Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, aka Kung Fu contra as Bonecas (Brazil, 1975)

This past year or so has been unusual for the number of films long thought lost that have made a sudden reappearance. And, now, with the surfacing of Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, we see the appearance of a movie that many were beginning to think never existed in the first place. Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power via a fleeting reference in Pete Tombs’ book Mondo Macabro, and from there quickly went on to join the ranks of those unshakably enthralled by the monolithic stupidity of both that title itself and of the underlying film it suggested. And the stubborn unavailability of said film, as is so often the case, only made the spell that much more potent.

However, the extent to which Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power actually exists under that title is still arguable. For, behind the great and mighty Oz of that thuggishly high concept moniker cowers a comparatively humble Brazilian comedy that came into this world as –- and, judging by the Portuguese language version I watched, in its native country still goes by -- Kung Fu contra as Bonecas (“Kung Fu against Dolls”). And, despite the opacity of the Portuguese language to yours truly, what Kung Fu contra as Bonecas appears to be, first and foremost, is a broad spoof of Brazil’s then popular Cangaco film genre. Now, mind you, only twelve months ago I would not have been able to identify it as such, as it was not until late last year, when a friend came back from Brazil with a passel of Cangaco films under his arm, that I even became aware of that genre and the history behind it in the first place.

To briefly recap, Cangaco films alternately romanticized and sensationalized the exploits of early 20th century Brazilian bandit tribes known as the Cangacieros. First appearing in the early 50s, these films started out as a sort of Brazilian answer to the Hollywood Western, but as the genre continued through the late 60s and 70s, they became more rough and exploitative in their content. Kung Fu contra as Bonecas establishes a strong tie to the genre through its casting of actor Mauricio do Valle as its chief Cangaciero. In addition to starring in numerous Cangaco films throughout his career, Do Valle played the pivotal role of the Cangaciero hunter Antonio das Mortes in 1964’s Black God, White Devil, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all Brazilian films, and is probably the Cangaco genre’s toniest iteration.

Now, I’m hoping that someone out there will help me out with this, but I’m entirely unclear on just how Kung Fu contra as Bonecas came to be known as Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power in the first place. Was there actually an English language release of the film under that title, or was it simply an informal name by which it came to be known in fan circles? In either case, I suspect that the title just might be the work of someone who was attempting to contextualize some of the more unusual aspects of the Cangacieros for a non-Brazilian audience, chief among those perhaps being the bandits' manifest fanciness. The vanity of the Cangacieros, who were known to prettify themselves with stolen cosmetics, is well documented. However, as the invention and subsequent overuse of the term “metrosexual” demonstrates, vanity in a man does not equal gay. And, while perhaps it’s simply a matter of my gaydar being off, the Cangaceiros in Kung Fu contra as Bonecas, as flamboyant as they may be, do not read as gay. Perhaps it’s all of that heterosexual sex, both consensual and not, that they’re shown having throughout the film.

Nonetheless, there is something undeniably odd about the appearance and comportment of the Cangacieros that, to the uninitiated, could conceivably demand an accounting. With their distinctive headwear and uniquely ornamented leather outfits, it’s understandable that someone not in the know might assume that they were just some fanciful construct of a filmmaker’s imagination, and a pejorative one at that. (I’ve noticed that some English speaking reviewers of the film, struggling for a corollary, have referred to the Cangaceiro as looking more like “pirates”, while others mistakenly interpret the term Cangaceiro as an anti-gay slur.) It doesn’t help that Kung Fu contra as Bonecas’s director and star, Adriano Stuart, often shows the Cangaceiro rank and file doing shuffling, chorus line style dance routines in the background of scenes, presumably as a parody of the stagey song and dance numbers that typically dotted the Cangaco films of the era.

This is a spoof after all, and for proof that it is an especially broad one, we need look no further than our hero, played by the aforementioned Stuart. Clearly the target of satire here was less Bruce Lee than it was David Carradine’s character in the TV series Kung Fu. And, in case that wasn’t made clear enough by Stuart’s appearance and the frequent flashbacks to his character’s training at the side of his master (during which he is shown wearing a cap and gown like a highschool graduate), his character is also outfitted in a pink wife beater with the words “Kung Fu” clearly printed on it beneath an illustration of Carradine in the role of Caine. That shirt was distracting for me, because I kept musing over just how much a Mission District hipster would today pay to have the honor of wearing it ironically. Seriously, it’s a good shirt; I will be mentally dressing baristas with it for months to come.

