Roommate Wanted

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“Share today, gone tomorrow.”

If this concept sounds familiar, it should. Because this bears a strong resemblance to 2003 Japanese film 2LDK. Most obviously, both films are virtually single-location set pieces, in which the relationship between two room-mates devolve over the course of the feature, into a full-on brawl. Perhaps even more damningly, the original working title for this was 2BR/1BA – exactly like 2LDK, real-estate shorthand. [I wonder where the new title came from, since there’s no “wanted” at any point here] Yet there’s not even a “based on” credit to be seen, and no apparent acknowledgement of any inspiration. Hmm.

roomatewantedOn the other hand, if the plot has more than some similarities, the tone and approach are different here. There’s much more in the way of social commentary here, with the disparate personas of the two young women. [Indeed, so disparate, you have to question how the heck they ever ended up sharing a house] Jamie (Vega) is serious-minded, the kind of person who labels her food in the fridge, and seeking to pursue an academic career, but desperately needs funds to cover tuition at her chosen college. Dee (Grammer) is a party girl, whose days are filled with going to the gym and tanning, while her nights are filled with tequila and casual sex.

The culture clash between them is obvious, and provides most of the dramatic tension, as well as the more comedic aspects. For instance, Dee offers to make Jamie a smoothie, and on being reminded the latter is vegan, replies that she’ll use low-fat milk. Grammer nails the vapid, wannabe model-type perfectly, yet there’s an undercurrent of bitterness (particularly, as things turn out, toward Jamie and her perceived superiority) and you get the sense she’s smarter than she appears. Jamie has her own set of insecurities to deal with; as well as her tuition situation, she just broke up with her boyfriend after finding a thong in his car’s glove-box. Might Dee be able to shed some light on that?

Where this isn’t as good as 2LDK is in the mayhem. The Japanese version was, literally, no-holds barred, up to and including the use of a chainsaw. Here, there’s rather too much of the protagonists standing at a distance and lobbing things at one another. While the cynical social commentary and bite can make up some of the difference, this needs to amp up the brutality significantly, and include more surprises. When a point is made of a giant fish-tank in the living room, you know it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to come crashing down in a mini-tsunami of water, broken glass and flailing fishies.

Then there’s the ending. It could be the greatest ever. Or the worst ever. I’d listen to arguments, and could be convinced in either direction. It certainly is… a shocking ending. I should say no more than that. We will remember it, that’s for sure. But we’ll be more likely to watch 2LDK again, and an interest in doing so, is likely the main takeaway from this unofficial reboot.

Dir: Rob Margolies
Star: Alexa Vega, Spencer Grammer, Kathryn Morris, Bryan Dechart

Darkweb

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“You smell the farmer!”

darkwebThe above is one of the lines of dialogue – rewound and checked on the closed-captions to confirm – which somehow got through the script, production and editing without correction, into the final film. This, folks, is cinema as a second language. The IMDB says “USA,” but that clearly isn’t the case. I’m going with Belgian, based on the names in the credits, but whoever it is should be sending a diplomatic apology. It seems vaguely located in Russia, based mostly on the mention of roubles as currency. However, it starts with a tank rampaging through the countryside. Why? Like so much here, it’s never explained.

The meat of the story has a group that kidnap people, then turn them loose for others to hunt down in a forest, streaming the results on the “dark web” side of the Internet [the film’s on-screen title inexplicably loses the space]. But they bite off more than they can chew when the kidnap Anna (Seul) and her brother. Holding him hostage, she’s set loose for the sport, only for infighting and the unexpected presence of a “ringer” among the hunters, to disrupt proceedings. Can she survive? Or will she just keep tripping over things and falling down?

Oh, dear. Despite the cover which promises an adequate quota of butt-kicking, what we get is much more like a bad level of Tomb Raider, with Anna jogging around the forest, as if looking for a goddamn key. Everyone in the film is incredibly dumb, failing miserably to utilize obvious chances for taking out their enemies, typically just leaving them unconscious instead. The dialogue is barely functional, while the two “names” who appear in minor roles – Oliver Gruner and, inexplicably, Danny Glover – have clearly fallen on hard times. The latter literally Skypes in his entire performance.  Much of what happens makes no sense, such as Anna’s sudden prowess with a longbow, which is used once then never mentioned again.

