Killing Car

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“Because ‘Killing Asian model of few words’ wouldn’t fit on the DVD sleeve.”

This is a surreal revenge thriller, which begins at a scrapyard where the bickering of a couple is interrupted by an Oriental woman (Tsang), who shoots them dead and takes a car. A series of similar encounters follows, which take a similar form: we are introduced to one or more characters; then the woman shows up, and kills them, leaving a toy car behind at the scene as a marker. This includes a photographer and her assistant; an antiques dealer and his girlfriend; the owner of a dance club, etc. Meanwhile, two cops are following the trail of corpses and Hot Wheels, and it gradually becomes clear that the woman’s actions are tied to a car accident the previous year, with which all her victims had a connection of some kind.

It’s a very chilly piece, with a central character about whom we know almost nothing for the great majority of the film, making it difficult to empathize with her murderous rampage. Meanwhile, it doesn’t take long before we realize that just about everyone else to whom we’re introduced, is going to get shot, so there’s no point in getting attached to, or even caring about them. The role is one that was written for Tsang, who never appeared in anything else, as far as I can tell: that probably says more than anything else. She’s not bad, and has a certain cold charisma that’s appropriate, but there just isn’t enough on which to hang any criticism of her performance. Certainly, despite a willingness to shed her clothes, she’s nowhere near as good as Brigitte Lahaie was in the other Rollin flick we’ve reviewed here, Fascination – interestingly, that appears to be explicitly referenced in one scene here, with a scythe being wielded in a very similar way.

It does remind me somewhat of Ms. 45 too, with a lead character who lets her violent deeds speak louder than her words, though the motive there was a good deal clearer, and placed up front. The highlight is probably an early gun-battle in an almost deserted fairground, which has an eerie, suspenseful quality that’s quite effective, and it’s interesting to see a Rollin movie which does not include female vampires, a staple of his work. However, on balance, I think a few more fangs, perhaps accompanied by a less willfully-misleading title, might not have been a bad thing.

Dir: Jean Rollin
Star: Tiki Tsang, Frederique Haymann, Jean-Jacques Lefeuvre, Karine Swenson

Kill ‘Em All

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“Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.”

Evil mastermind Snakehead (Liu) kidnaps eight of the world’s top assassins, and transports them to a bunker in his Bangkok lair, where he makes them fight each other to the death, laughing maniaally all the while. Why? Because he’s an evil mastermind, that’s why: it’s what they do for amusement, rather than watch reality shows or potter around in the garden. After the numbers have been whittled down, Som (Siripoing, who played the mother in Chocolate) blocks the gas system used by Snakehead to enforce discipline, and leads an escape from the killing chamber. However, Snakehead had a lot more minions who need to be defeated before she and Gabriel (Messner) finally get to the boss level.

If that plot summary is terser than usual, that’s because there is much less plot than usual, in what is not much more than a thin, if occasionally clever, contrived excuse to slap together a series of fight scenes. As such, logic doesn’t enter in to it much. For example, is there some kind of employment scheme to which evil overlords can subscribe, which provides faceless henchmen willing to go to their deaths in droves? And if so, why not just get them to fight each other for your entertainment? The motive which spurs Snakehead to spend considerable time, effort and money on his scheme – not, it eventually is revealed, for the first time – is completely opaque, and few of the assassins come over any better, with little time or effort put into their characterization. Case in point: Gabriel tries to commit suicide just before his kidnapping, but it comes out of nowhere so has absolutely no emotional impact.

No, this is all about the martial arts, and in this aspect, the film does deliver – albeit more in quantity than quality, without the level of invention seen in, say, The Raid: Redemption. The different styles on view from the participants do give a decent degree of variety, and The Kid (Man, who also did the fight choereography) showcases some impressive moves. There’s certainly no shortage of action, to the extent that this feels more like a video-game with occasional cut scenes to move the plot forward, than an action film with set-pieces of martial arts. However, while tasty enough during consumption, it still ends up being entirely unfilling, and is like a Chinese meal which leaves you hungry, 15 minutes after eating it.

Dir: Raimund Huber
Star: Ammara Siripong, Johnny Messner, Gordon Liu, Tim Man

Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition and Torture

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“I should have paid more attention to the second-half of the title.”