Stuart demonstrates some fighting aptitude, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with kung fu. I’m far too ignorant of the subject to judge, but I’m guessing that perhaps some of the moves –- which are very heavy on the kicking –- originate with Capoeira? Anyway, what’s most impressive about Stuart’s character is not the way he fights, but the noises he makes while fighting. One of these is sort of a prolonged nasal shriek that sounds like a skunk caught in a bear trap. The other, even more stirring, is a slowed-down guttural roar that sounds like Mr. T yelling through a didgeridoo. Overall, the fight scenes in Kung Fu contra as Bonecas are played straight, except for those instances in which they’re not, during which there’s a lot of emphasis on crotch damage.

The plot, to the very limited extent that I can understand it, seems to involve Stuart’s itinerant martial arts badass arriving in a town besieged by Do Valle’s colorfully clad gang of Cangaceiro misfits. True to the state of the Cangaco genre at the time, few punches are pulled in terms of portraying the bandits’ cruelty, and, though undeniably goofy, they are clearly shown to be a violent and horny bunch. One of their victims is the father of the character played by, I think, Celia Froes, who turns out to be as good at swiftly kicking Cangaceiro groin as Stuart is. (Froes, by the way, is as iconic a 1970s fox as you could hope for: one part Joyce DeWitt and one part Joan Jett, with a mean spin kick to top it off.) Together the two fighters join forces and set out to clean up the town, also finding a little time for some good old, family strengthening heterosexual romance on the side. And, of course, some other stuff happens, but my inability to understand the dialog prevents me from adequately describing it to you.

Throughout all of this, Kung Fu contra as Bonecas does present us with a number of instances of what could be interpreted as gay-based humor, but it is just as often our “Bruce Lee” character who is the butt of the joke. Both he and Do Valles’ character are shown at different times lounging with curlers in their hair, preening exaggeratedly in front of mirrors, and generally mincing around in a not traditionally masculine manner. There is also a ladyboy character whom Stuart’s character appears to hook up with at the end. In addition, I thought it was interesting that, upon his arrival, the effeminate looking Stuart is jeered at by the town’s children, who pelt him with garbage. However, not knowing what they were saying, I couldn’t say for sure whether this sequence had anything to do with his character’s perceived sexuality or not. In any case, most of the above seemed intended more to take the piss out of macho stereotypes than it did any kind of homophobic “us vs. them” mockery.

So, in the final analysis, it seems that we might have at last found Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power in order that we may finally let it go. But letting go is hard. Without any knowledge of the somewhat tame film that hid behind it, that title promised so much. With its suggestion of an archetype of hetero masculinity pitted in violent opposition to its exact antithesis, we cult film enthusiasts saw in our minds something thrillingly un-“PC”. What was promised was yet another opportunity for us to, however ironically, display our hard earned callousness in the face of exploitation cinema’s relentless and reflexive flaunting of liberal sensitivities. The real article, however, is something far less mean spirited. It turns out that Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, as a concept at least, may simply have been too absurd to exist after all.

The Infernal Brains Podcast, Episode 6

In this latest episode of the Infernal Brains, Tars Tarkas and I discuss the films of Indian stunt king Dara Singh. You can download the podcast here, or stream it with a sweet ass slideshow below.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prince of Cunningness, aka Amir Al-Daha (Egypt, 1964)

Given its combination of high technical standards and limited means, the Egyptian film industry –- despite its leanings toward Hollywood style razzle dazzle -- made a rare practice of making costumed period pictures during its golden age, delivering only 20 or so such films between 1935 and 1950, and even less in the following era. However, as the previously reviewed Antar the Black Prince demonstrates, when they did try their hand at the genre, they made up for the lack of spectacle with a surplus of vibrant color, intense drama, and old fashioned star power. 1964’s Amir Al-Daha is another example of this, again -- like Antar -- starring Farid Chawki, the swashbuckling star especially beloved by Egypt’s poor and working class audiences, who affectionately referred to him as “The Beast”.

Amir Al-Daha (the DVD packaging translates the title as The Prince of Cunningness, while the subtitles to the film itself call it An Adept Leader, while yet other sources refer to it as The Artful Prince, so, uh, take your pick) was directed by Henri Barakat, who was one of Egypt’s most honored and prolific filmmakers. Barakat was part of a school of French educated, realist directors who emerged on the Egyptian scene in the late 30s and early 40s. This group benefitted from a post-Nasser shift in the country’s censorship practices that allowed them to confront the topic of social injustice in their homeland. At the same time, Barakat also had a populist streak that saw him helm crowd-pleasing movies in a variety of traditional genres. Amir Al-Daha is an example of this latter tendency, as well as a product of Barakat’s passion for 19th Century literature. The director had tackled literary adaptations before –- his first film was based on a story by Checkov –- and, for Amir Al-Daha, he chose as his source material Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo.

I admit that I haven’t read The Count of Monte Christo, but it seems that Amir Al-Daha stays pretty close to all of the story’s familiar elements. Instead of Dumas’s sailor hero Edmond Dantes, we have Chawki as caravan leader Captain Hassan, who oversees the transport of goods and supplies across the desert for one Sheikh Fadel. Two members of Hassan’s tribe would like to see him out of the way; the rascal Gaffan because he covets Hassan’s position, and the oily Shahin because he covets Hassan’s bride-to-be, Yasmina (Chweikar). These men -- together with the craven Mr. Metwally, who’s just in it for the silver –- conspire with a corrupt police official named Badran (Mahmoud Morsi) to have Hassan falsely incarcerated so that they can avail themselves of those prizes that his honesty, hard work and all around awesomeness have earned him.

A letter that seems to implicate Hassan in a revolutionary plot against Badran does the trick, and the righteous man is soon tossed into a dungeon-like subterranean prison. After years of imprisonment, with only his dreams of vengeance to keep him going, Hassan accidentally breaks his way into the cell of an older fellow inmate named Im Galal Abdallah. Galal becomes a sort of mentor to Hassan, sharing with him his extensive knowledge and working with him on an escape plan, and on his deathbed reveals to Hassan the location of a vast treasure stashed by him before his imprisonment. Soon after, Hassan stages an escape and makes a beeline to the loot. Now equipped with unimaginable wealth, he takes on the guise of the mysterious Prince Ezz Eldin and sets out, with the help of his hulking manservant, Nour, and Zomouroda (the famed belly dancer and actress Naima Akef), a freed slave girl, to enact an intricate plot to make his betrayers pay back in kind.

In keeping with its source material, Amir Al-Daha is driven more by intrigue than action, and those swashbuckling scenes that do pepper its final act may be too gingerly staged for those hoping for something more rough and tumble. As such, it is a film that gets by more on charm than thrills. Of course, Farid Chawi is as charismatic and commanding as ever, and cinematographer Mahmoud Nasr wraps the whole up in an alluring visual package; when the sets are big enough to allow him to open up a bit, he even at times hints at the level of spectacle seen in more well funded Hollywood productions.

I also think that some Western viewers might find something ameliorative in seeing things that have become signifiers of Arab “otherness” –- the celebratory ululations of the women, the word “jihad” –- presented within such a cozily familiar context. One thing that I’ve learned from reviewing films for 4DK is that, no matter how different our cultures may seem, when we seek escape from our daily lives, the places we go are not all that far removed from one another. The siren's song of good, old fashioned romance and adventure can be understood in every language. Even Bollywood fans will find much that is familiar here, for, as with Antar the Black Prince, the film’s action is broken up by frequent onscreen song and dance numbers. There’s even a prophetic third act number wherein -- as is so commonly seen in old Masala movies –- the act hired to entertain the bad guys instead serenades them with a song about their inevitable and imminent comeuppance.

