Saturday, April 19, 2014

State of the cranium


One year ago this afternoon, while walking down Front Street in downtown San Francisco, I found myself stricken with the mother of all headaches. I also felt a numbness in my left leg. A half hour later, I called my wife at work and asked her to look up migraine cures on WebMD for me. “Why can’t you do it yourself?” she asked, quite sensibly. “I did,” I said, looking at my computer screen. “I can’t read it.” My vision had doubled.

My wife insisted that I go to the emergency room right away. And it was there, after I had vomited all over the waiting area, that I was diagnosed with a “large mass” on the right side of my brain. This was later revealed to be a grade 3 glial tumor -- an oligodendroglioma, to be exact -- one that had apparently been growing inside me very slowly for a number of years and had only just now decided that it was time for a coming out party. I was scheduled for surgery in a week’s time.

This is how I looked afterward.
This is how I felt.

After my surgery, I wrote about my experience on these pages. Since then, honoring a solemn vow I made to myself that I wouldn’t let 4DK turn into yet another “cancer blog”, I have mostly kept mum about it. However, as a lot of you expressed concern, I felt that this anniversary would be an appropriate time to fill you all in on what’s been going on with me in Cancer Town over the past few months.

My surgeon, the charmingly cocky Dr. Allen Efron, was able to remove 40% of the tumor, limited as he was by the area of the growth that had crept over to the left side of my brain and was hence inoperable. I then underwent six weeks of radiation treatment under the care of the brilliant and funny Dr. Laura Millender. This succeeded in reducing the remaining tumor by a whopping 50%. The full side effects of this treatment (which could include some hearing loss and memory issues) remain to be seen over time, but what hair I lost has already returned -- and, strangely, while coarse before, it is now as downy soft as a duckling’s little butt.

 "We are literally going to skull fuck this dude with radiation."
- a medical professional.

With surgery and radiation behind me, I am now approaching the end of a twelve month program of chemotherapy, overseen by Dr. Scott Peake, a rarely seen oncologist of considerable mystery, and the oft seen and awesome RN Mady Stovall. This I am fortunate to be doing on an outpatient basis, which means that I simply take a large dosage of the drug Temodar every night for five consecutive days out of each month. A separate cocktail of drugs takes care of the Temodar’s more onerous side effects, with the only remaining one being that I feel extra prone to fatigue during the two weeks around the treatment. Temodar, after all, is essentially poison (the pamphlet that comes with it basically tells you to scrub yourself silly if a capsule should break and it should so much as touch your skin), so it would be too much to ask that voluntarily ingesting it into my body not have at least some palpable downside. In any case, knowing the hell that chemotherapy is for many Cancer patients, I feel extremely lucky that that’s all I have to deal with.

At this point the purpose of the chemo is to keep what is left of the tumor in check, with little possibility of there being any substantial further reduction in its size. Nonetheless, the doctors are very optimistic that this state of affairs can be maintained over a long period of time. What they tell me is that I will be dealing with this for the rest of my life -- with constant monitoring and likely further treatments -- but that that is likely to be a good long time. And I am slowly, cautiously, starting to believe them. After all, aside from feeling a little easily winded for two weeks out of the month, I otherwise live as I always did, and still get to do all of the things that I love: singing and playing music, working out, taking walks, having the not-so-occasional cocktail, canoodling with the wife, hitting the local bistros with friends, going to the picture show and even seeing the occasional performance of rock music. Oh and writing this blog, of course, which, despite its frequently cavalier tone, has been more of a lifeline than you can imagine.

One of the hardest things about having cancer -- and one that I had not anticipated -- is the way that it affects the people around you. And by that I refer not just to the pain of seeing sadness in the eyes of your loved ones every time you greet them and knowing you’re the cause, but something more distancing. Due to the many different types of cancer and the various ways that people react to its treatment, this is even true of fellow cancer sufferers, with whom you might not necessarily find the deep, ameliorative connection that you or they might expect. Among the healthy, it in some cases roils up people’s personal issues with mortality -- and for those people you’re given the privilege of playing the personification of death within their particular personal narrative. Others, confronted with what they see as an overwhelming misfortune of which they feel (often wrongly) they have no comparable experience, are simply at a loss for words. Having been that person on more than one awkward occasion, I totally understand.

"Blargh! Look at my brain! Look at it!"

