Lady Vengeance

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“Revenge is a bitch…”

This film may need two viewings. First time up, I was irritated by an apparent lack of coherence – which was particularly annoying, since the non-linear storyline seemed almost completely superfluous. Second time round, it bothered me less though remained, perhaps deliberately, disorienting, and I still doubt the need for it. But the re-view left me better able to appreciate the great central idea, a chilling meditation on justice, revenge, the thin line between the two, and the effects on those who become involved. The final part of Park’s loose trilogy (after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) is the story of “kind-hearted Geum-ja” (Lee), who spends 13 years in prison, for the heinous murder of a young child. Except, she isn’t guilty, and spends the time forging alliances which will help with her new goal: revenge on the real perpetrator (Choi).

The pace is stately, rather than adrenalin-driven, yet there’s no denying its place here. Much credit to Lee for a great performance in a complex character, capable of huge sacrifice in her quest for redemption: she cuts off a finger in front of the victim’s parents, and has to be physically restrained from removing more. Yet it seems that her charity and good deeds, such as donating a kidney to a fellow prisoner, may be part of her vengeance. And then, when her goal is within grasp…she steps back to allow others, perhaps better-motivated, to take her place. Or is the opportunity that she offers a poisoned chalice? The questions asked have no easy answers; neither proponents of capital punishment, nor those opposed to it, will find it comfortable viewing. By the end, there are no victims left; everyone is guilty – to use the old Sex Pistols line, no-one is innocent.

he DVD was released by Tartan Video USA on September 26th, and includes an interview with Park, a ‘making of’ documentary, and no less than three commentaries. Nice job! For more information, visit the Tartan Video USA site.
a.k.a. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Dir: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Si-Hu, Nam Il-Woo

La Guerrera Vengadora 2

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“Schoolmistress by day…crawls through impressively large air-ducts by night.”

Chagoyan is perhaps the nearest thing Mexico has to offer to an action heroine. She best known for her role in Lola la Trailera (‘Lola the Trucker’), in which, she played the daughter of a haulier – she takes over his business and goes out for vengeance, after he’s gunned down for refusing to assist a drug-cartel. Almost a decade later, that director’s son would helm this, in which Chagoyan plays a teacher who moonlights as a crime-fighting vigilante. Not having seen part one isn’t much of a problem; presumably it explains her origins, and perhaps how she gets to spend so much time away from her job. All we see here is one class, before she and her midget sidekick take on a gang who kill one of her pupils (with a surprising amount of blood, it has to be said). Then, when she’s blamed for kidnapping the daughter of the police chief, she has to find the real culprits and clear her name.

This swings wildly from surprisingly decent to laughable, as far as action goes. The explosions and stuntwork are credible. However, to call Chagoyan “unconvincing” is putting it mildly, not least the opening sequence where she rides into a hostage situation on her motorbike and saves the day – see Heroic Trio for how it should be done. But there are occasional moments (the crossbow bolt through the hand) that made us sit up and take notice, tiding us over the dumb comedic interludes. [Though any film with a flour-covered midget will always find a special place in our hearts.] There’s a lengthy finale in an underground labyrinth, pitting our heroine and her explosive-tipped crossbow bolts against evil minions with flamethrowers, before coming back above ground to answer the age-old question, which is better: a helicopter or a rocket-launcher? If that has ever kept you up nights, this is the film for you.

Dir: Raul Fernandez Jr.
Star: Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, Rolando Fernandez, Edna Bolkan, Jorge Vargas

Thriller: A Cruel Picture

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“Lives entirely up to its Swedish title: Thriller: en grym film.”

Right from the first scene, depicting the molestation of a young girl, this is remarkably unrelenting stuff. 15 years later, the heroine (Lindberg), turned mute by her ordeal is kidnapped, turned into a junkie and forced in prostitution. Oh, and had an eye destroyed by her pimp (Hopf) – in loving, close-up, slow-motion that is rumoured to have involved a real corpse – after clawing the face of her first client.

Finally, it becomes too much, and she starts – with striking methodicalness – to prepare her revenge. She learns shooting, martial-arts and driving skills, and loads up with a sawn-off shotgun, as well as a handgun hidden in her hair, and goes around blowing away everyone she deems unworthy [Though how does she know where to find them? I imagine it’s not as if they hand out their home addresses…], before challenging her pimp to a duel in the bleak yet beautiful Swedish countryside.

