Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thai-style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands part X

Krai-Thong II (1985)

I had plenty of reasons to be apprehensive about this final installment of Thai-Style Kaiju. After all, over the course of these ten reviews, the catalog of Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai/aka Sompote Sands has offered very little to look forward to. On the one hand there were dull-as-rice-cakes entries like Pandin Wippayoke, whose central intrigue revolved around the disputed ownership of a certain water buffalo, while on the other there were sleaze-infused Japanese superhero mash-ups like Hanuman and the 5 Riders, which harbored at their core such a fundamental indecency that I had to wonder if I could be arrested just for watching them. Today’s chosen subject, Krai-Thong II, being the sequel to the solidly underwhelming Krai-Thong I, seemed to offer little hope of a break in that trend, and, as a result, I have been stricken with an overwhelming desire to drag my heels, which I’m sure you all will understand.

Still, I had to wonder if my procrastination in this matter was based simply on dread, and whether it was not instead the result, at least in part, of another set of feelings entirely. Could it be, I asked myself, that I was afraid of letting go? Given that my brain has been locked in combat with Sompote Sands for the better part of a year now, it is conceivable that ridiculing his movies has become a part of who I am -- that, without those movies, I might be rudderless, stripped of a facet of my identity without which I might be incapable of feeling whole. Such a feeling might explain the tinge of anxiousness that had, in recent days, crept into what, under normal circumstances, would have been just a leisurely bout of lollygagging on my part.

This whole episode came to a head with a dream that I had a couple of nights ago. In it, I was standing on a beach. The overcast sky above was like one big, lurid bruise, and the little light that was able to filter through imparted upon everything a dull, jaundiced glow that was evocative of neither day nor night. Beyond me was a troubled sea, the surface of which was blanketed as far as the eye could see with a layer of oily black pearls, and the tail wing of a 757 could be seen to intermittently break through, always in a different place, as if the passenger jet was swimming in circles just beneath the waves like some cyclopean metallic shark. And then there were the children; hundreds of them, eyeless, all standing silent and stock still, sentry-like, as if waiting to sense my presence and react.

As I surveyed this scene I could hear the desolate tones of Little Jimmy Scott singing “Someone to Watch Over Me”, so loud and enveloping that the entire landscape seemed to exist within them. Hearing the song as a warning, I tried to make my escape, but the sand beneath my feet was so yielding that every step sent me knee-deep into it, and I was only able to extricate myself with tremendous effort. Finally, just as panic began to take me in its grip, I saw a lone figure appear on the horizon, walking toward me. This was Sompote Sands. Though I had never seen him in reality, in my dream I could see, as he came into view, that he looked like a cross between George Takei and Minya from the Godzilla movies, only with tufts of coarse, dark hair all over his body like Feroz Khan. As he neared me, he smiled reassuringly and reached out.

I once had a blind man put his hand on my shoulder as he was asking directions and was struck by the disarming gentleness of his touch, as if his dependence upon this kind of contact had given him the innate ability to instantly put any stranger at ease. This was what Sompote Sands’ touch felt like as he put his hands on my shoulders and stared deeply into my eyes. “It’s going to be alright,” he said, in a voice that at once soothed and commanded. “Imagine that you are the crocodile from Crocodile, swimming inexorably forward, eating everything that you must eat in order to clear your path, be it man, skinny-dipping woman or child. Your proportions and scale will change with whatever perspective you are viewed from. Your puppet head can be either as big or as small as the task set before it requires. You will get through this.”
________

The crocodile from Crocodile features prominently in Krai-Thong II, just as it did in Krai-Thong I, which now makes two films – aside from, of course, Crocodile – in which the appearance of the crocodile from Crocodile is actually warranted, seeing as the Krai-Thong movies actually concern crocodiles. Of course, appropriateness was never high on the list of considerations when it came to Sompote Sands dragging out his giant puppet crocodile for a cameo in one of his pictures; The thing obviously represented a considerable investment of time and money for him, and could always be counted on to provide a little evidence of production value in even those films in which the sudden appearance of a giant crocodile made absolutely no sense at all. In this case, however, the happy circumstance of the beast being provided with a justifiable context inspired Sands to new heights of crocodile-themed profligacy, with the result that we end up getting an awful lot of face time with the rubbery critter.

