Guangdong Heroine

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“A heroine has no name.”

This is something of an obscurity. It’s available on YouTube, which is where I saw it, but I was unable to find an IMDb entry for it, or any other information beyond what is present at the source. It’s hard even to tell when it was made, because it’s a period piece, set (I’m going to presume) during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930’s. We first meet the heroine (Yu) – who is never referred to as anything except “Guangdong Heroine” – as a schoolgirl, when her and a friend are attacked and raped by foreign soldiers. Unable to cope with the shame, her friend throws herself off the cliff, just before Ms. Heroine is rescued by the timely arrival of a group of rebels. She joins them, and rises up through the ranks, eventually taking over when their leader passes away, naming her as successor.

She becomes a leader of the resistance, famed throughout the province to the extent that various copycats take her name, while carrying out attacks on the occupying forces. But she has issues of her own, worrying that she is not feminine enough to attract the co-rebel for whom she has affection, the equally clunkily-named Tiger Four (Wei). The two eventually begin a relationship, but juggling romance and duty proves problematic. Things come to a head when a group of her soldiers rape a Japanese woman they took captive: Heroine has a zero-tolerance policy for such things and the perpetrators are sentenced to death. Which is awkward, since it eventually turns out that Tiger endorsed their actions. Justice therefore demands that he, too, suffer the same penalty. Will romance trump fairness?

It’s a solidly-made item, though rather confusing. Heroine may have a sister who moonlights as a prostitute. She may also have another sister who is the daughter of a Japanese commanding officer. Or the film’s subtitles may simply be using “sister” in its meaning of Communist camaraderie, it’s hard to tell. The movie needs to be much clearer: it is certainly capable of this, such as when Heroine has her future told by a street fortune-teller. None of the vague “You will go on a journey and meet interesting people” nonsense here. He tells her: “The gap between your eyebrows shows death… In no more than half a month, you will be executed,” adding in a not very reassuring way, “Please don’t take offense. This is predetermined.” Chinese street fortune tellers clearly do not mess about.

Overall though, this is not bad, with some surprisingly epic battle scenes (I’m not sure the American Humane Society would agree, because some of the horse-falls look a little tough; there’s another scene early on which is also not going to impress PETA), and Yu has a steely determination about her that’s appealing. On the other hand, I would likely have been more interested in how she rises from violated schoolgirl, to become the heir apparent of a rebel clan, rather than what she does after she gets there.

Dir: Bai De-Zhang and Xu Xun-Xing
Star: Yu Lan, Lau Wei, Bai De-Zhang, Lisa Lu

The Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. series

The late seventies was something of a golden era for exploitation, but few films have sustained their notoriety as well as the Ilsa series. Even more than forty years after the release of the first film starring Dyanne Thorne, there’s still something repellent and uncomfortable about the whole concept. Which is, of course, part of its transgressive appeal. Safe to say that the four films, made between 1975 and 1977 represent perhaps the most politically incorrect franchise ever to receive a theatrical release. Join with us, why don’t you, as we explore the mad, sick and twisted world of Ilsa, beginning with what still remains today, one of the most notorious grindhouse films ever made.


Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.
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I used to have an Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS T-shirt, but only ever dared wear it once in public – the looks of hate it provoked were simply too much to bear, though I don’t exactly kowtow to moral pressure or political correctness easily. And when I bought the DVD in the Hollywood Virgin Megastore, a complete stranger standing next to me commented to the effect that this wasn’t the sort of thing we needed to see getting re-released. Such is the power of Ilsa.

Hence, I write with trepidation: even in the sordid yet enchanting world of exploitation cinema, She-Wolf is notorious. Three decades after being made, it remains unreleased – and possibly unreleasable – in the United Kingdom, and in our house, the DVD sat on the shelf for two years, since I feared Chris would instantly leave me if we watched it. And she is no shrinking violet, but a woman who (to my ultimate delight) regards an uncut DVD of The Story of Ricky as a fine birthday present. Luckily, Chris is right beside me as I type this, and I get to produce this article as a married, rather than divorced man.

I should point out, before the inevitable accusations come in, that the mark awarded to the film is scored on a radically different scale from “normal” movies. I don’t recommend this movie unless you possess a very black sense of humour, are immune to being offended by fictional material, have carefully stowed all children and maiden aunts, and switched off all moral qualms.

Even so, the question must still be asked, is a Nazi camp a suitable setting for any piece of entertainment? No, probably not. But tell that to the producers of Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy set in a similar location. [Indeed, She-Wolf was filmed on Hogan’s sets, and the private life of star Bob Crane, was no less sordid than most exploitation films – as shown in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, which would make a fine double-bill with She-Wolf]. Or perhaps Schindler’s List, which in my opinion is more guilty of exploiting the Holocaust (interestingly, She-Wolf never mentions the J-word – it’s just a natural reaction these days to equate Nazi camps with Jews).

