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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.

Super Snooper (1980) April 26, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1980s films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Sergio Corbucci  Starring: Terence Hill; Ernest Borgnine; Marc Lawrence  Territory: Italy; USA; Spain

Conscientious cop Dave Speed (Terence Hill) accidentally gets irradiated with Red Plutonium in a government experiment while serving a routine traffic violation ticket.  The accident bestows super powers on him, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering partner Sergeant Dunlop (Ernest Borgnine).  The only problem is, Speed’s powers abruptly disappear whenever he sees the colour red…

This is one of those films that seriously wowed me as a kid.  So much so, in fact, that out of, say Jaws, Star Wars and Super Snooper, I would have had a tough time choosing my favourite.  I think the fact that the movie was not readily available on home video added to the mystique a lot.

Seeing it as an adult is a different experience altogether, and of course time has a harsh way of treating comedy sometimes.  Directed by Sergio Corbucci of Django and The Great Silence fame (two films I really must get around to re-watching and writing about at some point), there is a feeling that this movie was banged out quickly.  Certainly it had no budget to speak of.  But cheap quickies are often what this blog’s about, and Super Snooper remains a fun film if you have low expectations and don’t examine the cracks too carefully.

Super Snooper

Yes, there are some pretty glaring anomalies.  It strikes me as really odd, for instance, that after Speed’s accident, Dunlop is busted down to traffic cop and out directing cars immediately following his friend’s apparent death.  But I’ve come to accept such oddities as being in line with European sensibilities and just kind of go with the flow these days.

There are a few nods to Hill’s westerns with Speed’s love of cowboy hats and beans, and the knockabout humour is all present and accounted for.  The tale of Speed’s downfall is told in flashback (a device I have a particular weakness for, as regular readers will attest to) and you can’t help rooting for the guy.  As a side note, I happen to think this film had quite an influence on my views on the death penalty – how can such a nice guy as Dave Speed be on Death Row?  So file Super Snooper alongside The Green Mile in your video collection!

Super Snooper is only sporadically funny these days, but there’s still at least one belly-laugh in there and the hokey effects just add to the charm.  To say nothing of the catchy and damn impossible to forget disco theme tune.  Nostalia is what it used to be.  Almost.

Yes, Madam! (1985) January 19, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1980s films , 2 comments

Director: Corey Yuen Kwai  Main cast: Michelle Yeoh; Cynthia Rothrock; John Shum; Mang Hoi; Tsui Hark  Territory: Hong Kong

An incriminating piece of gang-related evidence has been inadvertently stolen by a pair of bumbling crooks (John Shum and Mang Hoi), who take great pains to save their skin while on the run from the police and the Triads.  Meanwhile, a special task force is drawn up to bring the crime syndicate down, and Inspector Ng (Yeoh) teams up with her foreign counterpart Morris (Rothrock).  Together despite their open scepticism of each other, they take on the crime lord and his army, but may have met their match with the petty criminals in possession of the crucial evidence…

I’ve said it before, but there are certain things about Hong Kong action films from the 80s that instil a feeling of warm cosy familiarity that is hard to shake off even if the film itself doesn’t live up to expectations.  Tacky synth soundtrack?  Check.  Silly hairstyles and clothes?  Check.  Dick Wei as the main evil henchman?  Check.  John Shum larking about?  Check.  James Tien as the smug, arrogant villain?  Check, check check.  Throw in a cameo by Richard Ng (and Sammo Hung, producer of the project) at no extra cost, and you have all the hallmarks of Hong Kong cinema from the period that arguably produced its most well loved genre films.

However, Yes, Madam! is strangely lacking focus.  The two leads share relatively little of the screen time, while the comic team of John Shum and Mang Hoi take centre stage.  While their overly “shouty” routines wear thin after a while (for me, about ten minutes into the film) there are a few touches of genuine humour in there, and the proceedings are livened up immensely by the addition of Tsui Hark as their forger friend.  And the scene where the pair keep trying to get locked up to avoid the Triad gang only for the two police women to keep releasing them is pretty funny.

Yes, Madam!