Clearly the lesson that Sands learned from the first Krai-Thong’s success was that his audience loved to see crocodile attacks, and so, with Krai-Thong II, he decided to reward that audience for their support with a film that included almost nothing but. It’s quite funny until it starts to become repetitive, and then it becomes so repetitive that it becomes funny again. Time and time again, a peaceful village scene erupts into chaos as a boat containing two hapless villagers is tipped over by the croc, with the one straggler who doesn’t go into the drink right away being swept overboard by the creature’s wildly out-of-scale tail, after which we see him struggling mightily while clamped between the jaws of the giant puppet crocodile head. Occassionally, to mix things up, we’re given a scene of the croc chomping on some recreational swimmers, which begins to seem like more and more of an unlikely scenario once we’ve seen a dozen or so such attacks. Exactly who are these people who think that taking a leisurely dip is advisable when there is so obviously a 100% risk of a crocodile attack happening within the next two minutes?

Eventually, Sands and co. decide to spice things up by upping the gore quotient, and a group of willing amputees are recruited to smear their stumps with butcher’s remnants and scream “My leg! My leg!” or what have you, while reaction shots of people gasping in horror and averting their eyes drive home the tragic human dimensions of what we’re being presented with, despite the fact that it will invariably be followed by a “comedic” scene in which the crocodile repeatedly tries to bite a guy’s ass or a lady’s pants get pulled off during her death struggles. Of course, amid all of this heartwarming pageantry, we still have time for those signature moments that indelibly mark Krai-Thong II as Sands and Chaiyo Productions’ own. That’s right, those of you who thought we were going to get out of Krai-Thong II without seeing a child gorily killed or a water bufallo graphically shitting on a guy’s head were obviously living in some kind of delusional fairyland.

This is not to say that attempts aren’t made to tie Krai-Thong II in with the story of its Thai-folklore based predecessor, or indeed to provide Krai-Thong II with a story at all, because there sort of is one. Given that the diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles played, in his human form, by Sombat Methanee was dispatched by our hero, the young Crocodile slayer Krai-Thong (Sorrapong Chatree), in the first film, we are now given a new upstart young pretender to the throne – and judging by his insatiable appetite for Thai villager cru, he’s quite a hungry one at that. As Krai-Thong has an extended cram session with his mentor to get his crocodile-slaying mojo back, the deadly new croc in town reaches for new heights of villainy by abducting one of Krai-Thong’s two lovely young wives, taking her back to his underwater cave (where all of the crocodiles assume human guise) to add to his own impressive collection of spouses.

Meanwhile, Sombat’s Crocodile King somehow manages to reincarnate himself in order to put his young rival in his place. A magical kung fu fight between the two ensues, replete with lots of subpar wire work and crude animated effects. Then it’s Krai-Thong’s turn to whup crocodile butt. After handily disposing of the junior croco-man, he takes Sombat on in yet another enchanted martial arts battle, and yet more of the same subpar wire work and crude animated effects are employed with much the same effect. So, essentially, Krai-Thong II sees out it’s final act in the guise of a bad 1980s kung fu movie. Still, I think the thing that you’ll ultimately take away from it is the fact that you’ve just seen about five hundred crocodile attacks perpetrated by a giant puppet in very rapid succession, which I imagine is something you will be able to say about few movies other than Krai-Thong II.

The fact that I kind of enjoyed Krai-Thong II on it own absurd and desperately idiotic terms serves as a reminder of the easy-to-forget fact that, amid the maelstrom of badness that Sands’ Chaiyo Productions unleashed, there are indeed bright moments to be found. For instance, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, the film that kicked off my whole obsession with the man in the first place, is undeniably entertaining, while, within the body of his work that was not co-produced with the Japanese, his colorful, Ramakien-based mythological The Noble War proved to be a very pleasant surprise. On top of that, Tah Tien showed me a giant suitmation frog smoking a big cigarette, while Magic Lizard offered my eyes a giant frill-necked lizard who was able to fly by spinning his frill like a helicopter rotor. Ah, the wonders I have seen.

But now, at last, it is over. Never again will my eyes experience anew the dubious visual magic that comprised Sompote Sands’ life calling. As the bright, broad horizon of a Sands-free world opens up before me, I am reminded that, while it is true that one man’s dream can be another’s nightmare, sometimes, in the wake of such nightmares, one can find that his experience of life’s beauty has been heightened all the more. For this I owe Mr. Sands my heartfelt thanks.

4 comments:

duriandave said...

Beautiful!

In spite of the fact that I was warned by my McAfee SiteAdvisor that your review may try to steal my "information", I've just got to say that you are an alchemist of the highest order.

Todd said...

All your information are belong to us!

Thanks for your kind words, Dave. Assuming that "alchemist" is a kind word, I mean.

houseinrlyeh said...

Hmm, and now you need another brilliant director over whose films you can obsess (and gift the world some fine reviews in the course of the obsession). Any candidates?

Todd said...

To be honest, with the break so recent, it's hard for me to imagine that anyone could take Sompote's place. *Sigh*