On paper, A Devilish Homicide (also known as A Bloodthirsty Killer and, in its home country, Salinma) tells what is more or less a boilerplate Asian ghost story. There is the vengeful spirit of a wronged woman—sheathed in white, of course, and with her eerily glaring countenance peeking out from behind a veil of long black hair—who, as the years have taught us to expect, spends the bulk of the movie systematically picking off all of those responsible for her demise. In practice, however, the film is a great example of how an oft-told tale, when told inventively, can take on a vibrant new life.
For the first half of A Devilish Homicide, director Lee Yong-min seems to have dropped us into the middle of a Lynch-ean nightmare, piling on one disturbing visual non sequitur on top of another until, very gradually, a story starts to coalesce. This story, once it comes into view, is an anxious one of a middle class family unit so plagued by both mysterious outside forces and byzantine internal intrigues that it is impossible not to compare it to Kim Ki-Young’s landmark The Housemaid, made five years earlier. As in other rapidly modernizing Asian societies in the 1960s, the state of the traditional family appears to have been an abiding concern for Koreans at the time.
The film begins with well-to-do businessman Lee Shi-mak (Lee Ye-chun) making a late night visit to a deserted gallery, where he finds on the wall a red-tinted portrait of a woman whom he immediately recognizes. Much later, we will learn that this woman is Ae-ja (Do Kum-bong), Shi-mak’s ex-wife, who disappeared ten years earlier—but, for the time being, Yong-min leaves us to piece this together for ourselves.
Shi-mak takes the painting from the wall, only to have the image melt away before his eyes. He then flees the building and hops into a cab. Shi-mak wants to go home, but the disfigured cab driver has ideas of his own, taking his increasingly uneasy passenger out into the countryside. The driver warns Shi-mak that the night is alive with vengeful spirits and, to illustrate that fact, we are shown a dawn-lit forest teeming with white garbed female forms. This haunting image, presaging Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, is one of many in A Devilish Homicide that will stick with you long afterward.
Eventually the driver lets Shi-mak off at another apparently abandoned building, the interior of which, as rendered by Hong Jun-Mun’s noirish cinematography, is a foreboding maze of shadows. There he stumbles into the apartment of an artist, who happens to be in possession of the painting of Ae-ja and insists that Shi-mak take it. Before he can make his exit—or find out what the actual fuck is going on—the clock strikes midnight and the murderous spirit of Ae-jun appears at the artist’s door, dagger in hand. Hiding under the bed, Shi-mak watches fearfully as the ghost overcomes the artist and stabs him in the back. He then escapes from the building, only to be pursued by the cab driver, who now seems to have murder on his mind.
Taking shelter in yet another expressionistic ruin, Shi-mak crashes through the rotting floorboards into the shadowy crawlspace. There he finds the supine body of Ae-jun, unaged since her disappearance, in an apparent state of suspended animation. He takes her to his doctor friend, Park, who clearly recognizes her and is just as startled as Shi-mak to see her. He examines her while all the while exclaiming that it is impossible for her to be alive. Except that she is—although, when Park puts a stethoscope to her chest, all he hears is science fiction-y electronic noises.
Now, at this point in A Devilish Homicide, there have been many opportunities for the screen to go all watery and for Shi-mak to sit bolt upright in bed and scream—in the manner all movies seem to think we awaken from bad dreams even though none of us do ever. Even Shi-mak—who is wandering through the abandoned streets of the city in the middle of the night why, exactly?—repeatedly exclaims that he must be having a nightmare. This conviction is bolstered by the languid horror of all that has happened so far, which is more than a little reminiscent of the similarly dream-like Carnival of Souls. Even a devotee of outré cinema such as me, who should have been conditioned by my viewings of other deeply strange Korean movies like Woman after a Killer Butterfly, surrendered to the expectation that all of these improbable events would eventually be ascribed to night terrors. However, this was not to be the case.
Shi-mak leaves Ae-jun with Dr. Park and returns home to his family, an idyllic unit consisting of his wife, his mother and his three children. Ae-jun, who has murdered Park immediately upon waking up, is not far behind, and soon the family's bonds are tested by a series of horrific encounters. First, Shi-mak’s mom walks into the forest to pray at a Buddhist shrine and is attacked by Ae-jun, who growls and hisses like a cat. We see her getting pushed into the river and swallowed by the current, and she is missing long enough to be feared dead. Grandma nonetheless returns, albeit with a few add-ons. In one particularly hard to un-see scene, she finds her two youngest grandchildren asleep in their shared bed and starts compulsively licking their faces.
In another harrowing sequence, Ae-jun reaches in through a bedroom window and snatches Shi-mak’s teenage daughter up onto the roof of the house. Her mother desperately tries to reach the roof, but the rickety ladder she is using starts to buck and sway dangerously in the wind. All the while, her daughter’s screams of terror and agony pierce the soundtrack. Meanwhile, grandma (in a toweringly creepy performance by a Korean actress whom I sadly cannot identify) continues to behave in an increasingly sinister manner. Suspicious, Shi-mak spies on her and witnesses her grooming herself in the mirror, licking her hand and then pulling it back across her hair. Looking back at her from the mirror is the reflection of a cat. Shi-mak barges in on her and a struggle ensues. His mother dies, leaving in her place a dead cat wearing a tiny robe.
When Shi-mak, in a fit of rage, destroys the portrait of Ae-jun, he finds hidden within it the artist’s diary. In it, the artist describes the murder plot that lead to poor Ae-jun’s demise. Suffice it to say that it’s a scheme that’s every bit as absurd as it is vicious. He also describes aspects of Ae-jun’s sad and lonely death that he could not possibly have known about. Soon thereafter, a mysterious young woman appears at Shi-mak’s home and offers to become the family’s maid. She gives Shi-mak a third eye taken from one of the Buddhist shrine’s idols for protection. This he will repeatedly throw at Ae-jun like a mystical superball in their final confrontation.
A Devilish Homicide is a strange film, but strange only in the best way possible--while being at the same time relentlessly, oppressively creepy. It is also a film that could prove instructive to the current generation of commercial filmmakers, some of whom think that making a genre film is simply a matter of faithfully rolling out a catalog of established tropes and familiar plot points. This practice results in boring and unimaginative genre films that make people like me sad. As an alternative, what A Devilish Homicide demonstrates is that every story, no matter how hackneyed, offers a myriad of potential drop pins from which it can be told—and, depending how far those pins venture from a conventional perspective, told interestingly. In fact, the earlier reference to David Lynch is appropriate here, as so many of his movies, like A Devilish Homicide, contain within them conventional genre films that have been fractured almost beyond recognition.
In the case of A Devilish Homicide, we eventually find that, despite him being positioned as the protagonist, the story is not that of Shi-mak at all. Shi-mak was neither an actor in the plot against Ae-jun nor privy to it, which means that the story of A Devilish Homicide is really that of Ae-jun, an innocent who suffered tragically at the hands of her conniving loved ones and ended up a spirit walking the earth in search of vengeance. If the movie had been made in Indonesia, Ae-jun would be the central character--and portrayed by Suzzanna.
Instead, Lee Yong-min drops us into the middle of a businessman’s nightmare and lets us struggle out of that toward the film’s true heart. Although it’s forcing of a male perspective might merely be the result of patriarchal imperative, its central tale, like that of most Suzanna films, is one of man’s inhumanity to women.
Wednesday night, Jeff Heyman and I celebrated the end of Pop Offensive's second year on the air by surrounding ourselves with a chorus of angels--that is, if your religion allows for The Shaggs, The Slits, and the Runaways being called "angels" (which it should.) Yes, it was our second All Girl Extravaganza, an eclectic survey of the female spirit as expressed through a wide array of pop genres, and it was awesome. If you missed out on hearing it live, you can now stream the episode in it's entirety from the KGPC's Pop Offensive archives even though you are obviously a complete misogynist. We don't discriminate! We'll even let you read the complete playlist for the episode over at the Pop Offensive Facebook Page. (And while you're there, don't forget to check out all the videos we've posted, including Sophie & Magaly's penguin obsessed Eurovision performance.)
Celebrities, like the rest of us, die all the time—with the difference being that our deaths don’t inspire an outpouring of eulogies and remembrances from mass media's every outlet. That kind of outpouring can often create the false sense of a national state of mourning, and inspire in some of us the opposite reaction. For many of us—especially those of us who have experienced the loss of someone actually close to us—the idea that we should grieve someone just because they were on TV or had a hit record can seem ridiculous, obscene even. That’s how I feel about most celebrity deaths.
But then there are those celebrity deaths that make us feel like there is a hole in the world. For me, David Bowie’s death was like that, and now Prince’s. Part of that is due to the way an artist like Prince’s work intertwines with personal memory. Having come of age in the 80s, I have many vivid recollections of which Prince is as much a part as the flesh and blood people who were actually there. These include going to see Purple Rain with a new girlfriend whom I knew was going to stomp on my heart, listening to “Lady Cab Driver” on my roommate’s stereo while she was at work, and playing the cassette of “Sign O’ the Times” over and over in my band’s tour van for an entire Summer. In this way, the hole is a personal one.
And then there is the matter of the imprint that these artists leave behind, which, in the case of Prince and Bowie, is measured, not in memory, but in the actual change they have wrought in the world. Both artists brought about profound changes in pop music--in the way that songs were written, recorded, and performed and, in turn, how they were perceived. A simple decision like removing the bass track from "When Doves Cry" opened up broad new vistas in terms of how a pop song could be produced and even what could constitute a pop song in the first place. That the artist takes with him or her into death the possibility of influencing more such change accounts in large part for the hole they leave behind.
Of course, these kind of ruminations are really a sort of cheat when all I want to say is that the loss of Prince is really hurting me right now. For now, I plan to grieve constructively, filling the hole with music--I already have a playlist planned--and probably a few tears.
When Jeff Heyman and I recorded the first episode of Pop Offensive, back in April of 2014, I could not have imagined that we would still be doing the show a full two years later--and that it would still be as fun as it has continued to be. In honor of that, this Wednesday's episode, which will be our 25th, will be on one of our favorite themes. That's right: For the better part of two hours, we are going to be playing nothing but female artists, singers and groups--putting, as I like to say, the men on mute and the ladies on blast. If you like the girl group sound, ye ye girls, Northern Soul divas, Japanese idols, Riot Grrrls and rockabilly sirens, you cannot miss it. Unless you live within a stones throw of Oakland's Laney College and can pick up KGPC's mighty 100 watt signal (found at 96.9 on the FM dial), you can stream the episode live from kgpc969.org.
Tonight's 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down feature is rated AVMPSWFMGMJ for Absurd Violence, Mullets, People Screaming While Firing Machine Guns, and Man Jerky. Yes, it's DEADLY PREY and it's stupid as hell--but, of course, also awesome. You have no choice but to join us on Twitter at 6pm PT and, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, comment along with us to this redolent fossil of 1980s direct-to-video action flotsam using the link below. See you in hell!
Hunting humans. We've all done it. Come on, admit it. But why do we do it? Because, as has so often been said, human beings are the most dangerous game of all. That is true even if said human is a monosyllabic muscle farmer with a mullet and a spray-on pair of daisy dukes. I speak, of course, of Mike Danton, the hero of the 1980s straight-to-video classic Deadly Prey, which is essentially The Most Dangerous Game in Zubas. And so it is that this Tuesday, April 12th, Deadly Prey will be stalked by the most dangerous hunters of all--by which I mean the Monthly Movie Shout Down Crew, whose weapons of choice are their pithy tweets and snarky attitudes. If you want to join us, all you have to do is log on to Twitter at 6pm Pacific Time and, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, tweet along with us as we watch the film via the Daily Motion link that I will provide here on 4DK.
While many film enthusiasts would be content, upon seeing a passing reference to a genre of Soviet westerns made during the height of the Cold War, to think "huh, interesting" and then move on with their lives, I am the guy who has to immediately find and watch one of those movies. Of course, given the cornucopia of obscure foreign films that YouTube has become in recent years, this is a far less laborious task than it once was--which is why I'm hanging upside down in a gimp costume as I write the. You gotta suffer, people.
Loosely based on Little Red Devils, a novel by Pavel Blyakhin, The Elusive Avengers spawned two sequels, making it one of the more popular examples of the uniquely Russian riff on the Western genre known as the Ostern, or “Eastern.” Like most Osterns, it is set in Ukraine during the chaotic period of civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. This conflict saw a variety of anti-Bolshevik factions take arms against the Lenin regime, making uneasy provisional allies of everything from monarchists to capitalists to more democratically-minded socialists. Despite this smorgasbord of potential alliances, it should come as little surprise that the actions of the film’s titular heroes, while motivated by vengeance, are entirely in keeping with the interests of the Red Army.
In the film’s opening, Danka, a young village boy, watches in horror as his father, a spy for the Russian government, is summarily executed by the vicious warlord Lyuti (played with dissolute menace by Vladimir Treshchalov.) We immediately skip forward a few years to find that Danka and three of his teenage friends have since banded together to defend their home against the gangs of bandits, rebels, and rogue Cossacks that are preying upon the peasantry. In addition to Danka (who is now played by 16 year old Viktor Kosykh), we have Yashka, a gypsy (Vasily Vasilev), Valerka, an intense student-type (Mikhail Metyolkin, in Trotsky-like glasses to drive the point home), and Danka’s sister, Ksanka, a nun (Valentina Kurdyukova.)
At first the group focuses their efforts on the bandit gang led by Ataman Burmash (Yefim Kopelyan), interfering with the transport of his supplies and ill-gotten gains in a series of exciting horseback raids. When it later becomes clear that Burmash is taking orders from Lyuti, the offensive takes on a more personal—and violent—cast. The result is a series of increasingly risky, late night guerilla operations in which the young Avengers, true to their name, elude capture only by the skin of their teeth.
It is worth noting that The Elusive Avengers, in making nods to the Western genre, takes little influence from the American Westerns of Ford and Hawks, and rather more influence from the then-contemporary Euro-Westerns of Leone and Corbucci. This circumstance, as unsurprising as it is, is a happy one, as it means that we get lots of dramatic widescreen composition and sweeping vistas, moody nighttime action, and an expert ramping up of tension. Director Edmond Keosayan layers onto this an element of “Boys’ Own” adventure, building up excitement as we watch our teenage heroes pull off one daring caper after another. You almost expect the action to stop so they can give a thumb up to the camera and tell all the kids out there how “awesome” it is to fight the enemies of communism (there is indeed a fourth-wall-breaking wink at one point. )
The Elusive Avengers is served well by its energetic young cast, among whom I think Vasily Vasilev, who in the same year played a small part in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, is the standout. As Yashka, the group’s token “ethnic” (a Chinese in the book, an American black man in an earlier film version), he is not positioned as the film’s lead, but nonetheless steals that position by virtue of his sheer charisma and physicality. With Danka providing the vengeful fire that motivates the group, and the studious Valerka planning all of its operations, Yashka is the warrior of the group, left to be at the center of all of the film’s most exciting action set pieces. Among these is a scene depicting the Avengers’ defense of a military cargo train from a gang of bandits on horseback that is so similar to the iconic train sequence in Sholay that it is hard not to imagine it being an influence.
And this is all not to mention Vasilev’s singing and dancing, which are displayed in a scene that takes place after Yashka and Ksanka take jobs as entertainers at a tavern frequented by Burmash’s gang. Indeed, The Elusive Avengers is also something of a musical, with several diegetic scenes of characters breaking into song. This adds considerably to the picaresque sense of fun that intermingles intriguingly with the dark Spaghetti Western dynamic seen elsewhere in the film. Of course, I watched an untranslated version of this movie, so, if they were singing about burning the fat American capitalists in their beds, I might view it otherwise. I doubt that’s the case, though; Given the film seems largely directed at those young men most likely to be seduced by its romanticized depiction of Russian youth defending the homeland, I don’t think it would resort to such buzz-killing cold war proselytizing.
That is, until the end, when the Avengers receive an audience with Joseph Stalin himself, who thanks them for their exploits and makes them members of the Red Army on the spot. I assume this means that, in the film’s sequels (The New Adventures of the Elusive Avengers, in 1968, and The Crown of the Russian Empire/Once Again the Elusive Avengers, in 1971), the kids fight as soldiers of the Russian military, rather than as a ragtag band of teenage rebels. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine those sequels being as fun or exciting as The Elusive Avengers--although I do intend to find out.