The Ghost in the Shell universe

Science-fiction writers largely whiffed on predicting the Internet: as a sweeping generalization, they were too busy with rocket ships and flying cars to see the biggest change in human society since the invention of the internal combustion engine. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), which began in 1984, is a rare example which saw how the interconnectedness of people and things would become an everyday part of life, for better and worse. But one of the more accurate projections of our networked future was a Japanese manga series, first published in 1989: Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, which has been powerfully influential since, from The Matrix through to HBO’s Westworld.

It was not Shirow’s first foray into the interface between man (or, more frequently, woman) and machine. He began in 1983 with Black Magic (made into Black Magic M-66), which preceded The Terminator in its story of a journalist trying to save a young woman from a relentless android. This was followed two years later by Appleseed, a series which according to Wikipedia, “merges elements of the cyberpunk and mecha genres with a heavy dose of politics, philosophy, and sociology.” Sound familiar? 1986’s Dominion then introduced readers to the fictional setting of Newport City, which would also become the home for Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of Ghost in the Shell.

The world

It is the near future. The world has become highly information-intensive, with a vast corporate network covering the planet, electrons and light pulsing through it. But the nation-state and ethnic groups still survive. And on the edge of Asia, in a strange corporate conglomerate-state called ‘Japan’…

So opens Ghost in the Shell. First published as a serial in Young Magazine, it began in April 1989, and was set, at that point, forty years in the future. By this point, technology has advanced to a level where every aspect of humanity, physical or mental, can be augmented by prosthetic devices. Almost everyone has taken advantage of at least a few upgrades. Some, such as Kusanagi, have embraced the concept to such extent they have entirely artificial bodies in addition to a “cyberbrain”. This enhanced version of the organ can be transferred at will between physical forms, and allows direct connection into information networks.

However, these innovations are not without their downside. If something is networked, it can be hacked. And if it can be hacked, it will be hacked, leading to potentially lethal acts of cyber-terrorism. These can be deadly, not only to the direct target – for if you can take over someone’s brain, they can then be used as your “puppet,” to commit further crimes. The hacker can even implant false memories into the victim, covering their tracks. Such sophisticated criminals require equally sophisticated law-enforcement, and this is where Section 9 come in. Led by Major Kusanagi, and operating under the watchful gaze of bureaucrat Daisuke Aramaki, they have the freedom of action necessary to tackle the most difficult cases.

It’s not just technology that has changed from the current time. Between now and then, there have been two further world wars: the third was nuclear, and the fourth was not. The net result has been the break-up of several world powers into smaller fragments. Most notably, the United States of America split off two sections, leaving only nine states behind. The American Empire occupies the South and East, while the Russo-American Alliance controls the West coast and North-East corridor. This seems eerily prescient too, with some in California currently contemplating secession. Let’s hope the American Empire’s bloody and brutal invasion of Mexico, included in the future world here, does not come to pass as well.

Japan, however, survived the two global conflicts relatively well, and has developed into a superpower. While some areas were hit with nuclear weapons in WW3, “radiation scrubbing” technology was developed, which meant these were not long-term wastelands and could be rebuilt relatively quickly. It remains a democracy, though as the opening text suggests, it’s an occasionally fragile one, with pressures from interested parties – in particular corporations – creating a dynamic tension between the needs of business and individuals. As a result of the wars, there are also a significant number of refugees from other Asian countries, which cause tension and represent a serious political powder-keg.

The Major

The heroine has had almost as many forms as there have been adaptations of the manga. Which is not a problem, because this is a universe where, if you want, you can change your body as often as your socks. It’s also why the criticisms of “whitewashing” leveled at the film for casting Scarlett Johansson never made any sense to me. Kusanagi can take any shape she wants, because her body is entirely artificial. The Major has described herself as nothing more than a fist sized clump of brain cells, without her robotic body. How she looks is purely an aesthetic choice. And, let’s face it: if I were a woman, and could look like anyone I wanted, ScarJo would be a more likely selection than most.

However, the differences are not limited to how she appears: indeed, in some incarnations (Ghost in the Shell 2), she has abandoned entirely any definitive physical semblance. The Major’s personality is also subject to variation: the anime version is a great deal more stoic than the manga one, where she appears to have come to a fairly happy place with regard to her situation. In the films, she worries frequently about whether or not she is still human – and what that even means. Another aspect which separates her from most of her contemporaries in Section 9, is that she went through full cyberization at a very early stage in her life. Although the details are murky (and also vary, depending on the adaptation), it appears she has been living an entirely artificial life, virtually for as long as she can remember.

Let’s talk about sex. Shirow has had a reputation as a bit of a lech, since virtually the start of his career. It’s an aspect which seems to have increased in his work over time; while he has almost abandoned linear story-telling, his latest artwork book is called Greaseberries, and is about what it sounds like. But even relatively early, content was controversially removed from the Japanese version of the manga, for its original American release: pages which depict the Major’s sideline, involving sex software called “Endorno.” [For the curious. You’re welcome! NSFW, obviously] Many of the Major’s costume choices also seem to come from Stripper Couture R Us, even if somewhat required by the plot, e.g. that skin-tight bodysuit is really necessary for her thermo-optical camouflage. Honest! Just don’t ask why her head doesn’t need it…

Yet curiously, actual fornication is largely missing from the Shell universe, particularly in the animated versions. Perhaps it’s the result of Kusanagi’s cybernetic nature, with her body just a tool for the job? Indeed, love is equally notable by its near-absence. Actually, this is among the things which I find most refreshing about her as a heroine: she’s not defined at all by traditionally feminine conceits like romantic relationships or family values. These tend to get shoehorned in far too often to action heroines, and most of the time (I admit, there are some exceptions), do little more than bring proceedings to a grinding halt, and get in the way of the fun stuff. This diversion of energy isn’t a problem with the Major: she had little or no interest in affairs of the heart. “Career oriented” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The influences

The 1995 movie of Ghost in the Shell is not the first large-budget attempt at putting the “cyberpunk” world on the big screen. It was beaten to the punch, by a few months, by Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of a William Gibson short story, starring Keanu Reeves. The less said about it, probably the better, though coincidentally, Takeshi Kitano is in both it and the live-action Ghost. I’ll just leave you this sentence from another review: “After Henry Rollins is crucified by a fundamentalist Christian assassin played by Dolph Lundgren whose catchphrase is “Jesus time!” (AWESOME), Keanu and his sidekick Jane eventually hook up with the Lo-Teks, a gang of outlaws in the ruins of Newark led by Ice T and a cybernetic dolphin.” Yeah, Unsurprisingly, it was a critical flop then, and hasn’t exactly improved with age.

The reviews at the time of release for Ghost were stellar in comparison, though still mixed. It’s one of those films whose impact and relevance only becomes apparent over time. Like Blade Runner, you wake up one morning and suddenly go, “Holy shit, we’re living in that movie.” Okay, we may not quite yet be seeing the cyberization seen in Ghost; yet we’re getting there, in terms of the amount of time people spend interfaced into virtual worlds, from Facebook to Netflix. Consider this: 1989, when the original comic was published, was the same year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Even by 1995, there were less than forty million users of the Internet world-wide, the majority in the United States, and just 23,500 websites. [Working eight hours a day, you could spend a minute on every website, and see the entire Internet in under seven weeks.] The relevant figures in 2017: 3.77 billion users and about a billion sites.

The film-makers who have acknowledged its influence include virtually all the heavy hitters of genre cinema: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and, most obviously, the Wachowski brothers sisters siblings. When they pitched their idea for The Matrix to their producers, they showed them the Ghost in the Shell movie and said, “We want to do that for real.” Spielberg would make AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, reflecting ideas explored in Ghost, and his studio, Dreamworks, are behind the live-action version, having bought the rights all the way back in April 2009. Cameron provided a glowing quote for the DVD release, and the transference of personalities seen in Avatar seems to bear a debt to Shirow’s creation.

It’s a two-way street, naturally. Ghost was influenced by what had gone before, and it’s also notable for being a rare anime film co-funded by Japan and Western companies. The results straddle cultures and have stood the test of time better than most of its contemporaries, animated or live-action. It will be interesting to see whether the latest version proves to be so well-regarded and influential, more than two decades after it comes out.

Related posts

The art of Masamune Shirow

Note: some of the images below are not safe for work.

La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses

“My name is Alice. And I remember everything”: Re-viewing Resident Evil 1-5

With the sixth (and final?) installment in everyone’s #1 zombie-killing video-game adaptation franchise now in cinemas, it seemed a good time to go back and re-view the previous five installments, stretching back almost fifteen years. The original film came out so long ago, I wasn’t actually married. Damn. Now, however, I am. Which is why, one weekend in January, Chris and I ordered out for pizza, ensured the pillows were adequately fluffed and settled in on the couch for a marathon of maximum Umbrella mayhem. How have they stood the test of time? Here are our current takes on the series, preceded by summaries of our original reviews and a link to the full thing. But first, let’s warm up and refresh our memory with the trailers:

Resident Evil (2002)

“You’re all going to die down here!”

What we said then (3½ stars). “Not as good as it could have been, with even the most undemanding viewer able to imagine improvements. Yet, as an action/SF/horror film goes, it’s not bad at all, with very little slack or let-up. The virus is released in the first two minutes, and it’s pretty much non-stop from there on, with plenty going on. Jovovich looks the part, and the final shot has me anticipating the sequel, in a kind of Evil Dead 2 way, with her character getting totally medieval on the zombies’ asses. We can but hope.”

