Friday, June 29, 2012

Robo Vampire: Not half bad

Credit is due to my fellow internet film writers, who have been so consistent and effective in communicating the awfulness of producer Tomas Tang’s films that I have thus far avoided seeing any of them. Sadly, though, what the internets giveth so shall they bla bla bla -- and thus my long, Tang-free idyll is scheduled to come to a messy end this Sunday, thanks to the intervention of my fellow agents from the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit. Starting at 6pm PST on that dark day, we will be partaking in the second official MOSS watch and tweetalong -- a follow-up to our spine chilling group dissection of Magic Lizard back in March -- the subject of which is Ho’s 1988 shit show Robo Vampire.

Want to join us? You bet you do! The film is available on YouTube, as well as any number of public domain DVD releases (my personal choice of poison will be the version found in Mill Creek’s "Sci Fi Invasion" 50 Movie Pack), and, to tweet along, one need only use the Twitter hashtag #robovampire. Don’t “robo” yourself (see what I did there?) of this unique opportunity to be simultaneously annoyed by both a terrible movie and the attempts of an international assortment of drunken shut-ins to be clever on the internet. You will (not) be sorry!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hit the North!

Just posted over at Teleport City is my review of the recent Charly Records compilation Up All Night!: 56 Northern Soul Classics. A must read for soul rebels, hop heads, rug cutters, wearers of winklepickers, mods, and, hell, even rockers if everyone just behaves themselves. Check it out, why don’t you?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tumannost Andromedy, aka The Andromeda Nebula (USSR, 1967)

Tumannost Andromedy delivers outright what many of us would most hope for in a Soviet sci-fi film from the 60s: a kitschy depiction of a future socialist utopia, in this case one with delightful Greco-Roman trappings. However, it seems that the film’s optimism ends with Earth’s atmosphere. Like Mechte Navstrechu and the East German Silent Star before it, Tumannost Andromedy seems to be of the mind that, while human industriousness and cooperation may be capable of achieving heaven on Earth, the rules change once mankind ventures out into the heavens themselves. As secure as one might be encouraged to feel in the care of the benevolent state, it seems there is still plenty of room for anxiety and uncertainty within the black expanses of the cosmos.

Tumannost Andromedy was intended to be the first of a series of films based on Ivan Efremov’s landmark Russian science fiction novel of the same name, a sprawling and largely polemical depiction of a future society in the Soviet mold. It is because of this that the film bears the secondary title Episode 1: Prisoners of the Iron Star, and also features a number of subplots that are curiously left hanging at the film’s end. Apparently the movie didn’t meet with enough popular success to warrant the expense of moving forward with the series, which, while a shame, is also understandable given the obviously high production values on view throughout.

The film tells the story of the Earth spaceship Tantra, which, while on an extended exploratory mission, gets caught in the orbit of a space anomaly referred to as an iron star. After receiving a distress signal from a sister ship on the planet’s surface, the ship’s crew -- not realizing that responding to a distress signal in an Eastern Bloc sci-fi film is the worst thing you could possibly do (see pretty much every Eastern Bloc sci-fi film I’ve ever reviewed) -- decides to make a landing, even though they will critically deplete their fuel by doing so. Once on the surface, they find a number of derelict ships, including an alien flying saucer, and an amorphous creature that is somehow capable of entering their spacesuits and devouring them from within. As the casualties mount, the ship’s captain, Erg Noor (Nikolai Kryukov), determines, in lieu of beating a hasty retreat, to make a stand against the monster, which makes use of the planet’s ample darkness for cover.

Alongside a generous amount of neat space opera trappings, Tumannost Andromedy -- in keeping, I imagine, with its source material -- makes a lot of room for lengthy philosophical discussions on the part of its characters. The society depicted is one that, while having conquered the problem of traveling long distances in space, is still at the cruel mercy of time. The distress beacon sent out by the Tantra, we learn, will take 20-25 years to reach Earth, while, elsewhere, loved ones wait near lifetimes for a traveler’s return. In another scene, members of the film’s Council of Astronavigation watch a dance performance being beamed from a distant planet, musing that those participating would have died long ago during the hundreds of years it’s taken the signal to reach them.

