Bolivia’s Fighting Cholitas

Professional wrestling is perhaps more international than you’d expect. While traditional territories – USA, Japan, Mexico and the UK – still remain the powerhouses, there is hardly a country in the world without its own local pro federation. But even I had not heard of Ecuador’s cholita luchadoras. Cholita is a term used for the native women there, usually found at the bottom of the social pyramid, both in terms of wealth and education. So the term translates as the “fighting cholitas“, who use pro wrestling as a way out of poverty, and to help them at least approach the average wage there, which is around $270 per month.

While initially intended purely for local consumption, it has achieved renown, both local and internationally, and become a tourist attraction. Local company “Andean Secrets” – run by one of the cholitas – runs excursions that pick visitors up at their hotel and take them to one of their shows at the Multifunctional Centre in El Alto. Tourists have to pay five times the cost for locals, but the price does get them ringside seats. In style, it’s closest to Mexican lucha libre, with the good girls (technicos) going up against the rudos, who cheat. abuse the audience and collude with a corrupt referee to try and achieve victory. You can generally tell who’s who from the names they choose. There’s an almost standard format to these: Chela la Maldita, Sonia La Simpática, Juanita La Cariñosa (Affectionate), Rosita La Rompecorazones (Heartbreaker) or Silvina La Poderosa (Powerful).

An exception is the matriarch of the cholitas, known as  Carmen Rosa. She was part of the original group of cholitas and one of the three who made it through the training program. She said, “For me, wrestling is my life; it is in my heart. It makes it hard for me to choose between wrestling and my family. They have asked me to stop fighting and sometimes I think about quitting, but I can’t. My heart beats fast at the mere mention of wrestling, or when I go to see a show, not to mention when I am about to enter the ring. There is nothing I love more than wrestling.” But even after a decade, she’s not fully professional: her day job is running her family’s local snack-bar.

That’s par for the course – as another example, Benita La Intocable (the Untouchable, one of the most high-flying of the cholitas) was training to be a nurse. Because the pay received is still peanuts by Western standards – typically no more than thirty dollars for their night’s work – but it’s an improvement on the very limited opportunities available to cholitas, typically as maid or other menial work. For until recently, the indigenous men and women had suffered a long history of discrimination, denied education, health care and public presence. The election in 2006 of the first Bolivian President from their group, Evo Morales, has helped address things, but there’s a reason the cholitas fight in El Alto, not the more prosperous La Paz.

They first entered the ring around the start of the millennium, the idea of local promoter Juan Mamani. Initially intended purely as a gimmick during a period of audience decline – he also considered using midgets – it took off in an unexpected way, with over fifty women showing up for that first open try-out. But after years under Mamani’s thumb, in which the women took the risks, and the associated damage, while his promotion, Titanes del Ring (Titans of the Ring) took the profits, there was a schism. Carmen and others among his top wrestlers left in 2011, starting up their own independent association, Diosas del Ring (Goddesses of the Ring), to gain the fruits of their own efforts. [Mamani allegedly then hired another woman, to play what I guess was Carmen Rosa v2.0!]

It was initially a struggle, with the women struggling to find even a place to train, and some of the defectors subsequently returning to Mamani – a man whom National Geographic once described as “a tall, angular man whom it would be kind to call unfriendly”. But Carmen and her colleagues persisted, and now they’ll get close to a thousand people attending their weekly events. She has become a celebrity, and not just in El Alto or even Bolivia. Carmen has traveled widely as a result, including trip to America and Peru, as well as being brought to London for 2015’s ‘Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre’ festival at York Hall.

The most immediate difference any wrestling fan will notice, is the costumes. While in America, wrestlers typically wear a limited amount of tight-fitting clothing, intended not to interfere with their moves, the cholitas come to fight in the traditional native costumes, consisting of multiple layered skirts (typically five or six), and little bowler hats which perch on top of their long, braided hair. [Bonus fact: the angle of the hat indicates marital status] It seems implausible they would be able to do anything requiring significant movement, but you’d be surprised. Also worth noting: the women need particular endurance, due to the altitude. Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, is the highest in the world, and the nearby low-income suburb of El Alto, home of the cholitas, is more elevated still, at over 13,500 feet above sea-level. Simply breathing is hard work, that far up.

The matches are not limited to women vs. women, with the cholitas taking on their male counterparts, as dictated by the storyline. It’s a one of a kind breed of professional wrestling, and a take which goes beyond the first impression of the unique style. For it is sports entertainment, not just based on athletic talent combined with the struggle of “good against evil,” but a version which offers social and political commentary too. Below, you’ll find a playlist of Youtube videos, including both documentaries and other clips, which give a bit more insight into the world of the fighting cholitas.

“Sometimes my daughters ask why I insist on doing this. It’s dangerous; we have many injuries, and my daughters complain that wrestling does not bring any money into the household. But I need to improve every day. Not for myself, for Veraluz, but for the triumph of Yolanda, an artist who owes herself to her public.”
  — Yolanda La Amorosa

Molly (2017) trailer: the first Dutch post-apocalypse action heroine

Well, I’m guessing it’s the first, anyway. Low-budget SF isn’t something for which Netherlands cinema has lately been renowned. Indeed, even for – science-fiction in general, Boy 7 is about the only other recent feature-length example coming to mind. So getting an email giving me a heads-up about it, pointing me in the direction of this trailer was a bit of a surprise. Here’s the synopsis:

“In a post apocalyptic world where bullets have become currency and medicine is rare, a clan of marauders uses a home brewed drug to turn innocent people into rabid beasts to have them fight each other in their fighting pits for their entertainment. When their leader discovers rumors of a girl with superpowers roaming the beach near their fort, he sends his best people out to capture her. Meanwhile, the girl, Molly, has discovered a young child, living alone in a cabin in the wasteland, waiting for the return of her parents, who are probably dead. Molly has to protect the child and fight of the marauders at the same time.”

Looking at the trailer, there are aspects to like, yet also reason for caution in any enthusiasm. It’s clearly rough around the edges, to the extent that it reminded me of mid-seventies Doctor Who, where every alien planet appeared to consist of the same gravel pit. To what extent this cheapness will be something an audience can overlook, is hard to tell from a relatively action-packed trailer. However, the only review I’ve found to date seemed bullish on that, saying, “The film wears its low budget on its sleeves, but then proceeds to see what level of awesomeness it can achieve with this.” Ok, I’m mollified – or even molly-fied, hohoho. Although I do remain a bit concerned that the film-makers opted for English. While this decision makes sense from a sales perspective, I’ve seen too many horrible cases where people are clearly “acting in a second language,” and it can be an unwelcome distraction too.

The positives include an appealing grunge aesthetic, with this particular landscape clearly influenced by Mad Max, and offering some interesting use of colour palettes. But rather than the supermodel (if slightly limb-deficient) looks of Charlize Theron, we’ve got the far more “normal” appearance of Julia Batelaan, who is hardly the epitome of post-apocalypse chic. Indeed, she looks like she should be doing lighting tech at her school drama club, rather than swinging a sword against a pack of feral enemies. The review also suggests this down-home approach carries through into the combat: “Fights turn into gritty wrestling matches rather than kung-fu ballets, and realism gets combined with inventive camerawork. Molly often wins through sheer perseverance and stamina rather than skill, and indeed, her worst wounds are sometimes self-inflicted through clumsiness.”

All this, and she’s got a pet falcon or something, too. I am officially intrigued, so stay tuned for a review here, providing the makers are able to secure some kind of distribution. Hopefully, that will be the case – because the world clearly needs more Dutch, post-apocalypse, action-heroines.

The incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke

Surviving when the plane in which you’re flying, disintegrates around you at a height of 10,000 feet is remarkable enough. When you land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most hostile environments on Earth, and have to make it alone for more than a week, with virtually no resources, as you try to find your way to safety, that’s astonishing.

If you’re a 17-year-old girl? It’s off the charts amazing.

Admittedly, Juliane Koepcke was not your average teenager. Indeed, she could hardly have been better prepared for her ordeal. Her family moved to a research station in the Peruvian rainforest when she was 14, so her father, zoologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, could continue his work. Juliane was initially home-schooled, and the curriculum covered much more than the traditional three R’s. She said, “I’d lived in the jungle long enough as a child to be acquainted with the bugs and other creatures that scurry, rustle, whistle, and snarl. There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle.” However, she was required to complete her education in the capital Lima. On Christmas Eve, 1971, she and her mother prepared to fly back from there to Pucallpa, the nearest airport to their home.

They would never arrive. The pilot made an ill-advised decision to fly through a thunderstorm, in a poorly maintained plane [the airline, LANSA, had a bad reputation for mechanical reliability, and would cease operations a few weeks later]. A lightning bolt hit the craft, igniting a fuel tank in the wing, and triggering catastrophic structural failure. Juliane fell two miles, still strapped to her seat; the protection it offered, together with the somewhat cushioned landing offered by the rainforest canopy, is likely why she became the sole survivor. She was not uninjured: she had a broken collarbone, a serious gash on her leg, a partial fracture of her shin and a torn knee ligament. Given the circumstances, though, it could have been much worse.

That was brought home later, after she came across some other victims: “When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth. I was paralysed by panic. It was the first time I had seen a dead body. I thought my mother could be one of them but when I touched the corpse with a stick, I saw that the woman’s toenails were painted – my mother never polished her nails.” With her sole piece of regular food a bag of candy, she had to try and make her way out. The key to her survival was finding a tiny rivulet, and following it downstream. She knew that this trickle would flow into a larger creek, and this in turn would join a river: eventually, she’d find people. Her quest was helped by hearing the call of a hoatzin, a bird Juliane recognized as nesting near open water.

Her wilderness knowledge helped when she reached the river too. The undergrowth along the bank was too dense to allow for progress, so Juliane opted to float down the middle. There, she knew potentially lethal stingrays won’t go, preferring the shallows, and also that piranhas are not a threat in quickly-moving water. But a cut on her arm had become infected with maggots, forcing her to extreme measures, after Juliane found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel. “I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound. The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound. I pulled out about 30 maggots.”

She opted to spend the night there – her tenth in the jungle since the crash – and that proved to be her salvation. For she had stumbled across a seasonal camp belonging to some loggers, who were astonished to show up the next day and discover a blonde woman in their camp. Juliane recalls, “They believe in all sorts of ghosts there, and at first they thought that I was one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blondes, supposedly.” They had heard about the crash on the radio, and took her downstream in their boat, to a local hospital that could tend her injuries, which now also included second-degree sunburn.

The authorities hadn’t been able to locate the crash site, but with Juliane’s help, they found it, and her mother’s body was eventually recovered on January 12, more than three weeks later. The creepiest thing? “My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane. My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.”

Juliane helped advise the makers of a movie based on her experiences (Miracles Still Happen, see below, or review here) and returned to the area in the early eighties, to study the area’s native bats. But it was close to two decades before she began to achieve closure. She returned to the crash site with German film-maker Werner Herzog, as part of his documentary Wings of Hope about her ordeal. Herzog was particularly well-suited to make the film, because when he was location scouting for his movie Aguirre, Wrath of God, he had initially been booked on the flight which crashed – only being saved by a last minute change in plans. Following that, Koepcke was able to write her own story, published as When I Fell from the Sky in 2011.

Below, you’ll find first Werner’s Herzog’s documentary Wings of Hope, and then the Italian feature film Miracles Still Happen, starring Susan Penhaligon, offering both factual and fictionalized versions of her remarkable story of survival. It’s truly one of the most incredible ever experienced and a testament to how knowledge can make all the difference between life and death.

Watch ScarJo kick ass in the first five minutes of Ghost in the Shell

There will be a lot of Ghost in the Shell coming up this week on the site. Beginning on Monday, we’ll be reviewing the various animated incarnations of the universe, taking us through to next weekend, when we’ll be covering its entire world on Saturday, and then the new movie with Scarlet Johansson will be reviewed on Sunday. Hey, that’s the biggest action-heroine film since, certainly, the end of the Hunger Games franchise, and it’s a creation which has been hugely influential on SF since the manga version first came out in 1989. It’s amazing how accurate its prediction of the future, where everyone and everything is connected and interfaced, has proven – considering that at the time of its original release, the Internet was in its absolute infancy.

Anyway, the studio had released the opening five minutes, which depict the Major’s first action, after terrorists attack a business meeting. It answers some questions which you were perhaps asking after watching the trailer, such as her character’s oddly nipple-less appearance. Turns out she’s not naked, but wearing a skinsuit that provides optical camo, allowing her effectively to vanish. But my main takeaway is how goddamn gorgeous the whole thing looks. I know that’s what you’d expect – for all the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman, from the same director, it was beautiful to look at. Still, even by those standards, this is a neon-drenched, all-you-can-eat buffet of visual stunnery. It certainly looks like every penny of the budget is up on the screen – combine this with a live-action rendition of one of the iconic action heroine of  Japanese animation, and that’s good enough for me.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the largest screen possible, while stuffing my face with popcorn. And in the immortal words of D-Generation X, if you’re not down with that, we got two words for ya…

Charlize Theron Kills in ‘Atomic Blonde’ trailer

Charlize Theron has been an interesting character and action-heroine contender since 2004’s Aeon Flux. She also impressed as Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, before blowing the roof off the place in Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s also heavily featured alongside action icons Jason Staham and Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming Fate of the Furious, in which she plays a villainess with a fondness for remote-controlled cars. But as the trailer for her latest film (below) shows, she might only be getting started.

Atomic Blonde is set at the end of the eighties, in the dying days of the Eastern Bloc, and she plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy sent to Berlin to break open a Communist spy ring. They have already killed a colleague, and are apparently involved in the insertion of double agents into the West. It’s up to Lorraine and station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to dismantle the threat.

What particularly made me sit up and take notice about this project, was that it’s directed by David Leitch, who was co-director of the excellent John Wick. Going by the trailer, this appears to bring much the same hard-hitting approach to its action: check out in particular, the opening stairwell brawl,  apparently filmed in one shot, which represents a glorious and very welcome reaction to the hyper-cut hell which was too much of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Bonus points for incorporating both a cover version of “Blue Monday” and the original of “Killer Queen” into the trailer.

It’s based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, The Coldest City, and also stars John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones. The film gets its world premiere at SXSW this weekend, so we should start to hear reviews etc. before long. The rest of us, however, will have to wait for a while, because Atomic Blonde will not be exploding into cinemas in the rest of America, until July 28.

Think I’m going to be circling that date in the calendar… Anyway, here’s the trailer to tide you over until then!

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”

Ghost in the Shell trailer released

slice-ghostintheshellI was beginning to wonder. With the March 2017 date fast catching up, all we’d seen had been a couple of teaser clips, and I was bracing myself for an announcement that the release had been pushed back. But here we are, with the first official trailer for the film. I must confess, at this point I am largely unable to comment on how this relates to the other versions of the story, in manga and anime, since it has been a very long time [nearer 20 years than 15] since I read and saw those, and a lot of the universe has taken place since then. I will be catching up over the next few months, and you can expect a blast of retro-GitS coverage here in the second half of March.

But, on its own terms, this looks every bit as visually stunning as you’d expect from the director of Snow White and the Huntsman, a film which, if certainly flawed, was one of the best-looking movies of the past few years. I think those aspects are probably going to hit it out of the park. But in terms of story-line, it does feel more than somewhat generic, more like a female version of Robocop than anything else. We’ve all seen the “Who am I, really?” thing before, to the extent that it’s bordering on cliché. The previous versions have been renowned for being deep, though that can often be a problematic direction for a feature film to take. For instance, I caught a bit of The Matrix Reloaded the other day, in particular the scene with the Architect burbling nonsense like, “Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix.” Just give us more of ScarJo in slow-mo, please.

Speaking of which… The casting of Ms. Johansson. I’m just going to copy/paste an online comment, “I’m so sick of Hollywood casting white women in roles that were meant for cyborgs. #OscarsSoOrganic.” Yes, this is sarcasm, in case it’s not 110% clear. But I’m looking forward to seeing both Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano; the former has been a house choice from his time in Danish political series Borgen, and the latter is an icon of Japanese yakuza films for more than two decades. They’re going to bring it, I’m fairly certain. There’s still time for this to go in either direction – I seem to recall Aeon Flux having a fairly kick-ass opening trailer – and I’m sure the GitS purists will find plenty to complain about. But as someone whose expectations are currently unaffected by previous versions, this looks almost certain to be a trip to the cinema.

There’s a lot riding on it. While Hollywood has had enormous success in mining North American comics for movies, going outside has yet to lead to major international success. Between Ghost and Valerian, 2017 will be a major test of their commercial viability, and beyond that, the $200 million (!) production of Battle Angel is already heading towards a July 2018 release. Success will inevitably lead to more; failure will not only hurt the future prospects of other manga adaptations, it could undo a lot of the action heroine positive buzz provided by the success of The Hunger Games.

New Wonder Woman trailer and posters released

[Click to enlarge posters, in new window]

A second trailer has come out for Wonder Woman, in advance of the film’s release in America on June 9, 2017. And, I must admit, I’m quite stoked by something which looks not dissimilar to Agent Carter in terms of period feel (obviously a little earlier), but with the mayhem ramped up to 11. This one does reveal a bit more than the first trailer, and it’s clear what brings Diana Prince out of her reclusive existence on the island of Themyscira – an assault by German forces renders Amazon neutrality no longer feasible. As she says, in voice-over, “The closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within,” and despite opening with a present-day scene, it seems likely the bulk of this will take place in and around World War I. It’s an interesting choice, not one mined for superhero activity. But the Great War’s brutality offers perhaps the starkest contrast to the peaceful lives of the Amazons, and it’s also a time when women were fighting for equality.

There is a bunch of particularly cool stuff, but I got particular chills as the shot of Diana riding over the top and into trench warfare on her horse. Good to see they’re retained both her bullet-deflecting bracelets and the lasso of truth. No sign yet of her invisible plane, though given the era, presumably it would have to be an invisible biplane. Chris Pine looks largely useless as the obvious romantic interest, and let’s hope he’s relegated to the sideline position he deserves. I certainly don’t want any more of the “She’s my secretary” malarkey mentioned here – we certainly got enough of that in the first season of Agent Carter! Still no word on how the main villain will be, but the Internet’s general consensus is that Danny Huston’s German officer is likely to be Ares, the god of war. However, there is a glimpse of another potential nemesis, in the disfigured woman who appears to be responsible for the poison gas. All told, it mostly looks very slick and highly effective.

However, I’m forced to be cautious, as I am getting something of an Aeon Flux vibe from this production – and we all know how that went. Flux‘s director, Karyn Kusama, was employed on the strength of a small scale “feminist” film, Girlfight, but fell ferociously short at the task of putting together a $60+ million SF spectacle (although it’s not perhaps as bad as often claimed). WW is being helmed by Patty Jenkins, also a director without any real experience of big-budget, cinematic spectacle. Her last feature was back in 2003, the one she’s best known for, Monster – and which coincidentally starred the future Aeon, Charlize Theron. It probably doesn’t help that the DC movies so far have been critical failures, particularly when compared to their Marvel counterparts.

Additionally, there was an anonymous tirade – albeit from an anonymous ex-Warner Bros employee – which said of Wonder Woman, “People inside are already confirming it’s another mess.” Murphy roundly rejected such criticism, but the problems with the DC universe are undeniable. The trailer looks good – but if you can’t find two minutes of good in your feature for a trailer, then you really have a problem (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters). Mind you, Suicide Squad had a totally bad-ass trailer as well and the end result was “Meh, save for Harley Quinn.” Still, we’ll see. There’s a lot riding on it, not just for DC, but the future of large budget action-heroines in general. While a WW failure won’t stop Captain Marvel from appearing in 2019, it could certainly have a chilling effect on other superheroines’ chances of reaching the screen.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter trailer released

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

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

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

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

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

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