Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread (1974)

Original title: Onna hissatsu ken: kiki ippatsu

After her adventures in Japan during Sister Street Fighter, Koryu (Etsuko Shihomi), everyone's favourite kicker of evil behinds, has returned to Hong Kong. She has kept her talent for being at the right place at the right time, and so is present when some brutal martial artist thugs are attacking a private eye. Koryu is able to drive off the attackers, but can't prevent the detective from being mortally wounded. At least, before he dies the man is still able to give her his glass eye and beg her to bring it to a certain Doctor Wang, whom Koryu already knows as the father of her old school friend Birei (Hisayo Tanaka).

From Wang, Koryu learns that he had hired the dead detective to find out what happened to Birei, who disappeared. The glass eye - as glass eyes do - contains some photos that make clear the young woman has been kidnapped by a Japanese gang of human traffickers. Birei's father, knowing that Koryu has experience in Japan and is quite good at not getting killed, begs the fighter to travel to Japan and get his daughter back. Of course, Koryu agrees.

About ten seconds after she has arrived in Japan, our heroine is distracted by the first of many attempts of the human traffickers to permanently get rid of her, but Koryu's not the type to get phased by a little violence and solves the problem without too much of an effort, even if she has to fight ninjas on the roof of a moving train.

After that, it's time to visit her sister Hakuran (Tamayo Mitsukawa), who is supposedly working as a designer of jewellery, but is in truth part of the Osone group that is responsible for Koryu's problems. It's not that she has much of a choice in that, mind you, because the Osone group need a talented jeweller like Hakuran too badly not to press her into service through violence and sadism. They're not just human traffickers selling their victims into prostitution, you see, the group also uses an alcoholic surgeon to sew jewels into their victims' asses in a newfangled smuggling ploy. So Koryu has her work - and an obvious source of melodrama - cut out for her.

For her second Sister Street Fighter film, the Toei higher-ups seem to have trusted the abilities of Etsuko Shihomi enough not to put her mentor Sonny Chiba at her side to steal her lamplight. She's getting a bit of male help again, but where Chiba was typically memorable in the first movie, her new sidekick's just there to break a bit of second-string henchman skull and point Koryu into the right direction from time to time. That sidelining of male protagonists is of course a good thing - there are more than enough movies with Chiba and co. strutting their stuff admirably, so there's no need to fill a film with "Sister Street Fighter" in its title with guy cooties too.

By now (and still in the second year of her movie career), Shihomi has really hit her stride and doesn't just show off appropriately photogenic and brutal martial arts skills, but has also mastered the three expressions of emotion most important in this arm of martial arts cinema: the pissed off look, the violently determined look, and the mean stare. That's no small feat with a face that does fulfil all rules and regulations of cuteness afforded that have come down to the Japanese moviemaking culture from their venerable forefathers.

What's best about Shihomi's position in the film, though, is something completely different, and something I'd usually associate with martial arts films from Taiwan and Hong Kong rather than with Japanese films of the 70s. It's how matter-of-factly the film treats its heroine being a female ass-kicker. Koryu's gender does not seem to be a thing even worth mentioning for most of the movie. There's barely a sentence of the usual "but how could a girl beat me?" stuff coming from the bad guys; it's as if the film just doesn't put any importance on it.

While Shihomi effortlessly carries her part of the movie, returning director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi does not seem to be at the top of his game. The cinematic basics are of course realized with the highest level of craftsmanship - this is a Japanese movie of the 70s made by highly knowledgeable professionals, after all - but the creative visual flourishes that elevate a film from good to "what did I just see" levels aren't really forthcoming. When he's not moving his camera around to produce a dynamic feeling, Yamaguchi mostly goes for the overuse of zooms and a high amount of shots from below at a slanted angle that certainly look peculiar, but are not peculiar enough to push the psychedelic buttons I was hoping for seeing pushed going in.

More problematic some viewers could be the perfunctory way the emotional and melodramatic parts are integrated into the storyline, but this just looks to me like a film concentrating on what it does best (brutal violence) and mostly ignoring what it does worst (crying). Owing to that, Hanging By A Thread is not an emotionally complex movie, yet it isn't supposed to be one.

A bit more disappointing to me is that Yamaguchi (or his script writers, veteran director, writer and madman Norifumi Suzuki and Masahiro Kakefuda) dials down the batshit insanity of the proceedings compared to a first movie that in its turn was already dialled down from the insanity of The Streetfighter. Fortunately, "dialling down" in this context still leaves us with a movie where even an alcoholic surgeon (usually seen with a large parrot on his shoulder, so I suppose he's a pirate surgeon) is an expert martial artists, where bad guy fighting techniques contain things like hypnotic sai sounds that let heroines see double, where there's a throw-away ninja attack just ten minutes in and where the final strikes of the final fight are exchanged while the combatants are flying. So, while it's not as batshit, organ-ripping insane as it could be, Hanging By A Thread still prefers the ridiculously awesome to the realistic.

And, as it goes with movies that do this, it's incredibly fun to watch.


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