Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Spider Forest

Korean arthouse can go a number of different ways. Sometimes you get a snoozer (Woman on the Beach, Woman is the Future of Man), other times you're assaulted with gut-wrenching brutality (The Isle, Oldboy), and every now and then you get both. Such a film is Spider Forest. The film is, at times, agonizingly slow, but there's something about this supernatural puzzler that keeps you hanging on. Just as you're about to nod off, a new development in the onion-peeling mystery pulls you back in.

The story concerns a young guy who wakes up in the titular forest and staggers to a small house where he discovers a gruesome scene of carnage. Soon thereafter he's beaten with a stick and run down by a car. In the aftermath of all this violence (or perhaps before or in the midst of it?) he finds himself shuffling back and forth through time, space and lost memories to piece together exactly what happened. Is he dead? In a coma? Or is it all just a fantasy? Like many a freaky Asian film, there's an elaborate backstory, the revelations doled out like breadcrums in the arachnid-infested woods.

In the final analysis, I believe this is an ultimately rewarding film, and would recommend it, but be forewarned: It's an ultra-slow burn and not for the short of attention span.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Some of you may know that once I played bass in a heavy metal band. It is to dispel the various myths regarding my supposedly god-like status on the instrument that I hereby post some YouTube clips:

Endless Voyage
Black Cloud


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story

Where do I begin with this one? The opening castration scene? The martial arts couple wire-fu fucking in mid-air? The woman forced to ride a wooden horse with a ginormous wooden dildo in the saddle? The old water torture and bamboo under the fingernails? The man who literally jumps out of his own skin? The husband who services his wife with sex toys named "The Dwelling Bells," "Orgasmic Armor" and "Mr. Horn"? Or how about the guy who overdoses on aphrodisiac and discharges a fire hydrant-worthy, bloody ejaculation all over his wife and the surrounding area as he expires?

This 1994 Category III Hong Kong film cooks up a rich feast of sex, violence and depravity while folding in a healthy dollop of goofy humor. There really isn't one moment when something outrageous isn't happening in this picture. The story concerns the adorable (and adorably named ) Little Cabbage (Yvonne Yung Hung, above), a sweet, innocent virgin who is framed for murder and tortured mercilessly by officials of the Ching Dynasty, along with her benefactor, the equally blameless Yang Nai Wu (Lawrence Ng). The wicked ones get their comeuppance eventually, but not before these two suffer the torments of the damned. Lightening things up are comedy set pieces like the aforementioned aerial sex show featuring old Cat III favorites Julie Lee and Elvis Tsui (pictured right).

I'd recommend a double feature of A Chinese Torture Chamber Story and its Japanese counterpart The Joy of Torture (1968) to anyone who thinks torture porn is strictly a Bush-era phenom. And, as usual, the Asian filmmakers do it darker.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Actor's Revenge

Finally saw the new AnimEigo digital transfer of An Actor's Revenge (aka Revenge of a Kabuki Actor) -- excellent! One of Kon Ichikawa's finest efforts. Visually, it reminds me of the darkly surreal work of Kazuo Ikehiro (another Daiei alum -- perhaps he had an influence on old Kon). Great look. The film is also a virtual who's who of Daiei actors of the 60s including Shintaro Katsu, Naoko Wakao and Raizo Ichikawa (not to mention everyone's favorite thuggish character actor Saburo Date in an uncharacteristically meaty role as treacherous merchant Kawaguchi-ya).

My only complaint was the casting of Kazuo Hasegawa in the lead role of an onnagata. Nothing against Hasegawa-san -- fine actor, always good in any role, but let's face it: As of 1963 he was somewhat past his prime (he was in the 1935 version for godsake; this was his 300th film!). It's a little hard to buy the premise that he's this hot, young, androgynous thing (no matter how many times the supporting cast says it) when you're looking at what is clearly a pudgy, middle-aged man in drag. For my money they should have given the role to Raizo; he would have been perfect. Instead, they squandered him in a tiny role as a two-bit thief. Katsu was similarly used, getting a dozen lines as a cantankerous, unibrowed priest/thief. I understand both these guys were major stars with their own franchises and heavy workloads but c'mon ...

The story, by Otokichi Mikami, was originally serialized in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, so it's one of those rambling epics full of convoluted subplots concerning numerous members of the Edo demimonde. The film version is significantly streamlined thanks to the efforts of old pros Daisuke Ito and Teinosuke Kinugasa as well as the director's wife, Natto Wada.

Anyhow, outstanding film, must see, etc. etc. For an in-depth comparison of the new AnimEigo disk with the previously-available BFI region-2 version, see this piece courtesy of the fine folks over at DVD Beaver.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Executioner

Watched this again last night. What a great flick. And I use the word "great" with the understanding that you, like I, consider any film featuring Sonny Chiba yanking a rib out of an attacker's chest, or Makoto Sato punching a guy so hard his eyeballs pop out of his head, to be great. Rounding out the trio is Eiji Go (who starred the same year as a psychotic thrill-killer in Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs), here playing a horny goofball decked out in a powder blue denim ensemble with matching puffy cap that positively screams 1974. Also along for the ride is sweet hottie Yutaka Nakajima, providing some eye candy for us and ensuring Go's painful priapism.

The literal translation of the Japanese title is Direct Hit! Hell Fist which is so much better than The Executioner, but what are ya gonna do? Directed by legendary Toei nutcase Teruo Ishii, it's more cheesy and outrageous than most Sonny Chiba outings, which is saying something. Nevermind the plot (some silliness concerning international drug-smugglers) -- just watch The Executioner for the insane brutality (or brutal insanity?) such as when, at a decadent party at the smuggler's mansion, the guests compete to see how far they can kick a semi-conscious Sonny. No really. They have measuring tape and everything. Or how about when Sonny is dangling off the side of a cliff from a rope whose ninja claw is embedded in the thigh of one of the bad guys? Do you love it? I love it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Master Gunfighter

Just saw The Master Gunfighter (1975), starring Tom Laughlin, whom older folks and 70's cheese obsessives will remember as the ass-kickin' half-breed vigilante Billy Jack. Gunfighter is a western remake of Hideo Gosha's samurai classic Goyokin (1969). Nice cinematography, cool-if-somewhat-TVish score by Lalo Schifrin, but the acting is atrocious. Laughlin trying to update the role originally played by the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai is akin to replacing a nice triple-creme brie with Velveeta. Then there's the fact that the film was directed by Laughlin's 13-year-old son ... To its credit, Gunfighter is faithful to the original, in some cases shot-for-shot, and the cowboys all carry swords to preserve the chambara aspect (Laughlin's is, of course, a katana). Unfortunately they weren't able to manage the snow for the big finale. On the other hand, Kinnosuke Nakamura's character is played by Superfly himself Ron O'Neal! Cinematic trainwreck or genre-bending indie triumph? You decide. My head hurts ...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

R.I.P. Ken Ogata

One of the greats. Click graphic below to enlarge:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Bloody Aria

This is one of the more seriously fucked up Korean films you're likely to see any time soon. Hillbilly hijinks, violent rage and some questionable Korean BBQ are in store, but first a smoldering slow burn as you get to know four freaky local yokels and their chosen victims. Think you've seen it all before? You haven't. This is the kind of film that elicits a sustained "WTF?" during viewing, but stays with you over the coming days and weeks, your mind returning again and again to the perversely messed-up moments of the film. In short, a mold-breaking bit of cinematic trauma that defies expectation at every turn. What's that you say? "Any good?" Oh yes, of course, absolutely. (Keep an eye out for former big-time movie idol Han Suk-yoo as the motorcycle cop, his once-striking features now looking somewhat bizarre on an older face.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

New Book Out Spring '09

I met with my publisher recently and was pleased to learn my forthcoming book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades, is, in fact, scheduled for a Spring '09 release. (I had been informed previously that it would have to wait until the Fall.) So good news for my fans out there, all three of you!

