Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.
The Lunar New Year has begun and it’s the Year of the Rooster, but since I don’t know many films featuring roosters (other than Warner Bros. cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn), I took my inspiration from a New York Times piece on a Lion Dance troupe preparing for this weekend’s New Year Parade in Chinatown and decided to look at films featuring Lion Dance sequences. There have been quite a few over the decades, but I decided to focus on kung fu films that are easily accessible in my collection. Lion dances are usually performed by two people in a lion costume, one to operate the head and the lion’s forelegs, the other to carry the rear and be the lion’s hind legs. The head has moveable parts, including a mouth and eyes. It’s a form of puppetry with humans inside the puppets. In kung fu films, the Lion Dance sequence is often used to act out an ongoing rivalry between martial arts schools without resorting to bone-crunching blows, although they can be just as challenging as a kung fu battle. Some of these sequences are more elaborate than others; some are shot on location, some on studio soundstages or backlots.
Actress Lisa Lu turns 90 today, January 19, 2017, and, according to IMDB, remains active. I’ve written about her here on four occasions and have seen everything in my collection in which she appears. The last unseen item was the 1962 feature film, RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE, a low-budget western about four characters battling each other over a buried gold stash, in which she plays one of the four. I purchased it from Warner Archive and watched it yesterday before starting this piece. I’ll discuss it further down.
62 years ago today, on November 3, 1954, the Japanese monster movie, GOJIRA, premiered in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film established a whole new Japanese film genre, dubbed kaiju (giant monster). When the film was picked up by an American distributor, Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, it was re-edited and partly dubbed in English, with new scenes added to it featuring an American actor (Raymond Burr) playing a reporter visiting Tokyo when the monster strikes, and retitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS for its April 1956 U.S. release. Godzilla became a worldwide phenomenon and more such films were made, 32 in all, several of which I’ve covered on this blog, including the very latest, SHIN GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA RESURGENCE), which was released this year.
Also on November 3, 1954, approximately 1300 miles to the southwest of Japan, in Taiwan, a baby girl was born and named Lin Ching-hsia. 19 years later, Ms. Lin would begin making movies in Taiwan, mostly romantic comedies and contemporary melodramas, with a brief trip to Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio to appear in the leading male role of Jia Baoyu in the literary adaptation, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977). A few years later, she would return to Hong Kong to appear in Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking “wire-fu” fantasy adventure, ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983), where she played a high-flying warrior priestess called the Countess who resides with her band of priestess followers on the title mountain, and her career took a whole new direction.
Within the last two years, some of the best Hong Kong movies starring Angela Mao Ying have come out on DVD from Shout Factory, remastered, with cleaned-up soundtracks and new subtitles. My earlier VHS and DVD copies had all sorts of problems, so I’ve been wanting to sit down and watch these new editions and thought I’d use the occasion of her 66th birthday today, September 20th, to offer a write-up on them. I watched what I consider her four best films for this piece: HAPKIDO (1972), WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973), THE TOURNAMENT (1974), and BROKEN OATH (1977). I didn’t have time for the fifth of her top five, LADY WHIRLWIND (1972)
This past Monday marked the beginning of the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese Zodiac, so I thought it a good time to do a short survey of some notable film and TV adventures of the legendary Chinese trickster, Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, a leading character in “Journey to the West,” a classic 16th century Chinese text about the trip to India by a Chinese monk to obtain Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. Based on a real monk, the story, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, adds mythical characters and supernatural elements to the mix, so we have a monkey with magical powers who is assigned to guard the monk and protect him from assorted demons and monsters on his trip. The story has been told in animated and live-action adventures in films and TV shows from China, Hong Kong, Japan and other nations. There have been modern-day versions and science fiction versions. The best known version in the west is probably the Japanese animated series, “Dragon Ball,” about Goku, a monkey-tailed boy from another planet who is raised by a Chinese martial artist and becomes Earth’s champion.
When I first read a pre-production description of Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT and its tale of hardbitten characters waiting out a blizzard in a mountain outpost in the post-Civil War west after a stagecoach drops off its quartet of passengers, joining four suspicious characters who are already there, I immediately thought of several films with similar plots, but the ones that first leapt to mind were a western from 1951 and a samurai film from 1970.