Monday, December 29, 2008

Cowboys und Indians

For the cover of their seminal debut album, Entertainment!, the British band Gang of Four, following the example of those wacky Situationists, took frames from an old Hollywood Western and turned them into a comic strip commenting on the white man's economic exploitation of Native Americans. The Sons of Great Bear, a first stab at the Western genre by East Germany's state-run DEFA studio, feels like a movie based on that comic. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friday's best pop song ever

Merry Crimble everybody

Um, okay.

A synopsis of the 1964 Indian film Tarzan & Delilah, from the original song booklet:
Life is a game of luck, and luck is a game of life. When a sister of a friend rapped by a friend, the doctor brother kidnapped the daughter of the friend to make her mad by an injection to take the revenge of his sister who, after being bachelor mother had gone mad but fortunately a drunkard Fernades came in the secret den of the doctor and saved the girl Sunanda and ran away from there. . They got a boat near a Sea-Shore to escape but a cyclone broke down and the boat drawned but both were thrown to the shore of an unknown island whre the love Tarzan & Delilah was being developed. . Zippy saw them on the bank of the sea and brought Tarzan here to save them. When they came in concious the jungle tribe arrested them all and took away to the queen of Jungle Lali who wanted to marry Tarzan and his brother Rozem was interested in Princess Delilah, who was in the prison of their mother, a magician Lady who had kidnapped her for her son but when Delilah saw Tarzan in the Jungle through the window of the prison she lost her heart and started loving him madly. Voice of Delilah always attracted Tarzan but he could no get in, as there was a magic door. . When Delilah came to know the fact of this magic prison thorugh the speaking flower statues of the kidnapped princess that if the blood of a pious and bachelor young man would fall upon these walls, the magic power could be vanished, she wounded Tarzan by an arrow and called him inside through her voice. . Tarzans boold touched the door and was no more the magic power. He came inside and freed all girls and took away Delilah with him to his nest. . This made the queen and her brother Rozem more angry and they had not leave any stone unturned to arrest and finish them, but all the time there was a great adventure and danger was over powered. . At last they threw Tarzan in the place of hungry lions but Zippy again saved his life then Rozem planned to blind Sunanda but Fernandes and his jungle beloved Lali, with the help of Delilah in the disguise of snakes and surpants made their plan upset but ultimately they were recognised and arrested. . Now there was nobody to help them and queen put a proposal before Sunanda to kill Delilah in the dance which she accepted but in the end of the song she stapped the queen of Jungle.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hey, it's Zimbo!

Zimbo (India, 1958)

Homi Wadia's Zimbo is proof that you can never have too much of a good thing. That is, if your idea of "a good thing" is Tarzan, because Zimbo is essentially just Tarzan under another name. That struck me as odd, because -- despite what the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs might have had to say about the matter -- Indian filmmakers have never seemed shy about making films about Tarzan under his own name. Lots of them, in fact.

Anyway, Zimbo: Professor Chakravarty, after years of toil in his beaker-filled jungle laboratory, has finally perfected his revolutionary youth serum, and secrets the formula away in a locket that he places around his young son's neck. No sooner has he done this, than a pack of angry lions invades the Chakravarty family home. The Professor only has enough time to place his son within the basket of a handy hot air balloon before being fatally mauled by one of the beasts. Chakravarty's wife is unable to join her son before the line mooring the balloon slips loose, and the child goes sailing off into the sunset without her.

With her husband dead and her son now a rapidly receding dot in the sky, Mrs. Chakravarty instantly descends into face-clawing madness and disappears into the jungle, only to emerge periodically throughout the rest of the film to go "boogity boogity" and freak people out. Later, Chakravarty Jr.'s balloon touches down in a remote part of the jungle, where he is taken in by Dada, a chimp played, according to the credits, by "Pedro, the human chimpanzee" (though, to be clear, Pedro is actually a real chimpanzee who acts human, and not the other way around). Thus is young Chakravarty's journey to becoming Zimbo, the lord of the jungle, set in motion.

