Podcast #169: Willow (1988) & Fairy Tales

Welcome to Episode #169 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of fantasy films & fairy tales, starting with the 1988 Warwick Davis star-maker Willow.

00:00 Welcome

02:25 Vengeance (2022)
09:20 Barbarian (2022)
12:50 Seconds (1966)
17:05 Ghost in the Shell (1995)

22:05 Willow (1988)
44:30 The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)
1:02:17 Gretel & Hansel (2020)
1:17:17 Belle (2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to.  Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits.  It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn.  It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City.  It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.

Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling.  While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison.  You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell.  Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios.  Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed.  In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable.  All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book.  As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy.  The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar.  His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love.  There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past.  Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one.  Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #163: Donkey Skin (1970)

Welcome to Episode #163 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna discuss Jacques Demy’s anti-incest fairy tale musical Donkey Skin (1970).

00:00 Welcome

03:07 Exotica (1994)
08:50 Sling Blade (1996)
16:00 Demon Seed (1977)

21:50 Donkey Skin (1970)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

The King’s Daughter (2022)

I fully understand the mockery that met the mermaid fantasy movie The King’s Daughter when it was dumped into theaters this January.  Filmed at Versailles in 2014, the cursed production has been collecting dust for seven long, bizarre years, mostly waiting for the funding needed to complete its CGI.  The King’s Daughter was supposed to be released as The Moon and Sun in the spring of 2015.  Obama was president then.  Its star, Kaya Scodelario, was a hot commodity, fresh off the set of the hit TV show Skins.  Its bargain bin CGI would’ve been laughable even seven years ago, but getting displaced outside its time only makes it feel goofier than it already is.  It’s a movie made of leftover scraps, loosely stitched together with Bridgerton-style “Once upon a time” narration from Julie Andrews, turning over each scene like the brittle pages of a crumbling book.  The King’s Daughter is the exact kind of barely presentable debacle that cordially invites internet mockery; it’s more punching bag than movie.

And yet, picking on it feels unnecessarily cruel.  This is a cute, harmless (and, despite itself, gay) wish-fulfillment fantasy for little girls.  Its target audience is so young & uncynical that it mostly gets away with being outdated & uncool.  Adults might snicker at every “Meanwhile …” interjection from Andrews that clumsily lunges us towards the next disconnected scene, but young children are only going to see an aspirational tale of a rebel artist who makes friends with a magical mermaid despite her mean father’s wishes.  Pierce Brosnan stars as a highly fictionalized King Louis XIV, who commissions the capture of two very special creatures: his illegitimate, impoverished daughter (Scodelario) & a mermaid citizen of Atlantis (Fan Bingbing).  The daughter has a total blast at Versailles, celebrated by her estranged father for her musical talents & her Individuality.  The mermaid has less fun as the king’s prisoner—held captive as a potential fountain of youth—but forms a semi-romantic friendship with his daughter that almost makes her own constant suffering worthwhile; it’s a pretty thankless role.  The whole movie is in service of making the daughter’s new life seem magical & great, so little girls in the audience can live their mermaid-friend fantasies through her.

There are obviously much better mermaid movies out there, from the kid-friendly romanticism of The Little Mermaid to the disco-beat eroticism of The Lure.  Considering the wealth of better-funded, better-publicized titles between those two extremes, The King’s Daughter is harmless & anonymous enough to deserve a pass.  If there’s any reason for an adult audience to seek this film out, it’s to see Pierce Brosnan’s over-the-top, flouncy-wigged performance as King Louis XIV, but I can’t claim that he’s enough of a hoot to be worth the 90-minute mediocrity that contains him.  Otherwise, the only real draw for this film is if you’re a wide-eyed child with a long-running mermaid fixation, in which case no shoddy CGI or online dunking was ever going to stop you from seeing this anyway.  The only real shame of the picture is that it chickens out of making that mermaid-kids’ fantasy explicitly gay, choosing instead to romantically pair Scodelario with a Fabio-style hunk to de-emphasize her obvious attraction to the mermaid.  It’s not the romance novel swashbuckler whose heart-song calls out to Scodelario in the middle of the night, though, and even the youngest, naivest children in the audience will see right through that ploy.

