Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thai-Style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands Part VII

Yod Manut Computer / aka Computer Superman (1977)

Attention dour academics: If you're looking for an example of folkways polluted by the insidious influence of Western pop culture, look no further than Yod Manut Computer. This 1977 film from Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai's Chaiyo Productions starts out as a Seven Chinese Brothers-like tale that has all the feel of an oft-told traditional yarn, but then takes a radical detour in its middle half and becomes a cash-strapped counterfeit of the then-popular American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, complete with needle-dropped musical cues from the original. Along the way, Saengduenchai dishes up a surfeit of exactly the type of primitive movie magic we've come to expect, which goes a long way toward mitigating the film's other considerable shortcomings.

Throughout the punishing endeavor of surveying his films, I've thrown a lot of grief in Sompote Saengduenchai's direction -- most of it, to my mind, both retaliatory and justified. But, still, I've got to say that there is one way in which the man has rarely let me down. You see, I'm a man with a passionate love for bad special effects. On any given day, I'd rather watch an episode of Terrahawks than any one of the Star Wars movies. And even if your movie is crap, if you show me some horrible, rubbery prosthetics; or woefully undetailed, poorly-scaled miniatures; or pathetically obvious rear projection, I will probably end up reserving for it a warm and cozy spot within my otherwise glacial heart.

True to form, with Yod Manut Computer, Sompote delivers all of these aforementioned cinematic delights, elevating the film -- to my mind at least, and despite it exhibiting Chaiyo's trademark digressive approach to narrative and grating instances of juvenile humor -- from being totally unwatchable to only mostly unwatchable. Despite this ringing endorsement, however, I must warn fans of the crocodile from Crocodile that the film's pre-1981 vintage excludes it from containing a cameo by that rubbery critter. Seriously, if you've become as accustomed to seeing him pop up in these productions as I have, his absence is unexpectedly jarring. It's sort of like watching a John Cassavetes movie that doesn't have Gena Rowlands in it.

Yod Manut Computer begins on a stormy night in a small Thai village, where some dodgy looking miniature shacks are being assaulted by some particularly iffy looking cartoon lightning bolts. On this night, four brothers are born... four brothers who will grow up to be somehow, well, different. One brother has gigantic ears, the size and shape of which he can change at will, while another has gigantic hands, and a third brother can produce prodigious amounts of unusually adhesive snot from his nose. The final brother merely has a tail -- well, more of a rear-mounted horn than a tail, really -- which you would think would make him less special than the others, unless you think of the inability to sit down as being some kind of super power. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to these brothers as Ear Boy, Hand Boy, Snot Boy and Tail Boy. Interestingly, it turns out to be Tail Boy who is the main player in our story.

Tail Boy is played by Thai actor Yodchai Megsuan, who I mistakenly identified as Sombat Methanee when referring to this movie at the end of my review of Krai-Thong. Yodchai Megsuan was probably used to this in his day, because, based on my experience, his job seemed to be to play the lead in those few Thai movies made during the 1970s that didn't star Methanee. Sometimes, to make things extra confusing, they both starred in the same film, as they did in Killer Elephants.

Anyway, the first half of Yod Manut Computer follows Tail Boy and his freaky brothers through a series of whimsical episodes -- at times with the proto-sythpop song "Popcorn" percolating disturbingly on the soundtrack. These include a fishing adventure in which Ear Boy uses his ears as sails to power the fishing boat, Hand Boy uses his big ol' hands to scoop the fish from the river, Tail Boy pokes a hole in the bottom of the boat with his butt-horn, and Snot Boy seals the hole with his super snot. Finally comes that fateful night when Tail Boy's girlfriend, to the accompaniment of a needle-dropped section of George Martin's instrumental score from Help!, gorily cuts off Tail Boy's tail while he sleeps. Because of the lack of subtitles, I'm unsure what her motivation was for doing this, but I doubt that her intention was for Tail Boy to run off into the forest and bleed to death. Which is what he does.

Fortunately for Tail Boy, a goofy scientist wearing a nineteenth century British naval officer's uniform happens upon his exsanguinated body and takes him back to his laboratory, where he and his hapless assistants, working in "funny" sped-up motion, labor to turn him into a bionic man. When Tail Boy revives, he finds himself able to pry cardboard doors from their hinges and outrun poorly rear-projected trains -- all of which is to the good, because in his absence, a nasty gang of bandits has taken over the village and thrown all of the brothers' women into a cage. With newfound purpose, Tail Boy does that -- ch ch ch ch ch ch ch! -- slow-motion-means-fast-motion $6m man run back to the village, where he gathers up Ear Boy, Hand Boy and Snot Boy to do battle against the interlopers. And that's as much of a plot summary of Yod Manut Computer as you're going to get out of me.

To be fair, the story of Yod Manut Computer, while incredibly stupid, is told in a much more focused and linear manner than that exhibited in many of the other Chaiyo movies I've watched. Whether this is typical of the efforts of director Santa Pestoni or not, I couldn't say. After all, I only know that this movie was directed by Santa Pestoni because it is, for some reason, one of the very few vintage Thai films that actually has an All Movie Guide entry. That aside, the fact that this one moved at a somewhat more sprightly clip than its peers, combined with those many aforementioned visual wonders on view, placed it on the safe side of excruciating, and well beyond the fearsome reach of its evil brethren Magic Lizard. In fact, I even laughed on several occasions while watching it, which indicates to me that perhaps even those whose viewing habits aren't motivated by some extravagant sense of penance might find it good for a drunken har har.

Or perhaps not. See, as much as I want to prove that I can be even-handed in reviewing these movies, I just can't bring myself to flat-out recommend this one. That's simply too much responsibility for any one man to shoulder.

15 comments:

houseinrlyeh said...

But isn't "mostly unwatchable" the most ringing endorsement of them all?

WiseKwai said...

Some of the visual tricks you show in your screenshots remind me of Michel Gondry's work.

Perhaps Sompote Sands was like Be Kind Rewind for real.

How many more of his films do you have to watch?

Todd said...

"But isn't 'mostly unwatchable' the most ringing endorsement of them all?"

In this particular context, absolutely!

Wise Kwai: OMG, you are so right. Yod Manut Computer is Sompote Sands "Sweding" The Six Million Dollar Man!

"How many more of his films do you have to watch?"

Before I completely lose it, you mean?

I just have the dreaded Krai-Thong 2 left in the stack at this point. And--as I mentioned in my review of the first Krai-Thong--there were a couple of Chaiyo films that I watched that didn't even merit a write-up. I think I may have exhausted all of the available TIGA
VCDs of Chaiyo's output, but, as you know, it's hard to be certain of such things. Perhaps some knowledgeable reader will step in with some information in that regard (Rikker? Are you out there?)

Rikker said...

Here's a list of Somphote's films that I found. I've included links to eThaiCD where possible, but resorted to other sites where necessary, to show that the VCDs exist, at least.

1. Chalawan ชาละวัน (1970) -- an earlier take on the Krai Thong story, apparently

2. Tha Tian ท่าเตียน (1973, on Tiga VCD)

3. Yak Wat Chaeng Meets Jumbo A ยักษ์วัดแจ้ง พบ จัมโบ้เอ (1974, on Tiga VCD)

4. Hanuman Phop 7 Yod Manut หนุมานพบ 7 ยอดมนุษย์ (1974, on Tiga VCD)

5. Hanuman Phop 5 Ai Mod Daeng หนุมานพบ 5 ไอ้มดแดง (1975, on Tiga VCD)

6. Yod Manut Computer ยอดมนุษย์คอมพิวเตอร์ (1977, on Tiga VCD)

7. Phaen Din Wipayok แผ่นดินวิปโยค (1978, on Tiga VCD)

8. Chorakhe "Crocodile" จระเข้ (1980) -- Sounds like you've seen this one, but I can't find the VCD on the web, maybe because 'crocodile' is a common word.

9. Kaki กากี (1980, on Tiga VCD)

10. Krai Thong ไกรทอง (1980, on Tiga VCD)

11. Phra Rot Meri พระรถ เมรี (1982, on Tiga VCD)

12. Chorakhe Then Khawad จระเข้เถรขวาด (1982, on Tiga VCD)

13. Phra Chao Suea Phan Thai Norasing พระเจ้าเสือ พันท้ายนรสิงห์ (1982, on Tiga VCD)

14. Hanuman Phop 11 Yod Manut หนุมานพบสิบเอ็ดยอดมนุษย์ (1984)

15. Suek Kumphakan "The Noble War" ศึกกุมภกรรณ (1984, on Tiga VCD)

16. Krai Thong 2 ไกรทอง 2 (1985, on Tiga VCD)

17. Kingka Kaiyasit กิ้งก่ากายสิทธิ์ (1985, on Tiga VCD)

Any there you haven't seen/bought yet?

Todd said...

Rikker, you're awesome.

"Any there you haven't seen/bought yet?"

Sadly, yes.

I haven't seen Chalawan or Phaen Din Wipayok, for starters.

Phra Rot Meri looks interesting--maybe another "mythological", like The Noble War. The artwork on the case looks amazing--but, then again, the artwork on the case for Phra Chao Suea Phan Thai Norasing also looked amazing, and it was dreadfully dull--even though it did actually have a scene like the one pictured on the case, with an elephant impaling a guy on its tusk while trampling another and clutching a live tiger in its trunk. Come to think of it, managing to make a movie that contains a scene like that so boring that it's not even worth mentioning is quite an achievement. I am, again, prostrate with awe at the feet of Mr. Sands.

I'm also very curious to know what Hanuman Phop 11 Yod Manut is. And I see that, going by this list, I have the year for Krai-Thong wrong in my review.

So, to your knowledge is this a complete list of his films?

Rikker said...

I have to confess that I don't know. I'm just using the websites I know (ThaiFilmDB.com, ThaiFilm.com, etc.) plus Google.

In doing some further checking, that list may not have been entirely directed by Sompote, but they were all films by Chaiyo Productions (which Sompote was the founder/president of). So he always would have been at least a producer.

On ThaiFilmDB, some of these titles give the director as Neramit (เนรมิต, obviously a stage name--can't find the real name), whose last credited film on there is Krai Thong 2. But ThaiFilmDB is often incomplete.

The series Hanuman Phop... is Thai for "Hanuman vs....". There's "11 Yod Manut" (11 Ultramen), "7 Yod Manut" (7 Ultramen), "5 Ai Mod Daeng" (5 Camen Riders -- though the Thai is literally "5 Red Ant Men")

I'm guessing the reason the 11 Ultramen isn't available is because of copyright reasons. Have you followed the Chaiyo/Tsuburaya copyright lawsuit? Wikipedia has a good synopsis of it.

In short, Chaiyo/Sompote lost, then appealed to Thailand's Supreme Court, then lost their appeal. They've been marketing Ultraman in Thailand for decades, claiming they've had permission all along. More than two dozen lawsuits later, Chaiyo were just recently fined 15 million baht (a slap on the wrist).

In a 2005 news interview, Sompote claims to have lost 400 million baht over the whole Ultraman copyright issue. That could be him spinning the story for sympathy, who knows. But to be sure, having an Ultraman empire, complete with TV shows, action figures, etc., and then having a court decree all your sales must stop immediately... that's got to hurt the pocket book a bit.

There's even a book in Thai about the whole thing. Saw it on the bookshelf a couple months back.

Todd said...

This whole obsession of mine with Sompote Saengduenchai started with this review I wrote for Teleport City of Hanuman and the Seven Ultramen, which includes an overview of the whole Chaiyo v. Tsubaraya case. So, yeah, I'm very familiar with it.

I wonder if that Hanuman Phop 11 Yod Manut is all original, or if they just recycled--as Chaiyo was prone to do--material from the first Hanuman/Ultraman movie. Like you say, we may never know, because it will likely never receive a legit release on VCD or DVD.

Rikker said...

Wow, that's an excellent post. Taught me a thing or two. Where did you find all of that information?

Todd said...

A lot of it came from the Nov. 14 2007 Decision in the case, which you can read here.
Scifi Japan also posted an excellent--though, not surprisingly, a little biased--overview of the case here, which I found very helpful.

speedranch said...

hey Todd, i follow yr stuff a lot and i was just in NYC chinatown, and picked up some really weird ultraman type vcd's. they aint the ones that are generally available at ethai.com either.it says copyright by tsuburaya but licensed by sompote saengduenchai.it is the most bizarre/ridiculous kaiju stuff(bit like crappy efx in kamen rider amazon or old gamera movies) i've seen in ages and nearly as funny as that lizard on an ox!the only info is www.dnoxin.com but this seems to be a uk cell phone company so i dunno haha..just thought i'd let you know this as yr personal description of sands work is bang on and i feel kinda mentally raped after observing such incompetent genius. it's funny cos i thought the scene at the end of zodiac warriors with the stuffed sharks or the bit in young flying hero and magic of spell were the bollox and be all and end all etc.. until, i saw his 'shizznit'.

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Todd said...

Thanks, Speedranch. Let me know if you figure out what the titles of those VCDs are. I know that, during the copyright dispute with Tsuburaya, Sands claimed the exclusive right to distribute the various Ultraman series outside of Japan. As a result, the only way to find many of those series outside of Japan was on Thai DVD or VCD. Even the American DVD release of Ultraman that came out a couple years ago had to be licensed through Sands' company Chaiyyo. Sounds like what you found might be something different, though.

speedranch said...

yeah todd.. will do bro! i just found a number too in the small print 020 3619 0025 then after it 3619 0095 which i gather must be a fax number.you can kinda tell it's different too from the still pics from the show on the back of the vcd's because the colors are more vivid ala 'tripped out'.. and one of the wizard type villains is positively repulsive/rancid ala k gordon murray's style(to really upset children even into their older years). they were bought from a small place on the corner of canal street near a fish market funnily enough.i got 5 vcds, all they had as i had a gut feeling these were gonna be something unique because it just was'nt in the normal ultraman genre.even the 'ultraman' looks like his suit is made from common house bricks painted silver.i'll endevour to find out more on this as i'm a hopeless case/sherlock holmes when it comes to solving something i really want to know about hahaha