Mortal Kombat (2021)

Must every cinematic property receive the extended-universe Marvel treatment now?  It’s getting exhausting.  The new movie adaptation of the Mortal Kombat video game is absolutely doused in the stink of the MCU, functioning more as a desperate franchise starter than a standalone film.  This is a near two-hour shared origin story for longtime Mortal Kombat characters like Scorpion, Jax, and Sonya Blade (as well as the entirely new, entirely forgettable protagonist Cole Young).  They spend the entire runtime learning to summon & hone their personal superpowers for the titular fight tournament, which never actually occurs; you have to wait until the next film for a proper payoff.  Meanwhile, the cyborg jackass Kano sarcastically quips his way throughout the entire process to constantly remind the audience to not take its supernatural martial arts genre tropes too seriously, distancing itself from any potential for genuine nerdiness.  It’s all explained-to-death and relentlessly undercut with corny “That’s so random!” humor to the point where you never really feel like the movie has actually started in earnest; it’s only the first piece in a planned 20+ film franchise, more concerned with justifying its sequels than satisfying its audience in the moment.  The only MCU touchstones it’s missing are a post-credits teaser and a Stan Lee cameo.

It’s especially difficult to not look at the new Mortal Kombat film as an example of everything wrong with contemporary franchise filmmaking, since we have a clear example of how much better this same property would’ve been treated just a couple decades ago.  Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 only briefly introduces its central Human cast before diving headfirst into its titular fight tournament, working its story beats & character moments into the structure of a supernatural combat competition instead of delaying that payoff for another film.  The 2021 version can’t help but over-explain every single step of its characters’ journey towards that competition, as if it were cowering from hack YouTube critics’ inevitable critiques of its “plot holes.”  As a result, all of the film’s fun genre payoffs feel delayed & rushed, pushed out of the way to make room for the downplayed, normalizing drudgery of post-MCU franchise filmmaking.  To put it in pro wrestling terms, it’s like watching an hour of promos followed by a few quick squash matches – the kind of lopsided booking that can drain a Pay-Per-View of all potential excitement no matter how may fun, crowd-pleasing payoffs are crammed into the final half-hour.

Despite the MCUification of its tone & plot structure, there were just enough over-the-top gore gags scattered throughout Mortal Kombat to make the film passably okay as dumb-fun entertainment.  The film would’ve been a total disaster had it not leaned into the hyperviolence that made its arcade game source material controversial to begin with in the early 1990s, but it gets by okay.  Combatants are disemboweled, sawed in half, stabbed in the skull, frozen & shattered, and just generally separated from their blood & vital organs in every way the 12-year-old hedonist still lurking in the back of your brain can imagine.  It’s fun to watch.  Too bad the film appears to be embarrassed of its source material’s more out-there details, so that it has to go out of its way to explain the practical reason for Scorpion’s chain-spear weapon or to have a character joke that Mortal Kombat is “spelled wrong.”  By the time all that normalizing groundwork is laid out, there’s very little space left for the actual climactic fight scenes, which are edited together in a simultaneous, overlapping flood of violence that would’ve been much better served as individual action set pieces. 

Maybe now that all the plot-obsessed foundational work is out of the way, the second film in this series will be able to just jump right into the ultraviolence fantasy fight tournament promised here without wasting any valuable time.  It’s just a shame that we used to be able to pull that off in a single 100min goofball action movie without any concerns for appearing level-headed or respectable; now you’ve got to put up with at least an hour of eating your vegetables before you get even a small taste of the good stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (2021)

I love a shameless gimmick, and few films are as up-front about theirs as the martial arts mini-epic Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1. It was originally called Crazy Samurai Musashi in its film festival run, but its marketing has since doubled down on highlighting its overriding gimmick right there in the title. Even official posters that stick to the original Musashi subtitle declare in large block letters “400 VS. 1 IN A SINGLE TAKE” just so you know what you’re paying for: a 90min movie with a continuous 77min shot of a samurai swordfighting 400 opponents to the death. Unfortunately, Crazy Samurai cannot live up to the movie you imagine in your head when you read that premise. It’s basically an SOV backyard movie with an exceptionally large cast, not a feature-length action set piece with an endless parade of expertly choreographed kills. Bummer.

Crazy Samurai starts at the climax of a three-hour samurai epic that was never filmed, assuming that the audience is already familiar with samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s reputation and his legendary battle with 400 fallen swordsmen. Fair enough; maybe we should be. If you aren’t, there’s no reason to show up for this single-gimmick movie except to see the hour-long swordfight, so why waste time. Unfortunately, despite the length of that battle, there isn’t much to see. Musashi is surrounded by a never-ending supply of swordsmen who take turns lunging at him and dying monotonous deaths – dispensed of with a quick swipe of his blade and a uniform spurt of CGI blood. If you watch the first five minutes of the fight you know exactly what the last five minutes will look like, as the sword violence never really escalates in any satisfying way. It’s more of a video game tutorial than a movie.

Crazy Samurai does for sword violence what Free Fire does for guns: making you numb with relentless repetition to the point where you never want to see the weapon again, like a concerned parent making you smoke an entire carton of cigarettes until you puke. Free Fire was a lot more fun to watch, though. The only hook that kept my attention in this one was the impressive physicality of actor Tak Sakaguchi as the (sometimes) titular samurai. Watching him swing his sword at literal hundreds of nameless goons for over an hour, I thought back to how sore I am after 15min of shoveling garden soil in my own backyard; he looks genuinely broken down by the end of the film, and you feel that exhaustion in your bones. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that changes as the fight drags on, and it’s too gradual of an arc to hold your attention even at this short length.

In a best-case scenario, Crazy Samurai is a proof-of-concept prototype of a much better film that’s still to be made. There’s a brief epilogue obviously filmed years after the long-take centerpiece that delivers exactly what I wanted out of this movie, but it only lasts a couple minutes. You can practically hear director (and well-respected fight choreographer) Yûji Shimomura explaining “Here’s what I could’ve done with this premise now that I have access to better resources”, which makes me wonder why he didn’t just start over. There honestly isn’t much worth salvaging in this version except proof that it could be done. Maybe it was preserved & distributed out of respect for Tak Sakaguchi’s endurance-test performance, which is sweet, but the film’s in obvious need of a better-funded revision with more varied, harder-hitting kills.

-Brandon Ledet

Master (2021)

It has officially been a full calendar year since I saw Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man at AMC Westbank, which was the last time I watched any movie in a proper indoor theater. There hasn’t exactly been a cinematic drought in the year since the pandemic started, since plenty of delayed-distribution festival releases (and filmed-in-lockdown experiments like Host) have rushed in to fill the void left by the major players who’re still waiting out this never-ending shitstorm. As much as I love a good low-budget arthouse provocation, I’ve come to miss seeing large-scale blockbusters at the local megaplex over the past year, especially as another dreary summer season approaches. Of the big-budget action spectacles that have been missing from my movie diet, I most miss the sprawling Indian blockbusters that play at AMC Elmwood, often to sparse, weirdly unenthused audiences. Catching over-the-top action movies like 2.0, War, and Saaho on the big screen has made for some of my most satisfying cinematic experiences of the past few years, as they’re often far more daring & entertaining than their timid American equivalents – including supposedly eccentric franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible. It was a wonderful gift, then, that the recent Tamil-language blockbuster Master appeared on Amazon Prime mere weeks after its theatrical run. I’m still nowhere near comfortable with returning to the megaplex even as our local vaccine rollout escalates, so I very much appreciated getting a small taste of the over-the-top action spectacles I’ve been missing over the past year.

Master is a Kollywood action blockbuster throwback to 90s American thrillers like Dangerous Minds where real Tough Cookie teachers fight to save impoverished, overlooked students from lives of petty street crime. In this variation, an alcoholic college professor quickly sobers up when he is assigned to teach troubled youth at a juvenile correctional facility, only to discover that the kids are being preyed upon by a local gangster (and corrupt union organizer) who frames them for crimes committed by his adult underlings. Even as a sloppy drunk in the first act, the Badass Teacher is treated with the wide-eyed hero worship afforded action stars like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Stallone in their 1990s heyday. He wears his sunglasses inside, wields his pocket flask as a weapon, has several badass theme songs that refer to him as “Master the Blaster” (including a reggae diddy that eventually becomes his ringtone), and periodically winks at the camera to remind you to have fun. Meanwhile, his union-gangster nemesis is an ice-cold sociopath who’s so freakishly strong he can murder his victims with a single punch (including, it should be said, small children on several occasions). Their head-to-head battlegrounds are stereotypical action locales like warehouses, construction sites, and meat lockers, but most of the drama unfolds in classrooms where they compete for control of the neighborhood children’s minds & freedom. Really, the only thing that’s missing is the titular Master going full Michelle Pfeiffer by turning his chair backwards to appear tough & cool to the youths, accompanied—of course—by the Tamil equivalent of Coolio. There are plenty of Gully Boy-style rap songs on the soundtrack, though, so it’s not exactly an opportunity missed.

I genuinely believe India’s various, disparate movie industries are currently making the best big-budget action flicks in the world, the same way that Hong Kong martial arts thrillers hit an unmatched creative high in the 1980s. Admittedly, Master is not my favorite example of this trend. I wish its action set pieces & lengthy dance breaks had escalated more drastically post-intermission to push its premise into full-blown delirium, but for the most part it’s still three hours well spent. The combat is brutal, the melodrama is wonderfully saccharine, and there’s a song with the lyrics “Problems will come & go/Chill a bit, bro” that legit unclenched my jaw. I also can’t discount the instant rush of pleasure I got just by having access to this kind of cinema again, something I usually only encounter at the megaplex. As soon as the endless production cards & multiple-language health warnings (about the dangers of drinking in this case, of course) kicked off the minutes-long opening credits I knew I was about to be spoiled with some Grade A action entertainment. I hope that when my community is sufficiently vaccinated and I feel comfortable with the moviegoing ritual again, these films will still be on the menu at 20-screen monstrosities like AMC Elmwood. I miss them very much.

-Brandon Ledet

The Importance of Atmosphere in A Touch of Zen (1971)

Back in 2018, Brandon reviewed A Touch of Zen, a wuxia epic about a warrior noble woman on the run from a corrupt government in Ming Dynasty China. In the review, he appreciates the badass female character and the goofy fun, but laments the film’s epic length and wonders whether all of the nature photography and expository sequences make the payoff of the battles worth it.

Unlike Brandon, I love a good epic. It’s not that I necessarily have the focus and attention span for them, and the fact that so many don’t have an intermission is ridiculous. (When viewing at home, I usually force one in.) But I love the way a long runtime gives the plot room to breathe and lets the audience get a peek at the world building. Movies like Seven Samurai and Solaris are masterpieces to me. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my cinematic comfort food. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, fast paced film. I am all about trash. (I do occasionally write for Swampflix after all.) It’s like comparing a 90 page novella with a 1000 page novel. If you like reading, they both have their time and place. A Touch of Zen is an epic and a masterpiece. Without the long run time, we’d never get to see the lush world of the film, which is something I really loved about it.

The atmosphere of A Touch of Zen is critical to the movie. It’s eye candy definitely—almost a travel brochure for China of the early 70’s—but it’s also part of the spirit and the plot of the film. This film isn’t just about a woman on the run finding zen; King Hu set out to translate the feel of zen within the film. He carefully controlled all the details, going so far as to build enormous and elaborate sets. At the beginning, the film takes place in the hometown of the main character Gu Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun). The town is small and sparsely populated, a remote place with an abandoned, rumored to be haunted, military barracks in the middle. This setting is misty and dark and unclear, which is to the advantage of the characters later on. It rains frequently. This early setting is the pre-zen world for our heroine, Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng). It lacks clarity. It’s literally bogged down. The abandoned and derelict surroundings are shrouded by weeds and overgrown grasses, littered with the remains of people long gone.