In the meantime, you can read an extended Q&A I did recently over at the Samurai Archives Citadel, in which I discuss the new book as well as all things samurai.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Dirty Carnival

Jo In-seong is charismatic and tough as nails as a low-ranking enforcer in this absorbing, fast-paced gangster flick. Nothing particularly new story-wise, it's more a collection of classic genre tropes seen through the lens of contemporary Korean culture. So your gangland-style killings are followed up by singing at the karaoke club and plenty of soju. There's a wonderfully visceral quality to the violence, something we've seen in many Korean films -- I dunno, Korean filmmakers just know how to do brutal like no one else. Interestingly, there's nary a gun in A Dirty Carnival, the mobsters preferring baseball bats, knives and the odd club with nails in it, making the proceedings that much more up close and personal. Recommended.

Monday, July 14, 2008


One thing I always appreciated about J-horror (and to a lesser extent K-horror) was the genre's ability to make plausible, if not downright terrifying, horror films about mundane things. I'm thinking of a cursed VHS tape (The Ring), haunted computers (Pulse), even a spooky cell phone (Phone).

However, when it comes to being pursued by a killer newspaper, that's when Fonzie goes flying over the proverbial shark tank. Thank god the makers of Premonition didn't adopt the title of the source novel, Newspaper of Terror. Yet that fairly sums up the ludicrous nature of the horror of this film. I won't bore you with the details -- it's from the same producers who brought us The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water and has a similar vibe and nice production values. But seeing the male lead shriek in terror as a ratty piece of newsprint comes billowing at him ... I'm sorry, but I'm not coming along on this one.

For completists only.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Two Films Reviewed

I reviewed two recent films, both concerning China's Three Gorges Dam project, for the Asian Reporter. Since their archive of film reviews is listed by film, there are actually two different pages for the same piece. (The text is the same but the production stills are different.)

Up the Yangtze

Still Life

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Noriko's Dinner Table

Those of you who've read Asia Shock know how much I dig Shion Sono's unforgetable cult film Suicide Club. The mysterious rolls of human skin, the weird little kids, the showers of blood, wicked glam rocker Rolly camping it up to beat the band! So you can imagine how intrigued I was by the release of Sono's sort-of prequel/sequel, Noriko's Dinner Table.

Oh my, it's bad. And not in a good way. 2 1/2 hours of meandering, ponderous, uninspired, dreary, indecisive, boring non-action. It's as if Sono set out to make the polar opposite of Suicide Club, filmwise; all the kinetic outrageousness of the prior film has been swapped out for endless, repetitive internal narrative, primarily in the minds of a couple of provincial high school girls. While teenage girls are not without their own unique appeal, being trapped in the mind of one is not where I want to be.

Noriko runs away to the big city, where she meets the mysterious Kumiko (sexy mononomial actress Tsugumi). Kumiko was behind the 54-girl mass suicide at Shinjuku station (we learn this way late in the film, far beyond the point of caring). She also has her own surrogate family business; she and her colleagues rent themselves out as make-believe family members to old people, creepy lonely guys, whoever. Noriko and her younger sister Yuka get recruited into the business and the payoff comes (again, way late) when their estranged father hires them for an uncomfortable, staged "reunion." Along the way there is the occasional bloodletting, but not enough to save the film from itself.

Some directors can do slow burn, some can't. I applaud Sono for the attempt -- always good for an artist to challenge himself. But there's something to be said for knowing your strengths and playing to them. In this regard, Sono has made a serious misstep. Here's hoping he returns to his own singular gift for movie madness.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

At the Feet of The Nakadai

June 24th, 2008, 8:30 pm: I find myself at the Film Forum in New York City, sitting in the front row, a few feet away from the greatest living actor of post-war Japan, Tatsuya Nakadai. It's an evening of conversation interspersed with film clips and much applause. I can't believe my good fortune -- to be in such close proximity to my all-time favorite Japanese actor (whose praises I've sung as often as possible in my writing). It's all very surreal.

Before Nakadai's arrival, I chatted with folks in the audience and discovered that several of them had just obtained, or had already read, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves. I even signed a few of copies. Ironic that, as I'd hoped to have the great man sign my own copy of the book! Unfortunately it was a strictly get on/get off affair so I had no opportunity to interact with him (which is fine; I'm not a big celebrity hound).

So yeah, it was something else. A great night. I did get to meet Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa's old script girl, who'd been doing the town with Nakadai promoting her memoir, Waiting for the Weather. If I'd attended any of those other events, like the one at the Kinokuniya bookstore or the Japan Society, I'd have had ample chance to get up close and personal with Nakadai (as did my Brooklyn buddies Ric and Mel). But my wife and I were only in NYC for a couple of days, so c'est la vie.

In any case, as I sat looking up at The Nakadai relating anecdotes about the making of such magnificent films as The Human Condition, Sword of Doom and Sanjuro (among others), I realized that, at that moment, I was at the precise point in the universe I wanted to be. You don't get that too often in life. A great night indeed.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Battle of Okinawa

I was somewhat disappointed by this long-awaited Kihachi Okamoto film (released recently by AnimEigo) -- just wasn't as good as it shoulda been. Very long (2 1/2 hours), consisting largely of one breathless procedural scene after another (generals looking at maps, issuing orders, soldiers deploying, redeploying, etc.). Not much room for character development or real human drama (see Okamoto's far superior Japan's Longest Day for that.)

However it gets horrendously gory and shocking at the end, depicting the horrors of war in no small measure. "Sir, that woman we just passed ... she's holding a baby's leg ... " Lots of limbs everywhere (people committing suicide with grenades will do that). In fact, suicide becomes an increasingly significant factor, from the COs doing seppuku in a cave to a bunch of schoolgirls taking poison on a scenic beach.

Not much sign of Okamoto here, feel-wise. A shame; his dark humor and striking dramatic approach could have made this film far more compelling. Perhaps the script by Kaneto Shindo was just too busy -- the time required to develop a personal story (say for the wonderfully talented yet under-utilized Tatsuya Nakadai) was instead filled up by significant yet ultimately dramatically unfulfilling historical detail.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Recent rentals

Innocents with Dirty Hands
A fun if somewhat predictable French crime romp directed by Claude Chabrol. Kinda like Double Indemnity meets Sleuth in St. Tropez. Bonus: Romy Schneider looking beautiful and occasionally naked.

It's Alive
Another 70's horror film I never saw back then -- I was such a chickenshit kid. Not bad. Mutant monster baby (right) courtesy of a young Rick Baker (pre-An American Werewolf in London), but they didn't show it much. Val Lewton would be pleased.

No Country for Old Men
Drug-money-pursued-by-psycho-hitman thing, surprisingly absorbing ... for awhile. Then it just sort of peters out in the third act. There Will Be Blood was better. Javier Bardem was good, though, as the psycho with a frightening 70s hairdo.

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee's overlong tale of sex and intrigue in Japanese-occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong. Never thought I'd tire of watching people fuck. Perhaps it was just those particular people. The girl wasn't that hot and Tony Leung was too in character as a sadistic secret police official to be anything more than repulsive. And the ending sucked -- after two and a half hours, I was a little pissed.

The Darjeeling Limited
Natalie Portman naked. That's the best you can say for this Wes Anderson yawner. I lost interest around the time the dissolute, rich Americans save the poor little Indian kid -- decided the contents of my glass were more compelling ...

Goya's Ghosts
Natalie Portman naked and tortured (too bad V for Vendetta didn't opt for this combo). Then they age her 20 years and she goes for Oscar gold as a hideous crone (sadly her performance was overlooked). Stellan Skarsgard plays Goya (duh huh?). Political allegory more interesting than story (also features Javier Bardem, this time as a horny inquisitor).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Samurai Vengeance

In a surprising turn, author Patrick Galloway was viciously assaulted by a member of the long-dead Japanese aristocracy whose reputation he has so carelessly slandered in recent years. Mr. Galloway sustained injuries to his left arm and testicle, the latter of which he assured the public he'd gladly give up for the opportunity to meet his idol, Tatsuya Nakadai (a summit which is rumored amongst the intelligentsia to be scheduled for June 24th at the Film Forum in NYC).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Still Life

Went to a press screening for a Chinese film called Still Life today. Stark, existential, with the occasional surreal flourish and a distinct rural/industrial, 21st century, Yangtze River, Three Gorges Dam-doomed village vibe. Can't say more -- they made me swear I'd only write a capsule this early in the film festival (SFIFF that is).

Monday, March 17, 2008


So now this blog is hooked up to VerveEarth, a geography-based blog directory. It allows you to zoom in on a map of the world to find blogs. I love maps, always have. I could stare at 'em for hours, traveling to their various locations in my imagination. So this approach appealed to me. Check it out, Sid.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Movies movies movies

Having recently completed my third book on Asian film, I've been taking a break to enjoy films of The West. Here are some of the flicks I've been checking out:

For Brit flick fun, you can't beat Circus of Horrors and Horrors of the Black Museum, both Amalgamated pictures from the early 60s. Quite lurid and very entertaining. Circus of Horrors features the unusual German actor Anton Diffring (left) who gives a fantastically unhinged performance as a mad plastic surgeon turned circus showman. (Too bad he spent most of his career playing evil Nazis.) Horrors of the Black Museum features the only known scene of death by binoculars -- long spikes shoot out of the eyepieces into the skull of an unfortunate young woman.

You're bound to like Hangover Square, a Warner Bros. picture from the 40s featuring the final performance of Laird Cregar, a very compelling actor who tried a bit too hard to lose weight and dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 28. It's about a composer who has a mental disorder that makes him go all homicidal when he hears a loud, discordant sound. I know, sounds outlandish, but actually works. Great score and musical compositions by the immortal Bernard Hermann.

The Trip and Psych-Out are AIP pictures from 1967 and '68 respectively. Not all that good, but invaluable as cultural time capsules. You get to see Jack Nicholson and Dean Stockwell dressed up like hippies and Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg flipping out on acid.

Revolver (or La Poursuite Implacable if you're French) is an Italian crime film from the 70s starring Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi (which means "nice balls" in Italian). Directed by lefto filmmaker Sergio Sollima, more famous for his spaghetti westerns Run, Man, Run and The Big Gundown (both starring Cuban actor Tomas Milian), it delivers a potent political message at the end.

Midnight Mary (right) and Three On a Match are wonderfully wicked pre-code films from the early 30s featuring everything from underage sex to heroin addiction!

I could go on and on. The only stinkers I've seen recently were 60s Brit flicks Time Without Pity and School for Scoundrels (the former not tense enough, the latter lacking in laughs).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Secret Sunshine

I wrote a review of the new Korean film Secret Sunshine. The editor did a bit of a hatchet job on it -- apparently I wasn't supposed to mention that the whole story hinges on the kidnapping and murder of a child. I didn't consider it a spoiler; the murder happens early on and the rest of the film is a reaction to it. If you decide to read the review, bear in mind you're getting the expurgated, and thus somewhat awkward, version.

Friday, February 15, 2008

RIP Kon Ichikawa

There he goes, last of the breed. Kon Ichikawa was a member of the Yonki no Kai, the Club of the Four Knights along with Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi. They all wrote Dora Heita together (that's Kon directing Koji Yakusho on the set of Dora Heita -- I write all about this film in my upcoming book, the manuscript of which I've happily just sent to the publisher; the new title is Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion).

Ichikawa had a sure hand and a wry sense of humor. Most of the stuff I've seen is from the 50's like The Burmese Harp (1956), Conflagration (1958), Odd Obsession (1959), Fires on the Plain (1959), all must-sees. But Dora Heita is in a class by itself, a 21st century film made from a 30-year-old script by an old duffer who straddled film eras effortlessly and, with Yakusho's help, delivered the goods in a precursor to the neo-samurai films of Yoji Yamada like Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004).

Here's an obit.

On an unrelated note, like a cayenne cashew, Bai Ling is one hot nut.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Holy shit, last day of the month!

I've been a negligent poster, dear reader. I'd like to say January zipped right by, but it didn't. I've spent the month revising and editing my new book, a pursuit that has unfortunately completely consumed any available blogging time (and I still ain't done). But why am I making excuses? This is my blog, right? There's no Blog Boss I gotta answer to, I can do anything I want so screw it. As long as I make my self-imposed one-post-per-month quota, I'm golden. (Phew, just made it.)

Oh, I guess I should mention a shocking Asian film while I'm here. How about this: Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Human Tarantula. Here's a review by Paghat the Ratgirl. Great flick, definitely among the more scandalous of the series.

I'll be back ...