Seventeen years later, the Professor's brother and his adopted daughter, Leela (Chitra), arrive in the jungle to look for the missing family, and it is not too long before they are confronted with the adult Zimbo (Azad) in all his glory. And hey, color me edified: It turns out that extremely well-built, mostly naked men who are in touch with their primitive sides, but at the same time display a strong, if nascent, sense of chivalry are quite popular with the ladies. Really, who'd have thought? Because judging from the look Leela gives Zimbo upon first laying eyes on him, she really like-a what she sees:



As does Maya, the evil queen of a secret kingdom hidden deep within the jungle:



It should come as no surprise that Leela will eventually become the Jane to Zimbo's Tarzan, and, despite the fact that the leopard skin togs she'll wear are a sight more matronly than those worn by her American counterparts, the obvious warmth that she feels for Zimbo's form adds an estrogen-fueled heat to Zimbo that I don't recall in any of Hollywood's entries in the Tarzan saga. Judging from that look she gives him, you'd expect that, rather than the other way around, it would be she who slings Zimbo over her shoulder and carries him off into the brush.

And why not? Zimbo, as he's presented, fully lives up to his almost-name: a perfect male bimbo, half innocent and half idiot, but with all of his manly parts in prime working order. In short, an ideal fixer-upper for the woman willing to invest herself in the task And Leela, by all appearances, is highly motivated.



While Zimbo provides a rote, eyepatch-wearing male villain with his eye on the Professor's formula, it is clearly a film that belongs to the ladies. And the real MacGuffin is not what's hidden in Zimbo's locket, but what's locked in his trunks. As such, our hero is little more than a delightfully oblivious boy toy, caught in a tug-of-war between two powerful females who both have a very firm grasp on exactly what it is that they want. Of course, we should expect such take-charge women from a director like Wadia. This is, after all, the man who made his directing debut by introducing the whip-wielding Fearless Nadia to Indian cinema audiences, and who would soon after that make Nadia the -- whip wielding? -- star of his own life by marrying her.

Eventually Maya's desires drive her to have her men capture Zimbo and bring him to her palace -- a wonderfully phantasmagorical set complete with cartoonish-looking giant idols that ends up giving Zimbo a bit of a Flash Gordon flavor. Here she tries to win his affections with sexy item numbers, but to no avail. Zimbo ultimately escapes, leaving Maya no choice but to take Leela, her father, and Dada prisoner in order to draw him back. This leads to a spectacular climax in which Zimbo leads a charging herd of elephants in an attack on the palace. It's a sequence that demonstrates that Zimbo, while having a B movie sensibility, is actually a fairly handsomely mounted production, with a large number of extras, some eye-catching sets, and a number of well-staged action set pieces.

While it's definitely the women's show, I don't want Pedro the human chimp's substantial contributions to Zimbo to go unmentioned. Not only does he perform all of the expected movie chimp duties by riding a tricycle and wearing a tutu (though, sadly, no fez), but he also -- while obviously doubled by a dwarf or a small child in a couple of shots -- takes part in a song and dance number with the movie's comic relief and, in the climax, displays a thirst for vengeance and handiness with a weapon that would not be displayed by a chimp again until Dario Argento's Phenomena in the eighties. I've never really sat down to compare the merits of various chimp actors before, but I think that, if I did, Pedro would most likely come out on top.

Zimbo is the rare entertainment that actually earns being described by the over-used adjective "rollicking", aided by what is, by all appearances, a very ahead-of-its-time, self-conscious sense of camp. In short, it's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, human or otherwise.




Saturday, December 20, 2008

I read the news today... HOLY %$#@?!

I don't know what's more amazing: That the Indian Express interviewed me for an article about Bollywood bloggers, or that they then went ahead and actually published portions of my drunken ravings for public consumption. But I jest, of course. Why wouldn't they have done? After all, I have an award that says I'm charming.

So, to any new readers coming to 4DK by way of the Express article, I say welcome, and apologize for the fact that this is one of those very rare weeks during which I actually have not posted any reviews of Bollywood movies. (Pathetic.) I was going to try and post one this weekend, but the demands of the season got in the way, and as a result I am empty-handed. As compensation, here is an awesome picture of Amrish Puri in a disco suit:



Now, for those of you who would prefer not to read about Thai movies about giant ogres with tusks who grow man-boobs, or Filipina superheroes, or movies in which Polly Shang Kwan can stretch her arms like Plasticman, you can simply scroll through all of my many Bollywood-related posts by following this link. Enjoy!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thai-Style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands Part VIII

Phra Rot-Meri (1981)

Gosh, it's been quite a while since I checked in with Thai-Style Kaiju, hasn't it? So long that I should probably provide a backgrounder for those of you who have only just tuned in to 4DK over the past few months.

