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Hot Potato (1975) June 26, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Bad Films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Oscar Williams  Main cast: Jim Kelly; George Memmoli; Geoffrey Binney; Irene Tsu; Judith Brown  Territory: USA

By 1975, Warner Bros were struggling to find a vehicle to propel Jim “Enter the Dragon” Kelly into the big time, and Hot Potato is a rather transparent attempt to recreate Bruce Lee’s hit on a smaller budget and with a wider audience in mind.  And without Robert Clouse behind the camera…

Filmed entirely in Thailand, and with a deliberate variation on the Enter the Dragon score, Hot Potato is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Blaxploitation flick Black Belt Jones, although this is an entirely different animal.  Whereas the earlier film was a low-budget, gritty, urban action film, this has a mainly white (and Asian) cast, comedy sound effects, and family-friendly humour.

The plot features a Han-lite villain in Mr Rangoon, whose villainy is somewhat vague but, of course, ruthless.  He and his cronies kidnap a senator’s daughter for ransom, leading the US military to send in its top man – Jones (Kelly).  Thankfully, he is not once referred to as “Belt” in this instalment.  Jones recruits his team – a random pair of idiots – and heads off to find Rangoon and rescue the hostage.  Along the way, they encounter their contact, who is…gasp…a woman.

For years, Hot Potato and its predecessor have only been available on grainy, full screen, bootleg releases.  However, Warner Bros have now released these films, along with Black Sampson and another Kelly vehicle Three the Hard Way in their Urban Action Collection (sadly only available on Region 1 at present) and the difference is quite staggering.  While the audio is still shaky (some performers’ voices appear to be overdubbed – quite badly), the widescreen, remastered (I assume) presentation transforms the film, making it seem much more than a cheap action movie.  And for fans of Hong Kong cinema, you get to see Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying and Eric Tsang as stuntmen – although they reappear in virtually every action scene, making it seem like Rangoon has infinitely regenerating henchmen.

Sadly, it still doesn’t disguise the fact that it really isn’t a very good film.  While well meaning, the crude and corny humour and “zany” characters can often irritate.  The comedy isn’t particularly funny (and has dated very badly indeed) and the attempts at depth – Johnny Chicago (Binney) has a tragic secret, and falls for the senator’s daughter’s double - are entirely superficial.  In fact, it’s the latter’s death at the hands of Rangoon that provides the best laugh.  But don’t worry; the heartbroken Chicago gets over it very quickly.

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“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!  IT’S ALL HAPPENING AGAIN!!!”

Hot Potato is regarded very badly amongst genre fans – even more so than Black Belt Jones.  And while I’m probably one of its biggest supporters, even I have to admit it is sometimes a bit of an ordeal to sit through.  And what the title refers to is never alluded to – all of which means this particular potato is half baked indeed.

Late Spring (1949) March 6, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Yasujiro Ozu  Main cast: Setsuko Hara; Chishu Ryu  Territory: Japan

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27 years old and unmarried, a fact that is beginning to trouble her father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu).  He sets out to match her with a suitor, much against Noriko’s own wishes, who only wants to be by her father’s side.

It is, I suppose, somewhat difficult to see what the big deal is about the central issue surrounding Late Spring.  Over sixty years old, the film is more than a couple of generations away from being strictly relevant.  But that is also missing the point – Late Spring is a film about family, love and sacrifice, and is told in a gentle and charming way.

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The main characters, and Noriko in particular, are a little quirky and at first difficult to get to grips with.  Even in her own generation, she seems rather old-fashioned – surprisingly telling an uncle of hers that he is impure because he remarried following a divorce.  Nevertheless, her naivety and likeability does start to show through, and the bond between her and her father is touching.

This bond can seem rather unenlightened to today’s audiences – Dr Somiya often appears to treat his daughter like a servant or personal assistant, but again, this relationship needs to be seen in the context of its generation and the culture of the nation that spawned it.  In fact, Noriko’s father laments to her later that he is ashamed of hanging on to her for so long and not setting her free to an uncertain fate in marriage.

Ozu tells the tale with warm humour, although I occasionally found his use of the camera difficult to get comfortable with - he was known for placing the camera very low to the ground, and the results are remarkably different from conventional camerawork.  I often found this intruded on my viewing experience, but I do have to admit that some other shots, such as the train sequence, are excellent.  This is the first film I’ve seen from this director, and inevitably I drew comparisons to one of my heroes, Akira Kurosawa.  It’s a little unfair to do so, but Ozu’s film stands up as an excellent film in any case, and it seems clear that he was able to shoot a female protagonist better than Kurosawa.

I watched this on the Region B BFI Blu-ray, and it has to be said, it was a bit of a bargain.  The BD comes with Ozu’s first talkie, The Only Son, another disc with both films on DVD, and a nice little booklet with essays on both films.  As you may expect, there is a lot of wear to the print, but some of the exterior shots are staggeringly sharp, and a quick comparison with the DVD shows a remarkable difference.  If you’re a fan of the director’s work, it’s definitely worth picking this up – even if you don’t yet own a Blu-ray player.

Heroes of the East is taking a short hiatus December 6, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized , 9 comments

I will be taking a short break from Heroes of the East to concentrate on other exciting ventures.  Rest assured, I will be back - either in a couple of weeks or a couple of months.  To all readers, thanks for your continued support over the last three years, and keep on watching!

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Le Doulos (1962) December 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 2 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Starring: Serge Reggiani; Jean-Paul Belmondo; Monique Hennessy  Territory: France

Freshly released from prison, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) immediately commits murder and plans a robbery – talk about not letting the grass grow beneath your feet!  When he tells his girlfriend Thérese (Monique Hennessy) about a new job, he trusts acquaintance Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) although he hears rumours that he is a police informer.  When the robbery goes wrong – and the scene gets overrun with cops – Maurice bitterly blames Silien for blabbing to the authorities.  But the truth may be more complicated…

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With its ever-weaving storyline and deliberately misleading narrative, Le Doulos (which means “hat” but is also a slang term for a police informer) is another film noir masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville that often reminds me of the better works of Hong Kong auteur Johnny To.  Like To’s latter-day noirs, the plot seems to make little or no sense at first – only revealing what it’s all about in its own sweet time when it’s good and ready.  Which means plenty of patience is required, but ultimately the rewards are greater.

The obvious Melville devices are in place – trenchcoats, hats (lots of hats – it seems everyone is wearing a hat or at least standing next to someone who is) and a laconic approach to dialogue.  The lighting is also used dramatically, especially in the dingy house occupied by the ill-fated Gilbert at the start of the movie.  Film historian Ginette Vincendeau remarks about Melville’s films being about “the uphill struggle to failure” and this statement succinctly hits the nail on the head.

Le Doulos’s habit of keeping the viewer in the dark may be frustrating, but it also makes you want to go back and watch the film again straight away – always the mark of a great film.  Me, I’d love to watch it again right now, but more Melville films are waiting…

Bob le Flambeur (1956) November 25, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, Non-Asian, 1950s films , 3 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Starring: Roger Duchesne; Daniel Cauchy; Isabelle Corey  Territory: France

Set in the Pigalle and Montmartre districts in Paris (which has changed surprisingly little since this film was made in 1956), Bob le Flambeur tells the tale of an ex-bank robber and fanatic gambler Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne).  Bob is down on his luck and losing what little money he had left.  When an old colleague mentions that a casino can take as much as 800 million francs during the Grand Prix, the temptation proves too much for Bob and he starts assembling a team to steal the money.

Bob le Flambeur is a gangster film noir that builds atmosphere and mood rather than assaulting the viewer with gunfights and chases.  Which works mainly in its favour, with some rather interesting character relationships surrounding the titular Bob.  Respected on both sides of the law, Bob now thinks his criminal career is behind him.  He’s friendly with Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), a man whose life Bob saved (although the reasons why he did so are open to interpretation), while still friends with the underworld.  He’s a father figure to his protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), but draws the line when a pimp comes running to him looking for help when he beats his woman too hard.  When the beautiful Anne (a gorgeous Isabelle Corey) wanders into Bob’s life, he ignores her obvious charms and advances and instead takes her under his wing, even manoeuvring her towards the more age-appropriate Paolo. 

Bob le Flambeur
The locations are superb, with Bob’s apartment overlooking the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (where I couldn’t help flashing back to a full-blown panic attack I had fifty years later on the rooftops) and the gritty Pigalle area.  Melville weaves a dark but intriguing story, and the characters demand the seemingly leisurely pace of the movie.  The film, like the other Melville films I’ve seen has a very cynical ending, and this one really does demand some mulling over after seeming like a slap in the face. 

The film’s low budget can be seen in a couple of scenes, especially when gunplay is needed.  Annoyingly, Melville felt the need for a narrator (Melville himself) to add colour to the script, and I felt this detracted from the overall effect of the film.  But on the whole, Bob le Flambeur is a fine film with what I’ve come to expect of the auteur’s moral ambivalence.  This one might not be the most obvious choice in the film noir canon, but it is full of style, character and has dated about as well as the Hollywood movies that it is clearly inspired by.  And, by God, Isabelle Corey looks damn fine…

Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) November 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Ryunosuke Tsukigata; Akitake Kono  Territory: Japan

In his autobiography, Kurosawa said of sequels that, like the Japanese proverb about the fish under the willow tree that hangs over the stream, just because you’ve hooked one there once doesn’t mean you always will.  Which is a beautiful way of saying that follow-ups just aren’t as good as the originals.  That, coupled with the fact that the director himself disliked the end result made me a little apprehensive about watching it.

The good news is that Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is not terrible.  However, it is fervently anti-British-American.  Made at the very end of the Pacific War, it appears Kurosawa decided to make some rather blatant racial statements with this film.  The western characters are boorish, arrogant and cruel, while the Japanese are cultured, humble and decent.  Sugata encounters a boxing match and is appalled at the barbarity and decadence of the sport (and its followers) in relation to the beauty and dignity of his beloved judo.

After demonising western pugilistic culture, Kurosawa then turns to karate as Higaki’s brothers vow to take revenge for his defeat in the first film.  The brothers, one of which is quite mad, are karate practitioners and challenge Sanshiro to a duel against Higaki’s wishes.  However, rather than taking a moralising stance on the two disciplines, the message here seems to be that both arts can co-exist, and presumably by extension, all Japanese martial arts should unite against the inferior western culture. 

 Sanshiro Sugata Part 2

Political and racial issues aside, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is fun if somewhat superficial.  There are moments where the viewer is treated to flashes of inspiration in Kurosawa’s camerawork and dramatic settings, but also a vague but undiminishing feeling that his heart just wasn’t in it.  His view was that the tale of Sanshiro had already been told, and while it’s true that seeing him well on the road to being a master of the arts is not as interesting as when he found enlightenment by watching a lotus flower blossom while standing in a pond overnight, the climax on a snowy hilltop is fairly gripping.  By no means one of the best examples of Kurosawa’s art, it is a testimony to his skill that even when firing on one or two cylinders, his work can be watchable and diverting.

Dirty Ho (1979) November 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1970s films, Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Starring: Wong Yu; Lau Kar-Fai; Lo Lieh; Johnny Wang; Wilson Tong  Territory: Hong Kong

I’m astounded to discover that in all the years I’ve been writing about East Asian films that I’ve never done a review for this film.  This is even stranger considering the fact that I watch it fairly regularly and the film’s relative high-profile status as a bit of a kung-fu classic. 

Dirty Ho pairs a Manchu prince as the main protagonist (yes, you read that right) with a jewellery thief with a good heart.  The former plays a game of one-uppmanship with the young scoundrel at a brothel, both using their monetary muscle to woo the ladies.  From there, the two form an unlikely friendship after Ho mistakenly believes he’s been poisoned by one of Wong’s courtesans and must rely on the Manchu’s rare medicine to save his life.  In fact, Wong poisoned the youngster himself, and needs the help of a good-hearted man to thwart a plot by one of his brothers to assassinate him.

Dirty Ho
In 1979, after the success of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master, everyone was churning out kung fu comedies with varying degrees of success.  Personally, I’ve never been very taken with the type of comedy used in Shaw Brothers films, and there are more than a few moments during Dirty Ho where you wonder what the hell is supposed to be so funny.  But there are a few laughs to be had along the way, including a scene parodying the One-Armed Swordsman character.  But it’s the scenes in which Wong is invited to high-society meetings that provide the most laughs.  Disguised as art collectors and antique dealers, these assassins attempt to kill off Wong while observing social etiquette, and Wong reciprocates by keeping up the illusion of cordial civility while counterattacking. 

I have to admit that the sheen of greatness has worn off this classic a little for me, but I still enjoy some parts.  The ambush scene that takes place in a wind-strewn deserted town bowled me over the first time I saw it on VHS and it still impresses me now.  You are guaranteed a certain level of competence with Lau Kar-Leung’s fight choreography, and he doesn’t let down for the most part.  I still feel that the ending, after a climactic fight that I feel goes on too long, is a disappointment.  On one hand, I like the fact that the “bigger picture” is left unresolved, but on the other, I am left disappointed that the whole thing gets wrapped up so abruptly.  Having said all that, there’s no denying Dirty Ho’s status as a kung fu classic, and it is still one of the more memorable films from the period.

Ran (1985) November 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 1980s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai; Akira Terao; Jinpachi Nezu; Daisuke Ryu; Meiko Harada  Territory: Japan

Ran is the tale of an old warlord who attempts to cede his empire to his three sons.  After preaching the power of unity, the leader of the Ichimonji house learns that his sons have no interest in sharing power, and chaos ensues.  As the sons vie for power, the warlord finds the only refuge may be with the one son that saw the folly of his plan, only to be disowned and exiled.

This was the first Kurosawa film I watched, but I have to admit I couldn’t really remember much about it.  Looking at it now, after a barrage of his earlier works, it’s obvious that his style had changed quite a lot since his classic black-and-white period.  One has got used to seeing his trademark transition wipes and dramatic use of weather.  Still, it’s no use crying over spilled milk and besides, gratuitous inclusion of such devices may have seemed clichéd and contrived anyway. 

So anyway, about the film itself.  Ran is often described as Kurosawa’s last major work, an accolade (or criticism) that I’ve never fully understood until now.  Although I’ve not yet watched his three final films that followed Ran (stick around here long enough, though, and they’re bound to show up sooner or later), I can easily see the scale of the production is pretty massive.  Apparently in the pipeline since before Kagemusha was even conceived, Ran is similar in style to his earlier film but trumps it on every level.

Although the film does take time to truly get underway and find a groove, the pacing of the story is excellent.  This was to be Kurosawa’s third and final screenplay based around a Shakespeare work – King Lear this time – and again hits gold.  The central characters are Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) as the elderly warlord and his three sons Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu).  But it is the characters in the periphery that bring the film to life, such as Kurogane (Jiro’s right hand man, and not a man to follow orders blindly), Kyoami (the lord’s entertainer and closest ally) and of course Kaede (Taro’s wife, and surely a contender for the ultimate screen bitch).  Kaede sows discontent with the otherwise satisfied Taro in a move similar to Washizu’s wife Asaji in Throne of Blood, and she can be seen to be an extension of that character.  Many scenes including her genuinely make you shiver with revulsion.

Kurosawa's Ran

The one moment that stands out in Ran is the scene where Hidetora walks defeated from a huge burning castle – which is done for real.  Much as I hate to say things like “you couldn’t do that these days” and “oh, that’s so much better than a modern CGI shot”, the fact is that you couldn’t do that these days and it is better than a modern CGI shot.  Although Kurosawa’s eyesight was failing, Ran is visually stunning to the point of being a work of art in itself – often without drawing attention to itself in a look-how-clever-this-shot-is kind of way.  However, there’s no escaping the fact that Ran underperformed at the box office in Kurosawa’s country and presumably put the kibosh on any plans the great director might have had to make a similar spectacle in the future.  However, thinking about it another way, it’s surprising that such a film as Ran exists at all.  To that, we should simply give thanks.

The new region A & B Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing is a huge disappointment.  The transfer is passable but unimpressive, but the truly unforgivable thing is that the 71-minute making of feature that was available on Optimum’s own DVD is nowhere to be found.  In fact, there are no extras whatsoever on the disc.  So I’ll be hanging on to my DVD for now.

Screenshot from a standard definition source.

The Most Beautiful (1944) November 9, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Soji Kiyokawa; Takako Irie; Sayuri Tanima  Territory: Japan

I try not to talk about politics or world affairs on this blog, but it’s absolutely impossible not to discuss the purpose of this film and the very reason it was made.  The Most Beautiful is a wartime propaganda movie about the exploits of a plucky bunch of girls at an optics factory who are asked to improve productivity by 50% due to increased Allied bombing over Japan.  The girls are affronted, not because the increase will work them to exhaustion, but because they think they’re capable of doing more for the cause.

The film opens with an intertitle reading “Attack and destroy the enemy”, and in the school-like dormitory life, the girls start the day by standing up and pledging en masse to do their best to destroy America and Britain.  And, with this film being made during wartime, there’s little doubt they mean it. 

The Most Beautiful

If you succeed in ignoring the obvious propaganda and gung-ho patriotic zeal of the movie, you’re still left with a lowbrow didactic essay full of one-dimensional characters who will stop at nothing to serve a noble cause.  Notably, one character takes a nasty fall from a rooftop and later in hospital, surrounded by her colleagues and bandaged, she declares her fortune that her hands were unhurt so that she can return to work soon.  It would be laughable if the circumstances were not so sinister.  Predictably, we also have girls struggling on despite illness, parental death and other assorted tragedy.

The Most Beautiful is morbidly fascinating as a semi-documentary on the war effort for the other side, but is too melodramatic, predictable and outdated to enjoy today.  Strange, then, that Kurosawa himself was so fond of it – and not only because he met his future wife on the film.  He later noted that many of the women involved quit the business soon after the film, and realised that he’d subjected them to a pretty gruelling regime of factory work, running practice and fife and drum marching.  It’s notable that this is one of the few films from the director to use female lead characters (indeed, there are few men playing significant parts) but this is one Kurosawa film I probably won’t be watching again.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) November 3, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Denjiro Ookouchi; Tadayoshi Nishina; Kenichi Enomoto  Territory: Japan

Even if you did not know the circumstances Japan found itself in when The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was filmed, you would probably still sense that something just wasn’t right.  The country was freshly defeated in the Pacific War, and budgets were tight (and electricity frequently cutting out altogether), resulting in the film looking surprisingly cheap for a Kurosawa production.

Based on the Kabuki play Kanjincho, which itself is based on the Noh play Ataka, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a fable in which a band of bodyguards escort a fugitive lord through hostile territory, including through a barrier outpost, dressed as monks.

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Kurosawa fell foul of the censors yet again – this time being accused of mocking the Kabuki play with the inclusion of Kenichi Enomoto, an eminent comedy actor, as the porter.  His character, while often annoying, provides an interesting protagonist for the film, offsetting the staid nature of the guards and their charge.  The censors did not take kindly to the addition, failed to submit the correct paperwork, and the film was officially banned for a number of years.  Some articles available online state the film was banned by the occupying American forces due to the film’s feudal themes, but this is certainly not the case – the occupational forces, by all accounts, enjoyed the movie.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa does a good job of wringing tension out of the plot, the end result is unsatisfactory.  The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail feels a lot like a TV play with its short running time (around 59 minutes) and lack of location shots (a lot of the exteriors seemed to be shot on a soundstage).  I couldn’t help but feel quite deflated at the end, distinctly feeling that the film was missing a final third.  Nevertheless, one thing you can’t say is that this film is too westernised – it is definitely one of Kurosawa’s most profoundly Japanese films I’ve seen.

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