Saturday, 29 March 2014

A VIdeotape Swapshop Triple Bill: Ninja The Protector (1986)/Robo Vampire (1988)/Beauty and Warrior (2002)


Dirs. Godfrey Ho/Joe Livingstone/Sukma Romadhon

The following three have a connective tissue to each other. An infamous director and two producers from Hong Kong that have all contributed to taking old films, adding ninjas to them and selling them to Western viewers. The first film is such a work, from Godfrey Ho, who has been covered on this blog before. Here one can find out what happens when a melodrama is mixed with an improvised action film. The next is miscredited to Ho, but can be fully confirmed to have the influence of producer Tomas Tang somewhere within it, who would work with Joseph Lai and Ho at times or at least share a credit on their work. Robocop (1987) as envisioned as the Tin Man fighting hopping vampires used by a drug cartel's guard dogs. As you'd usually expect from cinema. The final review is for what Lai's been doing long past the cut-and-paste ninja films; whether its based on true mythology or not I cannot tell, but its an excursion in the obscurest areas of animation that you can find produced. All together they are a testament to how unpredictable films can be regardless if they were made merely as product.


Ninja The Protector Review -

Robo Vampire Review -

Beauty and Warrior Review -


Friday, 28 March 2014

Under The Skin (2013)


Dir. Jonathan Glazer

I find myself seemingly disappointed with current cinema when yet I've seen plenty of great films being made within the last few years, regardless of debating whether any of it is canon worthy material. It doesn't have anything to do with the issues of celluloid film against digital cameras that are currently of debate - its only a concern for me in preserving films and whether people making the films can actually use either properly cinematographically. I've put up with the lack of access to less mainstream films in cinemas, and it's pointless to whine about blockbusters when I can avoid them. Probably the issue for me is that, in the middle of this current era, and used to believing trends within cinema are distinct, barring a few obvious ones there's few key movements that feel tangible or actually are worth talking about. Decades on, maybe an older Michael Hewis can have hindsight and wiser critics who can dig up the best of the 2000s and early 2010s rather than what's popular in the middle of it. Writing about Under The Skin, I am writing of a buzz, red hot British film that, while divisive, is getting the British film circles excited. Still under the brows of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut's dismissal of British cinema, we have a complex on the subject of our country's filmic output, both dangerous in championing mediocrity by leaping on any work that wins an international award, and yet a hope like all of us like myself have for work that burns itself into cinema's history. The question is, can I really give a full, final review to Under The Skin after only one viewing or is this a blind leap for something different?

Scarlett Johansson is Laura, a mysterious beauty, clearly a being that is not human when she takes the clothes and identify of her doppelganger in a white room. With an unknown motorcyclist guiding and watching over her, cleaning up aftermaths, she drives around urban Scotland in a white van, a siren to men leading them to a death in literal blackness. The film caused me to sit up from the beginning, the first inclination of what virtues this film has not being the first visuals but the first notes of sound, a modernist score by Mica Levi that, atonal yet melodic, unsettling yet alluring, cements the mood before images appear. When the images do appear, what appears seems to be a doughnut shaped entity encircling over a ball, a globe, a planet, from the blackness, a light that turns into the headlight of a motorcycle. A human eye. Against the music, it becomes tangible and felt fully. But this is within a film that has decided to also depict a realism of the human world Laura travels around, to the point it technically qualifies as documentary at points.

The film becomes quasi-documentary as secret cameras were used to depict the real Scotland, a Hollywood actress playing a distant being, with a British accent, wandering the streets or driving on the roads, next to brand stores like Marks & Spencer. When a road is congested by football fans, in mass and blocking cars from moving, the likelihood you're viewing actual football fans pass through a film that is made to be fiction is felt, knowing this production detail immersing. Fiction next to bursts of actual reality are odd bedfellows but together you can get incredible results onscreen, reality piercing the fictional and effecting it. This goes as far as some of the men Laura talks to, in an attempt to lure men to her trap, are actual men randomly found on the street, who gave permission for the final footage of them to be used, having a conversation with  Johansson with the hesistant pauses and errs of real conversation. The mixing of this and the unreal sci-fi adds a unique layering to the film, real ordinary life with the fantastique, giving one hope that the British environment - of stores, chewing gum covered pavements, council housing - can intertwine with the supernatural and, forgive the pun, truly alien.


Immense appreciation is there for Johansson for taking this role in the first place, and that her performance, with a cold tone of voice and minimal dialogue, is good enough and more so to make it work. The glamour of her Hollywood work follows her into this, adding to her aloneness, but as the character develops a distracted empathy for one of her potential victims and breaks away from the predestined tasks of hers, the sense of an ordinary woman, onscreen and as a person whose vocation is to act in these works called films, comes out. Honestly, this ordinariness actually makes her even more beautiful - unlike Black Widow in The Avengers (2012) who is a Barbie doll for male geeks, Laura, especially the scenes of seduction, feels more powerful for the mix of the real actress playing the character and the role itself she's playing. It also befits the character's duality, the cold mix of being a complete stranger, where the act of communication is an odd experience for the entity trying to make small talk, and a person, particularly when it comes to the last quarter when Laura ventures off into the countryside away from the motor biker. It would have been a difficult role - minimal or improvised dialogue, having to use a British accent that had to be convincing, the non-fiction conversations with people off the streets, the same sort of distance that David Bowie brought to his character in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) - and she does so fully. And it's a testament that, for a minimal amount, the other actors and non-actors stand out as much, especially Adam Pearson as the person that causes her to break away from the role she's in.

