Incredibly Bad Film Show: Talaash

Dir: Suneel Darshan
Star:
Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Pooja Batra, Raj Babbar

talaash1Bollywood films are all the rage now, with the Oscar-winning success of Slumdog Millionaire – even if was directed by the very un-Indian Danny Boyle. However, it is safe to say that not every product pumped out by the Mumbai studios over the years can quite claim to have been unjustly overlooked by the Academy, and Talaash is certainly one such case. Now, we are generally fond of the bright and breezy style favoured by film-makers on the Asian sub-continent. Three hours long? Not a problem. Enlivened by colourful dance numbers at regular intervals? Bring it on. Serve that sucker up with a keema naan and we are so there.

However, there are just some kind of films that do not suit this kind of treatment. Bollywood horror movies, for example, are a) pretty rare, and b) crap, for very good reason. When the participants are breaking out impeccably-choreographed moves, it’s almost impossible to sustain a mood of fear and abject terror. [Unless you’re watching Dancing With the Stars] Talaash is in exactly this category. It’s the kind of story which needs a completely different, non-musical approach. Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy, would probably have been a great choice to take the story here in the proper direction. Which would be bleak, nihilistic, and everyone dies. Without bursting into song at any point, I should stress. To prove my point, here’s the synopsis.

Babu works for three underworld dons, and when arrested, refuses to talk, in the knowledge they will take care of his wife and children. But when he finally gets home, he finds his family near-destitute. Enraged, he betrays his bosses: their revenge is to take his young daughter Pooja, and raise her to sell as a sex slave, with the chilling phrase, “She’ll be married every night, and widowed each morning.” When Babu tries to fight back, he is beheaded in front of his wife, and Pooja is abducted. His wife goes insane and spends years in a mental hospital. His son, Arjun, becomes a high-profile vigilante, and is now ready to find the killers, in their new identities, and face the many obstacles keeping him from rescuing Pooja and restoring his mother’s sanity.

Now, don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly whistling a merry tune after reading that little storyline. However, the makers insist on treating it exactly as if it were the usual ‘boy meets girl’ fluffiness, so when Arjun finally discovers Pooja’s location, rather than – oh, I dunno, going therehe and Tina break into a musical number [below right] involving, for no readily apparent reason, a horse and a speedboat. Or, going the other way, another musical number is immediately followed by an attempted rape on Tina, still wearing the same costume in which she was happily bouncing around, not minutes before. The words “unevenness of tone’ don’t even begin to describe how all over the place this is. If you randomly spliced together I Spit on Your Grave with The Sound of Music, you’d be getting there.

talaash2Ah, yes. Tina. I completely forgot to mention her massively botoxed self. She is the daughter of one of the bosses involved in wrecking Arjun’s life, and for a long time we thought she was going to end up being Pooja. As a result, we spent the first two hours with our flesh crawling every time she and Arjun made doe-eyes at each other; it was like watching Princess Leia kissing whom everyone knows now is her brother, multiplied by a factor of about 1,000. At least they never sang about their love for each other. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not that this potentially incestuous subplot doesn’t develop – though I guarantee you, it would have done in the Chan Wook-Park version.

The hero is played by Akshay Kumar, who is one of our favourites and is well-suited to this role, since he can bring the appropriate level of angst to proceedings. However, once again, this carefully-constructed brooding intensity is completely derailed when Arjun starts busting out moves like he was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Any hopes for sustained gritty realism are completely dashed the first time we see Arjun as an adult, where he leaps off the seat of a speeding motorcycle, flies through the windshield of an oncoming truck and then proceeds to beat up the arms-smuggling occupants. This does set the scene for the grand finale where he is shot twice in the chest, beaten up and still then manages to get up and fight the villain.

Credit Kumar for apparently doing a good deal of his own stunts, not least a sequence outside a train which is all the more impressive because you know there’s no blue-screen involved. That scene involves him having to race along the roof, and stop the train before it crashes into a school-bus stuck on a level crossing. This is because Tina – for a jape – has fed everyone on it save Arjun, including the driver, opium-laced candy balls. Oh, how the long winter evenings must just fly past. Fortunately, Indian trains have brakes that allow them to stop dead, inside about fifty feet, with a decorative shower of fireworks from their wheels. That’s part of a lengthy chunk set on the “palace on wheels”, which includes some of the most unfunny comic mugging I’ve ever seen. And I have sat through most of Wong Jing’s lesser works. Maybe it’s cultural, and Mumbai audiences were rolling in the aisles. If so, then this “we’re all the same really” is palpable nonsense.

