To the degree that any Western cult film enthusiast is aware of the legendary Malaysian bogey known as the Oily Man, it is most likely by way of the Shaw Brothers' 1976 Hong Kong production The Oily Maniac. In that film, Mighty Peking Man director Meng Hua Ho wrestled that eerie bit of folklore into something resembling a more sleazy take on Swamp Thing, complete with about 500% more nudity and sexual violence. As a result, those familiar with that film might be taken aback by the comparatively delicate take on the subject found in Sumpah Orang Minyak (in English: Curse of the Oily Man), an earlier take on the legend from Shaw's Malaysian division.
Of course, much of the difference between Sumpah Orang Minyak and The Oily Maniac arises from the span of nearly twenty years that separates them. But I also can't help thinking that the former'srelatively stately and reverent tone is in part the result of it being a star vehicle for the phenomenally beloved Malaysian performer P. Ramlee, who also scripted and directed the film, in addition to contributing to its music. As mentioned in my review of his Tiga Abdul, Ramlee's stature as a musician, actor and all around creative dynamo has lead to him becoming an institution in his homeland, and, as such, it's inevitable that any monster picture in which he took the titular role would be handled with more gravitas than your average tossed-off creature feature.
Here Ramlee plays Si Bongkok, a disfigured hunchback who, as the movie begins, finds shelter with a kindly old batik maker (Idris Home) after being pursued through the night by a gang of village ruffians. It is not long before the batik maker sees that within Si Bongkok's pitifully twisted form rests a gentle and artistic soul, and not much longer before his business is booming thanks to the hunchback's beguiling designs. None of this, sadly, changes the fact that Si Bongkok is routinely brutalized and tormented by the people of the village, especially by the aforementioned gang of ruffians, who are lead by a surly character named Buyong (Salleh Kamil).
Things come to a tragic head when Afida (Sri Dewi), the comely young daughter of the village elder, stands up to Buyong in Si Bongkok's defense. A town festival at which Si Bongkok attempts to show his gratitude to Afida by presenting her with a portrait he's painted only proves to be another occasion for Buyong and his cronies to further humiliate him. Fleeing the scene, a tearful Si Bongkok loudly curses his fate, ushering in a long sequence that's a captivating triumph of naive surrealism and grade school theatrics.
Si Bongkok's lamentations reach the ears of the Orang Bunyan, who, in Malaysian folklore, are a race of forest dwelling supernatural beings akin to elves or goblins. As the sky opens above him, the Orang Bunyan Princess arrives in a kind of land-faring boat to usher him back to her world. There, the King of the Orang Bunyan presents him with a great book from which he can choose one wish. Si Bongkok chooses to be beautiful, and the King asks in exchange that he vow never to succumb to wrath or boastfulness in his dealings with his fellow humans, otherwise the deal will be off. From there, it's only a matter of Si Bongkok bathing in a magic fountain, after which he emerges as beloved Malaysian musician and performer P. Ramlee, who, to be honest, is a pretty good looking dude.
Of course, once back in the human world, it quickly proves too difficult for the now easy-on-the-eyes Si Bongkok to resist telling the assembled villagers to go fuck themselves. In the ensuing melee, Afida is killed by a blade intended by Buyong for Si Bongkok, and after a dramatic, storm-swept brawl, Si Bongkok kills Buyong in retaliation. Not surprisingly, this is seen as a violation by the Orang Bunyan King, who quickly appears to render Si Bongkok invisible for eternity. Fortunately, good old Satan, always eager to set things back on an even keel, is also on hand, and appears before Si Bongkok, offering him a magic ring that will make him once again manifest to the eye. And once that ring is donned, Old Scratch proves good on his word -- though what Si Bongkok becomes visible as is the cursed Oily Man.
The Oily Man, in both tale and popular representation, is pretty much everything that his name advertises: a guy covered from head to toe in greasy black oil. Though -- in Sumpah Orang Minyak, at least -- he is also shown to have the ability to dematerialize, walk through walls, and leap great distances. As far as his visual presentation in the film, it's simply a matter of dressing P. Ramlee in a black body stocking and painting his entire head with some kind of shiny black makeup. Thankfully, the Orang Minyak, much like the Krasue, is another one of those Southeast Asian cryptids so bizarre and unsettling in its very conception that not even the most threadbare representation can completely rob it of its capacity to disturb.
Needless to say, Satan's gift of turning Si Bongkok into an objectionable mass of grease does not come without a price attached, and that price is that Si Bongkok must now rape 21 virgins within the course of the next week -- a task which Si Bongkok sets too with surprising alacrity (perhaps in part due to the fact that the film has exhausted about eighty percent of its running time before introducing its titular menace). This sets up an interesting contrast to the markedly more lurid Oily Maniac, in which the Oily Man is depicted as an avenger -- rather than a perpetrator -- of wrongs, including rape. However, it is Ramlee's version that hews more faithfully to the fabled original, a figure so identified with rape that it appears that even real world rapists have on occasion adopted his guise.
Certainly, Si Bongkok's final rampage does much to undo the goodwill that Ramlee has, over the course of Sumpah Orang Minyak's preceding 90 minutes or so, worked to generate toward him as a Quasimodo-like tragic figure. But I also suspect that Ramlee did so in fealty to his source material. While The Oily Maniac, like any exploitation film worthy of the name, strove to, wherever possible, turn that source into grist for evermore gratuitous displays of tits and blood, Ramlee uses it as a means by which to express his respect for the culture that both created it and, to some extent, him.
And, in this, Ramlee does a fine job, creating a film that is at once dense with mournful atmosphere and elevated by moments of dreamlike lyricism. (His musical contributions -- which, as in Tiga Abdul, are engaging and beautifully sung -- add a lot in this last regard.) In the end, Sumpah Orang Minyak may not provide the course thrills of The Oily Maniac, or the visceral jolt of other Southeast Asian horrors, but, in its own hypnotic way, it offers rich rewards nonetheless.