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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.

Throne of Blood (1957) September 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 4 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Minoru Chiaki; Isuzu Yamada  Territory: Japan

My literary tastes are more Stephen King than William Shakespeare, but even I recognised more famous elements of Macbeth in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Kurosawa transplants the Bard’s tragedy to feudal Japan – something he would do again years later with King Lear for Ran.

Dripping with atmosphere, Throne of Blood is a heavy, plodding affair rather than a swift-moving thrill ride.  In fact, for the first hour and a half, all the action occurs off-screen.  That’s not a criticism, you understand – the slow pacing makes the later events all the more shocking and impressive, and I’m all for a bit of delayed-gratification when it comes to Kurosawa films. 

Throne of Blood 

For those unfamiliar with the story, General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, of course), along with his good friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) lead their army from certain defeat to a rousing victory.  On their way back to their fortress, they encounter a spirit that predicts that one day, Washizu will rule over the entire kingdom, eventually being succeeded by Miki’s son.  Washizu, a loyal and unambitious servant of the lord scoffs at the prophesy, but his wife Asaji (an ultra creepy Isuzu Yamada) starts to sow the seeds of power into Washizu’s mind, and the prophesy starts coming true.  However, Washizu finds that fate and destiny are slippery and misleading things.

From the opening shot of a castle being slowly revealed through dense fog (a theme that recurs during the film) to the frankly astonishing climax (yes, they’re real arrows), Throne of Blood is essential Kurosawa and essential Mifune.  What’s more, the film is definitely improved by repeated viewings, when things that passed you by first time get a chance to sink in.  Brilliant.

City of Life and Death (2009) September 17, 2010

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

Director: Lu Chuan  Starring: Fan Wei; Nakaizumi Hideo; Gao Yuan-Yuan  Territory: China

city.jpgIn 2005, Japan published textbooks playing down the scale of destruction their country inflicted upon Nanking (the former capital of China now known as Nanjing), leading to a flare up of hostility between the citizens of the two nations.  City of Life and Death tells the story of “the Rape of Nanking”, in which 300,000 innocent Chinese perished at the hands of a brutal military regime.

Of course, this being 2009 (at least it was when the film was made) and with the Chinese government evidently not wanting to fan the flames any further, there are some concessions to the old enemy – the story is partly told through the eyes of a young idealistic Japanese soldier called Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo).  When Kadokawa accidentally kills a group of civilians at the start of the movie, his conscience begins to trouble him, and as he sees more atrocities, his innocence is lost forever. 

The film prefers to leave the brutal military largely faceless, instead concentrating on the victims and those trying to stop the massacre.  One of which is German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), a full member of the Nazi party but who, it has to be said, was a thoroughly decent man, even using his Nazi credentials to try to halt the slaughter (try to get your head around that).

City of Life and Death is a very well made film, but it flies too close to cliché in its characterisation, script and even visual style (it’s all in black and white).  Furthermore, director Lu Chuan uses on-screen postcards to update the viewer on events between scenes – a very clumsy and detracting device indeed (not to mention that fact that some of the cards are extremely hard to read).  There’s no doubting that the film’s subject is extremely horrific, but the cumulative effect is numbing.  There is only so much suffering you can watch without becoming unaffected by what you see – which may be why such atrocities are possible in the first place.  That being said, the victory dance through the ruined city of Nanking is truly chilling. 

Although it may never be possible to know for sure the extent of the devastation of Nanking, one only has to look at the documented facts of other atrocities to realise that the events depicted in City of Life and Death are only too plausible.

City of Life and Death is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 27th September.  Pre-order your copy here.

R-Point (2004) May 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Horror, War, Supernatural, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Kong Su-chang  Starring: Gam Wu-seong; Son Byung-ho; Oh Tae-kyung  Territory: South Korea

In 1972, a group of South Korean soldiers go missing during a mission in the Vietnam War.  Presumed dead, Headquarters are stunned to receive a transmission from the lost battalion.  When the transmission continues sporadically, they dispatch a new squad to investigate and pick up any survivors.  The location known as R-Point where the lost soldiers were last seen is deserted when the search party investigates, but when they discover that the site is on Vietnamese holy ground, they realise they are not quite alone after all…

Watching this after Kong Su-chang’s 2008 film GP506 was initially disappointing – the premise and setting seemed too similar for my tastes.  But when it gets going, R-Point is a different and altogether more satisfying film.

R-Point 

Although there are a few precursors to the direction R-Point is going to go (the sign etched into some spooky rocks saying “those who have blood on their hands shall not return” being one of the more obvious), the film plays its cards close enough to its chest to make you forget you’re watching a horror movie, so that when the shocks start to come, they are genuinely effective. 

The main gripe I have about this film is the characters – there are nine (or is it ten?) soldiers, and it’s hard to really pick anyone out of the bunch.  Such is the lack of characterisation that even at the end of the film, I only noticed about two separate entities among them.  There is also a scene where US marines meet the search party, and the acting by the English speakers is predictably weak.

But I found R-Point a much better paced film than I was expecting, and while it is definitely not an innovative film in the oeuvre, it is certainly well worth checking out.  The UK release is from Tartan, and it’s clear that they were not the company they once were when the back cover blurb is full of elementary grammatical errors, typos and there are references likening it to three completely unconnected and dissimilar films.  It’s best to ignore the box and just jump straight in.  

Red Cliff (2008/2009) April 12, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, War, Wuxia, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: John Woo  Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Zhang Fengyi; Vicki Zhao  Territory: China

red-cliff.jpgJohn Woo’s return to Chinese language film after an age of Hollywood films of diminishing returns was awaited with considerable excitement.  A favourite director of mine, I watched his Hollywood debut Hard Target with great interest – and then decided I wouldn’t bother with any of his others.  Having said that, there was never going to be any fear of me missing out on this sprawling epic split over two parts and promising battle scenes on an awesome scale.

The story of Red Cliff is simple and based on an actual event: in 208AD, warmonger Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) manipulates a child Emperor to invade two territories in the south, under the spurious excuse that they are going to renegade against the state.  The leaders of the two accused territories, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, form an alliance and attempt to battle off Cao Cao and his army, despite a lack of supplies and being severely outnumbered.  Liu Bei’s Chief Strategist Zhu-Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) step up to organise the resistance against Cao Cao. 

Released to great acclaim and phenomenal box office returns, I was nevertheless unmoved by Red Cliff.  I never fully engaged with the characters, who I found universally weak.  The majority of the dialogue is about battle formations, tactics and politics – which I felt was quite cold and showed very little of the emotional or human element of war. 

The much lauded battle scenes are indeed impressive, with some excellent CGI to add great scale and invoke a genuine feeling of awe.  However, the battle scenes go on too long.  And it’s really as simple as that – you really can have too much of a good thing.  Furthermore, John Woo’s style and his habit of overusing the zoom on close-quarter skirmishes feels a tad out of place in a third century setting. 

If it feels like the first part of Red Cliff has an over reliance on these epic battles, it comes as a small relief when things calm down a little in Red Cliff: Part Two.  John Woo has never been known as creating great female characters, and that is still the case for a large part here, but Vicki Zhao’s Sun Shangxiang is a small exception.  She takes it on herself to spy in Cao Cao’s camp, learn the strength of the enemy, and report back and I did quite enjoy this break in all the solemn political wrangling.

But as well as finding the characters uninteresting and the battlefield scenes too long, I could also tell where it was all going far too often.  And even the conclusion of Sun Shangxiang’s sub-story pays off in an extremely predictable and contrived way.  The much-anticipated naval battle, teasingly hinted at in the first film, is saved as a climax and is just as impressive and grand as you could want – and yes, it too overstays its welcome and gets dull.

I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Red Cliff, so it comes as a great surprise to me that I didn’t like it very much.  I mean, it’s almost heresy criticising John Woo, who, let’s face it, is an almost God-like figure in Hong Kong cinema.  But then I didn’t like The Killer either. 

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.

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. 

Seven Samurai (1954) September 3, 2008

Posted by Cal in : War, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main Cast: Takashi Shimura; Toshirô Mifune; Yoshio Inaba; Daisuke Katô; Seiji Miyaguchi; Minoru Chiaki; Isao Kimura  Territory: Japan

“This may be the one that kills us” -  Kambei

In the 16th Century, during the age of Japan’s bloody civil wars, a small village is in imminent danger of being over-run by bandits, until the village elder declares that they must hire Samurai to protect them.  Six Ronin are gathered, and due to hardships of their own, agree to work simply for food.  A seventh, pretending to be a Samurai but actually an orphan farmer, follows behind and is eventually accepted into the group.  Together with the villagers, the Samurai defend the village from the bandit horde.

Kyuzo's introduction

Seven Samurai is often cited as the first modern action movie, and it’s easy to see why – the film feels a lot more current than a film from 1954 should be.  A lot of this is down to techniques, both in scripting and direction, which were new then and are still in use today.  More importantly, it’s also a fantastic film, and one that has earned its status as an immortal classic. 

“A true Samurai never drinks enough to dull his wits” - Kambei

The characters of the Samurai themselves are captivating.  Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is approached by the villagers after they see him perform an act of heroism while on their travels looking for suitable recruits.  We first meet him in a town where he agrees to rescue a child from a thief holding him hostage in a barn.  Kambei shaves his head (removing his topknot – a shocking thing for a Samurai to do) and poses as a monk to rescue the child.  We then learn he is a veteran of many battles, all of which he fought on the losing side.  He is followed in town by a young idealistic Samurai called Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who Kambei takes under his wing.  Kambei then assumes the lead and recruits the other Samurai, starting with the archer Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) who joins simply because he likes Kambei’s character.  Then a chance meeting with an old war comrade and Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô) is brought on board followed by Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), an elder Samurai who’s an expert swordsman, and Heihachi, “an amusing man” and provider of moral support.  Armed with six Samurai, they are heading back to their village when they notice they are being followed by Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a wannabe Samurai and a figure of fun for the group.

Kikuchiyo proves his worth

It is Mufune’s character who is the focus of most of the film.  He is both the unlikely hero and the comic relief.  He is illiterate and shows the other Samurai a stolen family tree, in the hope of proving himself to be a nobleman – except when he points to himself on paper, he chooses a thirteen-year-old’s identity, and the name – Kikuchiyo – is a girl’s.  It’s a gag that still works today (as well as him carrying a sword too big to compensate for his lack of ability) and further adds to the film’s timeless quality.  But Kikuchiyo is more than comic relief; he ends up as the real thing.

Stalker with oversized sword - Kikuchiyo dogs the Samurai 

Subtlety is the key to the characterisation, and the film itself most of the time.  Although it does dip into melodrama on a few occasions, given the strength of the remaining material it’s easy to overlook a couple of minutes’ worth of arms flailing about and uncontrollable wailing (by the villagers, not the Samurai, obviously).  The film does run for an extraordinarily long time (well over three hours in NTSC) but, like a true classic, never outstays its welcome.  The length is necessary for the viewer to bond with the characters (especially Kyuzo, I find, as he tends to be in the background a lot).

“Two more down” - Kyuzo

It’s difficult to begin to give any critical analysis of the film as so many quotes and images pop up in your head when thinking back to it.  A brief few snapshots: Kyuzo disappearing into the night to get one of the muskets from the bandits without fuss, ceremony or false modesty; Kikuchiyo showing up for his audition blind drunk and claiming to be a 13 year old girl; the defence of the village by trapping one or two bandits at a time within the village itself; Kambei shaving his topknot off to save the child; Shichiroji’s sinisterly happy smile when Kambei tells him that this job might be the one that kills them; the revenge attack on the bandit stronghold; Kikuchiyo finally proving his worth on the battlefield.  The highlights are literally too many to name.

“By protecting others, you save yourself” - Kambei 

 The reality of war

After a time, you grow intimate with the village and its inhabitants.  You don’t need to be told that, near the end of the movie, the place where all the villagers are waiting with their bamboo pikes is the north of the town because we already know the place like the back of our hand.  We know that the three buildings lying outside the protected area are doomed but a necessary loss to protect the rest of the village, and are annoyed at those who selfishly want to save them for their own purpose.  We identify with Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the elderly farmer, because he is the everyman, and ourselves.

Heihachi's legacy - the Six Samurai and 'Lord' Kikuchiyo protecting the village and the farmers within

All of this (and more) makes Seven Samurai one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.  I know it’s on a lot of “top films” lists, but I generally don’t agree with such things.  This is definitely an exception, and if you haven’t seen it yet, prepare to be engrossed in these Samurai’s small but significant world.

I defended my post” - Yohei

For the second time in as many weeks, I feel compelled to mention the DVD release of the film.  I’ve seen this film on both the BFI and Criterion release (not on the same evening, though!).  Though the Criterion 3 Disc set is nothing short of beautiful, the less-expensive BFI disc is not inferior in terms of transfer.  Obviously, there are fewer extras on the latter, stretching only to an audio commentary (I guess there wasn’t much else they could fit on the disc).  The extras on the Criterion release are great – a cosy two-hour chat with Kurosawa in his own living room and a very interesting fifty-minute documentary on the film being the most noteworthy, as well as a lovely little booklet of essays and interviews to round off the package.  I do have an issue with them both though and it’s about the subtitles.  The BFI release is excellently subtitled but occasionally neglects to subtitle short responses or people just shouting out someone’s name, which I found a little annoying.  The Criterion disc addresses this but it does tend to use modern Americanised English quite a lot, which definitely feels out of place in a film about 16th Century Japan.  These minor gripes aside, you can’t really go wrong with either disc.  Another small piece of advice: the Criterion disc seems to run a lot longer than the BFI disc even taking the Pal speedup into consideration.  I’m reasonably certain there’s nothing missing in the BFI version, and note that the Criterion disc includes the intermission segment.

'Once more we survive'

“In the end, we lost this battle too” - Kambei

Mercenaries From Hong Kong (1982) March 29, 2008

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

Director: Wong Jing  Cast: Ti Lung; Chan Wai-Man; Chan Pak-Cheung; Lo Leih; Johnny Wang; Wong Yu  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A businessman’s daughter contacts mercenary-for-hire Luo Li (Ti Lung) to avenge her father’s murder by an assassin who has fled to Cambodia.  Luo assembles his crack team for the journey into war-torn Cambodia: a knife expert, a deadly sniper, a bare-fist fighting expert, a thief and a bomb specialist and heads into the danger zone.  But once there, their plan alters when it becomes evident that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem…

Mercenaries From Hong Kong opens with a shot of Ti Lung pumping iron to an anonymous instrumental band’s rendition of Blue Oyster Cult’s Teen Archer, and you immediately know this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill Shaw Brothers Kung Fu flick.  Indeed, if it wasn’t for the use of so many Shaw players, you may be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Golden Harvest film.  For a company that never really moved with the times, Mercenaries From Hong Kong looks amazingly “contemporary” for a late-period Shaw flick, and unlike virtually all other productions from the era, hardly any of it is shot on a claustrophobic sound stage, and outdoor sets and locations are used extensively.

Wheeling about on office chairs at high speeds has its risks. 

The story is hardly original, and pretty much rips off every war movie where an ensemble cast goes off behind enemy lines.  Small band of commandoes against insurmountable odds?  Check.  Soldier hoping to pay for life-saving operation for sick daughter?  Check.  Two members of team hating each other’s guts until their backs are against the wall?  Check.  Backstabbing traitor masquerading as everyone’s friend?  Big fat check.  And when one of the team asks Luo to look after his child “in case anything happens to me”, you just know he isn’t going to make it.  You might as well just shoot him in the face there and then, get it over with and recalculate everyone’s paycheck.  Especially when he stupidly forgets his lucky necklace before engaging the enemy. 

The team hears one too many jokes about their matching outfits. 

As well as the hackneyed plot devices and clichés, the direction isn’t terribly good.  Wong Jing became infamous for his screwball comedies and exploitation movies, and both genres impose on Mercenaries From Hong Kong to a certain degree.  We have a scene of Ti Lung being The Exterminator, while the inclusion of Nat Chan Pak-Cheung brings a little too much light relief for my taste.  In fact, humour crops up a number of times and it just impedes the film’s progress and atmosphere.

'It's OK - there are six of us so this isn't 7-MAN ARMY' 

However, one thing can’t be denied: Mercenaries From Hong Kong is extremely good fun despite (or maybe because of) its cornier elements.  There’s a mass brawl in a shopping centre that is really exciting to watch, and features dozens of improvised weapon-wielding stuntmen and extras.  The action scenes in general are another aspect that looks decidedly un-Shaw-like and again look more like they came from Golden Harvest’s fight choreographers.  The cast includes some of Shaw’s top players as well as their perennial action-man Ti Lung, and it’s fantastic seeing Johnny Wang and Lo Leih given good-guy roles for a change.  Immortal bad guys Lei Hoi-Sang and Yuen Wah also turn up to add some weight to the heavies on the other side.

It’s surprising (and a little disappointing) how little of this film is actually set in the jungles of Cambodia, as primarily the action takes place in and around Hong Kong, but Mercenaries From Hong Kong probably exceeded its remit by coming up with a film that still entertains some 26 years after it was made.

Giù la Testa (1971) September 1, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Drama, War, 1970s films , add a comment

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli  Territory: Italy

A Bandit family headed by Juan Miranda (Steiger) runs into explosives expert John (or Sean) Mallory (Coburn) who is also a terrorist fugitive on the run from the British.  Seeing an opportunity to use the Irishman’s skills to get into and rob the Mesa Verde bank, Juan badgers Mallory into working with him.  Upon arrival in Mesa Verde, though, they witness the horrors of the Mexican Revolution first hand, and Juan’s priorities change.

The film starts with a quote from Mao Zedong saying that revolutions are not civilized things – and then opens with a shot of Juan pissing on a colony of ants.  It’s not terribly subtle, but it does set out Leone’s political viewpoint right from the beginning.  As if that wasn’t enough, though, Juan (who is, or at least starts out as, an ignorant Mexican peasant) then hitches a lift on a stagecoach filled with American high society – who condescendingly goad and insult Juan before feasting.  The camera gets right up to their open mouths while they eat – really nasty stuff and definitely not for the squeamish.  Juan calmly watches this, clearly thinking that the rich and powerful are no better than the peasantry.  Like I said, it’s not subtle, but the point comes across very clearly and in true Leone style.

'...if I fall, they'll have to alter all the maps.'

The character of John Mallory is a member of the IRA, and his back-story is told in slow-motion dialogue-free flashbacks (which feature David Warbeck, who would later go on to star in Lucio Fulci’s horror classic The Beyond).  He is superficially in Mexico to mine for silver, but on seeing the carnage going on in Mesa Verde, joins the revolution.

The first hour and a half of this film is quite light and humorous in a lot of places, while the last hour (yes, this is another Leone epic, it runs at just a shade under two and a half hours on DVD) is altogether darker.  A standout comic scene sees Juan tricked into releasing a whole army of political prisoners on behalf of Mallory.  Seeing as how it was Juan who was supposed to be using John makes it all the more funny. 

The juxtaposition of comic scenes such as this with scenes of mass executions didn’t strike me as jarring as it did with some viewers, who found the film’s shifting tone too disconcerting.  The real stroke of genius is in the filming of the executions largely in the background as if they were routine, banal and not really worthy of great comment.  The result is much more shocking and makes one hell of an impact.

James Coburn may be the headlining star, but this is Steiger’s film without a doubt.  Although his character initially seems little more than another Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (in fact, you can almost see Eli Wallach in the role at the start), the character progresses much further and has much more scope than anything Leone had done previously.  What’s more, we can buy Steiger’s depiction of the peasant as he turns from a bandit to an accidental hero of the revolution.  The only fault is I sometimes had difficulty understanding his dialogue, and had to rewatch a key scene with the subtitles on! 

'Duck, you suckers!' - Juan picks up quite a following.

Although this was not initially intended to be a Leone directed film, he did stamp it with his own distinctive style all the way through and is as much part of his oeuvre as anything else, even though it will always be regarded as the “black sheep” of his filmography.  Although production values are quite high, this is not as sumptuously produced as Once Upon a Time in the West. The film doesn’t suffer too much as a result except for a slightly wonky special effects shot at the end involving a miniature.

Ennio Morricone once again provides the score, and for a while I thought he’d dropped the ball for once.  The themes just did not jump out at me in the same way as in earlier films.  However, with repetition, towards the end of the film it all gels together and becomes something quite, quite beautiful.  The man’s a genius.

No review of this film would be complete without some comment on the title.  This film is commonly called Duck, You Sucker, which is the film’s official English language title, but in the UK is known by the exploitative title of A Fistful of Dynamite.  I absolutely loathe both.  The first sounds like some screwball Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy; not that I have anything against these films (and will probably write a review or two on some of best in the near future), but it’s just wrong for a Leone movie dealing with such dark themes.  Legend has it that Leone thought the phrase was in popular usage in the States (how, and in what context, I wouldn’t like to even guess!) and would not listen to his American stars’ insistence that it was not.  The Fistful of Dynamite title obviously trades on past glories, which is also misleading as it is nothing like a “Spaghetti” Western, and has no gunfights or laconic anti-heroes who may or may not have a name.  By far the best title is the French Once Upon a Time…the Revolution (his previous film was a massive hit there), which even keeps in with the loose idea that this is the second film in Leone’s second American trilogy.  Unfortunately, though, this title seems the least well known of all, so I’ve opted to call it by its original Italian title, which I believe translates literally to “down the head”.

Whatever you call it, there’s no escaping the fact that this is by far the least seen of all Leone films since A Fistful of Dollars, with many still unaware of its presence.  It did not do great box-office business, probably due to whatever misleading title the film was given in your territory.  I’m sure had people known that Leone was only going to direct one more film it would have gotten more love.  I’m just starting to realise that Giù la Testa has a lot more going for it than I previously thought, and, like its predecessor, needs to be viewed as a completely separate entity from the world-renowned and ever-popular Dollars films.

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