Monday, June 25, 2007

Send them to Plow Hell! CHINA HELL GATE (AKA "Heaven and Hell")




A distribution deal between Image, the Weinsteins and the Shaw Brothers has finally brought the wildest, most surreal martial arts films of the 1960s-80s to our needy shores. Up to this point the only titles were those Quentin Tarantino was able to smuggle out with the help of the Weinsteins (who love to promptly shelve stuff for years and years) But now, international cult film fans in the USA can rejoice without reservation. These are the good old days.

For those new to the myriad pleasures of the Shaw films, the best indication of them is probably through Tarantino’s KILL BILL. The actual Shaw Brothers films are like madcap post-modern kung fu cum Peking opera joints with crazy costumes, goofy special effects, outdoor scenes that are clearly filmed indoors on brightly lit soundstages (often with bare, black soundstage floors). The effect is similar to the weird indoor/outdoor planets Spock and Kirk explore in the original STAR TREK series. My personal recent favorite, available at retail for $19.99, is HEAVEN AND HELL (directed by Chang Cheh, of FIVE DEADLY VENOMS fame) a goofy blend of goofy kung fu action, weirdly surreal humor, and a tour of grisly punishments reminiscent of the Japanese film (avail. on Criterion), JIGOKU.

The film opens with a forbidden love affair up in heaven, which is represented by lots of fluffy clouds, white fog machine fog, and very bad fight scenes (intentionally ballet-like?). When the heroes are sent tumbling to earth, we promptly get a new set of credits, and the tone of the fighting and action shifts to a bizarre expressionist, crypto-Bollywood Kung Fu dance odyssey where the menacing gangsters leap around like they’ve been studying Russ Tamblyn’s moves in WEST SIDE STORY. If you’re not digging this sudden shift to bizarro dance world, you might as well hang it up now, because it only gets weirder from here. The question is, are you going to label it cheap or are you gonna dig that its “Brechtian”?

Certainly the sets--as with many of the more fantastical Shaw Brothers productions--are so minimally rendered as to make expressionism in films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI seem opulent. Our heroine’s bedroom prison is a huge, blackened soundstage, demarked by a poster bed, a Caligari-esque distorted free-standing door portal, lots of colored gel lighting, and a window frame. Elsewhere action occurs in front of monocrhomatic gray walls that stretch into infinity, and with the glory of widescreen, one can almost peer around the set and see the Exit sign and a gaffer or two eating their lunch in the corner.

By the time the lovers and their friend have fallen into Hell, where the bulk of the film will subsequently play out, the fight scenes have improved and the soundstage has transformed into what looks like one of those charity-driven walk through Halloween haunted houses(replete with blacklights shining on foil covered cardboard sawblades.) There are all sorts of hells being shown off, from Ice Hell, to Gambling Hell (we pause for some shots of an endless game of mahh jong) to Booze Hell (a boozer tries to get a sip out of a fickle giant bottle of Johnny Walker Red that tilts back and forth above him like one of those weird red “drinking birds”) to the Greedy Hell (where misers are forced to drink liquified gold running down what looks like a mini-golf course volcano) to “Tongue-Pulling Hell” and on and on to the big final, infamous “Plow Hell” where victims are forced to lie on hell's dusty concrete floor while big wooden plows with spikes in front are dragged over them.

Luckily Buddha himself comes to the rescue and instructs our hero to find four other innocent souls over in the next hell, who all happen to be kung fu experts who have been wronged and killed unfairly. We see all this in patient flashbacks for each fighter, and then, conveniently, the villains who wronged them on earth are revealed to be guards and officials in the kingdom of hell, with big ribbons hanging out of their mouths to represent long tongues. Now will come the time for each man to have his revenge, and to fight masked demons for what begins to seem like eternity to even the most patient viewer.

Eventually we wind up in a golden “other” place where souls can now be reincarnated. Some bad humans end up as chickens, but the good ones, standing in the center of a giant swirling spiral of color painted on the soundstage floor, are granted the right to return in a (hopeful) sequel.

If this doesn't sound like cinema heaven to you, then I condemn you to "Endless Chickflick Movie Hell!"