-Brandon Ledet

Strawberry Mansion (2022)

I grew up in a time when Michel Gondry was a golden god to artsy teens everywhere and not a kitschy fad everyone’s embarrassed to admit they were super into.  Gondry’s proto-Etsy music videos for classics like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” might still hold nostalgic value, but there isn’t much of a vocal reverence for him as an established auteur these days.  No one’s going around sharing screengrabs from Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep with copypasta tags like “We used to be a country, a proper country.”  I’ve always been on the hook for Michel Gondry’s distinct brand of twee surrealism, though, to the point where I still get excited when I see it echoed in films from younger upstarts who were obviously inspired by his work, like in Sorry to Bother You or Girl Asleep. Maybe I should be rolling my eyes at his visual preciousness now that I’m a thirtysomething cynic with a desk job instead of a teenage poetry student, but I’m happy to swoon instead.

So, of course I was won over by a twee fantasy epic about dream-hopping lovers dodging pop-up ads in a hand-crafted, near-future dystopia.  Strawberry Mansion continues the Michel Gondry tradition of playing with analog arts-and-crafts techniques to create fantastic dream worlds on a scrappy budget.  If you still get a warm, fuzzy feeling from stop-motion, puppetry, tape warp, and low-tech green screen surrealism, there’s a good chance you’ll be charmed by Strawberry Mansion too, regardless of whether Michel Gondry’s heyday happened to overlap with your internment in high school.  I have no evidence that directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney were consciously channeling Gondry here, but they demonstrate a similar knack for illustrating fantastic breaks from reality with the rudimentary tools of a kindergarten classroom.  Strawberry Mansion is likely too cute & too whimsical to win over all irony-poisoned adults in the audience, but if you can see it through the poetry & emotional overdrive of teenage eyes, it’s a stunning achievement in small-scale, tactile filmmaking.

In the year 2035, a humorless IRS bureaucrat is tasked with auditing the recorded dreams of an elderly artist who mostly lives off-the-grid.  He’s supposed to create a running tally of various props & cameos that appear in her dreams, each of which can be taxed for pennies.  However, he’s quickly distracted by how much freer & more imaginative her dreams are than his, which tend to be fried chicken & soda commercials contained to a single room (painted entirely pink like the sets in What a Way to Go!). It’s not surprising that his limited, commodified dreams are part of a larger conspiracy involving evil ad agencies and governmental control.  What is surprising is the romance that develops between the young tax man & the elderly artist.  They flee persecution for discovering the ad agency’s subliminal broadcasts by retreating further into the VHS fantasy worlds of the artist’s recorded dreams, forming a delightfully sweet bond in the most ludicrous of circumstances: demonic slumber parties, swashbuckling pirate adventures, cemetery picnics, etc.  The imagery is constantly delightful & surprising, even though you know exactly where the story is going at all times.

At its most potent, cinema is the closest we get to sharing a dream, so I’m an easy sucker for movies that are about that exact phenomenon: Paprika, The Cell, Inception, etc.  I’m also always onboard for a psychedelic Dan Deacon score, which adds a needed layer of atmospheric tension here.  Even so, Strawberry Mansion joins the rare company of films like Girl Asleep, The Science of Sleep, and The Wizard Oz that feel like totally immersive dreamworlds built entirely by hand.  They evoke the childlike imagination of transforming a cardboard refrigerator box into a backyard rocket ship, except that every single scene requires a new arts & crafts innovation on that level – more than history’s most creative child could possibly cram into a single adolescence.  No matter how sinister this film tries to make its corporate-sponsored dystopian future (or how grim Gondry tries to make his own doomed relationship dramas), nostalgia for that lost childhood whimsy cuts through.  The closest we can ever get back to it—without the aid of movies or drugs—is in lucid dreams.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spine of Night (2021)

There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz.  That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional.  A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook.  If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over.  Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).

The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc.  I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s.  She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends.  At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.

I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production.  The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem.  There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process.  Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder.  There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo.  It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.

-Brandon Ledet

Cryptozoo (2021)

I struggle with parsing out how sincerely to take Dash Shaw’s movies.  Both his debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, and its follow-up, Cryptozoo, present a bizarre clash of far-out psychedelia in their animation & laidback aloofness in their storytelling.  His hand drawn 2D characters casually stroll through apocalyptic crises rendered in expressive, kaleidoscopic multimedia meltdowns.  Meanwhile, their personalities are decidedly inexpressive, mumbling about their often-inane internal conflicts in apparent obliviousness to the chaos around them.  Cryptozoo at least pushes that internal fretting into bigger questions about the ethical & political conflicts of its psychedelic fantasy world.  It’s just difficult to determine how much those conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much are an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology.  Shaw’s films are never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them.  His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.

As the title alludes, Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy film about a futuristic zoo for cryptids: dragons, unicorns, sasquatches, gorgons, etc.  The battlefield for its central conflict is a world where cryptids are suddenly plentiful but violently distrusted by the general human public – X-Men style.  The warring factions in discerning how humans should relate to these mythical creatures are “conservationists” who want to centrally locate the cyptids in a Disney World-like “zoo” and militarists who want to deploy them as biological weapons.  It’s a distinctly capitalist paradigm, where every single resource—including living creatures—must serve one of two purposes: money or military.  The warmongers are obviously the “bad guys” in that debate, but the supposed “sanctuary” alternative of the cryptozoo must earn enough money to stay afloat, which leads to the cryptids’ captivity & exploitation in an amusement park setting by the supposed “good guys”.  This convoluted mythology is debated in solemn, conversational tones while extravagant, badass illustrations of the cryptids themselves roar in the background.  How seriously you’re supposed to take those debates and how meaningful their themes are outside the confines of the film are a matter of personal interpretation, something I’ve yet to settle on myself.

Part of my struggle with how sincerely relate to Cryptozoo might be a result of viewing it through a modern-animation context, where I’m comparing it against other recent psychedelic oddities like The Wolf House, Violence Voyager, and Night is Short, Walk on Girl.  Despite its crudely layered multimedia approach to animation, the film is more likely spiritually aligned with fantasy films of the 1970s & 80s – titles like Heavy Metal, Wizards, and Gandahar.  In that era, animated fantasy epics were all intensely sincere allegories about pollution, prejudice, and ethnic genocide.  Cryptozoo‘s messaging is a little more resistant to 1:1 metaphor, but I’ll at least assume that its musings on the corrupting force of capitalism is politically sincere.  It’s a little hard to immediately latch onto that sincerity when your film opens with a nudist stoner voiced by Michael Cera being gored by a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean the entire resulting conflict is meant to be taken as a joke.  Realistically, the only reason I’m putting this much consideration into its dramatic sincerity at all is because the imaginative color-pencil drawings that illustrate its conflicts are objectively badass, making the rest of the film worth contending with instead of outright dismissing as stoner nonsense.  I’m buying what Dash Shaw is selling, though I’m still not sure why.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest.  My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog.  I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid.  And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or.  Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate.  Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect.  Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure.  Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs.  Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary.  I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto.  I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.

To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm.  Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances.  His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door.  His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes.  I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend.  They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.

I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home.  It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog.  There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish.  If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene.  My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.

-Brandon Ledet

Lamb (2021)

It’s difficult to define what qualifies something as Movie Magic, but the dark fantasy film Lamb is electric with it . . . for its opening half-hour.  The first of the film’s three “chapters” builds all its magical-realist tension on our curiosity over what, exactly, is going on with its titular child-creature and the lonely farmer couple who raise it as their own.  Isolated on an Icelandic farm with only sheep to break up the monotony of their quiet, daily chores, a married couple adopt a newborn lamb and swaddle it as if it were a human baby.  We peer into the lamb’s crib wondering what’s going on under those tightly wrapped blankets, what makes it any different from the other lambs who’re routinely born in the barn. We’re invited to look into the eyes of the older sheep on the farm, anthropomorphizing their intellectual & emotional responses to the humans who feed & shepherd them.  The longer we stare, the more they begin to look like expressive, reactive puppets instead of natural creatures, blurring the line between documentary footage and Movie Magic.  The loss of that boundary sets up an endless realm of possibility in what’s going on with the one lamb the couple has decided to raise inside their home, the one that the camera obscures so that our own imagination can fill in the details.  Then, when the baby lamb is shown in full, the magic vaporizes.

My heart sank in Lamb‘s second chapter when it had to stop obscuring its centerpiece creature.  Conceptually, I am onboard with this low-key fairy tale about an isolated couple’s desperation to be parents despite the lingering pain of past attempts, but the practicality of visualizing the human-lamb hybrid they adopt onscreen is a mood-killer.  Specifically, it’s the choice/necessity to supplement its practical effects with CGI that really zaps the Movie Magic out of the picture.  This is the kind of film that really needs the tactility of the Babe animatronics or even the surreal stop-motion of Little Otik to work. Instead, we see a tactile human body toddle across the screen with a cheaply animated CG head superimposed on top of it, never convincingly integrating with the physical world it supposedly occupies.  In close-up, when the lamb-child is napping or quietly observing her adoptive parents, she’s perfectly believable as a real, tangible creature that has magically appeared in the couple’s lives – which is why her more obscured presence in the first chapter works so well.  It’s when the camera pulls back to show her hybrid body structure in full that the spell is instantly broken, leaving Lamb with all the Movie Magic of a Geico commercial.  And since this film isn’t working with a Babe-level Hollywood budget, I’m convinced that the only way to fix it would have been to crudely superimpose her parents’ heads onto different actor’s bodies to level the uncanny playing field.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Lamb besides the magic of its titular creature-child.  It’s a quiet, unrushed film with very little plot or dialogue.  If you can’t gaze in wonder at the little lamb baby for all three chapters, there isn’t much else to do except wait for the credits (or hope for a scene where the lamb’s “mother” timidly asks her husband “Did . . . did you have sex with our sheep?”).  For a more truly magical narrative about an isolated, troubled Icelandic couple in which human actors dance with unconvincingly animated CG animals, I’d recommend watching Björk’s music video for “Triumph of a Heart”.  There’s way more heart, humor, chaos, and magic in those five minutes than there is in this entire two-hour snooze.

-Brandon Ledet

General Invincible (1983)

I’ve been greatly enjoying my time with Gold Ninja Video‘s Pearl Chang boxset Wolf Devil Director over the past year, and I’m a little sad to have now officially run through all four of the Taiwanese martial artist’s feature films as star/director/producer.  Maybe Pearl Chang was sad to see her career winding down in her own time too.  Her final film, General Invincible, is more somber than her previous work.  It boasts all of the gruesome bloodshed, fabulous costume changes, and low-budget psychedelia that make her films so delightful, but it lacks her slapstick humor that usually lightens their tone.  Although it shares no narrative continuity with any of the other films in her modest catalog, it plays like the final episode of a long-running TV show or the third act of a 3-hour epic.  It feels like a heartfelt goodbye to the low-budget wuxia auteur, who indeed did disappear from the public eye in the years following the film’s release.

Because all her work was rapidly produced in the same era & genre, it’s near impossible to discuss General Invincible on its own terms without comparing it to Pearl Chang’s other films.  As with all the titles in the Wolf Devil Director boxset, Chang stars as a reclusive female warrior who reluctantly returns to society to avenge the slaughter of her family, guided by the mystical teachings of a retired kung fu master.  In this particular instance she’s a war general named Sparrow, honor-bound to stop a wannabe emperor’s aspirations for the throne by laying waste to his mercenary assassins one by one.  There are a few distinguishing details in General Invincible you won’t find elsewhere in Pearl Chang’s oeuvre: an uneasy romance with a sensitive warrior who believes himself her equal, a vicious rivalry with the other warrior-woman who pines after that same loverboy, the usurping emperor’s obsession with obtaining magical “crystal knives” as the ultimate weapon, etc.  For the most part, though, this is the exact same rapidfire low-budget wuxia psychedelia Pearl Chang always delivers, just now with a somber tone.

As an unofficial, unintentional send-off for Pearl Chang’s career, you couldn’t ask much more out of General Invincible.  Sparrow’s inner journey in the film is a meditative, self-reflective effort to “reach the state of Infinity and discover Emptiness”.  She cannot become her most powerful warrior self until she “achieves Nothingness,” a state she doesn’t discover until she’s crucified and left for dead in the midday sun, recalling the blinding psychedelia of King Hu’s genre-defining wuxia epic A Touch of Zen.  When watching her filmography in order, it’s as if Pearl Chang doesn’t retire into anonymity, but rather transcends this Earthly plane through total inner enlightenment (after indulging in a few flying-swordsmen beheadings along the way).  It’s kind of sweet & touching, as long as you can distract yourself from the more unfair, practical limitations of her real-life career in an industry gatekept by men.

The Wolf Devil Director box set is a must-own, and Gold Ninja Video put a lot of care into contextualizing what makes the films within so unique to Pearl Chang as an auteur.  Still, it feels like an audition for a much better-funded boutique label to pick up these same films for a proper restoration.  I often found myself squinting through these public domain transfers imagining how much greater these same films would be with an HD clean-up.  It’s easy to see why Wolf Devil Woman is Pearl Chang’s most popular film; it’s her best work.  I believe that General Invincible & Matching Escort are pretty much on its level, though.  The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is her weakest for being a little too goofy, but I dug that one too.  All her films are good-to-great, and all of them deserve a higher genre-nerd profile with better-funded preservation & distribution.  The Wolf Devil Director boxset is a great start, but there’s more work to do.

Pearl Chang’s Filmography, Ranked:

1. Wolf Devil Woman
2. Matching Escort
3. General Invincible
4. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu

-Brandon Ledet