster.

Wong plays Yin Ying (a.k.a. Cat, I guess), an assassin from China who falls in love with the cop hunting her (Michael Wong), and wants out of the murder business. But he wants her employer too, who thus sends other killers after the policeman. She defends him, and battle is joined. The Cat/cop relationship is awful, impeded by a portentous voiceover and an apparent ignorance that this has been done a million times before. You may also find yourself wondering whether a full wedding dress is standard gear aboard Hong Kong yachts.

It doesn’t help that Michael Wong is wooden as ever, though even Anthony Wong would be hard pressed in scenes requiring him to mope over home videos of his ex-wife and kid, as mournful easy-listening music plays. When Cat goes to war, however, the results are excellent: particularly outstanding are a brawl in a burning building, and a death nicked from The Omen. Could have done without the workout footage, but given the amount of noodles Cat eats (a nice touch, since her family died of starvation), it’s probably necessary.

Dir: Clarence Ford
Star: Almen Wong, Michael Wong, Kenix Kwok, Ben Lam

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

starstarstar

“Do not confuse with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

In the 70’s, Shaw Brothers hooked up with Western studios, to various effect, e.g. the inept Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires, made in conjunction with Hammer. Co-production works rather better here, lending genuine exotic locations, and an endless array of stuntmen, prepared to hurl themselves off things. Jones heads to HK after a couple of her minions are captured by the evil, lesbian, sword-wielding Dragon Lady (Stevens), intent on bringing down the operation, with a little local assistance.

We wondered if her astonishingly bad make-up – for which Dobson received a separate credit – was an attempt to distract from other aspects of the movie. In the end, however, we decided that in the 1970’s, everyone applied face-paint by dangling upside down and dipping their head in a vat of mixed cosmetics. It redefines “undercover”, though when you’re a 6’2″ black woman in Hong Kong, you might as well flaunt it. Between her make-up and her dress sense, Cleopatra Jones certainly does that.

Stevens provides a better nemesis for Jones than in the first movie, though everything takes a while to get going. Jones’ hench-girl (“Tanny”, aka Tim Lei – unlike the now-vanished Dobson, she was acting as recently as 1994) provides useful feistiness, despite opening the front-door before having a shower, letting the bad guys in. You just can’t get the sidekicks these days… The finale, however, is mad, with much destruction of property and extras. The sort of film that could only be made in Hong Kong, where stunt-men are cheap.

Interestingly, the HK Movie Database reckons one of them was Yuen Wo-Ping, of The Matrix fame, though there’s absolutely no bullet-time here. But at the start, when the boat is boarded, check out the first guy to climb on – is it Jackie Chan? It’s possible: at the time (1975), he wasn’t a big star. Against this, he was more associated with Golden Harvest than Shaw Brothers and…well, you think someone else would have noticed by now! But take a look.

Dir: Chuck Bail
Star: Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Tanny, Norman Fell

Annie Oakley of the Wild West, by Walter Havighurst

starstar

“An appetiser rather than a main course, that diverts from the topic far too often.”

Annie Oakley was one of the earliest “girls with guns”. In her role as a sharpshooter, performing with the likes of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, she travelled the globe, appearing in front of Presidents, Kings and Emperors. She shot a cigarette held by the future Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (accuracy later deplored by American newspapers, after the nations went to war in 1917). At 90 feet, she could shoot a dime tossed in midair, or hit the edge of a playing card, then add five or six more holes as it fluttered to the ground. In seventeen years and 170,000 miles of travel, she only missed four shows, and even in her sixties, could still take down a hundred clay pigeons in a row.

So why is this book unsatisfactory? Largely because much of it isn’t actually about her. Originally written in 1954, Havighurst uses Oakley as a key to write about…well, everything else connected to her, and you’ll find half a dozen pages passing without any mention of its supposed subject. The author goes off the track with alarming frequency: Buffalo Bill, a.k.a. William Cody, is the main beneficiary, and someone unschooled in the topic will learn almost as much about him as Oakley. There are some effective moments, particularly when Havighurst depicting the loving relationship between Annie and her husband, Frank Butler, whom she met while outshooting him in Cincinnati. Married for over fifty years, they died less than three weeks apart. But such passages are few and far between; the actual Oakley-related content of the book is disappointing, though I’m now keen to track down a better work on the topic.

By: Walter Havighurst
Publisher: Castle Books [$8.98 from HalfPrice Books]