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Plot: novice nun is both tempting and tempted by a life of hedonism.

When taking a closer look at the early years of Gloria Guida’s brief 8-year stint as comedy Lolita a curious pattern emerges. She was never going to be considered a highbrow comedic actress the way Laura Antonelli, Ornella Muti, Eleanora Giorgi, Ely Galeani, or Jenny Tamburi were, but that didn’t stop la Guida from making a few interesting choices along the way. For every one or two lighthearted sex comedy romps that Miss Teen Italy 1974 would do, she usuallly did a more serious (and frequently more cynical) melodrama (coming of age, sexual awakening or otherwise). The earliest example of that was The Novice which came right after the fairly interesting The Minor (1974). The Novice set a precedent. This wasn’t just another feature revolving around Guida's endless forms most beautiful. Whether Gloria chose her scripts deliberately, or that things just turned out that way by circumstance, is not very important. What does matter is that there was more to glorious Gloria than just her famous derrière.

Giuliano Biagetti wasn’t exactly the biggest name in Italian cinema. He mostly specialized in dramas and comedies. If he’s remembered for anything (if he’s remembered at all, that is) it’s for Interrabang (1969) with Haydée Politoff, Corrado Pani, and Beba Loncar, in what is generally considered to be the earliest Top Sensation (1969) imitation of note. His other most famous work is the coming of age drama La Svergognata (1974) with Leonora Fani, and Eurocult favorite Barbara Bouchet.

Gloria Guida was, of course, famous for two things: her bawdy sex comedies, and that legendary ass of hers. Mario Imperoli famously lensed Blue Jeans (1975) as a valentine to Miss Teen Italy 1974’s world-famous derrière. In The Novice there’s both comedy - albeit in a lighter, more subtle form – and a few instances of Gloria’s naked form. The difference being that The Novice is one of Guida’s more serious melodramas, and it takes a good while before she does her familiar pout-strip-and-smile routine. Compared to much of her other work, The Novice takes its sweet time to get steamy. As always, good things come to those who wait.

Affluent playboy Vittorio (Gino Milli) is summoned back to the countryside to look after his ailing and terminally ill uncle Don Nini (Lionel Stander). His uncle expects him to arrange matters regarding his last will and testament, and that everything is executed according to his wishes. Looking after his uncle’s palliative needs are Suore Immacolata (Gloria Guida) and a night nurse (a role that Guida wouldn’t portray until 1979). Upon arrival Vittorio is picked up by his good friends Rodolfo (Fiore Altoviti) and Saretto (Beppe Loparco) – and the first order of business is getting really, really drunk. Houskeeper Agatha (Vera Drudi) is none too pleased with the disturbance of peace and Vittorio is, understandably, scolded for the ruckus. Almost immediately since arriving in town Vittorio has attracted the attention of Nunziata (Femi Benussi), and she will use every opportunity to make very strong advances, if not to throw herself at him. To lift the old man’s spirits the boys head to the local brothel run by an old madam (Sofia Lusy) and hire a pair of prostitutes. When blonde and bosomy Franca (Maria Pia Conte) crawls on his bed she nearly sends Don Nini convulsing to an even earlier grave. Much to chagrin of Suore Immacolata who sees the boys as nothing but a nuisance that hinder her from giving the service she was hired to provide for the old man.

One night Vittorio is invited by Nunziata to a lavish bourgeoisie party that her husband is throwing for his associates. He brings Rodolfo and Saretto along while Nunziata can finally have some private time together with him. Vittorio is rather annoyed with Nunziata’s insatiable lust, and arranges a three-way with Rodolfo and Saretto. He finds Suore Immacolata hiding somewhere in the dark recesses of the apartment, and the two share a gentle moment. Before long Vittorio is pulled back into his hedonistic lifestyle by his two friends, leaving Imma heartbroken and sad. After attending his uncle’s funeral service some time later Vittorio is surprised to find that Imma is nowhere to be found. He travels into the mountains and after talking to some locals he’s able to track down Imma’s current whereabouts. When he spots her in a meadow he learns that she no longer calls herself Immacolata but Mariangela. Reunited the two young lovers spent an intimate moment in the tall grass. What Vittorio comes to realize far too late is that Mariangela's parents are none too pleased to have him there.

