Drugs, Dwarfs, Tong Wars, Sex Slavery, and Vincent Price

8

“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!”

Now we could argue all day about whether or not this film is actually good. Whether it was politically correct in its portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Whether it was sensitive to the actual tragedies of real human sex trafficking. Whether it even accurately depicts the effects of opium. At the end of the day Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price (Theater of Blood, House of Wax, Comedy of Terrors, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Edward Scissorhands) and a mostly Asian cast, it’s just too weird of a movie not to geek out about.

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De Quincey meets the mysterious Ruby Lo.

Confessions of an Opium Eater, directed by exploitation director Albert Zugsmith and apparently very liberally inspired by the memoirs of Thomas De Quincey, is a weird bit of exotic thriller pulp. It should rank alongside Coke Ennyday and the Mystery of the Leaping Fish* (1916) for weird, vintage drug movies or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for Chinatown-is-magic action movies.

*Oh, it’s a real movie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes spoof with super Popeye crime-fighting powers whenever he snorts cocaine. The best bits are when he makes the bad guys O.D. and they shoot through the roof. For 1916, it’s hilariously cavalier about drug use.

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One alternative American title for this movie was “Souls for Sale.” Fitting.

The movie begins with a somber, reflective voice-over narration as we see a Chinese junk drifting in the mists of a murky, bathtub sea. We get the credits and a skeleton washed up on a forgotten beach. Then we get almost 10 straight minutes of no dialogue; just drugged up Chinese women being loaded into a net and transplanted from ship to shore, where a small hook-filled battle erupts. There’s a lot of desperation and suspense and mystery already. Also a bad guy gets murdered by a random horse, which is always great.

Vincent Price (perhaps woefully miscast, but just maybe his out-of-place poetic, world-weary melancholy and hammy energy are actually what makes this movie so deliciously strange) plays Gilbert de Quincey, a mysterious turn-of-the-century sailor man with a cryptic tie to the Orient. De Quincey, a passive character who wanders about as if in a sort of dream, gets mixed up in the Tong wars going on in the nineteenth century streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He meets a host of culturally sensitive Chinese characters such as the sneaky, deceitful merchant; the manipulative dragon lady; the bribe-able opium dealer; and the helpless lotus flower waif who needs a white man to save her from sex slavery. Like I said, it might not be the most P.C. flick, but, to its credit, the cast is nearly all an authentic Chinese cast (minus one dwarf, but we’ll get back to her later). The cheesy broken English is made even weirder when they awkwardly speak it when Vincent Price is not around (it’s sad because you know actors like Philip Ahn speak perfect English and they have to dumb it all down) and even sillier when Vincent Price talks to them using flowery Shakespearean language meant to evoke deep philosophical sophistication. Price waxes poetic like a jackass while his Asian co-stars are lacking definite articles and proper verb conjugation. Yet never a miscommunication.

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A grateful Lotus embraces De Quincey.

De Quincey gets captured and lackadaisically falls for a lovely Chinese girl named Lotus (June Kyoto Lu) whom he rescues from axe-murderers. A nice secret dumbwaiter getaway and sewer battle ensues. He also meets a power-hungry Asian seductress, Ruby Lo (played very well by Linda Ho). She is the true puppet master of the devilish proceedings of Chinatown’s seedy underbelly and, once she gets enough treasure and opium, she will return to China and lead an army…that will do…something.

It goes without saying that Ruby Lo is a way more interesting that Lotus (and, by de facto, much sexier), but the real intriguing character is the fearless, tough-talking Chinese midget named Child (played by Yvonne Moray who also appeared in Wizard of Oz and Terror of Tiny Town). She’s like Zelda Rubinstein and Linda Hunt with even more chutzpah. She’s seen it all and doesn’t really care what the world has to say. She’s feisty and optimistic—even when facing certain death. She’s pretty much the best character ever. I liked the movie a lot before she shows up (arriving floating down a dark corridor in a suspended bamboo cage), but after that I loved the movie. And she’s not the only little person in this movie. Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) has a bit part as a newspaperman in the beginning.

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Yvonne Moray as Child.

Vincent Price is known for playing spooky killers and tortured killers and obsessed killers (he’s got a bit of a persona), so seeing him as a butthole action guy is kind of surreal. Anyway, this movie is weird for a number of reasons, Vincent Price being an action guy not least of them. The majority of the cast being Asian is unique for an early ’60s Hollywood movie (almost no objectionable “yellow-face”). The dialogue has only two modes: Vincent Price ham poetry and stilted Chinaman-ese. It really sort of fetishizes human sex trafficking and by that I mean it doesn’t exactly condone it (only the bad guys are involved in it), but at the same time the film tries to make it sexy. Between the floating bamboo cages, steamy dance numbers, seeming disposable nature of women, it’s all rather fetishistic. It’s hard to say your film is condemning using women as sex props when your movie pretty much uses them as sex props. I like secret trapdoors and hidden passageways and cool torture devices, but maybe it’s all too campy for something as serious as human sex trafficking. The atmosphere of the movie, aided by Price’s creepy, condescending line delivery and narration readings, is very eerie and dreamlike. The musical score helps that feeling too. The music sounds like vaguely hypnotic theremin tones. Then occasionally all music and sound will drop out and it’ll feel even weirder. There is really only one scene where our hero actually smokes opium…AND THAT SCENE IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

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You’re tripping balls, man…

 Skulls and sawfish parade by along with a host of other phantasmagoric imagery and nightmarishly distorted countenances during his trip…and then he wakes up and we get a 1960s soundless stoner action scene with Chinese axe-throwers and Vincent Price running around in late 1800s ‘Frisco. It’s way too cool to even be real. Even the ending of this movie feels bizarre, like we’re all stuck in suspended animation. Does he die? What happens? Where are they going? Did they kill the bad guy? What’s happening? Who was the random guy at the end who was in disguise? Is it over?

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I’m beginning to think this is not a Edgar Allen Poe adaptation.

I really don’t know what else to say. Watch this movie if you can find it. It’s weird. If you’ve read any of my reviews of other old movies you’d know I’m exceedingly forgiving of racism, sexism, and cheesiness in my vintage pulp. Take it all for what it is. Don’t be offended. It’s a peculiar and unflattering history lesson to watch these old movies. Moral of the story: locate Confessions of an Opium Eater and enjoy all it’s weird, uncomfortable, erotic dreaminess. Maybe make it a double feature with Reefer Madness (1936).

Picture References:

http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com/archives/2013/10/confessions_of.html

http://www.midnightonly.com/2013/04/21/confessions-of-an-opium-eater-1962/

http://scalisto.blogspot.kr/2013/06/albert-zugsmith-confessions-of-opium.html

6

The Positive, the Negative, and the Questionable Attribute

Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci  and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?

Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it.  Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.


Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.


Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.

Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.

The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.


We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.


There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.


There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.


Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.

 

So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.

Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:

1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.

2. Stuff blows up in it.

3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.

4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.

5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.

6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.

7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.

8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.

9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.

10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.

Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.