The film doesn’t look too bad; it’s nicely shot, and the wooded location offers a good range of terrain. The problems lie elsewhere, and are far more numerous. The title is more or less irrelevant, for starters, and the action sequences are generic and unimpressive. Few of the characters make any impression at all. If they’d given Anna some kind of back-story that could have made subsequent bad-assery plausible, that might have helped. Instead, she’s just a goat herder, and we’re given no reason to root for or care about her and her brother. But lengthy sequences of tank rampage? The film fits that in, no problem. The film doesn’t so much build to a climax as peter out. You likely won’t even think “Is that it?” so much as “Thank god that’s over.”

Dir: Bruno Vaussenat
Star: Nina Seul, Petra Silander, Sebastien Vandenberghe, Tristan Robin

High School Hellcats

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“Pussies galore.”

hellcatsSpectacularly dated in some ways, this also possesses comforting resonances with the present day: hey, teenagers were brattily rebellious in 1958 too. New girl Joyce (Lime) is lured in by the bad-girl posings of the Hellcats, led by Connie (Lund) and her long-time second in command, Dolly (Sidney). They shoplift! They throw knives about! They smoke! This is all to the concern, not so much of her parents (who seem largely oblivious to the moral depths into which their daughter is sinking, providing her skirts aren’t too short), as her boyfriend, Mike (Halsey), who is concerned about where the Hellcats are leading Joyce.

Dolly, meanwhile, is none too happy at the increasingly cozy relationship between Connie and Joyce, that threatens to supplant her position as deputy. Matters come to a head after a party at an unoccupied house, where a game of “sardines” has a tragic conclusion. The death is hushed up, with all present vowing to keep it secret – but the cops are soon nosing around, and the pressure starts to cause cracks in the Hellcats – some members in particular…

Probably the most deliciously mad element is the first “initiation” through which Joyce has to go, involving her in the hideous crime of… wearing slacks to school. Clearly, these young women are completely irredeemable and beyond any hope of redemption. Yeah, it all seems remarkably sweet and innocent in comparison to modern life; though on the other hand, this was also while segregation was still part of American culture, and the entirely Caucasian nature of the film and its cast is also notable. But as so often, the bad girls seem an awful lot more fun than the blandly-uninteresting Joyce; give them seven more years (plus some plastic surgery), and they could end up starring in Faster, Pussycat! – there’s much the same enthusiastic spitting of over-ripe dialogue here.

It isn’t just their attitude: it’s notable that, unlike some entries in the “teenage girl gang” genre, the Hellcats are not an off-shoot of a male gang, or indeed, beholden to men in any way – the only male character of note is Mike, and he is basically as useful as a chocolate teapot. Even at the end, when Joyce is lured into a late-night meeting at the derelict cinema which is the gang’s HQ, he serves no significant purpose. That’s remarkably advanced for its time, and is the kind of forward thinking which keeps this watchable when, let’s be honest, many of the topical elements are more likely to trigger derisive snorts in the contemporary viewer. On the other hand, the amusement added certainly can’t be said to detract from the overall entertainment value.  While I’m not exactly going to claim this is some kind of hidden gem, it was certainly more watchable than I expected, given both the passage of time and its obvious throwaway nature, even in its day.

Dir: Edward Bernds
Star: Yvonne Lime, Brett Halsey, Susanne Sidney, Jana Lund

Let There Be Zombies

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“Fight off the Living Dead”

Let-There-Be-ZombiesIt’s curious to look back at the history of zombie movies, which as we know them, began with a low-budget horror film called Night of the Living Dead, in 1968. Almost fifty years later, zombies have gone utterly mainstream, giving us films such as World War Z and the most popular show on basic cable, The Walking Dead. But it has also re-spawned its own slew of low-budget genre entries, many of which prove the truth of the statement, “Just because you can make a zombie movie. doesn’t mean you should make a zombie movie.” Even as a horror fan, I will happily admit many of these should have been strangled at birth, rehashing over-familiar story-lines with poverty-row production values and inexperienced talent on both sides of the camera.

This is not quite in the same category of being irredeemable. Certainly, there’s nothing much new in the story of a handful of survivors struggling to cope in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, and the effects are workmanlike at best. However, it managed to sustain my interest somewhat better than many of its undead siblings. The heroine is Drew (Daly), a rookie teacher painfully unable to handle disruptive pupils her class – as she’s told, “Control the situation, don’t let the situation control you.” Before she can do that though, the apocalypse strikes and in trying to flee, her car runs out of gas in the middle of the countryside. She meets another lost soul, computer programmer Jeff (Lowe) and they try to find safety, eventually ending up on the farm run by Red (Monsante) – but it’s only a brief respite before the hordes track them down there, and Drew is going to need to transform from her milquetoast personality, if she’s to have any hope of surviving.

It’s this character arc which qualifies it for inclusion here, though it’s less of an arc than the flicking-on of a psychological switch. One second, she’s afraid of her own shadow; the next, having found a gun, she’s blasting away at the undead like they were a fairground attraction. This could be sloppy writing, or it could be a deliberate statement on the immediate empowerment obtained by possession of a firearm. Certainly, she’s a good deal more interesting once she’s in bad-ass mode, and by the time of the film’s coda, she has more or less turned into Alice from Resident Evil – albeit, without any of the cool moves. The script, however, is extremely hit-or-miss: if there were a couple of moments, where I’ll confess I did laugh, there are just as many where poor delivery killed any potential. Patterson and the rest of his cast and crew clearly have a deep love for the genre. That can only take a film so far, and unless you have a similar affection, there’s only so much entertainment to be found in watching the walking dead get prodded with bits of wood.

Dir: Andrew Patterson
Star: Sydney Daly, Manuel Monsante, Doug Lowe, Enrique Arellano

The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl

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“Great idea, spoiled by limp execution.”

goldenclawsInspired by the first in a series of books by Albert Sainte-Aube, it’s easy to see why this proved a successful concept. Beautiful circus performer Françoise (Gaubert, who managed to marry both a dictator’s son and a triple Olympic gold medalist, in Radhamés Trujillo and Jean-Claude Killy respectively) takes her talents to the criminal field, where her tightrope and trapeze skills help in her secret life as a cat-burglar. However, this is derailed when she falls for a sting by government operative Durieux (Guiomar), and the price of her freedom is her assistance with a task set by him.

Diplomat Saratoga (Pitoëff) is using his status as a cover for drug-running, and in order to break the operation open, Durieux needs Françoise to break into Saratoga’s office and liberate a 20 kg package of drugs from the safe. To this end, she’s given the help of Bruno (Duchaussoy), a gifted lip-reader who’ll be able to figure out when the deal is going down, and the two of them begin a stake-out from a nearby apartment. But our heroine’s sticky fingers don’t stop at the drugs, and when she also liberates a large sum of cash from the safe, and heads for Switzerland, with the cop, the criminal and Bruno, all keen to track her down, each for their own reasons.

Unfortunately, this is one of those films that, despite a brilliant title (not the original one, which translates as much more prosaically, as The Lone Wolf). doesn’t live up to its promise. There is an awful lot of sitting around and chatting, filmed in a flat and uninteresting manner, and none of the supporting cast provide any kind of depth or interest. That’s a shame, as the action is generally well-handled, not least the heist at the movie’s core, which takes place during a thunderous rainstorm, making every move all the more treacherous. I do have to wonder, however, quite where they are hanging the trapeze from which the heroine swings, or why she bothers – the tightrope-walking depicted on multiple occasions previously, would seem a much more sensible and reliable method of getting from High Point A to High Point B!

Regardless, after a wonderful 10 minutes, it’s back to sitting around and chatting, and that’s largely where the movie remains until the end. More than one review has remarked on the film’s possible status as an inspiration for Luc Besson’s Nikita. While I can see that possibility, in its tale of a woman coerced into working for the government, who yearns to escape, this would be a case where the student’s efforts significantly surpassed those of his master.

