Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sister Street Fighter

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Writers: Manfred Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki
Producers: Kineo Yoshimine, Kenji Takamura
Cast: Sue Shiomi, Sonny Chiba, Harry Kondo, May Hayakawa
Year of release: 1974
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Stablecane Video)

Sister Street Fighter is one of the most brilliant, most bonkers, most hugely entertaining martial arts films ever made. It is sort of a spin-off from the Sonny Chiba Street Fighter movies, in that it co-stars ‘Sonny Chiba, the Street Fighter’ but his character is different in this film.

The actual star is the phenomenally cute Etsuko ‘Sue’ Shiomi who made several other films with Chiba including The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, The Bodyguard, Message from Space and Dragon Princess. Only eighteen when this picture was made, and dressed in either a grey and red Chinese collar-less suit or white pyjamas, she kicks and punches her way across the screen with yells and squeals and a cheeky smile. She is great, displaying the same sort of evident delight in what she (or her character) is doing that distinguishes the great martial arts stars. You always get the impression that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan love their jobs; you never get that impression with Steven Segal or Don ‘His movies drag on and on’ Wilson.

Shiomi plays Tina Long, sister of a missing Chinese undercover cop named Lee Long, star pupil of the Shorinji School of Martial Arts. Lee has disappeared, Tina is told by a balding Hong Kong police chief, while investigating a drug-smuggling operation. It is up to his sister to save him, initially by making contact with another undercover operative, working at the Club Mandarin and named, um, Fanny Singer.

Tina flies to Yokohama where her attempt to have a quiet meal is interrupted by a bunch of young Japanese men who would like to show the Chinese cutie a good time. She demonstrates why they should not mess with her by spearing flies in flight with a toothpick, then kicks their arses anyway, joined halfway through by her cousins, Jerry and Randy. The three later join Tina’s uncle for lunch; Jerry says Tina is well-known in Japan now, “a real celebrity” although no-one at the cafe in the previous scene recognises her, nor in the next scene at the Club Mandarin.

At the club, which features topless dancers behind the bar, Fanny Singer is identified by a red rose on her thigh. Trying to leave, she is accosted by gangsters but runs out the back when Tina throws a fork into a hood’s hand. Fanny is caught in an alleyway and although Tina beats up some of the gang, others bundle the dancer into a car and drive off - only to be halted by a mysterious stranger (Chiba) who beats them up, takes the car (with Ms Singer in it) and drives off.

At Central Trading Co., the front for the drug smugglers, the guys who failed to kidnap Fanny successfully are berated by their boss's second-in-command, a beaky guy in a sharp suit who looks like he should be second from the left in the Flying Pickets. Suddenly, in bursts Hammerhead, a gang leader who dresses like an ancient swordsman and leads a squad of goons with odd, bucket-like helmets on their heads.

Meanwhile, Tina visits the Shorinji School where pupils are taught about love and zen and peace and karma and a whole load of other tree-hugging hippy crap: “Harmony between yourself and others is the basic condition of the karate fighter.” Wise old master Shorinji pledges the assistance of himself and all his pupils in tracking down and rescuing Lee Long. The odd bit of this is that the logo of the school is a reversed swastika, clearly displayed on everyone’s tunic and on the wall (in fact, the camera focusses in on it). Presumably it is being used in its ancient Sanskrit, pre-Nazi concept, but still...

Tina is introduced to star pupil Emmy Kawasaki and also recognises young Mr Chiba who is, it transpires, martial arts teacher Sonny Hibachi. He has Fanny safely hidden away at a dance school, where young ladies are practising ballet to the strains of Ponchielli’s 'Dance of the Hours' (or ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ if you’re an Allan Sherman fan). Fanny tells Tina that her brother was captured breaking into the headquarters of chief bad guy Koki. She gives Tina a lock of Lee Long’s hair, then has a fit and starts screaming that she needs heroin.

At this point, Hammerhead’s bucket-headed goons barge into the dance school looking for Fanny (as it were) but discover that the dance teacher is none other than ‘Shinobu Kojo - karate of the Ryukyu School’. We discover this too, through the first of several similar freeze-frame captions. Miss Kojo successfully fights the bucketheads with the assistance of Miss Long, but when Tina returns to Fanny she is just in time to see her shot by a poison dart. This emanates from a guy on a rooftop opposite who has a Mohican haircut, a billowing cloak and a large African shield - ‘Tettoso - blowgun of the Takasago School’. Before making his escape, he takes a potshot at Tina but succeeds only in killing a canary in a birdcage.

By now, the film has established itself as something much more than just another chop-socky flick, oh yes.

At Koki’s bayside mansion, complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool, we see some more of his killers training”

  • Tessin - the sickle user
  • Neray - ancient Chinese martial arts
  • Eva Parrish - karate champion of Australia
  • Amazons 7 - Thailand kickboxing
  • Hachigen Ma - Japanese cudgel play

Of these, Amazon 7 are the most memorable, being a septet of oriental lovelies in carefully ragged mini-dresses apparently made from the same fabric as Fred Flintstone’s suit. “I don’t like race horses so I keep killers,” explains Koki to Hammerhead. “It’s like a private zoo. It amuses me. It’s as much fun as a carload of gorillas.” He then shows his visitor close-circuit footage of a cell where Lee Long (played by Kamen Rider V3 himself, Hiroshi Miyauchi) is being held and forced to take hard drugs. Another camera shows Tina approaching the perimeter fence, which she leaps in a single bound. She fights Hammerhead atop a high cliff and onto a narrow footbridge from which he hurls her after informing her that her brother is still alive “because you’ll die soon anyway.”

Koki then shows Hammerhead how he manages to smuggle heroin without the authorities spotting it. In a laboratory deep in the bowels of the Koki mansion, scientists are hard at work saturating wigs in A-class drugs! That’s right - wigs. It may sound bonkers, but - well, no, it just is bonkers. Emmy Kawasaki is onto him and finds, on the dockside, crates of wigs being exported from Japan to Hong Kong. She fights Koki’s goons with the surprise help of Tina, who survived the fall from the bridge. As the Koki gang’s truck catches fire, one of them yells the immortal line, “Save the wigs!”

Tina’s uncle turns up at Koki’s place, trying to pass a message to Lee Long, but is forced by the rascally Koki - who makes him watch his daughter being raped - to call Tina and tell her to meet him. Of course, when she turns up it proves to be a trap and she is forced to fight first Hachigen Ma and his pole of death, then Neray and his lethal clubs.

Things are getting complicated now. Uncle Wotsit arrives back home with Randy; Jerry is already there, as is Emmy, and the four of them suddenly face Amazon 7 who are all wearing odd papier-mâché masks. Having defeated the crap girly kickboxers - with the aid of Tina, who turns up in time for a good fight as usual - Uncle is then felled by a poison dart.

Tina manages to smuggle her way into Koki’s lair by hiding in the back of a truck, but Oki has a new pet killer - Reverend Star. This fellow is a former preacher who comes equipped with dog-collar, wide-brimmed hat and that essential ecumenical accessory, an armour-piercing spear-gun. Reverend Star kills Lee Long in front of his sister, then perishes by his own spear-gun...

...whereupon Tina falls through a trapdoor and regains consciousness hanging upside-down surrounded by Koki and his chums. Koki’s mistress, previously seen being thrown into the swimming pool by Hammerhead, gives Tina a good Ilsa-style whipping and Flying Picket-man gives her another lash for good measure. Then a flame is applied to the rope which holds her and we eventually see, just before it breaks, that she is suspended over a pit of steel spikes. Fortunately, she is athletic enough to somersault out of trouble just as the rope snaps, and pushes Ilsa on to the spikes for good measure.

Finally, we get a full-scale fight between the bad guys (including Tessin the sickle user) and the heroic team of Tina, Sonny, Emmy and Randy (and possibly Jerry - the editing is a little confusing at this point). Sonny kills Hammerhead by smashing his face into a mirror while Tina chases Koki through an escape tunnel full of rubber bats to the clifftop, where the final showdown takes place.

Phew.

What a movie. The fights are mostly terrific. Sonny Chiba is always great value, but so is Miss Shiomi and the inclusion of all these oddball specialists just makes a good film great. Though one has to wonder whatever happened to Eva Parrish, karate champion of Australia, who never reappears. The whole film is populated by eccentrics and the plot makes just enough sense to follow whilst making just enough nonsense to take the film to a level rarely attained by such pictures.

Some martial arts films are worth a watch, some are unwatchable, but Sister Street Fighter (Onna Hissatsu Ken) is one that I can watch again and again. This VHS tape was released in 1986 and has a cover painting of Shiomi based on a photograph of her (seen on the back of the sleeve) in a completely different film. the back-cover blurb reckons that the story is set in Tokyo although an on-screen caption clearly identifies it as Yokohama (and it certainly looks more like the latter). More amusingly, the film apparently features Sonny Chiba as ‘a super karate master and Ninja - a fighter who can become invisible.’ Well, if Chiba’s character ever becomes invisible in this story, he only does so whilst off-screen. (Or maybe not, actually...)

Director Yamaguchi (Karate Bear Fighter, Moon Angel) lifts the film above run-of-the-mill mid-1970s Oriental action flicks, possibly because this is, to all intents and purposes, a Hong Kong film made in Japan by Japanese film-makers. The English dubbing, written and directed by the ubiquitous Peter Fernandez, is very good indeed - understandable dialogue that closely matches lip movements, spoken by well-cast actors with real talent - and it is easy to forget that one is watching a Japanese film. Two sequels followed within the next couple of years, also starring Shiomi and directed by Yamaguchi, but I haven’t yet seen either of them. (NB. Most places list the title as three words but this version makes it two words - Sister Streetfighter - both on the sleeve and on-screen.)

Just remember: save the wigs!

MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 1st March 2005

2 comments:

  1. Love this insane movie. Small (possible) correction: I think it was released on VHS in UK in 1983, not '86. The initial VTC home video release was uncut. Later, post-Video Recordings Act UK video releases were heavily cut by more than 3 minutes. The movie has now been released uncut and in fantastic quality on US DVD &(code free) Bluray.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Jude. 1986 was the release date of the tape I watched (on the obscure Stablecane label). I have long since got rid of it and I can't find an image of that release's sleeve.

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