Thursday, July 30, 2009

Friday's best pop song ever

I was really hoping to find a performance clip of this one, but, hey, I just had to get some Sly up in here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hand of Fate (South Korea, 1954)

Han Hyeong-mo's The Hand of Fate is 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 toward recovery in the wake of the Korean war, while not a commercial success, it marked a step forward in technical terms for its crisp editing and ambitious, bifurcated structure. Not to mention that it delivered Korea's first on-screen kiss.

The story concerns "Margaret"/Jong-ae (Jun In-ja), a North Korean spy working as a bar girl in Seoul. One night Margaret encounters Young-chul, a poor student and day laborer whom the police have wrongly apprehended under suspicion of stealing her purse. Margaret decides to make a "project" of sorts out of the young man, buying him clothes and offering him financial support so that he can quit his job and focus on his studies. She obviously has seduction in mind, but of what kind is initially unclear. Is her plan to recruit Young-chul to her cause?

Eventually we find that the taste of freedom Margaret has been afforded during her time in the capitalist South has lead her to question the ideology and methods of her communist superiors. In response, she has chosen to exercise one of the only freedoms available to her; that being the freedom to love whomever her heart chooses. For a short period, she and Young-chul are able to carve out a small piece of happiness for themselves amid the squalor of their daily lives, until Margaret discovers that Young-chul is in fact an anti-espionage agent for the South Korean government.

Han Hyeong-mo, who worked as a cinematographer before moving on to directing. brings a striking minimalism to the material here. Apart from a couple of brief walk-ons, Margaret and Young-chul are the only speaking characters we ever see on screen, with Margaret's mysterious superior only being shown from the neck down until the film's conclusion. The result of this is that, to the extent that The Hand of Fate is a parable about the North/South division, it is one that plays out entirely between two people in a room. Han also uses his musical score very sparingly, while incorporating long, dialog-free patches, which adds to a feeling of tension and anxious anticipation -- in turn making us jump along with these haunted, furtive characters whenever there is a sudden knock on the door.

Unfortunately, since The Hand of Fate is to some extent infected with the stark moral binarism of propaganda, as well as a certain primness in its approach to romantic melodrama, there is a stiffness to things that prevents us from really feeling the heat of Margaret and Young-chul's passion. This is a particular shortcoming in light of the fact that the film would have us believe that this passion is strong enough to lead them to risk their freedom, and even their lives. Still, this does not prevent The Hand of Fate from being enjoyed as a nifty mood piece, as well as a fascinating look at the formative years of a cinema that would later become one of the most exciting in Asia.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rani Aur Jaani (India, 1973)

Since the VCD of Rani Aur Jaani that I watched had no English subtitles, I think it's best that I defer to the synopsis of it given over at Indian (which likely was taken from the film's original song booklet):
"Rani Aur Jaani is a story of two sisters who are separated at the hands of fate and who have a thirst for each others blood. Ultimately the day comes when both sisters are at face to face and the younger sister is at the mercy of her elder sister. Moment to moment, tension mounts, enmity heightens, jealousy grows, fierce and deadliest plots and sub-plots are hatched to overthrow each other. But all ends well"
Oh, and I probably should have added this:


Because I suppose that things really do end well at Rani Aur Jaani's conclusion -- provided, of course, that you overlook the human and emotional toll taken along the way (not to mention the hospital bills).

The film is yet another trashy comic book thriller from Tollywood action director K.S.R. Doss, though this time one produced in the Hindi language. This change-up means that we have none of the pompadours or gyno-cam action of Doss's Telegu films, but a much greater number of familiar Bollywood faces (Jagdeep, Shetty, Aruna Irani, etc.). The presence of Doss at the helm also means that, just as in every other of his films that I've seen, we have a central performance by Tollywood item girl/action star Jyothi Laxmi.

I have to admit to having developed something of a fixation with Jyothi Laxmi. Though a woman who, even by the most even-handed journalistic standards, would have to be described as "plug ugly", she still somehow, mysteriously, has got it going on. And Doss really knows how to show off her unique presence to best advantage:

But truly it's Aruna Irani who's the star of the show here, and it's refreshing to see this item girl also-ran get a turn in the spotlight. It turns out that she makes a great plucky action heroine, and acquits herself well in the film's many acrobatic fight scenes.

