Beauty Escort (Pao Hsueh-Li, 1981)

Here would be a great entry in the halls of legendarily terrible re-titles. Beauty Escort is also known as “Samurai Bells of Death,” the English title that appears on the English dubbed print, a reference to a weapon that appears in the movie called The Death Song Bells. One assumes that “Samurai” was added to the title so as not to be confused with Yueh Feng’s 1968 Shaw Brothers film, Bells of Death. It (Beauty Escort, not Bells of Death) is also based on the Gu Long novel Hu Hua Ling (护花铃), available in English translation under the title The Flower Guarding Bells. Perhaps a clue as to what sort of movie Beauty Escort is, the explanation of the title itself is convoluted enough to have been devised by Gu Long.

Also, whoever came up with the English title was a liar. There are no samurai in Beauty Escort. It’s kind of like the Taiwanese Gu Long adaptation, The Lost Swordship, which has the alternate title “The Lost Samurai Sword,” in spite of there being no samurai or samurai swords in that film either. Unlike The Lost Swordship, however, Beauty Escort is unavailable in a widescreen, English language print. I watched the film on a Crash Cinema disc sourced from a terrible pan-and-scan VHS source, which is still better than the film being lost or prohibitively scarce.

The film starts with a duel between the Dragon and Phoenix clans, planned ten years prior. Dragon, leader of the Dragon Clan, has prepared to fight Phoenix, leader of the Phoenix Clan, but she died shortly before the duel was to take place. So a subordinate agrees to fight. Only she has less internal strength than Dragon, so, to insure a fair fight, he asks his subordinates to handicap him before the duel. Dragon’s daughter and her husband, Fei Ya, don’t really like this idea, but Nam Goong Ping agrees. Dragon and Phoenix Clan’s Yee Man Ching go to a secluded spot to duel, with Man Ching returning as the victor.

Already shocked by the outcome, the Dragon Clan receives an even greater surprise by Dragon’s will, which names Nam as his successor, rather than Fei Ya or his wife. The Dragon Clan hardly has time to fight amongst themselves, though, as bandits immediately arrive to steal their dead master’s coffin. Nam manages to apprehend the bandit as he runs away, only to find out that the bandits do not intend to steal any of the precious jewels from the coffin. They believe that the coffin hides a criminal in the martial world, a villainous seductress and master swordfighter by the name of “Cold Blooded Mistress” Mei Win Shu.

As it turns out, she’s hiding in a false bottom in the coffin, but she is not a villainess. She has been framed by various elements within the martial world who sought to force her into marriage, rape her, or otherwise subjugate her. After a duel, Dragon found out the truth, and hid her for eight years, his final wish that Nam would protect her and help to restore her reputation. In the mean time, Fei Ya and Dragon’s daughter have designs to take control of the Dragon Clan for themselves, while the shady business of how the Phoenix Clan won the duel has not been resolved and Nam’s wealthy, powerful family faces danger from growing forces who intend to seize their fortune.

So it is rather par the course for a Gu Long adaptation, convoluted and prone to barely explained coincidences. The dubbing is a problem, as it refers to some characters only by their nicknames – Dragon’s full name, Long Bushi, is never uttered – and others are not named at all, hence my referring to “Dragon’s Daughter.” And, like many of Gu Long’s stories, Beauty Escort is not really so much about the martial arts and clan rivalries, but about the romance between two of the protagonists, Nam and Mei Win Shu.

Unless the movie was also re-edited for its English dubbed version (a very real possibility), Beauty Escort devotes very little of its duration to the relationship between Nam and Wei, although even an inattentive viewer could tell where it’s headed once they meet. It’s not only unfortunate in that it ignores what was likely a central part of the novel, it lessens the opportunity for the sort of dialog that makes Gu Long fun to read or watch. Gu writes marvelous passive aggression, misdirection, and projection, all of which make for lively conflict and lively romance. Again, the dubbing captures none of this, assuming that it was ever there in the first place (also a very real possibility).

It’s hard, then, to give this movie a fair review, a problem endemic to kung fu and wuxia movies in general. Because of the broad perception that the appeal of this genre lies entirely in fight scenes, they were often dubbed without care. For reasons much more complicated, they were released on VHS in pan-and-scan, usually positioned to chop off embedded subtitles, the original prints often not well-preserved. So even visually, this film has been handicapped.

Which is a shame, since it was directed by alumni Shaw Brothers cinematographer Pao Shuh-Li, scripted by alumni Shaw Brothers screenwriter Katy Chin Shu Mei, and produced by legendary screen fighter Phillip Ko Fei. Stars Ling Yun and Nora Miao. Chan Wei Man plays the villain! It even looks like it had a bit more of a budget than a lot of other independent Hong Kong genre films. The fight scenes are acceptable, but it’s pretty clear that the movie is aiming for more than a highlight reel of kung fu sequences.

So, hey, if a nice, clean print shows up, maybe I can watch this movie again and give it a fair review. But the most seen, most available version of Beauty Escort is far from ideal, and with so many great films based on Gu Long novels available, it’s far from a must-see.


Sleaze for Social Justice

Somebody on the internet referred to this 1996 South Korean film as “Korean style UHF with sexiness.” It’s more like “sexy UHF-like paean to media piracy,” but – and I write this as though anybody would read past “sexy UHF” – that is fundamentally wrong description, as Channel 69 (Lee Jeong-kuk, 1996) has little in common with Weird Al’s film opus besides amateur filming being key to the film’s premise.

The film starts with a young lady auditioning for a modeling job, using her film test to launch into a diatribe against actresses who want good roles while expecting to keep their modesty intact. She’s Cho Minhee, but she goes by “Super Mini.” When one of the expectant producers treats her to dinner and invites her for a post-audition interview on the casting couch, she hurts him off-camera, storming out of the restaurant with him in pursuit. Another patron trips him, takes Minhee’s business card, and proceeds about his business.

He’s Koo Je-ha, a former television journalist and expert computer hacker, who now works as something of a civilian detective, illegally acquiring hidden camera footage of corrupt politicians for an equally corrupt prosecutor. He had previously tried to cover the illegal fundraising tactics of political hopeful Yoo Chang Min, but now he’s taking illicit footage of his illicit affair with his secretary.

While the prosecutor is uninterested in Je-ha’s vendetta against Yoo, he does want to hire Je-ha to find the programmer of a computer virus, The Dark Messiah. He shows Je-ha the virus on his computer, which shows clips of Minhee’s screen test set to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus before murdering the infected computer system. Recognizing Minhee from the business card he picked up in the restaurant, Je-ha finds and recruits her in his hunt for the creator of The Dark Messiah.

When Je-ha and Minhee find The Dark Messiah, he turns out to be a middle school drop-out named Koo Seokki, a young guy with a poodle named Handel, a plan for making pornographic video games, and a huge crush on Sharon Stone. He turns down what he thinks is a proposition from Minhee, saying that he’ll only lose his virginity to Sharon Stone via cybersex. He has two assistants, Yong Jontae and Im Saengko, a dancing electrical engineer and sound engineer, respectively, who seem to be in a relationship, neither of whom made it in college.

In keeping with the film’s cynicism about political figures and those who consort with them, the prosecutor who dispatched Je-ha plans to take credit for the apprehension of The Dark Messiah. Je-ha takes offense to this, and since he has nothing to lose, decides to aid and abet the hacker and his crew. Now an accessory to Seokki’s crimes, Je-ha devises a plan that utilizes everybody’s skills and gives everybody what they want: Channel 69.

Je-ha plans to interrupt the newscast from NBS, the station he used to work for, with his own, which will be anchored by Minhee, who he dubs the PJ, short for “porn jockey.” This allows Seokki to broadcast porn, which is his only ambition. Minhee gets to work off her exhibitionist tendencies and become famous, which is her only ambition. Im gets to broadcast the music he composes, which is his only ambition. And Yong gets to put his engineering training to use in the creation of a mobile pirate TV studio. If this is his ambition, the script never makes it clear. I think he’s along for the ride so that he can hang out with Im, cutting his hair and sleeping with his head in Im’s lap.

And Je-ha finally gets to expose the corrupt Yoo. That he gets to show up his ex-girlfriend, an anchor on NBS news, is just the icing on his cake.

As with any worthy ribald comedies, there’s more to see in Channel 69 than butt and boobies. The script is actually pretty smart, even subtle with its characterization, dropping subtle hints about Je-ha’s feelings for Minhee. And a little line implies that Minhee, in spite of her exhibitionism, is more innocent than she lets on. While the characters initially come off as broad stereotypes – Minhee is a ditz, Im and Yong are gay, Soekki is a pathetic nerd -- they’re endearingly stereotypes, and the film is non-judgmental. Except when it comes to politicians, and rightly so.

I also like Channel 69 for all sorts of Meta reasons. Low-brow, ‘90’s era Korean film is underrepresented on subtitled DVD, and that’s not even begun to change. There’s a certain charm to seeing all of the IBM logos, and the silly hacking sequences that might have been more convincing back when the internet was not something that everybody had to use daily. It looks a lot like the fantasy I had of computer hackers when I was a little kid, mucking about on my dad’s DOS based IBM in the early nineties.

More importantly, the movie is funny. And sexy. That politicians, the only people in the world I hate more than lawyers, get thematically broadsided sweetens the deal. As do female nudity and punny humor. It's not a great movie, and it is pretty slight, but it is also simple, good fun.


It Only Took Me Twelve Years

In the car, driving back from an early dinner at a favorite restaurant, RockManXZ24, my game playing friend whose obsession has provided him with a unique ability to find extra hours in the day to finish absurdly long JRPGs, asked me the same question he’s asked for about four months: “did you ever beat Final Fantasy 5?”

The question would have hung in the air had I not known it was coming. RockMan started asking about my progress about two weeks after I, on a whim, started playing it again, likely my favorite game that I never bothered to beat. RockMan reminded me that it came out nearly twelve years ago – The twelfth anniversary for Final Fantasy Anthology, the first official English release of Final Fantasy 5, is on September 30th.

Final Fantasy 5 was one of the games that set off the internet translation scene, with various groups trying their hardest to push out a fully playable, English language rom hack before the others could take credit. Derrick Sobodash, one of the key figures in that era, had an insightful, honest article about the time he spent translating video games as a very young man. It seems to have disappeared, for the time being, or I would link to it here. It would be an interesting footnote for any retrospective on the game or its series. Not only was Final Fantasy 5 a “lost gem” for fans of the series and Japanese RPGs, but the catalyst for what is now an expansive community of hobbyists who seemingly spend more time working on games than playing them.

A lot of reviewers who look at the game in hindsight get hung up on the story, which is rudimentary and filled with shonen manga clichés about the importance of friendship, bursting with deus-ex-machina solutions left largely inexplicable, a cast of orphaned children trying to please their parents. All while trying to save the world.

Those more inclined to play a game for its mechanics praise its “job system.” The player decides on a character class for each of the four party members, and learns skills that can then be used while the character learns the skills of another class. So, if the player were inclined to do so, Bartz, the lead character, could be a thief who can also cast black magic, or a ninja who can steal items from monsters, or a knight who wields two swords like a ninja. Until Final Fantasy 7, this was the most customizable game in the series, and with the job system added on top of the typical equipment management and character progression, it is easily the numerically driven player experiences developed for the SNES/Super Famicom. But it’s also recognizably a Final Fantasy title, what with the moogles, chocobos, Nobuo Uematsu music and active time battle system.

In case it isn’t obvious, I am a numbers fetishist. At least when it comes to video games, that is. Grinding my way through Etrian Odyssey is, for me, a good time. But I also like games that feel that they were made by real people rather than assembled according to a formula. These sentiments seem slightly opposed. I’ve often considered that my ineptness at mathematics maybe created the desire to play with numbers in a less daunting way than doing geometrical proofs or solving equations. Is that why I want both warmth and pure number-crunching in my games? It could very well be.

But why would I like Final Fantasy 5 so much when it is generally agreed upon as having a totally rote story and cast? I’m thinking, maybe, that the familiarity is part of why it appeals to me. It’s so purely unpretentious, so reminiscent of the sort of anime I watched as a kid, before Neon Genesis Evangelion kinda-sorta ruined anime as a whole for me, that it somehow doesn’t matter that every twist in the plot and characterization appears close to the face, rather than peaking over the horizon or hiding in the margin. I’ve said it before: if I wanted a challenging narrative, I would read a book (and I often do).

After I got home, I hooked up my Playstation, inserted the Final Fantasy 5 CD; three hours later, I had made it through the final dungeon in the “N-Zone,” and was fighting Neo X-Death, the evil tree bent on destroying the planet. Yes, the last boss is an evil, world destroying tree.

I had grinded to the point that two of my characters had learned the “mimic” battle skill. Walking about in dungeons and fighting random battles had become a sort of before-bed ritual for about a month, and it made the last boss battle rather easy. Two characters with mimic, one with Black magic and a “Red X 2” ability (two spells cast for the same turn), and two characters in the mime cast made for entire rounds of “flare” cast on all sections of the boss. Four characters, each casting flare twice, meant that my party caused around 20,000 to 24,000 damage each round. As mentioned, it was easy.

And watching the ending, with the Nobuo Uematsu’s crystal theme, the overworld theme, and the Final Fantasy fanfare playing in a medley that evoked every ounce of nostalgia in my small, cynical heart to come bursting forth in a deluge of unexpected and unwanted melancholy, I thought about how I had been playing this game for almost twelve years. It was fun. I loved it.

The only other game that I think has ever gotten an emotional reaction from me was Final Fantasy 4. Unlike its immediate, unrelated sequel, I’ve beaten that game numerous times, and on multiple systems. The world has changed a lot in the twelve years between the time I first played Final Fantasy 5 and the time at which I beat it. It’s a landmark title, for a lot of people, and for a lot of reasons. Nostalgia has a funny way of working like that.



I have not said anything about the closing of the local Borders because it was traumatic enough that I don’t want to dwell on it. I bought my first Zatoichi DVD at Borders. I spent more afternoons than I can well remember hanging out there, reading manga with my best friend from high school. It was a convenient stop on my way back from school; it fed my collecting habits, first with reasonably priced Japanese comics and movies, later with an efficient special order system that suitably made up for my inability to order unusual books and movies from Amazon.com. I even signed up for their discount program, and put it to good use.

Extenuating circumstances prevented me from picking through the carcass of their clearance sale until the day just before they shut their doors for good. I hoped to grab some Wolfe or Vance or Chesterton for cheap; maybe find some interesting popular history titles – I intended to buy various Jonathan Spence books that usually sat on their shelves untouched – only to find that the other bookworms had eaten through the inventory well before I got there. Most of the remaining merchandise was of no interest to me, although I did contemplate buying a table or a plate from their café. The insistence of the manager that potential buyers consider buying shelves and chairs and light fixtures as well persuaded me away. I loved that Borders, but not enough to want it relocated in my house.

So I bought the only what I could justify owning at a seventy percent discount: David Gaider’s Dragon Age: The Calling.

I’ve read about a quarter of Gaider’s second foray into actual fiction. Slow going: it’s pretty dull so far, but I’ve noticed a couple of improvements over The Stolen Throne already.

- First of all, the writing is much tighter. The Stolen Throne had me hitting my face with its incessant flood of adverbs and inappropriate turns of phrase. For instance, the infamous: “Maric stared at her in disbelief. He wasn’t quite sure she could have said anything else that would have been less surprising. Well perhaps a confession that she was actually made of cheese.” So far, no especially egregious instances of childish humor.

Also, the adverbing didn’t start until about twenty pages in, and it’s much less frequent. Every sentence in The Stolen Throne went according to a formula. “Subject verbs object, adverbingly.” It’s a bad formula. It tells, rather than shows. Thankfully, it’s employed much less in The Calling.

- For all the good that it does, Gaider also seems to have taken some notice of courtly formality. Among the litany of complaints I threw at The Stolen Throne was that its author used “my lord,” “your highness,” and “your majesty” interchangeably. The Calling was published shortly before my review of The Stolen Throne hit the net, so I cannot take credit for bringing this to the author’s attention. But since it only figures into a single scene in any meaningful way, it’s not really an issue – just nice to see.

I’ll have a more detailed review of the last book I’ll ever buy from my beloved book store chain location if/when I finish reading it. But it’s a bittersweet experience, even at a seventy percent discount.