4/9/03:

Today was not as exciting as yesterday. One fun, entertaining, and even rather smart film, and one very boring, disappointing film. It was a bit of a lonely day of movie-watching, as well, since none of my friends accompanied me to either screening. But not everybody wants to make time to see over 20 movies in less than two weeks, so that's okay.

Films I saw today: One-Armed Swordsman, Second Name

One-Armed Swordsman

Another fun Shaw Brothers flick (see Episode II). At the point in the late '60s when this film came out, films of this type were transitioning from the sword-fighting genre (called wuxia) to the hand-fighting genre (known as kung fu). One-Armed Swordsman seems almost, in fact, to dramatize that very transition in popular style. Its story follows a school of martial artists whose main weapon is the sword. When another school designs the perfect weapon to defeat their sword, they are left helpless. Only the unorthodox fighting style of the title character can save them. The film ends with the leader of the sword-fighting school breaking his own sword in defeat, and the one-armed Swordsman giving up fighting forever to become a farmer. It is, in many ways, the end of wuxia, and the beginning of something else, new and different. Many people consider this to be the first real kung fu film.

Of course, my description so far makes the film sound dramatic and serious, and although on one level it is that, it is also on another level quite a silly, over-the-top movie, with plenty of the exciting action, superhuman feats of strength, cheap and amusing special effects, and ridiculous dialogue that we've come to expect from a Shaw Brothers film. In fact, I recognized the line in this movie that I'd really enjoyed in Come Drink With Me, only slightly altered--"Are you tired of living?" As for the over-the-top factor, a number of arms get hacked off in this film, and it's packed with more melodrama than a soap opera. Just consider a plot summary:

A faithful servant of the great master and teacher of the Qi school of Golden Sword kung fu style dies protecting the school from a gang lead by Long-armed Devil (there's another of those silly kung fu names, though this one is perhaps more appropriate than most, seeing as how Long-armed Devil is the villain of the film and the hero is a one-armed man). His dying wish (made as he is expiring with two swords still sticking out of his ribs) is that the master take his son in as a disciple and teach him fighting. The master agrees to do this. Many years later, we see that the son, Fang Gang, has grown up to be the teacher's greatest student. He still keeps, as a treasured heirloom, his father's broken sword. Two other students are jealous of his skill and the love that the teacher shows him. A third student, who happens also to be the teacher's daughter, has even more complex feelings--on top of her envy for his skill, she also loves and desires Fang Gang, but is frustrated by his complete disregard for her. The three plot to trick Fang Gang into the woods and beat him up. Meanwhile, the teacher is planning to retire and leave the school to Fang Gang. Fang Gang realizes that he isn't wanted here anymore by the other students, so he leaves. But the daughter and the other students catch up with him in the woods and demand a fight. He refuses to fight the girl with a sword because of his respect for her father. But frustrated with how easily she is beaten, she draws a sword on him and, catching him by surprise, lops off his right arm. With typically superhuman kung fu strength, he's somehow able to run off even minus a limb. He makes it to a bridge where, by chance, he falls off onto the passing boat of a young, single peasant woman. She brings him home and nurses him back to health. Inevitably, they fall in love.

Meanwhile an old defeated enemy of the teacher's (in fact, the very Long-armed Devil who lead the gang that attacked the school so many years ago) has developed a sword-locking weapon that traps the Qi's golden sword and leaves students of the style helpless. Luckily for Fang Gang, who knows nothing of this development yet, he can no longer use the Qi golden sword; its too heavy for him with his one arm. Frustrated at his inability to defend himself and his girl from two passing ruffians (who cruelly mock his disability), Fang Gang tries to teach himself new ways to fight. By a bit of luck that is really rather difficult to swallow, it just so happens that his benefactor has a kung fu manual that teaches left-handed sword-fighting. It turns out her father (whose surname she never learned--strangely enough, this subplot, which I was sure was going to go somewhere, with the girl turning out to be related to the Qi teacher, perhaps, never gets resolved) her father died protecting this kung fu manual. Her mother, angry at how kung fu lead to the death of her husband, throws the manual into the fire. The only part of it that has survived was the section on wielding the sword with the left hand. Using this manual, and his father's broken and much shorter sword, Fang Gang transforms himself finally into our title character.

When Fang Gang discovers that his teacher's daughter has been kidnapped by Long-armed Devil, he feels obligated to save her. However, he doesn't want her to recognize him, so he wears a mask. He finds the two ruffians who had mocked him earlier about to molest her, and with a swift sword swipe he cuts off both their hands (one hand flies off and, still holding a dagger, sticks to the post to which the girl is tied). "See how you like it!" Fang Gang says. He releases the girl and takes her to safety. As he is about to part from her, she calls him by name. "You recognized me?" he says. "I remember your voice," she says. "Also, you've only got one arm." This is probably the funniest scene in the film, although there are certainly other candidates. Now the girl professes her love for Fang Gang. Fang Gang is shocked and angry. "But you always teased me! Plus, you cut off my arm!" I admit that's a paraphrase, but he says something very similar. Anyway, he rejects her, and plans to leave fighting and this place forever and go off to become a farmer with his new girlfriend. But then he stumbles on some of his fellow students, who have just been attacked by Long-armed Devil's men and defeated by the sword-locking device. One of them, as he is dying, gives Fang Gang vital information about the sword-locking weapon which he must pass on to his teacher and the other surviving students. He hurries back for the final showdown.

The star of the film is Jimmy Wang Yu. He became a major star in fighting films like this one, although some critics claim his only really good films are the ones in which he plays a one-armed man (see, for instance, the astounding classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, one of my personal favorite kung fu films; your guess is as good as mine as to whether Jimmy is supposed to be playing the same one-armed character in this film as he is in One-Armed Swordsman). He stalks through the film with one hand carefully hidden beneath his shirt, sullen and angry. Indeed, the film itself seems rather sullen and angry. And if it did not have so many moments of (unintended?) goofiness, it would be rather sad.

There is a revenge plot in this film again, as there is in most kung fu films--I guess a quest for vengeance is just a good excuse for a lot of fighting. But really in this film that quest is not the main story; Fang Gang faces off against his father's murderer at the end of the film mostly by chance. He has come back to save his fellow students and repay his debt to his master, not to kill Long-armed Devil. If anyone really desires vengeance in the film, it's actually Long-armed Devil himself. After his defeat at the beginning of the film, he spends the whole rest of the movie trying to destroy the master of the Qi school. But what this film is really about (besides loyalty and the repaying of debts) is the error of basing your life on violence and the sword--which is an interesting point for a kung fu movie to make. The Qi Golden Sword fails spectacularly against Long-armed Devil, almost to the point of disbelief. Every one of Qi's students who comes up against the sword-locking weapon is tricked by it and killed in the same way, even after they've seen the trick work on their fellow students. Perhaps the movie does this to drive home its point--that the way of the sword leads to death. Fang Gang finally defeats the sword-lock with his father's broken sword, but he has learned his lesson. At the end of the film, he puts down his sword and leaves to become a farmer, and the Qi school is left ruined, its master defeated, its students mostly dead, and its Golden Sword broken. Symbolically, the age of wuxia has past.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

During the screening of Graveyard of Honor that I attended, there was a great deal of laughter from the audience, as I mentioned in my review of that film. I heard behind me, during a particular burst of laughter, someone saying, "That's not appropriate," or words to that effect. While I was sitting waiting for One-armed Swordsman to start, I realized that one of the guys sitting behind me had probably been the person who'd said that, since the two of them were discussing inappropriate laughter at this year's films, specifically at the screening of Graveyard of Honor the night before. I struck up a conversation with them. They said the crowd's reaction had really ruined their viewing experience. They made some sarcastic comments, and I found myself trying to defend the audience, pointing out that part of Miike's trick in the film was to make you sympathize with this awful character, and also that many people react to extreme violence and to things they don't expect or understand with laughter. They thought I was giving the audience too much credit. To a certain extent I understood their position, but at the same time, they didn't seem open to the idea that sometimes violence really is funny, especially when it's not real. And the truth is, I remembered laughing a number of times during Graveyard of Honor. Anyway, after this conversation, I found that I was hyper-aware of laughter during the film. I was listening to the audience carefully, and when I wanted to laugh I tended to check myself. And I'm afraid my two friends were disappointed, as there was a great deal of laughter during this screening of One-armed Swordsman. But frankly I think they were movie snobs. If you can't laugh at a silly '60s kung fu film or, even worse, you don't feel it's appropriate for others to do so, then there's something wrong with you.

I'd already eaten before the movie (almost the same meal I'd had the night before), so at this point I just took a break to call Sarah, and then I was off to The Bridge, which luckily is only a few blocks away from International House and in easy walking distance.

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Second Name

Some call it a second name, but I call it a middle name. Yes, the title here refers to nothing more interesting than a person's middle name, an everyday thing that is supposed to take on sinister meaning over the course of the film. However, the film never succeeds in making anything all that sinister, though it's not through lack of trying. This is a Spanish film (although, to my surprise, it was not in Spanish; it was actually set in England and all the dialogue was in English, spoken with English accents no less) and is the first feature film from young director Paco Plaza. Unfortunately, it really feels like a first feature film, and a really poor one at that. Frankly, it's the worst film I've seen at the festival up to this point, and probably one of the worst films I've seen, period. Although I also disliked Beyond Re-Animator, it at least succeeded in what it was trying to do--be a totally over-the-top, goofy, gory, schlock-filled, horror/exploitation flick. Second Name is trying to be an engrossing, frightening, and haunting horror suspense thriller, and it completely fails in all counts.

The film seems promising at first. The opening is an impressively layered sequence, with no sound except a moving piece of classical, choral music, and only very little dialogue. During this opening sequence, we see various events taking place at various times, all intercut with each other in a complex fashion that is at first confusing, but that ultimately resolves itself into an understandable story: a young woman's father inexplicably drives out into the woods and shoots himself in the head. This act becomes the impetus for the rest of the story. Daniella must discover why her beloved father has committed suicide.

Like I said, a promising opening. The editing during this sequence is impressive, as is the lighting and camera work. Throughout the film, in fact, the cinematography is quite competent. Unfortunately, good cinematography doesn't mean much if the story is boring, clumsily told, and predictable; the acting is wooden; the characters are uninteresting and stereotypical; and the dialogue is cliche--and unfortunately all of these things are also true. This film deals with some of the same themes as Dark Water--the bond between parent and child; the fear that that bond will be broken--but it does so in a far less expert fashion. Not even half way through the film, I'd torn the "Poor" box on my ballot and was ready to leave. I mean I was really ready to walk out, and for me that's saying something. I don't think I've ever walked out of a movie theater before a movie was finished (though I have given up on rentals), but I haven't been that ready to do it since I saw The Avengers. However, I did end up hanging around, mostly out of a sense of obligation. I'd paid for admission, and it wouldn't be fair to judge the film without having seen the entire thing. Plus, I did have a slight curiosity to see how the story would turn out, even if it was a very familiar one and I had a pretty good guess already as to what was going to happen. So I punished myself by staying, even though I was squirming in my seat in agony practically the whole time. I really should have just gone home and gotten some more of the sleep I so desperately needed, because the thing didn't get any better.

It's sad really, since the film could have been quite good. Travis Crawford's description of it in the Film Festival program sounds quite intriguing (shame on you, Travis), as indeed does a simple plot summary. Our main character, Daniella, digs deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding her father's suicide and keeps discovering more and more disturbing truths about her father, her mother, and even herself. After her father kills himself, his body is disinterred and then found miles away, propped up in a kneeling position as if praying. The sloppy-looking detective who shows up to take the case is (as is typical) barely interested, and is clearly going to be of no help. The casually ghoulish autopsy doctor (another stereotype in these films) has little to say after his examination of the corpse, except that this looks "ritualistic." So Daniella is pretty clearly on her own in terms of getting a real investigation done. She goes to tell her mother the bad news about her father, but Mom is currently in an insane asylum (always a good setting for some easy creep-outs), and has been there for many years--Daniella doesn't really even expect her mother to understand the news she has. But the woman speaks for the first time in years, yelling over and over again a name Daniella doesn't recognize (a name which, I'm sad to say, I've forgotten--give me a break, I'm seeing a lot of movies here).

Meanwhile, a horribly disfigured, creepy guy is hanging around watching Daniella and taking photographs of her. Is he a stalker, or something more? He's connected with her father somehow, but how exactly? (I figured out what the deal was with this guy pretty quickly, though I won't give things away in case at some point you want to punish yourself by watching this movie for some reason.) Around this time another mysterious character shows up on the scene: a priest who, taking the part of "the old guy who knows the terrible secret," a role that appears a lot in horror films, he reveals that what was done to Daniella's father's body has been done to others in the past, and that these acts of desecration have been connected to an obscure religious cult called the Abrahamites. If you remember the story of Abraham and Isaac in the bible, you'll have an idea of what these guys do. (And if you don't remember, or don't get the idea, the priest handily spells it all out for you.) It turns out that another thing the Abrahamites do is to name their first-born after the second name of the father (the name gets changed to a feminine version if the first-born is a girl). That name Daniella's mother was shouting? Yep, you got it--the feminine version of her father's middle name.

Of course, from the moment this priest guy shows up, you know he's doomed to die, and this is one of the big problems with the film. I was able to predict most of the major plot events long before they happened--in one or two cases almost a full half hour before. Plus, it's hard for a person to exude menace or evoke sympathy when their lines are poorly written and poorly delivered. Poor dialogue and poor acting mean that the villains of this film are not very frightening, and the heroine is not very likable. Daniella is little more than an outraged, whiny stereotype (outraged and whiny, as I've learned from seeing far too many bad movies, are the easiest emotions for an actor to convey) who practically has the words "female horror movie protagonist" written on her forehead. Her father's final taped confession is supposed to be moving, horrifying and dramatic, but it's just laughable. I find it difficult to believe that this many actors are really this bad, so at least some of the blame has to belong with the director. But regardless of who is to blame for it, Second Name is just not a good film. It tries to be Rosemary's Baby, but it ends up being more like Exorcist II. Well, okay, that's a pretty harsh comparison, but still, the point is, if you already know what's going to happen to the characters, and you don't really care much about them anyway, the filmmakers have screwed up somewhere.

My Poll Rating: Poor

Epilogue

After I stalked angrily out of the theater, and handed my "Poor" vote over to the woman at the exit with meaningful force (I really felt mad that I'd missed out on two hours of sleep for that movie), I went outside and saw something a lot more exciting than anything I'd seen in the theater. Someone was driving down Walnut Street at a very high speed, and very erratically, swerving violently between cars. I didn't think much of this at first, since people drive like that in Philly pretty often. But then I heard sirens, and saw about four or five cop cars come roaring down the road after the guy. A car chase is always an exciting way to end a day.

Anyway, it was 50/50 today. I'd almost gotten used to all the movies being excellent this year, but today helped remind me that any film festival is always going to be a little hit and miss. And that's all right; finding a gem like My Life as McDull is worth having to sit through a complete failure like Second Name.

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Jim Genzano





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