Thursday, May 29, 2008

Khotte Sikkay (India, 1974)

The 1974 film Khotte Sikkay, like its follow-up Kaala Sona (which also starred Feroz Khan and Danny Dezongpa) and, of course, the classic Sholay, is a Bollywood "Curry" Western, one that combines the story of the Magnificent Seven with plot elements, scenes and actual music from Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More to create it's own distinctly Indian take on the Spaghetti Western. (For the record, I prefer the term "Basmati Western", because it tidily keeps the food associations within the starch group, but "Curry Western" seems to be more commonly used.) Though I imagine that some might dismiss such a film for being a slavish imitation of a superior Western product, those people really wouldn't have been paying attention, because the adoption of such familiar genre elements only highlights the markedly different approach that a film like Khotte Sikkay takes to the themes typically addressed by its Italian forebears.

Unlike the Spaghetti Western, which raised the archetype of the rootless, self-sufficient loner to the level of fetish object, the Indian take on the genre has a far more sociable agenda. For, while the Italian oaters typically sought to depict a frontier that was as barren of decency and brotherly human feeling as it was of modern comforts, the Curry Western presents the raw land and the community that grows around its cultivation as a source of virtue, redemption and spiritual sustenance. This is not too surprising since, while the Spaghetti Western was a retooling of the Western geared toward the more cynical sensibilities of a late sixties/early seventies urban audience, Bollywood at the time of Khotte Sikkay still depended to a great extent on India's vast rural population for its viewership. To illustrate the difference, compare a film like Sholay or Khotte Sikkay to, say, Django, Kill!, one of a number of Spaghetti Westerns that depicts a community driven to depravity by its isolation from civilization, no doubt the manifestation of an urbanite's worst nightmare.

Despite being imbued with such communal spirit, however, Khotte Sikkay is far from cuddly in its presentation, and true to it's inclusion of the perpetually two-fisted Feroz Khan in its lead role, falls squarely on the more exploitative end of 1970s Bollywood action cinema. In fact, the film has more rough edges even than the decidedly pulpy Kaala Sona. This is exemplified by the gritty, obviously on-the-fly (notice the watching crowds on the periphery) location shot scenes in the streets and back alleys of the city that make up the first part of the film. As in Sholay and Kaala Sona, Khotte Sikkay's heroes are modern day urban ne'er-do-wells, making a hardscrabble living by whatever illicit means is at hand, who find themselves changed by their experience of protecting a tight-knit rural community from a malevolent outside force.

The film's action is set in motion when the timid yet essentially decent population of a small village is terrorized by the bandit Jhanga (Ajit), an especially nasty example of his kind whose preferred method of cancelling his victims is by disemboweling them hari-kiri style with a sickle-like blade. When his father is killed by the bandit, young Ramu (Paintal) flees to the city to ask the help of his uncle Jaggu (Narenda Nath), a small-time gang leader. Jaggu agrees to help, and asks five of his friends from the local underworld to join him. Among these are Danny, played by the charismatic Sikkimese actor Danny Dezongpa (though here credited only as "Danny"), Salim, a liquor smuggler played by Ranjeet (who throughout the movie wears a distinctive muscle shirt with a heart-shaped window cut in the chest), and Bhaghu, a scheming womanizer played by Sudhir. The task of defending the humble village and teaching its residents how to defend themselves awakens in these hard cases a sense of purpose and belonging heretofore unknown to them, and they ultimately decide to make the village their home. Of course, before they can really settle down, there's the small matter of settling Jhanga's hash, which, of course, means a series of increasingly violent confrontations with the bandit and his bloodthirsty, heavily armed gang.

Eventually joining this magnificent six is Feroz Khan, playing a role that's basically an amalgamation of the Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef characters in For a Few Dollars More: a black-clad Man With No Name looking to settle a score with Jhanga for a murder committed many years before (in Dollars the victim was Van Cleef's sister; Here it's Khan's father). The very significant musical pocket watch from Dollars also makes an appearance in this context, as does the climactic duel in which it plays such an integral part. Original to Khan's character, however, is the self-appointed guardian angel role he takes in relation to the nautch girl Rani (Rehana Sultan), who was orphaned as a result of Jhanga's murderousness. Of course, since the Sergio Leone Dollar films weren't too big on either romance or female characters -- both things that no Bollywood masala could stay afloat without -- it's expected that Khotte Sikkay would make corrections in this regard.

