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Plot: one woman dares stand up against the tyrannical oppressor.

About the last place where you’d expect to see a Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) knock-off would be Mainland China. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. If anything, Mainland China has usurped the throne of Italy, Indonesia, and the Philippines as the prime location where the exploitation filmmaking industry has flourished like no other in the last decade and a half. No other place has been remaking Asian – and American properties for the domestic market in such a reckless and breakneck pace. Mainland China embraced the old adage of doing it better, faster, and cheaper than everyone else. Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (Mad Shelia hereafter), should there still be any lingering doubt, is a cheap imitation of George Miller’s Oscar-winning feature and the Onna Rambo (1991) of the current decade. It’s the sort of thing you’d wish Rene Perez or Neil Johnson would make in America with their usual cast of bosomy belles.

That exactly Mainland China would take to doing what Italy, and the Philippines did thirty plus years earlier is hardly surprising. Like those countries in the Golden Age of exploitation Mainland China too has somewhat of a history in cheap action, and science fiction. That both genres would eventually converge was inevitable, as Mad Shelia so beautifully attests to. And what better way to consolidate China’s reign as the new exploitation Mecca than by imitating the most talked about and celebrated American property of recent memory, George Miller’s Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and do it less than half as cheap and twice as insane? China has a long history of doing things better, faster and cheaper than everyone else. Not that Mad Shelia was conceived as an epic two-part saga. No, why wring money out of people once if you can rake in the bucks twice? Why did no one think of this before?

We’re not familiar with Lu Lei’s work prior to this, but he seems to have followed the usual trajectory of comedies, romance, and period costume wuxia before arriving here. A constant throughout his work is Fu Xiao (傅筱), apparently his muse. The two started working together on Super Girl (2015) (異能女友) and Fu Xiao was the star of his A Fox’s Story (2017-2019) trilogy. If that little wuxia saga evinced anything it’s that Lu Lei is a versatile enough director who seemingly can tackle any genre. To dispense with the obvious, Super Girl (2015) looked dreadful and Mad Shelia looks cheap (with the occasional beautifully composed scene) but at least semi-professional and competent. Lu Lei was about the last director you’d expect to go on direct something as enchanting looking as the A Fox’s Story (2017-2019) trilogy. Sure, A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) (倩狐傳) at times betrayed its budgetary limitations too, but by the first sequel that was rectified. Mad Shelia, on the other hand, did what Albert Pyun with the first two Nemesis (1992) sequels: cutting a two-hour feature down in the middle and selling both parts as separate chapters.

In an unspecified post-apocalyptic future, excessive pollution and unfettered environmental destruction has ravaged the world and turned it into a desolate desert hellscape. The population number has dwindled, and women are far and few. They are one of the few commodities that are traded in a newly-forged resource-scarce economy. Scavengers scour the arid wastelands and sell their wares on make-shift markets all while staying connected through the Paipai mobile app. Living sequestered away in a Lotus container in a region far away from civilization and the roving gangs that terrorize the highways is Xi Li-Ya (Fu Xiao) with her aging father, who she lovingly refers to as Old Man (Si Qin Chao Ke Tu). As to not arouse any suspicion her father has taught Xi Li-Ya (the jump to Celia or Shelia is easily made) to dress and act as a man, something which she obediently does. One night Xi Li-Ya decides to shower in the pouring rain, and is caught on photo by wandering vagrant Shadiang (Li Da). Shadiang has a run-in with the Wild One gang after he’s taunted by their leader Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) he sells them information about the alleged virgin he found. At a remote trade post he meets bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan) and learns that he’s ordered to find a cache of young virgins. Shadiang accidently lets it slip that he recently met a woman and both interlopers are brought before the court of One-Eyed (Li Yan), the iron-fisted duke of Oil City. Shadiang is promised two court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) if his information on the woman in the Northwestern region proves to be accurate.

