TIFF 2010: Machete Maidens Unleashed! Review

Director Mark Hartley has created a formula for what will hopefully be a continuing series of energetic and entertaining retrospective documentaries that explore the weirder corners of cinema while simultaneously building a virtual shopping list for future Amazon.com purchases. In Machete Maidens Unleashed! he focuses on the Filipino film explosion of the 60s and 70s and how American filmmakers influenced their industry.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of catching Hartley’s previous film, Not Quite Hollywood, should know exactly what to expect from Machete Maidens. Vibrant opening titles, outrageous film clips and enthusiastic interviews add up to a great, infectiously geeky film-going experience. While previously Hartley tackled the Australian film industry — more specifically, Ozploitation filmmaking — this time around we’re treated to a ton of fun clips from such Filipino titles as ‘Beast of Blood’, ‘Savage Sisters’, and ‘The One Armed Executioner’. We also get some great insight from a solid line up of interviewees including a interviews from Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Jack Hill and a number of actors and filmmakers involved with the production of these crazy pictures. John Landis also appears oozing crack-cocaine levels of excitement about the ‘girls with the biggest breasts and the most luscious thighs’. Oddly enough, he also comments on the safety standards of the Filipino film sets, which some might find awfully ironic. It’s in these interviews that we get a sense of the myth-making that’s spawned from the low-rent production of these films. The tales of harrowing danger and sexuality are dripping with hyperbole and have clearly been naturally workshopped and audience tested through years of dinner parties and family gatherings. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I lit a Filipino stuntman on fire?’ Like all great stories, these are people talk with a rhythm that’s self-edited for maximum laughs and dramatic effect.

One thing I didn’t expect from this film was such a heavy focus on American filmmaking; in particular, Roger Corman’s time filming in the Philippines. His prolific body of work could sustain its own documentary so I thought it was strange to devote so much time to New World Pictures when there’s a great opportunity to look at the more unusual films to come out of the East. The film also explores such sub-genres as the ‘women in cages’ film and delves into some blaxploitation but, again, all from the American perspective. It seemed like a missed opportunity to spend time looking at Eastern filmmaking without exploring some of the weird stuff to come out of Indonesia. The thing that makes those films interesting are the warped Eastern perspectives on Western cliches. Add a bit of Eastern folklore into the mix and you’ve got a strange hybrid of classic American genre filmmaking transplanted inside Eastern myths and legends. Instead, Machete Maidens focuses on the idea of Americans outsourcing their film productions, taking advantage of cheap Filipino labour and substandard shooting conditions.

There’s also a chunk of time devoted to the production of Apocalypse Now, which was shot in the Philippines in 1976. While it’s definitely an important footnote in the history of filmmaking in the Philippines, it’s a subject that has been explored in such detail in so many other places that it almost felt redundant. It might have been interesting to explore that production from the Filipino perspective, but it just doesn’t get there. R Lee Erney (Full Metal Jacket) offers some insights into the production and claims that Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of Vietnam was nothing like the real thing (isn’t that obvious?). There are also claims that the production used real dead bodies strung up around Kurtz’s complex in the final act of the film. This is where the line between the recycled rumour and first-hand account seems to blur.

While the majority of the Filipino cinema highlighted in Machete Maidens Unleashed! might not contain as much of a cultural identity as the Australian films of Not Quite Hollywood, it’s still a ton of fun listening to people talk about their love of movies and moviemaking in such a passionate, unpretentious fashion. Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a fun crowd pleaser that works as a good primer for further investigation into Eastern genre filmmaking! Hopefully Hartley continues this series of films. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Canuxploitation! Make it happen! — Jay C.