Monday, 28 September 2015

(Tim Everitt &
Tom Sartori, 1984)

 It occurred to me recently that I seem to have fallen into a bit of a… well, ‘rut’ isn’t quite the right word, but a bit of a comfortable routine, let’s say, in regard to the films I’ve been choosing to write about on this blog. Satisfying though it is to turn out functional reviews of straight-forward genre movies (yes, Jess Franco is a genre), long-time readers may be forgiven for wondering what happened to my vain attempts to grapple with the very existence of such wild outpourings of otherness as Alabama’s Ghost, or A Woman After a Killer Butterfly.

Well, rest assured, I certainly haven’t given up on seeking out and watching such films when the opportunity arises, even if trying to express my feelings about them in words often proves a pretty daunting task, amid the responsibilities of quote-unquote ‘adult life’.

Nonetheless though, I feel it’s time to step back up and do my duty toward the kind of synapse-malfunctioning cinematic weirdness that continues to perplex and delight me on a regular basis. As such, what we’ve got here is a little US-made ‘What The Fu’ number that, whilst it can’t quite compete with the “glancing blow from the Flying Guillotine” level of derangement achieved by many of its Asian counterparts in the martial arts/wuxia game, nonetheless beckons the patient viewer into a whole other realm of non-standard consciousness. So it’s probably about time I nixed the italics and started to tell you about it.

The twin gifts of VHS crate-digging and easy digital distribution of otherwise unavailable movies has in recent years drawn wider attention to all sorts of jaw-dropping oddities, from the depredations of the Intrepidos Punks to the travails of the Ginseng King, but one of the most fascinating artifacts that has filtered down to me lately through the VHS-to-Avi grapevine is entitled ‘Furious’, and dates from 1984.

I can’t remember quite how I ended up watching this fan-made Youtube trailer for ‘Furious’ (1984), but watch it I did. I learned, as you will too if you click through the above link, that ‘Furious’ (1984) appears to be an extremely low budget American kung-fu film in which, amongst other things, a boiler-suited Devo-esque rock band plays atonal synth music, a giant polystyrene dragon’s head belches dry ice, and an evil sorcerer fires live chickens out of his hands, hadoken style.

I know – nuff said, right? If you feel like deserting this review straight away and finding a way to obtain ‘Furious’ (1984) by any means possible, be my guest. We’ll check in again after you’ve finished watching it.

For those who have decided to read on, I should caution that, once ‘Furious’ (1984) is acquired in some form, expectations generated by the description above should be simmered down a little, and attention spans tweaked accordingly before viewing. Perhaps try a few minutes of meditation, stare at the ceiling whilst playing a Terry Riley record, or put aside your default movie-beers for a pot of green tea. That’s more the vibe you need to go for here, I feel.

Basically, those anticipating a non-stop cavalcade of high velocity, laugh-out-loud zaniness will be left with only a fairly thin serving of WTF yuks spread across a modest 74 min run-time. Viewers willing to put such concerns aside though and simply take the film as it comes will find themselves experiencing a more genuinely inexplicable piece of work than they could possibly have anticipated.

I don’t know whether there’s much tangible background information out there to explain the existence of ‘Furious’, but at the time of writing, I know next to nothing about the circumstances of its production – which is perhaps for the best.

The only real ‘name’ individuals involved here are brothers Phillip and Simon Rhee, renowned karate champions who went on to achieve certain amount of success via the ‘Best of the Best’ trilogy of STV action flicks in the early ‘90s.(1)

If ‘Furious’ was conceived as an early vehicle for the Rhee brothers though, it’s safe to say it was one that stalled before getting past the front gate. Possibly this was a result of their decision to work with what we might assume to be a gang of idiosyncratic So-Cal film students jointly inspired by marijuana, New Age mysticism and the films of Jean Cocteau… but all of that is pure speculation.

