Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

NEKRomantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987)

Arrow Videos never shy away from putting out a controversial release, and the history of a banned film has never been as gloriously controversial as NEKRomantik.

Released in 1987, Jörg Buttgereit’s German-language horror is one that is designed to test the viewer in the same way that The Human Centipede has for modern audiences. In fact, The Human Centipede falls short of this one ever so slightly in the “Making Me Feel Physically Sick” competition, though it is probably slightly behind Saló. I don’t think any of them would be an easy explain to someone walking in at the wrong time though.

The film basically charts a short period of the life of a man who is heavily into necrophilia, with both him and his girlfriend harbouring corpses for their own personal endeavours. Fortunately he’s landed himself a job at Joe’s Streetcleaning Agency (JSA), who are responsible for cleaning up fatal car accidents and such like, so he has ready access to his next unsuspecting victims. However, when he gets sacked for lack of hygiene he quickly realises that he has no easy access to further bodies and to make matters worse his girlfriend quickly loses interest in him, a double blow that leads him down a path to depression and drug abuse.

I’ve probably explained away pretty much the whole film there, not that it really matters. If you’re thinking about buying this Arrow release – the first time it has been available on home video for years – it’s probably worth noting that it really isn’t a very good film. There’s a lot of scenes where we’re shown sex scenes involving corpses; they aren’t too hard to look at as they don’t really look too much like dead people. There’s a disproportionate amount of shots of men urinating, which I never really figured out. I think it’s just in keeping with the theme of transgressive imagery. The locations tend to look like Buttgereit has pulled in favours from friends, and don’t look like they’ve been prepped too much. The camera quality is similar to that of most home video recording equipment of the time. The acting isn’t very good. The most upsetting scene is the one where a rabbit is killed and skinned, though this looks like the director just asked a butcher if he could film him doing his job.

It’s a sub-par film that didn’t really emote any kind of response from me except for a bit of discomfort in the rabbit scene and the first sex scene. What I find most interesting is the continued fame of the film, which is solely down to the fact it was banned and remained so hard to get hold of for years and years. My hunch is it wouldn’t have remained so popular amongst cinephiles but for the fact it was banned for so long.

This is a similar situation to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview, whose release is still shrouded in controversy. Two months ago few people knew about it, and those that did weren’t overly bothered about its release. But once it was banned and involved in an international political scandal that almost triggered the start of a USA-North Korean War, people started to wonder what it was all about, making it a highly anticipated film. Funny, really.

As always, Arrow has pulled out all the stops with the package. We’ve got a Blu-Ray, DVD and soundtrack CD, a certificate with an individual number on it, five postcards of stills from the film, a 100-page booklet, a new introduction, extensive interviews, a Q&A from Glasgow’s Centre For Contemporary Arts, two Buttgereit-directed music videos, several commentary tracks, two short films (Hot Love and Horror Heaven) and a lovely package to house it in. To be honest, it’s frustrating that a film like this gets this kind of treatment when some films I’ve bought recently are really just a bare-bones release (The Killing Fields 30th Anniversary Edition and Attenborough’s Brighton Rock both fall into this category). If only the people at Arrow had the time and the rights to do more releases like this, the world would be a much happier place.

Nekromantik is out now on Arrow Video Collector’s Blu-Ray. Be quick as it is limited to 3000 copies and no further prints are planned as of writing.

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)

When I first saw Big Trouble in Little China, it would have been as a rental from my local video store The Ritz in Burnley. I’m going to guess it was either 1991 or 1992. At this time, children across the UK had been gripped by Turtle Power and, if you were really lucky, you might also have a home video games console with a copy of Street Fighter II. Martial arts were a hot property, and re-watching this film I can see what the immediate appeal was.

Less than ten minutes in we’re treated to a large-scale Kung Fu gang fight. As the film progresses, the battles become more over-the-top, with characters flying, using impressive magic, attacking our heroes with lightning and telekinesis and then there’s the unforgettably dread-inducing lazer eyes. It’s the live-action version of all your favourite parts of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, the film that neither franchise managed to pull off. It just keeps getting better and better and I can well see how amazing that would have seemed to my 8-year-old self.

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The story itself is a little confused. It kicks off with an office scene where the Chinese bus driver Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong) is sat telling his lawyer that Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) was a “real hero”. In the extras we learn that Carpenter was forced to make this addition as the studio wanted Kurt Russell to be the sole main hero. As the film plays out though it is quite obvious that he’s the sidekick to Wang Chi’s cause (played by Dennis Dun). It is his girlfriend we are following the kidnapping and attempted rescue of, not Burton’s. Indeed Burton’s eventual love interest Gracie Law, played by a young Kim Cattrall, is part of the rescue party. In my opinion it’s a shame that the studio forced this change as it’s quite a bold move to cast a reasonably famous Caucasian actor as a sidekick to a Chinese lead star. As much as I’d love to see it recut, I don’t think it will ever happen.

The visual effects are to be applauded. I’m used to watching B-Movies, especially those made in the 1980s when people were getting creative with very low budgets. I am quite good at using my imagination to compensate for any subsequent substandard segments, especially if the director’s ambition is evident. Yet there was no concessions required here. There are several monster costumes that stand out as both unique and memorable. The electric storm effects and lazer effects both deliver as well. It doesn’t seem to have aged at all, much less so than some of John Carpenter’s efforts from the 1990s (and yes I’m looking directly at 1995’s Village of the Damned there).

And there lies another pleasant surprise. I had no idea this was a John Carpenter film. I watched it too early to remember either the actor playing the lead character or even the lead character’s name itself. I was never going to commit the director’s name to memory. It was great to realise a legend of cinema was on the reigns and it reassured me that it was indeed a high quality film.

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A word on the package. The version I’m reviewing is the Arrow 2014 Blu-ray re-release. The transfer is unbelievable. The bonus features on the release cover every angle you could possibly want. You’ve got commentary from Russell and Carpenter, trailers, an alternative extended ending. There are extensive interviews with the cast and crew. There’s a short documentary about the stuntmen. Even the menu page looks astounding. I know this is typical of Arrow releases but it’s reassuring that this is the first thing you see and you know a lot of care has gone into covering every aspect of the user experience.

So if you’re needing an 80s nostalgia hit and you’ve worn out your cheap Goonies DVD, try this one instead. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Big Trouble in Little China is out now on a Blu-ray and DVD dual format package from Arrow Video in the UK.