Friday, April 29, 2011

Watched a very strange old kung fu film last night, Shaolin Drunken Monk, from 1982, with Gordon Liu when he was young and wiry. It turned up in my Netflix DVD queue, which I don't pay too much attention to except to keep it full. The deliveries are always surprises. And sometimes disappointments. SDM was disappointing because it was dubbed in English, and very poorly, with no option for Mandarin, or even Cantonese, with subtitles. So no pre-trip Chinese lessons. Not that "drunken kung fu" is something I really expect to talk about.

On the other hand, it was enjoyable in the old kung fu style, no wire fu, just lots of well choreographed fights holding together a typical but hard to follow revenge plot full of flashbacks. Most of the cast, despite period dynastic costumes, sported late '70s-early '80s hairstyles that looked permed, kind of like that former Japanese prime minister with the funky hair. Except of course Gordon Liu's trademark Shaolin-style shaved head (despite the title, he did not play a Shaolin monk, and there wasn't really that much drunken kung fu).

Notable scenes, with fortunately little dialogue, were a protracted sequence with Gordon making rice wine, and a pretty vivid sexy moment in which Gordon reconnects, literally, with his childhood girlfriend, whose father killed his family. Hence the revenge plot. In the end, Gordon completes his baochou, (a concept I have learned from other Mandarin films) and the girlfriend is torn between filial piety and lust. The film ends when she plunges a dagger into her heart; it's a long freeze-frame and doesn't even feature the faintest expected trickle of blood from her mouth. Well, what would you do if your lover killed your father because your father killed his father. If a son was conceived in that one hot moment in the film, how would you explain it later?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I have a weakness for films of the sword and sandal/Biblical epic/religious genre and I make no apologies for this. It has certainly lead to my preoccupation with Chinese/Korean wuxia drama.

So, during this weekend completing Holy Week and the day before Easter Sunday, I indulge in a truly weird film, A Man Called Peter. I bought this 1955 Cinemascope classic DVD on the cheap at Costco, bundled with Luther, which I recently watched via Netflix (and which was a pretty fine movie). I suppose this package was designed to appeal to mainstream Protestants. I also wanted to buy The Greatest Story Ever Told with the truly magnificent Max Von Sydow, but it came with Mel Gibson's old-Catholic version of Passion of the Christ, the bloody Good Friday epic I already own. I'll probably pick that set up next time I need cat litter and toilet paper and pass on the Gibson epic to someone who has a taste for attractive half-naked bloodied men.

I vaguely remember A Man Called Peter when it came out. I would have been seven or eight years old, probably the film was playing at one of the three movie palaces in our provincial town: the State, the Capitol, or the Rivoli. (No multiplexes then.) Set in the late 30s/early 40s, it has an ambiance of Gone with the Wind meets It's A Wonderful Life. But now watching it, I have never seen a film more worthy of MST3K parody. (Maybe my blogging compatriot, with whom I frequently argue the value and meaning of religion, should establish this as a channel...a "critique" of spiritual/religious films, MTT3K. Mysterium Tremendum Theatre 3000. With little commenting robots who are parodies of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and perhaps, me as a stand-in for Gypsy. Note to blogger compatriot: if you do this, and you could, the idea is mine and I get some of the proceeds to be negotiated!)

Peter is not St. Peter (though the reference is obvious) but a pious Presbyterian who somehow is "called" to be the pastor of the Church of the Presidents and the U.S. Senate Chaplain. (Wow, the alliteration here was totally random! I would have said Parish, but they're Presbyterian, and this was a decade before we had a Catholic president.) His wife hotly (though she might not have recognized her own heat, this is pre-My Body, My Self) pursued him after a sermon of his she heard about women's emancipation. "What man wants a woman whose hair stinks of cigarette smoke? A woman who can drink like his buddies?" The feminist in me is slightly enraged. Need I mention that there was no mention of equal pay for equal work? This was 1955. (Although in this post-feminist world, I am struck by the new feminine mystique, the focus on the divine feminine. Pretty much what Mrs. Peter was talking about.)

Still, the movie is compelling. Maybe the whole point is summed up in the line:
"Most people get just enough of an exposure to Christianity in childhood to give them a lifetime immunity to ever catching the real thing."

Friday, April 22, 2011

There was a moment in my adolescence when I thought "kabuki" was the coolest, funniest, most delightful word I ever heard. I think I picked it up from the branding on a can of mandarin orange sections, so it had pleasant associations, and I used it as an exclamation, much the way you might say "voila" or "ta da." No one I knew then knew what it meant; it was all mine. It wasn't until years later I learned it referred to a particular style of Japanese theater. The kanji characters in "kabuki" mean sing, dance, and skill, and also something avant garde or bizarre. I probably executed a silly little flourish when I exclaimed "Kabuki!" when I was pleased with something.

Last night I had my chance to remember the "kabuki" feeling at a performance at the University theater of a kabuki comedy (in English) called The Vengeful Sword. After a substantial meal with Kirin beer and nigori sake subsidized by a gift certificate left over from recent association with the Miss Cherry Blossom Festival, my companion and I mostly stayed awake for the stylized performance, very pretty to watch, but not quite up to the acrobatics of Peking opera or the over-the-top flash of the Cantonese style. It's hardly appropriate, but I can't help but compare this performance with the English language production of the classic Peking opera, White Snake, I enjoyed in the same theater last year.

Of course The Vengeful Sword wasn't really opera, just a sort of melodic dialog translated to English (not a language well suited for sing-song), with intriguing background noise of Japanese instruments and singers.

I like the swordplay in my Chinese and Korean dramas .... but I was not quite prepared for the stylized weapon-wielding in kabuki. It was a little slow, Mr. Rogers' Japanese Neighborhood ...on heroin. And while the Chinese and Korean protagonists are, without much exception, very sexy, the clown-faced, bald headed samurai failed to rock my boat. Although the geisha characters, in beautiful kimono, were graceful and colorful.

Still it was fun, a culturally expanding event. I am certain there were nuances completely foreign to me; the first time I saw a Cantonese opera I was completely dumbfounded.

When I got home, quite late, I watched an episode from the Season Four set of Mad Men I picked up at Costco the day before (while shopping for an Easter leg of lamb). What strange dreams followed: Madison Avenue of the mid-sixties meets 18th century samurai culture. And now, on reflection, I'd like to see The Vengeful Sword again. Kabuki! Bring on the nigori.