If I may digress for a moment, I find List a truly cynical work: Steven Spielberg performs his usual adept emotional manipulation, but what purpose is served? Like all docudramas, it alters the facts, and no Aryan Nation adherent will sit through a three-hour plus, black and white film for “educational” reasons. It seems more like a cynical, and successful, attempt to win Spielberg an Academy Award. Ask yourself an awkward question: would it have won seven Oscars if it had been about gypsies?

Like Schindler, the cinematic Ilsa was based on a real character. Ilsa Koch was the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” whose practices perhaps surpassed those in the movie, including the stripping and curing of human skin – particularly from tattoed inmates – for her collection of lampshades, gloves, etc. Unlike her fictional counterpart, she survived the war, being sentenced to live in prison, but sadly, didn’t live to see a twisted depiction of her life, committing suicide in 1967.

At least She-Wolf is upfront about its exploitational nature, despite an opening title which reads, in part, “We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.” This is such an implausible claim, you can’t even begin to take it seriously, especially when the next scene shows Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) writhing atop one of the camp’s inmates. We don’t initially ‘know’ it’s her (though I doubt anyone is fooled!), until she returns, dressed as the commandant of Medical Camp 9.

It’s not long before her true persona is revealed, as she castrates her lover, fulfilling in a twisted way her promise that he wouldn’t return to the camp. The arrival at camp of a new batch of inmates allows the depiction of a whole new range of potential tortures, even if there is a surprising amount of plot going on too:

  • Ilsa’s attempts to prove women are better than men at handling pain…
  • Her growing infatuation with American prisoner Wolfe (Gregory Knoph)…
  • The prisoners’ plans to revolt…
  • The imminent arrival of a General on a tour of inspection…
  • The equally imminent arrival of Allied forces.

Though, being honest, these are secondary to the depiction of a huge range of sadistic and/or fetishistic practices. Floggings, electric dildos, decompression, surgery, golden showers, bondage – it’s all here, as well as good old-fashioned sexuality, making this truly a film with something for everyone. This is part of what makes for such uncomfortable viewing, it mixes the repellent and the fascinating unlike any other movie ever made – the closest I can think of would be Pasolini’s Salo, but that is Art, and consequently extremely tedious. That’s something you can certainly not say about Ilsa, where every few minutes brings some new unpleasantness to contemplate.

The “fascinating” would be Dyanne Thorne, whose portrayal is spot on, and without which the film would be no more than a parade of atrocities. She was already in her 40’s when it was made, and it’s rare, even nowadays, for a female character of that age to be shown with such unfettered sexuality. Admittedly, Thorne’s German accent is awful (she can’t even pronounce “Reich” correctly), but it’s a captivating and iconic performance of charisma and amorality.

It’s difficult to criticize the rest of the participants, since an awful lot of them seem to have suspiciously short filmographies, and I suspect pseudonyms were being used e.g. writer “Jonah Royston”, lead actor “Gregory Knoph” and, of course, producer “Herman Traeger” was in reality Dave Friedman, who worked with Herschell Gordon Lewis on the likes of Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs. The only notable name, save an uncredited Uschi Digard, is Maria Marx, playing Anna, the prisoner whom even Ilsa cannot break – ironically Marx’s parents left Germany as refugees from Hitler. She was married to Melvin Van Peebles and is Mario’s mother.

Technically, it’s several steps better than you might think; there’s nothing complex or innovative, admittedly, but simply being coherent and in-focus puts it several levels above many video nasties, most of which are lamentably inept. Joe Blasco’s make-up effects hit the mark with disturbing frequency, though perhaps the most memorable moments are those which go beyond simple gore. For example, the dinner party entertainment, consisting of a naked woman suspended by piano wire, with her only support a steadily melting block of ice. This kind of stuff is simply wrong, yet I’ve little doubt worse things went on. [But for the most stomach-churning WW2 atrocity film, see Men Behind the Sun, covering the Japanese occupation of China and their human experiments]

While Ilsa wasn’t the first “video Nazi” (Love Camp 7 in 1967 predates it), it is certainly the most infamous, and is perhaps exploitation cinema in its most elemental form, going places where ordinary films would never dare to tread. Others among the most notorious films of the 1970’s have now been accepted into society (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, now gets shown on British network TV), Ilsa still remains a pariah. If you have any interest in “polite society”, merely having the film on your shelf is an act of some courage – though any acknowledgement of its power and qualities, as here, does perhaps count as reckless. :-)

Ilsa is the antithesis of the word “heroine”, yet is undeniably a strong, independent female character (albeit one which proves that such traits are not necessarily a good thing), and on that ground alone, deserves recognition. There’s something almost rabidly feminist about her assertions of the superiority of women, and she is certainly a candidate for the most warped, despicable, relentlessly evil female character in cinema history. At the very least, the films remind us of the fragility of history: had things been only a little different, we could be living in a society where Ilsa was the heroine…

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star
: Dyanne Thorne, Gregory Knoph, Tony Mumolo, Maria Marx

[I acknowledge the invaluable contribution of The Ilsa Chronicles, by Darren Venticinque and Tristan Thompson, published by Midnight Media, without which this article would be very plain in appearance!]

