Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Grindhouse Memory: The Final Battles of the Human Hatchet (1977)

The popcorn was your lunch, that was how you planned it.

I’m speaking for those of us of a certain age who’d sneak away from our unexceptional teenage lives to take in a quadruple-feature in a dubious part of the big city, a blurred spectacle that would pummel us equally with depraved thrills and unexpected beauty. Back then, of course, there was no themed cable television or online media—you couldn’t subject yourself to marathon sessions of watching whatever turned you on without first making an actual pilgrimage. In the process you’d trade in your safe, bright, private home for one that offered a very public form of privacy, the houselights always set at a sickly semi-dim, a space that was never not knee-deep in grubbiness, full of slumped figures in seats snoring boozily through sprays of blood and splashes of widescreen nudity. You’d never know whether to pity them or fear them, these fellow audience members, lest they wake in a sudden incoherent rage, but it didn’t matter anyway because, above all, you were there to ignore each other. You’d enter at 11-something in the morning, stagger out at six-something, and if it was the summer, you’d be amazed that it was still light out (after a day of gloom), and if it was winter, you’d be amazed at the gentle darkness of the early evening (after a day packed with too-bright colors, with explosions of fire and flesh). Earlier, during the breaks between features, you’d take the measure of your own temporal disorientation by trying to recall what you’d seen two movies ago, and usually the answer wouldn’t come immediately—cognitively, you had joined the great haze of the half-hidden and the half-forbidden while, outside, in the world beyond the exit doors, real life slipped by unperturbed, as if on gliding silver casters. Time never seems to care that we waste so much of it.  

Years and years later we’d meet, this murk-enamored army of the once-young who could recall the grindhouses, and talk would inevitably run to favorite trailers and one-sheets; and, just as inevitably, the comment would arise, and find no objection, that theses previews and posters were always far, far better than the product they promoted. That’s true with most films, I suppose, but in these cases we were dealing with artifacts both more endearing and more misleading, the former true not despite, but because, of the latter. The advertising images were bolder, somehow more mythic for the way the films were condensed down to their essence—a steely look given and zoomed in upon, a battle cry, a driving musical signature over a montage of impossible stunts. Block letters and exclamation points blazing out of the screen at you. Voice-overs that took these movies extremely seriously and dared you to do otherwise; and the more absurd, the more transparently pandering, the more seriously still.

That said, there was a handful of times when this maxim didn’t hold, when what was delivered exceeded in every way what had been promised. And for me the most memorable of those times involved The Final Battles of The Human Hatchet (1977), aka The Final Battle of The Human Hatchet, aka simply The Human Hatchet.
Kung fu (or wuxia) movies of this period often incorporated elements of the grotesque and the baroquely cruel, and I’m not sure if that’s because the practice made for good business at the Asian box office, or because it so nicely fit the export market, where they could share a bill with homegrown exploitation flicks and not miss a beat. With The Human Hatchet, however, there was a big difference—here we had a proven director (Huang Feng, not that we tracked Hong Kong filmmakers in those days—if we had, we might have marveled that this was one of his three releases in that single year) and in addition, a topnotch star, Gordon Liu, shortly before he astonished
all of us with the classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
The appeal of many of the HK films of this era (not to mention countless Westerns, chanbara flicks wherein a ronin grudgingly rises to the call of honor, a million cop B-movies in which the protagonist is called out of retirement—or is about to retire and feels there’s no need to risk his comfortable future) concerns the importance of a reluctant hero. More precisely, a “damaged hero”—damaged by reputation, by physical injury, by age alone, by emotional scars, or some combination of these. The key is a form of incapacity—because that’s how so many of us saw ourselves, and maybe still do. Tomorrow we would wake from our slumber and find a better job, or any job, or be motivated to go to school, or just do some homework, or go on a date, or exercise—we were, in the meantime, intentionally lying dormant, that’s how the fantasy goes, waiting for the moment we’d supernova out of our half-lives and onto some grander stage of participation. That way, the longer we stayed inactive, with only sufficient agency to make our way into these caves of wonder and violence, the more volcanic would be our eventual eruption into the mainstream of humanhood.