What we say now. This has stood up very well in 15 years, not least because it’s more practical effects than primitive CGI e.g. the zombie dogs. It’s worth remembering that, when it came out, zombies were not in fashion. This was before The Walking Dead, before World War Z; heck, it was even before the Dawn of the Dead remake. Indeed, it’s 40 minutes here before the first zombie shows up, and another 10 before Alice, as we know her, is born. Still, Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez) stands in well during the early going, the character being perfectly suited to Rodriguez’s sneer. She also gets the best line in the film. After fighting off an early corpse, thanks to Rain’s torrent of automatic fire, J.D. says “I shot her five times. How was she still standing?”, to which Rain replies, “Bitch isn’t standing now. ”

At this point, the makers were stating it was a “prequel” to the games, with Jovovich in effect playing the role of Jill Valentine. Not so sure about that, given subsequent flims, but it’s hard to deny the influence of the final sequence: Alice waking up in a hospital bed, to discover the zombie apocalypse, was also used in both 28 Days Later and the first ep of TWD. There was an alternate ending shot, with her going into Umbrella HQ, but I’m glad they went with the one used, which has an absolutely spectacular final shot, zooming back from her over a devastated city. The makers certainly extracted their bang for every penny of the $35 million budget, and the industrial soundtrack, including both Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails, is perfect. Current rating: upgraded to **** and our seal of approval.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

“I’m good – but I’m not THAT good.”

What we said then (4 stars). “There seemed to be two kinds of reviews for this: those who ‘get’ what’s intended here, and those who clearly don’t… How you react will likely be similarly split; given you’re on this site, I suspect the odds are in favour of Apocalypse, for its strong intuitive grasp of the ingredients necessary in a good action heroine, and its delivery thereof. Sure, the plot is some way short of perfect, and more/better-filmed fights would have been welcome, but the makers do a sound job of distracting you from the flaws, and there’s enough worthwhile stuff that will stick in your mind, to put it in the top quarter of this summer’s popcorn flicks.”

What we say now. If the original movie was Alien, this one is Aliens, upping the ante largely by vastly multiplying the number of enemies. The scope here is much broader: instead of the claustrophobic feel of a small group in an underground complex, it takes place across an entire city, and it’s not just Alice vs. zombies, she’s also taking on the human soldiers of Umbrella. Since she is the sole intact survivor of part one, we get a slew of new characters, including two from the game, in Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr); the former is particularly iconic in her costume. There’s also L.J. (Mike Epps), who adds occasional comic moments almost entirely missing from the original; not sure if that’s a plus or not.

Alice is now a fully-fledged and hardcore heroine, apparent right from her arrival, crashing through a church window on her motorbike, and capable of snapping her own dislocated finger back into place, with little more than a roll of the eyes. It’s a near-constant stream of action, offering a relentless adrenaline buzz to the viewer, although less adrenaline would have been welcome during Alice’s final fight with nemesis, which degenerates into a choppily-edited mess. And, really: who decided it was a good idea to go through a cemetery during a zombie apocalypse? Still, between Alice and Jill, this remains a two-for-one action heroine special, and can only be appreciated as such. Current rating: holds steady at ****.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

“Good thing I like a challenge.”

What we said then (3 stars). “S’ok. Mulcahy is no stranger to franchise cinema, having done the first couple of Highlander films, and the harsh desert lighting and exterior landscape is a nice contrast to the usual, dark, claustrophobic approach adopted by most Z-flicks. His experience is of particular use in the action sequences, where he does a better job of avoiding the cinematic excesses, in which Alexander Witt indulged, too frequently, last time up. The script is merely workmanlike: it feels too much like a series of cool set-pieces joined in the editing bay, rather than springing organically from the storyline.”

What we say now. I was confused by the opening, and wondered if I’d accidentally put the first film back in the DVD player. For I hadn’t seen this since its cinematic release, and it starts off by re-running the very beginning. Once that was established, we get Ian Glen as the villain – and he’s much needed, offering us a real human “villain” for the first time, and giving Umbrella a face of evil in Dr. Isaacs. The main problem is, Alice has now been imbued with superpowers. Speed and strength, I don’t mind, but telekinesis and the ability to block fire? What is this, X-Men: Extinction? Though clearly the main influence here is Mad Max, right down to Alice’s post-apocalypse chic of a long coat – plus, for no real reason beyond coolness, stockings and suspenders.

This film also absorbs the modern fondness for “fast zombies”, with the main set-piece taking on a slew of Umbrella-enhanced sprinters. While decent, and with an impressive depiction of Las Vegas, it’s likely placed too early in the movie, as nothing thereafter comes close. The only other sequence which might stick in the mind is an attack on a convoy of survivors by zombiefied crows, so I guess you can add The Birds to the list of influences here. I did like the “Pit O’ Millas”, the discards resulting from Dr. Isaacs’s experiments, and am surprised it took them three movies to use White Rabbit on the soundtrack, given its obvious Alice-ness. But Claire Redfield is disappointingly bland, and Alice’s increasing abilities cause way more problems than they solve. Current rating: dropped to **½, though likely a little above that, rather than above.

10 Iconic Sequences from Resident Evil 1-5

These are my picks for the most franchise-defining set pieces from each film. I aimed for two from each, but #3 was so weak, it could only manage a single entry (and that, barely!), so I pulled in an extra one from #4. These are not necessarily the “best” moments. For example, Alice’s fight against the zombie dogs in the original film, is memorable more because it’s the first time we’ve seen her kick ass. It was also that moment in the trailer which sold me on the movie. But having watched all five films in the last 24 hours, these are what stick in my mind.

  1. Alice enters the church (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  2. Alice vs. Zombie Dogs (Resident Evil)
  3. Million Milla March (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  4. Alice vs. Jill (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  5. Tokyo sequence (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  6. Running down that wall (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  7. The laser corridor (Resident Evil)
  8. Roof-top escape (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  9. Alice and Claire vs. the Axman (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  10. Las Vegas ambush (Resident Evil: Extinction)

The play-list below includes all ten of these. Please enjoy. :)

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

“Do you know who I am?”

What we said then (3 stars). “There’s way too much moving about in underground darkness here, and elements are lobbed in from the video game, which make no sense in the context of the movie… Nor is there much feeling of threat to the characters, who cheat death with blithe abandon – the sense of “anyone can die, at any time” present in the original is all but gone… [But] the action, is, as usual for the series, solid – meaning this is, overall, just worth the 92 minutes of your time it will take up.”

What we say now. This saw the return of Paul W.S. Anderson to the series, and wisely, opts rapidly to discard the angle which saw our heroine gaining ever-increasing superpowers. I totally loved the attack on Umbrella HQ by multiple Alice clones – what I call the Million Milla March – which lifts copiously from both The Matrix and the original Aeon Flux animations. Indeed, The Matrix is a source in other ways, not least Arnold Wesker (Shawn Roberts), who clearly is inspired heavily by Agent Smith. This and the other lifts here are a bit too obvious to work: the zombie dogs v2.0 are straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and obnoxious asshole Bennett Sinclair (Kim Coates) is likely too close to Steve Marcus in the Dawn of the Dead remake. Even the use of a prison as a sanctuary from zombies was previously done a few years earlier, in The Walking Dead comics.

I note the walking pace of Evil‘s zombies continues to accelerate, here without any Umbrella tampering. But generally, this is on most solid ground when working with its own content, such as the Axman, who makes a ferocious foe for Claire and Alice (despite far too much slo-mo!). It was the first of the series to be made in 3D, and a lot of the shots used by Anderson make that very obvious, though I didn’t mind that too much. For someone supposedly back to being human again, Alice still seems to be insanely competent, best illustrated in an impressive escape off a roof-top infested with zombies. It even ends on the most hopeful note of any of the series so f… Er, never mind, scratch that. My mistake. Current rating: Upped to ***½; this was rather more impressive than I remembered it.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

“Congratulations. You’re officially a badass.”

What we said then (4 stars). “This is the best Resident Evil movie in eight years. It may not be anything significant in the plot department. There are not hidden depths or great moments of character revelation. But it does contain entirely acceptable amounts of Milla Jovovich Kicking Righteous Ass, and succeeds as an entertainment spectacle, almost entirely due to this. Though actually, this is almost a “greatest hits” package, especially in terms of participants.”

What we say now. Feels like Anderson has largely given up in terms of trying to attract new fans, with a start that’s deliberately confusing, from an opening that plays out in reverse, through Alice’s new suburban life. It also introduces, without explanation, game elements such as characters Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong, and the Las Plagas parasites. But if you’ve been along for the ride since the beginning, this is a blast. It brings in new influences, most obviously Aliens (Alice protecting a pseudo-daughter) and Blade Runner (Ada telling her, “You were one of the 50 basic models”). It’s good to see favourite characters from earlier films return, such as Rain Ocampo or Carlos Olivera, and the cloning concept allows for nice variations. Not all Rains, for example, are on Alice’s side, though you know the concept of our heroine as a happy home-maker is not one built to last.

The scenario, involving a giant Umbrella testing area of different environments, seems a bit contrived, but there was something very similar in the Resident Evil: Underworld novel. I’ll let it slide, since this offers scope for a host of spectacular set-pieces. In terms of pure hand-to-hand fighting, the Tokyo sequence may be close to the best in the series, but the film likely sprays more rounds of ammunition around than any other entry too. It’s also great to see Alice go toe-to-toe against Jill Valentine, harking back to the “But I’m not that good” comment from Apocalypse. In some ways, the gap between the games and the movies has never been greater, with this abandoning almost all creepiness for loud, rambunctious battles. However, this is so solidly entertaining, I’d be hard pushed to call that any kind of a bad thing. Current rating: retains every bit of its ****.

So, what have we learned? Generally, to answer the question asked in the intro, the films have stood the test of time surprisingly well. Video-game adaptations remain problematic for Hollywood (Assassin’s Creed says hello), and the longevity and sheer number of Resident Evil films is almost unsurpassed. I think it’s because Anderson and his team have never felt under an obligation to be “true” to the games. While that may have alienated a chunk of the core fans, it has allowed the makers to focus on a more important task: making entertaining films, for there are aspects of the games which simply would not work on-screen, such as the puzzle-solving. They were also wise to concentrate heavily on practical effects, which tend to last better than CGI.

Not to say there haven’t been mis-steps – the mid-series diversion giving Alice super-powers would be the worst of these. But at its best – and I’d order the series #5, #2, #1, #4, #3, from top to bottom – it is excellent entertainment, that looks far slicker than many films with far bigger budgets, and the focus throughout has generally been on what matters. Which is: a great heroine who kicks ass, with (The Hunger Games please note) no love-triangles and virtually zero romantic interest. It seems Milla Jovovich is certain the sixth movie will be her final chapter, at least. If so, it seems only appropriate to finish by saying: So long, Milla – and thanks for all the mayhem.

2017 in Action Heroine Films

It’s always interesting to look back at the previous year’s preview, and see what happened – which films came out that didn’t live up to expectations? And which ones went above and beyond? Looking at the 2016 list, the films being anticipated included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Ghostbusters. Bit of a mixed bag there, shall we say, and let’s leave it at that! But 2017 looks to be opening brightly, at least, with a first month which gives us the latest entries in two of the longest running action heroine franchises: Underworld and Resident Evil. Let’s take a look at those, and the other potentially interesting movies for the year ahead. Release dates are for North America and are entirely subject to change at the whim of those involved.

47 Meters Down (TBA)

Already out in some territories under the title of In The Deep, this appears to be significantly inspired by The Shallows. Except, where it had one swimmer trapped in the ocean and menaced by sharks, this ups the ante, and has two. Sisters, played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, are in a shark cage which separates from its boat and plunges to the sea-bottom. Never mind their delivery as a buffet to the predators, they also have less than an hour of air left. This was originally going to go straight to home release in August, but the plan is now for a theatrical release this summer.

Annihilation (TBA)

“A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.” Directed by Alex Garland, it’s based on the SF book by Jeff VanderMeer. If the film holds true to the book, the four-person expedition will be all-female, and looking at the cast list, seems they’ll be played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, which has the makings of a fine action-heroine cast. I started reading the synopsis of the book on Wikipedia, and it certainly seemed highly intriguing, but I stopped because… y’know, spoilers.

The Coldest City (July 28)

Based on a graphic novel, as shown on the right, the film was originally on the slate for this year, this stars Charlize Theron as an MI-5 agent, sent to East Berlin as the Eastern Bloc teeters on the edge of collapse. Per Wikipedia, her mission is “to take down a ruthless espionage ring that has just killed an undercover agent for reasons unknown. She is ordered to cooperate with Berlin station chief David Percival, and the two form an uneasy alliance, unleashing their full arsenal of skills in pursuing a threat that jeopardizes the West’s entire intelligence operation.”

Ghost in the Shell (March 31)

There’ll be plenty of coverage here of the GitS universe nearer the time – I’m currently going through Stand Alone Complex on Hulu. The production is not without its share of controversy, due to Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the supposedly Japanese Major, but personally, casting Takeshi Kitano gets you quite a few points. Director Rupert Sanders gave us the previously mentioned The Huntsman: Winter’s War, so I’m fairly certain this one is going to look good, at the very least (and the trailer seems to prove that). Will it be any more than eye-candy?

The Girl With All the Gifts (TBA)

This British post-apocalypse zombie film has already been released there, but has not yet been fixed to a date in the US. Its focus is Melanie, part of a small subset of the infected who have retained human faculties such as intelligence and the ability to communicate, while still being – in the immortal words of Shaun’s mom – “a bit bitey”. She forms a bond with a scientist researching a potential cure, and the pair leave the complex on a trip through the blasted and highly dangerous landscape which London has become.

The Godmother (TBA)

Principal photography on this biopic of Colombia drug-queen, Griselda Blanco, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, apparently began in November 2015. So I’m a little surprised we haven’t heard anything about it since. It’s certainly not the first such effort – we already wrote about telenovela La Viuda Negra (our full review will be out at the beginning of March). And, apparently after being spurned for the lead here, it was announced in August that Jennifer Lopez will play Blanco in an HBO movie.

Kidnap (March 10)

“Vengeance is a Mother,” is the tag-line here, with Halle Berry starring as a mother who will stop at nothing to free her kidnapped son. There may be distribution problems here, as studio Relativity has been staggering from one financial crisis to another, with complete liquidation still entirely possible. Figuring that out will likely determine its fate: this was originally on the slate for December, but has been pushed back, and even the March date remains tentative. 

Red Sparrow (November 10)

This one is still apparently in pre-production, and has been rattling around since at least mid-2013. It’s based on a novel by Jason Matthew, about Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina who becomes a spy after an injury ends her dance career. She’s sent to get close to a CIA agent, and uncover the identity of the mole he has working inside the Russian system. Egorova is played by Jennifer Lawrence, and it reunites her with the Hunger Games director Francis “No relation” Lawrence, after Darren Arnonofsky left the project in early 2014.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (January 27)

Let’s raise a glass to Alice, who has been kicking zombie ass for close to fifteen years now. This is supposedly the final dance for Milla Jovovich – but I imagine the Resident Evil franchise will continue in some form or other, for as long as they’re profitable [I’ve been reading the RE novels for an upcoming feature, and there’s plenty of potential content there which could be mined]. After a couple of disappointing entries, the last film, Retribution, marked a return to OTT fun, so hopefully Milla will get the send-off she deserves here. 

Scorched Earth (TBA)

“A bounty hunter named Atticus Gage tracks down criminals in a post-apocalyptic Earth.” So what’s it doing here? Turns out that Atticus is actually a woman, and will be played by MMA star Gina Carano, who already made a solid impression with both Haywire and In the Blood, as well as her supporting role in Deadpool. Not much more known to this point, except that it’s set after an environmental disaster has reduced the population by billions. John Hannah will also star in the movie, as Gage’s mentor and confidant, Doc.

Underworld: Blood Wars (January 6)

First out of the gates for 2017 is the fifth entry in the Underworld series, though it has already come out in much of Europe [German friend Dieter, a fan of the series in general, gave it his thumbs-up]. The premise? Vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) continues her struggle against the Lycan clan and the Vampires that betrayed her, with both sides trying to use the blood of her and her daughter to become Corvinus Strain hybrids. After hiding her daughter, Selene and her allies attempt to end the eternal war between Lycans and Vampires, though Selene must take a risk that may cost her her life.

Unforgettable (April 21)

“Where love ends, madness begins…” That’s the tagline on this, which looks exactly like the sort of trashy potboiler we appreciate as a guilty pleasure. Katherine Heigl plays an ex-wife, who becomes convinced that her husband’s new flame (Rosario Dawson) is the only thing standing between her and a reconciliation. As such, the obstacle must be disposed of, by any means necessary. If this does not include a lengthy and hellacious brawl between the two female leads, I will be sorely disappointed. The trailer appears to suggest I won’t be!

Unlocked (March 17)

Another holdover from 2016; by its release, more than two years will have passed since the first pic. Here’s the synopsis: Once the CIA’s best interrogator, Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) failed to unlock a prisoner in time, prompting her to leave the field. When a suspect believed to have direct knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack is apprehended, Alice is called back in. Successful in ‘unlocking’ the suspect, she gets a call from an old colleague and realizes it’s a set-up. Alice narrowly escapes, and finds herself on the run. as she searches for those responsible and tries to prevent a deadly biological attack on the city. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (July 21)

Luc Besson will always have a place in our hearts: he gave us Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman. This seems closest to The Fifth Element, depicting a massive, sprawling futuristic universe. Per the official synopsis, “Valerian and Laureline embark on a mission to the breathtaking intergalactic city of Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis comprised of thousands of different species from all four corners of the universe. Alpha’s seventeen million inhabitants have converged over time, uniting their talents, technology and resources for the betterment of all. Unfortunately, not everyone on Alpha shares in these same objectives.”

Wonder Woman (June 2)

Last, but certainly not least, is probably the most important action heroine film of the year, being the first major comic-book adaptation with a female lead since… Well, depending on your definition of “major”, likely Electra or Catwoman. Neither of which exactly ended well, did they? If this succeeds, expect the doors to open for a whole slew of others; if it doesn’t, then the spigot could be turned off almost immediately. The signals have been mixed, with rumblings of problems on-set, but there’s no denying the trailer got me excited for this one. Fingers crossed…

Girls With Guns Calendars 2017

Welcome to our sixth annual round-up of girls with guns calendars, just in time for your Christmas shopping delight, since we’re posting this on Cyber Monday. Below, you’ll find prices (excluding shipping), sample images and links to purchase for all the calendars we could find. We’ll add more if we find them, feel free to email us if you know of any others.

TACGIRLS

TacGirls.com – $16.95

“2017 is our 10th Anniversary and we believe our best calendar ever! The Tactical Girls® 2017 gun calendar starts in January of 2017 and brings you 13 months of hot girls with some of the world’s most exotic weaponry in realistic tactical settings. It includes gun specifications and trivia from military, law enforcement and firearms history and, of course, the beautiful Tactical Girls Calendar Girls. Hollywood femme fatales inspire the girls and guns photo shoots for our calendars. However, the weapons we use are from our extensive armory of legal, licensed, fully functioning, full-automatic, class 3 machine guns, submachine guns, sniper rifles and assault rifles in use by elite members of military units and law enforcement agencies around the world.”

LIBERTY BELLES

LibertyBellesUSA.com – $16.99, through Mil-Spec Monkey

“The new 2017 Liberty Belles Calendar provides a sexy twist on the world of special operations forces. The sexy women of Liberty Belles are adorned in tactical gear and custom fit bikini uniforms to showcase anyone from US Navy Seals to US Army Rangers. The calendar provides 12 months of action packed shots plus BONUS Pages that specializes in portraying female tactical operators from a sexy perspective. The Liberty Belles calendar also features a Pull-Out 12″ x 18″ Poster! A portion of the profits from the sale of the Liberty Belles calendar is donated to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in support of our fallen warriors.”

ALEX SMITS

Alex-Smits.com – $20.00

Alex has been writing about action heroines for as long as I have, and is also a photographer. This is his tenth anniversary edition! Has it really been that long? Here’s his 8.5″ x 11″ wall calendar featuring twelve months of ballistic beauties.

GUNS AND GIRLS

GunsAndGirlsCalendar.com – $19.95

“Back for 2017 with its cult like following the Guns & Girls calendar is a true classic, featuring 16 months of awesome firearms with pin-up models. This big DELUXE (17″ x 28″ when hung up) calendar also features a large calendar grid, making it a breeze to keep track of your important dates. Each calendar also includes a bonus poster, that is also a second 12 month calendar giving you two calendars for the price of one!”

MAGPUL

Magpul.com – $TBA

This one doesn’t seem to be on the market yet, but the picture on the right was described as being “Behind the scenes at the #magpul 2017 calendar shoot!” So it seems likely to be only a matter of time… Check out the Magpul site through the link above for updates.

GUNS AND CAMO

GunsAndCamo.com – $13.95

HOT SHOTS

HotShotsCalendar.com – $16.95

“For a tenth glorious year the iconic Hot Shots Calendar returns! The Calendar continues to celebrate all things military, supporting the hard work and bravery of the armed forces who undergo dangerous work on a daily basis. As ever, the Hot Shots Calendar has the primary goal of raising money and awareness for Help For Heroes, a charity supporting the sacrifices of soldiers in the UK and the USA. Taking on our new theme, ‘Operation Desert Fox’, our models showcase some of the finest weaponry and equipment available to create some eye-catching images. We welcomed back costume designer Caleb Crye who yet again has created a series of stunning outfits for our models. Shot on a premium location in Arizona, we are delighted to welcome back the amazing Holly Peers, Rosie Jones, Kelly Hall and Emma Glover as well as some new faces. These include ex-marine and American Shannon Ihrkel; the tattooed Kayla Cadorna; and surfer Laura Crane.”

ZAHAL GIRLS

zahal.org – $21.90

“0% Gun Bunnies, 100% IDF Veterans. It’s finally ready! The Zahal Girls 2017 calendars are ready and waiting to be shipped all around the world! The 2017 Zahal Girls calendar features all of our girls (Lovie, Natasha, Orin, Shiran, Sherel, Esti & Shir) with Israeli & US made rifle accessories & tactical gear. All girls are IDF veterans that served in combat positions such as: Infantry & Infantry shooting instructors. The calendar is made out of 14 high quality chromo paper sheets, all joined together with a metal spiral, a small hook at the top (for hanging) and printed with high quality ink HP printers.”

RED BUBBLE

RedBubble.com – $28.00

  • Tough wire binding and hanger
  • Stunningly sharp digital printing
  • Start the year with the month of your choice
  • 200gsm satin art paper with a tougher cover

WOMEN OF ARMAGEDDON

WomenOfArmageddon.com – $TBA

After five straight seasons of calendarage (is that a word?), they’ve put their project on hold for the year, but we’ll keep this one around for now. Keep an eye on the site and/or their Facebook page for updates from creator Michael Zinn. You can also read the interview we did with Michael, if you want more information on the overall concept.

 

The Sister Street Fighter series

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Sister Street Fighter
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sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
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ssf2Even before the original film was released, the studio was spurred into making a swift follow-up, and the rush into production shows itself in a plot more than somewhat similar to its predecessor. Koryu Lee (Shiomi) looks for Birei, a friend from high-school, at the request of Birei’s father, after she vanishes from Hong Kong. She tracks Birei down in Japan where the girl is being used as a mule by a diamond-smuggling gang, operating under the front of a company owned by Kazunari Osone (Murota). They don’t take kindly to Koryu’s investigation, and send a range of thugs to stop her, which only encourages Koryu, naturally. However, turns out there’s a more personal connection, since her sister Bykuran (Mitsukawa) is working for Osone – both on her feet and her back, if you know what I mean…

Sure, it’s smuggling diamonds not drugs, and Koryu’s sister instead of her brother who is in bed with the criminals. But if you watch this back to back with the original, it’s almost going to seem like a mockbuster rather than a sequel, albeit made by much the same people. One semi-significant difference is that replacing Sonny Chiba, you have Kurata, playing a martial-arts master who joins the Osone gang with his own agenda. The opponents for our heroine are still the same selection of fighters with different talents, each introduced with a caption describing their origin. But these seem significantly more restrained than first time round, outside of the transsexual killer with her lethal fingernails.

The main problem is Yamaguchi’s direction, apparently considerably less stable than previously. It was a while ago I watched the first film, so perhaps I just didn’t notice it there, but for this entry he seems to have developed a terrible habit of moving the camera enthusiastically during Shihomi’s fight sequences. Which might have worked better, if the SteadiCam had arrived in Japanese cinema at the time of shooting. Instead, the results more closely resemble handing the camera to a amphetamine-crazed chimp, and are an unpleasant distraction, rather than providing any kind of enhancement to proceedings. It’s a blessed relief, whenever things calm long enough for viewers to appreciate the actual skill possessed by Shihomi, with her use of the nunchakus remaining a particular highlight.

The film does seem to have jacked up the exploitation aspects, with surprisingly disturbing (for the mid-seventies time) gore, in particular some eyeball violence, with what feels like more nudity as well. These are occasionally combined, such as the removal without anaesthetic of the smuggled diamonds, from the buttocks of the woman smuggling them. That’ll leave a mark. Not sure that’s necessarily a plus, since Shihomi’s wholesome and earnest intensity was one of the pleasures in the first film, making it stand out from the more common and salacious “pinky violence” cousins, that this sequel appears to be aping.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Hideo Murota, Yasuaki Kurata, Tamayo Mitsukawa

The Return of the Sister Street Fighter
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ssf3The third in the series is something of a return to form, not least because Yamaguchi goes back to holding the damn camera steady. But, really: another friend/relative has vanished into the clutches of a yakuza smuggling ring? At this point, it’s going beyond the realms of coincidence and, as Oscar Wilde (somewhat) said, now looks like carelessness. In this case, it’s cousin Shurei, though it’s not entirely clear if she is the cousin of Koryu (Shihomi) or the detective who gives our heroine her mission. The details are largely irrelevant, however. For what matters is that Koryu has not yet touched dry land after her arrival in Yokohama, accompanied by Shurei’s adorable little daughter Rika, when she is ambushed on the pier.

Having survived that, she links up with Shurei’s sister, Reika, then goes to meet “Suzy Wong”, who supposedly knows Shurei’s whereabouts. Koryu learns Shurei has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Yamamoto), “the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown,” before Suzy becomes another in what turns out to be quite a lengthy string of dead bodies. For Mr Oh’s approach to henchmen employment is to have the potential candidates fight each other in death matches to determine who gets the four open spots as his enforcers. One of these ends up being Takeshi Kurosaki (Kurata), though if you’ve seen the second film, you will not be at all surprised to learn that he has his own agenda once more. Really, it’s like they’re not even making a token effort in terms of the script at this point.

That said, I enjoyed this one significantly more: as noted, the cinematography is less flailing, there’s no shortage of action, and there are some surreal touches (both deliberate and, I suspect, accidental) that enliven proceedings. For example, [mild spoiler] Mr Oh is wheelchair-bound, though this certainly doesn’t stop him from being wheeled around to slap under-performing minions silly. Except, at the end, he suddenly leaps from his wheelchair into battle. I guess he was just being a lazy bastard the rest of the time. In the “accidental” category, there’s the saxophone rendition of Danny Boy, which accompanies the Very Serious conversation between Koryu and Suzy, in a spectacular display of inappropriateness.

I wondered why chunks of this felt so familiar, and eventually discovered I had reviewed this previously, back in September 2008. I wasn’t as impressed at that point, awarding it only two stars at that point (though I appear to have been equally amused then by the whole Danny Boy thing). Either my tastes have changed over the intervening years, or perhaps I was influenced by watching this in close proximity to the inferior second film? But, if I ever become an evil overlord, and have a mortal enemy in my grasp, I will not stop a henchman about to kill them, with a quip such as, “The crows will feed on her by morning anyway.” That never ends well for the evil overlord…

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Yasuaki Kurata, Rinichi Yamamoto, Akane Kawasaki

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth-level Fist
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ssf5The fourth entry marked several changes, although given it was also the final one, that suggests these were not considered too successful. A new director was brought in; Ozawa is best known for The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba, which inspired the spin-off series here, though this was the last of the 30-odd films in his career. Shihomi also plays a different character from the earlier movies: Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of an upwardly-mobile kimono designer who is trying to marry her off to a salaryman. Kiku is having none of it, not when her Okinawan friend, Michi (Love), needs help. For Michi’s half-black stepbrother, Jim (Wallace), has been targeted by the drug-smugglers he has fallen in with, who are using a movie studio as a front for their activities, under its owner Fujiyama (Kawai).

This takes a long while to get going, with Kiku having precious little to do in terms of action until the final 20 minutes or so. When it does, have to say, she and Michi deliver one of the best fights of the entire series, in an extended brawl around the film lot. Until then, it’s as much social commentary as anything, with the siblings the target of prejudice for their mixed-race nature [something which also formed a significant aspect of Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl and its sequels]. This is also more explicitly feminist than its predecessors, and not only in the arranged marriage Kiku wants to avoid. When that falls through, her father tries to set her up with Detective Suji Takagi, but he’s an unrepentant chauvinist and tells Riku: “Men are attracted to a woman’s gentleness. Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well – isn’t that what makes a woman happy?” Showing remarkable restraint, she somehow managed to avoid punching his lights out as a counter-argument.