talaash3Arjun discovers he needs to go to South Africa, where he is helped by a former senior detective in the Mumbai force – now a South African taxi-driver, which must say something about the salary earned by an Indian cop. There he meets a ‘hostess’, and we were now convinced she was going to be his sister, forcing Arjun to commit suicide after committing incest. We really must stop watching Aki Kaurismaki films. In a thoroughly implausible twist, he convinces Tina her father is a villain, and she then makes her father see the error of his ways, and ‘fess up where Pooja is being held. Arjun goes there to rescue his sister, only to be caught, beaten and forced to watch as Poona is auctioned off since he arrived the day of the sale. This is remarkably lucky, since an entire decade has passed since her kidnapping. I’m impressed with the bad guys’ restraint, feeding, clothing and keeping a young girl for so long, before selling her. Such charitable dedication can only be applauded.

Their lair is simply fabulous, with the auction taking place somewhere that looks more like a Vegas show-lounge, though lacking the taste and restraint you’ll customarily find in the decor at such places. It also includes a fire-pit, inside which Arjun is chained and forced to watch proceedings. Inevitably the sale takes the form of a fabulous dance number, which does much the same for sex trafficking as Pretty Woman did for street prostitution. The hero breaks free and snatches his sister; sudden cut to them on a motorcycle being chased through the South African streets. Quite why a 160-minute long movie couldn’t apparently be bothered to show any more than this, escapes me. The showdown between him and the lead villain [played by the same guy who was Gobindar in Octopussy] then follows, with entirely the expected resolution. Refreshing to find a director who refuses to counter the audience’s expectations in any way, it would appear.

The entire thing is available on Youtube: it really doesn’t do the epic, sweeping scale of the movie’s awfulness justice, but here’s a clip where which Arjun and Tina have just located Pooja. As noted above, they sing about their love, before heading off to the villain’s lair. It’ll give you some idea, though sadly, the Youtube version is shorn of the auction itself. You do however, get to see the most painful example of blackface since The Black and White Minstrel Show went off the air. Enjoy.

C-
[March 2009]

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Story of Ricky

Dir: Nam Nai Choi
Star: Fan Siu Wong, Fan Mui Sang, Cheng Chuen Yam, Yukari Oshima

“Ricky is sent to prison. In the jail, he sees the prisoners being exploited and tortured by chief warden Cobra. Ricky decides to stand up against them. After many setbacks, Ricky gets the support of the other prisoners…”
— DVD synopsis

It is perhaps fitting that a film such as this, should come with a synopsis which is wildly inaccurate in just about every way e.g. the chief warden doesn’t so much as appear until more than fifty minutes in. And it also curiously underplays things: as you’ll see, describing what happens to Ricky as “minor setbacks” is one of the greatest understatements of all time. The film is based on the 12-volume Riki-Oh manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari and Takajo Masuhiko, and also spawned two anime OAVs. But it is in this live-action incarnation that it has become most infamous, largely because it may well be the second-goriest movie ever, surpassed only by Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. And, after a few beers, it could also be the finest film in cinema history.

Ricky Ho (Fan Siu Wong) is sent to prison – he should know he’s in trouble as soon as the transfer bus pulls in, for the courtyard is awash with what looks like tomato juice, but probably isn’t. Such are the choice of a free economy, for as a title-card informs us: “By 2001 AD, capitalistic countries have privatised all government organisations. Prisons, like car-parks, have become franchised business…”. This may explain the lack of guards, but those that are seem not be over-taxed – one guard’s duties solely seem to consist of yelling “Go over there!” at prisoners. Ricky Ho sets off the metal-detectors but an X-ray (carried out with an cheerfully complete lack of safety precautions) reveals he carries five bullets in his chest.

Elsewhere Samuel is bullying an elderly prisoner, Ma. Cue the first appearance of the Chorus – a group of inmates whose role is to forward the plot without getting in the way:

“Samuel is at it again.”
“He’s a gang leader, and the captain of his cell-block.”
“He’s friends with the guards.”
“Well, what can you do…”

Before they, as one, turn to urinate. Such apathy extends to the staff too – “He fell and whined like a pig. What a nuisance!”, says a guard on seeing the results of Ma’s nose meeting DIY equipment. But Ricky won’t stand for this, and trips Samuel, who falls face-first onto spikes – it feels more like a public service announcement warning against the dangers of leaving large pieces of nailed wood carelessly around the bathroom.