Though the heroes' spiritual regeneration through honest labor and communal participation is the central arc of Khotte Sikkay, the beneficial exchange of values doesn't just go in one direction. The relatively progressive values of the city boys are a definite boon to the widowed Madhu (Madhu Chanda), who, in keeping with some especially conservative aspects of Hindu tradition, is cruelly ostracized by the village community until Jaggu and his friends plead on her behalf. Of course, the fact that Jaggu has fallen in love with Madhu probably has more to do with this than any nascent feminist leanings on the guys' parts, since they don't exhibit any such liberal attitudes when it comes to Rani's de facto second class status. Dezongpa's Danny, in particular, is all for keeping things status quo as far as the ladies are concerned, a stance exemplified in a cringe inducing "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" exchange between him and his girlfriend Reeta (Alka) that takes place early in the film.

Watching Khotte Sikkay, I couldn't help being struck by its similarities to Sholay, which was released just one year later. Of course, most of those similarities are the result of what each film borrowed from a commonly available source -- namely, the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. But not all of them. For instance, the tentative courtship between Jaggu and the widow Madhu bears a distinct resemblance to that between Amitabh Bachchan's Jai and Jaya Bhaduri's widowed character Radha in the latter film. Still, the unusually long time that Sholay spent in production suggests that, if there was any borrowing between the two, it was probably on the part of Khotte Sikkay. Just as likely is the possibility that these were just ideas that were in the air at the time. In any case, while Khotte Sikkay is a strong entertainer, it lacks the epic scope or iconic characters that would make it any kind of threat to Sholay's awesome legacy.

The version of Khotte Sikkay that I saw was abnormally compact for a Bollywood film of it's era, clocking in at just over two hours. The score by R.D. Burman was equally abbreviated, consisting of only two songs -- though one of them was repeated three times over the course of the movie. Whether this was an edited version or not, the brevity served the film well; like the other Feroz Khan actioners I've seen, it's the type of movie that's best served up fast and funky, and would risk overstaying its welcome otherwise. While I didn't enjoy it quite as much as its follow-up Kaala Sona -- mainly because that later film contained some phantasmagorical elements that gave it an added WTF appeal -- I would highly recommend Khotte Sikkay as an entertaining example of a fascinating Bollywood sub-genre.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I'll buy that for a dollar: Killer Elephants (Thailand, 1976)

I think that it's time I come clean and admit to all of you that my taste in movies -- and, hence, what I choose to write about -- is pretty much dictated by what I can find at the dollar store. That is not as limiting as it might sound, however, since my neighborhood has about a gajillion of those stores. So, not only can I take home most of the combined cinematic output of Sonny Chiba, Bolo Yeung and Fred Williamson for less than the price of a Denny's breakfast, but I can also, on occasion, make some fairly interesting finds.

Killer Elephants, IMHO, is just such a find, as it's a rare example of a 1970s Thai action film that was actually dubbed into English for American release. Now whether that release was originally a straight to VHS deal or if Killer Elephants had a run on the grindhouse circuit or on U.S. television I have no idea. But, regardless, it's easy to see what an American distributor of that period might have seen in the film, because it's possessed of some fairly unique and potentially exploitable charms.

Killer Elephants is a uniquely Thai take on the biker film, as the gang that Sombat Methanee leads ride elephants rather than motorcycles. Now you might be chuckling to yourself over the absurdity of such a notion, but picture in your mind Marlon Brando on a motorcycle going up against Sombat Methanee on an elephant and you might just be a bit more respectful. As such the film features lots of scenes of rampaging elephants overturning cars, toppling over flimsy grass huts and... well, that's pretty much it, but they do an awful lot of both of those things. The film's American handlers obviously cut it down to little more than its action scenes, which means that Killer Elephants is very fast paced and makes absolutely no sense. And if that doesn't qualify it for a review on 4DK (notice the Bollywood style abbreviation there?), I might as well just hang up my blogging, er, shoes right now.

The dubbing of the male voices in the film sounds like it was all done by one guy, who uniquely combines the authoritative Harvard clip of the Kennedys, the folksy, homespun inflections of Walter Brennan and the random burst delivery of William Shatner into one heady vocalese. As more male characters are introduced, you can hear this guy getting more and more desperate to mix it up, and eventually he reaches into Cookie Monster territory for his voicing of one of the bad guys. The female voices also all sound like one person, except that she says "bastard" a lot and manages to say it in a different, completely strange way every time, at one point saying something that sounds more like "Boss Turd". I thought I was past the point of being entertained by bad dubbing, but, oh, how wrong I was.

Unfortunately, Killer Elephants failed to kick off the wave of Eleph-sploitation movies that it rightly should have. It's a shame, because Sombat really does manage to cut a pretty badass figure perched atop his "ride". Anyway, I would highly recommend this one if you can find it. Did I mention that it cost a dollar?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

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

Hanuman and the 5 Riders

Following the successful collaboration with Japan's Tsubaraya Productions that resulted in Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, Sompote Sands (aka Sompote Saengduenchai) approached the Japanese studio Toei about coproducing a sequel featuring their popular Kamen Rider character. Toei wisely replied "Hell no", or something to that effect, so Sands simply went ahead and made the movie anyway without their consent or participation. This still worked out better for Toei, for, if they had signed anything with Sands, they might have found themselves in the same boat as Tsubaraya, who would later have to contest Sands' various claims of ownership over their character Ultraman.

Kamen Rider, like Ultraman, was a Japanese TV hero whose popularity lead to a series of offshoots featuring various reinterpretations of the character, such as Kamen Rider Amazon, Kamen Rider V3, etc. As he had with Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, Sands wanted to team his hero Hanuman with all of his co-star's various incarnations up to that point. Fortunately for him, a Japanese feature had already been produced featuring all five of the Kamen Riders, enabling Sands, as he already had with both Giant and Jumbo A and Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, to liberally pad his own film with pre-existing Japanese footage, saving a fortune on costumes, sets and special effects in the process. As for his own contributions to the film, the freedom from having to answer to a rights holder who otherwise might have had legitimate concerns about the context in which their character was portrayed seems to have liberated some of those darker impulses that we've seen at play in Sands' other work. The result is that Hanuman and the 5 Riders is a queasy amalgamation of colorful kiddie sci fi adventure and perversely lurid downscale sleaze.

I'm sure that elsewhere on the internet there are many fine reviews of Five Riders vs. King Dark, so I'm going to limit myself for the most part to discussing those contributions to Hanuman and the 5 Riders that are uniquely Sompote Sands' and Chaiyo Productions' own. The thing is that, for a good part of its first hour, the film depends so much on that original Japanese production for content that what there is of Sands' original material is reduced to little more than wraparound segments. The bulk of these are shot on one fairly primitive looking set representing the dungeon-like lair of the Masked Riders' enemy King Dark, who in the Japanese footage is represented as a giant, mostly stationary talking statue, but who here is a man-sized figure in an armor-plated demon costume. While King Dark sits on his throne making evil proclamations with over-caffeinated enthusiasm, his ski-masked drones set about the gruesome task of draining the blood from a procession of captive young women. This blood is siphoned into urns, which King Dark then drinks from thirstily. When he's not drinking virgin's blood or directing everyone's attention to a monitor showing action scenes from Five Riders vs. King Dark like some kind of hellish kiddie show host, King Dark is tormenting a young scientist who he has captured, at one point urging one of his minions to tickle the scientist's feet until the scientist ends up pissing uncontrollably in that minion's face.



Eventually we also get a replay of the Hanuman origin sequence from Hanuman and the 7 Ultras, depicting the murder and subsequent resurrection of the young boy Piko, who the Ultra family -- at least in the original film -- has saved by merging with the Monkey god Hanuman. This sequence is interesting for two reasons. For one, all of the footage depicting any of Tsubaraya's Ultra characters has been carefully excised from it. Secondly, the part of it where Hanuman deals out harsh justice to the three bandits who murdered Piko is extended so that, when Hanuman takes the last bandit in his fist and smashes him with an open palm, we also get to see Hanuman crushing the bandit's body in his fist like a grape and yukking it up as the blood oozes out between his fingers.

This recap takes place within a larger sequence that comprises some of Hanuman and the 5 Riders' most astonishing moments, one in which we witness the three dispatched bandits' arrival in Hell itself. This scene is reminiscent of Jigoku in ambition, but closer to Coffin Joe's journey to the underworld in Jose Marin's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse in terms of execution. Introduced by a series of artist's representations graphically depicting all manner of tortures and disembowelment, 5 Riders' visit to Old Scratch's digs really gets underway with some choice shots of chained naked women being bloodily prodded with pitchforks, and then goes on to show some men in skeleton suits stirring a giant stew pot full of agonized souls. The three bandits are then presented to the lord of the underworld, who decides to grant them a second chance of sorts, sending them back to the world of the living to assist King Dark in his evildoing.

Once the film's first half is out of the way, Sands finally takes the wheel of Hanuman and the 5 Riders in earnest, bringing in his own not-quite-there facsimiles of Toei's Masked Riders and some seriously underwhelming homegrown monsters to fill out the final act. This is actually a pretty ballsy move on his part, given that he's spent the last hour treating us to the far superior stunts, costumes and monster suits of Five Riders vs. King Dark, and now his own meager offerings can only serve to invite some devastatingly unflattering comparisons. King Dark finally goads the scientist into creating some kind of monster generating machine, the product of which amounts to three skinny guys in sarongs wearing carnivalesque animal masks (a pig, a bull and a frog, to be exact). Finally King Dark assumes gigantic size and begins to rampage around what looks like the same miniature set of Bangkok that was used in Giant and Jumbo A, at which point Hanuman finally comes on the scene. A pretty decent giant monster battle -- punctuated, of course, by lots of massive explosions for no reason -- follows, which ends with Hanuman stabbing King Dark through the neck with his trident. The three bandits are then returned to Hell, where the lord of the underworld has them gorily decapitated. The film ends with a series of close-ups on the bandits' horribly grimacing severed heads.



I know that Hanuman and the 5 Riders sounds like exactly the type of perverse oddity that would normally set my perverse oddity-loving heart to racing, but the truth is that I found it kind of nightmarish -- and not in the good way. I think that the problem is that, while I would enjoy some of its unseemlier elements within the context of a Cat III HK film or Eurotrash entry, when those elements are combined with the tokusatsu hijinks of Kamen Rider it's a case of two great tastes that really don't taste great together at all. I grew up on Japanese costume hero shows like Kamen Rider, and when I watch them today I do so, to some extent, through the same unjaundiced eyes that I did when I first saw them as a kid. So I guess what I'm saying, as sad as it is, is that I don't want the innocent and wide-eyed child that I was playing in the same sandbox with the jaded, morally corrupted adult that I am today. If the shoe fits...

Anyway, that all doesn't mean that you won't enjoy Hanuman and the 5 Riders, you big sicko. In fact, if you're curious about the work of Sompote Sands, I would have to say that it's essential viewing. I've seen quite a few of the man's films by now and, based on that, I think I have a pretty good idea of what his standards were. And by those standards, Hanuman and the 5 Riders is something of a masterpiece; it simply couldn't be any more creepy, retarded, or aggressively incomprehensible than it already is.

THE END?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blue Demon: La Mafia Amarilla (Mexico, 1972)

In honor of this Blue Demon obscurity being released on DVD (As part of a Pegassus Films bargain 3-fer disc called simply "Luchadores", which is sadly without English subs) I thought I'd post this capsule review I wrote for my site The Lucha Diaries a while back. If you'd like to read more (not very) informative and insightful reviews of Mexican wrestling movies such as this one, be sure to check out the site, cuz it's got buttloads of them.

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Ah, the Mysterious Orient, land of Mr. Moto, Swanson's frozen egg rolls and Hong Kong Phooey. While we eagerly partake of such exotic delights, round-eyes such as myself can never understand their true meaning, because their rich secrets are locked away within the impenetrable vault that is the inscrutable Asiatic mind. Yu-Gi-Oh, Tae Bo, Puffy AmiYumi, mathematics - are these all just innocuous products of pop culture, or part of a sinister secret language spoken by a scheming race intent on spreading their insidious influence throughout every country on the globe, especially Mexico? And what about those weird statues of the kitties making the black power fist? World famous detective, criminologist and impromptu lecturer Blue Demon will find the answer to all of these questions and more when his hunt for a murderous Chinese crime lord takes him deep within the Asian demimonde, a dark landscape of Chinese Laundries, gloomy antiquities shops and smoke-filled opium dens. And it is only when he has fallen into their clutches that these nefarious denizens of the east reveal their secret weapon: A big, muscle-bound black man!

Okay, I cannot in good conscience recommend a movie as reprehensible as La Mafia Amarilla (aka The Yellow Mafia), but I will say that I howled with laughter from its beginning to its very end, all the while shedding an inward tear at the sad spectacle that it presents. It's a shame really, because, minus all of its instances of jaw-dropping racism, it's a fairly slick and fast-paced - not to mention violent (that yellow mafia really likes to kill people) - little B crime thriller. Of course, all of the Asian roles are taken by Latinos, and the worst offender by far is Jorge Arvizo as Chan Lo, a one man amalgam of all of the most odious Chinaman stereotypes that the history of cinema has to offer. Aside from those characters, though, the rest of La Mafia Amarilla's cast appears to have walked out of an Italian crime drama of the period, making the film a visual manual on how to rock a blow dry and big bushy 'stache. Blue Demon plays it straight-up as a 70s style private dick here, only doffing his smart suit and tie for his ring matches and spending lots of time staring at evidence through a microscope and holding forth to his two associates (the kinky booted Teresa Velazquez and the even more redundant than usual purveyor of comic relief Tin-Tan) on his refined crime solving techniques.

With all the utter absurdity on display, it's difficult to pick a favorite moment, but right now I'm leaning toward the one where Blue Demon hands his business card to someone and a close-up clearly reveals the strokes of the Magic Marker that was used to make it. All this movie is missing is a boner-necked, go-go dancing Chinaman puppet.

Monday, May 19, 2008

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

Giant and Jumbo A

It's time for another installment in my series of reviews covering the work of Thailand's own monster man, Sompote Saengduenchai -- aka Sompote Sands. Today's considered title, Giant and Jumbo A, is the first of the two co-productions that Sands' Chaiyo Productions participated in with Japan's Tsubaraya Productions, the second being the infamous Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen. Like Hanuman, Giant and Jumbo A features characters from one of Tsubaraya's numerous live action giant super hero series, though in this case not one as time-tested or enduring as Ultraman. In fact, Jumborg Ace was already off the air in Japan by the time of Giant and Jumbo A's release in 1974, and does not appear to be all that well remembered today.

The series was very similar in concept to Ultraman, in that it featured a human pilot saved from death by the intervention of benevolent aliens. However, rather than merging the human hero with one of their own, as in Ultraman, these aliens give hero Tachibana Naoki (played, as the result of some mysterious conceit on the part of the show's producers, by an actor also named Tachibana Naoki) the ability to transform his Cessna into a gigantic fighting cyborg called Jumborg Ace. Along with a Science Patrol type space-age paramilitary group called PAT ("Protection Association Troop"), Naoki and Jumborg Ace do battle against an invading race of aliens called the Gurosu Seizin, who attack the planet using an army of giant monsters. At about the midpoint in the series, Naoki's alien benefactors also give him the ability to transform his Honda Z into a second giant cyborg, Jumborg 9, who also makes an appearance in Giant and Jumbo A.

Unlike Hanuman and the 7 Ultras, which mostly comprised special effects footage that was unique to it, Giant and Jumbo A relies a great deal on repurposed footage from the Jumborg Ace television series both to establish its narrative, such as it is, and to further its action. The result makes it difficult to assess those merits that are specific to Giant and Jumbo A, though it certainly sold me on the charms of Jumborg Ace itself, and I'm now eager to get my hands on some original episodes. From what I witnessed in those numerous clips that make up so much of Giant and Jumbo A's running time, the series was blessed with some of the most bizarre looking monsters in all of Tokusatsu-dom, not to mention a lot of over-the-top monster violence and cool miniature work.

What Sands and company do contribute to the mix, of course, is the participation of some well known creatures from Thai folklore -- in this case, the two guardian giants Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, who both featured prominently in Sands' 1971 film Tah Tien. As the Gorozu Seizin's monsters wreak havoc upon Tokyo and Bangkok (though mostly, for obvious reasons, Tokyo), we learn that Thailand has their own super-scientific paramilitary group, though one not quite as well appointed as the PAT. This group, which includes the kid who played Piko in Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, goes about giving life to the two giant statues so that they can join in the fight against the aliens. The ungainly Yuk Wud Pho is the first into the fray, and he is quickly defeated by one of the aliens in giant form, necessitating bringing in the big guns in the foot stomping form of Yuk Wud Jaeng. Yuk Wud Jaeng takes the battle to the aliens' home turf, flying to the moon-like surface of their planet for the big dust-up that takes up the final third of the movie. Jumborg Ace is also on hand and -- just like in an old Shaw Brothers wuxia movie -- he and Yuk Wud Jaeng start things off by having a battle with one another before realizing that they're on the same side. Then it's on to much of the same type of bloody anti-monster mayhem we saw in Hanuman, with the Gorozu Seizin and their monster menagerie being sliced, diced, roasted, toasted and filleted in every way imaginable. Good times.

Even of what's original to Giant and Jumbo A, it's hard to determine the extent of Sands' and Chaiyo's contribution. As with Hanuman, Tsubaraya's effects department had hands-on involvement in the production, a fact which is more obvious at some points than at others. The brief fight between Yuk Wud Pho and the giant alien, which is set in a miniaturized section of Bangkok, has a different look from those sequences featuring Jumborg Ace and Yuk Wud Jaeng -- which match-up better with the recycled footage from the series -- and as such leads me to suspect that it might have been done by the Chaiyo effects department (in which case, I have to say, it looks pretty good -- much better than the similar giant monster battle sequence in Tah Tien, filmed just a couple of years earlier).

Given that it is, to such a great extent, a highlights reel of Jumborg Ace, Giant and Jumbo A doesn't leave much room for the usual infusions of sleaze and weirdness that would mark it indelibly as being a Sompote Sands' production. There are, for example, no extended skinny-dipping sequences or instances of child murder. Still, the film does deliver up frenetic kaiju battling action from start to finish, disjointed and incoherent though it may be, and as such offers a lot to enjoy for indiscriminate monster fans such as yours truly.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tony Kendall drops acid in Istanbul, talks to donkeys

Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series of Eurospy films, is not quite as strange as its drug-related theme might suggest. But, come on, this is a Kommissar X film! You know it's going to be plenty strange anyway. Check out my full review over at Teleport City.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Killer Clones: 36 Shaolin Beads (1981)

The adaptations of novelist Ku Long's fantasy swordplay novels that director Chor Yuen helmed for the Shaw Brothers during the late 70s and early 80s are movies that I enjoy on such a pre-verbal level that I've yet to write about them for fear that I won't be able to describe in words what it is that I love about them so much. That does not stop me, however, from writing about the 1981 36 Shaolin Beads, which, though it's not one of those films (it is, in fact, a Taiwanese production directed by David Lin Ta-Chao), is hard to imagine existing without them. All the elements are there: A martial world mystery with supernatural overtones, a macguffin in the form of an exotic superweapon (in this case the deadly Super Needle Gun), strong female swordsmen fighting alongside and against the male protagonists, elegant fight choreography, hidden traps and passages worthy of James Bond, and surrealistic, artificial looking sets bathed in fog and atmospheric lighting. All that's missing is Ti Lung and Ching Li!

One pleasant twist that 36 Shaolin Beads adds to the above formula is its doubling up on the usual number of wily swordsman detectives working to solve the string of murders at the movie's center. On the one hand is Pai Ying as the more rakish and cocksure of the sleuths, who has a fighting monk sidekick played by Lung Kuan Wu. On the other is Wang Kuan Hsiung, whose character is more disciplined and methodical in his search for the truth--and who teams up with a swordswoman played by Meng Chui, whose character, like his, is a relative of one of the murder victims. The result is sort of like having Ti Lung's Chiu Liu Hsiang from Clans of Intrigue and Lau Wing's Lu Xiaofeng from Clan of Amazons in the same movie. The two work at cross purposes for a good part of the film, but, as one would expect, manage to settle their differences in time for a satisfyingly swashbuckling climax.

The only problem with 36 Shaolin Beads is that the Ground Zero DVD release is your typical mastered-from-VHS affair with subtitles that are cut off on either side, making it a bit more challenging than it would otherwise be to follow the film's somewhat convoluted plot. Still, I would recommend this one to anyone who, like me, has devoured every one of Celestial's releases of Chor's wuxia films and is still hungry for more. Of course, it's not on par with the real thing, but it's close enough to provide a pleasant diversion.

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

The Noble War

Despite what my last two reviews in this series might lead you to believe, I come not to trash Sompote Sands, but merely to appraise him. So thank god, then, that The Noble War--aka Suk Kumpakan--has a lot more to recommend it than either Tah Tien or (especially) Magic Lizard. The film is a dramatization of parts of the Ramakien, the Thai national epic that was adapted from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. In its telling it incorporates the Khon style of traditional Thai dance theater, with most of the actors wearing masks and employing stylized movements to communicate emotion. (In fact, if you watch closely you'll notice that, while the film has a post-dubbed Thai dialog track, the actors on screen are not speaking.)

Both the Ramakien and the Ramayana lend themselves well to film adaptation, loaded as they are with spectacular battles and weird creatures. The 1961 Bollywood classic Sampoorna Ramayan covers much of the same territory as The Noble War and is a rousing entertainment, requiring little knowledge of its spiritual origins for one to enjoy the parade of epic thrills it presents. Sands had less to work with than his Bollywood counterparts, however, but still makes a good go of it. One way that he manages to provide some visual dazzle in the absence of resources is to work with a dizzying palette of super-saturated colors, giving the film a striking, hallucinatory glow that might make it a no go for the migraine prone.

A bit of misinformation (since corrected) that I put forward in my review of Tah Tien was my claim that this film featured a teaming of Hanuman with Yuk Wud Jaeng, the giant living guardian statue who appears in the earlier Sands films Tah Tien and Giant and Jumbo A. This assumption, I have to admit, was based purely on the image on the VCD of The Noble War's cover. It turns out that the character I thought was Yuk Wud Jaeng was in fact another figure from the Ramakien, Pipek, the younger brother of the demon king Thosaganth, who defects to the side of Rama to fight at Hanuman's side against the forces of his sibling. In my defense, though, they do look very similar.

The action in The Noble War centers around the battle between the forces of Rama--lead by Hanuman and his army of monkey warriors--and those of Thosaganth, that erupted with the demon king's abduction of Rama's wife Sida. This hallowed and traditional narrative does not prevent Sands from delving into some of his usual nonsense, however. For instance, there is a sequence in which Hanuman appears to turn himself into a rotting animal carcass in order to sicken Thosaganth, which leads to a nice shot of the demon king vomiting up copious amounts of white liquid. (The transformation doesn't leave Hanuman unaffected either, as after he returns to his normal form he spends a good amount of time retching.) The director/producer's tendency to recycle is also in fine display, as we get to re-watch a lengthy scene from Hanuman and the 7 Ultraman and also revisit our old friend the fake giant crocodile from 1981's Crocodile. (As for the date of The Noble War, I'm not entirely clear--one source gives it as 1984--but I think it's safe to say that it's a product of the mid to late 80s.)