One-Eyed’s overzealous military counselor (Liu Yong-Qi) and the duchess (Na Duo) agree that a virgin could be very profitable for Oil City in the long term. One-Eyed summarily orders Bo En and Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) to capture said woman and bring her to Oil City for the purpose of breeding before anyone else claim her as their own. Bo En arrives at the same time as Chang Mao and his numerous goons and in the resulting firefight Old Man is killed forcing the bounty hunter to flee with Xi Li-Ya in tow. The killing of her father pushes Xi Li-Ya over the brink of sanity. She discards her male attire, and transforms into the alluring, gun wielding angel of vengeance Mad Shelia. Bo En plans to take Mad Shelia to Oil City to collect his reward, but he has a change of heart when Chang Mao and his gang follow in hot pursuit and attack them at every turn. The two run into Shadiang again, and Mad Shelia forces him at knife-point to cooperate. Chang Mao has a run-in with the competing the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country. Meanwhile One-Eyed is none too pleased that Bo En has failed the job he was contracted for, and Oil City mercenaries are now hot on their tail. All things seem to point to an explosive clash between the Wild One gang, the Peach Blossom brothers, various Oil City and Ore City mercenaries - with Bo En, Shadiang, and Mad Shelia caught smack dab in the middle… The Virgin Road is littered with broken bodies.

The defining moment in Mad Shelia comes when Xi Li-Ya, enraged by the senseless slaying of her old father, throws caution to the wind and sheds the restricting unisex laborer attire that she had worn up to that point. Away with the long coat, the pants, the farmer’s cap hiding her long hair and that suffocating shawl. She even sports that half-cornrow haircut fashionable among Sino action movie heroines. You have to admire the commitment with which Fu Xiao throws herself into the part. Earlier she went fully nude for her outdoor shower scene (complete with Jesus Christ pose and with her back to the viewer, because this is Mainland China - where modesty is everything) and her Mad Shelia stripping scene is photographed with equal love and care. If you were to pinpoint where on-screen chemistry and sparks flew between Fu Xiao and director Lu Lei – this would be that moment. Up to that point Xi Li-Ya had been a passive spectator to everything happening around her, and it’s here that she’s becomes a participant. At 32 minutes in Xi Li-Ya becomes Mad Shelia.

Mad Shelia didn’t have the benefit of three decades of canon to draw from the way Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) had, and therefore it repurposes much of its plot while switching a few characters and plot points around along the way. It gender-swaps the two leads as to make it a post-apocalyptic retelling of the classic Northern and Southern dynasties period (420–589) folktale of Hua Mulan. Hell, Shadiang even calls Mad Sheliathe modern Mulan” towards the end of the third act. For comparison, Xi Li-Ya is both Mad Max and the five Wives rolled into one, Bo En stands in for Imperator Furiosa, and Shadiang is the closest thing to War Boy Nux. One-Eyed is the resident Immortan Joe, and he calls upon the united forces of the Peach Blossom brothers, the Wild One gang, and various Oil City and Ore City mercenaries – all of which are functional equivalents to The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, and The Organic Mechanic. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was a two-hour spectacle of vehicular combat and practical stunts. Mad Shelia has become legendary for its infamous slow-motion vehicular chases, complete absence of any stuntwork worthy of the name, and pyrotechnics that consist almost entirely of digital post-production effects. Those things tend to cost money, and that was one thing that Mad Shelia didn’t have much, or any, of. The Chinese already successfully ripped off Sylvester Stallone’s ongoing The Expendables (he in turn ripped it off from Cirio H. Santiago, but people tend to forget that) series in a parallel all-girl franchise. Just wait until they start ripping off Star Wars again.

Allegedly shot guerrilla-style with an enthusiastic cast and crew in Inner Mongolia over an eight-month period Mad Shelia is trash in the best Italian or Filipino tradition, helmed without interference from pesky things as unions, various regulating bodies, and the like. Once shooting wrapped the first hour, or spare, was released digitally as Mad Shelia: Virgin Road, and the sequel was provisionally dubbed Mad Shelia: By Vengeance and Mad Shelia: Vengeance Road before deciding upon the much simpler The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) prior to release. Suffice to say it’s clear why Mad Shelia was the biggest wang da – short for wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) – or webmovie sensation of the last couple of years. It’s a no-budget epic clearly intended as a two-hour movie, chopped somewhat crudely in half. As unscrupulous as the Italians and the Filipino were in the halcyon days (the 70s/80s) they never went this far in their imitations. Not only does Lu Lei goes as far as to copy the Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) poster art, he also has the gall to chop his Mad Shelia saga into separate hour-long episodes, just to sell them as stand-alone chapters. It’s one thing to imitate a popular American property, but it takes balls of steel to film a two-hour movie, chop it in two - and sell the second part of the movie as a “sequel”.


Plot: sculptress and soldier defend themselves from homicidal cyborg.

Richard Stanley’s feature debut arrived with quite a bit of buzz in the advance press. “Ferocious, stylish, and hallucinatory,” wrote Clive Barker. “As terrifying as Alien,” gushed US Magazine and Fangoria boldly claimed it was, “the best science-fiction horror film of the year.Hardware also scored big at the festivals and scooped up several awards, notably it won the 1991 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival award for best special effects, as well as the Silver Raven award on the Brussels International Festival Of Fantasy 1991, and the Fantasporto 1991 International Fantasy Film Award for Best Director where it was nominated for Best Film as well. None too shabby for a little indie The Terminator (1984) knock-off shot on a modest budget (just a million and a half) by a hungry no-name music video director. While it’s true to an extent that Hardware is all style and little substance, it’s also bursting at the seams with untapped potential of what director Richard Stanley could do on a big budget. Unfortunately the Hollywood machine would mercilessly chew and spit him out at the first sight of trouble.

Stanley was born in Fishhook, South Africa and raised in England. In 1983 he directed his first short and two years later lensed the bleak Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985). Another two years later, in 1987, he began directing music videos and in that capacity he worked with Fields of the Nephilim, Public Image Limited, and Renegade Soundwave. Hardware forms, together with Dust Devil (1992), a conceptual duo that would launch Stanley into the prestigious big budget directorial gig that was The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), a production fraught with problems, to say the least. To say that Hardware looks impressive would be an understatement if there ever was one. It absolutely takes no prisoners, is relentless in its pessimism, and hellbent in making something, anything, from what by all accounts was very little. Does it ever succeed. Hardware knows what it is, and it will make sure that the audience knows too…

In the bleak post-apocalyptic past future of 2000 much of the world has been ravaged by rampant radiation, pollution and overpopulation. The Big One, an unspecified event of nuclear annihilation, has vaporized much of the world’s water. This is now known as The Zone - an inhospitable, misty wasteland cloaked by perennial red clouds and holocaustwinds - is used by the government to test military hardware. What little pockets of humanity are left live in high-security automated apartments in fortified, semi-militarized cities under a totalitarian, war-mongering government that controls every aspect of life. Citizens are encouraged to undergo sterilization and legislation forbids them from having more than two children. Mutation and cancer are omnipresent. It is under these circumstances that off-duty grizzled space marine Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) arrives at a trading post in New York with his friend Shades (John Lynch) in tow. Baxter hopes to pick up a Christmas present for his unemployed, metalworker artist girlfriend Jill Grakowski (Stacey Travis) to make up for time in between deployments. He buys the remains of a decommissioned cyborg from The Zone dwelling Nomad (Carl McCoy) keeping the head to himself and selling the parts that do not interest him to junkyard dealer Alvy (Mark Northover, with the voice of Marc Smith). When Moses arrives at Jill’s apartment she isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him, but things improve.