All we can say for sure about the story behind ‘Furious’ is based on what we can glean from watching the movie itself - and the fact the information thus gleaned adds up to almost nothing whatsoever is in a sense what makes the film so fascinating. Like all great outsider movies, ‘Furious’ succeeds by vestige of its continual refusal to adhere to *any* recognisable pattern. It toys with familiar genres and tropes here and there (kung-fu, art film, sci-fi, comedy), half-heartedly rubbing them together before ultimately discarding them and – in keeping with the wisdom commonly dished out to martial arts protagonists – finding its own path and following it to the bitter end.

The aims, methods and motivations of the creative team behind ‘Furious’ remain entirely opaque throughout the film’s duration. There is almost no point in the course of the film’s run time at which you could stop and think “yeah, I see where these guys were going with this”. We simply have no idea. Chances are, we never will either, unless someone tracks down credited writers/directors/producers Tim Everitt and Tom Sartori and demands an explanation. Even then, one imagines their faded memories and protestations of innocence wouldn’t do a great deal to illuminate matters. Basically, ‘Furious’ remains a glorious mystery – which is exactly the way we like it around here, needless to say. (2)

Sometimes the only way to get anywhere with a review like this is via a synopsis, so, let’s get down to it.

Post-credits sequence, and the wind whistles gently through some low, grassy hills. A beautiful young woman in traditional Chinese costume is fleeing from some men dressed in a manner suggestive of barbaric Mongol warriors. The woman appears to be following the guidance of a flattened ivory tusk, which, when spun on her open palm, points her in a certain direction. The Mongols communicate with each other using loud bird calls. This goes on for quite some time. The swirling, birds-eye-view crane shots utilised here are quite impressive, speaking well of the film’s technical know-how and ambition, but, as the pacing is quite relaxed and we have no idea who these people are, none of it is terribly exciting.

After the woman reaches a plateau on the summit of a vertical cliff face and fights off some of the Mongols with a wooden pole, the tusk leads her to a small cave containing a human skull and a cigar box. Regrettably, the lead Mongol – who is a blonde caucasian, incidentally - catches up with her and kills her (off-screen), claiming the magic tusk for himself.

We cut to Simon Rhee, who is lighting some candles in front of a framed photograph of the deceased woman, and shedding a few manly tears. In contrast to the previous scene, clothes and accoutrements here are suggestive of the late twentieth century.

Simon, who lives in a wooden shack in the forest, is clearly very sad. The small army of children in karate pyjamas who stand patiently outside his home awaiting his teachings can sense this, and it makes them feel sad too. Simon dutifully marches them all off to a sort of makeshift training ground and demonstrates some kick-ass moves for them, but they can tell his heart is not in it. When the punch bag he is using falls to the ground, he solemnly leads them back home, and returns to his shack.

Then, the chief Mongol guy from the opening scene knocks on Simon’s door (further proving himself a jerk by casually kicking a dog in the process). He hands Simon a single playing card, and leaves again in silence. Written upon the card are two Chinese characters.

Cut to an establishing shot of a sinister, glass-fronted black tower-block. Perhaps it might be a university library or something in real life, but murky synth pulses on the soundtrack signify evil. In a dojo within the building, a karate demonstration is in progress. Phillip Rhee – white haired, wearing ‘aging’ make-up – watches approvingly.

“Alright”, he says, clapping his hands. Thirteen minutes in, and this is the film’s first word of dialogue, bird calls and grunts of exertion notwithstanding. Phillip’s right hand men are a black guy with a fine moustache and a really snazzy looking jacket, and a white guy with an equally good moustache and a very sinister demeanor. The chief Mongol appears from behind a black curtain and nods to them.

In a control room elsewhere in the sinister building, functionaries in white boiler suits and wrap-around shades monitor CCTV signals. Outside, two similarly clad guards oversee the main entrance. They appear to be robotically controlled minions or something? It’s not very clear.

