Beth and Amrita -- of Beth Loves Bollywood and Indiequill, respectively, and Masala Zindabad, collectively -- have an ongoing project called "Going to the Movies", in which they ask their friends in the Bollywood blogging community to talk about their experiences of watching Indian films in the theater. That's right: in the theater! With other people! Strange people!
I know. It sounds crazy to me, too. And that's why, when my turn came around, I realized that I had had very few such experiences. Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot, and you can hear the results, in podcast format, streaming for a limited time on the Masala Zindabad page.
In this episode, I demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of my Spanish pronunciation while singing the praises of a Mexican pulp cinema classic replete with killer androids, beatnik mad scientists, and, most importantly, catsuit wearing lady spies.
My latest contribution to Teleport City's bustling Spy Month is a newly revised version of my 4DK review of the Malaysian language film Gerak Kilat, the movie that introduced the world -- or, at least, one small corner of it -- to Jefri Zain, Singapore's answer to James Bond.
Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos –- aka Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood vs. The Monsters –- stands as proof that, in the Mexican popular cinema of the 60s, any series that ran long enough would eventually see its protagonists face off against shoddy versions of classic movie monsters. The extent to which Peliculas Rodriguez’s Little Red Riding Hood films are known at all north of the border is largely due to huckster/entrepreneur K. Gordon Murray’s imported versions of them, which were made to seem even more alien by dint of their eccentric dubbing and tuneless approximations of the originals’ songs. Not surprisingly, watching the original Spanish versions shows them to be much more accomplished then those bastardized US cuts might lead you believe, without absolving them in the least of being bafflingly strange.
The first Little Red Riding Hood film, 1960’s La Caperucita Roja, was written in part by Rafael Garcia Travesi, who at the time you would have been more likely to find scripting things along the lines of Santo vs las Mujeres Vampiro or Benito Alazraki’s adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw, Espiritismo. Tasked with penning a fairy tale adaptation aimed at children, Travesi appears to have fallen back upon what he knew best. Thus the picturesque alpine village that Little Red Riding Hood calls home is depicted as being one that is just barely keeping the forces of darkness at bay. Early in the film, one of the town’s elders intones ominously about a “prophecy” that dooms the town to being visited upon by “fear, destruction, and death”, with the only hope of breaking the curse being a “good, innocent soul” who is capable of “facing the horrors” of the “Devil’s Cave”. Said innocent is, of course, Little Red Riding Hood (Maria Gracia), who will indeed –- and quite literally -- confront Satan himself before the picture runs its course.
And said fear, destruction, and death comes in the form of the Wolf, played by Mexican comic Manuel “Loco” Valdez, wearing an odd costume that includes a mask which leaves half of his face exposed and a furry body suit that looks like it’s made of soiled carpet remnants. At his side is dwarf actor Santanon as an equally anthropomorphized -- not to mention nauseatingly obsequious -- skunk whom the wolf constantly abuses both physically and verbally. The filmmakers take great pains to “open up” their source material, going so far as to show us the creation of the garment that will give our heroine her name. In addition, the wolf is shown to be obsessively stalking Red long before she takes her fateful hike to Grandma’s house, and it is well over an hour before we finally make our way to that whole familiar “what big eyes you have” business. Throughout it all, child actress Gracia exhibits a sublime blankness that only serves to highlight all of the inappropriateness that’s going on around her. (See, for instance, the scene in which the wolf fantasizes about her being quite graphically laid out on a platter in front of him like a roast pig.)
Of course, the most invincible weapon that Little Red Riding Hood has at her disposable is her oppressively sunny disposition and sheer adorability, both of which serve to make her irresistible to all who fall within her path, including, it ultimately turns out, the Wolf. Once the child has convinced the bloodthirsty villagers to refrain from burning him at the stake, the Wolf promises to mend his ways and, in return, is made an official “Keeper of the Forest” by the insanely fickle citizenry.
