Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Time was a thing of the past

As the quarantine wore on and the routines that structured our lives faded from memory, there emerged a new conception of time—one appropriate for a moment in which an hour could seemingly last a day and a week an hour. In other words, any dream we had of a highly efficient future dependent on the precise measurement of all things measurable gave way to an actual future whose nature was a lot more uncertain.

So fluid and ephemeral had time become that we had to come up with increasingly flexible ways to delineate it. For instance, I might tell someone that my birthday was on the Tweleventh of Maypril. We got rid of Monday, because no one liked it, and replaced it with an extra-long cycle called T’Whensday. You could make an appointment to meet somebody at Noone, as long as you both had the stamina to return to the spot again and again until that could be accomplished, which sometimes could take as long as a month.

A lot required changing in this time-dependent society. The trains no longer ran on time; they just ran constantly. Sometimes you would have to get on and off of oppositely bound trains several times to get to your desired stop. The standard practice in restaurants was to order several meals so that at least one of them would be ready before you had to leave. Television was nothing but CCTV feeds and drone footage, so no schedule was necessary.

One the bright side to this is that, because time was no longer a measurable quantity, a lot of the tired old bromides about it were no longer applicable. How could you “Live for today” if today only lasted a few seconds? and how could time be on your side when it was so obviously committed to flustering you on every level of consciousness?

As for myself, and as a writer, I am tempted not to end my stories because it is time that requires that those stories end. And if this story ends, it is because I fell asleep.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Retaliation (Japan, 1968)

By Hollywood standards, you’d think that Yasuharu Hasebe barely had time for a bathroom break between making 1967’s Massacre Gun and its sequel, Retaliation, which came out less than a year later. But that’s just the way Nikkatsu, with its systematic approach to quickly and economically churning out low budget genre entertainment, did business in those days. And directors like Yasuharu, who reliably churned out one crowd pleasing pulp movie after another, were the studio’s life blood. Hell, he even turned out a third film The Singing Gun¸ between the two.

Massacre Gun was only Yasuharu’s second film, following his psychotronic debut Black Tight Killers. In comparison to that film, Massacre Gun is a surprisingly conservative film, with very little of the stylistic experimentation of its predecessor, which may account for its success. As the career of Yasuharu’s mentor Seijun Suzuki attests, Nikkatsu didn’t put a lot of effort behind films that it thought were weird. And Black Tight Killers may just be as weird as Suzuki’s chosen method of career suicide, Branded to Kill, which featured Jo Shishido as a rice-sniffing hit man.

etaliation is less of a direct sequel to Massacre Gun than it is a spiritual one. Both star Jo Shishido and Hideaki Natani as similar but differently named characters. Both films concern a trio of Yakuza foot soldiers who rebel against their boss and become hunted by them as a result. And though the differences between the two movies are mostly formal they are nonetheless considerable.

For one, that Massacre stars Jo Shishido and is filmed in shadowy black and white makes it seem more akin to the Nikkatsu New Action films that came before it. While Shishido has a substantial role in Retaliation, the above the title role goes to Akira Kobayashi, one of Nikkatsu’ touted “Diamond Line” of charismatic male stars. This fact made the studio loosen the purse strings enough to give Yasurahu a decent budget this time. And his most obvious expense was to film int Eastman Color, which gave him the opportunity to splash around a lot of that fire engine red blood that Japanese filmmakers of the time were so fond of, and also lens a lot of naked female flesh. The resulting increase in violence, simulated sex and nudity makes Retaliation read like a precursor of the more violent “Pinky Violence’ and “Roman Porno” films that the studio started making in the 1970s. Acting as a harbinger of this is Female Convict Scorpion/Lady Snowblood star, Meiko Kaji, who has a small role as a captive farmgirl.

The film begins with Yakuza assassin Jiro, played by Akira Kobayashi, returning from an eight year bid to visit his boss, the godfather of the Ichimanji Family, who is on his deathbed. The godfather tells him that Hasama (Hideaki Natani), the Godfather of a rival clan, has been paying his medical bills and asks that Jiro pay him a visit and thank him for his kindness. Hasama is impressed by Jiro and recruits him on the spot. He asks that Jiro go to Takagawa City, a rural farming community turned boom town thanks to a factory being recently built there. The reigning Yakuza clan there, the Tono, are rapidly being displaced by a new gang, The Aoba Clan, who are driving the remaining farmers off their land and selling their property to the factory’s owner at a profit. Hasama promises that, if he can put an end to the conflict, Jiro can have complete control of the city. Taking Hasama at his word Jiro heads to Takagawa with JoJi (Jiro Okazaki) an ambitious younger Yakuza, by his side.

Meanwhile, another assassin named Hino (Jo Shishido) is tailing Jiro, planning to avenge Jiro’s murder of his brother. His first attempt fails when Hino’s tearful wife intercedes. This happens a few times in the film as, Hino’s wife appears to always be hovering on the sidelines waiting for her chance to jump in and tearfully plead with him to give up his life of crime. Each time, Hino begrudgingly accedes, reminding Jiro “You’re mine. Don’t forget that.” As Hino’s dogged pursuit makes him Jiro’s virtual traveling companion, the two of them eventually forge a reluctant bond, Hino agreeing to accompany Jiro to Tagakawa City.

