Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Brain Stealers (Hong Kong, 1968)

The Brain Stealers’ villain, one Dr. Zero, wants to get his hands on a certain growth-accelerating serum so that he can create an army of supermen and conquer the world. It's a fairly run-of-the-mill scheme for a villain in a 1960s spy movie, until you consider the comparatively mundane smuggling and counterfeiting operations that the Shaw Brothers typically had the evil masterminds in their espionage films of the period undertake. In that light, it comes across as a rare example of one of their super villains for once coming equipped with proportionate ambitions. Hard to say why this was, exactly. After all, the Shaws' kung fu films had no shortage of scoundrels with their sights set on ruling the fabled Martial World. But when it came to our own, not-nearly-so-martial world, it seems the biggest picture your average Mr. Big could wrap his head around was the transport of some phony dollars to the Philippines hidden in the trunks of old cars.

Anyway, the man responsible for the sought-after growth-accelerating serum is Hong Kong scientist Dr. Li Zong-Hua (Goo Man-Chung). The authorities at UN Intelligence already suspect that Li has been targeted by Dr. Zero, given that the villain has abducted several other scientists of compatible disciplines from around the globe, and so recruit Li's daughter Chiu-Lan to be their agent within the Li camp. The stated reason for this is that, in a very brief demonstration, Chiu-Lan has proven herself to be pretty good at Judo, though I also suspect that the fact that she has the sultry looks and ability to model mod fashions to pleasing effect that any heroine in a fluffy spy caper of this type should have has something to do with it. And to slam the point home, Chiu-Lan is played by Lily Ho, who had already proven herself adept at exactly this type of role in the Shaws' earlier Angel With the Iron Fists and The Angel Strikes Back.

The means by which Dr. Zero hopes to hijack Li and his formula involves a "nuclear device" of his own invention that enables him to suck the brain from one person and put it into the body of another. To this end, he kidnaps Li's son Yuan Ming (Chin Feng) and shuffles his brain with that of one of his criminal minions, a fellow by the name of Peter, after which said minion is sent off to infiltrate the virtuous Dr. Li's family circle. Unfortunately, even with the benefit of his subject's actual body to work with, Peter proves to be terrible at the whole evil double business. In addition to failing to recognize Yau-Ming's colleagues, he is scowly while Yau-Ming is typically cheerful, left-handed while Yau-Ming favors his right, and whiskey-swilling while Yau-Ming is a teetotaler. As a result, the members of the Li household not all that surprisingly suspect him of being a bit hinky from the outset. It is perhaps, then, out of a feeling of having nothing to lose that Peter eventually blows his cover completely by trying to force himself upon Chiu-Lan (and no, I can’t believe they went there either).

Meanwhile, the executives of a Japanese chemical company hire former Interpol agent Chang Tse-Xia (Lin Chi-Yung) to steal Li's formula for their own commercial purposes. Hence it is not long before Tse-Xia crosses paths with Chiu-Lan and the romantic sparks begin to fly. His shadowy agenda notwithstanding (The Brain Stealers’ clear position is that corporate espionage exists on a far more forgivable plane than the political kind), one ends up hoping that the rakish Tse-Xia is successful in winning Chiu-Lan’s heart, because Chiu-Lan’s fiancé is played by the strictly vanilla actor Peter Chen Ho, who song-and-danced alongside Lily Ho in Brain Stealers director Inoue Umetsugu’s earlier Hong Kong Nocturne, and is hence something of a sop. Unfortunately, the sexual politics of Hong Kong films of this era are such that such an upset is unlikely to occur. Unless, of course, there was to be some kind of surprising last minute twist…

Umetsugu Inoue was the most prolific, as well as one of the most successful, of the number of Japanese directors that Shaw Brothers recruited during the 60s. Before coming to Hong Kong he had worked for what was, given the tendency of Japanese film professionals of the era to be staunch company men, a surprising array of Japanese studios -- including Nikkatsu, Daei, Toei and Shochiku –- and had worked in various genres, including swordplay and gangster films. He was also responsible for bringing the first adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s Black Lizard to the screen in 1963, five years before Kinji Fukasaku’s more well known version. Once ensconced at Shaw, he became known for frothy and vibrantly colorful musicals like the aforementioned Hong Kong Nocturne and feather-light romantic comedies seemingly molded to the template of the Rock Hudson and Doris Day films. Though he did helm one other spy caper for the Shaws, 1967’s Operation Lipstick, such films were definitely a departure for him genre-wise in terms of his work for the studio. That is not to say, however, that The Brain Stealers doesn’t bare his distinctive imprint.