Coming hot on the heels of The Minor (1974) Gloria Guida, or whoever managed her business affairs, wasted no time in striking the iron while it was hot. 1975 was her busiest year that saw her appearing in melodramas and darker morality plays. As always Guida would be shaking her famous rump in more lighter fare as well. As such glorious Gloria could be seen traipsing around, often with little in the way of fabric, in the cynical So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious… (1975), the fun-loving La Liceale (1975), That Malicious Age (1975), as well as the semi-comical Blue Jeans (1975) that would make her ass a thing of international renown. That Gloria would wind up in a nun’s habit was all but inevitable as with Secret Confessions in a Cloistered Convent (1972), The Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973), The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine (1974), and the compartively late Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977) from Spain nunsploitation came exploding into the mainstream. That la Guida would be forced to look for more interesting scripts/roles was apparent, by 1975 she had played about every male wish fullfilment fantasy figure multiple times already. It’s unfortunate that she never ended up working with Luigi Batzella, Renato Polselli, and José Ramón Larraz.

Gloria was at her best when she was surrounded by, and could play off, people with more genuine talent than she had. The only veteran, and possible international draw, here is blacklisted American character actor Lionel Stander and his performance is so passive poor Gloria has nothing to work with. La Guida shone when she was surrounded by people as Nino Castelnuovo, Giuseppe Pambiere, Corrado Pani, or Lando Buzzanca – but since none such figure can be found in The Novice it makes glorious Gloria something of a nonentity at the best of times. No wonder then that for a majority of the duration she appears as a supporting character rather than the focal point. Gino Milli does most of the heavy lifting for about three-quarters, and only in the finale do we see Guida do what she does best: running around naked and causing trouble. What remains puzzling is that Guida never crossed over into the giallo, horror, or erotic subgenre, something which many of her commedia sexy all’Italiana colleagues (Barbara Bouchet, Edwige Fenech, Femi Benussi, Nieves Navarro, Rosalba Neri in case of the former, and Ely Galeani or Ilona Staller in the latter) were often prone to do. As these things go The Novice is one of the more interesting Gloria Guida features, if only because it does something more than parading Guida around in the buff.

Plot: Xi Li-Ya vows to wreak havoc on One-Eyed for killing her father.

The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) is the second part - more of a continuation rather than a true sequel - of Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (2016) from a year before. Since it came from the same eight-month shooting as the original there isn’t much, if any, difference between the two. Instead of having bigger set pieces, wilder chases, and more explosive action The Return Of the Shelia is… well, more of the same. It’s the second half of the story that should have been part of the first, but for some unfathomable reason never was. Mad Shelia (2016) didn’t end on a cliffhanger; it abruptly ended in the middle of the story and called it a day. Fu Xiao finally gets to do something in the movie bearing her name, and Lu Lei at long last manifested that he was not nearly the hack his early work might make him out as. All of which a long way of saying that The Return Of the Shelia is not only the epic conclusion to the not-so-epic Mad Shelia mini-saga, but probably Mainland China’s most enduring webmovie classic of the past several years.

The Far East has always had a rich and storied history in exploitation filmmaking. Once budgets in Hong Kong dwindled a cotton industry sprung up in Taiwan, and Malaysia. Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia themselves all had regional exploitation industries that spawned a veritable slew of classics across genres themselves. Mainland China, with its government-mandated censorship and the restrictive laws enforced by the Film Bureau, lagged behind for a long time for exactly those reasons. As far as we’re aware the wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) or webmovie is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that grew parallel with streaming services and their need for content. The 2010s heralded an exploitation resurgence of sorts as now movies were produced fast and cheap for streaming services and delivered straight to the customer without any middleman. With box office returns no longer a concern this meant that every niche imaginable could be catered to as long as the movies in question were beholden to the law. Where the West relies on DIY and underground filmmaking the East is, once again, ahead of the curve – pioneering a practice that hasn’t caught on in the West yet.

After escaping an all-out assault from roving gangs in the desert Mad Shelia (Fu Xiao), reformed bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan), and madly babbling vagrant Shadiang (Li Da) continue their journey to Oil City. Meanwhile, as the smoke clears and the chaos of the assault subsides, it dawns upon Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) and the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country that Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) and his Wild One gang have taken to chasing Mad Shelia for their own gain. The two parties decide that perhaps they’re better off working with instead of against each other. All three parties run into One-Eyed (Li Yan) and his armed forces. He suggests that all gangs put their vendettas and territorial disputes aside, and form an alliance in pursuit of their common goal: Mad Shelia. The Wild One gang takes the lead, and the newly forged union runs into an ambush. A clash follows and One-Eyed executes all of his former allies in cold blood. After an extended chase and the inevitable explosive confrontation that follows Mad Shelia, Bo En, and Shadiang emerge victorious. Once arrived in Oil City capital the Duchess (Na Duo) says that the title of Duke should rightly go to Bo En. He, however, passes the title onto virtuous Shadiang believing him to restore justice and order in the city. Shadiang meanwhile is happy he finally gets to enjoy the company of the Duchess, and the two dimwitted but comely court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) he so long pined after.

As this is just the second half of material shot during the same eight-month period that birthed Mad Shelia (2016) the same critiques apply. A production like this would have benefitted tremendously from live pyrotechnics and old school prosthetic/practical effects. There’s an almost Eurociné and Neil Breen quality to some of the shoot-outs, the wounds, and the props. You don’t truly appreciate the level of care and attention to detail that went into the weapon replicas that Peter Jackson manually produced for his horror comedy debut Bad Taste (1987) until you see what they use here. The rare prosthetic effect used for bodily carnage is uniformly and universally cheap, and thankfully the camera never dwells on them long enough. While the usage of digital effects is understandable from an economic point of view it still doesn’t change that most of them usually have an adverse effect instead. The few explosions that do occur would have been so much better with actual pyrotechnics, and the firefights feel stilted and miss the gravitas, the weight, and the impact they need to impress. Vehicular damage, smoke, fire, and just about everything that cost yuans is done digitally. The slow-motion chases are legendary by this point, and you know a movie is in trouble when Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) become the better options.

Not that Lu Lei hasn’t redeemed himself since the Mad Shelia days but it remains a sore point. This could have been so much bigger and better. Everything just looks one or two several paygrades below what it should’ve probably been. Fu Xiao does her best with what little writer Yu Huan-Huan gives her. The action direction from Lei Zhen-Dong is, well, non-existent – and it’s no surprise he has never worked again. Few hand-to-hand sequences occur, and when they do they possess no sense of weight or scale. The “welcome to my private warehouse” scene is a direct abridged re-creation of the corresponding scene in the Mexico segment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The poster art is misleading in that it makes The Return Of the Shelia looks much larger than it actually is. Not that it’s the first time that an exploitation movie is guilty of that particular offense, the genre is littered with larger-than-life promises, misleading poster art, and deceiving promo trailers across several decades. The thing is that China normally does this kind of thing far better. The HK actioners that are Mad Shelia’s most logical precursors also often were cheap affairs, but they always had that something. Outside of the novelty factor Mad Shelia has very little going for it, except Fu Xiao. And it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do here. This is very much an instance of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Prey Harder (1996) all over again. Mad Shelia could’ve been something – but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

And what did Lu Lei do after the excursion into Mongolia that was Mad Shelia? Well, he directed the Fox-Spirit trilogy. First, he did A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) or a budget re-enactment of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and followed it up with the two-part A Fox's Story (2019) mini-saga. While that was a counterfeit version of Tsui Hark’s big budget fantasy wuxia The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) it too was guilty of the same sins as Mad Shelia and its sequel. For hitherto undisclosed reasons A Fox's Story (2019) too was awkwardly cut into two chapters. And just like Mad Shelia (2016) they don’t make a lick of sense if you happen to see them out of order. A constant in Lu Lei’s recent endeavors is Fu Xiao, and his later works give her far more to work with. She’s far better in A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) and A Fox's Story (2019) than she’s here. While The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) has its own problems, A Fox's Story (2019) is an almost scene-per-scene re-enactment of the Tsui Hark production, and it’s admirable in the sense that somebody saw it fit to imitate it on such a minuscule budget. It’s the sign of the times possibly. There’s nothing that Mainland China can’t imitate on a fraction of the budget and with none of the talent. If Mad Shelia and The Return Of the Shelia are testament to anything, it’s that exploitation is alive and kicking in 21st century China. Here’s hoping we get a no-budget Disney Star Wars (2015-2019) imitation soon.