This starts with a memorable sequence in which Inoshika Ocho (Ike) fights off a number of attackers, armed only with her umbrella; albeit, an umbrella that is rather more heavily-armed than most. While she succeeds, she ends up losing all of her clothes in the process, leading to some artful staging in which the discarded umbrella is used to hide her naughties bits. Unfortunately, the rest of the film, while occasionally reaching the same levels of unsanity is largely crude and unpleasant. Even the central concept – a gang smuggling drugs in the vaginas of junkies – falls firmly into that category.

Ocho falls into the gang’s clutches when an unfortunate wardrobe choice leads them to mistake her for one of their mules. When they discover there is no heroin in our heroine, they try to frame her for the “Crotch Gouge” murders, which they have been carrying out themselves to inspire fear in their employees. She is assisted in escaping this peril by the clan’s former boss, Joji (Uchida), who has just got out of jail to find his spot taken by Goda (Endo), who has embarked on the scheme in question. Since Ocho had some history with an earlier clan boss, after he sacrificed his own digit to save hers, when she was caught cheating in a gambling den, she teams up with Joji to restore the clan’s good name.

Its an odd combination that manages to mix nasty levels of sexual violence with slapstick comedy, and the results are unsatisfying in just about every way. There’s no shortage of breasts on view – particularly at the finale, which echoes the opening, except with the nipple-count increased by a factor of x50. However, the film also diverts itself off into a number of thoroughly uninteresting subplots, which chew up time and offer very little except more Japanese women being pawed. A sequel to Sex and Fury, despite a decent lead character, there was almost nothing here to inspire any interest in seeing its predecessor. I was left with a feeling of distinct exploitation, and not in a good way.

Dir: Teruo Ishii
Star: Reiko Ike, Ryohei Uchida, Tatsuo Endo

Killer K

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Nikita meets Alias, while on vacation in South Korea”

Let’s be clear, right out of the gate. There is really not much original about this Korean mini-series, which takes huge chunks, almost wholesale from Nikita and Alias, to the extent, for example, that we perpetually referred to one character as “Amanda”, since she reminded us so much of Melinda Clarke’s character from Nikita, right down to her fashion choices. However, as long as you’re not looking for anything startling in the way of originality, this is slick yet gritty, with characters that are interesting to spend time with, and a handle on the action that’s easily the match for its equivalent in the West. Let’s start with some significant plot exposition, because there’s quite a lot of characters and story crammed into the three one-hour (or slightly more) episodes.

Spoilers Episode 1. Cha Yeon-Jim (Groo) is having a bad day – she just got expelled from school – and it’s about to get an awful lot worse. Hanging out by the docks, she and her friends get into a confrontation with some workers, only for things to be interrupted by a scripture-quoting hitman, Jang Se Wook, who shows up and starts shooting everyone, on both sides. Cha escapes, but when her friend is killed, as he tries to report what he saw to the police, she realizes she’s in deep trouble. Policeman Choi Tae Young (Baek), who was also at the scene, tries to track her down, but Jang is also after Cha. He wants her to return a flask of green liquid she took in the confusion, and kidnaps her mother to force Cha into compliance. At the handover, Mom is impaled by Jang’s sword and Cha is gunned down and left for dead.

Episode 2. Chief Min Ji Young (Park) comes on the scene, and saves Cha, faking her death. Min works for the same company as Jang, the Mirae Corp, a medical company run by Kwon Do Hwan. They are engaged in some shady experiments involving stem-cell research, and in particular the creation of artificial humans for organ harvesting, with the protection of high-up government ministers. To protect their company secrets, their division SS1 operates ruthlessly: Min recruits Cha as a new killer, not telling her Jang is simply another arm, but training her as an assassin, with the lure of eventually tracking down and taking revenge on the man who killed her mother. Cha’s initial targets are those who pose a threat to her employers, but Min has her own agenda, and when Jang has eventually proven to have outlived his usefulness, she has no compunction about turning her two killers on each other.