The impact on Kill Bill, both in storyline and style (Elle Driver, in particular), is obvious – not to mention Ms. 45 – but Vibenius has a far less frenetic approach. Indeed, his style is so deliberate, you may be forgiven for dozing off, even during the fight scene, which uses such slo-mo as to become almost surreal. It’s a refreshing antidote to the MTV-style editing beloved by the likes of Alias. Less successful is the hard-core sex; while it certainly has an impact, it’s a double-edged sword, and is hardly necessary. Lindberg, clad in a long trenchcoat and colour-coordinated eye-patch is grand, and this is certainly unique. Fun? No. It’s hardly even entertaining, and must have freaked out the drive-in crowd during its mid-70’s run. But memorable? Sure. And ripe for a remake starring Christina Ricci? Hell, yes.

Dir: Bo A. Vibenius
Star: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye + Hooker’s Revenge

Queen’s High

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“Nothing like Kill Bill at all – no, really! :-)”

It’s surprising no-one has mentioned the similarity this 1991 pic has to Kill Bill, especially given QT’s liking, both for lifting plots and Hong Kong movies. Here, Cynthia Khan plays Kwanny, the daughter in a gangster family whose wedding day is interrupted by the treacherous slaughter of her intended (and a good few others). Thus explodes a spiral of revenge and betrayal, in which she gets plenty of chance to use her martial arts and gun skills. Of course, there are differences – she is unaware of her enemy within – but the overlap is striking. No doubt Tarantino will claim not to have heard of it – any more than he’d seen City on Fire, before making Reservoir Dogs

On its own merits, Queen’s High stands up nicely, after a sluggish start. You might be wondering how to keep track of a parade of characters, but don’t worry, they won’t last long. The wedding-day slaughter on its own gets it our seal of approval, a masterpiece of slo-mo squibbing that’s in my personal top ten of action heroine sequences, and brings a new meaning to “until death do us part”. It also lets Cynthia Khan, who has her share of acting talent, transform from happy daughter to avenging angel, as during In the Line of Duty 3. The action side finally bursts into life in the final reel, Kwanny taking on a whole warehouse of bad guys, and discovering who ordered the massacre. The film certainly has weaknesses, but such strengths easily make up for them.

Dir: Chris Lee Kin Sang
Star: Cynthia Khan, Simon Yam, Newton Lai, Shum Wai

Kill Bill, Volume 2

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“And she’s not Kiddo-ing…”

Let’s be blunt: Kill Bill would probably have been a better movie, if the Weinsteins had told Tarantino, “No: you can not cut this into two – you’re going to have to edit it down like every other director.” The second section of the film is notably less strong than the first, its 135 minutes containing too much stuff which a better, less self-indulgent moviemaker would realise was superfluous and chop out.

Precisely what, I’ll get to in a minute. But I also have to say that when this film works, it does so extremely well, with moments – and a good number of more lengthy sequences – that are just about perfect. We learn why Elle Driver (Hannah) has only one eye; the relationship between Budd (Madsen) and Bill (Carradine); the reason the Bride quit her life as an international jet-setting killer; and how the Crazy 88’s didn’t actually have 88 members. All these elements are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, plugged in like jigsaw pieces in their correct place, so it’s not as if Tarantino can’t do the right thing.

The film is at its best in the middle, from when Beatrix Kiddo (Thurmann – her character’s name is revealed, making the bleeping-out in the first part seem like nothing more than a childish prank at the audience’s expense) takes a shotgun blast to the chest from Budd, on through a flashback to a training sequence with a kung-fu master (the wonderful Gordon Liu), Beatrix’s ‘resurrection’ and up to and including a brawl with Elle that is probably the most brutal woman-woman combat ever filmed by Hollywood.

But this is not the action-fest of part one; and more’s the pity, I would say. In fact, the Bride only actually kills one person in this film [since we go in expecting her to dispose of Budd, Elle and Bill, this should whet your appetite more than it counts as a spoiler] Save her fight with Elle, there is nothing that comes within a mile of the House of Blue Leaves battle which ended the first movie. This renders the two together as possessing an uneven tone, since that massacre is the climax of the combined stories told in Kill Bill 1+2, on just about every level of cinema. Tarantino would have been better off getting his spaghetti Western influences out there before the kung-fu ones.

Tarantino’s lust for rubbing chunks of pop culture in our face rears its ugly head early on, with Bill playing a flute, just as Carradine did in his Kung Fu days. It’s a pointless anachronism, which doesn’t fit the character, and is topped only at the end when Bill rambles on, pontificating about the symbolism of Superman and how it relates to Beatrix. I can see the lines spewing forth from Quentin’s smug mouth, or even Kevin Smith’s; coming out of Bill’s, they seem absurdly forced and artificial.

But when Tarantino just nods to other movies, rather than waving them in the air and shouting “Look at me! Amn’t I clever?”, it works – sometimes sublimely. Beatrix professes her love to Bill, saying she’d ride a motorcycle onto a speeding train for him, likely a reference to Michelle Yeoh’s amazing stunt in Supercop. It succeeds, because it’s such an effective image, you don’t need to know the details; if you do, it merely lends them extra resonance. Similarly, at the end, when Beatrix and her daughter are re-united, the latter wants to watch Shogun Assassin; her father demurs…because it’s “too long”. [If you don’t get that joke, Shogun was one of the most arterial movies ever released…up until KB 1, anyway]

Unfortunately, Tarantino then subjects us to lengthy footage of mom and little girl watching the film, another pointless indulgence. But generally, it’s when characters open their mouths that the film hits trouble; there’s hardly two lines of dialogue which could not be, and probably should have been, compacted into one. Whole scenes cry for removal, such as Budd’s day job, which tells us nothing about him that his habit of drinking from jars doesn’t say, more efficiently and cinematically. And if I wanted to learn the precise volume of Black Mamba venom injected per bite, I’d tune to the Discovery Channel.

The deluxe box set, with both movies and a host of extra footage is, undoubtedly inevitable, which is why I haven’t bothered with the initial release of Volume 1, and nor will I bother with Volume 2. When it arrives, I will be sorely tempted to take everything and produce a proper edit, running two hours or less, which will have everything we need and none of the dreck. Instead, for the moment, you have one extremely good film and one pretty good film. Under normal circumstances, I’d take that from Hollywood in a heartbeat. But when, with a little care, this could have been the finest action heroine movie of all time, I must admit to a little disappointment.

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen

Kill Bill, Volume 1

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” Here Comes ‘The Bride’…”

I don’t like Quentin Tarantino. In fact, every time I see his smug little face, I have to resist the urge to hit something. I do admire his talents as a scriptwriter, but think he needs someone else to rein in the pop-culture references and other self-indulgent excesses which pepper his work. That’s why I prefer From Dusk Till Dawn, Natural Born Killers and True Romance, and find Reservoir Dogs, and especially Pulp Fiction, very over-rated. I have no interest in hearing about the meaning of Madonna songs, or knowing what they call quarter-pounders in France. And don’t even get me started on his lack of ability as an actor…

There is also the nasty question of how much of what is praiseworthy, is actually Quentin’s own work. If you’ve seen the infamous Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, which intercuts clips from Reservoir Dogs with very similar scenes from a Hong Kong movie made several years previously, City on Fire, you’ll know what I mean. I’d rather praise film-makers such as David Cronenberg, who do more than cobble together pieces “borrowed” from other people, no matter how amusingly post-modern the results may be.

 I say this, so you know I am no drooling fanboy, and am probably inclined to be more critical than most. But I have to say, the first part of Kill Bill is almost entirely satisfactory, recovering after a shaky start. When it opened with a quote from Star Trek (of questionable relevance), I feared this was a Kevin Smith movie, rather than the brutal action pic I wanted. But such tendencies were largely kept under control, perhaps because there wasn’t much dialogue in which to work smug references.

Instead, it’s the soundtrack which slides into self-indulgence. You can tell Tarantino grew up in the 70’s: he has rifled his CD collection yet again, mixing everything from the theme to The Green Hornet to spaghetti western music, with the overall effect leaden-footed and rarely more than painfully obvious. Yet there are more than enough wonderful moments to compensate for the odd bit of weakness.

Uma Thurman is The Bride – her character is never named (it’s given a couple of times, but beeped out) – a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination squad operating under the eye of Bill (David Carradine, not yet seen). When she tries to quit, her marriage is interrupted by the rest of the team, who kill the groom, the priest and even the guy playing the organ. They think they’ve killed the pregnant bride. They’re wrong.

 Four years later, she wakes up in a hospital bed, with her child not to be seen. And, boy, is The Bride pissed. She vows to kill her four former colleagues, plus Bill. Volume One covers her awakening, plus the first two-fifths of her mission: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife and mother, plus O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now head of the Tokyo underworld.

She actually goes after O-Ren first; in typically maddening Tarantino style, he screws around with the timeline, and makes that the dramatic climax. Having seen her face Green, we know she survives O-Ren and returns to the States – so much for tension in the climactic battle. Okay, we know there’s another whole movie, and this is probably a moot point. But why bother? Why not just make Green her first target? That, and his tendency to go for a snigger at the most inopportune moments, is why I couldn’t let go completely, and love this as I wanted to.

Plotwise, there are certainly questions (spoiler alert!), though a second viewing might answer these:

  • How does Vernita Green, supposedly a top-rate assassin, manage to miss shooting The Bride from five feet?
  • After years in bed, The Bride’s legs are understandably weak: yet her arms are strong enough to drag her about?
  • What are the police up to for thirteen hours, while The Bride wiggles her toes in the parking lot of the hospital, after killing two people and leaving the corpses in her room?

The Ladies of Kill Bill, Volume One
[Click pics to enlarge]

Uma Thurman
Lucy Liu
Chiaki Kuriyama
Daryl Hannah

However, there’s a beautiful, horrible animated sequence early on, depicting the early life of O-Ren, which proved so completely seductive, I gave up contemplating such trivial things as whether the plot made sense. I suddenly “got” the comic-book style the film was trying to achieve, and things like, oh, The Bride’s ability to bring a Samurai sword onto an airliner no longer bothered me. From then on, the movie became a delicious thrill-ride, albeit one of highly questionable morality – in many ways, that flashback also made O-Ren a more sympathetic figure than The Bride, who has (so far) no motivation for her career choice whatsoever. Liu also gets the best speech, after one of her underlings chooses to mention her mixed heritage. Fabulous stuff.

In contrast, The Bride is largely a machine for extracting revenge, particularly once she hits Japan, picks up a weapon from a master sword-maker (70’s icon Sonny Chiba, as namechecked in True Romance), then heads to O-Ren’s headquarters, where all hell breaks loose. Dressed in a Game of Death yellow jumpsuit, she takes out her enemy’s minions in ones, two, then tens and twenties, with so much arterial spray I suspect the switches to black-and-white and silhouette were as much to avoid censorship as a stylistic choice.

The trailers make this look as if it’s non-stop action, but it isn’t really – there are only a couple of proper set-pieces. The first (cinematically, if not chronologically for the characters) is between The Bride and Green, a brawl around the latter’s house. Despite imaginative use of kitchen utensils, the photography is all wrong, with way too many closeups, leaving it impossible to tell whether there’s any skill – or, indeed, what the hell is going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the first things Tarantino shot, since it’s the kind of mistake you’d expect from someone like him, unfamiliar with shooting martial arts.

 However, this is more than made up for with the lengthy sequence in Tokyo. In particular, the battle between The Bride and GoGo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), the Japanese schoolgirl who is mistress of a weapon that can kill you in a dozen different ways. It’s a pity that the excruciating Japanese band, The 5678’s, who are playing in the venue, don’t get taken out as collateral damage. [Ten seconds of them is at least nine too many – they make Shonen Knife sound like the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra] Regardless, much credit is due to Thurman, Kuriyama and fight co-ordinator Yuen Wo Ping for creating a fight which is simultaneously hard-hitting and original, as well as being aesthetically beautiful.

It’s difficult to give a comprehensive review to a film without an ending – indeed, we’re only half way through the story so far. But what we’ve seen so far beats up 2003’s other Hollywood action heroines, the lame Tomb Raider and Charlie’s Angels sequels, without even breaking a sweat. Roll on Volume 2 early next year, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion we’ll be heading back to see this one a few more times between now and then.

[Thanks to The Reel Truth for tickets to the advance screening of this movie.]

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox

Coffy

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“The godmother of blaxploitation’s debut in the field.”

Neither star Grier nor director Hill were exactly strangers to the world of exploitation when they made this, but their combination here created a whole new subgenre, crossing action heroineism with black cinema. Following her would come Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and the rest, but let it be said, Coffy was the first of any significance.

It’s a robust tale – or at least one reused frequently since with minor changes. Nurse Coffy (Grier) goes after those she sees as responsible for leaving her kid sister a drug-addled vegetable, be they low-level pusher, high-level supplier or the politician in cahoots, who just happens to be her lover. There’s no hanging round here; almost before the credits have finished, we get someone’s head being blown off with a shotgun, and Hill brings a hugely gleeful air to the violence. This is perhaps exemplified best by a marvellous and justifiably classic catfight in which Coffy, razorblades hidden in her hair, takes apart an entire escort agency’s worth of hookers.

Dramatically, it’s less successful, with neither the supporting characters nor the plot holding your interest. It often borders on the painfully obvious; when her cop friend turns down a bribe, you just know he’s going to end up hooked to one of those hospital machines that goes “Beep”, and inside five minutes, yep, there he is. Beep. He then vanishes from the film shortly thereafter, though it’s never clear whether he dies or not. At least this does mean we don’t get the even more painfully cliched “flowers on the grave” sequence. But as a Pam Grier vehicle, it’s fine, and if little more than a vehicle for sex ‘n’ violence, with questionable morality and a hackneyed storyline, it is at least done enthusiastically enough to pull you along with it.