Dir: Edouard Logereau
Star: Danièle Gaubert, Michel Duchaussoy, Julien Guiomar, Sacha Pitoëff
a.k.a. La Louve Solitaire

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

khanBorn three years before the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg, Khan was perhaps the most unlikely of secret agents. Her father was an Indian of noble birth, descended on his maternal side from Tipu Sultan, and a noted Sufi mystic; her mother, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy’s from New Mexico. The family also lived in London, before settling in Paris until the invasion of France in 1940, when Khan returned to the United Kingdom. Keen to help free her country from the Nazis, she joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force as a wireless operator. However, her additional talents as a native French speaker, brought Khan to the attentions of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with organizing resistance groups in France.

After being trained in undercover work, she was sent to France in June 1943, and began work in Paris, transmitting agent reports back to London. It was a ferociously dangerous job, with the average lifespan of radio operators only a few weeks. A sweep by occupying forces gathered up almost all her colleagues, leaving Khan the only operator still at large. She was the most wanted British secret agent in Paris, with her description widely circulated; wireless detection teams meant she was constantly on the move and could only transmit for 20 minutes at a time. According to a post-war commendation, “She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work.”

It eventually took betrayal from within the organization before she was captured after three and a half months in October 1943. Even then, she managed to escape custody, only to be recaptured once again. Another unsuccessful attempt followed. The Germans were taking no further chances, and shipped her from France to Germany, where she was imprisoned in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet shackled. After more than nine months she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, along with three other female British SOE agents. On September 13, 1944, all four were executed. Khan was 30 years old. Her final utterance was: “Liberte”. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second-highest British decoration – one of only four women to receive it – and also given the Croix de Guerre by the French government.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story
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khanScreened on PBS in 2014, this uses a combination of interviews, with scholars and Khan’s descendants,  as well as dramatic re-creations, to tell her life-story, touching on most of the aspects mentioned above. It also delves into her psychology, suggesting that the tenets of strong Sufi philosophy instilled during her upbringing were both a source of Khan’s strength and, potentially, her biggest weakness. She was, according to the film, almost incapable of telling a lie, which could be a literally lethal flaw for a secret agent in wartime. In his memoirs, cryptographer Leo Marks (played here by Isenberg) gives some blackly amusing anecdotes to illustrate this. But the film concentrates on how he used the trait to strengthen her encryption skills, another area of concern from her training.

Unfortunately, rather unimpressive are the interviews with her nephew, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan who delivers slabs of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense and is even less interesting. I’d rather have seen more of the re-enactments of Khan’s time in occupied Paris, which manage to do a fairly good job of capturing the sense of danger and perpetual tension for an agent in those times. Srinivasan, as Khan, doesn’t appear to have anything of an acting resume in the IMDb, yet is successful in depicting Khan’s idealism, which ultimately led to her death. Curiously though, the film appears almost to soft-pedal the treatment received at the hands of the Nazis after her capture. Still, there’s no denying the impact of the final sequence, which cuts from the execution, shot almost in stark black-and-white, to Khan reading from the book of stories she had written, to two young children.

Though running little more than 50 minutes, it does highlight the cinematic potential in the story: the modern resonance of a Muslim woman taking up arms and participating in a Western war is particularly undeniable. There was word, back in 2012 [around the time a memorial statue of Khan was unveiled in London], that such a project was in the pipeline. Producers Tabrez Noorani and Zafar Hai announced they had bought the rights to Shrabani Basu’s book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. You’d think a Hollywood-Bollywood partnership would be all over the story. Yet since then? Little or nothing. Maybe some day, Khan will finally receive the global recognition she likely deserves.

Dir: Robert H. Gardner
Star: Helen Mirren (narrator), Grace Srinivasan, Joe Isenberg, Mike Sullivan

Below, you should see another documentary on the same topic, Princess Spy. This formed part of BBC’s Timewatch series in 2006, and if perhaps a little dry, is also a good overview of a heroine who isn’t as well known as she should be.

Muñecas Peligrosas

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“Carlitos Angels”

munecasNot far removed from Peligro… Mujeres en acción!, this is actually a sequel to Con Licencia para Matar, which I’m still seeking in a subtitled format. Some day… While nominally starring Fernando Casanova as agent Jim Morrison (maybe The Doors weren’t big in Mexico?), this is really about the Tigresses, a freelance group of female bodyguards, with a fetching line in black catsuits. There’s leader Emily (Cranz), associates Barbara (Angela) and Diana (Monti) and Tigress in training, Leonor (Ochoa), experts variously with a gun, bow, sword and fists. Jim brings them on board to help protect scientist Professor Livingson, the inventor of a key ingredient in rocket fuel, K-20; he’s travelling to Mexico to update its manufacturing plant. That will expose him to Garrick (Armando Silvestre), a villain who wants the secret of K-20 for himself, and it’s up to Jim and the ladies to protect the Professor.

Despite the name of the group, the title actually translates as “Dangerous Dolls,” and this takes itself a bit less seriously than Peligro – a mixed blessing. There are aspects that are deliciously silly: Garrick’s minions all wear uniforms and hats with his logo on it, making it look as if he recruited en masse from a Devo convention. There’s also a (likely borderline offensive now) running gag involving an obviously not-Japanese karate instructor, speaking gibberish. However, the storyline doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, such as the way Emily just happens to be going out with Garrick’s second-in-command. What are the odds? I could also have done without the musical numbers, and describing most of the actresses’ action abilities as “a bit crap,” would be kind. It’s clearly less about what you do, than about how cool you look doing it, except for Leonor, who is there for comic-relief purposes. Fortunately, the martial abilities of Garrick’s minions are worse still – near what you would get if you did recruit from a Devo convention.

That all said, I can’t claim I disliked this, and it’s certainly self-aware, so the flaws don’t stop it from being entertaining nonsense. If Garrick’s motivation is largely obscure – what, exactly, is he going to do with the catalyst? – he’s very well-dressed, and it’s nice to see a supervillain with a sense of style to match the good guys. He takes the time to come up with ingenious items like an “organic disintegrating agent” and chivalrously sets a countdown time for four minutes, to allow the Tigresses and Jim time for a final fight-back. Meanwhile, the ladies (outside of Emily) are largely independent-minded, and in no need of male attention or help, quite a laudable feat for 1969 Mexico. I was expecting Jim to bed his way through most of them, and was gratified to see this doesn’t happen: it’s likely less chauvinist than Bond films of the era. If only they’d put more effort into the action.

Dir: Rafael Baledón
Star: Barbara Angely, Leonorilda Ochoa, Emily Cranz, Maura Monti

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter trailer released

resevilDoesn’t time fly? The last entry in the Resident Evil franchise, Retribution, was released in September 2012, so it’ll be a gap of almost four and a half years by the time The Final Chapter is finally released in January. It shouldn’t have been that long: filming was scheduled to begin in August 2014, but Milla Jovovich’s pregnancy caused shooting to be postponed Director Paul W.S. Anderson is also Milla’s husband, so he can’t exactly complain! Their second child was successfully born in April 2015, and filming eventually commended in September that year.

The production was not without problems, most notably a horrific accident involving stunt double Olivia Jackson. A motorcycle she was riding collided with a camera rig: per Wikipedia, this resulted in “cerebral trauma, a crushed face, a severed artery in her neck, a paralyzed arm, several broken ribs, a shattered scapula, a broken clavicle, torn fingers with a thumb that needed to be amputated, and five nerves torn out of her spinal cord.” I’ve read elsewhere Jackson’s face was actually “degloved,” which is as awful as it sounds. An even more serious accident followed, with crew member Ricardo Cornelius being crushed to death by a vehicle on set.

On a happier note, a number of characters return from Retribution, including Alice, Claire Redfield (Aly Larter), Albert Wesker (Shaun Roberts) and Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen). It takes up proceedings immediately after the end of Retribution, and sees Alice return to where it all began, in Raccoon City. There, she has to take on once more the Umbrella Corporation, which is preparing its final push against the last survivors of humanity. [I must confess, I had forgotten they had any kind of motive, beyond setting up set-pieces in which Alice can kick ass and look cool doing it. I think I may need to watch Retribution again, between now and January]. Though it appears Alice has lost her superhuman abilities, which is going to make things… different as far as her zombie-slaying is concerned. What the hell is she supposed to use, man, harsh language?

Fortunately, the trailer makes clear that sarcasm is going to remain a minor weapon in Alice’s arsenal. Accompanied by the rocking sounds of Guns ‘n’ Roses, we see Alice riding her motorcycle back to Raccoon City, and indeed, returning to her literal roots.  You definitely get the sense of things having come full-circle, not least with the return to the laser-protected corridor, which provided one of the first “F___ me! Rewind that!” moments of the series. I hope the defense system has retained the sense of dramatic escalation shown there. So, generally, I’m looking forward to this, and hopefully it will provide a suitable exclamation point for a franchise which will have run for close to 15 years.

Of course, putting The Final Chapter in your title is no guarantee of anything. Just ask Friday the 13th, which continued for nineteen years and seven further movies after their “Final Chapter” in 1984, then was rebooted entirely in 2009. If the box-office returns are good, I would not be in the slightest surprised if Sony/Constantin Films keep squeezing the cash-cow. While the returns have been moderate in North America – the biggest being 2010’s Afterlife at $60.1 million – they have done increasingly well overseas. Over 82% of Retribution‘s income came from there, and the series as a whole has grossed over $915 million. Not bad for a total production cost of $250 million.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens in North America on January 27.

The Fate of Lee Khan

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“Out of the frying-pan, inn to the fire…”

leekhanProbably best to start with a quick history lesson. In the fourteenth century, part of China was under Mongol rule, but there was a growing movement to oust the occupiers. Leading the battle against the rebels is the titular general, and it appears he has a mole inside their headquarters, who has arranged to pass Khan a crucial map that could derail the rebellion entirely. Learning in advance that Khan will be staying at the Spring Inn, a venue owned by one of their own, Wendy (Li), the freedom fighters set in motion a daring plan to steal back the map, and assassinate Khan before he can take advantage of the information. However, it turns out – as usual! – that there are others at the inn who have agendas of their own, operating undercover on both sides. So when Khan and his sister finally show up, they may be  well-aware of what lies in wait for them…

A lot to enjoy here, not least Wendy’s newly-recruited four-pack of waitresses, who all have shady pasts of their own, including a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist, and who are no less adept than Wendy with their fists and feet. The pickpocket, who swipes a pearl off the front of a customer’s hat as he plays dice, is played by Angela Mao in a small but significant role, as it’s her attempt to steal the map out of Khan’s locked case that triggers the climactic outburst of violence. There’s also Khan’s sister, Wan’er (right), played by another King Hu regular, Xu Feng, though this is Hu’s only work to be so heavily femme centered. The first half reminds me of Dragon Inn, made by Hu six years previously (and remade in the nineties), with its tale of shenanigans at a remote inn, on which a motley crew of heroes and villains descend. While generally entertaining, it’s somewhat hard to keep track of who’s doing what and for whose side.

When Khan shows up, the entire dynamic changes, with this movie developing a much clearer focus. Wendy and her allies try to regain control of the key map, while unsure how much Khan and Wan’er know about their plans, and who is on their side. Eventually, one of the rebels is caught in an untenable position and is summarily executed – though Wan’er “charitably” donates a hundred taels of silver “in order to bury her properly.” Such an obvious act of provocation will not go unpunished, and it’s time for all martial arts hell to break lose (or, at least, as close as it could given the era – this was just before Bruce Lee blew the doors off the genre). All of the women here have a strict zero-tolerance policy for nonsense, and are entirely capable of handling themselves. To have one such character would be impressive, but the full half-dozen we have here, indeed pushes this into the stratosphere for its time.

Dir: King Hu
Star: Li Lihua, Han Ying Chieh, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao