Friday, June 8, 2012

Neang Sak Pus, aka Snake Haired Girl (Cambodia, 197?)

I’d never claim that there weren’t benefits to living in the West, but one way in which we definitely pale in comparison to Asia is in the area of snake-based folklore. Such tales of snake women, snake-like women, and snakes and the women who love them have provided inspiration for colorful fantasy films on the part of film industries everywhere from India to Indonesia to Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, the Khmer language cinema of Cambodia also embraced that subject matter during its brief golden age, with Neang Sak Pus being a solid example of the result. Meanwhile, America continues to wow the world with output like Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid.

Like the previously reviewed Crocodile Man, Neang Sak Pus was the product of Khmer cinema power couple Dy Saveth and Hui Keung, the married actors, producers and sometime directors whose company Sovann Kiry produced numerous popular films in the years leading up to Pol Pot’s takeover. In 1970, the ubiquitous Saveth had starred in the similarly themed Puos Keng Kang, aka The Snake King’s Wife, a movie that went on to massive success throughout Southeast Asia and spawned a string of official and unofficial sequels starring the actress. In the case of Neang Sak Pus, Saveth stars, while Hui Keung directs, although the Chinese subbed print that I watched credits him under his pseudonym Chin Wan.

Neang Sak Pus begins as the tale of two adulterous lovers who engage a sorcerer to do away with their respective spouses. Upon the death of the woman’s wealthy husband, the two are married, only for the woman to find that it is her virtuous sister, Ah-hua (Saveth), whom her lover truly has eyes for. Despite the fact that these attentions are unwanted by Ah-hua, the enraged sister has her servants drag the poor girl to a remote cave and toss her into a snake pit. It turns out, however, that the resident snakes have interests in Ah-hua other than biting her, and that those interests are sexy interests. As a result, Ah-hua later dies in the process of birthing a baby which the snakes then raise to adulthood. And, yes, that does mean that you get to thrill to the sight of an actual human baby surrounded by many actual live snakes, because Asian cinema does not fuck around when it comes to things like that.

Skip forward a few years, and that baby has grown up to be Dy Saveth (again), resplendent in a Flinstones style mini and crop top and a hat that looks like an oversized shower cap. This snake-spawned lass, who will come to be known as Ah-mei, is an untarnished creature of nature, unlearned in the Ways of Man, who swings from vine to vine like Tarzan. And it is in the course of doing just that that she comes to the attention of Lung (Kong Sam Oeun), the handsome son of the very woman who condemned Ah-mei’s mother to that snake pit in the first place. Despite Ah-mei’s inability to express herself in anything other than snake talk, love blossoms between the two -- that is until Lung accidentally knocks off Ah-mei’s hat to reveal, to his horror, that her hair is a mass of living snakes (and, at least in part, real ones, by the looks of it). Eventually, of course, true love wins out over visceral repulsion and the lovers are reunited, though sadly not before Lung’s parents have decided to turn to the black arts in order to drive them apart.

I should note that Dy Saveth’s portrayal of Neang Sak Pus’ titular character -- as a childlike innocent who is, at her worst, only playfully mischievous -- is worlds away from the more typically spine chilling snake ladies we’ve seen personified by the likes of Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna. In fact, for much of its running time, there’s a kind of sweetness to the film’s treatment of the romance between its central couple –- a sort of boy meets snake girl, boy loses snake girl, boy fights to win snake girl back tale. And then, during its final act, Neang Sak Pus takes an abrupt turn into what will probably be rough waters for some viewers, essentially taking us on a grizzly tour of regional folk magic at its most visceral and potentially alienating.

This begins when Lung’s parents, convinced that their son has been possessed against his will, consult with a trio of shaman, who are then shown performing a lengthy ritual that involves them driving long needles through their cheeks and slicing their tongues with daggers. Later, in another ceremony, a live rabbit is beheaded onscreen. It is these types of rituals that were exploited and exoticized in the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong produced Black Magic films during the 1970s (the popularity of which might explain why Neang Sak Pus received a Mandarin subtitled home video release), though coming to them here, aware of the deeply held belief in black magic that still holds sway throughout much of Southeast Asia, their depiction is leant a matter-of-factness that gives them an even greater power to disturb. It also doesn’t help that none of the mutilations depicted appear to be simulated.

Still, I’m gladdened to spoil that, despite such grueling trials, love triumphs over all at the end of Neang Sak Pus, if then only with the help of an army of vengeful snakes. Evil is smote and the lovers are reunited, convinced by their tribulations to leave the world of humanity behind for good. It’s a blandly satisfying conclusion that anyone can relate to. And, as with Crocodile Man, no small amount of guileless charm has been exhibited in the course of getting us there -- even if that charm, for the uninitiated viewer, sits somewhat uneasily alongside the film’s harsher documentary content. (Though it always behooves the uninitiated viewer to remind him/herself that it’s really not about him/her anyway.) I have to admit, though, that the tension between the two energies gives the film overall something of a welcome charge, like a reminder that magic doesn’t just fuel fairy tales, but nightmares as well.


memsaab said...

Nooooooooo not a beheaded rabbit >X

Carol said...

so cool.

Timothy Paxton said...

One of my cherished VCDs from the 90s.