The Top Lady Of Sword

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“The Yung and the VERY restless…”

topswordThis Taiwanese production focuses on a martial arts get-together, organized by the honorable Chi (Tsang), as a way for all the local artists to settle any beefs with each other. Arriving in town are brothers Au Lung and Wong Hu (Wan), who are out for revenge on Lady Yung (Wong), who had killed another of their brothers, though it was actually an honourable battle. Au Lung is content to forget their revenge, until he falls under the spell of a local inn-owner, who has a plan to seduce him, and use Au Lung as a tool to steal Chi’s martial arts manual and become the top fighter. When Chi turns up dead, Yung is blamed,  and after that is sorted out, her husband and daughter as then kidnapped by Au Lung. Yung, her sister Shao Chung (Khan) and Wong Hu set off in a desperate effort to rescue the hostages.

There’s a lot to enjoy here, and about the only thing stopping it from getting a seal of approval is that it’s very wuxia – so if you’re not fully prepared for people flying through the air and severely undercranked action, this will seem laughable. It’s one of those occasions where less could have been more. But, personally, I still found it a great deal of fun, with a well thought-out plot, engaging characters and some nice twists on the usual themes. For instance, there’s a lovely bit of role reversal, where it’s Yung’s husband who is the stay at home one, and she is running around the countryside, fighting battles against, it seems, everyone who crossed her path. Additionally, I liked the brief diversion into almost a kung-fu “whodunnit” in the middle, and on the other end of the emotional spectrum, there’s a body-count which is surprisingly high. If I don’t want to spoiler who lives and who dies, let’s just say there’s more of the latter.

The bottom line, however, is the martial arts, and these sequences are copious and well-staged, under action coordinator Alan Chan. The various performers get to showcase a broad variety of their styles, and they mesh together well. Everyone gets their moments to shine, will all three of the leading ladies looking very impressive. This one is available on Youtube with subtitles, and even if the quality of the print leaves a fair bit to be desired, it still makes for an entertaining 90 minutes, and is a case where a film’s obscurity is no reflection of its merits.

Dir: Wong Hong
Star: Wong Chau-Yin, Deric Wan, Kenneth Tsang, Cynthia Khan
a.k.a. Lady Chrysanthemum Sword

Tokyo Ballistic War

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“Long live the new flesh.”

tokyoballisticI’m on the fence with regard to the Japanese uber-gore films, most notably, by the Sushi Typhoon studio, which have achieved renown (or infamy) of late. While some (Mutant Girls Squad) are entertaining nonsense, others (Helldriver) are pretty tedious. So, the concept of lower-budget, exploitation-er versions of these, already low-budget exploitation flicks, is a mixed blessing. Enter Zen Pictures, and their formula, which appears to consist of costumed heroines who alternately fight and get tortured. The story here is split into two volumes, but with each barely an hour long and containing plenty of filler, probably better to consider them a single, feature-length entry.

I do like the central story, which is daft as a brush, yet executed with the right level of straight-faced intensity. In order to market his half-human, half-machine cyborgs to the military, Koumoto, chairman of the Dainippon company, comes up with a cunning plan: create a set of female athletes, who will smash all existing records. However, he has forgotten the Japanese Sports Association, under chief Gondo, who don’t take kindly to these performance-enhancing shenanigans. The solution? Naturally, build their own (eco-friendly!) cyborg to fight the Dainippon team. Except, due to an administrative cock-up, the original candidate, Megumi Asaoka (Taki), is accidentally replaced by Ai Asaoka (Noda). Initially, Ai is successful, but after being captured by Koumoto, she is reprogrammed, and her friend Megumi has to battle to rescue Ai.

The first volume is significantly better, though still has its weaknesses, not the least being more evidence that crappy CGI is far less endearing than crappy practical effects – and there’s enough of both to be seen here. However, it whizzes along with sufficient energy, and contains plenty of action, to merit forgiveness for the obvious poverty-row origins, and everyone involved chews scenery to amusing effect. After the break, unfortunately, things slow down, with a pair of lengthy torture sequences which had absolutely no value for me whatsoever, and the fights seemed, to a large extent, repeats of those from the first volume. Both parts also have another severe weakness – taking an idea and running with it, well past the point where it stops being interesting. Case in point: one of the battles includes the participants each releasing a cyborg arm, which then stage their own fight, independently. For 15 seconds, it’s kinda amusing. After a minute, it’s dull. But the film keeps going far beyond that, and there are plenty of similar cases; the surgery which turns Ai into a cyborg is also depicted at far greater length than necessary. Maybe this is some Japanese fetish thing, of which I was previously unaware.