Jill has problems of her own. Refugees have taken in every inch of the fortified building and the situation with her creepy voyeuristic neighbor Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. (William Hootkins) is steadily escalating. From every angle cynical W.A.R. Radio Channel DJ Angry Bob (Iggy Pop) pollutes the airwaves with his constant barrage of profanities and obscenities. Jill’s happy enough with Moses’ gift painting an Union Jack on the skull and welding it to her latest installation. A power surge activates the cyborg head and the damaged battle unit starts to reassemble itself from parts of Jill’s metal art pieces and household appliances. What Jill and Moses don’t realize is that the reconstituted cyborg is a dismantled Mark 13 autonomous combat unit prototype that was discarded due to a fault in its programming. However the new and improved Mark 13 line is on the verge of mass production and is scheduled to be deployed as a means of population control once sufficient amounts have come in rotation. By the time Moses comes into that vital bit of information by way of Alvy he’s halfway across town and his friend Shades is too stoned to be of any help. Not only will Jill have to fend off the advances of the squalid Lincoln who has come in response to all the ruckus but also the homicidal infiltration unit that lies waiting in the shadows of her apartment. Meanwhile Moses rushes to her rescue with a ragtag team of gun-toting mercenaries, but can they stop Mark 13?

Early in his career Simon Boswell composed scores for films by Italian horror directors Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi, as well as Mexican avant-gardist Alejandro Jodorowsky. He also worked with Clive Barker, and Danny Boyle, as well as Spanish cult filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. Our personal exposure to Boswell’s music came with the all but forgotten 1994 CD-i cyberpunk/neo-noir videogame Burn:Cycle. That exactly somone like Boswell would end up composing the score seems only right in hindsight. Whether it’s twangy, bluesy guitars, ambient New Age synthesizers (that in some parts remind of Brad Fiedel), or ‘Stabat Mater’ from Gioachino Rossini in a new arrangement, Boswell’s score fits Hardware perfectly. Also featured are songs from Fields Of The Nephilim (‘Power’), Public Image Ltd. (‘The Order Of Death’), Ministry (‘Stigmata’), Iggy Pop (‘Bad Life’), and Motörhead (‘Ace Of Spades’) with clips from GWAR and Einsturzende Neubauten (‘1/2 Mensch’) seen briefly in passing.

Hardware is a combination of two things. First and foremost the human aspect of the story is a reimagining of Richard Stanley’s earlier Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985) wherein a grizzled space marine and a sculptress try to maintain a meaningful relationship in a bleak totalitarian society ravaged by radiation, overpopulation, and a war-mongering government. The cyborg element was liberally borrowed from the Fleetway Publications short story “SHOK! Walter's Robo-Tale” written by Steve MacManus (as Ian Rogan) and drawn by Kevin O'Neill that was published in the Judge Dredd Annual 1981, a derivate of the British weekly anthology comic 2000 AD. In the graphic novel a space marine buys his artist girlfriend a Shok cyborg head. The cyborg reactivates, and starts to reassemble itself. It culminates in both the space marine and the girlfriend coming to a gruesome end as the cyborg goes on a killing spree. The comic was reprinted in 2000 AD prog 612 and later in colorised form in issue #35 of the US format Judge Dredd series from Quality Comics. Understandably MacManus and O’Neill sued for their rightful share and a court case was decided in their favor. Legal wrangles aside, Hardware is just a very effective piece of low-budget filmmaking.

And then there are the overwhelming, claustrophobic visuals that seem to draw from any number of influences. The abstract lighting is very much reminiscent of Mario Bava and prime Dario Argento, judging from the angular interiors Stanley probably saw Blade Runner (1982) or The Giant Of Metropolis (1961). The stark minimalism and oppressive industrial feel recall both Eraserhead (1977) and Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) in varying degrees while the psychedelia takes a page or two from the acid/LSD flicks following the success of Easy Rider (1969) or the more broadly philosophical (and underappreciated) Altered States (1980). The action scenes breathe Hong Kong although they are not nearly as kinetic or as over-the-top. Hardware packs a lot of punch, and it was evident that Richard Stanley could be the next great action director. Unfortunately he was saddled with a big budget monstrosity that had disaster written all over it from the onset. Not even an experienced director (John Frankenheimer) could salvage the mess that The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) was turning into, so it’s unjust that the blame was cast on Stanley – and even less so was his subsequent exiling from Hollywood. Thankfully he has recently redeemed himself in sight of critics and detractors alike with the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space (2019). It makes you wonder what Stanley could have done with a Nemesis (1992) sequel and it’s incomprehensible how he was never given the opportunity to direct an action movie in, say, Hong Kong or the Philippines.