Posts Tagged With: Asian Exploitation

Tremble With Fear! In The Frightening Interrogation Room #1… Kinji Fukasaku’s COPS VS THUGS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Cops Vs Thugs, huh? Wonder what this one’s about (it’s about 100 minutes, as it happens… boom boom!) The fish markets and hostess bars of down town Kurashima are a bit off our usual beat here at The House Of Freudstein but, as Oscar Wilde once remarked, you should try everything at least once (admittedly he made exceptions for incest and morris dancing.)

Director Kinji Fukasaku came to Western attention with the astonishing dystopian fable Battle Royale (2000), three years and two further features before his death, but Arrow have been keeping the Fukasaku flame alive with sterling releases of his movies in the Battles Without Honour And Humanity series and are now turning their attention to one of the similarly themed films he made in between those, 1975’s Kenkei Tai Soshiki Boryokuin (Cops Vs Thugs.) Like many of the “jitsuroko” pictures released by Toei Studio at this time, the film is loosely based on notorious real life criminal cases.

Set, for some reason, in 1963, it starts promisingly enough with tough, trench coated Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara, a kind of Japanese Henry Silva type) slapping around a bunch of Yakuza foot soldiers on their way to some felony or other. He tells them that they’re not worth the trouble of arresting, because they’re only going to get themselves shot soon, anyway… but he does insist that they pay their sushi bill. The fact that these guys don’t dare turn their guns on Kuno speaks volumes about Yakuza etiquette in those days or, at least, how it got depicted in the movies. Of course this cop has other reasons to feel secure throwing his weight around, notably the fact that he is well connected with the Ohara faction and its acting boss Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), whom he helps in his struggle with a rival gang led by Katsui Kawade (Mikio Narita) over a crooked land deal being set up by a corrupt politician. Don’t worry if you can’t follow the unfolding details of that, it’s merely a MacGuffin to keep things chugging along as Fukasaku and his favoured screen writer Kazuo Kasahara concentrate on the moral complexities and compromises that keep the lid on the Kurashima pressure cooker.

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If Kuno is a bad apple (and indeed, he’s more Bad Lieutenant than Serpico), clearly he’s not the only one. The brown stuff really hits the fan when Lt Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya), a by-the-book straight-edger (and judo ace to boot!) arrives and upsets the whole rotten apple cart, together with the network of shady alliances that has been keeping the peace… rival hoodlums are soon decapitating each other on the town’s subway steps.

These Yakuza films have exercised a clear influence over John Woo’s work, but while Woo’s gangsters are able to bond with the heroic cops because of some kind of nobility attaching to the code by which they live, here the cops are just as bad as the gangsters. Fukasaku is quite unapologetic about this situation, which he attributes to the post WWII social and economic chaos in Japan, when desperate people from very similar social backgrounds were choosing careers as either cops or gangsters in order to ensure that their families had enough to eat. It’s also suggested at various points that the establishment tolerates the Yakuza as a bulwark against communism. Fukasaku seems equally sanguine about the way all this male camaraderie is often sealed by the brutal sexual mistreatment of some unfortunate women or other. So, surprisingly does the BBFC. Toshiaki Tsushima’s two fisted score, heavy on blacksploitation-style wicky-wacky guitar music, compliments the frenetic action en route to a cynical Get Carteresque conclusion which proves conclusively that if you sit on the fence, one day you’ll get shot by both sides.

I’m not in a position to tell you anything about the reversible sleeve or illustrated collector’s booklet (first pressing only) featuring the thoughts of one Patrick Macias, but my preview disc contains a bonus trailer, one of those “visual essays” by Tom Mes and a featurette in which Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane talks engagingly about the director’s work. Did you know that the guy who plays Matsui in this film insisted that Bunta Sugawara beat the crap out of him for real? And still he doesn’t get name checked on IMDB. So much for Method Acting…Cops-vs-thugs.jpg

 

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People Get Ready… TRAIN TO BUSAN Reviewed

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DVD. R2. StudioCanal. 15.

