Monday, 21 September 2020

Golden Queen’s Commando
(Chu Yen-Ping, 1982)

Although I can’t find a way to shoehorn it into any of my existing blog categories, today I’m going to go off-piste to tell you all about ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, a lackadaisical action spectacular from the depths of Taiwan’s b-movie netherworld which charmed and mystified me in equal measure as it unfolded before my sleepy, post-midnight eyes last weekend.

[Quick note: Where possible, I’ve tried to present both the Chinese and English names of cast members when crediting them, but given the extent of misinformation and general obscurity which surrounds the Taiwanese popular film industry, confusion is bound to ensue, so apologies in advance for any mistakes.]

On first glance, ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ seems like a pretty fool-proof proposition: an all-female riff on ‘The Dirty Dozen’, set in war-torn Manchuria circa 1944. Pretty straightforward stuff, you may think, but just try telling that to director Chu Yen-Ping, a man best known in the West for bringing the world the unforgettable, allegedly Triad-financed all-star headfuck Fantasy Mission Force a year later.

Suffice to say, anyone familiar with that film will anticipate trouble brewin’ with this one, and indeed, the same delirious mixture of full-spectrum sloppiness, misplaced ambition, relentless forward momentum and sheer, unadulterated craziness is already in full effect in ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, as Yen-Ping leaves any semblance of real world logic way back in the rear view mirror right from the outset.

As seems fairly sensible, the film begins with a series of short vignettes introducing us to each of our ‘commandos’, illustrating the circumstances which led to them being incarcerated together in what we’re forced to assume must be some kind of hellish, pan-Asian prison camp.

And, boy howdy, what a fantastic line-up of ladies we have to root for here! Much in the spirit of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s ‘House’ (1977), each of our heroines has a simple, one-personality-trait identity, a distinctive costume, and an easy name to help us remember them.

There’s a tattooed lady wrestler from Inner Mongolia (‘Amazon’, played by Chun-Chun Hsu/Theresa Tsui), a master safecracker and cat burglar (‘Quicksilver’, Hsueh-Fen (Silvia) Peng), and ‘Sugar Plum’ (Joyce H. Cheng), who appears to be some kind of man-eating femme fatale / call girl with a cupid’s bow tattooed on her cheek.

 Even more memorable though is ‘Brandy’ (Hao-Yi (Hilda) Liu), an alcoholic swordswoman who we we initially see debasing herself terribly as she tries to scrounge a drink in a filthy, crowded bar. Once she’s managed to glug down a flask of wine however, it’s ‘Drunken Master’ time, as she is transformed into a fearsome fighter, slicing up her goon-ish tormenters in classic chanbara fashion! Wow!

A somewhat more aesthetically complex creation, ‘Black Cat’ (Hui-Shan Yang / Elsa Yeung) meanwhile boasts a spectacular, period-defying teased hair-do, new wave make-up and ray-bans, as well as wearing an oversized black cross around her neck.

Apparently some kind of Old West-styled outlaw / gambler / preacher(?), Black Cat makes up for the fact she was born forty years too early to audition to play bass in The Gun Club by bringing her own brand of rough, frontier justice to the saloons of old… Asia?

In one of several tributes to ‘For a Few Dollars More’ scattering through ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, we initially see her calling out some no good varmint who’s unsuccessfully tried to stack a card game against her, blowing him away with a hidden pistol concealed inside a bible.

Eventually emerging as the movie’s Charles Bronson / second-in-command figure, Black Cat is undoubtedly pretty awesome, but when it comes to picking my favourite Golden Queen Commando, she narrowly loses out to ‘Dynamite’, played by Sally Yeh (who went on to star in Tsui Hark’s ‘Peking Opera Blues’ and John Woo’s ‘The Killer’ (both 1986)).

