Friday, April 21, 2017

The Offense lingers



This past Wednesday was the first time I had ever hosted Pop Offensive all by my lonesome. And I have to admit that I was nervous—as evidenced by the way in which I completely whiffed the opening. At one point I quipped that my co-host for the evening was dead air, and boy was that funny--and literally true.

Still, I would be a fool to think that people tune in to the show to marvel at my announcing skills. What they tune in for is the convulsively eclectic mix of world pop music that we play—and I dare say that we did not disappoint with this episode, offering up everything from child-sung Finnish synth pop, to Japanese Green Day covers, to raucous hillbilly swing, to shiny teen pop gems from all over the damn place.

If you don’t believe me, well…fine, whatever. But you could certainly disabuse yourself of your unwarranted skepticism by streaming the archived version of the episode here. You can also view the complete playlist here on the Pop Offensive Facebook page. Bye-ee.

Friday, April 14, 2017

WIth new eyes


My review of V. Shantaram's Do Ankhen Barah Haath ("Two Eyes Twelve Hands"), which first appeared on the Lucha Diaries site, was one of the first long form film reviews I ever wrote. Now, apropos of the holiday, it has been resurrected over at Mezzanotte. Fortunately it has aged little, because the film it considers is timeless. Have a gander, won't you?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Shaolin Invincibles (Taiwan, 1978)


I’m sure this kind of thing happened all the time in the Taiwanese film industry of the 70s: A director would be putting the finishing touches on his perfectly respectable little martial arts film, and then someone with his hand on the purse strings would say something like, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see Judy Lee fight a gorilla.”

That is, at least, what I have to assume happened in the case of Shaolin Invincibles, a film now widely known as “the one with the gorillas.” The thing about Shaolin Invincibles, though, is that it—unlike other Taiwanese martial arts film, which included all kinds of outlandish elements to distract from their technical and narrative shortcomings—is a very well-crafted and wildly entertaining movie, replete with charismatic performances, energetic pacing, and a boatload of exciting fight sequences. Yet there are the gorillas.


For the scholars among you, the film is set during the Ching Dynasty, though all that matters for the rest of us is that it is a time when a fearsome despot has cast his shadow over the land. As we join the action, that despot, King Yeung Chang (Cheng Hung Lee) is having the entire family of a low level functionary slaughtered over an imagined slight. Fortunately, a heroic monk intervenes just in time to save the two youngest children of the family, the sisters Lu Sziu and Lu Yu. The girls are taken back to the monastery and rigorously trained in the art of Shaolin kung-fu for twelve years, after which they flower into adult womanhood in the form of actresses Chia Ling and Lung Chun-ehr.

Chia Ling is today probably best known by the name under which she was introduced to Western audiences, Judy Lee. This was one of many attempts by producers at the time to increase a kung fu performer’s box office clout by intimating some kind of vague familial connection between them and Bruce Lee (Lee being such an unusual name for a person of Chinese descent that it would be impossible to conclude otherwise.) In Chia Ling’s case, this appears to have been effective, as it is reported that quite a controversy arose once her relation to Lee was proved bogus. Anyway, what matters most is that, by any name, Chia Ling is a massively underrated performer, gifted both as an actor and a martial artist, who deserves to be considered alongside Angela Mao as one of the most iconic female stars of the Martial Arts genre. (Which is not to say that her co-star, the beautiful Lung Chun-ehr—also known as Doris Lung—was any slouch either.)


Anyway, after turning Lu Sziu and Lu Yu into unstoppable killing machines, the monks see fit to release them into the populace. The two girls split up, pledging to later rendezvous in the capital city, where they will enact their plan of vengeance against the King. Lu Sziu (Lee) then makes haste to her old village, where she makes short work of murdering a magistrate who was complicit in her family’s deaths. This act serves to announce Lu Sziu’s presence to all interested parties, including the King’s crony Governor Lei (Yee Yuen.) Lei has assured the king that all of Lu Sziu’s family has been killed, and so is anxious to have the living refutation of that claim that Sziu represents eliminated post haste. He orders that his “best men” be put to the task.

Now this reference to “best men” might not prepare you for what we see next—which is the king being introduced to a pair of kung fu trained gorillas by a pair of freaky wizards with long, tape measure-like tongues. Now I’m not saying that the idea of gorillas as kung fu assassins is necessarily stupid; I suppose that the right director might be able to pull it off, given his gorilla costumes were convincing enough. Unfortunately, it is the appearance of the gorillas in Shaolin Invincibles that render them so egregious. Keep in mind that otherwise this is a very nice film to look at, with colorful, eye catching costumes, spectacular historical locations, and attractive stars, all filmed to lovely effect by an uncredited cinematographer. The gorilla costumes, in contrast, look like old shop stock at a costume rental store; moth-eaten and ill fitting, flopping and sagging pathetically around the bodies of the actors who’s sneakers can be seen poking out from the the legs. Oh, and lets not forget to mention the clearly visible zippers.


None of this is helped by the fact that these gorillas are hyped as the ultimate weapon, not just of the king and his cronies, but of Shaolin Invincibles itself. Thus is the eventual confrontation between them and the Lu sisters endlessly hyped and foreshadowed throughout the film. Thankfully, this leaves time in the interim for a number of well-staged fights with other opponents of a less inherently silly nature—which is saying a lot given that, among those opponents, are the guys with super long tongues and another with a bulging eye that I kept expecting to pop out every time he was punched.

That said, I have to admit that the fight with the gorillas, when it comes, is actually pretty exciting. This is testament to the abilities of director Hou Cheng, who clearly knows his way around a brawl. This is a film with an impressive number of fights, and each boasts credibly bone-crunching choreography, minimal (or, at least, well concealed) wire-work, and kinetic action marked by lots of aerial flips and somersaults, all of which is filmed and edited for maximum legibility and impact.


It is after this fashion that Lu Sziu wallops her way across the countryside, leaving a trail of clobbered minions in her wake. And when she is eventually joined by two fighters—played by Carter Wong and Dorian Tan--whom the monks have assigned to watch over her, the body count increases exponentially. Once she and her sister are reunited, the two women, under false identities, take jobs as housekeepers at the King’s trap-laden castle, hoping by that means to clear the way for an eventual siege.

As someone who likes nothing more in an old martial arts film than a trap-laden lair, I have to say I was disappointed by how few of these alleged gizmos we got to see put into action. The only exception, really, is a trap door that delivers Lu Sziu into a spike-laden underground dungeon. This she escapes, in a sequence reminiscent of The Count of Monte Christo, with the help of a prisoner in a neighboring cell, who turns out to be the castle’s ill-fated architect. Armed with a map he has given her, she and her fellow fighters head into Shaolin Invincibles’ conclusion, which is just as spectacular a mosaic of parallel action as the film has been priming us for all along, with each of the stars’ considerable fighting skills being showcased to dazzling effect.


If you are a long-time reader of this blog, it is likely that Shaolin Invincibles' reputation has preceded this review by a considerable measure of time. In that case, you will probably be surprised to learn that I give the film my unqualified recommendation—and not as some kind of "WTF" kung-fu oddity, but as a thrilling and well-made example of its genre. It may lack the lofty pretensions of a King Hu film, but, as a nuts-and-bolts martial arts action film, it delivers everything you might want in high style. Thus its shitty looking gorillas are, to my mind, not a fatal flaw, but something for which it has earned a well deserved dispensation.

Monday, April 3, 2017

King of Snake (Taiwan, 1984)


We live in cynical times.

So cynical, in fact, that even the more softhearted among you might have a hard time buying into King of Snake’s testament to the love that a giant mutant snake can feel for a lonely little girl named Tingting. Can your indifference perhaps be overcome by the film’s theme song, a sappy ballad that is surely the Taiwanese equivalent of Michael Jackson’s “Ben”? How about the insipid instrumental score, which makes ample use of the “bells” setting on a cheap 1980s keyboard? No? Well, like it or not, we’ll all just have to deal with this giant monster movie that aims to warm the heart as much as chill the spine--making it the one thing on this earth closest to a kaiju version of Old Yeller.

King of Snake begins with young Tingting (Tracy Su Hui-Lun) discovering the snake she will later name Moser while net fishing with the two awful little boys who are her constant companions. Tingting takes Moser home and smuggles him into her bedroom. There follows a series of sitcom-like sequences that involve her trying to hide Moser from mom and dad. Meanwhile, a rapport develops between the little girl and the snake which mostly involves Tingting saying things to which Moser, like a muppet, can only nod vigorously in agreement.


We then switch to a mysterious government laboratory, where scientists are endeavoring to end world hunger with a substance called R19 that can cause produce to grow to five hundred times its normal size. Let me here reassure those of you that have never seen a movie that these kinds of schemes always succeed perfectly without any unforeseen consequences. Except, in this case, the scientists have neglected to consider one important factor: the army of terrorists who burst into the lab and gun down everyone in sight.

One of the scientists, Helen Lin (Wu Feng), manages to escape with the special chamber that the scientists use to administer R19 to helpless lab animals. A car chase follows, during which Helen tosses the chamber into the roadside greenery before her car plunges off the road and explodes in midair. (I think that when this happens in movies it’s because the car is momentarily confused as to whether it is a car or an airplane, thus suffering an identity crisis that makes it combust.) By the by, Helen is the girlfriend of Dr. Li, the inventor of R19, who is played by Danny Lee. And Danny Lee is in King of Snake because King of Snake is a movie that screams for the presence of the star of Super Inframan, The Oily Maniac, and Mighty Peking Man. As with those titles, Lee’s presence here serves to establish the psychotronic pedigree of a film that might otherwise be indistinguishable from Last Year at Marienbad.


Anyway, as Tingting is unusually outdoorsy for an ostensibly lonely little girl, she is nearby at the time of Helen’s crash, engaging in a kind of off-road roller skating that involves skates with tractor-like treads. This activity sent me immediately to Google, where I found that, according to a 1936 issue of Modern Mechanix, these tractor skates were invented by a Japanese teacher for the very purpose they are put to in King of Snake. So we might give that teacher partial credit for Tingting finding the chamber and taking it home. Unable to distinguish it from the completely generic, transparent plastic box that it apparently is, she decides to use it as a house for Moser and puts him in it. She then turns to her studies, oblivious to all of the bleep-bloop-bleep sci-fi noises and bolts of lightning that are coming out of the chamber. When she finally turns around, Moser is about twenty times his original size.

From this point, King of Snake gets a little crowded, with everybody but the Scientologists coming after Tingting and her family with the idea that they either have the formula for R19 or know of its whereabouts. These include the terrorists, who answer to a mysterious, cat-petting figure named Chen Chung, agents of the Taiwanese government, the police, and the military, who, of course, want to use R19 as a biological weapon. Whenever any of these fools get too rough with Tingting, the loyal Moser comes to the rescue, drawing attention to himself and his unusual size in the process.



The problem for Moser is that the limits of his snake anatomy leave him with little other mode of defense than to simply bash his head into things. This becomes more problematic once Moser reaches his full, gigantic size—especially given Moser’s tendency to get a little carried away when angered. When the terrorists kidnap Tingting, Moser’s attempts to stop the car in which they are traveling result in the destruction of a bridge and the crippling of a nearby dam—the latter of which causes a catastrophic flood that kills thousands of civilians. Later, when it is determined that the terrorists have taken refuge in an office building, Moser heads downtown, only to wreak more carnage, the human toll of which--including a disco full of flashily attired dancers--is depicted in bloody detail.

All in all, the last half hour of King of Snake is pretty gonzo, alternating between scenes of giant monster rampaging, violent police shootouts, disaster movie style carnage (something that, judging by this and War God, the Taiwanese really had a thing for), and, of course, touching moments of bonding between a little girl and her snake. Throughout all of this, Tingting protests to anyone who will listen that Moser is her friend, that he is “nice” and “cute”, but it is not long before the karmic calculus of both monster movies and “boy and his dog” stories combine to put a number on his days. Which brings us to…

[SPOILER]

The scene of a weeping and disconsolate Tingting saying goodbye to the dying Moser actually left me a little verklempt, but that is only because the filmmakers set it to Ennio Morricone’s “Jill’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in the West. This same cheat was pulled in Country of Beauties and, while again very effective, it here stinks no less of unearned pathos.

That said, I have to say that King of Snake is a lot more breezy than it is cloying, although it invests an awful lot of effort in being the latter. The miniature effects, while crude by the standards of a Toho or even a Toei Studios, are made up for considerably by the frenzied nature of the monster attack scenes. Moser tears through the tiny sets like a snake on fire, smacking down one structure after another like a giant, scaly bullwhip. At the same time, the effects crew, taking a page from Reptilicus, mostly limits his depiction to that of an angry head poking up over the horizon. This approach is okay, of course, provided there is some kind of visual payoff at some point—which the spectacular shot of the raging Moser coiling around the skyscraper in which Tingting is being held captive unquestionably is.



So, having revealed King of Snake’s tragic conclusion, am I now obligated to issue a trigger warning for those sensitive to the depiction of harm to animals? Well, to be honest, I am one of those people, and if, given a choice between this film and dreck like Calamity of Snakes, another Taiwanese movie in which the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of real snakes is graphically depicted, I come down decisively on Team King of Snake. It may be a lot less wholesome than it wants you to think it is, but at least it’s not sleazy or exploitive. A snake could do worse.

[NOTE: Yes, I know that Godfrey Ho cut-and-pasted KING OF SNAKE into THUNDER OF GIGANTIC SERPENT. I haven’t seen that movie because I know better.]

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pulgarcito (Mexico, 1958)


Given it is a companion to Roberto Rodriguez’s scarifying Little Red Riding Hood films and was directed by Rene Cardona, who would later give us Night of the Bloody Apes and Survive!, Pulgarcito is surprisingly lightweight. Gone are the bizarre creatures, animal costumes and grotesque humor of the Riding Hood films, replaced by lots of child friendly capering to and fro. Of course, I watched the Spanish language version of the film, so I was spared the tone deaf dubbing and squalling musical numbers of K. Gordon Murray’s American release version.

Tom Thumb has received numerous literary treatments over the centuries, probably the most well-known being Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Poucet, upon which Pulgarcito (which no one ever has referred to as “Mexican Tom Thumb”) is based. Long a fixture of English folklore, the character first saw print in the late seventeenth century, with the publication of Henry Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the History of Tom Thumb the Great. This was purportedly a tome rife with crude scatological humor, as tiny Tom Thumb is repeatedly consumed—either by accident of design—by a variety of beasts and humans before being shat or vomited out.


Disappointingly, Cardona’s Pulgarcito chooses not to follow this path and instead bases its shenanigans on the more kid-friendly versions of Tom Thumb that have emerged in the years since Fielding’s treatment. True, the threat of Tom being eaten does inspire much of the aforementioned capering to and fro that takes place, but Cardona always pulls short of actually having this happen. Rodriguez’s La Caperucita Rojas, by contrast, pulled no punches in depicting the wolf’s fantasy of a gruesomely roasted Little Red Riding Hood laid out on a platter before him.

The story here sees Tom and his six normal sized brothers (is it okay to say “normal” in this context, or will I be accused of harboring some kind of stature-phobia?) fall afoul of an ogre played by Santa Claus’ Jose Elias Moreno. The ogre chases them all over the forest, brandishing a nasty looking knife and presumably saying something along the lines of “Get in my belly!” Finally they seek shelter with a sympathetic crone who turns out to be the ogre’s wife (the heavily made-up Maria Elena Marques). They are in the ogre’s house, and upon his return find themselves hanging from the kitchen wall like so many plucked chickens.


Tom Thumb/Pulgarcito is played by Cesareo Quezadas, a diminutive child actor who, from this point on, was doomed to have ‘Pulgarcito’ affixed to his name in the credits of whatever film he appeared in—including this film’s synergy happy follow-up Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos. In depicting his small size, the makers of the film admirably eschew the process shots used by so many in their stead and instead use a series of forced perspective compositions that are impressive as long as you don’t care about the relative sizes of Quezadas and his co-stars remaining consistent throughout the film. The same can be said for the numerous oversized props and set elements. All in all, Tom’s size fluctuates from that of a large hamster to something I’ll call “approximate Weng Weng” from shot to shot.

Eventually Tom and his bros devise to defeat the ogre by cleaning his house while he is out and introducing his seven filthy daughters to a bar of soap--in other words, attacking his very ogre way of life. In the course of tidying up, the ogre’s wife finds her old magic wand and, in a glittery climax, transforms herself back into the beautiful fairy princess she once was (Maria Elena Marques again, but heavily made up in a different way.) Amazingly, this works, and the ogre, surrounded by so much cleanliness and beauty, finds the ice on his glacial heart summarily melting away. True, he may have consumed many terrified human beings in his day, but he is now nice, allowing us all to dance in celebration as the curtain falls. (Er, SPOILER)


And I, too, can dance. Because Pulgarcito is the last of these Mexican fairy tale movies that I have to watch, freeing me to move on to other sources of grotesque kiddie fare for your esteemed delectation. Of course, I wish that it had been more gross and disturbing, but you can’t have everything.

Friday's best pop song ever

Fantomas Redux


My Teleport City review of Andre Hunebelle's 1966 fumetti adaptation Fantomas has been given a second life over at Mezzanotte. As you would expect from webmaster Keith Allison, Mezzanotte is a site steeped in European decadence, and Fantomas, in all his various forms, is right at home there. Check it out, won't you?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An offense for the whole family


If you are a long-time POP OFFENSIVE listener, you know that last week's episode got a little sticky. My co-host was David Smay, the co-author of Bubble Gum Music is the Naked Truth, and, for two hours, we filled the air with enough treacly, toddler friendly tunes to give even the most battle hardened pop fan a stomach ache. (We also played "I Touch Myself", but that's another matter.) You can listen to the episode, which has just been posted over at KGPC969.org, by going here. The complete playlist for the episode can be viewed here on the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Save on FUNKY BOLLYWOOD and make out like a bandit!


As part of their March blow out, FAB Press is offering my book Funky Bollywood for the low, low price of £6.00. That's about 7.50 U.S.--less than a third of the cover price (though keep in mind that that price does not include shipping from the UK.) To buy it, go here. But act fast; there is only so much funk to go around.