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
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haremThe success – or notoriety – of She-Wolf inevitably led to a sequel. riding roughshod over trivial issues like Ilsa having been killed at the end. Nor does anyone pay the slightest heed to thirty years having passed since the end of World War II, without her having apparently aged a day. That’s exploitation, folks! For this takes place in the modern era, with the Middle East replacing Germany, as the title suggests. Ilsa is now the right-hand woman of El Sharif (Alexander, a pseudonym for Jerry Delony), whose duties mostly involve keeping him supplied with a steady supply of more or less pliable Western woman for his sexual needs. Some discretion becomes necessary, due to the arrival of American businessman and thinly-disguised Dr. Kissinger lookalike, Dr. Kaiser (Roehm, a pseudonym for Richard Kennedy) and his “aide” Adam Scott (Thayer, a pseudonym – as in the original, you’ll be detecting a theme here – for Max Thayer), who is actually a CIA agent. Bedding Ilsa, he turns her against El Sharif, and when she is punished for her disloyalty, she switches sides entirely, supporting the nephew and assisting in a palace coup aimed at overthrowing her former employer.

If not quite in as spectacularly poor taste as the original, it certainly isn’t going to be mistaken for a Disney movie, with exploding IUDs, forced plastic surgery, burning alive, any amount of more mundane tortures and soft(ish)-core sex, plus copious amounts of gratuitous nudity from just about every female in the cast. Those include the return of Russ Meyer favourite Uschi Digard, who gets a larger role than in the first film, and also Haji from Faster Pussycat, who plays an undercover asset for Scott, whose mission is discovered by Ilsa. Having a tape-recorder that looks about the size of a briefcase was probably, in hindsight, a bad move… Outside of Ilsa, however, the two most memorable are Ilsa’s sidekicks, Satin and Velvet (Tanya Boyd and Marilyn Joy – the latter would play Cleopatra Schwarz in The Kentucky Fried Movie the following year), who appear inspired by Bambi and Thumper in Diamonds are Forever. They kick ass, not least while topless and oiled, ripping off the testicles of one delinquent soldier with their bare hands, so he can be added to Ilsa’s stable of eunuchs. That’s an incentive policy I hope my workplace doesn’t adopt.

It’s significantly slicker than She-Wolf, with considerably better production values, but that isn’t unequivocally a good thing for the grindhouse genre, since it’s the rough edges which tend to make for the most memorable entries. You get the sense here the makers were more self-consciously going for the shock and outrage, rather than them stemming organically from the setting, and their deliberate nature makes them less effective. I was also disappointed in how Ilsa suddenly switched into acting like a love-struck schoolgirl at the drop of one good bedding at the hands (or whatever) of Adam: that isn’t the villainess for which I signed up. Still, it is kinda nice to reach the end and not feel that you need a shower, with the camp elements here helping to lighten the tone, and providing a welcome reminder than none of this should be taken in the slightest bit seriously.

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michael Thayer, Victor Alexander, Wolfgang Roehm

Ilsa, the Wicked Warden
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wardenDirector Jess Franco has something of a cult following, which I never understood. Sure, there are worse directors out there, but there aren’t many duller ones. I had the misfortune to watch two of his films this week: the other was his Count Dracula, and managed to be coma-inducingly tedious, despite haviing Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, two actors I would watch recite the telephone directory. This “bootleg Ilsa” entry is perhaps even worse. It wasn’t originally intended as part of the series – a big giveaway is that Dyanne Thorne’s character isn’t even blonde – but at some point ended up re-titled and redubbed to turn the originally-named “Greta” into “Ilsa”. To avoid any additional confusion, the latter is how I’ll refer to her.

It’s certainly not far from the other entries in tone or content. Ilsa (Thorne) runs a lunatic asylum, Las Palomas Clinic, in the South American jungle, that specializes in young women with sexual issues such as nymphomania or lesbianism (in other words, the photogenic ones!). When one escapes, making it to the house of Dr. Arcos (Franco) before being recaptured and vanishing, the good doctor raises concerns. He’s approached by her sister, Abby Phillips (Bussellier), and agrees to have  her committed to the asylum under an assumed name, so she can find out what’s going on. Turns out the place is also being used as a black site for political dissidents, with Ilsa also running a side-line of pornographic films starring the inmates. Discovering this will require Abby to get through not just Ilsa, but also Juana (Romay), the top dog at the facility, who abuses her position ever bit as much.

This is mind numbingly dull, with a capital D, despite an almost constant parade of female nudity – the clinic appears to suffer from a shocking lack of underwear. While the other entries in the series are fairly equal-opportunity in their viciousness, with both sexes falling foul of Ilsa’s sadism, this frequently descends into fully-fledged misogyny – even if the perpetrators are often women too. If you make it all the way through, you’ll likely need a shower, though it’s more probably your interest will have made an exit before that becomes necessary. It doesn’t even have the grace to focus on Ilsa, with Abby being the central character for much of it. About the only section likely to stick in your mind is the very end – again, if you haven’t found anything better to do – where Franco suddenly decides he’s making the world’s first cannibal women-in-prison film.

Not helped by a dub that appears to be English as a second language, containing made-up words such as “provocate,” this solidifies Franco’s position as among the least talented directors in cinema history. Despite having already helmed over 80 movies by this point in his career, there’s no indication he had learned anything from the experience, delivering a feature-film which all but entirely squanders its main asset, Thorne’s charisma. Nice though it would be to claim the political angle was subtle satire regarding life in post-Franco Spain, that would seem a real stretch. If I never have to sit through two of his movies in the same week again, it will be too soon.

Dir: Jess Franco
Star: Tania Busselier, Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay, Jess Franco
a.k.a. Greta: Haus Ohne Männer; Greta, the Mad Butcher; Ilsa: Absolute Power; Wanda, the Wicked Warden

Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia
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tigressIf the second film showcased Ilsa’s apparently miraculous immortality, the fourth and final is even more implausible, taking place both in 1953 Soviet Russia, and 1977 Montreal, with Thorne looking more or less identical in both, save for a change in hairstyle. It begins in a gulag, where Ilsa has found a new use for her sadistic talents overseeing a Siberian prison, the Soviets presumably being willing to overlook that whole pesky “Nazi war criminal” thing. There, she has clearly not mellowed, spearing an escaped prisoner, and ensuring he’s dead by having his head smashed with an enormous mallet. Oh, and the name “Tigress” isn’t just a sobriquet, given she keeps one of them in a pit. The new arrivals include political dissident Andrei Chikurin, (Morin), whom she vows to break, and the son of a Politburo member, imprisoned for drunken hooliganism. When the regime in Moscow changes after Stalin’s death, Ilsa swiftly packs up shop: as with her Nazi camp, the aim is to dispose of all the prisoners and leave no witnesses, but Chikurin survives.

24 years later, he’s part of a hockey team playing games in Canada, and goes to a whorehouse with some team-mates, completely unaware that it’s run by Ilsa, who now has a new line in mind-control technology, which she uses both on her hookers and rival gangsters, to cement her position. She’s startled to see him and, concerned he’s out for revenge, kidnaps Chikurin. However, that backfires, as it brings her back to the attention of the Soviets – not least the Politburo members who still holds a grudge against her for the death of her son, and who sets the local office of the KGB on her tail. Which makes this an extremely rare case of a North American movie from the time where the KGB are not the bad guys. It’s also worth noting that even the mind-control aspects are not that far-fetched, since the CIA’s infamous Project MKUltra had a Montreal outpost from 1957 to 1964 at McGill University, information revealed a couple of years prior to Tigress‘s 1977 release.

The first half does ramp up the violence at the cost of the sex, mostly because Ilsa is close to being the only woman in the gulag. But the second half flips that around, as we get into the prostitution ring, and to be honest, given the amount of time devoted to them, the film would be more accurately titled Ilsa, Madam of Montreal. And that’s a bit of a shame, because it’s probably the stuff in the frozen wastes of Siberia that are more interesting than a prosaic and forgettable crime story, which is what the second half collapses into. Even Ilsa seems to be a kinder, gentler model; I can only blame Canada for this disappointing softness. There is some ironic appropriateness to the ending, which sees Ilsa stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, burning her money to try and stay warm. Though compared to the fate which befell many of those who cross their path, this is certainly weak sauce as well. It’s a shame they did not apparently proceed with an entire film based in Siberia, as what results instead is little more than half a true Ilsa film.

Dir: Jean LaFleur
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michel Morin, Tony Angelo, Terry Coady

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

First Squad

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“The first Russian anime mockumentary, I presume.”

firstsquadA strong concept here. Indeed, perhaps too strong for a feature which runs not much over an hour, credits to credits. It’s set in 1942 Russian, when Soviet forces are struggling to beat back the Nazi invasion. Behind the mundane warfare is a supernatural struggle, with both sides using occult methods to their advantage. The German Ahnenerbe group [which was a real thing] seek to revive the spirit of Baron von Wolff, a knight from the Middle Ages and his ghost army, while Section Six of Russian intelligence, put together a team of psychics as a counter-measure. The Soviet squad is wiped out, safe for 14-year-old Nadya (Chebaturkina), but the Russians have created a machine which allows her to enter the afterlife, and contact her late colleagues. With a battle looming which both sides know will be a “moment of truth” – a tipping point in history – the lines are drawn for a confrontation in both the real and paranormal fields of conflict.

Animated in Japan, but with a Russian cast and crew, the film also includes live-action interviews with “historians” and “veterans” designed to give the impression this is based on actual events, beginning with historically plausible stories and gradually moving into the occult. It’s an interesting idea, though some viewers may find these interludes take them out of the story, and you wonder if the time would have been better spent progressing things – some elements just end without resolution, such as the Nazi twins sent to assassinate Nadya. It feels almost like a pilot for a series, doing a good job of building characters or setting, and pointing the way forward; it’s better at asking  questions than answering them, as part of a complete story. The final fight between Nadya and the Baron is disappointingly short, despite the heroine’s apparent skill with a sword, though I did appreciate her colleague Zena’s enthusiastic use of a flame-thrower.

It’s a rich universe, with potential that is undeniable, and its share of effective sequences, such as when Nadya is being pursued through the streets of Moscow by the Nazi twins, or skeletal “zombie knights,” riding into battle, in a way which reminded me of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies. On the other hand, the apparently unfinished nature of the storyline is a shame, with an excess of loose ends and ideas that are set-up and never executed. After seven years, I think the chances are sadly slim of ever getting a sequel that will address this problem, and what you’re left with is a somewhat frustrating exercise in impressive imagination. The entire film has been made available by the distributor on YouTube, if you are interested in seeing more, after watching the trailer below.

Dir: Yoshiharu Ashino
Star (voice): Elena Chebaturkina, Michael Tikhonov, Ludmila Shuvalova, Damir Eldarov

A Marine Story

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“Topples over from worthy into over-earnest.”

marineLet me start with the Amazon synopsis, since this explains what it’s doing here: “Dreya Weber stars as Alex, a decorated Marine officer who is unexpectedly discharged from her wartime duty. Returning to her conservative home town she agrees to coach and counsel the precocious teen rebel Saffron (Paris Pickard). Alex is the no-nonsense role model and authority figure that Saffron needs, and in true Karate Kid style she inspires the young woman s transition from slacker to boot camp-ready Marine recruit. But as Saffron is finally finding the strength to grow up, Alex must find new courage to face her own demons.” While not technically incorrect in any detail, it’s probably significant that it makes absolutely no mention of a very significant plot element, which impacts just about all other aspects of the story. Alex was kicked out of the Marines for being a lesbian.

While knowing that likely would not have impacted my selection of the film, I would have to say the heavy emphasis placed on it likely did detract from my enjoyment. Not, I should stress, for the gay angle. The issue would be exactly the same if the lead character had been heterosexual, and defined to an equal degree by her relationships, because that’s the kind of thing I expect from a soap-opera character, rather than an action heroine. It’s clear the topic of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a subject about which both director and star felt passionately, and it’s perhaps unfortunate (for the film, rather than those affected by it!) the policy was revoked by the US government shortly after the movie’s release, rendering it a lot of well-intentioned hand-wringing about not much, from a 2016 perspective.

The rest of this isn’t bad, although the ease with which Saffron is turned around by Alex is remarkable, suggesting that a stint in boot camp is just the cure all America’s disaffected youth requires. The synopsis does nail this as in “True Karate Kid style”, being roughly as plausible. But I do have to say, Weber completely nails the Marine thing, both in well-muscled physical appearance – and, perhaps more importantly, the attitude of quiet, coiled energy and absolutely confidence in her own abilities. Yet there’s also a streak of aggression, and some which is perfect for a soldier, yet less compatible with civilian life, and causes no shortage of issues, especially when combined with Alex’s tendency to react first. There’s likely enough meat there for a story, without having to add the sexual politics angle which, as noted above, has not dated particularly well, and to be honest, becomes moral overkill before the final credits roll – complete with another nugget of social justice. No, the topic isn’t the problem here: it’s the heavy-handed treatment.

Dir: Ned Farr
Star: Dreya Weber, Paris P. Pickard, Christine Mourad, Anthony Michael Jones

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Bochkareva and the Women’s Battalions of Death

wb01We’ve previously written about the Soviet Union’s wholehearted embrace of women soldiers in World War II, but it was not the first time Russia had gone to the female well in defense of their nation. Almost a century ago, while the country was going through a turbulent transition out of Tsarism, combat battalions consisting entirely of women were formed, to fight against Germany in the latter stages of the Great War. At a time when women were not quite yet able to vote in Russia – suffrage would come there, later in 1917 – this was still more advanced in terms of equality on the battlefield, than the United States is currently.

The purpose of the units was initially for morale purposes. The long grind of the trench-warfare which characterized World War I on the Western front is well-known, but the situation was no different in the East, where the Germans and Russians were locked in a lethal stalemate of artillery bombardments, poison gas attacks and futile assaults which gained trivial amounts of territory at horrendous cost. As the government collapsed, the Tsar abdicating in March 1917, army morale went with it. Soldiers no longer answered to their officers, and spent more time fraternizing with the enemy than fighting them. However, many volunteers still wanted to defend their homeland, and these were organized into groups, in the hope of energizing and/or shaming the regular forces into picking up their arms again.

These volunteers were not just male. On the women’s side, the front runner was Maria Bochkareva, who had already been a trail-blazer in the field of female combat. At the outbreak of the war, she had obtained the personal authorization of the Tsar to join the regular army, and served almost three years there, being both wounded and decorated on multiple occasions. However, growing disenchanted with the collapse in discipline, she quit the army, but shortly after requested permission to organize a group of women. Speaking to the Russian Parliament, she said: “You heard of what I have gone through and what I have done as a soldier. Now, how would it do to organize women like me to serve as an example to the army and lead the men into battle?”

wb04There were 2,000 volunteers initially, but Bochkareva’s strict approach to discipline winnowed out 85% of these. Part of her disenchantment with the regular military was that it was now largely run by “soldier’s committees”, with discipline severely restricted, and even mutineers could no longer be executed. She insisted that her battalion had to be committee-free, run on old-school lines, and this caused conflict, both with the military hierarchy and many of her recruits. But she persevered: the women who stayed were shorn of all their feminine fripperies (as shown in the contemporary photos) and given intensive instruction under male trainers and support staff. A month later, led by Bochkareva, the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death were sent to the front, and took part in the Kerensky offensive.

The women saw action near the town of Smarhon, and accounts indicate they performed well, along with the other “shock troops”, and Russian forces initially were able to gain ground. However, the regular army barely showed up, and the Germans regrouped, taking back the territory and then some. This failure marked the last significant Russian action of the war. Bochkareva was injured once more, and sent back to recuperate. However, if her acts had minimal impact on the soldiers they were intended to inspire, they did help create as many as fifteen other women’s battalions, some evolving from existing units. Most of these did not see the war, but in October, the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion did join regular Cossack troops in the defense of the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. Though history records, that didn’t end well either.

It was likely a concept too far ahead of its time, and as Russia descended into anarchy and chaos, the struggle to keep the battalions supplied and organized proved an unequal one. For a while, they served in auxiliary roles behind the front lines, but the death knell came on November 30, 1917 when the new Bolshevik government officially dissolved the units. Those who had been members were free to go, but a number stayed in action, fighting on both sides during the looming Russian Civil War. That included Bochkareva. While holding no great love for the Tsar, she was thoroughly unimpressed with the Communist regime, and toured America and the United Kingdom in 1918 soliciting support against them. On her return to Russia, she tried to organize a further women’s unit as part of the White Army, but was captured by the Bolsheviks, and executed by firing squad in May 1920, at the age of thirty.

Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier

“Woman is naturally light-hearted. But if she can purge herself for sacrifice, then through a caressing word, a loving heart and an example of heroism she can save the motherland. We are physically weak, but if we be strong morally and spiritually, we will accomplish more than a large force.”

wb02It’s likely Bochkareva would have fallen into the darkness of historical obscurity, a nine days’ wonder from late in the Great War, except for her trip to the West to rally support against the Bolsheviks. While here, she worked with Russian-born writer, Isaac Don Levine, on her autobiography, telling her story to him over 100 hours and three weeks of interviews, which he translated and transcribed. The resulting book is the source for virtually everything we know about her life to that point, though obviously skips its tragic conclusion, in front of a Communist firing-squad. As such, it largely has to be taken on faith, since there’s little or no corroborating evidence available. Occasionally, it does feel stretched, in a /r/thathappened way, with Bochkareva adored and feted to a suspicious degree. But there’s a lot here, too, which has the ring of authenticity – her depictions of the hell which was the trenches, for example, sounds very much like direct experience.

It takes a while to reach that, beginning with her early life as the daughter of a peasant family. Put to work while still only aged eight, she was married at 15, but her first husband was an abusive alcoholic, and she left him. Thereafter, she had jobs ranging from laundry to construction foreman, and allegedly had a narrow escape from a life of prostitution [looking at her pictures, I have to say, that… seems a bit unlikely?]. She also met Yakov Buk, with whom she began a common-law marriage, but he fell foul of the tsar’s secret police and was exiled to Siberia, Maria accompanying him there. After some more implausible adventures – one chapter is titled “Snared by a Libertine Governor”! – war broke out, and according to our heroine, “My heart yearned to be there, in the boiling caldron of war, to be baptized in its fire and scorched in its lava. The spirit of sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me. And an irresistible force from within pulled me.”

Returning to Tomsk, she applied to join the army – while turned down, she made such a good impression on the local commander that he drew up a telegram to the Tsar with his own recommendation. To the surprise of all, the Tsar authorized her enlistment, and this is where the story takes off, offering a glimpse into the front-lines from a very personal perspective. Initially, Bochkareva was eager to see battle: “Were we nervous? Undoubtedly. But it was not the nervousness of cowardice, rather was it the restlessness of young blood. Our hands were steady, our bayonets fixed. We exulted in our adventure.” Bochkareva was injured and also, briefly, captured by Germans, but fought free, according to her account:

We threw ourselves, five hundred strong, at our captors, wrested many of their rifles and bayonets and engaged in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat, just as our men rushed through the torn wire entanglements into the trenches. The confusion was indescribable; the killing merciless. I grasped five hand-grenades that lay near me and threw them at a group of about ten Germans. They must have all been killed. Our entire line across the river was advancing at the same time. The first German line was occupied by our troops and both banks of the Styr were then in our hands. Thus ended my captivity. I was in German hands for a period of only eight hours and amply avenged even this brief stay.

wb07She eventually realized the upper levels of command lacked the same mettle and commitment, resulting in failed offensives. This undercut army morale, and as the civil turbulence within Russia increased, this also reduced the will to win – not helping matters, were German soldiers, crossing the lines bearing brandy. Eventually, Bochkareva grew so disenchanted, she quit the military in May 1917: “I can’t stand this new order of things. The soldiers don’t fight the Germans any more. My object in joining the army was to defend the country. Now, it is impossible to do so. There is nothing left for me, therefore, but to leave.”

This retirement was short-lived, because she quickly came up with the idea of the Women’s Battalion of Death, as described above, eventually leading it into battle. She sustained its strict discipline herself, berating offenders: “You are not worth the uniforms you are wearing. This uniform stands for noble sacrifice, for unselfish patriotism, for purity and honor and loyalty. Every one of you is a disgrace to the uniform. Take them off and get out!” She recounts that when she came across one of her girls making love to another soldier, she bayoneted the girl to death – the man, wisely, ran off before suffering the same fate! However, the rest of the army had a laxer approach. Bochkareva and her soldiers became seen as reactionaries, with some even lynched; it eventually became necessary to disband the unit to prevent further casualties.

Bochkareva’s adventures were not over, as she became a messenger for the anti-Bolshevik forces. She was captured by their opponents, on the way back from meeting General Lavr Kornilov, and the account of her near-execution is chilling – not least, in view of its likely eventual occurrence: “We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and placed in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. The poisonous odors were choking us. The executioners did not seem to mind it so much. They were used to them.” While she escaped this fate, in part because one of the committee members had been rescued by her earlier in the war, that was it, and she opted to leave the country, going through Siberia to Vladivostok.

It’s an interesting read, offering a unique perspective on the Russian Revolution and war, though at times, it seems we are hearing more of Levine’s voice than Bochkareva, who hardly sounds like the uneducated peasant girl described. On the other hand, his filtering likely ensures events are explained in a way which makes sense for the intended Western audience; this probably helps equally, with regard to the near-century in time which has elapsed. Despite the yawning chasm in era and location between author and reader, this should be perfectly intelligible to the modern citizen. Certainly, Bochkareva comes over as a true heroine: strong-minded, prepared to go to any lengths to achieve her goals, and an irresistible force. Emmeline Pankhurst, doyenne of the suffragette movement, called her the greatest woman of the century, comparing Bochkareva to Joan of Arc. If premature, considering more than four-fifths of the century was in the future at that point, she still deserves to be considered one of its greatest unsung heroines.

Author: Maria Bochkareva, as told to Isaac Don Levine
Publisher: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919 – available, in full and for free, online.

The Battalion

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“War is hell.”

The above is an equal-opportunity truism and, as we see here, applies just as much to the first matriarchal unit in the modern world. This was the charmingly-named 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, created late in World War I, as the Russian Revolution was taking place. Its aim was to encourage the disillusioned regular army into continuing the fight against Germany, in a “If the ladies are fighting, surely you should be, too?” kinda way. At least initially, it’s the story of two sisters, Nadya (Kuchkova) and Vera, daughters of a rich family, who volunteer for the unit after Vera’s fiance, Petya, is killed at the front. Their mother sends their maid, Froska (Rahmanova), to try and protect her daughters, as they go through the training that will turn them into soldiers capable of taking on the enemy. The film climaxes with an initially successful, but ultimately futile, offensive – while the women initially gain ground, the regular army’s morale is so broken, they don’t support the push, allowing the Germans to counterattack [this aspect is largely true to history].

