In 1984, director Corey Yuen sat down and watched The Karate Kid. Like a lot of other people, myself included, he felt the flick was alright but the fight scenes kinda sucked. Yuen figured, “Why not go Chinese Opera Academy on this boy-gains-self-respect-through-martial-arts bullshit?” Two years, $400,000, and one (almost) all-American cast later, he gave us No Retreat, No Surrender.
It’s the best kind of awful movie: the kind that’s so bad, it’s honestly endearing. The story, the casting, the acting, the editing, the character’s motivations, and especially the tacked-on resolution…everything in this movie is wrong. And the result is glorious. Kneel before this movie, son of Jor-El, for it is the perfect combination of rip-off and cliche. It’s a Bad Film for the ages, because it manages, in spite of it all…to actually…kind a work…in all the wrong ways.
We start off with a big white card informing us this is “Los Angeles,” which is so important it comes up even before the main titles. Zoom in on the Sherman Oaks Karate School, presided over by Sensei Tom Stillwell (Timothy Baker). But forget about him for now; time to meet our real main character, Sensei Tom’s son, Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney).
“Jason what are you doing?”
Jeeze, Dad. Just recklessly endangering my sparing partner, potentially causing grievous bodily harm in a transparent attempt to show off in front of everybody. I’m a teenager? Whaddayaexpect? Jason’s actual response is just icing on the cake:
See, despite being presented as exactly the same kind of Designated Hero you see in a million Karate Kid rip-offs (and that one remake), Jason is actually a budding delusional sociopath, the size of his ego rivaled only by the size of his contempt for others. This is the movie Hannibal Rising very, very much wanted to be. Only with more kung-fu fights. Especially now that class is over and our villains can enter unopposed.
So the bad guys make Sensei Dad an Offer He’s Not Supposed to Refuse. Sensei Dad attempts to dramatically pause them to death by insisting
“I won’t join…[dramatic pause]…your organization.”
…but it turns out Our Villains are immune to Sensei Dad’s bad acting. After all, they hired Jean-Claude Van Damme. He’ll be playing Dolph Lundgren’s character from Rocky IV since our director sat down to watch that flick in 1986. And, like a lot of other people, he sensed that he could shamelessly manipulate audience sympathy for any plucky, American protagonist – no matter how big a dick they might be – by casting a one-dimensional “Russian” as the bad guy.
Unfortunately, a Belgian was all he could afford. So here’s Van Damme playing the muscle for this cigar-chomping, shinny-haired motherfucker who looks and sounds like Robert G. Durrant‘s overacting little brother, played by Joe Vance.
Sensei Dad rebuffs the bad guy’s Offer and holds his own in the resulting Kung Fu Fight…until Van Damme lays him out with a Six Million Dollar Man flying kick. The power of slo-mo makes quick work of Sensei Dad, who’s left whimpering over his new broken leg, with a promise from Shinny Hair that they’ll be back with “the contract.”
Does Sensei Dad pick himself off the ground, limp to the nearest phone, and call the police? Nope. In between huffs of pain he manages to tell Jason that “fighting them is not the answer.” Jason quite-rightly asks, “Well what is?”
We cut to a hospital. Which is a pretty good answer, considering. Then Sensei Dad’s interior-monologue fucks everything up.
“It was Krushensky, the Russian. They want all the major dojos as fronts for organized crime. I know they’ll be back. What should I do? I can’t risk my family. There’s nothing else to do but…leave.”
Really? You can’t just call the FBI? I’m sure they’d love to hear all about the Russian mafia’s newest West Coast expansion project. Which involves dojos…for some reason. As fronts for organized crime. What, were all the bars, laundromats, waste disposal companies and video game arcades already in the hands of other lame criminal syndicates? What half-assed arm of the Russian mob is this, anyway? The B-team? Are these the guys you keep busy with pie-in-the-sky, out-of-town projects so they don’t accidentally fuck up important stuff? Like attempting to kill the Boondock Saints?
Ah well. Cut to Sherman Oaks Karate, already closed and boarded up. Good thing we never really got to know the place. Otherwise, we might actually give a crap about what its loss represents to the Stillwell family, and what impact this sudden move will have on their pathetic, human lives. Instead, we get travelogue footage of scenic Interstate 5, just to prove the Stillwell family really is bound for Seattle.
We know that’s where they’re bound because the movie’s nice enough to pad itself with a travel montage. Yep…that’s Seattle alright…oh, look, a sign that reads “Entering Seattle,” establishing the Stillwells as…entering Seattle…and hey, look! It’s the Space Needle! Something people are sure to immediately associate with Seattle. This nicely establishes that the Stillwell’s are, in fact, in Seattle…oh, come the fuck on, movie! You’re gonna throw another title card across all of that, too? One that reads “SEATTLE” in big, white captials? There’s “establishment,” and then there’s just desperation. So much so that it calls attention to yourself and the very things you were trying to hide behind that Establishment Storm. You can always tell someone’s lying because they pack way too much detail into their bullshit.
No surprise that I, a transplanted Northwesterner with my suspicions aroused, needed every second of that travel montage just to suspend my disbelief and accept that the rest of this film takes place in Seattle. As opposed to the much-more-economical environs of Los Angeles. Here’s a quick way to spot the difference:
Gray skies and fir trees? Seattle. Blue skies and palm trees? Not Seattle. Winding streets that look like they were carved into the sides of coastal mountains? Seattle. Straight roads that stretch off into the vanishing point of a suburban hellscape fit to drive men mad…? Well, okay, you’ll find those pretty much anywhere in Americka. Still, this specific type of suburban hellscape looks decidedly…Californian. Notice we never see any shots of Sensei Dad or Jason’s mom reacting to the fact they’ve in SEATTLE…sure sign that someone probably couldn’t afford to ship the entire cast up there for a weekend pick-up shoot.
Once in “Seattle” Jason displays his dickishness by grabbing all of his own stuff out of the U-Haul first. After his mother asked him to help unload. Then he commandeers the garage for his personal gym. Not that anyone would want to park a car in there or anything. A shelf attacks Jason for this lack of familial piety, causing him to retreat outside and run into…*sigh* God help us all…into R.J. (J.W. Fails) Because where would a protagonist in an 80s coming-of-age story be without his wise-cracking, Token Black Kid sidekick?
R.J.’s one and only decent joke: “I was afraid the property values were going down. I’ll tell my dad not to worry.”
Jason and R.J. are observed by the most inexplicable character in the film, Scott the Evil Fat Kid, played by Kent Lipham. Scott correctly identifies Jason as a “Bruce Lee freak,” and unconsciously echo’s R.J.’s dad by having a “there goes the neighborhood” reaction. Only problem is, we don’t see Jason unroll his giant poster of Saint Bruce until the next scene, when he and R.J. are safely inside the garage…way, way away from Scott’s vantage point…one hopes. So aside from being a fat slob who eats entire cakes in one go, can we assume Scott is psychic as well? Or does he have telescopic vision? Can he break the fourth wall and observe parts of the film he’s not present for? It just raises…too many questions.
So Jason shows off his home gym, prompting R.J. to demonstrate some of his own martial arts moves. Thankfully, R.J. doesn’t take the path I feared he’d take and become proficient in some especially-bullshit form of martial arts, like Zack the Black Power Ranger’s Hip-Hop Kido. For most of the film, R.J. exists to antagonize Fat Scott…which he seems to do just by existing.
Scott and R.J. have a very strange relationship. We’re meant to read it as a simple bully/victim dichotomy, especially with Scott’s evident popularity and opulence thrown in on top of R.J.’s race. But we’ll talk about that later. First, we have to establish that R.J. knows everything about “Seattle.” Including the fact that Bruce Lee’s buried there. Here’s the only reason this film’s set in the Great North American Rain Forrest.
The Graveside Chat’s a nice, poignant scene, indicative of the respect everyone in the cast and crew must’ve felt toward a great performer, taken from us far too soon. It’s also meant to short circuit anyone’s attempt to lump this film with other examples of genre we kung-fu fans love to call “Brucesploitation.”
See, after Bruce Lee died, whole generations of shady producers moved to capitalize on the sensation. Since they were movie producers, they did so by releasing a series of increasingly-crappy movies staring any number of ambitious, coincidentally-named martial artists. Like Bruce Li, Bruce Ly, Bruce Thai, Bruce K.A. Lea, Brute Lee, Myron Lee, and my personal favorite, Jackie Chan…who saw his first wide release in a little Brucesploitation vehicle called The Next Fist of Fury.
But back to Fat Scott:
“Why do you hate that kid [R.J.] so much?”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
That’s all the explanation we get. Scott’s willing to give up a perfectly good seat at Generic Burger for the chance to beat the poor kid up and we never find out why. Is Scott just that racist? I doubt it, since the vast majority of the crew behind this film (including two of the three people who get story credit) were Chinese, and Chinese prejudices are…decidedly different from ours.
For example: in China, fat people are evil. Think about it. In an agrarian society where subsistence farming is the only employment opportunity for ninety percent of the population, having junk in your trunk becomes a public declaration of wealth…the original form of conspicuous consumption. And Scott’s certainly rich enough to keep his teenage thug entourage in burger pyramids. So I chose to think Scott and R.J. have more of a Captain Ahab/Moby Dick thing going on. A mutually antagonistic relationship that Scott, in his madness, believes to be a personal vendetta, like so:
“I see in that Token Black Kid outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the Token Black Kid agent or be the Token Black Kid principal, I will wreck that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!”
Instead, Scott strikes up the ire of Jason “One-Step” Stillwell, who fends off Fat Scott’s circle of goons long enough for R.J. to say the title.
“No retreat, no surrender.”
But they all retreat as soon as the manger of Generic Burger runs outside to yell at them. So much for that catch phrase. Damn kids and their damn Movie Kung-Fu! In my day, we fought Five Animals Style and by-God liked it! Spoiled brats, these days, all of ’em. I swear.
Back in not-Seattle, Sensei Dad berates Jason for fighting, even to aid of a friend.
My sentiments exactly. Sensei Dad orders Jason to his room, where Our Hero proceeds to have the greatest teenage-boy pout ever committed to film. It’s so great, the movie has to take a time out so it can go to Reno – represented by some stock footage and someone’s high school gym with an “MGM Grand Hotel” banner tacked up to the back wall. There’s a regional Kung-Fu Championship going on there between two guys we don’t know, though we quickly learn the winner is Ian Riley (Ron Pohnel) and Jason and R.J. are watching all this on Jason’s T.V.
Since R.J. knows everything, he knows where Ian Riley’s dojo is and accompanies Jason down there for…moral support, I guess. Good thing, too, since the assistant instructor, Dean Ramsey (Dale Jacoby) is a frosty-haired, gum-snapping douche, easily taken in by the lying lies of Fat Scott. The latter convinces Dean to pit Jason against Seattle Karate’s best fighter. Jason gets his ass handed to him, prompting R.J. to rush in and save him with a little Odious Comic Relief.
We cut to the birthday party of someone we don’t know named Kelly, played by Kathie Sileno. Dean the Douche is there so he can hit on Kelly and we can see Fat Scott in Dean’s entourage. We also learn Kelly is Sensei Reily’s sister and there’s nothing creepy about their relationship. No. Nothing creepy at all. Ian’s called away from telling tales out of Reno by a phone call from “a friend” from New York, who tells him to be at his dojo in an hour. Not that I would rush right out to do what the strange voice on the phone told me to…but who am I to judge? Ian runs into Jason on the way out, and we learn Jason and Kelly know each other…from…somewhere.
They’re pretty friendly, too, considering we’ve never met Kelly before, nor seen the two meet until now. C’mon, guys, you’re all watching this with me. Was Kelly there? Was Kelly anywhere in all this? Where did she come from? The sky? Did the movie just shift into a parallel dimension where her scenes took place? Did they meet in the cemetery, like Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont in Mask of the Phantasm? Jason’s pretty awkwardly pecking at her cheek, but that tells us nothing. Neither does Jason’s birthday present: a cute little bunny.
“Oh, he’s so cute.”
Poor, diluted, Kelly. Bunnies aren’t just cute like everybody supposes…Oh, I see. They met at “the pet store.” The “other” day. The day this film chose not to include in its narrative, because…? Never mind. Cute bunny!
“You’re so adorable I’m gonna love you to death.”
If I were that bunny, I’d’ve long since gone tharn. But at least the gift earns Jason a quick make-out session…
Back in town, Kelly’s brother refuses the gangster’s offer, so they start making threats in their usual, melodramatic pause-y way.
“We will have…your dojo.”
Back at the party, visible boom-mikes are invading and everybody’s cooing over Kelly’s new pet…Dean comes out as a douche, provoking Kelly to flee in terror once he and Jason get into a public dickwaving contest.
Dean (to Jason): “She’s spoken for…by me.”
And since Dean’s such a Douche, he uses Fat Scott’s mastery of Food Fight-Fu to provoke Jason into attacking. So far, Our Hero’s only managed to hold his own against white belts, and I guess Kelly’s deep inherent racism kept R.J. from getting invited. So there’s no way for Jason to escape a beating at the hands of Team Asshat. It’s the mid-80s, so I’ve tried to keep the fashion jokes to a minimum, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that asskickings from men in shirts as puffy and flowing as Dean’s have been scientifically proven to hurt twice as much and be four times as embarrassing…on average.
For that reason (I guess) Jason storms out of the party and takes his sublimated rage out on Kelly, even as she tries to apologize.
Jason: “What am I supposed to think?”
That she’s profusely apologizing for her dumbass friends and their dumbass behavior…which has obviously just ruined her birthday party as much as it’s ruined your pride…dumbass. But, since sociopaths are incapable of empathizing with others, Jason shoves Kelly away and drives off in the car Michael Myers stole from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. Hey, great! He can return the car and turn himself in.
Plagued by flashbacks of the fight scene we just saw not even one minute ago, Jason drives to the only place people really appreciate him: a cemetery. “They’re out to get me,” he tells Bruce Lee’s grave. “I need help.” I’ll say. You’re pouring your heart out to Bruce Lee’s grave when you’ve left a perfectly good, living, friend back home. You wanted to make out with the racist bunny-killer and look what happens?
“Sensei Lee, you have to help me!”
Haven’t you heard, kid? The dead don’t have to do shit. They’re dead. “I’ve got no one. No one but you.” No home, no family, no friends. Sure, you and Sensei Dad have some issues, but did you ever think to talk to mom? I know I got a lot of mileage out of setting one parent off against the other. Try it at your home, kids! And just where the hell is Mom Stillwell, anyway?
Never mind. Jason’s too crazy to let such a perfectly-good opportunity to insult his dad pass by, so that night he lays this treasure on us
“If you’d been anything but a…a coward.”
You just know Mrs. Stillwell is sitting in the living room with the TV turned all the way up…watching the Tonight Show, already well into the night’s third bottle of wine. Meanwhile, Sensei Dad has one of the best middle-age freak-outs ever committed to film, trashing Jason’s Bruce Lee shrine with some prime, Grade A overacting. Jason reacts the same way, even getting the chance to deliver a suitable “NOOOOOOOO!”
Traumatized by his father’s sudden bout of parenting, Jason flees to the only place he can go (and where he should’ve gone in the first place, if only to pick up a fresh shirt and wash his stupid, dick face before he went home): R.J’s house.
“Don’t worry, R.J. will provide. You just wait here.”
R.J. (somehow) manages to get a truck from…somewhere…gather all Jason’s stuff without Sensei Dad noticing (or dragging his son back in the house by the ear) and drive Jason over to an abandoned, Victorian mansion that makes the Paper Street Soap Company look like a romantic summer getaway. Where’d R.J. get the truck? How does he know the location of everything in town? Where’s that dad he mentioned having? Does he even have a mom, or is his a Disney household? His parents don’t mind him sneaking out in the middle of the night to play Magical Negro with the new white kid they’ve (probably) never met, considering he just moved into town? Guess not.
So Jason reconstructs his home gym in the Fight Club house and lies to R.J. about going home so he can stay up and read by kerosene lamp. Teenage rebellion at it’s finest! See, parents? Your kids don’t really want to smoke, drink, eat and fuck themselves into comas. They just want space to stretch their wings, become individuals, and stay up reading all night…until they’re visited by ghosts.
The Ghost of Bruce Lee: “Shall we begin?”
Yes, let’s. Now you see why the film went out of its way to honor Saint Bruce, going so far as to actually lay flowers on his grave. Because this is, for better or worse, the last word in Brucesploitation: a coming of age narrative about a young man who learns self-respect by studying martial arts…under Bruce Lee’s motherfucking ghost. Not just Bruce Lee’s clones. Not just Bruce Lee’s secrets. Not even just Bruce Lee’s fists of vengeance. No, we’re talking about the full package, risen in the flesh. Like Jesus. He even pounds his own chest to prove he’s the real Kung Fu Christ…since there aren’t any open wounds for Jason to casually finger.
I’d normally get on some high horse about not minting money out of a dead man’s corpse…but screw that. Bruce Lee’s fought back from the grave! Let’s see Chuck Norris manage that trick. Hey, all you Chuck Norris fans out there? Yeah, fuck your Chuck Norris! Not only did St. Bruce lay the smack down on his candied ass all the way back in 1972, he took a handful of that magical chest hair home with him and obviously used it to create the Philosopher’s Stone.
Like any good Sensei, Lee takes Jason back to basics, illustrating them with what amounts to a shameless Diet Coke commercial. Still, the training montage that begins right after that flagrant bit of product placement is arguably what we’ve all been waiting for. Hell, this sequence even has a few authentic pearls of wisdom.
“You be quick and direct, utilizing chi! The result is power!”
Lee’s ghost proceeds to go Opera School on Jason’s ass, and while he looks nothing like the poster we’ve seen prominently throughout this whole show, Tai Chung Kim’s Lee-ian body language is spot-on, befitting Kim’s background as a stunt double in actual Lee movies like Game of Death. Producers liked him there so much they gave him the role of Lee’s brother in Game‘s clip show of a sequel, Tower of Death. Kim’s performance here is appropriately spooky, and the fact all of his dialogue’s dubbed into English actually aids my suspension of disbelief…simultaneously making things that much funnier.
As if you couldn’t tell from my ranting, these scenes are the best in the film, both for our crash course in wushu basics and for the implications this sequence has for Jason. Until now he’s been a full-of-himself dick and it’s gotten him beaten down more often than not. Is he your usual Ralph Macchio, getting sense pummeled into him? Has he found salvation through martial arts? Or has the stress of being a privileged white boy in suburban America finally driven Our Designated Hero hopelessly and completely insane?
R.J. doesn’t even seem to mind Jason’s talking to the walls, so I guess we’re not meant to think about this question, but I can’t help it. Jason’s has to be one of the sweetest psychotic breakdowns in the history of ever. Look at him: gaining self-confidence, getting in shape…even hauling R.J. out of the house to go running along with him. Eventually, the self-confidence Jason’s gained through this ordeal allows him to man up, apologize to Kelly for being an ass, straighten things out with Sensei Dad, and even defeat Jean-Claude Van Damme in Mortal Kombat. So let that be a lesson, kids: when dead people start talking to you, don’t freak out, just go with it! Who knows? You just might get to learn Jeet Kune Do from the Master Himself.
The first montage concludes and we catch up with Sensei Dad, whose become a bartender…instead of…ya know…searching for his son who ran away from home to cavort with the Living Dead. He seems as unperturbed as I would be, were I in his position. Since he’s one of the characters we’re supposed to “care” about, his bar caters exclusively to assholes who abuse him for no good reason. Except it gives Jason an excuse to show off his evolving skills and actually, for once, stop some violence.
(Incidentally, the song playing in Sensei Dad’s bar is great in a very so-bad-its-great, Country song way. It’s a prefect Cliche Storm, so perfect I question its very reality. It can’t be real, and yet it’s not one of the synth/butt rock compositions Frank Harris used to clutter up the soundtrack. So where did it come from?)
Back at Project Mayhem, Jason’s ability to kick a bag earns him a farewell flash of light and Bruce Lee’s ghost is gone. Realizing he’s grown beyond the need for imaginary friends, Jason embarks on another training montage and…and…
That does it. This movie’s just plain damn weird. I don’t know what’s funnier: the fact that R.J.’s eating ice cream, or the goofy-ass expression on his face. Really shows how American masculine friendships have decayed in the last twenty years. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find two teenage boys secure enough in themselves and their own masculinity to do something like this. In public. And in front of a film crew, no less.
We’re now in the home stretch, and we see Jason’s mom for the first time in forty-five minutes. Glory be, she actually delivers a line, asking Jason to pick Sensei Dad up from work. Good thing, too, since Mr. Stillwell’s already manged to gain quite a hatedom during his short tenure at the taps. That great martial arts movie cliche, the gang of toughs who materialize out of nowhere, have the upper hand until Jason (and the soundtrack) arrive to deal out justice. Because power chords and Bruce Lee both fight back…from the grave!
Jason and his dad bond over Jason’s improved ass-kicking abilities. Dad even apologizes for being an unreasonable, dogmatic pacifist. “I haven’t exactly helped,” Jason allows. What with the pouting, the yelling, the disrespect, the sneaking out to abandoned houses in the middle of the night…very big of him, this admission.
Next, we get a character moment for R.J., and, since it’s the 80s, this involves killing time with a visit to the dance club. Seriously, I love this movie. It’s the apotheosis of the 1980s: a shameless rip-off distinguished only by its nostalgia for the 1970s, already seen as a “simpler” time by the people of 1986. It’s especially nice to see R.J.’s decked out in full Young Michael Jackson regalia, contrasting with Jason’s “middle-aged insurance salesman” ensemble.
Noticing Kelly, R.J. vocalizes what I’ve been thinking this whole time:
“There’s your lady, and you wanna stand here with me?”
And it wouldn’t be the mid-80s without some sweet breakdancing. So, since R.J. knows everyone as well as everything, he convinces the robot dancers to lure Jason and Kelly back together, even though the Male Robot uses what has to be the creepiest come-on I’ve seen outside of a Japanese video game.
With that resolved, we’re finally back to Movie A: the one about the Russian gangsters taking over dojos. And you know what? I think I’ve finally figured out this movie’s secret: it’s 90 densely packed minutes of crap. Not the garish, overblown crap you get out of modern Hollywood. It’s a quieter, simpler kind of crap, more akin to chopsocky than to the The Karate Kid. It takes place in a strange universe where karate’s taken football’s place in the American national conscious. The way it treats martial arts is downright feudalistic, because only a feudal Chinese mob would pin their hopes on a fight between a punk kid and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yet here’s Shinny Hair, back to mug for the camera like the evil master of a rival Karate school in some (insert your favorite Hong Kong director here) flick.
So Van Damme’s set to wipe the floor with Ian but proves too dumb and villainous for something as simple as the Quick Win. After committing numerous fouls, Van Damme commits the ultimate one by knocking the ref out so he can pummel Ian without restraint. The other mobsters don’t seem to have a problem with him pissing their chases of establishing a Seattle front down his well-toned and obviously-stretched-out leg.
Fat Scott even redeems himself at this point by trying to rescue Ian, earning a headbutt for his trouble. This leaves Kelly free to come from behind with the wooden footstool. She should’ve gone for the steel chair, but her subsequent menacing provides Jason an excuse to get off his ass. Since now it’s personal. Not like it wasn’t back when this guy broke his dad’s leg. No. By pulling Kelly’s hair, Van Damme’s finally gone too far.
In spite of all his training, Jason is still a sixteen year-old trying to knock out a full grown man. And once Jean-Claude rips his own shirt off, the tide quickly turns against Our Hero, prompting R.J. to obey the rule of threes and shout
“Jayse! No Retreat! No Surrender!”
And that’s it. Jason wins and the movie just ends with him carried off on everyone’s triumphant shoulders. What about the mob? You think they’re gonna just go with this whole “bet our chances on a kung-fu match” thing? You think they’re gonna stop just because one kid got lucky? What about the strange and shaky state of Jason’s psychology? Who’s to say one bad patch with Kelly won’t send Our Hero plumb ’round the bend? Is there a badass longcoat and a gymbag full of guns waiting somewhere in Jason’s future?
We’ll never know, because this thing produced nothing but Sequels in Name Only. Still, ignore the cover. Despite Van Damme’s prominence, he’s got little to do with the wonderful, wacky, weird world this film creates. It deserves to be a much bigger cult sensation than it is, right up there with Plan 9 and the other Big Names in crap cinema. It’s honestly the most fun I’ve had with a Bad Movie in ages. So forget the rest and remember: No Retreat, No Surrender.
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