OPERATION BOTTLENECK – A Hollywood WWII Film with Asian Female Commandos

1 Aug

Friday, July 24th, marked the 95th birthday of Japanese-American actress Miiko Taka, who is, happily, still with us. She is best known for co-starring with Marlon Brando in SAYONARA (1957), in which she plays a Takarazuka performer in Kyoto who has a romance with an American Air Force officer. To celebrate the occasion of her birthday, I found one of her more obscure Hollywood films on Amazon Prime and watched it. OPERATION BOTTLENECK (1961), released by United Artists, is pretty much a standard World War II tale of a small American unit going behind the lines in Burma to blow up a “bottleneck” in a key road the Japanese army needs to advance into India. In the course of it, however, they free five “comfort girls,” local village women who had been forced into serving the Japanese officers at their headquarters, and must train them in combat to assist in their mission. It’s a pretty far-fetched story, done on quite a low budget and has some major problems with sexist dialogue and racial slurs, not to mention profoundly insensitive treatment of the comfort women, but it’s also quite distinct from other Hollywood treatments of the war with Japan. It is, I believe, the only World War II movie made in Hollywood with an actress of Japanese descent given top billing and also the only time Hollywood has shown an American officer leading Asian female guerrillas in a war movie, although when they go into combat they’re not quite dressed as they are in this poster:

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Pan Jinlian: The Notorious Femme Fatale of Chinese Literature

24 Jul

While binge-watching Hong Kong movies during the coronavirus lockdown, I reached onto my shelf of Cathay releases and pulled out the two-part movie, THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1964), starring Grace Chang as a street singer-turned-student who is forced into marriage with a brutal warlord in 1920s Beijing. Early in the film, she is seen performing in a tavern and is called upon to sing a song about Pan Jinlian. Continue reading

Ray Harryhausen Centennial

29 Jun

Monday, June 29, 2020, marks the centennial of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen. I was lucky to have seen many of his films as a child when they were new and then share them as a grown-up with my daughter and nephews. I did a tribute to him on May 11, 2013, on the occasion of his death at the age of 92 and am reposting it here as a centennial tribute. Consult the original piece here for the comments that were added then.

Ray Harryhausen died on Tuesday, May 7 at the age of 92. He had a good run, starting out by animating stop-motion models of dinosaurs, inspired by KING KONG (1933), for short color 16mm movies made in his parents’ garage while he was a teenager in the 1930s and ending with the Greek mythological epic CLASH OF THE TITANS in 1981. In between, he did the “technical effects” as billed on his first feature, or “special visual effects” as they were usually billed, for some of my all-time favorite movies. I was lucky to have seen many of his movies on the big screen when they were first released, starting with THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), which my father took us to see on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1959, when I was five. Even though I’d seen Disney features in theaters before then, as well as a memorable double bill of THE ROBE and DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, I believe it was SINBAD that first triggered a love of the motion picture art form, particularly the more fantastic genres. The Cyclops was a truly formidable monster and done in such a vivid and exciting manner that there was something consistently compelling about him and the way he reacts to having his domain invaded by these pesky humans. I don’t know that I’ve seen another movie monster quite like him, not even in Harryhausen’s other films.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS: If PARASITE had been a Hong Kong movie from 1991

27 Jun

I’ve been going through my shelves and found a number of previously unseen Hong Kong movies from the 1990s on import DVDs purchased in Chinatown stores earlier this century. One of them was THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS (1991), a comedy about small-time criminals trying to pull off a big-time scam and starring Stephen Chow, one of the biggest boxoffice stars in HK in the 1990s and early 2000s and best known in the U.S. for SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001) and KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004).

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Setsuko Hara Centennial

17 Jun

The great Japanese actress, Setsuko Hara, would have turned 100 today, June 17, 2020. She died five years ago at the age of 95. She’s most famous for her films for director Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and THE END OF SUMMER. She starred in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, and again for Kurosawa in THE IDIOT. She made four films for Mikio Naruse, including REPAST, SUDDEN RAIN, THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN and DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER. Her last film was Toho’s all-star saga of the 47 Ronin, CHUSHINGURA (1962), and she played the wife of the protagonist, Oishi, a chamberlain secretly plotting over the course of a year to rally the ronin and avenge the death of their disgraced lord. Continue reading

Power Rangers Samurai Shiba House: A Marvel of Set Design

3 Jun

Last month I watched 20 episodes of “Power Rangers Samurai” (2011), which was filmed in Auckland, New Zealand and was based on the 2009 Japanese Super Sentai season, “Samurai Sentai Shinkenger.” It’s about a group of young Samurai Rangers who’ve trained since childhood and come together at a crucial point in their young adult life to stop the onslaught of monsters seeping through “gaps” from the “netherworld” where their monstrous leader, Xandred, and his minions were consigned centuries ago by an earlier group of Samurai Rangers. It was a series I only watched sporadically when it was originally on, so I never came to appreciate the beauty of the building in which the Rangers live and train, known as Shiba House to its occupants since it’s owned, in the show, by the Shiba Samurai Clan, the Rangers’ backer.

It’s a modernist building incorporating traditional Japanese design elements and is a beautiful structure both inside and out. It looked to me to be so real and solid that I couldn’t imagine a Power Rangers budget being able to afford the expense of constructing such a set, even in New Zealand, where production costs are considerably lower than in Hollywood.

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Movie Titles with the Star’s Name in Them

20 May

I recently watched a Japanese movie called HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS (1941), starring Hideko Takamine as the title character, and I started recalling other films with the star’s name featured in the movie’s title. Sometimes the star’s full name is featured, as in the film pictured above; sometimes only the star’s first name was featured, as in TEX RIDES WITH THE BOY SCOUTS (1937, starring Tex Ritter), and sometimes only the star’s last name was featured, as in the 1941 serial, HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE, starring Jack Holt. The stars didn’t always play themselves in the movie. For instance, the Abbott & Costello name is featured in the titles of several films starring the popular comedy duo, but Bud Abbott and Lou Costello rarely play characters by those names in the films. And when any of these stars did play characters with the same name, they were still completely fictional. Gracie Allen nearly always played a character named Gracie Allen in her films, but it was a comic character she created for the act she did with her husband, George Burns.

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SHAOLIN MANTIS: A Masterpiece of Acting, Design, and Choreography

11 May

I recently re-watched SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978), one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, for the first time in seven years and I wanted to highlight three elements of the Shaw Bros. production that really strike me now as key to its success. (The film’s English-dubbed edition was known as DEADLY MANTIS when it played theaters in the U.S. and ran on American television in the 1980s. For the record, I watched the Dragon Dynasty Region 1 DVD edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, for this review.)

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Pauline Kael on New York in the Movies, 1971

21 Apr

Pauline Kael was the chief film critic for The New Yorker for several decades and most of her reviews were collected every few years in published volumes. I pulled the fourth collection, Deeper Into Movies, off the shelf recently and re-read “Urban Gothic,” dated October 30, 1971, Kael’s review of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the New York City police thriller directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for that year. Kael’s first two paragraphs of the review, pasted below, offer a spot-on assessment of how New York movies of that time created “a permanent record of the city in breakdown.” As someone who lived through that era and had good times and bad times associated with it, I am always awe-struck at how accurate these films were in capturing the look, feel, mood and sound of New York, or “Horror City,” as she calls it, in those years. However, she goes a little overboard in her paragraph describing the audiences at these films, particularly in Times Square and Greenwich Village, and may be exaggerating the depth and intensity of audience reaction and participation, but at least she was there to observe it. I was, too, and I do remember an occasional fight breaking out, but the audience was generally way more focused on the screen than on each other, although I may not have gone to the same theaters or late-night screenings that Kael did. Still, her vivid portrait of New York moviegoing offers a fitting counterpart to the nervous, jangling energy of the New York movies onscreen.

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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 3: Fifty Years a Fan

31 Mar

April 1, 2020, marks the centennial of the birth of Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s greatest film actor and, arguably, the greatest film actor who ever lived. I first became aware of Mifune when his films played New York arthouse theaters in the 1960s and were advertised widely in the newspapers and sometimes reviewed in the local press. A number of older Mifune films got released for the first time in the U.S. during this period as the arthouse crowd became enamored of Japanese films and those of Akira Kurosawa and Mifune in particular.

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