NAIKA VIDEO has launched! I’m finally back on YouTube!!!!

I am back folks. After a long hiatus, my Wife pushed and pushed and I’m finally back. Goddamn it feels good. It’s bare bones right now, but I’ll work on more stuff in the coming weeks and months ahead. Stay safe everyone and I hope you’ll unwind thoroughly with my vintage offerings here on YouTube. Cheers! Click here to check the channel out.

Naika Reviews “City of the Living Dead” (1980)

With Halloween around the corner, I thought it best to think about a film that’s both bizarre and dreadful, and what better film is there than a Lucio Fulci film? Though I could talk about Zombi 2 or The House by the Cemetery, the film that really turned my head 360 was Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. It might not be the most polished giallo film out there, but it’s full of this terrifying aura that’s less about plot and more about suffering, if that makes any sense. And given the state of things in 2020, what better way to quench our thirst for indoor despair-porn than with an Italian horror film? So let’s sit down and talk about the City of the Living Dead and why, I think, it’s a must see movie.

Right off the bat, Fulci’s film hurls us into a New York séance where Mary Woodhouse, our protagonist, has visions of a cemetery with a priest who looks like he drank a bad milkshake. All of a sudden this crazy looking fuck goes breakneck and hangs himself. Yeah, it’s only the first few minutes of the film and this dude goes dangling off a goddamned tree! This must’ve been one baaaaaad milkshake!

Mary’s vision becomes so jarring that she dies midway into the séance, sending the ritual’s host and medium Theresa into a panic. The NYPD are called to the scene, but offer no real help other than suspicions of drug-related foul play. With Theresa’s apartment building now a crime scene, it soon attracts the attention of journalist Peter Bell, but he’s turned away within minutes of his arrival. Pete’s relentless however, and when he goes to Mary’s casket prior to her burial, he discovers that she’s come back to life. The problem is that she’s stuck in a coffin, losing air and losing her mind as she tries to claw her way out in absolute hysteria. Thanks to some quick thinking however, Peter’s able to break open the coffin and free Mary before she suffocates.

After the exhumation, Peter reunites our heroine with Theresa and is given the skinny about what she witnessed during the séance. From Mary’s recollections, they discover that the suicidal priest in question sought to use his death to open the Gates of Hell, as foretold in an ancient script called The Book of Enoch. Furthermore, Theresa elaborates that if the Gates aren’t closed by All Saints Day, they’ll remain open and spell doom for all mankind. And with All Saints Day approaching, Mary and Peter decide to follow the only clue from the séance that could lead them to the priest: a New England town called Dunwich.

Dunwich is really where the movie takes off as we’re treated to some truly fucked-up shit. After the priest’s death, the residents of Dunwich are slowly driven to despair as one victim after another is mysteriously butchered in true horror film fashion. No CGI trickery here folks. This is 1980, and all the gore is as practical as it gets. We’re even introduced to two other characters, the curly-haired psychologist Gerry, and his client Sandra, a normal looking but batshit painter whose first scene sees her mumble some fucked up shit about lusting over her Dad (blaargh). It’s through these two that we see how the denizens of darkness haunt, maim and kill all those in their wake at Dunwich. And once these two team-up with Mary and Peter, we’ll soon see who stays alive, and who goes straight to hell.

I can’t tell you enough how much fun the City of the Living Dead is. Given that it’s following the giallo mindset, the film’s not about understanding the plot, but it’s there to give you fright and dread in the best way possible. The lighting, production design and even the use of color is all fantastic and I’m amazed at how Fulci makes the mundane look monstrous. Furthermore, the gore’s so good that it’s unreal, especially when organs are involved. And although the film is titled City of the Living Dead, be aware that there aren’t any zombies of the Romero kind here. They’re more like corpses possessed by evil, and they’re SCARY! The make-up and lighting alone makes them terrifying, so make sure you watch this with the lights turned off.

All in all, the City of the Living Dead is a must play for your Halloween movie marathon this year. It’s got all the gore, dread and confounding whatthefuckery that should pair well with this mess we call 2020. Furthermore, it makes Italian and Scottish actors seem so American that the Stephen Millers among you won’t even notice (fuck that guy). And before I forget, I gotta give a big shoutout to the the sound design here, where the Dunwich scenes are filled with howling winds that make the entire film feel like it’s devoid of life. The music is also noteworthy here, with Fabio Frizzi’s “Apoteosi Del Mistero” being the kind of track that ripples through you like the slow heartbeat of a slumbering beast. With chilling music, haunting visuals and grisly effects, Fulci’s City of the Living Dead is the kind of underrated gem that deserves our attention and, if you got a Prime account, can be viewed for next to nothing. If there’s anything we should be getting used to by now in 2020, it’s the sensation of us all teetering along a precipice, and there’s no better way to indulge that dread than with the City of the Living Dead. Happy Halloween everyone, and may God help us all.

Finally, All of Midnight Diner is on Netflix!!

