Thursday, August 7, 2008

Thai-Style Kaiju: (The horrible return of) the films of Sompote Sands Part VI

Krai-Thong (198?)

Thanks to overwhelming demand on the part of the hectoring demon voices inside my head, I'm back with yet another installment of Thai-Style Kaiju, my survey of the films of Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai -- aka Sompote Sands -- and his Chaiyo Productions. (For the full skinny on Sompote, check out my review of his Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen over at Teleport City.)

To be truthful, I've sampled a few of Sompote's works since writing my last entry in this series -- including Ka Kee and Pra Jao Sua: Pun Tai Nor-A-Sing -- but all of those were so crushingly devoid of anything noteworthy that writing about them would have constituted a spelunking to depths of pointlessness lower than even my lavishly compromised spirit could endure. Krai-Thong, however, seemed to deserve some mention, because it was enough of a success in its day to merit both a sequel a couple years later and a remake in 2001. I've seen the film variously described as being based on a Thai legend and a popular novel. I'm going to go with "legend", based not only on the archetypal nature of the story's elements, but also on the fact that an actual novel might have provided the filmmakers with a little more guidance as to how to fill screen time between the introduction of plot points than they obviously had.

Because the Tiga VCD of Krai-Thong comes complete with intermittently visible English subtitles, I'm able to give you a somewhat more coherent than usual recounting of what the film is comprised of, as well as -- thanks to the credits being subbed as well -- a little more info on who did what behind the scenes. The film was produced by Amnaj Saengduenchai, whom I believe is one of Sompote's sons, and directed by someone called Neramit, while Sompote himself is credited with "technical and special effects". If this is the true extent of Sompote's contribution, the man must have had a lot of kick-back time, because -- true to Chaiyo's thrift-conscious filmmaking ethos -- a number of the effects shots are recycled from previous films.

And speaking of recycling, you've just got to wonder where Sompote would be without his crocodile. His 1981 Crocodile, after all, did more to boost his international profile than any of his other films, and after its completion he was apparently incapable of leaving the big, fake crocodile puppet he constructed for it at home. It seems to make an appearance -- either in person or by way of re-used footage -- in every subsequent film he made, and Krai-Thong is no exception. The film even features that delicious, oft-revisited shot from Crocodile of the crocodile cavorting amongst some miniature boats and huts that place its size at roughly football field length, despite all of the subsequent shots revealing it to be just larger-than-average-crocodile size. Krai-Thong, of course, has the advantage of actually being about crocodiles, which gives those scenes a markedly lower WTF quotient than they had in other of his 1980s films, in which they crop up as apparently drug-inspired visual non sequiturs.

Krai-Thong introduces said rubbery reptile in a sequence that I like to think of as "The Crocodile on Tour", because it features the crocodile methodically travelling down river and, along the way, popping up at various points in the village to chomp on people. Having supped on a suitable cross-section of the village's inhabitants, both young and old, the croc then heads to a paper mache underwater cave where it suddenly assumes the well-sculpted human form of Thai superstar Sombat Methanee. Sombat, we learn, is Shalaman, the diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles, and it is only in this "Golden Cave" that he and his croco-subjects -- which include his two pulchritudinous croco-wives -- can assume human guise. The cave also renders them immortal and capable of surviving without food, which means that Shalaman's whole chomping on the villagers thing is just something of a hobby. However, despite his wise grandfather -- who perches upon a throne shaped like a giant crocodile head -- expressing the croco-mmunity's disapproval of his hobby, Shalaman shows no inclination to stop. He is the king, after all, and bored besides. And, as if to prove he can do whatever the hell he wants, he crocs his way back up to the village and kidnaps one of the village elder's young daughters to add to his increasingly Warren Jeffs-like collection of wives.

In response to this act, the village elder offers the hand in marriage of his remaining daughter to whoever can kill the crocodile. However, being that Shalaman is the immortal, diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles, it will take a magical Crocodile Wizard to do the job. Just such a wizard was the father of young villager Krai-Thong (Sorrapong Chatree), but, unfortunately, Shalaman already ate him. So Krai-Thong decides to seek out a master and learn to become a Crocodile Wizard himself. Visions of rousing, Shaolin-style training sequences are conjured in the mind of the audience and then quickly quashed by the uninvolvingly plodding nature of the actual sequences that follow. Meanwhile, hapless attempts to kill Shalaman are undertaken by a series of oafish contenders for the hand of the elder's daughter, all of which end with said contenders throwing themselves unconvincingly between the jaws of a giant fake crocodile head.

Krai-Thong is marked throughout by the typical inability of the Chaiyo team to conjure up anything resembling narrative momentum, which instead becomes a casualty to that team's equally typical, ADD-like desire to throw onscreen whatever sleazy and juvenile thing strikes them at the moment. Surprisingly, there are no long-winded skinny dipping scenes, but in their place we get two scantily-clad women having a slow motion slap fight complete with echo-plexed slapping sound effects, homoerotic humor between an older man and an underage boy, and what appears to be an instance of appalling animal cruelty. (This last would prevent me from recommending Krai-Thong even if it was good. Which it isn't.) All of this combines to inspire the creation in the viewer of a defensive wall of torpor unbreakable even by the prodigious employment of hand-launched cartoon laser beams and cheesy head rollings.

Eventually Krai-Thong finishes his training and is ready to face off against Shalaman. It's all over surprisingly quickly, but then Krai-Thong offers up a remarkable coda in which Krai-Thong travels back to the Golden Cave and starts loving-up one of Shalaman's sexy wives. He magically grants her the ability to retain her human form outside of the cave, then takes her back to the village to become another one of his wives -- being that he has apparently already shacked up with, not only the daughter promised as his reward, but also the kidnapped one that he rescued. The village elder's daughters, however, don't take kindly to this new addition to their family, and soon the croco-wife has returned to her croco-form and is exchanging tearful goodbyes with Krai-Thong in about the most strangely tacked-on feeling tragic ending ever. This whole bit seems to suggest some potentially interesting parallels between the characters of Shalaman and Krai-Thong that you might hope would be better explored in the 2001 remake, but apparently that one blew too.

I'd like to say that I've laid to rest Thai-Style Kaiju once-and-for-all with Krai-Thong. Unfortunately, there's this other Chaiyo movie featuring Sombat as a bionic man that demands to be explored. It also has a guy with giant elephant ears in it. That one just has to be good.

See you next time.

7 comments:

Rikker said...

Krai Thong (ไกรทอง) is a folk tale/folk legend of central Thailand.

It's been adapted many times and put to paper by many people. Perhaps the most famous version is the play written by Rama II. (He wrote at least six famous plays based on folk tales--another of them, Sangthong, you will recall as the namesake of Sangthong Sisai.)

The movie follows the story more or less faithfully. I'm no expert, but I did browse the Thai Wikipedia entry for it.

You know a movie is bad when the review is infinitely more entertaining than the film itself could ever aspire to be!

WiseKwai said...

Now, how about Krai Thong 2?

Todd said...

Thanks for the background, Rikker. I can always count on erudite commentors like Wise Kwai and yourself to elevate my Thai cinema posts to the level of semi-coherence. :)

And Wise Kwai: Yes, I indeed have Krai Thong 2 in line for review, but first I need to deal with the aforementioned bionic Sombat/elephant ears guy movie. Hopefully by week's end I'll also be posting about Operation Black Panther, a spy spoof starring and directed by Sombat that's actually pretty great, thanks in no small part to his amazing reversible wonder car.

todslaughter said...

I'm almost sure that Sompote Sands never fully made a single movie in his entire life. Most of them are recyclings of older titles, with added sequences, à la Jerry Warren.
His two Krai Thong movies not only uses sequences from other films, but are remakes of at least three Cambodian movies produced in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and starring Khmer star Dy Saveth. One of them is available in a Chinese VCD called "The Crocodile Men".
And speaking of crocodiles, even Sompote Sands's CHORAKHE is a patchwork, recycling the best (?) sequences of an earlier Thai film called AGOWA GONGPO (1978).

Todd said...

Thanks for the info, Todslaughter. Interesting stuff. So, would you say that The Crocodile Men is worth checking out?

todslaughter said...

"The Crocodile Men" is interesting for several reasons, one being that it's one of the rare titles having escaped the Khmer Rouges terror - as you know they killed millions of people but also destroyed books, movies, everything "cultural". Dy Saveth, who produced and starred in this movie, was lucky enough to escape the country and lived in France for years. Unfortunately, her two other movies in the Krai Thong trilogy were apparently destroyed.
This one is very interesting and of course the VCD has English subs, so the movie can be fully appreciated.
Dy Saveth was also the "snake girl" in some movies, one of them was released in France as "La vipère du karaté".
In recent years a lot of Cambodian movies, many being horror, were produced and are available on DVD, some of them have removable English subs. One of them, "Neang Neath", is a local version of "Nang Nak" - a legend that was the basis of some 25 Thai movies, one of the last being "The Ghost of Mae Nak".
Others are versions of the "kra sue" monster (also known as penanggalan, or manananggal).
I'm not sure by I wonder if the first Sompote Sands version of Krai Thong, "Chalawan", mentioned by another person on this blog, was not only a patchwork around one of the Dy Saveth movies.
Apparently, most of the films produced at Chaiyo were pasted-up affairs.
You can get Cambodian DVDs at Mietophoum, on the Web. It's even possible to watch trailers on their site.
"Bonjour" from France !

Todd said...

Having watched many of them, I can attest to the fact that most of Chaiyo's films indeed were "pasted-up affairs"! Thanks again for the info, Todslaughter. I'm going to track The Crocodile Men down. It sounds really fascinating. Thanks also for upholding the tradition of the comments on this blog being much more informative than the posts themselves! ;)