Tag Archives: thriller

Two lurid, mid-1960s social critiques by Sam Fuller, starring Constance Tower

Shock Corridor” (1963, produced, written, and directed by Samue; Fulle) has some passionate fans. I don’t get it. It starts very slowly. As soon as the “Whodunit?” question arose, I knew the answer. I could care less about the protagonist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck overacting big-time) in pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize, or whether his (talentless) singer/stripper girlfriend (Constance Tower) will manage to hold him. The three insane witnesses act out quite extremely, but have their lucid moments for the convenience of the plot and the prize-seeker. The home-movie color footage from Korea, Amazonia, and some waterfall is bizarre, there’s a lot of screaming and wild gesticulating, and the political aspects (the black and white victims of virulent anticommunism, virulent racism, the guilt of developing nuclear weapons, and the pressure to excel that cracks most of the characters, not least Johnny) are little more subtle than the screaming. (I read “Being Sane in an Insane Place” a really long time ago.)

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There are other Fuller movies (Pickup on South Street, Steel Helmet, for instance) that I think are good, or at least entertaining (Run of the Arrow). Still, I have to say that Hari Rhodes’s pathologically self-hating student who had integrated a school is very intense, and the cinematography was supplied by a master, Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter), with very sharp focus, some tight closeups, many oblique angles, and a lot of camera movement. (The Criterion DVD has a cleaned-up print but is devoid of extra features other than a trailer for the movie.)

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The Criterion DVD of “The Naked Kiss,” a low-budget 1964 thriller, written and directed by Sam Fuller is at times very arresting–especially in the very first scene of a woman in a blonde wig beating a man with her shoe (they are not quite as dramatically mismatched as Vivien Leigh using her shoe to pummel a drunken Lee Marvin in “Ship of Fools,” made a year later!).

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Much of the middle of the movie is not just slack but inept. The dialogue is frequently stilted or worse, there are many things that are just too cute, and some typically Fuller wild excessive flourishes (visual and in character revelation). But I wouldn’t want to have missed Constance Towers’s turn from prostitution to sainthood, or the very Hitchcockian wrong man plot that has a very Hitchcock-looking icy blonde (Tower) playing the wrong man (and wronged woman: for a time it looks like none of her good deeds will go unpunished).

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Trying to go straight prevents unexpected problems–typically just when things seemed to be going smoothly. What she learns about her new, respectable community and its most prominent civic leader is less novel now than in a 1964 movie, but has not lost its bite. (And what she finds is a current obsession…)

I find the ending even scarier than the beginning. Much of the movie is below average (downright clunky), but Constance Towers (especially her inflictions of deserved punishment on male villains) and Michael Dante and some of the compositions (by Stanley Cortez) are notable in good ways.

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To paraphrase Dolly Parton, much of it is wrong, but it’s allright. (BTW, Towers played a stripper in Fuller’s even more over-the-top “Shock Corridor” the year before. That is the name of the movie on the marquee in the upright town where Towers attempts to go straight. She also had starring roles in the John Ford films “The Horse Soldiers” in 1959 and “Sergeant Rutledge” in 1960, but did not have much impact in either one).

As usual, Criterion has revived a darling of auteur critics with a superb print. The only bonus feature is an appropriately lurid theatrical trailer. (Fuller expostulates at length on the Criterion DVD of “Shock Corridor.” He comes across to me as a smug windbag, though he undeniably did a lot with little money and made some unusual films, including these two.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

More thrills based in a Taipei night market

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Incensed (2016, Taiwanese-American Ed Lin’s second novel Ghost Month was the first) centered on Taiwanese UCLA dropout Jing-Nan (has many aspects that are mysterious to the owner of a Night Market sausage and skewered-entrails stand. Jing-Nan’s proprietor persona, the tout “Johnny,” is less shy than the orphaned Taiwanese 25-year-old Jing-Nan, and uses his fluency in English to draw American tourists to his stand.

It is an especially family-focused time of year (the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), and Jinh-Nan is called upon by his Taichung gangster uncle, Big Eye, to watch over Big Eye’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Big Eye wants her to finish high school. Jing-Nan wants to be a singer (though both her father and her older cousin don’t think she has any talent).

There is an Indonesian she has broken up with and whom her father abhors on principle (xenophobic principles) and wants to ensure is distanced from his daughter. There is the Taipei primo capo (to borrow an Italian Mafia term) from whom Big Eye has won a lot of money gambling. There are Big Eye’s fierce and fiercely loyal bodyguards, and a similar formidable pair of employees Hing-Nan has inherited along with the market business. One of them, Dwayne, is Ami (one of the aboriginal Polynesian peoples) and the book illustrates inter-ethnic animosities (aboriginal peoples against Chinese who arrived from the 17th through the 20th century, Holo-speakers (Taiwanese), Hakka, the predatory defeated Kuomintang who fled defeat on the mainland after WWII, and the swarms of tourists from the PRC) as well as explaining (with a light touch) the multitude of gods and goddesses Taiwanese attempt to get to aid, or at least not to obstruct their endeavors. Not just temples and the night market, but other parts of Taipei geography are also revealed, with a major lynchpin of the plot occurring on the relatively new (since 2007) Maokong string of gondolas above Taipei.

