Monday, March 14, 2011

Pusaka Penyebar Maut (Indonesia, 1990)

Pusaka Penyebar Maut opens upon a familiar face. It's Kung Fu Zombie and Kung Fu From Beyond the Grave star Billy Chong! However, after Chong's brief and not manifestly necessary cameo has run its course, leaving the actor to darken Pusaka Penyebar Maut's door no more, it is quite another familiar face that I'm referring to.

After the credits have rolled, we see a gang of motley bandits preparing to intrude upon a bucolic scene, where a white garbed woman is meditating peacefully in the shallows of a placid river. It's Queen of Indonesian Horror[TM] Suzzanna! Seeing the ruffians approaching, Suzzanna -- or, I should say, the character played by Suzzanna, Nyi Polo -- flees to her hut, within which her infant son can be seen sleeping. Nyi Polo takes from its hiding place a glowy, magical dagger, which she then swallows -- this dagger, apparently, being the prize that the bandits are seeking to plunder. The gang -- a diverse crew that includes a bald, eyepatch wearing pirate guy, a hunchback, and a guy that looks like a Thundercat -- then barge in, tearing the place apart in search of the dagger and threatening Nyi Polo. I easily recognize this as the typical opening to any Suzzanna movie, in which her innocent character is murdered by evildoers, only to later return in the form of a vengeful spirit.

Except that, at this point, Suzzanna does something that I had yet to see her do in any of her movies, in that she up and starts furiously kicking the asses of these assembled badmen, generously ladling out the whupass in the form of spinning high kicks and rapid-fire punches delivered while spinning around like a helicopter rotor (with, I might add, her baby strapped to her back the entire time). It's all very Pearl Cheung Ling, accomplished by lots of very silly and extreme looking wire work, which is, needless to say, awesome. But, even if it were not executed in such a manner, the mere sight of Suzzanna -- whose performances are usually marked by both a regal bearing appropriate to her title and a kind of eerie stoicism -- channeling her inner Lady Venom in such an unexpected way would be enough to make it a peak experience in my long and peak-filled history of watching Indonesian exploitation films.

Unfortunately, Pusaka Penyebar Maut soon dashes any hopes I held for it being a film dedicated entirely to Suzzanna engaging in one frenetic kung fu brawl after another by eventually having her character killed in the manner that I had initially expected. Divining that Nyi Polo has, in fact, ingested the magical dagger, the gang burns her on the cross, at which point the dagger levitates out of her body, only to be snatched away by a mysterious figure who happens to be leaping by at an extraordinary height. Frustrated, the Thundercat guy picks up Ny Polo's infant son and chucks him into the forest, at which point the babe is picked up by a kindly old kung fu master, who himself just happened to be passing by in search of an infant whom he could raise to become a vengeful killing machine.

So, as you may already be piecing together on your own, Pusaka Penyebar Maut, despite the participation of Suzzanna and her frequent director Sisworo Gautama Putra, is not your typical Indonesian horror joint. If anything, it's more similar to Sisworo's earlier Barry Prima vehicle The Warrior, but bears even more of a resemblance to Taiwanese fantasy chop sockey films like the recently reviewed Chinese Magic, albeit with that unmistakably Indonesian approach to fantasy and mysticism mixed in. As such, we watch as Ny Polo's son, Ario Kamandaka, grows to adulthood under the tutelage of the old master, becoming a figure who -- as portrayed by the athletic Fendy Pradana -- appears to need much less assistance from wires and trick photography to convincingly execute feats of martial arts badassery than his mom did.

Finally the time comes to leave the nest, and young Ario makes his way down the mountainside to meet his date with destiny. On the way, he meets the female warrior Selashi (Murti Sari Dewi), who, for reasons swathed in mystery by the Indonesian language and the VCD's lack of English subtitles, has come into possession of the dagger. The two join forces, and proceed to engage in a series of battles with Lion-O, Pirate Guy and whatever various and sundry evil forces are trying to get their hands on the weapon. While Sisworo generally fails to film these fight scenes in a particularly interesting manner, keeping the camera fairly still and at a remove throughout, their frenetic content -- comprised of breakneck wire-enabled flying, head-spinning acrobatics, and laser beams firing out of absolutely everything -- easily make up the deficit.

Eventually Suzzanna does make her spectral return, but only briefly, and only to aid Ario in training for the final confrontation with her killers, after which we move into the film's blissful, all-fighting-all-the-time third act. Now, I know that my constant frothing at the mouth over cartoon-assisted kung fu has probably long worn out its welcome here, especially given that I was only just slavering over its use in Chinese Magic. But, in my defense, I ventured into Pusaka Penyebar Maut with absolutely no idea that it would hold such an embarrassment of riches in this regard, to the extent that to fail to remark upon it would be to misrepresent an aspect of the picture that even it's producers seemed to have deemed as especially notable. To wit, the opening credits include a title that reads "SPECIAL EFFECTS & OPTICAL ANIMATION USA & HONG KONG", without, in fact, listing any particular outfits or individuals as being responsible. Whatever the case, I am proud of my country's contribution, because Pusaka Penyebar Maut's finale goes that extra mile to show us lighting bolts, laser beams, magical auras, and cartoon smoke rings coming seemingly out of every one of its participants' orifices. (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but, upon seeing what's on display, you'll have to forgive me for being inspired to hyperbole.)

(This one's going on the side of my van.) 

And then there are the huts. If a Southeast Asian action film is no better than it's sum of exploding huts, then Pusaka Penyebar Maut just may be the greatest of them all. As the cartoon magic flies, first one hut explodes, and then two, then three, and soon the huts are exploding two at a time! The end hut loss is indeed catastrophic, but thankfully not all in vain. Evil is vanquished, and our story wrapped up just in time for the jarringly abrupt ending that the genre requires. (Seriously, the ending of the typical old school kung fu film is tantamount to a cop coming out and brusquely informing the audience that there's "nothing to see here" before taking out his truncheon and hurriedly goading them out of the theater.) The viewer -- given he is a person of tastes as refined and discriminating as my own -- is left satisfied and exhausted. Balance, to a Universe that sometimes seems all too lacking in cartoon magic and back flipping, is restored. And, finally, the debt of the grateful film enthusiast to the nation of Indonesia is once again rendered too vast to ever be paid in full.


Tars Tarkas said...

Damn Thundercats, always tossing babies!

memsaab said...

You tempt me, Todd, you tempt me so...

Todd said...

Tars: I think he was just trying to see if babies always landed on their feet like he'd heard.

Memsaab: The star of this one isn't nearly as hot as Barry Prima, though.