The welding of the fantastical and the real is different from many others that do the same, probably because unlike The Man Who Fell To Earth this is set in the truly ordinary. It's modernist score sends shivers down the spine, the distinct moments of the unhuman - bright white room, complete black liquid - stand out, but the world being depicted involves buses, Tommy Cooper, and baked beans. A moment where the protagonist tries to connect with the world is done with a black forest gateaux. In fact even the turning point where she gains struggling emotions involved the mention of the supermarket Tescos, the banality of Britain against the unreal creating probably a more abstract tone than for other films. The banal also becomes alien, the sound design becoming one with the score, the lights of passing vehicles UFOs on the roads, and the juxtaposition of these objects with fantastical blurring into one another. Few films are willing to depict a reality within fantasy itself, or fantasy within the real, but this one does. If you can put yourself into Laura's position within the final piece of the narrative, the film becomes as much the story of how an ordinary environment grows into unknown proportions when there is no connection to it, slowing grasping to understand. Of course this has potential feminist readings in how her body is being used as a tool to capture men and how she tries to escape from this. Ultimately the roles are switched of who is prey and victim, the same human beings where the sound of a balloon popping will never sound the same for me again without a creepiness to them. Neither side is inherently good or evil, just treating each other as mere others. Laura can blend into a gaggle of women, probably real people being filmed, taking her along hand-by-hand to a dance club, only for her to be unnerved by the strange world inside, bleeding red lighting, and music so loud, as someone who hates loud uncontrolled noise can attest to, that it's no longer music but a sonic barrage. The normal world is just as unknown as hers. The most disturbing set piece involves a beach incident that happens in everyday life, not the alien, a horrifying incident that is made more disturbing when one onlooker is so detached from the situation, showing how such a everyday accident in more troubling in happening to anyone.

The issue of whether the film will last in quality is there for this final viewing, but leaving the Showroom cinema in Sheffield, I could still feel the impact of the images and sound, and they've jarred themselves into my mind for weeks from that viewing. The discordant string sounds repeating again and again as I was walking in the afternoon air of the city, a rich tableaux that will sink in my thoughts and stay there for a while. It will at least have the virtue of being "total cinema", where every piece (acting, tone, editing, colour, sound etc.) is considered or in some way as distinct as the other pieces and all add to one fully immersive work. Very few films actually care for this, and a big problem with British cinema is that aspects that build the whole of a film are virtually ignored, but this film does so. What I feel with Under The Skin is an unnerved exhilaration. I have never seen any other work by Jonathan Glazer's, even his music videos; I can't explain why I haven't, but Under The Skin is encouragement at its strongest to go to them. The individuality of the film stands out even as a strong, potential entry for the cult British canon of cinema, causing one to wonder why we can't have more directors follow these braver ricks more. It's a peculiar entry into the archives of British Film Institution funded work being made now, as we speak, but only because I wish more people would do this rather than make the conventional.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

In The Future There'll Be Plastic Domes On All The Cars: The New Barbarians (1982)

I had to use this instead of a film poster...

Dir. Enzo G. Castellari

With The New Barbarians I realise why Italian genre cinema would sadly fritter away by the late eighties, because as the Hollywood blockbusters travelled around the world, you can see the difference between Star Wars and a film shot entirely in a rock quarry with buggies. Obviously, why would anyone only just like Star Wars when you can enjoy both equally I don't know, but unfortunately back when films like The New Barbarians were being made, the Italian public probably wanted to watch the American imports rather than the cheap rip-offs made by theirs. Yes, these films were being shown in theatres in the English speaking world, which would have been awesome to live through, but this wouldn't last. Unable to keep up with Hollywood, and their virtues ignored by the end, regardless if they were rip-offs in the first place, these entertaining and interesting films would dwindle out by the late eighties, which having seen a few from this period showed how bad it got. The less said about Cruel Jaws (1995) the better.  

But looking back, even if The New Barbarians wouldn't qualify as a great film in Enzo G. Castellari's filmography, its definitely not impoverished as its limited production design suggests. Set in 2019, after a nuclear apocalypse has passed, it means we've missed the worse, thus setting this in a fictitious reality, or that I really need to get a driver's license, learn how to use a laser gun, and arm a car with spikes and rockets for the impending doom befalling us soon. Within this scorched earth, an evil group known as the Templers exist led by One, played by Italian genre mainstay George Eastman; exceptionally tall physically, a giant decked in smart, menacing white uniform, bearded and with an evil smile on his face, the psychopathic leader of a group who desire, after the apocalypse, to eliminate all of mankind in a suicidal drive. The sight of an all-male group with perms, Mohawks and luscious locks, driving armed buggies, and dressed between white clad soldiers and Evel Knievel, would be frightening even before your head came off from the spinning blade extended out from one of their killing vehicles. They're definitely evil because One hates books, particularly ripping the New Jerusalem Bible in half. In their way is Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete), a Mad Max stand-in who seemed to borrow Robert Powell 's hair. Since Mad Max had a souped-up car, Scorpion has a similar looking one too but with a giant chrome skull on the bonnet. It does lose aesthetic points however for whoever in production design thought a giant bubble roof on the top which flows lime green in the dark was a good idea. Fred Williamson is Nadir , the former American football player and star/director of many exploitation films looking a considerable bad ass even if dressed up in sci-fi garb, the circlet not stopping the fact that his body armour was probably designed to be able to fit his machismo. It's strange though to see him soft spoken and without his trademark cigar. With him also to help Scorpion is child actor Giovanni Frezza as a child genius of car mechanics who is deadly with a slingshot; most will recognise him, blond haired and looking like a mischievous cherub, from Lucio Fulci's The House By The Cemetary (1981) as Bob, infamously given a less than desired English dubbing.


I've fallen in love with the Italian genre movies of the seventies and early to mid-eighties. Before the seventies is a large wealth of potential gems, while for the criticisms I've made, my love for this area of cinema means I'll still be hopeful for late eighties and nineties work even despite the lessening quality from a lot I've seen. There is truly great craftsmanship and art in the best. But those which are more pulpy or less than perfect are irresistible to me still. Talented individuals of Italian art cinema worked on these films too, and their creation developed a unique tone and presentation to them that even makes a ridiculous film like this stand out. Strong colours. Post dubbed soundtracks. American stars. Lurid content. Memorable scores, with Claudio Simonetti of Goblin going mad with a synthesizer here. The New Barbarians is low budget schlock but I delight in the idea of these actors playing dress up in quarries. There would be a child-like innocence to this were it not for the gore and adult content. That with its few resources its had to try and weave a limited story from what's there, as Scorpion is pursued by the Templers, is more interesting and entertaining, with its grasps of high budget cinema, barely reaching the budget ceiling, and accidental absurdisms that add great layers to it. It helps to that the film cinematographically is still exceptional despite the nuclear apocalypse being camper vans and buggies decked out like Robot Wars/Battlebots contestants. The quarries, when space is shown, are brightly textured and expansive, and there is never a flabby camera shot or edit despite the narrative side being flimsy. Castellari stands out in Italian genre cinema, impressive considering the great directors within it from the era. He shows great love for all the films of his I've seen, regardless of them being b-movies, caring for the immensely invigorating action scenes but also capable of making films that go beyond this. Thus Street Law (1974) is a vigilante film that becomes a lyrical ode to the complications of taking justice into your own hands, while Keoma (1976) is a sombre, oneiric send off for the spaghetti western. The New Barbarians is slight as a story - cars driving around in circles at each other, conventional on-foot action - but its saved as much by the gifts of his and the crew he worked with as it is the infectious behind it. The quarries are allowed to feel expansive at times despite the limited locations and the touch of the film in editing and look are far removed from lacksidasical but solid. And that its ended up as it is anyway is much of a joy. From the Templers' costumes to a sex scene in a tent made of bubble plastic, the absurd decoration of lower budget films stand out positively for me because, contrary to what would be perceived as taking away the magic of cinema, knowing it can be made from stuff from your home but has become an object of a fantasy world is even more magical, as befitting a medium that started with trick films. For example, realising a communication van is covered in tinfoil isn't a failing, but instead that it is both this and a new thing in a future world, a strangeness that's rich. It's only when mere laziness exists where problems arise. The plot eventually becomes mere construct for this notion to play out, which doesn't dampen the textual pleasure from it. To grin. Admire the action, which is still there in spades. To look on in surprise, at the least expected way a villain 'tortures' a hero, both male, in a regular genre narrative, one that, were not for a single line of dialogue to have added an un-PC side to it, would have uprooted archetypes of masculinity and turned it upside down completely.

If you like your silly, post apocalypse cinema with a plot hanging on a thread bare, this one is worth seeing. Scorpion is a stock characters, but Williamson is simply cool and Eastman looks like he's lording it up as the bad guy, the only regret in the characters being that the women are just there to look pretty, when really this cinema should always make an excuse for a tough female as equal to the hero even if she's stereotypical. You'll find amusement in the laser sounds and the amount of exploding dummies is something, especially as Castellari likes using slow motion quite a bit. Seeing stunt men do their best front flips from explosions and cars flipping over is inherently fun when its shot as considered as here. I cannot dismiss its cheap look in terms of what is onscreen because how it's shot is still good, if you notice, and I cannot help but simple enjoy cars driving around each other in mock combat with bubble roofs on them. In seriousness again, even schlock can have the gift of enthusiastic craft to them, instantly as much cinema as a great film because, cobbled together, the obvious faults nonetheless add to the fantasy played onscreen.  If you admit the farce of this being a nuclear wasteland set in a rock quarry with a few cars lying baout, like the creators probably did before going on professionally regardless and doing your best, you don't worry about this and find virtue in this less-is-more style. The regret that films like this became of disinterest back when they were being made is that, yes, you should be able to enjoy your Star Wars films and these equally, one from the best money can buy in Hollywood, but the other being an enjoyment from what they were able to do with limited resources.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Celluloid Wunderkammer: Call Me Tonight (1986)

Dir. Tatsuya Okamoto

Contrary to the provocative image that I've included at the beginning, this short piece of obscure anime flips the expectations for hentai into how perverse the concept of tentacle erotica is. I've been lucky to discover these fascinating obscurities released straight to video, mainly thanks to the Anime News Network article series Buried Treasure - found here - and thankfully these works that have never been released on DVD even in their home country have been discovered by Western fans, subtitled by said fans, and made available online. I admit to haven't even see key anime works like Cowboy Bebop (1998) yet seen the likes of Call Me Tonight, my habit for digging deep into the depths of my favourite things sending me to material like this, made back when money was plenty enough for a subversion of anime sexuality, when anime hentai was only birthed within the same decade, to be made. If this material was made available on DVD, when pigs fly, they would be fascinating curiosities for anyone to see.