Although there are two murders, the novel is not at all a whodunit. There are many surprises for Jing-Nan, who is alarmed at the responsibility for a wild 16-year-old forced on him by a ruthless gangster. There is a lot of humor, not least about celebrity. Jing-Nan is a minor celebrity for having deflected a bullet with his main cooking pot (back in Ghost Month). And the novel begins with a droll account of a contest to eat especially rank stinking tofu between a Japanese and a Taiwanese who alternate winning contests wolfing down food. They put their minor celebrity to work at a rally in the night market for a protest rally involving Jing-Nan’s activist girlfriend Nancy (politicized since Ghost Month).

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I think the book is just a bit too long. There are too many punk-rock (and post-punk) references for me (especially the Joy Division obsession), but I enjoyed the voice of the young somewhat Americanized Taiwanese narrator and the atmosphere of scrambling to succeed in Taipei.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Gripping thriller/romance based in Taipei Night Market

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Ghost Month (2014), the first of the (to-date two; the second is Incensed) Taipei Night Market mysteries by Ed Lin, is a somewhat chaotic mix of opinions about various facets of Tawan’s culture and history with a thriller plot. The latter involves government(s) collusion with Chinese gangs, covert technology transfer to the PRC and the murder of Julia Huang. Julia grew up with the narrator, Jing-nan. Both of their parents had stands in a Taipei night market. She was a better student than he, but he was good enough to get into UCLA (while she went to NYU).

They had agreed not to have any contact until they graduated, at which point they would wed. Because Jing-nan’s father was dying, he returned to Tapei and his mother was killed in a traffic accident on the way to pick him up from the airport. After which his father died and he inherited gambling debts from his grandfather, so had to run the night market stand. Fortunately, he also inherited a staff of two very competent cooks, the burly Ami (one of the fourteen recognized aboriginal groups on Taiwan), Dwayne, and the son of a mainlander, Frankie. Jing-nan is a benshengren (Han who went from Fujien to Taiwan before it was ceded to Japan in 1895), so the stand provides a sample of interethnic antagonism with a descendant each of the original Austronesian inhabitants, of the early “settlers” (who, like American ones pushed aside the aboriginal inhabitants), and of the Chinese who fled the loss of the civil war to the communists and took over what the Japanese had developed (jobs, housing, infrastructure).

Jing-nan has renamed the shop selling skewers of sausage and internal organs of pigs “Unknown Pleasures” in honor of his favorite album by his favorite post-punk band, Joy Division. Its lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1979, something like a decade before Jing-nan was born.

Jing-nan is shocked to learn that Julia (1) has been murdered and (2) was working as a scantily clad seller of betel nuts at a roadside stand on an exit to Hsinchu City (35 miles south of Taipei’s international airport in Taoyuan). He did not know that she had returned to Taiwan and finds it difficult to believe that she could have been employed as a near-prostitute (or a more than near one).

After visiting Julia’s parents (and being warned off trying to find out what had happened to her by seeming gangsters), Jing-nan contacts two of their schoolmates who had also gone to NYU, Peggy (from a very affluent mainlander family of entrepreneurs) and a doughy boy everyone called “Cookie Monster.”

At a music emporium called Bauhaus, he meets a young woman three years his junior who idolized him when they were in high school, Nancy. (Peggy also had a major crush on him, though he was very visibly focused on Julia.) Thus, most of the major characters other than the Unknown Pleasure employees went to school together

Jing-nan has also inherited the illegally constructed shack in which his grandfather and father died. It is near the major tourist attraction temple in Taipei, Longshan, one that also has heavy traffic, especially during Ghost Month (the seventh lunar month) from Taiwanese, with altars to multiple gods, the goddess Mazho, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Julia and Jing-nan scoffed at the profusion of Taiwanese deities and their worshippers, but he ends up going there on instructions beyond the grave from her (she visits him in dreams).

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(offerings at a Taipei temple (Hsian Tian Kong)

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(worsipper in Longshan Temple)

In addition to two major romances and the longings of the two other Taiwanese who went to NYU, where they had little contact with Julia, and a dogged murder investigation opposed by police and the dominant (Black Sea) gang, Jing-nan opines at length about punk and post-punk Anglophone bands (I only recall one mention of a Taiwanese singer and no mention of any Taiwanese or Japanese bands), Taiwanese religious syncretism (placating gods and deities to be on the safe side even if one is not convinced they exist), love/sex, and official corruption (both police and building inspectors and permit-issuers), and the complicated history of expropriations).

I find Jing-nan convincing, albeit very in the noir tradition of a non-professional investigator who is clueless about how gangs and government collude, and there is plenty of plot with developments I did not foresee. There is lots of specificity about Taiwan geography and traffic, weather and pollution (the latter has improved considerably since the completion of the subway system). Other than not caring about his “musical” favorites, I thought there were too many dreams in the book. And I thought the characterizations were strong, varied, and interesting.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray