Wu Xia

a.k.a. Swordsman / The Dragon
directed by
 Peter Chan Hoh-San

2011 / We Pictures / 116′
written by Aubrey Lam Oi-Wa and Joyce Chan Ka-Yi
cinematography by Lai Yiu-Fai, Jake Pollock, and Yeung Jan-Yu
music by Comfort Chan Kwong-Wing, Peter Kam Pau-Tat, and Chatchai Pongprapaphan
starring Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Zheng Wei, Li Jia-Min, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui Ying-Hung

China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when the two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.

Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains’ death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher’s son be able to “accidentally” kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.

Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can’t help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian’s place. Xu Bai-Jiu’s own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that must be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy like the illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn’t believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.

Xu Bai-Jiu’s investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Peter Chan Hoh-San’s Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of “things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now” I and many other long-time fans of the city’s cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?

In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation about the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan’s film – unlike that of the Canadian – is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg’s film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant as one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I’ll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film’s true nature.)

Unlike Mortensen’s Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn’t only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what’s left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.

The movie’s first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure – it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits – compassion and empathy – to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can’t imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film’s treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it’s nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it’s easier to suppress one’s worst impulses than one’s best. Of course, both of Wu Xia‘s main characters will have to accept parts of what they’ve kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.

I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character’s complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.

The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommendWu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes – of course choreographed by Yen – that dominate the film’s final third; Chan’s curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of “realistic”; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film’s two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro’s traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan’s direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it’s all good.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Mission Thunderbolt

directed by Godfrey Ho
1983 / IFD Films and Arts Ltd. / ~90′
written by Godfrey Ho
director of photography Tony Fan
starring Jonathan Stierwald, Chan Wai Man, Steve Daw, Chan Kun Tai, Summer Dora, Tina Matchett, Philip Ko, John Ladalski, Melisa Tayor, Phoenix Chu, Shih Chung Tin, Johnny Shen, Rosie Lee, Tommy Lewis, Jack Yeungand Martin Cook
Unavailable for purchase – see the trailer on Youtube 

As was elucidated in the recent postscript update to my review of Robo Vampire, trying to pin down just which films from the low-budget Hong Kong pastiche eruption of the ’80s and ’90s (itself a reaction to the emergence of a vast foreign video rental market) were actually directed by Godfrey Ho can be a daunting task to say the least. The obscure corners of the internet are alive with rumors and speculation on the subject, and the desire to attribute all such films to a single entity has led to no end of misinformed articles (including some of my own) and erroneous IMDB listings. It’s bizarre to think that such wide ranging confusion has sprung up from what may well be the least important cinema movement in the medium’s history, but it’s a strange world, eh?

Still, those schlock-obsessed truth seekers among us are occasionally rewarded, and though the film in question today is of the dubious cut-paste-dub variety blindly attributed to him so often there is, for once, no question as to whether or not Godfrey Ho is responsible for it. Not only is his name there in the credits in big, bold letters (as writer and “chief director”), he makes a rare and uncredited appearance before the camera as well! Produced in 1983 strictly for the export market (it actually played theatrically in some territories), Ho’s Mission Thunderbolt is one of the earliest, if not the first outright, of IFD Films and Arts infamous pastiche productions, and while the gweilo ninjas so often associated with them are sorely absent it still makes for a hell of a brain-off time waster.

The plot, such as it is, concerns three Western assassins – a gunman, a brute (John Ladalski!), and a beauty – who arrive in Hong Kong to start trouble between the rival Serpent and Scorpion gangs. Interpol is having none of it, however, and put their Best Agent (Jonathan Stierwald in his only credited film appearance) to work hunting down both the assassins and their territory-hungry Boss (martial arts choreographer and sometimes producer / actor / director Philip Ko). Along the way Interpol’s Best Agent takes time to charm Cherry, who rewards him with a montage of steamy sauna lovin’ after he rescues her from a Halloween-masked madman. But all good things must come to an end, and after his beloved suffers a mysteriously fatal basket-bound water-dunking and beach-dragging Interpol’s Best Agent sets out not only to finish his assignment, but to avenge her death as well.

