Sunday, February 17, 2008

Operation Bangkok (Thailand, 1967)

Thai popular cinema of the 1960s is one of those things that I'm fascinated by that I'm hesitant to recommend without qualification. I expended a lot of words a couple months back discussing the Red Eagle films, and while those movies boast striking visuals and a look that is unique in world cinema, I'm not sure that many people would share my enthusiasm for them to the extent that it would be worth their sitting through them in all their lengthy, un-subtitled, weirdly post-dubbed and distressingly deteriorated current condition.

I'm also fascinated by the phenomenon and story of Mitr Chaibancha, the undisputed king of 1960s Thai cinema. So in demand was this actor that he starred in roughly one in three of the near one hundred movies made in Thailand each year during that decade. After Chaibancha was killed during the filming of Insee Thong, the final Red Eagle film, a shrine was erected at the spot that is still visited by worshipful fans to this day.

Chaibancha also did some cross-over work in Hong Kong cinema, and his popularity was such in his homeland that Hong Kong studios saw an incentive to try to tap into that market as well. Operation Bangkok is a 1967 Thai production that received backing from Hong Kong's then still-powerful Cathay Studios, and it pairs Chaibancha with Cathay star Regina Pai Ping as a couple of undercover operatives working as part of a joint Thai/Hong Kong operation to bring down an international drug ring.

Operation Bangkok's relatively lavish funding means that it is in many ways not typical of Thai movies of its period. The typical Thai film in 1967 would have been shot on 16mm color reversal film stock, a process that resulted in such extreme color saturation that even the most muted colors showed up on screen as day-glo. Films of that period were also most often shot without sound, with the voice-overs to be provided by live actors in the venues--often makeshift outdoor cinemas--where they were shown. (For a wonderfully evocative illustration of this practice see director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's lovely 2001 film Monrak Transistor.) Modern DVD and VCD release of these films compensate for this last practice by providing bizarre, much later recorded audio tracks comprised of un-synched actors reading the movie's script (or making it up as they go along) over the movie's action, accompanied by only very minimal sound effects and a patchwork of anachronistic music.

Operation Bangkok, on the other hand, appears to be shot on 35mm and has synchronous sound, so for once we get to hear the actual voice of, not just Chaibancha, but also his frequent female co-star Petchara Chaowarath. Though not quite as riotous in its color presentation as the aforementioned 16mm productions, the film still shows enough of the Thai preference for vivid color in its art direction and costume design to provide that visual pop that fans of this cinema expect. The added budget also serves to enhance the usual rough-and-tumble thrills you'd expect from a Thai action film of this time, giving us some well shot and executed car and speedboat chases in addition to the plentiful--and credibly harm-producing--physical brawls that break out at regular intervals. Regular Cathay director Tong Wong does a good job of keeping things moving at a fast clip, despite the fact that--at almost two hours (and perhaps more, given that parts are very likely missing from the currently available print)--the film feels a little over-long.

Though, like the other old Thai films I've seen, I found Operation Bangkok entertaining on a purely visual level, the fact that it features a large cast of characters, many of whom are operating under false identities, makes its plot difficult to negotiate without subtitles--something that might prove to be a deterrent factor for those non-Thai speakers considering giving it a chance. Another such factor might be that, like pretty much every surviving Thai film of its vintage, the available print of Operation Bangkok is absolutely ravaged--so much so that the experience of viewing it is like watching it through a thick curtain of scratches, tears and stains. In my review of Insee Thong I made the case that this condition contributed to the unique experience of watching these particular films, but I understand that this opinion might not be shared by everybody.

Still, one thing that I will without hesitation recommend Operation Bangkok for is its soundtrack. A lot of the movie's action takes place in various nightclub settings and, as a result, the film is peppered with performances by what look to be actual beat groups from the region (in addition to some enjoyable vocal numbers by Regina Pai Ping). Anyone who's purchased any of the compilations of Southeast Asian go-go music that have been made available over the last few years will find a lot to love here--as will anyone, like myself, who revels in go-go culture in all its international guises.

Like much of Mitr Chaibancha's output, Operation Bangkok is only available on VCD, and can be found from the always dependable eThaiCD. For me the best part about these Thai VCDs--aside from the fact that you can get them for just a few dollars shipped--are their packaging, which usually includes a brightly colored, relief-printed slip cover featuring the original hand-painted poster artwork for the film. If you've ever witnessed the glories of Thai film poster artwork, you know why that would be incredibly appealing. This guarantees that, even if you find the film contained therein disappointing, you're still left with a pleasing artifact--which makes taking a chance on this unique and, to me, irresistibly compelling avenue of world cinema not that much of a gamble at all.


Ninja Dixon said...

I saw this movie recently and what a blast it was. Clearly a bigger production than some of the other Chaibancha-movie I've seen, and very entertaining. A little slow during the last half, but it ends with a lot of nice action.

Thanks for a good review!

Todd said...

Thanks, Ninja. If you haven't already, you might also check out Top Secret (Khon Nuer Khon) with Mitr Chaibancha and Sombat Methanee.