Challenge of the Lady Ninja

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“Well, it’s never dull, at least…”

short0447Chinese woman Wong Siu-Wai (Yeung) is training in the secret arts of ninjitsu, and passes her final test, much to the chagrin of her master’s other star pupil. Immediately afterward, she gets news of her father’s death at the hands of evil collaborator and former fiance Lee Tong (Chen), who works with the Japanese occupying forces. Oh, yeah: did I forget to mention this takes place in World War 2? Because the movie did as well. Anyway, she returns to China and sets about recruiting other, similarly-skilled women, who will be able to help her take revenge. Only, her nemesis has his own minions, who aren’t short on martial arts abilities either, and it’s only through the mysterious help of a masked ally that she is able to avoid an early defeat. Of course, she perseveres, and along the way there are shocking revelations, gratuitous mud-wrestling and a few bars of music apparently lifted directly from Star Wars.

The film can’t decide whether it was to be empowering or exploitative. For every scene of the heroines standing up for themselves and making their own way in the world, there’s one where they are stripped down to their underwear for the flimsiest of reasons. This starts early on, when it appears one of Wong’s ninja skills is to transform from her standard red jump-suit (as shown on the right) into something which looks like a stripper version of Tinkerbell, resulting in all the men around her collapsing with lust. Or there’s the sequence where she fights Lee’s only female bodyguard, who evens the playing-field by emptying an industrial-sized vat of baby oil on it. Or that one of her recruits is a prostitute, whose sole skill is apparently turning men into drooling imbeciles, at the frequent drop of her dress. The virulent anti-Japanese/pro-Chinese tone also gets old, and is kinda odd, since this was a Taiwanese production, so I wouldn’t expect them to be quite so pro-mainland.

That said, the more traditional action is certainly copious and generally fairly well-staged: Yeung is doubled for the more acrobatic elements, but it’s not made hideously obvious, and is helped by the fact that she is doing the rest of the fighting herself, and decently too. The opponents provide an interesting selection, notably the Japanese guy (Robert Tai) with a scorpion tattooed on his head. The revelations mentioned above, do come out of nowhere, and things end so suddenly I had to rewind to try and figure out what the hell just happened: this resulted from the combination of crappy print quality, making the final fight look as if it takes place underground, and the final fight actually taking place underground. Incoherent, surreal and nonsensical? Guilty as charged, m’lud. I probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dir: Lee Tso Nam
Star: Elsa Yeung, Kam Yin Fie, Peng Kong, and Chen Kuan-Tai
a.k.a Never Kiss a Ninja, Chinese Super Ninjas 2

Zero Woman 2

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Confusingly titled in the West, without any indication it wasn’t the first of the rebooted franchise, this perhaps explains why there’s little or no explanation of… Well, anything, really. What is Section Zero? Who is Rei? Where did she come from? “Never mind about that,” seems to be the film’s attitude, “Here are Natsuki Ozawa’s breasts to distract you from such trifles.” That’s particularly the case early on, when it seems Rei is unable to go five minutes without showing them off, whether it’s through being molested, becoming inescapably randy or simply taking a soapy shower (to wash off the blood after a kill, so I guess it’s a shower necessary to the plot – it also replays the intruder shower scene from its predecessor, with a different ending).

Fortunately, their novelty apparently wears off for the director, and we get on with the actual plot, which involves a stolen suitcase of bearer bonds, belonging to a politician. Rei is sent to retrieve them, working her way up through the shady network of fences which handle such things. As help, she’s assigned a member of the regular police (Watari? – credit information is basically non-existent here), but he turns out to have his own plan, to recover the bearer bonds himself and make a nice profit by selling them back to their owner. However, said owner is also working his own way up the chain, and kidnaps the sister of one of the thieves, as leverage for the return of his property. That brings the perp (Kosugi, the son of Sho Kosugi, iconic star of a million ninja flicks) into an alliance with Rei, and they storm the warehouse where the hostage is held, for a bloody confrontation.

It’s more obvious that this is clearly shot on video – and not particularly HD video at that, though that may be a product of its era as much as anything. This generaly gets better as it goes along, unless you are interested in Ms. Ozawa’s breasts, in which case your mileage may vary. The plotting contains a decent number of twists and turns, and Kosugi helps deliver a competent amount of action. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t struggle through the earlier sections. In particular a scene where she is forced by a fence whose day job is a butcher, to sniff coke and then raped by him. While at least he gets his just deserts (let’s just say, there’s a meat-hook involved), it’s both entirely unnecessary and clearly intended to titillate the audience. Not cool, and it left a bad taste in my mouth, which even an impressively nihilistic conclusion was unable to remove entirely.

Dir: Daisuke Gotoh
Star: Natsuki Ozawa, Saori Iwama, Kane Kosugi, Hiroyuki Watari
a.k.a. Zero Woman

Little Rita of the West

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“Killing off the Western musical, almost a decade before Paint Your Wagon.”

I came into this almost entirely blind, watching it based on the title and the first three minutes off YouTube. You can understand my surprise, after Rita (Pavone) and her German sidekick (Dalla) take out a gang of stagecoach robbers, finishing off by gunning one down in the back, as he lies dazed on the ground, when they… burst into song? Yep, what I didn’t know was, this is actually a musical, designed around the talents of Ms. Pavone, who was apparently a huge pop-star in Italy in the sixties. Hence the songs. Okay, that makes a bit more sense. But it’s still an extremely odd beast, swinging from obvious spoof to apparent seriousness at the drop of a catchy tune.

The plot has Rita “liberating” gold from various bad guys, in conjunction with her Indian chief partner (Mitchell), with the intention of destroying it, believing it’s the root of all evil. That brings her into conflict with “Ringo” – sharing the same of a popular spaghetti Western character, but really a thinly-disguised Man With No Name – and “Django,” a not-at-all disguised copy of that iconic character, down to him dragging a coffin containing a machine-gun, and possessing broken hands. But she then meets and falls for another outlaw, Black Stan (Hill), who ends up sentenced to death after he tries to run off with Rita’s stash of gold awaiting destruction.

Much of this clearly isn’t intended to be serious, such as Rita’s rocket-propelled grenades which clip on to her gun, the local sheriff (Pavone’s husband and manager Teddy Reno) who’d rather be a lumberjack hairdresser, and the frequent references to “frontier humour,” whenever anyone makes a bad joke. But the confrontations with Ringo and Django are played more or less straight, and Little Rita (who is indeed little, at barely 4’10”) is actually made to look something of a bad-ass, punching above her weight. There are actually some genuinely impressive bits of satire, too, such as one victim asking to die “American style,” which means he gets to tell his life-story before the final breath, unlike “Indians and Japs.” The finale, too, needs to be seen to be believed, and is an absurdist breaking of the fourth wall.

However, for every smart and witty moment, there are probably two really stupid ones, while most of the performances would get their actors fired from Benny Hill for excessive comedic mugging. And the songs don’t help: I’m not averse to the concept (I’m a big My Fair Lady fan, and we’ve also seen enough Bollywood films to be able to cope with sudden jumps into musical numbers), but these are damn near irredeemably-awful. The result often finds its way into lists of the worst spaghetti Westerns ever made: if I can certainly see why, I’ll confess I was generally entertained, if only by the sheer “WTF?”-ness of proceedings. It’s more or less unlike any other GWG film you will ever see, and I’ve not seen any other spaghetti Westerns with a female lead either: for such originality alone, I can’t condemn it entirely.

Dir: Ferdinando Baldi
Star: Rita Pavone, Lucio Dalla, Terence Hill, Gordon Mitchell

Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha

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“As if Stanley Kubrick had directed a Carry On film.”

I’d probably better start of by explaining the above tagline, Chabrol was one of the leading lights of the French ‘New Wave’ cinema, alongside the likes of Truffaut and Godard: I’ve enjoyed the films of his I’ve seen, mostly later works such as L’Enfer or La Fille coupĂ©e en deux. But in the mid-60’s, he basically sold out, churning out a number of light spy spoofs. Regarding another of his works around this time, he said, “I really wanted to get the full extent of the drivel. They were drivel, so OK, lets get into it up to our necks.” It’s easy to see what he meant, for Marie-Chantal is undeniable drivel, though lacks the necessary enthusiasm to overcome those limitations. Through a chance encounter on a train, the titular heroine (Laforet) is given a piece of jewellery by a stranger. That makes her the target for spies from Russia and America, as she travels from the Alps to Morocco, and also the minions of evil overlord Dr. Kha (Tamiroff), for it holds the secret to a weapon of potential global destruction, that everyone wants to acquire.

I was hoping for something along the same lines as Modesty Blaise – preferably the books rather than the wan cinematic adaptation which would appear the following year – but this struggled even to reach the low standards of the latter. Marie-Chantal isn’t as dumb as she appears, but for someone who is supposedly a third Dan in martial-arts, she doesn’t exactly put those skills into practice often. Indeed, there’s only one scene which would even qualify as a fight, and it’s more of the Honey West kind. You just get the feeling that Chabrol is not remotely interested in the action side of the genre, only the tropes. Some of the characters are endearingly quirky, not the least of whom is Kha, who can predict what everyone is going to do – except, of course, the mercurial Marie-Chantal. That’s perhaps because she’s not a secret agent, rather someone who just stumbled into the field by accident [this aspect reminded me somewhat of Robert Scheckley’s The Game of X, which was one of my favourite books as a teenager]; as a result, she doesn’t so much not play by the rules, as simply not know them.

It’s lightly-amusing, with some good photography and a nice 60’s sense of style; between the era and its Frenchness, you won’t be surprised to hear that everyone smokes like chimneys, which seems particularly taboo by modern standards. But there simply isn’t enough going on to make this more than marginally entertaining, and the Italian poster image on the right is an early example of false advertising. The ending leaves it open to a sequel which never materialized, so it seems that even the audience of the time were less than impressed, and it can’t be said to have improved with age. Still, commercial cinema’s loss is la nouvelle vague’s gain, I suppose.

Dir: Claude Chabrol
Star: Marie Laforet, Francisco Rabal, Serge Reggiani, Akim Tamiroff

Nude Nuns With Big Guns

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“If you liked the party scene in Ms. 45, you’ll love this…”

Surely one of the great B-movie exploitation titles of all-time, this inevitably can’t live up to the expectations that generates, though in the early going, it makes a half-decent effort. Certainly, it’s more entertaining than Guzman’s previous Run! Bitch Run!, though it does suffer from some of the same mean-spirited unpleasantness. The heroine is Sister Sarah (Ortega), who has been a long-term victim of the Catholic Church, which is portrayed here as the embodiment of just about every evil imaginable, being neck-deep in drugs, prositution and other equally-dubious activities, with their partners, the Los Muertos biker gang. Finally, Sarah has a vision from God, telling her it’s time to clean house: she starts at the bottom, and works her way up to Chavo (Castro) and Father Carlittos (D’Marco). Along the way, yes, there is no shortage of nude nuns – or other women – though, to be honest, the guns aren’t actually all that big…

Given the title, you have a certain obvious set of expectations. This kind of thing can be enormous fun, as the likes of Machete or Hobo with a Shotgun prove. This doesn’t quite reach the same level of gleeful abandon, and while Ortega holds her own (admittedly in a role that doesn’t require much in terms of emotional breadth), the rest of the cast are acceptable at best, and painfully wooden at worst. After a high-octane and hugely-promising start, the middle section struggles much harder to keep the audience’s attention with anything other than the gratuitous nudity – it’s entirely obvious where things are heading. As in Bitch, the filling here includes some stuff which edges precariously close to rape fantasy, and if you’ve read much of this site, you’ll know that when it comes to rape-revenge movies, I like them to be firmly weighted toward the latter. There’s one particularly dubious and pointless scene of an elderly nun being assaulted, that came close to offending even my broad palate.

However, once the vengeful aspects return to being the focus, rather than Chavo, the film improves again. Though I do feel the villains could have received rather more comeuppance: their fates seem almost trivial, in comparison to what they have dished out over the course of the movie. Ortega does make an impression, and a title like this is, in many ways, entirely review-proof: anyone complaining it is sleazy and tacky, can’t have been paying much attention when they decided to watch it! At least it can’t be accused, like many B-movies, of not delivering on the sleeve’s promise.

Dir: Joseph Guzman
Star: Asun Ortega, David Castro, Aycil Yeltan, Perry D’Marco

Prime Suspect

Before there was The Cooler, before there was either version of The Killing, and obviously before there was Maria Bello’s short-lived Americanized take, there was Dame Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, one of the canonical figures of action heroine television over the past two decades. Though only fifteen feature-length episodes were aired – that works out at only one a year between the show’s debut in 1991, and its finale in 2006 – it has become an archetype for its portrayal of a female detective, relentless in her pursuit of criminals, but considerably more ill at-ease and abrasive when handling the people with whom she has to work. She’s great at spotting clues, interrogating suspects and putting together the pieces. However, Tennison’s personal life is a complete mess, she screws up any relationships on an almost daily basis, and is completely incapable of striking a balance between work and everything outside it.

Such a complex character requires an actress of the highest talents, and Mirren provides it. Before her film career, she cut here teeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company, though her early cinematic work includes both classic (The Long Good Friday) and entries which one suspects she’d rather forget (Caligula!). But even in the latter, she still carried herself with grace and poise, elevating the material. By the early nineties, she was respwected, yet not quite as renowned as she would become – her first Oscar nomination would not be until 1994, for The Madness of King George. Even now, Mirren acknowledges the show’s importance in her career: “It was an incredibly important part of what’s got me to where I am today. It was intense, many many hours on a set with many different directors, many different writers. I loved it, and that’s the way you learn.” Series creator Lynda LaPlante was also well established, having previously created a similarly iconic female character, on the other side of the law, in Dolly Rawlins, for her crime series, Widows.

While far from the first to portray a British female detective, the new show was a fairly-radical departure from previous entries such as Juliet Bravo or The Gentle Touch which, as the latter’s name suggests, sought to portray a kinder, gentler police force, with heroines comfortable at both home and work. LaPlante was having none of that, placing Jane Tennison in situations which contrasted her skills at police-work with her abject failures elsewhere (the show wisely chooses to focus much more on the former). Right from the start, Tennison has to prove herself in a male-dominated environment against the constant suspicion that she reached her position because of affirmative action, rather than on merit. Finding the right person for the role was crucial, LaPlante told NewsWeek in 1994, “She’s not physically heavy, but she has a strength inside her that is unusual. There’s a stillness to her, a great tension and intelligence in her face.”

One of the fascinating things about the show is the change that Tennison undergoes over the course of the series, which is particularly apparent if you watch them all in relatively short order. It would be hard to imagine an American show sticking with the same character over such a long period, but the infrequency of the production likely helps, and we see Tennison evolve over the length of the show from a somewhat tentative and naive detective, becoming hard-bitten and cynical (for very good cause), eventually ending up an alcoholic, teetering on the edge of complete burn-out and suffering from blackouts and the DTs, who is trying to solve one last case reach retirement through sheer, bloody-minded willpower. It’s a fascinating arc to watch, and I particularly appreciated the way, at the end of the final episode, the writers didn’t provide an obvious or “fluffy” ending, which could have compromised the integrity of the entire show.

“Women are taught to smile, to be pleasant, to be charming, to be attractive. Tennison doesn’t do that. She is driven, obsessive, vulnerable, unpleasantly egotistical, and confused. But she is damn good at what she does and is totally dedicated.”
Helen Mirren

Mirren is the sole character to appear in all the episodes. She’s supported by a swathe of faces you’ll recognize if you spend any time watching British television or movies. The first series alone included future Oscar nominees Tom Wilkinson and Ranulph Fiennes, as well as Zoe Wanamaker, and others to be seen include David Thewlis, Ciaran Hinds, Jonny Lee Miller, Mark Strong, Frank Finlay and Peter Capaldi, recently announced as the new Dr. Who [in Suspect, he plays a transvestite, which is certainly… different]. Most of the series are single stories, told over two 100-minute episodes, except for the fourth, which is a trio of individual parts. This extended length, allowing a single crime to be dissected in greater depth, is another difference to American shows, which tend very much to be “crime of the week,” with or without also a longer story arc.

While all the cases are homicides, they cover a wide breadth. After the first season, there tended to be an underlying social issue: this could be racial, political or class-based, and often provide an additional level of difficulty to the investigation. Particularly in the early seasons, Tennison is depicted as having to fight prejudice from her colleagues. The feminist aspects (perhaps thankfully) do fade somewhat, once she becomes more established, though the level of support she gets from her superiors is never something on which she can rely. Throughout, she struggles with self-doubt and loneliness in her position, no-one able to understand the pressures of the job, and help share the burden on her shoulders. But part of her strength is that it never interferes with her dedication to the case, or her pursuit of those responsible for wrong-doing. Unlike a good number of her colleagues, who are sometimes prepared to sacrifice justice for the sake of expediency, Tennison’s morality is absolute, and she won’t compromise it for anything, regardless of the potential personal cost.

Obviously, this isn’t “action” in the “fisticuffs and car-chase” mould of policework (I’ll refer you to Red and its sequel if you want to see Mirren wielding the heavy weaponry!). Virtually the only weapons Tennison wields are her mind and her tongue, but it’s hard to tell which is the sharper, and they are both undeniably effective at getting to the truth, no matter how deeply it may be hidden. Her bravery is undeniable, not just in the perpetual quest for justice mentioned above, but her willingness to put herself into potentially lethal situations when the need arises., such as at the end of the fifth series where she faces an armed suspect, alone and without anything to protect her. While it’s one thing to go into such situations with the physical presence to handle them, doing so when you don’t have such an ability, is probably even more courageous.

Though some episodes are now more than 20 years old, they hardly seem dated at all: the writing is still sharp as a razor, and can stand with anything you’ll find on television today. But it’s Mirren’s performance which makes this work, and is why I just didn’t bother with the US remake; good though Bello might be, she can’t hold a candle to the original. There’s a reason Mirren was nominated for six Emmys, winning two, and six BAFTAs, taking home three. Virtually every cop show with a female lead which has come out since – or, at least, all the good ones – owe something to Prime Suspect, and a central character who embodies the tension between work and home life. Never shying away from the darker side of law-enforcement, or the toll it exerts on those who maintain it, this isn’t just one of the best recent action heroine TV series, it’s among the best TV series of any genre or era.

Right now, some of the episodes are available on YouTube, though I can’t imagine they’ll last long. Below, find one of the standalone stories from the fourth series, in which Tennison investigates the murder of a child.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK2RuowmICM

Zero Woman: Final Mission

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Probably the least accurate title of any film ever – at least Friday the 13th put out a few movies before using “final” – you definitely should begin here if you’re looking for much coherence. Rei (Iijima) is now partly employed as secretary to the head of Section Zero, but also takes out criminals for whom traditional channels of law enforcement aren’t enough, for one reason or another. She also pals around with Takako (Fukuoka), a detective from another section and a girl he helped bring out of delinquency, in what’s vaguely intimated as a love triangle. One night, they witness a hit and run, and discover the perpetrator (Suzuki) is the daughter of a powerful economic figure. Despite encountering official resistance, Rei and Takako persist with their investigation and, inevitably, this brings out more robust sanctions.

This does take some time to get going: it’s probably about 25 minutes before the car-micide in question, really kicks things off, and the film is more or less in a holding pattern until then. Still, Iijima certainly looks the part, and unlike some of the other occupants of the position, you don’t get the sense she got the role purely for her willingness to disrobe. Indeed, she manages even to take a shower and gun down an intruder without straying much beyond the boundaries of PG-13. Not that there’s exactly a shortage of nudity in this production, most of it coming from Suzuki, who is portrayed as being kinda depraved and heavily into S/M. Indeed, this seems the case for the director, as Rei spends a far too large chunk of the second half, tied up and being tormented by what can only be described as a cackling sex dwarf [literally half his lines must have been, “Bwahahahaha!”]. Quite what this says about Enokido’s predilections, is probably best glossed-over.

There’s a cool colour palette used here, mostly blues and grays, and a couple of scenes which will certainly stick in the mind. One is the previously mentioned shower-ambush, and the other is one where Rei is on the phone to Takako, when their conversation is rudely interrupted on his end: gradually, she realizes that something is very, very wrong. It’s expertly crafted, with good performances from both ends of the telephone line, and you can’t help wondering that more of this, rather than so much of the Laughing Gnome, would have elevated this to a classic. Instead, it’s merely hints at greatness, and settles for being solid and effective, starting the franchise in a way of which the original movie could only have dreamed.

Dir: Koji Enokido
Star: Naoko Iijima, Takako Fukuoka, Misayo Haruki, Miho Suzuki

JoBlo Cat Fights

JoBlo put together a collection of their favorite movie “cat fights”. Not quite sure I’d label all of them as that, but can’t argue with a lot of the choices!