Meanwhile young shoe-shiner Allison (Lu I-Chan, here under an unknown pseudonym) is having gang troubles of her own. When her best friend Rosie is murdered by mobsters Allison swears revenge, and sets herself on a troubled path into the criminal underworld. She finds an unlikely friend in Phoenix (Chu Mei-Yam, as “Phoenix Chu”), matriarch of the Scorpion gang, who sees a kindred spirit in the young woman wronged. Soon Allison is doing dirty work for the Scorpions, putting pressure on the rival Serpent gang and their leader Hercules (the prolific Michael Chan Wai-Man, as “Chan Wai Man”) until Phoenix’s trusted subordinate Panther (Shut Chung-Tin, as “Shih Chun Tin”) turns double-crosser, revealing a conspiracy to overthrow the Scorpion empire and shining light on the identity of Rosie’s killer as well.

  
  
  

Perhaps two thirds or more of Mission Thunderbolt is devoted to the latter half of the synopsis above, courtesy of import source feature Don’t Trust a Stranger - a Taiwanese crime drama directed by Dung Gam-Woo (A Massacre Survivor) and released the year prior. Though some have speculated that IFD producer Joseph Lai utilized some treasure trove of unfinished film properties to generate his mountain of cut-and-paste efforts, the truth of the matter is less outlandish. IFD merely purchased the distribution rights to cheap foreign films that had already been produced (typically Taiwanese, Thai, or Korean efforts), and around the time of Mission Thunderbolt hit upon the idea of adding Caucasian material so as to make the properties more desirable to Western buyers. It was an idea that served Lai well through the rest of the decade, putting the IFD Films and Arts name on the shelves of video stores throughout Europe and America and earning him a mint in the process. It’s no surprise that producer Tomas Tang, a partner of Lai’s who started his own company after a falling out between them, took to aping the format. At the time Western audiences were rabid for taped entertainment, and with so much money to be made Tang was happy to give it to them. But I digress…

Though punctuated with some perfectly capable action set pieces, notably an early motorcycle chase and later night club brawl, Don’t Trust a Stranger is pretty rudimentary entertainment otherwise. While it would be a stretch to claim that the new footage contrived by writer / director Godfrey Ho is better, it is possessed of a certain hysterical edge that exponentially raises its entertainment potential. The juxtaposition of new and old is enough to delight in its own right, with Ho’s mustachioed avengers and hyper-kinetic action invading Gam-Woo’s comparatively sensible crime drama at every turn. The Don’t Trust a Stranger footage is ultimately just filler to keep audiences busy until Ho throws another crazy bastard development at the screen, and the the cursory attempts at connecting the two (like manufactured phone calls between the Taiwanese police and Interpol) aren’t enough to convince anyone otherwise.

As for said crazy bastard developments, Mission Thunderbolt offers more than its fair share of them. Ho treats his viewers to a seductress who kills with a mouthful of razor blades, a balding assassin on roller skates, and a tractor trailer ambush before the opening credits even roll, and things only get stranger from there (including a bizarre sequence in which a stray cat and rat are used as implements of interrogation). Even the casting is weird. Star John Stierwald looks more like a 7th grade science teacher than Interpol’s Best Agent, but Ho clearly believes in him - Mission Thunderbolt is chock full of glistening montages of his under-dressed adventures in exercising, never mind those escapades in the sauna. Things pan out in the inevitable combat sequences though, when Stierwald proves, against expectation, to be a bona fide badass. Leaping through the air with manic fury, gleefully performing his own stunts and showing a knack for martial arts choreography in the process, the man almost makes dressing like a Certified Public Accountant cool. Though former sword-and-sandal star Richard Harrison would replace Stierwald for future entries in the dubious Thunderbolt series (yes, there are more), the latter left an indelible impression – it’s a pity he’s never shown up in anything else.

Otherwise Mission Thunderbolt is full of that stuff that keeps borderline crazies like myself coming back for more – gaggles of post-dub atrocities, questionable editing choices, and an unlicensed musical score of epic proportions (including samplings of David Bowie’s Cat People, Toni Basil’s Hey Mickey, and Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell). Like the other pastiche pictures reviewed here, it’s a hell of a thing. Mission Thunderbolt rates as must-see Wtf-Film material, provided you can lay your hands on it.

Heroic Trio

Year: 1993  Runtime: 84′  Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Sandy Shaw Lai-King   Cinematography: Tom Lau Moon-Tong, Poon Hang-Sang
Music: William Hu Wei-Li   Cast: Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Damian Lau, Anthony Wong

An invisible villain is stealing babies from their cribs and out of hospitals! The evildoer even mocks the police by announcing jis or her victims beforehand. Not even the son of Hong Kong’s chief of police is safe, as hard as the policeman responsible for the case, Inspector Lau (Damian Lau), is trying. Eventually, the local superheroine (Anita Mui) – depending on the version of your subtitles either called the copyright-endangered “The Wonder Woman” or the incredibly boring “Super Heroine” – takes an interest in the case, which might or might not have something to do with her being Lau’s wife Tung when she’s not fighting evil while wearing a mask. But alone, not even she is able to catch the invisible fiend.

Said fiend is a woman named Ching (Michelle Yeoh), using an experimental invisibility that is still in development created by a scientist she’s shacking up with. Ching is in the service of someone only known as Evil Master or Old Bastard (Yen Shi-Kwan). Evil Master is a person of dubious gender (so probably supposed to be a eunuch) with a most excellent plan: make one of the stolen babies – all of whom are astrologically destined to greatness – the emperor of China and turn the rest of them into his cannibal assassins. It’s quite obvious that Ching is conflicted about the whole baby stealing business, but years of brainwashing are difficult to get rid of.

Once the police chief’s baby has been stolen, another costumed heroine appears. Chat aka The Thief Catcher aka Seventh Chan is more of a bounty hunter than Wonder Woman is, preferably – though not exclusively – working for money. Chat is also an escapee of the Old Bastard’s assassin program, and an old friend of Ching’s, who once let her friend live when Evil Master told her to kill Chat.

As a heroine, Chat is of the rather reckless sort, prepared to pull stupid stunts like kidnapping a baby herself to provoke the invisible baby stealer into action. That’s the sort of plan that in a Hong Kong movie has a good chance to end with a dead baby, which it does. However, this does at least bring Chat into contact with Tung and lets the bounty hunter realize who is stealing all the babies and why. Eventually – but not before it is revealed that Tung and Ching have a common past too – the three women will throw their lots in with each other and give the Old Bastard what he’s got coming.

  
  
  

Before Johnnie To had his own production house, he was working as a director for hire like just about anyone else in Hong Kong’s industry. Most of his films of this period don’t show as much of the hand of their auteur as we are accustomed from him now, and are instead realized in the directorial style of the minute in Hong Kong, making them decidedly professional and strangely impersonal affairs.

Nonetheless, some of To’s movies of that time period are pretty great movies, or are even, as is the case with Heroic Trio, minor classics of their kind. Heroic Trio might be an impersonal effort by the standards of its director, but it is also action directed by the great Ching Siu-Tung, and perfectly adapts nearly everything that is great about early 90s wire fu movies to the superhero genre that wasn’t exactly filled with great movies at a point in time when Tim Burton’s Batman movies seemed to be as good as superheroes could get on film.

The wire fu film’s combination of the insane, the bizarrely violent, the poesy of bodies in motion, the slapstick-y and the melodramatic always had clear parallels to what’s great about the superhero genre (one could even argue that wuxia heroes are old-timey superheroes with swords), so making a wire fu superhero movie seems like an obvious direction to take the genre in.

Of course, obvious directions don’t always lead to watchable films. In Heroic Trio‘s case, though, they do. Even though you can criticize To’s direction as being strictly inside the parameters of early 90s wire fu, with all the Dutch angles, wobbly zooms and dramatic slow motion shots that implies, one would have to be a soulless monster not to enjoy this style of filmmaking, especially when the action sequences between the scenes of melodramatic slo-mo crying are choreographed by someone like Ching who knows how to let non-martial artists like Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung look more or less convincing in a fight, or at least as convincing as is necessary in this sort of film. Michelle Yeoh for her part doesn’t need anyone to let her look good in an action scene.