Also examined are the effects of time and distance on the human heart, as we see that, back on Earth, Captain Noor’s wife, Vita (Latvian stage actress Vija Artmane), has embarked on a guilt encumbered affair with fellow council member Dar Veter (Sergei Stolyarov). Meanwhile, on board the Tantra, Noor and his navigator Niza (Tatyana Voloshina) struggle with their own mutual attraction. Given all of these trials, it is not surprising that the Earth scientist Mven Mas (Lado Tskhvariashvilli) has made it his top priority to find a way to “compress time” -- a project that I imagine would have become increasingly central to the story had the Andromeda series continued, but which here becomes just one of those several plot threads that is left maddeningly unresolved at the film’s conclusion.

All of these aforementioned concerns certainly lend a melancholy air to those scenes in Tumannost Andromedy that take place on Earth. But what really strikes you about those scenes is how their sun-dappled and panoramic look contrasts so harshly with those taking place on the iron star. Because, truly, while those characters may be going through some deep existential crises as they stroll glumly along all those picturesque beaches and lush hillsides, the crew of the Tantra is living through a waking nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions. The sense of isolation and creeping dread in those planet bound scenes, augmented by the barrenness and pitch blackness of their Ukrainian locations, distinguish the film as being less a straightforward sci-fi film than a space-bound horror in the tradition of Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.

Director Yevgeni Sherstobitov drives this home especially in a scene where the crew enters the darkened interior of one of the derelict spaceships, only to find its crew reduced to oily, human-shaped shadows on the walls. Also spine chilling are the brief glimpses we get of the film’s monster, which appears as a giant, roiling black cloud barely discernible against the starless black sky. Of course, all of these horrors are contrasted with the bravery of the staunch cosmonauts who face them, but Sherstobitov’s numerous slack-jawed reaction shots of those cosmonauts make clear that they are doing so at no inconsiderable cost to their collective peace of mind.

Given the quality of its production design and miniature effects, it’s a bit surprising that no American film ever saw fit to make borrowed parts of Tumannost Andromedy its own, a la Queen of Blood. I suspect this may simply be due to the fact that it came along at a time when Roger Corman had put that practice behind him. In any case, it’s his loss. Not only do we have the Tantra itself, with all its futuristic appurtenances, but also the giraffe-like land vehicle -- both in miniature and full-sized mockup form -- that the crew tools around in once on the planet’s surface. And then there’s a neat looking remote control robot and a handheld laser cannon that plays a key part in the film’s fiery finale. All of these surface trappings combine with the film’s deft weaving of mood to make Tumannost Andromedy yet another example of Soviet space cinema that puts many of its contemporary counterparts in the West to shame. Sure, some might find it bogged down with ideology, but, that aside, the pleasures it delivers translate so effortlessly across borders that to deny oneself for that reason would be a waste.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The darkened screen (maybe) rises

I've written before about the New Mission theater, the deteriorating marquee of which is one of the most recognizable landmarks in my neighborhood, San Francisco's Mission district. On the left is a picture of that marquee in more vibrant times, advertising the opening of A Hard Day's Night. Below is the theater as I saw it last night, when it was opened to the public for the first time in over twenty years.

No, I wasn't sideways. Uploading photos is hard!

The occasion was a community meeting at which were discussed plans by Austin's Alamo Drafthouse to restore and convert the New Mission, which was built in 1916 as a single screen theater seating over two thousand, into a five screen theater with bar and restaurant facilities with a six hundred seat capacity. Presentations were made by Alamo's CEO Tim League, owner representative Victor Marquez, and a neighborhood activist who mentioned seeing "a lot of Bruce Lee movies" at the New Mission during his youth (and whose name, I'm very sorry to say, now eludes me, as I was too consumed with geeking out over the news to take notes).

