Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Karate (India, 1983) by Beth Watkins

As I struggle to type these words with my newly affixed hooks, the guest posts continue over here at 4DK. This time the awesome Beth Watkins, author of the universally beloved blog Beth Loves Bollywood, reports back from the trenches of dodgy Indian VCDs to fill our heads with Mithun Chakraborty and his disco-socky spectacle Karate.


Why this film is not on Youtube is one of the great mysteries of life. I understand why it does not exist on easily-findable DVD—the print is terrible, the plot and acting are absolutely standard, and none of the songs stands out as particularly hummable—but it seems like the kind of thing custom-made to exist in the medium most supportive of our ethos of pop culture instant gratification. Because when you hear that there is such a thing as a Mithun Chakraborty disco karate movie, you need to see it right now and then immediately share it with an appreciative world. The Mithun fanboy army has, perhaps, let us down. This post will humbly attempt to redress this sad oversight in our collective appreciation of early 80s Bollywood.

If you have seen Disco Dancer (which surely anyone reading this post has), especially within recent memory, it’s entirely possible that Karate will feel like a bit of a disappointment. In addition to the essential shared presence of Mithun, Bappi Lahiri, king of Indian movie disco music, does the scores of both, but Karate’s songs just aren’t as...well, magically exuberant, which is probably only fair, since a movie about a disco dancer should have unforgettable songs. Both films start out with a children working in the titular profession who then grow up to avenge wrongs done to their families. I would argue that what Karate lacks in international dance competitions and death by electric guitar it makes up for with long-lost siblings, gypsies, a more masala-y villain, product placement by Wrangler, laser technologies that somehow hinge on a particular diamond necklace, and songs set in a gym.

Basically what I’m saying is that if you like Disco Dancer, you should definitely watch Karate. And for the non-Hindi-speakers among you, I wouldn’t worry about not finding a version of this with subtitles. Any seasoned Bollywood-watcher has seen this movie a dozen times.

Earlier today I wondered aloud to a friend who has been a professional author and journalist since his early twenties why I was finding it so difficult to express my enthusiasm about Karate in writing. He proposed that the intensity of the experience does not translate well to text, and I think he may be on to something. I can tell you that Karate opens with slow-motion of two little boys doing karate on the beach at sunset [note from the editor: please hear finger quotes on all instances of the word “karate” in this piece] while an instructor shouts didactically and the background score includes a stumbling synthesizer, quavering organ chords, and another male voice yelling “Hya! Hyaaa!” and “Karate!” modulated by a heavy hand on the echo effect, but does that truly capture how engagingly loony the film’s first few minutes are?

A few seconds and some gentle parental observation later, the boys play on the shore with a little girl, Aarti (who is possibly mega-famous actress Kajol, who is credited in this film and whom I cannot place in any other role, though I can’t definitively place her as this character either), the daughter of their instructor, Jai. Then they sing a song to their mother and she embraces them both, which confirms that this family is closely bonded and thus will soon be torn apart and eventually reunited. Then evil-doer Kader Khan, who has been stealthily recording all this karate practice and emotional goop, narrates a film that demonstrates how the boys’ father (Dr. Shankar) has invented a very powerful laser weapon thingy that harnesses the sun’s power through a diamond. Shankar gives us more information about his blood, sweat, and diamond-hiding location, and Kader Khan sets their house on fire and kills Shankar. The boys and their mother are, of course, separated during all of this; one of them is raised by Jai and grows up to be karate expert Danny (Mithun), and the other runs off to a gypsy camp and grows up to be...frankly I don’t know what Desh is. Good friend Cinema Chaat says he’s a jewel thief as well as a performer of karate-themed stage shows with his friend Imran (Mazhar Khan, aka Mr. Zeenat Aman), but my Hindi and this VCD aren’t good enough for me to have picked up on that. Desh is performed by story/screenplay/director/producer Deb Mukherjee.

At this point, I need to pause for two asides. First, as a recent but fevered convert to Bengali cinema, I find it hilarious that the leads of a film called Karate are both Bengali. Admittedly, this amusement stems directly from regional stereotypes and has very little to do with the reality of Indian movie industries. Bengalis had been working in mainstream Bombay cinema in droves for decades by the time this film was made, Mithun was already a rising Bollywood star, and Deb Mukherjee comes from a massive and long-established film family.* But there’s still a fun cognitive dissonance going on here, because when you think tough fighter heroes you just don't tend to think "…from Calcutta." For readers who don't watch a lot of Indian films or aren't conversant in regional stereotypes, this is a bit like populating a kung fu movie with Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh, actors who at least in name come from a less bombastic and more literature-based cinema culture. We are well aware that there can be action stars from Manhattan and England, but that's not our first cinematic association.

Second, I recently watched Manoj Kumar's Purab Aur Pachhim in which he is the lead as well as writer, director, and producer, so I've been thinking about whether it's possible to say anything interesting in general about Bollywood actors who feature themselves in their own films. My favorite example of this behavior is Feroz Khan (direct/produce/star), who exudes some kind of confident nonchalance that makes me absolutely approve of basically anything he does, even when it is self-aggrandizing, sleazy, or excessive in countless other ways. There's also Raj Kapoor (direct/produce/star), who is generally held up as the most respectable and artistic example, the most capital-F Filmmaker-y. On the other end of the spectrum is a man I like to think of as Bollywood's Tommy Wisseau, Kamal R. Khan, who suffers from similarly grand delusions of talent, heroic potential, and general relevance, first embodied by his debut film Desh Drohi (write/produce/star) and more recently by his reviled presence on Twitter. Unlike the first three "actors+" I listed (and Deb Muhkerjee as well), KRK, as he likes to call himself, has not worked under other directors or learned anything about presenting oneself as a leading man, or even filmmaking in general, I assume because no one else would bother with him. I think it is safe to say that all of these men have a very strong sense of self and self-importance, as well as earnestness applied in very different ways; some of them know what to do with these compulsions most of the time, but others do not.

I’m not sure where to slot Mukherjee in the scale of success of self-driven, self-featuring Bollywood projects. Karate is his only work as director and producer, so there’s not much to go on. His best decision in this film was casting Mithun Chakraborty and then stepping back and letting him do his thing. (“Mithun’s thing” is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if that’s the case, no amount of me discussing this film’s pleasures will be convincing anyway.) I’d guess that Deb and Mithun have fairly equal screen time, and their story arcs are equitable in complexity and emotional heft—for example, as adults both lose people close to them, though I think Desh does in fact suffer and gain more than Danny does—but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the principal star is. I am sold on Mithun in this film almost as soon as he enters (which, by the way, he does in absurd fashion as Jai stands facing the camera holding a cat like he’s Blofeld, then throws the cat into the air, and somehow in flight it turns into Mithun tumbling across the screen). The choreographers (fight and otherwise) for this film have a field day with him, giving him tippy-toe prancing in combat and in dance. Mithun looks like he’s having a field day in these sequences too, and for me that’s enough to make up for some other moments when he...appears less invested, shall we say. His first song, “Tum Tum Tumba,” is full of skittering strings, laser pew-pew sounds, boogeying club-goers, and Mithun swiveling his hips and dance-fighting around a bar and swimming pool in silver boots. Frankly, this sequence falls under the category “If you are not entertained by this, you are made of stone.”

Another special—or “special,” take your pick—feature of Karate is its ridonkulous bromance between Desh and Imran. You can guess by their names that there is some delicious inter-communal bonding going on; without subtitles I can’t be sure if that is mentioned overtly, but it’s reinforced visually in at least one scene that I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. There is an exchange near the beginning of the film in which Desh and Imran embrace and affectionately touch one another for at least 75 seconds, all while beginning most of their sentences with each other’s names. This is a doozy of a bromance. See them in karate-dance action in this video.

After watching over 500 Hindi films, I had a pretty good idea of approximately what was likely to happen in Karate. What I did not expect was its portrayal of the female characters. There are three to speak of: Aarti (Yogeeta Bali as an adult), Desh’s love interest (played by Kaajal Kiran and whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, so let’s just call her KK), and Zora (Prema Narayan), another member of Desh’s gypsy community. Zora is also in love with Desh, and she and KK fight over him. I’m the first to roll my eyes at anything labeled “cat fight” on Youtube clips, but Karate takes this struggle as seriously as it does any of its many others between male characters. It’s not clear to me whether KK’s combat skills have any context (she’s possibly a thief also? I think this VCD is missing some scenes, or at least not playing all of them), but I really don’t care, especially when she fights in black flares and a silver blouse that frankly I would love to slip into before dousing myself in Charlie (or Hey You!) and heading out for a night on the town. These two women have an amazing dance-fight around a campfire that starts with each tied together at one leg by a long rope, then their wrists tied together and knives clenched between their teeth, then suspended from the air. This is probably the longest and most determined fight by women I’ve ever seen in Indian cinema, and I respect the film portraying a heroine and vamp as being as strong, athletic, and talented as the men. (I should also note that without subtitles I cannot be confident that the lyrics don’t undermine all this independence and ability, but at least the visuals are good.) Some of the camera angles are a little suspect, but given that the men thrust around in tight white satin pants as often as we see Prema’s miniskirted thighs, this at least falls into the Feroz Khan camp of equal opportunity gaze. See for yourself here, beginning with the ladies’ less dance-y brawl before the music kicks in. Keep an eye out for the totem pole in the background of the gypsy camp.

