Up to this point I have paid scant attention to the Kannada language cinema of Karnataka; this likely because a film with the singular allures of Kulla Agent 000 had yet to roll into my path. The film, a combination spy spoof/stunt film, is a vehicle for its diminutive star, multi-hyphenate (star-director-producer) Dwarakish, who was affectionately known to his many fans as Kulla due to his small stature. Such was his popularity that, like Egypt’s Ismail Yassin and Singapore’s Mat Sentul, it led him to star in a series of name-in-title productions, of which Kulla Agent 000 is inarguably one.
In a plot similar to none you have ever seen recounted on this blog before, Dwarakish stars as “Kulla”, a pint-sized nebbish who dreams of being a secret agent. This leads to such comical business as him showing up at the CID recruiting office with a pair of stilts hidden under his extra-long pants. Of course, he finally gets his chance when he bumblingly foils the latest scheme of an international smuggling ring. Because there is no way around such things, officials in charge of India’s national security have no choice but to hand him a sensitive position as an undercover government agent, giving him the designation 000 (“Personality: zero, Qualifications: zero, Experience: zero”—thanks, Kannanglish!).
At this point you’d expect the film to proceed as a comedy or errors, with the pathetically overmatched Kulla making a hash of the job due to his lack of ability, but you would be wrong. Instead, Kulla trains rigorously and becomes just the masterful man of action that the film’s stunt-heavy plot demands, albeit in miniature. Granted, Kulla is not so small that he could get away with routinely punching his opponents in the balls, but you could nonetheless be forgiven for seeing Kulla Agent 000, in combination with Filipino micro man Weng Weng’s Agent 00 pictures, as establishing the midget spy film as a genre in its own right.
Also starring in Kulla Agent 000 is Telegu actress and noted “South Bomb” Jyothi Laxmi. As is traditional, Laxmi, whose character is named “Jyothi”, is introduced as a sort of man-eating nautch girl, but then comes a twist. Kulla’s superiors, wanting to test his mettle, throw him into a cell with Laxmi and let the two fight it out in a savage row. It is almost as if Laxmi is their personal Rancor monster. Once the two have fought to a standstill, however, it is revealed that Jyothi is on Kulla’s side, and that, in fact, the two are going to be partners. Indeed, the pair end up making an appealing team, with Jyothi proving herself an unfailingly loyal and fearless ally to Kulla while at the same time stoking the implied sexual tensions that one has come to expect from such screen pairings.
Jyothi Laxmi's turn in Kulla Agent 000 is at once the most domesticated and the most interesting of her performances that I've seen. As usual, she's allowed a brute physicality that one would never see exhibited by a Western actress of her era. It’s the same quality that gives her performances in Telegu films a discomfiting air of freak show novelty. But here she is also allowed all of the sophistication, charm and humor of a full-fledged heroine. The model here is obviously Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, whom I predictably endorse as the ideal model for any worldly women of action regardless of context. In keeping with that, Laxmi, in addition to modelling a striking array of black cat suits, takes to all of her rough and tumbling with conspicuous joi de vivre. It is in fact possible that this usually grim faced actress is actually having fun. My god, she even smiles!
Kulla Agent 000 does not subject Laxmi to the voyeuristic upskirt shots typically seen in her Telegu films, but nonetheless fetishizes her plenty, thanks to its inclusion of more gratuitous yoga than an Elsa Yeung movie.
The high point of Kulla Agent 000 occurs during a section of the film in which Kulla has gone missing and Jyothi is assigned the task of finding him. At this point the film is essentially handed over to Laxmi, and wisely so, as we are immediately thrilled by a scene in which she has a fight to the death against an axe-wielding giant in her hotel room. She then tears off in her sports car in search of her partner, a grotesque kewpie doll trinket with blinking eyes serving as her tracer. It’s such an enjoyable episode that one might wish she hadn’t found Kulla so quickly.