In short, Sompote Saengduenchai -- who has on occasion gone under the name Sompote Sands -- is the Thai special effects pioneer who, through his own Chaiyo Productions and in his own inimitable style, first brought a homegrown version of the Japanese style giant monster movie to Thailand's cinema screens. My fixation with Sands began when I wrote a review for Teleport City of Hanuman and the Seven Ultramen, a co-production between Chaiyo and Japan's Tsubaraya Productions that resulted in a bizarre and protracted legal battle over the rights to Tsubaraya's Ultraman character. From there, I went on to watch and review whatever of Chaiyo's movies I could get my hands on, regardless of the cost to my personal life and mental health. I recently came across a few more of them, so I have decided to make Thai-Style Kaiju a ten-part series, closing it out forever with a review of Krai Thong II in a few week's time.

For a Westerner, watching a Sompote Sands film is a surefire recipe for culture shock. While apparently made for a general audience, they casually break so many of mainstream Western cinema's taboos -- in terms of nudity, violence against children, graphic scatological humor, etc. -- that they would probably cause riots if shown in an American multiplex. They are childish and fantasy-filled enough to be children's' films, but so loaded with gore and sleaze that it's difficult to imagine any child not being permanently scarred by them. For better or worse, despite the fact that I have now watched quite a number of them, they have still not lost the ability to surprise, frequently disgust, and even shock me.

Motivated by just such a visceral reaction, I jumped the gun a while back and named Hanuman and the Five Riders -- a movie that incorporates pirated characters from a Japanese superhero TV series into a narrative that includes a sleazoid vision of Hell complete with nude, chained women being bloodily prodded with pitchforks and gory decapitations -- as Sands' masterpiece. And by "masterpiece", I simply mean in terms of fully embodying those jarring qualities that I enumerated in the preceding paragraph. Now, however, I am forced to retract that judgment and give the title instead to Phra Rot-Meri. This is an especially impressive accomplishment on Sands and Chaiyo Productions' parts, because they here reach the bar without aid from one of their other signature practices, that being the generous recycling of footage from both their own and other people's films. Phra Rot-Meri, as far as I can tell, is an entirely original production, and one that's full of all kinds of really strange and disturbing crap.

But before I relay to you the contents of Phra Rot-Meri, let me digress for a moment for a quick note on Thai movie posters. As anyone who has seen them knows, old Thai movie posters are a thing of awesome beauty. Expertly hand painted in an eye-grabbing array of colors, they depict a level of excitement and grandeur that the usually low budget fare they advertise could never possibly live up to. For instance, here is the poster -- cropped somewhat for the VCD packaging -- for Phra Rot-Meri:



A fearsome, black giant with pornstar boobs? Yeah. I don't think so. If such an image turns up in Phra Rot-Meri, I'll be truly surprised.

In the opening moments of Phra Rot-Meri we see a fearsome, black giant with pornstar boobs swooping down on a herd of elephants, picking up one of the animals and popping it into her mouth like a pork cracklin', then spraying blood through her teeth at the camera as she bites down. (Well, I'll be damned.) Then we move on to the story proper. Phra Rot-Meri (English translation: Prince Rot and Princess Meri) is adapted from an old Thai folk tale, and tells the story of twelve little girls who are abandoned by their parents, leaving them to brave the elements (and the elephants!) by themselves. Eventually they are taken in by an evil -- but sexy! -- sorceress who has as her sidekicks two ogres who can transform between human and giant size, one of whom is kind and sympathetic toward the girls, the other of whom just wants to eat them. (By the way, "sorceress" and "ogre" are my own terms here, as I'm not sure what these figures would be characterized as in Thai folklore, though one summary of the story I read describes the sorceress as a "yak woman", despite her not appearing very yak-ish here.)