The area around the Buddhist monastery, however, is bright and stark. It’s smooth rocks, and clear water. Things are clear and visible and the light is blinding. This is where Yang finds her zen. This is where the audience sees other characters grapple with looking at zen straight in the eye, when the head of the Monastery stands tall about a villain and is lit brightly, mystifyingly from behind. Nothing about this space is cluttered with evidence of worldly affairs. It’s beautiful but uncomfortably bare. There’s no place to hide, but there’s a maze of large boulders eroded into curving surfaces with corners to duck behind. It’s a space of contradictions, which is a lot like zen philosophy itself.

Without the time to have a look around at these areas, would there even be a touch of zen in A Touch of Zen? I think if you look at it solely from a plot of the leading lady cloistering herself off from a world where she only has a future as a mother or a fugitive, then yes, but I’m going to say that that would be more of a slight brush against zen.

-Alli Hobbs

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu (1983)

After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.

Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead (1991)

Given the title, you’d expect Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead to be a schlocky zombie movie. It turns out it’s more of a horror-tinged nudie cutie. This “erotic” martial arts fantasy horror stars Donnie Yen and a gaggle of Topless Babes (give or take one warrior princess) in a fight against a supernatural horndog Moon Monster. The monster is more of a moon-dwelling cannibal wizard with glowing eyes than a walking corpse, and he’s far more interested in ripping blouses off unsuspecting women than he is in eating brains. If it weren’t for the gore & the fight choreography, this film could pass as an old-fashioned nudist comedy along the lines of The Immoral Mr. Teas or Nude on the Moon. It’s incredibly sleazy late-night trash that’s so endlessly fascinated with bare breasts it’s also somehow adorably quaint.

If there’s any element in Holy Virgin that justifies the “Evil Dead” half of its title, it’s in the drastic comic book camera angles and low-to-the-ground tracking shots it lifts directly from Sam Raimi’s playbook. Those images only come in flashes during the Moon Monster attacks, though. The rest of the film is an oddly straight-forward police procedural in which a college professor (Yen) is suspected of stripping & murdering his female students. Meanwhile, the audience knows the truth: a cult that worships a mustachioed goddess has summoned a boobs-obsessed lunar ghoul to do the job. Duh! Thankfully, a badass virgin princess with a laser sword takes over the investigation halfway through to save the professor’s hide (and to put an end to the violent strippings, of course). Rapid-paced fight choreography & wuxia-style wire work ensues, until the whole thing concludes with a police shootout in a cave decorated with giallo-style crosslighting.

It’s impossible to describe Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead without overselling it. Even its own impatient opening credits sequence that previews the gore & nudity to come feels like hyperbolic hype the movie never lives up to. Still, it’s a delightful late-night curio that touches on an incredibly vast range of genre payoffs: dark fantasy, 80s splatter horror, police procedurals, martial arts epics, softcore porno, etc. The fact that its Skinemax-era sexuality and post-Raimi horror signifiers have become increasingly outdated in the decades since its release only make it more charming to the modern schlock-gobbling viewer. It’s a weirdly adorable film for something so gore-soaked & sexually violent, almost as if it were produced for an audience of perverse children. I wish I had first seen it when I was 10 years old, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Matching Escort (1982)

Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.

Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.

Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.

-Brandon Ledet

Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.

In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.

Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).

While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.

-Brandon Ledet

Wolf Devil Woman (1983)

Martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (also credited as Ling Chang) was once the biggest TV star in Taiwan. She has since effectively disappeared. Chang has dozens of credits to her name as an actor at the fringes of the wuxia genre in the 70s & 80s, many of which are seemingly lost forever in the distribution & archival voids that vaporize most cheap-o schlock. Impressively, she even leveraged that notoriety into directing four martial arts films herself in the 1980s, a career path that proved much more turbulent & misogynistically policed than her initial designation as a television actress. When Chang tried her hand at being an auteur, she found her reputation shifting from “beloved TV star” to “difficult to work with,” a bullshit designation that’s routinely leveled at female creatives to protect the industry-control enjoyed by their male “colleagues.” Of her four completed features, only half were even credited to her name, the other two being filed under a male pseudonym. Despite how common this disgraceful undercutting of Pearl Chang’s potential as a genre auteur feels in the history of women in the film industry, it still stings harshly when you watch her work. She was exploding with creativity in her directorial period, limited only by her lack of funding and her lack of Industry support. She deserved so much better, and it’s hard not to get hung up on the potential art we lost because of that dismissal.

Wolf Devil Woman is the best-known of Pearl Chang’s directorial efforts, and even it’s mostly notorious as a “so-bad-it’s-good” exercise in high camp. Chang stars in the film herself as a feral woman who was raised by wolves after her parents were executed by a demonic Emperor. Narratively, it’s a straightforward revenge story in which the wolfen orphan exacts revenge on the Demon who ruined her life by using her animalistic hunting skills (and the supernatural abilities afforded to her by ingesting mystical “white ginseng”) in battle. Tonally, the movie is much harder to pinpoint. It can be absolutely brutal, as in the opening sequence where the wolf-girl’s parents bury their baby in snow and douse her with their own blood to keep the infant warm. It can be adorably cheap, especially in its costuming, which dresses Chang in a wolf plushie doll as if it were a pelt and achieves her Demon foe’s look with a rubber Party City mask. Overwhelmingly, though, I think of Wolf Devil Woman as being outright psychedelic – a disorienting Pure Cinema indulgence that makes for some very loopy late-night viewing despite its limited means as a cheap-o production. It can’t pretend to be as controlled or as accomplished in its far-out psychedelia as triumphs like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, but its bootleg quality as a VHS-era indie knockoff from the fringes of the genre only make it feel stranger, like a found object that tumbled far outside the boundaries of a proper wuxia canon.

Some of the ways Chang achieves this Bootleg Psychedelia effect are recognizably rooted in tradition: 2D animation visuals bolstering the effects budget; vibrantly colored gel lights affording the Demon’s lair a Suspiria vibe; wire work uplifting the martial arts sequences with the fantasy of flight (a wuxia mainstay), etc. Where Chang really goes off the rails is in her deployment of quick, recurrent cuts that repeat the same action over & over again in rapid-fire delirium. It’s a deliberately dissociative effect, best evidenced by the insanely omnipresent imagery of the titular wolfwoman ripping a live rabbit in half with her bare hands to illustrate her animalistic nature. As a revenge tale, Wolf Devil Woman is too predictable & languidly paced to merit much enthusiasm. As a stylistic exercise, however, it’s overflowing with delirious creative choices that dazzle the eye after hypnotizing you into that false calm. I believe the instinct to laugh the entire movie off as a joke because of a few goofy (budgetary-based) costume choices is selling these artistic merits short, but I’m still glad that at least one of Chang’s few feature film earned some kind of cultural notoriety. I wonder what she might have been able to achieve with bigger & better chances to express her vision onscreen, but like with so many female auteurs in the history of the Industry, her opportunities were frustratingly limited.

We don’t get to know what a better-supported Pearl Chang career might have yielded, but at least we got one cult gem out of the limited resources she was afforded.

-Brandon Ledet

A Touch of Zen (1971)

I’m not the most patient of audiences; while I may be impressed by the technical achievements of a three-hour epic from a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s unlikely that type of grand-scale exhibition of auteurist hubris will ever fully steal my heart. My favorite films are often low-budget, D.I.Y. outsider art projects that could comfortably fit on a drive-in double bill, less than half the length of what anyone would considered an epic. That impatience keeps me at a fearsome distance from the wuxia genre, a subset of martial arts cinema that adapts action movie payoffs to Chinese historical epic narratives. Until recently, I’d only ever seen the Hollywood bastardizations of the wuxia aesthetic that arrived in the early 2000s: Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger was the more transcendently beautiful of the pair, but Hero was much closer to a speed I could easily keep up with in my hyperactive, cheap thrills-craving mind. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the goofier, trashier genre payoffs of Hero were not at all uncommon with the classic Chinese wuxia epics that preceded it. Wuxia films can be long, reflective, and overly patient, but they can also be wildly goofy in their isolated genre thrills. I recently took a rare opportunity to see one of the defining films of the genre, King Hu’s 200min epic A Touch of Zen, in digital restoration on the big screen and was surprised to discover how much over-the-top, delirious fun it was willing to have with its martial arts payoffs, as patiently as they arrived. A Touch of Zen was basically the goofiness of Hero at the austere pace of Crouching Tiger, giving me a much better understanding of what the wuxia genre can offer, as long as you’re willing to afford it over three hours’ running time.

Oddly, my impatience with A Touch of Zen mostly manifested in its first hour, which is largely expository & action-free. The opening beats of the film are a slow-motion sinking into Nature, patiently observing the mountainside greenery & nighttime spiderwebs of Japanese provinces in an establishment of the film’s upcoming dichotomy in settings. This Nature photography serves as the film’s overture (there would be no intermission, unfortunately), the exact kind of mood-setter you’d typically expect from an overlong epic. The story it serves is an episodic journey that begins with a small-town artist living frugally with his overbearing mother in an abandoned temple. With no ambitions outside painting portraits & surviving the ghosts he’s superstitious of in their spooky squat, he dodges all pressures from his mother to marry & to become a respectable government bureaucrat. This changes with the arrival of a mysterious woman who takes residence in a neighboring squat, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost before taking her as a lover. The woman proves to be a fugitive from the Empire who, while in hiding, builds a small militia of martial arts masters to challenge the tyranny of encroaching government goons. In a gender-reversal of the typical damsel in distress dichotomy, she protects the artist from Empirical harm as their affair puts him at risk, fighting off entire armies with her physics-defying fighting skills while he cowers in awe. The affair eventually drags the artist away from the comfort of his “haunted” squat into a treacherous, spiritual journey in the wild mountainside terrain. The resulting battles are shockingly violent, spiritually transcendent, and often unashamedly silly, but require a patience with a quiet, darkly lit exposition that nearly constitutes the typical runtime of the smaller-scale genre gems I’m more used to watching. It’s the kind of slow-moving pleasure that’s greatly benefited by being experienced in the distraction-free environment of a theatrical screening; I just didn’t expect that its first act would be the most difficult to remain awake for.

A Touch of Zen is most impressive for its extravagant set pieces. Like the two most recent American action films to receive near-unanimous critical praise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout & Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is for the most part an episodic sequence of successive set pieces; it just happens to start with an hour of pre-action exposition that affords it the shape of a historical epic. The same gravity-defying, physics-transcending martial arts spectacle that’s become synonymous with the wuxia genre because of Crouching Tiger (at least in America) is on full display in A Touch of Zen. Warriors hop over roofs & take their swordfights to the impossible heights of treetops, lightly traveling across flimsy branches that could not support their weight short of an act of magic. The two most remarkable set pieces are an elaborate haunted house-themed prank involving mannequins & a cliffside confrontation with monks who can trigger forced enlightenment in their opponents with a strike to the skull. In isolation, they’re beautiful, admirably humorous achievements in pure cinema bliss. The question is whether they fully serve the needs of a larger epic when considered in sequence, of which I’m not so convinced. I’m always going to be on the hook for a story about a badass female warrior who takes on an entire empirical government, as ACAB. When considered as a whole, however, the sequencing of A Touch of Zen’s set pieces doesn’t appear to achieve a clear, fully satisfied narrative arc, but rather feels like a couple isolated pages torn from a much longer book. That’s a lot to ask for a film with a 200min runtime, no matter how occasionally transcendent. Maybe a greater familiarity with Chinese history referenced in the film would reshape how I think about how the episodic set pieces come together as a whole. As a trash-gobbling genre film enthusiast with an embarrassingly short attention span, however, I found the film’s payoffs to be a little too spread out & mired in mood-setting Nature photography to full convince me that I need to sink further into the niche cinema of wuxia epics. The film did initiate me to the full beauty & unashamed goofiness that the genre is capable of in a way I wasn’t previously aware, which is almost enough to convince me to push through my childish impatience to pursue this subject further.

-Brandon Ledet