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 “The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter”

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Of all the Shaw Brothers films that I’ve watched over the last few years of my life, I just keep coming back to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.  I loved the ultra-violent Five Element Ninjas, and I just recently viewed the dark and moody Ti Lung film, The Magic Blade, so the studio definitely knew what it was doing when it made this immense, yet diverse library of action films year after year.  So in one sense, this movie shouldn’t have stood out that much.  On the one hand, 8 Diagrams is a by-the-numbers tale involving personal and familial dishonor, but on the other hand, it’s an action-packed whirlwind of mayhem featuring some of the best fight choreography imaginable. Director and fight coordinator Lau Kar Leung has helmed many, many excellent films for the Shaws throughout his career, including the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, My Young Auntie, Heroes of the East and Martial Club, but what makes 8 Diagrams so powerful is its raw blend of savagery, angst, betrayal and retribution.   There’s no doubt that this film has some flaws, but I guarantee you that it will be one of the most memorable Shaw Brothers offerings one can ever recommend to those who love kung-fu films.

The first thing that needs to be fleshed out about this film is the basis for the plot.  8 Diagrams is loosely based on a collection of  mostly fictional folk tales, novels and plays about the Yangs, a Song Dynasty military family known for their strength, bravery and loyalty.  Led by patriarch Yang Ye, the large family helped to defend China from both the Khitan-ruled Liao Dynasty and the Tangut Western Xia Dynasty.  Most notably, Yang Ye had seven sons who he apparently rode into battle with and two battle-hardened daughters, all with his wife She Saihua, who was adept in both martial arts and archery.  However, as some of the stories indicate, Yang Ye’s fellow generals had grown jealous over his exploits, including Pan Mei, who would be one of the main antagonists of the film.  These rough details would eventually become the backbone of the 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

The film basically begins with the jealous Pan Mei, as he, more or less, bullshits his daughter, a consort to the Song Emperor, into sending troops out to wreck the Yang family during their Northern campaign against Liao invaders.  From here, we cut away into battle where Yang Ye and his seven sons are introduced, fighting against the Liao.  They wreck the invaders with their immense spear-fighting, but out of nowhere, Pan Mei emerges .  With a Liao General and the Liao Prince (portrayed by the amazing Wang Lung Wei) by his side, it’s revealed that Pan Mei has laid a trap for Yang Ye in order to not only get rid of his rival, but to help the Liao Dynasty take over.  The Yangs are furious, but the Liao have a new weapon under their sleeve that’s basically a staff that ensnares the Yangs’ spears and makes their spear-fighting obsolete.  With this new weapon, the Liao make short work of the Yang family as brother after brother is slaughtered.  One is hung up by spears.  Another is trampled to death.  One is stabbed in the belly and so on, and so on.  Amidst this chaos, only Yang Liulang (the 6th Son, played by the late Alexander Fu Sheng) and Yang Wulang (the 5th son, our main character, portrayed by Gordon Liu) are left, while Yang Ye, cornered by Pan Mei to surrender, commits suicide instead.

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With Gordon Liu’s character lost in the wilderness after the battle, Fu Sheng’s 6th Son goes insane and straggles on home.  It’s through him that much of the film’s angst and dishonor is exemplified once he encounters both his mother and sisters.  This scene is particularly gripping given that the 6th Son details the deaths of all of his siblings under a spell of  child-like madness while both his family and servants react in horror with each new grisly revelation.  The scene ends in what would be one of the film’s penultimate scenes, where the 6th Son finally reveals the fate of his father to everyone.  His Mother’s faints, the sisters kneel in mourning, and these actions ripple out as the surrounding servants all kneel in sadness as they take in the realization that the entire family is finished.

After this, the rest of 8 Diagrams’ running time is spent cutting back and forth between what happens in the Yang household and the fate of Yang Wulang.  Much of what happens at home relates to how the family deals with the 6th Son’s madness while She Saihua, his mother, navigates new obstacles once Pan Mei names the family as traitors.  As for Yang Wulang,  I think it’s safe to say that it’s almost a retread of the 36th Chamber to some degree as he, after surviving a narrow escape from Liao pursuers, decides to leave worldly matters to become a monk at Wutai Mountain in Shaanxi Province (notice that this is NOT Shaolin Temple in Hebei).  Before doing so however, he angrily says goodbye to his life as a soldier by chopping off the blade of his spear, turning it into a staff.

What follows is a riptide of self-reflection, anger and training as Yang Wulang does his utmost to earn his keep as a monk.  The training sequences in particular are a highlight for their focus on staff-fighting with a wooden wolf dummy (a canny metaphor for the film’s antagonists).  Another thing to note is the amount of time it takes Wulang to ‘mellow-out’ his war-like temperament.  This is exemplified in an impressive training sequence where he uses his staff to untangle a bundle of tree vines.  It’s all about self-cultivation here, and for some brief moments in the film, Wulang’s desire for vengeance slowly goes by the wayside.

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However, things all go to hell once the great Kara Hui is involved.  Through a series of situations that will probably spoil a great deal of the film, Kara’s 8th sister tries to get in contact with Yang Wulang, but unfortunately for her, Pan Mei gets a whiff of this and decides to intervene.  Luckily for us, Wulang get wind of this himself, and feels compelled to save her.  By this time in the film however, Wulang is already a high ranking monk who is, more or less, a shadow of his former self.  The Grand Abbott, portrayed to amazing effect by the late, great Phillip Ko, senses this in his pupil and challenges him, giving us one of the most remarkable fights ever put into film.  Seeing this one fight on YouTube alone was THE reason why I sought out this classic, especially since it features some very complex set pieces.  If you don’t believe me, see it below.

However, a Shaw Brothers film isn’t complete without a final fight, and by all regards, it is MONUMENTAL.  I refuse to spoil the details but all in all, it’s a whirlwind of mayhem, revenge, blood, screaming and a demolished inn.  It’s one of the most satisfying brawls that I’ve ever laid eyes on and it continues to call out to me whenever I need my Shaw action fix.  If anybody is STILL on the fence about this film, then definitely see it for this last fight alone.

Overall, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is, to me, one of the best offerings I’ve ever experienced from the Shaw Brothers library.  It not only illuminates a little-known piece of Chinese history to Western audiences, but it does so with drama, angst and god-tier fight choreography.  Gordon Liu, Kara Hui and the rest of the Lau Kar Leung gang are at the peak of their powers here, and it’s a total shame that more couldn’t have been done with Fu Sheng’s character due to his death on set.  If there was anything else I could say that were negatives about the film, it would probably have to do with the inaccurate subtitles from Dragon Dynasty, along with the film’s brief conclusion.  Otherwise, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an amazing film that not only deserves repeated viewings, but it demands a spot on your DVD shelf, reminding us all how awesome Hong Kong action films used to be.

Naika Reviews “The One-Armed Swordsman”

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For me to even think of reviewing this Chang Cheh classic when there are so many others on the net who’ve talked on and ON about it feels redundant in so many ways, but on the flipside, The One-Armed Swordsman is a film that has garnered so much awe and emotion that for me to NOT talk about the film would be a crime to myself as a fan of Hong Kong action cinema.  I’ve heard my father speak of this film as something he had watched as a child from a broken home in Thailand, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how raw the viewing experience must have been as he connected with the film’s tragic hero, Fang Gang.  Initially lambasted by the West as an exercise in exploitation and gore, The One-Armed Swordsman has now enjoyed fame and respect from both sides of the ocean as a genre-defining film filled with angst, tragedy and sacrifice.  Simply put, The One-Armed Swordsman is one of the most significant films in Hong Kong action cinema.

The story begins as the Golden Sword school is attacked by enemies from a rival sword faction who are seeking to defeat Qi Rufeng, the school’s famed master.  After incapacitating Qi, our would be evildoers move in for the kill, but his faithful servant Fang Chang intervenes and begins to fight.  Although he is able to ward off the intruders, Fang Chang is mortally wounded, and the sword he employed throughout the fight has been broken in half.  Cradled in the arms of his crying son Fang Gang, our protagonist, Fang Chang implores the reawakened Qi Rufeng to look after his son.  Moved by Fang Chang’s sacrifice, Qi Rufeng pledges to him that he will look after Fang Gang and train him as one of his own students.  With relief and gratitude washing over his visage, Fang Chang bids his son farewell and succumbs to his fate.  Fang Gang, saddened by his father’s passing, can do nothing more that to take hold of what will become the only memento of that night, his father’s broken sword.

