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Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

Set in a brothel and centring on one of the establishments inmates, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is a film unafraid to keep its exploitation elements at the forefront of the plot. But with its lavish sets and sumptuous cinematography, director Yuen Chor manages to make the film much more than a simple sleaze-fest and deliver a rather good revenge flick packed with overt, and very effective, eroticism.

The film starts with Ainu (Lily Ho), one of many teenagers kidnapped and sold to the brothel in question. Because of her stunning looks and feisty personality, she is an immediate draw for the brothel’s very wealthy – and very well connected – clients. She also attracts the lustful attention of the brothel’s owner, Madam Chun (Betty Pei Ti).

Initially Ainu resists but, following a failed escape attempt, her spirit finally appears to be broken and she begins to settle in to the life of the brothel. In doing so, she starts to take advantage of Madam Chun’s patronage which includes learning her martial arts skills.

The relationship between Ainu and Madam Chun is the core of this film and it is very well handled. Both Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti put in sterling performances and really do bring their characters to life as the plot begins to twist.

Unfortunately, the strength of the two leads’ performances also highlights one of the weaknesses of the film, which is that the rest of the cast are a little one-dimensional. The script focuses so heavily on the central relationship that, although the supporting actors do put in perfectly competent performances, they aren’t given a great deal to work with. The result is that these characters often feel motivated by no more than a need to progress the plot.

This is a Shaw Brothers film and, even though the action sequences are not the main focus of the film, they are central and consistently spectacular. As with the rest of the film, the focus is very much on the two women and the way in which their fighting style reflects their relationship. And given that neither of the women is a martial artist, they both put in very creditable performances here indeed.

There is much to like about this film and it does work on many levels – as a martial arts action film, as an exploitation film with something to say about exploitation and as tragedy about love and vengeance. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan also has a depth that is often missing from films of this genre, but it really could have done with an extra half hour to more fully develop both the plot and some of the supporting characters.

Jesus Versus The Messiah

When Sally (Gemma Deerfield) has a run-in with a local pub bully she is helped out by Jay (Simon Phillips), a slightly wet character who means well. Then it becomes Sallys turn to help Jay, whose full name turns out to be Jesus.

When Sally returns to the pub the following day to retrieve Jays wallet, she runs into a large and dangerous cowboy dude (Danny Idollor) who is looking for Jay. And if Jay is Jesus, then the Messiah is here to make sure that he finally goes through with his crucifixion.

Of course, none of this is immediately apparent to Sally – who also has her own reasons for not wanting to be found – and she and Jay head north.

Although Sally is a very well grounded character, there is a deliberate element of uncertainty about both Jay and the Messiah. Writer/director, Alan Ronald has been very careful to avoid giving any clear indication as to whether the two men really are who they think they are or whether Sally has managed to get herself caught up in someone elses delusion. That said, I found it very easy to buy into Jay as Jesus on the run and I had no problem accepting The Messiah as, well, The Messiah.

This probably says something about me, but it also says a lot about how well written the main characters are. All three of these individuals are very well drawn, completely rounded, and thoroughly believable. All of this makes for some very engaging characters who very quickly draw you in to their world and keep you wanting to know how things are going to pan out.

It helps, of course, that the acting is so strong throughout. All three of the main cast – and the more minor characters, for that matter – put in excellent performances and really do bring their characters consistently to life.

Jesus Versus the Messiah is a very character centred film, and this approach allows the plot to flow in a very natural manner. Nothing is forced and, by allowing the story to emerge from the developing relationships between the characters, Alan Ronald manages to maintain a narrative that remains consistent, believable and utterly enthralling.

When all of this is combined with a collection of great one-liners, and a genuinely moving ending you have a film that is well worth tracking down.

The Ninja Always Rings Once

Lance (Gabriel Leon) wants to be a ninja. He also, desperately, wants a girlfriend and this is quite excruciatingly apparent to every woman he meets in the course of his job – a pizza delivery boy for Ninja Pizza. Well, where else would you expect him to be working?

Unfortunately for Lance, his desperation to meet women lands him in trouble – repeatedly – until he finally hits rock bottom and loses his job. And its now, while alone and pondering his options that he – rather improbably – encounters a real-life ninja, Takeshi Banzai (Seiji Kakizaki). Banzai is getting on a bit, and being hunted by another group of ninjas, but also considers himself to be in debt to Lance who accidentally rescued him from his enemies.

Consequently, he agrees to take the younger man on as a student. This is a decision that Banzai quickly begins to regret as he becomes aware of just how eccentric Lance really is. Still, the student does learn – slowly – and over the course of the training Takeshi starts to rediscover his own long-suppressed ambitions.

Inevitably enough, once Lance starts to pick up some ninja skills his attention returns to his amorous ambitions and, once again, his dorkiness lands him in trouble, this time putting both Takashis and his own life in danger

The Ninja Always Rings Once is a very funny film. Obviously, it is a ninja film and it is both a spoof of and a homage to the many direct to video examples of this genre that were churned out in the 1980s.

We have the cod philosophy, the manic chases and the over-the top fight scenes, all of which are very well choreographed. Although there is a jokey sense of humour present throughout the film, director Christopher Genovese clearly knows and appreciates the genre for what it is.

Part of the appreciation of the ninja genre, of course, includes recognising the absurdity of many of the elements in these films. And Genovese not only recognises this, but takes full advantage of it to deliver a deft and very funny comedy which works well even if you have never seen a ninja film before.

The acting in this film is very strong throughout and both Leon and Kakizaki do a great job of bringing their characters to life and generating some real sympathy for both. Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack which, as with everything else, really fits the spirit of the film. And I loved the Ninja Pizza uniform.

Overall, The Ninja Always Rings Once is a solidly entertaining film that has plenty to fans of both action films and comedies. But it goes beyond that and also has a great deal of fun with the ninja genre, making it doubly entertaining to anyone who remembers the films its spoofing.

Midnight Eagle

Burned out war photographer, Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa) is camping out in the mountains when he sees – and photographs – a plane crash. And then things get interesting

As the film gets going, we are also introduced to Yujis sister in law, Keiko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Ochiai (Hiroshi Tamaki), both of whom happen to be journalists. Both of them sense a story brewing and Yuji quickly finds himself drawn into their investigations – especially in the case of Ochiai.

The story, as it emerges, is quite a major one, to say the lease. It turns out that some euphemistically referred to “Northern agents” have broken into a nearby Air Force base and sabotaged one of the American B52 bombers flying out of there. This is the plane that Yuji saw crash and it is carrying something that the Japanese government are both desperate to recover and very keen to keep from the public.

While Keiko finds herself investigating the incident at the US base, Ochiai manages to talk Yuji into going into the mountains with him to try and locate the crashed plane. And its in the mountains that the action gets going.

As well as the journalist and photographer, there are also two units from Japans self-defence force also trying to converge on the plane. And, to make matters difficult, the mountains are also heavily infiltrated with the aforementioned “Northern agents.”

The main problem that I had with Midnight Eagle is that the film seems to be quite uncertain as to whether its an action film or a conspiracy thriller. We do have a conspiracy, centring on what was on the crashed plane and why the Japanese government are so desperate not only to recover the plane, but also to keep the whole affair under wraps. But its not much of a conspiracy and figuring out what is going on is far from difficult which makes the reveal a bit of a let-down.

So on to the action and here the film suffers by being quite slow. The action sequences are competently done, but there is a limit to the number of ways that you can film a couple of men trudging through snowy mountains while avoiding various white-clad villains hiding in the snow. Consequently, we have a very high dialogue to action ratio.

Perversely, though, its in the dialogue that the film scores most strongly. There is a great deal of discussion in the film about Japans military and foreign policies and, while some of this probably does assume a greater understanding of the countrys politics than the average Westerner has, none of it is so intricate as to lose you and the broad themes are understandable to all.

There is also much said about the nature of journalistic integrity, the value of truth and – although not explored as fully as Id have liked – the question of what happens when reporters uncover explosive secrets.

All of this comes together in a very powerful and genuinely moving climactic scene which very effectively pulls together the films themes of sacrifice and loyalty and which – on its own – makes Midnight Eagle a film well worth seeing.

Dreamscape

A thrill-seeking businessman (Daniel J. Fox) hears about Dreamscape Inc, a company that provides electronic dreams – custom fantasies that are delivered directly to your brain as you sleep – and becomes very interested. After listening to the sales pitch, he signs up to have a little widget attached to the back of his skull and, still feeling groggy, is returned home where he collapses on his bed.

Then were into the main part of the film, a spy thriller fantasy that sees the businessman in the role of a courier, tasked with delivering a mcguffin to a contact. As The Courier (in keeping with the films noirish aspirations, no-one has a name), he takes on countless secret service agents, gets the girl (Magda Rodriguez) and attempts to stay ahead of The Investigator (Mark Ellingham) long enough to complete his mission.

This is all good solid stuff and works well as an action oriented spy thriller. Its also beautifully shot and really does show what can be achieved now with some intelligent use of digital effects.

The sets and the scenery really do come together superbly to give the film a very effective near-future noir feel. I dont think Ive seen a digital landscape this well realised since, well, since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. As with Sky Captain – and unlike many subsequent films – writer/director, Daniel J. Fox is confident enough that he doesnt feel the need to constantly ask you to marvel at his CGI ingenuity. Instead, the sets and the design do what these things are supposed to do – deliver a well-realised and believable world that fits the story perfectly.

The film does have some weaknesses, however, most notably the slightly clunky dialogue and an air of predictability to the plot – the predictability being my major gripe.

The back of the DVD case promises that: “illusion quickly turns into nightmare as reality and fantasy blur.” Unfortunately, reality and fantasy dont blur nearly enough. What I was hoping for was something like eXistenZ in which both the characters and the audience are deliberately confused as to what is real and what isnt.

Although the businessman believes he is in a dream, the truth is quite apparent to the rest of us. And this makes for a rather disappointing reveal at the end.

A longer version of this Dreamscape is currently in progress. If this version makes more of the dream/reality divide or extends the final act, then Daniel J. Fox could have a truly unique film on his hands.

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