Just had your top ten favourite zombie movies engraved in stone? Better get your chisel out! Just had ’em tattooed on your back? It’s back to the clinic and a spot of laser treatment for you, then…

During the noughties, when I was writing a regular DVD review column for Dark Side magazine, I was required to spend a lot of time watching J-Horror… K-Horror… all things contemporary Far Eastern had become very popular. Not with me, I have to say. It’s not that these films are badly made or anything (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “much anticipated” Creepy struck me as a very slick piece of work when I caught it at last year’s Mayhem Festival in Nottingham, even as it was lulling me off to sleep)… and invariably they piss all over their inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remakes… it’s just that doomed alt.schoolgirls with sinister stuff coming out of their TV sets don’t particularly do anything for me. Something, though, must have seeped out of my own TV and infiltrated my seminal vesicles at a crucial moment, as young Freudette is just bonkers about this stuff.

Writer / director Sang-ho Yeon’s achievement is to expand K-Horror beyond its accustomed claustrophobic chamber horror confines and into the best episode of the Demons franchise that Dario Argento never produced, in which – after a toxic spill from a biotech installation has reduced much of South Korea’s population to hyperactive flesh-eating ghouls – a trainload of Seoul commuters attempt to make it to the government hold out at Busan.

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No, Mr Yeon (or mister Sang-ho, depending on which Koreanologist you consult) didn’t exactly  burn the midnight oil coming up with an original scenario but it’s the furious inventiveness with which he concocts new scrapes for his characters to overcome that will keep you riveted for the duration of the ride… that, plus the fact that these characters are so well written and performed, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. Asian film makers are particularly good at this, of course… I still curse Takashi Miike for establishing Ryo Ishibashi’s character as such a likeable guy in Audition (1999) before unleashing that disturbed girl on him.

Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is the hard-working salary man who’s been neglecting his cute daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) and is trying to make amends by taking her to see her mother (who he’s in the process of divorcing) in Busan. When the biotoxic shit hits the fan he forms an unlikely dynamic duo with taciturn, salt-of-the-Earth tough guy Song-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), who has pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) in tow.

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In between fighting off zombies they get in a lot of  angsting over the right things to do in terms of family and your fellow man, in stark contrast to both the feral legion of deadites and Yon-suk  (Eui-sung Kim), the selfish corporate big wig who’s not above using innocent dupes to decoy his attempted escape (if you remember Fernando Sancho’s corrupt mayor in Amando De Ossorio’s Return Of The Evil Dead, 1973, you’ll know what kind of a sleazebag we’re talking about here.)

Train To Busan is that rarest of things, a high-octane, suspenseful action movie with a sense of proportion. It’s a violent zombie film that isn’t particularly gory (the spastic zombies are plenty scary looking and blood flows freely as they get stuck into their prey but there’s none of the expected unfurling intestines) and uses its CGI sparingly, to great effect.

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That a zombie movie could be simultaneously so hard-hitting and so subtle is a revelation… I loved the fact. for instance that the transformation of the protagonist’s mother into a zombie is rendered not by visual pyrotechnics but the coarsening of her conversation during a phone call. As for Seok-woo’s climactic scene of redemption… yes, I wept ( I am, after all, “the biggest fucking cry-baby in fandom”!)

Bonus materials comprise a 15 minute “making of” featurette from which one gleans how  harmonious and hard-working the shoot was (“discipline is a vehicle for joy” in the sagacious words of Robert Fripp) and two tasters (trailer and brief excerpt) from Yeon’s prize-winning animated prequel, Seoul Station.

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Undoubtedly Train To Busan will piss all over the inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remake that’s allegedly (and sadly) in the works.

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Ho My God! GODFREY HO interviewed in 1996

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Godfrey Ho is undoubtedly one of the wildest film makers to emerge from The Wild, Wild East. Ho’s career bridges the gap between Chang Cheh’s traditional chop-socky operas and John Woo’s “Heroic Bloodshed” extravaganzas. His idea of social progress is arming gorgeous girls with Uzis and he’s made a lucrative living out of mix-and-matching bits of footage from other people’s abandoned projects. But when he was shooting in the Beijing morgue, it wasn’t old films that were getting chopped to bits…

Godfrey, did you ever believe that Hong Kong movies would cross over in the West to the extent that are doing now?

Oh yeah! I think there’s a real connection going on now between East and West… we’re learning from each other in terms of culture, technique and marketing. I made two movies in the U.S. with Cynthia Rothrock. We’re trying to combine Eastern culture, especially the kung fun and action elements, with Western stars, so that the Western audiences will find our movies more attractive. 

The Eastern guy who’s really crossed over is John Woo… I believe you’ve worked with him?

It was a long time ago when we worked together for the great action director Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. Many of us worked together there and after that we all went out to make our own movies. It was hard to work at Shaw Brothers then, because there were so many people working there, all wanting to direct, so we had to leave and find our own way of doing it.

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What was it like, working for Chang Cheh?

He’s so very cultured and literate. He himself is a writer, very good at creating characters and what the market wanted then was heroes, the kind of superheroes who fight to the death. Chang Cheh has a very good team of choreographers working for him. Whatever he wanted to create on the screen, they could achieve it for him. He was very much people’s traditional idea of the director, a king at the studio. That was the tradition, chair and megaphone and everything, demanding whatever he wanted, a supreme director at the time. Unfortunately, by the time I became a director that wasn’t the way it was done anymore! (Laughs.) We had to work together with the whole crew like a big family.

And what are your memories of John Woo from those days?

He’s a good fellow, very creative… he’s created his own world. He’s not a very talkative guy but he had very definite ideas about  what he wanted to achieve. It’s not easy though, to fulfil one’s ambitions, especially when you are a new director, because of commercial pressures… not many producers will venture a million dollars on a new director to make a film. The producers couldn’t care less about art, you know, they want to make money. Even Run Run Shaw was a business man, you’ll notice that most of the Shaw Brothers productions were commercial efforts.

Your movie Lethal Panther, released in the UK on video as Deadly China Dolls, unfolds like a John Woo film with girl bonding instead of male bonding…

Yes, I’m trying to do something different from what John Woo has been doing, the male gangster films with Chow Yun Fat. The girls aren’t weak anymore, they’re strong characters. I wanted to show an angle that is different from traditional Chinese society, where the women had to stay at home, looking after the children all their life… it’s not like that anymore. I’d like to think I’m helping social progress along with these movies.

Tell us about some of the girls you’ve worked with.

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Girls like Moon Lee and Cynthia Rothrock have practiced some form of karate or kung fu before they became action actresses, just like Jackie Chan… he studied for years before he could do the things that he does now. Some of the other girls who are good at martial arts, though, are not such good actresses and our main priority now, in making exportable movies, is having characters who can act, because the Western markets insist on that. So sometimes we have to get around that with the way we shoot the scene. ≈The martial arts – what we call kung fu – in China, there are so many different styles of it and sometimes what the girls have been doing isn’t kung fu at all, it’s like tae kwan do or karate, which we can use for action sequences but it’s not kung fu. Moon Lee and Cynthia Rothrock, though, have studied our martial arts for years and are very good.

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You made a movie called Magnificent Wonder Women Of Shaolin… what a fantastic title!

Oh, that was such a long time ago that I’d forgotten it… I’m amazed that you guys know about these movies! Certain audiences in the West still appreciate these these kung fu films but they aren’t popular in Hong Kong anymore, or in the Asian markets generally. That was quite an interesting movie actually, in traditional costume and with traditional kung fu fighting. At Shaw Brothers studio you would have a fight choreographer arranging the action around several different kung fu styles, before the editing. Now it’s changed, just three or four styles, quick ones, to make for a faster tempo. Back then, there was a big demand for the actors and actresses to know how to fight. Now it’s not so stringent, almost anybody can do that, as long as they know how to move… Andy Lau, that kind of actor, can do fight scenes. The actor will know nothing about kung fu or karate really but he will able to learn, to adapt quickly to whatever you are shooting.

You’ve worked with John Liu, who has his own fighting system called Zen Kwan Do… what’s that all about?

He evolved this style all his own, which is influenced a lot by kick boxing. John Liu is one of the best kickers, his kicking is really marvellous. I was working with him one day and he had kicked over a thousand times. I said to him: “John, aren’t you getting tired?” and he replied: “No Godfrey, I’m just getting warmed up here!”… an amazing guy! It’s hard to find somebody with a body that well trained… same thing goes for Jackie Chan.

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You worked as an uncredited director on Liu’s Zen Kwan Do Strikes In Paris. The supposedly true story of that film (John’s father, a NASA scientist, has to be rescued from foreign agents by his son’s martial arts prowess) is a rather fanciful one, isn’t it?

I had been working for some time as a director and John was my assistant. He had his own ambitions and I was trying to bring his career along… he’s a good friend, you know? He got the opportunity to direct this picture and I said: “OK, I’ll help you with this” but unfortunately he set out to do too many jobs himself, as actor / writer / choreographer / director… I told him: “Come on John, it’s too much, you’re going to spread yourself too thinly.” He didn’t listen to me, so although the action parts are very, very good, the story of that film is a bit confusing… that’s the problem John had, there.

You also had him fighting Dragon Lee in your film The Dragon, The Hero… can you tell us something about this classic martial arts movie?

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That was the first movie in which we tried to blend Eastern and Western cultures … my partner Joseph Lai of IFD films was very conscious of this massive Western market and wanted to do something aimed at that. The movie was not intended for the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets, but to be a commercial success in the West. It was a very good investment, regardless of how it did in the Asian markets… and of course, as we said, these movies are still very popular in Europe. The story is funny too, an Eastern story but in the Western style to make it easier for Europeans to accept. Sometimes it’s hard for a Westerner to follow the story in a traditional kung fu movie, it can look so strange and funny.

You went through a period of mixing and matching footage from different projects to be released under new titles by Joseph Lai…

(Laughs) That was a purely commercial exercise, because the market was crying out for product at that time, especially the video market, which was then booming. They wanted quantity rather than quality, so Joseph, who’s a very good producer, was again trying to render movies in a Western style, to polish them, add something that Westerners can understand by shooting additional footage.

There’s this story that you signed Richard Harrison to appear in a movie and the footage ended up in several different ones…

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Not a lot of different movies, just the same martial arts movies really, a lot of ninja movies. Most of the ninjas in these movies wear masks, so it’s very difficult to tell who’s in there anyway! (laughs) Richard told he that was worried because he isn’t a martial artist, but I told him he’d do a great job as long as he could hold a sword and throw a ninja star, that would be OK, because somebody else, a stunt man, is going to be fighting for him. With all those masks, who can tell? We moved the ninja genre on two or three years with those movies… I made the action fun rather than violent because again, I am into making commercial movies.

Harrison famously turned down the lead role in A Fistful Of Dollars before it went to Clint Eastwood… what kind of a guy was he?

A very kind man, very good actor, very serious about his trade. He’s a real gentleman actually and we worked together very well. He lives in The States now.

Before one London screening of Lethal Panther / Deadly China Dolls a trailer was shown for your film The Men Behind The Sun Part 2 – Laboratory Of The Devil… I believe you had some walk-outs!

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Yeah, they couldn’t take the stuff with the real dead bodies, but you have to understand, that was the only way we were able to work over there. That movie was aimed at the Korean market, where they still have a strong feeling about Japanese war crimes. Then the Chinese started to take an interest so we decided to make it with Chinese producers. I flew to Beijing and we started to work at the film studios there for three or four months. They’re really still working in the Russian system there, it’s not very up-to-date. I didn’t take anyone with me apart from the main actor, so I had to rely on the Chinese technicians, who were limited by the state of the industry over there. When we came to do a scene with a dead body, they said: “We can’t do it as a prosthetic, we don’t have the technique or the materials”, so they took me to the local hospital and we talked to the doctor, who let us film him while he performed an autopsy… so that was it!

What is your next career move? Will you be carrying on with the girls-and-guns stuff?

I think so. I will try to carry on making commercial movies that people want to watch, to make movie like Deadly China Dolls in more and more of a Western style…

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An Ill Wind That Blows No Good… SHOGUN ASSASSIN reviewed

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Nice to see that they ran vaccination programs back in The Shogunate… nobody’s going to die needlessly before their time in this one, then!

Blu-ray. Region B. Eureka! 18.

Shogun Assassin, probably the most blood thirsty of all the dreaded “video nasties” (well, it made the Section 3 list of prohibited titles) is also, arguably, the most visually beautiful, stylish and exciting films to fall foul of the DPP. The beauty, style and bloodthirstiness are attributable to its Japanese origins, but much of the sheer excitement generated by Shogun Assassin is due to the way it was recut by Robert Houston at Roger Corman’s New World for American release in 1980. The film as we see it now is actually an amalgam of the first two entries in the long running “Lone Wolf” or “Baby Cart” series of movies, the 1972 efforts Kosure Ookami-Ko wo Kashi Ude Kashi Tsukatsura (“Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance”) and Kosure Ookami – Sanzu No Kawa No Ubagurama (“Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx.”)

As directed by Kenju Misumi, these films demonstrated the increasing influence exerted over Japanese cinema by the action oriented Hong Kong industry (see also the TV series Monkey and The Water Margin, Japanese treatments of traditional Chinese folk stories) at the expense of more traditionally Japanese modes of narrative, which to Western eyes are mainly characterisable in terms of their leaden pacing… who could forget (try as they might) the coma inducing episode of an older Japanese TV adaptation of the “Lone Wolf” saga that was screened by Channel 4 back in the 80’s, during which – in the absence of anything more galvanising – the Shogun taking his feet out of his stirrups became a major set piece!

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These movies were already moving along at a fair lick then, and by losing virtually all of their quieter moments in the shuffle, Houston came  up with one movie that is effectively a rolling action sequence, as incident piles upon violent incident. By dint of the uniquely graphic and bloody manner in which the Japanese execute such sequences, Shogun Assassin becomes, more specifically, one long gore sequence and it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine a drive-in encounter with the film leaving a profound impression on Sam Raimi, on his way to conceiving The Evil Dead.

The addition of Mark Lindsay’s wildly anachronistic and totally inappropriate throbbing disco score (repetitive synth riffing of the kind favoured by Donna Summer before she discovered God and abandoned her quest for a 12-inch orgasm) merely serves to further accentuate the delirious pace of events and heighten the surrealistic ambience of the proceedings.

The action – and I do mean action – is set in a province of Japan ruled over by an old and increasingly paranoid Shogun. His chief executioner Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is happy to decapitate the victims of his pogroms, but eventually falls out of favour himself.  Itto’s wife is killed when ninja swoop on their house in an attempt on his life, and when challenged by a deputation of the Shogun’s swordsmen to commit hari-kiri, Itto slaughters them instead and hits the road to lead a ronin life with his infant son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa).

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This model not available at your local Mothercare.

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For starters Itto respectively beheads and runs through two of the Shogun’s sons, slaughtering their various retainers into the bargain. “I would risk the lives of all my sons to see his head on a stake” rants the crazy old Shogun, who looks like some kind of albino werewolf.  This uncompromising filial attitude is echoed in his adversary Itto, who offers his baby son a sword and a ball after the death of the boy’s mother, fully intending to kill him if he chooses the latter (elsewhere he nonchalantly tells a villain who is threatening to throw the child down a well to go ahead … “My son and I have already embraced our fate!”)

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Next the Shogun takes a contract out on Itto with a crack team of ninja bitches. Their leader Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo) is a masochist’s dream girl who, when challenged over her credentials, has her death squad carve up the Shogun’s top ninja (a hilarious spectacle… like the Green Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, the unfortunate guy fights on, limbs and facial parts falling to the floor, until he is little more than a stump) then sneers, “And that was your best man?!?” before breaking into maniacal laughter. Needless to say, her hit women find Itto and son a much tougher proposition – they throw spear lined fruit and veg at our heroes and even try to hypnotise them with twirling umbrellas as a prelude to the more mundane (i.e. somersaulting through the air in slow motion) displays of martial arts histrionics, but all of them come unstuck on Lone Wolf’s sword or one of the bloody contraptions that sprout from Jr’s battle pram at the pull of a lever.

Eventually Sayaka takes on the Ittos herself, a confrontation that ends with the memorable spectacle of her jumping right our of her ninja suit and running away backwards in her underwear. After this tactical withdrawal Sayaka makes another attempt to carry out her murderous mission and, failing yet again, wanders off to commit hari-kiri.

Masters Of Death!

There’s nothing else for it – the Shogun calls in… (gulp!)…the Masters of Death!!! Three mean dudes in wok hats (from under one of which peeks a hip rockabilly quiff), the MODs (played by Minoru Ooki, Mori Kishida and Shogun Arata) are weapons specialists, one fighting with a spiked club, another with a nailed glove, and the third with a metal claw.

We are introduced to these menacing dudes on a boat, where they cut off the end of a guy’s nose because he’s been getting on their nerves. “It makes me sick…” grumbles the victim, “… they butcher anyone in their way… it’s just bad taste!”  (Ooh, he could crush a grape!) Prior to their high noon desert appointment with Lone Wolf and Son there’s an extraordinary sequence as the metal clawed Master, sensing warriors hiding in ambush under the sand, runs around the desert, bloodily harvesting heads.

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The Masters of Death ultimately prove unable to live up to their billing – they give it their best collective shot but it is Itto who emerges victorious from the epic struggle. Disco music strikes up as Lone Wolf pushes his cub into the sunset, Jr. soliloquising that their life will always be like this. It was, too, but you’ll need to check out the remaining entries in the original series if you want to see for yourself… and why wouldn’t you?

One can see why the DPP took exception to the film’s peculiarly Japanese presentation of extreme violence as a beautiful (nobody dies in Shogun Assassin without spraying several gallons of crimson blood into the beautifully photographed sky, usually in stately slow motion) and even transcendental phenomenon – after complimenting Itto on his “magnificent” technique, the final Master of Death spends his dying moments  rhapsodising about an unexpected aural accompaniment to throat slitting: “When cut across the neck, a sound like wailing winter winds is heard. I’d always hoped to cut someone like that one day, to hear that sound, but to have it happen to my own neck is… ridiculous!” So is the whole movie. It’s also a unique, exhilarating and quite unforgettable viewing experience.

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Eureka’s BD transfer of shogun Assassin looks pretty good. I’ve seen better but there’s none of the weird optical squeezing that has marred previous releases. It sure sounds good and extras abound. You get not one but two audio commentaries, firstly by cineaste Ric Meyers and martial arts ace Steve watson, then another with producer David Weisman, illustrator Jim Evans and actor Gibran Evans (who voices Diagoro.) There’s a video interview with Samuel L.  Jackson, who enjoyed this kind of genre movie in his youth and later participated in several of Quentin Tarantino’s misfiring attempts to emulate their spirit in big-budgeted Hollywood efforts. You also get the theatrical trailer plus previews for each episode in the originally constituted Lone Wolf And Cub series. Nice.

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