It’s also a true joy to watch a movie featuring three female superheroes where the heroines’ competence is never questioned by anyone. “But you’re a girl” is just not a sentence that belongs in a film coming from the wuxia tradition that is so rich in female heroes, so nobody ever utters it. On a slightly more superficial level, and one slightly less feminism-compatible one, seeing our competent heroines played by Mui, Yeoh and Cheung is the sort of experience that can distract a guy from a movie’s flaws quite well.

Truth be told, I’m not even sure I should even call Heroic Trio‘s problems flaws at all. Perhaps, interpreting them as simple markers of their place and time would be much fairer, especially given how much more enjoyable they make the movie at hand. How, after all, can I resist a script that turns a decidedly simple basic plot into a more or less labyrinthine construction of flashbacks, side plots and contrived connections between characters? And how could I not approve of a superhero movie actually willing to kill a baby, even if it’s only to give Mui the opportunity to cry some very decorative tears? And how could I not enjoy Heroic Trio‘s sudden, generous, bursts of ridiculous, awesome nonsense like Anthony Wong (playing the original cannibal assassin) munching on his own cut off finger, or the great moment in the film’s finale when the Big Bad has been reduced to a skeleton and decides to ride Yeoh’s body like a bony puppeteer? How not to love a film morally dubious enough to throw in a scene of one of its heroines mercy-killing a bunch of cannibal toddlers for no good reason at all?

If Heroic Trio is one thing, it truly is the embodiment of the whole of Hong Kong wire fu filmmaking 1993.

 

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master

a.k.a. Zombie vs. Ninja / Zombie Rivals / Zombie Rival / Zombie Rival – The Super Master
Year:
1988   Company: IFD Films and Arts Limited   Runtime: 88′
Director: Godfrey Ho   Writers: AAV Creative Center, Godfrey Ho    Cinematography: Raymond Chang
Music: Stephen Tsang   Cast: Pierre Kirby, Dewey Bosworth, Thomas Hartham, Patrick Frzebar, Elton Chong,
Mike Wong-Lung, Jin Nu-Ri, Guk Ching-Woon, Kim Wuk, Cheung Chit, Kim Wong-Cheol, Park Wan-Su
Order the OOP VHS edition from Amazon.com

First things first – I’ve absolutely no idea what this little nugget of white-ninja mayhem is supposed to be called, and a quick Google search reveals that it has no fewer than five titles in English alone!  Even the IFD Films and Arts-produced English trailer appears confused, showing one title while the narrator reads another.  It seems pertinent to note that none of the five titles I found are terribly accurate, from the relatively straight-forward Zombie vs. Ninja on up.  As such I’ll be referring to the film by my favorite of the five, which also happens to be the most convoluted and nonsensical: Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master.

Never let it be said that Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho couldn’t come up with a good title (or five) when pressed for them.  Good films, however, seem to have been another matter entirely…

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master follows squarely in the footsteps of other Lai and Ho spectacles, and presents viewers with a more or less passable import feature that’s been cut to match a new story (in this case one written by the dubbing company!) and framed with all-new Ho-directed material starring an all-white cast.  In this case the results are particularly dubious but no less enjoyable for the trouble, with ‘stars’ Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth (of Thunder of Gigantic Serpent fame) looking well out of place in their shiny off-the-shelf fighting regalia and matching ninja head bands.  Remember kids, real ninjas wear head gear that says ninja.

"I think his name is Duncan... something..."

At its heart Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master is actually a fanciful South Korean martial arts comedy from 1983, The Undertaker From Sohwa Province, a film that unfortunately appears unavailable in its original condition (VHS and DVD releases under the title Gravedigger are reportedly sourced from the ZRTSNM edit, and lose the hilarious white-guys but retain the awful English dialogue track that refers to them).  The story for Undertaker follows a predictable arc, with an impetuous youngster witnessing the deaths of his parents at the hands of kung-fu baddies, then hooking up with a secret martial arts master so that he might learn the tricks of the trade and seek glorious kung-fu vengeance.