Look. I don’t want to make Karate into something it’s not. It’s not a convincing martial arts film, it’s not the best brotherly-slanted masala out there, and it’s not a kitschy lotus rising from the imperfect muck. It is silly. It probably could have benefitted from a more robust budget. It seems to have mostly disappeared from popular attention (if it ever had any in the first place). But it also succeeds at what it sets out to do—tell a fairly familiar masala story focused on vengeance and brotherly love within the framework of karate and disco accoutrements—and to me it is more than adequately successful in creating a solidly entertaining B-movie within those parameters. I also realize that “more than adequately successful” does not sound like an enthusiastic endorsement, but trust me, it is.

Many thanks to Cinema Chaat for sending the Karate VCD all the way from Australia! That’s love, people.

* For the uninitiated: his uncles include Ashok and Kishore Kumar; Tanuja, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee are more distant relatives; and he is the father of currently successful director Ayan Mukherjee of Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Manhattan Night of Murder, aka Mordnacht in Manhattan (W. Germany/France, 1965)

Back in the halcyon days of 2009, I wrote a primer on the career of Robot Monster star George Nader and his role in the Jerry Cotton films. In brief, Nader left the U.S. for Germany as work became scarce for him stateside -- perhaps as a result of him being outed by Confidential magazine publisher Robert Harris -- leading to him landing the plum role of FBI agent Jerry Cotton, subject of a series of German pulp novels that were then being brought to the screen by Allianz Filmproduktion. The rest is invisible film history.

Manhattan Night of Murder is the first of the Jerry Cotton films and as such provides a fine showcase for that series' peculiarities. Chief among those is an insistence on making the Manhattan milieu an integral element of the films while at the same time shooting them on a tight budget in Hamburg. Hence the abundant stock footage and photo backdrops of Times Square tell one story, while the hilly, cobbled streets on which much of the action takes place tell another. For me, the resulting blurring of urban geography is more of an asset than a flaw, as it places the films in a suspended sort of movie reality that makes immersion in them even more of a decisive break from regular old reality. In fact, so much of the movie takes place in front of rear projected backdrops that it's easy to imagine the actors themselves losing track of their whereabouts.

As the Jerry Cotton series went on, it would increasingly show the influence of the James Bond films, positioning Cotton as an unflappable and invincible super agent at the expense of his colleagues and organization. In Manhattan Night of Murder, however, the influence of noir procedurals like Naked City and He Walked by Night is every bit as pronounced. In keeping with that, we open with a stentorian narrator marveling at the Big Apple's overwhelming scale and pace while at the same time singling it out as a hotbed of crime and depravity. Then it's on to stock footage of technicians in lab coats looking through microscopes as that narrator lauds the FBI as "the most efficient police force in the world". And then we're introduced to Jerry, the only FBI grunt whose salary affords him a Jaguar E-Type.

Manhattan Night of Murder starts Jerry off small, pitting him and his partner Phil Dekker (Heinz Weiss) against a protection racket known as the Hundred Dollar Gang. True to their name, this outfit strong arms small shopkeepers and business owners into paying a monthly fee of a hundred bucks in exchange for leaving them unmolested. In this, the movie suggests, the hoods benefit more from complacence than intimidation, for, as far as their marks are concerned, hey, it's only a hundred bucks. Hardly the "world for ransom" type of plot we're used to seeing our suave super agents up against, but in keeping with the gritty street's eye view of New York's underbelly that the movie seems to aspire to. In any case, things soon escalate when an Italian restaurant owner named Giussepe (Dirk Dautzenberg) is gunned down and killed during one of the gang's shakedowns.

Of course, the film can't resist introducing some elements of Euro-genre wackiness for long, and that starts with femme fatale Wilma de Loy (Danger!! Death Ray's Sylvia Solar), who parades around in a sparkly cat suit with a camel toe unignorable to even the most determined gentleman. Wilma owns a nightspot called the Goldfish Club which serves as a hideout to the gang when they aren't just all piled into one car together, which is most of the time. The centerpiece of the club is a massive aquarium in which comely female dancers in scuba gear do a mermaid act. Though the film is directed by Harald Philipp, it's a touch that would make Jess Franco proud.

As for Nader's performance, he portrays his hero with a lot of charm and self effacing playfulness, which is in keeping with the low stakes nature of much of the film's action. There's never much doubt as to whether Jerry will best these small time hoods, and it's a testament to Nader's likeability that his resultant confidence and swagger don't make him unbearable. Meanwhile, most of the action set pieces are resolutely old school, involving swinging from ropes, dangling from ledges, climbing along scaffolds and the like, all of which appear to have involved Nader himself to one extent or  another (and not surprisingly, judging from the low budget that was obviously being worked with). Finally, to raise the stakes for the climax, a child is imperiled, and Jerry and his Jag mush race to save a young boy taken hostage by the gang's fat cat leader.

