Of late I’m discovering that my cinematic comfort food of choice tends to be old European spy films from the 60s –- or Eurospy films, if you’re nasty. They’re breezy and mindless, usually dubbed into English, and not so off-the-beaten-path that I necessarily feel compelled to tell you all about them at length –- although I often do, anyway.
There’s also a coziness about them for me that I think derives from the fact that they were staples of the afternoon “Dialing For Dollars” type movies that used to air on TV when I was a little kid, back in that ancient age before movies were only shown on cable. In fact, I think that these movies very well may have had some subliminal influence on my childhood conception of what it meant to be an adult, and, more specifically, my formative graspings with the idea of manhood. Envisioning myself as a grown up in those days almost invariably involved conjuring up the image of a dapper rogue in a crisp black tuxedo with a beautiful woman on his arm. And this image was not for me a signifier of success, but more a natural birthright, as if that tux and that woman just got handed to you as you passed through the gateway to maturity.
Anyway, after my scheduled early evening flight from JFK last Friday unexpectedly turned into a redeye, and I returned home to weather that was unseasonably… well, l believe the term the weatherman used was “hot as balls”… I determined that the only thing for it was to dedicate the weekend to some concerted lying in. (Never have it said that I am even remotely close to being a sturdy traveler.) Fortunately, I happened to have, in that looming stack of unwatched dvd-rs that has now taken command over my living room like a silent but nonetheless insistent extra tenant, a healthy selection of Eurospies. It was obviously time to spend some quality couch time with a few of those sharply dressed rogues from my youth.
First up was the 1967 German/Italian/Spanish co-production Spy Today, Die Tomorrow, aka Mister Dynamite. Spy Today is a resolutely average example of the genre, but, for my purposes, almost comfortingly so. American actor Lex Barker –- probably most known on these shores as a former Tarzan, but better known in Europe for his recurring role as Old Shatterhand in the German made Karl May Westerns -- was far from the best of the Eurospy leading men, but he wasn’t the worst, either. Like a lot of them, he simply supplies the template on which to project the boilerplate version of the impossibly unflappable, globe-hopping chick magnet that so many of these adventures revolve around –- a generic conception that makes the experience of watching them tantamount to buying James Bond by the yard.
As an additional plus, the film boasts a roster of pleasantly familiar faces, not the least of which belongs to Kommissar X series regular Brad Harris, who turns in a dependably rough and tumble performance as the CIA counterpart to Baxter’s German BND agent Bob Urban. As usual, it’s the job of Harris, an experienced stuntman, to take on all of the heavy lifting so that the top billed -- and, in this case, considerably older -- star is freed up to project all of that aforementioned crispness and unflappability without any risk of pit stains or mussed hair.
Spy Today, while in some respects slickly accomplished, also displays those occasional poverty-driven holes in its façade that are so key to the whole Eurospy experience. These include an overreliance on stock footage, some woefully inadequate miniature work, and an anticlimax that tries to pass off showing a room full of people staring anxiously at the second hand of a clock as a fitting substitute for something that might actually be suspenseful. Of course, such shortfalls would be nothing if not combined with a corresponding tendency to overreach, and so the film manages to at the same time supply us with frugal approximations of some of the oddball extravagances we expect from a 60s spy movie. The villain of the piece comes equipped with a model train obsession that sees him barking orders from behind a sprawling train set that doubles as a control console. He even has a train set on his private plane!
Our villain: A man with HO scale ambitions in an N scale world
Next up were a pair of unconnected 1965 Italian films that both happened to be spoofs of the James Bond movies in general and Goldfinger in particular: Goldginger and James Tont: Operazione U.N.O. Now, as I have probably pointed out too many times before, spoofing the Bond films, as popular as that activity may have been in the 1960s, is a bit of a redundant pursuit, given that those movies generally don’t take themselves all that seriously in the first place. And Goldfinger especially seems like an odd target for satire, notable as it was at the time for departing from the previous entries by way of its tongue in cheek attitude and self consciously campy excesses. Still, one can perhaps understand the appeal of using parody as an excuse to ride the coattails of such a successful franchise, and the makers of both of these films do just that. Each duplicates to some extent or another almost every iconic moment and character from the original. There is an actor playing an “Oddjob” type henchman in each, and James Tont goes so far as to have a sound-alike theme tune.
Now let me say this right up front: Goldginger is a starring vehicle for the inexplicably popular Italian comedy duo Franco and Ciccio, and Franco and Ciccio are awful. If you’re unfamiliar with them, suffice it to say that they’re like an Italian version of Martin and Lewis, except if Martin was just some nondescript guy with a mustache who never sang anything. In fact, that comparison is even unfair to Jerry Lewis, because, as willfully ignorant of Lewis’ shtick as I am, I’m still sure that it is far more nuanced and refined than the jabbering and mugging that Franco Pecora reduces it to. (It is also far from ameliorative that, in the English version of the film, the pair are dubbed with-ah cartoony Italian accents-ah. Mamma mia!) In any case, what this means is that, if one were able to cut a perfect, Franco and Ciccio sized hole in Goldginger, you might end up with something reasonably enjoyable, but there also wouldn’t be a whole lot of Goldginger left.
Franco and Ciccio’s box office clout is reflected in Goldginger’s production values, which are definitely on the plush side for a Eurospy film. This probably also accounts for why an international star of the caliber of Fernando Rey would be appearing in the film as its titular bad guy. Rey’s Goldginger has a scheme that, while outlandish in real world terms, is basically the Eurospy villain’s version of thinking inside the box, involving replacing world dignitaries with lookalike robots. He also, for some reason, finds it worth his efforts to trick the bumbling photographers played by Franco and Ciccio into assassinating a military official by having a minion place a death ray inside their camera. Eventually George Hilton shows up as suave agent 007 and is quickly and unceremoniously bumped off, which somehow opens up the opportunity for Franco and Ciccio to be recruited as secret agents in his place.
Back in my review of the Malaysian Bond take-off Mat Bond, I remarked upon the two approaches most commonly taken by 1960s filmmakers seeking to lampoon the 007 films. Goldginger follows the well-trod path of showing us bumbling everymen who find themselves unwittingly thrust into a James Bond world full of danger, espionage and intrigue. James Tont: Operazione U.N.O. -- which was directed by Sergio’s brother, Bruno Corbucci -- takes the other approach. Star Lando Buzzanca (who I last saw in When Women Lost Their Tales, but I won’t hold that against him) has sufficiently leading man compliant looks, and, as the movie’s titular secret agent, is allowed to maintain some of the Bondian air of mastery typical of more straightforward Eurospy protagonists. Of course, it is the nature of this style of spy spoof to use the super spy’s supernatural levels of confidence and aptitude against him. So, unlike in a film like Goldginger, where the outmatched heroes hysterically bungle their way from disaster to disaster, when James Tont fails, it is funny (ostensibly) precisely because he was so sure that he would succeed.
Casting their lead in more of a straightforward hero mode also affords the makers of James Tont the luxury of indulging in some more straightforward action film theatrics. A car chase involving Tont’s elaborately tricked out Fiat works both as comedy and as a high speed display of fancy stunt driving. Thus the audience gets to enjoy some of the same type of big screen thrills afforded by the Bond films while also getting to see the smug hero occasionally being taken down a peg. Like Goldginger, the film also observes the familiar Eurospy practice of spreading its action out over a variety of European locales, and even outdoes Goldginger with some New York and Las Vegas location sequences, as well as a climax set in a set-bound version of Hong Kong.
