Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mat Bond (Singapore, 1967)

Last year I wrote a couple of posts dedicated to the contributions made by the Shaw Brothers’ Malaysian language division to the 1960s spy craze, specifically the series of films featuring secret agent Jefri Zain, aka Singapore’s answer to James Bond. Well, it turns out that Shaw’s number one competitor in the region, Cathay Keris Films, had their own answer to James Bond, and perhaps to Jefri Zain as well.

But while the Jefri Zain films were fairly straightforward attempts at sub-Bondian spyjinks (as straightforward as such things could be, that is) Cathay’s entry, Mat Bond, was an outright parody. The film’s star, Malaysian comedian Mat Sentul, had worked his way up through the ranks at Cathay Keris throughout the 50s and early 60s, starting out behind the scenes (he is also credited as Art Director on Mat Bond) before graduating to bit and then supporting roles on screen -- including comic relief turns in a number of Cathay Keris’ horror films, among them the successful Pontianak series. By the mid 60s he was acting and directing himself in a series of tailor-made comedy vehicles, all of which bore titles that consisted of his first name followed by whatever the intended target of satire was -- Mat Magic, Mat Pirate, etc. -- among which Mat Bond represents a rough mid-point in the cycle.

Without the benefit of English subtitles, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the nature of Sentul’s comic persona. While long of face and a bit gangly, he’s not especially funny looking, nor does he partake too excessively in the mugging and pratfalling that so many of his screen comic brethren did. This last, of course, contributes a lot to Mat Bond going down as easily as it does, and I’m happy to have Sentul’s humorous essence remain a mystery in exchange for both him and the film in which he appears being as agreeable as they are.

Mat Bond reminds me a lot of Filipino spoofs like Dolphy’s James Batman, which was made around the same time. It gives a similar impression of reveling in its own low-rent nature, and as such seems to be making as much fun of itself as it does anything else. And indeed it is cheap. Interiors look to have been shot in a cramped basement, while a vacant lot seems to have provided the location for many of the exteriors. The clever booby traps that our hero evades during an opening scene mostly consist of precariously placed planks of wood. And, to flaunt that ghetto aesthetic, many of the sets incorporate handwritten signage complete with words crossed out and written over. What humor translates is also pretty lowbrow: Perhaps in answer to Jefri Zain’s entrance to his secret headquarters being concealed beneath his bathtub, Mat Bond enters his by way of a water-closet-cum-elevator, with the toilet chain serving as the control. At another point, a meeting of international criminals consists of an assortment of broad stereotypes, including a Chinese coolie and an American Indian in full headdress named Sitting Cow.

Also like James Batman, Mat Bond functions as both a comedy and a straightforward action film, so that interspersed with the gags are some fairly run-of-the-mill chases, fights and stunt sequences. But where it departs from its Filipino counterpart is the way in which it targets its satire. Whereas Dolphy took the Bond iconography head on, portraying the super agent as a preening egotist in a ridiculous checkered suit, Mat Bond instead takes the well traveled route of showing us a hapless everyman unwittingly thrust into a James Bond world. Sentul plays –- who else? –- Mat, a good natured bumpkin who still lives with his mom and fantasizes so hard about being a secret agent that he’s built his own makeshift “Oh Oh 7” lair in his home’s basement. While out fishing one day, Mat even sings a jaunty song about being a spy, which, thanks to its intermittent lapses into English, seems to be titled “Spy Spy Spy Bang Bang!” (Another English lyric goes: “Oh Batman, Oh Superman… Dangerman… They are all my friends!”)

It’s the old briefcase trick that eventually serves as Mat’s entryway into the highflying world of international espionage. And when Mat accidentally comes into possession of that case, it proves to contain a bottle of top secret pills designed to grant indestructibility. Not that Mat knows this, of course, but that doesn’t prevent him from popping one of the pills into his mouth. (I mean, what would you do?) This has the result of making him impervious to bullets and other kinds of violent harm. It also makes him the target of various criminal and foreign interests looking to get their hands on the pills. Among these are a gang lead by the requisite guy in an eye patch who spends most of the film barking orders from behind a control panel, as well as sexy lady spy “Lisa”, played by Sherley Koh. Lisa and Mat form something of an alliance of opportunity, at which point Mat gets to start putting some of his dreams of being a spy into bumbling practice. This being a 60s spy spoof, that means that many improbable –- and in this case, very inexpensively realized –- gadgets come into play, including a sort of all purpose umbrella that serves Mat as a combination gun, blowtorch, bullet shield, and parachute.

Even for a non-Malay speaker, Mat Bond is a pleasantly brisk watch. The charm of its bargain bin Bond approximations goes a long way, and its antic pacing, while never really inspiring the level of merriment that I imagine it was intended to, at least serves to keep it from wearing out its welcome. Also serving to keep things peppy and engaging is a wonderfully twangy, electric guitar driven soundtrack by the Malay pop group The Pretenders, which also provides the impetus for lots of scenes of Singaporean teens frugging it up at local (basement situated) nightclubs. Unless you are the type of person for whom the sight of common kitchen appliances standing in for high tech scientific gear does not coax a smile, this is a film that is, at the very least, very hard to hate.

Malay speaking audiences at the time seem to have also found Mat Bond hard to hate, with the result that it is still fondly remembered by some today. Such was the film’s popularity that an aging Mat Sentul later decided to revisit the same territory during the 80s with something called Mat Spy. I thought it would be cute to do a combined review of Mat Bond and Mat Spy, but Mat Spy prevented me from doing so by virtue of being heartstoppingly dreadful. Shot on video, it appears to be either a television or straight-to-video production, and, aside from a clever Bond-style credit sequence, doesn’t really have anything to do with the whole secret agent concept anyway. It instead busies itself with a plot about some hapless jewel robbers, and is capable of generating interesting only among those curious to see just how long it will go on before Mat Sentul is actually introduced into the proceedings. (Answer: quite a fucking long time.) In it’s favor though, it does contain a scene in which Mat Sentul farts in a cobra’s face and it dies. So there’s that.

Mat Spy also serves the purpose of making Mat Bond’s modest virtues, a distinct lack of cynicism and a humble desire to entertain among them, shine all the more brightly. Still, I don’t think you need to suffer through the latter in order to appreciate the former. I did, apparently, but you don’t.


Pentas Aksi said...

mat sentul is from Muar, Johor, not Singaporean

Todd said...

You're quite right. Correction made. Thanks!

Helmy Abdullah said...

Is Mat Sentul still alive ?

Helmy Abdullah said...

Mat Sentul masih hidup ke ? Macam mana dia boleh saya hubungi ? Boleh kasi tahu sama saya ?

Todd said...

I don't know if he's alive or not, but he was apparently up and about as recently as 2009.

K.A. said...

Fairly dissapointed there are no references to coklat tora nor mat yoyo. Tsk tsk.

Todd said...

Me, too. Tsk tsk.

sidi said...

I had interviewed him. He's still alive and he seems does'nt interested to talk about his past in the industry anymore. He felt like he'd been forgotten by the industry & government. It's hard to get him. I found him iat Larkin, Johor Baharu, around pasar bulding. If you wanna meet him, just hanging around at the Larkin and ask people there, they will tell you.