Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Three-Head Monster (1988)

There’s something about things with two heads that fascinates us.  When we see genuine Siamese twins, our heads fill with thoughts about how they live their lives.  How do they get around if one side wants to go a different way than the other?  What is that total lack of privacy like, to be forever physically linked with another person?  What do their arguments go like?  Sure, we’re also entranced by the biology of it, the uniqueness (call it freakishness, if you like).  But more than that is the fantasy of a life so alien to our own.  In cinema, things with two heads are almost universally maleficent.  There’s The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, The Thing with Two Heads, Dioskilos/Orthrus from Clash of the Titans (the good version), The Manster, that purple, beardy Muppet from Sesame Street, and so on (yes, that last one is actually fairly good-natured).  They are typically portrayed as two sides of the same coin, at conflict with one another, each struggling to be the dominant personality and maintain control.  They are, in effect, the dual nature of man.  Now, bring one additional head into the equation, and the dynamic changes.  King Ghidorah is likely the first creature most people think of when they think of three-headed monsters.  All of his noggins work in concert toward a common goal, because Ghidorah, the body, is the one who needs to be sated.  By contrast, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the three-headed knight is indecisive and bitchy, immobile and ineffectual.  It’s no longer about grappling with the twin sides of a man’s soul but about the ability or inability to act at all.  It’s an answer to the old saw about “too many cooks spoiling the broth.”  So, the Three-Head Demon King in Wang Chu-Chin’s Three-Head Monster (aka San Tou Mo Wang aka Ginseng King) knows exactly what he wants, and his heads act in concert toward that goal.  With this in mind, when somebody says that two heads are better than one, feel free to disagree.  But three heads?  Hoo, boy!

Hsiaoming is off collecting herbs for his ailing mother when he is bitten by a cobra but is saved by the affable (if creepy-looking) 1000 Year Ginseng King.  Turns out, the Ginseng King is also in need of some saving when Princess Hsiaoli (Cynthia Khan) captures him for the titular beastie to devour and become immortal.  Hsiaoming quests it out, both for his new, Man-Thing-ian pal as well as for the sake of his mother.

Three-Head Monster is a fantasy for children, but, like many filmic fantasies for the pre-adolescent/adolescent set produced in the Seventies and Eighties (and especially when hailing from places like Taiwan), there is enough gruesomeness to make the Brothers Grimm quite happy indeed.  For example, a Nazi zombie (possibly a Jiangshi) terrorizes the young boy and his mother, destroying their hut in the process.  He pauses at multiple times to Sieg Heil, and he is stopped in his tracks by the swastika on a young monk’s satchel (never mind that it’s facing the wrong way).  Every supernatural character, with the exception of Hsiaoli and Grampa Earthgod, is hideous, their skin mottled and peeling off.  There are more bloody squibs and explosive body impacts than one might expect in such a movie.  But this is also part of the appeal to kids (and, let’s be clear, to many adults).  It has the simultaneous sense of wonder and imagination that captivates a young person’s mind and the violence which not only ups the ante but also satisfies as something which is partially taboo to stare at and partially exactly how the scenario might play out in a kid’s head (death, not imprisonment or banishment, is the ultimate fate of bad guys).  

Like fairy tales and parables, the film also contains a valuable lesson, and it is that greed is bad, and self-sacrifice is good.  The Demon King is concerned only for himself and the prospect of his own immortality.  He imprisoned his own wife (who looks like a grade school play’s version of the Wicked Witch of the West) because she stood in his way.  The Ginseng King is kindly and helpful to people in need.  He heals Hsiaoming’s snake bite.  He gives the lad a “whisker” to heal his mother (this backfires in a big way when the Nazi zombie drinks the broth with the root in it; the Nazi zombie also being a symbol of greediness in both his worldly and otherworldly natures).  He helps Hsiaoli escape from the Demon King’s minions, unaware that he’s actually falling into a trap.  He will even sacrifice himself to save them all, if that’s what it takes.  Grampa Earthgod starts off greedy, thinking only of his own safety, reluctant to admit what he is or to help Hsiaoming on his journey until he’s shown that this is his purpose.  Hsiaoli also skirts this line, at first seeking the Ginseng King with all her resources.  Later, she sides with Hsiaoming and the forces of good, because her genuine motivation lies in helping her mother, not in the betterment of her father.  Therefore, the more we can do for others while ignoring our own needs, the better we are as people.