Dir: Jack Hill
Star: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott

Steel and Lace

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“Rape, revenge and robots, cheap and cheerful.”

Inside ten minutes, we’ve had heroine Gaily Morton (Wren) raped and her attackers acquitted in court, not to mention her subsequent leap off a roof-top to her death – this isn’t a film which hangs around, boys and girls. Luckily, her brother is a NASA boffin (Davison – you might recognise him as the Senator from X-Men), who builds a robot in her image, in order to wreak gory revenge on the perpetrators five years later. Cleaning up behind are a cop (Naughton) and his ex-girlfriend, a courtroom artist (Haiduk) who joins the dots.

This was a notch or two better than I expected, with Wren managing to bring a surprising degree of emotion to her role as the robo-revenger. Despite obviously not being a large budget movie, most of the deaths are impressive (one meriting a spontaneous round of applause from the GWG viewing panel) and the android effects are decently realised. The plot holds few surprises – actually, the count probably falls short of two; while that one certainly nailed me, Chris did spot it – though the whole brother/sister thing had a nice, creepy and unhealthy edge.

If the main plot works, the cop/courtroom artist thing doesn’t, and the two characters are largely superfluous. There’s no chemistry to speak of, and their sole purpose appears to be occupying screen time between the killings. When they’re on screen, the movie dies – yet much like the heroine, it keeps coming back, until the perfectly executed ending which is sudden, memorable and fitting.

Dir: Ernest Farino
Star: Clare Wren, Bruce Davison, David Naughton, Stacy Haiduk

Bury Me An Angel

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“Nowhere near as good as the advertising.”

Though with a tagline of “A howling hellcat humping a hot steel hog on a roaring rampage of revenge”, how could it be? Dag (Peabody) sees her brother get blown away for stealing some guy’s motorcycle, and goes on a hunt for the killer, all the while tortured by visions of her dead sibling’s death – which is perhaps not a good move, since it lets us see how woefully inept the effects were. Accompanied by two male sidekicks, she tracks the killer down as he heads towards Canada.

This 1971 film is a rarity for an action heroine movie (and also for a biker flick), in that it was written and directed by a woman, Barbara Peeters, who’d go on to make Humanoids From the Deep. This shows itself in little touches throughout, but mostly through the heroine’s over-frequent mental anguish – the ‘roaring rampage of revenge’ never materialises much. Dag makes for an interesting heroine, determined and obstinate (she hangs on to her shotgun, even when visiting a school!), but Peabody never seems to get the tone of her performance right, under- or over-acting at random.

The best moments see the trio interacting with other people, be this taunting a midget cop, provoking a bar-brawl with locals, or being out-weirded by a witch. Apart from this, and one impressive nightmare where Dag repeatedly blasts her brother’s murderer with a shotgun, only for him to keep coming back, there’s way too much sitting around, and not enough action. Selling largely on sizzle, this is truly a classic of exploitation, and as such, deserves grudging respect – if not perhaps any further attention.

Dir: Barbara Peeters
Star: Dixie Peabody, Terry Mace, Clyde Ventura, Stephen Whittaker

The Black Angel

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“Promising start to gangster revenge, but goes off rails badly.”

The first half of this is quite excellent. A young girl, Ikko, daughter of a Yakuza boss, sees her parents murdered on the orders of her step-sister but is rescued by the Black Angel (Takashima), a female assassin, and escapes to America. 14 years later, she returns (Hazuki), calling herself the Black Angel and starts wreaking revenge on those responsible – who retaliate by calling in the real Black Angel. The potential here is huge, not least because the original is now an alcoholic junkie, at one harrowing point reduced to licking drugs from broken glass.

Then it all goes horribly wrong for the viewer. The dividing line is the eight-minute, one-take shot of Ikko wandering around a building trying to escape while being taunted by thugs. It is incredibly pointless, overlong, and sucks the energy out of the movie like a vampire. After that, it just collapses in on itself like a balloon, and has very little more of interest to offer – both Chris and I dozed off at various points. There’s much pointing of guns at each other, and one final twist, but it was nothing you won’t see coming, and of absolutely no significance by that stage, since we had long ceased to care. A spectacular crash.

Dir: Takashi Ishii
Star: Riona Hazuki, Reiko Takashima, Kippei Shiina, Yoshinori Yamaguchi