Once Upon a Time in China Is Unstreamable

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Jet Li's thighs have to be boulders.

How hard are Jet Li’s thighs? Courtesy of Golden Harvest Company

Unstreamable is a weekly column that finds films you can’t rent on major streaming services in the United States. This week: Jet Li kicks ass in Once Upon a Time in China, Orson Welles is daddy in Tomorrow is Forever, Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows slay hearts in Blonde Venus, and The Night of the Following Day is overlooked.

If you’re thinking: “Unstreamable? In this pandemic?” Scarecrow Video offers DVD takeout and a great rental-by-mail service so you can safely rent rare DVDs during self-isolation. Click here to learn more about their program.


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Working through this franchise is a bit like working through a k-hole.

Working through this franchise is a bit like working through a k-hole. Chase Burns

Director Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China franchise is enormous, containing six films and a TV series and spanning six years in the ’90s. It stars Jet Li (and occasionally Vincent Zhao), but it really stars the person Li is portraying: Wong Fei-hung, a martial arts master and folk hero who is said to have taught martial arts to the Black Flag Army.

Wong was an expert in Hung Ga, a Cantonese martial art characterized by movements like the “sei ping ma” horse stance and tiger claw. Once Upon a Time in China is hardly the only popular film to feature Wong—he’s portrayed in over 100 films and TV series; there’s even a theme song associated with him—but it’s probably the most significant.

Tsui’s plot-making can be hard to follow but his direction is famously balletic. The opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in China is one of the best hooks of all time. Watch it, it’s clear why it became a decade-defining franchise. What’s not so clear is why basically none of the Once Upon a Time in China films are sold through U.S. streaming platforms.

I recommend watching it with the dubbing. A Camp underscoring is part of the fun. CHASE BURNS

Available for rental on DVD at Scarecrow Video and Netflix DVD. You can find unauthorized copies on YouTube.

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Weirdly touched by this movie!

Weirdly touched by this movie! Jasmyne Keimig

I texted Chase about halfway through Tomorrow Is Forever: “Is Orson Welles hot? Is it the quarantine?” He did not think so. I’d never considered it before! Was America’s foremost auteur…sexy? Am I just horny for gravitas? (Yes.)

The film revolves around Elizabeth (Claudette Colbert), a pregnant librarian whose husband John (Welles) supposedly dies in World War I. Seeing an opportunity, her wealthy employer Lawrence (George Brent) swoops in to take care of her and her unborn child, eventually convincing her to marry him and live happily ever after. But John is, in fact, alive in Europe and so horribly disfigured from reconstructive surgery he decides not to return to his old life (?), taking on an Austrian identity. Fate brings them back together when John gets a job with Lawrence twenty years later, though Elizabeth doesn’t recognize him. Sexually tense (but proper) drama ensues!

I thought Tomorrow Is Forever would be too corny to bear, but the film is anchored by its corn-free actors. I never would have believed Welles as a dashing, yearned-after leading man, but social distancing gives everything a new sheen. Look out for an extremely young Natalie Wood in her first onscreen role. JASMYNE KEIMIG

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United States, 1932, 93 min, Dir. Josef von Sternberg
Plucking, it should be noted, can be meditative, and anyone devoted to the thin brow will need to keep a good set of tweezers on hand for unexpected moments of really good light. — New York Times

“Plucking, it should be noted, can be meditative, and anyone devoted to the thin brow will need to keep a good set of tweezers on hand for unexpected moments of really good light.” — New York Times CB

John Waters did to the mustache what Marlene Dietrich did to the brows. Slick, thin, decisive, vulgar—Dietrich’s brows were a siren call for old-timey horndogs. In Blonde Venus, we first see Dietrich naked in a watering hole (it was pre-Code), only clothed by her brows. These brows are what tell us she’s It. I never really think about my ancestors older than my grandparents, but I found myself wondering what my forefathers thought of Dietrich. I bet she was too gay for them.

You should take the name of the film literally. Blonde Venus is famous for having the “Hot Voodoo” scene, which features a blonde afroed Dietrich coming out of a gorilla suit like Venus came out of that scallop shell. She’s flanked by black women dressed as stereotypical African princesses. I know I’ve only mentioned brows in this blurb, but it’s eyebrow-raising—so strange it’s almost blinding. Dietrich’s singing made me dissociate. The film received mixed initial reviews, but it’s got a tight-jawed young Cary Grant and is considered a cult essential. Pre-Code was weird. CHASE BURNS

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Watched this one twice in one sitting.

Watched this one twice in one sitting. JK

I think The Night of the Following Day is underrated. It’s not particularly innovative, but its acting heavyweights take the material so seriously that it oddly elevates the film. The story doesn’t quite connect—a group of criminals kidnap the daughter of a wealthy man and wait out their ransom request on the coast of France—but Marlon Brando embodies his underwritten character to believability. (Although you can see the edges of Brando’s fussy ego in nearly every scene, I think it only makes the film better.) And Rita Moreno as his heroin-addicted girlfriend and co-conspirator is at the top of her game. Both are completely absorbing.

Director Hubert Cornfield says he was heavily influenced by surrealism, particularly Belgian artist René Magritte. Ants, umbrellas, and craggy gray shores all have their place in The Night of the Following Day, lending it a dreaminess (*wink*) that stuck with me.

If you pick this up, my advice would be to watch with the director’s commentary turned on because Cornfield spills the tea about Brando. Like the time Brando tried to seduce his wife; the time Brando showed up drunk to shoot a scene; the time Brando demanded a scene only be filmed by the assistant director; the time Brando did away with an entire subplot of the film because he disagreed with it. He sounded like a total nightmare to work with, but the smug, triumphant tone to Cornfield’s voice is not to be missed! JASMYNE KEIMIG

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