Sunday, September 8, 2013

Invincible Shaolin & Enter the Dragon

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Invincible Shaolin - dir. Chang Cheh. 1978. BAM.

A general plots to destroy the Shaolin warriors by exploiting internal divisions.

A homoerotic reverie. All brotherhood, manly honor, and glistening, beautiful, half-naked men admiring each others bodies. You could say this about any kung fu film, of course. (Prodigal Son had interesting homoerotic content, for example: the protagonist fell in love with what he thought was a female opera performer but turned out to be his future kung fu master.) But here the homoeroticism is not subtext but text. It’s not a matter of using one’s knowledge that the director was gay to impose a psychological reading of the film. Nor of insistently decoding the images through the prism of psychoanalysis. It’s a matter of delectating in the spectacle of the open secret. A man trains with a staff by thrusting it through ever smaller (tighter) dream-catcher like hoops, twirling it around inside for good measure. Another man does sinuous pushups over a well that look a lot like he’s humping some great terrestrial anus. Another training exercise is basically just bondage play. The special skill of two of the Shaolin warriors is to drive their hands into their opponents flesh. Staves get thrust through lower abdomens and broken off, but they characters don’t die, they just walk around with these blood-spewing wooden hard-ons. Warriors spot each other in the streets through certain tale-tell, teasing signs legible only to members of their community and then have thrilling, anonymous, one-time encounters. “What a man. He never even told me his name.” It is a film about the erotics of submission: submission to mastery (an erotic education), submission to duty (to a homosocial ideal) fulfilled in ecstatic death.

Enter the Dragon - dir. Richard Clouse. 1973. BAM.

Bruce Lee, John Saxon, and Jim Kelly team up to defeat a nefarious human- and opium-trafficking Chinese Dracula at a martial arts tournament held on a decadent, Orientalist Xanadu of an island fortress-cum-brothel.

A good laugh. An incoherent mess held together only by the reliable rhythms of on-screen violence and the omniscient narration of Lalo Schifrin’s searing 70’s funk-infused score. It’s one of those film scores that does not accompany the action of the film but incarnates it. It’s like Looney Tunes or Vertigo—the music is the main narrative engine.

This being a Hollywood appropriation of the kung fu craze, the chasteness of Hong Kong cinema is replaced by unsavory, anything-against-women-goes misogyny of American cinema. There is a very distasteful flashback to the attempted rape of Bruce Lee’s sister, who was one day set upon by henchmen on shore leave from the main villain’s island. Why they should attack her when the island fortress is fully stocked with sex slaves is given no explanation: it is simply natural, I guess, that macho men want to rape women and that every women everywhere, every moment of her life, is a potential rape victim. Bruce Lee’s sister cannot prevail against fate by either fight or flight, and we are invited to take the same pleasure in the watching her defend of her maidenly honor as the cat takes in toying with the mouse. When finally cornered, she commits seppuku with a shard of broken glass—a weird bit of Orientalist miscoding. Just before she stabs herself, we got a real whopper of a close-up of the menacing, phallic glass shard, seen from the apparent point of view of her stomach. The bad guys don’t get to rape her, but the film does.

Bruce Lee, John Saxon, and Jim Kelly are all seemingly plucked out of different films and thrown together in a James Bond movie. Bruce Lee starts off in something more dignified and heady, like one of King Hu's wuxia films. John Saxon is a Vietnam vet and high-class hood in deep with the sharks who should maybe be plotting a casino heist instead of entering a martial arts tournement. Jim Kelly's Blaxploitation subplot is the most interesting. We first meet Kelly, a war buddy of Saxon’s who must have been radicalized when he got back from the front, at what appears to be the black nationalist self-defense school. He flees America when a stop-and-frisk with racist cops ends with him kicking their lights out and stealing their car. Can I watch that movie instead?

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