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Episode 3. Choi accidentally bumped into Cha in part two, under her new identity, and now teams up with Yoo Sung Ho (Kim), who used to be part of SS1, but bailed with his lover, Cha’s mother, and went into hiding – he was replaced by Chief Min. They are seeking evidence that will let them bring down Mirae and expose their human experiments. Cha wants to leave the organization, having fallen for Go Young Min, a boy at school. Min initially requests “one last hit” – so you know that’s going to work out just fine… In the process, Go sees Cha standing over the corpse of her target, holding the murder weapon, and as a result has to be terminated by Chief Min. That, and the discovery that her schoolmates have been used as guinea-pigs turns Cha against Mirae, and she links up with Choi, as Kwon prepares to reveal his latest plan. End spoilers

Phew. Plenty going on there, with enough for a full 13- or 22-episode order of most series, between all the twists, turns and revelations e.g. turns out Cha’s relationship to Chairman Kwon is rather more personal than she is aware. Given how much gets crammed in, the opening installment is a bit of a slow start. The entire first episode is more or given over to setting up the scenario, with Cha showing very little of the skills she has developed later on. She’s semi-competent in basic martial arts, which is perfectly fine when it comes to beating up fellow pupils. But we soon find out that this level of skill is far from enough, when she comes up against Jang and the other professional killers of SS1. Early on, it’s Choi who is most entertaining, portraying a dutiful and dogged cop whose superiors refuse to give him more than a gas pistol which is, similarly, pretty useless in the clutch.

 It’s the second part where things really take off, as events jump two years forward; the show takes Cha’s training largely as read, save for a quick montage. Instead, her new cold-bloodedness is amply demonstrated in the opening sequence, where we see her sniping out her target at a wedding, despite the presence of children which makes Chief Min call off the hit. It’s clear that this is a new, focused girl, with skills to match. Of course, as is standard for the genre, she still has to deal with everyday issues, since she has been sent back to school [which, conveniently, also offers a suitable tower from which to carry out missions, as can be seen above]. From there, through to her final confrontation with Cha and his minions, it’s an excellent bit of TV, one of the most intense action-heroine episodes I’ve seen in any genre, with the heroine taking obvious damage, both mentally and physically, as things proceed.

Let’s pause for breath before we hit the finale. One thing we noted was that Korean rules regarding what can be broadcast on TV are apparently a good deal laxer than in the US. This was, apparently, a late-night series, and it’s not clear if this was “over the air” or cable; there’s apparently advert breaks, but that could still make it something like FX or AMC. [Edit: CGV channel is “a movie cable channel”, so SHOtime or HBO would be closer parallels] The violence is generally crunchy and squibby, but it’s the female nudity that’s an unexpected pleas… er, particularly striking. :) There does also appear to be some confusion over the title of the show, which I’ve seen called several different variations of the letter K, as noted above. Here, I’ve gone with what appears on the intro screen in English for each episode.

We were kinda wondering where things might go in the last episode, with Cha having apparently sorted things out. Never mind: a whole new catalog of problems raise their heads, as the removal of her justification for assassination leaves her seeking a return to the normal life, one Chief Min is none too keen to offer. With its emphasis on discovering the truth about SS1 and the organization behind it, this episode reminded me of Alias after Sidney Bristow discovered. Meanwhile, dealing with boy issues was a throwback to early Buffy. However, the human experimentation thread was a fresh ingredient, and the episode didn’t pull from the darkness, with a subplot involving a Mirae whistleblower and SS1’s efforts to hush it up. Even if Cha and Min suddenly can’t hit the side of a barn in their final confrontation, the threads are satisfactorily tied up down the stretch, with an ending pilfered shamelessly from My Wife is Gangster 2, that hopefully hints at more to come down the line.

As noted, most of the content is material with which most genre aficionados will already be extremely familar, but there seems always to be room for another “faked death assassin” – Nikita alone has already led to three movies and a pair of television series. It’s the execution(s) that matter here, and this is easily the match of Western action heroine productions of late. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up heading over to the West in some form or other, most likely a remake, as has been the case for some many Korean, Japanese and HK movies in recent years. If so, they’ll have to do sterling work to match up with this original.

[Thanks to Hyomil for most of the pics. Killer K can be enjoyed in a subbed version online, through sites such as viki.com, albeit with a somewhat irritating sous-title commentary, which makes watching the show like sitting in the theater with a bunch of chatty teenagers. Still, better than nothing!]

Dir: Kim Jong Hyun
Star: Han Groo, Park Hyo Joo, Baek Do Bin, Kim Jung Tae
a.k.a. Girl K, Little Girl K, Killer Girl K

Sasori

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The Story of Ricky meets Saviour of the Soul.”

While sharing the heroine’s name with the renowned Female Convict Scorpion series, it’s not clear how much of an official remake this is: it’s supposedly based on a manga series, which I don’t quite recall being the case with its predecessors (it was a while ago I saw the original, though – must get round to re-viewing it for the site at some point soon). The concept is not dissimilar, however: Sasori (Mizuno) is sent to prison, where she is brutalized, but eventually escapes, and seeks vengeance on those who were responsible for putting her inside to begin with. However, it’s really poor at providing motive or explanation: for example, after Sasori is left for dead, her body is dumped outside the prison, where a corpse-collector (HK veteran, Simon Yam) rescues and revives her, before training her in the ways of top-end martial arts and sending Sasori on her way. Why? Who knows. Similarly, the reason why our heroine is in prison at all, raises more questions than it answers.

It’s a movie of two halves: the first sees her struggling to survive in a prison, where the warden makes the inmates fight each other, in a muddy pit naturally, for his amusement; Sasori ends up battling the evil jail queen, Dieyou (Natsume), and that’s where the Story of Ricky comparisons come in, though without quite the same level of hypergore. But outside the prison, it’s a much more chilly and stylized production, taking place in a city where there’s almost no-one around, except the main characters: that’s where it reminded me of Saviour much more. The fights are a similarly odd mix of wire-fu with ground ‘n’ pound, that are not badly put together: Mizuno occasionally looks the part with a fair degree of conviction, but there’s just too much which doesn’t so much defy expectation, as simply gets none at all.

On the plus side, this isn’t anywhere near as sleazy as some of the entries, which are more “women in prison” than “action heroine”. Despite the mud wrestling, and some costumes that definitely lean towards the exploitative, this is definitely in the latter camp. It’s not particularly outstanding, yet is worth a look if you’re feeling in a forgiving mood.

Dir: Joe Ma
Star: Miki Mizuno, Dylan Kuo, Emme Wong, Nana Natsume
a.k.a. Female Convict Scorpion

Crusade of Vengeance

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“Look! Beneath the cheap silliness, some decent performances lurk…”

It’s easy to dismiss this, for its low production values, sometimes laughable dialogue and wildly-implausible plot – and I could hardly argue. Yet we still enjoyed this, thanks largely to performances which sustained us through the bad matte paintings, clunky lines, and mediocre action scenes. Of course, to use a pro-wrestling term, we’re huge Rutger marks, so seeing him as evil medieval warlord Grekkor is a big plus, harking back to his work in Flesh + Blood for Paul Verhoeven. Pacula is a “crusader mom” (for want of a better word), back from the Holy Land where she vowed to go after making a deal with God to let her son survive. However, she returns just after Grekkor and his sidekick (Vosloo) have swept her boy off with them. She goes to rescue him, teaming up with three other women on the way, as she heads towards the inevitable confrontation with Grekkor.

Despite a weird Scandinavian accent that seems out of place in what’s supposed to be England (and is actually Lithuania), Pacula does well, bringing the right intensity to her ‘wronged mother’ role. Hauer is fab as we expected, while Vosloo gets to act more than in either Mummy movie, and is actually good. They help hold up a film that occasionally wobbles between uncomfortable rape scenes, silly humour and Culver’s costume, that resembles a fur coat which has gone through a shredder. Between that and her height, she looks more like the model she was, than a forest huntress, but does kick butt in an efficient manner. While the story goes almost exactly as you’d expect, this is one of those cases where you will be entertained, if you allow yourself to be. If no-one will mistake this for a classic, cut the movie some slack, and work with the film, rather than picking holes in it. Especially for those still mourning the death of Xena, the payoff will be more than adequate for a rental on a midweek night.

The film was released by MTI Home Video on January 24th. See their site for more details.
Dir: Byron W. Thompson
Star: Joanna Pacula, Arnold Vosloo, Rutger Hauer, Molly Culver
a.k.a. Warrior Angels

La Culata: Mexican Standoff

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” Like a low-budget Andy Sidaris film. If he was Mexican and couldn’t talk his actresses into undressing.”

I vibrated between 2 and 2 1/2 stars for this, but opted for caution: it’s probably not as bad as it seems, despite an obvious lack of budget and ambition far in reach of its abilities. Or, at least, I maybe liked it a little more. As the alternate title suggests, it’s the third in a series, though information on the first two is scant: there’s no IMDB entry for them, and they appear to have different cast members. The central character is Maria Navajas (Ponce), an abused woman who turned to killing, discovered a talent for it, and took it up as a career. This entry finds her being sought by two different groups of gangsters who believe she ripped them off, as well as the feds. She has to fend them all off, with the aid of a friendly undercover cop (Sevilla) and her agent (played by, according to the IMDB, one of the producers of Napoleon Dynamite!).

There are elements of this that are quite laudable, with a host of strong female characters – not just Navajas, but her main adversary, the mob boss knows as “La Culata” (Cepinska), who has a fondness for female enforcers. Both the roles, and the performances behind them, are interesting enough to hold your attention, and some of the supporting pieces are also decently constructed. However, for every step forward, there’s at least one, and often two back. The storyline is over-stuffed, and at 113 minutes, this would benefit from a lot of editing. The action is largely poorly-shot, probably to conceal the limited combat talents, and with bizarre mis-steps such as one awful moment where the heroine throws her knife down the barrel of an enemy’s gun. Look, if you’re that good with the weapon, just embed it in their eye, alright? There are several moments where it looks like this is going to kick off, but doesn’t – most notably, we never get the expected confrontation between La Culata and Maria, which is a shame. Instead, the finale is the biggest let-down since the Hindenburg.

Certainly, don’t be fooled by cover art which appears to have strayed in from Single White Female, or something similar. This is a zero-budget action movie, but coming from a culture which doesn’t exactly regard women as equals, deserves some credit for putting them front and centre. However, the execution in this case leaves just too much to be desired.

Dir: Jorge Ramirez Rivers
Star: Cecilia Ponce, Anna Cepinska, Guillermo Iván, Manuel Sevilla
a.k.a. Maria Navajas 3

Blubberella

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“Not quite the wholesale disaster this might seem…”

This will only make sense, or be in any way entertaining, if you’ve seen Bloodrayne 3: The Third Reich: because it’s basically the same film, with a really fat chick (Hollister) replacing Natassia Malthe. And when I say, “the same film,” I mean the same storyline, same actors playing the same roles, and same scenes in the same locations. Really, I suspect this must have been made at the same time, with Boll simply swapping out Hollister for Malthe every other take. As there, the heroine is a half-human, half-vampire, who finds herself involved in a Nazi plan to take the powers of vampirism and turn them to their own ends. Except here, it is, of course, a spoof – and one so extremely broad, the makers of those Epic Movie flicks would have been cringing on occasion. Fat jokes, gay jokes, Nazi jokes… No easy target is left unstoned, paved with deliberate anachronisms like Segways and Internet dating.

And yet, even if it took us two sessions to get through this, I can’t bring myself to hate it, not least because of Hollister, who goes at things with gusto. It’s clear this is an actress who does not get to play the lead often, least of all in an action flick (though for obvious reasons, the action can kindly be described as “limited”). Even if this is a parody of one, both her and Boll deserve credit for breaking down one of the taboos seen everywhere in body conscious Hollywood. There are moments here which are just surreal, such as a dream sequence where Blubberella plays a game of Risk with Hitler (played by the director!) and Fletcher in blackface. WTF? No, really: WTF? There’s also a lengthy scene parodying Precious, which is unsurprising, considering it’s about the only other film I can think of where a morbidly obese woman is the heroine.

I probably have a higher opinion of Boll than most people: when he avoids making video-game films, the results can be really good [Darfur and Rampage both kick ass]. However, comedy really isn’t his forte, and too much of this ends up missing its mark, most often through being over-played in one way or another. Rather than a shot-for-shot remake of a film that wasn’t exactly a huge success, Boll and co. might have been better off with a broader spoof of superhero films, which would have given them a bigger palette for their unsubtle satire. That said, I will admit that I did laugh, and laugh out loud, more often than I expected, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Boll’s last attempt at “offense humour,” Postal.

Dir: Uwe Boll
Star: Lindsay Hollister, Brendan Fletcher, Michael Pare, William Belli