And when the trio of Jiro, Hino and Joji reach the city, Retaliation doubles down on the Kurosawa homage. A la Seven Samurai, Jiro, Hino and Joji find themselves sympathetic to the plight of the humble farmers and appalled by the strong-arm tactics of the Aoba clan. The Aobas, you see, are a new strain of Yakuza: crude young street thugs with none of the respect for honor and decorum that their elders have, and prone to rampaging through the streets and terrorizing the women and children for fun. Thankfully, a la Yojimbo, Jiro manages to escalate the conflict between the gangs until it leads to an apocalyptic gun battle that greatly reduces their numbers.

It is appropriate that Retaliation concerns itself with generational conflict, as it is a film which occurred at a time of transition for a studio that famously survived economic turbulence by changing with the times. And it’s audience. Given those times were the 1960s and 1970s, that’s no small accomplishment. During that time, Yasuharu Hasebe was one of the few directors who directed films in every one of Nikkatsu’s cycles, including New Action, Pinky Violence, and Ero Guro. When the studio started leaning more toward full-on porn at the start of the 80s, he finally called it quits, thought not before directing such appetizing titles as Rape!, Raping! And Rape! 13th Hour. He then closed out his career directing for various television series, including the classic Tokusatsu show Spectreman.

Of course, people like myself who yell about movies on the internet tend to spend too much time parsing genre. The truth is that, if a film is well made, which Retaliation certainly is, your enjoyment of it should not depend on how it’s bagged and tagged. That I enjoyed Retaliation very much is largely due to Yasuhara Hasebe’s unfailing commitment to his craft. It’s beautifully lensed, well-acted, fast paced and peppered with expertly staged action throughout. File it under: recommended.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday's best pop song ever

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast #28; "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory"

I have no excuse adequately to explaining why I am posting the March episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast on April 17. All I can offer you by way of apology is the best episode I could produce about one of the coolest songs ever

Monday, March 23, 2020

A Glass and a Cigarette (Egypt, 1955)

Despite being fronted by a trio of Egypt’s most beloved female entertainers, A Glass and a Cigarette, with its retrograde sexual politics, does women few favors. After all, what hoary old patriarchal stereotype is more hoary and old than that of the marriage-minded career girl? Even when that career girl is a belly dancer? And, yes, the film does feint toward being a gritty examination of alcoholism, but all such concerns get sent out with the trash once the home-wrecking floozy gets her slapstick come-uppance and the wayward heroine comes to realize her rightful place as a wife and mother. Ugh.

And I say the above with a real sense of disappointment, as Egyptian cinema, even in the fifties, was not necessarily hostile to feminist--or borderline feminist—statements, such as the films in director Salah Abu-Sief’s “Female Empowerment Trilogy”. Of course, those films came a couple of years after A Glass and a Cigarette, and have been hailed for their progressive attitudes. Maybe Glass, with its emphasis on hand-wringing domestic melodrama, wrapped in a legitimizing veil of social concern, provides an example of the type of movies that Abu-Seif was progressing from. Nevertheless, the film is considered a classic of Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, thanks to the sure-handed direction of Niazi Mustapha (Antar, The Black Prince), the dazzling star power of its lead cast, the rich, black and white cinematography of Abdel Aziz Fahmy, and several glamorous musical numbers that put the vocally talented actors to good use.

In the film, Samia Gamal and Kouka play Hoda and Samma, two dancers at Cairo’s Al-Gala Casino. Both of them dream of marriage, but with Hoda, that dream has grown into a full-blown obsession. Early in the film, Samma, ever eager to help her friend, culls an assortment of unattached men from among the casino regulars and cajols Hoda to pick one of them to marry. The marriage designs of Samma, a non-resident Tunisian, are more administrative in character. It is at this time that we see Hoda throwing back shot to allay her “shyness.”

But Hoda’s shyness is not enough to keep Mamdouh (Nabil El-Aify) an up-and-coming-and-handsome young doctor, from sweeping her off her feet. As Hoda is primed like some kind of matrimonial rocket, almost no time passes before the two are married and have a baby, who they name Samma, after the woman who tried to pimp out her best friend in an Arabic augury to The Bachelorette. After a period of domestic bliss, trouble arises in the hourglass-shaped form of Mamdouh’s new nurse, Yolanda (Dalida), a dark Italian beauty whom the women mockingly call “Yolanda Macaroni’.” Yolanda sets her sites on Mahmoud and it is not long before Hoda, driven mad with jealousy, is throwing back highball after highball. This is treated as a new development, although we’ve already been shown that Hoda will turn to the sauce over being cut off in traffic.

A word about the women of A Glass and a Cigarette: At the time of making the film, Samia Gamal was widely regarded as one of the best belly dancers in the world. Six years earlier, she had starred as a mischievous genie in the comedy Afrita Hanem, one of the most beloved Egyptian films of its era. Kouka, who was the wife of director Mostafa, was so identified with the legendary figure of  Abla, the storied lover of first century Egyptian poet Antarah ibn Shaddad al-Abs, that one of the film’s musical numbers is dedicated to retelling the tale.

