Monday, October 5, 2009

Gerak Kilat (Singapore, 1966)

Back in the 1960s, every nation on the globe wanted to get into the spy movie game. After all, what kind of player on the world stage were you if some madman with an eye patch didn't want to irradiate your gold reserves or blackmail you with nuclear weapons? Such threats require countermeasures, of course, and so we ended up with such far-flung international men of mystery as Tony Falcon, the Filipino James Bond, Golden Boy, the Turkish James Bond, James Bond 777, the South Indian James Bond, and, with 1966's Gerak Kilat, Jeffri Zain, the Singaporean James Bond.

The Jeffri Zain movies were actually products of the Shaw Brothers' Malaysian language division. The studio had also produced Malay versions of its Mandarin spy thrillers, such as Summons To Death and the Angel With The Iron Fists films, filming them alongside the Chinese versions using the same sets and resources, but replacing the Mandarin speaking stars with homegrown talent more recognizable to the Southeast Asian audience. However, the Jeffri Zain movies -- of which there were at least three, to my knowledge -- were made exclusively for the Malay language market, bolstered by the star power of Malaysian-born actor, soon-to-be director, and later politician Jins Shamsuddin.

Gerak Kilat, the first of the Jeffri Zain films, immediately sets itself apart from Shaw's Mandarin spy efforts by its comparatively meager production values and black-and-white cinematography. However, while other Shaw titles basically used the James Bond films as a jumping-off point, Gerak Kilat, despite its obviously limited resources, goes to much greater lengths to mimic their trademark structure and tone. Thus we start with a 007-style pre-credits set piece that segues directly into a title sequence set to a slinky, female-voiced theme tune (sample lyric; "Jeffri Zain! Oh, Jeffri Zain!"). After that, we're dumped immediately into the action, with a dead agent's corpse washing up on the beach where our hero is frolicking with a coterie of beach bunnies (and Caucasian ones, no less). While covering the body, Jeffri surreptitiously slips a microfilm he finds in the agent's shoe into his pocket. Unbeknownst to him, he is photographed doing so by one of his blonde playmates, who is in reality "No. 4", an operative of the film's bad guy organization.

Jeffri whisks the microfilm back to his HQ, which is located under his house and accessed via a secret passage underneath his bathtub. There we meet the Jeffri Zane universe's equivalents of Miss Moneypenny and Q (though it seems pretty clear that Jeffri is acting as his own M). Together they examine the contents of the film, seeing that it contains photographic evidence of a well-armed paramilitary style terrorist group with God-knows-what dastardly plot in mind against Singapore and its people. At the same time, that group's uniformed commander and his minions -- who consist of No. 4, a brawny bald guy, and an impressively bouffant-ed femme fatale with a taste for cigarette holders and sparkly cat suits - are themselves taking a gander at No. 4's photos of Jeffri pocketing the microfilm. The commander then turns to his crew and barks some orders in Malay that, in essence, need no translation: "Get Jeffri Zain!"

Thus is set in motion the series of set pieces that will allow the undeniably charismatic Shamsuddin to display his personal brand of secret agent cool, hopping in and out of his nifty gull-winged Jag, demonstrating his deadly skill in the art of "ka-ra-te", and bringing a cold heart and warm hands to the task of wooing whatever nefarious bombshell comes between him and his target. Though perhaps a little young and slight-of-build for those expecting a more Connery-esque Bond simulacrum, the actor exhibits a style of swaggering confidence and good humor that is distinctly his own, thus clearly delineating the difference between being Singapore's answer to James Bond and merely being an imitation.

Despite being strapped with an almost poignantly low budget, Gerak Kilat is a hell of a lot of fun. Like another of my favorite low-rent Bond-a-likes, the Indian film Spy In Rome, it makes a sincere and tireless effort to deliver the same level of nonstop excitement as the vastly more well-funded entertainments that it models itself upon. This gives it an almost irresistible underdog appeal. But, in saying that, I don't want to give short shrift to just how successful it is in achieving its aims. For, while its thrills are indeed slipshod, they come at you at such a pace that you are never allowed too much time to ponder their second-rate nature.

I also want to give the film props for the fact that, unlike Shaw's Mandarin espionage thrillers, which typically appropriated sizeable swaths of John Barry's 007 music for their scores, it boasts a soundtrack that is both original and refreshingly homegrown. Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone who owns any of those compilation CDs of Southeast Asian go-go music. These are a people who clearly know their way around a twangy, Dwayne Eddy-style guitar riff, and such sonics make a perfect accompaniment to the funky spy hijinks we've got here.

Also, as with Filipino films like James Batman, there is a cheekiness to Gerak Kilat's appropriation of the Bond films' iconography that I really love. Given the Bond movies' rampant orientalism, it feels like a kind of taking back. Granted, some might say that a national cinema like Singapore's should have been trying to change the conversation altogether. But, when it comes to the encroachment of Western pop culture upon the cultures of its less opulent Eastern neighbors, it's at least nice to see that that conversation was less one-sided than one might think.


David said...

Funny you should mention the filming of two versions at once...I was looking at the production stills on The Black Falcon DVD, and they point out that two versions were made...I was wondering where and what the other version was? But you may have answered the question for me.

Great review, by the way. Once again you leave me stunned and slackjawed. Where do you find these things?

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

This looks wonderful, although I sort of wonder how our hero was able to talk his supporting characters into working (possibly living?) in his secret basement.

Todd said...

Thanks, David. I'm hoping to check out some of the Malay versions of the Shaw's Mandarin spy films in the near future. I also want to give credit where it's due to Dave over at Soft Film, as he was the person who first clued me in to these films' existence.

House: I did get the feeling that those people were just down there all the time. I kind of like the idea of all the secret agent people living together in the same house. It makes it like a cross between James Bond and The Monkees.

rentinsingapore said...

You have made a intresting post on Gerak kilat.But it is little funny.