Thankfully, Kulla Agent 000 proceeds at a mean clip from this point on. In an unusual twist on the old “infiltrating the villain’s lair in the guise of dancers” gambit, Kulla and Jyothi crate and have themselves delivered to the gang’s leader disguised as dancing automatons. (I should mention that this particular Mr. Big, in a welcome echo of James Bond 777, comes accompanied by a pair of friendly-looking canines who are nonetheless portrayed as being lethally vicious.) In a surprising instance of verisimilitude, the crook quickly sees through the agents’ masquerade, forcing them to interrupt the robotic dance number they are performing to start dusting the floors with the assembled minions. All leads to a pretty harrowing fight between Laxmi, Dwarakish and the villain atop a speeding jeep that is careening along a treacherous mountain road with not a stunt double or rear projection in sight.
Though undeniably a “B” production, Kulla Agent 000 speaks well for the Kannada film industry of its day. Its director, Ravi, and cinematographer, Prakash, never fail to come up with evermore inventive angles from which to film the action; the stunts are plentiful and often spectacular; and its score, by Rajan-Nagendra, has a thrillingly rough-edged, garage rock quality, with twangy guitars and trilling Farfisas wrestling over jazzy riffs like misleadingly docile-looking dogs over a bone. Not to mention that it has a dead catchy theme song.
But, for me, the film’s most welcome attribute was the texture it added to the portrait I’ve been assembling of its star, Jyothi Laxmi, over these many years of blogging. For it is with Kulla Agent 000 that Laxmi finally began to emerge for me as something more than just a human cartoon, but instead as something else: a perhaps critically under-recognized performer whose body of work deserves much further examination.
Judging by the fact that it's taken me this long to post the transcript of last Tuesday's Monthly Movie Shout Down here, you might conclude that it's something I'd rather forget. But know this: I would sooner forget my own name than Bloody Pit of Horror. It's my jam.
Call me crazy, but my favorite podcasts to do are those in which the films discussed are actually, you know, good. Take the latest Taiwan Noir, for instance: I would say that, given all we've been through, Kenny B and myself rise admirably to the rare challenge of discussing a couple of films with real class--a pair of wuxia gems from the vaults of Taiwan's Union Picture Company that actually inspire us to make comparisons to the work of Sergio Leone, King Hu, and Chor Yuen. As we rhapsodize, you can actually hear our minds taking flight, giddily free of the mental prison of Richard Harrison ninja movies and IFD rape revenge sagas in which we'd kept ourselves. Listen to the episode here.
Bloody Pit of Horror is a film for neither the faint of heart, the weak of spirit, nor the irritable of bowel. Nay, it is a film instead for hardy he-men and she-women, like the sturdy men and women folk of the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down. That is why I have chosen it to kick off the Halloween season, 4DK style. It's that special.
Above is a link to the full feature. Join us on Twitter, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, at 6pm PT sharp, rev up the film, and join in the mockery... erm, I mean SHEER TERROR! We'll be waiting for you.
For the next Monthly Movie Shout Down, we'll be getting in the Halloween spirit with Bloody Pit of Horror, a lurid little slice of Euro-trash about a gaggle of underwear models being terrorized by a masked maniac in an old castle. The trailer below would have you believe that it was ripped from the pages of Marquis De Sade, but that would only be the case if De Sade wrote for True Men magazine, as no other film in my experience has captured so completely the visual aesthetic of 1960s men's adventure magazines. YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS ONE, PEOPLE!
The Shout Down crew and I will begin digging the Pit at 6pm PST, this coming Tuesday, October 7th. Please join in the excavation on Twitter, using the hashtag #4DKMSD. A link to the film will be provided both here and on the official Shout Down site. And if your roommate, spouse, or better self criticizes your choice of viewing, just tell them, "Hey, it's European!"
If you're not too careful while listening to Pop Offensive, you might actually learn something. Case in point, this past Wednesday we had a fascinating conversation with Alec Palao, West Coast Consultant for Ace Records. Alec is behind many of the finest compilations of classic garage rock, Northern Soul and psych pop to be released in recent years, including the Grammy nominated San Francisco and Los Angeles Nuggets box sets, and has anthologized any number of great artists, including Sly Stone, The Zombies, and The Chocolate Watchband, to name a few. Along the way he has rescued a great many worthy but under-recognized performers (Powder, The Stained Glass, The Appolas) from obscurity.
In short, Alec's is the coolest job in the world, and our chat with him gave the rest of us losers a tantalizing glimpse behind the scenes. Of course, along the way we also played a whole lot of great music. You can download the archived version of the episode here and view the full playlist on our Facebook page.
The bar for contemporary anti-cinema has been lowered considerably over the last few years, yet The Deadly Cure manages to limbo under it like a lanky hybrid of Belafonte and Plastic Man. Or perhaps I should say “vanti-cinema”--as in “Vanity/anti”, since a prerequisite for descending below cinema’s lowest threshold seems to be a desire to elevate oneself to a level leagues beyond one’s means or abilities.
In the case of The Deadly Cure, the suspect self-promoter is one Dr. Zee Lo, a Los Angeles based “real life doctor”, martial arts expert and teacher who, through his Z Entertainment Productions, has produced and starred in a series of shot-on-video martial arts adventures that seem mostly designed to show off what a badass he is. These bear such titles as Dr. Z, Martial Arts Medicine Man, The Bloods of Angel and Demons, and Combat Mortal—this last being my favorite, as it seems to suggest the one instance of a film being based on a pirated video game. To his credit, Dr. Z comes across as entirely earnest and sincere, intending his films in part as homage to his “grand master” Bruce Lee. He is also quite obviously a skilled fighter; I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of any of the blows he deals out in this movie (or of much of his dialogue, for that matter. Zing!)
As a vanti-auteur, Zee deserves a place alongside the greats, but for some fatal competencies that stand in his way. While The Deadly Cure’s many under-lit scenes, often inaudible dialog and shots that could conceivably have been composed by someone who had never seen a movie before easily place it at the technical level of James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror, it also exhibits an understanding of genre, plot, English syntax and basic human behavior that prevents it from limning The Room’s degree of incoherence and risibility. Of course, there are greater insults that one can hurl at a filmmaker than that he is no Tommy Wiseau.
The Deadly Cure sang to me from the dollar bin for a number of reasons, all of them having to do with its packaging. For one, there are its obvious cut-and-paste, color Xerox origins and the enthusiastic pull quotes whose attributions are conveniently smudged beyond legibility. But what really inflamed my curiosity beyond the point of resistance was the fact that, while those pull quotes variously tout the film’s “authentic action” and “superb choreography”, the packaging elsewhere—and somewhat incongruously, to my mind—categorizes the film as “animation”.
Having now watched The Deadly Cure, it is impossible for me to stress just how much it is in not an animated film. It's images, however, do evidence a super-saturated quality that, by a violent stretch of the imagination, could be said to sort of resemble the Rotoscope technique used by Richard Linklater in films like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, while in no way disguising its origins as a live action video. If this effect was intentional, it was perhaps intended to cover up for some other technical flaw. If not, the attempt to pass it off as a cartoon is another brand of face-saving altogether. In any case, this gambit represents another signal event in the long history of producers banking on their audience’s inability to distinguish live action from animation, going all the way back to when Superargo and the Faceless Giants was marketed as “Not a Cartoon”.
In summarizing The Deadly Cure, I am going to use the descriptions of its actors CVs featured on the DVD case, because, despite the fact that I was unable to verify some of them on IMDB, I want to honor the possibility that they might be accurate. Zee, of course, plays our hero, Dr. Billy Lee, who has developed an herbal remedy for a deadly infection that has been sweeping the mean streets of West Los Angeles via a potent strain of synthetic heroin. In keeping with the tenets of Vanti cinema, Lee, a nice enough looking guy, is portrayed as being irresistible to women, and so is pursued arduously by his blonde intern, Susan. Susan is played by Deborah Keller (“Baywatch”), who spends much of the film lounging around hilariously in Lee’s apartment wearing nothing but a Dodgers jersey and holding an enormous cordless phone.
Meanwhile, Zee’s bitter rival, Alex (“BILL CABLE, Basic Instinct”), steals his remedy and turns it over to drug kingpin Wu Fang (the actually familiar looking “LEO LEE, Kindergarden Cop”), who immediately launches a series of attempts to alternately rub Lee out and kidnap Susan. In these efforts he employs a towering African American wearing a knit sweater with black power fists front and back. Eventually, Lee goes to visit an old Buddhist monk who turns out to be a veritable Old Faithful of exposition, informing Lee that it was Wu Fang who murdered his parents and thus inspiring him to set aside his peaceful ways and head out on the vengeance trail. Much training follows, very authentically filmed in what is probably Lee’s actual gym with his actual trainer, after which he stages a one man siege upon Wu Fang’s lair—this occurring just as the drug lord is entertaining a host of potential buyers for Lee’s remedy, each from a different country and each skilled in his own indigenous martial art.
Given its action movie aspirations, the first hour of The Deadly Cure is surprisingly dialogue dependent, as it apparently tries to ratchet up the tension until the final straw transforms the soft spoken Lee into an exciting man of violence. Fortunately, there are a number of things that make this first hour go by more smoothly than it otherwise might. For one, the performances are, for the most part, by bad actors who are acting badly, which—as I think I’ve mentioned before—is much more entertaining than non-actors not acting. There is also the sheer inappropriateness of having your one black actor dressed in what looks like the Black Panthers’ version of a Christmas sweater. Oh, and on a personal note, there were all the establishing shots of random buildings in Westwood, which, having lived there, provided a lot of unwelcome fodder for reminiscence on my part (I’m pretty sure that the hospital at which Lee worked was a Sports Chalet).
The Deadly Cure also has a director's cameo. This is problematic, as few people not involved with the film are likely to recognize its director, Michael Connor. There is, however, a work-around for this:
Dr. Z’s attack on Wu Fang’s lair, when it comes, consists of him going from room to room and facing a single combatant in each, each of whom uses a different fighting style and each of whom ends up leaving an impression of his unconscious face in the floor. This gives the sequence more the feel of a tournament or demonstration than a vengeance driven free-for-all and, as such, one that has a lot less drama than it ideally should. Furthermore, not much effort is made to film these fights in any kind of dynamic fashion. Despite Z’s aforementioned skills, this all has the ironic effect of making the point at which The Deadly Cure finally kicks into action also the point at which it starts to get a little boring.
I think a lot of the above can be attributed to Zee Lo’s dedication to authenticity. In an extra featured on the DVD (yes, this is a dollar DVD with extras), he speaks to a group of his students, decrying the exploitation of Bruce Lee’s name. By contrast, he says, in reference to his own practice, “we don’t commercialize the art.” Unfortunately, while martial arts may be an art, martial arts cinema is, above all else, cinema, and must rely on some artifice and embellishment in order to communicate, not just an action, but also the inherent drama and narrative context of that action. Thus even a martial arts purist like Liu Chia-Liang had to master cinematic techniques in order to properly represent the form.
Happily, one thing that, by its very nature, does not need artifice or embellishment is incompetence, of which The Deadly Cure is rife. It must be said, however, that much of this incompetence comes in the form of overreach, and hence deserves a little respect. Hey, it takes balls to attempt the speed up/slow down effects of a Luc Besson film with 1996 video technology, as it does to employ a freeze frame as liberally as Connor and Lo do here. Dr. Z is clearly a man with the courage of his convictions, and I would be loath to say that the world—or at least that part of it that can be had for a dollar—is not a better place for it.
Those of you who are despairing at the prospect of world peace, take heart. For this coming Wednesday, October 1st, the globe-trotting musical ambassadors of Pop Offensive -- that's Jeff Heyman and yours truly -- will be returning to the airwaves at Oakland's 9th Floor Radio, armed with enough catchy choruses and barnstorming beats to bring a kick to the step and a smile to the face of even the most black hearted of puppy-kickers. Not to mention that we will also be welcoming a very special guest!
The show can be streamed live from the 9th Floor site starting at 7pm PT, after which it will be available in the Pop Offensive Archives, where it will stay fresh forever. During the show, please tweet your comments, rants, requests, pleas, dire premonitions, and complaints to @PopOffRadio.