Lest I neglect the whole purpose of these reviews, I must also point out that The Noble War does have its share of giant-monsters-smashing-miniature-buildings action. One early scene has the monkey warrior Sukreep transforming into a six-armed giant and going on a rampage through the demon city of Longka. This is accomplished not only by means of the usual man in suit meets models technique, but also by the use of a full-size mock-up of the six-armed creature which allows for live actors to be seen dangling from the monster's giant hands. There is also a short sequence near the end of the film in which Hanuman and Thosaganth assume giant size to do battle across the flooded terrain of Rama's city of Ayutthaya.

With it's large cast of characters, assorted intrigues and back-story rooted in a complex mythology, The Noble War is near impossible to make sense of without either an understanding of the Thai language or subtitles. (I had neither, hence the very truncated plot summary.) Still, many might find pleasure in viewing it as simply a trippy ambient piece. Its wash of lurid colors and menagerie of strange creatures certainly fit the bill in that regard.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Big Man Japan

My viewing of Big Man Japan--screened as part of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival--took place at the end of a very Tokusatsu-filled month. What with my bet-you-can't-watch-just-one binging on the wonderful new Super Robot Red Baron box set and my review of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen and its various offshoots over at Teleport City, I feared that Big Man would be the one wafer-thin morsel that would prove I'd gorged myself on too much of a good thing. Just the opposite proved to be true, however, and Big Man Japan instead served as a lovely digestif, a perfect cap-off to my feast of colorful Japanese monster-mashing nonsense.

Big Man Japan is a giant Japanese superhero who has long outlived his country's enthusiasm for his kind. The noise, the damage to property and the drain on resources that come along with having a skyscraper-sized professional monster-wrestler on hand have become too much for the public to bear, and what was once affection on the part of the populace has turned to indifference at best and outright enmity at worst. Further signaling BMJ's redundancy is the fact that those few monsters that are left to protect Japan from are a pretty strange and sorry lot, in many cases little more than over-sized nuisances. As such, over the course of the film, Big Man comes to exercise his duties with all the enthusiasm of an over-the-hill cop waiting to clock out on his retirement, wearily hectoring the monsters to just move along like so many loitering teenagers. Meanwhile, his personal life is in shambles, and he ekes out a squalid existence on a meager government wage, all the while bearing the constant derision and heckling of his less-than-adoring public. Then, as might be expected, a new threat arises that offers the Big Man an opportunity to step up to his former glory. But will he take it?

Much of Big Man Japan is made up of the type of tryingly worthy talking-head documentary footage you've seen hundreds of times on HBO or The Sundance Channel. These sections show the Big Man in his disheveled civilian guise, looking like a deer in the headlights as he dutifully answers questions posed by an off-screen interviewer who dispassionately goads him to further levels of humiliating self-exposure. The rest of the film is made up of our hero's battles with an increasingly bizarre array of giant monsters. As over-the-top as that may sound, the beauty of the film--written and directed by its star, Hitoshi Matsumato, formerly half of the Japanese comedy phenomenon Downtown--is that its humor, rather than being broadly satirical, is absolutely as deadpan as can be throughout. Even the monsters have a hilariously muted, sad-sack air about them.

For kaiju fans I should point out that most of the monster battle sequences in Big Man Japan are accomplished with CGI, until-- well, I don't want to spoil it for you. You really should just seek this movie out and see it for yourself. I will say, though, that, while I think it's possible to enjoy Big Man Japan without being familiar with the Tokusatsu genre, an at least glancing familiarity with shows like Ultraman and Space Giants will render certain of its scenes--that would otherwise be either perplexing or simply amusing--utterly piss-in-your-pants hilarious.

Big Man Japan, aka Dai-Nippon Jin, will be screening as part of Subway Cinema's New York Asian Film Festival, which runs from June 20th through July 6th.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

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

King-ka Kayasit

As stated in my previous post, in preparation for writing my Teleport City review of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen I felt compelled to watch a bunch of other films (God help me) by that movie's director/producer, Sompote Saengduenchai, aka Sompote Sands. Today's entry is the 1980s film King-ka Kayasit, aka Magic Lizard.

It seems that the idea with King-ka Kayasit was to dress a man up in a Frill-necked Lizard costume and film him in whatever scenarios could be thought up on the fly, and then to try and impose some kind of narrative structure upon the result by inserting footage from previous Chaiyo productions into the mix. As most of you no doubt know, a Frill-necked Lizard is that lizard who, when frightened, opens his mouth wide, puffs out his frill and tears around on his hind legs. Of course, unless you live in a region that the Frill-necked Lizard is indigenous to, you never see it in any other state, for the simple reason that a relaxed Frill-necked Lizard just isn't funny as a terrified one. Magic Lizard follows this rule, showing our titular reptile in a constant state of agitation--and constantly prattling away in a shrill little girl's voice for good measure.

I'm not really big into writing a lot of summarization in my reviews, but in the case of a film like King-ka Kayasit I can think of no better way to give you a sense of what watching the film was like than to simply describe what I witnessed taking place on screen. After an opening sequence in which we watch Magic Lizard roller-skating around the city to the accompaniment of 80s dance music, recycled footage from the earlier Giant and Jumbo A shows us some space aliens landing in a pink flying saucer. One of the aliens steals into a cave beneath a temple where the hapless but lovable Magic Lizard appears to be responsible for guarding some kind of treasure. After threatening Magic Lizard with a light saber, the alien makes off with a crystal of some sort, after which Magic Lizard starts with the high-pitched nattering and spazzing out that will characterize his behavior for the rest of the film. He runs to Yuk Wud Jaeng, the demon-like living statue previously featured in both Giant and Jumbo A and the earlier reviewed Tah Tien, and pleads for his help. Yuk Wud Jaeng takes off into the heavens, not to be seen again for some time.

We next see footage recycled from Sands' 1981 film Crocodile depicting people being gorily chomped on by a fake-looking crocodile head. This sequence also manages to work in what appears to have been one of Sands' favorite motifs, the skinny dipping scene. In this instance, the top-heavy female swimmer has a male companion who fondles her boobs as they swim, holding them up for the camera as if to demonstrate their girth. Having handily dispelled any notion of King-ka Kayasit being a family film, the action then moves from croco-carnage to croco-comedy as Magic Lizard has a series of hilarious encounters with the crocodile, some of which involve the crocodile apparently trying to bite his balls. This kicks off a series of episodes in which Magic Lizard runs into and away from various beasts. As in Tah Tien, those animals are represented by stock wildlife footage until contact with the actor in the Magic Lizard suit requires that they become ridiculous, largely immobile life-sized puppets... or in the case of a bear that Magic Lizard wrestles, a man in a blindingly shoddy costume. This series of episodes winds down with a long scene in which Magic Lizard dances with some elephants as "Baby Elephant Walk" plays on the soundtrack.

Next comes a scene where some treasure hunters are trapped in a cave with some life-sized skeleton puppets, a golden fire-breathing ox, and a swarm of giant puppet mosquitoes. Magic Lizard comes to their aid but is apparently killed by the mosquitoes. Despite this he later manages to turn up in a bath house where an old man is trying to get a much younger woman to take her clothes off. Magic Lizard and the woman end up trading massages, much to the apparent chagrin of the old man. Somewhere in all this is a scene in which Magic Lizard rides an ox--a real one--and attempts to get it to giddy-up by sodomizing it with his tail. (And if you think that such an action would simply be implied, King-ka Kayasit has a graphic little surprise for you.) Later the ox gets revenge by getting the drop on Magic Lizard and shitting in his mouth.

Next up is a rematch with the crocodile from Crocodile, which climaxes with a monkey in a tree pitching coconuts to Magic Lizard, who hits them into the crocodile's mouth with a bat. When the crocodile becomes too bloated with coconuts to move, Magic Lizard starts spinning his frill around like a helicopter rotor and takes off into the air, towing the crocodile behind him. Finally we're shown more footage from Giant and Jumbo A featuring Yuk Wud Jaeng fighting with a giant alien on the moon, or something. Then Yuk Wud Jaeng flies back to Earth and returns the stolen crystal to Magic Lizard, who is very happy. The end.

King-ka Kayasit bears what I'm beginning to understand is a hallmark of Sompote Sands' style in that it is both supremely retarded and deeply creepy. I actually feel like watching it made me slightly stupider. Still, it was hard for me to look over what I've written above without thinking that some of it actually sounded kind of awesome (the lizard-as-helicopter thing in particular). It really wasn't, though.

Next up: The Noble War

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.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Chunky Monkey

In my latest review for Teleport City I try to answer all of the questions you might have about the Thai/Japanese co-production Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen--such as "Why?" and "No, seriously, why?" In the course of that I also touch upon the real-life battle of the behemoths that Hanuman stands at the center of: the decade-plus legal dispute between Tsubaraya Productions and Chaiyo productions that could best be summed up by the question "Whose Ultraman is it, anyway?"

But if all of my touching upon just isn't enough for you, check out this excellent article over at Sci Fi Japan, which lays out the details of the case in an easily digestible, snark-free format.

And if you still find that your sick appetite for hot corporation-on-corporation legal porn hasn't been slaked, you can read the actual November 2007 decision in the case here. Pervert.