While it might appear to some of you that I am a serious person, whose viewing pleasures are restricted to such intellectual giants of modern cinema as Romero, Raimi and Craven, there are also moments when I simply want to veg out in front of the screen.
Case in point, a superficial Sunday of a week or so back, when I indulged myself with a threesome of slightly silly oriental martial arts movies.
On the cover the leading lady wears a costume so minimal it would make even a lycra clad superheroine blush, but it’s simply a ruse to lure in hormonal teenagers and sad, middle-aged men: for the wet work Cat dresses in black pjs, like any self-respecting ninja, though there is an idyllic interlude in which she and her lover hide from everybody on a luxury boat, with an assortment of bikinis conveniently provided for Cat to wear. A former bodyguard to the elite of mainland China, Cat now works as a freelance assassin for hire in Hong Kong, but she’s in mourning for the baby she miscarried, and so spares a policeman she’s supposed to kill because of his young daughter. An Englishman working for the Hong Kong police, John Cannon is an honest cop who feels he should turn Cat in, but instead becomes her lover, putting them on collision course with her old boyfriend, now also an assassin for hire, and the crime boss who pretty much runs the Hong Kong underworld. It ends badly. This was a somewhat silly movie, and very restrained for a film graded ’18’ (I’d have rated it more like ’12’, ’15’ at the most). There are a couple of semi-decent fight scenes but other than that we get a half assed attempt to convey sexual attraction/passion through S&M, and a story padded out by flashbacks to Cat’s past with a subtext about betrayal, though never any real explanation as to why. The characters don’t really come alive, most of the time wandering through the movie like they’re on drugs, and the plot doesn’t really amount to much. The video cover does in fact give the right impression – this is comic book stuff, in the worst sense of that phrase.
Chanbara Beauty (2008)
I had low expectations and was pleasantly surprised by this Japanese outing, which I believe was based on a video game. Zombies have overrun the world, and warrior woman Aya seeks her sister Saki, who murdered their father, while Katsuji and Reiko are along for the ride. The trail takes them to the lair of zombie creator Dr. Sugita, where an army of the living dead have to be dealt with before the sisters can get it on together with their magic swords and super samurai abilities. This should be silly, but it works rather well, thanks to a decent budget and everybody playing it with a straight face (except comic turn Katsuji, who introduces some welcome light relief), so that we can overlook the idiocies of the plot, as with the warrior women dressing up for combat in a bikini and a schoolgirl uniform (I say overlook, but that’s not quite what I mean). There are some climactic fight scenes, as Aya takes on a horde of zombies and then the showdown with Saki, where pyrotechnics are as much part of what goes down as swordplay. What makes it stand out is the depth of characterisation, so that these are real people, not just good looking women in skimpy costumes. We have Saki, the sister motivated by jealousy; Aya, taciturn, driven by the desire for both revenge and understanding, a killing machine who gains a human dimension through interacting with the others; Reiko, a mother who mourns her dead child, a part of her character’s composition that leaves her vulnerable; Katsuji, trying to do his best but not really a warrior, looking for the little sister he lost. Sisterhood seems to be key here, the baseline relationship that underlies everything else on offer. Sugita doesn’t have a sister that we know of, and he is the only one who is unforgivably evil. I really liked this film, and would have probably watched it even if the leading ladies wore sensible combat gear.
Chanbara Striptease (2008)
And so, I came to this with high expectations, only to be shot down in flames and then have a whole flight of pigeons crap on the wreckage. Lilli is the latest in a line of female warriors skilled in a special martial arts technique that I can’t remember the name of, but it involves evoking magic powers by removing your top and fighting bare breasted. Lilli is transported back in time several hundred years to feudal Japan, where she has to protect an innocent village from a band of roving ninjas led by a woman warrior with similar booby power. Yes, it really is that ridiculous. You can see the thinking? Skimpy costumes worked so well in Beauty, so let’s raise the ante, and if the film had made a profit there would probably have been a nekkid sequel. Or perhaps I’m being uncharitable and there wasn’t enough money in the kitty for full costumes (certainly they didn’t spend much on storyline, actors or effects), or it could be that the topless aspect was intended ironically as a comment on how easily men are distracted, even hardened ninja warriors, by the sight of bare boobies. It was totally ludicrous, and a bitter disappointment after the thrills and spills provided by its predecessor, though I will admit to being gobsmacked by the fight scene where Lilli’s sword is thrown high up into the air and she catches it between her breasts and continues to duel with her enemies. Ladies, don’t try this at home.