Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thong, aka Gold (Thailand, 1973)

Thus far in Jungle Adventure month I’ve been covering jungle films of one particular type, that being those which, to some extent, revolve around either men, women or children swinging around on vines, being blissfully in touch with their primitive sides, and communing with wild animals -- and in some cases even, apparently, having sex with them. But there is another type of jungle adventure -- one that increasingly came into vogue during the 1970s and 80s -- that I have yet to put the spotlight on. And by that I refer to those films in which a bunch of violent mercenaries venture into a war-torn jungle to retrieve a fortune in gold. The 1973 Thai film Thong -- whose title translates into English as Gold, and which later saw English language release under the more evocative moniker S.T.A.B. -- is just such a film.

Thong’s director, Chalong Pakddivijit -- or “Phillip Chalong”, as he’s more commonly known to Mr. Round Eye-- made his directing debut in 1968 with Jao Insee, part of the popular series of Thai films featuring superstar Mitr Chaibancha as the masked hero Red Eagle. However, Chalong would not truly make his mark until a few years later, when he would follow a path similar to that of Filipino director/producer Cirio Santiago. That path involved Chalong making action pictures with an eye toward the international market, and casting within those films C List American stars in order to better appeal to English speaking audiences. Thong was the first of these films, and its success -- both in terms of its domestic Thai box office receipts and in terms of securing foreign distribution -- would lead to Chalong repeating the formula with films like 1975’s H-Bomb with Chris Mitchum, 1983’s Gold Raiders with Robert Ginty, 1990’s The Lost Idol with Eric Estrada, and 1992’s In Gold We Trust with Jan Michael Vincent.

In the case of Thong, the downward plane-ing American actor putatively increasing the film’s Western Q score is former Mission Impossible star Greg Morris, whose presence the filmmakers attempt to capitalize upon to the extent of blaring the Mission Impossible theme on the film’s soundtrack whenever he shows up on screen. And for the locals, as Morris’s co-star we have Sombat Methanee, inarguably Thailand’s biggest movie star at the time. Further wattage is provided by Krung Srivilai, who, like Methanee, was also a major action star in Thailand during the 70s. And also along for the ride is Vietnamese actress Tham Thuy Hang, who was no stranger to international productions, having reportedly also starred in films that were at least in part financed by the Philippines, Hong Kong and the U.S.

It only took a few minutes of watching Thong to understand why it was such a big hit in Thailand in its day. Compared to other action films made in the country during the 70s -- most of which were intended primarily for the local market -- Thong’s production values are pretty handsome. This means that, not only do we get the typical exploding grass huts, but also some exploding utility sheds. I think that even some drywall may have been sacrificed. But I kid. In all seriousness, Thong clearly demonstrates that it has the means to provide a steady stream of thrills from start to finish, and then delivers. Little screen time passes without there being some kind of flashy stunt or pyrotechnics This results in the film being a lot of dumb fun, even if you are watching the original Thai version minus English subtitles. (Again: Subtitles are for losers.)

In the film, Morris plays a badass, secret-agent-for-hire guy whose services are engaged to retrieve a planeload of gold belonging to the U.S. that was hijacked over North Vietnam. Once hired, he wastes no time in assembling his crew of rough-and-tumble mercenaries. Sombat’s character is an obvious ne’er-do-well whom Morris hooks up with after Sombat makes a daring escape from police custody that involves him jumping off of a suspension bridge from a moving train and into the water a hundred feet below. Another recruit is a race car driver (played by another Thai actor whom I recognize but sadly can’t identify). Once on the transport plane on their way to Vietnam, this pair meets two other members of the team. One is the pilot (Srivilai), who also proves to be handy with throwing knives. The other is a guy whose sole job is to ride around on a motorcycle with a machinegun mounted on it and shoot people. He even parachutes out of the plane while mounted on his bike -- it just may be that, like the green army man molded into the jeep, he’s incapable of standing on his own.

Once on the ground and in “the shit”, the group meets up with the final member of the crew, a sexy female mercenary in black hotpants (Tham Thuy Hang) who is charged with guiding them all through the jungle, but who is also more than willing to slip out of her clothes whenever a strategic distraction is needed. A flashback shows us that the pilot, race car driver guy and hotpants woman all have some kind of history together, but, without translation, all that flashback really reveals is some to-die-for 70s threads….

…a nightclub with a deeply weird wall mural…

…and a love scene on a waterbed.

Eventually the gang meets up with a couple more gun-wielding babes who are apparently bent on freeing their father from a North Vietnamese military prison. Once united, this band joins together to become one big, machine-gunning, motorcycle-riding, knife-throwing, clothes-doffing machine. And with all of the first act's annoying, untranslated exposition out of the way, Thong’s plot becomes as transparent as a video game’s. Basically, this group just has to make their way through the jungle to the gold, and kill as many communists as they can in the course of doing so. Rest assured that, in the process, motorcycle jumps will be accomplished, helicopters will be blowed up, and machineguns will be fired by people who are going “AAAAAAAAAAA!” for no reason.

The version of Thong that I watched featured the film’s Thai stars far more than it does Greg Morris, which leads me to suspect that the international version released as S.T.A.B. -- which, incidentally, did not hit theaters until three years after Thong’s domestic release date -- features a different, perhaps more Morris-intensive cut. I know that there are old VHS copies of that version floating around, and, judging from what I saw in Thong, it might be worth the effort to track one down. After all, this is exactly the kind of film that could only be improved by haphazardly dubbed English dialog.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.


Tars Tarkas said...

That bald guy looks suspiciously like the bald guy I keep seeing in thai films whose name I can never find in English. I know he later was in the director's H-Bomb.

Todd said...

Yet he is a different bald, mustached Thai bad guy actor than the one I recognized in Hot Potato with Jim Kelley the other night, and who I'd seen in some other Sombat Methanee action movie or two. We've both definitely seen too many of these movies.