So what took so friggin’ long to get a new column out, Dave? Hmmmm?
Well, I hit the San Diego Comic Con for random frolicking, debauchery and a bit of actual coverage of the con, and since then I’ve been covering for the vacationing honcho, working my way through the incredibly atmospheric levels and decade-stale gameplay of Doom 3, and planning my ultimate takeover of the local Dairy Queen franchise due to a chronic Blizzard addiction.
I did still find time to spin a few discs, though. And thus, I share.
Got an interesting film suggestion? Know of something good in the works? Just want to tell me I’m rubbish? Drop me a line at email@example.com, and I’ll respond to any letters in future columns.
I love the whole "guys on a mission" subgenre, whether it’s swordsmen (Seven Samurai), Old West specialists (The Professionals) or common crooks (Reservoir Dogs). Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen are two of my favorite war movies, while Johnnie To’s recent Hong Kong thriller The Mission is a near-perfect contemporary look at, well, guys on a mission.
Filmmaker Kang Woo-Suk left an impression with his riveting cop drama Public Enemy, about a corrupt inspector who becomes obsessed with catching an elusive murderer. For his follow-up Silmido, he turns his haggard Public Enemy policeman Sol Kyung-gu into one of those guys on a mission. The story, beginning in 1968, follows a group of criminals and outcasts who have been granted conditional reprieves. Gathered together by the South Korean military, this dysfunctional band of thirty social misfits (the Dirty Thirty?) are trained at a secret base for one purpose: to infiltrate the palace of the North Korean president and collect his head.
These men of Special Unit 684 suffer through endless months of grueling physical and psychological training at the hands of the camp commander (Ahn Sung-kee of Musa the Warrior and Nowhere to Hide) and his stern first officer (Heo Jun-ho of Volcano High). They’re prodded with hot pokers, forced to run until collapsing from exhaustion, shot at with live ammo, and generally punished senseless. But over the course of their excruciating preparation, these murderers, gangsters, rapists and convicts actually develop a sense of camaraderie, as well as an intense yearning to finally receive the official authorization to carry out their mission.
As it’s based on a true incident, there is a certain amount of cultural significance that will be lost on non-Korean viewers (it was a box office smash in its home country), but I found myself enjoying the film on its own merits. Though the characters are largely stereotypes, the performances are all top-notch, with Jeong Jae-yeong (Guns & Talks, No Blood No Tears) standing out as a dissident prisoner who ends up becoming a team leader. Over the course of the film, the military men ultimately become more interesting than their charges, particularly when faced with the possibility that their government may order the literal termination of the project and the men they’ve come to actually respect. The whole thing culminates in a somewhat unsatisfying fashion, but it’s the tight focus on the men’s burgeoning brotherhood that makes Silmido work. Especially if you like "guys on a mission" movies.
Special thanks to AFT Regular ‘khitcher’ for providing this one!
A CASE (OR TWO) OF THE CREEPS
The recent Chinese/Thai pants-soiler The Eye, about a blind woman who receives an eye transplant and gets the unwelcome ability to see the horrific (and occasionally pissed off) spirits of the dead, was a particularly worthwhile supernatural spooker. And it was successful enough that the filmmakers, the Pang Brothers, went back to the well of souls for another helping of creepy visions.
Aside from the title and the occasional uninvited phantoms, The Eye 2 shares little in common with the first film. This time, pouty-lipped Hong Kong superstar Qi Shu (of So Close, one of my favorite action flicks of the last decade, and The Transporter, one of the gayest) is Joey, the new victim of unwanted optical apparitions. Despondent over a failed relationship with a rather bland (and married) beau, Joey returns to her hotel after a shopping spree and leaves a wakeup call, retires to her room, and attempts suicide.