Yes, I’m rambling now, I realize that. The point is that there was a tacit agreement back then between us cave-dwellers to keep any and all interaction between us to an absolute minimum. You’d use the imaginary as an intermediary, a gauzy, ephemeral sounding board—you’d laugh at what someone said three rows over, but you’d never meet, never acknowledge each other in ways that involved anything beyond staring straight ahead at the fiery things before you.

Which is why, as I’ll come to explain, The Human Hatchet was so remarkable, or at least my experience of it was (a distinction I feel compelled to make even though it’s pointless, ultimately). That and the fact that this was a movie that more than made good on the gaudy promises of its trailer, which I recalled vividly from a week or two previously—and so provided me with my very first sensation, and probably one of my last, of the state of grace. I don’t deserve this, I remember thinking. Maybe none of us do.

“Yes… This Is The One!” the trailer had announced breathlessly.

The letters arrived one by one rapidly from left to right, apparently writing themselves by virtue of your reading them. Under them, a close shot of a hatchet lodging in wood, the chunk sound underscoring the text, its single syllable pairing nicely with any of the single-syllable words on the screen. (Slouched down in my seat, I let the on-screen boast slip past my guard—then questioned it, even back then:  what was meant by “the one”? Didn’t the copywriter responsible for this know that my eyes and ears had an appetite that was all about quantity, that I was slowly amassing a vast topography of the imaginary by taking in any and all items of sufficient power and dazzle? Or was I wrong, had I really been waiting for one special cinematic story, some kind of messianic opus that would provoke a personal transformation, and had simply not realized it? Well, maybe, in a sense, I had been waiting for this kind of singular arrival, just so that now, decades later, I could recount it for you.)

“The Picture That Everyone is Talking About—”

Behind these words, and then eventually replacing them as the letters were wiped off the right side of the screen, there’s a provincial governor holding court; these trailers always included such shots, offering proof of production values as if production values mattered much to us. The governor, unidentified as such in the trailer, has the air of a warlord about him, imperious and grave with his elegant and precise facial hair, his grooming a kind of aesthetic weapon at his disposal. He speaks a line of self-serving pseudo-Confucianism—we know not to whom because of how things have been edited: “Knowing our place in life is what brings peace. Not knowing our place brings… war!” (Meanwhile, my place in life, at least for this specific moment and many like it, was all too clear to me. I was in my hibernation spot—I’d checked out the surroundings upon first entering the theater and monitored them at regular intervals as the long matinee hours marched dreamily on. I fortified my position by slumping and covering, by making myself at one with the surroundings, a process that was not free of challenges. Were the armrests acceptable as surfaces upon which I could lay my elbows and triceps? If not, I didn’t depart; rather, I'd let the sleeves of my coat drape over them, shielding my shirt or sweater from actual contact. The paramount rule, however, was never ever to let one’s fingertips stray to the lip of an armrest and beyond, so that they might come in contact with what could lie beneath. This was how you inoculated yourself against the slyly encroaching suspicion that you were part of the filth.)

“—And Soon You Will Be, Too!”

The cut on “war” brings us a glimpse of a full-on battle scene, with spear-toting guards going up against peasants and assorted villagers armed with pitchforks and other farm implements, the two groups collapsing upon each other in the center of the screen, the first casualty being the empty space that existed briefly before the clash. Which means that if you’re keeping score, so far we’ve had a glimpse of the budget and a sense of spectacle—all within ten seconds or so. Still not much to write home about it, but the trailer, it turns out, is merely getting these checklist items out of the way before proceeding to the heart of the matter. (At first there would appear to be an unintended lie in the trailer’s assertion—I most definitely would not be talking to anyone about this or any similar film. The kids at school? They had no sense of this—well, this world. They were busy gravitating to Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever, and I don’t fault them for that. Besides, there really was no relevant discourse at all, anywhere, except perhaps a few hand-stapled zines scattered across the country, some capsule reviews in the Cantonese language dailies, or box office stats buried somewhere in the back of Variety. This was culture without conversation. You would think, then, that when a new century later dawned and it seemed that everyone alive was thinking and commenting about pop culture, I’d have welcomed the company, but by then I was already accelerating in the opposite direction, longing to be silent and sparing after years of chatter.)

“Just Who Is the Human Hatchet…?”

A quick, satisfying shot of a hatchet blade cutting through the staff of three spears in one circular motion. Then the camera pulls back and we see, at last, (I know: but “at last” is what it feels like though we’re now only about fifteen seconds in) the title character, wild-eyed and, surprisingly (if you know the actor), with hair similarly wild. Liu has short-handled hatchets where both hands should be, and long, somewhat tattered sleeves conveniently covering fake stumps—it’s the old “taped-over fists” visual that was a staple in all the eras prior to when CGI enabled filmmakers simply to delete flesh. We’re all aware the actor is still intact, but we’re okay with equating the invisible with the absent because that’s the way this whole thing works. We let ourselves be fooled, and fooling us is what occurs from before the get-go: all of the posters and key art that promoted the film presented an image that is not remotely in the film—Tian Gao bare-chested and sans hands. Some graphic designer was ordered to gild the lily, and moviegoers fell in line.

More importantly, at least in terms of cinema history, this was years before Evil Dead II and Edward Scissorhands leveraged similar ideas about missing appendages. (Forgive the aside, but the premise of the latter always seemed a little dumb to me. Why would Vincent Price’s character have fabricated the hands last? Would you really make sure your creation had clothes, but not the means to take them on and off? It’s a conceit that makes sense only on the level of psychoanalytic male adolescence.) As you watched the trailer, you immediately wanted to know how he acquired these skills, these unique weapons—did he train like this, specializing in what seems to be a new fighting style? Was he a member of a temple of devotees/amputees? The trailer, however, was concerned with bigger issues, ones of identity, as evidenced by the rapid-fire array of options that followed in answer to the question it had just posed… (Much of what was exhibited in the cave was inane: that was a given. So it took special circumstances to prompt us to express our reaction to additional stupidity. I did it, too; not at first, and never the first one to do so while any given film screened, but, yes, I’d contribute. I had to be careful for my voice was distinctive, not like the others in attendance. And I’d keep it brief, words that were short and declarative. You see, you’d have to yell back at the screen once in a while, for good measure, to show you were not above doing so… to prove it to yourself, that is—no one else was likely noting your behavior. The practice of reacting out loud like this also kept you from going too far and too completely into the self-contained realms inside your head. Again: We talked to each other by shouting at the screen.)


And now the first shock of the trailer: Tian Gao, cleaned up, on horseback, in armor and imperial helmet, but more importantly—with both hands. He barks a phrase that seems to contain no words, charges along a narrow mountain pass, leaps from his steed to protect the governor’s litter with his own person. From higher up on the sides of a sand-colored canyon, against which the indigos and emeralds of the governor’s escort stand out like targets, a dust-covered but better camouflaged troop of unidentified enemies pushes rocks and boulders down, trying to force the litter off the road and take a fatal plunge. But Gao, with inhuman ferocity and power, is kicking, punching, and somehow guiding the rocks as they tumble down; on the ground near him are corpses in lighter armor—bodyguards who have apparently already sacrificed themselves. One of the attackers from above, disheveled, and as wild-eyed as we saw Liu with his hatchet-hands a moment ago, something painfully desperate about him, screams, “His hands are indestructible!”—and we cut.

What the trailer doesn’t have time to explain but which blossoms narratively up out of such ingredients is the fact that we first encounter Gao as the popular leader of the local imperial regiment; popular because he grew up in the area, popular also because he is simply likable: decent, honest, smart. Additionally the trailer does not bother, nor should it, with the connective plot tissue: that, as a result of warding off the attack shown, he receives an unheard-of double promotion (which in terms of the class system makes no sense whatsoever), both to special adviser to the governor and to a member of his personal guard (which just lost a few members, you’ll recall). In the movie we learn that the attack was launched by a ragtag group of rebel peasants, their agenda nebulous except that their hostility is directed against the governor himself, not the office he holds nor the political status quo more broadly.

In an unusual role in that it downplays his martial arts skills until the final reel, the governor is played by the wonderful and reliable Lung Wei Wang (aka Johnny Wang), here not quite so artificially aged as he is in other roles, with only single strands of grey/white mixed in with his jet black hair, not the usual full-on snow-white get-up. The idea is that the actor’s youth (in real life he was not yet thirty) is here used to a subtle thematic effect: he is meant to seem too young to be in such a position of power, which in turn means that perhaps he is far older and by some means only manages to appear much younger. “Those filth who died,” he says of the rebel dead, “—dump them in the pit.” He commands this in an off-handed tone, as if it’s standard operating procedure. After the bodies are burned, he’s shown gathering the ashes by moonlight, scattering drops of some mysterious oil upon them… and then re-burning them, chanting something that we cannot make out and which may not be in any known language. In a later scene that takes place in his inner sanctum he is inhaling deeply of a dense, black smoke, and the implication is that he has made a form of incense out of his enemies. Incidentally, these include the fellow who yelled the bit about Gao’s hands, a farmer whose brother later joins Gao when he becomes an insurrectionist; it is a decision-making moment drawn out both for suspense (will he attempt to avenge his brother instead?) and emotional drama: can there be forgiveness in the service of fighting evil? Well, yes, evidently there can be, and yes, this is political theory based on sentimentality, one of popular cinema’s most prevalent modes.


“Tian Gao, you are a traitor!”—this from a former comrade-in-arms poised on a rooftop in the governor’s compound, and it is the first time the trailer speaks our protagonist’s name aloud. Behind the outraged fellow are swordsmen—the elite guard to which Gao had been promoted earlier. It’s a rooftop that looks vaguely familiar from other period pictures from the same studio, the kind of rooftop from which people are always leaping up to and flying down from, their loose clothes billowing in vertical winds. In the movie this irate member of the guard adds, “We should have killed you when we could!” but here the dialogue is cut short by the action that immediately follows: he launches a terrific kick from the top of this two-story building while below Gao lunges forward and takes out a support beam with a criss-crossing blow from his two hatchets, and that entire section of the roof collapses. Guards in indigo and emerald fill the air; their swords fall separately. The kicker lands too distantly: where Gao had been. He turns, his sword leading the way, and Gao, now classically bald again, now a disciplined warrior but for the other side, delivers the same sort of criss-crossing strike, hitting the blade at two different points, and, instead of shattering it, bends it into an impotent curve. The effect is comical, accented by how the swordsman is gazing at the weapon in his hand, with a genuinely puzzled and slightly moronic sort of fascination. (I am making it up if I say that in this point in the trailer all of us sat up straighter and took notice; that’s how things should have been, how we should have reacted—and in memory I have revised it so that that is indeed what happened.  To be clear, the strident tone of nostalgia you may detect in everything I express is not due to my belief that the past was any more enjoyable than the present; it’s just that the memories are more malleable than anything else we can experience. It’s easy, for example, to drop out the anxiety—the dread from which the movies provided a consistent escape, and to recall only the escape itself. Thus we fix our own lives in post, get them to conform to whatever narrative we are currently telling: it’s not the story we tell ourselves that shapes our lives, but the story we tell ourselves about the story.)

The trailer, and this was back when trailers were gloriously achronological (unlike most of today’s), then shifts to an earlier point in the film: “So, Gao has joined the rebels’ cause now?” the governor muses. “Every man must serve a master, so I should not be surprised”—yes, there is foreshadowing taking place here, before the picture has even been released—“Very well, then,” he continues. “It is with heavy regret [sic] that you have my permission” —and there’s a sudden zoom in on him as he stands up (for no reason that we can see):  “—to kill him!”

What’s omitted in the trailer, naturally, is the entirety of the governor’s speech, which sports that same over-the-counter strength version of Confucianism noted earlier mixed liberally with Western-style social Darwinism; after remarking that he should not be surprised by Gao's treachery, he observes: “I serve only at the pleasure of the Qing. The Qing serve only at the pleasure of the gods, while the gods serve at the pleasure of the Tao. And the Tao serves all, if we allow it.” Pause. Then he says “Very well...” In short, where the trailer makes the ostensible villain seem decisive and remorseless, in the actual film he seems far more reflective, reaching his decision almost reluctantly; in fact, it’s as if he is not talking about Gao anymore but about himself—that is, if he were totally free and not in the service of a specific political structure and metaphysical scheme, he himself might arrive at a different decision. So we feel for the governor, as vile as he may seem, and this is true even if we realize how the cinematic moment is manipulating us: that’s the amoral beauty of the movies.

[...thanks so much for reading this far, but I'm afraid I may have overstayed my welcome; so please stay tuned for the literally unbelievable ending of The Human Hatchet in a follow-up post. -Peter]

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