Ten Zan: The Ultimate Mission (1988)

Ten Zan is a small mountain in Guadalcanal. Ten Zan: The Ultimate Mission is a joint Italian-North Korean action film from 1988, directed by Ferdinando Baldi entirely in English in North Korea. That’s right, this is a prime piece of North Korean cinema. It’s…something all right.

First, this was supposed to be a Pacific war movie. Baldi was originally approached by North Korean film representatives at Cannes after they saw his Vietnam action film Warbus. But when he arrived in Pyongyang, the North Korean censors took his script and rewrote it entirely, then assigned him his crew and the supporting cast. Baldi was lucky enough to get some of his own actors in the film, but…well, it’s Mark Gregory again as the villain. You know, Thunder. With Sabriana Siani as his assistant, of whom director Jesús Franco once said was the 2nd worst actress he had ever worked with. As for our intrepid heroes, they’re Frank Zagarino of classics like The Revenger and Cyborg Cop III, and Romano Kristoff, a Spanish B-movie star who appeared in many Filipino productions for K.Y. Lim’s Silver Star Film Company in the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe Baldi should have kept the North Korean actors around.

What was a WWII movie became a modern action film in which Zagarino and Kristoff of Final Solution Research are hired to take out an evil scientist and his army of mercenaries before the scientist can use animal extracts to produce the ubermensch. To make matters worse, the man who hires the Zagarino and Kristoff IS THE EVIL SCIENTIST! So the bad guy hired mercenaries to destroy his own operation, and then gets upset when other mercenaries he already hired tell him that his operation is going to be destroyed. And all of this is set in the modern landscape of North Korea.

Now, I want to take a moment to say that I don’t blame Baldi for any of this. His script was taken from him, he was constantly refused the opportunity to shoot in various places, he never got the equipment he requested, his leading man, Zagarino, was arrested and held for two days for being an American spy, and he wasn’t even aware that after he finished post-production in Italy, the film went through another round of post in North Korea and was edited again. Heck, he never saw it again, as the film was never released in Italy due to arguments over ownership and distribution rights with the North Korean government. The only real upside was that apparently his North Korean film crew was marvelous, polite, and very eager to learn, even though none of them spoke English. In later interviews, Baldi had nothing but kind words to say of them, despite the numerous challenges he faced. That’s something. I hope they all lived.

So, how is the film? Well…not good. Considering the bizarre script, bad edit job, and bad acting, there really isn’t anything much worth saying about it itself. It’s the story behind it that is interesting, from Kim Jong-il just showing up on set to the strange life of Pyongyang citizens, to how the movie went from being about WWII to having only a four line exchange from which Ten Zan ends up as the title. It’s a curiosity piece, a bit out place no matter how you look at it, even in regards to the rest of the entirely propagandist North Korean cinema industry.

Also, I now think the feds are monitoring my blog. I hope you fellas like bad movies!

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