Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gundala, Son of Lightning (Indonesia, 1981)

When it comes to source material for its pop cinema, Indonesia has a pulp and comic book culture to draw upon that’s almost as rich as its already well mined folklore. We have, for instance, already checked in with the fright-masked comic book crusader Panji Tengkorak, as well as the dime novel warrior hero Wiro Sablang. Gundala, a contemporary costumed hero of the type perhaps more recognizable to Western audiences, was created by comic artist Hasmi (aka Harya Suraminata) in 1969, and by the dawn of the 80s had achieved enough popularity to merit a big screen adaptation of his own -- in this case under the guidance of director Liliek Sudjio, who had traveled similar territory with 1980’s Darna Ajaib.

The origin of Gundala, as portrayed in the film version of his exploits, Gundala Putra Petir, is an equal mix of kiddie sci-fi and old fashioned mysticism. The young scientist Sancaka (Queen of Black Magic’s Teddy Purba) is hard at work on a serum that he hopes will render people immune to the effects of lightning strikes. This appears to be a common threat in Jakarta, for, no sooner has Sancaka injected himself with his latest test batch than he finds himself on the business end of a lightning bolt while out strolling. This somehow transports him to the realm of Kronz, the King of Lightning, who looks like something out of The Mighty Boosh. Kronz bestows upon Sancaka the powers of Gundala, which include, of course, lightning speed, as well as the ability to channel electricity, shoot lightning from his hands, and use his finger as a welding torch. He also bestows upon him the Gundala costume -- and, no, those wings on his head don’t flap, but they certainly look capable of it.

Once back in our mortal realm, Sancaka acquires that habit so common to newly minted superheroes of stumbling upon crimes in progress wherever he goes, which of course gives him ample opportunity to test his new powers on an assortment of disposable thugs and crumbums. He also begins work with his colleagues on something called an “Anti-Morphine Serum”. This last brings him the unwanted attentions of a narcotics ring run by the evil mastermind Ghazul, who is played by reliable Indonesian cinema bad guy W.D. Mochtar (Special Silencers). Ghazul and his gang eventually succeed in capturing and imprisoning Sancaka, which puts our hero, who is perfectly capable of escaping his bonds in his guise as Gundala, in a tricky situation as far as carrying out his superheroic duties while keeping his identity secret.

Gundala Putra Petir is a bit undernourished as far as superhero spectacles go, but perhaps no worse than some of the cheaper Italian costumed hero efforts of its day and prior. The sets, for the most part, look cramped and bare, and the acrobatics in the fight scenes are more often than not accomplished by jumpy trick photography. In addition, Teddy Putra, while filling out his street clothes nicely, tends to look a bit slight and scrawny in his form fitting Gundala costume. On the other hand, the film contains a number of other gaudy elements that are enough to keep its comic book heart beating despite its shortcomings.

For one, W.D. Mochtar’s Ghazul is a classic, Bollywood-style, OTT villain, complete with an intimidating pompadour, gold metallic gauntlets to cover his deformed, claw-like hands, and an array of brightly primary colored military style jackets -- not to mention his zebra patterned, fur lined throne. In establishing Ghazul’s villainy, Gundala Putra Petir follows the time-tested Bollywood matrix by which a character’s evil is measured by the number of liquor bottles he has in his lair. In Ghazul’s case, that lair looks like one big liquor cabinet, with an odd preponderance of J&B -- which leads me to think that they don’t have Vat 69 in Indonesia.

Another asset to the film is its music, in particular the funky Gundala theme song that starts pumping on the soundtrack whenever our hero springs into action. Elsewhere, the musical vibe is of the 70s cop show variety, which is wholly suitable to the scale of the action, while thankfully not as infectious as the song. I had that stuck in my head for hours afterward, which prompted me to reflect that superhero theme songs are an especially cruel type of earworm, as there is so little -- if anything -- in daily life that merits their accompaniment. To launch into a lusty chorus of “GUNDALAAAA” while preparing to brush one’s teeth or microwave a burrito is simply to mock one’s own life.

Gundala also, to its credit, manages to dig deep and deliver the rousing climax that so many cut rate superhero movies before it have lead us to expect. Poverty notwithstanding, you can rest assured that you will see sparking control panels, a damsel in distress suspended above a snake pit on a cross, and coverall clad minions being blithely tossed from elevated walkways as they vainly fire off their machineguns in a kind of automated death rattle. Gundala, you see, cares about being an enjoyable superhero movie, even though it's working against some pretty profound material limitations. That alone is enough for me to meet it halfway.


Phalayasa said...

Compared to "Rama, Superman Indonesia" this one is a gem.

Todd said...

Oh, yeah. I'm gonna get to that one too.

memsaab said...

Shades of "Prooooofeesssor PyareLAL"?

Idrian said...

I don't much have knowledge of superheroes down south of us (i.e. Filipinas), and this review has helped in filling in such a knowledge.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dude looks like the "Silver Age" Flash from DC Comics down to the winged mask -- and I can't blame Indonesians for finding the mythological elaboration more satisfying than the original's pseudoscience, which claims that the lightning and the chemicals are enough. Thanks for a fascinating review.

Todd said...

Thank you, Samuel. And, yes, where it's hard to not see some Flash influence in Gundala, it's also hard not to see a little Captain America, too. Except with really extra big head wings.