And Doss, while tamping down on the raunch considerably, still brings to his depiction of these glamorous female stars -- especially in regard to their relationships to their male co-stars -- his telling trademark approach to camera placement:

In addition to being an apparent giantess, Aruna also has a secret weapon in the furry form of her trusty dog sidekick Peter, who earns his place alongside Bollywood animal heroes like Pedro, Moti and Sheroo by shooting Shetty with a revolver:

Good boy!

Rani Aur Jaani essentially tells a female-centric version of a Bollywood story that we've otherwise seen played out over and over again in Indian films from the 70s: that of two siblings separated by tragedy who grow up to confront each other from opposite sides of the law. Jyothi and Aruna are the daughters of a judge who, for some reason, encouraged them to constantly beat the crap out of each other when they were kids. (Without subtitles I can't be sure, but I'll make a wild guess that he wanted boys.) One day, a bandit whom the judge had previously convicted comes to the family home and shoots the judge in his bed, then attempts to kidnap the girls. He's only successful in kidnapping Jyothi, though, and she then grows up to be the fearsome bandit's faithful number two -- though, for the better part of the film, no one, including Aruna, seems to make the connection that she is the same girl who was abducted by the bandit years earlier. Aruna, on the other hand, grows up to be a CID inspector who is determined to bring the bandit and his gang to justice. Heating things up further is the fact that Aruna's undercover cop boyfriend (Anil Dhawan) is also posing as Jyothi's boyfriend in order to gain access to the gang.

Things finally come to a head after a not-so-friendly sing-off between Aruna and Jyothi escalates into a motorcycle chase fraught with daredevilry and fierceness:

And then moves on to hand-to-hand combat:

Ironically, it is in the course of smacking the shit out of each other that the girls suddenly come to recognize their familial bond. Tears are shed, apologies and fevered self-recriminations are exchanged, and, ultimately, the two vow to band together to bring down their father's killer.

I can't say that Rani Aur Jaani is "slap your mamma" good, even though Jyothi Laxmi does slap her mamma in it. (To be fair, she doesn't know that it's her mama when she does it.) Still, I think the screen caps that accompany this review testify to the fact that there are plenty of reasons to recommend it. At the end, it turns out that Jyothi's turn toward the good has come too late, and that, as penance, she must sacrifice her life in order to save Aruna's. So, just like the synopsis says, all ends well. Except if you're Jyothi Laxmi. Or Shetty, for that matter... or the girls' dad. Or any of the countless other people who are killed, beaten or tortured in the course of the film. But Aruna and Anil Dhawan are happy at least, as we can see as they dance around in a lush garden that includes the words "the end" spelled out in flowers. That's all that matters, really.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bollywood: seen and not heard

Last night I got the chance to attend a presentation and talk by film scholar Anupama Kapse on the subject of early Indian cinema. It was a rare -- perhaps once in a lifetime, even -- opportunity to see clips from some of the few extent -- or, sadly, as is most often the case, partially extent -- examples of movies from Bollywood's silent era.

First up were select sequences from a couple of director D.G. Phalke's early mythologicals, 1919's The Killing of Kaliya and 1918's The Birth of Krishna, both of which star Phalke's seven-year-old daughter Mandakini as the young Krishna. While what we were shown of The Killing of Kaliya struck me as being a bit pedestrian, depending on the mere presence of moving bodies on screen as enough of a source of spectacle for India's early cinema audiences, The Birth of Krishna was another story altogether. The clip shown from that film contained a dizzying array of ambitious optical effects, made all the more impressive by the fact that Phalke accomplished them without the aid of an optical printer. The young Krishna rises up out of the ocean on the back of a multi-headed serpent, a man's head levitates off of his shoulders, and the evil Kamsa (D.D. Dabke) imagines himself besieged by an army of spectral Krishnas. All in all, it was an eye-opening display of technical sophistication, testifying to the fact that mid-century pioneers of Bollywood special effects like Babubhai Mistry, while definitely advancing the art, were not pioneering to quite the degree that we originally might have thought.

Next came an extended sequence from the classic 1931 stunt film Diler Jigar, aka Gallant Hearts, featuring a very young Lalita Pawar as a sort of female version of Zorro -- far from the last of such characters to appear in a Bollywood film, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she wasn't the first. Diler Jigar exhibits all of the elements that those of us who've been eagerly devouring the later exploits of Dara Singh and his ilk have come to expect from the stunt genre, by which I refer to extended sword fights involving lots of sweaty, bare-chested men, a story concerning a person of noble birth who returns from exile to seek revenge against his usurpers, and the ubiquitous influence of Douglas Fairbanks. Kapse mentioned that most of Diler Jigar has been preserved, so hopefully there is a chance that we will someday get to see it in its near-entirety.

Also included in the evening was a selection from the 1929 British production A Throw of Dice, which was every bit as opulent as Memsaab described it in her recent review. Kapse then closed out the evening with clips from a couple of early sound films, including Achut Kanya, aka Untouchable Girl, another one from A Throw of Dice director Frantz Osten, this time produced by Bombay Talkies. Though only a statically shot song sequence, this clip was notable to me for the fact that stars Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar were not only singing in their own voices, but also doing so live through on-set microphones as the camera rolled, a far cry from what would become the norm within a few years. Finally, we were treated to an extended scene from V. Shantaram's 1939 Aadmi, a film that I am now dying to see in it's entirety. From what I saw, the movie has a wryly sophisticated, Preston Sturges kind of vibe, and leads Shanta Hublikar and Sahu Modak were utterly charming as they performed a song mercilessly lampooning Bollywood's obsession with love.

Far from the dry academic type, Kapse -- a former assistant professor of English at Delhi University who will soon be joining Queens College as an assistant professor of media studies -- spoke about the films with palpable enthusiasm and affection. And though she kept her comments brief, it was clear that she would have been happy to talk about the subject at much greater length. At the end of the presentation, she was asked just how many of these Indian silents were still in existence. While I braced myself for the worst, I still wasn't ready for the answer. "About thirteen", she said, continuing on to say that most of those were not complete.

Ah, we lovers of vintage world cinema are gluttons for punishment; Discovery and disappointment so often go hand in hand. You'd think that one might get used to it after a while, but, judging from the gasp that I let out upon hearing Kapse's words, I haven't gotten there yet.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Flying Saucer Rock and Roll - Part III

Thanks to the folks at Huntley Film Archives for notifying me about this original, English-titled trailer for Wahan Ke Log that they've posted on YouTube.

That should demonstrate once and for all that WKL contains absolutely everything that a motion picture should... not just flying saucers, "exotic" guitar strumming white girls and a chopper ridin' Johnny Walker, but also the "latest scientific devices"! ZZZZT!!

After so many posts on the subject, I know that WKL is threatening to become the sole topic of discussion on 4DK. But, really, would that be such a bad thing? Man, what a film!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Please let it be true

I haven't found any confirmation on this yet, but the website Shaw Brothers Reloaded is reporting that Celestial is gearing up to release another batch of Shaw Brothers titles on DVD, possibly as early as Autumn/Winter 2009. I really hope that this is true, especially because among those titles are a few that I've been wanting to see for quite a long time, in particular a couple of 1960s spy films directed by Umetsugu Inoue, the Japanese director responsible for fun-n'-frothy Shaw Brothers musicals like Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody.

The first of these is 1967's Operation Lipstick, which stars Cheng Pei-Pei, Temptress of a Thousand Faces' Tina Chin Fei, and The Golden Buddha's Paul Chang Chung. The other is 1968's The Brain Stealers, a Lilly Ho starrer for which I found the accompanying very strange looking poster on the Celestial website. (Alleged brain theft aside, I'd say it looks more like someone stole Lilly's body -- and then replaced it with a drunken Etch-a-sketch rendering.) Given Inoue's flamboyant sensibility, both of these promise to offer something a bit different from the numerous Bond knock-offs that Lo Wei helmed for SB during the 60s.