Yes yes and yes. You all know how much I love Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories Seasons 1 & 2 but we now have ALL the original seasons prior to the show’s move to Netflix. That’s three seasons worth of joy, drama and good eating with a proper introduction to the many patrons that frequent the Master’s storied meshiya. No more rewatches on crappy streams for me folks ‘cuz it’s all here in HD glory, ad-free! That’s a triple win if you ask me.

For those of you that are still new to Midnight Diner or are mildly curious, I’d highly recommend you start with these three seasons first before going into Tokyo Stories 1 and 2 since it provides more backstory on the many ‘regulars’ that you’ll find on the latter. For instance, have you ever wanted to know more about Marilyn, the show’s finger-lovin’ dancer who eats the same damn thing every time? Still hung up on the Master’s history with the mysterious lady who loves Nikujaga from the last episode of Tokyo Stories: Season 2? How are the Ochazuke Sisters like when they’re not eating Ochazuke? And who the hell is Erect Oki, and what’s his deal with potato salad? If you watched Tokyo Stories first like I did, then I’m sure you wondered why everyone’s so chummy with each other and now, you’ll see why. Furthermore, by watching it all in this order, you’ll be viewing it in the order of its original run when it first aired in 2009. Trust me on this folks. If you still haven’t seen Midnight Diner, there’s no better time than now to watch it here on Netflix.

Lastly, without spoiling too much, I wanna mention how much of a joy it is to see it all here during a time of duress. If you ever wanted something cozy yet engaging to watch while the rest of America is still arguing over face masks, then look no further. Not only does Midnight Diner’s first three seasons lay the groundwork for its eventual rise to greatness in Tokyo Stories, but you’ll get a glimpse as to how much the show had to fudge around to get its formula right. I find Tokyo Stories to be a much more smoother affair that eases you into things, whereas the previous seasons are rougher, edgier, and will plop you in the middle of a crisis. Moreover, while Tokyo Stories has more optimism in its proceedings , these three seasons focus more on the nocturnal pains of overwork, failure, and the drudgery of a broken heart. These themes reach their peak with the third season, which is filled with stories that give our cast no recourse, solace or closure. Overall I find that Tokyo Stories is a bit more warmer in sentiment than the first three seasons, yet they still provide good viewing for anyone seeking a glimpse into the hard luck lifestyle of Tokyo. And for a guy like me who’s itching to look away from the world of Covid-19, Shinya Shokudo’s a godsend.

Midnight Diner’s first three seasons aren’t without its flaws however. In addition to that aforementioned search for the perfect formula, the show has issues dealing with the seedier elements of its nightlife themes. We’ve got some real bastards here on Shinya Shokudo, with a few that are horribly misogynistic (a real issue that’s endemic in both Japan and Asia at large). Infidelity, exploitation and solicitation also rears its ugly head every so often, especially when it comes to an episode that focuses on Ikumi, a woman who’s secretly paying out her parents’ debts as a sex worker. It’s a great episode that shows how she needs no saving whatsoever, but it’s still punctuated by the fact that she had to make some hard choices for the sake of her family’s survival. Despite the excellent themes present in this particular episode, I do wish Shinya Shokudo could be a bit more forthcoming and critical about how patriarchy, destitution, sexism and abuse tear into the lives of its female characters instead of just showing us how they rise above it. That’s easy catharsis for sure, but a more critical lens can make that catharsis resonate even more, and would make for better character growth for all those involved.

In summary, Midnight Diner is a portrait of the downtrodden scouring the night for solace in a cold and unforgiving city. But for all the time spent mired in their friendships, failures and food-filled nostalgia, there are no solutions to be found here. For better or worse, Midnight Diner’s first three seasons are still slice-of-life dramas, and the exploitation, despair and heartache that each character faces is only mildly abated thanks to the skill of the Master. I sometimes wonder why I continue to watch this show, knowing that Shinya Shokudo refuses to tackle the ills of the world head-on, but maybe that’s the point. Life is shit sometimes, but maybe, just maybe, somebody will finally have their day and not look back. Maybe one of them will find a way out. Maybe that girl will finally leave that asshole for good. Maybe that old guy will stop cheating on his wife. Maybe those old folks will make up. Maybe those two young people will finally fall in love, and maybe she and him will get together despite their circumstances. Maybe we’ll all make it somehow and can leave the deeper examinations for another day.

Because in the end, that’s all any of us would want.

Naika Reviews “Prince of Darkness”

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It just might be my new favorite John Carpenter film and honestly, I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s another excuse for me to write a review, but Prince of Darkness is another J.C. gem that I never knew existed.  I got the Scream Factory Blu Ray a few years ago and fell in love with it on my first watch, and I’m worried that it’ll replace the likes of The Thing or They Live.  Given that most of us are stuck inside, how ’bout we stroll through my subconscious to see why P.O.D. is a flick that you’ll be dying see.

As I think back about P.O.D., one of the best aspects of the film is that it’s really a ‘no-filler’ kind of horror film.  John Carpenter’s a master at making a good movie with a 90 minute run time, and Prince of Darkness is no different.  There’s no wishy-washy subplots, horny teens or distractions here folks.  It’s just a slew of grad students researching a strange artifact underneath an abandoned church.  Details and exposition are unraveled at an even pace and no scene is wasted, but that also means that you, the viewer, have to really pay attention once shit hits the fan (and it does here).  For example, revelations about the artifact aren’t explained with long, drawn out sequences but through carefully placed pockets of dialogue, so, again, pay special attention here.  It’s meat-and-potatoes filmmaking from Mr. Carpenter, and for horror, that’s where it’s at.