Swaggering across the Tibetan Plateau in hot-pants and a red bandana, Dynamite keeps a lit cigarette permanently dangling from her lips and specialises in – you guessed it – blowing stuff up, sometimes even using an oversized, cartoon-style detonator. (At one point later in the film, Dynamite further cements her infinite coolness by literally bringing a knife to a gunfight, and winning. Too much, man.)

As you can imagine, the various episodes required to introduce us to this mob of ass-kicking oddballs eat up so much screen-time that I was wondering whether there would actually be any time left for them to be assembled into a crack team of commandos and sent on a dangerous mission. Not that I’m complaining you understand - I could happily have watched a few dozen more of these action-packed vengeance vignettes, hit the end credits and headed off to slumberland feeling pretty satisfied.

But, ‘Dirty Dozen’ movie’s gotta do what a ‘Dirty Dozen’ movie’s got to do, and so eventually the aforementioned bad-ass dames find themselves incarcerated together in the aforementioned prison camp, being bossed around by soldiers who, in view of the historical setting, must presumably be Japanese, even though their uniforms and equipment appear to be German. Seriously though, let’s not even go there. They’re just baddies, ok?

Incredibly for a film of this vintage and general type however, the rote ‘Women In Prison’ segment which follows is entirely lacking in the kind of exploitative sadistic / sexual content one would usually expect of such material. In fact, the evil Asian Nazis don’t even so much as leer at any of the attractive women under their command, insofar as I recall. (There is a food fight instead though, if that’s any consolation.)

It’s almost as if Yen-Ping was setting out to make a family friendly movie or something. Albeit, one of those family friendly movies which involve hundreds of people being slaughtered, dismembered body parts flying across the screen and so forth - but still.

Anyway, it is whilst hanging around in this strangely non-threatening prison hell-camp that our heroines first encounter the formidable Brigitte Lin, heading up the cast list as our eye patch-sporting Lee Marvin surrogate, ‘Black Fox’.

“The Black Fox was really hot before the war – her two guns were enough to panic any mobster from Hong Kong to Chicago,” Black Cat helpfully explains. (Yes, there’s both a Black Cat and a Black Fox in this film, get used to it.)

[Hopefully Brigitte Lin will require no introduction for many of this blog’s readers, but given that I rarely cover Chinese-language cinema to any great extent, let’s just say – deep breath – ‘Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain’ (1983), ‘Police Story’ (1985), ‘Peking Opera Blues’ (1986), ‘Dragon Inn’ (1992), ‘The Bride With White Hair’ (1993), ‘Chungking Express’ (1994). You get the idea.]

Masquerading as a fellow inmate, Black Fox undertakes assorted chicanery in order to get our six heroines committed to the prison’s ‘black hole’ punishment room (basically it’s just an empty room with no lights where they hang around together, smoking cigarettes), from whence she orchestrates their escape.

Unfortunately however, the lengthy ‘prison break’ sequence that follows takes place at night, rendering the action largely incomprehensible on the badly degraded print of the film included on Golden Ninja Video’s recent Ninja Vortex compendium of IFD/Joseph Lai related films.

Presumably sourced from a Japanese VHS release if the burned in subs are anything to go by, this sadly seems to represent the only version of this film currently available in any format. Looking on the bright side though, at least it’s widescreen. Given that about 90% of the soundtrack consists of stolen Ennio Morricone music, I’m not really expecting a legit, remastered blu-ray edition to pop up any time soon either, so let’s just be thankful for what we’ve got.

A typically moody nocturnal action shot from the extant print of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’.

So, as you’ll appreciate, I don’t really know how the ladies get out of prison. There seem to be a lot of soldiers being massacred, some jeeps zooming around and some buildings catching fire, but the whys and wherefores are all lost in the tape-sourced murk. Eventually though, they regroup in some kind of hideout which Black Fox has set out for them, where they are – finally! - briefed on the details of the mission they are supposed to carry out.

A spectacularly half-hearted attempt at exposition, this briefing lasts around thirty seconds, accompanied by a single chalkboard map, and basically consists of: “so there’s this underground enemy chemical lab, and some revolutionaries are threatening to unleash a chemical attack, so we get there first and blow it all up before them, any questions?”

