(aka) The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Directed by Takeshi Kitano Produced by Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saito Action by Takeshi Kitano, Tatsumi Nikamoto
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Yasuda, Taka Guadalcanal, Diagoro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Yui Natsukawa, Kohji Miura
Reviewing: Artificial Eye UK DVD Release
Genres: Chanbara / Drama / Comedy
Rating - 4 / 5
DVD Synopsis: Cult filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's ('Hana-Bi', 'Violent Cop') dazzling new film is a thrilling tale of swordplay and adventure set in 19th Century Japan. Zatoichi (“Beat” Takeshi) is a blind wanderer whose humble facade disguises his prodigious skills as a master swordsman, gifted with a lightning fast draw and strokes of breathtaking precision. Arriving in a remote mountain town, he finds its people terrorised by the ruthless Ginzo gang and their mighty samurai ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), who mercilessly dispose of all who get in their way. With his legendary cane sword at his side, Zatoichi's path is destined for many violent confrontations... Kitano's hugely entertaining box office hit, packed with riotous humour and thrillingly choreographed action scenes, has enthralled and amazed critics and audiences the world over.
Views: Takeshi Kitano's wonderful re-imagining of Zatoichi begins with the blind masseur arriving at a small town that is under the control of many warring gangs, with the Ginzo gang being the most ruthless. He soon finds refuge with a lone widow at a local farm after helping to carry her basket, and helps out where he can to pay for his keep. As other characters arrive in town, such as vengeful ronin Hattori, and two young geisha's (one of which is a boy) with their own agenda, Zatoichi finds himself embroiled among the affairs of the locals and steps up to save them from the torment and abuse of the Ginzo!
The legacy of the blind swordsman continues strong with 'Beat' Takeshi delivering one of his most exciting and accomplished films as a director and star. A hundred miles from the usual situations and roles we are used to seeing him in, the popular Japanese star combines elements of an Akira Kurasawa classic with a touch of art-house decadence, combined with some genuinely witty humour, and enough violent swordplay that doesn't take away from its mature storyline. Aside from some strong direction, Kitano fits the role of Zatoichi extremely well, delivering a believable-yet-subdued performance until he is required to come to life with some bloody action. I had only ever seen him in a similar setting when I watched the fantastic Gohatto a few years before, so it was refreshing in some way to see him back in this era. But although Zatoichi proved to be a big hit for the film-maker as well as the winner of many awards, and he has been going strong ever since, I personally haven't seen much more of Takeshi since – except for his role in Takashi Miike's ultra-wild Izo the following year and in the Hollywood produced, live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell in 2017...
Although it was written, directed, edited by, and even choreographed by Kitano himself, he never really allows the whole story to focus completely on the titular character, adding strength to the supporting cast that helps its audience get a little more invested in them. This includes the travelling geisha couple – a brother and sister act who were orphaned by the Ginzo gang and stage performances for members of the thugs so that they can kill, rob, and exact revenge on them. To save his sister from any sexual advances, brother Osei opts to dress up as the dancing geisha, something he does quite convincingly due to his feminine features, which allows Okinu to focus on the music and surprise attacks. Incidently, this would be actor Diagoro Tachibana's one-and-only role to date (as Osei), yet does a great job in his performance with the slightly older Yuko Daike returning to work with Kitano after her debut in his 1996 film, Kids Return, as well as starring with him in Hana-Bi and Dolls. Yuko would also appear in the Ju-On (The Grudge) movies, before going onto star in a host of popular television shows. The great Taka Guadalcanal also returns to join Kitano once again as Shinkichi, Zatoichi's new friend and gambling partner who helps bring a lot of laughs to the table. Having made his feature film debut in Takeshi's very own, Boiling Point, Taka would return for the directors comedy film Getting Any?, before making it a hat-trick almost a decade later with his role here. Michiyo Yasuda, who started her acting career in the mid 60s, stars as farming widow Aunt Oume and actually appeared in one of the original Zatoichi films just a few years later called Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. Starring in almost 70 titles to date, Yasuda starred in many great titles over the decades including the fantastic, Lone Wolf & Cub: Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons. And last, but definitely not least, is the great Tadanobu Asano – star of Ichi The Killer, the MCU's Thor Trilogy, Tokyo Zombie, Battleship, and the latest adaptation of Mortal Kombat where he plays Lord Raiden. In Zatoichi, Asano plays skilled swordsman for hire, Hattori – a man who joins the Ginzo gang to try and raise some money to help his dying wife. As per usual, he's a great addition to an already great cast who gets in on the action a number of times, as well as getting to face-off against Zatoichi himself.