When she’s resuscitated, she learns two things: she’s pregnant, and she now sees the lingering spirits of the deceased (makes you wonder just what pills she overdosed on). Alas, even though she’s been given a new lease on life, not only does the father of the child want nothing to do with her, but these ominous ethereal ghouls appearing from nowhere apparently want to harm her unborn. She learns from a local mystic (Philip Kwok, aka "Mad Dog" of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, now a bit more mellow with age judging by his not killing anyone) that these ghosts may be hanging around waiting to be reincarnated by breeders, but that information isn’t comforting enough to prevent her from being terrified every time they emerge in some startling manner.
And that’s really where the Pang Brothers excel: seemingly telegraphing a potential scare only to instead unleash it when you’re least suspecting (although they do revisit one of their favorite ghost habitats, the elevator). Surprisingly, Qi Shu gives a phenomenal performance as the haunted mom-to-be, even though her character never seems able to adapt to seeing specters after several months (yeah, I know pregnant women are extra emotional). But while the cinematography is slick and the chills are plentiful, the film spends too much time focusing on expectant moms and ultimately lacks the atmosphere and impact of the original, relying instead on cheap jump-scares.
A mildly more effective fright-filled sequel (mostly in name only, once again) is Ju-on 2. Of course, I made the imprudent decision to watch this around 12:30am one night, and I was still quite alert by the time the sun rose. And I’m pretty sure I managed to shower without closing my eyes. So, I’m a sissy.
Wisely, series creator Takashi Shimizu (who is helming the Americanized pseudo-remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar) sticks with what works: there’s a haunted house whose curse affects anyone who enters as well as those they associate with, spreading like a spirit virus. These ghosts manifest in the form of a silent pale boy who randomly appears in unexpected places (this kid knows about shock value), and his straggly-haired mother who jerkily skitters forth from shadow accompanied by the most unsettling creaky moan ever to emanate from a vindictive apparition.
The film is told in nonlinear segments that focus on the various victims of this "grudge". This time around, a female reporter is doing a piece on the haunted home, and she’s drafted a disenchanted horror movie actress to pretend she’s sensing the spirits in the house. Needless to say the charade proves unnecessary, as everyone involved (including the TV crew, the makeup girl and the people on the actress’ new film) are in turn visited by the deadly ghosts, who are not confined to the walls of their home.
With the clever way the shots are lensed, you never know what scene might deliver a chill, so you find yourself on edge throughout. The "movie within a movie" has been done countless times before, but doesn’t seem trite here because it’s relatively nonessential. The movie does occasionally veer into silly territory (giving new meaning to the term "fright wig") and there’s some odd time displacement stuff that I’m not sure makes any sense, but Shimizu’s balanced fear formula and fantastic use of sound and brief spooky glimpses make Ju-on 2 another fine example of the Asian "less is more" method of generating terror. But if you’re easily scared, make sure to watch it around noon…
OF GODS AND GOO
The Japanese haven’t completely cornered the market on the giant monster genre (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.), and although there’s little doubt they’re still the best at it, other countries are still trying. Thailand, for example.
The premise of Garuda will seem fairly standard to anyone who’s seen a monster movie in the past century. Subway workers have discovered something strange deep beneath the streets of Bangkok, and beautiful female archaeologist Leena and her annoying comic-relief sidekick are called in to check it out. Joined by a military unit who specialize in destroying legendary monsters (as evidenced by a flashback showing their defeat of a snake-god that apparently escaped from an episode of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys), they discover a mythical man-bird-dragon that awakens from hibernation. Naturally, it escapes from the underground and goes on a destructive rampage on the city streets, and Leena holds the key to its end.
The movie was a massive success in Thailand, and there’s a fair amount of cultural specifics that probably won’t translate well (Thai people don’t seem to like Americans or, for that matter, anyone who isn’t 100% Thai). Garuda’s somewhat dorky appearance notwithstanding (hey, monsters with beaks just aren’t that menacing), the CGI creature itself looks reasonably realistic, especially considering the FX budget was probably less than the cost of digitally erasing Angelina Jolie’s tattoos for two Tomb Raider movies. Despite some occasionally amateurish direction (e.g., whirling the camera around actors to make dialogue scenes "exciting", characters’ Slow Turn of Impending Death, gratuitous bullet-time, etc.), and the requisite shaky acting, plot holes and clichés for this kind of movie, Garuda still manages to be moderately enjoyable monster cheese.
For a better take on the resurrected god-monster, let’s wind back the clock to the 80s, when Larry Cohen’s Q – The Winged Serpent terrorized the skies of New York City.
A giant flying lizard has been plucking tasty human treats from sundecks and rooftops around the city, raining blood and severed heads onto the streets below. Cop David Carradine (along with bad muthashutchomouth Richard Roundtree) is investigating a series of bizarre murders, and he slowly becomes convinced that the killings are ritual sacrifices resulting in the materialization of a hungry Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl. Meanwhile, small-time criminal Michael Moriarty inadvertently discovers the beast’s nest while fleeing from some thugs, but in true lowlife fashion he decides to blackmail the city for the information.
Even with a limited budget (the NYPD seems staffed by random passerby, mullets and pornstar facial hair accepted), Q is an entertaining blend of murder mystery, horror, 50s-flavored sci-fi and classic monster movie homage (such as the reverse-King Kong climax). It even raises some interesting questions about the nature of gods (and how to kill them), and throws in plenty of carnage and a nifty stop-motion creature, but it’s Moriarty’s wonderfully sleazy deadbeat that makes the movie so much fun to watch.
Moriarty would reunite with inventive B-movie master Cohen (before they teamed again on It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive) to play another quirky miscreant in the even cheesier "deadly dairy" flick The Stuff, a certifiable artifact of the 80s.
When some miners unearth a mysterious and incredibly delicious liquid, they decide to market it to the masses and the addictive sweet substance quickly becomes a nationwide phenomenon. Moriarty plays Mo Rutherford, a peculiar FBI-agent-turned-industrial-spy who gets hired by the competitor to learn the secret of The Stuff. He gets more than he bargained for.
The secret is, of course, that this sentient substance actually takes over the brains of whoever eats it, eventually leaving the body a mere husk of skin filled with goop. Chased by these dessert-obsessed zombies, Rutherford teams up with a kid who suspects the true nature of the lethal delicacy, a female marketing executive who’s been shilling the toxic muck ("Can’t get enough… of The Stuff!" goes the irksome jingle), dethroned snack-food king Chocolate Chip Charlie (SNL alum Garrett Morris), and a whacko militant leader (Paul Sorvino) to make the population aware and put an end to the threat.
Afflicted with similar budget constraints (Sorvino’s army of machinegun-toting followers travel by taxi), The Stuff succeeds largely thanks to another fascinating performance by career mumbler Moriarty — people who know him only from his time on TV’s Law & Order probably wouldn’t recognize him in his 80s prime. A subversive variant on The Blob, Cohen’s flick makes a loopy premise (a sly metaphor for greed, consumerism and/or narcotics, I assume) go a long way. Unless you’re lactose-intolerant, it’s great Stuff.
KILLING WITH STYLE
You’ll often hear about directors exiting or being jettisoned from film projects over the alleged "creative differences", but back in the 60s, Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki was fired after he turned in his hitman opus Branded to Kill. The studio, it seems, was unable to recognize a masterpiece.
The film follows chipmunk-cheeked Hanada (Jo Shishido), a yakuza killer currently ranked at Number 3. When he’s not filling targets with hot metal projectiles, he’s either firing sticky shots into his chatty girlfriend or sniffing the vapors of boiling rice, which arouses him something fierce. But like any ambitious assassin, he strives to be number 1, a title held by an enigmatic expert known as Phantom. Hanada accepts an assignment from a captivating mystery woman with an entomology fetish, but accidentally kills an innocent bystander instead (thanks to the most ironic butterfly this side of Ray Bradbury) and thereby destroys his standing. Betrayed by his girlfriend, marked for death and running from hordes of hired killers, Hanada eventually meets the ingenious Phantom in a spellbinding duel to the death.
At the time, Suzuki may have been pressured by the studio to make something more commercial than his previous work, but Branded to Kill takes a really big mallet to things like character and narrative, shattering them into unconventional shards. Brazenly weaving them together into a series of visually striking scenes with an ostensibly impromptu verve, he comes up with a truly eclectic mélange of styles set to a jazzy lounge score. Shishido is fantastic as the composed gunman who slowly unravels in the aftermath of his error, while Annu Mari is mesmerizing as the exotic femme fatale and Koji Nanbara is the epitome of cool as the emotionless brass-voiced king of killers.
A delirious, challenging work of bizarre genius (I have no idea how that killer ranking system is calculated), the film incorporates lots of posturing, pop-art sensibilities, crafty lighting, stunning gunplay sequences and memorable characters that would influence plenty of future filmmakers (besides Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Suzuki’s work seems to have been sampled by David Lynch, John Woo, Takeshi Kitano, Luc Besson, Quentin Tarantino and many others).
Suzuki would revisit his misunderstood masterpiece some 25 years later with the equally disjointed and even more experimental remake/sequel Pistol Opera. Suzuki drenches the screen in rich colors and virtually dispenses with narrative altogether for his tale of Stray Cat, the female Number 3 killer working her way through fellow assassins like a big bearded knife specialist and a tracksuit-wearing guy in a wheelchair. Shot more like a play than a motion picture (much of Pistol Opera literally takes place on stage), the film has far less interest in establishing a cogent story than it does providing a psychedelic stylistic experience, and is comparatively unfulfilling for it. You’d be better much served by tracking down Suzuki’s older works such as the marvelous gangster movies Tokyo Drifter, Kanto Wanderer and Underworld Beauty.
Some interesting miscellany from the CHUD message boards and beyond:
A company called Unearthed Films (I like ’em already!) will release a zazzy 2-disc DVD set of the underseen 80s animated gem Rock & Rule. The flick will have a new transfer and remastered audio, plus a making-of featurette and all sorts of other goodies that I’m amazed they found. Though the company is best known for unleashing the evil that is the Guinea Pig series, they also did the domestic release of the rather fun low-budget Japanese zombie flick Junk. You can check out their site HERE.
Thanks to Mike for the info!
I like zombies and I love sexy gals, so I figured I should share this: the official site for the upcoming flick Boy Eats Girl. The movie stars pop hottie Samantha Mumba as a gal whose boyfriend dies on the night he plans to profess his love. The boy’s mom brings him back with a little voodoo, but his desire for human flesh and penchant for spreading his zombie infection throughout town lead to trouble. The movie just started production so there’s not much at the official site yet, but that logo is irresistible, innit? Check out the site HERE.
The upcoming NecroComicon (awesome name) is looking for a few good fan films. The convention, at Spooky House (a fully operational haunted theme park) in LA November 5th – 7th, is currently fielding fan-made films as well as suggestions for screenings. So get out your camera and whip up some fake blood. For more info, hit the official site right HERE.
The people behind the savage Thai martial arts flick Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior have a new movie on the way called Born to Fight. Ong-Bak‘s whiz-kicker Tony Jaa (aka Phanom Yeerum) won’t be in it, but I suppose we should still expect plenty of sick stunts and head-crushing fight scenes (and, um, lots of fruit being kicked) if the trailer is any indication. The movie seems to be about a group of freedom fighters who smack the hell out of their oppressors. Check out the site and trailer HERE.
Thanks to all for your letters of non-hatred. Send me more comments, suggestions, and coupons for Russian brides to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll reply to any letters in future columns. Thanks for reading and writing!
Just wanted to spurt out real quick that I really appreciate the column. Always had a soft spot for the underappreciated. But I do have one small question if you don’t mind helping.
Foreign cinema has a strange habit of cranking out quality, unique material, and although Asia’s been providing a little bit of everything, I’ve hit a snag. After scouring high and low, I can’t find a single ballsy Italian flick. Everything has to do with some disenfranchised family or couple, and the tragedy spawns from real life dilemmas, not stray bullets or misanthropic alien species.
I’m having a serious problem and was wondering if you’d be able to muster up a non-spaghetti western title or two off the top of your head. Thanks a lot.
DAVE SAYS: You’re absolutely right. There is a serious lack of anything recently to come out of Italy that was "up my alley", so to speak. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. However, if you’re looking for something a little older, I’d point you in the direction of things like The Violent Professionals, Almost Human, The Climber, and what I consider a work of bizarro genius, Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik. Classics. Actually, Bava’s entire catalog is worth checking out, and for Italian horror/suspense movies, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci can’t be beat.
Hope that helps. Thanks for reading!
Seeing that you seem to not quite fully appreciate many classic authors (Tolkien, Koontz), I’m wondering, are there any books/authors you do like?
DAVE SAYS: I blow through at least a book a week, sometimes two. I read a lot of different stuff: biographies, research material for whatever side project I’m working on, anything historical or scientific that catches my attention at the moment.
As for fiction, I stick with a lot of crime-flavored stuff: Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, Stephen Hunter, John Ridley, F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack books, a few others. I get into quirky stuff like Tom Robbins, Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, Jonathan Lethem, Carlton Mellick, Kurt Vonnegut. Hugh Laurie’s "The Gun Seller". Older stuff like Raymond Chandler. I dug Richard K. Morgan’s first two books "Altered Carbon" and "Broken Angels". I don’t slavishly follow any particular author, but I don’t have much patience for masters of overwriting like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and, unfortunately, Neal Stephenson.
But in what alternate universe is Dean Koontz a "classic" author? If you want classic, go get some Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne or Mark Twain. Koontz is about as classic as my ’97 Wrangler.
Hey Dave just a little some the next (and eagerly awaited) Dave’s Underground article.
I ordered the work of Chan-wook Park from HKFlix a couple weeks ago. Sadly they were out of stock. The new month came and so did the DVDs. Bad thing is so did rent, and the usual problems that arise with that. So I emailed HKFlix pronto to see about postponing the order for a week or so. And not anymore than 3 hours later, I got a reply. Medium- length story short, things have been taken care of, and I am more than happy to shop there again and recommend to anyone that will listen.
Anywho just want to sing the praises of an unusual animal in the retail world, one that cares about it’s customers.
DAVE SAYS: I’ve used HK Flix (their site’s HERE) a bunch of times, mostly because their selection and prices are decent. However, on at least a couple of occasions, items I ordered were on backorder, but I didn’t discover this until my order arrived light a couple of DVDs. I find this annoying — that they don’t have more strict "live" inventory control — but I did eventually receive them (one took over a month). Hopefully they’re a little better with it now (I mostly use DDDHouse, DVDAsian, Diabolik DVD and Xploited Cinema), but at least their customer service is good, it seems.
Oh, and I almost always refer people looking for a code-free DVD player to HK Flix, as their selection seems like the best anywhere.
I’d like the UNDERGROUND to also be an environment for smaller filmmakers (in budget, scope and height – I don’t discriminate, wee folk) to publicize their wares, particularly genre material. Everyone deserves a chance, yeah? After all, even Oscar winner Peter Jackson started with an independent sci-fi horror flick that featured spilled brains and vomit tasting. So if you’ve got an independent film and you want to expose yourself, drop me a line at email@example.com. Put some pants on first.
Thanks for digging into this edition of DAVE’S UNDERGROUND, be back soon with more treats from beneath eye level. Feel free to send any suggestions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org!]]>