Well, ok, how about - whose enemies? What revolutionaries? What the hell is going on here? I seem to recall there was also some reference made to a ‘queen’ at this point, which I suppose goes some way toward addressing this film’s grammatically awkward English title, but… which queen would that be then? I confess, the complex politics of war-time Taiwan and mainland China aren’t exactly my area of expertise, but… on reflection I should stop tormenting myself with these questions and just roll with it really, shouldn’t I?

I mean, I suspect I’ve already put more effort into trying to set the scene for this thing than Yen-Ping ever did, and even if he did deign to address his story’s historical background to some extent, you can be damn sure none of his efforts would have survived IFD’s typically horrendous English dubbing process (and make no mistake, this one is an absolute shocker in that regard).

Anyway, next thing we know, we’re in some dusty rural locale, and our heroines are all riding horses! They all seem to have reclaimed their preferred costumes and weapons from the pre-prison section of the movie, and Brigitte Lin has acquired a big, furry hat which she proceeds to wear through the remainder of the picture, even though the weather looks quite warm.

Meanwhile, someone in the editing room is absolutely caning their old copy of the ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ soundtrack LP, and ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ seems determined to transform itself into a western. There are many bad men on the Commandos’ tail, which we know because we see atmospheric, low angle shots of the black-hatted riders thundering over the camera, wielding flaming torches. Cripes! 

From hereon in, the narrative more or less degenerates into a series of unrelated set pieces with zero connective tissue linking them together. So, at one point, the Commandos enter a forested area, where they all ensnared by a variety of elaborate booby traps, one of which involves Black Fox getting clobbered by a bunch of human skeletons which swing down from the sky (or something).

Unfeasibly, the instigators of these traps turns up to just be a bunch of slobbish militia type dudes. Could they those ‘revolutionaries’ we were just hearing about? I’m not sure, but whoever they are, they’re a fairly good natured bunch, which leads us to our next set piece, wherein they promise our heroines their freedom, provided they can prove their mastery of various disciplines by defeating their captors in a series of challenges involving noodle-eating, beer-drinking, archery etc.

Sadly, whilst all of these hi-jinks are going on, there’s very little time for us to spend getting to know the individual Commandos, which is a shame, because they’re all such outstanding characters I could easily have watched a spin-off solo movie featuring any of them.

There is some rather minimal back-biting / in-fighting along the way, but the chief takeaway from this is simply the realisation that Quicksilver is by far the most annoying member of the group, prefiguring Winona Ryder’s angsty android character from ‘Alien Resurrection’ by several decades as she brings the action grinding to a halt on several occasions in order to start whining about the fact that she’s an orphan and had to make her own way in the world, and so on and so forth.

I mean, I’m sure each of these women has just as much of a hard luck story to tell, but do you see them tearing up and complaining about it every five minutes? Just look at poor Amazon – she’s been snatched away from her prize-fighting career in darkest Mongolia with nothing but an animal skin bikini to her name, and she barely even gets any screen-time. She’s just quietly takin’ care of business, trying to get this action movie / western / whatever thing done, as should you Quicksilver, you ungrateful cow. Just because you’re slightly less cool than the other characters, you think you’ve got a right to monopolise our attention. Go and crack a safe or something, why don’t you!

Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, the next big set piece finds the Commandos holing up in some sand dunes for a showdown with the army of baddies who have been following them – apparently led by the heretofore unmentioned “Flash Harry, the best tracker around”. (“But it can’t be him, he’s in Brazil,” Quicksilver exclaims, inexplicably.)

This sequence soon develops into a seemingly endless series of stylish, low angle shots of silhouetted stuntmen being thrown from their horses in slow mo, as multiple explosive charges set in advance by Dynamite explode around them.

