Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Untold Stories of the Dinner Table

I wouldn't call it a torrent of food-oriented horror movies, but Asian audiences are most definitely being served a steady dribble of them. They continue to ooze forth like pus from an untreated sore.

The latest I can find is Koji Kowano's Cruel Restaurant (Zankoku hanten, 2008).

Kowano's last effort was The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, a horror flick that combined the living dead with competitive swimming. Despite its novel premise, and its generous footage of nymphs in swimsuits, it was derailed by directorial ineptness and rotten performances.

Unfortunately, Cruel Restaurant is derailed by ineptness also. Clearly influenced by Herman Yau's The Untold Story and Fruit Chan's Dumplings, it is a familiar tale of murder, betrayal, and serving humans as dumplings. Tonally, it is all over the place, and the exploitations elements are not well blended into the mix.

Much has already been written about The Untold Story (Bat sin fan dim ji yan yuk cha siu bau, '93), the slightly uneven but shockingly effective horror hit from director Herman Yau.

Several days after seeing it for the first time, my ex-wife and I visited a favorite Chinese restaurant in Box Hill, an Eastern suburb of Melbourne. This restaurant could usually be relied on to serve excellent yum-cha and the best cha siu bau (roast pork buns) in town.

The human-laced delicacies of The Untold Story had not succeeded in turning me off visiting a Chinese restaurant. Clearly, my stomach was capable of overriding my brain.

The ex- ordered in Chinese (which she was), and we waited a few minutes for our treats to arrive.

I sipped some Chinese tea and glanced at a flyer for an upcoming double feature at the Chinatown Cinema. For us, it was a typical Friday evening.

When the plate of roast pork buns arrived, I didn't notice their deflated, sub-par appearance. I was famished, dammit! I didn't find it strange that something didn't smell good.

I picked one up and bit into it.

Traditionally, biting into a roast pork bun at this particular restaurant resulted in zesty, immediate pleasure.

This bite was different somehow.


Something spurted onto my tongue from the insides of something residing (perhaps living happily) in the bun. It was cold. Just like the bun. Which was unusual. It was supposed to be hot. Steamed.

It took me a moment to react. To know that something was terribly wrong.

I pulled the half-eaten bun away from my mouth. It looked like a broken heart just ripped from a chest. It was soaked in blood.

That's when I noticed the other buns on my plate. Strange, they weren't very white any more. They were turning red. It was as if they were bleeding internally.

I spat the contents of my mouth onto the plate. Had I contracted tuberculosis? Or was my stomach being eaten by parasites?

There was a commotion behind me as the restaurant's owner rushed forward.

"You OK?" he asked in broken English.

"Does he look OK!" my ex-wife shouted.

The bloody mess was removed. Lots of tea was gulped down.

And a fresh plate of steaming pork buns were rushed to the table!

No, fuck, no! Get them outta here!

I was speechless.

"Please get them outta here!" I said, turning away, away, away.

I was ready to vomit. I tasted bitterness deep down.


They never brought the bill (check).

Months passed and accumulated into years, and I ventured back into cha siu bau territory cautiously -- although I never returned to Box Hill's House of Blood-Soaked-Siu Bau's.

This is my Untold Story.

And the content of those devilish buns? Well, it still remains untold.

Herman's Yau's follow-up to his celebration of roast pork bun culture was Ebola Syndrome (Yibola bing du, '96), a sleazy, grotesquely outrageous amalgam of Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak ('95) and The Untold Story.

The film cleverly capitalized on the then-current panic about the flesh-eating ebola virus. This is what I love so much about the Hong Kong film industry. They have no shame, and there is nothing that is not fair game for them. As a result, they have one of the most vital film industries in the world (or did, anyway).

Anthony Wong, who folded humans into pork buns in The Untold Story, is transported to South Africa here where he is working as a filthy chef in a filthy Johannesberg restaurant. One day, he accompanies his filthy boss to a filthy settlement in the countryside where raw, filthy, maggot-ridden meat is sold out in the open. As his boss negotiates a deal, Wong notices an African woman falling beside a pond. He offers her assistance, but when she acts strangely, he decides to rape her impoverished body. He calls her "filthy" in the process. How one thing leads logically to another is not for us mere mortals to ponder. While Wong is raping the unfortunate woman, she vomits up blood. The blood, we later discover, contains ebola particles.