Right now I would characterize my reaction to this potential news as one of "cautious excitement", which in practice means that I am jumping up and down while maintaining a very serious expression on my face. This is proving to be a lot more difficult to do on a prolonged basis than I initially thought it would be, so I hope that either someone confirms this story or Celestial poops out those DVDs sooner than later.

(Thanks to Durian Dave over at Soft Film for steering me toward the original post.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

El Latigo contra las Momias Asesinas (Mexico, 1980)

El Latigo (aka “The Whip”), who was the subject of a trio of Spanish language films during the late 70s, is not to be confused with El Latigo Negro (aka “The Black Whip”), who was the subject of a trio of Spanish language films during the late 50s, not to mention a long running series of Mexican comic books. Unless, of course, he is. Like El Latigo Negro, El Latigo is virtually indistinguishable from Zorro, with the only difference being that, while Zorro is known to occasionally use a whip when the situation calls for it, Latigo appears to use a whip for everything, be it to disarm a bad guy, activate the garage door opener, open a bottle of beer, or turn off the TV.

In the final Latigo film, El Latigo contra las Momias Asesinas, Latigo (Juan Miranda) spends most of his time -- either in his Latigo garb or as his civilian alter ego Alfonso, who looks and dresses like a tax lawyer -- walking around very slowly and looking at things, stopping occasionally to peer into a closet, page through a book filled with hieroglyphs, or simply sit and sigh resignedly. When this starts to become too boring for the audience, the producers have him stumble across a dead body. As you can imagine, this becomes boring quite often, so after a while the corpses really start to pile up.

And who is responsible for all of these corpses? Mummies! Four mummies, to be exact, who are acting under the orders of a much larger, shouty mummy played by Manuel Leal -- aka the masked wrestler Tinieblas, who also played a mummy in Las Momias de Guanajuato, as well as Beatnik Frankenstein in Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos. But these mummies are not the oatmeal-faced zombie-type mummies of Las Momias de Guanajuato and its sequels, but instead the more traditionally Hollywood bandage-wrapped kind, with the added feature of having eyes that flash on and off as if they were very slowly moving Chinese-made battery operated toys.

Eventually Latigo catches up to the four mummies and whips them until they explode, after which he goes after the boss mummy. Who will win: the whip-wielding, relatively athletic Latigo, or the slowly shambling, bandage-wrapped man? Watch El Latigo contra las Momias Asesinas to find out!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vampire (Japan, 1968)

The practice of describing non-Western pop cultural figures by equating them with Western ones is always dubious, and nowhere does that lazy shorthand do more of a disservice to its subject than when it refers, as I admittedly have on occasion, to manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka as the "Walt Disney of Japan". While the term does go some way toward giving a sense of Tezuka's impact on his homeland's culture, and the affection in which he's held, it does nothing to communicate the breadth of his work. Of course, to those only familiar with those cuddly creations -- like Kimba, the White Lion and Astroboy -- that were Tezuka's most successful exports, the comparison might seem apt. But those same people would likely be taken aback by the darker, less kid-friendly nature of some of the artist's later manga works like Black Jack and the Phoenix series. (And, for my purposes, let's just forget for the moment about the banshee in Darby O'Gill and the fact that the witch in Sleeping Beauty practically scared my sister to death when she was five.)

Tezuka's 1966 manga Vampire marks something of a transition point between his Kimba days and those more thematically sophisticated works of his later years. The story revolves around a pre-human race of human-to-animal shape-shifters who have designs on overthrowing their Earthly antecedents and reclaiming their place as masters of the planet. If I understand the description of the manga that's provided on the Tezuka in English website, the title "Vampire" here refers to the fact that the shape-shifters, when in their animal form, prey on humans, and isn't intended to suggest the presence of anything like what most Westerners would be lead by that term to expect. In fact, each of these creatures transforms into a different animal -- that transformation prompted by a visual trigger that varies from vampire to vampire, with our lead character, the teenaged Toppei, changing into a wolf whenever he spies the moon or gets overly anxious. So, really, if one were looking for a comfortable genre tag to hang on it, Vampire is more of a werewolf story.

Toei Studio's TV adaptation of Vampire (aka Banpaiya), which had a 26 episode run on Japanese television beginning in 1968, is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, it's an early attempt at combining live-action and cell animation within a TV series format, and, while most of its scenes involve human actors, the latter technique is always used to depict our protagonist Toppei in his wolf form. The second thing that makes Vampire stand out is the presence in the cast of the original manga's creator, Osamu Tezuka himself - and playing himself, no less. Tezuka drew himself into the comic version of Vampire and, while I can't say to what extent Tezuka/"Tezuka" ultimately becomes involved in the plot of the TV series, in the book he was a major player, going from being Toppei's employer to becoming a key ally in his fight against the dark side.

Having only seen the first four episodes of Vampire, I can't really give much of a sense of the series' overall shape, or judge the degree to which it adheres to the original manga's basic concepts. As one might expect, what those initial episodes provide is an introduction to the main characters and some of the conflicts that will play out over the course. In the first, we see Toppei, who has left his vampire village to join the community of humans, arriving in Tokyo and taking a job as an assistant at Osamu Tezuka's studio. It is here that we also meet the main villain of the piece, the sinister boy genius Rock, who becomes privy to Toppei's secret and seeks to manipulate it toward his own evil ends. In the second episode, Toppei's little brother, Chippei, who turns into a wolf cub at the sight of any spherical object, hitches his way into town and joins his brother in his struggles. Finally, in the third and fourth episodes, we get a hint of the depths of Rock's villainy as we see him carry out an extortion scheme against a wealthy family who have taken him in and cared for him as their own. This scheme involves the kidnapping of the family's youngest daughter, Mika, a potential love interest for Toppei, and culminates in a tense, train station ransom drop sequence more than a little reminiscent of Kurosawa's High and Low.

Young Chippei confronts the evil Rock in female guise... and Toei repurposes one of the gill-man masks from Terror Beneath the Sea as a wall hanging.

While saddled with the stripped-down production values typical of such TV fare, Vampire also boasts some visual elements that make it pretty distinctive. For one thing, the blending of live-action and animation is done surprisingly well. While there is some obvious cutting of corners, there are also many instances of interactions between the human actors and their cartoon costars that are quite ambitious in conception and impressive in execution. Furthermore, the setting of so much of the action in a nocturnal urban landscape provides for a nice horror-noir feel. This is further enhanced by the genuine creepiness of much of what's on display, from the trio of cackling witches consulted by Rock in his quest for power to Rock himself, who is portrayed as a junior sociopath with an icy veneer of bloodless amorality. Rock's eerie androgyny also allows for some bizarre "master of disguise" moments in which he assumes the guises of various comely young women to throw his opponents off their game. (I couldn't help being reminded of Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard.) All in all, it makes for something very different from anything that was being attempted on American TV at the time… or since, come to think of it.

Plus, the series' boy-to-wolf transformation sequences, while not "realistic" in the way we ascribe to contemporary special effects sequences, are, once seen, very difficult to forget:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Star Czech

The Czechoslovakian science fiction epic Ikarie XB-1 is widely assumed to have been an influence on Kubrick's 2001. Whether or not that's true, it still deserves to be held in high regard by fans of the genre for the simple reason that it's just a dang good movie. Check out my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ratna Dakoo (India, 1972)

You know, I'm not going to insult your intelligence or tax my own by pretending that I could even begin to tell you what Ratna Dakoo is about. The stubborn non-English-ness of the Hindi language (in this case dubbed from the original Telegu), the preponderance of lookalike male stars with pencil mustaches, and the apparent use of a Cuisinart to edit the film have pretty well put the kibosh on any such ambitions on my part. But really, what's mere comprehension when you can instead simply sit in contemplation of the majesty of Krishna's hair, the oak-like authority of Jyothi Laxmi's thighs, and the under-cranked delirium of K.S.R. Doss's direction?

As you may have already gathered, Mr. Doss's films continue to be a reliable source of cartoonish cheap thrills -- though I have to confess that Ratna Dakoo is so far the least enthralling of the director's offerings that I've seen to date. The blame for this can largely be placed upon my inability to understand the spoken language, but is also due to the film being markedly less woman-powered than films like Pistolwali or James Bond 777. Jyothi Laxmi is only here in an item girl capacity this time around, and as such only shows up for one musical number - though one that's noteworthy in part for the weird "Here's Lucy" wig that she's wearing.

Krishna's wife, Vijaya Nirmala -- who merits further investigation not only because she was a famed Tollywood actress in her day, but also for the fact that she was the director of over forty films -- is also on hand in the role of lady detective Rita. Unfortunately, her part in the action is less of the proactive, rough-and-tumble variety we've come to expect from heroines in Telegu action films, and is instead limited to the more traditional business that we see in Bollywood movies; That is, she remains on the sidelines until the heroes require her to disguise herself as a dancing girl in order for them to sneak into the villain's lair. In the final tally, probably the greatest benefit of her presence is the outfit worn by her flamboyant male assistant, which I can best describe as a hip-hugging, technicolor nightmare in which pastel paisleys and lurid floral patterns do battle like so many enraged piranha.

Despite the presence of Tollywood superstar Krishna, Ratna Dakoo really belongs to the actor playing its titular villain -- that being S.V. Ranga Rao, an iconic South Indian star with a screen career dating back to the early fifties. Now, while I can't tell you much about what Ratna Dakoo, the movie, is about, I can tell you that Ratna Singh, its lead character, appears to have just about the greatest revenge scheme in Indian cinema history. You see, years earlier, Inspector Anand (Krishna) chose the occasion of Ratna Singh's sister's wedding as an opportunity to apprehend the notorious bandit, with the result that the ensuing firefight took the lives, not only of Ratna's beloved sister, but also of his mom and dad. Now freshly broken out of prison, the dacoit sees as his only avenue of recourse the kidnapping of Anand's sister for the purpose of marrying her off to a scruffy homeless guy. (Of course, he also kills Anand's parents in the course of that kidnapping, but that seems to be incidental to his grander plan.) To this end, he has his minions drag a whole assortment of derelicts off the streets so that he may select from among them the most blighted and unsightly specimen. Once the lucky groom - a raving, ginger-bearded hunchback with one eye -- is selected, it's time to arrange for the nuptials, as well as to insure that Inspector Anand is in attendance, whether his sister's marriage is to take place "over his dead body" or not.

Having an actor of S.V. Ranga Rao's stature play the villain in a film like Ratna Dakoo makes for a performance that is somewhat bipolar in range. On the one hand, the actor provides all of the cackling, two-dimensional histrionics that we've come to expect from a masala villain, but on the other, his need to demonstrate his legendary acting chops ends up fitfully imbuing that villain with a kind of wounded dignity that is well outside the traditional boilerplate. Still, at the end of the day, this is a K.S.R. Doss film, and chances are that, once the final reel has faded, it will be Ratna Singh, the raving, overdrawn grotesque -- rather than Ratna Singh, the tragic figure -- who has won the tug-of-war over your memory. This is, after all, a man who reserves a place in his heart for his throwing knives that others would dedicate to children or cherished pets, and who commemorates that fact by wearing a tee-shirt with a picture of a knife on it throughout the entire picture.

In addition to the expected grooviness of its guitar-heavy soundtrack and the pervy inevitability of its nit's-eye-view dance numbers (a guest-starring Jayshree T is the victim of the crotch-cam this time around), Ratna Dakoo delivers much of the Itchy & Scratchy level hijinks that I've come to count on from 1970s Tollywood. In this spirit, Ratna Singh's villainy extends to him burying poor Krishna up to his neck and attempting to run his head over with a steamroller -- perhaps in the hopes of determining, by way of its resistance to pressure, the actual mass of our hero's pompadour. Of course, Ratna's mere machine is no match for that mighty edifice, and both Krishna and his hair survive to fight evil another day. And that's all to the good. Because, while I'm less enthused about this particular entry in its bearer's filmography, I know that where goes that pompadour lies more potential for catfighting cowgirls, watusi-ing lady spies, and terrifying instances of death by puppy. I have no choice but to follow.