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Still one of the best of the surviving “boutique” labels, recent startup Vinegar Syndrome is back with another interesting double bill from the days of ‘porno chic’.

Sadly not a double feature of Linda Wong movies (the gorgeous Chinese starlet probably best known for China de Sade and China Lust, two films obliquely referenced by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult in their best days) and thankfully not a reworking of the Sandi Carey atrocity Cries of Ecstasy, Blows of Death (the truly desperate are welcome to check Something Weird‘s site for that amazingly flawed sci-fi/kung fu oddity), this is a partially logical and partly mismatched pairing of Bill Milling films dating from 1975 and sharing much of the same cast between them, but achieving vastly different results.

One caveat to the unsuspecting: as with their earlier Anatomy of a Psycho / The Lonely Sex (and to some extent, both the abortive Savage Water and later released Dungeon of Harrow versions of the double bill with Death by Invitation), Vinegar Syndrome strangely chose to put the lesser picture as the first (and presumably main) attraction, while an astronomically superior feature is given lesser billing.  My advice?  Jump ahead to the second feature, and save Vixens of Kung Fu for when you and your friends are very, very drunk.

That warning aside, on we go to the festivities!

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Opening with a shot of a lushly forested mountain range (complete with a prominently displayed pair of electrical towers), Vinegar Syndrome and Process Blue deliver yet another gorgeous restoration of a grindhouse porn obscurity with Bill Milling’s Vixens of Kung Fu.  Scenes of a flowing river tributary and walks through the forest by a guy dressed as a Shaolin monk are so vivid and crisp, it’s just like being there, 40 years after the fact.

A cheesy racist Charlie Chan type voiceover kicks in, babbling David Carradine Kung Fu-style nonsense about primeval waters as a metaphor for the principle of yang (a totally flipped understanding of the Tao if there ever was one).  A bogus credit sequence follows for “Chiang Productions”, marked by Chinese titles to convince the punters they’re watching an authentic Shaw Bros. porn film (!).  There’s even a few discofied Cantopop songs sprinkled throughout the running time to muddy the waters further…  One wonders if any of the hobos, drug addicts, johns and runaways in attendance at your average inner city grindhouse porn theater back in the mid 70’s were actually fooled by all this chicanery, because it’s pretty absurd (if quite amusing in retrospect).

Presumed pseudonyms “Peonies Jong” (more on her later), “Lin Chen Fu” and “Ling Fat” rest side by side with legendary names like C.J. Laing, Bobby Astyr and Jamie Gillis.  There’s even a credit for “Special Kung Fu Fighting” given to one Anthony Wong (presumably not the HK Category III impresario and “Bun Man” of the late 80’s / early 90’s Hong Kong film craze).  Even the crew takes a detour into fake name land, as the writer and director are credited as “Cho En Young” and “Chiang” respectively (with further silly renamings throughout the credit roll).

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Astyr, Gillis and some follically challenged guy show up to gun down an unsuspecting female (one Bree Anthony) with what looks like a police issue revolver (but which the omnipresent post dubbed dialogue, used to give the impression that this is in fact yet another imported kung fu flick, tells us is an “anaesthesia gun”).  That being accomplished, they thoughtfully take the extra step of pulling out a quilt picnic blanket so they can have what would presumably be some nonconsensual sex with her (though she’s apparently together enough to blow two of them, while the balding fellow beats off into one of her super tacky Rainbow Brite/Lookee from She-Ra style socks for some unknown reason.  Seriously, it’s never explained, so we just have to assume it’s Milling’s weird sense of humor at work…)

Cut to a seemingly unrelated cross between a feminist rally and the philosophy of Tai Chi 101, run by none other than C.J. Laing and attended by 3 really homely ladies (one of whom sports the absolute worst Farrah Fawcett wig I’ve ever had the misfortune to see).

Ms. Anthony, our unfortunate female from the first sequence, mysteriously winds up nude on a beach (how we got there from the mountains is beyond me), where she is “rescued” by a heretofore unseen member of the culty coffee klatch.  Our heroine proceeds to oil Anthony down and feels her up sufficient to stimulate a flashback memory of a Fred Williamson type (who goes down on her) and a Bo Svenson type (who gets the full monte).  She’s a prostitute, she helpfully informs us, before being interrupted by yet another quick cut memory of Astyr and company (in case you forgot what happened less than 5 minutes ago.  Could happen, you know.)

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“Hunters disrupted all my confidence in starting a new life,” she tells us, before breaking into a Sapphic tryst with her supposed rescuer – a lunatic who spits out some pseudo-revolutionary blather that hints at an otherwise unspoken sci fi angle to the proceedings: “They come from the upper society…they have a special weapon they use called the gun…of anaesthesia!”

“But master…what can we do to combat this way of life?” our hooker heroine asks.  Given her answer is a dialogue-free lesbo love scene, I guess direct action carries a completely different implication than one might expect from the preceding manifesto of dialogue…

Long story short, this would-be Helen Reddy for the hippie cult sect offers to teach her kung fu, which seems to consist of Qi Gong and meditative breath control exercises (but which oddly causes cigarette smoke to spew forth from everyone’s vagina!).  Now, I’ve seen a number of those silly kunoichi/lady ninja films out of Japan, but this predates all of them by at least a decade.  So we learned something new tonight…yes, that popular trend in killer private parts films start right here, folks!

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A heretofore unseen cutie with a Cleopatra bob gets it on with CJ, who looks right into the camera and laughs at one point, as that earring sporting monk from the credit roll appears to watch. Did I mention there’s not a Chinese (or otherwise Asian) soul in this entire picture so far?

Cleopatra (cue some early Adam and the Ants here) performs the most uncoordinated basic karate kata ever committed to celluloid, while the monk sort of stands there and takes it.  The illusion of “fighting skills” presented in this sequence comes courtesy of some incredibly awkward quick cutting and still frames – it’s quite possibly the weirdest film technique I’ve ever seen utilized outside of experimental student film.

Our scary Farrah wannabe reappears in place of Cleo or that other girl who took her place in the smoking crotch sequence (the members of the little group appear to rotate with alarming frequency, presumably based on who was available on which day of filming) in time to take the lead in a hippie forest four-way with the monk.

So thoroughly conquered by the ladies, our monk is next shown kneeling in the kitchen of what I presume to be L.A.’s “House of Wong” Chinese restaurant, where we encounter our first actual oriental cast members.  Our intrepid hero is begging for the lady chef (Peonies Jong, who mind you we’ve never seen before this) to teach him better kung fu than he learned from his “Japanese master”, “Chia Siu” (which is, by the way, the authentic Chinese name for barbecued pork!!). She offers to teach him “golden dragon raising head”, which is a cute euphemism for what one might presume he’s about to get from her, a sex act which sadly never happens.

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There’s another 3 or 4 second quick cut of our monk running down the streets of what appears to be Chicago (?) in full straw hat wearing Shaolin monk regalia.  The “master”, which she’s continually referred to as (shouldn’t it be “mistress”?) waits for him on the mountain (his long run being part of his “kung fu training”, of course…haven’t you ever seen one of these “karate films” before?) where she waits with the other guy from the kitchen at House of Wong, who performs some even less impressive kung fu than the rest of the cast.

Apparently part of his training is to jerk off in the forest, after which he’s told that “you have studied hard…now you must continue to practice” (which pretty much consists of running nude down the same inexplicable mountaintop beach with a fishing weight dangling from his dingle).

The ladies are also “practicing” (i.e. sticking a miniature dildo up inside their naughty bits, which Laing inspects for depth…”that’s good!”), and we get a voiceover repeat of that little snippet from her crazed polemic earlier on about how she will “teach you kung fu…if any man attacks you, you will be able to resist or even kill him”.  Given how little dialogue (or for that matter, plot) the film actually carries, did Milling really think we FORGOT?

Somehow, the monk is back with the lady cultists, practicing Tai Chi while our former prostitute goes down on him.  Wait a minute…he’s training with them?  I thought he was training to beat them!  I don’t know, and I doubt Milling or any of the film’s fuck flick theater audience really cared either.  It’s patently ridiculous, let’s leave it at that (though given all the genital warts and abrasions she displays in this scene, it’s amazing that our monk “hero” is willing to ball her…)

He pulls out before orgasm and screams in pain, as if the STDs he just contracted from her were instantaneously fast acting, Laing salutes the chef cum kung-foolishness “master”, and everyone jumps in the air for a slo-mo fade.  Wow.

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A Broadway based kidnapping (complete with lobby poster for Synapse’s Same Time Next Year) and drive through Chinatown opens Oriental Blue, also starring Peonies Jong, here billed solely as “Peonies”.  Along for the ride with her are Astyr, Gillis and Laing, along with that famous horse, National Velvet (remember her from that Liz Taylor movie?  Oh, wait…).

Right from the start, it’s apparent we’re in an entirely different ballgame here.  There’s far less fake credits this time, no post-dubbing, and no real pretensions at being an ersatz overseas production, though we’re told the screenplay is “based on the Chinese Stories of “Lady Fang” by Chiou-Len Huk” (OK, a patented Marvel No-Prize to the first reader who runs to Wikipedia to check out the veracity of that imaginary source) and that the costumes are by “Lady Chiang” (who I guess is Milling’s wife).

This time Laing drops the blonde look, sporting a Molly Ringwaldesque crimson bob and fetching slave collar, and “Peonies” takes a bigger role than the earlier production as “Madam Blue”, both of which are big pluses.  Admittedly, it’s not like Jong is exactly a looker, but at least she lends a tiny measure of ethnic authenticity to the otherwise wholly bogus proceedings, and the jokiness of the first film is dropped almost entirely in favor of a rather palpable eroticism that suffuses every frame.  Yeah, it’s a huge improvement.

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The film benefits from superior indoor sets and lighting, a better looking cast of females, and a much better grasp on cinematic technique than the slipshod, fairly experimental mess that was Vixens of Kung Fu.  Can this really be the same director, much less utilizing several members of the same cast?

A much better (if far less bizarre) picture than the lead in, Oriental Blue is more of what I was expecting, with lavishly adorned Chinatown back rooms and more than a hint of the “yellow peril” nonsense so prevalent between the first wave of Orientalia back in the late 1800s and the unwelcome and preachy (if rather more enlightened) dawn of multiculturalism and “political correctness” (read Newspeak) in the early 90’s.  This stuff is patently absurd, yes.  Full of obnoxiously misinformed stereotypes, definitely.  But for expressionist, pulp-style flights of fancy and stimulation of the shadowy corners of mystery and imagination?  The much derided likes of Sax Rohmer and his ilk simply can’t be beat.

Is that a young and uncredited (or misnamed) Herschell Savage in the first sex scene?  Our pal “Peonies” joins in on the fun this time, showing off a really nice body and informing our already in flagrante delicto kidnappee that “You’re going to eat me out…and you’re going to love it… You’re my little whore!  Lick my feet!”  Hmm, sans clothing, the lady’s not so damn bad after all, is she?  Maybe there’s some promise there…yeah, she’s no stunner, but getting her a real hairdo might work wonders…

The lady’s lair rests under a Chinese restaurant, of course, which we’re told is “a good setup, because it covers up all the noise, all the screaming and moaning…”

“Are you always going to live under a Chinese restaurant?” asks our obviously stoned proto valley girl visitor, which, being a porno, prompts an instant lesbo sequence, to the odd accompaniment of a Bruno Nicolai style vocal piece more than a bit reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane or Peanut Butter Conspiracy in their heyday (!).

A slip of a girl with a great body but an atrocious Pointer Sisters flattop haircut and nearly incomprehensible Jamaican patois runs into some mustachioed Paul Thomas lookalike and heads off to his small if rather groovy pad for a quickie.  Of course, once again they get interrupted by the erstwhile “Peonies” wanting to get in on the action. Damn, that’s one huge pair of hemmorhoids she’s got going on down there…

You know, I have to say, not only is this more of what I expected, coming out of films like the aforementioned Linda Wong duo, but if “Peonies” were more of a stunner like Linda was, Oriental Blue would prove by far a superior film to either of those, which is saying something.  Filled with reasonably straitlaced but still fairly hot action and a lot of good old fashioned dirty talk from our pal “Peonies” (I admit it, I can’t help but make fun of that ridiculous name, particularly here, where she insists on dropping the Erica Jong reference of a last name), this one’s a real gem among the straight up 70’s porn rediscoveries being brought out of late by labels like Media Blasters’ Raincoat Theatre, Synapse’s Impulse sub-label, Radley Metzger/Henry Paris aficionados Distribpix and of course Vinegar Syndrome.

While there have been a lot of strong entries to contend with, this is more up the right alley – enough nostalgia and aesthetics to satisfy the purely visual end of things, and enough cuties and reasonably erotic proceedings to work the prurient end of the equation.  While, say, the Radley Metzger/Henry Paris films carry far more flair, visual style and accomplished acting, scripting, scoring and plot, Oriental Blue boasts far more of what it takes to get the job done, as it were – less “let’s chat about the merits of porno chic with your similarly minded friends tomorrow” than getting you and your ladyfriend all hot and bothered (a requirement which the film fulfills admirably).

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There’s plenty of weird music (“She’s an Eastern lady working Chinatown”, a Badfinger meets George Harrison number,  has to be heard to be believed… and they cap it off with some sub-Bruce Lee step-on-a-cat’s-tail howls to boot!).  There’s even some Lennon-fronted Beatles and Linda Ronstadt playing in the background of a few scenes, making this a true time capsule of the era in any number of ways.  Not only do you get the fashions, attitudes and hairstyles of the day, not only do we get several vintage NYC street sequences, but you even get a snapshot of what was playing on radios and turntables of the day.  Now that’s service.

Never taking itself entirely seriously despite its far more direct and atmospherically noir vibe, the film is marked by a tongue in cheek postmodernist ethos.  In one sequence, Brock (Gillis), a procurer for Madam Blue who she has an unrequited thing for, picks up a skanky supposed Midwestern runaway (Bree Anthony again, whose look and demeanor screams Forest Hills, Queens yenta) with this ironic, eyebrow raising riposte:

“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t.  I could be a white slaver, trying to abduct you.”

He “breaks her in” with the surprise pinch hitter assistance of his boy toy pal Antonio, and the unspoken suggestions I’m alluding to here come even closer to the surface later in the film, when Antonio pretty much forces Brock to turn Ms. Anthony over to Madam Blue, despite apparent second thoughts on the part of our erstwhile procurer.  Not as in your face as, say, Queer Eye, but it’s not exactly hidden subtext either.

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“Peonies” dons a 1920s headscarf with hints of traditional Thai dancer haberdashery and an elegant single shoulder satin number to visit Stephen (Steven Lark), a seedy “French” hippie cult leader type who serves as yet another of her procurers.  “Surely not him…he’s so decadent.”

Lark manages to pick up none other than Story of Joanna’s Terri Hall for an athletic, mildly kinky sequence involving an S&M style swing, slave collars and a sex toy which sounds more interesting than it actually proves to be.  I also don’t believe he ever delivers the lady to Madam Blue, which I thought was the entire point of the sequence…oh, well!

One of the less offensive of the ugly girls from Vixens of Kung Fu shows up just long enough to get in a last minute scene with Gillis, “Peonies” has yet another sapphic fling with our Queens yenta (while she does work with guys as well, it’s getting kind of obvious by now where her predilections lie), and the lady shows a real talent for working a business deal with Astyr’s Max (while he talks commerce, she swings the deal by taking his business matters well in hand, before turning contract negotiations over to the oral favors of her in house slave Angel (Laing).

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Finally Blue gets her way with Gillis’ Brock, only to have him shoot her.  She pops a pill in her mouth and begs one last kiss which turns out to be poisoned, uniting them both in death.  Astyr cracks wise, our lady of Queens looks horrified, and the film ends in typically abrupt, creditless classic porn style.

Director Milling went by a number of pseudonyms, including Dexter Eagle, Bill Eagle, and Philip Drexler Jr. before graduating from porn to R rated sexploitation with the silly Erik Estrada women in prison vehicle Caged Fury (which itself starred a number of porn stars, inclusive of porn power couple Francois Papillon and his blonde bush dyed Hawaiian beau Kascha, as well as everyone’s favorite narcoleptic ‘hedgehog’, Ron Jeremy).  He even pulled in Sunset Strip metal club owner Bill Gazzarri for one of his few era bit parts (see also the cheesy 80’s teen sex comedy Beach Balls) in that same film, before ending his directorial career shortly thereafter with the Dick Van Patten/Frank Gorshin comedy Body Trouble.

Jong, who alternately went by “Peony Jones” as well as “Peonies”, starred in a whopping total of 8 porn films in 1975-76, of which you now hold two in your hands.  Two of the others were uncredited cameos, and two more list her as “Asian Girl”, so the list of potential starring roles grows rather small.  Her final role may or may not have been her biggest, as “Anna Mae Schlong” (a terrible and transgender suggestive pun for fellow silent film and talkie buffs) in the Shampoo porn knockoff Blowdry (again with Gillis in tow).

Laing, Hall, Astyr and Gillis are legends of the industry, and the others…well, honestly, who cares. Other than the incomprehensible Jamaican girl, they really weren’t any great shakes to begin with.

More due to the uber-horny co-billing than the absurd leading feature, Vinegar Syndrome has delivered yet another worthy entry in the recent influx of classic 70’s porn on DVD, and thus comes quite recommended to fans of the genre.  Keep it up, guys – can’t wait for the next double bill.