Review Link -


Monday, 17 March 2014

Videotape Swapshop Review: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)


Dir. Siu-Tung Ching

I've probably been watching too many trashier martial arts movies throughout the last through months. I adore their questionable dubs and erratic tones, but its good to watch one which is crafted exceptionally. Seeing this film again, you can see how much the Hong Kong cinema of the eighties was liable to catch the eye of Western viewers like me. Its also good to go back to this film when the first Siu-Tung film I covered on here was Belly of the Beast (2003) with Steven Seagal. This is not a cheap shot at Seagal, but reading the review below, or actually seeing A Chinese Ghost Story, you can see why I say this.

Review Link -


Sunday, 16 March 2014

Directly Through The Ribcage: Organ (1996)


Dir. Kei Fujiwara

In the industrial outskirts, isolated from a social environment, a police detective - tall, swaggering and confident, even if it means breaking rules - with his partner awaits to burst an illegal organ harvesting operation. The environment is dark, run down and moody in the night-time darkness. Inside, a factory environment covered in plastic sheeting and dulled metal, the film shows a coarseness that feels rancid even before Organ's more gristly events. The bust goes badly wrong. His partner, seemed to be dead, goes missing. Without his limbs and with an infection growing on him, he is locked up in a secret room of a biology teacher's office. The teacher is the surgeon who was performing the illegal operations.  Slowly disintegrating, a repulsive pus-infected growth developing around the liver area of his stomach, he has the compulsion to kill the female students in his school, while a female member of the staff, a sultry woman who yet views him in contempt as a "hentai" (pervert), recognises that something is amiss with him. The surgeon, while hiding this cover, is struggling with his sister (the director Kei Fujiwara herself, medical eye path, long messy hair, bold facial features, the actor-director radiating a toughness that is far removed from a shrinking violet) to keep control of the organ harvesting operation from the yakuza who've hired them. The yakuza seem to feel that their lucrative business is being threatened, as the twin of the missing police partner, a youthful man, is searching for him, blatantly sitting outside their headquarters. The police detective, disgraced and on leave, drunk and intoxicated by guilt of what took place, abandoning his family to the wolves, stumbles around the wastelands of industrial Japan also searching for his partner.

The film is messy. Bloody and gruesome. Rust. Puke. Dilapidated buildings and public lavatories. Pustulating, rotting flesh. Cancerous even. Knife stabbing. Blunt force trauma. Beatings. Injection by syringe. Nothing in Organ as it escalates is clean, even the plotting. As each group or person try to gain control, the result is more brutality and icky body horror. In the police raid that sets the story plotlines up this tone is set up, the climax a ramshackle, desperate battle with participants writhing on the floor, and bottles and syringes being used, people kicking about on said floor and battering each other in an "operation room" with limited space and lighting. This tone continues throughout the film - chaotic and desperate. The lowest ebb in people's lives, the worse cases of isolation, neglect and madness. Even a struggle involving a samurai sword in an underpass is a scramble rather than a masterful Zatochi moment, beginning with a farce involving an old man, and descending in a brawl where a gun doesn't necessarily win a fight and a car is more effective. The messiness also comes from the oppressive tone. My original interest in Organ, many years ago, was because the director/co-star was the lead actress in Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which, after some background reading, she worked alongside its director Shinya Tsukamoto doing the cinematography as well as acting with him on-camera. She only has two directorial features in her filmography, including this one and ID (2005), but it's still inspiring to see not only another female director who has a clear voice here, which is still something lacking even now in the apparently politically correct era, but doesn't make a safe stereotype of what a film made by female director should be. In fact, with its  electronic/industrial soundtrack, Organ stands out as one of those examples, alongside others such as Baise-moi (2001) and Trouble Every Day (2001), as films by female directors who push boundaries more so than many male directors attempting to make provocative films. Targeting themes that interested the creators and with no ground deemed too violent or sadistic to prod. Organ is just as oppressive as many a one by a male director, maybe more so than many. One where moments that this is a woman's view on this material stands out, how her character is just as strong as the males, and any sexuality is not titillation but something extremely provocative. Where the casualness of how someone, just after a traumatic event happens to them at their lowest, urinates on newspaper on the floor causes your gut to twist in itself in horror. The similarities with Tetsuo are there - the claustrophobic, muddily lighted sets, the decay physically onscreen in industrial and urban environments, and that aforementioned score, but there are clear distinctions as well. Tetsuo was a sonic assault, while this is a slow lingering death, which ends with a lack of moral lessons being learnt and pointless murder. Blood spilt, people abandoned, guilt felt by some, and evil not being punished. While Tsukamoto tries to address the nature of human people crushed by society, this is not even an attempt to address it but to depict this at its worse.

I confess, those years ago when I first saw Organ, I utterly despised it. Returning to it, while positively, I understand why. It is completely repellent in tone for most of its narrative, continually violent, nihilistic and lingering on disease and injury in a way more sickening than even some notorious Japanese gore films like the Sushi Typhoon works or even Takashi Miike's more extreme movies. The narrative and tone can also be choppy, erratic and floating between dreams and half-remembered quasi-psychic links to other events at the same time. The plotting is admittedly sparse and messy, which effected that first viewing, but the emphasis is on the images and they stand out. The message is likely, if one is to be found, about the prolonged effects of violence physically and mentally on people. The missing police partner becomes this, a symbol of regret as he takes at the same time the role of another character's nagging conscious. So are the surgeon and his sister who, told in flashback, were maimed as children by their mother, while the effects of the police bust in general leaves all devastated. The violence is gristly yet strangely compelling. Gristly - such as the bloodless yet painful scene of someone being pinned to a wall by a small truck. Strangely compelling - sexual gratification through disease and pain, and an incestuous dream of a butterfly woman birthing worms as she leaves her cocoon. The David Cronenberg sense of the physical disorders being as much representative of the characters' states of mind is obvious, though the nihilism is something idiosyncratic to it, more bleak and nasty than even Cronenberg's work. At times, it evokes Noisy Requiem (1988) - reviewed here - if it was a gore genre movie shot in colour.