On those occasions when those people do grope for words, they sometimes fall back upon what appear to be the two dominant narratives about cancer in our culture at the moment: that of either “survival” or “heroism”. Both of these make my skin crawl a little bit. Survival, to me, represents both a diminished form of existence and an acceptance of that diminishment, which isn’t relatable to my own experience and certainly not desirable. Furthermore, I don’t want to identify with, or celebrate, an archetype that depends on a whole lot of other people dying for it to have any meaning. As for heroism, few, perhaps sensing my wariness, have dared to use the “H” word with me, but it has happened. In those cases I tell the person that a hero is someone who runs into a burning building, while my experience was more like that of the guy who wakes up inside the burning building.

If the truth be known, the personal quality that I think was most helpful in my recovery is one of the least likely to be associated with heroism, by which I mean my selfishness. My relative comfort with putting my needs above others’ enabled me to draw the boundaries, to create the time and space and limits that I needed in order to get well. To be deadly honest, I never felt more at the center of the universe than I did during the first few months following my diagnosis, and being a raving narcissist made it that much easier for me to accept the kindness and sacrifice of those around me. It even made me at times object less than I should have to people who implied that they had no right to complain about their problems in the face of my travails. (Even though, in truth, I felt the same way; what I was going through was nothing compared to what so many others were.)

No, rather than as a drama of heroism or survival, the way I would characterize my experience with cancer, strangely enough, is “lucky”; lucky that my tumor was at least partially operable and of a genetic makeup especially vulnerable to the course of treatment I was prescribed. Lucky that the illness came to me at a time when I had a) good health insurance, b) a solid marriage to an incredibly strong and fiercely protective woman who never fails to make me feel safe, and c) a network of wonderful and supportive friends and family members. At other times during a life marked by no moderate amount of slacking, the effects would have been much more devastating.

I should, of course, also mention my extreme good fortune in having the host of rewarding creative endeavors that I do as a result of writing for 4DK, which, by keeping my mind active and engaged and always giving me something to look forward to, played an enormous role in my healing. This includes the many friendships I have formed with my fellow bloggers, podcasters and film scribes while doing so, a number of whom I have also had the pleasure of collaborating with and who have been overwhelmingly supportive throughout (thanks Keith Allison! Tars Tarkas! Kenny B! Steve Mayhem!). The result is that the last year has been perhaps the most prolific in my career as a guy on the internet, with no few high points (contributing to Famous Monsters of Filmland, The World Directory of Cinema¸and… oh, did I mention writing a book?).

So, in sum, I think I’m doing pretty fucking good, living a life filled with creativity, crazy movies and music, and awesome people. Even allowing for the frequent trips to Redwood City (kind of a shit hole) to lie inside an MRI machine, I think that gives me little to complain about. And to you, who is reading this… well, first of all, I can’t believe you made it this far… but, second of all, thank you. If you weren’t there, I don’t know if I would be doing this, and doing it heals me. Thank you for healing me.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Relive the offense!


Everyone, at least once in their lives, should have the experience of going into a radio station and inflicting their musical tastes upon a passive listening audience. I had that experience last night, when my old friend Jeff Heyman and I hosted a little thing we call Pop Offensive on Oakland's 9th Floor Radio. For two hours it was as if no music had been recorded after 1968, and none of it in decipherable English. French, German, and Japanese pop, thuggish garage rock, British mod and psych pop, slinky Eurocrime soundtracks, girl group sounds and euphoric Bollywood stomps ruled the airwaves. I didn't want it to end, but it did... at least for now.

For those of you who missed hearing the debut of Pop Offensive live, or who would simply like to live through it again, the entire episode is now available for download or streaming via the 9th Floor site.

I would think that anyone who enjoys fun and fabulous retro sounds would enjoy this show. And if that's not you, I'm not entirely sure why you're reading this blog in the first place. Dig in!

Friday's best pop song ever

Darna (Philippines, 1991)


Actress and model Nanette Medved, born in Hawaii to a Chinese mother and Russian father, stands alongside Eva Montes as one of the few one-time movie Darnas. Though she had other roles, this seems to be the most noteworthy thing about her career, as it is one of the first things mentioned in almost every biography of her that I could find, alongside her apparently controversial marriage to a Filipino tuna magnate.

Prior to Medved’s series debut/swan song in 1991’s Darna, the character of Darna had not appeared in Philippines cinemas since 1980’s Darna at Ding, the last of four Darna films starring Vilma Santos, who is widely agreed to be the quintessential screen Darna. By comparison to Santos, who brought a playful, tomboyish quality to the role, Medved’s lithe femininity – abetted by her more revealing costume – marks the beginning of a, for lack of a better word, “sexification” of the character that culminated with the casting of the starkly bodacious Anjanette Abayari in 1994’s Darna! Ang Pagbabalik. This is just one of a number of changes to the Darna canon that Darna attempts, most of which didn’t stick and only served to prove that canon’s durability.


Some sources describe Darna as a remake of the original Darna film, 1951’s Darna, which was directed by Fernando Poe Sr. (father of you know who) and starred Rosa del Rosario in the title role. As that film seems to have been lost to the fires of time, that’s a difficult claim to verify. Suffice it to say, then, that the film is enough of a reboot to warrant yet another retelling of Darna’s origin story (already retold in at least two of the other Darna films I’ve seen). This time that origin is especially evangelical in nature, with young village girl Narda (played by 9 year old Anna Marie Falcon) receiving a literal visitation from an angel before her fateful encounter with the meteor that delivers to her the magic “Darna” stone – which amusingly flies into her mouth of its own accord to affect her initial transformation.

For some reason, director Joel Lamangan and/or writers Eddie Rodriguez and Frank Rivera felt a need to give Narda two little brothers rather than the traditional one. Thus, in addition to her familiar sidekick, that cocky little whelp Ding, we also have the older and more cautious minded Dong (get it?). I can’t over stress how mysterious the motivation for this is, given the fact that the brothers, when not acting in concert, seem pretty interchangeable, and are effectively benched when both become captives of the villains for the latter part of the film. Beyond that, young Narda’s home life is pretty much what we’re used to seeing, if a wee bit more upscale, with her and her siblings living along with their sweet old Lolo (Lorli Villanueva) in an actual house, as opposed to the usual modest hut. I was unable to determine whether her family was actually in on Narda’s secret identity, though they are clearly on familiar terms with Darna. There is even a remarkable scene of Darna towing the whole brood along with her as she flies over the city, Grandma hanging on for dear life.


After these youthful shenangians, we cut forward a dozen years or so to find Narda all grown up. Darna takes the classic B movie route of showing us how at once virginal and hawt our young heroine is by depicting her innocently bathing in a placid river -- clothed in a flimsy white shift, as you do – while being spied upon by a group of leering cretins. This means that we get to see Darna beat up a gang of potential rapists, a scene that culminates in a between-the-legs, “pussy power” shot of Darna’s groveling foes that Telegu master of nuance KSR Doss would surely applaud.



But this grown up Narda (now played, of course, by Medved) is no longer the humble country girl we’ve become so accustomed to seeing in Darna movies. On the contrary, she has left her rustic beginnings behind to choke on her careerist dust and moved to the Big City, Manila, to work as a journalist. Darna can certainly be called to account for borrowing from Wonder Woman -- check out our heroine’s oh so familiar bullet repelling bracelets – but the other American comic book property from which this particular scenario is lifted is difficult to mistake. Narda’s big city reporter is both bespectacled and reserved, and has a co-worker/love interest, fellow reporter George (Tonton Gutierrez), who, while literally shouting his love for Darna from the rooftops, barely registers Narda’s existence. At least, that is, until midway through the film, when Narda predictably doffs the glasses and dons a slinky cocktail dress, signaling to the world that she is actually glamorous model and actress Nanette Medved.

While its class politics may not be as blunt as those of other Darna movies, Darna still draws its villains from among the decadent celebrity class. The first of these is “world famous archeologist, businessman, philanthropist, artist and playboy” Dominico Lipolico, played by Captain Barbell’s Edu Manzano. As we see in the prologue, Dominico is a sort of anti-Darna, also finding the source of his supernatural powers at the site of a meteor crash and also answering to voices from the beyond, though, in his case, ones of a decidedly more satanic nature. In fact, part of his scheme seems to be to turn Darna into an evil version of herself, forcing her to transform while under the influence of a dark potion he has made her consume. Until then, however, he is happy just to soil Darna in the eyes of the law – a not too difficult task given that this version of Darna, like Spiderman, is considered a problematic vigilante by the local gendarmes. As a result, Darna actually ends up doing some time in the bucket later in the film.