Another great thing about Prince of Darkness is the appearance of some of John Carpenter’s regulars, including Donald Pleasance as the Priest.  We all know him from Halloween and Escape from New York, but here he becomes our guide into hell as he bellows out the dark history of the ‘artifact’, a cylinder of swirling green fluid that’s more than meets the eye.  J.C. regular Peter Jason makes an appearance here as a wise ass, while Dennis Dun and the late Victor Wong (both from Big Trouble in Little China) play key roles here as they help investigate the origins of the artifact.  I love Dennis and Victor to death, and it’s always great to see Asian-Americans shine in good 80s roles since they were a rarity in Hollywood.  J.C. really knows how to treat his regulars well, and it shows here (especially when some of them fucking die).

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However, the best thing about Prince of Darkness is how well the horror builds up.  No jump scares or cheap tricks here folks ‘cuz the name of the game here is tension tension tension.  Think of it like an ant infestation: it’s only a few at first hovering over some spilled sugar, but little by little, they all start piling up in such a way that it all becomes a skin-crawling ocean of insect hell.  That’s more or less what happens to our group of grad students as they encounter strange events around the church that escalate ever so slightly.  And with that perfect 90 minute run time, it’s only a matter of time before shit gets real and the end of the world is nigh.  What’s a poor grad student to do?  If it were me, I’d probably say: “I’m only here to publish before I fuck off to the private sector, guys.  I didn’t sign up for this shit!”

So yeah, that’s about as much as I’ll say about Prince of Darkness.  For those of you that know what I’m talking about, I hope we’re in agreement that this is another underrated classic from J.C.  To the rest that haven’t had the chance to see this yet, I say watch it as soon as you can.  Prince of Darkness is well-paced and well-acted, and when shit gets real, it gets crazy.  Furthermore, it’s not everyday that you see grad students take center stage in a horror film.  And it’s a hodge-podge of doctoral candidates too fellas, from physicists and biochemists to comp sci and theology geeks.  P.O.D. is, in a nutshell, California academics versus the lava lamp from Trump’s colon and, before I forget, there’s a wild cameo from horror rocker Alice Cooper too.  Prince of Darkness is a lot of fun folks, and if you’re looking for horror that’ll distract you from the kind you see from White House press briefings, then this is the movie for you.  Stay home everyone, and stay safe!

Naika Reviews “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories – Season 2” from Netflix

It’s been a few years since I wrote about Netflix’s first season of Midnight Diner, and I’m thrilled that we finally have a new one in our hands!  Even though it’s technically Midnight Diner’s fifth season overall, it IS the second on Netflix and it’s fantastic.  It’s more or less everything that you remember about the Master and his restaurant, but with more returning patrons and even more somber stories to get us through the year.  I daresay that it might even be better than the previous season, so let’s grab our chopsticks and dig in.

Right away, you’ll probably notice that the Intro has been revamped, with a lot more tourists peppered throughout the sequence.  Master’s voice cuts in, and we see his signature tonjiru simmering above the fire as he scrubs down his counters.  From there, he puts up his noren, and, like clockwork, he plugs in his lantern sign to signal that he’s open for business.  Frankly, watching all this is how I get my gears going for the show, and I never EVER skip it.  Believe me folks, it’s the best way to get you ready for what will be a tearjerker of a season.

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Like last time, there are 10 episodes, each featuring a dish that’s near and dear to the focus character’s heart, and, little by little, each segment would reveal why.  This is especially so for our first episode, which concerns a Hideki Kamiya / Hideo Kojima-esque game developer who rediscovers chicken fried rice.  The particular kind that our gaming guru enjoys is made with ketchup, and, as we learn later, it was a dish he cherished long ago before he was orphaned as a child.  Without giving it all away, the Master soon helps our game boss reconnect with someone he thought he lost, and, who I might add, makes chicken fried rice too.

Other great episodes feature subjects like elderly care, horoscopes, baseball, and a friendship between two aspiring voice actors who bond over Kitsune Udon, but there are two that really stand out for me.  The first concerns a 30-something gravure model who adores fried chicken wings.  Despite her past fame, she’s now getting less and less work due to an ageist industry, where the only gigs left for her require nudity.  However, a chance encounter with a young IT mogul, who, as it turns out, was a fan of hers in his youth, seems destined to change her fortunes.  It’s a great episode that doesn’t just showcase a mouth-watering recipe for wings, but it gives us a rare peek into the pressures that Japanese women face beyond the workplace.  This is especially poignant since, while she’s with her IT boyfriend, our heroine refuses to eat wings in front of him.

Another stand out for me is one featuring Taiwanese actor Joseph Chang.  It’d be a crime if I spoiled it for you, but overall, it’s a fun and laugh-out-loud segment that’s all about eggs, movies, and lots of language barriers.  Furthermore, it’s a fun episode where some of our regular cast members goof off while learning new things from another culture.  It’s a bit like last season’s omurice episode that featured a cross-cultural love story between a Japanese professor and a South Korean hostess, but with less romance and more confusion.  It’s my favorite episode, so you gotta see it on my rec alone, peeps!

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Lastly, it wouldn’t be Shinya Shokudo without a New Year’s episode to round things out, and, you guessed it, it’s all about soba!  This season’s year-ender has all the right bells and whistles you’d come to expect, including a big ol’ happy round-up of our cast.  However, the real steal comes from a cameo by a long lost patron that illustrates the hardships that come with life after incarceration.  With snowfall, hot tempura, fresh soba and grilled crabs, Midnight Diner’s last episode of the season becomes a heart-warming coda to an amazing, year-long night in Tokyo.

All in all, Midnight Diner’s second season on Netflix couldn’t have come at a better time.  With so many big-name franchises coming to an end this year, it’s nice to know that Japan’s favorite TV eatery’s still running strong.  It was a long wait, but that’s par for the course at Midnight Diner, and, in my opinion, it was well worth it.  Some things in life are best left to stew slowly, and after countless nights of work in the real world, it can be nice to retreat to a slow-boiling fantasy, where our avatars are just as overworked as we are.  Shinya Shokudo’s newest season rewards our patience with better drama, humor and relevance that not only provides warmth and company to our fast-paced lives, but another chance to catch the Man, the Myth, the Master, at his very best.  御馳走様でした!

Naika Reviews “The Seventh Curse”

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If you like gory 80s movies like I do, then I have just the thing that’ll spice up your Halloween (no pun intended).  Based on the books of kung-fu screenwriter Ni Kuang, The Seventh Curse is a Hong Kong horror action film that’s so batshit crazy that it makes the 2019 White House look like a fucking theme park.  And that’s in a good way!  So sit back and read up on why, I think, The Seventh Curse is worth your time this Hallows Eve.

But first, we need to give you all some context before we continue.  As some of you might know, Ni Kuang is a big deal among the Chinese diaspora.  Aside from being a screenwriter on films like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, Ni’s also a prolific author who dabbles in sci-fi.  His most famous works include the Wisely and Dr. Yuen book series, both of which form the basis for this film.  In these books, Wisely and Dr. Yuen are portrayed as bad-ass intellectuals who solve mysteries that feature aliens, time travel and the supernatural.  Wisely in particular is so popular that his exploits are retold in various comics, films, radio dramas and TV shows.  Now that you have a bit more knowledge about our heroes, let’s get right to the movie.

Mr. Vampire’s Chin Siu-ho plays our protagonist, Dr. Yuen.  He’s been afflicted with some whack-ass curse that he got from an archaeology dig in Thailand, where his blood vessels explode every 24 hours (barf).  After consulting with Wisely (played by the God of heroes, Chow Yun-fat), Yuen discovers that the explosions are inching closer and closer to his heart, and if the curse isn’t lifted by the seventh rupture (hence the title), then he’s toast!  Like, heart bomb toast!  Blegh!  So, with the help of a plucky reporter (Maggie Cheung), and the noble Thai warrior Helong (Taiwanese stuntman Dick Wei), Dr. Yuen sets off for Thailand to find a cure before it’s too late.

What makes this seemingly straight-forward premise so batshit is that Dr. Yuen has to tangle with the demonic Worm Tribe, led by the evil sorcerer Aquala.  Aquala, who practices Thai black magic, is one spooky fucker who not only casts spells and gory curses, but he’s also got a fuck-ton of help under his sleeve.  Not only does he have an entire village of warriors at his disposal, but he’s also got some sort of flesh-eating demon baby that is way more terrifying than it sounds.  All of these fuckers are under the enthrall of their one true master, a screwed-up skull puppet named the Old Ancestor.  At first glance, this Old Ancestor looks like a cross between a dollar store prop and a stiff in your anatomy class, but don’t be fooled!  This dude will FUCK YOU UP.  He eats people, loves the ladies (barf), and, when he goes Super Saiyan, can turn into a winged demon that’s straight out of a Power Rangers acid trip.

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So yeah, the odds are shit for Dr. Yuen and Wisely, but this is a Hong Kong film folks, and that means the bad guys get fucked, with a vengeance.  Our heroes punch, kick and shoot their way out of any pickle, giving little regard to form, etiquette, or local customs.  I won’t mince words here peeps, The Seventh Curse goes balls-to-the-wall when it comes to the action, and it gets even crazier once things go supernatural.  Explosions are plentiful, the fights are righteous and there are stunts where you literally see people getting hit by cars.  Guys, there’s so much action that it feels like there’s a kung-fu death chase every 20 minutes.  It’s that awesome!  And with lots of fake blood to boot, the Seventh Curse gives us the best kind of 80s cheese to revel in for another fantastic Halloween night.

