Category Archives: Films

Red Hill

It’s not clear exactly how to label Australian director Patrick Hughes’ début film, Red Hill. It is part spaghetti Western, part noir-infused revenge flick, part Blacksploitation, and part Australian mariachi shoot ’em up.

It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is it works, more than any other Australian crime film I have seen for a while (and, yes, that includes Animal Kingdom).

Young police officer Shane Cooper (True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten) and his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) have moved to the dying country town of Red Hill.

It’s only Cooper’s first day on the job, but already his boss, Sheriff Old Bill (Steve Bisely) is being an asshole, everyone is taking the piss out of him for being from the city and a mighty storm is blowing Red Hill’s way.

But the weather’s not the only thing about to turn nasty.

As Cooper walks into the police station to report for duty, a TV in the background is reporting that accused wife murderer and attempted cop killer Jimmy Conway (Tom E Lewis from The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) has broken out of a nearby prison.

Soon the town is buzzing with speculation that Conway is heading to Red Hill to exact his revenge on the man who put him away, Old Bill. The Sheriff puts together a posse of red necks and local businessmen to defend the town.

“We all know what we’re dealing with,” Old Bill intones as he passes out the guns. “Jimmy Conway rides into town, he’ll bring hell with him.”

The new boy in town, Cooper is assigned to protect the route into town judged least likely to be used by Conway. There’s no prize for guessing what happens. and soon Conway is rampaging through the town dispatching Old Bill’s men and unearthing secrets.

Hughes makes the most of the breath-taking location (the Victorian town of Omeo and its environs). The action is well-directed and fast paced. The soundtrack, part-Morricone, part Australian cock rock also works well with the material.

Casting Lewis as Conroy gives the role a certain gravitas, even if his role is a little too Terminator-like, and allows the film to cover some interesting plot territory. Bisely is great as Old Bill. Kwanten holds also his own.

The only disappointment is the complete under utilisation of van der Boom. She was great in the 2008 Australian film noir, The Square, but in Red Hill she gets absolutely nothing to work with.

It’s the one failure in an otherwise spectacular first film.

Mr Fuller goes to Tokyo

Sam Fuller’s 1955 movie House of Bamboo isn’t one of the greatest film noirs ever made but it’s in there for one of the most interesting, and despite its flaws I have found myself watching it over again.

All the elements associated with Fuller’s style are on display, his ambiguous politics, break-neck story telling style and pulp sensibility, overlayed on this occasion with an oriental aesthete that veers between homage and cliché.

Fuller throws the viewer straight into the action, a precision heist of a US supply train as it speeds through the Japanese countryside by a gang of men dressed in traditional peasant garb, the magnificent snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji in the background.

They dispatch the crew without hesitation and unload the cargo into a waiting truck. Because the train was carrying small arms and ammunition and because one of the guards killed was a Sergeant in the United States military, the heat is on the local police to doing something.

We move quickly to the aftermath of another robbery. One of the assailants, Webber, lies squirming on a hospital-operating table. Wounded by police, he was left for dead after one of his own crew pumped three bullets into him before they escaped, the same bullets used in the train robbery.

As they try to sweat a confession out of him, the cops search Webber’s clothes, finding a wallet with a picture of a Japanese woman, his wife Mariko (Chinese born Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi), and a letter from a man called Eddie Spanier who wants to join Webber in Japan after his release from prison in America.

Fast-forward three weeks: a dishevelled Caucasian (Robert Stack) alights from a freighter from San Francisco. He hails a cab to Tokyo where barges his way through a Kabuki rehearsal and a female bath house until he tracks down Mariko in her apartment.

She’s afraid he’s from the same gang who killed her husband. He tells her his name is Eddie Spanier and that he’s come from America to work with her husband.

Spanier walks the streets of Tokyo, entering the first pachinko parlour he finds and shakes down the owner for protection money. He repeats this until he comes to a parlour where Tokyo-based crime boss Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his crew are waiting.

Impressed with Spanier’s initiative and tough guy bravado, Dawson offers him a job in his gang, much to the jealousy of his other men – all ex-cons in the civilian life, ‘stockade hounds’ in the army – who are put out that their boss gets along so well with the new guy.

As soon as he leaves Dawson’s pad, the Japanese police detain Spanier on suspicion of stealing pearls. But it’s just a ruse, a way for the cops to contact Spanier, who is actually undercover American military policeman Eddie Kenner. Having infiltrated the gang, all he needs now is an alibi to deflect any suspicions and cover his movements. He shacks up with Mariko, making her his kimono girl.

The rest of House of Bamboo delivers few surprises. Dawson and Spanier become closer, so much so that when Spanier is wounded during a pay-roll heist at a local gravel works, Dawson breaks his own rule and stops one of his men from finishing him off.

Mariko falls for Spanier/Kenner, helping him by passing the details of a planned robbery to the police who foil the job. Eventually Dawson catches on to the fact that Spanier is a plant and tries to set him up to take the fall for another robbery. But that is bungled when the Japanese police arrive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between the two men.

Critics have spilt a lot of ink talking about the fact that the intense relationship of the film is not between Spanier and Mariko but Spanier and Dawson, no doubt encouraged by the fact that Mariko doesn’t put out for him and the only flesh on show is Stack’s while he’s in the bath or a wearing a kimono.

Whether this is evidence of homoerotic sub-text, or the fact that Fuller was limited in depicting an inter-racial relationship, is an open question. Certainly, as Mariko, Yamaguchi gets little to work with, having to utter lines like “In Japan a woman is taught how to please a man”. That’s when she’ not giving Spanier lessons in pigeon Japanese such as “Sayonara means good-bye”.

Dawson on the other hand positively seethes with pent up macho fury. He gets furious with Mariko when he thinks she might be two-timing Spanier and brutally kills his former ‘Ichiban’, or lieutenant, without hesitation when he thinks he’s ratted him out to the cops, rather than admit that Spanier might be the culprit.

Fuller knew how to tell a story, even when it wasn’t a very good one. The heist scenes are fantastic, as is the final confrontation between Spanier and Dawson in an amusement park when the two men shoot it out on a revolving platform that circles a giant globe over looking the city.

The film looks great. The United States occupation of Japan had been over for four years when Fuller arrived, and although the country was on its way to becoming an industrial super power, he filmed it as a bustling third world country, reportedly shooting a lot of it guerrilla style in the streets.

Fuller told one interviewer he “got a thrill” out of making the film, “shooting in Japan, having a major studio budget and enough money and working counter to stereo-types. In terms of style, I wanted the wide screen and the colour. I loathe this cliché version of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. It becomes fake and I don’t like it.”

The other fascinating aspect of House of Bamboo is the way Westerners make absolutely no concession to the fact that they are in Japan. They sit around looking and talking like American hoods. They don’t even speak the language. Spanier’s first words getting off the boat from America are “Any body speak a little English?” and he moves from pachinko parlour to pachinko parlour roughly asking “Where’s the number one boy?”

Fuller juxtaposes these characters against Japanese interiors, lounging in furniture too small for them or prowling temples and teeming market streetscapes to accentuate their foreignness. In one of the film’s best scenes, Dawson’s gang are having a party to celebrate a successful robbery when the traditional female dancers in kimonos suddenly throw off their garb and start swing dancing.

It also allows Fuller to get away with portraying Dawson’s gang as untouchable. They pull violent, audacious heists and take protection money from half the pachinko parlous in Tokyo without anyone laying a glove on them.

But how smart is Dawson if he unsuspectingly takes Spanier under his wing then can’t even successfully frame him for a robbery? Given that the plot revolves around the supposed tension of Spanier being undercover as he tries to take Dawson down, it’s a major weakness.

This article originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Noir of the Week, late October, 2010.

Red Eagle Review

My earlier post on Wisit Sasanatieng’s rebooting of the cult Thai super hero Red Eagle (Insee Daeng) generated a fair bit of interest. The film opened in Thailand earlier this month to rave reviews and is generating a lot of buzz internationally.

According one of my favourite film sites, Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal, Red Eagle is “Perhaps the most Hollywood-like movie yet made by the Thai film industry, a big, loud and brash superhero action flick that is mostly relentless in its pace and hyper-stylized violence”.

“Fans hoping for the colorful camp and dry wit of Wisit’s previous films like Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog might come away disappointed with the director’s latest effort.”

Those wanting a big budget Thai action movie that makes the most of the metropolis of Bangkok as a backdrop will not be.

The film is based on the 1960s action franchise that starred the legendary Mitr Chaibancha, which was originally based on a series of crime novels by writer Sake Dusit.

Lao-Australian actor Ananda Everingham portrays “a much darker and brooding character. Instead of the fun-loving drunken playboy lawyer that was Mitr’s alter ego, this Rome Rittikrai is an angry loner – a former special forces operative who was betrayed on the battlefield. One cool customer, he lives in the basement of an icehouse, and takes morphine because of a bullet wound to the head.”

He comes with a range of great gadgets, including a sword with a collapsible blade, bullet-resistant clothes complete with infra-red goggles and rubber masks so he can disguise himself, as well as the usual assortment of more conventional firearms.

Although the creative team behind the film have been keen to stress they didn’t want the film to be a direct political statement, the parallels between the Red Eagle’s fight against a mysterious criminal society undermining  Thai society and the political turbulence that has wracked Thailand over the last few years, have been drawn by many critics.

Those interested in knowing more can check out the complete review of Red Eagle at Wise Kwai’s Thai film Journal.

Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts: film as a time machine

Re-watching City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon’s 2002 crime movie set in Cambodia, has got me thinking a lot about film as a personal time machine.

It’s not a great film, but having worked on and off as a journalist in Phnom Penh in the nineties and again in 2008, for me it’s a vivid depiction of a Cambodia that is quickly changing in the face of rapid, if very uneven, economic development.

Jimmy (Dillon) is a long con artist who begins to grow a conscience after the fake insurance company he’s been fronting forfeits on claims to the survivors of a hurricane. In order to get his share of the proceeds from the scam and escape the clutches of the FBI, Jimmy travels from New York to Thailand where Marvin (James Caan), his mentor and the brains behind their operation has fled.

Landing in Bangkok, Jimmy meets up with another of Marvin’s associates, Casper (Stellan Skarsgard), who informs him Marvin has gone to Cambodia to escape his former partners in the Russian mob who unbeknown to Jimmy put up the seed money for their insurance scam.

Jimmy decides to follow him, arranging to meet up with Casper in Phnom Penh at a hotel called the Belleville. Most frequent travellers to Asia will have stayed in at least one place like the Belleville, a magnet for dead-beat expats, burn-outs and tourists on expired visas, who hang around the bar providing cryptic advice and Vietnam flashbacks to whoever will pay attention and buy them drinks.

Casper and Jimmy locate Marvin who is living like a king in a rundown French colonial villa. He’s ploughed the proceeds from their insurance scam into a new project, a proposed casino complex complete with a firing range and a big game park, which he and his local partner, a former high-ranking Cambodian military intelligence officer called Sideth, hope will turn Cambodia into the Acapulco of Asia.

Marvin offers Jimmy a slice of the action, then heads off down south to inspect his investment. In one of the film’s more surreal scenes, Marvin and his entourage stop for the night in one of those cavernous discotheques that are common in much of rural Asia. They do a little karaoke before all of Marvin’s off-siders are killed and he disappears.

Jimmy, meanwhile, has returned to his room at the Belleville to find a suitcase full of money and a note from Marvin telling him to get out of Cambodia and start a new life. He’s deliberating whether to take Marvin’s advice when he becomes involved with Sophie (Natasha McElhone), an archaeologist whom he meets at the Belleville.

Then a young Khmer boy walks into the Bellville carrying a box. Inside is a human foot, presumably Marvin’s, and a ransom demand for five million US dollars in exchange for Marvin’s life.

Jimmy decides he has to rescue Marvin. He consults Sideth. Sitting behind a giant teak desk, the Cambodian draws on his cigarette and tells him, “It could be bandits, it could be KR. It’s not uncommon,” and offers to act as a go-between.

Meanwhile, the Russian mobsters have succeeded in tracking down Casper who offers to sell out Marvin and Jimmy in return for his life.

As Jimmy perseveres in his efforts, with the assistance of Sok, a likeable ex-Cambodian soldier now eking out a living as a cyclo driver, it becomes clear that Marvin has faked his kidnapping.

The 'Hotel Belleville', Phnom Penh, 2008

The plot of City of Ghosts is strictly B-movie. That’s not necessarily a criticism in my book, but Dillon, who co-wrote and directed the film as well as starring in it, struggles to elicit anything more than a one-dimensional performance from virtually all his headline characters.

Sweaty, lost and beaten up, Dillon never looks anything less than a million dollars. As Marvin, Caan looks and sounds like Sonny Corleone with a few extra years and a tan. As the Euro crime bad guy, Skarsgard is suitably sleazy with his old world colonial attitudes and Thai transsexual girlfriend, Rocky, but it’s pretty clear his heart’s not in it. McElhone just looks confused as to why her character is spending any time at all hanging around the losers in a fleapit like the Belleville.

My armchair criticisms aside, it was a pretty gutsy decision on Dillon’s part to make an entire movie in Cambodia. Apart from a section of Lara Croft Tomb Raider, which was shot around Angkor Wat in 2000, City of Ghosts was the first major US film to use Cambodia as a principle location since Lord Jim in 1965.

Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the sixties and early seventies. This was completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in 1975 and has only started to recover in the last few years (a development which I’ve have previously written about here). Dillon would have had to bring in virtually all his equipment and most of his crew and start shooting from scratch.

Despite its many flaws, City of Ghosts also has a strange authenticity and rawness that latches onto you and keeps your attention. While the film’s big name stars disappoint, the largely amateur supporting cast are a treat.

Many of the foreign supporting actors were recruited from amongst the ranks of Phnom Penh’s bizarre and eccentric local expatriate and backpacker communities. The parlous state of Cambodia’s film industry resulted in Dillon having to rely on local Khmers with little if any previous acting experience.

Sok, Jimmy’s cyclo drover and cultural guide had never acted before (he still works as a taxi driver and you can hire him for a day to take you around the sites where the film was shot). The local official who welcomes Marvin to the nightclub where his fake abduction is staged was played by a famous pre-1975 Cambodian comedian who only survived the Khmer Rouge because they feared the supernatural powers that are supposed to reside in dwarfs.

Two other aspects of the film are worth noting.

The soundtrack intersperses songs from Cambodia’s incredibly vibrant music scene in the sixties (see my article here for more details), including hits by Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, both of whom were killed by the Khmer Rouge, interspersed by more recent tracks from bands such as Dengue Fever.

The camera work by John Pirozzi (who is currently working on a documentary of Cambodia’s sixties music scene called Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten) is also fantastic. While the script may be clunky, there’s nothing remotely resembling a B-movie about how City of Ghosts  looks, particularly the way it interweaves light and sound.

City of Ghosts was shot in several provinces in Cambodia. Many of these locations have radically changed or no longer exist. Marvin’s villa is an old house in the southern beach-side town of Kep, now undergoing a major tourist boom. The bar of the Belleville has been turned into a noodle house and the last time I saw it, the hotel itself, a former colonial police station, was surrounded by green corrugated iron fencing and was slated for demolition or renovation, I could never find out which.

The abandoned casino at the former Bokor Hill Station, 2008

The location where Marvin holds out while he is faking his abduction is the ruins of the Bokor Hill Station, a former French colonial retreat with an abandoned hotel and casino complex in the middle of a stunning national forest.

Tourists were free to wander around its genuinely creepy interior until a couple of years ago when it was acquired by one of the country’s top businessman with the intention of renovating and re-opening it as a resort for high-end Asian tourists.

Marvin wasn’t that far off with his plans. He was just ahead of his time.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Of the crime films coming out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.

And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.

We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with the young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.

The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.

“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.

“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.

Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full-time snitch.

And he knows a lot.

In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco – Moe Green in the first Godfather movie – a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.

Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and informing to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.

When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.

Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.

“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”

“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Foley unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”

“Everyone should listen to their mother.”

In his essay for the Criterion re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.

It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them. Director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle.  He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.

Supporting Mitchum is a fantastic group of character actors.

Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe. Jordan is also excellent as a slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.

Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.

“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.

“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.

“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Coyle ran out of chances long ago.

Return of the Red Eagle

On October 7, Thailand will finally get to see Wisit Sasanatieng’s take on the classic Thai super hero series from the 1950s and 1960s, Insee Daeng or Red Eagle.

Red Eagle has been the focus of huge anticipation ever since Wisit (best known in the West for his homage to the Thai action films of the fifties and sixties, Tears of the Black Tiger) announced the remake.

After three years of political uncertainty, culminating several months ago in pitched street battles in the Bangkok between the military and  red shirt protesters loyal to the ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand needs a hero and the Red Eagle might just fit the bill.

Trailers for the remake floating around the web for a while now. I found the latest, complete with English language sub-titles, on one of my favourite blogs, Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal, and it’s an absolute knock out. Wisit’s updated Red Eagle in his leather jacket and red face mask looks great. Bangkok is perfect as the ominous and chaotic metropolis in which the story  is set (not that big a stretch when you think about it). There are heaps of stunts and  John Woo style action, complete with the slow motion work Thai film makers seem to be so fond of.

Based on the crime novels of Sake Dusit, the original series featured a drunken playboy and lawyer called Rom Rittichai, whose alter ego is the masked vigilante crime fighter. Three films were made, of which the last, Insee Thong (Golden Eagle) in 1970 is the best known. It was produced by and starred one of Thai cinema’s best known action heroes, Mitr Chaibancha, who was born into poverty and went onto star in over 250 films.

In the Golden Eagle, a killer posing as Red Eagle is committing murders so Rom must change his alias to another colour, so he becomes the Golden Eagle. The imposter is connected to an outfit called the Red Bamboo Gang, who are trying to take control of Thailand. They are led by an evil genius who is able to kill his intended targets by beaming his thoughts through red ceramic Buddha statues which have been delivered to various Thai officials. You can check out footage from the original Golden Eagle film below.

I have never seen the film, but from what I’ve read it apparently has a great sub-plot featuring a cop who is also investigating the murders being committed by the fake Red Eagle, and who has to go under cover as a transvestite to infiltrate a ring of transvestite criminals in alliance with the Red Bamboo Gang. Only in Thailand.

After the final battle, the real Red Eagle was supposed to take hold of a rope ladder suspended from a helicopter and be carried into the sun set. The stunt, which took place on the last day of shooting, ended tragically when Mitr lost his grip on a rope ladder and fell to his death.

No word yet about any plans to release Red Eagle outside Thailand, but here’s hoping it won’t take too long.

Young and dangerous: two Thai crime films

The only notable feature about the 2008 Nicholas Cage movie Bangkok Dangerous, was its success in achieving something I didn’t think was possible – it made the Thai capital of ten million look boring. Bangkok is many things: hot, polluted, crowded, exotic, infuriating, exhausting. But it is never boring.

What possessed the film’s directors, Oxide and Danny Pang, to reprise their 1999 Thai language movie hit of the same name is unclear, although after ten years of in Thailand and Hong Kong, the lure of Hollywood and money probably had something to do with it.

The original Bangkok Dangerous combined taunt story telling with stylish visuals. It also made the most of Bangkok as a setting, a world of neon lit go-go bars, dingy apartments and back alleys constantly humming with the drone of traffic and the two-stroke motorcycles that are the preferred mode of transport for much of the populace.

The film’s breakneck pace is set in the very first scene, when grainy footage from an askew security camera in an anonymous toilet block captures the first killing. Within seconds we are introduced to the main character, the assassin Kong, wandering along a nightclub strip to a bar where he receives instructions about his next job from one of the hostesses, a dissolute Aom.

A deaf-mute, Kong is oblivious to the cacophony of competing noise that is a daily fact of life in Bangkok. That’s not all he is obvious to. Setting up position on a rooftop overlooking a luxury hotel, Kong lines up a clear shot of his target as he alights from a car. Realising he is being watched by a little girl from a nearby building, Kong hesitates for only a second before dispatching his victim and disappearing.

And that’s all before the introductory credits have rolled.

Kong’s back-story is told in black and white footage. Having lost his hearing as a child, he was bullied by other children. Working as a janitor at a shooting range he comes to the attention of Jo, a hit man, and his (then) girlfriend, Aom. Jo takes Kong under his wing and teaches him the assassination business. Then when Jo injures his hand in a botched hit, Kong is ready to take over.

Back in the present, Kong’s next job takes him to Hong Kong, where he dispatches his victim on the subway. Returning to Bangkok, he goes to a pharmacy for cold medicine and makes a connection with one of the women behind the counter, Fon. They go out together, hitting it off over a Charlie Chaplin film festival. It all looks promising until Kong and his date are mugged on the way home and Kong dispatches the assailants with a bit too much skill and force.

Meanwhile, Aom is having trouble fending off the unwanted advances of one of the mob boss’ henchmen. The henchman ends up viciously attacking her, forcing ex-boyfriend Jo to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, after Kong undertakes a particularly high-profile assassination, the mob boss decides to kill him to ensure all the loose ends are tied up.

The Pang brothers made two more Thai films in the style of Bangkok Dangerous, 1 plus 1 = 0 and Som and Bank: Bangkok for Sale. They have also made numerous horror movies, the most famous of which, set in Hong Kong, The Eye (2002), involved a blind girl whose cornea transplant enables her to see ghosts.

The most unsettling aspect of Bangkok Dangerous is the routine, almost disembodied nature of much of the violence. Kong is an anonymous killer, taking his orders indirectly from an anonymous mob boss, whose customers are anonymous ‘people of influence’, as they are known in Thailand, and whose reasons for wanting people dead are never explained. Kong goes about his work without interference from the police and other parts of the state, which are almost completely absent except for the final climatic John Woo-style shoot out in a water bottling plant.

A sort of historical back-story to how organised crime managed to grow so powerful in Thailand is Nonzee Nimibutr’s 1997 directorial debut, Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters. Young Gangsters is credited with rejuvenating Thai cinema and kicking off the “New Wave” of local film making in the late nineties. Despite this, to my knowledge it is currently unavailable on DVD and my copy was copied from a VHS tape of the movie when it was on TV.

Young Gangsters is set in the late 1950s, when the “persons of interest” who ran the Thai underworld in Bangkok Dangerous, were only just starting to carve out their illegal empires, mainly on the back of natural resource extraction such as logging, mining and fishing.

Dang is the son of a prostitute. By 13 he has killed once already – a drunk harassing his mother (another black and white flashback). By 16 he has dropped out of school to start his own gang and is dabbling in small-time criminal activities.

On top of the difficulties eking out a living as a small time crook, Dang’s life has a number of hassles, including a girlfriend who wants him to go straight and a mother who is pressuring him to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. After getting a beating for refusing to supplicate himself to an opium addicted local gangster called Mad Dog, Dang goes to an ex-cop, Sergeant Chien, who is now involved in various illegal activities.

Chien procures Dang a handgun, no mean feat in tightly controlled fifties Thailand, which he uses to dispatch Mad Dog Godfather II-style with a bullet in the head during a local street festival. Next Dang leads his gang in an amazingly choreographed fight scene with another group led by rival small time criminals, Pu and Dum.

Young Gangsters depicts the milieu of gang life in fifties Bangkok beautifully. From the white shirts and James Dean haircuts, to the period rock and roll music. There’s a lot of romantic angst between Dang and his girlfriend that slows the film down, but just when it seems Young Gangsters is content to be a teen movie with an edge, about half way through the story radically changes direction when a military coup takes place, ushering in a law and order crackdown.

Dang flees to the countryside where he hooks up with Chien, now a bar owner near a major US air force base. Although it’s years before the Americans start carpet-bombing Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, there’s a sense things are already gearing up and Chien is making serious money selling drugs, alcohol and girls to US servicemen.

There are also serious risks. Chien is already on the verge of conflict with a rival gangster, Headman Tek. “It’s wild up here. It’s survival of the fittest”, Chien explains as he recruits Dang as a bodyguard.

Dang provides protection and helps Chien build up his empire, including pimping girls from the far north who have been sold by their parents. Then, without Dang’s knowledge, Chien recruits his old gang rivals, Pu and Dum, as additional muscle. Tensions mount and finally explode into the open when Chien is assassinated and Dang must decide what to do with his business interests.

Although the film only hints at it, Dang’s predicament is the start of the steady growth of organised crime and regular bloodshed as gangsters vied for the spoils from the massive influx of American money and servicemen that would accompany the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The one theme unifying Young Gangsters with Bangkok Dangerous is that although they may be very different characters, in the bigger picture Dang and his deaf contemporary Kong are just low lives scrambling for what’s left over by those higher up the food chain.

For both of them, being forced to choose between grinding poverty and a life of crime is no choice at all.

This article originally appeared in Crime Factory, issue 4, July 2010

Cutter’s Way: post traumatic noir

American crime films in the seventies and early eighties were littered with the damaged veterans of the Vietnam War.

They appear in most of the key crime sub-genres: the revenge film (Rolling Thunder), the road movie (Electra Glide in Blue), the drug sub-culture (Who’ll Stop the Rain, the adaption of Robert Stone’s novel, Dog Soldiers), and Blaxsploitation (the 1973 film, Gordon’s War, to name just one of many).

Film noir’s contribution is the 1981 movie, Cutter’s Way.

As Woody Haut argued in Neon Noir, his book on contemporary American crime fiction, Vietnam not only damaged the body politic it blurred the line between the perpetrators of crimes and the people who investigate them. In Cutter’s Way the quest to avenge a young woman’s murder is left to the rejects and outsiders who populate the underbelly of post-Vietnam American society.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a part-time gigolo and boat salesman, is returning from a late night assignation when his beat-up car stalls in an alleyway. Another vehicle pulls up behind him and in the heavy rain and headlight glare we see a man get out and throw something into a nearby rubbish bin. The car speeds off, nearly hitting Bone in the process. As he walks off in disgust, the camera pauses on a stilettoed female foot protruding from the bin.

Bone returns to the Santa Barbara house he shares with Cutter (John Heard) and his wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Mo is a sharp-tongued alcoholic. Cutter has a face full of scar tissue, only one arm and a permanent limp from his tour in Vietnam. He’s a ball of barely contained bitterness and fury.

Next morning garbage men find the young woman’s body. Of course the fact that Bone’s car is parked nearby makes him a suspect and the cops bring him in for questioning.

They attempt to sweat a confession out of him, going into how the victim died (badly), even wheeling in her sister, Valerie, to try and guilt trip him in admitting to the crime. However, in the face Bone’s protestations all he could see through the rain was a dark shape in sunglasses, the cops are forced to kick him loose.

Later, pausing with Mo and Cutter to watch a passing parade in celebration of Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage, Bone thinks he sees the man who might have been the one dumping the body. He’s shocked when Cutter informs him the person he’s fingered is J.J. Cord, a local business big shot.

Cutter slowly starts to put together pieces of evidence linking Cord to the crime. Cord’s burnt out car was discovered in another location on the same night as the woman was murdered. The last place she was seen was a disco across the road from a hotel function attended by the businessman, “a little reception for some oil people”.

While these are at best circumstantial, to Cutter they are evidence of a much greater conspiracy, or at least an opportunity to make money – we’re not sure which yet – and it’s not long until he’s pressuring Bone to come in on a plan he’s hatched with Valerie to blackmail Cord, then turn him in to the cops regardless of what he does.

Bone tells Cutter the scheme is crazy and he should be careful. Cutter replies it is Bone who should be careful, as he is the only witness to the crime, a fact that’s been conveniently splashed across the front page of the local newspaper.

Cord is one of the those guys who are a staple of hard-boiled noir; the tough as nails businessman who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps, an ex-wildcatter who made a fortune in the oil business. His power and liking of casual violence – in this case directed at young female hitchhikers – are matched only by the impunity with which he gets away with things. The kind of man you don’t want to mess with.

Bone eventually agrees to deliver the blackmail letter. We see him walking into Cord’s anonymous Los Angeles corporate office while Cutter and Valerie wait in the car. Only later does he admit he was only bluffing and never intended to deliver anything.

While Bone returns to Santa Barbara, Cutter remains to follow through his plot, ringing Bone to gloat he’s dropped off the blackmail letter. Meanwhile, Bone sleeps with Mo then slinks off into the night, only finding out next morning that their house has been burnt to the ground with Mo inside it.

Standing amid the smoking ruins, an image that strongly evokes Vietnam, Cutter is in no doubt who the culprit is. Putting aside their grief and anger at each other, he and Bone team up to confront Cord at a party at his mansion.

They’re a sight, Bone dressed as a chauffeur ferrying a formerly attired Cutter armed with a pistol in the backseat of a limo. The act gets them past the front gate muscle and eventually into Cord’s house for the film’s bleak ending.

With its ambiguous plot, minimal action and lack of (then) name stars, it’s a wonder Cutter’s Way ever got a release. The director, Ivan Passer was a virtual unknown, as was Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who shaped the screenplay from the 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by cult author Newton Thornburg. The film bombed at release. The studio only persevered with it following a persistent campaign by a number of film critics.

Bridges plays Bone as a dissolute lounge lizard. His character and Lisa Eichhorn’s sultry booze drenched Mo dance around each other for most of the film, repelling and attracting each other in equal parts. “I don’t like you when you’re stoned,” says Bone. “Hey Rich,” she replies without hesitation, “I don’t like you when I’m straight.”

But it’s the underrated John Heard (remember him as the washed cop in the Sopranos?) that steals every scene he is in. Cutter is a tragic figure one moment, a self-pitying bigot who is more than happy to use Vietnam as an excuse for his behaviour, the next. After deliberately trashing the neighbour’s car on a drunken spree, he goes inside his house to put only his military duffel coat so he can play the wounded veteran routine when the cops arrive.

But although he’s prepared to play the Vietnam card when convenient, the injustice of his experience is not lost on him. In response to Bone’s questioning about why he’s so keen to pin the murder on Cord, Cutter replies, “Because he’s responsible”, if not for the death of the girl, then for the war. “Because it’s never his arse on the line. Never. It’s always somebody else’s.”

A key theme in Thornburg’s books is retribution for the young who fall prey to the dangerous and amoral lure of post-Summer of Love California. Another of his books, To Die in California, centres on a cattle farmer from Illinois who sets out to discover how his son died in California, the only witnesses to the boy’s apparent suicide and a fixer for an ambitious political fixer and a rich but idle woman.

Cutter’s Way portrays a corrupt and paranoid world, where government, big corporations and the political elite are responsible for much of society’s wrongs, whether it is dropping napalm on peasant villages or killing a 17-year old girl, and justice is at best pyrrhic.

As he aims a pistol at Cord in the very final scene of the film, Bone says, “It was you.”

Cord just smiles, puts on his sunglasses and says, “What if it were?”

This article originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in August 2010.

Machete Maidens Unleashed: American genre movies in the Philippine jungle

I love documentaries about filmmaking. Every now and again one of comes along that gives you a particularly fascinating insight into part of the world of cinema you never knew existed.

Machete Maidens Unleashed, the latest effort from the director of Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley, is one of these films.

From the beginning of the seventies well into the early nineties, the Philippines was the location of choice for every American B movie hack (or visionary, take your pick) wanting to make a movie.

They churned out horror, action, and kung fu pics, Blaxsploitation, the classic Western-women-in-third-world-prison films (such as Big Dolls House), and a whole lot more, blurring all the lines and genres. They did a version of Jaws. They even ripped off James Bond in a low-budget cult classic called For Your Height Only, staring an 83cm Filipino dwarf called Weng Weng.

It is this largely unknown world of Filipino genre films that Hartley has turned his attention to in Machete Maidens Unleashed, which had its world premier in late July at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Hartley traces the origins of this wave of movies, from the first B-monster pics such as Brides of Blood to the arrival in the early seventies of independent cinema greats like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and John Landis, to Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated Vietnam era pic, Apocalypse Now. When Coppola departed he literally left the country littered with disused sets and props, which were quickly swooped on by local moviemakers.

The Philippines had every thing a low-budget filmmaker could ask for: exotic locations, cheap labour, English-speaking crews, and absolutely no labour laws or health and safety regulations.

The movies were largely ignored by the US ratings agency because they mainly played in drive-ins, meaning there were few limits on how much violence and sex they could contain. And they contained a lot. Minimum script and maximum blood and nudity were the rule or, as one of the interviewees put it, the 3 Bs: ‘Blood, Breasts and Beasts’.

Hartley gathers an amazing cast of American and Filipino directors and producers, actors and assembled  hangers-on to tell their stories. You get the feeling a lot of them have been waiting decades for the chance to talk about their role in this otherwise obscure cultural movement and they don’t waste the opportunity.

Some of these people go overboard in talking about how radical many of the films were and the breaks they gave to local and American actress that wouldn’t have been possible in the States. Pam Grier, who is briefly interviewed, got her big break in these movies but I didn’t count too many others.

The film is upfront about one of the unique subsidy schemes the Philippines government had for foreign film makers who were prepared to pay under the table for it, seemingly unlimited use of the local military.

Ferdinand E Marcos, one of the US government’s more ruthless cold war allies, had taken power in 1972 and ran the country as a dictator until he was eventually ousted in the mid-eighties. Bizarrely, the export of films for the US grind-house circuit seems to have been one of the few economic activities where the local authorities were happy to be relatively hands off.

One of the reasons many of the films come across as so gritty and powerful, even today, is because they were partly mirroring what was going on the ground though out the Philippines, the massive corruption, political oppression and a simmering anti-government insurgency.

In addition to the death of the grind houses and drive-ins and the advent of VHS, the insurgency and the ferocious military response to it was one of the main reasons behind the gradual winding up of American independent film production in the Philippines. It was simply too dangerous to work there.

Machete Maidens Unleashed is not only a fascinating film in its own right, it leaves you thinking what other hidden corners of the film world have yet to be discovered; Hong Kong martial arts, Indian crime films, perhaps the ‘bomb-the-mountains-burn-the-huts’ Thai action films of the late sixties.

Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.

The Square: small town noir Australian style

Tales of money, betrayal, lust and murder set in the underbelly of rural small town life are a major thematic strand of film noir. Australia’s contribution to this, released locally to mixed reviews in 2008, is The Square.

The location selected by first time director and writer Nash Edgerton is the central coast of New South Wales, where the laid back life-style and stunning countryside exist side by side with pockets of deep poverty and a highly casualised workforce.

The opening scene of The Square takes place at dawn. Two people are having sex in the back seat of a car to the accompanying drone of cars crossing a nearby overpass. They finish, pausing long enough for us to notice their wedding rings, before going their separate ways.

The man, Ray, pulls into a clearing in the middle of thick bushland and enters the portable office from which he is supervising the construction of a resort for honeymooners. The young woman, Carla, drives to her job in a hairdressing parlour.

Before long, Ray is getting a hard time down from Gil, the developer (long time Australian actor, Bill Hunter) for failing to keep costs down. There’s no need for anything fancy, Gil tells him, all they are building is a place were “couples can root in Jacuzzis”.

But it’s hard keeping costs down when you’re systematically embezzling the project, a fact we discover when Ray asks a concreter for a $40,000 kickback in exchange for giving him the contract to pour the resort’s foundation.

After work, Carla goes home to her husband, Greg, a tow truck driver with a nasty attitude, an old mother and a sports bag full of drug money he keeps in compartment in the roof of their laundry. It only takes one furtive glance of her husband handling the money for Carla to decide this is a deal changer. She suggests to Ray that they steal it and blow town together.

Ray hesitates, unsure how they can steal it without alerting her husband. “You’d have to burn the place down if you really want this money to disappear,” Ray says, adding that he’s joking. “I’m not,” she shoots back with a palpable sense of desperation.

When Ray equivocates further, Carla brings out one of the oldest plays in the book.

“This isn’t about money. I want you to do something. Something,” she says before storming off.

Ray eventually agrees to go along with Carla’s plan, meeting up with local arsonist Billy (co-writer, Joel Edgerton) in a Chinese restaurant. Billy makes small talk about the bull sharks that swim up from the sea into the town’s river, before agreeing to burn down the house for half his fee up front.

The crime is set to take place while the entire town (including Carla and her husband) is attending the local Christmas Carols by Candlelight. Carla has already removed the bag of money. But sipping chardonnay with his wife among the gum trees and fairy lights, Ray has second thoughts. He tries to abort the arson but fails when his mobile runs out of power.

Next thing Ray knows the local fire brigade, who have also been attending the festivities, are speeding off to attend to the blaze. What he doesn’t find out until next morning is that Greg’s mum was sleeping in the house as it burnt to the ground.

“Ray, we have killed someone, we’re murderers,” says Carla in genuine shock. Also alarmed is the arsonist, Billy, who only agreed to burn down a house, not murder someone. To make matters worse, Billy tells Ray in no uncertain terms he wants the rest of his money or else.

Carla’s husband has figured out the drug money was not in the house when it was burnt down and has his own suspicions about who took it. Meanwhile, Ray gets a Christmas card from an unknown source claiming to know what he and Carla did and asking for $10,000 or they’ll go to the police.

Ray believes the card is the work of a shifty local mechanic. The mechanic discovers Ray attempting to break into his house. The two men fight and Ray accidentally kills him and buries the body in the square of land that is soon to be the resort’s foundation.

Ray realises he has killed the wrong man when he gets another card. As if this isn’t bad enough, torrential rain is preventing the concrete from being poured, every hour increasing the possibility the mechanic’s body will be found.

For the most part, Edgerton handles the mounting complexity of cross and double cross well, building the tension gradually throughout the film. He only loses his grip in the finale, a bloody confrontation between Ray, Carla, her boyfriend and Billy the arsonist in the lounge room of Carla’s house. This scene has an almost Cohen brothers black comedy feel that is completely at odds with the stripped back neo-noir feel of the rest of the film.

While the script has its clunky moments, Edgerton also manages to get good performances from a cast of mostly relative unknowns.

David Roberts gives a good performance as a tightly wound everyman, whose greed and philandering have led him into events beyond his comprehension. He may be cunning, but he’s no match for the town’s redneck criminal underclass he suddenly finds himself up against.

Ray stumbles clueless throughout much of the film. The only thing saving him is the intervention of others, including his boss Gil, who in the process of discovering Ray is stealing from him, uncovers the real culprit behind the blackmailing Christmas cards.

Claire van der Boom is excellent as Carla. Although her character has many of the hallmarks of the classic small town femme fatale, she manages to inject much more into the role. While she is prepared to use her considerable sexual appeal to get what she wants, she manages to keep us guessing throughout the film about whether she’s just playing Ray or genuinely in love with him. Whatever the case, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her efforts to get more out of life than a dead end job and cooking dinner for her husband’s sleazy poker playing mates.

The Square is not a brilliant film. But despite its faults the movie is a worthy addition to the small club of Australian cinematic offerings that can claim some sort of noir status.

This piece originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in July 2010.