But it was Dalida who might have outshone them all. An Egyptian or Italian heritage, the actress and singer gained worldwide fame as a singer of French language songs. She could even claim the honor of singing the French language version of Brian Highland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weeine Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

All three woman acquit themselves wonderfully in the acting department. I loved Gamal and Kouka’s antic portrayal of female friendship, which at times reminded me of the girls in  Broad City. Dalida’s Yolanda is a Kohl-eyed personification of feminine malignancy, cold, covetous and calculating. She also steals the movie with a gorgeous torch song that she sings near the end.

Gamal also is really good at portraying someone who is completely stinking drunk while maintaining her glamorous aura. In one penultimate scene, after coming to understand that she has accidentally killed her baby, she staggers wildly down a city street and tumbles into a doorway, where she splays her long body out elegantly before passing out.

Anyone who comes to A Glass and a Cigarette looking for a way to overcome alcoholism will probably be bitterly let down. As the film has it, Hoda begins drinking because her life is imperfect, but at the end, when she has humiliated Yolanda and has reclaimed her happy family, her life is perfect, and no more mention is made of her little problem until the cheerful closing credits music plays.

It all seems so simple.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

So... looking for more good Korean movies?

Sunday’s Oscar upset was not only an overdue recognition of Bong Joon Ho, who has been making superlative films ever since 2003’s Memories of Murder¸ but also of the South Korean movie industry as a whole, which has long been one of world cinema’s most reliable producers of compelling commercial cinema.

For those of you now on the hunt for other quality Korean films or recent vintage, I can of course offer the same list of relatively recent hits that any Asian cinema fan will give you: JSA; The Good, The Bad, and The Weird; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; Snowpiercer; Old Boy; A Bittersweet Life; The Handmaiden; I Saw the Devil; Siri, etc. But I can also offer you a sampling of classic Korean films that are marked by the same combination of casual violence, personal drama and mordant humor that would seem to be a kind of stylistic trademark of Korean cinema as a whole.

The Housemaid (Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1960). Kim Ki-Young’s insane tale of a model nuclear family exploded by the intrusion of an unhinged young woman into their carefully managed domestic sphere. An oft-referenced classic of Korean cinema.

A Devilish Homicide, aka A Bloodthirsty Killer (Dir: Lee Yong-Min, 1965). A chilling noir nightmare that slides between family horror and crime drama.

Devil! Take the Train to Hell! (Dir: No-shik Park, 1977) A stylish, Japanese-set revenge drama from actor/director No-shik Park. Here Park plays a blind musician who roams the back streets of Tokyo in the wee hours, using his preternatural martial arts abilities to exact revenge against the four former Japanese soldiers who robbed him of his sight and murdered his wife. Bo-Yeong Ahn makes a colorful sidekick as a similarly empowered village girl out for revenge against the same men.

Iodo, aka Io Island (Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1977) Housemaid director Kim Ki-Young once again explores the realms of the sexes as alien spheres, this time by placing a beleaguered male protagonist within an isolated community of women. It’s a story that owes a seeming debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, though it’s injected with enough of Kim’s own labyrinthine weirdness to make it indelibly his own.

A Woman Chases the Butterfly of Death (Dir:Kim Ki-Young, 1978) Kim Ki-Young returns with this surreal rumination on death, possession and butterfly collecting.

The Hand of Fate (Dir: Han Hyeong-Mo, 1954) An interesting hybrid; part tragic romance, part political allegory, part spy thriller and part anti-communist propaganda. Made at a time when Korean cinema, along with Korean society as a whole, was struggling back toward recovery after the Korean War. It was, while not a commercial success, a technical step forward in terms of its crisp editing and challenging bifurcated structure. Not to mention that it featured Korea’s first onscreen kiss.

We cult cinema fanatics are nothing if not covetous, so I have to admit that, as one of many scribes who have been championing Korean popular cinema for years now, I have to admit to feeling a bit bereft now that Sunday’s Oscars has let the cat out of the bag. Sadly, Korean cinema is no longer the treasured little secret of myself and a few other like-minded film geeks—and that’s as it should be. Any commercial cinema as artful, technically accomplished, and bearing such a unique perspective as this deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast #27: "Lonely Boy"

Sorry to be late posting this month's Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast. My time machine got stuck in 1976 and I had to fight off an army of Civil War reenactors in order to make my way home. My subject this time is multi-talented Linda Ronstadt sideman Andrew Gold's hit from that year "Lonely Boy."


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Get in the holiday spirit with Podcast On Fire

Kenny B has just posted his annual Christmas episode over at Podcast on Fire. This one features Ken, me, and fellow co-hosts Paul Quinn and Tom K-W cutting up and waxing eloquent about all things Asian cinema, including Bong Joon Ho's Parasite and the upcoming Blu-ray release of Kim Ki-Young's masterpiece of insanity Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly. Pour yourself a cup of  day-old eggnog and give it a listen, won't you?

Friday's best pop song ever