If it does, then good for you, you can come back to this wondrous land where king fu movies now run remastered and cheap with glorious color and original Cantonese language tracks, and coherent, well-written English subtitles.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Blue Dude & Red Walter: The Big Lebowski Revisited


Watching the Big Lebowski last night as a salve to my wounds over the sad state of this country and its Iraqi conflict and Bush's "it's not true if I close my ears" attitude towards global warming, I came to a blissful realization... the only way out of our dilemma is to for blue and red states to come together in a dysfunctional brotherly hug of forgiveness and tolerance.

If you haven't seen the film, do so right now and don't waste anymore time reading this blog. But irregardless of whether you have seen this masterwork or not, you have LIVED it, in the sense of being alive on this planet in this particular century. The key relationship in the film is between the Dude (Jeff Bridges), an easygoing pothead (i.e. blue states) and former student protester and his bowling partner Walter (John Goodman), a paranoid psychotic red state-type Vietnam vet. The plot has the Dude lured into some byzantine kidnapping scheme between a millionare and his nymphomaniac trophy wife. Julianne Moore plays the millionare's artsy daughter (the Lauren Bacall part, for this is, in its fractured way, a remake of THE BIG SLEEP).

As a sharp blogger points out in Themuy, there are plenty of odd connections in the film, set during the original Gulf War, and our current beswamped "Vietnam Redux" of today.

i originally saw this in the theater and was sorely unamused by it-- I found Goodman's character hard to endure. Why was an easygoing dude like the Dude hanging out with this psychopath? In the intervening decade since I've had the wisdom and time to make peace with my gun-toting redneck brother out in Arizona, so I realize that a lot of my fear and loathing stemmed from being "related" to stuff I don't understand or have contempt for. (I realized his passion for cars and firearms was no better or worse than my passion for women and mind-altering substances.) Dude, I am losing my train of thought here. The point is, Dude and Walter are joined at the hip, they are aspects of one self, the blue and red states of America. Dude lacks the aggression and oomph to confront situations head-on, losing himself in the THC fog of liberal idealism. He needs the gun packing muscle of Walter to sort things out, but at the same time, Walter fucks up EVERYTHING he touches. He's the bull in the china shop. He's the ugly American tourist reason the French are snobby towards us. Everyone in the world hates us because of sanctimonious paranoiacs like Walter.

And yet, we can't get rid of him. We love him and need him, as ugly and overweight and violent as he is. The way Walter fucks up all the schemes the dude tries to pull off is indicative of the nature of the current Iraqi conflict. Walter rides into the situation blinded by his righteous American sunglasses of freedom, confident in his girth and bluster to roar him through. Instead he gets bogged hopelessly down and even as it happens, he stays chipper and confident, at least on the outside.

The scary thing is, how little has changed. We are exactly where we were in Vietnam except now the American youth are apathetic, ignorant, slack-jawed and too busy getting drunk and disorderly to challenge the system, and who can blame them? If the protests of the late 1960s taught us anything, it's that protests don't work, at least not when it comes to war. Once a pitbull like Walter sinks his fangs in, he doesn't let go until he's exhausted every last cent out of the treasury and left 3/4 of the country he's invaded completely destroyed. (at which point he slinks off like a guilty kid to avoid having to "clean up the mess" ala the Marshall Plan).

In its frothy way, the Big Lebowski is a satirical jab at American idealism, but it's truly affectionate, pointing the way towards a solution to the national split. Walter may be psycho but he believes in something. It's the nihlists who are the real threat... with their intellectual attitude that nothing matters: "Relax Donny, their nihlists, they don't belive in anything." For Walter, for the Muslim and Christian fundamentalists and for the neo-conservative constitution-shredder we currently call a government, it's the believing that makes one dangerous... but is being too cool to have a cause really the answer? The fact is, blue and red are dependent - we define ourselves on what we are not, and without each other, we would not exist. So lay down your tear gas, America, and give your "other state" foe a bear hug instead... after all, we're Americans, together! Ugly or gorgeous, richer or poorer (and getting more so every second), thick or thin, drug-addled or high on Jesus, it's all good, baby. The dude abides.