Grabbing these extremely effective pyro / horse stunt shots was presumably a big deal for director Chu, and he seems determined to milk them for as much production value as he possibly can, throwing together what I imagine must have been every single piece of footage shot for these sequences and looping ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ endlessly behind them, creating a slo-mo, cowboy blasting montage which goes on for so long it eventually blurs into complete abstraction, resembling some avant garde / psychedelic re-appropriation of violent western imagery – an impression only intensified by cutaways to close-ups of the warrior women, rocking their assorted early ‘80s fashion statements as they blast away at their attackers with rifles.

After all this, we’re left feeling thoroughly discombobulated as the surviving Commandos (yes, some of them have sadly copped it, but no spoilers here) finally reach their destination, which appears to be a system of caves. Here, after more close-quarters soldier slaughter and more weepy shit from Quicksilver as she finally serves her purpose by cracking the lock on the big, metal door, they infiltrate the “chemical plant”, where…. well… good grief. I think this is where I finally lost it.

Imagine if you will, a cornucopia of bubbling, mad scientist beakers and chemistry equipment, full of wildly coloured liquid, all lorded over by cackling, Nazi-uniformed Asian soldiers. Meanwhile, the room’s big, raised central panel spins around (a common motif in crazy, early’80s Taiwanese films, in my experience), revealing - for some goddamned reason - the guy who was in charge of the prison way back at the start of the movie!

He is enthroned, Blofeld-style, upon a red upholstered armchair, stroking a cat, and is attended by a hefty, Eunuch-like servant wearing a one-piece yellow bodysuit. (Those still determined to wring some real world context out of this nonsense may wish to note that there is kind of white-on-red crescent/bull horns motif going on here, whatever that might imply.)

“I beg of you please, you mustn’t destroy any of this, this is not evil, it is art and science, all those wonderful theories,” the Eunuch guy pleads with the Commandos. “With this, we can take man to a higher level of civilisation, where there is peace, no pain, a paradise beyond dreams,” adds the prison boss/warlord.

“That’s a load of horseshit if ever I heard any,” Black Cat immediately responds, before opening fire and machine-gunning everything to smithereens – which I for one couldn’t help thinking seemed at least a bit premature.

I mean, admittedly, the cackling Nazis and cat-stroking Bond villain are assuredly not good signs, but this man in the yellow seems fairly sincere, at least. And after all, we haven’t actually seen any proof that this outfit are up to no good, have we? Wouldn’t it make sense to wait around and ascertain whether or not they have actually made any discoveries vital to humanity’s future, before going for full-on obliteration?

Well, apparently not. Still determined to turn itself into a western by any means necessary, ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ takes one last deep breath and goes for a kind of Bond movie-ish variation on the ‘Wild Bunch’ ending. Chaos! Blood! Screaming! Slaughter! Will anyone get out alive…?

To find out, you will simply have to commit ninety minutes to watching whatever ragged copy of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ the internet and/or grey market can provide you with. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

Resorting to a tired cooking metaphor (last refuge of the speechless movie reviewer), this film feels as if someone cleared out everything sweet or salty from the kitchen cupboard, mixed it all up in a bowl, and served it up raw for dinner. Crazy, indigestible and quite possibly dangerous to one’s continued well-being it may be… but it’s kind of irresistible too.

Filleting through errant genre tropes like an ADHD-afflicted kid trapped in a comic book archive, it finds Chu Yen-Ping dishing out happy, context free pulp adventure mayhem like the unhinged b-movie savant which for the moment I’m going to assume he is.

Justin Decloux, who compiled and annotated the aforementioned ‘Ninja Vortex’ set from which I sourced my copy of this film, informs us that ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ is “…shockingly coherent for a Yen-Ping production”. Goddamn.

‘Pink Force Commandos’, with most of the same cast and crew, followed in ’83. Wish me luck, I’m going in.


At the time of writing, a version of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ comparable to the one I watched (actually, I think it might be a bit more cropped around the edges, if yr feeling picky) can be enjoyed on Youtube here.

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