Friday, June 18, 2004

The Best Laid Plans of Miike and Men
A promising premise wasted...but no one to blame.

Tell me you wouldn't be the least bit curious about this one....I dare you.

(I'm gonna go ahead and qualify this by saying: "Well yes, if you've not been interested by one of the movies, books, comics or what-have-you that I've brought up here, then I understand that you won't be interested in this one either." Touché.)

A female karate champion's family is murdered by a chainsaw wieldingg maniac while she's away at a tournament.

She finds her path to revenge by rejoining her super-secret government agency to exact that revenge on the crime family that ordered it.

Her former partner decides that her best disguise is in a professional women's wrestling outfit.

Her name: Silver Jun.

Her enemy: An evil bondage queen/crimeboss, her goons, and a mysterious dart-throwing assassin.

Throw on top of that veritable b-movie smorgasbord that Silver Jun is played by curvaceous former Japanese swimsuit model Atsuko Sakuraba, and you got a surefire winner, right?

It's directed by Takashi Miike...Are you with me? Right?

Unfortunately, it just wasn't to be.

The above plot summary (and I'll explain why I don't say more later) was actually the second reason I bought this movie. The primary reason I bought it was that it was the earliest Miike movie available on DVD, and I wanted to see proto-Miike. Miike before Miike. Miike: straight-to-video shot-on-video. I wasn't expecting Audition/Ichii/Dead or Alive quality, but I wanted to see where the man came from.

That's exactly why I can't be too hard on the man or the movie.

It's there, it's all there. The Miike-ness (The lead villainess is instant gross-out). It just hadn't come into its own yet. It was more creative than most shlock out there, it just never pulled itself together. It fell into the pitfalls of oh so many B-movies, and movies with better premises than this have fallen victims to these beasts.

The first thing that you the audience have to understand before you get too harsh is there is one thing in common with all movies of this kind. I don't care if it's spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, horror, or straight-to-video sleaze, they all have to make money. Money comes before acting, story, special effects, or any other aspect of movie-making. The people who pay for this stuff to get made expect their money back plus interest and muy pronto. It's only after the writers and directors make that money, have some success, and prove themselves that they get to pour on a little more finesse.

If it happens early on that they produce a quality product, there was a lot of luck involved.

Also, most audiences out there don't differentiate between low-budget movies. Kevin Smith's Clerks was most certainly a low-budget flick. In cases like that though the difference is that most of the money was his, or investors who invested in his script, idea, or vision. I don't wanna go into the crime element of Asian genre cinema movies, but most of these are given out like assignments. A script may exist with the proviso: Go make this. Or, they're told: Make a movie with guns and chicks that'll make money. As stated previously, it doesn't have a d@mned thing to do with art or vision. Further, who says these investors care what it is, or that they have any taste whatsoever.

Money, money, money. It makes the reels of the camera go round.

So anyway, Takashi Miike's Silver.

The reason I couldn't tell you anymore about the specifics of the plot is that I started fast forwarding about halfway through. Something you should know about me is that I don't like leaving anything unfinished, but sometimes my means to conclusion are harsh. I mean I could follow what was happening literally, but I couldn't explain the details. Trust me, you don't need anymore than what I gave you above.

I never thought I would say this about anyone, but for this one, Miike should have consulted American schlockmeister Andy Sedaris.

I've mentioned Sedaris here before. I've lost track, but at one point I had seen all his movies. They're priceless. All of them are about a team of special government agents (who are played by former Playboy playmates, American Gladiators, and so on) who get into one ridiculous story of crime and/or intrigue after another. In order to make them look international, they use these same locations in Texas and Hawaii. They don't always work, but usually Sedaris finds the perfect balance between goofy action, T&A, a story, and horrbile acting. The story may be wholly unbelievable or illogical, but it stays cohesive within its own universe.

(In other words, you can always count on a steamy group shower scene after a teammate is kidnapped, and that a shootout on dirtbikes through a Texas swamp will follow soon after. It doesn't seem to go in the right order, but they always follow the rules.)

That's what this movie needed. It needed to decide, or throwout any rules. (A lesson Miike did learn later. Look at the kitchen sink approach to Ichii the Killer, the Freudian yakuza insanity of Gozu, or just the finale of the first Dead or Alive.) Was this movie about T&A? Was it about crazed women's wrestling action? Was it about the revenge story and yakuza? What's with the dart-throwing dude, and why wasn't he a little more interactive than just showing up a couple of times before the finale?

(I should mention, that some of the major points this movie scored were in the fight out between Silver Jun and the dart-throwing guy. It looks like an old-fashioned shootout, but then he starts hurling darts and she keeps blocking them by throwing coins. I actually took it off fast forward for that. But seriously...)

Look at it this way:

You're making this movie. What would you do with it?

You've got a curvaceous beauty in Sakuraba. You can show her naked. Chances are your audience is watching this for that reason. Now she did get naked eventually, but it was a long time getting there. Lots of people have handled this in different ways. Russ Meyer practically painted the screen with beautiful buxom women. Even in the ones where none of them got naked, you could still come away feeling dirty. Usually with one girl, there was a lot of art to the tease and the reveal (This movie had too much of the wrong kind of teasing: kind of showing and then hiding.). Andy Sedaris delivers situation by situation, and no situation bars the possibility of anyone jumping into the hot tub. Sedaris also keeps the nudity varied between gratuitous nudity that has no story relevance (like the shower or skinnydipping in the lagoon) and scenes that have the various male and female characters getting it on. Notice I didn't include the hot tub scenes. No movies have ever had more exposition and character development with naked people in a hot tub than Andy Sedaris movies. The final is the most tasteless, eventually boring, but quickly effective is the get'em naked early and get'em naked often...or throw up as many other naked bodies as you can. So take your pick.

You're main character's gonna be wrestling. Well, the nudity is probably still a good idea somewhere, but your crowd for this kinda movie is a little different. You've got the wrestling fans and the catfight fans you can get with this concept. Other than some training, there was just one wrestling match (though Silver Jun spent much of the movie running around in her wrestling outfit). ONE match in a movie about a secret agent amongst wrestlers. I worked on a low-budget wrestling movie. It too had story problems, but one thing it got right was have them fight often and in lots of situations and settings. Also, it always helps to have a good wrestling villain for your hero to face. That person can be completely different from the revenge plot. Take Spider-man. He fights the Green Goblin, the Sandman, Doc Ock, etc. as Spider-man, but Peter Parker has Jonah Jameson and back in the day Flash Thompson to deal with.

You've got a gangster yakuza movie. Well this is another kind of violence, so it's not out of sync with a wrestling pictures. Yakuza movies are no stranger to nudity, though they do spend more time being totally male fueled. I'm sure this had to do with his market and the fact that it is Miike, but our dominatrix yakuza boss pretty much fails to delvier. She's not scary. She's not exceptionally violent (Look at what Miike does with Riki Takeuchi.). She's just creepy and gross. There's other fights with various thugs, but they usually involve Silver Jun with or without someone else stomping a bunch of nameless guys asses. Peter Jackson, who's chockful of B-movie sensibility, spelled it out well in the first Lord of the Rings movie by making that one orc a battlefield focal point. You gotta have someone on the ground that you can identify and that you can hate. Or as is all too often in Japanese movies or anime...a flatout bad@$$ bad guy. They almost had one with the dart-thrower, but like I said, he was just too absent and undeveloped.

There was a way to balance all of these, and in the 90 minutes they had it could've been done...or, well, done better. The elements were there, they just didn't gel. Because they didn't gel, there wasn't a neat cause-and-effect rollover of plot (even if totally illogical. Remember: Logic is not necessary for a B-movie to succeed.) Without the neat flow of the plot, and the jumbling of it's elements...I started fast forwarding.

Also...for a second, a brief a scene where Silver Jun is laying in a wrestling ring lit by a single light preparing for the final fight, I almost thought that Miike was gonna do a lift from Suzuki's Branded to Kill. No such luck.

The most important thing is always keep it new and moving. There have been plenty of people who've turned one industrial factory successfully into a barbaric industrial planet. The tube scene with Tom Skerritt in Alien only used a few yards of tube, but I believed it was miles of intergalactic ductwork. Then a brisk pace will often keep your audience moving along well enough that they won't spot plotholes until way later. Trust me, if you've got one too many of those during a slow movie, people stop watching, and start talking and laughing. Note, I didn't say confuse your audience. You can't just start hurling stuff willy-nilly and expect them to be enthralled. That's where having a good, likeable, or at least interesting cast is to your credit. If your hero is likeable, people will fear for his saftey no matter how unbelievable a situation he's gotten himself into. (Ever seen the shark repellent scene in the 60's Batman movie?)

As a side note, on the flipside, you gotta know what you're dealing with. The acting in this movie wasn't great, but it wasn't bad enough to be great either. One of the funniest and best alternatives is getting terrible actors who will deliver the most absurd dialogue as though they absolutely deadpan-seriously believe it. I can't even start with the number of 50's sci-fi and horror movies that are textbook cases of that phenomena.

Don't get me wrong, it's tough to find that formula. It's funny because it is formula. Plug in oddball or sleazeball elements, grind, produce, and screen. Weirdly enough, it just doesn't always work. But everyone who seen them do remember the ones that made it.

Granted, those become classics in their own right.

You film students out there can dismiss your B-movie brethren as trash. You can worship the Kurosawa's, Scorcese's, and Bergman's. I tell you, though, no one can teach you more about how to and how not to tell a story like schlock cinema. It's how you transcend that level of storytelling that makes it art again.


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