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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Pulgasari (1985)

Background - I bought this film on dvd a few years ago.  It was a Japanese dvd, with no English language option.  In my first (and, to date, only) custom job, I attached a subtitle file to the film and timed it.  Bar a few jumps, it turned out rather well.

Summary - It's a weird monster movie. I'd actually say that the monster isn't even the focal point. It's a story about oppression in a medieval society, which could have went in another direction without Pulgasari. It was interesting to see the monster adding to, and directing, the story; rather than a story entirely based around a monster.

I'll break down the various parts:

Story - A warlord king is seizing the iron of the kingdom, to gain absolute strength. A village tries to resist as they need the metal for farming and survival, so the blacksmith is thrown in prison. His relation is a freedom fighter/bandit type. The blacksmith fashions a small figure out of rice before he dies, and prays for the mythical Pulgasari to save the nation. His daughter cuts her finger and blood drops onto the figure, bringing it to life. It starts off small, but as it eats metal it grows rapidly. Eventually, it is huge, and leads a rebellion against the king and his bad uns. The coda brings the story full circle. It's an interesting set-up, easy to understand and reasonably well paced. Amongst the tragedy there's the odd bit of comedy, too.

Epic Monster Scale - Obviously, Pulgasari starts off small and grows to be huge. It certainly stomps through the countryside and smashes places up. No complaints there. There's also huge shots of thousands of extras, either fleeing from, or charging with, the monster. There's a lot of cannon explosions and burning balls catapulted around. It is an impressive sight for such an obscure film.

Production values - The costumes are bright and lively, with ridiculous hats. Amusing stuff. The thousands of extras were supposedly real soldiers. The monster suit isn't half bad - big daft eyes and layered armoured plating. There's a few scenes where actors are standing beside part of a huge foot or leg, and they work reasonably well. The model work is very good - Toho people were shipped in and created the miniature buildings, cannons, landscapes (and the suit - one of the Godzilla actors played the monster). There's some excellent detail in this work, with buildings collapsing in dust, smoke and fragments, which looks convincing. The scale shots of the little Pulgasari are fine, too, for the period. The matte shots of Pulgasari walking in the background as soldiers run in front are a bit chod, as the prints look very different. The scenery is frequently lovely, but there's some unpleasant dead animal scenes featured that add nothing to the film and leave a sour taste. Unnecessary trash, and the one feature about Eastern cinema that I truly despise. Richard Harrison made some observations about animal treatment on Godfrey Ho's sets (IFD films) that truly disgusted him, and a lack of care and respect for animals in Asian film of this period was all too common. The music is a bit Italian-esque, with synths.

Notes - We've heard about the director being a South Korean, who was kidnapped by the leader of North Korea, imprisoned for years, before being personally invited to direct this tale of workers rising against corrupt leaders. What I didn't know was the Toho connection, the fact that the director escaped from North Korea before this could be finished, and the fact that he remade the story over a decade later in the film The Adventures Of Galgameth. The trailer is practically identical, but has this cheesy kiddiness to it, that makes it look like an annoying version of Pulgasari's largely straight-laced effort.

Summary - I liked Pulgasari. It was better than I expected, and played out differently to a lot of kaiju films. The production values were mostly very good, and served to add a lot of charm to the film.

Originally posted on ntsc-uk

Monday, 30 January 2012

Massacre Survivor (1979)

Chung Wai Motion Picture Co. Ltd

Background: In early 2010, a consortium on a well-known genre forum contributed a considerable sum to acquire copies of this rare film from a private collector.

Briefly, the story: A rebel General (Wong Ching) tries to enlist the support of a local master, to participate in an uprising against the Emperor. He is refused, so he returns later to remove this security risk. His military forces kill everybody except the daughter Kao (Shih Szu), who flees as, quite literally, the massacre survivor. She pleads with a temple of monks to teach her the skills vital to gaining her revenge. She is taught crane-style by one monk (Shih Ting-Ken) and a specialised variety of weapons training by another (Yuen Cheung-Yan) Meanwhile, the Prince (Chung Wa) and his aide (Wong Chung) encounter assassination attempts on the road. They cross paths a few times with Kao until they release they have something in common.

Review: Excellent.

The only other films I've seen that compare to the tone of Massacre Survivor are Rebellious Reign and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Both of those films are relentlessly serious, and punch a heavy dramatic weight. The pain, frustration and anger that the lead actress displays here is clear and affecting. The scene where she howls on the steps of the temple, with the rain hammering her and the surroundings, is superb. It is very atmospheric and drags the audience into her plight. The pacing of the film is spot on - there was a solid focus on every part of the story. The fights are a good length, the conversations concise and interesting, the emotional sequences are well handled, and the training bits are exciting.

The sets and locales are also splendid. The opening march through the rain is particularly impressive. I noticed the sets are used to good effect to juxtapose the characters and their situation: The evil rebels sit in luxurious surroundings, surrounded by blossom trees, compared to the stripped-down pain and fury Shih Szu forces herself to go through in the temple training sequences.

The shapes work is good, with plenty of flourishes and stylish movements.  Similarly, the weapons work is super - I loved the half-moon blade things. And the spiky hoops - wow! Standout fights include the scene featuring the Bamboo Mountain Four, and rumble in the restaurant.  Both are highly kinetic and mix styles nicely. There doesn't seem to be too much wire-work in this film, and some effects seem to have been accomplished by reversing the footage. Director Dung Gam-Woo, and choreographers Corey Yuen Kwai and Yuen Cheung-Yan have done a terrific job keeping the action fast and fresh.

After all the hype I was preparing myself to feel let down by Massacre Survivor. But that didn't happen. It met my expectations in some respects, and surprised me in others. I never expected such a serious tone, but I'm so pleased it's turned out that way, because the other two films I mentioned before are among my favourites. The acting and casting are uniformly good, the pace of the story is superb, the choreography very good (from the perspective of my limited understanding, anyway) and the production values quality.

The technical quality of the print is passable. There's moments where it's very reasonable, with fuller colours; but at other times it's pinky/brown-er than normal.  There's also a lot of wear on the film, but that just adds to the charm for me. It really does feel like what it is - a lost classic! The subtitles are fine - most are written in reasonable English and are usually readable.  The only issue is when the text is positioned in front of a white background.

Adapted from an old review posted on kung fu cinema forums.