Of course, what makes Dominico even more dangerous is the fact that he has teamed up with Darna’s arch nemesis, the gorgon Valentina, played with appropriately operatic bombast by Pilar Pilapil. Valentina’s guise as the “first Filipina fashion designer and international model” (Darna, while unsubtitled, is rife with Taglish, which I appreciated immensely) provides for some deliciously disco-y fashion show settings for the action to play out in, all the better to underscore the dissolute-yet-glamorous immorality of these high living antagonists. Indeed the only misstep with this character might be that her familiar, Vibora, is here played by a wise-cracking muppet snake -- voiced by Ruby Rodriguez – that looks like a serpentine incarnation of Waylon Flowers’ Madame. Then again, it does provide a welcome “WTF” element to the proceedings, so I’m not complaining.


In grand Filipino exploitation movie tradition, Darna, despite its family friendliness, does not pull punches when it comes to its horror content, nor to the business of putting tots in harm’s way. At one point, Dominico demonstrates the extent of his malevolence by transforming a timid schoolmarm into a feral, bat winged vampire. This fearsome, constantly screaming creature is later seen luring a little girl to her death by teasingly dangling her teddy bear in front of her, the ensuing slaughter, partially off screen, leaving little to the imagination. I should also mention that this Darna is the same one that we saw in Darna at Ding (I call her “Old Testament Darna”), who blithely condemns law breakers to a death that due process would likely find unwarranted. Keeping it raw, Darna also, after a particularly bloody climactic fight, gives us the rare sight of a bloodied Darna howling for vengeance.


Happily, Darna balances its more disturbing content with generous doses of the risible, such as when Dominico and Valentina rub their hands together in conspiratorial glee over the prospect of interfering with something called the “Boy Scout Olympics”. Ding and Dong, naturally, are among the scouts attending this grand pageant and thus end up in the villains clutches. Elsewhere we have Valentina carrying Vibora around with her like a mouthy purse dog, and the muppet at one point swallowing Darna’s magic stone and transforming into a snake muppet in a little Darna bikini. Then there is the brony-tailed Dominico’s lavish, self celebrating “free party” for all the people of the city, at which he cynically announces the formation of a philanthropic organization dedicated to the betterment of the Filipino people. The guest of honor: “Internationally famous mannequin” Valentina, who, in the course of the runway show, whips off her turban to reveal her writhing coiffure.

I am probably the least reliable person to offer a critique of Darna, because, to be honest, there is literally not a single Darna movie that I have not enjoyed. I am fond not only of the character, but of the fondness with which she is portrayed. The Filipinos, they love themselves some Darna. Just watch the scene in which the passengers of a train which Darna has just helped avert disaster crowd the windows to wave at her as they pass, with her enthusiastically waving in return. Darna at these moments seems less the awesome superhero than she does just plain neighborly. It is for this reason, I think, that Darna’s attempts to urbanize the character didn’t hold, with the following Darna! Ang Pagbabalik actually putting extra emphasis on her humble village origins. Darna, the most approachable of heroes, is nothing if not a country girl at heart.


Still, Nanette Medved, while perhaps not the most charismatic of screen Darnas – and perhaps also at the mercy of some misjudgments on the filmmakers’ parts – does nothing to get in the way of the affection that those filmmakers obviously held for the property. Unlike the action films of Fernando Poe Jr. (who, yes, I understand is a real person and not a comic book character), which are fueled by a sense of rage and underclass grievance, the Darna movies, while occasionally touching upon similar inequities, come from a place of considerably more warmth and humor. My critical faculties thus incapacitated, I can only offer a friendly wave as their star glides amiably by.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Load up for the Pop Offensive!


Recently, while contemplating why my life has been feeling so empty lately, I came to the obvious conclusion: Not enough side projects! Hence my entry into the steamy world of internet radio.
Join me and my old pal Jeff Heyman on Oakland's 9th Floor Radio, from 7 pm to 9pm PDT this Wednesday, April 16th for the debut of Pop Offensive. The playlist will include a mix of vintage pop from around the world, girl group sounds, garage rock, ye ye girls, freak beat, northern soul, movie songs, jpop. electro, glam and punk. Basically anything to get your head nodding and your feet stomping.

And don't worry if more boring plans keep you from listening live; this being internet radio, the episode will be available for streaming in the 9th Floor Archives after the air date. And best of all, unlike other of my recent endeavors, Pop Offensive is a totally NON-interactive experience, which means NO trivia questions! Yes, you just listen! Can you handle it? Here's hoping you tune in on Wednesday and find out.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Friday's best pop song ever

3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl, aka Çilgin Kiz ve üç Süper Adam (Turkey, 1973)


If you’re like me, you’re first thought, upon being confronted with 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl, is going to be, “Just what exactly is this girl so mad about?” And if you’re answer is “the unchecked proliferation of 3 Supermen movies throughout the 60s and 70s”, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Of course, blame for the near viral accretion of unwarranted 3 Supermen sequels, remakes and knockoffs over the years can be laid at the feet of various combinations of the Italians and the Turks, with 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl being one of the entries that is apparently purely Turkish in extraction. As is so often the case, the Turks bring to the franchise that certain, ineffable magic that only they can.

Simply put, if you’re a fan of Z grade comic book movies, the first five minutes of 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl will make your head explode. It is here, against the backdrop of sets made to the cardboard and construction paper standard now so familiar to Turkish pulp cinema enthusiasts, that we meet the titular Mad Girl (3 Dev Adam’s Mine Sun) and her army of minions in emerald green Klansmen’s robes. She is a vision in bloated bouffant wig, chunky cats eye domino mask, and Vampirella one piece. But, despite her prominent billing, she is just another subordinate, in turn taking orders from a guy whom she calls “Seytan” who sits on a throne and wears what looks like a drugstore Halloween devil mask. Without subtitles, and within the context of a movie like 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl, it is, I hope, understandably impossible for me to say whether this is supposed to actually be Satan or just a guy in a mask. In any case, it is also in this scene that Seytan and Mad Girl introduce us to their secret weapon, a cardboard box robot with a very phallic disintegrator gun.



Again, without subtitles, it is difficult for me to determine exactly what the above described freak show actually wants. There is a briefcase that switches hands a couple times and appears to be highly coveted, yet what is in it is unclear. A mad scientist named Dr. Zarkon is called in and the robot is employed to disintegrate a train, but again to mysterious ends. Indeed, watching a Turkish action film like 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl without subtitles provides just about the best testament I know to just how superfluous the device of the “McGuffin” can be in such films, as it is here little more than a polite nod in the direction of narrative traditions and concerns of credible cause and effect that most people coming to 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl voluntarily -- self included -- very likely don’t give a shit about. All that matters, really, is that it is this briefcase, that robot and the schemes of that mad scientist that set in motion all of the fighting, leaping, chasing and narrow escaping that will make up the meat, potatoes and creamy dessert of 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl's remaining 60 minutes.

But before we can have all of that, we must have our heroes, the first of whom is played by Levant Çakir, not only the star of the Zagor movies, but also 1970s Turkey’s answer to Batman. With his scrawny body and big head, Çakir is exactly the person you want to see in a form fitting pair of superhero long johns. Here he is introduced in glorious buffalo shot, swim trunked and surrounded by beach babes as Tom Jones’s vocal theme from Thunderball plays on the soundtrack -- the single most audacious act of musical thievery I have yet witnessed in Turkish cinema (which is saying a lot). Çakir’s reverie is not to last, however, as his call to action soon comes in a Mission Impossible style cassette recording bearing his instructions. Soon after, he meets up with his fellow Supermen, one of whom, in unfortunate emulation of the series’ Italian iteration, is a babbling, deaf and dumb simpleton. It is here that the red super suits come into play, those garments that render these normally abled secret agents both bullet proof and able to perform feats that suggest the positioning of a trampoline just off screen.



From this point, the film’s action proceeds apace, with “apace”, in Turkish action cinema terms, meaning that everyone on screen proceeds as if their hair were permanently on fire. A love interest for Çakir is introduced, in the agreeable person of his Bedmen Yarasa Adam costar Emel Özden, and no time is wasted in having her trussed up suggestively in the villains’ lair, awaiting rescue. As in Bedmen, the various acrobatics -- backflips, somersaults, cartwheels, etc. -- that the Supermen perform in the course of the many, many fistfights that follow appear more cosmetic than to have any strategic value, and require a lot of patience on the part of their green hooded opponents, who must wait for them to complete these antics before being punched by them. Also, since this is the 70s, there’s some nudity.

I long ago predicted that I would eventually run out of things to say about these old Turkish pop movies, and it is likely that I have said very little new in discussing 3 Supermen vs. Mad Girl. Yet I now realize that it is sometimes just good to be reminded that these movies exist and of the wonders they contain. After dutifully slogging through the worthy event movies of this past Oscar season to scant reward, I found welcome respite in this film’s swirl of color, movement and violence, virtually unmoored as they were from traditional narrative justifications or meaningful subtext. Yes, that robot’s disintegrator gun looks like a dick, but, beyond that, sometimes a cardboard box robot is just a cardboard box robot. And sometimes that’s all you need.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Shout Down Powers activate! The 4DKMMSD laughs in the face of extinction.


As anticipated, Attack of the Super Monsters baffled and enraged the Monthly Movie Shout Down crew, as you can see from the Storified transcript linked below. There you will witness what happens to the unprepared human brain when confronted with a perhaps less than seamless blending of live action and limited animation, as well as my encore attempt at a trivia contest again meeting with roaring apathy (and, hey, if that becomes a regular feature of these affairs, I'm weirdly okay with that). Check it out!

The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down: Attack of the Super Monsters on Storify

And, now, as we put the Super Monsters in our rear view and begin the process of rapidly forgetting, there is only to look forward. And so, a preview of next month's Shout Down:


Until then, adios!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tonight! It's the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down: ATTACK OF THE SUPER MONSTERS

At last the night has arrived when we take to Twitter like a rampaging snarkosaurus! Below is a DailyMotion link to a full version of Attack of the Super Monsters. Join us on Twitter tonight -- that's Tuesday, April 8th -- at 6pm PST sharp, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, to tweet your most honest and heartfelt reactions (or just be a smartass) along with yours truly and whatever other staunch souls have the courage to face down this baffling cinematic specimen.

ATTACK OF THE SUPER MONSTERS on Dailymotion

NOTE: There is a commercial at the beginning of this video, so, in the interest of synching up with the rest of us, you'll probably want to run through it and pause at the opening of the film before start time.

As before -- and because the last trivia contest was such a rousing success (or nah) -- I will be tossing out dumb questions related to Americanized Japanese animation and perhaps dinosaurs throughout the film and rewarding the first person to respond correctly with a pack of delicately pre-coveted DVDs from the 4DK Classics Collection™. Will it be you who takes home the Double Fredder, which features two films starring Fred Williamson, or the "Moore is More" Rudy Ray Moore double whammy? Don't dream it, live it!

If you could possible use any more information on this event, please see the official 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down website at shout-down.com. Otherwise, I'll be tweeting you tonight!

Friday, April 4, 2014

To Rose with Love (Hong Kong, 1967)


I am here not so much to review To Rose with Love as to simply let you know that it exists. This is good news, especially if you speak Cantonese, because parsing the film without English subtitles is a bit of a chore. In response to a confused email from me, Durian Dave of Soft Film informed me that, while not a sequel to Chor Yuen’s Black Rose films, per se, it is "considered to be the third part of Chor Yuen’s Black Rose trilogy” (he also provided me with a link to an English language synopsis of the film, which was mucho helpful). That may sound cryptic, but as I watched the film, it made more and more sense.

With To Rose with Love, Chor reunites most of the major cast members from his 1965 film The Black Rose and its immediate sequel The Spy with My Face. The only conspicuous absence is that of Connie Chan, who was either too big at the time for the sidekick role she played in the earlier films or too busy with the twelve other films she made in 1967. Remaining are the glamorous team of Nam Hung -- who was both Chor’s partner in life and in the Rose Motion Picture Company, which produced the film -- and Patrick Tse Yin. Also on the roster is Chor’s dad, Cheung Wood-Yau, in the role of Detective Chan, the sworn enemy of the masked female bandit/avenger The Black Rose -- or, to elucidate by reference to an equally obscure film series, the Juvet to the Rose’s Fantomas.


The hitch here, however, is that none of these actors are playing the same characters that they did in the previous films. True, Nam Hung and Tse Yin’s relationship still exhibits the same flirty antagonism as before, and she is still portraying the Rose’s alter ego, but in this case, rather than the glamorous socialite Chan Mei-yu, that alter ego is Ko Ching-yam, humble nurse to the disabled uncle of Tse Yin’s character, Ma Chim-ho -- who is here a civilian turned amateur sleuth, rather than the detective played by Tse Yin in the original.

Could To Rose with Love then be considered an early example of the series reboot? Perhaps so, given that, in keeping with that tradition, it, while possessing charms of its own, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by the original. No doubt, if there had been an internet in those days, it would have offered little respite from the howled objections of those who felt that Chor, with this treatment, had somehow “ruined” the character of the Black Rose (or, worse yet, had “raped” their childhoods -- a mean feat in the case of a reboot made just two years after the original).


Personally, I choose to see such fiddling as a testament to the iconic durability of the character; No director, writer or star -- even Ben Affleck -- has the power to “ruin” Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, as much as they might try, because those characters’ DNA is written into a vast shared culture, providing an indelible blueprint that exists outside the realm of interpretation. At the same time, I think it is this very durability that invites tampering in the first place, that tempts a creatively restless director like Chor to rearrange those iconic elements. Rose, a chivalrous bandit of fixed iconography, with roots in both Chinese pop and folk culture -- as well as the star of a beloved and massively popular film series -- suits such purposes to a tee.

And To Rose with Love, despite my early doubts, does eventually reveal itself to be a Black Rose film, albeit one in which the Rose herself is a pretty rare presence. Instead the spotlight is given over to Patrick Tse Yin, at the time a formidable star of Cantonese film in his own right. As the film begins, a valuable heirloom willed to Tse Yin’s character by his recently departed father is apparently stolen by the Black Rose, prompting the appearance at the father’s old mansion of Detective Chan and his men. From this point, the film becomes something of an old dark house thriller, with Ma Chim-ho, the nurse Ko, and Detective Chan making their way through the many secret doorways and corridors in the mansion’s seemingly bottomless interior. There is even a nifty bit of business where a door is opened by dancing out a particular melody --- Dance Dance Revolution style -- on a giant keyboard that’s imbedded in the floor. While inarguably evocative of that scene in Big, this reminded me even more of something you’d see on The Avengers, a likely influence upon Chor at the time.


As that indicates, Chor applies the same stylishly mod visual approach here that he did to the previous Rose films. Nam Hung’s outfits are fabulous, as are the interiors to both the mansion and a swinging go-go club that we catch an all-too-brief glimpse of. The director further exhibits a graphic, pop art sensibility in his approach to the frame. Scene transitions frequently see the end of the previous scene and the beginning of the next being presented in split screen, reduced to small frames within a black background. I may be wrong, but some of the zooms that then bring us into the new scenes seemed more like camera moves than optical effects, which would suggest that these transitions were done in camera and that perhaps that black background was an actual physical partition between camera and actors. In any case, however they were accomplished, these comic book touches are just one of the elements that make the film fun to watch, no matter how little of it one (me) is able to comprehend.

Despite boasting fight choreography by series regular Tong Kai, To Rose With Love can be called an action film only by the standards of the most corpulent shut in. Instead, much of its running time is taken up with talking and everyone pointing guns at one another without firing them. Truly, gun pointing is what has taken the place of hand gestures in this film’s universe. That is, until the final act, when Nam Hung finally shows up in her Black Rose gear to expose the true perpetrators of the robbery and Chor, seemingly in an effort to make up for lost time, crams in a rapid series of multi-participant fist fights, poison gas attacks, and other pulse quickening action set pieces. The delayed gratification has its desired effect, as the Rose, in her familiar cat suit and cowl, by this point has upon us the impact of the reappearance of a long lost and beloved relative, retroactively softening the blow of all the hand wringing and impatience that lead up to her welcome return.


Admittedly, I’m kind of an idiot for watching To Rose With Love the way that I did, because the expectations that I had based on the earlier films lead me to be almost immediately confounded by what it seemed, in all its untranslated Cantonese glory, to be instead offering. Thus I would only recommend doing so to the most dedicated completist. The rest of you should hold out for the deluxe, subtitled and extras laden boxed set of the Black Rose films that somebody should have put out by now yet inexplicably hasn’t. The film seems to lack some of the narcotic romanticism of the original Black Rose -- admittedly a tough standard to live up to -- but there is enough dialogue being spouted to suggest that, were it understandable, there could well be greater emotional depths to be plumbed. Until then, it remains a secret door that this gweilo has yet to completely unlock.