Monday, September 27, 2010

Lovers Destiny (1975) with Ching Li and Li Ching

While ostensibly a weepy, Chor Yuen's 1975 film, Lovers Destiny -- no apostrophe on the title card -- is a historical one. Set in the early part of the 20th century, the film also boasts Chen Kuan Tai and Shih Szu so you know there's going to be some action amid all the heartfelt stuff.

Street performers and martial artists Guan Shaofeng (Chen Kuan Tai) and his sister, Xiuzhu (Shih Szu), are saved from a corrupt street cop by the kind interventions of Mr. Fan (Chung Wa). Mr. Fan is also the guy who was gazing longingly at singer Ching Li earlier in the picture.

Ching Li plays the poor Feng Feng-Shian and her mother (Ouyang Sha-Fei) looks to Chung Wa's college student as a possible way out for her daughter. Fan helps the girl get enrolled in a school and then helps Shih Szu's family as well.

Then Chen Kuan Tai tries to get his sister married to Chung Wa.



It seems as if Fan is already set to marry Lishia (Li Ching) even though he clearly is meant to be with Ching Li.

Li Ching, on the other hand, looks so much older here. Not much babyfat in her face anymore, she is lovely but a bit less endearing than she was some 10 years earlier in other Shaw Brothers titles.

Once Chung Wa intervenes and dances with Li Ching, saving her from being harassed by a local warlord-type (Stanley Fung), it's only a matter of time before something tragic happens.

Chung Wa's Fan is set to go away to Hangzhou but first he's got to have a lot of romantic scenes with Ching Li at the pagoda overlooking the water. It's sappy stuff but it is effective. Ching Li is really good at this sort of thing and she feels natural despite the fact that her character is a bit underwritten.

Chung Wa's character is not exactly deep either but he's sort of the ideal man for the women in this film given the era of the story.



Over the course of the 91-minutes of this thing, Lovers Destiny covers a lot of styles and, depending on the segment of the film you're in, can seem a bit schizophrenic to a casual viewer. Still, it was nice to see Shih Szu doing something that was primarily a drama and Ching Li was quite good even if her acting largely consisted of weeping and looking concerned.

Li Ching felt wasted in this in her small role and, honestly, any Shaw starlet of the 1970s could have probably done what the role required.

I watched Lovers Destiny on VCD, but you can order the DVD here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Starcrash (1979) with Caroline Munro

I don't know why I didn't see Starcrash (1979) in the theater when I was 12. I certainly was aware of the film -- I can remember seeing the TV commercials -- and I was a fan of Caroline Munro already. The film most likely came out when I was living in Louisiana and was probably only showing at one theater in the area.

Marjoe Gortner played one of the main characters in this film -- an alien without makeup -- and I was well aware of Marjoe at the age of 12 considering that he had been the star of two films that had provided me so much pleasure at the drive-in theater when I was 9: Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw (1976) and The Food of the Gods (1976).

So, Starcrash is a film that I read about and finally saw on videotape sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. Now, the film has just been released on DVD in America for the first time ever by the folks at Shout! Factory and it's an amazing 2-DVD set.



The film, on the other hand, is still just as goofy as it always was -- a nice DVD presentation is not gonna change that.

(Though the anamorphic widescreen version of the film on DVD 1 of this set is just flawless and beautiful.)

In Michael J. Weldon's 1983 The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film there's a quote about the special effects in Starcrash that always makes me laugh:

They range in quality from adequate to almost good, but the psychedelic Christmas-tree look of the spacecraft makes these sequences garishly attractive, especially to young children and people under the influence of controlled substances.


I'd add that most of the film seems made for 5-year-olds despite Caroline Munro's revealing outfits.



There is simply no way to watch this film with a straight face.

And a plot rundown is a total waste of time because the film's appeal is really just due to the goofiness of the whole thing.

Basically, Stella Star (Caroline Munro) is a kind of space pirate or something who runs afoul of the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell). Stella has adventures, gets captured and escapes, and all that, while her faithful partner, Acton (Marjoe Gortner), and her cowboy robot, Elle (Judd Hamilton in the suit, Hamilton Camp doing the voice), assist her.




Add to that mix a wispy and lifeless Christopher Plummer as some kind of emperor and his son, the prince (David Hasselhoff).

Stella has to find the evil Count's hidden planet and destroy it.




Whatever. It's all a lot of Barbarella (1968) and Star Wars (1977) rip-offs thrown together haphazardly.




The folks at Shout! Factory really outdid themselves with this one as the extras outdo the actual film itself.

Extras include:

A 41-minute interview with director Lewis Coates (aka Luigi Cozzi) in English;

A 12-minute commentary on the John Barry score by Mars of Deadhouse Music;

A series of photo galleries;

A set of trailers;

On DVD 2:

A 35-minute-or-so collection of deleted and alternate scenes from the film with quite a few scenes just longer cuts of the ones already in the film. Some of these scenes come from a French print of the film and don't look as good as the film itself on DVD 1;

(The title cards for these scenes give a good idea of how much of the dialogue in Starcrash was improvised on set. Additionally, it seems like the film was edited and re-edited quite a bit which would explain the film's almost incoherent nature at times.)

A 23-minute, largely still picture-driven feature on special effects man Armando Valcauda -- including word that the guy tried to get work in the 1970s with the Shaw Brothers!;

A 72-minute interview with Caroline Munro (name misspelled on the menu as Caroline Munroe) in which the actress talks at length about her career. One interesting bit here is that the actress talks about turning down the role of Ursa in Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981). The interview is largely just Caroline talking to the camera but that's okay as Caroline Munro is always a charming presence.

A 19-minute selection of home movies taken on the set of the film with a running commentary;

And the script, playable on your computer!





Thursday, September 23, 2010

An Education (Mine!)


(This is gonna be a personal, rambling blog post with very few movie references.)

Fall always makes me a bit wistful and right now I'm a bit wistful for September 1990.

I think seeing Superchunk live last week, for the first time in maybe a decade, and then seeing Pavement on "The Colbert Report" this week -- singing my favourite Pavement song, "Gold Soundz", and suddenly realizing that that song was now 16 years old -- made me feel a bit old and nostalgic for the 1990s.

Lately, I've been thinking how lucky I am that I got my Bachelor of Arts degree. I know that's not much but in this economy it seems like a good thing to have.

My mom always said that as long as I "had that piece of paper" that I could do whatever I wanted -- meaning that I should get the degree even if I wanted to avoid an office job and just sweep floors at McDonald's; the education was its own reward, I guess.

Maybe if I had been raised in the kind of household that stressed the financial benefits of having a degree, I would have gotten out of college faster. Who knows?

(Kids from those kinds of households were invariably marketing and business majors in the 1980s and 1990s.)

As it is, I'm the first one on my mom's side of the family to get a degree.

My grandparents certainly didn't have degress; my grandfather -- the movie fan I'm so fond of reminiscing about -- had to drop out of school when he was 10 to go to work to help pay the family bills.

So, in the fall of 1990 here's where I was:

I had dropped out of Bible college twice (Fall of 1985 and then again in the Spring of 1987); I had dropped out of community college twice (Spring of 1986 and Fall of 1987); I had been briefly hospitalized for a sort-of-nervous breakdown when I was 20 -- at the same time I was up on criminal charges related to booze, destruction of property, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor -- minors, actually -- a long story best told at another juncture.

(All charges dropped, by the way.)

And I had been working in record stores from the Fall of 1987 onwards.

Sometime in the Fall of 1988, I got the idea of going back to school. I had just started to work at my beloved Record Co-Op on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park -- quite a feat given that I wasn't a student there -- and I recall some gentle nudging from management that I become a student on campus to keep my job.

As I wasn't the manager or assistant manager -- night manager, instead! -- I had to do that to make the suits upstairs happy, I guess.

But it turned out that I couldn't get into Maryland as a student!

Seems that even though my Bible college had not been accredited (and those few credits on my records thus not transferable), my GPA there was still such a bad mark against me that the University of Maryland would not let me in.

Now, when I finally wanted an education it was being denied me.

So I went to P.G. Community College for a year, transferred to Maryland, and was what was called a "pre-education" major that first semester.

Yeah, that didn't last.

After one disastrous semester -- the same in which the Record Co-Op finally closed -- I gave up on the idea of being an education major, pre- or otherwise; observing a real teacher on the job that semester convinced me that I was neither dedicated, nor selfless, enough to undertake that kind of gig for such little reward.

God bless teachers, really.

So, by the Fall of 1990, I had quit my summer job -- assistant manager, actually -- at Kemp Mill Records in College Park as it was just awful.

That whole story is good but that's for another time. Just picture me slipping the keys under the door that night without any warning that I was quitting -- it was that kind of scene.

Here I am in the Fall of 1990, still a student at the University of Maryland, with my somewhat exasperated parents still paying my tuition, and faced with the likelihood that I wasn't going to find another good record store job, nor was I going to be an education major.

I took a Shakespeare class on a whim, not having read any Shakespeare stuff since high school and still full of a little excitement about the playwright thanks to the previous year's Henry V from director/star Kenneth Branagh.

I get the syllabus below handed to me by Dr. Michael Olmert and, in an early class session, the guy mentions movie night for his class that semester with the film most likely being either Gregory's Girl (1981) or Local Hero (1983).

SOLD!

The bells went off in my head. This is the guy I needed to learn from at this point in time.

Not so much hero worship, or any of that Dead Poets Society nonsense, but rather the simple appreciation to the forces of the universe that I finally felt like I had found a place in the world of higher education.

Suddenly it was looking more and more likely that I might actually finish college.

I should add that that syllabus changed that semester as Dr. Olmert had some heart surgery -- we dropped a few of those plays and he added Pericles near the end of the semester.

I took his second Shakespeare survey course in the Spring of 1991.

And then, in the Fall of 1991 and Spring of 1992, I took independent study semesters with the guy in an attempt at reading the rest of Shakespeare's plays that I hadn't read yet in those first two semesters.

Not so fast: Olmert made me watch each play in those 2 semesters on video (the BBC versions from the late 1970s -- John Cleese in The Taming of the Shrew! Kate Nelligan in Measure for Measure!) -- and I had to write bigger papers each time.

Dr. Olmert also helped get this non-honors student into an Honors Senior Seminar on Shakespearean tragedy in my final semester of college.

The multiple Emmy winner might not have known it at the time but he was the intellectual kick in the ass that this student needed.

I graduated in May of 1993 with my B.A. in English Literature.

(I almost had to take Freshman English that final year but I got out of that one -- that's a whole 'nother story!)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Taxi Driver (1975) with David Chiang

This 1975 Shaw Brothers flick provides a look at the "real" Hong Kong. Well, it's the sort of realism that relies heavily on the star-power of leads David Chiang and Wong Chung. The Taxi Driver (1975), from the director of The Battle Wizard (1977), starts with a bunch of vignettes designed to show the unglamourous side of Hong Kong circa 1975 in an effort to dispel the notion that the place is some sort of paradise.

David Chiang's girl, Lin Chen Chi, gets threatened by some thugs and the movie turns into a revenge picture.

So much for that attempt at neo-realism HK-style.

As the film switched genres, from exploitation picture to -- briefly -- kung fu flick, I found myself getting bored with this film.

I think there's the germ of a good film inside The Taxi Driver provided that a viewer has the patience to look for it.

If nothing else, the early location shots of 1975 Hong Kong are a treat to watch.

I watched The Taxi Driver (1975) on VCD but you can order the DVD here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Feeling Old At The Superchunk Concert


You know, I've never felt as old as I did trying to e-mail this picture on my friend's cellphone during tonight's Superchunk concert at the 9:30 Club.

Really, I love computers but I hate cell phones.

I may have felt old but at least I wasn't wearing ear plugs at the concert.

And maybe my difficulties were due to the fact that I've been up since 5:00 AM.

Well, thanks to the typically horrible D.C. traffic, we missed most of opening act Let's Wrestle; while I appreciate the fact that tonight's road work was being done outside of normal rush hour times, I think that maybe 9 on a Friday night was an odd choice.

But we made it for local pop legend Tommy Keene's set which was pretty solid. It was weird seeing a guy I've met a few times sing 25-year-old songs to an audience of under 25-year-olds (well, some of them).

As for Superchunk: I've been listening to the band for nearly 18 years now and have seen them live a bunch of times between 1995 and now and they have never disappointed me.

The glory days of Sub Pop were just a blip as American indie rock begins and ends with Superchunk.

New album, Majesty Shredding, is pretty solid and single "Digging for Something" sounded like a lost classic tonight.

The band tore through a lot of new and old songs, including a revved-up cover of Sebadoh's "Brand New Love" and the obligatory barn-burner closer of "Hyper Enough".

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Memo to Celestial Pictures: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It


Well, rather than put out onto DVD any of these titles, or these titles, or even these titles, Celestial Pictures is gonna make the old kung fu and wuxia flicks into 3-D DVDs.

Oh joy.

(That was heavy sarcasm.)

Here's the story that made me so depressed.

The story does confirm why the office looked so empty on both my first and second surprise visits last spring: they had slashed staff.

Seriously, it's all about the money. Clearly, Celestial Pictures thinks there's more money to be made in making one kung fu flick into a 3-D feature than there would be in restoring, and making DVDs of, some old dramas and musicals from the 1960s.

There probably would be.

But it's not about the money. It's about the art. Sometimes stuff needs to be out on DVD for the sake of the art.

Not getting on a high horse, just saving that you have sometimes got to preserve stuff just so that people can finally see it.

Dear Celestial Pictures: if you want to make money, how about you sell the rights to the old non-kung fu and wuxia flicks and let someone else put out the DVDs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Free MP3 From Manchester's Motorifik!


Yes, they sound like The Jesus and Mary Chain but they also sound like classic Ride.

I don't know much about the band yet but I do like what I've heard -- I'm an inveterate shoegazer, after all!

Follow the band on their MySpace page here: http://www.myspace.com/motorifik.

You can download "Secret Things" here.

In the US, you can buy their songs as downloads from Amazon here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Heroes of Sung (1973) with Shih Szu

This standard wuxia flick boasts good action and strong production values but it feels -- to me at least -- like a rejected Cheng Pei-Pei flick. Heroes of Sung is the usual thing with Shih Szu effective in the lead role as Hong-Erh who must get get some royal seals from bandits who stole them.

Lo Lieh and Pooi-Saan Cheung are along for the ride as well. After a training sequence in a cave, it appears that Lo Lieh's character is not the martial artist we'd expect from the actor; he gets slapped in the face from his spinning training dummy!

Heroes of Sung is short -- about 80 minutes -- and it would take me longer to type up the plot and all the crosses and double-crosses than the running time of the actual thing. The action is pretty good, there's some flying, and some blood.

But the good thing about Heroes of Sung for me was that I finally got to see Shih Szu kicking ass. She is amazing in one scene near the end of this film, like a more violent Cheng Pei-Pei, just mowing guys down -- even doing a crazy slicing job on her opponents mid-air, mid-jump!

I watched Heroes of Sung on VCD but you can buy it on DVD here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Two Arab Strap Albums Get The Deluxe Treatment

You either get Arab Strap or you don't. No amount of words is gonna make someone like the Scottish band if they don't already. However, these two handsome deluxe edition reissues just might do the trick.

I mean, let's not mince words: on the live tracks Arab Strap sound like a fully functioning live unit. When I first heard these records some 12 years ago or so, they sounded like bedsit projects.

I don't mean that in a bad way but both Philophobia and The Week Never Starts Round Here are decidedly lo-fi affairs. There's no getting around that.

Okay, so assuming you are reading this because you like the band, I'll give you the breakdown on the bonus tracks on these new editions.



As iTunes and Amazon sometimes don't give full details on the extra cuts on some of these deluxe edition reissues, I'm going to rely on the press release put out by Chemikal Underground as it might help someone make a decision whether to buy these for the bonus bits or not.

On The Week Never Starts Round Here bonus disc, you've got the band's first 4-song John Peel Session from March 1997 and a 9-song set from King Tut's Wah Wah Hut recorded in October 1996.

On the bonus disc with Philophobia, you've got the band's second 4-song John Peel Session from March 1998, as well as 6 songs from the band's performance at T In The Park from 1998; this is the best stuff, really.

The versions of songs "Girls of Summer" and "Afterwards" are just emotional and moving and I started to hear the band in a new way, strange as that might sound now given that I've been listening to them for 13 years off-and-on already.

You can buy the download of The Week Never Starts Round Here via iTunes in the US here.

You can buy the download of Philophobia via iTunes in the US here.

Or on Amazon.com here and here, respectively.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I've Heard The New Manics And I'm Happy


I didn't get a promo, an advance, or any of that jazz but I found all the tracks from the upcoming Manic Street Preachers album, Postcards From A Young Man, online on a certain website famous for having videos.

And? I'm very happy. It's like an album's worth of "Autumnsong".

Or it's like an upbeat version of Lifeblood (2004).

Standout tracks for me are "Golden Platitudes":

"I fell back in love with love!" goes the lyric.

"Hazelton Avenue" is another good one.

And the glorious "All We Make Is Entertainment" is a track I've played about 10 times already -- that guitar solo!

Postcards From A Young Man is out 20 September in the UK.

Not sure about here in the States yet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gun Brothers (1968) with Ling Yun

Co-directed by actor-turned-director Wu Jiaxiang -- he did A Place To Call Home (1969), among other Li Ching classics -- and Ching Gong -- he did 1972's The 14 Amazons -- 1968's Gun Brothers is an exciting tale of resistance against the occupying Japanese forces in World War 2.

Ling Yun is the titular Gun Brother, a mysterious and unidentified rebel who attacks the Japanese forces. By day, he's a suave playboy, and by night, he is raiding the enemy -- kind of like Batman.

Master Chi (Ling Yun) seeks help from the lovely Chau Koo (Fang Ying) but her brother (Cheung Pooi Saan) doesn't take kindly to that.

Collaborator Tien Feng plays Inspector Ma, the guy who is sworn to bring in the Gun Brother.

Here's the big glaring problem with Gun Brothers: it doesn't look like the 1940s. As the film shifts from the obvious wartime scenes, to a kind of intrigue picture, you forget all about the World War 2 setting as it looks like any other 1968 film. That's not to say it's a bad film but just...sloppy and distracting.

Spoiler Alert!

It's not like I'm giving away the whole film's plot when I reveal this but it pissed me off. Okay, at the midway point, a double of Ling Yun's character is introduced into the mix.

Now, what started off as a period piece, morphed into a caper film -- with gambling -- and then morphed further into a variation on The Prince and the Pauper or something.

I'm not saying that this ruined the film for me but, rather, the success of this feature rests solely on the shoulders of Ling Yun. His charm alone is what kept this watchable as I was close to unintentional laughter when the double was introduced.



It's still suspenseful, though, and Ling Yun is really perfect in something like this. Not quite suited to wuxia, the actor was more clearly at home in modern settings and, for all intents and purposes, Gun Brothers counts as a modern film for the Shaws.

But, Gun Brothers is also a mistaken identity comedy, a romance, a gambling film, and so on. A mess of genres, it's not worth my time to recount the plot(s); if you watch this thing, do it for Ling Yun and a strong supporting cast of Shaw Brothers regulars.

I watched Gun Brothers on VCD but you can order it on DVD here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jane Seymour in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger (1977)


I don't think I can overstate how amazing Jane Seymour was in the 1970s, particularly in 1977's Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.

I was 10 in 1977 and my previous film crushes had been on Fay Wray in King Kong (1933), and probably by then I had seen Jean Harlow in something on television with my grandfather -- Dinner at Eight (1933), most likely. And it's worth noting that I was a bit obsessed with a pre-Grease (1978) Olivia Newton-John despite her lack of film credits at the time in 1977.

No, I just remember being a bit stunned at how beautiful Jane Seymour was in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger. I had gone to see the flick because it featured Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation and it was the big summer film for me of 1977.

It was also very near the time my family was to leave the D.C. area for a move to Mississippi (and then Louisiana) for my parents' jobs. So, it was probably of some sentimental importance that I was going to see the film with my grandfather. The man's film tastes shaped my own in many, many ways and, while I didn't usually see things in the theater with him, I did watch stuff on TV at his house on the weekends.

Star Wars (1977) came out that same summer and it's worth noting that I didn't really gravitate to it that much on first viewing; the animated chess sequence -- a homage to Harryhausen? -- was the most memorable thing to me when I first saw the film. I didn't even jump on the Star Wars bandwagon until I got the "Story of Star Wars" album on 8-track tape later that summer and, for whatever reason, the sound effects, music, and dialogue of the film made me want to see the film again a few more times.

And, to his credit in many ways, my grandfather liked Star Wars but didn't rave about it. He raved about Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, though. And, given that his favourite film of all time was -- as he confessed -- Treasure Island (1934), it's not so surprising to recall that confession now.

I wonder if part of what my grandfather loved about Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger was not just the animated beasties but Jane Seymour?

After I saw Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, I then noticed Jane in the first few episodes of TV's "Battlestar Galactica", and then recalled that she was in the TV film "Frankenstein: The True Story" (1973). And then I caught her on a TV showing of Live And Let Die (1973). And then in 1979 in the TV movie, "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" -- the woman could do anything!

Still, to the perpetual 10-year-old inside of me, she will always be Princess Farah.





Friday, September 3, 2010

Machete Isn't Perfect But...

...it's a lot of fun.

Rather than tick off what Machete (2010) didn't do, or what it's not, let's just take it for what it is and admit that any film -- a mainstream film at that! -- that has a big scene between straight-to-cable king Jeff Fahey and Robert DeNiro can't be all bad.

Yeah, the scene is a bit flat but that's okay.

Death by Lowrider! Lindsay Lohan as a nun! Michelle Rodriguez looking like that!!! Danny Trejo swinging through a window on a dude's intestines!

I would have trimmed about 15 minutes off this flick -- but I say that about most modern films -- and I probably would have left most of Lohan's part on the cutting room floor.

BUT...Machete (2010) manages to be a lot of fun and certainly seems like some kind of modern exploitation film, albeit a big Hollywood one. Additionally, it makes more political points than those old blaxploitation flicks did AND it's still funny and fast-paced (for the most part) and decidedly silly.

Von Sternberg's Anatahan (1953) with Akemi Negishi

You know, it sounds ridiculous but I watched a Josef Von Sternberg film, Anatahan (1953), mainly because of an actress from a Godzilla movie!

This was Akemi Negishi's first film, I think, and, as the actress made a big impression on me as a kid in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962), I decided to seek out this title which is sometimes listed as The Saga of Anatahan.





I'm not unfamiliar with Josef Von Sternberg's work as I've seen a few of his other titles on TV over the years, and I consider myself a big fan of The Shanghai Gesture (1941).

But, the fact that Anatahan (1953) has got such a strange reputation, and the difficulty I had in easily finding it, made the film all the more a "must see" for me.

For a real, less Godzilla-influenced review, check out this one.

You can find DVD-Rs of this title online so I'm not going to review the DVD as much as the title; I don't think it's even out on a real release anywhere in the world, though I saw something online somewhere mention a French DVD at one time.

"How could we know that we had brought the enemy with us, in our own bodies?" narrator Josef Von Sternberg asks and it's the central question of this haunting film.

It would be impossible to address Anatahan (1953) without addressing the artificiality of the thing; the title card proudly proclaims that the film was shot on a specially-constructed set on a lot in Kyoto.

And, indeed, the set is quite impressive but it's a set. There's an obviousness to the mise-en-scene here -- an on-purpose obviousness -- that makes this 1953 film feel like a 1933 film of a play. As the characters speak in Japanese, we get no translation. No, the viewer only has the voice of Von Sternberg narrating the film as events progress.

The male actors are only credited by their family names while the lone female, the "Queen Bee", is listed completely as Akemi Negishi.

It's almost as if the director/narrator/God-figure is leaving out details and intentionally teasing us with his carefully contrived drama.

As the crew of a Japanese navy ship in World War 2 takes refuge on the island of Anatahan, they pursue a lone woman -- the "Queen Bee", Keiko. As the war nears its end, the men are oblivious. Drinking their coconut wine, they maintain some semblance of order on the island despite the presence of the temptress.

As the haunting score by future Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube rumbles and lurches in the background, we see the men argue and fuss, their dialogue sometimes audible but untranslated in subtitles. Von Sternberg narrates what we are meant to hear.

To even attempt to write about this film -- relate the plot in a straightforward fashion -- is to attempt the impossible. I mean, it's like writing down a dream. Anatahan progresses with the men losing all traces of their military ways, the woman tempting them on a daily basis, and the title cards clearly indicating that time has passed and The War is now long over.

The soldiers don't even seem concerned by Keiko's husband on the island. She is just an object of lust for them.







Watching this film felt like watching Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy (1933): it's got the trappings of a Hollywood film but it feels decidedly modern. I once stayed up late as a kid to see Ecstasy on TV because of the rumoured Hedy Lamarr nude scenes and the film was jarring and dream-like; seeing a big Hollywood actress in the nude in a 1933 film was weird, like if Ginger Rogers had suddenly doffed her top in an RKO musical.

Anatahan works in that same way and not because of the semi-nude scenes with Akemi Negishi. No, it's the very artificiality of the thing that lends it an unreal feeling.

That artificiality is briefly broken by newsreel footage of Japanese soldiers returning home from The War. As the Akira Ifukube score utilizes what sounds like choral voices, the viewer sees that clearly The War is over and Japan is attemping to return to normal. The men on the island know that The War is over -- a passing US Navy ship has broadcast the message of the Emperor's surrender in Japanese and the men react to that news -- but things don't change on Anatahan.









Soon, the inhabitants find a wrecked American airplane, with each man -- and Keiko -- salvaging items from the craft: Keiko takes the parachute to make a dress, one soldier finds a ring, another a pistol.

Things can only get worse.

If the message of something like Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959) is that war reduces men to animals, the message of Von Sternberg's Anatahan (1953) is that men want to be animals and war gives them an excuse.

I tend to fall on the side of Von Sternberg's argument.

But, I hesitate to make statements like that because it implies that this is an anti-war film. No, this is a highly personal vision.

The best way to describe this film for someone is to say that it feels like a Japanese film that Von Sternberg found, left untranslated and undubbed, and then decided to narrate and interpret; clearly here the narrator is a God-like figure, if not intervening, aware. The narrator hints and implies at what events may happen, or what is destined to happen. When the narrator uses the word "we," there's rarely a sense that he's using that in the voice of one of the characters. No, the "we" is all of Mankind in thrall to Womankind, or at least in thrall to women like Keiko -- the unattainable and already attached dream woman.

While Anatahan progresses with a sense of the inevitable, I can happily say that I was a bit surprised by how it ends. I won't ruin the film but, of all the possible inevitable ways that this could end that I could imagine, the one that unfolded on the screen was not the one I expected to see happen. As this is supposedly based on a real series of events, I can only guess that the film's ending has less to do with Von Sternberg's choices as a director and more to do with reality's record.









At times, it feels like Von Sternberg is not so much interested in Keiko, even though she's this sort of free and uncivilized sexual woman. No, really what he's interested in are the lengths to which Man will debase himself in pursuit of that one ideal sexual being.

That's not to slight Akemi Negishi; she's stunning and seductive and entirely too sexy for 1953. Her performance is unaffected and direct. If she was more of an intentional temptress here, I'd compare her to Brigitte Bardot. No, she is a temptress but she doesn't have to try too hard with this crew of weary Japanese navy men.




The male characters are types as well; no one here is perfectly realized but that is intentional as the narrator/director is just presenting us with this little experiment in human nature which -- despite a few bits of obvious historical and Japanese specificity -- is largely a universal tale.

Anahatan demands a real DVD release, preferably from some outfit like the folks at The Criterion Collection. I can understand why the film might not have been a success in 1953 as maybe seeing the former recent enemy as fully human was too much to take for people in the West. Or maybe the film was just too personal and odd?

But, considering that something as entirely unpleasant as Fires On The Plain is considered a classic, it would only be fair for this dream-like version of a similar war-time story to be as widely revered and viewed.