What Happened to Monday

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“Seven Noomis for the price of one!”

In the future, overpopulation becomes such a problem that strict limits are placed on children per family. You are only allowed one, with any others being taken by the authorities and put into “cryosleep”, so they will no longer consume resources until the situation has been addressed. After a woman secretly gives birth to septuplets, their grandfather, Terrence Settman (Dafoe), brings them up, rigidly schooling their actions so they remain under the radar. Each gets to go out on the day of the week corresponding to their name e.g. Monday on Monday, etc. On their return, they share with their siblings the events of the day, so the illusion can be sustained. 30 years later, with their grandfather gone, the seven women have evaded capture, though tensions between the different personalities are growing. Then, one evening, Monday simply doesn’t come back. The following day, neither does Tuesday. The remaining sisters have to try and figure out what’s going on, without exposing themselves.

There are strong hints of Orphan Black here, the TV series in which Tatiana Maslany played multiple clones, with distinct personalities, who end up working together to uncover a conspiracy. That ran for five seasons, truly flogging a dead horse into the ground, and the concept works a good deal better at the two hours for which this runs. Though even here, the third quarter does somewhat run out of steam. The main pleasure is the seven different versions of Rapace – and, indeed, the seven mini versions seen in flashblack, played by Read. Watching them bickering around the dinner table is a marvel on both technical and acting levels. Despite limited screen time, Rapace imbues them with distinguishing characteristics that mean you can tell the players without a scorecard. Though, again, the third quarter gets rather murky in this area, especially when two versions start rolling around, brawling with each other.

Wirkola is best known for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a film which, like the Resident Evil series, performed much better overseas), and has a similarly stylish grasp of the action here. Though not all the seven sisters are action-oriented, some of them most definitely are. The highlights are a chase through the streets of the city, and a misguided attempt by the authorities to storm the apartment where the sisters are embedded. It does not go well. These sequences likely work rather better than the plot. As well as my doubts a subterfuge like this could be sustained for three decades, despite Settman’s undeniable commitment to it, I must confess I’m with Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), head of the Child Allocation Bureau. She points out the grandfather’s actions are thoroughly selfish: he feels that rules for the necessary good of all, should only apply to other people, not his descendants. The story likely also needs a better antagonist: someone against whom the Noomis can directly battle. Cayman is largely absent and operating at just too much of a distance to qualify.

There’s still more than enough here to appreciate, with a well-crafted dystopian world which seems not implausible – see China’s “one child policy,” for instance. But it’s really Rapace’s show, and the actress builds on the intensity shown in the Millennium Trilogy. She seems to have both a fondness and a talent for action: Noomi likely has as good a claim to being the current Queen of European Action Heroines as anyone.

Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Star: Noomi Rapace, Clara Read, Marwan Kenzari, Willem Dafoe

Wonder Woman

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“Slightly short of a wonder.”

I’m not an enormous fan of either the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes. Superhero films tend to bore me: the concept in general seems like lazy writing, and nor can I handle the subsequent contortions needed to generate a credible threat e.g. Kryptonite. The Dark Knight is the only film from either stable that I actually possess, mostly due to Heath Ledger’s incredible performance. The others I’ve seen, from Iron Man through to Suicide Squad, have been no better than popcorn pleasantries, without much to offer in the way of emotional heart. That’s the biggest improvement Wonder Woman offers: a heroine who, as personified by Gal Gadot, cares – indeed, perhaps too much. And through her passion, she makes the audience care.

There’s one scene which particularly demonstrates this. Diana (no-one ever calls her by the WW label here) has just arrived at the front in 1918 Belgium, and is experiencing the hell of modern war for the first time. She is horrified by the suffering of the civilians and refuses to accept the explanations of her partner, US Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) about why nothing can be done. She won’t accept it, and goes over the top on her own, leading by selfless example, to rescue people she’s never even seen. It’s true heroism, and the intensity of Gadot’s performance – with a nod to Pine for the set-up – gives it a wallop that in terms of sheer emotion, surpasses almost anything else delivered by Marvel or DC to date.

To reach that point, however, takes quite a lengthy set-up. We begin with the adorable young Diana, watching the other Amazons training on Themyscira, imitating their kicks and punches in a way a million 8-year-olds were likely doing on the way home from the cinema this weekend. Despite her mother’s wishes, Diana is trained and becomes the Amazons’ top warrior, just in time for Steve to show up, hotly pursued by the Germans. This is because he has stolen documentation of a rogue chemical warfare program, run by Doctor Isabel Maru and General Ludendorff (Huston). After helping fend off the Germans, at considerable cost, Diana agrees to go into the world at large, because she believes the Greek god of war, Ares, is behind the program. She’s not ready for the world. And nor is the world ready for Diana…

The positives here greatly outnumber the negatives, starting with the cast, who are almost universally spot-on. Gadot may not be muscular enough for some as an Amazon goddess, but I can honestly say, that was an issue which never crossed my mind during the (perhaps a little long) 141-min running time. Any possible shortcomings physically, are perfectly well-covered by the intensity and dedication of her performance. Pine, too, is excellent: he grounds the film, acting as the audience’s voice and offering up much the same comments as we would. There is romantic tension between Steve and Diana, yet it’s lightly enough handled not to interfere. The supporting cast…well, they provide solid support, led admirably by Etta Davis as Steve’s secretary. My main qualm might be Huston, who isn’t the supervillain every good superhero(ine) needs: he’s no Heath Ledger, put it that way. Dr. Maru might have made for a better antagonist, though the script has other intentions for her.

Technically, it’s good, rather than great. Jenkins does occasionally succumb to the fast-cut style of editing, and some of the green-screen work is frankly ropey. Witness the 8-year-old Diana falling off a cliff, for instance, which really does not look like comes from a $150 million film. The script is similar: the main twist it offers is one which I guessed almost immediately (if you’ve been watching a current TV show, you likely will too), though it didn’t damage my enjoyment too much. It is occasionally a little… well, smug? Is that the right word? I’m not sure, but that’s how exchanges about the war like this come off:
   Trevor: Maybe we’re all to blame.
   Diana: I’m not!
#WellActually… I’d say that being part of a group which hides in a literal bubble for two thousand years does not absolve one of all responsibility for the state of the world. To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good women to do nothing.” Anyway, this is me, cringing at the earnest obviousness of the above. Or obvious earnestness. That it stood out, however, indicates it was more a misstep than a consistent direction.

Good thing too. For I hate the way almost every major motion picture with an action heroine nowadays, seems to turn into World War One itself. From Fury Road through Ghostbusters to Rogue One, they become a battleground for gender trench warfare, with the camps lobbing verbal bombs at each other, and taking no prisoners. Look: if the goddamn movie is robust, it doesn’t matter whether you have a hero or a heroine, unless you make it matter. [That’s where George Miller was smart and Paul Feig wasn’t, perhaps reflecting the former’s superior confidence in his material – and he was justified there] Here, this is exactly what you would expect: the title is the movie. No kudos are deserved for it, nor any criticism. If you are somehow upset by the concept, stay away, and don’t whine about it. Nor is it the deeply life-changing experience some allege – or, at least, if your life is dramatically changed (by this or any other Hollywood product), I’d guess you have other issues. Or possibly, are aged eight.

I do wonder what the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston would have thought, seeing his bondage-heavy heroine turned into a glossy major movie. Especially since history is littered with not-very-good comic adaptations featuring female leads: Brenda Starr; Sheena; Supergirl; Tank Girl; Catwoman; Elektra; Painkiller Jane. To tell the truth, I think I was personally more relieved than anything, that this did not exhibit a similar degree of suckage. It was a very, very high profile effort, and failure, commercially and/or critically, would have had a severely dampening impact on any similar future productions. This doesn’t appear to have happened, and its success will hopefully open the door for more top of the line action heroines – some of which could end up being even better. Meanwhile, we’re bracing ourselves for the tidal-wave of little Diana Princes which will swamp our doorstep on Halloween.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Star: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis

Weekend Warriors, by Fern Michaels

Literary rating: starstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2
“Poorly written, crypto-fascist vigilante wish-fulfillment.”

I think it’s the “poorly written” aspect which I find most offensive. For I’m entirely down for some good ol’ entertainment in the form of justified violence, from Dirty Harry through Ms. 45 to Starship Troopers. But this… Oh, dear. The most stunning thing was discovering that this was the first in a series of twenty-seven novels in the “Sisterhood” series. Twenty-seven. I guess this proves there’s a market for this kind of thing, though I am completely at a loss as to who it might be. It certainly isn’t me.

The concept of the Sisterhood is a group of women, who have all suffered some kind of unpunished misfortune, and have been brought together to enjoy the vengeance which they have been denied by the official system. The ringleader is Myra Rutledge, who conveniently for the series is an extremely wealthy woman. She lost her daughter Barbara in an accident caused by a driver with diplomatic immunity, which inspired her into acction. Assisting is Nikki Quinn, her late daughter’s best friend, now adopted by Myra, who is a defense attorney; and a suave, British former MI-6 agent Charles Martin, who can apparently pull anything needed by the plot out of his suave, British arse.

There are various other characters, but they’re so poorly drawn as to be little more than ciphers, ranging from a securities broker, to a token Oriental, Yoko, who runs a flower shop (and it appears, turns out in later books to be great at martial arts. What are the odds?). The only one worthy of note is the wronged woman in this opening installment, is Kathryn Lucas, a truck driver who was brutally raped by three members of an upscale motorcycle gang, while her disabled husband (now deceased) was forced to watch. She didn’t bother to notify the authorities, for some unconvincing reason, and now the statute of limitations has expired. Naturally, They Still Must Pay – in this particular volume, with their testicles.

No, seriously. The convoluted plan hatched by Myra, Nikki and Charles involves some kind of contest involving the prize of a motorcycle, which will let them kidnap the culprits, castrate them in the back of a 16-wheeler converted into an impromptu operating room, and then dump them off with their now-separated family jewels. There is absolutely no part of this which is interesting, plausible or packs any kind of charge. You’d expect, or at least hope, that there would be some kind of dramatic arc here, but even Kathryn appears to achieve about as much closure from the retribution as would be gained by a trip to the supermarket. About the only plus is the lack of any real romantic subtext, though even here, I sense Nikki will be the source of much sexual tension down the road, with her district attorney ex-boyfriend, Jack.

I guess you could call it inspirational, in the sense that if this is the kind of rubbish which can lead to a 27-volume book deal, I’m inspired to take the same concept and knock up a bestseller over the course of this weekend. But otherwise, this is feeble nonsense – likely reaching its worst with the section where someone explains to Yoko, how to drive a manual transmission car. I should have given up at that point, and saved myself from further punishment.

Author: Fern Michaels
Publisher: Zebra, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

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

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

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“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom

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“Pretty, vacant.”

Based on the same novel which previously inspired The Bride With White Hair, this is a lovely-looking, but entirely empty production. The hero is Zhuo Yihang  (Huang), one of the top members of a martial-arts clan, who is instructed to deliver some red pills to the reigning emperor. When the monarch keels over shortly thereafter, Zhuo gets the blame. However, he’s able to team up with Jade (Fan) and her sister Coral (Shera Lee), who run a rebel outpost buried deep in the heart of the titular mountain, forming an utterly impregnable fortress. Zhuo and Jade, naturally, fall in love – at least, until he gets word that she was responsible for the murder of his grandfather, a local governor. However, we already know she’s innocent of that crime too, part of the myriad of political shenanigans which are swirling around our love-struck couple.

whitehairedIt’s clear the aim here is some kind of sweeping epic. Unfortunately, the emotion more likely to be generated is “confused apathy.” Perhaps it makes more sense if you’re intimately informed on 17th-century Chinese politics. That’s unlikely to be the case for many Western eyes, although there’s no denying the lush nature of the visuals to be found here. Having Tsui Hark on board as a consultant has likely helped that aspect, because the film looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s a large box of gooey, top-shelf chocolate for the eyeballs. The problem is, it also has about as much nutritional content for the heart. Who are these people? Why should we care? Cheung appears to have forgotten this, very basic, aspect of storytelling, and what’s left is as about as soulless as any entry in the Transformers franchise.

Fan looks the part, make no mistake, and there are occasional moments, such as her hair changing shade [you’ll spend the first half wondering who the heck the titular witch is, since Jade’s hair is pitch-black], where the visual effects are used for the advancement of the story, not just for whizz-bang effect. It’s the exception instead of the rule, and before long, you’ll be back to wondering who half these people are, and why they are so upset with each other. This climaxes with the film ending in a way that is not so much satisfying, as entirely baffling. As it does so, a song from the earlier Bride With White Hair is played. Presumably, the aim was as a nod to the predecessor; the effect is actually to remind you of the ways in which the earlier film was superior.

One of the major McGuffins here is a magic “Scroll of Apathy,” giving its master incredible powers, albeit at terrible cost. That’s ironically appropriate, since most viewers will also be feeling pretty damn apathetic by the time the credits roll. Guess it proves the scroll worked. I await the arrival of my powers. Any day now, I’m sure.

Dir: Jacob Cheung
Star: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Zhao, Wang Xuebing

Woman Avenger

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“A simple tale of vengeance, vigorously told.”

womanavengerThis appears to have been virtually the sole starring role for leading lady Shen, and that’s a shame. While, unfortunately, the only way you can see this is a badly cropped, English language version, her martial arts talents are undeniable. Chris caught the last 15 minutes on her lunch-break, and once she saw the skills on display, went from mocking the dubbing to yelling “Kick him in the balls!” at the TV. Repeatedly.

She plays Lu Ling Chi, who is delivering goods with her husband in the countryside when they’re attacked by a band of robbers. He is killed; she raped and left for dead. She’s rescued by a conveniently passing Buddhist priestess (Tai), who nurses our heroine back to health and, after some doubts as to the nature of her mission, teaches her kung-fu. Three years of training later, Lu goes undercover to infiltrate the gang, in the process, setting a new record for “least convincing male impersonator”, even by the low standards of martial arts films. She works her way up the chain, yet still lacks the skills necessary to best their leader, Kwong Wu Chi (Peng). However, she meets a woman (Yeung, I believe, though she’s not in the IMDb listing), crippled by Kwong and reduced to working as a prostitute. Her father used to be Kwong’s kung-fu master, and she offers to give Lu that techniques which will take him down.

The stuff between the fights is mostly blandly inoffensive, following the standard tropes of the genre, such as training montages, while Lu perfects her skills, under both her teachers. Though it is certainly unusual that both those are martial arts mistresses, rather than masters, making this an almost literal war of the sexes. But the presentation, in particularly the ludicrously inappropriate dubbing, reduces the film to something you might find at 3am in the morning on the El Rey network. [It’s not all the dubbing: Kwong’s blond wig doesn’t exactly encourage solemnity] Similarly, the reduction of the frame to a strict 4:3 ratio does the abilities of the stars absolutely no service at all.

It still isn’t enough to conceal the expertise of the participants though, with even the training montages showcasing Shen’s extraordinary flexibility. There’s a genuine sense of progression over the course of the film, with Lu learning new techniques and building them into her arsenal. For example, she learns how to attack her enemy’s joints from the priestess, and that’s seen a lot against the lower minions. However, it proves ineffectual against Kwong, and she needs to adopt different tactics, radically different from her early bouts. This allows Shen to demonstrate a number of styles, and if some are better than others, the overall impact remains impressive. Below, find a sample of her skills: I love, in particular, the way she disarms the gym owner, then discards the weapons obtained! I have to wonder why she never received any further chances to shine as a lead; whatever the reason, it’s probably our loss.

Dir: Lee Tso Nam
Star: Shen Kwan Li, Peng Gang, Tai Chi-Hsia, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan

Warrior Women

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“If Xena was a history teacher.”

warriorwomenThis short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…

The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem.  The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?

That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.

Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless

The Woman Who Dared

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“Flight of fancy.”

womanwhodaredMade during World War II under the Vichy regime which controlled the South of France, it’s tempting to read the story as a metaphor for France’s struggle to be free. It begins with the Gauthier family having to relocate their family garage business, to make way for an airfield (strictly recreational, mind). This, along with a visit by famed aviatrix Lucienne Ivry (Vandène), rekindles a love of flight Pierre (Vanel) has had since his days as a mechanic in World War I. At first, his wife Thérèse (Renaud) is dubious, but after she experiences the joy of soaring through the air, her passion soon exceeds his. She flies, he mechanics, and they prepare a bid, out of their garage, to set a record for long-distance flying by a woman – even as Ivry prepares a much higher profile and better funded attempt on the same mark.

