Monday, August 29, 2011

Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (Philippines, 1965)

Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 contains a number of elements that, empirically speaking, appear to be fairly standard to the many spy spoofs fronted by beloved Filipino comic Dolphy during the 1960s. As in the later James Batman and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six, Dolphy plays a double role, and there is the same combination of slapstick and straightforward action that’s likely to make any of these films a bumpy ride for the uninitiated.

Also, the level of satire on display is once again solidly of the Mad magazine caliber; the high comic concept here seemingly arising from some (perhaps stoned?) person thinking that, if a Chinese guy named Genghis were to replace James Bond, he could then be called Genghis Bond, and that that would be hilarious. And I’m not saying that it’s not -- because, as is so often the case, the film’s lack of English subtitles prevents me from confirming my overwhelming suspicion that it probably isn’t.

In the first scoop of his thespian double dip, Dolphy portrays Agent Bond, a top operative for the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation -- or NBI -- who sports a uniform of checkered suit and matching trilby very similar to the one Dolphy wore in James Batman. Agent Bond doesn’t do much during the movie’s first act other than be endlessly hectored by his girlfriend’s shrewish mom. Then he falls afoul of a diamond smuggling ring run by a Mr. Big figure by the name of Gaspar and is captured in short order.

This turn of events opens the door to Dolphy’s second character, Genghis, an unassuming East Asian funeral home proprietor. Genghis wears a full Fu Manchu mustache and goatee. But in case that’s not enough of a blunt signifier for you, his every entrance is accompanied by the stereotypical Asian piano riff. Inseparable from Genghis is a clownish assistant by the name of Babalu, who is in fact played by a comic performer by the name of Babalu, here making his screen debut in a starring role. Babalu -- aka Pablito Sarmiento –- would go on to appear as a sidekick to Dolphy in a series of films before making the jump to his own starring vehicles in the 1970s. From what I can gather, his shtick involves having a huge chin and a lot of exaggerated crying and carrying on, though, again, the lack of translation prevents me from truly divining the root cause of his putative appeal. Nor does it allow me to ascertain why the same low piano note thrums on the soundtrack every time Dolphy slaps him -- which is often.

Need I explain at this point that Genghis, as the result of an improbable series of circumstances, is ultimately called upon by Agent Bond’s superiors to impersonate Agent Bond? Or that hilarity ensues? Or that, as a result, a little man finds within himself reserves of courage and poise that he had previously not thought possible? Of course not. But what I will tell you is that none of these things are presented in all that interesting of a manner, thanks to Genghis Bond being woefully cheap, even by the already threadbare standards of 1960s Tagalog cinema. Seriously, by comparison to the settings here -- which generally appear to be the result of filming in disused corners of someone’s house or apartment -- James Batman’s goofy papier mache sets look positively lavish. And, even worse, the film evidences none of Napoleon Doble’s quirky stylistic flourishes by way of compensation, with director Luis San Juan instead opting to use a nailed down, point-and-shoot approach to filming what little action there is.

Of course, it’s not as if the mechanics of plot, of their presentation, are the top order of business here in the first place. To the contrary, Genghis Bond mainly serves as a loose framework by which to string together a series of miscellaneous bits of crowd-pleasing business, much like a variety show. There are quite a few musical interludes, including one in which a bunch of teens in bathing suits go-go dance to a Filipino surf band called The Sociables, who play an English language cover of Jan and Dean’s “Little Old Lady From Pasadena”. Elsewhere, there is a lengthy training sequence that mainly serves as a showcase for the cameo-making Roberto Gonzales, who was at the time known as Filipino cinema’s “Karate King”. And then there is a cat fight between two of Gaspar’s shapely female minions that erupts, as it ends, completely out of nowhere, leaving not even the slightest plot ripple in its wake. (Genghis Bond boasts in its credits the appearance of “44 Bikini Girls”, which should give you a pretty clear idea of the type of entertainment we’re engaging with here.)

It’s obvious that no one behind Tagalog pop movies like Genghis Bond felt they were creating something for the ages, and their disposable nature is underscored by just how many of them have been disposed of in the intervening years. Even Genghis Bond seems to have barely survived; it’s original opening credits are missing, and what remains is marred by numerous scratches, pops, and missing frames. As such, it seems a little unfair to subject it to any kind of formal critical scrutiny, much as it would be for Mr. Blackwell to come into your home and critique the outfit you’ve chosen to wear while watching TV.

Yes, as that statement indicates, I see this as something akin to a private matter: something to be shared between the filmmakers and their particular audience at a particular place and time. That watching Genghis Bond at such a great remove from that original context would prove unsatisfying shouldn’t be too surprising. And, as such, I’m certainly not going to complain about it. At least not much.


Iguig said...

Hi again, Mr Todd! It's really a great thing - some could even say miraculous - that such a Tagalog film from the sixties can still exist today. As for Babalu, his humour comes from his chin and his "irritable" personality, though I can only say that for his later efforts. If you want to look more humorous Tagalog stuff, I suggest you watch these movies from the other unforgettable icons of Tagalog humour, TVJ: the sci-fi spoof "Fly Me To The Moon" and "Kabayo Kids", which spoofs tokusatsu shows. Both are of recent vintage - Fly Me To The Moon even includes a reference to the First EDSA Revolution. Until next time, and looking forward for your first-ever review of a FPJ film.

Todd said...

Thanks, Iguig. The FPJ review is coming, I promise!