When the two female leads take the screen, there is a definite lack of chemistry between them.  Although the film contrives to create a cop buddy movie atmosphere, there is very little character development.  While most would argue that this is an action movie and therefore to hell with character development, I would still have liked a bit of flesh on the bones, so to speak.

Mind you, the action scenes are pretty damn good.  But when you throw the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Dick Wei and Chung Faat into the mix, something pretty damn good should come out of it.  Speaking of Chung Faat, his character is bloody hilarious, despite not delivering a single line of dialogue that I can recall.  It’s impossible to think that someone looking the way he does could have stayed on the streets for so long without being identified as demonic.  Put it this way, he doesn’t look human

Some mention must be made to the film’s misogyny and dubious dialogue.  Well, if you’re very sensitive, you will probably find Yes, Madam! pretty offensive.  Personally, a lot of the insults are so outrageously over the top that I found most of it quite funny.  My favourite line is delivered by Tien, who, when being tackled by Yeoh, admonishes her with: “if you want to show off, do it in the kitchen!”

Yes, Madam! is not a solid gold movie classic, with its reliance on comedy skits and with an unsatisfactory conclusion, but is one of the best films in Rothrock’s extremely variable filmography.  And Michelle Yeoh fans should be pretty happy if they can live with the fact that her physical skills are used somewhat sparingly.

Dreadnaught (1981) November 3, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Comedy, Kung Fu, 1980s films , 7 comments

Director: Yuen Woo-Ping  Main cast: Yuen Biao; Leung Kar-Yan; Yuen Shun-Yi; Kwan Tak-Hing  Territory: Hong Kong

Cowardly laundry boy Mousy (Yuen Biao) unwittingly draws the interest of twisted serial killer White Tiger (Yuen Shun-Yi) while an elderly Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing) finds himself facing jealous rival Tam (Phillip Ko-Fai) and his hired help.

By 1981, the Kung Fu comedy cycle started by Yuen Woo-Ping’s twin hits Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master was clearly running out of steam.  Nevertheless, Golden Harvest’s Dreadnaught is still better than most of the dire comedies that came out of the Shaw studio around this time, even if it falls somewhat short of being an all-out classic in its own right.

By my reckoning, this was the very last time Kwan Tak-Hing played Wong Fei-Hung after appearing as the legendary doctor in many, many, many films.  Despite being doubled in a lot of scenes and with the remainder being fairly stationary affairs with just upper body movement, he still looks fairly convincing.

I hope that's your belt buckle, mister!

The story is pretty perfunctory (and littered with Lion Dance scenes, which were popular at the time), with a strange killer with the name of White Tiger being introduced at the beginning as the film’s obvious villain.  Played by Yuen Shun-Yi (every Kung Fu film fan’s favourite nutter), the character is enraged by the sound of small decorative bells since his wife was killed in an ambush at a restaurant.  Apart from this scene, there’s not a lot of explanation of his character, and all we know is he’s severely screwed up over his wife’s death.

Mousy, as played by Yuen Biao, is not exactly the most memorable character in the genre.  Like in the 1982 movie Dragon Lord, the hero can’t actually fight, but rather bumbles along and wins the day through sheer spirit.  This is a shame as we never really see Yuen’s considerable agility.  Leung Kar-Yan puts in a rare beardless performance as Ah Foon (who was previously played by Yuen Biao in another Yuen Woo-Ping film, Magnificent Butcher), and actually gets to show off his stuff more than the film’s star.  The rest of the supporting cast appears to be filled out by Yuen Woo-Ping’s entire family, and you can’t go very long without spotting one of the director’s relatives.

Sadly, this was the only time Yuen Biao had top billing in one of the legendary director’s films and Dreadnaught always strikes me in as a film that doesn’t really live up to its potential, despite being quite enjoyable.  But then, I feel that way about a lot of Yuen Woo-Ping’s films.  As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see Yuen Biao on top form, check out Knockabout instead, and if you want to see the director at his best, see the aforementioned Drunken Master.

Kagemusha (1980) August 2, 2009

Posted by Cal in : War, 1980s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Tatsuya Nakadai; Tsutomu Yamazaki; Kenichi Hagiwara; Daisuke Ryu  Territory: Japan

The warlord Shingen hires a petty criminal to be his double on the battlefield.  But when Shingen is mortally wounded, the impostor is asked to take over full-time in order to keep rival clans from sensing their vulnerability and attacking them.  The lord had wished his death to remain a secret for three years in order for the clan to regroup, but can the impostor keep up the illusion for that long?

It seems odd watching an Akira Kurosawa film in colour, and that in itself is odd because the first Kurosawa film I ever saw was in colour.  As you might expect, Kagemusha (meaning ‘shadow warrior’ but also ‘impostor’) looks fantastic.  The sets, locations and costumes are all top-notch and there are seemingly thousands of extras all decked out in Warring States garb ready to do battle for the puppet lord.

Warring States-era Japan really took gay pride seriously

Kagemusha screams epic right from the very opening scene, which involves Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai – who also plays the Kagemusha) and his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and sitting discussing the hiring of the petty criminal.  The scene, which is virtually static and involves lengthy dialogue goes on for more than five minutes.  Elsewhere, you can’t help feeling that the film could have been tightened up considerably, and some scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor entirely.

I should point out that the version under review here is the Criterion longest cut version at about three hours’ in length – significantly longer that the version available here in the UK.  This might actually be one instance where the more complete version of a film is not as desirable as a shorter version.

Another problem for me was the score.  The film, for some reason, has a western soundtrack, with orchestra and western fanfares and suchlike, and I found that really off-putting.  I don’t know if this was a concession to the film’s saviour (20th Century Fox, by way of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola) or just a terrible mistake, but it does its best to ruin the whole atmosphere of the film.

It’s not a complete write-off of course.  There are moments of brilliance aside from the impressive battle scenes that close the film and the stunning visual style.  Kagemusha’s relationship with Shingen’s grandson and the scene where the impostor improvises an important military decision by quoting the clan’s code of honour are two obvious highlights.  It’s just that there’s a hell of a lot of waiting around for the film to get to the point. 

As Tears Go By (1988) February 24, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, Romance, 1980s films , 2 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Andy Lau; Jacky Cheung; Maggie Cheung  Territory: Hong Kong

As Tears Go BySmall-time gangster Wah (Andy Lau) finds himself bailing out his no-good Triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), who gets into increasingly serious trouble with a rival faction of his own gang.  When Wah falls for his cousin (Maggie Cheung), he finds himself spreading himself too thinly. 

Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut will probably always be the odd-one-out in his filmography even if he goes on to make another hundred films.  It doesn’t have film-noir voice-overs, there’s no Christopher Doyle behind the camera and it has awful canned music for a soundtrack. 

As Tears Go By is almost a routine Triad thriller.  I say “almost”, because even here, so early in his career, Wong has at least tried to add some depth to the characters’ emotions. 

The problem is, the characters are quite unlikeable.  In fact, Fly is downright annoying.  He never learns from past mistakes, and predictably just goes from one screwed-up situation to another, leaving a trail of destruction behind him.  Wah himself is reasonably likeable, but the fact that he always bails his little brother out of trouble without making a serious effort to get him to sort his life out made me lose patience and sympathy for him.  Out of the three main characters, Ah-Ngoh (Maggie Cheung) is the least irritating, although we are left scratching our heads as to why she falls in love with Wah – he doesn’t treat her that well and is not obviously attracted to his lifestyle.

Although there are a couple of shots that look typical Wong Kar-Wai in execution, it’s clear that his skills were less than fully developed.  There isn’t the normal flair and stark realism of Christopher Doyle’s photography, sadly.  Worse, the aforementioned canned synth music is tinny and to top it all off, the romantic scenes are played against a truly horrible Cantopop version of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”.  Someone should have told Wong that that particular piece of music had already been used in another film…

While the performances are quite strong, there isn’t enough meat on the bones in this particular gangster tale.  I found that there was always something, somewhere in the film that annoyed me.  Whether it was the characters, the music or the seemingly endless revenge attacks and counter-attacks the various gang factions indulge in.  I was surprised to learn that it remains Wong’s most commercially successful film in Hong Kong, as on the face of it, it’s just not that good.  But then, western audiences often disagree with eastern audiences on what makes a good film…

Mr Vampire III (1987) February 2, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Ricky Lau  Main cast: Lam Ching-Ying; Richard Ng; Billy Lau  Territory: Hong Kong

A charlatan Taoist priest (Richard Ng) uses a couple of “stooge” ghosts to con the locals with his ghostbusting ability.  Encountering a town where the population are living in fear of a gang of supernatural bandits, he encounters the real deal in Uncle Nine (Lam Ching-Ying – as if there could be another!) and gets embroiled in their struggle against the black magic foes.

Firstly, and this needs to be mentioned above everything else, there are precisely zero vampires in Mr Vampire III.  Not one.  If I’d known this at the start, I wouldn’t have been wondering when the hopping undead were going to show up.  Mr Vampire III is instead a ghost story/black magic comedy as separate from the second instalment as the disappointing Mr Vampire II was from the original.  Realising that the modern day setting of the first sequel didn’t really work, this film is in more familiar territory in the vague and unspecific period setting of the first film. 

I was struck by an uneasy sense of deja vu at the start of the movie that eventually clicked – the idea of a conman using friendly ghosts to hustle the general population is similar to the premise of Peter Jackson’s film The Frighteners.  It would be nice to think that Jackson took inspiration from this movie for his 1996 horror/comedy, but I strongly suspect all similarities are purely coincidental. 

Mr Vampire 3

The pace of Mr Vampire III can only be described as frantic to the point of chaos.  The film goes from action setpiece to farcical setpiece and back again without a pause for breath, and this works against the film quite a lot.  I’m not entirely sure the reason for the bandits’ presence or origin is ever even mentioned, let alone explained.  But why have exposition scenes when you can have lightly fried ghosts with dripping eyeballs and Richard Ng cavorting comically in the nude (again)?

Not that it doesn’t have some merit.  Some of the comedy takes you unawares sometimes and you can’t help but laugh, and some of the supernatural effects add some atmosphere.  The comedy is pretty lowbrow as expected (let’s face it, any film with Billy Lau in it is bound to be lowbrow) and includes a fair bit of invisible-entities-manipulating-the-real-world shenanigans a la Where’s Officer Tuba? and The Dead and the Deadly et al, but Richard Ng is generally pretty watchable.  Like other entries in the series, events have a predictable knack of going wrong, and the formula looks pretty tired by now.  You can pretty much foresee the exact moment a Taoist spell is going to fall off a spirit with disastrous consequences or that someone’s bright idea is going to end up in mayhem.

As with most films about Chinese myth and legend, some knowledge of the relevant folklore helps unfurrow the brow a little.  It’s pretty much fair to say that if you don’t know what makes Chinese ghosts visible or imprisoned or how to send real-world items into the land of the dead, you’re going to find it pretty tough going.  Mr Vampire III works on a purely popcorn level but is not comparable to the classic first film, and can’t really be called horror despite some frequent and surprisingly gory effects.  The only horror for me was the dawning realisation that I know Richard Ng’s arse better than I know my own.  Now that’s scary.

Mr Vampire II (1986) January 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Ricky Lau  Main cast: Lam Ching-Ying; Yuen Biao; Chung Faat; Billy Lau  Territory: Hong Kong

A team of explorers lead by Professor Kwok (Chung Faat) discover a cave containing the perfectly preserved antique corpses of a family – father, mother and child.  The corpses all have Taoist spells attached to their foreheads, and upon removal the hapless adventurers discover that the corpses are hopping undead creatures intent on causing mayhem upon the living.  Medicine man Lam Ching-Ying (Lam Ching-Ying, in a masterstroke of casting) may hold the key to eradicating the menace before it spreads further with each infected bite.

Have you ever had the movie experience where, before you see a film, everybody says it’s such a complete piece of crap that when you finally get around to watching it you’re left thinking it wasn’t so bad after all?  That was the kind of reaction I had when I first saw Mr Vampire II about ten years ago when it was shown on Channel 4 over here.  However, watching it now for a second time, I can kind of see what everyone was talking about.

The problem mainly lies in the inescapable fact that nearly every scene goes on too long, and yet the whole film is well under 90 minutes in length.  In particular a scene where Yuen Biao fights the parent vampires while under the effect of a sedative seems to go on forever.  Similarly, the section where the child vampire is befriended by a regular family is overlong and the children end up being more annoying than cute, even though the inclusion of a pair of overweight children who aren’t simply there for comedy value is a bit of an innovation.

Mr Vampire 2

It is also a bit of a head-scratcher why Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-Ying aren’t introduced earlier, as they are undoubtedly the main attraction for the film.  They both appear at about the 35 minute mark, which is way too long to wait when the rest of the material isn’t too strong.  Actually, no one really ends up with a lot of screen time on this one for some reason, and it’s possible for completely forget that some people are in it at all (I’m thinking Moon Lee here, who is particularly underused).  The shifting of the setting to modern day Hong Kong in this instalment isn’t as disastrous to the film as you might think, but it has to be said that the ties to the undisputed classic that is Mr Vampire are quite tenuous. 

It is perhaps to be applauded that producer Sammo Hung didn’t simply trot out a carbon copy of the original and instead tried to experiment with the formula.  There are positives: there are a few great gags (and call me sick, but I really enjoyed seeing Moon Lee get hit in the face with a hammer), a couple of decent setpieces and a little bit of atmosphere.  But is any of it scary?  I’d say a bit fat no on this.  Mind you, I didn’t find any of the first one scary, but when it was as entertaining as it was you can overlook things like that.  I also didn’t like the obvious “gross out” moments at the start of the film such as the gutting of a real snake – I thought they were really cheap shocks with no entertainment value.

One aspect of the film which I found quite surprising is that the movie ends up being quite critical of human society.  We are eventually left empathising with the monsters and the shift from human as protagonist to antagonist is handled with a subtlety wasted on such a project as this, but it’s nice to know someone was at least thinking outside the box a little.

Mr Vampire II has a bad reputation, and that reputation is sadly quite justified, even taking into account that the original was such a tough act to follow.  Nevertheless, it is not a complete waste of time and there are a couple of entertaining moments.  My recommendation: see it once and then stick a yellow strip of paper on it with a Taoist spell written on the front to stop it from hopping into your DVD player again.

By Hook Or By Crook (1980) July 20, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Karl Maka  Main Cast: Sammo Hung; Dean Shek; Wu Ma; Karl Maka  Territory: Hong Kong 

Another post, another obscure Sammo Hung film!  In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s likely only the hardcore Sammo fans would have seen this one as the focus is most definitely on comedy.  The plot (such as it is) centres on a mysterious Robin Hood-esque thief called the Flower Kid, who the authorities want to capture.  The Sheriff (Karl Maka – also the film’s director) enlists the help of Skinny Gee (Dean Shek) to track him down.  In the course of his travels, he comes upon Fatso (Hung, obviously) who is masquerading as the Flower Kid.  They strike up a friendship of sorts and together go in search of the real Flower Kid to help rid the town of a nasty villain in the form of the Golden Killer (Chung Faat) and his gang.

By Hook Or By Crook doesn’t start too promisingly and it gets a lot worse before it gets better.  The comedy is extremely broad, crude and base, not to mention dated and basically unfunny.  This goes on for quite a while and it is pretty much an endurance test to get through it.  At various times I was sorely tempted to reach for the “off” button, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t now.

Although it never really redeems itself, the movie gets significantly better with the introduction of Wu Ma’s character about halfway through.  I don’t think I’ll be accused of giving too much away if I reveal he’s the real Flower Kid – an old hero who’s given up robbing the rich and giving to the poor and is more than a little cowardly these days.  I’m not really a Wu Ma fan – he tends to play slimy unsympathetic characters (and I’ve never forgiven him for making fun of Sammo in Heart of the Dragon or directing the God-awful Circus Kids) but there’s some mileage to be got out of a rusty old hero coming out of retirement.  He’s made up as old man, but when he comes out of retirement, Sammo and Shek make him up to hide his advancing years, so you end up having a fairly young man playing an old man made up like a young man…well, it made me laugh, anyway.  There are also some wacky costumes that made me smile and a good cameo by Eric Tsang as an unbeatable gunman (cue The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme!).

Dean Shek & Sammo Hung from a glorious VCD edition of the film! 

The mark of a good comedy is when you’re still laughing after the movie’s over and in that respect By Hook Or By Crook is a winner - I was belly laughing for hours after the movie ended.  Trouble is, I was laughing at the one moment in the whole movie that was supposed to be serious.  A man stumbles into a family’s garden, whips out a knife and stabs a young woman in the back, killing her instantly.  The family are understandably distraught at the killer, who sticks around after the event while the grief-stricken father admonishes him with an emotional tirade translated in the subtitles as: “You are too rude!”

The more physical side of the movie doesn’t impress too much either.  Everyone who has watched Warriors Two will remember the movie was nearly ruined with some ill-placed slapstick humour right at the end with the Dean Shek character, and that’s the tone that’s used throughout this film.  The end fight is handled in pure cartoon style – Sammo gets beaten to a pulp and regurgitates a battery and a table is pulled from under Dean Shek, who remains floating in the air until he realises there’s nothing underneath him and then comes crashing down to earth.  Funny when it happens to a cartoon cat and mouse, less so in a live-action environment. 

So while By Hook Or By Crook is not the complete write-off it appears to be at first, it is far from being a classic movie and I can’t honestly see the point of ever watching it again.  One thing that bothered me was the fact that there was a lot of “borrowed” music for this film and I know I’ve heard it in its original setting but can’t quite place it.  It sounds a lot like Morricone to me, but if anyone can clear this up, I’d be very grateful.

Angel (1987) June 21, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Raymond Leung; Tony Leung Siu-Hung; Ivan Lai  Main Cast: Saijo Hideki; Moon Lee; Elaine Liu; Oshima Yukari; Alex Fong; David Chiang; Hwang Jang-Lee  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Molesworth Limited Production

If Pedicab Driver is one of the finer examples of Hong Kong action cinema in the 80s, then Angel is probably just as far in the other direction. 

The script-by-numbers is the main problem, along with indifferent direction.  Gangsters want to produce enough drugs to sell to the world; a small bunch of heroes wants to stop them.  Throw in some high-ranking police officers that have been kidnapped by the gang and you have the whole plot in a nutshell.  The “Angels” of the title are an obvious reference to Charlie’s Angels, only this time you have a visible boss (in the form of Shaw Brothers veteran David Chiang) and a male Angel (Saijo Hideki). 

The ladies come in the form of Moon Lee and Elaine Liu.  It has to be said that the latter does not look as if she wants to be there at all, and seems particularly uncomfortable with the action scenes.  Moon Lee has the moves but is just too cute to cut it as an action star.  She tries to convey intensity and fury, but only ends up looking cuter the angrier she gets.  Watching a pissed-off Moon Lee is like watching an enraged kitten – it’s not scary and you end up just wanting to pet it until it’s in a more temperate mood.

Are you ready for your BDSM session, Mr Smith? 

Not all the women are Angels – Japanese bad girl Oshima Yukari plays the lead muscle of the crime syndicate and gets to show off her moves as well.  But it’s her partner in crime Hwang Jang-Lee that steals the show.  He has a couple of great scenes, and is easily the best thing in the film.  Why he wasn’t given a bigger part is beyond me. 

Apart from Hwang Jang-Lee, the only other highlights are a couple of decent stunts, one involving climbing up the outside of a skyscraper.  The rest left me feeling extremely unsatisfied.  There’s also a sense of the film being steered in different directions (well, it had no fewer than three directors, so maybe that’s not surprising).  For example, it seems to me that clues are planted that the American DEA Officer is a turncoat working with the drug ring, but confusingly this never actually happens and it turns out he’s on the level after all. 

All-too-brief highlights aside, Angel can’t really be recommended to the casual fan.  But if you’re really into the girls-with-guns sub genre of Hong Kong action cinema, you may want to have a look.  And yes, Moon Lee really is that cute.

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