While it often comes across as a slice of classic 1960s Japanese cinema, the cinematography is beautifully handled by Katsumi Yanagijima, a popular DOP who worked with Takeshi Kitano on many titles such as A Scene At The Sea, Sonatine, Kids Return, Dolls, and many more. On top of that, he was the eye behind hit movies such as Battle Royale, Samurai Resurrection, The Grudge 2, Shutter, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, and then some. Overall, Katsumi manages to deliver some incredibly beautiful scenes throughout backed by a wonderful score from Keiichi Suzuki, composer of Spiral, the gorgeous anime feature Tokyo Godfathers, and Kitano's The Outrage and its sequel, Beyond Outrage. In fact, music is a vital piece of this film for the director as he combines natural movements, noises, and beats with random scenes of farmers dancing in the fields. It all brings the film to a close with a highly enjoyable, and very memorable, dance sequence that brings in the majority of the cast members (except for the villains and Zatoichi) in a finale that was choreographed by famed Japanese tap-dancing troupe, The Stripes. It leaves viewers with a smile of their faces as the credits come in and, for me, is a great ending to a fantastic film. While many have complained about the use of CGI when it comes to the blood splatter and severed limbs, I personally didn't find it too distracting and got over it pretty quick!
Overall: A worthy reboot of a classic legacy, Zatoichi makes for a fun watch with great performances all round, neat action, good humour, and so much more!
DVD Extras: Making of Documentary, Trailers, Filmography, Gallery
ZEN OF SWORD
(Hong Kong 1992)
Original Title: Xia Nu Chuan Qi
Directed by Yu Mang Sang Produced by Stephen Shin Action by Phillip Kwok
Starring: Cynthia Khan, Waise Lee, Michelle Reis, Lau Sek Ming, Lau Shun, Kara Hui Ying Hung, Lau Siu Ming, Phillip Kwok, Tam Wai Man
Reviewing: Tai Seng US DVD Release
Genres: Martial Arts / Fantasy / Drama
Rating - 3.3 / 5
DVD Synopsis: During the dark ages of ancient China, warlords battled for land and wealth, all justice and morality were lost. Princess Ling (Michelle Reis from SWORDSMAN TWO) and her two generals Ching (Cynthia Khan) and Lau (Waise Lee) must escape from the rebel clan bent on bringing the kingdom down. With stunning action sequences choreographed by legendary Shaw Brother martial artist Phillip Kwok, ZEN OF SWORD is a masterful swordplay fantasy, now available for the first time on DVD!
Views: As a fierce war ravages the land in ancient China, a princess tries to escape many attempts on her life with the help of her two generals; a husband and wife team who are highly-skilled fighters. On their travels, they soon meet the prince of the opposing clan who instantly falls in love with the princess. Of course, this forbidden love brings its own problems as the prince is convinced by his evil aunt that he must kill the princess. As they continue on, the heroes must evade the evil forces of the deadly Master of Yin – a man determined to get his hands on the princesses jade pipe, which houses the secret to finding the treasures of the world. It all leads to an explosive finale that challenges everyone involved in the name of love, honour, and integrity – helped by the clash of their swords and a simple lesson in morals!
I've always wanted Zen Of Sword to be much better than it actually is. That's not to say that it is a terrible movie by any means, as the film delivers some great action scenes as well as a fun cast - but it definitely has its flaws, including some overly melodramatic moments that often come across quite flat in comparison to the wild action on offer. As it is one of the smaller budgeted wuxia flicks of the early 90's, I can forgive its lack of polish and odd editing decisions here-and-there – but I've also come to terms that the quality of my Tai Seng DVD release isn't really doing it any favours. I had bootleg VHS tapes from the early 90's that had a better picture than this, so perhaps the chance to see this great wee flick restored on Blu-ray in the near future may better my opinion of it overall. Zen Of Sword is often forgotten about by fans when they look back at the new wave wuxia movies of the 90's, such as Moon Warriors, Swordsman Trilogy, New Dragon Gate Inn, and many others, but I do think it deserves a watch due to its wild action scenes courtesy of Shaw Brothers legend, Philip Kwok – who also co-stars throughout. Blending some intricate wire-work with nifty martial arts moves, the popular Venom manages to bring viewers a range of fight scenes that play like a mix of Ching Siu Tung's choreography in the aforementioned Swordsman movies with plenty of FX and imagination that reminded me of the classic Bastard Swordsman and Holy Flame Of The Martial World – both of which came from Kwok's old place of work.
While Michelle Reis gets top-billing for her role as the princess, she really doesn't get to do much except look pretty and try to stay alive. The delightful Cynthia Khan and prolific Waise Lee get the more exciting jobs as the husband and wife generals, with Waise eventually dishonouring the missus for his own greed. The pair had worked together the year previous on In The Line Of Duty 6: Forbidden Arsenal and went on to star in the equally underrated 13 Cold Blooded Eagles not long after this. From there, Khan and Lee would share the screen a number of times over the next few years in film such as Murders Made To Order, Pink Bomb, A Serious Shock! Yes Madam! (aka Yes Madam '92 and Death Triangle), Avenging Quartet, and low budget titles such as Angel On Fire, Tough Beauty & The Sloppy Slop, and Super Cops. Lau Sek Ming, a face and name that doesn't really stand-out to many fans of Hong Kong cinema, plays the love-torn prince of the opposing clan, in what would only have been his second role after appearing in Underground Express. His decisions and heart is played with by his angry aunt, played by the amazing Kara Hui Ying Hung – co-star to Philip Kwok in many Shaw Brothers classics and the wonderful Lau Shun, who made a name for himself only a couple of years prior in titles such as Prince Of The Sun, The Swordsman Trilogy, A Chinese Ghost Story 2 & 3, Dragon From Russia, and New Dragon Gate Inn, stars as the evil wizard of Yin who gets to ramp-up some exciting moves in the big finale. He is joined by prolific actor Lau Siu Ming, a fantastic actor who started life in the industry as Scholar Fong in Tsui Hark's classic film, The Butterfly Murders, before going on to star in many great titles such as Royal Warriors, A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy, Project A 2, A Better Tomorrow 2, Swordsman, and so many more. And finally, Philip Kwok stars as the God Of War – although he doesn't really get to hang around too long unfortunately. Regardless, it's always a joy to see him on-screen and he tops off an already enjoyable cast in Zen Of Sword...
Although Kwok keeps things exciting enough in the action department, I thought it was strange how first time director Yu Mang Sang got the job of helming such a film. He had worked as the assistant director on Lee Siu Wa's horror film, Crazy Blood, in 1983 but hadn't really done much more in between. Unfortunately it shows, as most of the scenes between the action come across quite flat and boring for the most part. Personally, I think had Zen Of Sword been in the hands of a more experienced director such as Ching Siu Tung, Tung Wai, or Sammo Hung, I reckon it would have been higher-up on a lot of peoples lists. But it is what it is and, as mentioned, I wouldn't say no to a restored Blu-ray version someday!
Overall: Saved by some exciting and fun action scenes, Zen Of Sword is worth the watch but just lacks a little something that makes it a classic!
DVD Extras: Trailers
Original Title: Jipangu
(aka) Kabuki Quantum Fighter; The Legend Of Zipang
Directed by Kaizo Hayashi Produced by Kouji Tsutsumi, Kosoke Kuri Action by Kanta Ina
Starring: Masahiro Takashima, Narumi Yasuda, Kipp Hamilton, Harua Nakajima, Bengal, Shiro Sano, Kenya Sawada, Mikio Narita, Teru
Reviewing: Pagan UK DVD Release
Genres: Fantasy / Supernatural / Comedy
Rating - 4.3 / 5
DVD Synopsis: Zipang is a sumptuous visual feast. Set in a kind of alternative Japan, where modern technology meets ancient legend, the film tells of the quest for the mythical Zipang, land of gold. A motley band of renegades discover the keys to this magical kingdom. Unfortunately they also attract the attention of a beautiful female bounty hunter who has her sights set on their leade, the handsome Jigoku. With supernatural ninja warriors, astonishingly choreographed swordplay and wildly unpredictable plot twists, Zipang is in a class of its own. Prepare to be amazed...
Views: Jigoku is a smart-talking and highly-skilled samurai outlaw, constantly on the run with his motley bunch of followers. During his latest adventures, he is chased by a female bounty hunter named Yuri The Pistol – a young woman who captures his heart instantly. After escaping an almighty attack from hundreds of assassins chasing his bounty, Jigoku comes across a cave where he finds a golden sword stuck in a rock and soon breaks it free. Of course, his new found luck attracts the attention of a ninja army who also want the golden weapon, as they know it is the key to finding Zipang – a mythical city of gold, full of riches and ruled by the Golden King. It doesn't take long for them to steal it which transports their leader Hanzo and Yuri The Pistol to Zipang, much to the surprise of the hero outlaw. Unbeknownst to him, Jigoku also freed an imprisoned ancient warrior who had been locked away with the sword for many years and soon, they start working together in order to find the sword, Yuri The Pistol, and defeat the Golden King of Zipang!
The opening 15 minutes of Zipang is worth the ticket price alone as viewers are treated to an exciting flashback in black and white, before getting highly entertained by the antics of it's lead character taking on an army of adversaries in the shape of some angry ronin, ninjas, ninjas who think they are cowboys, and then some. Famous movie characters of that time period are even spoofed (briefly) such as Zatoichi, the One-Armed Swordsman, Cyrano De Bergerac (or a Musketeer) and even those from The Samurai Trilogy, that basically tells us just how great Jigoku is as he takes each one of them down without effort. It's an opening that completely sets the tone for what's to come – spoofing the very genre it is based upon, yet packed with its own originality and innovative moments. With blends of the Sword In The Stone, Ninja Wars, Arthdal Chronicles, Azumi, Red Shadow, Wild Wild West, Indiana Jones, and even the fantasy swordplay movies of the Shaw Brothers, Zipang is a one-of-a-kind visual experience that plays like a live-action anime and never bores. Over the years, I've noticed that many reviewers have said this is Japan's answer to the Will Smith comedy, Wild Wild West yet it pre-dates the Hollywood blockbuster by almost a decade. The comparison comes with the amount of advanced toys and technology used by Hanzo the ninja and others, some of which would make Artemus Gordon a little jealous such as the digital binoculars that take photos on a mini-ninja star memory card. That card is then placed in a bigger ninja star which is then thrown for miles, and manages to land in the exact place it needs to. From there, the mini-ninja star is placed into a slide projector for all to see. It's hilarious and odd at the same time, but still very cool – and just a pinch of the bizarre and imaginative things going on here. There's also the cache of swords owned by Jigoku (each of which are called upon with numbers like a golfer would do for his clubs), stunning cinematography mixed with some interesting animated moments and matte paintings, Hanzo the ninja ripping a broken rib from his chest to reveal a hidden weapon, giant stone warriors, rocket launchers, and so much more.
Kyoto born director, Kaizo Hayashi, had only made two other films by the time Zipang came about with his fun debut, To Sleep So As To Dream, and the well received Circus Boys a few years later. Zipang was definitely his most ambitious project at the time and it makes me want to see more of what he had to offer such as The Most Terrible Time In My Life, Stairway To The Distant Past, Wana, and more. Interestingly enough, Hayashi also helmed a couple of episodes of Power Rangers: Time Force and had been directing right up to the Covid pandemic, with fantasy flick Bolt being his latest to date. The wonderful Masahiro Takashima stars as Jigoku, the excited and unstoppable samurai outlaw who reminded me of Hiroyuki Sanada in his younger days. Before Zipang, Takashima made a splash in the sci-fi action flick Gunhed and went on to star in titles such as Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla 2, Yamato Takeru, Godzilla Vs Destoroyah, The Last Princess, Kingdom, and a host of television shows. He saves the day alongside popular Japanese actor and the very handsome Kenya Sawada, who stars as the warrior from the mythical golden city – pleasing viewers by running around in nothing but a loincloth with a body covered in tattoos. Born the same year as his co-star, Zipang would actually be the debut role of Kenya – a martial artist skilled in karate, judo, kung-fu and Muay Thai. This is something he would put to good use throughout his career and after a decent role in the (awful) Hollywood adaptation of Streetfighter with Van Damme, Sawada moved to working in the Hong Kong film industry starting with Jackie Chan in Thunderbolt. A role in the Aaron Kwok, Sammo Hung film Somebody Up There Likes Me came next, followed by Brice Law's Extreme Crisis with starring roles in Colour of Pain, Shinjuku Incident, The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, The Great Magician, Hidden Man, and Warriors Of The Nation keeping him busy over the years. The late Mikijiro Hira stars as the King of Zipang in one of his 120 roles over his 50+ year career. Having made his debut in 1958's Kampai! Miai Kekkon, Hira went on to star in titles such as Sword Of Destiny, Osho, The Third Ninja, Illusion Of Blood, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, Azumi 2: Death Or Love, Princess Raccoon, and Goemon – along with roles in 13 Assassins and Ninja Kids!!! for Takashi Miike. The rest of the cast do a great job in playing their roles, most of whom seem to be having a lot of fun doing so, which also makes for a highly enjoyable watch.
As much as I love Zipang, it's only fair to say that it still has some minor flaws throughout. But it's certainly not the kind of flaws that are cause for concern. Instead, it would be more to do with the fact that this is still very much an independent production and only suffers from some overly ambitious ideas that may have succeeded with a bigger budget. Regardless, Kaizo Hayashi did an amazing job in providing a wonderfully entertaining piece, filled with some hugely memorable visuals, great comedy, and plenty of ninja action all wrapped up in a beautifully fantastical world. Here's hoping it reaches us on shiny-blue sometime soon!
Overall: I love Zipang and although it may have its flaws, it never gets boring and proves to be a unique piece of Japanese cinema that deserves to be seen!
DVD Extras: Stills Gallery, Cast & Crew Bio's
Original Title: Shi Er Sheng Xiao
(aka) Dragon Zombies Return
Directed by Hou Cheng Produced by Wong Choi Hing, Liu Lai Kam
Starring: Polly Shang Kwan, Lo Lieh, Shih Feng, Yueh Yang, Yee Hung, Gam Sai Yuk, Li Chiang, Chen Shen Lin, Lin Chong, Yang Lieh, Yuen Si Wo
Reviewing: YouTube Release
Genres: Traditional Kung Fu / Comedy / Fantasy
Rating - 2 / 5
Synopsis: A feisty young woman discovers a magical sword which enables her to learn the deepest secrets of the Dragon Kung-Fu school. She soon finds herself up against a host of colourful bad guys, each experienced in a different style of animal kung-fu, that leads to a crazy finale where she must put her new skills to good use.
Views: This late 70s kung-fu comedy has both one of the greatest ever posters of kung-fu cinema and also one of the weirdest plots ever. The wonderful Polly Shang Kwan plays the Rabbit Fighter, a lost little lady who comes across a cave known as The Cave of the 12 Zodiac Fighters, which is filled with treasures, a skeleton, and a magic sword that somehow gives her new kung-fu abilities. With the looming threat of the evil Tiger Shark master, Kwan sets out with a band of heroes (who specialise in their own brands of animal-fu) to stop the big baddie! It hurts my head to try and make it sound much more than it really is, but Zodiac Fighters is infamously one of the wildest pieces of the genre and for plenty of reasons...
Lacking in genuine kung-fu action, all but for the grand finale and a few scuffles throughout, Zodiac Fighters is more of a comedy than anything that allows Polly Shang Kwan to have a bit of fun and show her skills as a stand-up comedienne – and I must admit, she does look like she's having a great time. Packed with ridiculous costumes and hilarious monologues, cartoon-like characters and very broad humour, this is one film that will definitely not appeal to every fan of kung-fu cinema – but I did enjoy it at times. I've always been a huge fan of Polly Shang Kwan and actually think she is hilarious in Zodiac Fighters, shifting her character of a girl paid to cry at funerals to become the colourful dragon mistress, complete with a costume that looks very similar to that of the lead character in Disney's Raya & The Last Dragon. While she gets moments here-and-there that allow her to leap around and kick a few people, Kwan's kung-fu skills are really saved for the last 20 minutes that sees everyone battle on the beach. In fact, it's save to say that the last 20-25 minutes are just flat-out bonkers as it introduces a host of people dressed like animals, and most of who make the required noises to suit their characters. Movements are met with Formula-1 car noises, or long whistles as people fall, and plenty of other cartoon sound effects that just confirm that Zodiac Fighters should not be taken seriously at all. The grand finale on the beach reveals an insane moment of the jaded screen as the animal people face-off against each other until the evil Tiger Shark master arrives, complete with a small army of men wearing lobster claws and rubber shark heads. It's a sight to behold and a finale that I would love to see restored and cleaned-up, if I'm being honest! The Tiger Shark master is played by the legendary Lo Lieh – Shaw Brothers star and prolific actor of Hong Kong cinema. His arrival just takes things to a whole new level as he fires shark jaws from his palanquin that latch onto people so he can pull them in, and shoots mini rubber sharks at the heroes – some of which chase people through the air, and some in the sea (with people on their backs). It's absolutely insane!
To be honest, I think Zodiac Fighters was made as a farce – much like Half A Loaf Of Kung Fu which I think is very similar in ways, although with much more kung-fu. Director Hou Cheng, who also wrote the script, had been behind some interesting titles over the years since starting his directorial career with Escort in 1968. In 1970 he made Thirteen Worms which seems to have been made in the same vein as this, before going on to make titles such as The Furious Monk From Shaolin as well as The Fight For Shaolin Tamo Mystique with Polly Shang Kwan. Hou continued with The Shaolin Invincibles that starred Judy Lee and Carter Wong, which was a film that was just as crazy at times if I remember correctly. It must be noted that he also wrote Ape Girl for Chen Chi Hwa, a fun kung-fu comedy with its own strand of weirdness and penned his final directorial piece in 1981 called Heroine Of Tribulation, also starring Kwan that saw her as a one-armed swordswoman and toned the insanity down a little. Zodiac Fighters is definitely not the greatest kung-fu movie ever made, but it does make for a interesting watch at least once and features a few recognisable faces from Taiwanese cinema, most of whom are involved in that bonkers finale.
Overall: Not an absolute must but fun to see at least once, Zodiac Fighters saves it all for the last 20 minutes and is completely nuts!
(Hong Kong 1991)
Original Title: Ji Dao Zhui Zong
(aka) Zodiac Hunters
Directed by Ann Hui Produced by Eric Tsang Action by Dang Tak Wing
Starring: Andy Lau, Cherie Chung, Ishida Junichi, Kishida Kyoko, Takazawa Zunko, Yasuaki Kurata, Tuo Tsung Hua, Sun Peng, Law Fei Yu, Tsang Wai Fai
Reviewing: Deltamac HK DVD Release
Genres: Drama / Action / Gangster
Rating - 3.5 / 5
DVD Synopsis: Three young Chinese – Ben, Ming and Chuck – come to Japan for study and adventure. Ming wants to make it fast. So he marries Yuriko, sister of underworld godfather Ishikawa. It is in Yuriko's bar where Ben falls in love with Tieh-lan, a Chinese girl who follows her Japanese lover Asano to Tokyo. Teih-lan and Asano met in Hong Kong when Asano was riding out a police arrest order for killing Ishikawa's enemy. He was Ishikawa's number one killer. Before Asano's death, Asano tells Tieh-lan to expose Ishikawa...
Views: In a nutshell, Ann Hui's Zodiac Killers is a dark tale about 3 friends from Hong Kong who go to film school in Tokyo. After some unfortunate events, they soon find themselves embroiled in the Japanese underworld when Ben falls for Meng, a Chinese girl who hates her local sponsor and who also happens to be in a relationship with a local gangster. After crossing his boss, Asano gives Meng a tape that contains enough information that could start a war between Tokyo's Yakuza families. Ben offers to help her deliver it to the police, but quickly finds himself in deep trouble with the local gangsters!
I'd waited a lot of years to get my hands on Zodiac Killers and was super excited to watch it upon first viewing. Admittedly, it wasn't the film I was expecting but I wasn't disappointed either. Produced by the wonderful Eric Tsang and directed by critics favourite, Ann Hui, Zodiac Killers starts as a more light-hearted piece that would fool you into thinking that things were going to go in a different direction altogether. But as the film rolls along, it's tone and plot suddenly darkens – as if Wong Jing handed the reigns over to Ringo Lam to some degree. While I haven't seen a lot of Ann Hui's work, I always quite enjoy what she delivers such as Stuntwoman Ah Kam, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt, A Simple Life (again with Andy Lau), and even her involvement on Swordsman with Sam Hui in respect to King Hu who had taken her on as an assistant many years before. Like many young western viewers, my first encounter with Ann would have been that of her cameo in Winners & Sinners where she plays the cashier of a fast-food restaurant, before catching her again in Jackie Chan's Twin Dragons many years later. Ann was born to a Japanese mother and Chinese father, so it was interesting to see her set Zodiac Killers in Tokyo. Having been there recently myself (and specifically in the Shinjuku District), it was nice to see the city captured through a different lens, and in such a different time, as I really loved the place and look forward to getting back. I had been in Hong Kong just prior to my visit and could see many similarities in both places – so I'm sure Ann Hui and her team felt relatively comfortable considering...
The delightful and never-ageing Andy Lau Tak Wah stars as Ben, the Hong Kong student that catches the eye of Meng, who is played by the wonderful Cherie Chung. Lau had been in the business for almost a decade by this stage and had actually been given his breakthrough role in 1982 on Ann Hui's The Boat People, alongside George Lam. Perhaps this is why we see Andy on a boat during the opening and closing scenes of Zodiac Killers, as a nod to that project. But at this stage of the game, Lau had more feature film credits behind him than most Hollywood stars would have in a lifetime, and Zodiac Killers would only be 1 of 13 he would star in that year (1991) alongside titles such as Tricky Brains, The Last Blood, The Tigers, Lee Rock 1 & 2, and Saviour Of The Soul. Cherie Chung – who also kicked off her career in the Ann Hui directed Chow Yun Fat vehicle, The Story Of Woo Viet – does another fine job as the love-torn Meng, caught up in a life of gangsters and abuse who unfortunately dies after getting hit by a train towards the end of the film. Interestingly enough, as if it was signalling an end to her own career, Cherie soon retired from the film industry to get married – albeit for an appearance in An Autumn Diary in 2002, that used footage of her from An Autumns Tale. With over 50 credits to her name, it was a loss to fans of Hong Kong cinema regarding this decision, leaving John Woo's Once A Thief and Zodiac Killers as her final film projects as an actress. Taiwanese actor Tuo Tsung Hua, who is more famously known as Charlie in Island of Fire (the guy with the mouse) to western fans, plays Lau's friend Chang while Sun Peng plays Ming. There's a strong cast of Japanese actors involved, including Ishida Kyoko who plays Asano, but anyone hoping to catch martial arts powerhouse Yasuaki Kurata in action will be highly disappointed, as he only cameos as a subdued Yakuza boss – lending his face and name to help draw the fans in as opposed to his moves this time.
While heavy on the melodrama for the most part, Zodiac Killers still contains some exciting action scenes. From Asano's escape and fight against his gangster brothers, to the big chase finale in the scrapyard that sees the action interrupt the shooting of a porno – there's enough to keep fans of Hong Kong action cinema happy, in-between the drama. This is all down to Dang Tak Wing, a little known actor and action-choreographer who starred in films such as The Brave Archer And His Mate, Zen Master 6, and College Kickboxers, while directing his only film in 2008 – Only The Way with Moon Lee and Susan Yam Yam Shaw. Throughout his career, Dang would also work as the executive director on Iron Angels 3 and assistant director on Zen Of Sword, as well as working as a choreographer (or as part of the team) on titles such as Police Story 3: Supercop, Drunken Master 2, Iron Angels 2 & 3, Handsome Siblings, Golden Swallow, and Taking Manhattan for Kirk Wong.
Although I wouldn't say it's the best film from Ann Hui's filmography, Zodiac Killers offers enough to keep you watching. From decent performances to impactful action scenes and stunts, as well as a well-captured scenic tour around Tokyo, it definitely has enough of a charm to save it from being a waste of time. And as the final starring role for the beautiful Cherie Chung, it's most certainly worth it for that...
Overall: While a little uneven a times, Zodiac Killers still proves to be entertaining enough to warrant a watch – even with it's bleak ending.
DVD Extras: Trailer