The New Mission's designation as an historical landmark substantially limits the degree to which it can be altered by its owner, and so the restoration project is one that will focus on preserving and restoring as much of its interior details as possible, including the cleaning of some of its graffiti covered murals. As you can see from its current condition, that's going to be quite a task. Still, it was put forth that, depending on the speed of approval by the city's Planning Commission, work could be completed as early as late 2013. This would be great for the Mission, which used to be a destination point for the city's movie goers but hasn't had a functioning theater on its main drag for decades. It would also be great for me, because, hey, who doesn't want to be able to have a cold beer while watching a cool movie in a beautiful old movie house?

My apologies to those many of you who live outside the San Francisco Bay Area, for whom this post might seem a little too local. I just wanted to get the word out for those who were interested. Maybe, if this all comes to pass, we can have a beer and a movie next time you're in town.

(Archival photos: sfpl)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dark Lady of Kung Fu (Taiwan, 1981)

Some of you may have noticed that, over the past couple of weeks, Tars Tarkas, Durian Dave and myself have all been literally filling the internet to bursting with Pearl Cheung Ling. Could it be that we have something planned? Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm perhaps.

Still, the fact is that I wouldn’t be writing about Dark Lady of Kung Fu if not for Tars’ recent positive review of it over at his site. You see, I saw the film quite a while ago and, while I have never officially reviewed it, I haven’t made much of a secret of the fact that I didn’t care for it much, either. I am always game to give a movie I’ve maligned a second chance, however. I’m a cantankerous sort, after all, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that unrelated stressors lead me to spew undeserved rancor upon a defenseless Taiwanese kung fu movie. Hey, it’s better than kicking the dog.

And whatever I might think of it, Dark Lady of Kung Fu is worthy of note for being Pearl’s directorial debut, kicking off a trio of auteur efforts that continued with 1981’s Wolf Devil Woman and 1982’s Matching Escort, both of which are films that I love beyond reason. As with Wolf Devil Woman, she also wrote and produced the film, which, while pretty much putting her in the responsibility seat as far as its perceived flaws and merits, was also a pretty rare position for a woman to inhabit in the world of 1980s martial arts cinema. For that and other reasons, I have, over the course of writing about her career, developed a lot of respect and real affection for Pearl that I felt would surely color my response to DLOKF on the second pass.

Or not. Granted, I did recognize this time around that DLOKF indeed contains pretty much all of the elements that made me love those other films of hers that I’ve mentioned, yet I found the film overall to be a bit of hard work. It starts off promisingly, with Pearl portraying the Butterfly Bandit, a Robin Hood figure in an outlandish winged costume who literally flies and crawls along ceilings in the manner of her namesake. This is accomplished by way of the wild wire work and herky jerk editing of which Pearl is so fond, and it is characteristically charming and delightful. Arrayed against the Butterfly is a, well, array of ham handed officials and competing miscreants whom she mocks with bravado. Among these are a character called the Killer Prince and a testy itinerant swordsman called No Name, who, in his brief time onscreen, delivers one of my all time favorite badly dubbed lines of kung fu movie dialog:

  “Piss off! I told you before: My name is No Name. No is my surname, and my name… is Name!”

However, after all the dazzling dimestore derring-do of its opening, the film introduces us to the Butterfly’s alter ego, a Fagin-like figure leading a quartet of arguably adorable urchins whom she calls “Monkeys” in a life of subsistence level petty crime. Pearl has a tendency to at times play the clown in her self-directed films, but that usually serves to establish an unselfconscious vulnerability that makes the heightened melodrama and tragedy that follows all the more potent. Here the escapades of Pearl and her monkey gang come across as pure shtick, a procession of slapstick interludes, laboriously set up gags and, for lack of a better word, “monkeyshines” that calls to mind the Three Stooges or Our Gang comedies as much as anything else. This may constitute Pearl’s rebellion against all those steely eyed, vengeful swordswoman roles she’d had to play up to that point, but it all goes on for so long that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pearl doesn’t have much of a story to tell beyond it.

But the fact is that she does, and, as it turns out, it’s a quite crowded and convoluted story that Pearl’s character at times feels somewhat peripheral to. Let’s see: there’s a mysterious swordsman called Shadow who provides a kind of love interest for Pearl, a much coveted necklace called the Blue Rose that gets hidden inside a dead body, something about hermaphroditism, a super weapon being built in secret, plus all of the usual baroque clan rivalries that we’ve come to expect in the mythical martial world -- all of which feel like they’ve been crammed uneasily into the half of the film that remains once all of the aggressive zaniness has subsided. Granted, these various plot elements provide for their share of crazy fights and mind-bending set pieces -- this is a Pearl Cheung Ling film, after all -- but I couldn’t help feeling that they were pretty incoherently presented. At the same time, it is very possible that I was just too ground down by the film’s attempts at comedy by the time they came around to be arsed to sort it all out.

And, to be fair, that comedy is not uniformly unfunny, though how much of that is attributable to a particularly chuckleheaded English dub that christens characters “Laurel”, “Hardy” and “Cool Hand Luke” I can’t say. It also should be said that the movie contains a few examples of Pearl’s trademark loopy surrealism at its finest: When hypnotized by a scheming magician (called “Houdini” in the English version), our heroine appears to either levitate or grow to a towering height, her brightly colored robes elongating around her like an enormous pyramid. Then there’s the stone automaton with a giant pestle that Pearl employs both to prepare meals and to bonk her misbehaving minions on the head, and a recurring visual pun that sees Pearl emerging from her hideout’s various shell-shaped appurtenances.

Alongside these, though, there are also moments where the film’s time and budgetary constraints clearly seem to have let Pearl down, in particular a couple of oft seen and quite obviously hastily constructed sets whose color schemes, even to one with a taste for the hyper-real like myself, are downright headsplitting. I mean, I’m all for contrarian aesthetics and championing the underdog and all, but sometimes ugly is just ugly.

Yet, as noisome and tiring as it may become, Dark Lady of Kung Fu, like Wolf Devil Woman and Matching Escort after it, is nothing if not a testament to Pearl’s eccentricity. Even when she fails, she fails weird. As, true to her name, does she shine. For, despite all my complaints, let it be understood that she never fails here to provide a likeable presence at the center of the Necco wafer colored maelstrom she has created. All of Pearl’s films, after all, give the impression of being on the verge of spinning out of control, so we can at least thank her, in the case Dark Lady of Kung Fu, for giving us a good natured glimpse of what it’s like when one of them goes completely off the goddamn rails.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Woman After a Killer Butterfly (South Korea, 1978)

While picnicking in the forest with his classmates, college student Young-gul (Kim Chung-chul) takes off in pursuit of a butterfly. After trapping the insect in his net, he then kills it with an injection of poison. A strange woman sitting in the clearing nearby chastises him for the hubris of this act, stating further that a human’s death is every bit as insignificant as that of an insect. Young-gul scoffs at this notion, saying that a human’s death is “much more noble”. The woman then invites him to share a glass of orange juice with her. Afterwards, she confesses that she has come to the forest as part of a suicide pact. As her partner in that pact has failed to show up, she has instead poisoned Youg-gul so that he can accompany her into death.

My last encounter with director Kim Ki-Young was a screening of his 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid, which is widely considered to be one of the most important works in Korean cinema. Suffice it to say that I had a hard job of picking my jaw up off the floor afterward. In that film, Kim matter of factly, and from behind a veneer of tidy formalism, piled on ever more absurdly heightened levels of melodrama and depravity before finally delivering an out-of-left-field climax that could have easily taught Zac Snyder the real meaning of the term “sucker punch”. As you might guess from the above summary of A Woman After a Killer Butterfly’s opening five minutes, the intervening eighteen years seemed to have done little to mellow him out.

The 1970s were a depressed period for Korean cinema, but, thanks to the financial support of his wife, a successful dentist, Kim was able to continue working independently, making the films that he wanted to make with relatively little interference. And what the films he wanted to make looked like, for the most part, were genre films -- albeit genre films that were driven more by Kim’s peculiar sensibilities and obsessions than by any of the tropes one would normally expect. This, combined with his tendency toward rough surrealism, tempts me to compare Kim to Seijun Suzuki, although the ringing endorsement that would amount to on my part makes me feel that I should wait until I take in a few more of his film before (probably inevitably) making it.

As for the hapless Young-gul, he survives his poisoning, although his poisoner dies. And in perhaps an early example of Korean cinema’s long tradition of unlikely police protocols, the detective assigned to the case gives him the woman’s distinctive butterfly pendant as a souvenir. He nonetheless remains depressed and suicidal in the wake of the event and, upon returning home, decides to hang himself. He is interrupted in this by a knock on the door from a scruffy itinerant book seller, who insists that he buy a book about overcoming death through the power of will. The seller says that he has read the book himself and, as a result, cannot be killed. And so, as you would, Young-gul kills him. True to his word, the seller returns to life and continues to hector Young-gul as he decomposes. Even after Young-gul burns his body, the seller briefly returns in skeletal form before finally collapsing into dust.

Young-gul next accompanies a friend to a cave, from which they steal the two thousand year old skeleton of a Silla Dynasty era woman. His friend tells him that if Young-gul does a proper enough job of reassembling the skeleton, it might mean a job for him working as an assistant to the prominent archeologist Professor Lee (Nam Koong Won). And so Young-gul sets to the task, finding that, once assembled, the skeleton gains flesh and returns to life as a beautiful young woman. Having been put under a spell by an ancient shaman in order to avoid an unhappy marriage, the woman informs Young-gul that she must now consume a raw human liver in order to prevent herself from returning to skeletal form. Young-gul frowns upon this and confines her to his apartment. Upon returning, he brings with him a pastry-making machine that he has bought in the hope that it will help them make a little extra money. The two then share a night of passion as the machine noisily belches out pastry shells all over them.

Hold on, I’m not finished…

Unable to bring herself to eat Young-gul’s liver, the woman allows herself to once more become a skeleton, which Young-gul then dutifully delivers to Professor Lee. It turns out that Professor Lee has a daughter, Kyungmi (Kim Ja-ok), who, like all of the women in Killer Butterfly, is icily antagonistic toward Young-gul. It is eventually revealed that she was the erstwhile partner in the suicide pact with the woman from the beginning of the movie, with a matching butterfly pendant to prove it, and that she now also wants Young-gul to take her late partner’s place and accompany her into death. Meanwhile, a mysterious party is sending skulls to Professor Lee that are claimed to be ancient, yet appear to be freshly harvested, with newly severed heads starting to arrive soon thereafter. In a sudden detour into giallo territory, Young-gul sets out to find the culprit and, in the process, witnesses the desecration of a corpse by a man in a butterfly costume.

Now, as much as I abhor lengthy plot synopsis, I think it can be forgiven in this case because… well, first of all, because characterizing what’s described above as such would require an extremely charitable definition of the word “plot”. But also because the manic unpredictability of same is one of the primary factors that makes Killer Butterfly so compellingly, fascinatingly watchable. Rather than weave a story, Kim here catalogues a series of events that steadily escalate in insanity, with the only structure seemingly provided by his obsessively hammering upon themes of gynophobia and the notion of a life force and death urge locked in a constant cycle of mutual derision and belittlement. At the same time, the movie keeps a maddeningly straight face through its stately approach to color and composition, exhibiting a formalism that, I think, speaks to Kim’s time spent in Japan. And then sometimes there’s a pastry machine. The result is a film that lulls the viewer into an expectation of familiar genre elements and then plunges him down a rabbit hole tracing the labyrinthine contours of a singularly fevered imagination.

Believe it or not, there is much of A Woman After a Killer Butterfly that I have refrained from describing, including a denouement that goes every bit as far off the rails as that of The Housemaid. Fortunately, like the previously reviewed -- and just as cumbersomely titled -- Devil! Take the Train to Hell, it is one of a number of films made available in full on YouTube by the Korean Film Archive. Now, I’m not saying that you’ll like it, but I am saying you should check it out. Because, like it or not, I guaranty you’ll never have seen anything quite like it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From the Lucha Diaries Vaults: Karla contra los Jaguars (Mexico/Colombia, 1974)

Karla contra los Jaguares was produced in Colombia, a fact which renders unnecessary the question of what its makers were smoking.

Okay, that was cheap and stupid. And inappropriate. Because Karla contra los Jaguares, for a low budget film starring a team of motorcycle riding luchadores in matching leopard print outfits, is not nearly as cheap and stupid as it could have been. Consider that, on the scale of motorcycle riding team of luchadore movies, it could have been on the level of either of the two Los Campeones Justicieros sequels, and it's very modest charms become a lot easier to appreciate.

Not that the makers of Karla had any more to work with than the producers of the Campeones movies, mind you. It's just that they seem to have made a somewhat greater effort to cover up for their budgetary shortcomings -- and that they show some sense of obligation to their audience to be at least a little bit entertaining, even to provide us with a couple semi-satisfying moments of cut-rate spectacle. The two heist sequences that the film is built around, for instance, are actually handled fairly well. And on the action front, while there is a midget, there are also karate guys and a small army of burly automatons to provide the heroes with some more equally matched physical opposition. Capping off this vaguely engaging display of base level competence is a musical score that provides everything you'd want from a cheesy 70s action movie soundtrack: psych funk arrangements, disco synths and goth metal guitars, all sounding very Italian and probably lifted from some giallo movie or other.

In what is beginning to seem like a kind of minor lucha movie tradition, The Jaguars themselves don't actually get called in to take part in the action until the movie's halfway point, and then with comparatively little ballyhoo. I kind of like how this lack of fanfare makes the whole business seem like routine procedure, as if sending in a team of unarmed masked wrestlers in leopard print briefs is just one of the many tactical options available to the police, and was, for some reason, in this case preferable to sending in the SWAT team. Still, I was left with a lot of questions concerning The Jaguars that I hope will be answered in the film's sequel, Los Jaguares contra el Invasor Misterioso. For instance, do they all share a house, like The Monkees?  We don't even get to see them in a wrestling match, for God's sake. 

As for the top billed Karla, the icy blonde villainess comprises, with her permed and jump-suited boy toy, a sort of pairs skating team of evil. It's not hard to see who's the top in the relationship, especially when the poor guy shows up with a giant sparkly "K" appliquéd on his shirt (some guys would get a tattoo, but whatever), and more especially at the end when she blithely elbows aside his bullet-riddled ass to board a waiting helicopter and make her getaway.

Seeing as it's playing to some markedly lowered expectations here, the only thing I found disappointing about Karla contra los Jaguares is that it contains so little that is truly atrocious. Given that, I had to make do with the architect's model Karla's gang uses to plan a heist involving the hijacking of a skyscraper mounted crane. It's frustrating, because all too frequently people make fun of the models used in B movies by saying they look like they were made by six year olds. But this particular model is made of construction paper and toothpicks, and I'm reasonably certain that it actually was made by a six year old.


For more reviews of classic Mexican wrestlin’ movies, please visit 4DK’s sister site, The Luchadiaries!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Miraculous Flower (Taiwan, 1981)

Pearl Cheung Ling starts out Miraculous Flower in a role that she had pretty much trademarked by that point in her career: that of the ragged kung fu vagabond. Truly, if Chaplin earned the nickname “The Little Tramp” in silent era Hollywood, Pearl was just as deserving of it in the world of 1980s martial arts cinema. In this case she even has a mournful song, sung by Pearl herself, playing on the soundtrack to underscore her debased condition, lamenting the fact that she is doomed to wander the Earth alone -- with no direction home, one could say, and like a complete unknown, although that would be another song entirely. Of course, as is not uncommon in Pearl’s films, her character will go through a transformation over the course of Miraculous Flower, a sort of blossoming of identity that makes the film’s title that much more apropos.

Miraculous Flower was one of a pair of Pearl’s films that, in video release, were misleadingly titled as sequels to her notorious auteur effort Wolf Devil Woman -- the first being 1982’s Matching Escort, which, despite being made after Miraculous Flower, was rechristened Wolf Devil Woman II, while Miraculous Flower became known in some circles as Wolf Devil Woman III. It must be said, however, that Miraculous Flower differs from both of those films in a couple of important ways -- and that’s putting aside the fact that it’s a standalone film that in no way continues the story of either. First and foremost is the fact that, unlike WDW and Matching Escort, it was not directed by Pearl herself, but by Fong Ho, a director about whom there appears to be little information on the English language Internet. Pearl is, on the other hand, credited with coming up with the film’s story, though the actual script was written by none other than Godfrey “Ninja Terminator” Ho. Secondly, while not free of the oddball fantasy elements that make Pearl’s most well known films so endearing, it is nonetheless a somewhat more sober affair, as well as a somewhat less rough hewn one.

Here Pearl is May, a young girl of apparently humble origins who, in a somewhat daunting opening information dump, is directed by her dying mother to undertake a complex quest that will somehow end in her learning a “big secret” concerning the nature of her origins. May thus sets out, swathed in the classic Pearl Cheung Ling garb of rough cut skins and apparent carpet scraps, on a long journey that takes her across barren, snow swept peaks and lonely expanses of deeply forested woods. Eventually she crosses paths with the dirt-phobic itinerant scholar Lord No-Dust (Tsung Hua), who takes pity on her and brings her back to the opulent home of his father (Wang Hsieh). After May aids in fending off an attack by a vicious rival of the father’s known as Lonely Fly (Peng Kang), the father decides to adopt her, thus leading into Pearl’s first transformation in Miraculous Flower; that from grimy tomboy into, if only briefly, a radiant lady of the manor. Soon thereafter, she stumbles upon the knowledge that No-Dust is leading a double life as a masked avenger called the White Swordsman and, in exchange for her silence, enters into an arrangement with him to train her as a fighter.

Eventually, after learning everything that she can from the young lord, May sets off again on her quest, whereupon she soon meets up with yet another mentor figure, the Happy Fairy, as played by the prolific Chinese actress Gua Ah Leh. True to her name, Happy Fairy imbues May with powers that are somewhat more magical than those taught by No-Dust, with no small amount of extravagant wire work expended toward depicting May soaring this way and that across the landscape as a result. The Fairy also reveals to May the secret of her origins. In brief, it turns out that her true family were casualties of one of those bloody free-for-alls that are all too common in the mythical Martial World, and that the object of that free-for-all, as is so often the case, was a weapon of legendary power, in this instance the appetizingly named “Bowel Cutting Blade”, which it turns out May has had in her possession the whole time. This revelation paves the way for Pearl’s final transformation within the film, into the fearsome, black garbed avenger of the film’s title, who leaves a telltale flower at the site of each of her kills. Unfortunately, May will ultimately find that her kill list contains the names of some whom she has come to love along the way.

If you wanted to see a Pearl Cheung Ling film that was really quite strange, I would recommend Wolf Devil Woman, but if you wanted to see a Pearl Cheung Ling film that was really quite good, I would recommend Miraculous Flower. This is not simply because of the film’s more consistent dramatic tone, but also due to the breathtaking nature of its many fight scenes, which for once provide a decent showcase for Pearl’s physical skills, which actually turn out to be pretty impressive. Noteworthy for their combination of exciting choreography, dazzling wire work, and dynamic shooting technique, these fights also stand out for the spectacular settings in which they play out, taking place everywhere from atop raging waterfalls, to sheer cliff faces, to snowy tundras. And to top it all off, we get a desperate climactic battle that takes place within the fiery bowels of an active volcano.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Wolf Devil Woman and Matching Escort are both films that I deeply love. It’s just that, while those movies inhabit a strange universe all their own, Miraculous Flower is capable of going head to head against more conventional and professionally mounted examples of its genre on their own terms -- while at the same time nonetheless bolstering Pearl’s image as a true eccentric of kung fu cinema. It is Pearl’s status as a weirdo that I cherish above all, but I respect her even more for being a weirdo who was clearly capable of following a more well trod path, yet who chose not to nevertheless. Miraculous Flower is a resounding bitch slap to anyone who might have previously entertained doubts about her skills as a martial artist (perhaps myself most of all -- ouch!), and as such can’t be recommend highly enough.


For more information about Pearl Cheung Ling, please be sure to check out my esteemed colleague Durian Dave's series of posts about her over at his blog Soft Film, as well as his Tumblr Fuck Yeah, Pearl Chang!