Simon approaches the main entrance purposefully. Inserting the card the Mongol gave him in a reader in the door, he gains admission. Cautiously exploring the darkened office space behind the dojo’s black curtain, Simon sees a chicken cross a corridor. This will be the first of many chickens featured in ‘Furious’. Encountering the white, mustached henchman, Simon is summoned to an audience with Phillip, who is levitating in a black-walled room with rather groovy floor tiles.

Following a few master/pupil pleasantries, it seems they have a lot to talk about. “Your sister’s fate has becomes known to me, and your actions henceforth will alter the karmic debt she is paid”, Phillip says. “You are now between anvil and hammer – one truly orders one’s own destiny. The dove is a gentle creature, full of good – but if it encounters creatures greater than itself, it can be transformed.”

As he speaks, the mustached man pulls out a red handkerchief and performs some simple magic tricks, producing a bird from a handkerchief by way of demonstrating this dove metaphor.

“Seek who wears this sign,” says Phillip, passing Simon a pendant engraved with another mysterious character. “This will be the first stage on your journey.”

Presently, Simon and a small group of his ‘friends’ – two soft spoken, shaggy-haired white dudes in Hawaiian shirts and a lady in a knitted jumper carrying a Polaroid camera – visit a Chinese restaurant whose name has been identified as containing the character etched on the pandent.

Finding the restaurant closed, the gang are exploring what appears to be the courtyard of a small shopping mall when an unmarked black truck pulls up, and some men, led by the black guy in the snazzy jacket from the earlier scene, begin unloading – of course – CRATES OF CHICKENS.

Angered by the sight of Simon and his friends hanging around near the closed restaurant, the men become aggressive, initiating a free-for-all kung fu battle in which the mild-mannered friends hold their own quite well against the restaurant’s heavies – until that is, the stakes are raised by the intervention of a chef, who appears seemingly from nowhere and, with a vicious “Hi-YAH!”, dispatches one of Simon’s friends with a flying meat cleaver!

From then on, it’s absolute carnage. Crates full of chickens are thrown from roofs. The jumper lady gets in a great crotch kick and eye gouge combo. Simon slices the chef’s throat with his own cleaver. There are nunchucks, rooftop snipers and slow motion falls from first floor balconies. For a minor altercation regarding the opening hours of a Chinese restaurant, things are getting pretty intense.

Simon eventually succeeds in routing his opponents, who flee in the black chicken truck, but in the aftermath of the battle, all three of his friends lay dead. It’s safe to say his “journey” has not got off to a good start.

By this point, we are about one third of the way through the movie. Thereafter, it starts to get strange.

There are several visits to a shrine in the wilderness, where sinister voices whisper inaudibly on the soundtrack in a quite unnerving manner, whilst we are treated to some disorientating cross-cutting between Simon and a statue of the Buddha. “Travelling in a spiritual void can be dangerous”, an extremely sinister whispering voice repeats several times on the second of these visits. “Beware of Chan, he is evil”, the voice proceeds to repeat no less than ten times, as a montage of pieces of footage from other parts of the film is juxtaposed with shots of Simon contorting his face in pain. Who the hell is Chan, we may be forgiven for asking. Whilst I assume it must be Phillip Rhee’s character, I’m still not entirely sure.

And as to the scene in which Simon sensibly returns to the Chinese restaurant when it is open… what can you say? Ostensibly this is a public place of business, open to all, but, in keeping with the unwarranted aggression previously displayed by its staff, what we find within instead resembles a kind of interzone between two worlds - a cavernous, darkened room in which pensioners tuck into plates of greasy-looking duck, willing participants in some kind of terrifying, alien surrealism, reminiscent of the ‘other place’ sequences in David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’.

The difference is though, whereas Lynch’s films evoke a very deliberate brand of gnawing, nightmarish otherness, ‘Furious’ seems to have stumbled into this dread realm entirely by accident, for reasons that I doubt even the filmmakers themselves would be able to sufficiently explain.

Rather than transcribing events in detail, it is probably best if I leave the specifics of this scene to your imagination until you get a a chance to see it for yourself – suffice to say, it had quite an effect on me.

In some ways, the methodology of ‘Furious’ reminds me of nothing so much as George Barry’s Death Bed – another unique piece of marginal American cinema. The same sort of slow, pulsing rhythm and careful positioning of strong visual elements is very much in evidence, as is the focus on close-up shots of inanimate objects and disembodied body parts; vivid images pulled from the natural resources surrounding the film’s production and examined, juxtaposed, mined for some obtuse poetic value or oddball humour, as if witnessing the workings of a mind entirely different from your own slowly unfolding before your eyes.

Whilst Barry succeeded in bringing a singular vision to the screen though, the disparate elements that play into ‘Furious’s final form are more suggestive of a malfunctioning brain-trust of different individuals, each pulling in a slightly different direction. Basically, the movie plays like an over-ambitious student film that went off the rails as different contributors began throwing in their own ideas (“hey, I know these guys who are really good at karate”, “hey, these friends of mine have this really weird band”, “hey, I found this fantastic location up in the mountains”, “hey, let’s make this film really COSMIC”, “no, it’s got to be FUNNY, put in more chickens!” etc), only later trying to piece the results together into something approaching a workable whole.

One consistent element at least is the pacing, which remains leisurely throughout – more Jess Franco than Sammo Hung – suggesting the presence of someone behind the camera more concerned with crafting a piece of meditative art cinema than a rousing action / adventure effort.

Martial arts sequences that play more like sporting demonstrations than life or death battles are admittedly quite commonplace in the world of low budget kung fu, but rarely have I encountered showdowns quite as *languid* as the ones featured here. Though the aforementioned Chinese restaurant massacre is admittedly quite frantic, later fights have me itching to inaugurate the term “stoner-fu” – a phrase that could sum up the whole film quite nicely to be honest, should you need a one sentence soundbite to sell it to friends or local film club or whatever. (I’ll also give you “it’s like ‘Miami Connection’ meets ‘The Seventh Seal’!” free of charge.)

Not that there are any issues with the quality of the martial techniques on display in the film, I hasten to add. Simon Rhee is an excellent screen-fighter, insofar as I’m qualified to judge, whilst most of the other participants get a few good licks in too, and there are some decent stunts thrown in for good measure. Entirely divorced from the editing rhythms and directorial velocity that energises Hong Kong kung fu though, these scenes nonetheless tend to become as hypnotic and temporally disengaged as a Franco sex scene, or a Werner Herzog stare into the undergrowth. Ultimately, the result is just kind of pleasant. Undemanding. Like watching people performing yoga in the park during your lunch break. With the film’s ostensible ‘story’ remaining largely unguessable, you almost expect the fighters to shake hands when their considerate brawling is concluded.

The music in ‘Furious’, credited to one Mikhail Bodik, largely consists of stuff that sounds like it was pilfered from one of those dusty old Hollywood soundtrack LPs favored by Andy Milligan. This plays incessantly, sometimes overlaid with startling outbursts of atonal synth racket and passages of aching melancholia that could have escaped from Leyland Kirby’s Haunted Ballroom. Much of the time, the music is very low in the mix – sometimes finding itself almost drowned out by birdsong and other background noise – lending it a subliminal, slightly intangible feel that, along with the awkwardly post-synced dialogue, adds greatly to the ‘disconnected’ atmosphere of the film as a whole.

Amid the obtusely symbolic craziness that comprises much of ‘Furious’s second half, a highlight for many viewers will no doubt be Simon’s battle with the aforementioned mustached magician henchman. This fellow seems to be the lord of the ‘chicken magic’ that rules the roost (sorry) within Phillip/Master Chan’s evil empire. We have earlier seen him using magical fireballs to transform some of Phillip’s fighters into chickens (for reasons that never become clear), and here he cackles maniacally as he uses occult hand gestures to summon hens out of thin air and propel them at Simon with great force – an impressive feat, to say the least.

At the height of this confrontation, for reasons that also remain entirely obscure to me, the magician is transformed into a small pig. I mean, an actual small pig, whose head briefly protrudes from the man’s robes, before falling to the ground where it lies prone. Apparently close to death, the pig begins to speak, and, astonishingly, its words appear to be roughly in sync with its lip movements. How do you suppose they pulled that one off, without the aid of any digital effects..?

At first I at a loss trying to figure out how this effect was achieved, but upon revisiting the film for this review, I’m forced to conclude that the filmmakers simply shot footage of the reclining pig chewing or licking its lips, and had the voice actor dub his lines around the animal’s natural movements – a circumstance that certainly helps explain the strange, Yoda-like cadences with which it speaks.

Forming a deathbed confession of sorts, the discourse of the magician-as-pig  is quite difficult to follow, but if I’m interpreting it correctly, he seems to accuse Phillip/Chan with utilizing “capitalism and fast food franchises” in addition to “sorcery” as tools with which to further his evil goals, one of which seemingly involved keeping the magician-pig in psychic bondage.

The pig also speaks of “forbidden Mongolian caves”, to whence the magical tusk he entrusts to Simon will point the way, containing “the key to the universe”. If you’re still doggedly holding out for an explanation of what the hell is going on by this stage in proceedings, I’m afraid that’s about as close as you’re going to get.

Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention - that Devo-esque band I mentioned earlier are only in the film proper for about ten seconds, although we get to see a bit more of them during the closing credits. Comprising a few of the black towerblock’s boilersuit-clad minions, I can only assume that the implication is that some of these zombie-guards have been given leave to form a weird rock band on their down-time, which I suppose makes about as much sense as anything else in ‘Furious’. (Considerately, they drop their instruments and race out to help when an alarm goes off alerting them to intruders.)

I wish we could hear the sound that these guys were actually making, rather than the post-dubbed synth squiggles on the soundtrack, because it looks absolutely wild.

From all of the above, you might well get the impression that ‘Furious’ is mad as the proverbial bag of snakes – a diagnosis that, whilst tempting, ultimately does the film a disservice I think.

Though it is indeed incomprehensible to a degree that is almost unique in the annals of commercial cinema, I don’t believe that ‘Furious’ is really “insane” as such.

In fact, I would argue that the storyline is actually quite linear, in its own strange way. The problem is though, rather than using conventionally understandable events and signifiers to move the narrative forward, the film instead seems to be operating via a system of visual secret codes whose meaning has been completely lost somewhere on the rocky road between brain, script and screen.

The spinning magic tusk, the chickens, the exploding cigar box, the Mongols, the hand gestures, the playing cards and magic tricks - what does it all mean? All of these things seem like elements of some particular fantastical mythology created by the filmmakers, but no one has taken the time to introduce us to it, or to provide us with a key by which to interpret it, leaving us merely to guess or imagine the significance of each passing absurdity.

In keeping with film’s vague, esoteric themes, it often seems as if ‘Furious’ operates according to its own unique system of divinatory correspondences – the private tarot of some lost, incense-fogged soul wondering around the corridors of an abandoned film school somewhere in the wilds of California.

Further thought along these lines inevitably leads us back to speculation as to who made this film and why, and, short of any forthcoming revelations on the subject, we, like the interpreters of Nostradamus, could just go on speculating indefinitely. Far better I think to empty our minds of such thoughts, and enjoy ‘Furious’ for what it is – the shell of what was once a poverty-stricken independent genre movie, filled to the brim with exquisite mystery, awkwardly mixed by hands unknown.


(1) In recent years, Simon Rhee has also found work as a stunt coordinator on numerous A-list Hollywood productions, according to IMDB.

(2) For the record, Tim Everitt went on to direct a couple of low budget thrillers in the ‘90s and has subsequently worked on visual effects on a number of bigger Hollywood productions. Tom Sartori has numerous credits as a ‘colorist’ for TV series and documentaries. If either of these gentlemen has ever publically spoken about ‘Furious’, I am unaware of it.

No comments: