What if a man accused of selling secrets to the enemy was, in actuality, a NINJA (???!!!). From that amusing premise, dreamed up by director Thomas Cappelen Malling in his childhood while idly watching televised news reports, 'Norwegian Ninja' has been born. Surprisingly enough, it's based on fact. (No, not the ninja part.)
Back in the early 80s, a diplomat named Arne Treholt was accused of high treason for selling government secrets to the Evil Empire (i.e. the Soviet Union and Iraq). He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, though he continues to claim that he is innocent of all charges. In the seemingly lighthearted film version, Treholt (Mads Ousdal) is a government-sanctioned ninja and lives on an island where he trains other agents in the way of the ninja: appearing in a puff of smoke out of nowhere, stalking without being seen, etc. (The island is protected by the powers of Feng Sui.) All of Treholt's actions, illustrated with real TV news footage from the time, are reimagined as part of a larger scheme to protect the peace and security of the people of Norway. The film is very funny in its own intentionally silly way, though it probably stretches its premise too thin for non-Norwegian audiences unfamiliar with the notorious case. 'Norwegian Ninja' scores points, however, for its stylish recreation of low-budget 80s films and its still relevant message about government collusion.
Segueing from a Norwegian version of ninjas to a Japanese interpretation of mutants, 'Mutant Girls Squad' dumped a reported three tons of blood onto the screen. The film is divided into three chapters, directed by Noboru Iguchi ('Machine Girl,' 'RoboGeisha'), Yoshihiro Nishimura ('Tokyo Gore Police,' 'Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl' and 'Hell Driver,' the latter of which had its world premiere at the festival as a "Secret Screening") and Tak Sakaguchi ('Samurai Zombie').
What all those credits have in common is splatter, the sub-genre of horror movies in which the emphasis is on conjuring up creatives ways to kill people in as bloody and disgusting a manner as possible. The modern Japanese version tends to favor slicing off body parts, resulting in a geyser of blood shooting into the air. The recent spate of horror flicks created by the directors of 'Mutant Girls Squad' often feature schoolgirls who are unwittingly transformed into killing machines in a more literal sense, with one or more of the heroine's body parts made into a weapon.
Celebrating her 16th birthday, Rin (Yumi Sugimoto) learns that her father is an alien and that she too will soon be sprouting some kind of outlandish weapon from her body. She is drafted into the Mutant Girls Squad, composed of young ladies, each with her own unique talent, or "treasure," as they prefer. For example, one girl can use a chainsaw emerging from her posterior, another can call forth swords from her breasts, and so forth. The film appeals to a very narrow demographic and, unfortunately, becomes increasingly difficult to watch as the running time wears ever onward. It's not so much because of the gore -- assuming you have a high tolerance for such things -- it's that the formula is getting old. A film doesn't need to be high art to pay at least a little attention to story and characters.
Fantastic Fest showcased Donnie Yen in three films. Lacking the familial warmth and grace found in 'Ip Man 2' and the earnest, if failed, ambition of 'Legend of the Fist,' the third film playing, '14 Blades,' suffers by comparison.
Written and directed by Daniel Lee ('Three Kingdoms'), the period picture harks back to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema in the early 90s, when it seemed that every other release featured the extravagant use of wire fu, the mechanical system guided by humans that enables martial artists to fly 30 feet through the air and perform gravity-defying acrobatics with the greatest of ease. Wire fu still makes purists cringe, but in its heyday it expanded the canvas for veteran action choreographers and today has become the de facto standard in Hollywood, where action movie stars rarely have the athleticism or years of training to pull off any but the most rudimentary of stunts or fight scenes. Wire fu techniques make them look good.
Yen plays Qingling, a security guard of sorts, the last member of a secret brigade raised from childhood to protect the Emperor. Qingling is charged with recapturing a valuable item stolen from the Emperor that could shift the nation's balance of power. He hires the Justice Escorts, a group on the verge of disbanding when Qingling comes calling, and catches the eye of Qiao Hua (Vicky Zhao Wei, from 'Shaolin Soccer' and 'Red Cliff'), the daughter of the group's wise leader. Qingling takes her hostage to ensure his safe passage, sending the rest of the group in a different direction to serve as decoys.
'14 Blades' feature two or three wire fu sequences, along with several more down-to-earth action sequences; the best is one in which Qingling employs "chicken bone fu," an amusing and effective riff on fight scenes. Overall, however, the movie is mired in mediocrity, dragging along unevenly in a story that never catches fire. It doesn't help that Yen plays a stoic character who rarely shows emotion. The film is neither good enough to recommend with enthusiasm nor deficient enough to dismiss entirely.
Really, '14 Blades' would make a decent rental choice for a lazy Saturday afternoon when it appears on DVD down the road, as long as your expectations aren't too high.