The second Little Red Riding Hood film, 1961’s Caperucita y Sus Tres Amigos, is a tiresome exercise in water treading that, with the whole Red Riding Hood mythos having been more than covered by the first film, never really manages to justify its existence. This time around, the Wolf is shown having a hard time gaining the respect of the villagers in his new role as forest cop. Eventually, their taunts drive him to violently return to his old ways, after which he is only able to redeem himself by rescuing Little Red Riding Hood from a band of unscrupulous gypsies. Once again, Red must plead for his life before the vengeance crazed townspeople, who are as prone to forming themselves into an angry mob as rainwater is to forming puddles. Eventually, all is set right again, but not without some blood being spilled, as poor Skunk almost succumbs to his near fatal dynamite and gunshot inflicted wounds. (I’m telling you, these villagers don’t fuck around.)
With Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos, we see something that is already weird going completely off the rails. I’m not sure whether its creators felt contempt for the series by this point, but had they been motivated by a desire to destroy it in the most spectacular manner possible, I don’t think they could have come up with a better way. This time around, much of the action centers around the “Kingdom of Evil”, a dark realm overseen by the Queen Witch (Ofelia Guilmain), who is an undisguised appropriation of the witch from Disney’s Snow White. As we join the film, the Queen is putting on trial both the Wolf and the Ogre from Tom Thumb, both for the crime of going against their evil natures and falling in league with the annoying juvenile do-gooders whom they were meant to kill. The queen, who is on a first name basis with Satan, hates these holier-than-thou little urchins, Little Red Riding Hood especially, and doesn’t beat around the bush in saying that she wants to see them killed.
The jury hearing the case is a nightmarish assortment of geeks, freaks and creatures, all the more disturbing for both the slapdash, putty-faced manner in which they are realized and the searing Eastmancolor in which they are captured. Among them are a pinhead called Boogie Man (who seriously looks to have been the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy), a fearsome brute with an oversized butterfly net called Child Snatcher, a pair of Siamese twins, and a hirsute, wind belching giant called Hurricane Dwarf (which sounds like something a character in an old Taiwanese fantasy martial arts movie would be called). Also prominent among this group are “The Vampire” and “Frankenstino”, who need no introduction -- oh, and there’s a robot, probably just because there was a robot costume that no one was using lying around in the prop room. As you might expect, this group isn’t particularly sympathetic to the Wolf and Ogre’s cause, and so the two are sentenced to die by being sawed in half, after which they are noisily carted off to the witch’s dungeon.
Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb (Cesareo Quezadas) –- who is now part of the mix for I know not what reason –- are alerted to the Wolf and Ogre’s predicament by the frantic Skunk, and set off with him to effect a rescue. As in the previous two films, a fairy princess character is introduced to magically gloss over whatever narrative kinks the writers didn’t feel like resolving logically, and so the tiny Tom Thumb is granted his wish to become normally sized, thus relieving the special effects department of having to render any further crude optical effects to show him otherwise. Meanwhile, the witch, out of her hatred for Red, has poisoned the village’s water supply, turning all of its inhabitants into white rats and monkeys.
Back at the Queen Witch’s castle, the Wolf and Ogre pass the time until their execution by being horribly tortured by the manically cackling and chattering monsters, first by being strapped to a table and having their feet mercilessly tickled. Then, in Dick Cheney’s favorite sequence from Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos, they have water poured into their mouths through funnels until their stomachs are distended to the point of near bursting. (Oh, kids, don’t be upset. Like that could ever happen!) This in turn leads to them –- and I honestly have no other way to accurately describe this – uncontrollably pissing out of their mouths.
The film then proceeds in much the same shrill and off-balance manner, as Red and her companions make their way across the hellish nightmare landscape that is the Kingdom of Evil, encountering various beasts and a fire-breathing suitmation dragon along the way. Ultimately, the captives are rescued just as they are about to be cleaved in two by a buzz saw, only for Red herself to be captured, leading to a particularly harrowing scene in which the Queen threatens to gouge the child’s eyeballs out with her long, talon-like fingernails. Finally she gets pushed into a furnace.