As Fang Gang grows into a young man, he continues to peer into the broken sword privately as he remembers the events that draped his youth in darkness.  Although he is seen as the most skilled of Qi Rufeng’s up-and-coming students, Fang Gang makes the decision to be a humble man, even going so far as to do chores like chopping firewood.  However, even that is not without its consequences as some of the other more wealthy students mock not only his status in life (he was the son of a servant after all) but his assumed ability to curry favor with Qi Rufeng.  No one of this lot is more jealous of our hero than Qi Rufeng’s own daughter, Qi Pei-er.  Spoiled and pretentious, it’s insinuated that Pei-er’s disdain of Fang Gang is a mixture of confusion, jealousy and physical attraction, making her all the more of a brat whenever the two collide.  With things coming to a boil between Fang Gang and Pei-er, it takes our would be master to cool things down as he delivers a humble speech about the role of expectations.  However, despite Qi Rufeng’s best attempts to make Fang Gang feel more welcome in the Golden Sword school, the insults and disdain surrounding our hero prove to be too much for him to handle.  With a gracious and somber note left on his bed, Fang Gang departs, much to his master’s dismay.

onearmedswordsmanHowever, as Fang Gang leaves in a frigid forest backdrop which screams iconic Shaw Brothers style, he is confronted by Pei-er and her two male miscreants from the previous caste-bitchfest to settle the score.  Fang Gang, being the smug badass that he is, dispatches Pei-er’s two flunkies easily and overpowers Pei-er with minimal effort, leaving the latter in teary-eyed defeat.  As Fang Gang tries to comfort the pouting Pei-er, she lashes out thoughtlessly with her sword and severs his right arm.  With Fang Gang in utter disbelief, he limps away towards the river’s overpass and collapses onto the passing boat of Xiaoman, a woman who will help shape, nurture and challenge our hero in the near future.

Despite Fang Gang’s quick recovery under the care and hospitality of the affectionate Xiaoman, the physical loss of his arm becomes too much for him to bare.  As a result, Xiaoman hands over to Fang Gang the only heirloom she has of her own blood-soaked youth, her father’s long sought-after sword-fighting manual.  Although half of it was burned off years ago, what remains of the manual is the left-handed portion, which intrigues Fang Gang and inspires him to hone himself anew.  As time passes, Fang Gang’s self-training bears fruit, providing him with a new-found sense of strength and self-confidence.  However, Xiaoman sees it differently, fearing that she may have to bear another tragedy under the veil of Jiang Hu.  Although Fang Gang initially dismisses his woman’s worries, the nefarious plots surrounding the Golden Sword school, conjured up by the Long-Armed Devil, soon being to weave a tangled web around him, forcing our hero to choose his future between the master who raised him, and the woman who loves him.

Some may say that the film is outdated compared to more contemporary wuxia films, but despite its age, The One-Armed Swordsman remains a classic that continues to enthrall genre fans and filmmakers to this day.  On the surface, Chang Cheh’s film portrays the simple tale of a young man who overcomes personal tragedy to help his loved ones and redeem his father’s honor, but the layers of depth beneath can only be seen by looking at the bigger picture of the film’s world and the implications surrounding it.  It’s clear early into the film that Fang Gang wants to make his mark in the world of Jiang Hu and wants to do good deeds as tribute to his father, but as Xiaoman points out to him during their relationship, the world of Jiang Hu is the same exact world that took both their fathers away and branded them with the burden of living on.  In addition, despite Xiaoman’s pleas for Fang Gang to fish, farm and enjoy a simple life, Fang Gang’s life at the Golden Sword school has already defined what his sense of self-worth is, and unfortunately, it is in the mastery of the sword.  This is obvious given his sense of self loathing when he finds himself unable to protect Xiaoman when she is harassed by swordsmen, along with the despair he feels when he is ridiculed for being “a cripple.”  This leads us to the pivotal moment when Xiaoman hands over her father’s fighting manual to Fang Gang, gambling to see if the object that led her father to death will somehow spark her would-be lover to life.  Taken together, these instances from Chang Cheh’s film illustrate to us that despite all of the grandiose and heroic musings that Jiang Hu seems to possess, it is nothing more than a gray world littered in a never-ending cycle of blood and fire.  In the end however, this dark portrait of the wuxia world not only serves to raise the stakes for our troubled hero, but it also paints for us a timeless tale where a man can not only overcome his own turmoil to become a legend, he can do so with a woman by his side, a single arm, and ultimately, a broken sword.