Samuel hires the uber-fat Zorro to kill Ricky, for 30lbs of rice. He doesn’t, though the neat wound Ricky inflicts on him bears no resemblance to the torso-wide gash seen in the next shot. “Another move and I’ll…hit you!” says a guard, not exactly causing Ricky to quake in terror, as he encounters the head of the North Cell, Oscar. While locked in his cell, we get a flashback to Ricky’s training. This was from his uncle Shan Kuei, in a cemetery with the gravestones as fodder for smashing – the families of the buried must have been a bit miffed at this. Ricky makes for an entirely unconvincing student, in collar, tie and preppy look, even if the training causes his body to glow like a poster child for Chernobyl.

Back in jail, we meet the assistant warden. He keeps porno vids on the shelf in his office, and has a glass eye, which he keeps in a water glass. Oh, and he keeps mints inside the eye. While on the missing body-part front, he also has a hook for his hand, which acts both as a fork and a tool to drag dead prisoners away, so I hope he washes it between times. And it spikes Ricky when he won’t talk, but he won’t rise to the bait, so the assistant warden hands him to Oscar for a duel. Oscar blinds our hero with powdered glass and slices up his tendons but Ricky is so tough, he just ties them up himself, in a move not found in my First Aid manual. His opponent is no less tough: in a last-ditch move, he commits seppuku, and tries to use his own intestines to strangle Ricky; one bone-crunching punch (as seen in The Street Fighter) settles his hash for good. The other block heads turn up: West Cell’s Rogan (Oshima), East Cell’s Tarzan, and South Cell’s Brendan. Ricky discovers they’re growing poppies for opium in the jail, so sets fire to the crop, bringing down the wrath of Rogan. This time, he is caught by being buried in concrete – is that what they mean by a hardened criminal?

The real warden returns: he’s even tougher than his assistant, gouging out a prisoner’s eye for unrolling a red carpet badly, and is especially keen to see Ricky punished. Tarzan charges through the cell wall and goes to work on Ricky, but three punches make his elbow, jaw and hand explode, Fist of the North Star style. Time for Plan B: the roof starts to descend. Tarzan, abandoned by his mentors, assists Ricky to escape, at the cost of his own life – the lack of “squish” here is about the only moment of restraint in the entire film. Ricky falls through a trapdoor instead, and is buried alive for a week underground; it barely bothers him, even when Rogan uses some dismembered dog to block the breathing tube. There’s a flashback to why Ricky is in prison; it’s not important. Ricky’s next torture is having razor-blades crammed into his mouth, before Rogan beats him across the face, till the blades poke through his cheeks. His reaction? Spray a mouthful of blood and flesh into the warden’s face.

You can only push a man so far, and when the guy who brings Ricky food is slaughtered, it’s time to break out, using the old “hanging from the ceiling” ploy. There’s an excellent one-punch skull liquidation, and the assistant warden continues to lose body parts carelessly – first an eye, with an arm following shortly thereafter. The warden is busy grinding up the arm of a prisoner who complained about the food, when Ricky bursts in. After disposing of Rogan (though he doesn’t actually kill her…er, him), he has to take on the big boss, for after all: “The warden of any prison has to be the very best in kung-fu.” It helps that he turns, for no readily-apparent reason, into the Incredible Hulk, with much shirt ripping and crap hair – just orange rather than green. Even Ricky driving an entire arm through his stomach doesn’t slow him down. It’s only when he gets an up-close-and-personal look at the meat grinder, that justice prevails. With one punch, Ricky takes down the prison wall. “You’re all free now!”, he says, begging the question – why the hell didn’t he do that the day he arrived?

Ricky: minute-by-minute

Listing all the violence in the film would take far too long, but here are the highlights…

7:40Carpentry plane to the face
8:17Spiked wood through hand, into face
15:03Zorro opens up…
15:43…and Samuel does the same
30:58Really big bread-knife to head
34:21“You’ve got a lot of guts, Oscar”
37:32The exploding head scene
43:48Alan loses face – and the rest of his skin
59:26Tarzan goes to pieces
72:45Ricky gets the point(s)
75:50A stoolie loses his head
77:19Ricky makes a hole-in-one
78:29Don’t complain about the food
79:39Just one, wafer-thin mint?
84:50The warden goes for a spin.

Footnotes:

  • Fan Siu Wong and Fan Mui Sang are a father-son combination – the former plays Ricky, while I think the latter is either the guy who trains him or the warden.
  • Yukari Oshima’s turn as Rogan is bizarre but effective. She’s probably the only name in the film familiar to most Western viewers, given her role in films like Angel and The Outlaw Brothers, so seeing her playing a man is something of a shock!
  • he DVD has both dub and subtitled versions; the above is based on the former, but the latter offers entirely new possibilities for amusement. All the characters have different names – “Zorro” is known as “Silly Lung”, which is hardly more appropriate – and there are any number of phrases to make you go, “Eh?”:
    • “Captain, we haven’t brushed our teeth yet.”
      “Use them as brushes.”
    • “You’ve even broken my sinus.”
    • “Ma’s hanging himself to death!”
    • “Your original name was Rick. But you were strong as a bull at 7 or 8 so I called you Ricky.”
    • “You’ll turn into a dried persimmon.”

Damp Squibs on Fireworks Night

Rockbitch
Islington Garage,
5th November 1998

The origins of this outing lie in the last Flesh + Blood book — as is documented, Harvey Fenton devoted no less than TWENTY-SIX pages to Rockbitch, a satanic/sex/heavy metal (mostly-)girl group. Eyebrows here were raised as to whether they were really worth the coverage — Mr.Fenton assured me they were, so when I found out they were playing London on Guy Fawkes’ Night, what else could I do but turn up?

At this point, readers might want to visit the Rockbitch web site to get the background, especially if they’ve not got the Flesh + Blood book, with its tales of on-stage fistings, fan-fornication and general Excess All Areas. But was it all just a cheap ploy to get attention? If so, it was remarkably unsuccessful: here is Time Out‘s complete listing for the gig:

Rockbitch + Leech Woman + Breed 77. Garage N5, 8pm, adm £7. The opening set is provided by hotly-tipped metallers Breed 77.

Between that, and the fact that this tour takes in such stadia as the Fleece & Firkin in Darlington, it seems that mega-stardom is not quite banging on Rockbitch’s door.

The crowd were an interesting mix of hard-core heavy metal, the dirty mac brigade, and casually dressed men whose significance would become clear later. I carefully scoped out a position to stand; not so close that I ran the risk of becoming part of the show, shall we say, yet close enough to satisfy my entirely healthy journalistic curiosity — oh, alright then, and my prurience.

First of all, we had to get through the support bands; actually, I’m in agreement with Time Out, Breed 77 were actually very impressive, and I’d rate their chances of stardom considerably higher than Rockbitch’s. You heard it here first. The main support, Leech Woman, were familiar from Bradford; they were the ones with the angle-grinder, and once again the sparks were flying. The only noticeable change was the presence of black crosses of sticky tape on their nipples — again, the significance would become clear shortly. They cleared off, and the mob surged forward in anticipation of… well, whatever. It was really VERY tightly packed by now: I let go of my empty plastic beer glass and it took ten minutes to hit the floor. Then, to a roar from the audience, Rockbitch took the stage.

rockbitch

Let’s be honest. The words “Rawk Chick” do come to mind; rapidly smudged make-up, hair-colour from a bottle and so forth; not ugly, for sure, but not really my cup of tea. And hang on, what’s this? They’re also wearing crosses of sticky tape on their nipples! And one of them has ‘CENSORED’ scrawled on her stomach, above a large arrow pointing down… At the end of the first song, it became clear what was happening: the authorities had decided to take an interest, and the aforementioned casually dressed men were, in fact, plain-clothes coppers.

Now, if there’s one thing scarier than a Rawk Chick, it’s a pissed-off Rawk Chick. And, boy, were Rockbitch miffed; between every song, a tirade of vitriol was directed at the powers-that-be and the police for making them tone down the show. I had to sympathise, purely from a libertarian point of view, though some of their complaints were dumb. Saying “it’s just because we’re women” is palpable nonsense; they’d have got the same reaction had it been men sodomising each other on stage, or even straightforward heterosexual screwing. Claims to the contrary are just ignorant. I do also have to ask what they EXPECTED would happen; they’d have been better off going down the road a mile to Brown’s, where women ARE allowed to take their clothes off.

Anyway, despite the sign on stage saying “Fuck Censorship”, they didn’t, choosing to go under lamely; when the lead singer bravely exposed her nipples they was rapidly covered up again with more tape. Their stage act was reduced to a lot of lesbian kissing and some mock Satanic ritual, though covering the mouth of their skull prop with tape was a nicely ironic touch. The loss of their sexual exploits was a double edged-sword. While it certainly gave them something to complain about (Q1: is that why they’re called Rockbitch?), it meant they were thrown back onto their musicianship. This was largely bog-standard heavy metal (Q2: why do you only ever get Satanic metal, and never Satanic pop or Satanic C’n’W?), save their fretless bass player, who was not only the most skilled but the most attractive — and, an interesting point, kept her clothes on.

The overall effect was something between Spinal Tap and Showgirls, though sadly it had the sexual charge of the former, and the humour of the latter — though there was something ironic and almost charming in the way they described what we WOULD have been seeing, if it wasn’t for the presence of Mr. Plod. It is probably unfair to judge Rockbitch on a PG-rated performance, but the tame way in which this petered out does nothing to dispell the illusion that their attitude is nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy. [Whether or not it’s deliberate, it works as such, going by the inordinate interest the following morning in the office!] Still, at eight quid for the ticket, it was a ploy to which I was happy to succumb, having had an entertaining night. I may be deaf, as a result of leaning against the speaker stacks, I may be battered (the guy next to me was trying to slam-dance, even though there was about 3mm of play in the entire audience), and I may have no real interest in seeing them again, but it was an experience, and more fun than a handful of sparklers.

Flesh & Blood: Book One

Editor: Harvey Fenton
Publisher: FAB Press
Price: £12.95
Pages: 208
Web site + ordering info: www.fabpress.com

fleshandblood

I’ve had the latest issue of ‘Flesh and Blood’ lurking around for a while, but haven’t yet got round to reviewing it. This is largely because it is one BIG mother: over two hundred pages of really quite small type, accompanied by the sort of illustrations which make it “interesting”, shall we say, to read on public transport. Still, with some nifty folding, I finally managed to read it at work this lunchtime — hell, everyone there thinks I’m strange anyway…

There’s something slightly familiar about F&B: like a certain other publication I could mention, they’ve gone perfect-bound, spread out beyond the boundaries of film, and have got Lino in to do the ‘zine reviews. Fine choices in all the categories, albeit with variable success. While the format is good, and Lino is as Lino as ever, F&B is on weaker ice when it tries to cover non-film territory. There are two obvious pieces which do this, and there which are borderline: to take the latter first, there’s an okay article on Willam Burroughs, two pages of incomprehensible and unreadable text on the noise group Merzbow, and a pictorial of “Gina Velour” — aka Marne Lucas, whose “photos deal with body issues, using self-portraits as a forum to inspire women to confront their sexuality”. Yeah, whatever.

Ever further on the outer fringes, we have a rather good piece on shrunken heads and [Harvey, you KNOW what I’m going to say!] a large waste of space on ‘Rockbitch’, a Satanic collective-cum-heavy-metal-band who do moderately dodgy things on (and indeed, off) stage. Oh, and they’re women. How much space do you think they get? Four pages? Eight, maybe? Try TWENTY-SIX. Yet what’s actually interesting is the media reaction to them, which is covered perfectly adequately in a neat side-bar. Editor Harvey Fenton has tried to explain to me why he considers them so important; I remain resolutely unconvinced, and still reckon he just wants to shag ’em. 🙂

This straying into ‘Headpress’ or ‘Divinity’ territory aside, the good news is that there is easily more than enough excellent material in the remaining pages to justify its existence. From Pete Thrower’s merciless shredding of ‘Scream’ (spoiled marginally by describing ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ as “flawless” — two words, Pete: flared trousers) through to Mitch Davis reporting on the hell of the American Film Market, there is a LOT of good stuff. They’ve carried over some of the features from the magazine version i.e.the British horror filmography, which gives a sense of continuity. However, new readers need not be put off, and the interviews cover the whole spectrum of film-makers from Coffin Joe through Gerard ‘Deep Throat’ Damiano to Freddie Francis.

Plus there’s stuff on Jack the Ripper films (he operated within an entrail’s throw of where I’m typing this, by coincidence), Marco Ferreri, ‘Cafe Flesh 2’, the abortive efforts of the BBFC to legalise porn, an amusing one-pager on the erotic exploits of French President Mitterand’s astrologer, and more reviews than you can shake an engorged body part at. The sheer volume of effort that went into this would be impressive on its own, regardless of the quality. And when the quality is as generally high as this – the odd self-indulgent piece aside – it becomes even more imposing.

The major qualm will be if F&B also follows TC down the line of infrequency — worryingly, this last issue did take longer to come out than anticipated. But even if this does turn out to be the case, at least you’ll have plenty to keep you going in between times.