However, don’t go in expecting it all to be rosy viewing.  The Seventh Curse, like many other 80s schlock films, can come off as very dated.  To be blunt, the movie treats its heroines like shit.  Kara Hui, who can beat up ANYONE, is given a crap cameo that makes her look like an idiot!  Sibelle Hu, who’s good at kicking ass, is…well, relegated to serving Wisely fucking drinks (and maybe a rocket launcher).  Furthermore, Maggie Cheung is mercilessly portrayed as a ditz while Chui Sau-lai, Helong’s fiance, is just there to look hot and helpless while she sacrifices herself for Yuen repeatedly.  I mean, what’s the point in having all this female star power if it’s wasted like this?

And last, but not least, The Seventh Curse also has this weird way of depicting rural Thailand as some backwater hell hole ripe for Chinese dudes to do as they please.  As a Thai-american, this can get dull rather quickly.  It’s especially disappointing since you can clearly see how many Thai extras and stuntmen were used in the making of this film.  So yeah, despite the awesome levels of action on display here, The Seventh Curse also has this small shitpile of dated conventions that I personally don’t care for.

Now, The Seventh Curse isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a misfire.  Though it riles my sensibilities, I can’t help but be in awe at how insane this film is.  I mean, this movie is so chock full of gore, gun-fire and kung-fu that it shouldn’t just be a must for Halloween, but a facepalm time-capsule into how dumb 80s films were when it came to gender and ethnicity.  And despite all of this, its still a serviceable horror flick.  Though it lacks the chills of Poltergeist or the slow-burn surrealism of The Shining, The Seventh Curse throws a wrench into 80s horror tropes with a literal jump-kick to the head!  And let me be clear and say that this is the kind of ‘kick’ that’s wrapped-up in spooky set decoration, stark lighting and practical effects.  The kind of ‘kick-to-the-head’ that we 80s horror fans love.  But if you’re still on the fence about this one, then let me put it to you this way:  If Golden Harvest had a baby with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, it would fucking look like The Seventh Curse.

See?  I figured.  Now enjoy your Halloween folks, and watch this damn movie tonight!

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GIF credited to VHS-Ninja at https://vhs-ninja.tumblr.com/

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Netflix’s Wu Assassins

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Whenever I need to take a break from lamenting about the insanity of global politics, I watch Netflix or Amazon Prime.  I recently binged on the latest seasons of GLOW and Mindhunter (both phenomenal by the way), but afterwards, I went full-on Indiana Jones and ventured into Iko Uwais territory with Wu Assassins.  For this review, I’m gonna talk about what’s good, bad, and ugly, about Netflix’s latest action show.

THE GOOD:  The NUMBER ONE REASON why you should be watching Wu Assassins is for the fights alone.  End of fucking story.  Dan Rizzuto’s choreography and Kimani Ray Smith’s stunts are absolute boss here, and Iko Uwais SHINES in every fight he’s in.  It’s like you’re watching the rapid-fire fighting of The Raid, but on a polished AMC show.  Furthermore, everyone, from Juju Chan, to Li Jun Li to Katheryn Winnick, is fighting like madmen here.  Seriously.  Every single actor on this show put EVERYTHING into these fights, and it shows.  One of the highlights for me involves Lewis Tan going toe-to-toe with a knife fighter in Episode 9, while Iko is taking on three guys at once!  This is the kind of combat you wanna see on a show like this, and it’s well worth the price of admission.  If you’re here to see an ASS KICKING CAST with a REMARKABLE stunt team, look no further than to Wu Assassins.

THE BAD:  Well, if you came here for the fights, then you’re in luck.  However, what sucks about the show is that, like a lot of martial arts themed shows, it’s lacking in coherent plot.  It’s really REALLY all over the place here, with a hokey premise involving the Wu Xing, terrible pacing, jumbled character motivations and forced musical choices (some of the rap really, REALLY doesn’t work for a LOT of episodes).  Furthermore, there are way too many characters involved here, and the show could’ve done more to whittle down the cast here, especially in regards to Tommy Wah and Ying Ying.  Lawrence Kao did do the role justice here, but I felt Tommy was a massive hindrance to the team overall.  Ying Ying did the plot no favors either and, in my opinion, helped make the show verge on more stereotypical ground with her vague intentions, arrogant posturing and overall annoying demeanor.  If the show needed a Miyagi-esque Sensei / Sifu character, they should’ve had the gall to write one that doesn’t like an asshole manager who demands results yet gives no guidance.  Fuck that shit.

THE UGLY:  Is it me, or is the CGI on this show fucking ugly?  I mean really REALLY UGLY.  For all its combat merits, this show has some 3DO level graphics here.  It’s especially worse when it comes to the fire effects in the first few episodes.  I mean jeezus, it makes Byron Mann look cheap, despite him being a total badass as the ever-conflicted Uncle Six.  These effects only really work in dark settings (see Alec McCullogh’s first encounter with the Water Wu), but the production team didn’t take that into consideration for large parts of the show.  What results is a genre show that has fantastic martial arts trappings, but poor supernatural effects.  To the Wu Assassins post-production crew: please up the ante when it comes to the computer effects.

All in all, I highly recommend that you check out Wu Assassins.  It ain’t perfect, but its got a stellar cast and some wicked fight scenes that, I believe, are worth experiencing.  Though it’s riddled with poor pacing and lackluster CGI, it’s my hope that they’ll fix these hiccups for Season 2.  Furthermore, it’s not everyday that you see a Southeast Asian guy headlining a Netflix TV show, so, in a way, you’re patronage of this show is kind of contributing to the un-whitening of American TV, and that’s a good thing!  With shows like Warrior following in the footsteps of the recently finished Into the Badlands, it’s my hope that we’ll be seeing better martial-arts themed shows from the U.S. eventually.  Well, at least ones with better CGI.

Naika Reviews “Moonlight”

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I watched Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight for the first time recently, and what struck me the most about the film was how lurid and dream-like it was .  Maybe that’s just the way memories play out in our minds when we reminisce, but to see it all done so lovingly was just a sight to behold.  Color, words and music all collide into a kaleidoscope of emotions that literally guide us through time, where nothing is rushed.  And like the best dreams, Moonlight is one where mood and feeling are paramount.

The first feeling I get when I think back about Moonlight is this sense of drift that’s present throughout the film.  Whether it’s us seeing Chiron in the water with Juan for the first time or when he’s sharing a moment with Kevin under a blue moon, the movie makes real-life moments feel larger with careful camerawork, expressive lighting, epic music and evocative acting from a stellar cast.  However, this sense of drift can totally transition to chaos, and no scene encapsulates that more than Paula’s shouting scene.  Though her words are muted, Paula’s framing, gestures and lighting radiates a drug-fueled, red-hot fury towards her son Chiron, where we see first hand what our hero endures in his own home.  These sudden shifts add punctuation to a moody piece like Moonlight, making it a dreamy and memorable piece of moviemaking.

Secondly, my feelings towards Moonlight are deeply rooted in how well it captures adolescent angst and marginalization.  Chiron’s world is one of isolation, and he is bullied, beaten and berated for simply being himself.  This is best exemplified in the film’s very first scene, where we find Chiron hiding form his tormentors in a crackhouse.  Our hero is a textbook victim of toxic masculinity, and Jenkins’ camera shows us first hand how a boy’s sense of self can collapse when friends, family, and peers view him as being ‘less than a man’. The many scenes depicting Chiron’s desperation, sadness and confusion are strikingly relatable, making us root for him as he finds solace early on through his only paternal anchor and champion, Juan.

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Sadly, it’s this admiration for Juan that makes Chiron’s life as an adult all the more difficult.  After taking a chair to that asshole Terrel and, unfortunately, going to Juvie for it, Chiron emerges from it all as a grown man.  However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for him.  With only a few glances, one can easily see that he not only embodies the image of Juan, but his chosen profession as well.  This brings me to the last thing that tugs at my heart about Moonlight: it’s third act.

The feelings I get from this third chapter in Chiron’s life are amazing, yet very difficult to explain.  I was thrilled to see him as an adult with his own life and all, but it’s obvious that he’s both troubled and lost.  It’s only when Kevin comes calling that we see Chiron finally ready (and willing) to not only confront his past, but to finally take that first step towards reclaiming himself.  This is where we dive into Moonlight’s most talked about scene: the meal between Chiron and Kevin.  It’s a scene for the ages really, as a shy Chiron, sitting alone in a diner, finds himself face to face with a Kevin he barely recognizes.  And despite all of this, the magic is there and they both share silence and laughter over a meal that Kevin improvises with great care.

I also love this scene because we’re not only seeing a Chiron that’s shy and stumbling, but an adult Chiron who’s smiling, eating, and, in a lot of ways, rekindling something he thought he lost.  Furthermore, the warm lighting, the homely setting and Kevin’s probing reveals that our hero, despite his tough appearance, is a guy who just wants to be loved for who he is.  This is best exemplified when the film shifts to Kevin’s house for the finale.  With both men finally together after years apart, we find Chiron in Kevin’s arms, with his face free from torment.  His eyes, trapped in happiness, seem to be wandering off to some far away time in his past, where we cut to a young Chiron at the beach, draped in blue, with the ocean far ahead of him as he turns to look back at us,…at a grown, and happy, Chiron.

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All in all, Chiron’s tale is a tale of a gay black youth battling toxic masculinity, homophobia and self-hatred in a world that demands that he be anything but himself.  Yet Moonlight’s battle is a battle for the ages.  By showing us this story, Jenkins and his team have drawn us into a dream, a quest, and an odyssey that reminds us all that, despite what others say, we are born with radiance.  For me, Moonlight’s ending act captures this idea perfectly.  After reclaiming his Mother’s love, an adult Chiron finds a path to himself and is embraced by the one who knew him best.   And in that singular moment of joy, the film’s final moment cuts to that solitary shot of that kid on the beach, glancing back as he shines under the moonlight.  Yes, the film ends here, but isn’t that the point?  Chiron has found love, hope and the essence of who he’s meant to be.  And from there, as we ponder about his future during the credits, we can finally see that for him, anything’s possible.

Naika Reviews “Mr. Vampire”

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Did you ever wish there was a horror film that had slapstick comedy, practical effects, amazing stunt work and Hong Kong fight choreography?  Well this Halloween, look no further than to the Hong Kong classic that is Mr. Vampire from 1985.  Even though it wasn’t the pioneer of the jiang shi (or “hopping corpse”) genre, Mr. Vampire’s the one that made it famous all over Asia.  Its success was so massive that it spawned 3 sequels and a slew of other films that would recycle the same actors in vaguely similar roles from the original.  Ain’t that crazy?  Produced by Sammo Hung and starring fellow Hong Kong stuntmen such as Lam Ching Ying and Chin Siu-ho, Mr. Vampire is an action-packed horror comedy of the Hong Kong kind that’s so crazy that it can’t be missed.  So let’s all be adventurous and dive right in.

Master Kau and Master Four-Eyes (Lam Ching Ying and Anthony Chan respectively) are two Taoist priests who run a business transporting recently dead jiang shi back to their hometowns for a proper burial.  Using special paper talismans to reanimate and control these stiffs, both men are portrayed as pros who know that handling hopping corpses ain’t for laughs.  However, this wouldn’t be a comedy without their two stoopid apprentices, Man-choi (the late Ricky Hui) and Chau-sang (Chin Siu-ho).  Their dumbfuckery is best seen in the film’s opening, where Chau-sang’s prank on Man-choi blows off the all-important paper talismans that immobilize their jiang shi clients.  With a bunch of hopping-mad stiffs on the loose, Kau and Four Eyes hurriedly (and hilariously) come to the rescue to not only subdue these stiffs, but to save their students from themselves.

Master Four-Eyes (L) and Master Kau (R) give a big ‘F*CK YOU’ to their apprentices before they go out for some Yum Cha in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire.”

The plot rolls ahead once we’re introduced to the wealthy Master Yam and his daughter Ting Ting (the bodacious Moon Lee Choi-fung, in her first big role before becoming an action star).  Yam is looking to have his father reburied elsewhere in order to bring more luck to his family and invites both Kau and Man-choi to a Western-style brunch, hoping to enlist their help. This scene in particular is a bit goofy given that both Kau and Man-choi have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to anything West of China, and Ting Ting, being the most knowledgeable of the bunch, gets a few giggles in at our heroes’ expense.  However, this payoff doesn’t come without her getting creeped out by the leery eyes of Man-choi.  Yuck!

It’s only when Master Kau agrees to rebury Yam’s father do things start to get spooky.  Upon exhumation, our merry band of Taoists are shocked to discover that the corpse has yet to decompose, prompting fears that this stiff may come back to terrorize the living.  With all this in mind, Kau and company decide to move this would-be jiang shi into their lair for confinement.  However, since we have TWO DUMBSHIT apprentices here, things do NOT go as planned.  Not only does our corpse escape, its ferocity ignites a hilarious car-crash of events where Kau, Man-choi, Chau-sang and Ting Ting all team up to fight a jiang-shi which grows more powerful after each battle.  Oh, and did I mention that throughout all of this, Master Four-Eyes, the only other priest in this group, is away guiding other hopping stiffs for burial?

Moon Lee endures another Bey Logan impersonator in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire.”

Though the plot (minus the spooky) seems pretty standard for Hong Kong fare of the 80s, Mr. Vampire makes up for that with hilarious hi-jinks that are centered around polished stunts and special effects.  My guess is that Sammo Hung’s hand as producer was essential for making the action here as bombastic as possible.  With the legendary Yuen Wah as the invincibly evil “Mr. Vampire”, we get to see how our heroes fight this terror with full-impact hits, painful falls and amazing pyrotechnics once Wah’s burned alive….twice!  The Hong Kong fight choreography also adds rhythmic intensity to scenes where our heroes either need to block hits, run like hell or scream like babies.  One of the standout scenes for me is how Chau-sang deals with a recently turned jiang shi in a prison while Master Kau looks on from his cell after being wrongly convicted for the death of said jiang shi.  Chau-sang hides, runs, fights, does flips, and screams for his life like a madman, and it’s ALL AWESOME!  This fun mixture of humor and action, combined with the scary groans of the jiang shi, transforms your typical Hong Kong fight scene into a heart-pounding set-piece that delivers laughs AND scares.  With scenes like this peppered throughout the film, it’s no wonder that Mr. Vampire was such a massive hit all over Asia.

However, let me be clear and say that  Mr. Vampire isn’t without its flaws.  Some scenes tend to drag a bit, especially those that feature the insufferable Billy Lau.  Furthermore, some of the humor found in Mr. Vampire is, unfortunately, a bit dated.  This is especially the case when it comes to our perverted apprentices, as well as a scene where the mental handicap of a rice-seller’s son is shown for laughs.  Also, am I the only one who thinks that Moon Lee should be beating-up zombies left and right instead of being a damsel-in-distress who gets sidelined for household stuff?  Though this movie pre-dates her status as a Girls-with-Guns alumnus in the Hong Kong film industry, I still wished Moon had more to do in the ass-kicking department.  These issues aren’t exactly deal-breakers for me, but I think we can all see why folks might be turned off by this, especially when it comes to the dated jokes.