Oddly, it’s a film which reminded me most of two anime. Firstly, the work of Hayao Miyazaki, which has consistently demonstrated a love of flight – most obviously, Porco Rosso. Yet here, it’s odd that a film so much about aviation, is literally grounded. The only shots of planes in motion are taken from the earth, and Thérèse’s record-breaking flight is entirely off-screen. In this, it feels more like The Wings of Honneamise. This was a movie about an alternate-world race into space – yet it was a great deal more concerned about the human aspects than the actual end result. Similarly, this is as much about the love Thérèse and Pierre have for each other. It does come with a note of caution about how shared obsessions can cause tunnel-vision; they even sell their daughter’s beloved piano to fund their project.

Given the era, it’s remarkably forward-thinking. Lucienne and Thérèse are portrayed as easily the most competent aviators, with the men pottering around in their flying machines by comparison. Yet Thérèse is also the glue that holds the Gauthier family together; when she moves to the big city to take on management of a car dealership, their home life suffers considerably. I’d have liked to have seen a better case made for what the appeal of flying is; you’re left to deduce it second-hand, from the reactions of those who have experienced it. Regardless, the appealing central characters here help ensure the viewer is slowly drawn in to proceedings, through a low-key process of familiarity. There’s something particularly genuine about their relationship, and how they’re prepared to sacrifice so much for each other’s dreams. If you’re not holding your breath as Thérèse’s attempt unfolds into disconcerting silence, and even Pierre’s steadfast confidence begins to waver, you’ve clearly not noticed the ominous and foreboding processions of orphans through the town’s streets…

Dir: Jean Grémillon
Star: Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Raymonde Vernay, Anne Vandène
a.k.a. Le ciel est à vous (The Sky is Yours)

Women on the Run

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“Letting the Cat III out of the bag.”

womenChinese teenage martial-arts champ Li Siu-Yin (Guo) is seduced into a life of prostitution by her boyfriend, but eventually snaps and kills him. She escapes to Hong Kong, only to be arrested there, and given a stark choice: help ensnare crime boss King Kong (Kim) or be deported back to China. Unwillingly, she takes the former and goes back over the border with undercover cop Hung (Cheung), who is also having an affair with colleague David (Lai). However, it turns out that David is in cahoots with King Kong, and the pair end up in Canada and in jail. It’s a long way back from there, before the two can take their revenge on the men who betrayed them.

It appears my memories of this were conflated with another “Cat III” (the Hong Kong adults-only film classification) kung-fu film, the considerably more sleazy Escape From Brothel. Aside from some nekkid kung-fu and a couple of scenes of sexual violence, this is mostly mainstream. And it’s kinda hard to take the gang-rape sequence seriously when the perpetrators are set up as being Really Bad People by punting a clearly stuffed dog, as they make their way into the warehouse where our heroines are hiding out. Elements like these deflate entirely apparently serious attempts at drama; see also a flashback to an apparently kinder, gentler era of airport security when you could not just take your stun-gun onto a plane, you could apply it to other passengers without anyone rushing you with a drinks trolley. Ah, those were the days, eh? There are also bad subtitles which translate the line “smoke some weed” in English as, “get some sweet meat,” and a really nasty portrayal of Canadian law-enforcement, that left me wondering if the directors got a traffic ticket in Vancouver or something.

Fortunately, salvaging proceedings are some decent to solid action, as you’d expect from Yuen, who has a long track record of such things. Both Guo and Cheung are more than credible; the former, in particular, to an extent where it’s a surprise that she never appeared in anything of significance again. As a villain, Kim lets his feet in particular do his talking, and he makes for a formidable opponent, particularly at the end. There are a number of solid sequences before that, that let both leads show their skills – though I could perhaps have done without the comedic drug addiction, Liu doing her best kung-fu after a little H. I guess it’s a variant on Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master? All told, this is more or less your typical Cat III film, containing both the good and bad the classification implies. Action, exploitation, comedy, brutality and nonsensical aspects all rub shoulders, with the end product being… Well, while I could point out any number of other flaws, let’s accentuate the positive instead, and just say. this is certainly never dull.

Dir: David Lai and Corey Yuen
Star: Tamara Guo, Farini Cheung, David Lai, Kim Won-Jin