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Hidden Gems From A Distant Land
By: Mickael
Potential. It’s a word that haunts my most private thoughts and causes me immense personal anguish. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that I had it. For some people, hearing that they have potential would probably be reassuring. Whenever I hear it, though, it sounds like a disease. To know that others are thinking about how good you CAN be, feels an awful lot like they’re condemning you for not having achieved that success already. When I look at the coworkers surrounding me during my 8-hour stints in that soul crushing penitentiary known as work, I can’t help but think, “Am I truly the same as these people?”

Friends and family who know me well assure me that I’m better than my station in life, and they’re quick to point out that I have something my coworkers don’t: potential. Apparently, it’s been growing inside me for decades, but my insurance can’t cover it’s removal. I want this potential excised. I want it removed from my body. Even now, as I think about it, my chest tightens. Maybe that’s where it is. In my chest. The only way to put this potential behind me, they say, is to fully realize it. Whatever that means.

I often wonder what causes one thing to become known and remembered for generations, while another thing which is similarly great gets overlooked and lost to time. This happens a lot with film. The Evil Dead gets to become a cultural phenomenon; encompassing 4 films, a TV series, a line of action figures, and more fandom than you can shake a boomstick at. Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive is fondly remembered by cinephiles and splatter-fiends, but mention it in mixed company and you’ll likely get a lot of blank stares. Dead Alive is hardly a “hidden gem”, but it’s also never achieved the iconic status of the Evil Dead franchise. Today, I’m going to share with you some harder to find films that just never quite lived up to their full potential. Here is my monthly list of Hidden Gems:
Just Jaeckin isn’t merely the name of this film’s director, it’s clearly what he was doing while filming this fantasy adventure sexploitation epic. Based on the French bondage comics by John Willie, which were published in the magazine “Wink” in late 1940s, “The Perils Of Gwendoline In The Land Of The Yik Yak” stars video vixen Tawny Kitaen, as she teams up with an even-manlier-than-Popeye-type character (Brent Huff) to try and find her father, who went missing as he hunted a mystic butterfly.
Along the way they battle thieves, pirates, cannibal tribes, and finally the sex slaves of an S&M dungeon. This film is high camp all the way, with a cast that clearly enjoyed their time, goofing around so often they had me laughing out loud more often than most intentional comedies. A lot of “so bad they’re good” movies actually elicit cringes from their audience, very few are so charming in their presentation that they actually make you WISH you were a part of their creation. “The Perils Of Gwendoline” pulls off this trick with ease.
While “The Perils Of Gwendoline” is mostly comical, it also occasionally displays gory violence, drug abuse, and of course, wanton sexuality. Among all the visual treats being thrust into the audience’s eyesockets, however, it turns out that the real heroes here are the costume designers. At first, it feels like a cheaply done period drama that doesn’t understand what decade it’s from, but by the film’s climax you’ll realize that the entire production was carefully crafted by masters of visual storytelling!
Director Sogo Ishii is an experimental film maker, who thinks nothing of casting aside traditional storytelling devices, strapping on a highly charged electric guitar, and just shredding your fucking face off. He finds his perfect vessel in star Tadanobu Asano, who rocks this visually stunning black-and-white, frantic, punk rock superhero flick from Japan that is both starkly original and yet eerily reminiscent of the early work of Jim Jarmusch.
It’s not just the b&w that I’m doing there, either, although that definitely immediately sparks the memories of those familiar experiences. Nor is it the casting of Masatoshi Nagase, who first came to American audiences by way of Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” (1989). It’s the way Sogo Ishii allows certain long, slow takes plenty of time to breathe, with little or no dialogue to assist in the storytelling, only to then return to his fast-cut chaos, when it is necessary and beneficial. Driven almost entirely by music and urban blight, the plot of "Electric Dragon 80,000V" isn’t the point; the ENERGY is the point. This film is absolutely unlike anything you’ve ever watched before!
#3: The Challenge (1982)
The director of “The Challenge”, John Frankenheimer, is known for films like "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) starring Frank Sinatra, "Ronin" (1998) starring Robert De Niro, and "Prophecy" (1979) starring Talia Shire. His films often have tense, tight scripts, with revelatory third acts that consistently deliver on their premise. He was a master film maker who knew how to tell a hell of a story. This film is no different.
In “The Challenge”, a foul-mouthed gaijin named Rick Murphy (played perfectly by Scott Glenn) stumbles into a heated rivalry between two Japanese brothers. One chooses the life of an honorable samurai and the other is a ruthless corporate criminal. Rick must choose which brother he will support in this blood feud. True to his reputation, John Frankenheimer delivers on the promise of samurai swordplay and intense violence!
The brothers are played by legendary Japanese actors Toshiro Mifune, star of “Seven Samurai”, “Rashomon”, and “Yojimbo”; and Atsuo Nakamura, star of “The Ceremony” and “Kill!”. The film was also shot entirely in Japan, lending it a further authenticity thanks to its completely genuine cast. I highly recommend this one both for casual action fans, as well as fans of the “American sucked into the Far East tradition” genre, like “American Yakuza”.
Although it features a fairly standard vigilante storyline; wherein a moralistic lawyer is fed up with the way the criminal justice system turns criminals loose, so he decides to take the law into his own hands, this film is still very special. “Above The Law” has, simply put, the greatest fight scenes in the “pre-Matrix era” of action film making. There just isn’t a debate to be had about this.
The amazing martial arts mastery in this film is due, in large part, to the incredible cast assembled by director Corey Yuen (The Transporter). Star Yuen Biao attended the Peking Opera School with legends Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, where all three of them were a part of the “Seven Little Fortunes”. So was Corey Yuen, for that matter. Depending on who you ask, Yuen Biao may have even been the most talented of the bunch and this film definitely makes a stirring case in his favor. Also starring a young Cynthia Rothrock, the ever-talented Melvin Wong, and Siu-Wong Fan (of Ip Man fame); this film deserves to be idolized by legions of martial arts fans.
#1: Deathsport (1978)
“Deathsport” takes place a thousand years from tomorrow, after the Neutron Wars have devastated the planet. Most of the Earth is a wasteland fit only for mystic, superpowered warriors known as Range Guides, solitary beings who defend their territory with giant crystal swords. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are rich elites living in the few remaining cities who have captured some Range Guides (played by a hashish-fuelled David Carradine and a cocaine-addicted Claudia Jennings), who they are planning to kill via their laser-equipped motorcycles called Death Machines.
Extraordinarily awful special effects ensue, with some gratuitous nudity and motorcycle explosions, so naturally I think this is one of the best of the 70s B-movies. Roger Corman intended “Deathsport” to be a spiritual sequel to “Death Race 2000” and if this film had been more successful, we would have been treated to a third film called “Deathworld”. Shame on you all for not seeing this film earlier, and robbing us of the greatest trilogy the world would know until Scott Shaw made “Max Hell: Frog Warrior”.
Of particular note in “Deathsport” is the performance of Richard Lynch as the evil “Ankar Moor”, as he is clearly the only actor taking this whole production seriously. He steals scenes like Rickey Henderson stole bases, and he chews the scenery like a death row inmate eating his last meal. His neck skin looks like a shaved ballsack throughout the film, almost becoming it’s own character. I know he always looked like that because, before his acting career, he once set himself on fire in Central Park during a drug-fueled rampage; but still, you can’t help but be mesmerized. If you ever wanted to know what kind of movie crazy people would make if you gave them $150,000... look no further than “Deathsport”.
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