Like an after school special, Three-Head Monster is simplistic and obvious, almost to the point of pandering.  It is also repetitive, not in the sense of the overcoming of similar obstacles and circumstances but in the facility with which the protagonists’ problems are dispatched.  “We need to convince Magic Eyes and Magic Ears to help us.”  “Okay, let’s ask them, but they probably won’t do it.”  “Hey, guys, would you help us out?”  “Sure.”  When the characters need to find something or escape from somewhere, the solution is always right at hand and/or achieved with a minimum of fuss.  It takes any tension out of the story.  Yes, we know from the outset that the heroes will prevail, but without any real resistance or effort, it deprives their victories of resonance.  The action scenes are edited with jump cuts and shot with enough shakycam to make modern action filmmakers drool.  I can at least rationalize in my own mind the jump cuts as playing to the supernatural nature of the characters and as some vain attempt to display the speed at which these characters move.  The rest of it is simply messy filmmaking.  The film also ends abruptly, engendering shrugs of disinterest rather than reinforcing the sense of wonder the filmmakers likely set out to capture.  Ultimately, the audience is left with the question, “Why?” and the offhanded reply, “Eh, why not?”

MVT:  The ambition of the filmmakers.  

Make or Break:  The Nazi zombie scene comes out of the blue and threatens to derail the whole affair with its conspicuousness.

Score:  6.25/10          

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Karate Wars (1978)

Tatsuya (Hisao Maki) used to be the top Karate-ist in Japan, but a stint in prison for murder sent him into exile.  When former sensei Tetsugen is offered the opportunity to prove the worth of Japanese Karate in Hong Kong and Thailand, his former student takes up the mission.

Hideo Nanbu’s Karate Wars (aka Karate Daisenso aka Karate Great War) features Maki as the most stoic martial artist in the history of cinema.  Nothing surprises the man, and he is forthright in his undertaking.  One has to believe that this approach comes, at least in part, from Maki the person.  Before his death in 2012, Maki was known for three things, his manga work (he was the creator of WARU and co-writer of the Futari no Joe anime, amongst other titles), his devotion to Karate (he opened his own dojo), and the rumors that he was a yakuza.  Two of these things can be definitively proven, but the third seems to influence this film most of all.  Tatsuya betrays no emotion.  He is there not just to beat the champions in the other countries but to kill them.  He swaggers with every step he takes, and the vast majority of his reactions to danger is an icy sneer.  This plays into the film’s concept of honor (something which, some would say, yakuza are only tangentially concerned with, but which is intrinsic to Japanese culture).  Tatsuya went into hiding because he had lost face in the eyes of the Karate world.  He was no longer worthy of being public about his artform.  It doesn’t matter that the murder he committed was not only accidental (and against a luchador, no less) but also was done out of love for his sensei’s daughter Reiko (Yoko Natsuki) and his urge to protect her (that Tatsuya wants to kill his adversaries in foreign lands is antithetical to the whole reason he left the martial arts world in the first place, but never mind).  Tetsugen falls for the line of the Karate Association, as headed by bent politician Soma (Nobuo Kaneko), that they want to claim honor for Karate outside of Japan, but he’s not so gormless as to not be suspicious.  

In Hong Kong and Thailand, the opponents that Tetsuya faces do so out of honor, though they are not necessarily honorable people.  Chinese Kung Fu master White Dragon (Yao Lin Chen) knows that Tatsuya must be defeated in order to save face and his own Kung Fu school.  Yet, he doesn’t want to confront the Karate man himself.  He sends lackies like his wife Chin (who does a great disco/Kung Fu floor show in a Japanese club) and an assortment of Kung Fu goons to surprise attack Tatsuya at every turn.  He meets Tatsuya in bars and chats with him as if he were sympathetic.  It’s only when White Dragon’s legacy is directly threatened that he finally challenges Tatsuya to mortal combat.  In Thailand, Tatsuya is jumped again at several points, but their current Thai Boxing champion doesn’t command people to do so.  They attack because Tatsuya is a direct threat to the honor of Thai Boxing.  The former Thai champ, King Cobra (Darm Dasakorn), has fallen on hard times.  Like Tatsuya, he has recently been released from prison for an accidental murder.  Unlike Tatsuya, King Cobra has become a layabout and a drunk.  He sponges off his girlfriend and refuses to get a job.  Only when he sees that a Karate master defeated the Thai Boxing champ does King Cobra decide to contest Tatsuya and regain honor for his country.  It’s this same sense of honor and the ineffable drive that it sparks inside the martial arts masters that proves their undoing.  They cannot and will not back down.  Ever.  The pleas of their loved ones mean nothing in the face of possible dishonor.  Honor requires not only victory but also the death of an opponent.  On the one hand, the sense of honor in Karate Wars is virtuous, but, on the other hand, it’s also ultimately destructive.

Likewise, the film is nationalistic.  The plot is sparked by the Japanese characters’ sense of superiority as represented by Karate.  They want to show the world that Karate is the best and expand its influence outside of Japan.  Soma even states that Karate’s triumphs will appeal to the Japanese people’s sense of nationalism.  When Tatsuya leaves Japan, he becomes a stranger in a strange land, so to speak, though he behaves exactly the same as he did in his home country (i.e. like he owns the place).  All of the non-Japanese characters are prejudiced against the Japanese in general (the use of the pejorative “Jap” is ubiquitous in their dialogue) and Tatsuya in particular.  Though he is befriended by a Thai man who becomes his guide and translator, this man also becomes an outcast due to their relationship.  When he lived in Japan, he was similarly ostracized for his ethnicity, something about which Tatsuya does not give one shit, and he would likely eschew this guy if he didn’t need him.  Tatsuya is even kicked out of his hotel for no reason other than his presence in Thailand and what that means as a menace to the Thai identity.  What’s interesting in the film is that Tatsuya is similarly nationalistic, and this, in combination with his slavish devotion to honor, is his fatal flaw.  The two characters who care the least about any nationalistic ideals are Tetsugen and his daughter Reiko.  Instead, they are motivated by love; Tetsugen’s love of Karate and Reiko’s (inexplicable) love of Tatsuya.  Because their love is unselfish it surpasses the self-absorbed nationalism that motivates all of the other characters.

Nanbu’s film is simple in its story and repetitive in its structure.  The characters outside of the three main fighters are nigh-inconsequential except for illustrating the self-destructiveness of these men.  The plan of Soma’s cabal never develops beyond being a motive to get Tatsuya back into Karate-ing.  Where Karate Wars excels is in the subtext of its story and in the style Nanbu brings to the table.  At various moments, the picture fades to black and white or becomes solarized.  The sound drops out except for the natural noise of the environment.  Nanbu isolates the minds of the fighters in these ways, giving the audience an idea of the focus and viewpoint of these martial devotees.  The director also makes extensive use of slow motion, long takes, and wide shots in the fight scenes.  The fight choreography appears to be, by and large, genuine, not stylized to a superhuman degree but idealized for what a human is capable of through the martial arts.  So, while the story is mechanical, the film satisfies as a showcase for Karate and a study of the pros and cons of honor.

MVT:  Maki, Dasakorn, and Chen all impress with their skills.

Make or Break:  The finale is a great summation of the film’s thematic elements and an enjoyable rumble.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Body Puzzle (1992)

Tracy Grant (Joanna Pacula) mourns the recent death of her husband while maintaining her career as a book editor.  Meanwhile, a deranged man (Francois Montagut) cuts up a series of victims, removes certain body parts, and sends them to her.  Intrepid detective Mike (Tomas Arana) is on the case!

Lamberto Bava’s Body Puzzle (aka Misteria) is a late-cycle giallo which plays more like a Cinemax erotic thriller (minus the eroticism) than a traditional giallo.  Bava learned much from his father Mario, and, if nothing else, the film is technically well-done.  There are a variety of murders, but only one of them is all that stylish or inventive.  Montagut spends the movie running around, knifing people practically in full view of any number of witnesses, and staring blankly at the world around him.  

As the story begins, the killer sits at a broken piano, fingering the dead keys to a recording we assume he made well in the past.  Like Don Music the Muppet, he smashes his hands and head into the keys which no longer sing for him like they used to.  This is the first indicator of the film’s dealing with the idea of the Self and the loss of same.  As the story unravels, we find out that Tracy also had a brother named Rad (who also recently passed away), and dead husband Abe and Rad may have known a certain unseemly character named Tim.  The removal of the victims’ body parts is a way for the killer to reconstruct Abe, for himself and for Tracy.  This becomes clear when it’s discovered that Abe’s coffin and remains were mysteriously disinterred and absconded with.  The killer’s physical identity is plain from the outset.  He doesn’t wear a black trenchcoat and black gloves.  If anything, he disguises his face with a stocking, but not from the audience.  He is also without personality, except in his murderous purpose.  The central question of the film is never “Who?” but “Why?”  Clearly, the killer is hellbent on becoming someone else to replace what he’s lost, but as a cinematic presence, he’s simply some stabby guy.

The film also concerns itself with the idea of the Observer and the Observed.  Bava makes stealthy and clever use of framing and reflections throughout the film in this regard.  As the killer trails a potential victim through a mall, we see her stare into a number of shop windows, her image reflected back at both she and us.  At the same time, the camera frames any number of mirrors and windows to show us the killer.  She never catches sight of him, but we do, and the way in which he is shown in these reflections (skewed, upside down, etcetera) emphasizes his Otherness.  Similarly, Bava uses POV shots to provide a voyeuristic sense to the film.  The killer watches Tracy at home through her bedroom window and her glass front door.  Of course, the reverse angles of these shots portray his perspective.  And yet, the POV is not always the killer’s.  Many of the tracking and Steadicam shots are from his viewpoint, moving along behind bannisters or clinging to the walls.  These we expect.  The other type of POV shots are his victims’.  One example peers up at the killer from underwater at a pool.  Another watches from inside a toilet as he lops a person’s hand off and it drops into the water (okay, that’s not an actual person’s POV, but it achieves the same effect).  These are shot from low angles, augmenting the killer as a figure in control and meant to be feared.  The undulating water distorts his image, making a mundane-looking guy into an apparition.  The director also wisely chooses to shoot many of the reactions to these POV shots at odd angles, almost never straight on.  The Observed “feels” the eyes of the Observer upon them, and the compositions reflect their unease.

There is also a hint of ideas about class in Body Puzzle, and while these are not central to the film, they do stand out the more one thinks about them.  Tracy comes from a moneyed family.  Mike is just a working class cop, and, naturally, he finds himself attracted to her (her physical desirability is matched by the wealth she possesses and doesn’t seem to pay much mind to).  Tracy can be seen as either a free spirit who does what she wants in spite of her parents’ wishes or because of them.  In other words, she “slums it” just to give them the finger, whether they know it or not.  As she tells Mike, Abe was a sort of gadabout.  He could do most things he set his hand to with some degree of facility, but he was not solid in the career department.  Further, Tracy’s father disapproved of Abe, believing that he was only there for the money.  Abe was a cocaine user, but, as his widow is quick to point out, not a junkie, though he always knew where to score (and note, she never states that she partakes herself).  Abe’s past is delved into, revealing seedier, lower class origins.  He used to live in a tiny portion of the flamboyantly gay Guy’s (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) carriage house.  After he married, he would bring his flings, male and female, there.  The film posits Abe as both a product of the lower class and an enthusiastic participant in it.  The stalking of the victims, the grimy, sweaty portrayal of the killer, and the way he looks in at Tracy’s life signify that he is also of the lower class.  He envies the Haves of the world, and this frustrates him to murder.  In that sense, his activities are as much a method of revenge on the upper class as it is a desire to enter or re-enter it.  The gathering of body parts is an offering as much as it’s an effigy, and it doesn’t quite matter to him that he is simultaneously destroying that which he seems to desire most.  

For as slick as Body Puzzle is, it is equally frustrating and tedious.  The plot points revolve around the killer stabbing someone and Tracy receiving a body part.  Mike takes some action which never moves him any closer to catching the murderer.  The dialogue between the characters is lifeless and cliché, more like small talk than anything progressing a narrative.  There is one major twist toward the end which is actually quite guileful in its revealing of how the audience has been duped.  Nonetheless, it also sends the audience’s mind reeling back through the rest of the film to consider just how sloppy and dimwitted the characters have all behaved up until this point.  Granted, many gialli don’t have the most coherent of solutions, but this one seems more brickheaded than the majority.  By the obvious, facile climax, Mike barely acknowledges Tracy’s presence (maybe he got all he wanted from her?), gets set to move on to the next case, and waltzes off into the night to get some much-needed sleep.  Unfortunately, the audience is already well ahead of him.

MVT:  Bava’s technical proficiency and what thoughtfulness he put into the film.

Make or Break:  The classroom scene.  It’s a delightful standout in a film that mostly sits down.

Score:  5/10