tokyoballistic2This is definitely a case where less would have been more, and with a more enthusiastic hand on the editor’s knife, this could have become a decent eighty-minute feature – and possibly an even better 50-minute one. Kamikura does often demonstrate an awareness and acceptance of exactly how ludicrous the entire scenario is, and the film is at its best when wholeheartedly embracing its own insanity. For instance, each of the cyborg athletes’ talents is influenced by their sport: Hitomi Oka is a tennis-player, so whacks people with an over-sized, pneumatic racket, and lobs exploding tennis-balls at them. Additional helpings of that kind of imaginative lunacy – and considerably less tied-up schoolgirls being prodded or whipped – would certainly have made for a more entertaining end product.

Dir: Eiji Kamikura
Star: Ayaka Noda, Arisa Taki, Masahiro Saito, Shinya Nakamura

Travelers: Dimension Police

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“Explanations? They’re vastly over-rated.”

Travelers_-_Dimension_Police_PosterThis doesn’t so much hit the ground running, as plummet into it at top speed, to such an extent I genuinely stopped the film, to check if this was perhaps part two of an ongoing series. It isn’t: it’s just that unconcerned about explanations. What seems to be going on, is a universe where the different dimensions are now connected. Hence, there’s Retro World, Fairy World, Lost World, etc. This offers new criminal possibilities; to counter these, a trans-dimensional police force is also created. One such officer is Ai (Nagasawa), but her mission, to protect a psychic (Takayama) against the terrorist group Doubt is thrown into… Well, doubt after she meets her former partner Yui (Kinoshita), who appears to have thrown her lot in on the side of the villains.

At least, I think some of the above is probably fairly accurate. I am not prepared to commit any more strongly than that. Easily the best thing this has to offer are the actual fight: Sakamoto did a lot of work on Power Rangers, and also the cult classic Mark Dacascos vehicle, featuring a young Britney Murphy, and the style here is fast and frenetic, with people being punched hard enough to fly into things. A lot. Credit both lead actresses for doing a good chunk of this themselves. Less successful, are just about all the other elements, led by the confusing plot, that appears to think whizzy SFX will remove any need for coherence. Admittedly, it’s not helped by subs, even the official DVD English ones, which are borderline illiterate, and on at least one occasion appear to contradict directly the on-screen action.

I was also more than a little uncomfortable with the apparently leering approach taken to the heroines. Chris, breezing through the living room, airily dismissed it with a roll of her eyes as “Oriental women in shorts,” (see the cover on the right for a good example). While part of me wanted to argue the point, the cheesecake quotient here was just too high for any credible defense: I mean, do you really need skimpy clothes for inter-dimensional travel? The final battle is kinda decent, but I’ll confess, my brain had largely given up on the entire exercise by that point, my attention only being somewhat regained whenever things e.g. fists or actresses started to fly. Sakamoto’s credentials as a fight choreographer are fine, just not in the director’s chair.

Dir: Koichi Sakamoto
Star: Nao Nagasawa, Ayumi Kinoshita, Yuko Takayama, Kenji Ebisawa

T.N.T. Jackson

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“More of a damp squib than dynamite.”

tntjacksonDescribed in 1975 by no less than Roger Ebert as, “easily the worst movie I’ve seen this year,” Jackson concerns the investigation of the titular T.N.T. (Bell) into the disappearance of her brother in Hong Kong. It seems to have something to do with the drug-smuggling ring run by Sid (Metcalf), whose minions include Elaine (Anderson), who might not be quite what she seems, and Charlie (Shaw), the only person in Hong Kong whose Afro can rival TNT’s for size, firmness or general Afro-tastic quality.  Someone keeps hijacking Sid’s shipments, so Charlie puts together a team of the colony’s finest fighters to protect it: seeing her chance to get into the organization, T.N.T. auditions and gets a job. However, no everyone is as convinced of her innocence as Sid.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the late Mr. Ebert (though the cover on the right likely ranks up there with the very worst visualizations of all time!), but this comes over as a lame imitation of Pam Grier’s genre entries, with a greater emphasis on martial-arts, rather than gunplay or other forms of violence. Which is kinda weird, considering that Bell was previously most famous for being the first African-American woman to be seen on the cover of Playboy. The other oddness here is that it was co-written by cult actor Dick Miller, who had a long career working for Roger Corman, in the likes of Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors. This was the last of his three writing credits; I guess, he figured that after this, things could only go downhill.

There are a couple of scenes of striking brutality – an early arm-breaking and the finale, where she punches her opponent’s heart out – and one, which I’m still trying to figure out if it’s empowering or racist, where T.N.T., keeps turning the lights out because she’s almost invisible in the dark. Well, as long as she doesn’t smile, I guess. The fights are pretty unimpressive, with some painfully obvious stunt doubling for Bell. Truth be told, Anderson probably fares better than the heroine in this category, and the best fight might be between the two of them in a graveyard. However, much of this has not stood the test of time well, and the film desperately needs someone like Grier, to elevate proceedings through sheer force of personality.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Stan Shaw, Pat Anderson, Ken Metcalf
Previously capsule reviewed in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set.

Teenage Bank Heist

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“Solidly acted and directed TVM, but the script definitely holds everything back.”

Recent high-school graduate Cassie (Cobb) works at a bank alongside her mother (Quinlan), bickering about the usual things, such as whether to go to college or not. This mundance existence is suddenly interrupted by a robbery: Cassie is stunned to realize the raiders are actually some of her school friends. When they realize this, the girls are forced to take her along, and she discovers the cause of the crime – the father of one (Thomson) has been kidnapped while on business in Mexico. Meanwhile, Mom is tracking down her kidnapped daughter, FBI agent Mendoza (Blasi) is also on the hunt, and one of the girl gang has her own plans for the ill-gotten gains, which doesn’t involve any ransom.

I wavered between 2.5 and 3 stars for this, but finally opted for the latter, because of the sheer volume of strong female characters: only one of the seven main characters is male, which is a rarity. The pacing is good, the film hitting the ground running from an intriguing opening scene, before flashing back to the lead-up to the robbery, and there pretty much isn’t a dull moment thereafter. Obviously, the TVM format imposes certain limitations on content, but the movie works within these fairly well, and the performances avoid most of the usual pitfalls and make the girls into fairly well-rounded, rather than irritating characters. Credit particularly Augie Duke as “bad girl” Marie, who has a fiery intensity that’s fun to watch.

So, why was I being indecisive, all the way down in the 2.5-3 star range? It’s the plotting, with a number of elements that are utterly implausible, particular with regard to the crime and how the FBI would handle circumstances. For instance, after getting surveillance footage of a crime, would they allow a witness unsupervised access to it? Do agents meander off to follow said witness out into the desert on little more than a hunch? There are a bunch of similar moments, where it’s necessary to suspend disbelief for plot reasons, not least the ending, which certainly had me raising a sardonic eyebrow and going “O RLY?” If these don’t damage the movie irreparably, they certainly weaken its impact significantly. And that’s a shame, as its strengths still certainly make it worth a look.

Dir: Doug Campbell
Star: Abbie Cobb, Maeve Quinlan, Cassi Thomson, Rosa Blasi

Tokyo Gore Police

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“The middle word in the title is easily the most applicable. Far and away.”

In the near-future, Japan is plagued by “engineers” – criminals who have voluntarily undergone genetic modifications, which not only mutate their bodies in bizarre ways, but give them near superpowers and the ability to sprout weapons from their wounds. To combat this, the privatized Japanese police force under their chief (Benny) has an absolutely no-holds barred policy of shoot first, ask questions… Well, don’t bother asking questions. Their top “engineer hunter” is Ruka (Shiina, whom you may recognize from Audition), the daughter of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty while she was just a young girl. She is tracking down the scientist behind the engineers, known as “Key Man” (Itao) because of the key-shaped tumours which trigger the mutations. But when they meet, he infects her – and also reveals the truth behind the deaths of both their fathers.

The most obvious parallel would by Robocop, not only in the cautionary tale of law-enforcement run for profit, but also the sardonic commercials which pepper proceeding, showing how brutal society has become [here’s an example, for a wrist-cutting knife]. It’s against this backdrop that the cold, to the point of being emotionally-dead, heroine plies her trade, troubled by a past that she can’t forget. Shiina is certainly good at that kind of role, but it’s more or less a one-note performance, that doesn’t provide much reason for the audience to empathize with her. However, I get the sense that, as far as director Nishimura is concerned, characterization is probably not quite the main thing he’s concerned with here.

That would, instead, be the splatter, which goes to a whole new level, even by the outrageous standards of the genre. The arterial spray is so copious and powerful that, at one point, an engineer uses it to propel himself about, like a haemoglobin propelled jet-pack. That pretty much sums up the tone to be found here, with body parts also flying when not attached to their owners. It’s arguably the goriest movie ever made, though I’d have to re-watch Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead before I can be certain on this front. However, there isn’t quite enough to sustain it, especially at a fairly extended running-time of 110 minutes. While there no shortage of surreal imagination on view (like the creature which has had all four limbs replaced with samurai swords), and it’s undeniably the most OTT of its siblings, this probably works better as a party tape, playing in the background for your next Halloween bash, given its apparent apathy towards more conventional cinematic attributes.

Dir: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Star: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Shoko Nakahara

Touch and Go

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“Nice opening, solid middle… Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”

This 1980 film was originally called Friday the Thirteenth, but went through a title change in production, after they discovered some other film with that title being made… No hockey-masks to be seen here: instead, it’s the story of three young women, Eva (Hughes), Fiona (Contouri) and Millicent (Duncan), who start robbing places, largely for amusement – they donate the proceedings to an orphanage. However, after one of their victims ends up making far more money than they do, thanks to a bogus insurance claim, they switch targets and set their sights on a bigger fish, in the shape of a luxury hotel which contains a bank, jewellery store and other treats. This requires expanding their team, but with larger hauls come larger risks, as they find out, even once the actual crime has been carried out.

As a light, frothy Ozploitation and distaff take on something like Ocean’s 11, it’s aimiable viewing, bubbling along on the charisma of its leading ladies – one a locksmith, another a bored housewife, the third a children’s radio presenter. In contrast, the men are not exactly the sharpest tools in the box, easily manipulated, even the policeman that Millicent is dating. The main issue is a plot which has the heist taking place somewhere near the middle of the film, when it should probably have been the climax. It’s a nicely-put together extended sequence, but the post-heist antics are easily the least interesting aspect of proceedings, sliding into borderline farce.

The performances are pretty good, even Hughes as a slacker gardener – I say “even”, since he was better known as a singer-songwriter, still fairly well-known down under, and also did the film’s soundtrack. Hughes is the likely standout, and has gone on to have a solid career in film and TV [she played the aristocratic woman with whom Phoebe Cates came to stay in Princess Caraboo]. She and her co-stars keep this a fluffy confection that, while dated, has not been too badly crippled by the passage of three decades. Well, not nearly as much as the unfortunate scripting which leaves the viewer feeling almost like they’re watching the reels out of order.

Dir: Peter Maxwell
Star: Wendy Hughes, Chantal Contouri, Carmen Duncan, Jon English

Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom

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“Or, as Chris called it, ‘Lynch Law Lolitas’…”

This was the title that finally ‘broke’ Chris, and she wondered what the hell I was Googling to come across this movie. Shame she missed it, as despite some rather nasty sexual sadism, it’s among the best of the genre. Girl gang leader Noriko (Sugimoto) is assigned to the “School of Hope”, a morally-bankrupt educational establishment for delinquent girls. It’s principal is entirely ineffectual, and it’s actually run by the vice-principal (Imai), with the collaboration of the “Disciplinary Committee,” a group of the girls he allows to dish out punishment. Noriko isn’t going to stand for that, and teams up with a sleazy journalist (Watase) to bring down both the Committee and those in charge.

Right from the opening scene, where the Committee drain the blood of a victim, before she falls to her death from the roof, this certainly grabs the attention. Another review described it as, “Like Mean Girls via Caged Heat as written by Jess Franco and directed by Russ Meyer,” and that’s about as accurate a synopsis as you’ll get. The girls – not just ‘Noriko of the Cross’ [which she has tattooed on her inner thigh], but also “Razor-blade Remi” and the members of the Committee – are undeniably hardcore, and not the kind of people you want to cross. Yet, other sequences are outright misogynistic, such as one pupil being punished by having a light-bulb inserted into her, then being forced to do push-ups. Where did that come from? There’s also a lengthy omorashi fetish sequence. Look it up. Could have done without it as well.

But if you can get past that – not that I would blame you if you couldn’t – the good stuff outweighs the bad. You can even read a socio-political subtext into this, as the early seventies were a time of political instability in Japan, with their Red Army group in operation. The main theme is power: the struggle to achieve or hold on to it, and the final ten minutes, with the entire school rioting and taking on the Japanese police with rocks, stick and other weapons is pretty much a middle finger at all authority. Almost all such structures are portrayed as rife with corruption, and if the male side of the species is not subject to the same level of brutality, they’re cynically depicted as relentlessly perverted and driven by their brains. The only honour or humanity to be found here is with Noriko and her allies, in a severely screwed-up world, and it’s this transgressive approach that deserves approval.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Tsunchiko Watase, Kenji Imai

True Grit

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“Forty years later, the Duke has become the Dude, with a small Duchess.”

Based on the original source material – which was very much focused on John Wayne – and the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking of this as just another macho Western. However, I read some pieces which suggested that wasn’t the case, with the story [as in the original novel] told from the viewpoint of teenage girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), who hires drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the outlaw (Brolin), who killed her father. That is indeed the case – despite Steinfeld getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, while Bridges was listed for Best Actor. Go figure.

For Ross is one of the most impressive teenage girl characters to appear in a recent Hollywood film, being resolute, smart, brave and resourceful: that’s clear from the scene where she completely out-haggles the businessman with whom her father had been dealing. You can almost imagine Mattie growing up to become Marge Gunderson in the Coen’s Fargo: there’s much the same dogged determination, in a form which causes those who oppose Mattie to severely underestimate her. More in tune with her age, I was also reminded of Lyra Belacqua from The Golden Compass, whose heroine also found herself with an unenviable task, and had to man girl up and get through it. Here, from the moment Mattie plunges into the river on her horse, while Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Damon) watch from the far side, she’s in a completely different, alien world.

I was much less impressed with Bridges’ performance. Fair enough that he chose not to try and reproduce Wayne’s iconic role: however, the route in which he chose to do so is unfortunate, not least because it’s largely inaudible. He mumbles every line so badly, you’re largely reduced to picking words out where you can, and trying to work out what he said by the other characters’ replies. It’s only right at the end that he comes across as being much more than a drunken buffoon, and it’s difficult to fathom why Ross picked him rather than LeBoeuf, who projects a far more compelling air of confidence. With Wayne, there was a sense of faded, decrepit glory: Bridges’ version of Cogburn is less a has-been than a never-was.

That said, there’s something refreshing about the way this is…well, not refreshing. By that, I mean there is little or no attempt to re-invent or “reboot” the Western genre: it’s lasted for approaching a century, so the basic tenets don’t really need changing. So while there are some understated moments of humour, e.g. the last words of the men about to be hanged, the focus is clear: Mattie and her goal of extracting justice on the man who killed her father. It’s a simple story, well told.

Dir: The Coen Brothers
Star: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

The Tournament (2009)

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“The exotic life of an assassin is all glamour and exotic places, e.g. all-expenses trips to Middlesbrough.”

Every seven years, thirty of the world’s greatest assassins gather together for a battle. The winner gets $10 million, while bettors view the action remotely and gamble on the duels, face-offs and bloodbaths which ensue. Each assassin has a tracker implanted, and has a scanner where they can see the location of any other contestants nearby. This time, it’s in Middlesbrough, England, with reigning champion Joshua Harlow (Rhames) returning after he it told the murderer of his wife will be taking part. One of the 30 dumps their tracker into an alcoholic priest (Carlyle), who is “surprised”, shall we say, to become the target for the other 29. Lai Lai Zhen (Hu) realizes he’s an innocent, and vows to protect him, while also trying to win the competition.

The concept is, of course, completely implausible, and if you can’t drive a bus and a tanker through holes in the plot, you’re not trying. There are far too many assassins, too: of the 30 listed, probably no more than half a dozen get any lines, so they’d have been better off shrinking the number and giving them actual personalities. What results is basically “kill porn”: a massive number of deaths, some impressive, a couple genuinely spectacular, but possessing no emotional content or resonance whatsoever. That said, this is by no means unentertaining. Hu (I have consciously got to stop myself from calling her “Cindy-Lou”) seems to be carving a niche for herself as a low-rent version of Lucy Liu, and the action here is decent, and undeniably copious.

It all builds to a massive chase on a motorway, which sees the bus driven by the priest, being chased by the tanker driven by Harlow, while Zhen fights off the parkour guy from Casino Royale, in, on and around the bus. Mann has clearly been watching all the right movies, and if he needs a trailer reel for a career as a second-unit director, then he should just pop the DVD in and leave the room for 90 minutes. The writers, on the other hand… It really took three of them to come up with this complete nonsense? What did they do with the rest of the beer-mat?

Dir: Scott Mann
Star: Kelly Hu, Robert Carlyle, Liam Cunningham, Ving Rhames