Sadly, The Brain Stealers is among those films in the Shaw catalog that Celestial never got around to releasing on DVD, so I was forced to make due with a glitchy gray market DVD made from an obviously well-worn VHS source. As a result, what I saw was less the movie itself than a pale and jittery ghost of it. Even so, it was hard to miss Inoue’s penchant for flamboyant art design and costuming, especially as exhibited in Dr. Zero’s fabulously cartoonish subterranean lair and Lily Ho’s Carnaby Street inflected wardrobe. (Dr. Zero himself is no slouch in terms of OTT representation, either, coming accessorized as he does with a black cape, eye patch and disfiguring facial scars – basically the whole super-villain package.) In addition, the giddy convolutions of the movie’s plot have an antic and farcical quality to them that, if played less straight, would not be out of place in one of the director’s comedies of the period. So basically Inoue here brings his own style to the SB brand of Bond-alike nonsense -- usually handled in a much more utilitarian manner by Lo Wei -- and definitely stakes a claim for it as his own.

In fact, for the first half of The Brain Stealers, it almost seems like Inoue has gotten so involved in reeling out the film’s multiple characters and intrigues that he has forgotten to deliver those fizzy action set pieces that such a film typically leads us to expect. The one exception is a fight that takes place in Dr. Li’s animal testing lab, during which a ravenous hawk that Peter/Yuan Ming has set free as a distraction buzzes the participants perilously as they deal and dodge each other’s blows. This all changes once the film’s action moves to Tokyo and things really kick into gear, going in quick succession from a dramatic fight atop the Tokyo Tower to an assassination attempt by a sultry female snake charmer -- all leading, of course, to a climactic conflagration in Dr. Zero’s den of evil with all it’s acid pits, spike-walled rooms, and giant eyeball adorned holding chambers.

The Brain Stealers’ combination of 50s sci-fi, para-Bondian spy-jinks and general 1960s silliness makes for a very fun watch. Or I should say it would, were it available to us in a format that was actually watchable. Getting through the murky and stuttering disc that I was stuck with, complete with its barely legible subtitles that were cut off on either side, was something of a chore. But it’s a testament to the film that I was motivated to soldier through it despite that, and was even able to eke out a fair amount of enjoyment from it. In fact, my only real complaint about the film itself is that Lily Ho’s character is less emancipated than one might hope, and essentially teeters uneasily between being a kickass heroine in the Emma Peel mode and filling the stock role of the scientist’s imperiled daughter that you always find in these movies. Of course, her similar treatment in the Angel movies shouldn’t lead anyone to expect much different, and we should probably just be thankful that this time there’s at least some compensation in there being a bit more of a feminine sensibility overall.

So, in closing, I’m going to resort to something that I know has become a bit of a nagging refrain on this blog, by which I mean my once again ending a positive review of a film by pleading that someone please, please, please release it on a proper DVD. Even as a jittering ghost, The Brain Stealers entertains, but on a lovingly prepared disc, presented in all its comic-book-colorful glory, it would completely rock.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Oh, that sounds brilliant! I'll add me own pleading for a DVD to yours.

Since the last time we were talking about Inoue I have also learned that - after his return to Japan - he made a series of Rampo-based TV movies that look rather awesome, but of course do not exist with subtitles. So, DVDs of these please too!

Prof. Grewbeard said...

"thou shalt not steal thy neighbor's brain..."

Todd said...

But Prof, if God intended for us not to steal brains, why did he make them so delicious?

And, House, yes, we're definitely going to have to add a dedicated Umetsugu Inoue section to the ever-growing wish list. I also really, really want to see Operation Lipstick now.

Jack J said...

I've just bought THE BRAIN STEALERS and it seem to be the exact same print that you reviewed; Sourced from an old video tape (maybe even taped off a TV station, it has an onscreen logo) and there's worn tape stripes galore! But I'm happy to finally have the film. The rumours about an upcoming DVD release that you posted in the post before this one were unfortunately someone's evil lies. Hopefully one day!

Todd said...

That whole hoax about the upcoming Celestial DVDs was the weirdest thing ever. Why even do that?!

Jack J said...

Beats me. @_@