The structure and the pace of the film is still suspect returning to it. It could be a case that I'm merely battling between the perceived ideal of a clear filmic structure and my growing adoration for the completely disruption of these rules by accident or purpose. I wouldn't be surprised if many find it off-putting in tone and content, as it ends with a bleak view of humanity. Its film's abrasive, low-res tone, set against content with the small, closed-in-on characters in a constant state of damage, is not palatable for people who cannot stand intentionally nasty material. In utmost respect for Kei Fujiwara this is a bold way for anyone to make their directorial debut. I want to see the other film ID and regret that's the only film that also exists, my view on Organ drastically different as I've come to embrace these chaotic and unsettling works now as an adult. I was willing to embrace Ichi The Killer (2001) as a young guy, still powerful and unsettling now, but with a style to its darkness, while this intentionally sordid creation was too far for me then and tested my patience. Now it's something legitimately good in extreme Japanese cinema. It's not surprising in hindsight Fujiwara made this film, she who starred in a film like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and what happens to her character in it, and does to another character in a dream sequence within it too. She wasn't going into making Organ to present a stereotype of a female director but instead created something that leaves a nasty, and well placed, mark deep into the skin and eyes of the viewer. 


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Going Through The Motions Only To Realise The Rules Are In A Completely Different Language: Branded To Kill (1967)


Dir. Seijun Suzuki

Having talked about its granddaughter, Pistol Opera (2001), its befitting to talk about the grandfather Branded To Kill. It's been a very long time since seeing the film for the first time, back when, getting into cult and world cinema, I delved into films like this through LoveFilm but was unable to appreciate a lot of them. I'm only just now at least six years later getting to quite a few of these films again, obscurities and regarded gems, after once only viewing them under the notion that only cult and non-English films acclaimed the most by mainstream film magazines were the zenith of cinema. If you believe they are still, I'm happy for you, but it became apparent the dismissed ones, or those occasionally brought up in a feature of "masterpieces you've never heard of" were the really interesting examples of cinema. Branded To Kill was that film that got Suzuki barred from making films for Nikkatsu after working for them for many years, when the studio's then-president saw this film and hated it. It was the product of extreme boredom with the type of projects the director was stuck with, as "overrated" directors like Shohei Imamura got the prestige projects, and worse, had Suzuki's work be the b-films to his and other prestige a-films. Sick of churning out conventional gangster films over and over again, with a team of fellow minded people in the studio helping him rebel against this repetition, Suzuki in a film like this and Tokyo Drifter (1966) decided to completely undermine the tropes of the scripts he was stuck with, creating artistic, farcical endeavours and actually being able to get away with them until this film! I cannot help but think of what Martin Scorsese, in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), talked about when he described some American directors in the Hollywood studio system as "smugglers", hiding messages and subversions against the norm in their work, the b-pictures especially because of their low cost and purpose just to fill up cinema programmes gave them greater freedom, even with the production restrictions, for more bold personal ideas to come through. Suzuki with a film like this showed the fullest extent to what such a freedom could be. It was unfortunate the outcome of how Nikkatsu reacted to this film meant he only made a single feature length film throughout the whole of the seventies.

Like Pistol Opera, the world depicted is one of assassins who are set up in rankings. (Strangely, while I confess to only knowing of them, not playing them, the idea would decades later exist in the videogame series No More Heroes where colourful assassins are part of a secret organisation and have ranked positions. How far has Suzuki and this film influenced Japanese pop culture?) The film seems to start off normally. Drenched in beautiful monochrome cinematography, elegant and cool in tone, jazz in the score, as we follow the ranked No. 3 assassin for an organisation, Joe Shishido whose character in this would appear as a secondary character in Pistol Opera. He is an accomplished, in-control killer of the highest order despite only being no. 3 in the ranks, talented in a task that starts the first quarter of the film helping protect a man, more so when a former member, banished, a taxi driver and an alcoholic, is placed against him. Unfortunately a freak accident, a split second failure, compromises No. 3 and has him pursued by his own group. In fact the No. 1 assassin, who is viewed as a chimera, a non-entity with presence, may be sent in to take Shishido's assassin out. (And again, instances including a rift on that freak accident were replicated in Jim Jarmusch 's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) in homage, asking how far Suzuki has influenced Western pop culture too.)


Having only seen a few of Suzuki's films, I can nonetheless see that his work feels closer to performance art than directly with literary and dramatic styles. It is work where the world and everything within it - the colours or monochrome, the costumes, the movements and actions of the characters - are as much of importance as the plot, and even then, in a film like this one, Suzuki wasn't really interested in plot. It's here that my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture, despite my enthusiasm to learn of it for the last six years or so, is not as strong as it should be, as moments in Branded To Kill feel like each scene is an individual set that has been influenced by countless mediums. In using plot conventions it slowly becomes more and more distinct per scene that comes along. I wish I knew more of the various forms of Japanese theatre, as especially as the two later films I've seen, Pistol Opera and Heat-Haze Theatre (1981), have stages that are sets and some scenes played out as theatre. I wonder if he was influenced by manga at all, more so when I know he has an anime feature film in his filmograpy, part of the iconic Lupin the Third franchise. I wonder of what carnivals, circuses and festivals he might have seen over his nineties years that might have inspired him in these films. And also I wonder how western and non-Japanese culture may have influenced this film, as Branded To Kill can qualify as mukokuseki, borderless and existing in its own world, with that jazz score, western suits and a potential femme fatale played by Indo-Japanese actress Mari Annu, distinct in her appearance and large, deep black eyes. Even before the film goes off the rails into a complete disruption of this tone, what starts off as a conventional film still has the mark of being outside from traditional tropes and presentation.