It’s not unusual to see filmmakers mining the story of Little Red Riding Hood for darker adult themes, the best example, I think, being Matthew Bright’s Freeway (and the worst likely being that Twilight tinged dross that’s hitting theaters this week). But, despite all of its perversity and mean spiritedness, Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos at the same time refuses to let go of it’s crass kiddie film pandering -- syrupy sentiment, endless under-cranked capering and all, all of which serves to make it that much creepier. In this age of helicopter parenting, it’s difficult to imagine any mom or dad subjecting their children to such fare, but, then again, this isn’t now, but the early 60s we’re talking about. It is, by contrast, quite easy to imagine Don and Betty Draper distractedly dropping off their kids for a matinee of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood vs. The Monsters before heading off to their respective, adulterous assignations. Quelling the resultant night terrors would simply be a matter of putting a few drops of Scotch in little Sally and Bobby’s before-bedtime cup of Bosco.
Being myself the issue of that generation of parents, I in part hope to, by reviewing this film -- and in effect advertising the fact that I have a copy of it in my home -- give notice to all of my friends with small children that I am an unsuitable babysitting candidate. Because, people, I will make your child watch Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos. You’ll be amazed at just how quickly a young lifetime’s worth of obsessive sheltering and positive reinforcement can be undone.
Here's the latest episode of Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics, this time with producer Steve Mayhem at the mike. The subject this time around: the Cirio Santiago helmed slice of Pinoy blaxploitaion cinema, Savage. Now, I haven't actually seen this particular film, so keep in mind that I'll be watching and learning right along with you!
2010 was a year of highlights here at 4DK, and certainly the lowest was Jungle Adventure Month. Over the course of that harrowing thirty days of wrestling rabid chimps and swatting at tsi tsi flies, I checked in with versions of Tarzan from corners of the world as far flung as Israel, Mexico, Egypt, and India –- two in the latter case: one chaste and one nasty!
Of course, as much as I may have hoped otherwise, I knew that I was not done surveying the various international incarnations of the famed ape man. After all, how could any national cinema lay claim to legitimacy without its own version of Tarzan? That’s like not having your own James Bond, or Superman, or… or Darna.
Fortunately, my latest stop on the Tarzan tour takes me to Indonesia, so at least we’re guaranteed a lot of action and gore, and hopefully some Southeast Asian mysticism realized by way of lots of gooey practical effects. So let’s go!
1989’s Tarzan Raja Rimba looks even more promising for the fact that it stars the great Barry Prima, and was helmed by the director of the riotous Virgins From Hell, Ackyl Anwari. This was the first of two turns by Prima in the Tarzan role, the second being in the following year’s Tarzan Penunggu Harta Karun directed by M. Agnar Romli.
In the grand tradition of Tarzan films, Tarzan Raja Rimba shows our hero coming up against destructive forces from the civilized world, in this case a corrupt logging crew that is chainsaw-ing its way through the Indonesian rainforest like there’s no tomorrow. Of course, while this is a Tarzan film in name, it is, more importantly, a Barry Prima film, and so we get a version of Tarzan who gorily kung fus people to death. Yay! Tarzan’s favorite method of dispatch is to toss an opponent onto a convenient bamboo spike or pointy tree limb, but the logging aspect of the story also provides a generous supply of nasty hardware to further the carnage, including a band saw which Tarzan tests against the villain’s neck during the climactic fight.
Much like the many Indian takes on the Tarzan story, Tarzan Raja Rimba puts an emphasis on the irresistible sexual pull that Tarzan exerts upon any woman in his orbit. Early in the film, Karina, a female member of the logging team, is shown tossing restlessly in her bed, consumed by thoughts of the muscled jungle man. (And, after all, this is Barry Prima we’re talking about –- and he does look amazing in his loincloth and little leopard skin boots –- so who can blame her?) Later, she somehow falls afoul of her crooked colleagues and is forced to flee the camp. The expected menu of jungle perils follows, and she is ultimately driven into the protective arms of Tarzan. However, Prima’s Tarzan is not the thick-skulled, unwitting sexual catalyst that we see in, say, the Zimbo movies, but is rather played by the star as being articulate, authoritative, and not a little bit arrogant.
