Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Struggle on the Nile (Egypt, 1959)

As most of you probably know, the recently departed Omar Sharif, before starting his ascent to international stardom with his role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, had already become a major star in his native Egypt. Seeing a 26 year old Sharif in 1959’s Struggle on the Nile, it’s easy to see why. Indeed, those who’ve become accustomed to the masculine gravitas projected by the magnificently ‘stached Sharif in so many of his English speaking roles might even be taken aback by the fresh faced and clean shaven version that appears here. This younger Sharif (billed here a “Omar El Cherif”) is downright pretty--though, as we will also see in Struggle on the Nile, mere prettiness is not enough to keep him from being upstaged by a particularly electric performance from one of his co-stars.

In the film, Sharif plays Muhasab, a naïve village boy who has been tasked by his father, the village chieftan, with shepparding the Bride of the Nile, a dilapidated sailing vessel owned by the village, from Luxor to Cairo, where it will be sold for cash that will be used toward purchasing a motorized barge. This, it is believed, will make the village more competitive in matters of commerce. At the same time, the journey is clearly intended as a transition into manhood for Muhasab. We are told that he has been feminized by his mother during his upbringing, as symbolized by an earring she has made him wear since an early age. This is ceremoniously torn from his ear by his father on the eve of his departure.

To look after Muhasab along the way, his father appoints Mujahed, a rugged family friend played by rugged star Rushdy (or “Roushdy”) Abaza, who we’ve previously seen here at 4DK in Oh Islam!, Bride of the Nile and El Achrar. The chief also entrusts Mujahed with a purse containing £6000 that the village has collected toward the purchase of the barge. This he hands over to Muhasab in a potentially costly test of his ability to be responsible for it. We then have a scene of Muhasab bidding a fond farewell to Ward, a village belle whom he promises to marry upon his return (and who is played by an actress I was unable to identify).

Meanwhile, Abu Saafan, a ruthless rival merchant, assigns Hisham, one of his minions, to insert himself into the Bride’s small crew and sabotage the mission. He is also directed to kill Muhasab and steal the £6000. The rest of the crew is made up of two more or less bumbling sidekick types, one of whom is the village idiot who’s in love with a donkey. (As we’ve seen in Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, the Egyptians don’t shy away from bestiality as a comic subplot.)

Suffice it to say that Muhasab fails his first test of character spectacularly. Upon the Bride’s first stop, at the port of Qena, Hisham lures him to a carnival where he and a couple of cohorts easily relieve him of the purse. It is only by the fist-wielding intervention of Mujahed that it is retrieved, after which Mujahed locks it away in the ship’s cellar. Hisham then recruits the carnival’s hoochie coochie dancer, Nargis (Hind Rostom), to charm her way aboard the boat and get her hands on the money. Arriving at the dock with suitcase in hand, she begs to join them, claiming that she is fleeing from an abusive lover. Above Mujahed’s objections, a smitten Muhasab allows her aboard.

Predictably, Nargis’ presence causes havoc aboard the Bride of the Nile. Mujahed commands her to stay in the ship’s hold, but she continues to make herself a mischievous presence on deck, where she is a crippling distraction to the all-male crew. (Upon seeing her, one of them, according to the English subtitle, exclaims of the light-skinned Nargis, “I love white plumpness!”) One episode, in which she comes on deck to wash her bare legs in the river’s waters, results in the ogling crewmembers allowing the ship to run aground.

Even more destructive are Nargis’ emotional manipulations. She easily seduces the callow Muhasab and begins the work of turning him against Mujahed. Mujahed, for his part, desperately tries to get rid of her, but finds that she outsmarts his every effort to strand, abandon, and even kill her. Eventually, she maneuvers Muhasab, who is quick to forget his romantic commitments at home, into a quickie marriage. Then she sets her romantic sights on Mujahed, inciting in Muhasab a jealous rage that leads to a physical confrontation between the two friends.

I have elsewhere described Hind Rostom as Egypt’s answer to Rita Hayworth, and have since learned that she was described in her time as the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe. However, if she must be described by way of comparison, I suggest that we broaden the field of potential corollaries to include the female stars of Indian cinema. I say this because I think that fans of classic Bollywood films will see in her an Egyptian equivalent of the great Helen. Like Helen, she typically plays the role of the vamp, siren, or homewrecker, and as such must, within the male dominated culture she inhabits, eventually be punished for inflaming the libidos of the men around her, as well as for the misdeeds those men have committed as a result.

Rostom, who has given outstanding performances in Egyptian classics like Cairo Station and Sleepless, takes to her role in Struggle on the Nile with astonishing ferocity. It is nothing if not a bravura performance, exhibiting, on the one hand, a scalding sensuality, and, on the other, a chilling sociopathic remove. It is a classic femme fatale turn, no doubt the result of Rostom taking full advantage of a role that keeps her front and center for much of the film.

Despite the heat that Rostom brings to the film, the fact that so much of its drama takes place within such a confined space renders it a bit of a slow boat to Cairo, pacing-wise. Its focus on a destructive love triangle playing out on a boat tempts comparisons to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, although director Atef Salem in no way manages the sustained tension that Polanski does in his film—nor, apparently, does he mean to. Instead, Salem treats much of Nargis’ bedevilment of the men around her as antic farce, complete with whimsical music. This creates even more of a disconnect once events take a markedly darker turn near the film’s conclusion. (Beware yon spoilers ahead.)

Indeed, when Nargis’ comeuppance arrives it is a gruesome one. And this despite the fact that Muhasab’s horny impulsiveness and terrible decision making has played as much or more of a part in the Bride of the Nile’s difficulties than any of her scheming did. Nonetheless, upon arriving home with the much anticipated barge, Muhasab is given a hero’s welcome by the village—and happily falls into the welcoming arms of his none-the-wiser fiancé. He is, by all appearances, no more of a man and no wiser than when he left. Given that, this dubiously “happy” ending tempts one to turn a side eye toward the two hours of Struggle on the Nile that has preceded it.

As far as recommending Struggle on the Nile goes, I'm torn. On the plus side, it is considered by many to be a classic of Egyptian cinema. Hind Rostom’s performance deserves to be seen, as do those of Rushdi Abaza and Omar Sharif, despite my having found Sharif’s character loathsome. The strain of misogyny that runs through it, however, has to be reckoned with. Our choice, on the one hand, is to turn away from the chauvinistic view of womankind that the film presents. On the other, it is to celebrate the woman who—in the tradition of all great screen femme fatales, Helen and Rita Hayworth included—took what little was offered her and imbued it with as much power, ferocity and raw living spirit as her considerable skills allowed. I suppose which of those you choose depends on the extent to which you see that as any kind of power at all.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Podcast on Fire's Taiwan Noir Episode 18: War God, aka The Big Calamity

The latest edition of Taiwan Noir is the first of two back-to-back episodes in which Swedish sex god Kenny B and myself discuss special effects heavy Taiwanese fantasy movies. First up is War God, aka The Big Calamity, a true Taiwanese Kaiju film with the uncanny power to turn adult male cult film fans into raving ten year old boys. Listen here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Friday's best pop song ever

Calling Mr. Midnight

Today I'm very pleased to be making my return to Teleport City. This month we're paying tribute to the late Christopher Lee while honoring his wish that he not be remembered for his portrayal of Dracula alone. That means that we are plumbing some of his more offbeat ventures into genre cinema, such as the musical superhero satire The Return of Captain Invincible. You can read my review of that divisive film here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The pop, she is offensive.

Last Wednesday's Pop Offensive was a sugar coated blast, surveying two minute bursts of pop perfection from countries as varied as Macedonia, Vietnam, Germany, Finland, Spain, Sweden, and that big one that keeps Canada and Mexico from bumping into each other, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Along the way we gave you a taste of the glories of Eurovision, the drunken revels of Octoberfest, and the heyday of Bay Area punk, not to mention a healthy portion of glam, northern soul, girl group sounds, and UK psych pop.

Of course, you know all of that, because you listened to it live. Wait.... You didn't listen to it?

[reproving silence]

Alright, then. I guess you'll be wanting this link to the archived version of the show.


And why not just take the complete playlist for the episode that can be found here, on the Pop Offensive Facebook Page.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pop Offensive returns this Wednesday.

At Pop Offensive, we don't need a cause to celebrate, or to celebrate at all, really. No, we're happy just to mark the simple passing of time--albeit with a butt-rocking collection of international pop, dance, and movie tunes. So let's get the party started (or not--we don't care), this Wednesday, August 19th at 7pm PT, streaming live from http://9thfloorradio.com.

That was no lady.

As they say, some things are best left locked in the cupboards of recorded time--last Tuesday's tweet-along to Lady Terminator, for instance. Still, if your curiosity gets the best of you--and you have no fear of unleashing a cock-chomping Indonesian sex beast--click on the link below to read a Storified transcript of the whole sordid affair.

The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down: Lady Terminator on Storify

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tonight! The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down sees no end of LADY TERMINATOR!

Indonesian folklore tells of a goddess who rises up from the South Sea to take vengeance upon mankind. Indonesian exploitation cinema further tells us of how she takes the guise of a leather-clad, machine gun-toting underwear model. Yes, it's Lady Terminator, and her time has come. Time, that is, to be the subject of tonight's 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down. Please join us tonight--that's Tuesday, August 11th--on Twitter at 6pm PT as, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, we tweet along to this uproariously entertaining oddity.

A link to the full feature is below:

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bangunnya Nyi Roro Kidul, aka Awakening of the South Seas Queen (Indonesia, 1985)

Over the course of dozens of movies like Sundel Bolong and Nyi Blorong, Indonesian horror icon Suzzanna established herself as the personification of female vengeance, a representation of the payback due for every one of man's oafish transgressions against womankind. Thus it was probably inevitable that man, in the person of the production team behind Bannyang Nyi Roror Kidul, would strike back at her by putting her at the center of an insubstantial, comic relief filled film that concludes with a disco fashion show.

As many Indonesian horror films, including the sublime Lady Terminator, have told us, the South Seas Queen is a figure from Indonesian folklore who periodically rises up from the ocean to lure men to their doom with her sex voodoo. The question remains, however, whether this would happen at all were we just to leave her alone. You'll recall that, in Lady Terminator, she was roused by a foxy, constantly self-announcing anthropologist. In Bannyang Nyi Roror Kidul, it's a trio of young douchebags who mount a diving expedition to pluck her sleeping form from the ocean floor and bring it back to the mainland. Once this has been accomplished, she quickly revives and makes short work of one of their number, turning him into human jerky by vomiting lightning out of every one of her facial orifices.

This necessary culling of the cast list leaves us with the two remaining douchebags, Ario (George Rudy), the Chachi shag-wearing hunk of the group, and Dudi (Dorman Borisman), the one you'll least likely want to see showing as much skin as he does throughout pretty much the entire film. Together they head off in search of the Queen and are eventually joined by a fetching lady journalist named Wieke (Nena Rosier).

Meanwhile, the Queen (Suzzanna, natch) has chosen to walk this Earth in the guise of mortal beauty Neneng, and heads for the city to go shopping.  Along the way she is subjected to no end of catcalling and crass behavior by the male population. This she generally responds to by flash frying the perpetrator with her face lightning. Unfortunately, one of her victims is missed by a gang of armed hooligans--among whose number is an outrageous gay stereotype--who set out to capture her for their own evil purposes.

At one point, the gang attempts to rob Ario's palatial home, only to be foiled by Neneng's spooky intervention. Now, I may be wrong (yes, subtitles would have been helpful), but it seems that at this point an alliance of sorts is formed between Neneng and the heroes, which would essentially make Bannyang Nyi Roror Kidul the Godzilla vs. Megalon of the Indonesian South Seas Queen film genre. This evident goodwill leads to a scene in which the whole gang shows up to cheer Neneng on as she participates in some kind of modelling contest. This she wins handily by wearing a massive starburst shaped headdress and carrying a cobra shaped urn from which she throws candy to the audience. A final confrontation between the forces of good and evil follows that is rife with 80s action movie beats, as well as a bit where Suzzanna ends up tied to the tracks in front of an oncoming train.

All of this action is surrounded by no end of comic relief shenanigans. Yes, there is a midget, and he at one point dances to canned disco music with a fellow who is comically tall and skinny. A stock greedy holy man character appears to scam the heroes--oh, and he has a comically shrewish wife! People get exaggeratedly frightened and run away from things in fast motion. Amid all of this, Suzzanna comports herself with her usual regal calm, appearing as if she is barely tolerating all of the tomfoolery she's being subjected to.

Given all of the above, it's hard to say what type of film Bannyang Nyi Roror Kidul is at its heart. It is undeniable, however, that it is a horror film in form, and an Indonesian horror film, at that--which means that it is obligated to frighten and disgust us to at least some extent. The first it accomplishes in a scene where one of the Queen's dessicated victims sits up on the autopsy table and starts zapping everyone, which is among the most shocking and terrifying that I've seen in these films. The "ugh" moment come care of a bit where Suzzanna regurgitates live centipedes. You stay you, Indonesia.

The best thing I can say about Bannyang Nyi Roror Kidul is that Suzzanna comes out of it with her dignity intact--which is something that you would, of course, expect, given she's fricking Suzzanna. It's a shame, though, because the idea of casting one of these fearsome figures from Indonesian folklore in a superheroic context has the potential to be really fun. I think it's just that Sisworo Gautama Putro, having directed so many of Suzzanna' fright flicks, was not the director to pull it off. He has, however, done so much to contribute to an oeuvre that is for the most part outrageously entertaining that I think he can be forgiven this one.