Unlike the heroes of Goldginger, however, James Tont further follows in the footsteps of his inspiration by getting the girl in the end, and also dallies with a few others along the way. In this sense, he has a lot more in common with the hero of a “serious” Eurospy film like Spy Today, Die Tomorrow, which is not to suggest that Spy Today doesn’t do a lot of laughing up its sleeve on its own part. In fact, if one were looking for a telling example of the resistance of Bond-style films to this type of parody, one might find it in the fact that James Tont, in its efforts to push its action to satirical extremes, actually prefigures a couple of specific stunts from the later Bond films. These include a bit where a car careens along tilted on one side, as would be seen in Diamonds Are Forever some six years later, and another involving a car that converts into a submarine, as in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. These bits are both clearly played as wacky sight gags in James Tont, while in those later mentioned titles they would be woven into the consistent, low level irreverence of the films overall.
Interestingly, over the course of the same weekend that I watched these films, I also watched 0SS 117 – Lost in Rio, the second of director Michel Hazanavicius’ lacerating yet idiosyncratically scrupulous parodies of the French 0SS 117 Eurospy films of the 60s. In these films, Hazanavicius brings to the forefront an aspect of the Eurospy hero that I think also subtly informs more juvenile parodies like Goldginger and James Tont. That is the aspect of these heroes as the faces of empire, barreling through one exotic port of call after another as if they owned the place (because, to their minds, they do), never troubling their minds with an ounce of curiousity, but with every intention of imposing their manly wills, while at the same time viewing every man they encounter as a potential servant and each woman as a prospective addition to their personal harem. The most frightening aspect of this scenario is the idea that such men would be those whom their leaders would entrust with the task of keeping world peace –- and the concurrent dawning realization that this may not, in fact, be that much of a departure from the way that things really are.
In Lost in Rio, our hero, Hubert Bonisseur de al Bath, aka French agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin), mocks a group of hippies for their expressed desire to “change the world”. Of course, he finds this notion ridiculous because, as far as he’s concerned, the world is perfectly fine as it is. And I imagine you’d hear the same response from James Bond (who, as you might recall, wouldn’t brave the Beatles without ear muffs), or the Kommissar X films’ Joe Walker (who in one film lectured a young woman about the virtues of whisky over LSD), or Spy Today, Die Tomorrow’s Bob Urban. Though we only check in with them when they are in the process of saving the world, these are men who’s nine-to-five is all about preserving the status quo, simply because they lack the moral imagination to envision a world that’s any different or better –- especially when that world might be one in which they weren’t the unquestioned Numero Uno.
Of course, the joke ends up being on OSS 117, because it is the very youth culture that these hippies represent that will contribute in large part to his looming cultural irrelevance. (The same force that conceivably lead the James Bond movies to build-in self loathing by way of ever increasing self mockery and deliberate camp.) However, in exposing his hero for the caricature that he is, Hazanavicius does not –- as in, say, the Austin Powers films –- allow us to forget that the simplistic hegemonic fantasy he represents still has very real ramifications upon how business is conducted in our all too complex and fractious real world.
And so it is that the putative comedy in a film like Goldginger derives not just from the slapstick spectacle of seeing simple men trying to accomplish a task for which they are hopelessly unsuited, but also from the very absurdity of the idea that such men would undertake a task so thoroughly opposed to their own interests. James Bond, after all, doesn’t fight for the little guy, but for himself. As such, a film like James Tont, taking an opposite approach, allows us to partake in the vicarious fantasy of such an individualist hero while at the same time seeing him punished for his arrogance. That both of these films, very much unlike OSS 117 – Lost In Rio, do this without ever managing to actually be funny is beside the point.
The point, however, does seem to be that, whatever your position on the Bondian archetype, his position in our culture is so entrenched that one apparently has to come to terms with him one way or another. My personal reckoning on the matter seems to involve a war between the child in me, who simply wants to approach these films as mindless escape, and the grown up who instead insists upon discoursing upon them at rambling length (keeping the child in me up way past his bed time in the process). Needless to say, this scenario was not part of the swankily accessorized adulthood that I had imagined for myself back in those innocent days of youth. At least I remembered to put on my tuxedo.
Me and my lockjaw havin' ass are heading off to New York for a week starting tomorrow. If I stay true to my plan to steer clear of the intertubes, you won't be seeing any new reviews from me during that time. Of course, the Friday's Best Pop Song will appear as scheduled, completing our month of songs all named "Sign of the Times". Hey, that shit is important. Anyway, See you all in a week. (Barring any unforeseen circumstances, that is.)
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.
I think it’s safe to say that, without the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the world of weird Taiwanese fantasy martial arts films would be far less rich. The Demons in the Flame Mountain is an interesting example of a movie that employs characters and situations from that 16th century tale, but without incorporating the well known band of travelers at its center. Indeed, Monk Xuanzang, the Monkey King, Pigsy and the rest appear here by reference only, surrendering the spotlight so that some lesser characters might step to the front of the stage. For this reason, the movie might be termed less an adaptation of Journey than it is a spin-off of it.
The action here focuses on Red Boy, the son of Princess Iron Fan and her husband, the Bull King (who, in the English dub, is referred to as “Cow Devil”). These figures are all taken from the episode in Journey to the West that, previous to the time of The Demons in the Flame Mountain’s release, had already been brought to the screen four times -- three of those times under the title Princess Iron Fan (one of those being an animated feature made in 1941, and another the second entry in the Shaw Brothers’ popular Journey adaptations made during the mid 60s).
Anyone who’s watched enough of these movies won’t be surprised to learn that Red Boy, who fought against Xuanzang and his disciples in the novel, is in fact played by a young woman, the actress Au-Yeung Ling-Lung. When we catch up with the character, we find that he has renounced his demon ways and is now a disciple of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In the grand tradition of low budget Taiwanese fantasy movies, Guanyin is depicted as having an omnipresent cartoon aura over her head and residing in a minimalist set that is made up almost entirely of machine generated fog and colored lighting.
When Red Boy comes to Guanyin in this setting, it is to report that all is not well in the worldly world. It seems that an imposter posing as Red Boy has been causing trouble in the villages around the mountain of pure flame known, appropriately, as Flame Mountain (said mountain being one of the unfortunate results of the mischievous tear that got the Monkey King banished from Heaven in the first place). Gaunyin instructs Red Boy to head down and clear his name.
Soon after setting foot on the Earthly plane, Red Boy finds that the troubles blamed on him are in fact being caused by a twin brother who he had not previously known existed called Yellow Boy (also played by Au-Yeung Ling-Lung in a dual role). Yellow Boy, it turns out, has been abducting young men from the surrounding areas and forcing them to labor for him in the Flame Mountain, with the intent that, by their labors, he will somehow himself become a god. (I may have missed something there, but that’s the gist of it.) The trouble is that working conditions inside the mountain, it being made of flame and all, are not that great and, as a result, many of these young men are dying. The villagers, having been convinced of Red Boy’s innocence, beg for him to intercede with his brother and free their sons.
Upon being approached by Red Boy, Yellow Boy at first greets him warmly, but when the former fails to be swayed by his “join me and rule the world” pitch, the yellow one orders three of his most deadly warriors to dispatch him. These warriors include Turtle Man -- who has all the powers of, well, a turtle, I guess -- Green Leaf Maiden, who is shown shooting spider webs out of her mouth, and Silver Vase Man, who, true to his name, carries around a silver vase that he tries to trap people in. (“You’ve a lovely vase there”, says Red boy.) For his part, Red Boy has an array of supernatural powers of his own with which to combat these foes, including the ability to shape shift and become invisible. He also possesses a devastating magical weapon that is, depending on which character's dubbing you believe, called either the “esteemed” or “eastern” fire, which enables him to exhale an inextinguishable blast of flame. It is in those sequences wherein Red Boy battles and defeats this strange crew, filled as they are with oddly imagined and cheaply executed movie magic, that The Demons in the Flame Mountain achieves some of its most memorable “wait, what?” moments.
That battle out of the way, Red Boy’s next plan of action is to extinguish Flame Mountain using the magical fan possessed by his mother. Unfortunately, it turns out that Red Boy’s parents basically can’t stand him and aren’t about to consent to him using it. In a flashback, we’re shown how, after a pregnancy that lasted twenty years(!), Red Boy emerged from his mother's womb as a ball of fire that then careened wildly throughout the countryside, leaving untold damage in its path. So it’s understandable that there might be some ill feelings. Red Boy then employs deception to get his hands on the fan, but when caught and confronted by his mother, cannot overcome his filial loyalty and returns it to her before completing the task.
Guanyin, despite her whole reputation being based on a tendency toward mercy, can’t understand why Red Boy hasn’t just blasted Yellow Boy and his folks with the “Esteemed” or “Eastern” Fire, and so punishes him for not getting the job done by stripping him of his powers and banishing him to the mortal world. Now left with no place to call home, Red Boy goes once again to his parents and pleads with them to welcome him back into the family. They really do hate him, though, and basically tell him to fuck off. At this point it seems that Red Boy can only accomplish his mission and redeem himself in the eyes of those who have turned their backs upon him by making a supreme sacrifice.
On paper, The Demons in the Flame Mountain certainly sounds like it has all the elements of a pretty moving little yarn, seeing as it basically concerns a child’s outmatched quest to gain acceptance from a family who have cruelly rejected him. However, the things that prevent it from being so are several-fold. One of those things is its outright goofiness. Like a lot of these Taiwanese fantasies, the movie seems to be pretty squarely aimed at the toddling set, and as such contains a lot of jaunty cartoon music and zany under-cranked action. Its few fight scenes are so comically sped up, in fact, that it is sure to have martial arts purists gripping their temples and running in any opposing direction. Basically, this is like Journey to the West reimagined as a Peach Kid film without the piss jokes. There’s also the fact that the version I watched was subject to an English dubbing job that is truly heinous, albeit pretty much par-for-the-course for dubbed chop sockeys from this period. (I have to wonder, though, why anyone even bothered, as this is hardly prime “Kung Fu Theater” material.)
Still, The Demons in the Flame Mountain is marked by that collision between the fantastical, unpredictable imagery of Chinese folklore and the cut-rate economics of Taiwanese B moviemaking that makes so many films of its type charming if ultimately resistible. I’m a sucker for a cartoon aura, after all. But, then again, I have to wonder if a properly translated and subtitled version of the film might tug at the heartstrings a little more effectively. Not that any of you are looking to movies like this for catharsis, mind you. But if one must get in touch with one’s inner child, how much better could it be if one could do so while watching a cross-dressing girl have an under-cranked kung fu fight with a humanoid turtle?
The Secret of the Vanishing Cap is Egyptian director Niazi Mostafa’s belated follow-up to his 1944 smash The Vanishing Cap. Mostafa was a prolific contributor to Arabic popular cinema during its golden age, and was also responsible for such previously 4DK-ed titles as Antar The Black Prince (starring his wife -- and, during his early days as an editor at Egypt’s Studio Misr, former assistant -- Kouka) as well as the irreverent farce Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan.
The original Vanishing Cap followed a shift by Mostafa from directing more socially conscious fare to delivering films with more assuredly crowd-pleasing content, and was a success due largely to its use of fanciful special effects. Until the Egyptian film industry started dipping its toe into the horror genre in the 1980s, fantasy elements such as those seen in The Vanishing Cap and its sequel were a rarity in Arabic film, and were most likely to be seen in a comedic context, such as in Afrita Hanem and Ismail Yassin’s numerous supernatural romps.
Of course, we know from experience that what most marriages of comedy and the supernatural beget is lots of googly-eyed mugging and “feets don’t fail me now” imbecility, both the products of stars and directors convinced that the surest path to laughter is through exaggerated displays of what is clinically known as the heebie jeebies. Sadly or otherwise -- depending on your taste for such antics -- Secret of the Vanishing Cap star Abdel Moneim Ibrahim is a master of such extravagant displays of the willies, and often resorts to a disconcertingly high-pitched shrieking and gibbering as a part of his process. For his part, Mostafa tries to boost the arguable hilarity of this shtick with antic pacing that keeps the film overall practically stumbling over itself in its race toward the end credits.
The problem is that, while Secret of the Vanishing Cap’s simple invisibility effects might have been novel to Arabic audiences of its time, for the rest of us they’re nothing we haven’t seen done many times before, and often better. Thus un-bedazzled, we’re left with what is really a pretty shrill and uninvolving example of Egyptian screen comedy, lacking a star capable of conveying the underlying smarts so typical of Ismail Yassin’s comedic portrayals, as well as the sharp satirical edge of Yassin’s films themselves.
Here Ibrahim plays Asfour, an incompetent newspaper reporter who is in love with his colleague Amal, who is in turn trapped in an arranged engagement to her cousin, a bluto-esque bully by the name of Amin. Asfour also has a little brother, Faseeh, who is portrayed by an actor billed as “Wonder Child Ahmed Farahat”, and whose status as a grotesque human Hummel figurine prefigures the celebrity of oddities like Emmanuel Lewis and Gary Coleman by a good couple of decades.
Faseeh occasionally assists Asfour’s eccentric father in his activities as an amateur alchemist, and it is in the process of doing same that he one night inadvertently conjures forth a genie. Unfortunately, Faseeh, because it’s funny, faints upon seeing the genie, and is thus unable to completely free him from his otherworldly bonds. As a result, the poor genie explodes into flame, and his ashes scatter about the laboratory -- in particular upon a cap that Amal has brought for Asfour as a gift from Mecca. This, it is eventually discovered, imbues the cap with the power of rendering its wearer invisible.
Luckily for the poorly secured bank vaults and women’s locker rooms of Cairo, Asfour, realizing the evil uses that such a cap could be put to, resolves to use it only for good. However, his definition of “good” proves to be a little on the narrow and self-serving side, as it consists mostly of him tormenting Amin and trying to derail his upcoming marriage to Amal. Amin, for his part, is quick to realize the cap’s potential himself, and after conning it out of Asfour’s possession, goes on an invisible crime spree involving theft, vandalism, and even murder.
Although Secret of the Vanishing Cap proved to me that I am indeed capable of disliking an old Egyptian comedy, despite what had previously seemed like a knee-jerk affection for same, I can’t call it a complete wash. Far from it, in fact. For buried within it is a hula hoop themed, nightclub musical number that’s possessed of an almost hypnotic awesomeness. Perhaps the Citizen Kane of hula hoop themed, nightclub musical numbers, even.
In it, a group of strapping, Jack LaLanne types work the hoop while extolling its virtues as a -- well, as a preserver of virtue. Hula hooping, they say, “cools down the fire of love” and, as such, is “the sport of real men”. (The also say “we invented it”. And by “we”, I’m not sure whether they mean men, the nation of Egypt, or the human race as a whole.)
And then, of course, a bunch of girls come along and ruin everything. As the hoops spin around their suggestively swiveling hips, these sirens opine that hula hooping in indeed all about the booty -- that it, in fact, “feeds the fire of love”! In response, the men can only linger ineffectually in the background, trying vainly to keep their hula hoops from falling limply toward the floor as the women distract their efforts with their undulations. Sadly, we never see how this debate is settled -- for, instance, was the Koran consulted? -- but the questions raised by it hang over the remainder of The Secret of the Vanishing Cap like a disconcertingly musky philosophical fog.
Now, whether you greet this evidence of the Middle East’s lack of immunity to staggeringly frivolous pop culture fads like the hula hoop with despair or celebration, you have to admit that you want to see this number. Luckily for you, there is a magical device that can make the remaining portions of the movie on either side of it disappear, and its only as distant as your remote.