All of this is to say that Amir Al-Daha is yet another piece of colorful and engaging, escapist fluff from Egyptian cinema’s golden age. As I’ve said before, you don’t need to tell anyone that, of course; you’ll likely sound plenty sophisticated just for saying you watched an Egyptian film. Just be sure not to forget to pop the popcorn while you’re doing all of that snooty posing.

Friday's best pop song ever, POPOCALYPSE 1984 edition, part 4

By 1983, so certain was our doom that even Maurice White and his typically party-starting crew found themselves wandering through a lawless dystopian nightmare.

(With thanks to Keith at Teleport City)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fantastic Sword (Hong Kong/Philippines, 1976)

The Fantastic Sword is one of those interesting international hybrids that I’m always happy to stumble upon, a co-production between Hong Kong and the Philippines that, if certain unverified internet sources are to be believed, may also have had some South Korean involvement. My theory is that each of the countries involved wanted to make an entirely different kind of movie, and that it was somehow agreed upon to honor all of their wishes. Interestingly, it turns out that none of those movies is one for which the title The Fantastic Sword would be wholly appropriate. The original title, however, is Mahiwagang Kris, which, from my perspective, is appropriate, because, like much of The Fantastic Sword, it makes no sense.

Shot in the Philippines with a largely Filipino cast, the film is set in a mythical kingdom called Barangbang, which appears to be just a normal rural Filipino village but for the fact that it is ruled over by a sultan and has a princess. Magiting (Ernie Garcia), a humble fisherman’s son, and Princess Mary (Gina Alajar) are in love, yet Magiting is nonetheless forced to compete with Mary’s other suitors for her hand in a competition staged by her father, the Sultan. The winner of the competition will be the one who presents the Sultan with the most impressive gift, which means that a bunch of snooty, well-to-do fops line up at the Sultan’s door with all manner of ostentatious baubles.

Not having the means to purchase such trinkets, Magiting resorts to what he knows best, fishing, and, in the process, manages to catch a fish that surprises Magiting by begging for its life in a tiny little fish voice. Once freed by the kindly lad, the fish reveals itself to be a mermaid, who, as a token of her gratitude, gifts Magiting with a special charm. This charm, she says, will transport its user “into the modern world” when a “special prayer” is spoken –- said prayer being, “Please take me to civilization”, which does not denote a high opinion of Barangbang on the mermaid’s part.

Magiting takes the charm back to the Sultan, who is duly impressed and prepares to declare Magiting the winner of the Princess’ hand. Unfortunately, one of the other suitors happens to be Atingan, an evil sorcerer with both the midget henchmen that such a vocation entitles him to and the ability to conjure forth suitmation dinosaurs by shouting magical incantations at the Fire God. In this case choosing less flamboyant means, Antingan spikes the Sultan’s grog with a potion that causes him to instead declare Antingan the winner. Quickly realizing his error, the Sultan then beseeches Magiting and his daughter to take the magic charm and flee, which they do. Antingan and his minions, however, are right on their tail, leaving the lovers no choice but to utilize the charm to transport themselves to the modern world. This part of The Fantastic Sword actually reminded me a lot of the Asylum’s fake Thor movie, which I had watched half of the previous night. (Does anyone really ever watch a whole Asylum movie?)

With the sound of wakka wakka guitars welling up on the soundtrack, Magiting and Mary suddenly find themselves in 1976 Manila. Getting right into the swing of things, they go out for a night on the town, stuffing their faces at a fancy restaurant. Unfortunately, Magiting and Mary REALLY don’t get the whole money thing, and their resulting desperate circumstances lead them to be swindled by a con artist who purchases Mary’s jewelry for a briefcase full of Monopoly money. Eventually they are bailed out by a nightclub owner who hires Mary as a singer and Magiting as a dishwasher. After a brawl in the nightclub one night, Magiting is discovered by a boxing promoter, who encourages him to pursue a career in the ring.

From this point, The Fantastic Sword hurriedly rifles through the entire menu of typical boxing drama convolutions. Magiting quickly establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with in the boxing world, and begins his rise through the ranks. Mary begs him to quit the fight game, but he refuses, saying that he wants to provide a better life for her, and that this is the only way he knows how. Then, right on cue, the promoter demands that Magiting throw his next fight. Of course, when the fateful day comes, Magiting finds at the last minute that his sense of pride and basic decency won’t let him go through with it, and he goes on to handily win the bout. This in turn puts him on the shitlist of the promoter, who comes after him with his goons, demanding that he make good on the money lost, even if it means pimping Mary on the street to do it. Of course, unlike in a more gritty boxing drama, Magiting and Mary have the option of getting out of this predicament by simply beseeching the magic mermaid to return them to Barangbang, which they do.

As if recovering from a fugue state, The Fantastic Sword then deposits us right back in the movie that it initially presented itself to us as those now-strangely-distant-seeming few moments ago. Things in Barangbang, they are now very bad indeed, with the Sultan imprisoned and Antingan declaring himself in charge. And at this point, 75 minutes in, when we have finally fallen silent after screaming “What about the fucking Fantastic Sword?” at the screen to the point of hoarseness, the mermaid steps forward to direct Magiting toward the hiding place of the Holy Sword, the only weapon that will give him any hope of defeating the sorcerer. And despite the name, once retrieved, the Holy Sword does prove to be pretty fantastic, shooting lasers, enabling Magiting to fly, causing waterfalls to run backward, and also doing all of the expected sword-y things, like slicing people to gory ribbons. Yay!

In the few remaining minutes of The Fantastic Sword, Magiting then undertakes a quick succession of heroic trials, all to the end of freeing both the Sultan and now Mary, who has been captured by Antingan and given a potion to turn her into a fugly hag. Happily, most of these trials involve fighting monsters: a gruesome witch with a flyaway head, a man in a dinosaur suit whose shortcomings are hidden by having the fight take place in near total darkness, and finally, in the glorious full light of day, a bat creature who briefly grows to gigantic size before being once again shrunken and trounced by our hero. Taken as a whole, this final act makes a nice trailer for the movie that all of us who have seen The Fantastic Sword likely wish it could have been.

The Fantastic Sword was directed by Hua Shan, who may or may not be the same Hua Shan who directed Inframan. (The film is conspicuously absent from any of the filmographies for that Hua Shan that I could find online.) The fact that he would have been working with a much smaller budget here than on any of his work for the Shaw Brothers makes the task of spotting stylistic similarities difficult, but the fact that one brief special effects sequence in The Fantastic Sword is strikingly similar to one in Inframan leads me to lean toward the conclusion that they are one and the same man.

And on the topic of the film’s cheapness, I have to say I was a bit surprised by just how threadbare The Fantastic Sword is, especially given the somewhat epic aspirations of its concept. I thought the point of international co-productions was to produce films on a more lavish scale than either country’s film industries could produce on their own, or in this case, at least, beyond the scale of the typical Filipino production. Yet The Fantastic Sword makes even a homely, homegrown Filipino fantasy film like Boy God look fancy by comparison.

Also tough to parse is how, with so many hands on the purse strings, the go ahead could have been given for a film burdened with such a poorly conceived script. Of course, it might be that The Fantastic Sword is meant to be some kind of allegory, using the evocation of a magical, more simple time to point out the comparative evils of our modern world. However, this agenda would likely have been better served than by simply presenting us with a digressive, Cliff Notes version of Kid Galahad during the second act. And to bookend that second act with hints at what could have been a rollicking, Filipino version of a Barry Prima movie is just plain cruel.

Still, there is a madness to this film that is appealing; a limit crashing, free associative quality that makes it as unpredictable as the rambling monologue of a raving hobo. While I can’t condone the utter mess that The Fantastic Sword makes of itself, I do respect the fact that it took me to places that, based on how it initially presented itself, I was totally not expecting to go. Now, please take me to civilization.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever: POPOCALYPSE 1984 edition, part 3

To lighten the unremittingly bleak portrait that Billy Idol's classic video paints of our civilization's inevitable, radiation steeped collapse, I recommend making farting noises during the part where he's blowing the zombies off the roof.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Devil Girls, aka Seytan Kizlar (Turkey, 198?)

As much as I try to provide background and context concerning the movies I review, it was inevitable that I would one day have to write about a film about which I knew absolutely nothing. Devil Girls is that film. In fact, given that the version of Devil Girls I watched was completely lacking in anything resembling a credit sequence, I can’t even say for sure that it is actually called Devil Girls, much less identify any of the parties involved in its making. All I know for certain is that it is of Turkish origin, while extrapolating from its general appearance -- with a slightly lower degree of certainty -- that it was made sometime during the 1980s. Could this mysterious lack of attribution mean that Devil Girls is a document of… real events? Probably not.

Our film begins with a young couple having a romantic frolic on the beach. The young man seems quite smitten with his (admittedly bodacious) date, but, alas, she is not all that she seems. She is, in fact, a Devil Girl. What this means is that, while the boy lolls in the sand, dreamily anticipating the nookie to come, she is off donning a tiny black bikini complete with hand-shaped bra cups and devil tail and a pointy black mask, after which she returns with whip in hand to beat him into a trembling mass of male servitude. Two of her identically dressed cohorts then appear from over the dunes to march their new man captive back to the Devil Girls’ training camp.

Once at that camp, we see a number of equally pleasingly shaped and skimpily attired women engaging in a variety of hand-to-hand combat exercises, while others, wielding giant cardboard pitchforks, force male prisoners to do slave labor. As revealing as their outfits are, I’m sure that the makers of Devil Girls would have been glad to show us even more of the Devil Girls if they could. I believe, however, that at the time Turkey’s censors had retrenched somewhat after allowing the country’s filmmakers comparatively greater freedom during the 70s -- a freedom which those filmmakers used to show us, among other things, Batman making out with random naked chicks. Nonetheless, Devil Girls’ creators here clearly demonstrate that an inability to show full nudity is no impediment for those who are truly sleazy at heart. You just have to believe.

Meanwhile, back at the same beach we saw earlier, a young woman whom I will call Yildiz -- simply because Wikipedia says that’s one of Turkey’s most popular female names -- is accosted by a group of sleazy, middle aged men (audience, meet your surrogates), who spirit her away to a remote location and gang rape her. Two of the Devil Girls, pitchforks in hand, happen to be patrolling the area at the time, and come upon the aftermath, whereupon they lead Yildiz back to the camp and -- in a solemn ritual set to farty 80s dance pop -- kit her out with her own primarily skin-based Devil Girl uniform. At this point begins Yildiz’s indoctrination into the ways of the Devil Girl. Once that is completed -- after a training montage that’s composed mostly of butt shots -- it is time for the Devil Girls to hunt down the rapists one by one and gorily stab them with their big pitchforks.

So basically what you have here is I Spit on Your Grave (no, I spit on YOUR grave) dressed up in sexy costume ball attire. And if that sounds like a pretty thin excuse for a movie, it is. For proof of that, look no further than the five minute disco sequence set in what looks like the basement rec room of a suburban American church, where the attendees dance listlessly -- and seemingly endlessly -- to MFSB’s “T.S.O.P.”. It’s clear at this point that, once the filmmakers had delivered unto their audience the masked, whip-wielding bikini girls, they had shot their proverbial wad, and had little to do afterward but a lot of cinematic thumb twiddling. At just before the one hour mark, they take us back to the camp, where the Devil Girls do a lengthy dance/cheerleader routine to what sounds suspiciously like a Turkish version of “Susudio”. And then the movie ends. This abrupt turn of events reminded me that, if women were more like men, half of every Twilight movie would just be Edward and Jacob spraying each others’ nipples with Cool Whip. And they would all be only an hour long.

Make no mistake about it, with its potent combination of dick shaming and scantily clad femdom shenanigans, Devil Girls is a movie that many, many men have masturbated to. So powerful is its, um, pull that, while observing my usual practice of taking copious notes during viewing, my normally disciplined right hand made an uninvited lunge at my crotch. Only timely intervention by my left (the Devil Hand) prevented things from getting messy. Ladies, what can I say? We men are indeed disgusting beasts, and I would not blame you at all if you wanted to strip down to your tiny knickers and come after each and every one of us with your shiny black whips. It’s what any self respecting feminist would do.