Asian genre movies often contain a dizzying mix of exhilarating action, slapstick comedy, graphic violence and gore, and wild supernatural horror – all of which are on display in recent releases from 88 Films and Eureka.
Vinegar Syndrome begin 2023 by casting a wide net to gather a range of exploitation movies from Hong Kong, Mexico and the U.S. It’s a mixed bag encompassing Stuart Gordon’s classic H.P. Lovecraft adaptation From Beyond (1986); three extreme horrors featuring iconic actor Anthony Wong; a sordid Mexican movie about a psychopath killing and raping for Satan; Tom Chaney’s Frostbiter (1995), a derivative low-budget horror from Michigan featuring ambitious special effects, miniatures, stop-motion animation and Evil Dead-inspired excess; and Curt Siodmak’s minor oddity Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), the first from a new sub-label, Vinegar Syndrome Labs, intended to gauge interest in this kind of obscure title.
Soon after Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain, filmmakers Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak embarked on an ambitious project to revitalize a film industry in disarray. The result was the Infernal Affairs trilogy, which has its roots in the HK action movies of the 1980s, using familiar narrative tropes as a springboard for a complex meditation on identity amidst new political and economic uncertainties. Criterion’s three-disk Blu-ray set showcases the trilogy with an array of new and archival extras.
As usual, there’s no coherent pattern to what I spend my time watching. In the past few months, I given my overtaxed attention to quite a few movies from the ’70s and ’80s – British sex comedies and cop movies, Italian gialli, French and Spanish thrillers, Chinese martial arts movies and an Australian superhero musical – plus a pair of recent Korean action movies and two ultra-low-budget do-it-yourself movies from the ’90s.
Rouge (1987), Stanley Kwan’s meditation on romance, the passage of time and the imminent return of Hong Kong to China after almost two centuries of British colonial rule, gets a luminous restoration for Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition, which also includes an interview with Kwan and two documentaries by the director which explore issues of gender in Chinese cinema and his own identity as one of the first openly gay Chinese directors.
A long cold winter, a working-from-home schedule and pandemic-induced malaise means I’ve been watching a lot of undemanding genre movies over the past few months. One of my primary sources in the past couple of years has been Vinegar Syndrome, a company whose dedication to unearthing obscure, often forgotten genre movies equals my own passion for watching them. Although by no means a complete account of my VS viewing, here are brief notes on two dozen titles.
Recent disks from England include Franco Parolini’s late spaghetti western Sabata Trilogy (1969-71), the classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad fantasies (1958-77), Carl Franklin’s revisionist neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Tsui Hark’s influential martial arts fantasy Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and David Greene’s tense submarine disaster movie Gray Lady Down (1978).
Eureka’s Blu-ray box set Cinematic Vengeance gathers together eight movies by Taiwanese director Joseph Kuo in the 1970s, an independent specialist in low-budget martial arts movies. These films are packed with great action scenes; the fight choreography, camerawork and editing are exceptional and, although Kuo throws in occasional bits of broad comedy, the tone is often quite dark, with endings that refuse to offer battered characters any final sense of triumph.
It’s been a good year for movies on disk, with a remarkable range of releases from many companies which are devoting considerable resources to rediscovering, restoring and preserving movies in numerous genres. Ranging across nationalities and spanning cinema history, there was plenty to divert attention from a real world which has become so depressing and exhausting.