Once the girls have been thrown into a dank dungeon, making it clear that the sorceress' intentions are probably not all that charitable, the kindly ogre gives them pills that make them turn into adults. They then escape and are rescued by a fluffy-haired prince who, having fallen in love with the youngest of the girls, Sip Song, agrees to marry all twelve of them. Unfortunately, the sorceress is able to insinuate her way into the Prince's court -- and bed -- and by that proximity is able to poison the girls with a potion that makes them all instantly become extremely pregnant. The prince then takes time out from dallying with his new mistress to be outraged that his twelve new wives would cat around behind his back and all of a sudden be eight months pregnant, and so banishes them, after which they fall back into the sorceress' hands. At which point things take a decidedly dark turn.

The sorceress next decides that she needs the girls' eyes in order to make a youth potion, and so we get a gruesome scene in which the screaming girls, one by one, have their peepers gorily torn from their sockets. Then, having served their purpose, the now blind and horribly mutilated girls are left to die in the dungeon, and quickly deteriorate into an animalistic state. When the first of their babies is born, all of them but Sip Song tear it to pieces with their bare hands and eat it. (This scene is phony looking, but still extremely graphic, and disturbing enough that I decided not to provide any screencaps of it.) When Sip Song's baby is born, she beseeches the kindly ogre to save it, and so he reaches down with a giant hand and whisks the babe away before it can become the chef's special.

Now unexpectedly finding himself a parent, the kindly ogre prays to the gods, and is granted his own pair of copiously lactating pornstar boobs. Within minutes, Sing Song's baby son has grown to be about eight years old, at which point he greedily latches his mouth onto one of the ogre's massive man-hooters and starts sucking away. (Oh God...) The boy reaches manhood within a matter of days, and takes to running cockfights in order to make his living. (Must... stop...) Amazingly, these cockfights are not "to the death", and so Sands, while certainly presenting us with scenes of real animal cruelty, uncharacteristically does not go all the way with it. Eventually the boy, who is the Prince Rod of the title, sets out to free his mother from captivity and defeat the sorceress, who, we will learn, turns into that buxom black giant, hulk-style, when she gets extra mad.

Okay, that's it. That's as far as I can go.


So. Wrong.

Holy fuck, Sompote Sands! I knew this one was going to be weird from the outset, but I really didn't see the graphic baby eating and man-boob suckling coming. You have once again managed to completely fucking freak me out. And I hadn't even yet mentioned the scene where a kid is shown taking a crap and the camera then zooms in for a lingering close-up on the resultant turd. Holy fuck, Sompote Sands!

Because I'm all about fairness, I will point out that Phra Rot-Meri, true to Sands' more wholesome mandate, contains a generous amount of scenes in which giant monsters trash miniature buildings, most of which are a reasonable amount of fun. It is also, quite surprisingly, one of the most narratively focused of all of the non-co-produced Chaiyo productions I've seen, and is free from most of the meandering digressions into aimless comic relief seen in their other efforts. Nevertheless, many of those who might find some modest amount of pleasure in the film's oddball fantasy elements will most likely find elsewhere within it much that will challenge their ability to keep their lunch down. This is definitely one for those with the calloused sensibilities of the hardcore Mondo Macabro fan. (Keith, your copy is in the mail.) All others should stay away. Hell, I should have stayed away, and I generally like those kind of movies. But, you know, that's just never gonna happen.

Stay tuned for more Thai-Style Kaiju in the coming weeks!




These images reveal a lot more about the male psyche than I'd like to admit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Darna vs. the Planet Women (Philippines, 1975)

This review of Darna vs. the Planet Women benefits greatly from the fact that my wife generously agreed to watch along and translate the film's Tagalog dialogue. It must be said, however, that this arrangement was not an easy one to negotiate. I think my wife, quite understandably, would prefer to think of the Philippines' cinematic heritage as being defined by such lauded artists as Lino Brocka, and would rather live in blissful ignorance of that dark underbelly that plays home to figures like Dolphy, Chiquito and Weng Weng.

Still, she was intrigued by the fact that Darna vs. the Planet Women starred Filipino screen icon Vilma Santos. In fact, when I first talked to her about Darna, and mentioned the fact that Santos was the star most identified with her big screen incarnation, she didn't believe me. It was almost inconceivable to her that an actress as revered and respected as the oft-awarded Santos would have ever been low enough to don silly superhero duds for a series of cheesy comic book movies. To put it in perspective, I think it would be tantamount to someone trying to convince me that Meryl Streep had been the star of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.

But the truth is that Santos didn't appear in the Darna movies out of hunger, and was in fact already a star at the time of first taking the role. I think this says as much about the stature of Darna as it does about that of Santos. Darna was, after all, an iconic figure in her own right at that point, having been the star of both a best-selling comic book and a popular series of movies for over twenty years. Given that, I imagine that the offer to play her, despite bearing with it the risk of ending up looking a bit ridiculous, was a difficult one to refuse -- just as the opportunity to play such freighted pop cultural totems as Batman or Superman has been for many Hollywood actors who might otherwise have been loath to parade before their audience stuffed like sausages into form-fitting lycra.

Darna vs. the Planet Women was the third, as well as the next to last, Darna film to star Santos, though you might not guess that from watching it. For some reason it was decided -- despite the fact that Santos' debut as Darna, Lipad, Darna, Lipad, had been far and away the most successful Darna film ever -- that, three films later, a Batman Begins should be done on Darna, rebooting the series and, in the process, altering certain aspects of the lore that had surrounded the character in the previous films. And so, with Planet Women we get a retelling of Darna's origin that for some reason recasts her formerly able-bodied alter ego Narda as being disabled by a gimp leg.

But before that retelling, we're treated to a half hour or so of light village melodrama, during which Narda bickers with her somewhat thick-witted boyfriend Ramon (Zandro Zamora) and bears up nobly to repeated taunting by a gang of liquored-up local rowdies (who you just know are due for some big time payback once Darna Time comes around). At this time we are also reintroduced to Narda's little brother, Ding -- here played by Bentot Jr. -- who acts as Narda's confidante, constant companion, and a very informal sidekick once she makes the transformation to superheroine. Ding is a chunky little wiseass in an ever-present striped shirt who will readily shake his undersized fist and mug defiantly at a bad guy as long as Darna's around for him to hide behind in the event of retaliation. In short, put this kid in some overalls, give him a monkey, and render him as a cartoon and he's a dead-ringer for Spritle from Speed Racer. Ding reaps many benefits from having a superhero for a big sis, as we see in those scenes where he gets to ride Darna like a pony as she flies through the skies above the islands.


Darna gives Ding a lift

Finally the Planet Women, a band of bikini-clad space amazons who are each color coded with a different shade of primary-hued body paint, make their appearance, interestingly choosing a small rural village in the Philippines as ground zero for their invasion of Earth. As their first act of conquest, they put the whammy on Narda's beau Ramon with a paralyzer ray -- by appearances, simply because he was unlucky enough to be wandering around in the vicinity of their flying saucer. Narda then happens upon Ramon in his frozen state and falls to her knees in lamentation, only to be answered by a surprisingly laid-back sounding voice from the heavens who reassures her and sends down to her a small stone with the name "Darna" written on it in glitter. Following the voice's instructions, she swallows the stone, shouts "Darna", and is instantly replaced by the scantily clad super amazon we've all been waiting to see -- a transformation that leaves even young Ding unable to restrain himself from exclaiming about what a hottie his sister has suddenly become.



The Planet Women: Preeetty.

The Planet Women, who are lead by the Ronald McDonald be-wigged Electra (Rosanna Ortiz), come armed with a shopping list of Earth scientists whom they plan to abduct, setting the stage for most of the movie's action, which involves Darna's efforts to thwart those abductions. This leads to some of Darna vs. the Planet Women's most indelible moments, including a scene where Darna bursts through the wall of one of the imperiled professors' homes, leaving a perfect, Darna-shaped hole behind her, and a rooftop kung fu fight between her and a Planet Woman that I'll just refer to as "the blue one". This is a film that goes out of its way to show that our heroine is truly a woman of her times, and so, in addition to a lengthy scene in which Darna shows her stuff on the disco floor, we're given a weirdly static kung fu match that consists almost entirely of Bruce Lee-style stance-taking and smirky goading of the opponent with come-hither hand gestures, and almost no actual fighting.


Disco Darna

In comparison to the utilitarian and nearly mute performance of Eva Montes in Darna and the Tree Monster, the last Darna film I had the pleasure of watching, Vilma Santos gives us a Darna who is brimming with personality, boasting a charming combo of golly-gosh do-gooderism and cocky, cobra-necked bravado. By dint of this, she even seems to win over the Planet Women themselves, who turn out to be much more honorable than your average Earth-coveting space invaders. Ultimately, Electra and Darna agree to settle the whole matter woman-to-woman, and when Darna comes out of the fight on top, the Planet Women, true to their word, pack up their stuff and head back from whence they came.

With its dodgy technical execution and resolutely rural sensibility, Darna vs. the Planet Women is third world pulp cinema at its purest, with the most extreme example of conspicuous consumption seen on screen being the destruction of a chicken shack. Still, you just know that I'm going to say that I enjoyed it anyway, and I did. Vilma Santos makes for an appealingly plucky heroine, and it's not hard to see why she is such a beloved figure in her country. On top of that, the film, like the most savvy hostess, shows that it knows how to entertain on a budget, delivering up a generous amount of cheesy thrills with the simple application of colored paints on an impressive expanse of exposed flesh, some imaginative repurposing of discarded household objects in its cash-strapped sci-fi sets, and some truly head-slap worthy primitive special effects. That's enough to guaranty that I'll be taking another return trip to Darnaland in the very near future.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mmm, delicious kudos

“This award is given to a blog that invests and believes in PROXIMITY – nearness in space, time and relationships! These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this cleverly-written text into the body of their award.”

Darnit, I am charming, arent I?

Memsaab gifted me -- along with seven other actually deserving bloggers -- with the above award, and it's a real honor, especially coming from the person who started me on the dark path toward Dara Singh addiction. Aside from her witty reviews and uncanny eye for the perfect screencap, what I really love about Memsaab is that, while obviously a woman of refined tastes, she has the ability to appreciate those unique pleasures that can only come from pure trash -- a fact which is evidenced by her appreciation for this blog. When it comes to the pulpy products of Bollywood's more shady backlots, I've come to view her recommendations as law, and have rarely been disappointed

So now, in gloriously preference-concealing alphabetical order, are those whom I have chosen to share the L.U.V. with:

Beth Loves Bollywood. I'm going to out myself right now and admit that I really don't get the whole Shashi Kapoor thing, but it's a compliment to Beth that that doesn't detract in the least from the enjoyment I get out of reading her increasingly Shashi-centric blog. In addition to being an engaging and hella funny writer, her inquisitiveness and eagerness to spark debate among her readers makes for one of the most interesting and informative comment sections on any film blog I've read.

The Horror!? But behind all of the horror lies a thoughtful and sensitive soul. I used to be bothered that this blog never featured any images of any kind, but now I've come to like it, because, when I visit, I imagine that this is what Denis's room looks like: pitch darkness illuminated only by the dim glow of text on the monitor. Of course, the most frightening thing about Denis is his intelligence. He is a fellow of expansive tastes who is able to discuss an astonishing variety of films with an equal level of wit, eloquence and insight. Plus, he has managed with his reviews to make me reconsider my own uncharitable opinion of films on more than one occasion, which is either a testament to his persuasiveness or my own spinelessness.

Permission to Kill. As a man who set out to watch every Santo movie ever made, I fully understand the kind of sick impulse that drove my Teleport City colleague David Foster to take on the Sisyphean task of viewing every spy movie made in every country in the world ever. But it is not just sympathy that makes me include him here. David's meticulous cataloguing of those films has not only lead me to a number of that genre's little-known gems, but also spared me the grief of suffering through some of its more regrettable misfires.

Roti Kapada aur Rum. I love the way Rum writes. I feel like she's right there, shouting excitedly into my ear. I literally have to move back a few inches from the monitor sometimes. She has also made me determined to find a context in which I can use the terms "horny porny" and "backwass" in one or more of my reviews.

The Search for Weng Weng. I appreciate Andrew Leavold's blog both for the wealth of information on Filipino pulp cinema it provides and as a document of obsession, which is something -- duh! -- I can totally relate to.

Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Pop Cinema. Of course, I'm a little mad at David for starting this blog, because I feel I can no longer hit him up for cool images and ephemera from super-rare Hong Kong films to spice up 4DK. So selfish! This, of course, doesn't stop me from reading his blog religiously and enjoying it immensely. David has long been engaged in a lonely struggle -- through Soft Film and his Connie Chan specific site, Movie-Fan Princess -- to increase awareness among English speaking film fans of the joys of Hong Kong's vintage Cantonese language cinema, and its an effort that I, for one, really appreciate.

Valerie Atherton's Playground and Intellectual Department. Kryptonite for humorless fanboys. To tell the truth, I have absolutely no clue who writes this blog, but it's awesome.

Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal. Wise Kwai's dedication to exposing an English speaking audience to the whole of Thai cinema -- from the classic crowd pleasers of Mitr Chaibancha and Sombat Methanee, to the most current horror films grossing out extreme Asian film fans, to the next artistically aspiring festival favorites -- is an outstanding example of the type of online film journalism that is serving more and more to broaden the horizons of film fans on a truly globe-spanning scale.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I, Diabolicus

Superargo vs. Diabolicus struck a personal chord with me, because, like Diabolicus, I, too, have been an enemy of Superago. But now I intend to make amends, with my full review over at Teleport City being the first step in the process.

Friday's best pop song ever

Hopefully a pleasant little earworm to carry with you through your Friday. Of course, I have a different song every day that I think is the best pop song ever, but, as a rare exercise in restraint, I'm going to keep this as a weekly feature for now. As you can see, I'm not exactly mining the obscure here. But, hey, a classic's a classic.


The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Faulad (India, 1963)

Faulad falls squarely within a Bollywood genre that I had no idea existed until only very recently; that being the Greco-Roman Mediaeval Pirate movie. So far my favorite film in that genre is Manmohan Desai's Dharam-Veer, with the Dara Singh vehicle Lootera being my second. Faulad, which is also a Dara Singh vehicle, would then be my third favorite, but only by default, because it's not like it's so impressive that a fourth entry, once I discover it, isn't likely to knock it out of place.

Much like in Lootera, Dara starts out the movie as a gladiator/wrestler type and then, after leading a rebellion on a slave ship, becomes the leader of a frilly-shirted band of pirates. Mumtaz is also on hand as a haughty princess who falls for Dara after he rescues her from a runaway chariot. Mumtaz, by the way, seriously looks like she's about eleven in this movie, so thank God there's no actual kissing between her and Dara, because it's creepy enough already as it is.

Faulad is directed by everybody's (well, mine and Memsaab's) new favorite director Mohammed Hussain, which is a guaranty that it will contain at least one giant rubber monster, and it does. Dara and his men make a pit stop at an island where they wander into a cave to be menaced by some kind of giant bug which Dara quickly runs through with his sword. Unfortunately, the bug isn't all that big -- about the size of a large dog -- and can't be seen very clearly. If things were otherwise, Faulad would surely have shot up to the top of my list of favorite GRMP movies, only to be displaced in the event that another movie came along with all of the same elements plus a Taoist priest shooting cartoon laser beams out of his hands.

Most of Faulad is in black and white, but a couple of its musical numbers, as well as its final fifteen minutes, are in color, a gimmick that might have had some dazzle for audiences ten years previous, when few Bollywood films were being made in color, but couldn't have had much of a wow factor in 1963. Mainly it just has the effect of making those black and white segments that follow the colored ones -- which are indeed very colorful -- seem more disappointing than they might otherwise have been, as if Faulad is telling you, "Okay, that was the movie you could have had, but now we're back to the one that couldn't afford to be in color."

And indeed Faulad is a shoe-string, cash-strapped affair, which is, of course, far from a complaint. I loved the preponderance of school play style painted cardboard sets, as well as the "whatever's left in the wardrobe department" approach to costuming. My favorite instance of the latter is during a wrestling match staged at the palace of Mumtaz's father, during which she and her court wear that kind of combination Mediaeval/Ancient Roman/Arabian Nights garb that they do, except for one guy who's dressed in a waistcoat and pantaloons like a foppish aristocrat out of an eighteenth century novel, and, of course, the wrestling referee, who is wearing a wife-beater and sweatpants.

Faulad winds up with quite a rousing climax, with all kinds of parallel action -- a swordfight here, some fisticuffs there -- taking place throughout the besieged palace. The pendulously man-maried King Kong even makes an appearance (as if that's a rarity in a Dara Singh movie) so that he and Dara can wrestle while he makes those distressing, loud grunting sounds that he does. All in all, it was... well, just okay. If I were forced to sum up Faulad with some kind of lazy, overtly sexist analogy -- which wouldn't be the strangest thing that I've been forced to do, which is another story -- I'd say that, if it were a woman, I probably wouldn't take a bullet for it, but I wouldn't throw it out of bed for eating crackers, either. If that had been a real giant bug, though....

Saturday, December 6, 2008

China Armed Escort (Taiwan, 1976)

China Armed Escort turned out to be a test of my dedication to Pearl Cheung Ling. Not that the movie was all that bad -- or, at least, not as far as I could tell. It's just that the DVD-R I watched appeared to have been made from a very old, nth generation VHS tape made from a TV broadcast, and as a result the picture had all the clarity of one of those night vision sequences on Ghost Hunters. I can't even verify for certain whether I actually saw Pearl Cheung Ling. But I'm pretty sure I saw the face of Jesus a couple of times. (Vatican, I'll be calling shortly.)

One thing I definitely could not see were the film's tiny, burned-in English subtitles, and so, much of China Armed Escort's plot remains as mysterious to me as Cheung Ling herself. (Seriously, specific information about the woman -- beyond the fact that she is the personification of raw, face-rocking awesomeness -- is very hard to come by on yon internets, at least for English-speaking types like yours truly.) However, I can tell you that this low budget wuxia film, one of Pearl's earliest starring vehicles, occupies a much lower tier on the insanity scale than those that the star would later direct herself. In fact, compared to Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort, it's actually sedate and, by all appearances, coherent -- a fact which kind of surprised me, given it was written by Wai San, who also scripted that broken-in-all-the-right-places, celluloid home lobotomy kit that is Fantasy Mission Force (which, of course, also stars Pearl Cheung Ling).

The film finds Pearl working for an escort service, which sounds promising, until you realize that it's an armed escort service. (Ohhhh.) Pearl's Dad run the service, and the first act is taken up with intrigues that result in him being murdered by a clan of cackling evildoers who count among their number, not one, but two guys with eyepatches. Pearl becomes head of the escort service as a result, and must take on the task of escorting a beardy white missionary across some dangerous territory that is full of those anonymous looking fields and quarries that low budget Taiwanese kung fu movies so love to stage their fights in. Of course, while undertaking this mission, Pearl must also fend off repeated attacks by the eyepatch gang, and, of course, exact bloody revenge for her father's murder.

In keeping with the film's tone, Cheung Ling's performance is a much more sober one than what we're used to from her, lacking the goofiness and mugging seen in her auteur efforts. Her character is basically one of those steely-eyed swordswoman with a bordering-supernatural skill level, and it's a role she excels at, making her all-too-few fight scenes a delight to behold. There's a great effect used to suggest her preternatural swiftness, by which her every leap or flip leaves a trail of multiple images fanning out behind her. Such are Pearl's skills that she is able to decapitate a guy without him even knowing it (though his facial expression reflects the dawning realization that things are perhaps not quite as they should be head-body wise). At another point, she spikes her sword through the top of another opponent's head like it was a cocktail olive. So, in short, while we may be seeing a Pearl Cheung Ling that is in some ways different from the one we came to know and love by way of her own psychedelic cinematic creations, the old Pearl Cheung Ling = Gore equation is still fully in play.

China Armed Escort was directed by Chan Ming-Wa, whose efforts throughout his career as a writer, director and producer appear to have been dedicated exclusively to films in which Pearl Cheung Ling was the star -- the last of these collaborations being 1982's My Blade, My Life. I've read in some places that Cheung Ling was married to a powerful Taiwanese producer, which was how she gained the access that allowed her to become that rarest of creatures, a woman producing, directing and starring in her own films in the male dominated world of 1970s kung fu cinema. Whether this story is true, or just some sort of sexist mythology that has risen up to fill the vacuum of information around her, I have no idea. But, if it's true, was Chan that guy? Reader, help me out, if you know. Hell, maybe Chan Ming-Wa was just an alias for Pearl Cheung Ling. (Now that's a juicy rumour. Remember, folks, you heard that totally groundless bit of ill-informed speculation here first.)

Anyway, China Armed Escort: While it's hard to make a call, given the condition of the version I watched, I'd hazard that the film is interesting, but not essential for fans of Pearl Cheung Ling. Interesting because, for those familiar with her only through her more psychotronic efforts, it shows a serious side of the actress that may be a mild revelation. Not essential because... well, because it didn't make me feel like I'd coughed up my brain, which is basically what I'm looking for from the Cheung Ling brand. But you knew that about me already.