As with all the Jerry Cotton films, one of Manhattan Night of Murder's inarguable high points is it's musical score by Peter Thomas. Combining swinging beat group guitars with brassy, spy movie horn riffs and effusive, wordless vocals, Thomas's compositions propel us through a nocturnal 1960s world filled with excitements both deadly and decadent. In contrast to this is the jaunty, whistled theme that heralds Jerry himself, one that suggests him as an especially relaxed breed of secret agent hero. He may not, like other movie spies, bare down on his prey with gritted teeth and revel in their violent demise, but he will, through a sort of affable doggedness, get them in the end -- and all within 90 brisk minutes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Oriole the Heroine by Durian Dave

Weak... so weak... head crossing... eyes spinning... knees curdling... blood trembling... Must... post... but can't... But wait... what's that on the horizon? Coming to the rescue, it's none other than Durian Dave of the dynamic Soft Film blog, bringing us a  fascinating post about one of the great heroines of classic Hong Kong cinema.

More than 40 years before Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui knocked the socks off Hong Kong movie fans with their wuxia-superhero mashup The Heroic Trio (1992), there was another trio of stylish crimefighters kicking ass on Hong Kong’s silver screen. If you listened to last year’s Infernal Brains podcast about the “Jane Bond” films of 1960s Hong Kong, you might remember us talking about a certain Oriole the Heroine and her trusty sidekicks.


Born in 1948 in the pages of the Blue Cover Detective Magazine, Oriole (or Wong Ang) was a modern-day version of the xiadao, the righteous thief of traditional wuxia stories. The original stories published in Shanghai were patriotic spy thrillers set during the war of resistance against Japan. After the communists came to power, the magazine’s publisher fled to Hong Kong and continued publishing the Oriole stories, which proved so popular they were reissued as stand-alone editions and reprinted frequently. Over time, the stories evolved: Chinese gangsters replaced the Japanese villains; the plots became more complex and bizarre; and the writing style became more cinematic. The first official adaptation, Oriole, the Heroine (ca. 1957), came from Shaw Brothers. Two years later director Ren Pengnian and kung fu divas Yu So Chow, Wu Lizhu, and Yam Yin made a series of four films, the last of which was The Story of Wong Ang the Heroine (1960).


REN PENGNIAN got his start in 1919 at the motion picture unit of The Commercial Press, where he made what is believed to be the first Chinese film with choreographed fight scenes, Robbery on a Train (1920). He also directed the earliest feature-length Chinese film, a true-crime thriller called Yan Ruisheng (1921). Although he made everything from comedies to melodramas, Ren ended up devoting his career to action movies. In 1928 he and his wife Wu Lizhu founded the Yue Ming Studio and made films together up until the 60s. SWAH can be considered a last hurrah from the couple that pioneered the contemporary action film in Chinese cinema.


YU SO CHOW as Wong Ang aka Oriole the Heroine. The daughter of Peking opera master Yu Jim-yuen (who taught the Seven Little Fortunes), Yu So Chow grew up behind the stage and by her teens was an accomplished performer specializing in female warrior roles. (Check out this clip of Yu performing with her father.) Her fighting skills alone qualified her for the crown of wuxia queen, which she proudly wore during the 50s and much of the 60s, yet I suspect it was her beauty and glamour that cinched the title. Throughout her career — from her screen debut The Double Pistol Heroine (1949) to her rare non-fighting role in Bachelors Beware (1960) — Yu So Chow possessed a cool attitude and style that found perfect expression in the character of Wong Ang.

WU LIZHU as Wu Nga. Before Yu So Chow there was Wu Lizhu, who made a name for herself as the “Oriental Female Fairbanks” in silent serials such as The Northeast Hero (1928-31) and Mistress of the Spear (1931-32). Besides traditional wuxia and kung-fu films, Wu and her husband Ren Pengnian also made patriotic films such as Greedy Neighbors (1933), Female Spy 76 (1947), and Bloodshed in a Beseiged Citadel (1948), as well as the Occidental swashbuckler Lady Robin Hood (1947). When Wu returned to the screen in 1959 to make the first of four Wong Ang films, she was 52 years old. If it’s true you’re only as old as you feel, then judging by her performance in SWAH, Wu Lizhu most have been feeling pretty young indeed.

YAM YIN as Heung At. The daughter of Yam Yu-tin (who in 1927 was the first-ever credited martial-arts director), Yam Yin starred in some 130 kung-fu and wuxia movies throughout the 50s and 60s. Although her popularity never matched that of Yu So Chow, she was a mainstay of the Wong Fei-hung series. That she never wore the crown of martial-arts queen probably had more to do with Yu So Chow’s innate regalness than a lack of qualifications on Yam’s part. Her fight scenes in SWAH show that Yam possessed an intense physicality uniquely her own.

SHEK KIN as Chiu Yee-kong, leader of the Diamond Gang. If you don’t know Shek Kin, then you don’t know Hong Kong movies. Long before his memorable turn as Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon (1973), Shek was already the epitome of villainy to Hong Kong moviegoers. “Bad Guy Kin”, as he was affectionately called, made more than 500 films in a career spanning six decades. Although SWAH doesn’t showcase his considerable martial skills, Shek proves that sometimes all a villain needs is a nefarious smile, a good cigar, and a trap-door dungeon.