In contrast to Pistol Opera, and the film's reputation as being deemed incomprehensible by the studio that had it made, Branded To Kill actually has a plot that is expansive and doesn't need to be soaked in as with Pistol Opera's to get it clearly. If Suzuki had no interest in the plot, he still uses its structure here more than that later film to be able to go through the digressions and tangents he wants to have. Even before No.3 fails a mission that could cost his life, the ranked assassins are already trying to kill each other, and the entire tone is of an edgy, scintillating, sleek crime film. But as it goes along conventions start to fall over as the lurid aspects turn in on themselves. Joe Shishido, even though his infamous cheek implants gave him peculiar "chipmuck cheeks", is calm, calculated and strikes a mean pose as an assassin. His fetish that he can only get an erection after smelling cooked rice forces you to realise from the beginning that something is amiss in the film's conventions. It forces to realise all that is not presumed in the first half, as how decades later Takashi Miike would in his yakuza and crime films play with absurdity amongst the conventions. But the Shishido character is still a hard boiled archetype, still having the air of an elite master of his craft. As the film goes along thought, credit where its due to Shishido's performance, the unlikable nature of the character at times is followed by him becoming more exasperated, panicked and falling to pieces as his control of the situation is lost. By the end of the film, the archetype of the stoic assassin is completely undermined by Suzuki's film, probably both a required purging of all the films he was stuck making, and a desire to prod at the notions of a male lost in a wider labyrinth. By Pistol Opera, while given a moment of glamour with an old flame using wine glasses as target pratice, the character is a comedy figure, while the new female protagonist asserts herself against all the assassins she has to face without fear. In Suzuki's hands, the notion of tough crime pictures are distorted with sexual oddities, absurdity and farce-related moments.

The film is at its best playing off the conventional clichés. The meeting of assassin No. 1 is a conventional confrontation, played perfectly out into a psychological battle in a boxing ring at the end, but before this the absurdity is heightened when, using fear to unsettle No. 3, the two literally become conjoined at one point so they can keep the other in sight. The result of the film's origins, despite rejecting of the skeleton it made out of, is that, perversely, it's a damn fine crime movie as well as good in its later transgressions, Suzuki in the right place to be able to decimate the tedious plotting and explore ideas in the same way a performance piece would take place. As it goes along, more and more the abstract and the surreal takes place, but also the exceptional use of sets and images to emphasis this. The famous set for Mari Annu's apartment, with butterflies in mass pinned onto the walls. The blackened, shadowed boxing ring of the climax. The abrupt use of animation to depict the protagonist losing his grip of the environment around him. The continuous use of falling shower water, falling water in general, glass windows and stair cases, a layering effect used to give a greater depth to everything. Tokyo Drifter pushed boundaries in terms of aesthetics, and the two later films I've seen are testaments to how good Suzuki, and his collaborators on those individual films, were, creating distinct, visually rich works.

Revisiting this film, the emphasis on how much its style, its genre dissection, its oddness are all interconnected to effect one another is more obvious, my realisation over reviewing Pistol Opera twice for the site was that the apparently disconnected pieces, even if some were merely improvised or by themselves, had an inherent reason to be together. Every flourish and streak in colour or symbolism was done in a way that it directly effects what is taking around these inclusions. A director like Tarsem Singh (of The Fall (2006) and Immortals (2011)) is praised for his visual style, and he deserves credit for choosing individuals, especially in costume design, who create incredible pieces of art, but his style is mere surface gloss. The style doesn't directly affect the foundations of the films like they should. A film like Branded To Kill, while based on clichés acting within a disjointed universe, uses its visual, cinematographic and structure flourishes to effect the narrative that plays out. Instead of a conventional work with a shiny lick of cinematographic paint, the result here is closer, for analogy, to the a theatre set where the set itself and everything on it have a direct effect on the material too. The standard story is manipulated into its own deconstruction of itself. I hesitate to use the word "post-modernism" because the word gets used far too much in the wrong contexts. Suzuki with this, and the few films I've managed to catch, are hyper fantastic rather than ironic. Instead its willing to take this narrative seriously...but the plot is instead how a movie assassin is a perverse archetype, rice fetish and all, who with his idol looks still unravels when backed into a corner. The ending is that he doesn't win, but paradoxically he's technically won. Watch the film to see what I mean.


Monday, 10 March 2014

Most Meaningful First Viewings and Re-Evaluations of 2013 Part 12: U To Z

Uncle (Adam Elliot, 1996)
I was expecting a compilation of short films from directors from around the world, the obscure to the acclaimed, to at least provide some gems, but this one in particular stood out, having never seen any else of Adam Elliot's, for how much of an emotional punch a claymation piece could be. With nothing sentimentalised, left absurd or sad as it is, it fully conveys emotions in only a few minutes.
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)
Probably the reason why I have fallen into love with the pulp of cinema so much. On the first viewing finding it difficult to grasp the full enrapturing nature of the film serial, the second viewing showed how a pulpy crime story can be art and almost surrealist when its presented in this way.
Vidas Secas (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963)
Vixen! (Russ Meyer, 1968)
Thus proving softcore and politics can share a bed. In one of the previous entries for this series, I talked about the possibility of having found an area of American genre cinema that suits my niche, the kind that is unique and encourages me to search out for it more. It wouldn't be surprising that Russ Meyer would be one of the first people that would have to researched if I went further into this area of cinema, and it's not a surprise that seeing this film would encourage digging into his films further.
Viy (Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, 1967)
Walker (Ming-liang Tsai, 2012)
Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (David Blair, 1991)