Though the story of The Undertaker From Sohwa Province will sound broadly familiar, the difference is really in the details.  The requisite kung-fu master is the eponymous undertaker, a scabby buck-toothed parody who raises the dead just for kicks and relishes nothing more than tormenting his young underling Ethan (that’s IFD Film and Arts’ name for him, not mine – he’s played affably by South Korean genre star Elton Chong).  Through the undertaker’s bizarre tactics Ethan somehow learns a fighting style that looks like the martial arts equivalent of dancing the robot.  If that’s what digging holes and carrying around coffins full of rocks all day can net you, then count me in!  It is in this source film that the only supernatural elements of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master are found, as the undertaker’s underling does practice combat with a variety of living corpses.  Peripheral characters also display unnatural abilities, as in the case of a female baddie who seems capable of disappearing at will.

There’s a lot of legitimate bemusement to be had with Undertaker‘s light-hearted material, which features Ethan sledding through a wintry forest on a coffin among other things.  The same cannot be said of the frequently profane post-dubbing applied by Lai associate ADDA Audio and Visual limited (who helped Joseph Lai bring knock-off pan-Asian animations like Raiders of Galaxy to English audiences), which is heaps of fun for all the wrong reasons.  I can’t imagine that there were more than a handful of personnel working the voice side of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master, but they get away with a range of improbable characterizations, from the shrill, squeaky undertaker to the arch and dramatic father of his pupil.  Adding to the hilarity are the highly inappropriate English names forced upon the characters – in addition to Ethan there are Bobby, Bert, Ira, Mason, Duncan and so on.

  
  
  

The competent (if incompetently presented) Undertaker is interrupted early and often by the new white-centric dramatics of Godfrey Ho.  The writing for these sequences fairs about as well as for the other dubbed material, often beginning mid-conversation (“…so that’s the plan”) and continuing on into dull and ambiguous pontificating about stolen gold and positions of power.  All of it would be quite drab and forgettable were it not being performed with such earnest by middle-aged white men running around the woods in cheap Halloween costumes.  Ho attempts, if only lazily, to intersect his new story with that of the appropriated footage, but the results are awful at best, with Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth speaking to characters obviously in other locations entirely.

When it comes to action Ho is a bit better equipped, even if the results are less than stellar.  Ho coaxes Kirby, Bosworth, and a larger cast of unrecognizable Caucasians into a slew of lightning-paced action sequences that have katanas clashing and men leaping about with maddening frequency.  It reminded fondly of the psychotic action direction seen in the Turkish exploitation of old, trampolines and all, and I wasn’t bothered in the least when Kirby was replaced mid-shot by a foot-shorter stunt double in an awful floppy wig.

Truth be told, I was at a complete loss for what to say about Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master until just this point, and now I think I’ve said more than enough.  There’s no arguing that it’s an immensely stupid, terrible film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoyed every minute of it.  Between this and the indescribable Robo Vampire I feel I’m quickly becoming one of the Ho faithful, and open to whatever dreadful implications that might imply.  Your mileage may vary, but if you only see one “bad white actors pretending to be ninjas” film this year it may as well be this one.

This review needed more Pierre Kirby. I make no apologies.

in conclusion
Film: Yeah, about that…
Final Thoughts: This is another martial arts pastiche of remarkable stupidity, but with Godfrey Ho involved we should expect nothing less.  I loved it, but may not be of sound mind.

War God

Original Title: Zhan Shen   a.k.a. The Big Calamity (Da Zai Nan)
Year: 1976   Company: Xinghua Pictures / Prince Pictures   Country: Taiwan   Runtime: 85′
Director: Chan Hung-Man   Writer: Lam Ching-Gaai   Cinematography: Lai Man-Sing, Lam Chi-Wing, Wong Shui-Cheung    Music: Wong Mau-Saan   Cast: Gu Ming-Lun, Tse Ling-Ling, Cindy Tang Hsin, Chan Yau-San   Choreography: Ho Ming-Hiu    Special Effects: Koichi Takano   Producer: Fu Ching-Wa

Poster for War God under its alternative Chinese title The Big Calamity

Pre-review note: English sources on the cast and crew of this film are practically non-existent, and the information above was gleaned from a combination of a meager HKMDB listing and a Chinese Wikipedia entry.  Accuracy is not guaranteed.

War God, alternatively known online under the unofficial titles Calamity and Guan Yu vs. the Aliens, was once among the rarest of the rare in Taiwanese fantasy, stuff the likes of which we Westerners could only ever dream of seeing in the flesh.  Like Poon Lui’s Devil Fighter and Yu Hon-Cheung’s Monster From the Sea, War God was until recently thought of as un-seeable, with only a handful of advertising images and contemporary newspaper articles arguing for its existence at all.

One can imagine my surprise, then, when a hard-subtitled rental VHS copy of War God found its way into torrent circulation, and the film once thought unobtainable practically fell into my lap!  The future is a wonderful place, my dear readers, a wonderful place indeed.

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The Saviour

Year: 1980    Runtime: 81′   Director: Ronnie Yu Yan-Tai
Writer: Alfred Cheung Kin Ting    Cinematography: Tony Hope    Music: Teddy Robin Kwan
Cast: Pai Ying, Gigi Wong Suk-Yee, Ng Man-Hun, Kent Cheng Jak-Si, Tien Feng

It would be easy to confuse Hong Kong police Inspector Tom (veteran actor Pai Ying, looking a bit bored) with your run-of-the-mill cop on the edge. His boss (Chris Dryden) at least seems to take him for one, complaining that Tom never keeps any criminal alive. But what the film shows of the cop lets him look like some sort of anti-Danny Lee, killing only in self-defence, being not too fond of torture, spending his free time taking care of an orphan boy. Given these facts, our so-called loose gun acts like the least psychopathic cop in Hong Kong cinema, though, admittedly, the way police officers in HK movies usually act, that’s not much of to say of a cop’s mental health.

Tom’s newest case is a series of murders of prostitutes. While the audience knows the identity of the killer right from the start, Tom will have to spend a few scenes not moving a facial muscle, or, as the experts call it, “investigating”. Fortunately, one of the killer’s victims escapes with her life and is willing and able to identify him. The young man doing the deeds is one Paul Kwok (Ng Man-Hung?), who isn’t quite the nice little boy he once was anymore since he witnessed his mother killing herself in front of his eyes while rambling about “sluts” and “tramps”, a catastrophe caused by his Dad’s very obvious cheating. Now, with a witness, it should be an easy case for Tom, and Paul should be facing a nice vacation in an institution.

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Run and Kill

company: Come On Film
year: 1993
runtime: 88′
director: Billy Tang
cast: Kent Cheng, Simon Yam,
Esther Kwan, Lily Lee,
Danny Lee
writer: Bryan Chang
cinematography: Tony Miu King-Fai
music: Jonathon Wong Bong
Order this film from Amazon.com

“Fatty” Cheung (Kent Cheng) is not the luckiest of men. He might have a solidly running business selling gas, a doting mother, a loving little daughter and a pretty if costly wife (Lily Lee), but he’s bound to lose all of it faster than he could have expected.

When Cheung comes home early on his wedding anniversary, he finds his wife having a bit of adulterous fun with a decidely thinner and younger man than himself. Cheung is not the kind of man prone to violent outbursts, so he just protests limply that the couple really shouldn’t do it in his living room and skitters away to get drunk.

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Centipede Horror

a.k.a. Wu Gong Zhou / Centipede Curse
company: Nikko International
year: 1984
runtime: 93′
country: Hong Kong
director: Keith Li
cast: Hussein Abu Hassan, Chu-kwong Chan,
F.C. Chan, Lai Fun Chan, Suet Ming Chan
writer: Amy Chan Suet-Ming
cinematographers:
Lee Yip
and Ma Gam-Cheung
not on home video in the USA

This film is, in a word, infamous.  To understand why one need only take a gander at the extensive list of plot keywords available for it over at the IMDB, where things like “vomit”, “cattle mutilation”, “gang rape”, and “genocide” are some of the more mundane of the lot.  The reviews there are a confounding mess, and tend to focus on how disturbed the viewers were by seeing the film rather than on the film itself – and those that buck the trend often sound like they’re describing entirely different movies.  Making things more difficult for those looking to make heads or tails of the production [like me, for example] is its almost complete absence from the annals of film criticism, online or otherwise.

My hunt for information on this title was frustrating at best, leaving me with more questions than I had answers – like just how it became so infamous to begin with, when it’s so obscure and lacking in critical coverage.  Of course, the only way for me to really answer any of the questions raised [and figure out just what the hell the fuss at IMDB is about] was by watching the film.  With a little patience and the help of my favorite cult film torrent site, I set out to do just that.

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