There is no credited fight choreo- grapher for SWAH, but with stunt masters YUEN SIU-TIN (left), LAU KAR-LEUNG (right), and KWAN CHING-LEUNG (not pictured) all appearing as members of Shek Kin’s Diamond Gang, you can be sure the action is top-notch. Yuen Siu-tin is best known for his iconic role as Jackie Chan’s sifu in Drunken Master (and also as the father of Yuen Wo-ping). Less known is that he got his start in movies in 1930 working as a stunt man and choreographer on the films of Ren Pengnian and Wu Lizhu. The late Lau Kar-leung needs no introduction. Suffice to say that before he helped revolutionize the martial-arts genre at Shaw Brothers, he honed his chops in Cantonese cinema. Kwan Ching-leung, a disciple of Yu So Chow’s father, may not be as famous as Lau, yet he contributed greatly to the modernization of martial-arts movies with his choreography in such wuxia spectaculars as The Snowflake Sword (1964) and The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute (1965). (For more about the groundbreaking work of Lau and Kwan, see my review of Connie Chan’s Lady Black Cat films.)


Before the fists start to fly, the first thing that impresses about SWAH are the fab duds of Oriole and her pals. As I mentioned above, Yu So Chow really knew how to rock an outfit. And Wu Lizhu was no slouch either. Throughout her career, she sported a butch look that was never less than cool. Decked out in sweaters, vests, and blazers, capri pants (in plaid and houndstooth), cravats and scarves, our three heroines look so sharp that one scarcely misses the catsuit, mask, and cape featured on the pulp covers (and in the Shaw adaptation).


Of course the main reason to watch SWAH is the fights. The story itself is nothing special and primarily serves to keep the characters in motion. As Jean Lukitsch writes in the just published first volume of Electric Shadows: the Secret History of Kung Fu Movies, “A Ren Pengnian movie really comes alive in the fight scenes.... The characters don’t change; all the dramatic energy goes into the action.” Check out the clip below and judge for yourself. If you like what you see, you can watch the entire film here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Witch with Flying Head (Taiwan, 1982)

There’s nothing like a detachable witch when you need to hex those hard to reach places. Southeast Asian filmmakers, they get this, as, judging by Witch with Flying Head, do the Taiwanese -- though whether such beasts are also part of their folklore I’m not sure. Perhaps the temptation to pair the grotesquerie of the regurgitation-based “black magic” genre with that featuring a flying female head that trails its entrails behind it was simply too great. In any case, as I mentioned in my review of Ghost of Guts Eater, the Thais call such a creature Krasue, while the Indonesians call it a Leak or Leyak. The subtitles for Witch with Flying Head call it a “flying evil”, which is also adequately descriptive.

Witch with Flying Head kicks off when Yu Chun (The Fairy and the Devil’s Chen Siu-Chen), a young noblewoman, is cursed by an evil sorcerer (Ma Sha) who sends a snake -- which, of course, he regurgitated -- scurrying up her nethers. He steps forward and offers her “medicine” to cure the resulting physical distress, and she drinks it, only to be told by him that she will now become the flying evil as a result, an affliction he will cure only if she agrees to marry him. Yu Chun basically replies “ew” to this, and soon we are seeing her unmoored head take wing, guts in tow, in search of blood (and not babies or placenta, as in the Southeast Asian versions of such tales). As you might imagine, this tendency soon becomes a problem for Yu Chun, and she and her two handmaidens opt to move to a remote cabin in the mountains where she is less likely to do harm to other humans.

Soon after her arrival on the mountain, Yu Chun is treated by a Taoist priest, who says that, from that point on, she will only become a flying head on the 15th of every month. He then gives her handmaidens a special box in which to capture her on those occasions. Thing is that, while you would think that keeping track of that one date would be primary on their minds, the three have a frustrating tendency of letting the 15th of the month just sneak up upon them and being all like “oh, shit!” – thus not depriving us of scenes of a prosthetic head being wire dragged through the night sky in pursuit of hapless passersby.

Elsewhere in Witch with Flying Head, another witch is preying on young male travelers on the mountain roads, marking them with the symbol of a snake before taking snake form and killing them. One of these is the handsome Tang Wang Kuan (Lau Seung-Him), who, in fleeing the witch, comes upon Yu Chun’s place and asks for shelter. When the witch comes in pursuit of him, Yu Chun uses the box given her by the priest to entrap her, thus taking that device out of play when later needed to deal with her own witchy issues. Eventually, Yu Chun and Tang Wang Kuan fall in love and marry, on the condition that Tang makes himself scarce on the 15th of every month. A baby follows, whereupon the sorcerer from the beginning of the movie, witches in tow, returns, promising safety for Yu Chun’s child only in return for her marrying him. (See? He’s just lonely.) Slimy supernatural battle follows.

Witch with Flying Head has pretty much everything you’d want from a krasue movie. The titular creature, while not always an aid to suspension of disbelief, is suitably disgusting, as are the many scenes of snakes writhing around in people’s guts. As an added bonus, because Witch with Flying Head is also a Taiwanese fantasy film, the krasue has the ability to shoot cartoon laser beams out of its mouth. The fact that she is an innocent afflicted with her condition by malevolent outside forces also places her in the company of tragic monster/heroine hyphenates such as those portrayed by Suzzanna in countless Indonesian stomach turners. Director Cheung Yang-Git (he of the reportedly also gross The Devil) places special emphasis on this last aspect, presenting us with many melodramatic scenes of weeping and lamentation.

Surprisingly, all of this weeping and lamentation ends in sunshine and rainbows for Yu Chen and Tang Wang Kuan, as her successful defense of her family from the serpentine interlopers leads us to an improbable happy ending -- accompanied, for some reason, by the theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, that defense included nothing as awesome as the aerial dogfight between krasues that we saw in Ghost of Guts Eater, but we can’t ask for miracles.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Antar in the Land of the Romans, aka Antar Fi Bilad Ir Ruman (Lebanon/Turkey, 1974)

Antarah ibn Shaddad earned his place in history through his contributions to Arabic literature, but in Arabic pop cinema he is known primarily for kicking ass. This is as true in the previously reviewed Antar the Black Prince, which featured the ferocious Egyptian star Farid Chawki, as it is with the Lebanese/Turkish co-production Antar in the Land of the Romans. But, while Chawki managed to maintain a modicum of regal bearing throughout all of his muscle flexing -- allowing Antar the Black Prince to maintain some air of historical pageantry amid all its violence and sensationalism -– Antar in the Land of the Romans is a straight up peplum with Antar as a Hercules-like figure, and its muscle farming star – like Chawki, made up in black face for the part -- a dead ringer for a minstrel Lou Ferrigno.

Directed in Lebanese and Turkish friendly versions, with a mixed Turkish and Lebanese cast, by Samir ul-Ghusayni and Orhon M. Ariburnu, respectively, Antar in the Land of the Romans is an efficient and ruthlessly cheap little film. Literally every expense is spared in presenting us with the glory that was Rome. But first we join Antar in his homeland, where he is being dispatched by his tribal elders on some kind of quest. This time paired with a dopey sidekick named Murad, he bids farewell to his legendary love Abla (played, I think, by Turkish actress Taroub) and heads off toward flimsy sets unknown. The first stop is to steal from a shape sifting sorceress some kind of sparkly, magical shawl that doesn’t seem to end up having much in the way of plot utility.

However, things really kick into gear when we meet the siren Claudia, a vicious and sexually insatiable Roman royal who routinely has her minions toss her spent lovers out of the palace window. When she meets Antar, it is very clear that she like-a what she sees, but Antar, inconveniently, is all “Abla, Abla, Abla”. This does not sit well, and Claudia immediately begins plotting Abla’s capture, aided by her scantily clad handmaidens and a jealous centurion named Marcus (3 Dev Adam’s Santo himself, Yavus Selekman). Thus begins the repeated cycle of captivity, picturesque torture and rescue that exhausts the remainder of Antar in the Land of the Roman’s running time.

One needn’t be a movie detective to divine, fairly early on, that cheesecake and sexploitative shenanigans are Antar in the Land of the Romans’ raison d’être. As such, its actresses devote much of their screen time to the wearing of transparent nightwear and sexy banana eating. This, of course, is very dumb, but I’m afraid that decrying it would be somewhat hypocritical on my part as the women in the film are uniformly stunning and wear the little that they do very well. The actress who plays Claudia, in particular, is a real looker, as well as an ace at the haughty proclamations and looking of daggers that her role requires. I wish I could tell you who she is, but aside from some studied forum commentary, information on this film is very scarce.

Brisk and silly, Antar in the Land of the Romans plumps up its simple plot with a lot of satisfyingly low rent sword and sorcery trappings. There’s a weird looking giant in a furry suit with a mace and, at one point, a nude hippie nymph appears out of nowhere to do a stoned dance for Antar and Murad in the forest. The fights are staged terribly, especially those involving swords, but there are many of them, and we repeatedly get to see Antar hoist his opponents overhead and throw them Dara Singh style. Oh, and there is some gore, too. All in all, though the version that I watched was the Lebanese cut of the film, its reckless desire to entertain placed its Turkish DNA well in evidence.

At Antar in the Land of the Romans’ climax, Claudia puts Antar in a cage -- yes, she did! -- and we finally get to see the full fledged hulking out that we’ve been anticipating all along. A rage amped Antar pulls the bars apart, after which many centurions are so woefully flung. In the end, Claudia’s strange attempts to win the affections of the great warrior poet prove resoundingly ineffective as, true beloved in his arms, he hulks off into the sunset. The princess is left with nothing but her own bitterness -- and we Western Antar fans are left to plumb even more remote depths of world cinema to find his further exploits. Sniff.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Ghost With Hole, aka Sundel Bolong (Indonesia, 1981) by Carol Borden

The guest posts continue, this time with The Cultural Gutter's  Carol Borden providing an alternate take on a film that I reviewed for Teleport City way back when I was still one of you.

Director Sisworo Gautama Putra is smart enough to start Ghost With Hole with its two main draws, Suzzanna and the titular Ghost With Hole, in particular, that ghost's hole. Suzzanna is often called The Queen of Indonesian Horror, but it's an entirely different role than that of Hollywood scream queens. She's kind of like Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele if they were a huge chunk of the British or Italian horror film industries in their heyday. And Suzzanna has a stare that equals, if not surpasses, that of Barbara Steele. If Suzzanna and Barbara Steele had a staring contest, I am pretty sure that we would all die.

Ghost With Hole begins with a wolf howl, a shot of a a grave and Suzzanna briefly intoning, “My name is Alisa” and sharing the horror we are about to watch. Then Suzzanna uses her baleful stare as her name and then the title of the film come up to a snippet of “Night on Bald Mountain.” Then Sisworo gives us an eyeful of ghost hole, as the credits roll over the ragged, raw flesh and squirming worms in the (at least) eight inch hole in Suzzannah's lower back.

After giving us a good look, the film backtracks to recount the events that lead a young woman to become a vengeful, angry ghost with a wormy, exposed hole who utters the immortal line, “Satay. Two-hundred skewers. I'll eat here.”

Suzzanna plays Alisa, a young woman who had been a prostitute and left the life of a pro behind to marry handsome gentleman, Hendarto, played by Barry Prima. The film opens with their beautiful wedding reception. In marrying Hendarto, Alisa leaves all the nastiness of her pre-Hendarto life of smoking and wearing magnificent afro wigs behind. Suzzanna wears very respectable clothing and has very respectable hair. Everyone calls her, “Nyonya,” a very respectable, almost matronly title. Life is good. But Hendarto receives a mysterious and important letter at the wedding reception. Shortly thereafter, he sails away, perhaps as the captain of an Indonesian cruise ship dedicated to bringing love to couples (while he is tragically separated from his wife) or maybe to defeat the remaining vestiges of Dutch Colonial sponsored sorcery in the forest, since Sisworo shot Jaka Sembang the same year.

While Hendarto's gone, Alisa's madame, Mami, who really needs to blot some of her make-up, and her player sidekick, Rudy, move in. The name, “Rudy,” by itself, is a warning sign to me. There has rarely been a Rudy in film who hasn't been a jackhole. (I haven't actually seen one, but I'm willing to admit the possibility). Alisa is lured to The Rudy Boutique where Rudy becomes skeevy and Alisa has none of it. But Mami and Rudy are not the kind of people who respect marriage or consent. Rudy's gang of skeevy jerks park their mom's wood-paneled stationwagon across the road and feign an accident. When Alisa goes to check on the driver, they kidnap her. They will regret this so very much. They stuff Alisa into the station wagon's way back and drive to what appears to be a barn. She escapes when they unload her, knocking two men back into the car and kicks a third to run away in her bare feet. Then she hides behind a crate, her long hair making her look effectively like a hole. When she's finally noticed, she continues to demonstrate remarkably effective fighting before she's overwhelmed by numbers. Rudy eats a red delicious apple at her in a threatening manner. Mami refuses Alisa's pleas for help. Alisa uses her Suzzanna stare on Mami and Rudy, but, sadly, Alisa doesn't have supernatural powers yet.

Rudy rapes Alisa and then invites his band of skeevy jerks to rape her. Very little is shown beyond leering and sweating and Alisa tossing her head from side to side, which, in a lot of ways, make it more powerful. Rape and revenge is a tricky plot device for me. I've often had awkward conversations about rape in film being “upsetting.” I'm told, “It's supposed to be upsetting.” (And, just so you know, you probably don't have to remind women that rape is, indeed, upsetting). I just don't want already upsetting rape with a side of upsetting portrayal of rape. But because Indonesian authorities had clear controls on what could and could not be shown on film, we are left with Alisa, the person, suffering, and the cruelty of Rudy and his gang. Of course, I am certain it's not what Suharto intended at all.