There seems to be a bit more comedy in this one, and additionally, it seems somewhat brave of Ozawa to make a film linking a movie studio to the Yakuza, given the long-standing whispers linking Toei, the company behind this series, to organized crime in the seventies. [According to Federico Varese, “Bosses not only took a keen interest in their portrayal and demanded to pre-approve the content of movies but also encouraged the production of hagiographies about themselves and their gangs.”] Maybe that explains why it was the last movie he ever directed… While this was also the last entry in the Sister Street Fighter series, Shihomi continued acting for another decade, before marrying fellow-actor Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, marrying him and retiring from acting at the ripe old age of thirty-one. However, these four features likely remain the definitive works in her filmography, showcasing her skills, and putting them front and centre, where they belong.

Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Nobuo Kawai

Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur

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“She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista, hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel — to ensure that in a machista, violent world, which is the territory of men — that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men.”
Arturo Pérez-Reverte


There have been two, significantly different televisual adaptations of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, La Reina Del Sur (you can read our review of the source material here). The first, was a Mexican telenovela that ran for 63 episodes during 2011. However, this summer saw the premiere of an American television series based on the same novel, which played on the USA Network. This covered 13 episodes thus far, and finished its first run last month, with the network agreeing to a second season next year. Let’s take a look at both shows: their similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses, starting with the Mexican version.

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“The reina in Spain, stays mainly in the plain.”

The impact of La Reina Del Sur probably can’t be exaggerated. Right from the first episode, screened in February 2011 on Telemundo, it was a smash hit. The premiere drew the network’s biggest ratings ever for a first episode, and perhaps surprisingly, the audience was almost equally split between men and women. The following week, viewers increased by almost 20%, and beat all English-language stations in the 18-34 demographic. The final episode, on May 30th, was the most-watched program in Telemundo’s 19-year history – and again, was watched by more men than any show on TV at the time. Though since surpassed, it was also the station’s most-expensive production, shot in five countries and budgeted at $10 million, So if you’re expecting cheesy drama, you’re going to be surprised – at least somewhat.

It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, whose life is thrown upside down when her boyfriend, El Guero, is killed by the organized crime gang for which he has been flying planes. She trades his notebook to the head of the gang, Epifanio Vargas (Zurita), in exchange for her help escaping to Spain. There, she gets a job as a waitress in a brothel, and gradually works her way up to running the place’s books. She begins a relationship with a smuggler, and learns the ropes of the trade from him, only for tragedy to strike. While trying to out-run the authorities, their boat crashes into rocks, killing him and leading to her being sent to prison.

reina2In jail, she links up with Colombian Patricia O’Farrell (Urgel), who knows the location of a huge cocaine stash, hidden by her late boyfriend from the Russian mafia. On their release, the pair work out a risky deal with Oleg Yasikov (Jiménez) to sell it back, giving them the cash to set up in the drug business, with Yasikov’s help. However, this attracts unwelcome attention from two fronts. The DEA start sniffing around, with the help of the local cops. Potentially more lethally, Epifanio is now on the political rise, and Teresa’s existence represents an unwelcome loose-end that must be tidied up. Not least because the DEA are interested in getting her back to Mexico to testify against him.

According to del Castillo, the entire series was shot in just seven months, which is an extremely quick pace: it works out at more than two episodes, or over an hour of new footage, every single week. At one point, the star required medical treatment for exhaustion. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the source novel (whose work also inspired Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), helped extend the material, a very necessary task given the 63 episodes the show lasted. Not having read the book myself, I can’t comment on what was added, but having read Werner’s scathing review, seems like the telenovela is superior to the novel, and has certainly made its heroine a more sympathetic character.

The two areas where it works best are Teresa Mendoza’s character arc, and the supporting cast. With the story unfolding over such a long period (by English-language TV standards), the former kinda creeps up on you. It’s only near the end, when the show includes a number of flashbacks to what Teresa used to be like, that you realize how drastically she has been changed by events. The plucky yet naive young woman to whom we were initially introduced has gone, replaced by a thoroughly hard-bitten woman, She learns the hard way that trust and affection are traits that can get you – or your loved ones – killed in her chosen profession. Frankly, the trail of dead bodies left behind Teresa in one way or another, is so high, her belief she may be cursed begins to seem credible.

reina3I also liked the background characters. O’Farrell is a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, flagrantly bisexual party girl, yet still vulnerable and insecure at her core. She’s played by Urgel, who looks like a supermodel version of Brienne of Tarth, taller than most of the men on the show [Per Google, she’s officially 5’7″, but as this pic of her, del Castillo and male star Ivan Sanchez shows… someone’s not telling the truth] Another woman Teresa meets in jail, who becomes a key part of her team is Marcela, known as “La Conejo” (the rabbit). She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but actually poisoned her husband and his mother. Alberto Jiménez, as Yasikov, seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef. Finally, DEA agent Willy Rangel, shows up early, vanishes in the middle, then comes back to be pivotal at the end, drinking coffee from his Union Jack mug.  Given this show is a marathon, not a sprint, having these to sustain interest is likely a necessity.

It is disappointingly low-key in terms of action: Teresa’s first boyfriend teaches her to shoot, as shown above. But after using it to escape early peril, she doesn’t fire another round until the final battle. To be honest, even the efforts at generating tension are only sporadically successful, and this is more drama-than thriller-inclined. There are some moments of plotting which don’t ring true either. Apparently, in Spain, police procedure means than when someone confesses to having hired a hitman, you then let them wander off upstairs on their own to, oh I dunno, tidy up or something. Such mis-steps are likely inevitable at some point though. All told, I found it acceptably entertaining, with a lot less time spent on torrid romance than I expected, and anchored by del Castillo’s sound performance.

Finally, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, Kate del Castillo subsequently became involved with notorious fugitive Mexican drug-lord El Chapo, after Tweeting about him in 2012. Turns out he was a fan of La Reina Del Sur, telling her, “That series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it.” He authorized Kate to begin work on a film version of his life story, before his break-out from jail in July 2015. Subsequently, she traveled to Mexico, along with Sean Penn, to meet El Chapo, a trip which Penn later chronicled in a heavily-criticized article for Rolling Stone. The relationship brought del Castillo scrutiny by the Mexican government, including an investigation for involvement in money-laundering. As of July, this was still ongoing…

Star: Kate del Castillo, Cristina Urgel, Humberto Zurita, Alberto Jiménez

Queen of the South
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“Don’t mess with Tex-Mexicans.”

I’ll likely have less to say about the American version, because thus far, it has run barely 20% of the length of its predecessor, and tells far from a completed story. It is, however, radically different to this point in a number of ways. The most obvious is the shift in Teresa’s destination from Spain to the United States. This has caused some complaints among fans of the series and the novel, yet seems entirely understandable, given this is aimed squarely at the mainstream American market. While she’s still running from her boyfriend’s former employer, with a book containing a wealth of incriminating evidence, that information plays a more significant part here, becoming the McGuffin which drives the final third of the first season.

queen2The other major difference is one of focus. Teresa (Braga) has, to this point, not risen very high at all up the ladder of the drug business. There’s some obvious foreshadowing that she will, in that her “spirit animal” is an impeccably-dressed version of herself. But that appears well off into the future. For now, the real “Queen of the South” so far is Camila Vargas (Falcon). She’s the separated wife of Epifanio Vargas (de Almeida), who runs the American side of the business. She seizes an opportunity presented by Epifanio’s political campaign, and is working on going into business entirely on her own, dealing directly with the Colombian cartels. Needless to say, this does not sit well with her former husband, and when she discovers he is also after Teresa – no more than a low-level runner in her Dallas, Texas organization – her interest is inevitably piqued.

So far, it has not been at all interested in romance, unlike LRdS, where Teresa’s various boyfriends and entanglements were a significant part of the show. This may develop down the road: for now, US Teresa has been too busy trying to survive. Likely as a consequence, she has also directly slain more people than Mexi-Teresa at the same point. The first came as the result of a drug deal/heist gone bad, and you could make a good case for self-defense. The killings in the final episode, however? Not so much. I sense she’s going to be considerably more “hands on” than LRdS, where Teresa delegated all the dirty work to her minions [I may be wrong, but I don’t recall her killing anyone personally until the shoot-out in the final episodes]

Where Queen really scores, however, is in its production values. Despite the solidity of the performances, Reina always felt like a soap-opera: largely enclosed in its sets and constrained by a budget that, while unprecendented by telenovela standards, was still low by comparison to American TV. That isn’t the case here: at its best, this even goes beyond television and has a cinematic feel, comparable with the likes of Traffic or Sicario. I particularly liked the use of music, which was certainly a lot more appropriate than the jaunty Norteño awfulness which permeated LRdS. [I should point out, my tolerance for country & western is equally low!] The electronic beats used here instead, felt a bit reminiscent of Miami Vice, or perhaps Giorgio Moroder’s work for Scarface, both of which are certainly relevant.

It’s a grittier version of the drug life too. In LRdS, you largely felt one or more degrees of separation from the harsh realities involved, with the drugs almost an abstract construct. There’s no such escape here, right from the opening episode when a drug mule has the packages she’s carrying burst in her stomach, with fatal results. But the biggest ace the show has so far is Vargas – a character not present at all in Reina, and neither in the book as far as I can tell. She’s part chess player, part grim reaper, with a voice which sounds like honey being slowly poured over sopapillas. She’s a fascinating, complex creation, beautifully portrayed by Falcon, and we’d have happily watched an entire series focused entirely on her.

Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where the story develops from here. The first season ended with Epifanio ascending to the governorship of Sinaloa, and immediately exercising his new-found power, calling in the military against the cartel his ex-wife had just taken from him. Meanwhile, Teresa suffers a heart-breaking personal loss, yet rises above it to tell Camila, “I don’t work for you any more.” And, to nobody’s great surprise, there was a shock final twist, revealing something which wasn’t all that much of a shock, Reina having prepped me for it (albeit, a lot later there than in episode #13).  None of which diminished my interest in the next season, slated for summer 2017. While fans of the telenovela may choose to differ, I think any neutral would likely agree that this is a more polished and effective rendition of the story.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

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Fearless Nadia: The first action heroine film superstar?

“If India is to be free, women must be given their freedom. If you try and stop them, you’ll face the consequences.” — Diamond Queen

nadia1For more than four decades, the Indian cinema industry, popularly known as “Bollywood”, has been the most prolific in the world, producing close to a thousand features per year. It has also been active for longer than you’d think; the inaugural Indian feature came out in 1913, just two years after Nestor Studios became the first to open its doors in Hollywood. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s a case to be made that it was also the birthplace of the action heroine feature film, with 1935’s Hunterwali. Weirder still, it made a star of “Fearless Nadia”, its leading lady – who was actually 27-year-old Australian, Mary Ann Evans.

There had already been some action heroines in America. However, these were almost exclusively in series such as The Hazards of Helen, which ran for 119 episodes of twelve minutes, from 1914-17. Like James Bond, the actresses who played the lead changed over time, but the most-used was Helen Gibson. She’s also considered the first professional stunt-woman in Hollywood, and graduated from that role on Hazards, going on to portray Helen in 63 episodes. Unfortunately, as with so much silent cinema, the entire set is now close to lost, just a few parts surviving. However, it’s impact was not limited to America.

“Suddenly, out of the unknown there arises a mysterious personality called ‘Hunterwali’… Protector of the poor and punisher of the evil-doers, and by her daring adventures, she leaves all people spell-bound.”

In 1933, brothers  J.B.H. Wadia and Homi Wadia founded Wadia Movietone, a production company specializing in action, fantasy and mythological films. Among the cast in early works such as Noor-E-Yaman was Evans. She had been born in Western Australia in 1908, then moved to India with her family at age five, when her father, a British Army soldier, was sent to Bombay. Though he was killed in World War I, Mary Ann picked up a range of skills, from horseback riding to ballet, and toured India as part of a theatrical troupe in the early thirties. This helped lead to bit parts for the Wadia Brothers, who then created the role of “Hunterwali” – “The woman with a whip” – specifically for her. Adopting the “Fearless Nadia” name, Evans’ blonde, statuesque appearance was quite the contrast to the typical heroines of the time. This likely contributed to her acceptance in action roles by the Indian audience, despite her Hindi dialogue being delivered with a heavy accent.

Hunterwali is the story of Princess Madhuri (Evans), who has a secret identity as a masked vigilante, fighting injustice with her whip, and the help of her faithful horse and dog. The production was a gamble for the Wadias. Production took six months and cost 80,000 Rupees – about $30,000, a huge sum at the time for a local film. But the risky, unproven concept meant they were unable to find a distributor, so ended up taking that role on themselves. It worked out: the novelty of a blue-eyed action heroine, doing all her own stunts, proved impossible to resist. Crowds flocked to cinema halls for months to see the 164-minute epic, giving Wadia one of the biggest box-office hits of the entire decade. Sadly, the film too is apparently now only available in an incomplete version.

“Nadia is to stunts what Jane Russell is to sex.”

nadia5So said Bollywood film writer, B.K. Karanjia, who remembers meeting Nadia on the set of one of her films in the forties. “To my considerable amazement, she did every stunt in a sort of bindaas (carefree) manner. She didn’t take herself seriously. She did not take her stunts seriously. She was never afraid, always laughing, whistling and joking.” Hunterwali launched Nadia’s career, which continued in films with titles such as Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen, Jungle Princess and Lady Robinhood. The characters may have varied, but some elements remained the same. A fierce devotion to the oppressed and the punishment of villainy. Her loyal horse, dog and even a car (an Austin, semi-ironically named “Rolls Royce Ki Beti” – “Daughter of Rolls Royce”). Sayani Atish was a regular villain. and bodybuilder John Cawas also frequently appeared.

The main element, however, was the showcase provided for Nadia’s willingness to do her own action, in a way no modern star would do – or be allowed to do! As her career progressed, the stunts required became increasingly dangerous. Even in Hunterwali, she “fell flat on her face from a great height,” in a scene where she was supposed to swing from a chandelier, and was also almost swept away filming a scene in rapids near Bombay. Raging waterfalls? Jumping from horseback onto a ladder dangling from a plane? Fighting multiple lions? Not a problem for Nadia. “I’ll try anything once,” she famously said, and another journalist, Rauf Ahmed concurred: “In those days, Fearless Nadia did stunts that even men didn’t attempt.”

Her career lasted through the forties and fifties, albeit with the action components slowing as she moved into her own forties and fifties. She married Homi Wadia in 1961 – their wedding having to wait first for the death of his disapproving mother – and effectively withdrew from cinema. She came out of retirement for her final role in a James Bond spoof, Khiladi, in 1968, before retiring to raise thoroughbred horses. She died at the ripe age of 87, in 1995. In the past few years, there have been rumblings of a bio-pic, with names mentioned in connection with the role ranging from Franka Potente to Uma Thurman, and even Angelina Jolie said she’d love to play Fearless Nadia. Conflicts with her family reported derailed one project, but it’s still being kicked about. It’s certainly something I’d love to see; since there have been few, if any, characters in the history of motion pictures, quite like Fearless Nadia.

Read: our review of Miss Frontier Mail.

Maria Bochkareva and the Women’s Battalions of Death

wb01We’ve previously written about the Soviet Union’s wholehearted embrace of women soldiers in World War II, but it was not the first time Russia had gone to the female well in defense of their nation. Almost a century ago, while the country was going through a turbulent transition out of Tsarism, combat battalions consisting entirely of women were formed, to fight against Germany in the latter stages of the Great War. At a time when women were not quite yet able to vote in Russia – suffrage would come there, later in 1917 – this was still more advanced in terms of equality on the battlefield, than the United States is currently.

The purpose of the units was initially for morale purposes. The long grind of the trench-warfare which characterized World War I on the Western front is well-known, but the situation was no different in the East, where the Germans and Russians were locked in a lethal stalemate of artillery bombardments, poison gas attacks and futile assaults which gained trivial amounts of territory at horrendous cost. As the government collapsed, the Tsar abdicating in March 1917, army morale went with it. Soldiers no longer answered to their officers, and spent more time fraternizing with the enemy than fighting them. However, many volunteers still wanted to defend their homeland, and these were organized into groups, in the hope of energizing and/or shaming the regular forces into picking up their arms again.

These volunteers were not just male. On the women’s side, the front runner was Maria Bochkareva, who had already been a trail-blazer in the field of female combat. At the outbreak of the war, she had obtained the personal authorization of the Tsar to join the regular army, and served almost three years there, being both wounded and decorated on multiple occasions. However, growing disenchanted with the collapse in discipline, she quit the army, but shortly after requested permission to organize a group of women. Speaking to the Russian Parliament, she said: “You heard of what I have gone through and what I have done as a soldier. Now, how would it do to organize women like me to serve as an example to the army and lead the men into battle?”

wb04There were 2,000 volunteers initially, but Bochkareva’s strict approach to discipline winnowed out 85% of these. Part of her disenchantment with the regular military was that it was now largely run by “soldier’s committees”, with discipline severely restricted, and even mutineers could no longer be executed. She insisted that her battalion had to be committee-free, run on old-school lines, and this caused conflict, both with the military hierarchy and many of her recruits. But she persevered: the women who stayed were shorn of all their feminine fripperies (as shown in the contemporary photos) and given intensive instruction under male trainers and support staff. A month later, led by Bochkareva, the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death were sent to the front, and took part in the Kerensky offensive.

The women saw action near the town of Smarhon, and accounts indicate they performed well, along with the other “shock troops”, and Russian forces initially were able to gain ground. However, the regular army barely showed up, and the Germans regrouped, taking back the territory and then some. This failure marked the last significant Russian action of the war. Bochkareva was injured once more, and sent back to recuperate. However, if her acts had minimal impact on the soldiers they were intended to inspire, they did help create as many as fifteen other women’s battalions, some evolving from existing units. Most of these did not see the war, but in October, the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion did join regular Cossack troops in the defense of the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. Though history records, that didn’t end well either.

It was likely a concept too far ahead of its time, and as Russia descended into anarchy and chaos, the struggle to keep the battalions supplied and organized proved an unequal one. For a while, they served in auxiliary roles behind the front lines, but the death knell came on November 30, 1917 when the new Bolshevik government officially dissolved the units. Those who had been members were free to go, but a number stayed in action, fighting on both sides during the looming Russian Civil War. That included Bochkareva. While holding no great love for the Tsar, she was thoroughly unimpressed with the Communist regime, and toured America and the United Kingdom in 1918 soliciting support against them. On her return to Russia, she tried to organize a further women’s unit as part of the White Army, but was captured by the Bolsheviks, and executed by firing squad in May 1920, at the age of thirty.

Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier

“Woman is naturally light-hearted. But if she can purge herself for sacrifice, then through a caressing word, a loving heart and an example of heroism she can save the motherland. We are physically weak, but if we be strong morally and spiritually, we will accomplish more than a large force.”

wb02It’s likely Bochkareva would have fallen into the darkness of historical obscurity, a nine days’ wonder from late in the Great War, except for her trip to the West to rally support against the Bolsheviks. While here, she worked with Russian-born writer, Isaac Don Levine, on her autobiography, telling her story to him over 100 hours and three weeks of interviews, which he translated and transcribed. The resulting book is the source for virtually everything we know about her life to that point, though obviously skips its tragic conclusion, in front of a Communist firing-squad. As such, it largely has to be taken on faith, since there’s little or no corroborating evidence available. Occasionally, it does feel stretched, in a /r/thathappened way, with Bochkareva adored and feted to a suspicious degree. But there’s a lot here, too, which has the ring of authenticity – her depictions of the hell which was the trenches, for example, sounds very much like direct experience.

It takes a while to reach that, beginning with her early life as the daughter of a peasant family. Put to work while still only aged eight, she was married at 15, but her first husband was an abusive alcoholic, and she left him. Thereafter, she had jobs ranging from laundry to construction foreman, and allegedly had a narrow escape from a life of prostitution [looking at her pictures, I have to say, that… seems a bit unlikely?]. She also met Yakov Buk, with whom she began a common-law marriage, but he fell foul of the tsar’s secret police and was exiled to Siberia, Maria accompanying him there. After some more implausible adventures – one chapter is titled “Snared by a Libertine Governor”! – war broke out, and according to our heroine, “My heart yearned to be there, in the boiling caldron of war, to be baptized in its fire and scorched in its lava. The spirit of sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me. And an irresistible force from within pulled me.”

Returning to Tomsk, she applied to join the army – while turned down, she made such a good impression on the local commander that he drew up a telegram to the Tsar with his own recommendation. To the surprise of all, the Tsar authorized her enlistment, and this is where the story takes off, offering a glimpse into the front-lines from a very personal perspective. Initially, Bochkareva was eager to see battle: “Were we nervous? Undoubtedly. But it was not the nervousness of cowardice, rather was it the restlessness of young blood. Our hands were steady, our bayonets fixed. We exulted in our adventure.” Bochkareva was injured and also, briefly, captured by Germans, but fought free, according to her account:

We threw ourselves, five hundred strong, at our captors, wrested many of their rifles and bayonets and engaged in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat, just as our men rushed through the torn wire entanglements into the trenches. The confusion was indescribable; the killing merciless. I grasped five hand-grenades that lay near me and threw them at a group of about ten Germans. They must have all been killed. Our entire line across the river was advancing at the same time. The first German line was occupied by our troops and both banks of the Styr were then in our hands. Thus ended my captivity. I was in German hands for a period of only eight hours and amply avenged even this brief stay.

wb07She eventually realized the upper levels of command lacked the same mettle and commitment, resulting in failed offensives. This undercut army morale, and as the civil turbulence within Russia increased, this also reduced the will to win – not helping matters, were German soldiers, crossing the lines bearing brandy. Eventually, Bochkareva grew so disenchanted, she quit the military in May 1917: “I can’t stand this new order of things. The soldiers don’t fight the Germans any more. My object in joining the army was to defend the country. Now, it is impossible to do so. There is nothing left for me, therefore, but to leave.”

This retirement was short-lived, because she quickly came up with the idea of the Women’s Battalion of Death, as described above, eventually leading it into battle. She sustained its strict discipline herself, berating offenders: “You are not worth the uniforms you are wearing. This uniform stands for noble sacrifice, for unselfish patriotism, for purity and honor and loyalty. Every one of you is a disgrace to the uniform. Take them off and get out!” She recounts that when she came across one of her girls making love to another soldier, she bayoneted the girl to death – the man, wisely, ran off before suffering the same fate! However, the rest of the army had a laxer approach. Bochkareva and her soldiers became seen as reactionaries, with some even lynched; it eventually became necessary to disband the unit to prevent further casualties.

Bochkareva’s adventures were not over, as she became a messenger for the anti-Bolshevik forces. She was captured by their opponents, on the way back from meeting General Lavr Kornilov, and the account of her near-execution is chilling – not least, in view of its likely eventual occurrence: “We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and placed in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. The poisonous odors were choking us. The executioners did not seem to mind it so much. They were used to them.” While she escaped this fate, in part because one of the committee members had been rescued by her earlier in the war, that was it, and she opted to leave the country, going through Siberia to Vladivostok.

It’s an interesting read, offering a unique perspective on the Russian Revolution and war, though at times, it seems we are hearing more of Levine’s voice than Bochkareva, who hardly sounds like the uneducated peasant girl described. On the other hand, his filtering likely ensures events are explained in a way which makes sense for the intended Western audience; this probably helps equally, with regard to the near-century in time which has elapsed. Despite the yawning chasm in era and location between author and reader, this should be perfectly intelligible to the modern citizen. Certainly, Bochkareva comes over as a true heroine: strong-minded, prepared to go to any lengths to achieve her goals, and an irresistible force. Emmeline Pankhurst, doyenne of the suffragette movement, called her the greatest woman of the century, comparing Bochkareva to Joan of Arc. If premature, considering more than four-fifths of the century was in the future at that point, she still deserves to be considered one of its greatest unsung heroines.

Author: Maria Bochkareva, as told to Isaac Don Levine
Publisher: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919 – available, in full and for free, online.

The Action Heroines of Telenovelas

lareinaThe recent arrival of a large batch of telenovelas on Netflix has opened the window on a new field of potential action heroines. For these Latin American TV series – often (and, admittedly, not entirely incorrectly) derided as soap operas – appear to be featuring an increasing number of strong heroines. Before we get to the reasons for that, let’s have an overview of the field in general. They began in the 1950’s, springing up almost simultaneously out of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, but there is now hardly a Spanish-speaking country that doesn’t produce them – indeed, the style has also been adopted by non-Hispanic countries, such as Korea. That format differs from soap-opera in that it is less open-ended: rather than an indeterminate run, it is a single story, told in concentrated form, typically daily, or at least multiple episodes per week.

While associated with romantic entanglements, class divides, family drama. terminal illness, pregnancies and extreme over-acting, that is not quite accurate. Yes, there are plenty which feature that kind of thing – the four R’s of the genre being romance, rivalry, revenge and redemption – and even the top-end are still budget productions by the standards of English language television, costing at most $170,000 per 45-minute episode, a fraction of the $1 million per episode spent in Hollywood on even the cheapest of scripted dramas. But an increasing number have become more interesting and gritty, exploring darker themes. There’s even a telenovela version, also available on Netflix, of Breaking Bad, called Metástasis, which is basically identical to the original, right down to a hero called “Walter Blanco”.

In particular, the landscape changed with the unprecedented success of La Reina del Sur in 2011. During its American screenings, even though it was on a purely Spanish-language station, Telemundo, it was often the most-watched program in the coveted age 18-49 demographic, beating the English-language channels. Its finale scored the highest-ever ratings in Telemundo’s history, and was seen by about the same number of people as watched the last episode of, say, Parks and Recreation. [An English language remake, Queen of the South, starring Sonia Braga, will appear on the USA Network later this year]  It was the station’s most expensive production, but it’s the story – a woman who rose from nothing to become the biggest drug boss in southern Spain – which matters here.

rosario2For the new ground it broke, in its depiction of a heroine who could be as tough and ruthless as any man, clearly resonated with the audience. Inevitably, the show spawned a slew of others seeking to imitate its success, with similarly single-minded and ambitious heroines, prepared to gun down anyone who wrongs them, or gets in their way. And it’s this new generation of telenovelas, that we find showing up on Netflix in bulk. But where to start? That’s what this article is for: I’ve watched the series of potential interest to gauge whether they deliver on the potential offered by their covers. Though I give you a caveat. These shows typically run anywhere up to 80 episodes, and watching that would be about three months of the viewing time I devote to this site. So, I’ve based what follows, mostly on the first 10 episodes of each. Full reviews will follow eventually.

Before I break them down. there are some common elements in these shows, worth addressing to avoid having to repeat myself!

  • The glamorization of criminality. The heroines here are generally not cops, private eyes or other characters on the side of law and order. They are almost all criminals; some begin as criminals (or their other halves), some become criminals, and others have criminality forced upon them. But the escape from whatever perils befall them inevitably involves illegal activities of one kind or another.
  • Flashbacks R Us. In most of these, we join proceedings at a particularly dramatic moment, and then skip back to see what brought us to that point. This isn’t unheard of in American TV of course – the “24 hours previously” trope – but in telenovelas, this can last for multiple episodes. Indeed, in at least one case, I get the feeling the entire series may be a flashback.
  • Sexual assault as a plot-device. Unfortunate, this one, and also symptomatic of lazy writing, in that the creators can’t seem to think of many other ways to trigger the heroines into action. Want her to move out? Sleazy stepfather tries it on. Need her to get her hands bloody? Rape and revenge! Then again, it kinda makes sense, since they seem to take place in a universe where all men appear to be scumbags with exactly one thing on their minds…
  • Recommended for viewing at about 75% attention. If I actually sit down and watch these, their flaws (such as fairly obviously being shot on video) tend to become a bit too glaring. I’ve found that they’re more palatable watched while doing something else, lightly-engaging – in my case, the daily stint on the treadmill.

Camelia la Texana

camelia1If perhaps the least “action heroine-y” of the shows taste-tested here, there’s a fair case to be argued for the storyline being the most interesting, overall.  The show was inspired by Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal), one of the first “narcocorrido” songs from legendary norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte. It tells of Emilio and Camelia who smuggle drugs into America, only for him to dump her. Camelia does not respond well: she shoots him seven times and vanishes with the money. It led to a movie of the same name, and has since become embedded in popular Hispanic culture, even becoming an opera in 2013, with Camelia becoming a mythical figure, whether or not she ever was based on a real person.

A three-minute song doesn’t have enough meat for a 60-episode series, so of necessity the show expands the scope significantly. With occasional flashbacks to events during the forties, it mostly takes place in the early seventies, when Camelia (Sara Maldonado) is training to be a dentist in Texas, working part-time at a diner, and waiting for her boyfriend to return from the Vietnam War. In short order, pretty much all of that falls apart, and she is instead thrown together with a well-groomed gangster called Emilio Varela (Erik Hayser), who has been tasked with bringing Camelia back to Mexico, where a drug lord has an inexplicable – well, it’s pretty explicable, actually – interest in her.

If Camelia has not, in the early going, done much to justify the viewer’s interest [thus far, she has mostly been making gooey eyes at her beau], the rest of the show is quite intriguing. There’s a power struggle south of the border between rival gangs, and it’s the women there who hold much of the power, albeit from the shadows. There’s even an occult subplot, involving a blind young girl who can foresee the future – as well as a transvestite shaman who cannot, despite her claims! Add in a good deal of political chess, and there has been enough to sustain interest, while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting – if the series is true to the song – for Camelia to pop the requisite seven bullets into Emilio and, one hopes, head into business on her own terms.

La Esquina Del Diablo

I was initially pretty excited by this one because unlike the other shows, its central character is a policewoman, not a perp. Ana García (Ana Serradilla, fresh off the success of La Viuda Negra – more on which below) blows her chance at joining the special forces due to her temper. But she is then recruited for a clandestine mission into the lawless barrio of the title (which translates as “The Devil’s Corner”). The crime-lord who rules it, Ángel Velasco, has supposedly just been killed in a helicopter accident, but there are suspicions this was staged. In the guise of a social worker, Ana infiltrates the area, in her mission to find out what’s really going on.

By the end of the first episode, García has proven her bad-ass credentials, gunning down four robbers and arresting two more after stumbling into a crime in progress. Unfortunately for my adrenalin levels, this was an exception rather than the rule over the first 10 episodes, as the undercover nature of her work relies more on stealth than the banging of heads together. Indeed, the focus as a whole becomes a good deal more diluted, with the script juggling a large number of balls. These included, but are not limited to: Ana’s boss, who is dating the mayor’s daughter; Velasco’s quest for a large quantity of explosives; his second in command’s delinquent son, befriended by Ana in her social worker guise; a rival criminal gang, operating in the heart of the city rather than the barrio.

It’s a lot of threads to try and keep in the air, and I’m not sure it has been entirely successful thus far. It seems pretty clear where this is going to end up, with Ana and her boss having already shared their first, fleeting kiss. However, the second in command mentioned above, Yago, has the kind of smouldering good looks you know they’re not going to waste on celibacy. So I strongly suspect we’re going to see, down the road, Ana having to make some kind of dramatic choice between the two men in her life, on opposing sides of the law. I may be beginning to get the hang of this whole telenovela thing…

There are some positives. The location work is good, and much like Rosario Tijeras, you get a clear sense of the class divide in Colombia between the haves and the have-nots. I’m also intrigued by Michelle (Estefania Piñeres), one of Velasco’s enforcers. I have to wonder whether she was named after Michelle Rodriguez, for she sports a similar sneer, chip on the shoulder and corn-row hair-style. Hopefully, her character won’t be disposed off too quickly; if they can also give Ana more of an active role, rather than her character just being a passive information gathering conduit back to her boss, there’s still potential. While Serradilla’s charisma is still undeniable, it needs to be more focused than it has been thus far.

lareina2La Reina Del Sur

Based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, as noted above, this was the entry which truly kicked off the recent surge in the market. It’s the story of Teresa Mendoza (Kate del Castillo), whose boyfriend is “killed” by his drug-dealing cronies, which forces her on the run. She heads over to Spain, and begins work as a waitress at a brothel in the North African enclave of Melilla, after refusing a more “horizontal” position there, and begins to work her way up the crime ladder. However, her ambition brings her to the jealous attention of a workmate, who frames her for dealing drugs – to avoid deportation, she has to sleep with the brothel’s owner, although this also brings her into contact with the real power behind the local throne, Colonel Abdelkader Chaïb.

I like Teresa’s unwillingness to compromise her ideas: even though she’s on the run, she clearly has a goal, is intent on achieving it, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. She’s also fiercely loyal to those who help her – and even has a sympathetic streak for her enemies (as we see when the woman who framed her falls afoul of her abusive boyfriend). It’s nice she also finds someone possessing similar moral scruples – smuggler Santiago Fisterra (Iván Sanchez), reluctant to transport cocaine or people, even though that’s where the big money is. Although nothing much has happened between then in the first 10 episodes, I’m predicting a relationship in their future. To be frank, I’m also predicting a return for her original boyfriend, because the way they filmed his death appeared deliberately vague i.e. no actual body was ever seen, to the point of obviousness.

Teresa has been relatively restrained in her actions so far, except for shooting one of her boyfriend’s former colleagues who tried (sigh… inevitably) to rape her. However, she has managed to disarm the jealous counterpart who came at her with a knife, and one senses more to come. I also like that much of this has taken place outside the standard settings of Mexico and Columbia, with the heroine now the one who is maligned for her otherness, and “talking funny”, even if Teresa plays up to the stereotypes as much as runs counter to them. When a friend needs help getting her son from Morocco into the enclave, Teresa basically points out that “us Mexicans are good at crossing borders”! Donald Trump would likely not disagree, but I suspect it’s likely for the best if we keep politics off the site.

Full review

tijerasRosario Tijeras

The first one I tried, in part because the title was familiar from a film adaptation of the same novel, which I’d already seen. This one is a little older, dating back to 2010, and like the movie, is also from Colombia. The heroine, Rosario (María Fernanda Yépes), gets her nickname – Tijeras means “scissors” – after an incident at her Medellin school where she cuts off the hair of a teacher who is scolding her. That gets her expelled, but she also catches the attention of a visiting college student, Emilio, who spends many subsequent episodes trying unsuccessfully to track her down. Meanwhile, she also comes to the attention of an underworld boss with a thing for virgins, and he eventually provides Rosario with her first kill – a murder that is gratefully received by his rivals, and allows her to become a full-time assassin.

I’ve actually gone deeper into this one – 30 episodes to date, though that’s still well short of even half way – and it certainly does take its time to get going, with Emilio’s inability to locate her, in particular outstaying its welcome. Despite a tagline which proclaims “It’s harder to love than to kill.” there is clearly a great deal more of the former than the latter, and even though the men are generally more engaging and well-drawn than in some of the other series, that doesn’t stop them from behaving like stags during the breeding season. There’s also a big helping of class divide here, with the show depicting both the working-class lifestyle of Rosario and her family, which is in sharp contrast to the upper-class one enjoyed by Emilio and his chums.

If somewhat short on action thus far, it has still been entertaining viewing, not least by providing a door into a world that’s far removed from anything familiar to me. The split focus helps maintain freshness, and there’s greater depth given to the supporting cast than usual. The show came in for a lot of flak at the time of its broadcast in Colombia for glamorizing the drug traffickers lifestyle, with the main local newspaper sniffily calling the series a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Needless to say, that didn’t exactly stop the show from becoming a big ratings hit.

Full review.

senoraaceroSenora Acero

Well, this one doesn’t hang around. Inside the first episode, we’ve seen a wedding turn into a blood-bath, as heroine Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto) sees her marriage to a Tijuana police commander lead to her own kidnapping and near-rape, her father’s death, and not one but two assassination attempts on her husband – he survives the first, but not the second. Turns out he was actually in bed with the cartel, unknown to Sara, and during a drinking session, unwisely boasted about stealing $3 million from them. [Memo to self: not a good idea] They presume she knows where the money is, and she has to bail with her son for Guadalajara, while fending off others trying to figure out the stash’s location – not just the cartel, also the mayor of Tijuana, and even her own family members, who blame her for the misfortune which has befallen them.

However, despite some cool imagery – Sara riding through the forest on horseback in a tattered wedding-dress – this is likely the most “traditional” of the shows, and is probably the worse for it. There’s an excess of angst-filled family feudin’, and way too much in the way of medical misfortune as a plot device: inside the first 10 episodes covered here, we’ve already had multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and a surprise pregnancy – that’s all discounting the plastic surgery disasters overseen by Enriqueta Sabido (Rebecca Jones), who uses cooking oil when there’s no silicone to be found. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a steady stream of dead bodies out the back door of her beauty salon. Frankly, she’s probably a bit more interesting and lively character than Sara, who has spent much of the time so far pouting ferociously and being concerned about her son’s health.

Maybe it’ll pick up down the road. For this was such a success it became one of the few telenovelas to be renewed, getting not just a second season, but a third due out at the end of this year. While not available yet on Netflix, the second series looks like it might be a bit of an improvement going by this promo pic. Absolutely nothing along those lines has yet to show up in the show thus far!

La Viuda Negra

This is, at least nominally, based on a true story, having been inspired by Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Godmother,” who was one of the major players in the boom days of cocaine trafficking into Miami, in the seventies and eighties. Naturally, the actress who plays her here, Ana Serradilla, is considerably less homely than the real person – though since Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Blanco in an upcoming Hollywood film, we can’t really mock the telenovela for prettifying the character.

In some ways, it certainly pays fast and loose with the truth. It begins with Blanco facing the death penalty in New York, and flashes back as she literally takes her seat in the electric chair. Never happened – indeed, no-one at all in New York state has been executed since 1963. But in other ways, it appears fairly accurate: her first serious criminal activity, kidnapping the son of a rich family for ransom, a crime which ended in her shooting the victim dead, did actually occur. Although she was actually younger in real life: eleven years old, which is likely more disturbing than anything scripted drama can offer.

The best thing about this is its relentless forward progress: going by the frantic early pace, there’s a lot to cover. In the first 10 episodes alone, Blanco goes to Medellin, joins a street gang, escalates to that kidnapping, and is then forced on the run by the victim’s rich parent who is obsessed with revenge. That leads to a lengthy hunt, as well as Blanco shooting her first husband for betraying her. She then heads to Ecuador, teams up with a local drug boss there, and returns to Medellin for revenge of her own, before setting up shop, and beginning her plan to import copious quantities of cocaine to the United States, hidden in high-heeled shoes. While I don’t know whether it can keep this going, so far, this has been among the most enjoyable of the series, and is probably the one I’m most interested in continuing.

Full review