This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the movies in Arrow Video’s Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set. Part 1 can be found here.
Executioners from Shaolin (1977)
At the beginning of Executioners From Shaolin we’re greeted to text talking about the burning of the Shaolin Temple and survivors fleeing from it with the intention of keeping the Shaolin style alive. Seeing this my first thought was “oh, this story yet again.” Indeed, the movie kind of feels like it’s on autopilot for much of the first half as the former disciples of the temple scatter. However, things pick up quite a bit in the second half when the movie definitively focuses in on one guy and years pass while he’s in hiding and we start focusing on his wife and son. Frankly the very presence of a woman in the movie in a fairly large role was a bit refreshing as a lot of these other Kung Fu movies were starting to seem like some real sausage fests. Women were a much bigger part of martial arts cinema in the 1960s and earlier but the whole genre got highly masculinized after the rise of Bruce Lee as a cultural icon. This film is far from feminist in its portrayal but having a somewhat healthy marriage at the center of this is distinct from some of these other movies. In fact if you’re looking for a 1970s Shaw Brothers movie to write a gender studies paper on this is probably the one to pick. As scholar Tony Rayns explains in one of Arrow’s supplemental features, the man uses Tiger style kung fu while the wife uses crane style and the son (who is somewhat androgynous in his depiction) uses a combination of both while the villain is in some ways a genderless eunuch. Speaking of that villain, Pai Mei, he’s probably the most iconic element of the movie. Mei is a legendary figure associated with the Shaolin Temple who may or may not have been historical and may or may not have been the Judas who betrayed the Temple. Here he’s definitely depicted as the traitor and is depicted as this elderly man who still kicks ass and has this long white beard and bushy eyebrows. This look was borrowed pretty much wholesale by Quentin Tarantino for his character (also named Pai Mei) in Kill Bill Vol. 2 who was played by Gordon Liu and trained The Bride in flashbacks. Again, a lot of these interesting elements don’t really come into play until the second half of the film, making the movie as a whole a bit uneven, this is definitely an important Shaw Brothers movie.
***1/2 out of Five
Chinatown Kid (1977)
We return to the world of Chang Cheh as he transitioned from making movies choreographed by Lau Kar-leung to making films with the “Venom Mob,” a group of performers I’ll be discussing in more detail in our next Shaw Brothers movie but who you can see starting to form here. Chinatown Kid differs from a lot of The Shaw Brothers most famous movies as it is set in the present and for much of its runtime isn’t even set in Asia. The film concerns a young man living in Hong Kong who flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown to escape some triad activity only to become enmeshed in a whole other gang war on the other side of the Pacific. Now, this is set in California but aside from some early B-roll establishing shots early on it’s filmed almost entirely on Hong Kong backlots, as evidenced by the fact that this San Francisco has basically no white people and the cars are all driving on the left side of the road there. The film stars Alexander Fu Sheng in what is probably his most famous role. Fu Sheng was a contemporary of Jackie Chan and at times seemed poised to have a similar career trajectory but that was all cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1983 while filming The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.
This would be the one movie in Shawscope Vol. 1 that has a “weird alternate cut” problem. The original version of the film was about 115 minutes long and played out in a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin (because in the story one character spoke one language and another spoke the other) but a different 90 minute cut was made for markets like Malaysia which is entirely dubbed into Mandarin and removes some key scenes. For whatever reason Celestial Pictures (the company that absorbed The Shaw Brothers’ back catalog at some point) has focused on that shorter cut when it comes to restorations and home video releases so this Arrow release actually marks the first time the uncut “international” version (also known as the “Southgate Cut”) has been given a real home release in the digital age. The film itself is maybe a bit more interesting for the story behind it than for the movie itself. It’s interesting as a transitional movie for Cheh and for the platform it gives Alexander Fu Sheng and for it’s oddball mixed up take on San Francisco and some of the moments of violence, but the story itself isn’t exactly riveting and there’s some definite cheesiness to the whole thing.
*** out of Five
The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
The Five Deadly Venoms (sometimes just called The Five Venoms) is the only one of the films from the Shawscope boxed set which I had already seen prior to buying the box, and I hadn’t even watched it all that long ago, so this is the only rewatch I’m writing about but this is definitely an essential Shaw Brothers so that’s probably fitting. You can probably intuit from the film’s title that this movie was an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the basic concept of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” from the Kill Bill movies was almost certainly a lift from this movie. The film opens with a young student being told by his master that he can no longer train him because several of the master’s former students (who the young one never met) have proven to be evil and need to be taken down at all costs. Each of these students has a martial arts style based on one of five different venomous animals: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Gekko, or The Toad. It is not clear which of these five is behind a scheme to kill people and steal a treasure, and the young student is no match for any of them, so his mission is to suss out who these students are and try to build an alliance with the ones who are on the side of good.
The real importance of this movie is that it kicked off a whole era of Shaw Brothers production by being a sort of debutant ball for Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, and Chiang Sheng, a collective who (give or take a Wei Pai) would come to be known as the Venom Mob. The Venom Mob was something of a kung fu boy band of sorts that Chang Cheh put together who would come to define the next five years or so of Cheh’s career as performers and choreographers. But you don’t need to know that to appreciate this movie. The film just generally has a really cool high concept and it provides a great showcase for unique martial arts styles to be out front and center. The film is Chang Cheh to its core for better or worse; I don’t think there’s a single woman to be found anywhere in the movie and some of the film’s “heroic bloodshed” kind of borders on the sadistic (things do not go well for the Toad in this) and some of the sets and costumes are a little crude, however it is probably the first movie I’d point to in order to really get an idea of what that guy was all about. Between the Gekko’s wall walking wire work and some of the other more eccentric martial arts styles the film is just a blast and its five-way final fight sequence is a real clinic in how to make these kinds of movies.
**** out of Five
Crippled Avengers (1978)
After the release of The Five Deadly Venoms in the August of 1978, Chang Cheh and the Venom mob managed to release two more movies together before year’s end: Invincible Shaolin and the film we’ll be looking at today, Crippled Avengers. Crippled Avengers opens with three martial artists breaking into a home and murdering a mother and cutting off the hands of her son before the father rushes in and takes out the three of them with superior technique. We then flash forward and the son is an adult and is fitted with iron prosthetic hands and the father has clearly gotten consumed with revenge despite having already killed the perpetrators. The father has essentially become a local gangster/feudal lord and has begun having his son cripple anyone who defies him, and that’s where our heroes come in. One has had his legs cut off, one has been blinded, one has been made a deaf mute, and one has had his head squeezed until he’s been rendered mentally handicapped. The disability of that latter character especially can charitably be described as “not particularly sensitive.” I don’t think it’s the most offensive representation you’re likely to find but it does speak to the film’s age, but the film’s overall message about disability is a positive one in which the characters are able to overcome their disadvantage and become formidable kung fu avengers. There’s not really a whole lot to say about this one beyond that it’s got a very cool gimmick that gets employed in some pretty creative ways and is just generally a rip roaring good time. It’s the last Chang Cheh film in the Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set and it finds him in good form. Oh, and side note, when this was released in the west it had an alternate title: Mortal Combat. Someone was a fan.
**** out of Five
Heroes of the East (1978)
For the last two movies in the Shawscope Vol. 1 box set we once again look at the cinema of Lau Kar Leung and his key collaborator Gordon Liu. The last movies we looked at were the two movies before their international breakthrough The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and these two were movies they made after that triumph. We start with Heroes of the East, which is an odd and interesting fusion of the martial arts film with a sort of romantic comedy. The film is about the son of a wealthy merchant who enters into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a Japanese merchant and comes to learn that she is a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts. Misunderstandings occur and long story short he ends up offending the members of a Japanese martial arts dojo and he ends up having to fight a series of duels with the masters of various Japanese martial arts disciplines. The Japanese were frequently villains in Hong Kong movies, which could sometimes border on the xenophobic in their treatment of such characters, but this movie feels a bit more interested in reconciliation with the land of the rising sun even if it ultimately finds the Chinese fighter to be the victor in the battles against them. Those fight scenes in the second half are a whole lot of fun and mix up the various stylistic matches nicely, culminating in a large scale duel with a straight-up ninja. My one complaint is that the newlywed conflict that was so fun in the first half kind of gets lost once the Japanese fighters show up and the wife really becomes a pretty secondary character. I feel like just a couple more scenes with her late in the movie could have really brought this to the next level, but even with that problem the movie is still a whole lot of fun.
