Monday, December 10, 2007

Nang nak (Thailand, 1999)

The blurb on the DVD box touts Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 film Nang nak as some sort of amplified Thai version of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), but a comparison of the two is a bit like comparing wine to beer: they are both alcohol, they can both taste good, and they both get you drunk, but beyond that they are completely different. Nang Nak and A Chinese Ghost Story are both films, and yes, they are both about ghosts that love and kill, and both have a number of jolts, but beyond that they have little in common: A Chinese Ghost Story is an over-the-top comedic horror oddity, Nang nak is a very non-amplified, low-key and tragic Buddhist ghost story. Anyone who pops the film into their DVD expecting a Thai version of deadly ghosts and demons with killer tongues is going to be sorely disappointed by the spiritual platitudes and the light use of special effects found in the Thai film. Anyone who is interested in seeing a truly unique and exotic film that manages to tread the fine line between the tragic and the ghostly, on the other hand, will probably find that Nang nak is a film worth watching. (In Thailand itself, the film broke the country's box office record upon its release, though it has since fallen to third place.)
The tale told in the film is based on a traditional myth of Thailand that is accepted by many as being true and which has been filmed numerous times (most recently as Ghost of Mae Nak, a splatter version made in 2005). Some web sources claim that Nimibutr's Nang nak is set in time of the Chiang Toong War of 1868, but although the story does obviously unfold sometime in the past, names and dates are never actually supplied. The country, however, is obviously still pre-industrial and a war is indeed raging somewhere far away from the peaceful and green rainforest home of Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and his beloved and pregnant wife Nak (Intira Jaroenpura).
Mak must leave his wife behind when he and his good friend Prig are called to war. In battle, Prig is killed and Mak is gravely wounded; he spends untold time on the verge of death in a Buddhist monastery and, upon his recuperation, returns to his beloved wife and child. An odd event indeed, seeing that the viewers not only saw her die while in labor but witnessed how the trusted midwife stole her valuables (needless to say, she pays for that later). Despite his ostracism by close past friends and the violent deaths of all those who attempt to tell him that his wife is dead, Mak enjoys his peaceful life on the river, unable to comprehend or believe that that which is so tactile and real before him could be anything other than his living, loving wife and child. The scene in which the village monk comes and attempts convince the disbelieving Mak otherwise is the first that reveals the true extent of Mak's blindness: the well-tended house and cooing baby that Mak sees around him has no relationship to the neglected, dried-out and empty ruin on which he sits as he speaks with the monk. But one day Mak can no longer ignore the talk and follows the monk’s advice for seeing the truth: he bends over and looks between his legs just in time to see Nak's arm stretch unnaturally far below the dilapidated hut to pick up a vegetable that fell through the floorboards. Horrified he takes shelter in a monastery, but is that enough to save him from his wife's loving but powerful and without doubt deadly ghost?
Nang nak is a wonderfully shot film with beautiful locations, excellent music and two highly attractive leads that are a pleasure to look at even if their acting abilities don't always successfully carry the weight the film could use. The heavy ladles of Buddhism that get served in the film are an exotic difference to the innately Christian-based horror films of the Western world, and if the film is often a bit too talkative and weepy to be effective as a scary film, it nonetheless still packs an occasional wallop.
The blood never spurts as copiously as in such Thai trash as Devil Species or Lizard Woman, but unlike those two films, Nang Nak obviously has artistic intentions despite being solidly anchored within the horror-film genre. And though the film might not gush blood, there are often extremely horrific images and Nak knows no mercy when venting her rage upon those who have wronged her or who she sees as trying to come between her and her man.
For all the horrific elements of the movie, Nang Nak remains much more a tragedy: it is a tale of a woman who loves her husband so much that she refuses to even let death come between them — nonetheless, in the end, she is forced to accept that the gap between them is truly too large to overcome. (But for all the tragedy her situation presents, Nak is so merciless in her revenge and anger that one sometimes has a hard time feeling sympathy for her plight....)

Lust in the Dust (USA, 1985)

Made about four years after John Waters’ Polyester in an attempt to ride on the wave of the limited success of Waters’ first mainstream film, Paul Bartel's Lust In The Dust features the same two headlining stars as in Polyester, the aged ‘50s dreamboy icon Tab Hunter and the one and only highly overweight Divine.
A spoof of the very type of westerns with which Tab Hunter made his reputation, the film starts out like the real thing with a long shot of the great western skies so blue and clouds so white. The perspicaciously inane lyrics of the song sung during the credit sequence gives a good taste of what is to come, as does the eloquence of the explanatory introductory narration, although, in all honesty, the narration is hardly close in quality to that of the various bombastic moral lectures prefacing early Russ Meyer films, such as Lorna (1964) or Mudhoney (1965), from which the concept is inspired/borrowed/stolen.
The story is appropriately inane, the jokes infantile, obvious, cheap and tasteless. Lust in the Dust, while not capable of elucidating wild roars of laughter, does leave one chuckling and smiling; enough so to make the film rather enjoyable. While one is never sure if the actor’s are being bad on purpose or not, the overall effect works well. If there is nothing new to be found in the film, Bartel and company at least do a good job at taking the piss out of many stalwart, well-known and fondly remembered stereotypes of the genre.
Divine plays Rosie, a motor-mouth of a slut who tends to accidentally break the neck of any man who goes down on her, while Tab Hunter, as the poncho-wearing cigar-chewing gunfighter Abel, mimes a blue-eyed, second-rate imitation of Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name who tends to shoot more dirty than he does well. Like so many a real western, the plot is thin. The mismatched pair arrive in the windblown little Mexican town of Chili Verde where the legend of a hidden treasure of gold keeps them staying on. A shoot-out here, a lynching there, a few questionable musical interludes and a catfight later, a limerick and the maps tattooed on the mammoth-sized butts of Divine and the town saloon & bordello owner Marguerite (Laine Kazan, the mother on My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)) supply the eventual answer to where the treasure lies. (The last idea is actually borrowed from one of Lee Van Cleef's more entertaining excursions, The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974), a kung-fu and spaghetti western hybrid directed by "Anthony M. Dawson.")
A slight but enjoyable film, Lust in the Dust, is one of the more enjoyable films made by Paul Bartel, which include his first and best project, the highly perverse horror cheapie Private Parts (1973) and the much more famous Death Race 2000 (1975). Rather unlike Bartel’s only other relatively well-known success, the comedy Eating Raoul, which is actually so dismal as to make its limited success unexplainable, Lust in the Dust is a playful little comedy which, for all its low blows, is a pleasant surprise.

East of the River (USA, 1940)

A surprisingly bland film considering the amount of talent involved, East of the River can only be enjoyed if viewed on a camp level. Perhaps the only truly enjoyable aspect of East of the River is that of Marjorie Rambeau as Mama Teresa Lerenzo, if only because her acting so extremely over-the-top that it takes on a life of its own, becoming the camp anchor that carries the entire film. She plays the thickly accented, spaghetti-cooking Mama of young, swaggering Joe (Joe Conti) who, when he and his friend Nick almost kill a railway guard, convinces the local judge not only to not send her boy to juvenile hall, but to let his young orphaned friend come live with them as well. Years later as adults, Nick (William Lundigan) has become a graduating honor student with a bright future ahead of him while Joe (John Garfield) is a cheap if personable hoodlum. Fresh out of prison, Joe comes back to town with his check-bouncing gal Laurie (Brenda Marshall) for the graduation, telling everyone he runs some orange plantations back West. Before long, Joe has to lam off to Mexico after his attempt to get revenge on some gangsters who he believes sent him up is only half successful. Gone for months, Nick and Laurie slowly fall in love and, finally, get engaged to Mama’s blessing. Joe doesn’t like that at all, and comes back to a town full of revenge-thirsty gangsters to get his girl back, no matter what.....
A variation of W. S. Van Dyke’s film Manhattan Melodrama (1934), but not much more interesting, the part of Joe Lorenzo was supposedly first offered to and turned down by James Cagney before John Garfield took it. The less than top-notch script was cobbled together by Fred Niblo, Jr., who wrote many a B-film back then, before retiring from the industry in the early 1950s. Both John Fante and Ross Wills are credited for the original story, but one gets the feeling that Wills might have had more to do with it: it is simply hard to believe that this story could stem from Fante, the man who eventually wrote the screenplay for Walk on the Wild Side (1962) or the novels Ask the Dusk and Dreams from Bunker Hill (thus influencing the writings of Charles Bukowski). Take out the gangster aspects, the milieu in which this trite tales takes place is reminiscent of that featured in the short stories of Fante (as collected in The Wine of Youth), but any and all of his talent, realism, insight and dry humor is missing. Fante must have been pretty hungry to have put his name to this thing.
Director Alfred E. Green, a forgotten Hollywood stalwart with over a 100 films to his name and who even directed Betty Davis’ Oscar-winning performance five years previously in Dangerous, shows little flare for his material, aside from a rather pleasant opening sequence that has nothing really to do with the film but nicely manages introduce both the town and the environment of the main characters. The acting is uniformly weak, with those who come off best—like William Lundigan as Nick Lorenzi—doing so primarily because they were cast to type.
Brenda Marshall (born with decidedly non-Hollywood name Ardis Anderson Gaines) does a particularly bad turn as Laurie Romayne, the bad girl with a heart of gold who suddenly finds happiness in dish washing, bed making and housework....she is much more convincing a year later in her much smaller role as Errol Flynn’s wife in Footsteps in the Dark. (In 1941 she also became the real-life wife of William Holden, but, as one can imagine, they had long since divorced by the time he did his famous drunken and deadly dive against his living-room table.) John Garfield plays John Garfield, which means you either like him or you don’t, but as Joe Lorenzo he is indeed a rather an exceptional asshole, especially in terms of how far he is willing to go to make sure his gal doesn’t marry. In fact, he is such a heel, that it is impossible to imagine him having ever sent money home to Mama—even if was Laurie’s money—or that he would ever suddenly become so self-sacrificing as he suddenly does in the improbably resolution. East of the River is no masterpiece, in fact, it isn’t even good. Go rent the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) instead.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Yôkai hantâ: Hiruko / Hiruko the Goblin (Japan, 1991)

Take the Three Stooges, reduce them down to two, make them Japanese and then put them in hell and you more or less have Hiruko the Goblin... the problem is, the concept itself is much better than the film.
Released in 1991, Hiruko the Goblin was sandwiched between Shinya Tsukamoto's two excellent films Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992). Considering how interesting and original the two Tetsuo films are, it is a bit hard to comprehend how Tsukamoto could go so totally wrong with Hiruko the Goblin. Like the two Tetsuo films, Hiruko is an odd film; but unlike the Tetsuo duet, Hiruko is hardly even an interesting film. It fails as both a horror film and as a comedy, and so lacks any and all suspense that it becomes tedious to watch—an almost amazing feat, considering the number of interesting possibilities the plot offers. True, blood does spurt and there are occasional scenes of eight-legged, human-headed spiders skittering around, but nothing that Tsukamoto serves in this cinematic blunder is in any way memorable.
Well, that’s not 100% true: the film is actually memorably forgettable. How forgettable is this flick? I saw it last week and I already need my notes to even faintly remember what happened.... I can remember the dust mouse in the corner of the room, the date of the magazine on my buddy's table (May 2007), the brands of the beer we drank (Berliner Pilsner, Lübtzer Pils, Staropramen) and the color of the toilet paper in his bathroom (pink with blue flowers, so I do hope his wife bought it), but I don't remember anything about the film—other than that it bored the hell out of me. Well, I do remember one thing: how everyone in the room (including me) groaned in disbelief at the ending when some bad CGI was used to infer that the souls of the various dead were now free to go to heaven.
As mentioned before, the plot is one that is open to possibilities, both as a horror film and as a comedy: In a small village somewhere in Japan the local school stands upon the gateway to hell. Long sealed, the demons lie in wait for the day the door is opened and they can once again freely roam the earth. The scientist Dr. Masao Yabe (Masaki Kudou) discovers and explores the passageway to hell, the result of which is that he and the young schoolgirl Reiko (Megumi Ueno) get dragged down to hell and one demon seemingly either escapes or develops the power to come and go from hell as it pleases. It runs around on eight legs decapitating people as it searches for the key to the gateway. An archaeologist inventor (Kenji Sawada) and the Dr.'s son Takashi Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) appear on the scene and, like some Asian version of Ghostbusters, undertake to save those kidnapped to hell and stop the demons. A lot of unfunny Sam-Rami-inspired chase scenes occur and some blood splatters as the two do everything they can to stop the foreshadowing apocalypse...
Actually, the whole thing about unlocking the doorway to hell sort of went over my head. I mean, the first scientist did it already, and the two heroes do it at least once, too. OK, I understand that the heroes might need a special spell to put the Hiruko back into hell, but why couldn't all demons go through the door the other times it was open... it isn't like the heroes closed it behind them when they walked down the passageway. Like, why didn’t the demons swarm then? And why do they even need a door when the local pond seems to function as a skylight to hell? Furthermore, Hiruko obviously has some way of going in and out, for she always drags all the decapitated heads back to hell with her when she wants to nap...
In all truth, Hiruko the Goblin perhaps might maybe possibly be an interesting viewing experience for fans of weird films that either have never seen any other Shinya Tsukamoto movies or are less demanding in their expectations in general. The movie does have a mildly satisfying scene or two, and it is definitely one of Tsukamoto's most accessible and mainstream films... but then again, why waste the time watching a third-rate product for one or two mildly satisfying scenes?

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (USA, 1971)

"Dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the man" and starring "The Black Community," this is the first if not the undisputed masterpiece of modern Black Exploitation film. A full-blown frontal attack on the viewer's senses, this film isn't just angry, it spews forth an unbridled rage. Written, directed, starring, and produced (with Jerry Gross) by Melvin Van Peebles (who also composed the iconic film music with Earth, Wind and Fire), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was filmed in 19 days amongst the fully decaying glory of Los Angeles urban slime and grime using unknown non-actors at the non-budget of $500,000.00. Rated X upon its first release ("by an all white jury" of the MPA, as the ads used to say), this example of roaringly political, anti-white man, pro-brother prime grindhouse slime is a far cry from Peebles' previous two films, The Story of A Three Day Pass (France, 1967) and The Watermelon Man (USA,1970). One knows that what is to come is going to be coarse, filthy and mean when the opening credits are superimposed over a saliently filmed scene of the naked hero—around the tender age of 13—getting his cherry popped by an unwashed hooker (a scene featuring the screen debut of Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, future maker of New Jack City (1991) and star of a shitload of contemporary b-level, straight-to-video and dvd trash).
Using a visually savage editing technique that will probably make today's viewer think of recent Oliver Stone films or MTV with balls and on LSD, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is an entertainingly sleazy, funny and wild rollercoaster ride through 1970s ghetto hell which narrates the awakening and eventual escape of every racist white redneck's nightmare: the cool, self-assured, big-dicked, sexually superior hunk of feral black manhood, personified by Melvin van Peebles himself. Endowed with one scary, massively deadly tool of insemination, Sweet Sweetback earns his keep by doing an amusingly weird live sex show at an illegal club somewhere deep in the darkest belly of Los Angeles. Hauled in by two corrupt and racist cops as the patsy for a crime he didn't commit, Sweetback remains a good, silent, privileged white man's nigger up until he is forced to witness the bastions of black repression beating the shit out of a young black revolutionary. Suddenly 200 years worth of pent-up black fury cuts savagely free and Sweetback batters the two cops unconscious. For the rest of the film the viewer is treated to an action packed, tastelessly hilarious, body-littered and deeply bitter chronicle of Sweetback running for his life with racist cops hot on his trail through Los Angeles (in circles, actually, as anyone from L.A. will be able to tell you). Along the way through this modern-day "Underground Railroad," more cops get killed, a cop car explodes, a variety of innocent brothers get tortured or wasted, a man shits live on screen, an early form of rapping is presented, Sweetback wets his willy in two more sisters and fucks an Amazonian motorcycle gang's leader senseless before, in another scene directly referential to the days of American slavery, Sweetback, with hunting dogs baying at his heels, escapes the repressive power of "The Man" by crossing the border to Mexico and freedom.
On one level, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song can be taken as a mighty fine piece of nasty celluloid, an example of low-budget trash and Blaxploitation at its best, boundary bending and artistically sincere even as it goes for the basest sentiments. On another level, as filthy, aggressive and uncompromisingly in your face as the film is, it still seems wrong to simply dismiss this film as a piece of exploitation, especially considering how unfailingly experimental it is in terms of visual and narrative structure. Van Peebles is obviously a talented filmmaker, and this film has a strong, blunt message that takes it beyond the simple level of a simple "genre film." Pretty it isn't, but can it be so easily dismissed as simply "(Black) Exploitation"? Actually, while Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song's originality may quickly have been co-opted by all the black audience oriented films to come in its wake, the film is much more simply the first modern (Political) Black Film, if not the first true classic of modern Black Cinema. Regrettably, films like this just aren't made anymore.

Bor lei jun (Hong Kong, 1999)

Directed by Vincent Kok, Bor lei jun—a.k.a. Under Control and Gorgeous—is a sub-standard Jackie Chan entry that can only be described as a waste of time. Trimmed by over twenty minutes for the US and European market, one can only imagine that the full two-hour version must be positively sleep inducing. The film generates a lot of laughs not because it is funny, but because it is so bad that one has a hard time believing it was actually made. A comic romance with occasional action interludes, the film never surpasses the level of anything other than a child's film, but the excessive romance aspects will drive the average young boy to screaming distraction. Bor lei jun is best suited for young girls dreaming of prince charming, and, in fact, the film is built around a young girl named Ah Bu (Qi Shu, the babe from The Transporter (2002)) who not only dreams of prince charming, but actually gets him (Jacki Chan as C. N. Chan). That there is a 22-year age difference between the two wouldn't be too bothersome if it weren't that the female object of beauty comes across less as an actual 23-year-old than as an exceedingly immature and young teenager. Qi Shu is indeed a beautiful sight to see, but she looks and acts so young that in the end of the movie Chan comes across less a prince charming than as a child molester—or at least as an emotionally stunted and immature pervert.
The movie tells of Bu, a young girl living in a small Taiwan coastal fishing village who dreams of perfect love. When she finds a corked bottle floating in the bay containing a love letter from someone named "Albert" in Hong Kong, she hops on the next airplane for the big city in search of the man of her dreams. Unluckily, Albert (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) turns out to be a three dollar bill. Soon thereafter Bu meets up with Chan, a super-rich, playboy securities player and corporate boss who is both single and, deep inside, rather alone and in need of love. Chan has a love/hate friendship with his old school chum L.W. Lo (Emil Chan), who is also a rich, playboy corporate boss. Bu decides she must have Chan, and with the help of Albert and his numerous true but fey friends, she finagles her way back into his company, posing as a sought for mob-girlfriend on the run. There are a few typical Jackie Chan fight scenes interspersed throughout the film, but for the most part they seem forced and do nothing to improve the film. True, the two fight scenes against Allan (Bradley James Allan) are very good—the guy actually manages to even upstage Chan—but two good fight scenes do not make a film interesting.
Bor lei jun is product and nothing more. Much like a by-the-number television flick, the movie has everything one expects in a movie that connects the dots, including no creativity or anything to hold your interest. To be avoided at all costs, unless you suffer from insomnia.

(Note: The photos of the lead female that are featured here in this article come from the Net and DO NOT come from the film… had they, the film would’ve been much more entertaining.)

Basket Case (USA, 1982)

When it comes to a film like Basket Case, the question arises whether there is really any reason at all to write yet another review of one of the true classics of 1980’s fringe moviedom. But, shit, I love this film, so I want my chance to sing my short song of praise to the first of Frank Henenlotter's two masterpieces. His other true masterpiece is Brain Damage (1988), which is also his second film. Since then his films have ranged from lightly entertaining (Frankenhooker (1990)) to possibly unnecessary (Basket Case 2 (1990) & Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1992), but even his less successful products exudes more idiosyncratic individuality than 1,000 normal teen horror flicks, despite having a film budget below that of almost any given direct-to-dvd teen slasher (according to the book Filmmaking on the Fringe, while the total production budget for Basket Case was around $155,000, the actual filming itself only cost $35,000.)
Basket Case opens with a brief prologue in which we get to see Dr. Julius Lifflander (the only known feature film appearance by Bill Freeman, an 11-time American League All Star who played catcher and first base for the Detroit Tigers from 1961-1976) get killed by an unseen assailant. The credits roll as Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) arrives to Times Square and takes a room is a sleazy hotel filled with "personalities." A naive, pleasantly friendly and ingenuous young man, Kevin has little with him but a big wad of cash and an over-sized wicker basket. "What’s in the basket?" is an oft-placed question, and in no short time the answer is revealed: Belial, Duane’s malformed and twisted freak brother. Originally Siamese Twins, the two are bent on getting revenge on the doctors that separated them in their childhood during an illegal nighttime operation on a kitchen table—one doctor eventually even turns out to be a veterinarian! What follows is sleazy, grotesque and cheaply-made revenge film that is as easy to enjoy for its imaginatively extreme humor and squalid violence as it is to view as a grindhouse intellectualization of the human condition. (A few of the numerous questions film poses include: How does one measure "evil"? At what point does the urge for revenge become unbridled bloodthirst? Can you kill evil without eventually becoming evil? At what point do you become that which you hate?) Somewhere between dead doctors and mutilated thieves Duane finds love in Sharon, a receptionist with truly lousy hair (played by Terri Susan Smith, who seemingly never made another film), a situation that riles both the anger and envy of Belial and eventually leads to two of the films more infamous and controversial scenes: the full frontal dream sequence of Duane running down empty NYC streets and Belial pumping away between the bloody crotch of a dead and naked innocent. (Why the frontal gets so much attention is hard to understand—I mean, it’s just some guy running naked—but the necrophilic sex scene does make one shudder.) The depressing ending is hardly as final as it appears, of course, for as is common knowledge two inferior but interesting sequels followed.
In all truth, a person really shouldn’t bother reading about this film; a person should simply go see it. It is, like all Henenlotter’s films, an obvious labor of love and, alongside Henenlotter's other sleazy love child Brain Damage, Basket Case is one of the most entertainingly sick and unique film products of the last quarter of the 20th century. Perverse puerility and tastelessness aside, if art is measured by individuality and personal vision, then the day will surely come when the National Film Registry is going to add this baby to its collection, placing it somewhere between Eraserhead (1977) and Night of the Living Dead (1968)—if it hasn't already. Backet Case is in no way recommended viewing: it is required viewing.
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