Alisa reports the crime, but the men are acquitted at trial by a corrupt court and―despite her even more respectable and modest clothing, hijab, long sleeves and all―Alisa is publicly humiliated. And directly after the trial, we discover she's pregnant when she: 1. vomits; and 2. hemorrhages. Alisa sees a doctor who's very sorry that he can't help. The doctor apparently sort of fades into her consciousness, lecturing her even while she's at home. Alisa dreams a phantasmagoria of babies and, from the tone, it looks like she's been thinking of having an abortion. Between the lecturing, paternalistic doctor and the images of fake and real babies, some having genetic abnormalities, this part of the movie felt almost like a Fritz Lang film during his Expressionist period. When she wakes, the older woman who's been caring for her tries to buck Alisa up. But Alisa will not be bucked up. Instead, she listens and, when the woman leaves to bring her food, either dies during a miscarriage, attempts to abort the fetus herself or commits suicide in the bathroom. All are a sure path to becoming a restless spirit. And restless spirits and vengeance are what we come to Suzzanna movies for.

Hendarto returns home and, I assume, drives immediately to the cemetery to lay a bouquet on his dead wife's grave. At home, he finds the very same bouquet on his couch. Hendarto fades into an Ennio Morricone-tinged reverie of meeting and then marrying Alisa, and ending with Alisa's trip and fall on the way into their new home. Pretty much about when the movie starts. Alisa's ghost visits Hendarto as he sleeps and he awakens just as she disappears. Feeling weird, he goes for a drive and sees a döppelgänger of his dead wife with a calico cat in the road. Her name is Sinta. Despite years of stories and now youtube videos of ghosts walking along the side of the road, Hendarto drives her home, by which, I mean, to his home to talk to her about how much she looks like his dead wife. She appears to be a more girlish version of Alisa, but has no memory of their life together. They talk for a while in Hendarto's living room, among his wedding pictures. When Sinta leaves, she disappears. Hendarto isn't concerned enough to stop seeing Sinta. Meanwhile, I don't know what happened to Sinta's cat and I'm concerned.

However, ghost with hole arrives to terrify and punish her rapists. She starts off felicitously giving her first victim, Ram, a single-fingered gesture meaningful in both English and Indonesian, before drowning him. But Indonesian movies like a little bit of everything in the mix and after Alisa's terrifying visage and the discovery of the drowned body, Sisworo moves to a little bit of comic relief. As Mami grows more and more concerned about a potential vengeful ghost problem, she approaches a ritual specialist who is one of the most interesting elements of Southeast Asian films in general―ritual specialist comic relief. This gentleman talks a big game, at least at the wet bar in Mami's armored bus, but is obviously not effective, or, to be kinder, not effective enough against a Suzzanna-caliber spirit. Mami is probably better off using the spiritual equivalent of margarita mix. The levity includes not only a ritual specialist and his minion, but a pedicab driver, who has harassed Alisa's ghost into accepting a ride from him. He also hasn't received any City of Jakarta Traveler Advisories about picking up women in white walking along the road late at night. She less intentionally terrifies the operators of an all-night snack stand. Presumably suffering a sense of emptiness, she orders, “Satay. Two hundred skewers. I'll eat here.” Staring fixedly, she eats stick after stick and, still hungery, asks for soup. She drinks their whole pot with the camera following the water as it flows out her maggoty hole and down to the ground, already covered in pieces of grilled meat, thus blending the comic relief satay and soup with the horror of a ghost with a hole.

The practical effects are both practical and pretty effective. Alisa's hole is nasty and horrific and even bears the scrutiny of nearly an entire opening credits sequence. And the effects hold up pretty well as Alisa spends the rest of the film hunting down her attackers. She's frightening when she appears before one of the rapists wearing her shroud, with her eyes, nostrils and mouth plugged with gauze. I found it particularly powerful when her arms burst through a brick (styrofoam, but still) wall to crush one of the rapists. But, really, Suzzanna could just stare people to death, and I'd be fine.

Of course, Alisa's return as a sundel bolong and these killings are all part of a chain of action that began with the rape and Alisa's anger at not receiving justice. And while her vengeance is satisfying, the ghost is a problem for everybody around and is herself suffering. Ultimately Hendarto realizes he needs to do something. First, though, he shows off his Barry Prima martial arts skills in a pretty good fight with the surviving members of the skeevy jerk gang who attack him at a dockside sugar plant. But he also talks to a local official and a ritual specialist who knows what to do. The ritual specialist confirms what we all suspected, Sinta is Alisa and Alisa is a sundel bolong. Everything comes together at the cemetery, when Rudy and the surviving member of his gang decide to put an end to Alisa and Hendarto and his friends arrive to put her to rest. The final battle between Alisa and Rudy, his remaining gang members and a more competent but still not up to snuff ritual specialist involves more vengeance, kris lasers, hand gestures and staring while the soundtrack becomes remarkably atmospheric as it sounds like a radio station fading in and out.

Alisa's end is sad, because she did nothing to deserve what happened to her. At best, Alisa is “at rest.” But then, that is a huge part of the appeal of Indonesian horror; that deserve's got nothing to do with it, that it's an unfortunate confluence of events, that the supernatural and the mundane can only exist together in very circumscribed and controlled ways. And that you best treat the lady ordering 200 satays politely because she could very well be a spirit.