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Tokyo Zombie (2005) March 22, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Wacko, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Sakichi Sato  Starring: Tadanobu Asano; Shô Aikawa; Erika Okuda  Territory: Japan

A pair of jujitsu-obsessed slackers accidentally kill their boss and bury him in the city’s huge junkyard.  Called Black Fuji, the waste ground resembles a mountain and is home to a large number of Tokyo’s murder victims – which is bad news when the toxic waste brings the dead back to life to feast on the living.

Tokyo Zombie is an adaptation of a Japanese manga and is another title in an increasing list of zombie comedies.  These can be a very hit-or-miss affair, and I’m afraid this one falls mainly into the latter category.

While the initial premise holds a fair bit of promise – and the film’s obvious lack of budget just adds to the style – things unravel rather quickly when it becomes blindingly obvious that the film’s sense of humour is just too crude and juvenile (even for me).

tokyo-zombie.jpg Comedy hairstyles are the order of the day in Tokyo Zombie

The two central characters, Fujio and Micchan (Tadanobu Asano and Shô Aikawa, respectively) are likeable enough.  They have a fair bit of chemistry together, and the few comedy setpieces they are in together as they escape the rising dead range from the mildly amusing to one instance of being laugh-out-loud funny.  However, the inclusion of another character, Yoko (Erika Okuda), upsets the balance too much.  She is a bitchy loudmouth whiner with absolutely no redeeming features at all, and her inclusion is a major irritation.

The hardest thing to stomach, though, is the film’s total change of direction about halfway through.  We suddenly skip from a typical zombie survival theme to an animated sequence showing how, five years later, the rich have built a haven against the undead, and use the poor as slaves.  They are used to generate electricity using exercise handgrips and are pitted against the undead in Gladiatorial contests.  When the live action resumes, Fujio is a prizefighter trying to win money for him and Yoko to flee the walled city and escape to Russia.  Any sense of pacing seems completely stifled by this turn of events, and the film plods along in quite a samey way until its laboured conclusion.

Although there are undoubtedly funny bits in Tokyo Zombie, the humour is far too coarse to be truly comfortable sometimes.  I have no doubt that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, I probably would have loved it, but these days the thought of an old man looking up the skirt of a “dead” schoolgirl creeps me out a bit.  And that’s saying nothing about the man-on-boy spanking, child murder and genital consumption by the undead. 

Those with a taste for gross out comedy (and human flesh) may like it, but the rest will probably be wishing they’d stuck with Shaun of the Dead.

Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) March 19, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Drama, War, 2000s films , 5 comments

Director: Park Kwang-hyun  Starring: Shin Ha-kyun; Jeong Jae-yeong; Kang Hye-jeong Territory: South Korea

It’s 1950, and the Korean War has just got underway.  High up in the hills, the remains of a North Korean unit are all but annihilated by troops from the South.  The three survivors happen upon a village in the valley called Dongmakgol, a farming community who are so self-sufficient and isolated that they aren’t even aware that the country has been plunged into war.  When they find out that the village has also been visited by two deserters from the Republic of Korea and an injured US pilot, a tense standoff begins.

The first shock of Welcome to Dongmakgol, at least for me, was the film’s evident political neutrality – this is no flag-waving exercise by South Korean against their long-term foes.  In one early scene, the Republic open fire on the remnants of a North Korean army – including their wounded members.  More surprising still, the film marks the United Nations the de facto “bad guys”, although the film paints all of the participants of war in a bad light.

The story may feel familiar – factions from two opposing sides are drawn together against their will and are forced to get along – but Welcome to Dongmakgol eschews cliché and predictability with a healthy dose of humanity, humour and a small sprinkling of surrealism.  The villagers are so naive that they don’t even know what modern weaponry is (they think the grenades angrily weilded by the soldiers are potatoes) and seem oblivious to the danger of their situation.  When the standoff occurs, with the villagers square in the middle, they eventually get bored and wander off.  The symbol of the village’s innocence and naivety is Yeo-il (Kang Hye-jeong, Old Boy), a simple girl who may or may not be playing with a full deck.  It’s her that the soldiers have most initial contact with, and she slowly changes their attitude to each other and to the war in general.

welcome-to-dongmakgol.jpgThe turning point comes when hostilities between the two sides reach a peak and a stray grenade blows up the village’s food store.  Both sides feel guilty and help the villagers restock their larder, starting a chain reaction that leads to a thawing in the frosty relations.  Further bonding occurs when a giant wild boar threatens to attack the inhabitants of Dongmakgol and the two sides find themselves pitching in to help.  Again, the concept might feel familiar, but thankfully the characters are all believable and very human.  The central characters are all well played, from the North Korean High Comrade Rhee Soo-hwa (Jeung Jae-yeong, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance) to his opposite number Pyo Hyun-chul (Shin Ha-hyun), who is about to commit suicide when we first encounter him.  Western actor Steve Taschler also gives a creditable performance, and the usual awkward problems that arise when English dialogue is delivered in Asian films does not occur here.

Credit must also be given to director Park Kwang-hyun, who turns in quite a visually interesting film despite obvious budget constraints.  He manages to pull off some rather unlikely surreal images, such as when the village’s corn gets blown up and rains as popcorn on the inhabitants.  Also, the recurring theme of the supernatural butterflies that inhabit the Eden-like village is particularly haunting.  You do get the feeling he bites off more than he can chew in the boar scene though, which is presented almost like an Anime sequence and for me didn’t quite work as it should have.  There’s also some rather dubious CGI effects, but these never last long enough to distract the viewer.

There are many bittersweet tales on the insanity of war, but Welcome to Dongmakgol has got to be one of the best, simply because it never hits you over the head with its message.  And also because it is also so damn funny – the scene where the villagers try to converse with the American pilot in elementary English is bloody hilarious.  But it’s the ambiguity of the morality of the “sides” that is the most refreshing, and as a western viewer, it’s humbling to see the United Nations portrayed in such a bad light in such a believable way.  But then, Welcome to Dongmakgol leaves you thinking about a lot of things, not least the validity of current military actions, and therefore feels like a very topical and relevant film.

Hapkido (1972) March 10, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 4 comments

Director: Wong Fung  Main cast: Angela Mao; Carter Wong; Sammo Hung; Wong In-Sik  Territory: Hong Kong

Three Hapkido students (Mao Ying, Carter Wong and Sammo Hung) travel back to China from Korea to start a new school to fight the oppression of the Japanese controllers.  Mun Wei (Sammo Hung) is a young hotheaded fellow though, and soon attracts too much attention to himself by fighting with the brash, thuggish students from the Black Bear school (which is owned by the occupying Japanese).  Violence escalates, and Yu Ying (Angela Mao Ying) takes matters into her own hands.

The plot of Hapkido is obviously the weakest link as it is an almost direct copy of Fist of Fury.  Even Ngai Ping-Ngo shows up as virtually the same slimy collaborator character he played in Bruce Lee’s classic, making me wonder briefly if this was intended to be a prequel to Fist of Fury.  The one thread of originality is in the use of a foreign fighting style (Hapkido, obviously) as the basis for the film.  So instead of the Chinese versus the Japanese, we have the Chinese and the Koreans versus the Japanese.  And how do the Japanese fare in all of this?  Well, pretty badly, obviously.  Mind you, it should be remembered that World War II films from the west from the era depict the enemy in similarly simplistic ways.

hapkido.jpgAngela Mao prepares to dish out the Iron Rod of Death 

What makes Hapkido a standout essential classic is (surprise, surprise!) the fight scenes.  Considering that this film was made in 1972, the choreography (provided by Sammo Hung) is fast moving and exciting – especially the finale, which sees Whang In-Shik and Angela Mao dismantle the rival school (and its personnel) in an unforgettable manner.  If for no other reason, this film is essential for seeing Whang In-Shik on the side of the heroes for once!

Star Angela Mao Ying gets to show her stuff quite well.  Seeing as how this film was made in the same year as Lady Whirlwind, it’s surprising that there’s so much difference between the choreography for the two films, and Mao herself seems so much more dynamic in this movie.  It’s so clear that a lot more time and effort went into making this, and the effort pays off. 

I don’t know what it is with Angela Mao films, but like The Himalayan, there are many stars-in-waiting playing bit parts in this.  Most will already know that Jackie Chan appears (and provides at least one of the more painful-looking stunts), but there are others.  See how many you can spot!

While Hapkido is definitely derivative, it has to be remembered that it is also extremely good fun, and contains some of the best moves on celluloid from the period.  At the risk of being controversial, I’d say the action in Hapkido equals, if not surpasses, that shown in some of the movies by the Little Dragon.  That’s quite some recommendation.

The Himalayan (1976) March 5, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , add a comment

Director: Wong Fung  Main cast: Angela Mao; Dorian Tan; Chan Sing  Territory: Hong Kong

A scheming murderer employs a look-alike to marry into the Chang family so that he can steal their wealth and govern their provinces.  But the bride is also a formidable fighter, and when teamed up a newly outcast member of the clan becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The Himalayan looks unlike any other Hong Kong film, thanks solely to the exterior shots.  The film claims to be showing a lost Tibetan martial art and was filmed in Tibet and Nepal, although I’m not entirely sure a Hong Kong crew would have been permitted in Tibet at this time.  The film sets out at the beginning to add as much local colour and custom, and this does the film credit to some degree.

However, at heart The Himalayan is a stock kung fu flick from the 70s, and the tale of revenge, greed, lost honour and redemption will not surprise anyone but the most casual viewer of the genre.  One the one side, we have the evil Kao (Chan Sing), who kills his brother to install a more malleable double in the Chang family.  He’s your usual pantomime villain who laughs arrogantly at every single thing that comes out of his enemies’ mouths and kills without mercy.  On the other side, we have the lovely Chang Ching Lan (Angela Mao) and the wronged Hsu Chin Kang (Dorian Tan), who inadvertently got caught up in a sex scandal and got chucked out of the clan.

the-himalayan.jpg Angela Mao has a bit of a bad day 

Although the story may be slightly uninspired, the action scenes in The Himalayan are pretty damn excellent.  Angela Mao is almost nowhere to be seen in the first forty-five minutes of the movie, while we are shown the depths of Kao’s villainy and some exposition scenes.  We do, however, have a splendid flashback that shows a young Chang showing her stuff, and believe you me, these kids are great to watch.  She does take more of a starring role in the second half of the movie to justify her billing, though, and thanks to superior choreography, convinces in the action heroine role.

But it’s Dorian Tan who steals the show with an awesome display of legwork.  I have to admit I’m not terribly familiar with his work, only having seen one of his starring roles before (there’s no prize for guessing which one, sadly), but on the strength of this, I just can’t believe he wasn’t a massive star.  True, he is being directed by Sammo Hung, and Sammo can make a star of even the most limited of action hero hopefuls, but even so Dorian Tan is nothing short of superb in this. 

I’m not sure who the titular Himalayan is in this movie, but if I had to guess, I’d say it is the “Eagle” monk who takes in the two wayward heroes and teaches them how to defeat the evil Kao late in the film.  There’s a prologue that claims that a school of kung fu originated far from Shaolin called Mi, and this was displayed here, but I doubt very much if this is the case.  The training scenes that were becoming popular at this time take up the last third of this movie, and while they are not terribly exciting, the varied backdrops tend to add atmosphere. 

The film runs at nearly two hours in length, and while it doesn’t really justify the running time, there are enough distractions if your mind starts to wander.  There is a massive cast of extras that would one day go on to be huge Hong Kong and international stars, and it’s always fun spotting the likes of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah standing around in the background. 

I’ve made The Himalayan sound like a bit of a mixed bag, but while it does have some mundane points (and a rather obvious and gratuitous sex scene), the good far outweighs the bad.  I’ll say it again: Dorian Tan really is exciting to watch in this film, and that’s all the recommendation you should need.

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