Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Thai-style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands Part I

Tah Tien

As part of the preparation for my magisterial treatise on the deeply oddball Thai/Japanese co-production Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen (now on view over at Teleport City), I saw fit to explore further into the body of work of Thai director and producer Sompote Saengduenchai, aka Sompote Sands. As a young man, Sands traveled to Japan, where he worked as an apprentice at Toho Studios and came into contact with Japanese special effects master Eiji Tsubaraya. Upon returning to Thailand, he decided to apply what he had learned to making special effects-driven and giant monster movies of his own, and started his company Chaiyo Productions with that purpose in mind.

Of the many films Sands produced under the Chaiyo banner, only one—the 1981 Jaws rip-off Crocodile—would see an English language release. Still, among fanboys in this country and abroad he has gained no small amount of infamy for being the man responsible for tying up the international rights to Tsubaraya’s Ultraman in a decade long legal dispute. I discuss the history of that dispute in more depth in my review of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, but for this blog I wanted to set aside Sands’ reputation as a fabulist and Ultra-jacker and focus solely on his work as a filmmaker, starting with one of his earliest films, 1973’s Tah Tien.

Tah Tien starts with a giant snake emerging from the ocean and vomiting an egg onto the beach. A giant suitmation frog then swallows the egg, becomes violently ill, vomits the egg back up, and then dies. The egg explodes and a beautiful, fully dressed, grown woman emerges. Seeing the dead frog, she enters its body in spectral form and saunters off down the beach. Then things start to get weird.

Tah Tien is ostensibly a retelling of an old Thai folk tale about a battle between two giants, Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, that, as legend has it, resulted in the flattening of one side of the Chao Phraya riverbank known as Tah Tien (“flattened dock”). However, it takes a very long and, by all appearances, aimless route to get us to that battle, and, as a result, comes off as more of an unintentional cock-and-bull story than anything else. Chaba, the girl-cum-frog who emerged from the egg, comes to share a shack with an old man who is seemingly unperturbed by having a giant, upright-walking toad for a roommate. Domestic bliss ensues, exemplified by a scene in which we see the frog sitting back in a rocking chair and puffing on a gigantic cigarette. When in her humanoid form, Chaba is played completely without affect by former Miss Bangkok Suphak Likitkul. The character is apparently some kind of magical being, and is shown performing various Bewitched-style feats, such as when she makes a sumptuous feast appear with the blink of an eye.

Having baffled us enough with Chaba the frog girl, Tah Tien next takes us deep within the jungle, where we’re treated to a succession of scenes in which Sombat Methanee--portraying Narane, a heroic hunter--has a series of encounters with the ferocious beasts therein. These are represented by poorly inserted stock wildlife footage, until those moments when close contact with our star requires them to become either men in animal suits or hilariously stiff looking life-sized puppets. There is also a very strange, slow motion fight between two men in floppy dinosaur suits that takes place. Finally this section brings us to an incredibly long sequence in which one of Narane’s fellow hunters spies on two girls skinny dipping, complete with a triple repeat of the same underwater shot of their naked butts as they swim by. When this scene is ended with the arrival on the scene of a man in a droopy-boobed ape suit, the impression is completed that Tah Tien has suddenly switched reels with a 1950s Nudie Cutie film.

Finally Narane meets up with Chaba in her human form and the two fall in love. During the final twenty minutes of Tah Tien, Chaba and Narane go on a date in the big city. (The movie, by the way, is set in the present day, despite purportedly being based on a folk tale meant to explain events in the very distant past.) Their sightseeing tour brings them into contact with the two towering temple guardian statues, Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, which Chaba, for some reason, decides to turn into human beings. This works out swell at first, with the two newly human statues getting along swimmingly. Soon, however, they begin to quarrel. And before you can say “whu..?”, they have reverted to statue form—only now they’re statues that are about a billion times bigger than they were previously, and alive… sort of. A sluggish battle ensues, during which the two giants stiffly club one another and destroy some helicopters with their flamethrower breath. Then, as quickly as it began, the battle is over, and the statues are back in place in front of their respective temples. The end.

It was unclear to me whether the giant statues in Tah Tien were actual men in suits or simply large puppets. Whatever they were, though, their mobility was obviously very limited. For the most part it seemed like they were just being laboriously pushed toward one another by stage hands who were ducking below frame--with shots inserted of someone wearing “monster feet” stepping on miniature houses. Some attempt is made with editing to suggest movement, but since it’s on par with the rest of the editing in Tah Tien, it only serves to increase the ponderousness of what’s going on. As for the model work involved, its widely varied, with some of the miniature skyscrapers and structures actually looking pretty good and others, well, not so much.

In addition to the Dodgy monster effects, Tah Tien abounds with technical rough edges and classic Z-movie amateurism. The camera has a tendency to linger, giving us establishing shots that go on forever and scenes that hang around long after the pertinent action has concluded, and pans and zooms are often performed with a noticeably shaky hand. This, combined with the weirdness of much of what’s portrayed on screen, can give the film a sort of car crash allure, but the distracted pacing and general aimlessness of it all might prove too infuriating for even the most dedicated rubberneckers.

The giant Yuk Wud Jaeng would go on to become a favorite subject for Sands, returning to star in the director's 1973 film Giant and Jumbo A, in which he was teamed up with the Japanese Tokusatsu hero Jamborg Ace. Sometime after that he would also make a cameo appearance in the Sompote Sands curiosity that we’ll be discussing next: King-ka Kayasit, aka Magic Lizard.

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