While making some concessions to the film’s tropical setting (when Tarzan forages for Karina, he returns with watermelon), Tarzan Raja Rimba still manages to deliver on at least the minimum of those ingredients that are internationally agreed upon as constituting a Tarzan movie. The most notable change in this regard is that, rather than an ape, Tarzan’s faithful animal companion is instead a bear –- and a bear played by a man in a very obvious bear costume, at that. (In fact, I think we may be seeing here an early appearance by the Masturbating Bear, back in the days before he succumbed to compulsive onanism). This bear leads the climactic elephant charge upon the villain’s camp at the movie’s conclusion, and also gruesomely mauls to death one of the female bad guys. At least, I think that’s what he’s doing.
Still, if you put these Burroughsian –- or Weismullarian? -- trappings aside, Tarzan Raja Rimba is pretty much indistinguishable from one of Prima’s Jaka Sembung movies, though sadly one without all the mystical flying around and modular body parts. There’s the “tournament” style scene, where Prima’s martial arts skills are tested against a towering, carnivalesque goon in the bad guys’ employ, who seems to have been hanging around in the wings for just that purpose. And then of course there is the requisite tableau of martyrdom in which Prima is chained and abused before dramatically freeing himself to wreak havoc upon his oppressors. All of this, in sum, means that, if you are a Prima fan –- as I most certainly am –- this will probably be the best Tarzan movie you’ve ever seen.
While Tarzan Raja Rimba is relatively straight-faced, films like Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan and Tin Tan, el Hombre Lobo have shown us that interpretations of Tarzan from non-English speaking countries are just as likely to be satirical as they are reverent, and furthermore -- as with the Zimbo movies -- there is often a very fine line between the two. It’s hard to imagine that filmmakers of color -- especially those from countries that had seen white colonial rule –- didn’t encounter difficulties in uncritically addressing the idea of this white interloper, god-like in his physical perfection, who proves himself capable of outdoing indigenous people even at their own indigenousness. (I mean, really, what are Dances With Wolves and Avatar, at their core, other than simply the Tarzan fantasy in different drag?) Given that, one might expect to find at least a little ambivalence in their depictions of our loincloth clad friend.
And, indeed, reverence is about the last thing you can expect from 1976’s Tarsan Pensiunan. Directed by the prolific Lilik Sudjio -- who also gave us Neraka Lembah Tengorak, Darna Ajaib, and the Suzzanna fronted horror classic Queen of Black Magic –- the film is a vehicle for popular Indonesian comedian and singer Benyamin Sueb. Sueb, a member of Jakarta’s Betawi ethnic group, made close to fifty low budget films in the brief period between 1970 and 1978, many of them spoofing Western archetypes from the distinct cultural perspective of the Betawis.
Now, I’d love to tell you what Tarsan Pensiunan is about, but I’m afraid it resisted my entry as vigorously as Tarzan Raja Rimba, with all of its familiar tropes, welcomed it. And given that there is little likelihood that it might ever make the transition beyond unsubtitled Southeast Asian market VCDs, I imagine that it will stay that way. Sadly, the film’s humor is overwhelmingly dialog-based, and its attitude toward pacing and narrative so relaxed that I had to wonder how big a role pot plays in Betawi culture. I couldn’t even tell you for sure whether Benyamin Sueb was meant to be playing Tarzan or simply someone who thought he was Tarzan.
What I did manage to figure out –- I think –- was that Sueb’s character, who repeatedly refers to himself in the third person as “Tarzan”, was having trouble adjusting to the civilized life back in Jakarta. The film’s title apparently translates as “Retired Tarzan”, and I had to wonder, based on the way it’s pronounced in the film, if the word “Pensiunan” was simply an Indo-friendly phonetic spelling of the word “pension”. In any case, what we have for a good part of the film is Sueb –- who wears the same outfit of tee-shirt and striped boxers throughout –- puttering around aimlessly and driving the two (I think) relatives he’s living with crazy.
Eventually, he makes his way back to the wild, where he shows himself to be not very apt at swinging on vines, then has a run in with a couple of hunters/poachers and the female estate owner who employs them. Eventually the film ambles back to Jakarta, where it spends a lot of time on Sueb himself ambling about with a friend of his who has taken to wearing an ape costume. They do a fake trick monkey act to defraud spectators, and then go to a public park and scare passers-by. Occasionally Sueb sings one of his songs, which tend to be rather unremarkable but inoffensive fusion-y rock numbers. The film is over two hours long.
Eventually it occurred to me that, just as Tarzan Raja Rimba is more of a Barry Prima film than a Tarzan film, Tarsan Pensiunan is really just all about Benyamin Sueb. Not that I can say for sure, mind you, but the movie appears to be mining absurdity from the spectacle of the low key Sueb basically going around being himself while half-heartedly pretending to be Tarzan. In other words, if this movie could be said to be about Tarzan at all, there’s such a yawning ironic distance between him and any of the characters we see on screen that his presence is vestigial at best.
Both of the above described movies point once again to the astonishing elasticity of the whole Tarzan concept. And I think the only conclusions you can draw from that are either that that concept is so sturdily anchored within popular culture that it can stand up to any punishment thrown at it, or that, instead, Tarzan is as semiotically naked as he is naked naked, and can mean whatever whose wearing his skin at the moment wants him to. If I found Tarzan more interesting than the things that Indonesian, Egyptian, Indian and Mexican filmmakers did with him, I might devote more thought to that. But, to be honest, if it weren’t for films like these, I’d never give the dumb brute a second thought. Back to civilization!
My scheme to fill the Internet with my "persona" has proved to be more time consuming than I had anticipated. At this rate, I will fall well within my goal of making all of you completely sick of me by the end of 2010. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been working on additional episodes of my joint podcast with Tars Tarkas (which now has a name -- to be revealed!), as well as a couple more guest hosting spots on Steve Mayhem's Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics vlog. This weekend, I'm honored to be recording a guest spot on Beth and Amrita's wonderful Masala Zindabad podcast. And while all of this has been going on, I've been working on my second review contribution to Spy Month over at Teleport City. Oh, and then there's been this thing called "The Holidays" which everyone has been talking about.
What I'm getting at is that one thing I haven't done this week is write a new review for 4DK, and for this I am gravely sorry. I expect that as the weeks go on, and I adapt to the rigors of my omnipresence, this will not become a regular occurence. And I guarantee you that I will be back next week with something especially juicy.
Not that you probably wouldn't welcome the break, mind you.
I love shitty bargain movie packs more than life itself, blending as they do the thrill of discovery, the mystery of the unknown, the bitter sting of disappointment, the siren's song of sweet death borne by the inevitable and the over-familiar, and, most importantly, ZZZZZZZZ... Oh and, of course, an attractive price point. I forgot to mention that.
This one that I learned of via Tars Tarkas' site may be more of all of the above than anything before it, and is certainly guaranteed to be the most disappointing Christmas gift ever for any fan of the movie Kick Ass. It has nothing to do with it. Instead, it contains a quartet of films that include among them the Godfrey Ho Franken-movie Robo Vampire and a retitling of the in-name-only sequel to Cannibal Holocaust.
But what's interesting to me are the two films that round out the set. One of them is The Fantastic Argoman, and, as you may have heard, I like that one quite a lot. If you don't already own it, here's your chance to own it for only two bucks -- that is, if you ignore the fact that you still have to pay the remaining six bucks to get the other three movies that you may or may not want.
The fourth film is something that's listed under the title The Red Eagle and given a production date of 1970. Judging by that date and the artwork on the DVD case, this film appears to be Insee Thong, aka The Golden Eagle, Thai superstar Mitr Chaibancha's final turn in the role of Red Eagle. What the wha..? I'm wondering now if this is the same subtitled version of that film that appears on the Thai DVD version from Triple X, or perhaps a dubbed, US release cut of the film that I didn't know about.
In any case, those last two films alone make this set well worth the price, no matter how dire the quality. (Not that it could be that much worse than any of the previously available versions of The Fantastic Argoman or Insee Thong.) So, how about it. Has anyone out there picked this set up?
It's Spy Month over at Teleport City, and in honor of that, I've just reposted my 4DK review of the deservedly obscure -- yet somehow still memorable -- Eurospy film The Devil's Man. If you haven't already read the piece, please be sure to check it out. And if you have, why not thrill anew to all of the hazy, no-budget weirdness.
Right on the heels of the long lamented Flying Saucers Over Istanbulmaking an unexpected appearance on the collectors scene, we now see another long thought lost Turkish fantasy film, Baytekin Fezada Carpinsanlar -- aka Flash Gordon's Battle in Space -- turning up to flaunt all rumors of its demise -- and this time, of all places, on Turkish MTV. Obviously they don't show music videos over there, either.
Baytekin was made in 1967, a bumper year for Turkish trash cinema that also saw the release of films like Ringo vs. The Gestapo, the sequel to Golden Boy, and a whole slew of entries in the Kilink saga. If you've seen any of those films, you know exactly what to expect. If you haven't, there's really nothing I can say that will prepare you for what you have in store. Still, as attempting to do just that is my ostensible reason for inhabiting this tiny stretch of internet real estate, I will give it the old college try.
Suffice it to say that, in Baytekin, you will see technical execution on the most rudimentary level possible, but married to ambitions so far beyond their means that they exceed those of even the most deluded Western Z movie auteur. This is a grand space opera whose laser beams are accomplished by scratching on the film with a pin, whose monsters are realized by covering extras in burlap sacks, where the illusion of two people talking to each other via view screen is pulled off by having the two parties stand on either side of a view screen shaped hole in the wall, and whose space-age sets appear to be a series of tiny storage rooms dressed with construction paper and fabric remnants. Needless to say, it is all completely delightful.
On top of the above mentioned embellishments, Baytekin includes all of those elements that have proved to be enduring aspects of the space opera genre to this very day, by which I refer to intergalactic tyrants, courageous rebel rocket jockeys, and the wayward space princesses who love them. As is so often the case with these old Turkish films, these tropes are checked off the list with such breathless enthusiasm that they manage to elicit a sort of involuntary, lizard brain level thrill despite how inexpertly they may be visualized. The source here, I'm tempted to say, is more likely Universal's Flash Gordon serials from the 30s than it is the original Alex Raymond comic strip, mainly due to the numerous instances of the Turkish industry rehashing old American serials. However, Raymond's strip did in fact see publication in Turkey -- though "localized" by having its hero renamed Baytekin and pictured with dark hair -- so that may not be the case.
In any case, both the strip and the serials' depiction of their hero as a sort of interplanetary mack daddy serves Turkish pulp cinema's tendency to sexify even the most vanilla source material well. This means we get to see Flash simultaneously romance both the aforementioned space princess and the film's equivalent of Dale Arden (Meltem Mete) with what appears to be an entirely untroubled conscience. (And it has to be said that the ladies don't appear to be too bothered by the arrangement, either.) Beyond this, star Hasan Demirtas gives us a version of the iconic hero who might strike Western viewers as being jarringly broody and intense, but who nonetheless approaches his requisite action scenes with appropriate zest, even if he does so more in the manner of a seasoned street brawler than a swashbuckler. Demirtas also has to be credited for preserving his machismo in spite of the fact that he's kitted out, for a good part of the film, in an outfit that includes what can only be described as a space bra.
To say that Baytekin Fezada Carpinsanlar is typical of the Turkish pop cinema of its day is anything but a dismissal, given that cinema comes about as close to mainlining pure unadulterated movie thrills as you can get. Where Baytekin does depart from the pack, however, is in its inclusion of what sounds like an original musical score, which is credited to director Sinasi Ozunuk. I have to say that it was almost disorienting not to hear those familiar snippets of John Barry's score to You Only Live Twice or stings from The Horror of Dracula. But more shocking was the fact that the score was actually pretty good, and incorporated some interesting, atonal electronic elements. It just goes to show that, as cozy as the elements of these films are becoming, they are still capable of surprising us -- not the least by their repeatedly demonstrated ability to cheat the reaper in defiance of all expectations.
Here, as promised, is the second installment of Steve Mayhem's Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics, this time guest hosted by yours truly. The subject: One of my favorite Italian costumed hero misadventures from the 60s, The Fantastic Argoman.
Part 2 of my joint podcast with Tars of TarsTarkas.Net has just been posted over at Tars' site. With this episode, our rambling discussion continues, this time focusing in particular upon Taiwanese monsters and the annoying flying children who kill them.
Sleepless (aka La Anam, or I Don't Sleep) is not only a classic of Egyptian cinema's golden age, but also one of the first Egyptian features to be shot in color. As the screen caps below clearly demonstrate, director Salah Abu Seif knew how to use Eastman Color's saturated hues to startling effect, and that makes this a film that's hard for me to resist. Be it the work of Bava, Chor Yuen, or Douglas Sirk, a Japanese exploitation film from the 70s or a Thai classic from the 60s, I've always been a sucker for a movie with a hyper-real color palette, and I'm no less mesmerized by Sleepless, a melodrama whose characters appear to be going through their life struggles while trapped inside an over-rich dessert.
The film, based on a controversial novel by author Ihsan Abd Al-Quddus, tells the story of Nadia, the pampered only child of a wealthy family who has been raised by her divorced father from the age of two. By the time we catch up with Nadia at the age of 16, it's become disconcertingly clear that, with her sexual awakening, her attachment to her father has taken on a romantic cast, and that her tolerance for being anything but the only woman in dad's life is nonexistent. Thus, when her father marries an adoring model housewife by the name of Safia (played by the very Anglo Mariam Fakhr Eddine), Nadia does everything in her power to sabotage the relationship, ultimately conjuring up an invented affair between Safia and her young uncle Aziz that drives her father to banish both parties from his home.
At the same time, Nadia attempts to sublimate her feelings by entering into an affair with Mostafa, a much older playboy with a modern apartment whose every accoutrement -- especially when held in contrast to the riot of bourgeois classicism on display in Nadia's family home -- virtually screams "cad". Nonetheless, she is racked with guilt over the unhappiness her deceptions have wrought upon her father, and attempts to set things right by introducing him to Kawthar, a sultry friend of hers from school (Hind Rostom, coming across here like the Arab world's answer to Rita Hayworth). Unfortunately, it's not until after dad has fallen for and married the young woman that Nadia discovers that Kawthar is merely on the grift, and already has a boyfriend on the side. Perversely determined to preserve her dad's marital happiness at all costs, Nadia decides that she must go to any length to conceal the affair, even going so far as entering into a sham marriage with Kawthar's lover.
Sleepless was a big hit in its day, due in no small part to its all star cast. Nadia is played by the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, who -- given the intimations of emotional incest and the queasy, age inappropriate pairings she's depicted in -- we can at least be thankful was 25 at the time. And yes, that is Hamama's then-husband, a young and dashing Omar Sharif, in the role of uncle Aziz, then near the height of his stardom in Egyptian cinema, but still a few years off from making his English language debut in Lawrence of Arabia. On the whole, the cast commit themselves admirably to the overwrought proceedings, a feat made even more impressive by just how outrageous the subject matter must have seemed at the time.
Throughout Sleepless we hear Nadia speaking in voiceover, engaging in a one-way conversation with God in which she alternately begs Him for answers as to why she does the things she does and beseeches Him, in his role as "mighty avenger", to punish her for her sins. Whatever we think of Nadia's behavior, it is clear that she is suffering, and that, while she is fully aware of the destructive consequences of her actions, she feels nonetheless helplessly compelled to commit them. Given this, I was curious to see whether Sleepless, in its conclusion, would take a therapeutic or moralistic approach to Nadia, though I was not all that surprised to see it take the latter. Nadia's god, it turns out, is indeed merciless, and Sleepless, despite its challenging subject matter, is not quite as modern as its surface might at first lead you to think.
To say the least, I was disappointed to see the film ultimately show such a lack of compassion -- that a female character so well drawn could, in the end, not be seen for the wounded child that she was and instead had to be dealt with as being simply a destructive force worthy of divine retribution. Still, I have to admit that, as a visual stylist of unquestionable mastery, Salah Abu Seif still seduces, rolling out his creation with one stunning composition after the next. It's just a shame that, while we can still enjoy what he has so meticulously rendered in an aesthetic sense, in the end we have to do so with our heads and hearts on hold.