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Man-choi (L) gets scared shitless by Chau-sang in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire”.

Despite these concerns, Mr. Vampire emerges as a rockin’ film that showcases the best of what Hong Kong cinema had to offer in the 1980s.  Filled with fights, laughs, scares and mishaps, this film delivers with universal thrills in a uniquely Chinese cultural package.  Now, it’s easy for the casual viewer to be intimidated by the myths that surround the jiang shi, but if you go into it with an open mind, Mr. Vampire will reward you handsomely.  The fact that jiang shi mania swept Japan, South Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia decades ago is ample evidence for this.  Furthermore, with recent films like 2013’s Rigor Mortis leading the genre’s revival (which, I might add, features both Chin Siu-ho and Anthony Chan), this is probably THE best time to sit down and see this awesome classic.  So set the holy water aside this season, and gear up for a horror comedy that’ll leave you burnt, bruised and hopping mad for some high-kicking Hong Kong action.  Thank you all for reading and have a Happy Halloween!!

Naika Reviews “Tampopo”

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There is no greater film about food than Tampopo.  Period.  I’ve never seen Ramen Girl or Spanglish, nor have I raided my Barnes & Noble for Babette’s Feast.  Noodles, whether it’s ramen, liangpi, pho, char kuay teow, boat noodles, pancit and so on and so forth, have now found a place in the American food landscape, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than to savor the flavors of this movie.  In my youth, Tampopo was this mysterious film that would just sit in my video store, waiting to be discovered.  My brother and I finally rented the DVD in the 2000s and we were literally BLOWN AWAY.  You have to understand that for Asian-Americans like us, there was literally no respectful representation of Asian food in American TV or film.  Tampopo, however, was different.  Tampopo wasn’t just an indie darling, or some East Asian village flick that stoked white audiences’ “allure for the Orient.”  It was a daring, modern-day comedy that asked you to not only take food seriously, but to realize that serious people make it their life’s work to make good food for you.

But let’s take a step back and shoot the shit about the details.  Tampopo, for all the adjectives I’ve provided on the last paragraph, is, to its core, a movie about a struggling business.  Our title character is a working class Mom who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen-ya afloat, and it’s only through a combo of factors that she runs into the gruff, cowboy trucker named Goro.  After sharing his thoughts about how bad her ramen is, Tampopo becomes driven to make her business shine and enlists the man’s help to fire it all up.  After giving her a few tips, Goro soon goes to work in getting our lovable Mom into fighting shape.  Literally.  Either through jogging, pot lifting relays or ramen assembly speedruns, Tampopo’s journey to become a true noodle artisan is just packed with so much fun that even the pickiest of viewers will watch.

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This leads us to the next big reason why Tampopo is such a fun flick: she ISN’T the only focus here!  Throughout the course of the movie, we’re treated to a wealth of vignettes from foreground characters who all have their own food journeys to share.  Some of these include a dim sum consumer with a toothache, a con man with a knack for Peking Duck and a stuffy Europhile whose course on pasta etiquette goes south for all the right reasons.  And, without giving away too much, let’s not forget the amazing Koji Yakusho with his portrayal as a scene-stealing gangster whose eye for food is second to none.  Thanks to these stories, Tampopo transcends its former status as a ‘Ramen Western’ into a full-blown celebration of Japan’s urban food scene in the 1980s.

However, Japan’s pre-bubble food scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the allure of Ramen and its status as blue collar cuisine.  When the film does shift back to Tampopo , we see how much consideration goes into every single element of a bowl of ramen.  From the texture of the noodles to the details of making the right broth, Tampopo’s desire to become a top chef reveals that making ramen isn’t just some process that comes out of a pot or a microwave; it’s the ultimate reflection of working class Asia, where humble, hard-working customers demand genuine food from genuine people.

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The times, however, have changed.  This is 2018, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, ramen is in the big leagues now.  That being said, Tampopo functions as a window into a not-so-distant past devoid of Yelp, overseas ramen-ya and our predisposition for Michelin stars.

All in all, Tampopo is a paean to the epicure in all of us, showing us firsthand that ‘slinging hash’ isn’t just a way to get by, but a chance to express ourselves through senses beyond sight and hearing.  Even though we’re unable to smell or taste what’s on screen, Tampopo is a visual feast that stokes both our hunger and curiosity without the need for explanations.  This is especially the case when it comes to the preparation of dishes that aren’t ramen, including omelette rice and Korean barbecue.  However, despite these gorgeous gourmet scenes, this film has more to offer than meets the eye.  When we get to the meat of it, Tampopo is, at its core, a heart-warming study on the values of passion and cultivation.  This is best exemplified through our title character’s own journey, where she transforms herself from a sullen cook and widow into a passionate, knowledgeable and vibrant chef whose determination and resilience blossoms beyond the evolution of her ramen.  From here, we can safely say that Juzo Itami’s film isn’t just an ode to the gourmet in all of us.  It’s a potent and vibrant reminder about our capacity to savor the tangible, to love furiously, to share joy with others and to realize just how timeless exuberance can be in the pursuit of mastery.