**** out of Five
Dirty Ho (1979)
Okay, first thing’s first: that title is not what it sounds like. The film’s original title (爛頭何) translates to something like “what a bad head” which is something of a pun on the name of one of the film’s characters whose name is “Ho” (which is pronounced more like “huh”), so “Damaged Head Ho” or “Damaged Ho” might have been closer to the effect they were going for, but that doesn’t really scan either so the Shaw Brothers went with “Dirty Ho,” likely in an attempt to jokingly invoke Dirty Harry. This was a misguided translation pretty much from the beginning and the evolution of slang since then has been even less kind to this choice over the years, which is unfortunate because it’s a really solid Shaw Brothers movie. This is another collaboration between Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu, but the title character is played by another actor named Wong Yue and the film is a pretty even two hander between the two, possibly to a fault. In the film Liu plays a luxuries merchant who’s living a double life in that he’s secretly a kung fu master and also secretly something else I won’t spoil. Wong by contrast plays a bit of a comical doofus, but someone who can fight and becomes an even stronger fighter once Liu takes him on as a disciple.
That’s where things start to get a little odd because Liu and Wong are basically the same age, so making one the master and the other the apprentice feels a bit odd. The plot also gets a tad convoluted in the second half as it starts getting mired in courtly politics and related assassination attempts that are a bit hard to follow. But at the end of the day the plot isn’t the main thing people are looking for in a movie like this and where it matters (the fight scenes) the film has a lot going for it. The film has a lot of really creative choreography and finds unique ideas for action scenes like an early sequence where the Liu character is trying to conceal his abilities so he manipulates a woman acting as his “bodyguard” rather than fighting directly or another scene later on where he and Wong fight off a bunch of attackers while he’s confined to a wheelchair and the fact that he’s a luxuries merchant means there are some cool sequences where they need to fight around some expensive looking props. It’s not all about gimmicks though, there’s a pretty straight weapon fight between Liu, Wong, and three armed guards towards the end that’s just a solid freakin’ martial arts fight from top to bottom. The whole movie is comedic in tone, but not an out and out parody and generally kind of has a different vibe and tone from your average Shaw Brothers movie and just generally feels like it was made by Lau Kar-leung at a point where he felt the genre needed a few fresh ideas and he delivered on it.
***1/2 out of Five
Well, I stuck to my “one Shaw Brothers a month” plan and saw it through and I will say it feels like the right pace to have gone in. I’d seen a healthy handful of Shaw Brothers movies before this but I feel like watching this boxed set gave me a better understanding of some of the patterns and workings of the studio and particularly the differences between Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh as well as a deeper understanding of some of the studio’s stars beyond Gordon Liu, who I also feel like I saw different dimensions of. That having been said, I do think I could use a bit of a break from this marathon so I can explore some other aspects of Chinese and martial arts cinema next year, so while I’ve already pre-ordered Shawscope Vol. 2 and fully intend to watch that as well I think I may wait until 2024 to do it.
Two things I really love: kung fu movies and buying things. Fortunately for me Arrow Video recently provided me with the means to scratch both of those itches with the release of a big fancy blu-ray boxed set called “Shawscope Vol. 1” featuring twelve movies straight from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, the premiere Hong Kong studio for the creation of top of the line Kung Fu movies from the late 60s through to the early 80s. Naturally I’ve had the thing pre-ordered for months and relished the moment when Amazon finally delivered it to me. So, this dropped into my position in January, there are twelve movies, and there are twelve months in the year… it seemed like my destiny to turn this into a year-long watchathon where I take in one of these movies a month over the course of 2022.
King Boxer (1972)
Before we get too into this it is perhaps important to know that us westerners have a somewhat limited notion of what the “Shaw Brothers Studio” is. To us the studio name is synonymous with 70s kung fu movies when the studio has existed in some form since 1925 and made all sorts of movies over the course of their existence. With that in mind it’s probably notable that this blu-ray boxed set opens not with one of the studio’s most impactful movies in Hong Kong but rather with the film that is primarily a landmark in the export of their movies to the international market. The people making King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) almost certainly didn’t expect such great things from it, but it happened to be the movie that seen by a Warner Brothers buyer who cannily knew there would be an appetite for martial arts cinema in 1973 off the heels of the success of the “Kung Fu” television series and a dubbed version of the film would go on to great B-movie success around the world just in time for an even greater explosion in interest when Enter the Dragon hit. Of course that success may have been less coincidental than legend would suggest as King Boxer was plainly a movie meant to be something of a response to Bruce Lee’s recent Hong Kong success with rival studio Golden Harvest. Unlike many of the Shaw Brothers’ earlier films this was set in the early 20th Century rather than ancient times and a lot of the fighting is done with bare fists rather than swords.
The film was helmed by Jeong Chang-hwa, a Korean emigre who worked under the Chinese pseudonym Chang Ho Cheng, and would be the last movie he made for the Shaw Brothers due to behind the scenes quarrels with Run-Run Shaw. If I were to take issue with anything in the movie it might be his direction as he makes some rather odd choices in terms of lens choice and depth of field here and there and I would also say that while star Lo Lieh is pretty good you can certainly see why he never quite had the star power of a Bruce Lee or a Gordon Liu. Aside from that and some expected cheesy moments this is a pretty damn solid bit of kung fu cinema. It has a number of colorful villains for the lead character to defeat (one could almost argue too many) and it gets kind of gory here and there, particularly in a scene where a dude gets his eyeballs plucked out. Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as a favorite of his and you can definitely see the influence, most directly in its musical motif in which it uses an excerpt from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme song to heighten certain moments, and Tarantino uses the same music in a similar way in the Kill Bill movies. That said, this should generally be thought of more as the beginning of something for the Shaw Brothers and not the high water mark, they definitely had bigger and better things in their future.
***1/2 out of Five
The Boxer From Shantung (1972)
While King Boxer was likely selected for this boxed set because of its importance in bringing Shaw Brothers films to the world, The Boxer From Shantung was the more important movie with “boxer” in the title in Hong Kong. Of course aside from the titles these movies don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that both were sort of meant to be responses to the success of Bruce Lee as both focused in on unarmed fisticuffs rather than swordplay. What’s probably more important is that this film was the creation of Chang Cheh, who is probably the most important director to work at the Shaw Brothers studio and is the man behind six of the twelve films in this Shawscope boxed set. Cheh was something of a mentor for John Woo (who worked as an assistant director on this film) and was instrumental for the development of what is called “heroic bloodshed” within the genre and this movie would certainly be an example of that. Things in the film start out fairly straightforward with star Chen Kuan-tai arriving in a town and getting enmeshed in the criminal goings on there, a bit like Yojimbo or The Man with No Name but this guy isn’t really an antihero. A highlight of this early section is a scene where he challenges a western strongman (Italian wrestler Mario Milano) who’s the center of a circus attraction challenging people to try to knock him down and no one else seems to be able to phase.
Later the movie starts to engage in bloodier “heroic bloodshed,” particularly in its extended finale. I’m not sure if this is the movie that introduced the trope but all the bad guy gangsters in this run around wielding this small hatchets that they threaten people with Kung-Fu Hustle style and in the final scene one of these hand axes ends up planted in the hero’s gut and he then spends the next ten minutes or so fighting people off while trying to keep his guts in place. That probably sounds more graphic in print than it feels in the actual movie, this is candy colored Hong Kong blood we’re talking about here. In America this movie was retitled The Killer from Shantung and was released in a heavily cut down version with nearly 30 minutes missing. I doubt that version of the film was any good but I do kind of feel like that distributor was correct that this could have used some trims. At about 135 minutes this is the longest movie in this boxed set by quite a bit and the pacing suffers as a result and I also found the story to be kind of basic and not terribly interesting. Some of the bigger set pieces here are more than worth seeing but there are limits to how much I can really endorse the overall film.
**1/2 out of Five
Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
The first two Shaw Brothers movies I looked at from Arrow’s set were both “bare-fisted” martial arts movies made in reaction to the emergence of Bruce Lee. Like the last film this one is directed by Chang Cheh (though some suggest choreographer Lau Kar Leung had more control) but shows the studio and filmmaker kind of moving forward into what is called their “Shaolin Cycle.” This informal grouping consisting of six or seven movies made between 1973 and 1976 are not really a series in the sense of having a real continuity between them but they are all about the legendary Shaolin group and many of them share some of the same “historical figures” between them and I think they expect audiences to have some familiarity with the legendary events even as they take all sorts of creative liberties with them. This film, Five Shaolin Masters, is set after the Shaolin temple has been burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers in a sneak attack and follows five survivors as they try to regroup and find a way to fight back. In a lot of ways this feels like a movie that started with its climax (five separate fight scenes that the film cuts between) and then they wrote the screenplay backwards from there finding a way to lead up to that. On the bright side, that climax kind of slaps. Each Shaolin monk has a different fighting style and strategy and that delivers five pretty solid fights that remain compelling even as the film cuts between them. On the not so bright side, the film never quite gives any one of the Monks a unique enough personality and aesthetic to stand out as characters through much of the rest of the film given how many characters are being stuffed into this thing’s relatively short runtime and much of the material leading up to the climax feels a bit messy. Not the best movie the Shaw Brothers ever made by any means, but hardly a dud.
*** out of Five
Shaolin Temple (1976)
In their boxed set Arrow pairs the film Five Shaolin Masters with the film Shaolin Temple, both of them films about the Shaolin style of kung fu from director Chang Cheh. One could view Shaolin Temple as something of a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters as the earlier film begins with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty troops and then deals with the aftermath while Shaolin Temple is set at the titular temple and depicts the treacherous events that led up to the temple’s destruction, but the films aren’t really in continuity with one another and the characters from the earlier film aren’t all represented here. The other big distinction between the two is that Five Shaolin Masters was made while Lau Kar Leung was still working as the fight choreographer (and some would suggest ghost director) for Chang Cheh while Shaolin Temple was made after Leung had split from the master to become an accomplished Shaw Brothers director in his own right (almost certainly the second most important filmmaker at that studio). This is interesting because Shaolin Temple in many was feels like a precursor to one of Lau Kar Leung’s most famous directorial efforts The 36th Chamber of Shaolin… to the point where you wonder if Leung made that film in order to one-up his former mentor. Both films are set at the Shaolin Temple and focus on them allowing outsiders to train there and focus in many ways on training moreso than combat. It interestingly uses that “trick people into learning martial arts by having them do chores” trick that would be made famous by The Karate Kid. It has a few too many characters for its own good and is a little rough around the edges (the film’s score is really poor and out of place) but once it gets to that finale where the pupils are fighting off waves of Qing soldiers it does find its mojo and kind of redeems it. Definitely a Shaw Brothers deep cut, but worth a look.
*** out of Five
Mighty Peking Man (1977)
In the west “Shaw Brothers” is synonymous with Kung Fu in much the way “Hammer Films” is synonymous with horror, but the actual truth is that “Shaw Brothers” was an all purpose film studio that made all sorts of film in a wide variety of genres, and while Arrow’s boxed set mostly conforms to the studio’s reputation as the maker of martial arts epics they did choose to include one film that hints at the broader width of their work and that’s the 1977 film Mighty Peking Man, which sought to capitalize on the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong with its own (bordering on plagiarism) version of the same story. The reason this particular non-Kung Fu movie was selected for the boxed set was almost certainly a function of it having been championed by Quentin Tarantino back in the late 90s, in fact he distributed it on VHS back in the day as part of his short lived “Rolling Thunder” boutique label. Tarantino is a man of eclectic tastes and I feel like his endorsements generally come from a place of sincere enthusiasm but I can’t help but feel that his interest in this movie is at least a little ironic because whatever enjoyment is going to come from this thing is going to be its camp value. The story is a shameless ripoff and its effects work is largely sub-Godzilla. It’s got some laughable rear projection and some elaborate if rather unconvincing miniature work throughout and the Gorilla costume is not very good, but in something of a charming way. What’s much more convincing are some of the animal effects in the first half as the crew go through the Indian jungle looking for the monster. There a scene where a dude ends up fighting what sure looks like a real tiger and another scene where the film’s female Tarzan puts a full grown leopard over her shoulders like a fur shawl… not sure how they pulled that off. Anyway, speaking of that female Tarzan, she was played by a Swiss actress named Evelyne Kraft and spends the whole movie (including sections where she’s brought to Hong Kong) in a fur loincloth and tiny bikini top which occasionally results in noticeable nip-slips. What makes it all the weirder is that while this doesn’t have the kind of budget that something like De Laurentiis’ King Kong it wasn’t made for dirt cheap either and some of the fundamental filmmaking is not terrible. It’s an odd movie and one that would make a solid choice if you’re going to have a “bad movie night” with friends, but don’t make it into something more than that.
** out of Five
Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Within the context of the Shawscope boxed set I’ve been looking into Challenge of the Masters marks the first appearance of two very important figures: it’s the first official directorial effort we’ve gotten from Lau Kar-leung and the film is also the starring debut of the actor Gordon Liu. I say “official directorial effort” because Lau was a fight choreographer on several earlier films we’ve looked at like Five Shaolin Masters and rumor has it he more or less ghost-directed a lot of movies in that capacity for his mentor Chang Cheh. He finally broke from Cheh in the late 70s and really hit the ground running as the director of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies right away and would become one of their leading directors throughout the late 70s and 80s. As such he has a more manageable filmography than his mentor (who toiled for decades making dozens of movies in several different genres). Challenge of the Masters was his third film after making a pair of less remembered minor efforts and this and the next movie we’ll be looking at really paved the way for his fifth film and major breakout: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. That film would also propel star Gordon Liu to fame and he gets his debut starring role in this movie. Liu was practically family with Lau Kar-leung; he trained in the martial arts with Lau’s father Lau Cham, who took Liu in as his godson.
The Gordon Liu you see here is a little different from the one who would become famous two films later, in part just because he hasn’t shaved his head yet here, which certainly makes a difference given that that would basically become his trademark. Here he’s playing a character named Wong Fei-hung, who was a historical figure who lived in southern China from 1847 to 1925 and whose life has been heavily mythologized and featured in dozens of Kung Fu movies where he’s been played by everyone from Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, which was a parody of other movies about the guy). I believe there were several movies about the guy before this as well but this one was notable for being something of an origin story for Wong, and looked at him when he was first being trained. In this sense you can see how this could be a precursor to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in its focus on training, albeit without the Shaolin elements. What this doesn’t have is a particularly cool fight sequence for all this training to be leading up to and instead ends with this weird ceremony/competition involving firecrackers that I never really got my head around and felt a bit tangential to the fight training. Kind of a transitional film, but a deep cut worth knowing about if you’re getting deeper into these movies.
**1/2 out of Five
To Be Continued in Part 2
No matter how deep into cinema you get, there will always be reminders of how much you haven’t seen yet. One of those recent reminders was when the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by an octogenarian Polish filmmaker named Jerzy Skolimowski, who was very well respected but whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with. Skolimowski was a contemporary of Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski when they were in Poland, but like Polanski he did most of his work outside of his native country. His most famous movies were the 1970 movie Deep End and the 1982 film Moonlighting (not to be confused with the Bruce Willis Show), both of which I’ve probably seen on lists but which haven’t been terribly easy to obtain, so I’m really not familiar with this guy’s highly respected career. In fact the one thing I do know Skolimowski from are various acting jobs he’s taken over the years. He’s actually in Marvel’s The Avengers of all things for something like five minutes, but more notably he rather memorably plays the father of Naomi Watts’ character in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Some of those earlier films did just show up on The Criterion Channel, so I’ll probably be trying to catch up with them, but I had to go into his latest film (possibly a career culmination?) pretty much blind and kind of take it on its own merits removed from that kind of context and I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.
The title EO simply an onomatopoeia for the sound of a donkey braying, what us in the Anglosphere would write as “hee haw.” That’s because the figure at the center of this movie is in fact a donkey, who is himself named “EO.” At the beginning of the film EO is working as a beast of burden for a traveling circus under an owner who’s a bit rough and unpleasant but he is well liked by another circus performer named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), but eventually this arrangement falls apart as a group of animal rights activists shut down the circus and EO finds himself sent to some sort of farm. It would not be accurate to say this makes things better though as he runs away from there and eventually finds himself taken in by a series of owners including a drunken soccer team, a fox fur farmer, a trucker, and a pair of Italian nobles. EO is not anthropomorphized at all along the way; he doesn’t talk, nor are we privy to his thoughts, and he does not display any sort of abnormal intelligence or emotion as far as one would expect from a jackass. Our time with each one of EO’s “owners” is quite brief and we aren’t always privy to what transaction led him from one person to the next. In some cases this feels like it’s a simple matter of us not being privy to something that the donkey himself didn’t witness, but the film is not always strict about this and there are several places where we are indeed shown things that the animal didn’t witness.
Anyone who knows their film history will pretty quickly recognize this as being heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, which also followed a donkey around as it moved between people, which I think was supposed to be some kind of religious parable. To be perfectly honest, I watched that movie pretty early on in my journey into classic world cinema and I don’t think I ever really “got” it and can’t say I’m a fan. In my defense, that movie also had another high profile hater: Ingmar Bergman. In an interview Bergman once said “I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring” and then elaborated by saying “A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting… I have a completely natural aversion for [animals].” I also seem to have a bit of an aversion to animals and when I see these movies like Andrea Arnold’s Cow which expect me to get a whole lot out of watching a dumb animal walking around I tend not to really connect in the way I think I’m supposed to. And I don’t think EO is exactly an exception to that but this is not to say I hated or even particularly disliked the movie.
I think EO is ultimately supposed to be making a bigger statement about the humans as observed by this donkey than it is about the donkey itself, though some of these messages are a little unclear but the overall picture is plainly negative. In many cases the human misbehavior is rather obvious like when EO is owned by a man who breeds and harvests foxes for their fur or when the donkey becomes a pawn in a struggle between a pair of drunken amateur soccer teams but the movie doesn’t necessarily valorize the “good” people that EO encounters either. From the perspective of the donkey the people who look to pet and coo at him do not necessarily have their “love” reciprocated and they come off as kind of intrusive pests. Similarly, the animal rights people who “free” him from the circus ultimately prove to be rather short-sighted people whose actions end up simply landing him in other more socially accepted jobs for donkeys that are not really in his best interests. The thing is his stay with each of these people are really brief, which on the upside means that the film clocks in at a tight 88 minutes which is probably for the best, but they don’t always build on each other and don’t always have the connective tissue you expect as an audience. So, I guess this movie was an experience that interested me but didn’t really move me, and no matter what it’s always going to live in the shadow of Bresson’s donkey movie so I can’t say it really feels like that singular of an accomplishment to me.
***1/2 out of Five