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by Bill Gibron

24 Jan 2009

Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?

Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project

Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.

The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past. 

It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.

Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.

There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.

Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.

Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.

by tjmHolden

23 Jan 2009

So, I’m sitting in my office the other day, sorting through the mail that has accumulated during my hiatus, and the phone rings. On the other end comes a male voice—polite, businesslike (well, actually, now that I reconstruct it: with the slightest trace of excruciatingly self-satisfied, condescension)—and a conversation ensues. In translation it went something like this:

Me: “Holden here.” He: “Mr. Holden?” Me: “Yes, that’s me.” He: “I’m Tanaka of the Japanese Automotive Federation—JAF?—and I am calling about your membership.” Me: “Yes?” He: “Mr. Holden, did you receive our fax to you?”

I was actually in the process of considering that very same fax at that very moment. It being lumped in with the stack of mail that I was trying to catch up on. Of course, it being written in Japanese, I was according it the level of attention that I normally devote to missives in Japanese—which is to say, it was floating around the bottom of the pile.


Me: “Yes, I actually have it in my hands at the moment.”

(well, in a round-about sort of fashion).

He: “Then, as you know, Mr. Holden, we were unable to complete your annual renewal.”

Which goes to show: you learn something new every day.

by Mike Deane

23 Jan 2009

Work All Week

Work All Week

The third single put out by the Mekons is “Work All Week”, an anti-materialist anthem disguised as a love song.  Like “Where Were You”, it’s a song that reveals its true identity after repeated listens (you’ll have to get this song on your own as copyright does not allow me to post the original version, only the 2004 folk reggae version).  Though the song can, at first, seem to be a typical love and marriage tune, upon closer examination it bears that signature post punk cynicism and satire.  In most love songs the object of the speaker is to woo their potential partner, or to express their love/devotion/affection in some way, “Work All Week” shows that love and marriage seem to be impossible without killing yourself trying to make the money to buy the materials which signify happiness.  In a love song the object of the speaker’s affection is a person, in “Work All Week” the object of the speaker’s affection is the objects needed to barter for love.

The songs starts with a ‘70s-sounding “oriental” riff straight out of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”, then moves into a lilting chord progression that’s a bit out of time with the drums.  An excellent bass run fills in the simple chord progression and gives a good background to the misleading lyrics.  The refrain of “I work all week” is a constant reminder that most things that the speaker discusses are impossible without constant labour. 

The first lyric is straight forward enough: “I work all week to buy a ring / I work all week / Extra hours to get real gold / I’ll buy you anything / You know I’ll buy you anything / I work all week / Not put off by signs saying sold.”  Love is supplanted with a ring—there’s no mention of who he’s buying the ring for or what the ring symbolizes, the goal of working seems to be the acquisition of a ring made of real gold.  The song is boastful when the speaker says “You know I’ll buy you anything”, as if these possessions are enough, the cost of love is the value of his person.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jan 2009

World War I. World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War. The Rapture. The Harmonic Convergence. Y2K. And now, 2012. It seems like every other decade, the planet is threatened with outright extinction, either the direct result of something manmade or as part of a plan cosmically preordained. So far, it’s been Third Rock from the Sun several, the Apocalypse zero. Some think that may all change with the latest ancient prophecy turned multimedia profit. Famed schlock meister Roland Emmerich has even named his latest dithering disaster epic after the proposed Mayan meltdown. Talk about timely.

Of course, not every discussion of the possible end of the world is so cheesy. The Disinformation Company, noted contrarians and certified skeptics, are sponsoring Nimrod Erez’s latest documentary on the subject - 2012: Science or Superstition. And while many of the talking heads presented sound less than secure in determining the final sell by date for mankind, there are some interesting ideas being floated within their occasionally confusing pseudo-scientific analysis. At times, you feel like you’re watching a group of very well educated and considered individuals discussing the existence of pixies.

There are two main sides to the 2012 debate. According to the Maya Calendar, a specific time “cycle” will be ending on 21 December of that year. Successions or phases of existence was the preferred way for the ancient culture to map out their civilization - everything from planting and harvesting to greater concerns about gods and monsters. When 21 December 2012 arrives, it supposedly signifies some manner of completion for the Mayas. On one side are scholars who interpret this as the last tick of the Doomsday clock. When we hit that moment, everything we know about the world will simply cease to exist. Boom.

On the other side of the argument, however, are those who take a more inspired or spiritual position regarding the countdown. To them, 21 December 2012 is not the end of times. Instead, it’s a moment of consciousness raising, a chance for the people of the planet to come together and alter the cosmic perception. There will be no death or destruction, only rebirth and renewal. For most of 2012: Science or Superstition, we hear both sides structure their arguments, struggle for supporting evidence and theories, and eventually agree that most of what they are discussing is purely speculative. We even get a few descents of the Maya race who dismiss all the apocalyptic talk as sensational and misapplied.

The key to all of this is where, exactly, the Earth will be in conjunction with the Sun and where said star will be located come 21 December 2012. Within the Milky Way, there’s a ‘great rift’, a massive cloud of dense space dust which will supposedly wreck havoc with the planet’s sole source of heat and light. The sun will be sitting smack dab in the middle of it on 12/21/2012. Solar flares are the biggest concern, their magnetic fields and indeterminate destructive power capable of almost anything. For those who believe in the end of everything, this rare positioning if the indicator. When the Sun finally wanders into the rift, and then aligns with our world, we’re in for something quite cataclysmic.

While 2012: Science of Superstition eschews digital recreations of major catastrophes, there some to be a kind of consensus on what might happen - melting of the ice caps, a complete reversal of the poles (a very intriguing notion which gets little more than a cursory mention) and an increase in natural phenomenon like flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. There’s also talk about the rotation of the Earth’s core, a fudging of orbits, and other sci-fi sounding disasters. In fact, one of the flaws in this otherwise entertaining film is the rampant hyperbole. Without much proof, these well educated minds free associate on the Apocalypse like it’s a personal hobby.

Of course, there are skeptics, the minds that measure out logic and reason and then dismiss everything except the bare bones scientific truths. They cannot deny the astronomical data, there’s no way to circumvent what decades of research has more or less confirmed. But there are aspects of the science that still sound sketchy. Some is based on the work of a Russian thinker whose theories appear unproven (something to do with the entire galaxy passing through a huge unsettled interstellar mass). Others use an erudite form of guessing to give us insight into what might happen a little over three years from now.

So why indulge this exercise in extrapolation? Why give Disinformation and its otherwise cracking sense of contrarianism a whiff of respect with regard to this conjecture? The answer is easy - 2012: Science or Superstition is actually very engaging, in a kind of mental jumpstarting way. There’s a certain level of indirect audience participation here, an inherent aspect that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions and shout (silently) back at the screen. Since Enez is not out to confirm the comments of his participants, he allows them to say their peace, and then provides just enough contradiction to allow the home video witnesses to make up their own minds. Many will come away thinking that Independence Day‘s Emmerich has just as much right to destroy the Andes with a tidal wave as these intellectuals have in stirring up their own brand of fear.

In the end, 2012: Science or Superstition does little except put the idea of a possible apocalypse out there like so many others have before. And one imagines that, just like the Christians who are still back peddling about their prediction that The Rapture was coming in 1988 (among many divergent years before…and after), these thinkers will be revising their theories when, as one interviewee puts it, “your bills are still due come 1, January, 2013.” However, there is some amusement to be had in contemplating what ancient cultures thought about the way the world ended, and when you add in the well spoken if frequently freaky explanations for what may occur, the whole experience becomes surreal. Maybe the cosmos will indeed have the last laugh come 21 December 2012. Here’s betting we’re around to hear the anticipated chuckle.

by Alice Singleton

23 Jan 2009

Eugene O’Neill’s Longa Viagem de Volta Pra Casa  (The Long Voyage Home)  runs 21-25 January 2009 at Goodman Owen Theatre, Chicago.

Comedian Wanda Sykes has a stinging, yet accurate observation on the moral high ground the common street thug has over an Enron executive:” The thug, well he just rips you off of what you have on you, maybe an ambitious thug drags you to the cash station and makes you take out the day’s draw. But those Enron f———?  They took peoples futures! Their whole futures. Their damned kids futures. Gone.”

Such is the fate of Olson (Roberto Leite), a beaten-down slightly reformed drunken sailor in Brazil’s Companhia Triptal’s Portuguese-language presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home under the direction of Andre Garolli. Olson meets his living damnation in the bosom of a bar fly possessing the heart of curdled arsenic. Olson has never seen better days – matter of fact his days have been a haze of drunkenness and self-destruction, gone for so long from his native Sweden that his planned return is less for leisure and more for seeing his elderly mother before she passes.

Sick from the waves (sailors riding the waves to Perdition is the running theme for O’Neill’s “Sea Plays” series, which the troupe will perform in its entirety for the Goodman run), sick of the pestilence, loneliness and the frittering away of his money to the bottle, Olson dreams of returning to visit his mother one last time, buying some farmland, planting some crops, and sifting the soil through his fingers.

“I don’t like…this place”, his shipmate Ivan (Pepe Ramirez), a drunken Russian bear of man, declares over again between inebriated nod-offs and slobbing up a hooker’s delights. Olson’s comrades-of-the-sea know “this place”, they’ve been here before, knowing shipmates Driscoll (Guilherme Lopes) and Cocky (Bruno Feldman) warn him that drinking the brute barkeep Joe’s fortified swill will surely bring unconsciousness and immediate poverty of one’s soul and wallet.

“You want to see your mother? You want your farm in your homeland”, Driscoll asks.  Driscoll and Cocky are vested in Olson’s reconnection with mother and motherland, both struggling with – Corky, the loudest and most melancholy, with “havin’ never had no mother”.  To be without parentage, a mother, is an idea of constant voice for O’Neill, the writer having been shipped off to boarding school by his own parents and left to navigate the emotional waves of abandonment and vulnerability to a world devoid of morality.

As Olson’s shipmates buy into drugged-spiked whiskey and booze-spiked hookers in the backroom, Olson rents a seat at the bar, sipping the cup of water that accompanied him on his night out. But Olson’s newfound sobriety and social virtuousness is no match for Joe, a brutal entrepreneur with an employment incentive plan that includes beating the bar flies to “sales” increases for the bar, and taking precious little interest in one of his long time girls as she withers into death’s realm in front of Joe’s very eyes. He looks away, turning his gaze to the deep pouch that keeps his profits.

Joe brutally commissions Miss Freda (Juliana Liegel – a dead ringer for Courtney Love at her worst) to take Olson for all he’s worth. She could offer him a warm place to lay to substitute his new aversion to alcohol.  Instead, she saddles up to him like a personal relationship banker, inquisitive, questioning, conversational, and making suggestive add-ons to his dreams of his new life in Sweden. Miss Freda assures and reassures Olson that he’ll return to see his not-long-for-this-world mother once more, and sift the sweet earth of Sweden through his fingers.

But what kind of man would not drink to his new life? Miss Freda uses all of the seller’s terminology and tricks, including a last minute buyer – a ringer to “up” the price, make the loss palpable. After a quick visit from “Mr. Michael Finley”, courtesy of Joe & Ms. Freda’s teamwork, Olson is forever lost– to ship, mates, family and future. His initial sign-on to a simple deal literally spirals into a balloon payment request of his future. A waking ghost, gone. Indeed.

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