Some Not-Anime

Sometimes life drops some wondrous things in your lap, sometimes just things that make you wonder. Such is the case with a couple of pieces of Asian animation that did not originate from Japan, but rather China and Taiwan.

We’ll start with the good news – our first movie, Wan Laiming’s 1963 Da nao tian gong, titled in these parts as The Monkey King, or in this case Uproar in Heaven, is available for streaming on Amazon Video, and if you’re an Amazon Prime member, it’s free. For a Monkey King fan like myself, this is sheer catnip.

Uproar in Heaven is split into two parts of slightly under an hour each, and if you’ve seen Donnie Yen’s Monkey King, you’re already familiar with the story, though this telling approaches it from a different direction, and I’m thinking it’s somewhat closer to the classic tale. It should probably be titled The Monkey King Is Here To Kick Some Ass, because that is exactly what happens.

The plucky Sun Wukong is definitely the hero, and the Jade Emperor, worried about his power, offers two different minor jobs in heaven to the Monkey (supposedly to more easily keep tabs on him), with disastrous results. Upset by the Royal horses being confined in stables, he sets them free. Charged with guarding the Heavenly Peach Preserves, he eats the peaches and steals the annual feast for his monkey minions (he also eats all the Jade Emperor’s Golden Elixir Pills, as one does). This Jade Emperor is nowhere near as amused by all these antics as Chow Yun Fat’s filmic version. Each time the Jade Emperor sends warriors to take Sun Wukong down a notch, with less than favorable results for the warriors.

Here’s where Uproar in Heaven is truly magnificent: first, the animation is wonderful, often looking like nothing so much as a painted scroll come to life. Second of all, the fight scenes are plentiful and seem to be harvested from Peking Opera productions, complete with their distinctive music. These fight scenes are all fantastic and well-choreographed.

It’s also causing me to do more research into these classic Chinese characters. Above we see Sun Wukong in his fight with Nezha, another popular character we last saw in League of Gods. He got his own popular cartoon movie in 1979, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, which is another thing to look for, grumble grumble. In the second part, Wukong takes on Erlang Shen, the chief of the martial gods of heaven, who is more of a match for the Monkey King. Their fight segues into another setpiece from Journey of the West, Erlang and Wukong each turning into a variety of animals as they pursue each other. As I said, they are evenly matched, and it is only through the interference of another god that Wukong is captured. More disaster for heaven, though, as Wukong proves to be pretty indestructible and all attempts to execute him literally backfire.

Uproar in Heaven ends with the destruction of the Heavenly Palace and Sun Wukong triumphant. No reproach and imprisonment from the Buddha yet. A happy ending, if you’re a Monkey King fan. And who isn’t?

What’s that? You don’t have Amazon Prime? You poor thing. Here:

And then, on the other end of the scale, we have 1976’s Chinese Gods, directed by Chang Chih-hui.

Back in the halcyon days of VHS, I would spend lots of time wading through the tapes at the late, lamented Audio-Video Plus, which had a staggering inventory, and this was one I always passed up for later, which never came. The VHS box used the very same shot from the movie as the DVD box to the right; I do not, however, recall it claiming to be “An Authentic Recreation of a True Story”. (Anyone who has seen this is so going to take issue with that statement)

So, piqued by my exuberant experience with Uproar in Heaven, I actively sought it out. High time, I figured.

Well.

I guess the first disclaimer to make is that the actual title is The Story of Chinese Gods, and it’s not Chinese, it’s Taiwanese. I would also surmise that my bewilderment at what was unspooled before me was partially due to my inebriation, but I am assured by others that this is not the case. My confused tweets of WHAT THE HELL AM I WATCHING led to some commiseration across the Network of Tubes. Chinese Gods is literally one damned thing after another, with the viewer left to his own devices as to connections and characters. Also adding to my disorientation is that the English dub is by the same voice talent that did the Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks, and I am not used to having those voices come out of cartoons.

Are you ready for MULTI-BRUCE?

So, having sobered up the next day, I did some research. Info is very scarce on this, but one thing was useful: this is a cartoon version of Investiture of the Gods, the same classic novel that is the basis for League of Gods. Everything that seemed familiar to my besotted brain suddenly made sense, such as the appearance of Nehza again (wearing a distracting apron – and nothing else – and voiced by a woman because he has long hair) and the eventual appearance of a caricature of the late Bruce Lee as Erlang Shen, stunt casting that actually makes some sense, even if nothing else does.

In a second watch with that knowledge, the story made much more sense. This puts me in mind of things from my youth like an animated Three Musketeers than ran on Thanksgiving afternoon on CBS after all the parades. Limited TV animation, all the sword fights were silhouettes of men waving around swords, and if you didn’t already have some familiarity with the story, you would have been lost. This is the Chinese Gods experience in a nutshell. Investiture of the Gods is now considered as much of a literary touchstone as the better-known Journey to the West, and its intended audience had some foreknowledge we Western heathens did not.

Die, cartoon spider!

The animation style is… eclectic, to say the least. A lot of the character designs owe much to anime, but the more outlandish fantasy creatures look like fugitives from a lighthearted children’s cartoon, even if they do die bloody deaths. The fight choreography is certainly not as good as Uproar in Heaven’s, but they still obviously took more care with them. And I hope you liked the metamorphic animal pursuit from that movie, as it shows up in Chinese Gods, as well.

And here is the kicker. Chinese Gods is also available on Amazon Video, free on Prime under the title Bruce Lee and Chinese Gods. My DVD is probably sourced from that same VHS from Audio-Video Plus, damage and all. Every other domestic version I’ve seen is the same. But Amazon’s version is widescreen, as is that video clip above (and below). I cannot tell you how much easier the story is to follow when released from the constraint of fucking pan-and-scan. Also, even though it runs ten minutes shorter than my DVD version, it has scenes that are cut from the VHS version. There is even, mystifyingly, some expository text over the opening credits explaining some of the characters – if you read German. It’s a damned enigma.

So yet another reason to hate the 4:3 Satan that ruined our entertainment for so many years. I don’t think seeing this enhanced version would have caused me to start suddenly recommending Chinese Gods, but it would have made that first watch so much easier.

Then again, I freely admit that I am so jaded that when a movie actually manages to bewilder as that first viewing did, I find it refreshing and enjoyable.

Let’s close out with more Cartoon Bruce (widescreen of course) and some Street Fighter music.

The ABCs of March 2014 Part Two

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E

F: Following (1998)

followingChristopher Nolan’s first feature film, shot on weekends during his student days, has the whole Nolan package in a trim 70 minutes: duplicitous characters, fluidity of timeline, twists, turns, double crosses, and one hell of a final reveal.

Shot in gloriously grainy black-and-white 16mm, Following is the tale of Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a young aspiring writer who starts following random strangers, observing them and hopefully gleaning some material for his work. Then one of his targets turns the tables on him – Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional thief and amateur philosopher. Cobb takes Bill under his tutelage, burglarizing apartments and disrupting peoples’ lives, telling Bill “You take it away… you show them what they had.” Bill becomes enamored of this lifestyle, becomes involved with one of their victims – and then, things get complicated.

Like the best of Nolan’s work, it’s essential to pay attention while the story works its Byzantine path toward that amazing conclusion. Events are played out-of-order, and quite often an unexplained occurrence is explained several scenes later (there is an alternate edit on the Criterion disc that places events in chronological order, but it seems like that would be much less fun – less of a discovery tingle, there). It’s to Nolan’s credit that everything makes sense at the wrap-up.

Probably the best comparison in Nolan’s filmography is The Prestige – and that is pretty high praise. If you liked one, you’re going to love the other. Highly recommended.

Following on Amazon

G: Ganja & Hess (1973)

gan_hThis wasn’t originally in the plan I mocked up for MMM, but this was picked as the movie in focus for the next Daily Grindhouse podcast, so I slipped it into the G spot (so to speak) instead of Godfather III. Perhaps the Universe was doing me a solid.

This was produced largely as an answer to blaxploitation movies so popular at the time – it is smart, challenging, at times deliberately abtruse. It is a vampire movie that never uses the word “vampire”. It stars Duane Jones, who everybody knows from Night of the Living Dead, and that, along with this movie, should have had Hollywood hammering at his door because good God, is he incredible. Writer/director/actor Bill Gunn was some sort of certifiable genius, to be sure, whose career never really took off, and the color of his skin likely had a lot to do with that.

Ganja and Hess got a standing ovation at Cannes, and proceeded to go absolutely nowhere in America: there is whole lot of odd stuff with Gunn’s character before he goes bullgoose looney and stabs Jones with an ancient dagger that somehow infects him with vampirism, and even then your typical horror movie tropes are few and far between. Most people expecting Blacula Part II probably left the theater in the first 15 minutes.

Ganja01I’m not going into much detail here, saving it for the podcast (listen early and often, my droogs), but we’re currently looking for a copy of Blood Couple, a version recut into a more traditional horror movie form.

Recommended, but be prepared for a challenge. It’s been written that you’re supposed to connect with Ganja & Hess not with your brain, but with your core instincts – and they’re probably right. We needed a lot more from Gunn and Jones; it wasn’t so much that these men were born too early as that America had its head up its ass for too long.

Ganja & Hess on Amazon

No trailer, but have two minutes of typically beautiful strangeness:

H: Harold & Maude (1971)

harold_and_maude_ver3_xlgHarold (Bud Cort) a twenty-something rich young man obsessed with death, has several pastimes, most notably practicing suicide in an effort to get a rise out of his remote mother (Vivian Pickles). During another hobby – attending funerals – he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year-old lady with a contagiously free spirit. She also attends funerals of people she’s never met, but she regards death as only part of a life to be ferociously, and whimsically, lived. This blossoming relationship will change Harold significantly, and shock audiences as the two become lovers.

This is one of the movies on the MMM list that I had already seen, but not since the late 70s. Unsurprisingly, my head’s in a different place some 35 years later, and I noticed some things I had not in my callow youth. Most significantly, the possibility that Maude’s flaunting of the law (“borrowing” cars and in one case almost getting shot by a cop) may not be due to free-wheeling anti-authoritarianism, but the onset of some form of dementia. The hard-edged satire of Harold’s relationships with every other adult in his circle – his mother, psychiatrist, military uncle, various “computer dates” his mother sets up – all seem more than little heavy-handed, but welcome to 1971: this played so well to my generation, it was beyond reproach.

None of this shook my love for the film; if anything, it reminded me how important Hal Ashby’s movies were to me as my tastes and worldview developed, this one and Being There foremost. I settled into it and its Cat Stevens soundtrack (for some reason, over the years I had thought it was Harry Nilsson) like an old, comfortable friend, and finding fresh nuances was delightful. Perhaps the most surprising part was rediscovering how a movie could be simultaneously so challenging and yet so gentle, so black in its humor and yet so sentimental.

Harold & Maude on Amazon

I: Ivan the Terrible, part one (1944)

1944-Ivan-el-terrible-Sergei-M-Eisenstein-espanol-1Well, enough romances, let’s have some blood and thunder. Well. not too much blood and thunder to be found here, but it’s the basis for a lot of it.

Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine worked on retooling the lives of prominent historical Russian figures to better support the Soviet worldview, and for some reason (sarcasm intended) he especially liked Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia for almost forty years, expanded its borders, dragged his country out of the Middle Ages… and killed a whole bunch of people. Sergei Eisenstein. the genius of Russian cinema, undertook the project. It would take three years to shoot, would damn near kill him – he suffered his first heart attack after completing the editing on Part Two, and it certainly killed his career in his native land; Part Two of his epic was banned in Russia until 1958, and the planned third part never lensed.

But we’re here to contemplate the first movie, which is more origin story than anything else, providing the basis for Ivan’s later paranoia and draconian methods. Formerly the Grand Prince of Moscow, he is crowned Tsar of All the Russias at the tender age of 17, and immediately starts making reforms necessary to making Russia an Empire, taxing churches and minimizing the ruling class of Boyars (a flashback demonstrating why Ivan hates the Boyars was excised and placed instead in the reviled Part Two). He puts down a peasant revolt at his own wedding celebration, using only his canny wit, forceful presence, and a timely declaration of war against the Khanate of Kazan.

ivanterHis ultimate triumph over the Khanate is only a small part of the movie – most of it concerns the eddying tides of conspiracy and backbiting around his rule, culminating in the poisoning of his wife by Boyars, which signals the end of his reasonable phase and the beginning of his “Brotherhood of Iron”, a secret army loyal only to him. A brilliant statesman, he retreats to a nearby village and awaits the parade of common folk who beg him to return, one of Eisenstein’s best, most elaborate (and likely most expensive) set-ups.

But that’s the crown jewel in a movie full of tremendous setpieces and striking images. The acting and makeup seem to be still stuck in German Expressionist silent movie mode, but that’s a small thing when presented with such a compelling time capsule – and I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. This part of the saga received a Stalin Prize, which Eisenstein would enjoy for only a year, until the state censors saw its sequel.

Ivan the Terrible on Amazon

No trailer because that would be bourgeois.

J: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

JourneytotheWestConqueringtheDemonsWell, that’s quite a mouthful of a title.

We’re going to go into a couple of autobiographical detours here. First, if you’ve known or read me for any length of time, you know that I loves me some Monkey King. This can be traced back to the deeply strange anime movie Alakazam the Great – deeply weird because the folks involved in dubbing it attempted to Americanize it with great gusto, excising all mention of Buddha or any other Oriental figures. It was based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which is like 3 million pages long, and has been the basis of a lot of movies. One of my favorites is the Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey, of which I have a Canadian blu-ray under the title Monkey MagicDespite my determination to only watch movies I’ve never seen this year, that one gets trotted out frequently.

Secondly: Stephen Chow is a filmmaker I’ve been familiar with for many years. When a mania for Asian movies hit America in the early 90s, Chow’s movies were inevitably swept along, only to be met with confusion. I recall one critic bemoaning “some of the best action sequences in Hong Kong cinema” watered down by “goofy comedy”. I’m just going to point out that criticism was also leveled at Jackie Chan’s movies, then move along. Chow was enamored of word play, and the polytonal nature of the major Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, provided rich opportunities for that – opportunities that did not translate well into English. Still movies like the Royal Tramp series and King of Beggars had their fans… and then Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle hit, and Stephen Chow started clicking with American audiences.

journeywest1So now, here’s a combination of the two: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a “Gathering the Team” type version of the novel, a prequel of sorts, especially if you don’t mind messing with the original source material. I haven’t even read Arthur Whaley’s acclaimed abridged translation, so I’m not in the position to judge.

Our main character is novice demon hunter Zhang (Wen Zhang) whose methods of appealing to demons’ better nature is ineffective, to say the least. Constantly upstaged by the more proactive Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who is increasingly smitten with the young monk, Zhang is advised to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo) for aid in defeating the Pig Demon, currently running amok and too strong to capture.

There is going to be plenty of goofy comedy, but that long-ago critic was right about Chow’s action sequences: they are amazing, varied and entertaining. Throw in rival demon hunters like Prince Important and the Almighty Foot, and a portrayal of the Monkey King so duplicitous and savage that you finally understand why Buddha stuck him under a mountain for 500 years, and you have one crackerjack Chinese fantasy, no matter how many liberties taken.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Amazon