Once Wong is infected, it's on for young and old. Turns out the filthy chef/rapist is also a wanted killer, so it's not long before a visiting Chinese tourist identifies him as the filthy someone who tried to set her on fire when she was a little girl. Oh, yeah, he killed her parents, too. Not a nice bloke really. Just a filthy one.

Although the film uses Outbreak for structure, it's more a horror film than a sci-fi film. Contracting ebola gives Wong plenty of opportunity to spread it through his cooking, rape, and murder.

It's a shame Chef Gordon Ramsey didn't pay a visit to Wong's filthy palace of culinary delights. Hell's Kitchen barely describes the Chinese rapist's work environment. With enough food crimes to inspire a half hour chorus of 'F' words, the Wong/Ramsey combination would have been a winner.

I'm still hanging out for Bird Flu Rapist (Half Man/Half Bird/All Rapist).

There Is A Secret in My Soup (Ren tou dou fu shang, 2001) was still trying to ride the gory coattails of The Untold Story.

Based on a true story in which the remains of a prostitute were found inside a Hello Kitty Mermaid, it takes the traditional flashback route to document the woman's sad life before she became a soup ingredient. Unfortunately, the scripting is abysmal, so any effort to add some meaning to the horrific murder is destroyed. On top of that, the film is boring.

Of all the food-focused horror pics, Fruit Chan's Dumplings (Gaaui ju, 2004) is the most technically accomplished and artful. It is pretty horrific, too, although the horror is tempered by stunning aesthetics (courtesy of cinematographer Chris Doyle).

In a nutshell, it is the story of a young woman who adds aborted fetuses to her exotic, much sought after dumplings.

Using this grotesque premise as a starting point, it deftly explores modern culture's obsession with youth and appearance.

Exquisite in every way, it is one of the decade's very best horror films.

A truth that runs through all these films is that we really don't know what's in the stuff we eat; we trust others with our lives.

An equally horrific look at the stuff we're putting in our bellies comes courtesy of Food, Inc., a very scary, spellbinding doco that is currently in theaters.

Not all untold stories remain so thankfully.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three Extraordinary Films

I saw three dull movies this weekend -- I Can Be Bad All By Myself (don't ask!), Bright Star, and The Informer -- and felt the need to recede... into a shell, of course, where the good movies are.

The above were full of counterfeit people in counterfeit situations. I couldn't detect an ounce of humanity or reality amongst them. I looked hard, but I came up short.

Then I reflected on three movies I haven't discussed here (wrote about them on imdb under my old pseudonym). All are extraordinary. You float out of them in awe of cinema's ability to move you and embrace quality.

Without further ado --

If Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, the seven-year-old lead of this harrowing Hungarian drama from '76, was competing for an Oscar this year against Mickey Rourke for his mighty performance in "The Wrestler", Miss Czinkoczi would romp it in. Her performance in "Nobody's Daughter" is beyond comprehension.

I was moved to tears by this extraordinary girl's portrayal of an orphan in 1940's Hungary. Back then, the Hungarian government paid families a stipend to take unwanted children into their home. Of course, there was no vetting process to weed out couples totally unsuited to parenting, let alone adoption.

We meet Csore (Czinkoczi), the doomed waif of the story, in a field of corn where she is trying to get a cow to return to its enclosure. When she follows the beast into the corn, she is picked up by a stranger and raped. Directors Laszlo Ranódy and Gyula Mészáros then cut to Csore returning home after the rape where, feeling disoriented, she takes a beating for being late and has her hand deliberately burned with hot coals by her cold, adopted father. As the weeks creep on, Csore is depicted as an abused child with an almost unbelievable resilience to tragedy.

Because she spends the first half of the movie fully naked in dirty, cold, hostile surroundings, the line between the actress and the character appears non-existent. Such is the magic of truly great film-making. Eventually, Csore is abandoned by her adoptive parents and taken to an orphanage where she comes within a hair of being adopted by a caring, loving couple. A complication prevents this fortuitous transaction and Csore is sold once again to another abusive, impoverished, unhappy couple who already have other children. Once again, she is subjected to abuse and given inferior status within the house. When all seems hopeless, the sun shines for the first time on Csore when she befriends a kind, bearded old man who takes her under his wing and treats her with respect and dignity.

The brief scenes of their happy times together are heart-wrenching for the stark contrast they represent. Unfortunately, the old man passes away, and Csore is alone once again.

Climaxing with fury and tragedy, this ultra-realistic look at poverty and abandonment (by the state and the individual) is easily one of the most moving and grotesque portraits of inhumanity to man that I have ever seen. Only the coldest of hearts could not go out to poor Csore, a child whose plight and death felt so real to me and affected me for days. The message this left me with is that bringing children into the world should not be a right, it should be a privilege that one must prove they are worthy of. Unfortunately, reproduction is the easy part.

Klaus Haro's "Elina -- As If I Wasn't There" can proudly stand alongside classics about childhood such as France's "Forbidden Games", The Czech Republic's "The Elementary School", and Japan's "Muddy River".

Set in Northern Sweden, this remarkable movie focuses on the inner agony of Elina (Natalie Minnivek), a smart young girl who has recently lost her father, a Finn, and is recovering from tuberculosis. When she starts a new school, the stubborn child, who is a sharp chip off her father's block, clashes with Tora Holm (Bibi Andersson), the school's most senior teacher. Not only is the clash of these two females a clash of wills, it is a clash of cultures. The rigid Holm forbids Elina and other students from speaking Finnish and enforces a Swedish-only language rule. Elina rebels against her teacher and takes emotional refuge in the bog outside the town where she believes her father still resides. The bog is a mysterious, wild, and beautiful place, retaining memories of the times Elina spent with her beloved father.

The film's simple story is an effective frame on which to hang a number of cleverly explored issues such as the majority's treatment of minorities, poverty, tolerance, and Swedish identity (the Old and the New).

First-time director Haro's grasp of the material is impressive and naturalistic. Not a shot is wasted. Not a single emotion is false. The photography of the rural exteriors and interiors is breathtaking and transporting; this is pure cinema with something to say and an original way to say it.

Tuomas Kantelinen's musical score enhances and enriches the physical beauty and the delicate inner world of characters we come to know and understand. When I watch films like this, I fall in love with cinema all over again.

A well written and exceptionally well performed tale that explores the depths of acceptance.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a woman returning to society after a fifteen year spell in jail. Mostly met with hostility, she is embraced by her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and treated with caution by her sister's husband and curious daughter (Lise Segur in an amazing performance). The film focuses on emotional details and provides us with a realistic cross-section of humanity. Reaction to Juliette is experienced via a variety of characters.

Director Philipe Claudel makes intelligent choices in terms of what is revealed about Juliette; his style is an unobtrusive one that gives the performers plenty of room to move.

Zylberstein and Thomas are great together, convincing us of their history and their private pain.

The film doesn't wrap anything up for convenience; it reminds us that life is always gray. It is engaging cinema.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bazaldua and the Great Caruso

I have been reluctant to re-post the incredible work of Oscar Bazaldua (Nava) because it is already being posted regularly at !Historietas Perversas!

*** http://historietasperversas.blogspot.com/ ***

The Historietas blog is primarily devoted to Bazaldua's sensationally lurid, truly beautiful art. It's the kind of art that will be celebrated for its true greatness one day (probably just before the poor bugger dies).

Most of Bazaldua's illustrations are taken from Mexican adult comics (Ghetto Librettos).

Bazaldua's use of color, form, shape and texture is exemplary, and I find him to be one of the most inspiring artists I have ever seen (alongside Toshio Saeki, Rudolph Balarski, Suehiro Maruo, and Hideshi Hino).

Conceptually, his work is several cuts above almost anything else out there. Execution-wise, he has few peers.

Combining elements from Westerns, Porn, Horror, and Men's Adventure, he has produced a mountain of amazing, transgressive, and very "fine" art.

Working in a very different vein, artist Santiago Caruso is the equal of Bazaldua in terms of talent and craft.

Perhaps you will agree with me that the illustration above, La Otra Inseguridad, is a work of true greatness, and understatement.

Mr. Caruso has demonstrated a great sensitivity towards the works of Lovecraft, and it shows in this fine piece of work.

Sembraron Futuro (above) is an exquisite statement on the future, the past, and the seeds of our destiny.

I can only stare at these in a state of awe.

From the cover of More Adventures in Arkham Country, this 'View of Innsmouth' goes beyond capturing the essence of Lovecraft's love of specific architecture.

I can't look at 'House of Windows' and not feel sadness that Lovecraft didn't live to see these masterpieces of cosmic horror.

Mr. Caruso, who hails from Argentina, deserves to be called Great.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

House of Knifeable Bitches

Five super-bitches and a bitch with a loose mouth get themselves into a whole heap of trouble in Stewart Hendler's Sorority Row ('09), a remake (that's a stretch) of Mark Rosman's The House on Sorority Row ('83), a film I saw at a grindhouse theater in downtown Detroit. It was a well made slash-and-stalk with a winning Richard Brand score.

If you have a decent girlfriend, boys, you will appreciate her even more after spending close to a hundred minutes with these disgusting excuses for human beings. I don't quite understand why writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger decided to make every female character so goddamn unlikable in this. I'm not arguing that the world doesn't have more than its fair share of such knife-able trash -- it does. I'm just questioning the decision to not balance the movie with non-bitchy women. Did these writers have no positive female role models?

When every woman and man is a piece of shit, their bloody deaths have a cathartic effect only; there's no deeper audience involvement.

Parts of this movie look like steals from Co-ed Frenzy, the film-within-a-film in Brian De Palma's masterpiece, Blow Out. There is a reasonable amount of nudity, production values are high, and the direction is not too hurried or choppy.

The big revelation is a little too so-what! to make a difference. The climax, which takes place in a burning house, has little credibility.

The film's dialog is snappy and the cinematography by Ken Seng, who also shot Obsessed (a film I enjoyed a lot more), is pretty and functional.

The lack of warm characters does create tangible distance between story and audience. It's a hard film to embrace.

Although I enjoyed it, let's call a spade a fuckin spade -- it is still a horrendously unoriginal piece of filmmaking and adds exactly nothing to cinema.

General audiences did not warm to this film; nor did they warm to Rob Zombie's equally unoriginal, less entertaining trade-off for a paycheck. It's a comforting thought that the shine may be going off remakes. Perhaps originality (relatively speaking) will make a comeback.

Imagine that.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Octogod from Toho

What made the "Good Old Days" so good?

Perhaps Toho's Space Amoeba ('70) appearing on the cover of Movie/TV Marketing, a leading international trade mag for the film industry (ala Variety).

You wouldn't see a cover like this today.

I love this art. It's just bursting with promise and a sense of fucked-up wonder. And love. Love for a genre that has been unfairly maligned.

This is not my favorite Honda film (Matango is) or favorite kaiju , but I like it a lot and I can't close without singling out 'Gezora', the film's mega-squid.

He really does deserve his own photo.

Live long and prosper you tentacle-walking super-beast, rubber-jointed octogod of a wrong-headed tourist resort... you and your kind have my undying respect.

DVD from Media Blasters is a doozy.

A Rarity From Shockiku

In the West, this obscure Japanese exploitation gem (Kage no koruma, '70) from Shockiku was sold as a killer kid movie. There is a kid who may or may not be malevolent, but the film is really about a salaryman's (Go Kato) affair with a childhood sweetheart (Shima Iwashita). To keep the affair under wraps, he (Kato) is forced to manufacture extravagant lies to keep his wife from discovering the deception.

The little boy, Ken-chan (Hisato Okamoto), is the mistress's son, and Kato is not comfortable with the boy. Much of his discomfort is fueled by his guilt, and he begins to suspect that the boy is plotting his comeuppance. Perhaps the English title provides a clue to Kato's paranoid mind set. The boy represents the darkness within self? Is he so guilty that he's contemplating suicide?

Although attempts were made to sell the film to Western distributors, it was never widely distributed anywhere.

Putting The Bad Seed ('56) aside, it's Western marketing campaign predated The Omen ('76), the film that launched a hundred pre-teen horrors. In tone and pitch, it shares similarities with a film I like very much, Robert Mulligan's The Other ('72). Although the emphasis is on the boys' POV in The Other, it is a fitting companion piece.

The film's cinematographer, Takashi Kawamata, shot a handful of excellent Japanese movies including Immamura's Black Rain.

The director of this, Yoshitaro Nomura, also made Village of Eight Gravestones and the amazing Kichiku (The Demon).

This has a gorgeous, shadowy look, and traverses smoothly between eroticism and suspense.

Outside Japan, Nomura ought to be much better known. His work is superb.

Mutilating The Mutilator

In the mid-80's I worked for a Melbourne production company. It was based in Blackburn, an Eastern suburb, and was, for a time, a hive of activity. We produced commercials and corporate videos, but the company had tape dubbing (VHS) contracts with Palace Home Video, K-Tel Video (what a classic catalog that was!), and various porno companies like Caballero.

I did a bit of everything. When I started there, I did the graveyard shift (it was the only shift available); that lasted for close to a year. It totally fucked up my sleeping patterns and turned me into a zombie, but it got me through the door and into production. Initially, I dubbed K-Tel titles and porn. Since the company was a "respectable" outfit, all porno dubbing was done outside of regular office hours.

When I would roll in at 10:45 pm, 1" tape masters would be stacked up for me with yellow order forms. A typical night's work would be 200 copies of Hal Freeman's Caught from Behind 2, 400 copies of Hard Rock Zombies, and 300 copies of Jean-Marie Pallardy's classic White Fire (with Robert Ginty!).

Once I loaded the machines (single-handedly), I would go into another room and check the opening few seconds of every tape on a 20-machine checking bank. It usually took me half an hour to check a full run of 200 tapes.

It was an interesting job, and I did get time to watch the movies. Although the Palace titles were particularly noteworthy (I Spit On Your Grave, The Killing of America, The Slayer), the K-Tel titles were fascinating -- Dog Day with Lee Marvin and David Bennent, Sergio Martino's magic 2019 - After The Fall of New York. I used to ask myself: Who the fuck is picking these? They were mostly cheap and nasty, but crikey!, they were so damn entertaining.

Around 8 o'clock each morning, the day workers would drift in. Some would drift in an hour earlier to catch a glimpse of what I was dubbing. A strict rule was that all porn had to be off the machines by 7.30. If you rolled in at 7, you could catch Ron Jeremy fellating himself in Fascination or Annie Sprinkle sprinkling in Inside Annie Sprinkle.

It was well known that I was a serious film fanatic. It was a joke, actually, because my bosses treated most of the stuff we dubbed like it was the world's worst trash (by association, I got no respect).

I remember standing with my boss, Ross, in the dubbing suite during a scene in White Fire where Robert (The Exterminator) Ginty attacks a leg with a chainsaw. Ross was understandably sensitive about legs because he had a serious limp (the result of contracting polio when he was a youngster). Well, Ross caught me grinning during this bloody sequence and said: "What are you grinning about? You sick or something?"

I turned to him and shrugged. "No. It's just funny."

He shook his head and his face tightened up. "Funny, is it? What's so funny about cutting someone's leg off?"

What could I say? Clearly, Ross didn't get exploitation films. He stared at me, waiting for an answer, but I didn't have a clever one. So I changed the subject.

"Have you seen Up and Coming, Ross?"

"What's that?" he said.

"A porno with Marilyn Chambers."


"She was in Insatiable."

"Oh yeah. She's alright. You wouldn't throw her out of bed if she farted, would ya?" That got his interest.

I just nodded. Then I found him a spare copy of the Chambers film . I guess he forgot that I'd laughed at chainsawing legs. Well, half forgot.

A couple of months later, I was working the day shift. I was dubbing and doing production now. Anything involving "weird" movies would be pushed in my direction. Anyway, Ross limped out to see me in the studio. I was changing light bulbs.

"I have a little job for you, mate, " he said. "Walk this way."

I did just that. I limped behind him to the office. Whenever Ross said "walk this way", employees would walk like he walked. He didn't mind them taking the piss. He was more sensitive about chainsaws and legs.

He led me into his office and placed a blank looking VHS in front of me that had a tiny, hand-scribbled label on it. It read "Mute."

"I got a call from a bloke," Ross began. "Said he's got this stupid horror film for distribution."

"Mute?" I said.

"No. The title's The Mutilator. It's some rubbish about a bloke going around chopping up girls in bikinis. Blood and guts stuff. Real garbage."

I looked at the tape. "I've heard of this."

Ross looked at me with unconvincingly veiled disgust. "I thought you'd say that." He sighed. "Look, Marky (yes, he called me Marky), the film's already been to the censor, and they banned it. Too bloody. I need you to make it a little less bloody. Make it nicer. Alright?"


"Marky, it's not all about blood and guts, you know. Even though you might find blokes getting their legs chainsawed funny, most normal people don't think that way. Capisce?"

I nodded. "But it's a horror film, Ross."

Ross fumed. "Do something with it, would ya? Make the killings a bit nicer."


As I left the room, he fired a parting shot: "And don't let me hear you laughing at people being killed."

Jesus, this guy really didn't get it.

My first task was to watch the film from beginning to end. I liked it immediately. A kid accidentally kills his mother and gets beaten by his dad (who then gives the corpse of his wife a drink). I didn't laugh at that.

In consistent slasher form, the film speeds ahead ten years and establishes the kid as a moronic, wise-ass teenager. The plot involves a group of teens (male and female) helping to close dear old dad's beach property. Trouble is, daddy's still lurking about, and he's not welcoming.

Although the film was slow at times, I was impressed. It was genuinely gory and the atmosphere was kinda dirty and macabre in the way Scavolini's Nightmare (one of my favorites) was dirty and macabre (although that's better).

The gore effects (by Mark Shostrum) were quite good. There was a lovely death by fish hook, the cutting of a youngster's throat, and a head impaling.

By lunchtime, I was was hooked. This was a great little film. I needed my own copy.

Then I remembered that my job was to make the killings "nicer". What the fuck!? How could I make someone chopped in half by a car "nice"? How could I make stabbings "nice"? Most importantly, how could make shoving a fish hook up a girl's vagina and out her belly "nice"?

Fuck that! I thought. I ain't nice'ing up no fuckin' gore film. Hell, that'd be like betraying my family.

By the end of the day, I was in a state of deep anxiety. I'd been watching the gore scenes over and over again because I liked them. I could see where stuff could be cut, but there was no way I was going to do that. I just couldn't. Around 6 o'clock, Ross dropped by.

"How's the cutting going, Marky?"


"Not much in there to laugh about, is there?"

"So you've seen it, Ross?"

"Fuck no. I don't need to see a turd to know it stinks."

With that pearl of high wisdom, he limped off, leaving me to ponder my future with the company.

I tossed and turned that night. I had a serious moral dilemma. Do I mutilate The Mutilator to keep the boss happy, or do I say no to mutilation and retain my integrity?

Or was I just being a young idiot?

Well, I did cut The Mutilator, and it did make the boss happy.

And I got to be a young idiot, too.

Around 3 o'clock the following afternoon, I announced to Ross that The Mutilator job was done.

"How much did you cut out of it, Marky?"

"Twenty minutes."


Ross suddenly looked like Marilyn Chambers had just agreed to give him a blowie. He was all smiles.

He even slapped me on the back buddy-style. "Twenty minutes?! Well done, Marky. It's not all about blood and guts, is it? Eh?"

I gave him a fake nod of victory and said "Nah."

Ross limped home a happy man.

I bathed in the glow of his satisfaction for a couple of minutes.

If you've seen The Mutilator, you know it has a lot of slow spots. Hell, there's a twenty-five minute slow spot in which almost nothing happens.

Well, that's what got mutilated.

I spared director Buddy Cooper the indignity of having his name on a "nice" slasher film, I made Ross (who I knew would never watch the film) a happy man, and I got shifted out of my Jack Of All Trades role a month or so later (by Ross) because he was convinced he'd made me see the error of my blood and guts ways. Somehow, it got me respect.

I guess he figured I could now be trusted not to get all orgasmic about the latest chainsawed leg or stabbed vagina on a film shoot at a church candle factory.

So what did the censor do with the re-edited, faster, just as gory version of The Mutilator?

Fuck all!

The re-edited master tape sat on Ross's shelf for six months. The upstart distribution company that had planned to release the film on VHS in Australia mysteriously folded a couple of weeks after they'd given Ross the job.

Clearly, somebody down there liked me.