The White Dove (Frantisek Vlácil, 1960)/Josef Kilian (Pavel Jurácek and Jan Schmidt, 1963)
Wojciech Has
(The Noose (1958), The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973)) 
A Woman After A Killer Butterfly (Ki-young Kim, 1978)
WWF Summerslam 1993 (1993)
Some might be surprised by this being on this list. Even as a self confessed pro wrestling fan, this is not a great ppv event. It's interesting to see what the early nineties was like, both wrestlers who would become very different in persona years later, and what the former World Wrestling Federation was like in a period seen as a drop in interest before "the Attitude Era" came about, where wrestlers like Steve Austin and Dwayne Johnson started becoming famous to even non-wrestling viewers. Probably the reason this is added to the list, but not as a positive but an odd lesson learnt from this that can be applied to anything in general, comes from the main event. The good American hero, riding in on his "Lex Express" of Americana, against the evil Japanese champion (actually a Samoan wrestler). The xenophobia was discomforting, putting me off instantly when it gets to the national anthems, but what stands out if that, for all the hero's pre-match hype, especially as he was an attempt to hastily replace Hulk Hogan, the crowd waving flags, images of American eagles and the such, he wins only because he knocks his opponent to the outside and the baddy cannot get back in. Championships cannot be won through count out victories, and the set-up of the challenge is that it's the only chance the hero can have to fight for that title. He would have another shot later in the former WWF's PPV history, but as the Americans celebrate, confetti in the colours of the American flag, hero on the shoulders of others, and the fact that he hasn't truly defeated the villain and taken the title from his is a perplexing case of self denial within a worked scenario. Even in a wrestling event, this for even someone who doesn't understand pro wrestling would still be a clear example of how you can blind yourself even though you've lost the actual war.
Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hawk, 1983)
Images from the following sources:

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Tokyo Psycho (2004)

Dir. Atara Oikawa

Strangely, as a bona fide cult film fan at this point, I'm not necessarily going to cheer on the low budget, straight-to-video and/or digitally shot genre movies. The simple reason is that I cannot stand the expected, that I desire great craftsmanship, inspiration, trappings of interest, something that makes a film distinct rather than another generic "crowd favourite". I will go as far as admire a mishap filmed on camera if it's different. Unfortunately this is rare in films regardless of their budget or what they're shot on, but low budget films have a terrible tendency to stay with the conventions, repeat a popular film again (from Halloween (1978) to Dawn of the Dead (1978)) in shoddy ways. Excluding my bias for Japanese cinema, of those low budget films from their country which are of interest, even the lowest budget and erratic ones have something of curiosity. First its clear that they look distinct from their Western counterparts - either the environments or even what cameras are used. Secondly, it's to the point I can differentiate between different strands in Japanese low budget cinema - those that encouraged experimental and personal filmmaking, the nineties video boom that helped bring the likes of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa to the wide world, the Sushi Typhoon and splatter film from the late 2000s on that have been directed to Western cult film fans, and the uber-low budget works like the one I'm covering. And I've probably forgotten a few other key sub categories too. Thirdly, in general, there has always been a fluidity in Japanese genre films that allow them to stand out greater. A willingness to wander off from conventions and to do the unexpected even if they stay within the narrative structure. You can cross genres, the serious with the silly, the perverse with the normal, the technologically advanced with ancient customs. As I've dug deep into cinema from certain countries long enough, I've hit closer to a distinct tone to them unless they've been over influenced by the Hollywood aesthetics of now, even in the shambolic examples. Like with any other case it causes even a zombie film to be of potential interest when it's a Japanese film because it's the work of people with different outlooks to others bringing their own thoughts to it. I liked Tokyo Psycho knowing full well its drastically flawed and found wanting in places, for the fact of when its good and because of the above reasons.

While the cover itself is great in an unsettling way, the image and the tone its presenting doesn't really match to the actual film. It's suggests a splatter or extreme horror, especially with that title. ("Enjoy your Japanese splatter film..." was close to what the cashier said to me buying a second hand DVD, leading to a brief conversation about Miike and how he could stand everything except Visitor Q (2001)). Instead the film's more of a drama with a horror tone that grows as the plot moves along. It's a very dialogue heavy work despite still qualifying for its horror tag. Contrary to the unexplained opening sequence where a crazed woman wearing a surgical eye patch terrorises the protagonist through the post box slot of her apartment door, a lot of the film is horror in a dramatic sense that has the few moments of nastiness. A career woman is sent a sinister letter - chewed up, soiled, piano wire weaved into the paper - saying that she's only to marry the sender of it. The likelihood is that the sender was a mentally disturbed transfer student from her high school days who she brushed off, but unfortunately, while trying to juggle her everyday life to, it's becoming clear more than a single letter being sent is going to happen. The film could actually be taken up as a skewered take on the concept of marriage. The protagonist has no desire to marry, while her friend and co-worker reveals she's engaged. The stalker's desire to have the protagonist marry him is spurn from unenclosed desires, and there's a wraparound piece of a mother and daughter where all is not what it seems.  

The film, for all its potential flaws, was actually entertaining. I see it as an interesting blend of dramatics with schlocky horror which, with low, low expectations going into, only seeing it as someone who likes to search for obscure Japanese genre films, actually stood out. I cared for the characters and plot, and even now I remember aspects of it clearly more than films I tried to drill into my mind as being good which have fallen by the wayside badly. A film like this also emphasises the fact that, early on, I was taught that films, with exceptions, were all constructions and not reality. Actors performing on sets than leaving for the day. The danger that a day's shooting could be ruined if something gets in the way, and that during takes on intense scenes, the actress might be sat off-set talking on her Blackberry or drinking coffee as the killer eats a sandwich nearby. Lower budget works with less than perfect production value would be more rewarding for me, no matter how schlocky and tacky they are, because I would view them as much as the creations of people with little resources and find something enrapturing in them. My only issue with this, talked about in the first paragraph, is that a lot of these productions chose the least interesting routes for what to put onscreen. Dull, monotonous repetition of what has been done before, not very well usually either, made worse when some of these sorts of films are celebrated. (Which is also way I don't like slasher films either, but that's another day's story). Not true with Tokyo Psycho. It may be predictable in plot, but not in presentation or structure. The stalker, when revealed, is maniac and chewing up the scenery, but I like this hyperactive performance as it shows a commitment to going as far as possible, especially as few A-list actors would willingly have a form of real tape worm in their mouth like he does at one point. The characters are very much fantasy constructs, but inherently most films, not really changing from the first ever ones made with their small entertainments at all the last century or so, have characters who are exaggerations and archetypes, and the ones in this work perfectly. Of fascination, there's little of the extreme content you'd expect from a title like this film has, no nudity or sex, only some violence and extreme threat, and possible no blood at all. The threat when it comes about, against some moments of lurid horror, are actually played starkly and with a less-is-more tone, which actually turns out to be a lot more affecting and distressing than other films that take it further.

A lot of the film could be set in another country, although significantly you would lose the distinct look of the original locations - small, clinical white walled apartments, neutral clean colours, sparse city streets, the Japanese coastline. One advantage the Japanese low budget works have is that, somehow, even on such low budgets, the urban and rural landscapes, the former usually closed in over actors heads, the later dwarfing them, are incredibly distinct and inherently add character to the films. I would wonder too if the interesting idiosyncrasies of this film would be continued in, say, an American interpretation either. A lot of our English language films at this budget still keep to a rigid plotting that is a detriment, with the exception of those one-off oddities that appear occasionally over the decades. What's interesting with these Japanese films like Tokyo Psycho, entertainingly, is the small details including the flaws that you don't get in English language films. The lengthy scene at a school reunion, a small group of actors in a room, that both had a logic breaking moment that actually adds to the film's weird charm and that it takes it time with characters you will never see again, including a true-or-dare game with raunchy confessions and everyone looking at an old school photo. The boss at the protagonist's workplace who takes pleasure from being insulted and called monstrous in an odd friendly interactivity. How casually the stalker plot is depicted amongst the other drama, never heightened except when the music peaks up, including a piano literally being punched repeatedly at one point. That mysterious woman with the eye patch never seen again or made part of the actual narrative. Scrappy, messy genre films like this exist in other countries, and I prefer them to the "better" made ones usually because they probably say more about the people who made them then a serious document could. What an ordinary person would put onscreen if given the chance to make movies but with a few significant handicaps to work around. And I realise I take more entertainment legitimately from films like this, even with flaws the size of canyons, because they don't pretend to be more than what they are and succeed further because of this. Any clichés this film has are at least done in a interesting way for once.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Month In Review: February 2014

1. Lancelot du Lac (Dir. Robert Bresson, 1974) [Rewatch]
2. Woman in the Dunes (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) [Rewatch]
3. Day of Wrath (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943) [Rewatch]
4. Kaiba/The Tatami Galaxy (Dir. Masaaki Yuasa, 2008-10/Anime Series) [Rewatch for The Tatami Galaxy]
5. Assassination (Dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
6. Oedipus Rex/Arabian Nights (Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967-1974) 
7. Flesh (Dir. Paul Morrissey, 1968) [Rewatch]
8. Horrors of Malformed Men (Dir. Teruo Ishii, 1969) [Rewatch]
9. A Chinese Ghost Story (Dir. Siu-Tung Ching, 1987) [Rewatch]
10. Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory /L' Arroseur arrosé/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Dir. Louis Lumière, 1895) [Rewatch]
11. Stranger by the Lake (Dir. Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
12. Pierrot le fou (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
13. 4:44 Last Day on Earth (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 2011)
14. Paradise: Love/Paradise: Faith  (Dir. Ulrich Seidl, 2012)
15. Crimson Gold (Dir. Jafar Panahi, 2003)
16. Yojimbo (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
17. Drums Along the Mohawk (Dir. John Ford, 1939)
18. À nos amours (Dir. Maurice Pialat, 1983)
19. Anatomy of Hell (Dir. Catherine Breillat, 2004) [Rewatch]
20. The Impossible Voyage (Dir. Georges Melies, 1904) [Rewatch]
Honorable Mentions (In order of preference):

The '?' Motorist (Dir. Walter R. Booth, 1906/Short) [Rewatch] 
Duck Season (Dir. Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
47 Ronin (Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1994)
Breaking the Waves (Dir. Lars von Trier, 1996) 
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Dir. Sergio Martino, 1971) 
Orguss 02 (Dir. Fumihiko Takayama, 1993-1995/Anime OVA)
The Manson Family (Dir. Jim Van Bebber 2003) [Rewatch]
Tokyo Psycho (Dir. Ataru Oikawa, 2004)
Images laid bare from the following sources...

Main List:

Honourable Mentions: