Iron Swallow

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“A bit hard to swallow.”

ironswallowGenerally, if someone is roaming the country, carrying out brutal attacks on apparently innocent citizens, blinding and disfiguring them, they’d be the villain of the piece, right? Not so here. For despite such distinctly non-heroic actions, Iron Swallow (Lee) is the heroine, disabling the men she holds responsible for killing her father years earlier. Needless to say, they’re not exactly impressed with the situation. To make matters worse, someone is flat-out killing her targets, intent on covering up something or other, and is trying to make it look like Swallow is responsible, by leaving her trademark darts behind at the scene. There are also two friends (Tao and Chung) rattling around, the son and pupil respectively of the region’s leading martial arts master Chu Hsiao Tien (Yuen), who get involved in the murky situation because Chu is one of Swallow’s targets and has hired a particularly loathsome assassin to bury the case.

Murky is, to be honest, putting it mildly, and the plot here appears to have been constructed from finest quality raw ore, taken from the Kung Fu Cliché mine. And I stress the word “raw”, since there doesn’t appear to have been much processing, in the way of logical thought, given to those ideas between their conception and the screen. It’s the kind of kung-fu film where you can’t be sure whether they made the story up as they went along – however, if they had, it would explain a lot of the tedious incoherence. I read another review which called this a martial arts version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and that’s a decent enough summary. At one point, Chris meandered in and wondered whether this was the source film for Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, based mostly on Swallow’s hair-style. Though she says that for about 40% of period kung-fu films, so it probably doesn’t mean much.

It’s certainly one of those cases where you might as well bring a book, and forget about trying to follow the indigestible lumps of plot between the action scenes. Fortunately, those are decent enough to sustain interest, and relatively copious, particularly in a final third which more or less abandons the plot, replacing it with multiple varieties of fisticuffs. Swallow’s skills are obvious, and given multiple opportunities to shine. It’s a shame that Lee was never allowed to showcase her own identity, in the way Angela Mao received, instead being the victim of a highly dubious marketing campaign which alleged she was Bruce Lee’s sister. Whatever the short-term benefit that brought, it did her career no good in the longer term, and she was all but gone from the screen by the end of the seventies. I have to wonder if whoever came up with that genius idea, was also responsible for the script here…

Dir: Judy Lee, Don Wong Tao, Ting Wa Chung, Yee Yuen
Star: Chang Pei-Cheng
a.k.a. Shaolin Iron Eagle

Wolf Devil Woman

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“No rabbits were har… Er, never mind.”

wolfdevilwomanThis 1982 Taiwanese flick proves that, if you can’t afford to go big, you might as well go… Actually, you might as well go on regardless, because with enough enthusiasm, the surreal results can sometimes be thoroughly entertaining, albeit certainly not in a way any normal viewer would call “good”. I was still thoroughly amused, albeit more often at the film than with it, for this is sheer lunacy – yet lunacy of a fascinatingly off the wall kind. It begins with a couple suddenly deciding that they don’t want anything to do with their erstwhile master, the Blue Devil. Maybe the human sacrifice was the giveaway. They head off, with their newborn baby, only to be caught by his minions. Everyone gets buried in an avalanche and killed, except the baby, who is brought up by wolves (!) in an ice-cave, and fed a magical ginseng root by them (!!) that gives her amazing superpowers (!!!).

20 years later, the Blue Devil has become a bigger problem, so Lee (Fung) and his comic-relief sidekick Wong (Pa Gwoh) have headed up the mountain in search of the only thing capable of defeating the Blue Devil. Which just happens to be the magical ginseng root eaten by our heroine. She is now bouncing round the mountain in her fur costumes, rending innocent bunny rabbits and chickens limb from limb. And, as the tagline above makes clear, I’m pretty sure those weren’t stunt bunnies. Lee fixes her busted spine with a bit of impromptu chiropractic care, befriends her and teaches her to speak. They then go their separate ways. Lee turning to the dark side and becoming a minion of the Red Devil, while Snowflower (as she has been named) swings around from trees for a bit – as wolves apparently do in Taiwan – then gets drunk in a village tavern and is thrown into a well by irate locals.

This is part of her heroic journey, with the eventual goal of taking revenge on the man who killed her parents. To get there, she’ll also have to go through a number of battles, get some semi-useful information from a white-haired guy with really long eyebrows, and there will be a not-very stunning revelation about who the Blue Devil actually is. Let’s just say, I think Ling might have been a fan of the original Star Wars movies. One of her preferred tactics for dealing with opponents is to grab them firmly, then yank off their heads or tear them in half, so it appears those animals did not die in vain, and were simply practice. But perhaps the maddest moment is when one of her allies is set on fire: Snowflower tears into her own arm and uses the arterial spray to put the flames out. That’s hardcore.

wdw00Dull, it ain’t, and was clearly a work of love for Ling, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, playing the heroine as well as her mother. Which is quite surprisingly, since women are generally more… sensible than this. It’s quite possibly one of the most insane films ever created by a female director. The luridly cheap execution, for example on the visual effects, only enhances the feeling you’ve wandered into someone else’s drug-propelled nightmare. This, mind you, was all based on a viewing of the subtitled version. There’s a dubbed one which adds an extra level of surrealness, if Wikipedia is to be believed, calling it “notable for its bizarre vocal performances,” and saying the Blue Devil “speaks like American cartoon character Yosemite Sam.” It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d seen that version.

Even without it, this remains jaw-droppingly bizarre, and there’s almost no written description that can possibly hope to do it justice. Fortunately, YouTube exists, and you can now appreciate this cinematic treat directly – complete with the dubbing! – rather than through the poor approximation of my second-hand words. I’d suggest having a few alcoholic beverages to hand, because you’re going to need them. For you will not have seen anything quite like this before…

Dir: Ling Chang
Star: Ling Chang, Sek Fung, Pa Gwoh

Super Cops

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“Less a review, more of a warning.”

supercopsNot, in any way, to be confused with Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh vehicle Super Cop, this one barely has enough action heroine content to qualify here, despite the presence of both Khan and Oshima, who must have been in Taiwan for the weekend or something, and agreed to take on roles of a local cop and a Japanese Interpol agent respectively. Despite a feisty misunderstanding when they first meet, Khan mistaking Oshima for a thief, this is much more about brother and sister Siu-Tong and Chee-Loy, who head to the big city in search of their uncle. They end up getting work in a restaurant, except this brings them into conflict with the local gangsters – fortunately, the brother is kinda good at kicking ass, and this leads to ever-increasing waves of thugs descending on the eating establishment. Really, you wonder why anyone goes there to eat, since it seems barely five minutes goes by without the need to order replacement glass-topped tables.

Meanwhile, Khan and Oshima are seeking to trap heroine dealer Billy Chow, and the two plot strands, which have been so disparate I was seriously thinking this was a pair of films edited together on Godfrey Ho’s day off, finally converge. This happens at an open-air banquet celebrating Chow’s birthday, to which all the characters are somehow invited. Hey, look! More tables through, over and into which people can be hurled! The action is okay in quality – there’s some scampering around a train at the opening which looks genuinely dangerous – yet severely deficient in quantity. Instead, a lot of the running time consists of more or less blatant padding, such as the brother dressing up in drag to ensnare his boss at the restaurant. It’ll have you yearning for the subtle comedic stylings of Benny Hill.

There’s not much point in saying more: I wasted enough time watching this, and don’t feel you should have to waste time too, as I struggle toward the usual word count. Just know that this one is for Khan and Oshima completists only, and even they will find little here worthy of their attention. There’s certainly absolutely nothing super about it.

Dir: Chiang-Bang Mao
Star: Chia-Hui Liu, Ka-Kui Ho, Cynthia Khan, Yukari Ôshima
a.k.a. Huo tou da jiang jun

The Assassin

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“Like watching a Ming vase dry.”

AssassinI have seen worse action heroine films this year. But I certainly haven’t seen any which were more irritating. I confess, this is perhaps partly due to expectations, because all I knew about this one going in, came from the trailer, which made it look like an interesting piece of genre cinema. Well played, trailer: well played. You completely sold me a sow’s ear on that one. If I’d done some research on the director, I might have had a better idea of what to expect, for it turns out just about every frame of action the movie contains, is in the trailer. The rest is a disjointed mess of scenes, characters and plot-lines that seems to insult the audience’s intelligence by its pretense at being a coherent work. Even more irritatingly, the critics are lapping it up, judging by the gushing reviews I saw. Truly, do not believe the hype: neither Chris nor I were at all impressed by this steaming pile of art-wank cinema masquerading as entertainment. Some lush photography is about all this has going for it.

The plot sounds like it might have something going for it. In 9th century China, Yinniang (Shu) is a hitwoman, who hunts down and kills corrupt officials as required by her mistress, Jiaxin, who raised her from a child. After Yinniang fails to carry out a mission, due to the presence of a child, Jiaxin punishes her by making the next job to kill Yinniang’s cousin, Tian Ji’an (Chang), who was once also her fiance, and is now the governor of Weibo province. Needless to say, this does not sit well with Yinniang, and nor is it long before the old flame is (somewhat) rekindled. More than that… Well, I’m not able to say, because the film appears to delight in being obscure for obscurism’s sake. We cut into the middle of a fight scene, which after a few seconds reverts to a long-range shot, and then ends equally abruptly, with no explanation offered of who was doing what, to whom, or why. Call me old-fashioned if you like, both Chris and I still consider story-line at least somewhat important.

Apart from some nice cinematography – Hou goes against the grain, not opting to shoot in widescreen ratio – the only other positive thing I can find to say is Shu’s portrayal of Yinniang. Not so much during the dramatic moments, as during the (rare) action scenes, where her absolutely economy of effort is extremely effective. There’s an air of a Japanese samurai about her; rather than florid aerial battles, she swiftly disposes of most opponents in three or fewer strokes. If only the sequences between these has demonstrated such brevity and directness. Instead, it’s a confusing and unengaging mess, that annoyed me so much, I couldn’t even fall asleep, once I realized this was probably going to be irredeemable. Damn you, Hou. However, damn whoever put the trailer together, even more.

Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Star: Shu Qi,  Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Satoshi Tsumabuki

The Lady Constables

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“Crazy people have to be good fighters.”

lady constablesI first encountered this in a dreadful copy on Youtube: dubbed, cropped to 4:3 and apparently filmed off someone’s TV during a Force 10 storm at sea. However, what was left after that, was still impressive enough to make me track down a better copy. Well, somewhat better: it had subs, albeit burned in and incomplete, while the 16:9 ratio was at least a vague approximation to the original widescreen print. Still, you take what you get, and this is certainly enough fun to overcome the adversity of any flaws in the format.

The film starts with a robbery, in which five priceless pearls are snatched by the Black Wind Fortress gang under Coldstar Tiger (Chang). They split up to avoid detection, reckoning without the investigative – and, more importantly, interrogative – prowess of leading ladies Ti Yung Hing (Mao), who despite the title, is the only actual agent of law-enforcement here, and Tang Lin (Lee), whose uncle was killed during the robbery. Although they have similar goals, they refuse to team up, each preferring to work alone; adding an extra angle is Hung Yi (Wang), the bodyguard to the prince for whom the pearls were intended. Gradually, and not without some bickering on the way, they work their way up the Black Wind Fortress chain of command, and finally reach Coldstar Tiger. Though someone appears to be trying to cover the trail by offing their prisoners…

Yeah, as stories go, it’s pretty basic, and it’s clear the invention here was reserved for other aspects, such as the characters and the kung-fu. All three leads have their own quirks and foibles. One of the weapon’s in Ti’s arsenal is the ability to shoot scarves out of her sleeves, like a mad magician, and use them to encumber her opponent. Meanwhile, Tang keeps a plentiful supply of coffins on hand for her revenge, and isn’t a follower of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, to put it mildly. And finally, Hung doesn’t speak – not because he’s mute, mind, he just doesn’t like to talk. He communicates instead with prewritten scrolls, which always have exactly the phrase he needs on them, and which he unfurls with a tinkly sound-effect.

The fight scenes are heavily wire-assisted, but that probably contributes to the action having stood the test of time better than many of its era (1978). They are no less imaginative than the characters, particularly at the end, with Mr. Tiger (Coldstar to his friends) wielding a mean umbrella/drone, on which one of our heroines hitches a ride. That previous sentence likely makes no sense if you haven’t seen the movie: if you do, then it will all become clear. Trust me on this, it provides a fitting climax to an entertaining piece of bare-bones action. With not one but two fighting ladies, this Taiwanese feature is deserving of a better presentation than it has received to date.

Dir: Cheung San Yee
Star: Angela Mao Ying, Judy Lee, Wang Kuan Hsiung, Chang Yi

Book of Heroes

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“Double-you Tee Eff?”

bookifheroesThe ranking here would probably be at least half a star higher, if I had the slightest freakin’ clue what’s going on here. For this has truly the worst subtitling I’ve seen in a quarter century of watching Hong Kong action films, with text that is entirely illegible more often than not. You’re left trying to piece together the plot, based on fragments of sentences and on-screen action, which significantly subtracts from the entertainment value. Good thing we have the Internet, and can turn to that for a coherent synopsis of proceedings, that will shine some light on who was doing what to whom, and why.

Having learned that the underworld society smuggled a batch of gold, the police authority sent Hu Pai and so on to watch and arrest. But unexpectedly it’s robbed by the 5th Rat of another gang. Therefore, Hu Pai was demoted as a traffic policeman. Hu Pai’s girl friend Little Wild Cat intended to join Royal Police but didn’t know how to get in, and so handled cases often in the name of Hu Pai. One day, when she met the youngest of Five Rats and was ready to arrest him, but was stopped by Risking San Niang. The second boss of Five Rats and Lawyer contrarily accused Little Wild Cat for pretending to be police. The 5th Rat wanted to sell the robbed gold to the 1st boss, but the latter took possession of it and sent Black Baboon to kill the 5th Rat. Before dying, the 5th Rat said “gold drawing, elder sister, fire” Little Wild Cat and Hu Pai started to investigate the 5th Rat’s sister Ever Changing Fox. Fox and her partner Smiling Tiger held the picture of hiding gold. The 1st boss, for the gold, started a chasing fight with Fox, Smiling Tiger and Stupid Rat. They used tricks one another with being extremely ridiculous.

bookofheroes2Well, crap. I was following that, right up to “batch of gold”.

Let me translate and summarize the summary of this Taiwanese action-comedy. What matters, is really that a shipment of smuggled gold has gone missing: the bad guys  led by Yamashita (Kurata) and his top enforcer (Oshima) want it, the police want to stop them, led by the plucky but largely incompetent Hu Pai (Gua Hu) and his cop wannabe girlfriend, Little Wild Cat (Hsin-chuen Lan). There’s also a couple of confidence tricksters – Ever Changing Fox (Yeung) and Smiling Tiger (Tao), if you’re keeping score – who end up collaborating with the cops to that end, though they have their own agenda in mind. Wacky hi-jinks ensue. Fortunately, so does a lot of action. Yeung has been seen here before, in Challenge of the Lady Ninja, Golden Queens Commando and Pink Force Commando, while Oshima’s credentials shouldn’t even need mentioning. Suffice it to say, asses are kicked in some volume, though the undercranking used to speed up the fight scenes is sometimes painfully obvious, and hardly necessary.

But there’s enough good here to balance out the negative aspects. Just don’t make the mistake of bothering to care about the storyline or the characters; in fact, you might as well save yourself a lot of time and just watch the fight compilation embedded below. All of the violence, none of the goofy (and largely unamusing) attempts at comedy, and a good hour saved for you to do something more worthwhile instead. You’re welcome!

Dir: Chu Yen Ping
Star: David Tao, Elsa Yeung, Yasuaki Kurata, Yukari Oshima

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

Bruce Kung Fu Girls

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“Bruce rolls over from beyond the grave.”

brucekungfugirlsFour years after Bruce Lee’s death, and film-makers were still trying to fool moviegoers into believing their product had some connection to kung-fu’s first global star. Not sure where the deception occurred, as the print here simply overlays the new title over the (still-legible) Hong Kong one, Five Pretty Young Ladies. You really need to combine the two for any genuine accuracy: Five Pretty Kung Fu Girls, would be about right. The five are visiting Hong Kong, where their “uncle” (it’s not clear if this is a genuine relation, or just an honorific title) is a police superintendent. While at a swimming pool, they bump into a guy being pursued by a gang, and take care of the pursuers. Turns out they wanted to get their hands on a formula he had developed. Might there be some connection between this and the invisible thief who is wreaking havoc in the colony? And could the unseen one be planning to steal a moon rock, newly arrived as the centerpiece of an exhibition?

Oh, who am I trying to kid. The answer is, of course, yes to both, and the film doesn’t have any surprises to speak of. What it does have – and this is close to falling into the “only saving grace” category – is Polly Kwan as the head of the group. She’s easily the most talented in terms of fighting, and the makers know it, giving her the bulk of the action. This she handles with grace and flexibility, kicking her way out of trouble, regardless of the number of opponents. Beyond these scenes, there’s a lot of other stuff which drag proceedings to a grinding halt, such as the camping trip, climaxing with what’s probably the worst fake guitar-playing in cinema history. However, there is some entertainment value to be had from things like the matching black hot-pant uniforms worn by the girls on moon-rock guard duty, and the film’s ending teaches us a valuable lesson: when you have strapped a belt of dynamite around your waist, it’s probably best if you try not to fall over.

It is all, clearly, nonsense, with little or no effort made to differentiate the four pretty young ladies that aren’t Polly – one of them has pigtails and pouts a bit, that’s about the extent of it. But I’ve seen less entertaining nonsense, and when Kwan goes into action, becomes worth watching to a high enough degree, as to justify its existence. Unfortunately, all available prints are horribly cropped, which certainly affects the experience: truly a case where seeing more of the lead actress would be a help.

Dir: Shut Dik
Star: Polly Shang Kwan, Lui Ming, Wong Lan, Yeung San-San
a.k.a. Five Pretty Young Ladies

Emergency Police Lady

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There appear to be no words in Taiwanese for “short, controlled bursts.”

EmergencyPoliceLadyThis 1989 film from Taiwan, swings unevenly between some rather good action, wild stabs at comedy that isn’t as funny as it thinks, and one of the screechiest and least appealing single-note performances, this side of an Adam Sandler movie. Now, I’m not going to able to attribute specific blame for the latter, because it was tough enough finding names for the cast here, let alone associate them with particular characters. The only one I think I recognized was Hu, playing the officer in charge of a new “women’s department,” which is given all the female cops with whom none of their chauvinist colleagues want to work, and who is tasked with trying to forge them into a coherent force. You have the usual mix of “wacky” characters: the taciturn hard-case, the foreign girl (Singapore in this case), and worst of all, the whiny, bespectacled bitch who think she’s the bee’s knees, but is, in fact, completely useless.

I defy anyone to get through five minutes of her scenes, without wanting to reach through the TV and warmly greet her by the throat, to stop her high-pitched shrieking and manic over-acting. Actually, scratch that, since any use of the word “acting” in connection with this performance is entirely inappropriate: she just flails her arms around and pulls faces, in lieu of attempting to convey even the shallowest of emotions. That’s a shame, as there are some elements of this which are perfectly competent, though the script has no surprises, and indeed, doesn’t bother much with a genuine storyline. One second, the girls are going undercover at a nightclub to break up an arms deal (where we learn the ‘fact’ at the top of the review). The next, they’re investigating a gang of robbers who specialize in leaving no witnesses alive, but a torn-off button leaves one woman believing she knows the identity of a gang member.

Still, I’m prepared to forgive the narrative disconnects, because the action isn’t bad. Nothing amazing, mind, but it helps that the director films it well – in particular, finding a good middle-ground of distance, so you aren’t overwhelmed, yet can still tell it’s mostly the actual actresses who are being flung around. Some of the early judo stuff is good, and the final battle against the robbers is also memorable, ending in a giant fireball which seems to come perilously close to toasting the leads, in the same way Devil Hunters would actually do the following year. Admittedly, if the shrieking harridan had turned into a human marshmallow, I’m not sure I’d have shed a tear, and there’s just too much sub-Police Academy slack in the middle, with poor comedy and worse romance occupying far too high a percentage of the running time.

Dir: Lee Tso-Nam
Star: Sibelle Hu, Yip Chuen-Chan, Kau Hoi-Ching, Alexander Lo

A Girl Fighter

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“…and lots of boy fighters.”

girlfighterSuma Moyung (Kwan) rides into town, offering to rid the locals of a pesky warlord’s son, who is making a nuisance of himself, not least by being a bit rapey. After proving herself by slicing off the shoe-tips of the local police force (!), Suma is given the job, and proceeds to deliver, capturing the scion and bringing him back to face justice. Except, that’s only the start of the problem, because his father is none too happy with Suma, and unleashes his forces to rescue his son, by any means necessary. That covers bribery, threats and then full-on violence as it becomes clear Suma will not be easily cowed. Fortunately, she has help, in the shape of a man (Tien) who lost his entire family to the man she is now guarding. And she’ll need all the assistance she can get, if she’s successfully to transport her captive through the countryside to the state capitol, under siege from the warlord’s forces just about every step of the way.

As that summary perhaps implies, there’s certainly no shortage of action here, with a new fight sequence popping up almost every five minutes. The main problem is that titling your film A Girl Fighter does create certain expectations in your audience – among which would be, that your heroine will be depicted as the most prolific and/or the best martial artist in the movie. Neither are true, with Tien doing most of the heavy lifting for the good guys, against an apparently endless stream of minions in small groups (if the warlord ever actually committed to rescuing his son, he’d easily have the numbers to overpower the hero and heroine!). While not exactly missing in action, too often Suma is reduced to a supporting role, or worse still, left in a situation where she needs the help of her colleague. That’s a shame: while Kwan’s style is a little too theatrical for my tastes (all her punches and kicks appear to start from the next time-zone over), it’s also graceful and flowing, especially impressive when the moves are combined into an extended sequence.

However, the overall sense is of a film more interested in the volume of action, than doing anything particularly new or interesting with it. It seems particularly old-fashioned, considering that this came out the same year (1972) as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. As a taste from the tail end of what that hard-hitting style was about to replace, this isn’t bad, and it certainly doesn’t dawdle. But it feels about a decade older than it actually is.

Dir: Yeung Sai Hing
Star: Polly Shang-Kwan, Tien Peng, Law Bun, Cho Kin