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However, as the film unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the founder of the battalion, Mariya Bochkareva (Aronova) and her story. That’s perhaps wise – to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell the rank and file soldiers apart, once they’ve had their heads shaved and are wearing the same uniform! This posed particular problems once battle was joined; on at least one occasion, I was convinced a character had been killed, only for her to pop up again, entirely alive, it having been someone else who bit the bullet. Fortunately, it seems Meshiev is more interested in Bochkareva, and it’s a wise decision thanks to a thoroughly convincing performance by Aronova. If she’s hardly the “girls with guns” archetype in looks, her commanding officer is smart, capable, patriotic and ferociously brave, leading from the front; you can see why she inspires the devotion necessary for the troops to follow her into the hell of trench warfare.

And that hell is appropriately portrayed in all its grim unpleasantness from poison gas [a sequence reminiscent of the end of Fraulein Doktor] through to brutal hand-to-hand combat, where we see the soft heart of a raw rookie is no match for a grizzled veteran’s sheer ruthlessness. It’s an approach which does allow the viewer to read this in several ways: it is commending the courage of those who fight, or condemning its pointlessness? The director made his opinion on this fairly clear. In a press conference promoting the film, when asked whether the events portrayed should be taken “as a feat or as a futility”, he replied, “Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Oh, those wacky Russians… It may be militaristic propaganda; I’d not argue with that as an assessment. However, I don’t care, when it is as effective and well-made as this, with the cinematography and soundtrack standing out, in addition to the fine central performance.

Dir: Dmitriy Meshiev
Star: Maria Aronova, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Alyona Kuchkova

Wonder Woman trailer released

wonderwomanposterDC has always seemed to be stuck in second-place when it comes to their movies, trapped behind the behemoth which is Marvel and their “Cinematic Universe”. The underwhelming performance, both critical and commercial, of Batman vs. Superman seemed to solidify that. Combining perhaps the two biggest names in comic-book history should have led to equally spectacular results, but after the expected enormous opening, the film had no legs at all, pulling in more that debut weekend than it did over the entire rest of its theatrical run. They’ll be hoping for better with Suicide Squad which comes out in a couple of weeks, and have already set their tent-pole release for summer next year.  The much-anticipated Wonder Woman film, starring Gail Gadot, comes out on June 2nd, and the first trailer was released over the weekend at San Diego ComicCon.

It’s interesting that they have beaten Marvel to the action heroine punch. While Marvel have created TV Series such as Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, there’s still no firm word of any, say, Black Widow movie. Their only scheduled heroine is Captain Marvel, and that’s not due until March 2019; also announced at ComicCon this weekend, in what could be seen as a spoiling tactic, she will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. This delay leaves the floor open for DC, who will be seeking to wash away memories of the disaster which was Catwoman. Arguably, that 2004 film sunk the comic-book action heroine movie, single-handed, for more than a decade. [Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It ain’t good, certainly – but it’s no Batman & Robin] The stage was already set, with Wonder Woman making a supporting appearance in B.vs.S. And it’s this which brought me the first surprise about the trailer, because unlike that, it appears that Wonder Woman will be a period piece, set during the First World War. I guess being created by Zeus gives a lady certain advantages in the “aging gracefully” department.

While I don’t know the comics [Pretty much all I know of WW is Lynda Carter. Sue me] , this appears to be a deviation from them, which had her showing up in the Second World War. However, it would certainly explain why she more or less bailed on the human race for the next century, having experienced close to the worst that mankind could offer – with the emphasis firmly on “man” there. There’s some speculation we’ll find out Ares, the god of war, and WW’s nemesis, is behind everything, which would make sense. Given WW’s literally near-divine level talents, it would take some of equivalent power to pose much of a threat. Perhaps who she’s going to see with her Very Large Sword? However, in terms of sheer trailer-iness, I would say this comes close to hitting it out of the park. It lays out the basics of the story without giving too much away, showcases the look, provides some really cool moments of action, and leaves me wanting to head straight to the cinema and begin queuing up.

Of course, we’ve all seen movies that have had great trailers, yet the finished product has failed to deliver [the last Bond film comes immediately to mind]. There does seem to be a little too much Captain Kirk/Chris Pine in this. I hope they don’t bog things down with romantic subplot, for that would be insufferable. If he’s much more than the heroic sacrifice, whose death triggers WW into action, I’m not going to be happy. So I’m going to restrain myself from proclaiming this as the best action heroine movie of 2017 quite yet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what I’m saying on June 2 next year, when the film is released.