Zero Woman: The Hunted

starstarstarhalf

“You just can’t get good henchmen these days.”

Zero_Woman_The_HuntedIf ever I become an evil overlord, I will ensure my minions’ idea of security does not involve walking slowly in the open, towards an attacker, while firing wide of them from a range no greater than a slightly oversize dinner-table. That’s the first thing we take from this, which begins with a thoroughly implausible scene where Rei (Ono, who had been a part of 90’s J-pop group CoCo) manages to drown her target, a German industrialist, despite him being roughly twice her size, and without anyone in or around the swimming-pool noticing anything. She then climbs out, pulling a gun from who knows where, kills bodyguards who’d fail the Imperial Stormtrooper accuracy exam, and abseils down the side of the building to escape. That sets the tone for much of what follows, combining a reunion with someone from her past, a blossoming relationship with a chef, and her boss’s traditional surly reluctance to allow anything as banal as “personal happiness” to distract his #1 killer from her work.

It’s rather bitty, and there are too many scenes of Rei sitting around her apartment, staring wistfully into space or oiling her breasts. I should point out, however, this is actually oiling of the breasts that turns out to be necessary to the plot, which has to be worth an extra half-star in anyone’s book. As usual, it’s a different actress in the role, but Ono is a significant part of the problem here, as she just isn’t convincing as a hard-assed hitwoman, lacking the presence or even, apparently, the basic competence for the role. Fortunately for the film lasting more than five minutes, those she’s going up against are even worse, being unable to hit a barn if they were inside it. The film does redeem itself in the final 20 minutes or so, when all the threads tie together, and we realize that her boss was not kidding when he said, “There’s no place for you, except in Zero Section.” Things thereafter return to a grim and pessimistic worldview, and this shows the series at its most effective.

However, once you get past the initial mission to kill the German, there isn’t enough genuine action in this for it to be memorable. Maybe it’s a function of the low-budget, with your production being much cheaper, when you are filming your lead actress trying to look intense, instead of needing to expend money on blood squibs, blanks and other actors [I think it was renowned B-movie director Jim Wynorski who once described nudity as the cheapest special effect]. But it’s a method that is harder to pull off successfully, and in this particular instance, I can’t say the approach makes for more than marginally passing entertainment.

Dir: Norihisa Yoshimura
Star: Mikiyo Ono, Reina Tanaka, Kou Watanabe

Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl

starstarstar

“Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and breasts. In other words: quite a bit”

rica1Aoki appears to have streaked like a star across the pinky violence firmament, appearing only in the trilogy of which this is the first, and one other film, Gakusei yakuza, before returning to the streets whence she came. Or I like to think that was her origin, anyway, and this is less a dramatic work, than a documentary depicting her life. Sharing the same name, Rika is the child of rape, a GI impregnating her mother before being deployed to Korea, and it’s not long before one of her mother’s boyfriends/customers [the film is sketchy on this detail] has taken a similar approach to Rika. She ends up heading an all-girl gang, but is sent to a reformatory after an opposing, male gang leader accidentally dies during a fight with her. But it’s not long before our heroine escapes, only to find some rivals have taken advantage of her absence, and the rest of the gang has been abducted and are about to be sold off to Vietnam. The boss offers to sell them to her instead, and Rika blackmails her father into paying up, only for the women to be sold anyway.

There’s another plot thread where she witnesses a pickpocket stealing documents about a waterfront reclamation project. Then there’s one about her going back to the reformatory, being involved in another fight which leads to the death of the warden, Rika’s escape, and her search for the real murderer. Or a friend, Hanako, who has fallen for a GI, about to be shipped out to Vietnam. These storylines drift in and out without much regard to logic or coherence, generally being discarded without apparent further thought, whenever the makers turn their attention to the next gaudy bauble. That’s the main problem here: it is less a film, than a collection of scenes, with a severe lack of narrative flow, to the extent this feels almost like a four-hour movie edited into 90 minutes.

However, Aoki brings the necessary earnestness to proceedings: while a little short of the true mistresses of the pinky world, like Reiko Ike, she is not bad, especially considering her apparently limited (spelled “non-existent”) acting experience. Helping things out, some of the violence is spectacularly excessive, even for a time, place and genre that specialized in spectacular excess. For instance one bullet to the back of the skull results in arterial spray out of the victim’s forehead, like a novelty soda syphon. Rika also carves off one enemy’s forearm, marches up to his boss, and if not quite slapping him across the face repeatedly with the detached limb, comes damn close. This kind of madness keeps the film consistently entertaining, even allowing for its faults and flaws, which are no less obvious. By the end – which has Rika crashing a wedding and lobbing fireworks around, before whizzing off on her Electra Glide [or some similarly cool bike, I’ve no idea] – I was kinda sad to see the character go, if not the lazy screenwriting. Parts 2 + 3 will stray across my eyeballs onto this site in due course, I’ve no doubt.

Dir: Kō Nakahira
Star: Rika Aoki, Masane Tsukayama, Yoshihiro Nakadai, Masami Souda

Lady Punisher

starstar

“Lan, our relation is abnormal.”

lady punisherThis obscurist Hong Kong revenge flick is a little different, mainly because the couple at the heart of the film are lesbians. Admittedly, this is largely for crass, exploitative purposes: the dialogue quoted above, pretty much confirms the makers want to tut-tut disapprovingly at the love that dare not speak its name, while simultaneously depicting it in salacious detail. Such is the nature of Cat III in the mid-90’s, this seems to want to be something like Naked Killer, released two years earlier to this in 1992, but just doesn’t have the desire to go for the full delirious insanity, necessary to pull the concept off. Particularly in the middle section, it drags horribly, with the story diverting off into the usual triad drug-smuggling, betrayal and cop investigations that we’ve seen a million times before.

Quite what our heroine (Yi – some sources call the actress Tsui Man Wah, who may or may not be the same person!) is doing during this time isn’t clear. She initially seems all gung-ho for it, after her girlfriend is raped and murdered during a holiday in Thailand, and even takes out a pimp, whom she sees smacking around one of his employees. But then, she seems to forget all about her vengeance, until one of the perps comes strolling into the dress shop she runs – looking to make a bulk purchase, bizarrely. She lures him back to her apartment with the promise of dressmaking tips or something (okay, it’s more the something), and kills him. To help with the rest of the gang, she enlists the services of a female neighbour, who has been courting her with flowers, creepy phone messages and generally behaving more like a problem than a solution. But, whatever. This is a Cat III movie, and people exercising common sense is not something to expect. Especially where lesbians are concerned.

Down the stretch, this does finally manage to generate some energy, with a final confrontation which is not unimpressive. However, it’s definitely a case of too little, too late, and this is one of those “forgotten films,” where you can understand exactly why it ended up on the discard pile. I’m in agreement with history on this one.

Dir: Tony Liu
Star: Sophia Yi, Tommy Wong, Gong Hiu-Hung, Shing Fui-On

Iron Girl

starstarstarhalf

“The Somewhat-magnificent One”

Iron-Girl-2012-Movie-PosterThe introduction tries to make it seem as if this could take place at any point in history, but there’s not much effort put into maintaining the illusion. The guns and overall setting – best described as “distressed warehouse” – puts this firmly into the post-apocalypse genre, though it’s very much at the bargain basement end of the spectrum. The heroine (adult actress Asuka) stumbles across naively innocent Anne (Akiyama), being pawed by some bad guys after straying into the danger zone to pick flowers; clearly a kinder, gentler apocalypse. After punching them out, assisted by remarkable reactions and her metal exo-skeleton, Anne is escorted back to her warehouse village, where we discover they are frequently raided by the Crazy Dogs gang.

They are under the imaginatively-named Crazy Joe (Koga), who looks a cosplay version of Captain Jack Sparrow, down to the headsquare and mascara. The village elder pulls out a parchment and pronounces “Iron Girl” to be the saviour of prophecy, even though she has no memories of her life, or even her name.  The Crazy Dogs are less convinced, though come around after a fat minion and his low-level sidekicks are dispatched, and Anne’s brother, who has been re-programmed to forget his original identity, has his brainwashing undone. Joe and his sadistic girlfriend decide to pop over for a visit, to find out what all the fuss is about. Turns out, he and Iron Girl have more than a little in common…

I suppose, for what this is, it’s okay. However, what it is, isn’t much to begin with. There’s never any feeling of a convincing setting, the characters are paint-by-numbers, and the action is neither realistic enough to have any impact, nor stylized and excessive enough to be entertaining. Nagamine seems to know only one approach: slow down the action, to give the impression that Iron Girl is moving much faster than she actually is. It’s not very effective, and it’s also incredibly overused. The low-budget roots are also apparent, in an excess of static, talky scenes where people are just sitting around and talking. However, it’s not all bad. Asuka does a decent job as the stoic gunslinger without a past, and despite my snark above, I actually enjoyed Koga’s scenery chewing, which is entirely appropriate for the villain in this sort of thing.

Undemanding fans of SF will probably find this an adequate time-passer, and I likely fall into that category myself: it has just about enough action to sustain interest, especially in the second half. However, anyone going off the title, and expecting something even vaguely along the lines of a certain Marvel superhero film, is going to be horribly disappointed. So it’s probably about managing your expectations. The lower those are, the more likely this is to reach them.

Dir: Masatoshi Nagamine
Star: Kirara Asuka, Rina Akiyama, Mitsuki Koga, Yasuhisa Furuhara

Blonde in Black Leather

starstarstarstarhalf

“Girls on a Motorcycle”

“What if we free everyone? Everyone who wants to come with us, not just children.  We could make a gang that even Butch would be proud of.  Stop by all the laundrettes, tell them all to come with us. And if they don’t want to come, it’s their loss.”

blondeinblackleatherClaudia (Cardinale) has a humdrum life working in a laundrette, with a sleazy husband and no hope of anything more exciting in her future. Into the laundrette storms the titular woman, Miele (Vitti), whose devil-may-care attitude enthralls Claudia, and gives her the courage to throw away her staid existence and follow the blonde on the road. Miele is initially resistant to the idea of a travelling companion, but rides to the rescue, driving her bike through the railway station where Claudia is being harassed. Miele must make a mysterious appointment in Northern Italy with her lover, but that’s okay, as Claudia has a cousin, on the way, in Naples. However, as the two make their way, it gradually becomes clear that Miele could give Baron Munchausen a run for his money, when it comes to spinning tall tales, and both her mouth and impetuous actions, are as likely to get the pair into trouble as out if it.

It plays kinda like a pre-make (since it came out in 1975) of Thelma and Louise, directed by Stephen Chow, because it has the same mo lei tau (or “makes no sense”) approach. For instance, at one point, while Miele is re-enacting one of her alleged escapades. the bike careers off the road, with Miele left dangling from a tree. Several minutes later, after Claudia helps her down, in the background, you see the motor-cycle, still going, driving itself into the sea. Or later on, after they mistake a policeman for a criminal, they’re chased out the back of a train, and the film switches into b&w slapstick mode, with deliberately bad rear-projection, etc. No-one bats an eyelid at any of this. While the plot is flimsy, to say the least, it relies heavily on the charm of its leading ladies, and that aspect is a roaring success, right from the moment Vitti strides into the laundrette. Co-writers Barbara Alberti & Amedeo Pagani, who penned the script along with Di Palma, had just come off the similarly fetishistic The Night Porter, and Di Palma shoots proceedings with the eye of someone who was a cinematographer first (he was a frequent DP for Woody Allen in the eighties and nineties.

It’s a generally frothy confection, light in aim and intent, though has occasionally surprising moments of poignancy, and the reason behind Miele’s fantasies is impeccable. There is also a surprisingly impressive brawl (below), after the pair clean out a casino, in which Cardinale kicks ass thanks to some rather good staging. Considering Italy in the seventies was hardly a bastion of feminism, this is particularly impressive, and providing you aren’t looking for anything particularly meaningful – or even logical – has survived the forty years which have passed, much better than many of its era.

