Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Wu yi bian fu (1980)

... aka: 無翼蝙蝠
... aka: Bat Without Wings

Directed by:
Chu Yuan (Yuen Chor)

Twenty-eight of the best fighters in the boxer world travel to the Hungfa Temple in an effort to defeat a murderous, lustful demon nicknamed "Bat Without Wings" (Ching Tang) who hides his identity behind a black-and-white "mask" that looks more like KISS make-up. Bat is rumored to have kidnapped, raped and murdered many beautiful young women in the area and must be stopped. After eliminating all but two of the swordsmen, he's finally killed by Szma Zhongyuan aka Iron Palm and the province can now rest easy. Five years pass and a security bureau is passing through a rural area when they stop by a tea house. The owner (Feng Ku) passes along a note to Lei-fing (Pui-San Auyeung), which has been left there for her by one Xiao Qi (Derek Yee Tung Sing). Nicknamed "The Broken-Heart Sword," Xiao is a brave and handsome young fighter known for possessing a white pearl sword and, uh, a green horse with a purple silk rein. Lei-fing swoons at the prospect of meeting him so when the note asks her to come see him at an abandoned local temple it's pretty much a no brainer. Lei-fing tells her party to stay put while she walks to the temple alone.

While Lei-fing is away, the owner reveals himself to be the notorious Bat and quickly slaughters all of the travelers save for a handmaiden Qiuju (Li-Ling Liao), who passes out. Lei-fing arrives at the temple but instead of finding a heartthrob there waiting to sweep her off her feet, she finds the tea house owner / Bat has lured her there. Two swordfights later, Lei-fing finds herself drugged and in some catacombs beneath the temple decorated with sculptures of beautiful women where a second, facially scarred man who appears to be out of his mind emerges. As it turns out, the tea house owner who announced himself as Bat is merely an impostor and the deranged guy being kept in the underground lair is the original Bat. And the man impersonating Bat was also impersonating the tea house owner (whom he killed before the security bureau even arrived) and is actually Iron Palm, the man rumored to have killed Bat five years earlier. Got that?

Meanwhile, in another city, Qi Xiao is trying to enjoy a relaxing dinner but keeps getting interrupted. Iron Palm's daughter, Dongcheng (Ling Chi), arranges for Ghost King (Shen Chan), leader of the murderous Hell Gang, to try to kill him. After winning their fight (which turns out to be a test of his abilities), Dongcheng hires Xiao to try to locate her father, see if rumors that Bat are still alive are true (hint: we already know the answer to this) and also get revenge since her lover (Jason Piao Pai) has been killed. Two comic robbers then show up for yet another quickie swordfight before running off. Finally, Lei-fing's father, Lei Xun (Yong Wang), and her fiance, Han Shen (Kuan-Chung Ku), show up asking if he had anything to do with his daughter's disappearance (hint: we already know the answer to this, too).

Having already been killed and dismembered, Lei-fing's temporarily reassembled ghost returns briefly to remove her head and leave it on her father's doorstep before her body falls apart. Qi Xiao joins the grieving, vengeful father and fiance in their quest for answers, which leads them to Leng Qiuyun (Fei Ai) aka the "Thousand-Faced Scholar," who was the only other man to survive the fight with Bat five years prior. Unfortunately, Qiuyun refuses to give out too much information as his beloved Ximen Luoye is in danger and hiding out somewhere. Ximen Luoye also happens to be a dead ringer for Lei-fing (and is played by the same actress). Few people are what they seem here and most of them have some kind of ulterior motive that's eventually revealed. As if there's not enough going on already, there are also two swords called "Bat Blades" that, when combined together, give out a clue to the whereabouts of a hidden fortune in jewels.

Our heroes face multiple hurdles along the way, including endless duplicitous characters, endless swordfights (one even taking place over a lake of acid), surviving a booby-trapped island with moving bamboo, toxic water and a spike pit, discovering secret passageways, enduring Taoist black magic spells and much more. The titular bad guy turns isn't even the primary focus here, as his character is bat-shit crazy and laughing like a loon the entire time. Having this perverted sex predator / killer of teenage girls as the film's primary comic relief is a bit odd to put it mildly.

There's action, adventure, fantasy and horror aplenty in this very busy wuxia and a lot to appreciate from a visual standpoint. Since this is from Shaw Brothers, the sets, props and costumes are all on point and the lighting choices are great. There's a nice autumnal look to the outdoor sets with use of pastels and lots of swirling fog and bolder color choices used in the underground lair. In other words, this is always a joy to look at. However, that's not quite enough to make up for the awful, redundant dialogue and a plot that's a headache-inducing mess. We have characters falsely claiming others are dead, characters pretending to be other other characters, characters faking their own deaths, almost no character who is what they seem and far too many characters with individual motives to even keep track of here. It's such a convoluted mess that you may be like me and just stop caring altogether.

There are a number of DVD releases with English subtitle options. The most common is the Celestial Pictures release that's part of their "Eastern Masters" collection.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Hostile Takeover (1988)

... aka: Devastator, The
... aka: Noite dos Reféns (Hostages Night)
... aka: Office Party
... aka: Office Party - Geiselnahme im Büro (Office Party: Hostage in the Office)
... aka: Secuestro en la oficina (Office Kidnapping)
... aka: Sindrome implacable (Restless Syndrome)

Directed by:
George Mihalka

Eugene Brackin (David Warner) is polite, mind-mannered and honest, a very hard worker and the exact type of guy the phrase "He wouldn't even hurt a fly" was coined for. He's even volunteered to go into the office on a Saturday while most of his other colleagues are enjoying their weekend, only this time he's brought along a suitcase. He tells his attractive-and-she-knows-it young coworker, Sally (Kate Vernon), that he's going on a small trip once he leaves there. Another of his colleagues, Joan (Jayne Eastwood), can't help but brag about how much she respects Eugene and his work ethic. Larry Gaylord (Michael Ironside), who manages the office, doesn't even seem to notice as he's too busy making passes at the disinterested Sally, who scoots away from him and motions to the framed photo of Larry's wife on the desk to get him to stop. The four work until nightfall. As they grab their coats, turn off the lights and prepare to leave, they realize someone's put a bike lock on the door. Before they can make heads or tails of the situation, Eugene's suitcase is opened. Inside are guns and handcuffs. He's also thrown away the key to the lock. After cuffing everyone to chairs, Eugene offers up no answers to any of their questions. He won't tell them why he's taking them hostage or even how long he plans of keeping them there. He doesn't want money. He promises not to kill anybody. And he's not trying to make any kind of political statement. The only hint he ever drops is his insistence that "the circle must be completed."

There seems to be little rhyme or reason behind Eugene's actions. When Joan's husband calls looking for her, Eugene flat out tells him he's holding her hostage, recommends he call the police and recommends the police not get too close to the building or else he's firing. Cops quickly arrive at the scene and don't heed the warning. Eugene opens fire and blows a van up. More police, led by put-upon police chief Greg Smolen (Will Lyman), show up and surround the building. Smolen frequently talks to Eugene on the phone but is unable to pry anything useful out of him nor get him to agree to cooperate with the authorities. However, he senses this is a unique situation that may go against usual police protocol. Mayor Steve (John Vernon) also turns up but he's mostly worried about losing votes in an upcoming election and what this little stunt is going to cost the city.

Eugene has childhood flashbacks where his sadistic father chases him around in the woods with a rifle, orders him to "Bark like a dog!" and calls him a "spineless little prick!" Larry has a dream he shoots Eugene in the head and becomes the hero while Sally has a flashback to arguing with the vice president of the company, who promised her the managerial position but then gave it to Larry instead. She believes that was due to sexism while Larry accuses her of trying to sleep her way to the top, which is possible considering she and the v.p. were lovers. We also learn a bit more about Joan, who was a chance-taking feminist in her youth before settling into her current ordinary, ordered life. Still, she's haunted by an illegal abortion she had when she was younger which has left her unable to have children.

Tensions mount on the ground as disagreements about how to handle the situation form. Smolen believes the situation can be resolved without resorting to violence, while the impatient Mayor wants to resolve the crisis a.s.a.p. even if that means a few lives are lost in the process. He recommends Smolen "stop mollycoddling that asshole!" and brings in gung ho special weapons and tactics expert Lieutenant Garlis (Anthony Sherwood), whom Smolen describes as "a redneck trapped in a black man's body." It's clear the two won't be able to work together, especially when Garlis gives an unflattering press interview that angers Brackin and then places a marksman on a roof without the police chief's knowledge. In an effort to try to win back Brackin's trust, Smolen even tells him about the sniper and to stay away from the windows. Can this dire situation possibly be resolved without anyone dying?

This truly bizarre, but quite originally presented, little psychological drama came and went without much fanfare in the 80s but it's worth a look. Most of the film takes place in a drab and nearly empty third floor office room, but the director manages to dress things up nicely utilizing color, surreal flourishes, black comedy and horror imagery. Each of the office workers and the main cop are given character building moments here that are achieved not only through the dialogue but flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations and poetic voice-overs. During one scene, Larry envisions his wife fucking the company president on the floor in the middle of a party. The cop delivers an eloquent monologue as he steps around faceless, bloody bodies, which is strikingly captured via a long tracking shot looking up through a glass table. Moments like these keep this from devolving into a routine hostage thriller. There's a decent amount of blood, a bit of sex and even some office politics thrown in for good measure.

Alas, it's not all good news. Something clearly got fucked up with the sound during production. While some of the dialogue seems to have been recorded during filming, much of the rest was poorly looped in later. That results in a lot of wonky and unintentionally funny ADR, which is especially evident during the scenes with the police. Some of the police dialogue is terrible, too. You can tell they intended it to sound bad ass and hard-edged, but it just comes off as hokey most of the time. A good primary cast helps to alleviate some of those issues. Warner and Ironside have both made careers out of playing assorted weirdos, crazies and bad guys, so their roles as the motiveless hostage taker and the corporate asshole fit both like a glove. John Vernon is the other big name and gets typecast yet again as a foul-mouthed ("Show some fuckin' decorum!") pushy jerk, but that's why we love him, right? Veteran character actress Eastwood is good as per usual and newcomer Kate Vernon (John's real-life daughter) is adequate.

Based on Michae A. Gilbert's novel Office Party, which was also one of several alternative titles (the one I watched was called The Devastator). Mihalka is best know for the popular 80s slasher flick MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981). He also made the interesting astral projection film Eternal Evil (1985), The Psychic (1991) and Relative Fear (1994). Billy Bryans and Aaron Davis received a Genie Award nomination for their score.

Filmed in Toronto, this played theatrically in Canada in 1989 before being issued on home video. Here in the U.S. it was released on VHS under several different titles. There's been no DVD release as of this writing.

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