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ZATOICHI

(Japan 2003) 

(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

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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

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ZODIAC FIGHTERS

(Taiwan 1978) 

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!

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