Dir: Carlo Di Palma
Star: Monica Vitti, Claudia Cardinale
a.k.a. Qui Comincia l’Avventura [“Here Begins the Adventure”]

Sexy Battle Girls

starstarhalf

“Neither sexy nor battle-y. They are, however, girls. So, one out of three then.”

sexybattlegirlsIt takes real effort for a film that’s barely an hour long, significantly to overstay its welcome, but SBG manages to do exactly that, thanks to its woeful combination of shoddy action and tedious sex scenes. The heroine is teenager Mirai Asamiya (Hashimoto, about as much an actual teenager as I am), who has been transferred to a new school at the behest of her father. Little does she know, at least initially, that she is simply a tool for his revenge, headmaster Bush (Hotaru) having seduced Mirai’s mother away from her husband, and run off with her. To this end, Mirai has been brought up with what we should call, a very particular set of skills: we’ll spare you the details of exactly what the “Venus Crush” involves, but it does lead to the classic line, “He doesn’t know how dangerous your vagina is!” Before she can reach her target, she has to get close by dethroning and replacing his current enforcer of discipline, Susan (Taguchi), and also get past Bush’s lesbian daughter (Kiyokawa).

It’s clearly intended as a spoof of the Sukeban Deka genre, with the heroine wielding another Japanese toy, a kendama, rather than a yo-yo – in this case, her weapon also has a little phallus, and no prizes for guessing where it’s aimed. The resulting moaning and thrashing around, only slows the pace of this down even further. There are also subplots involving schoolgirls being prostituted off to Japanese politicians, and a truancy officer who looks the other way in exchange for sex. Maybe the former was of particular cultural significance in its native land at the time this was released in 1986; here, it’s just a dangling cinematic preposition, hard to put up with. The film does occasionally show some berserk invention: let’s just say, you don’t need to worry about slicing apples when Mirai around. However, I’d estimate a good half of its running time is tedious soft-core sex scenes of one form or another, and the action, when it appears, makes the original Sukeban Deka fights look like Bruce Lee at the peak of his career.

I guess it’s kind of churlish to complain about a pinku movie containing sex. But there are ways and means by which it can be used, and combined with the other plot elements in a manner that enhances them. The makers of this are apparently unaware of all such techniques, and prefer an approach which feels like a crap action movie crashed headlong into a crap soft-porn film, with the floor sweepings used to assemble the finished product. Never mind “uncut” and “unrated,” the finished product here is damn near unwatchable.

Dir: Mototsugu Watanabe
Star: Kyôko Hashimoto, Yukijirô Hotaru, Ayumi Taguchi, Ayu Kiyokawa
a.k.a. Target Campus: Attack the Uniform

The Gang of Oss

starstarstarstarhalf

“A Dutch semi-treat”

gang-od-ossI never really think of the Dutch as the organized crime type, but this film convinces me otherwise, based as it is on actual events from just before World War II. Oss is a town in the Southern half of the Netherlands and, it appears, everyone there is on the take one way or another, from insurance scams to larger scale shenanigans, all the way up to the mayor and the local priest. The federal government has sent military police to the town to keep order, but that only rankles the locals, for the cops are Protestants and they are Catholics. Johanna (Hoeks) hopes to escape a life of crime, planning to open a restaurant when her husband, Ties (Schoenaerts), gets out of jail. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Her spouse is happy to pimp her out, and local boss and Ties’s uncle, Wim de Kuiper (Musters), drags him back into his old ways. When Ties tries to force Johanna to have an abortion, she hatches a plan to have him killed by her lover (and client), Jan, although the plan only puts her deeper in the clutches of de Kuiper. But when she discovers just how low he is prepared to go, she decides he and the rest of his cronies are going down.

I really liked Johanna as a character. She’s comfortable enough with her position in life (even if normally, it’s on her back!), but still aspires to rise above her lowly origins – and do so honestly, unlike the rest of the inhabitants. Her husband is basically a Grade-A shit, but she eventually finds the resolve to stand up against him, and take control of her own destiny. Admittedly, you wonder why it takes quite so long, given she’s being forced to act as a prostitute by him – but, on the other hand, she quite happily refers to herself a “Johanna the slut”, and appears to come from a lineage of similarly-inclined women. It’s a nicely grey morality, and the same is true for most of the other characters; outside of Ties, they all have their own justifications for what they do.

I suspect some of the local atmosphere is probably lost outside of Holland – apparently, there’s a particular accent/dialect used, which doesn’t come across in the subtitles at all. And, as noted, it’s just odd to see the Dutch, whom I’ve generally found to be polite and well-mannered almost to a fault, killing each other, being brutal, and generally behaving in a manner more befitting Chicago during Prohibition than the south Netherlands. That’s less the film’s problem than mine, though there isn’t too much here which will be novel to anyone with a working knowledge of American mafia films, though having its focus on a woman, is certainly laudable. That, along with its strong local flavour, are enough to make this worth a watch, though outside of Hoeks’ strong performance, there likely isn’t much of long-term note.

Dir: Andre van Duren
Star: Sylvia Hoeks, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marcel Musters

Lady Street Fighter

starhalf

“Legitimately terrible, among the worst films I’ve ever seen.”

lady_street_fighterLet me start off by repeating myself, in case you missed it, because I want to be absolutely clear on these points. This is legitimately terrible. This is among the worst films I’ve ever seen. And I speak as someone with over 25 years of watching really bad films. That half-star is solely for amusement to be gathered from how bad this is, because there are basically no redeeming features here at all, and I speak as someone who will tolerate almost any pile of shit with an action heroine in it. This movie is largely responsible for the addition of the word “almost” to the previous sentence, despite being mercifully brief at a mere 72 minutes in length. The half-star is simply because I did reach the end without gnawing a limb off to escape. I think I deserve some kind of Internet prize for that.

The problems start with the lead actress, Harmon, who is barely intelligible in English, to the extent that in her conversations, you largely have to listen to whoever she’s speaking to, and try to figure out what she said from their responses. Her acting talents are almost non-existent. but are probably better than her martial arts skills, which… just aren’t. Gives mean celery fellatio, however. Trust me, you don’t want to know. She plays Linda Allen, flies into the movie to investigate the death of her sister, apparently killed by the villains because she had a stuffed toy containing incriminating information. Ok, let’s pause here for a disclaimer. Please take the word “apparently” as read for the rest of the review, because this film does such a godawful job of explaining things, I’m not prepared to vouch for the accuracy of any plot point. I’m not even sure from which decade this dates. The IMDb says 1985, but the fashions are pure seventies, and judging by the near-sampling, the soundtrack was written when The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was still in theaters.

Allen is in trouble almost as soon as she arrives, with someone trying to stop her, though their efforts to silence her are woefully inept. There’s FBI agent Rick Pollard (McCrea), who may be undercover, may be crooked, and has thing for our heroine; John Verdes, who runs an escort agency; and Max Diamond, who is into drugs as well as “harder things,” (specifically, has an assassin for hire business), and has a foot fetish which would make Quentin Tarantino snort derisively. He holds parties which are the height of 60’s/70’s/80’s/whatever decadence – except for the guys incessantly chanting “Toga! Toga! Toga!”, who appeared to be on loan from Delta Tau Chi. It’s kinda hypnotic, in a “passing a multiple pile-up” kinda way; you find yourself guiltily wondering what horrors will be present around the next bend. The same goes for most of the film as it evolves, and Linda makes her way up the chain to find the truth about her sister’s death, with the help or otherwise of Pollard – it appears she particularly needs help, when clambering over any barrier above knee-high.

Awful on every conceivable level, I was unsurprised to discover the director was also responsible for one of the worst horror movies of all time, Don’t Go in the Woods and also, The Executioner Part II, which likely rivals this one for title of worst action film of all time. Such a broad scope of diverse talent can only be admired. If you can admire it from a distance, without actually having to watch any of his work, so much the better.

Dir: James Bryan
Star: Renee Harmon, Joel D. McCrea

Joan Of Arc (1948)

starstar

“Joan of Talk”

joanofarcingridThis film’s origins as a stage play are painfully apparent, and you can also see why the distributor’s felt it needed to have 45 minutes cut out before it could be released, as frankly, it’s a bit of a bore. The battle to recapture Orleans is the only action of note here, even though that represented the start of the Maid’s campaign to restore France to its proper ruler (Ferrer), rather than the end. After that, this more or less skips forward to his coronation, then Joan’s capture, spending the rest of the movie – and there’s a lot of it – going through the trial, and the railroading of the heroine into, first throwing herself on the church’s mercy, then recanting her recantation and returning to wearing men’s clothes, thereby sealing her fate. There’s not much here which you won’t have seen before, if you’ve seen any of the other versions of the story, touching the usual bases from Joan’s revelations that she’s going to be the saviour of France, through her trip to see the Dauphin, and so on. It does downplay the “voices” aspect, especially early on, perhaps a wise move since it’s difficult to depict, without making her seem like a religious fruitcake.

