Today’s barrage of moving images was a bit less concentrated for me than yesterday. I watched the Hong Kong action drama, Punished, followed by a long break with plenty of walking, and then returned to the Walter Reade Theater for the late night double feature of the perfectly paired Machete Maidens Unleashed and Raw Force.
Punished is not a movie with a huge body count or a series of explosions. There are probably more dramatic exchanges and moments of quiet contemplation than action scenes. It is a film that deals largely with the theme of revenge, but compared to other Hong Kong action hits I’ve seen over the years, this one is far more meditative. It questions the effects of seeking vengeance in a way that calls to mind the many Korean movies that have been made on that subject in the 2000’s. If Punished brought any of those movies to mind, it would be Chan Wook Park’s first on the subject, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. The plot of Punished is far less convoluted, but takes the viewer through similar pains to show how anguish only spins further out of control as characters grasp at ways to make up for the tragedies that haunt them.
Anthony Wong’s performance is commanding, not as a gun-toting gangster, but a powerful business mogul whose ability to control things around him falls short of his teen daughter’s rebellious and self-destructive behavior. His role marks an interesting shift away from what the usual focus of Hong Kong actions movies is, at least the ones I’ve seen, on cops and criminals. Instead we see more about the everyday citizens and generational strains on the relations between parents and their children.
The muted colors and synthesizer jazz score of the film give it a decidedly old school feel. The same goes for moments of action, which do appear at times to break up the dramatic tension, and maintain a classic insistence on high energy fight scenes and several rounds of bullets being fired. The final image of the movie is also simple and beautifully composed. I had a nostalgic feeling that made the movie a pleasure to watch in a theater.
Machete Maidens Unleashed is an extremely fun documentary. It is a bit of a tell all about a wild time in movie history where exploitation movies from the United States were being made cheaply in the Philippines thanks to a supportive government and a vastly rugged jungle territory at the movie crews’ disposal. It is fascinating to see what caused the focus of this bevy of films from the ‘70s to be on jungle monsters and huge plantation-like prisons. It’s as though if the peculiar political situations described in the film were not in existence, this whole realm of films would be drastically different or maybe not even exist. This would not be a shame in everyone’s mind.
The documentary gives a new context to the term ‘exploitation film,’ as it is not only the subject matter, but the people and resources of the Philippines being exploited in the making of these films. It’s ethically questionable stuff. The documentary does a great job of not leading people in one direction or another on forming opinions of this, giving a broad range of accounts of what went on. The points of view include those of local politicians, directors, actresses, film critics, and members of production crews at the time. It is not limited to the successful ones; For every Pam Grier, Sid Haigg, or Roger Corman, there are equivalent actors and directors whom history bestowed far less fame and fortune upon.
The documentary passes through different genre trends that experienced booms thanks to the reckless conditions in the Philippines: creature features, women in prison movies, blaxploitation, and even Vietnam movies made near the end of the craze, where societal unrest and political turmoil made the movie productions hazardous affairs. At each phase, the documentary looks at aspects of those genres beyond their being shot in the Philippines. The nature of exploitation is discussed, raising the question of whether these films were purely a disservice to women or if they did in fact lead to a sense empowerment. Some of the interviewees dismiss this notion altogether, but some film clips of the titular Machete Maidens slashing away at their oppressors can be convincing.
There are so many mondo WTF clips shown throughout, and if the film does nothing else but send you searching for the bizarre adventures of Cleopatra Wong or Weng Weng, you will probably still feel strangely rewarded.
One of these very movies made on the cheap in the Philippines was shown next: Raw Force. It seems to occupy its very own level of awful far exceeding the bad quality of most films described in Machete Maidens. For that, it is a laugh riot from beginning to end. An outrageous concept finds a rejected villain from the original Batman tv shows, complete with a very Hitler-esque way of speaking, doing shady business with cannibalistic monks on Warrior Island.
Elsewhere, a dilapidated cruise ship with an unusually high percentage of martial artists on board is making its way to the same island. There is an exotic shopping trip, a long and bafflingly scripted swinger party in the ship's interior, and a raid on the ship carried out by the most awkwardly costumed band of pirates you’ll ever find on film. In all seriousness, someone needs to interview whoever was in charge of costumes and find out what the hell happened. This all leads to a vicious showdown between bloodthirsty monks, lethargic walking dead embodiments of disgraced kung fu warriors, and our group of cast away protagonists, complete with swords, machine guns, and bazookas that change hands as easily as if it were a game of dodgeball. There is genuine martial artistry at work, as this movie was taken just seriously enough to make it that rare insanely hilarious damaged vision.
Subway Cinema, we crave more!!
PUNISHED is being shown again at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Today, I'll see a pair of very different visions of fantasy: the Wu Xia classic, DUEL TO THE DEATH, and the new Japanese retro giant robot film, KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR.