Monday, September 13, 2010

Panji Tengkorak vs. Jaka Umbaran (Indonesia, 1983)

I’m not going to insult you by even pretending that I care what Panji Tengkorak vs. Jaka Umbaran is about. It’s the kind of movie that flagrantly mocks any attempt by me to bag and tag it within the confines of a proper review. It has about a zillion characters with what appear to be only the most tenuous connections to one another, a frantic, coherence-defying pace, and, of course, no English subtitles. (After having the luxury of subs with both The Secret of the Vanishing Cap and The Demons in the Flame Mountain, I figured I should get back to the no English zone before I went soft.)

But what I will tell you about Panji Tengkorak vs. Jaka Umbaran is that it was incredibly fun to watch –- basically one long fight scene augmented by frequent outbursts of outrageous gore and silly special effects. As such, it presents a viewer like myself with a form of near total escape. Not just escape from the inanities of my everyday American life into a comparatively exotic fantasy world. Not just an escape from typical Western commercial moviemaking with all of its tales of white people and their terribly important pursuits. But also an escape from the whole tiresome pose of actually giving a red toss about the motivations, meaning and consequences of actions that conventional narrative demands. Bring on the chaos!

The film marks the belated return to the screen of Panji Tengkorak, aka “Panji the Skull Face”, an Indonesian comic book hero created by artist Hans Jaladara in the late 1960s. Panji made his film debut in the 1972 Taiwanese/Indonesian co-production Panji Tengkorak, which was marketed outside of Indonesia as a vehicle for Polly Shang Kwan under the English title Ghostly Face. As for the co-billed Jaka Umbaran, it was a bit more difficult for me to dig up information on him, but he appears, like the oft-portrayed South Seas Queen, to be a figure pulled from Javanese folklore. His origins seem to involve something about a woman drinking urine from a coconut and then becoming pregnant, and I think it’s best to just leave it at that. Except to say that he is some kind of magical warrior who is shown disemboweling an opponent with his bare hands in the film’s opening scene… and that he appears to be a good guy.

Actor and future Indonesian politician Deddy Sutomo, who played Panji Tengkorak in Ghostly Face, returns to the role here, although his character appears in the film as much or more by way of reference than anything else. The other characters talk about him a lot when he’s not around, but his time on screen is actually pretty limited, as, for that matter, is Jaka Umbaran’s. Instead the movie’s action seems to center for the most part around a group of female fighters, all with era-appropriate headbands and a variety of mystically enhanced fighting styles. One woman, who fights alongside her older female master, has a long scarf that she uses alternately as a whip, a lasso and a garrote, and which she can also somehow fashion into a javelin when need be. Another momentarily transforms into a hawk whenever she launches an attack. Oh, and, of course, they can all also fly and dematerialize at will. Furthermore, these women participate in a number of somewhat seedy and gratuitous scenes of near nudity that, with all their abrupt cutting, indicate that Panji Tengkorak vs. Jaka Umbaran fell pretty heavily under the blade of the Indonesian censor.

Despite my total lack of understanding of all of the complex rivalries that seem to be at play in the film, I did get a grasp -- I think -- of at least one plot element. It seems that once again, just as in Ghostly Face, Panji Tengkorak is being unjustly incriminated by the actions of an impostor. In this instance, it’s a gang of no goods who have one of their number don a duplicate of Panji’s distinctive skull mask in order to abduct and torment a young woman. This all goes some way toward demonstrating the downside of adopting a disguise, as the nefarious actions of numerous counterfeit Santos have also shown. In any case, this seems to be the reason that Jaka Umbaran has it in for Panji, and also the reason that, once the two heroes meet for their final showdown, it is short lived. For it is not long before both realize that they are fighting on the same side, ultimately combining forces to defeat their common enemy in a flurry of body-exploding kung fu magic.

Though he indeed crams his movie with as much fist-flying action as it could possibly contain, the approach that director M. Sharieffudin takes to filming that action is not all that dynamic. He instead tends to film his fights in long takes, punctuating them with overdramatic, Bollywood-style reaction shots comprised of rapid back-and-forth cuts and staggered shock zooms on sweaty close-ups of the actors’ grimacing mugs. This technique puts the onus on those actors to communicate the furious velocity and punishing intensity of these fights themselves, which, due to some apparent aptitude in the areas of acrobatics and actual fighting, most of them accomplish pretty well. When that fails, of course, there is also lots of wire-and-reverse-motion-assisted leaping and hurling of cartoon auras to take up the slack.

In the final analysis, Panji Tengkorak vs. Jaka Umbaran demonstrates everything that’s great about Indonesian action cinema without being a particularly exceptional example of it. I think the reason I enjoyed it to the great extent that I did was the necessarily immersive approach that I took to watching it, and that, had I actually understood the niceties of its story, I might just have been distracted from appreciating its real virtues. It’s good to be reminded of this from time to time, because I at times feel that there’s something disingenuous in my so frequently bemoaning this or that film’s lack of English subtitles. It’s like, in getting caught up in my perceived duties as a random guy writing about movies on the internet, I forget the unique, brain-chemistry-altering pleasures that watching movies under such circumstance has given me -- the very pleasures, in fact, that made me want to write about watching movies in the first place, no matter how hard the experience might sometimes be to convey.


Anonymous said...

" escape from the whole tiresome pose of actually giving a red toss about the motivations, meaning and consequences of actions that conventional narrative demands."
That is the best explanation for liking nonsensical movies I've ever read. I like them myself, but I couldn't have put it into words in that way.

Todd said...

Thanks! Sense is really overrated, isn't it?