The other problem I find is Bergman. It’s not so much her performance here, which is actually very good, and help hold the film up when things get particularly static: she hits her emotional marks well, and the Oscar nomination she received was not undeserved. However, she was solidly into her thirties by this point, probably close to twice the age of the actual Miss of Arc [hat-tip to Bill and Ted!]; there’s only so far make-up can go in taking years off someone. It does seem to have been a character to whom she related: she’s play the role again later, for Roberto Rossellini in Joan at the Stake, when she was nearly forty. The other problem is Bergman’s Scandinavian origins, which poke through her dialogue persistently, also damaging the illusion; it might have been fine in forties Hollywood, where one European accent was considered much the same as another, but now, it sounds too much Joan was a Swedish exchange student or au-pair – especially when she’s wearing her headsquare, and looks ready for a spot of light dusting.

But there’s no denying it looks the part, with production value seeping out of every frame – the Oscars this actually won, for cinematography and costume design, are hard to argue. However, there’s only so far this can take a film, along with Bergman glowing her way through her scenes, in such a way you could probably read a newspaper by her incandescence. That distance is considerably less than 145 minutes, and by the time this is over, you might find yourself guiltily cheering for her arrival at the stake, knowing this means the end is nigh.

Dir: Victor Fleming
Star: Ingrid Bergman, Francis L. Sullivan, José Ferrer, J. Carrol Naish

Die Wand (The Wall)

starstarstarstarhalf

“Alone again… Unnaturally…”

diewand4This is a very different kind of GWG film: indeed, it could almost be called an inaction heroine movie. It starts from a very simple presence. A woman (Gedeck) wakes up in a cabin in the Austrian Alps. When she tried to head to a nearby village, the path is blocked by an unseen, impenetrable barrier that has sprung up overnight, and now defines the boundary of her world. Everyone outside is dead. What do you do? How do you survive, both short- and long-term? Could you handle the loneliness? Can you retain your humanity, when you are, apparently, the only human being left?

These are the questions which this film is interested in asking – much more so than prosaic ones, such as “Who put the wall there?” or “Can you maybe dig under it?” If you’re looking for a definitive resolution, go elsewhere too, because the film simply ends when the woman has to give up keeping her journal, because the supply of paper has run out. I suppose, technically, that’s a spoiler, but this is a film where it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the road which takes you there. And you’d better be able to handle a lot of voiceover, because there’s almost nothing else here. Normally, I regard voiceovers as a cinematic cop-out, for when you can’t be bothered to write dialogue or action; but, considering the heroine is virtually the only person you see over the course of the film, they’re basically essential here, and even in subtitles, have a poetic quality that is generally effective.

Admittedly, for long stretches, there’s nothing of significance going on, and if you’re not in the mood for some (very picturesque) navel-gazing, the lack of activity could become aggravating. However, I can’t say I was ever bored at all, and I’m quite surprised by that, since I am more likely to be seen tapping my foot impatiently, if ten minutes go by without a giant fireball. The cinematography, combined with the Alpine scenery, is quite luscious, and so even during the quieter moments – okay, quieter half-hours – this remains a visual treat. Gedeck’s performance is full of quiet strength; she simply gets on with the business of everyday survival, despite the bizarre twist life has taken. I suspect I wouldn’t handle the same situation anywhere near as well as her character does, and It’s that inner depth of fortitude, which makes it fit in here, despite the low-key nature of the content.

This is not the kind of film which necessarily creates any immediate impression. It finishes, in the same laid-back manner as the previous 105 minutes have unfolded. But over the days which followed, I found myself thinking about the questions it raised, and how my answers differed from the heroine’s, or where they overlapped. This lasting impact is one of the things which is generally the mark of a good film; it stays with you, when more ephemeral pleasures have been forgotten. While entirely devoid of pyrotechnics, this is still one which I’ll probably want to revisit and chew over again.

Dir: Julian Pölsler
Star: Martina Gedeck