Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Munchausen (Germany, 1943)

Munchausen serves as an example of just how hard it can sometimes be to separate a film from its context. Like it or hate it, you simply can’t discuss it without addressing its role as a sort of cinematic show pony for the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels commissioned the film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Germany’s UFA studio, and decreed that no expense be spared in making it a dazzling spectacle competitive with the likes of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as a shining example of everything that the German film industry was capable of. Given that, it’s tempting to see Munchausen’s every frame as dripping with malevolence, despite its positioning itself as a lighthearted crowd pleaser, and to regard its every instance of sentimentality as egregiously grotesque.

However, there are a couple of things that make it difficult to bag and tag Munchausen quite so handily, and these in addition to its undeniable technical excellence. For one, it was written by Erich Kastner, the author most known outside Germany for Emil and the Detectives, who a decade earlier had seen his books burned by the Nazis for his alleged leftist leanings. Goebbels gave Kastner (who is rumored to have been part Jewish) a special dispensation in this case due to the simple fact that he was one of the only qualified authors who had not long since fled Germany. With this knowledge in hand, it’s easy to see within the finished product possible instances of Kastner taking veiled potshots at the regime. One example of this is a scene in which the sorcerer Cagliostro petitions the titular Baron Munchausen’s aid in conquering Poland, only to be rebuffed by the hero, who replies that his interests lie with living rather than ruling.

On top of this, Kastner’s take on the oft told tale of Baron Munchausen is for the most part an adult one, lacking the faux naiveté that, were it strictly a children’s film, would make for an unbearable dissonance with its political origins. In fact, I don’t recall any other version of the story being quite so concerned with the Baron’s cocksmanship. (Granted, I found Terry Gilliam’s adaptation too boring to even finish, and only remember Karel Zeman’s version vaguely, if fondly, from watching it when I was a kid.) Over the course of the movie, Munchausen (Hans Albers) successfully woos both Catherine the Great (Brigitte Horney) and a beautiful Italian princess, leaving even Casanova himself in awe, while all the while having frequent mention made of his many conquests. To further drive home this randy subtext, director Josef von Baky even provides the audience with a surprising eyeful of female nudity, most notably in a scene involving a bevy of topless harem girls.

Elsewhere, Munchausen focuses less on its protagonist as a teller of tall tales than as a swashbuckling adventurer, whisking him briskly from one exotic intrigue to the next. Of course, the staple fantasy elements -- the ride on the cannonball, the preternaturally swift footed messenger, a scene in which the clothes in Munchausen’s closet come to life and must be subdued by gunfire -- are all ticked off, providing a whimsical backdrop for all of this more straightforward action to take place against. But it’s not until the film’s final act, when Munchausen and crew find themselves transported by balloon to the surface of the Moon, that production designers Emil Hasler and Otto Golsttorff and special effects director Konstantin Irmen-Tschet really pull out all the stops. Shot on fastidiously inorganic looking interior sets, this is a hyperreal vision of the cosmos as hallucinogen inspired theme park ride, far more Disneyland than Disney.

Lest I come across as making excuses for Munchausen, I will say that it often struck me as being obscene in its opulence. Obviously, few restrictions were put upon it being as lavish as possible and, as a result, its frames at times appear stuffed to bursting, the overly ornate sets -- captured in an explosion of rich pastels by the recently developed Agfacolor process – threatening to crowd the actors off the screen. It’s an over indulgence that would in different circumstances merely be laughably gaudy, but given the wartime realities of the time leaves a particularly bitter taste. Of course, one feels obligated to say such things -- nagged all the while by the temptation to simply engage Munchausen on its innocuous and pleasantly kitschy surface. It feels pretentious to lay the onus of history upon something that, divorced from that history, appears to be an agreeable trifle, yet to not do so would be to deny the larger story that Munchausen has been forged by both circumstances and design to tell.

True to that design, Munchausen became a huge hit upon its release, offering the German populace a momentary distraction from a war that was increasingly seeming like it might not have the hoped for fairytale ending. One might wonder if Goebbels could have seen in that success a tribute to himself, a celebration that extended from one great fabulist to another. Whatever the case, his subsequent ignominy insures that today Munchausen has evolved into the antithesis of the propagandist’s typical intention; a piece of candy that one takes like medicine.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ratu Buaya Putih, aka White Crocodile Queen (Indonesia, 1988)

Ratu Buaya Putih begins with a woman giving birth to a crocodile, followed by a human baby. Welcome to Indonesian cinema, newcomers! Today you’re in good hands, as not only do we have Suzzanna in front of the camera, but H. Djut “Lady Terminator” Djalil behind it. Furthermore, Sisworo Gautama Putra, director of many of Suzzanna’s most iconic hits, is credited as “Supervising Director” and just may have contributed the story under his pseudonym Naryono Paraytino. Granted, the story credit is to simply “Naryono”, so I’m not going to up and marry that assertion. Though given the similarities between this film and some of Putra’s and Suzzanna’s previous collaborations, it seems a strong possibility.

Suzzanna’s titular role here seems to be in essence a reprise of her turn as the Snake Queen in Putra’s earlier Nyi Blorong. She exudes both the same authoritative menace and disquieting regal calm -- which, if you’re familiar with Suzzanna’s work, is something she was clearly born to do. It also has to be said that she here sports a truly awesome crocodile-themed subaquatic lair and ornate crocodile carriage, not to mention an amazing wardrobe. The supernatural havoc that she wreaks upon the mortal world may not be pretty (note: maggots!), but it can’t be said that she doesn’t do it in style.

In classic Suzzanna tradition, Ratu Buaya Putih is a tale of revenge from the spirit world, wrought upon deserving humans for transgressions committed in our own realm. In this case the target is Sumarna (Soendjoto Adibroto), a crocodile hunter who, in the film’s prologue, is shown murdering the Crocodile Queen’s parents in order to steal a magic amulet that gives him special powers over said beasts. The Queen’s retribution focuses at first on Sumarna’s offspring, first by literally feeding his mullet sporting teenage son to the crocs and then, in an especially nasty touch, by tricking him into a scenario in which he kills his own preteen son himself.

The Queen also has a human sister, Larsih, who lives among the people of Sumarna’s village, and whose participation in the mayhem seems to be done largely under protest. This setup affords Suzzanna a nice double role, and also allows her to portray the tragic aspect so often seen in her cursed heroines, such as those in Putra’s Sundel Bolong and its sequel Malam Satu Suro. Larsih can’t help that she shared a womb with a crocodile, but her psychic bond with the Queen seems to nonetheless doom her to complicity in her actions. Her resulting suffering is portrayed by Suzzanna with the usual noble stoicism, once again demonstrating the actress’s ability to bring dignity to even the most outlandish part.

As Ratu Buaya Putih is as much a fantasy as it is a horror film, it provides a lot more in terms of uncanny mood than it does outright scares. Thankfully, that does not mean that it won’t satisfy seasoned fans of Indonesian pop cinema -- and especially those familiar with the work of director Djalil -- by virtue of being really fun and gross. As indicated above, there are indeed blood and maggots on hand, as well as an Exorcist inspired scene featuring a twirling bed effect that is quite handily accomplished (kudos to special effects director Herman Suherman). And, just as you would hope, things are ultimately resolved in a magic battle that sees Suzzanna projecting exploding orbs and Soendjoto Adibroto pretending to wrestle with a series of rubbery prosthetic crocodiles.

Still, coming late in the cycle of Suzzanna and Putra’s collaborations, Ratu Buaya Putih feels fairly minor compared to defining efforts like Sundel Bolong and Nyi Blorong, largely coasting on tropes and archetypes established and subsequently familiarized by those films and others like them. Nonetheless, I suspect that most viewers will find such elements more warmly familiar than stale. One need only witness Suzzanna’s execution of her trademark soul paralyzing stare to see that her commitment was far from flagging at this point. Who are we not to meet her in like spirit?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chompa Toung (Cambodia, 1974)

I’m beginning to think that the only thing verifiable about Chompa Toung is that it exists. Depending on which source you trust, it was either directed by Lim Buh Lun or by its star, Dy Saveth -- who, if so, likely also produced under the banner of Sovann Kiry, the production company she founded with her director husband Hui Keung. It’s also based on either a traditional Cambodian fairy tale and/or a poem by nineteenth century monarch/writer hyphenate King Ang Duong.

It also appears that Chompa Toung was intended as a sequel, at least in spirit, to 1972’s pan Asian hit Crocodile Man. That is not to say that there’s any explicit connection to Crocodile Man’s characters or story, however, at least as far as I can ascertain. There is a crocodile, to be sure, and maybe even a brief sequence recapping the earlier film’s events, though of that last I can’t be entirely certain. There were no subtitles, you see. Thus I come to you equipped to write, not a review, but at best only a cautionary tale.

Not that you, being a sensible person free of significant head injury, need to be warned off of watching an untranslated Khmer language feature dependant almost exclusively upon dialog to move its plot forward. And this is without mentioning that the version of Chompa Toung currently available on YouTube is of the washed-out and heavily pocked variety that makes a surviving film feel more lost than found. Furthermore, the film’s tirelessly insistent musical score, which seems to shift randomly from traditional Cambodian folk sounds to funk to pop without pause, has the potential to be a little alienating (especially without the distraction of actually understanding what people are saying to take your mind off it), as does the fact that so much of the movie is padded with nature footage that was clearly shot off of a TV screen.

This is not to say, however, that Chompa Toung lacks completely the naïve movie magic that leant Crocodile Man so much of its charm. For instance, the film includes a cloud dwelling deity who intervenes in human affairs by way of hand projected auras that are scratched directly onto the film, and the goofy looking crocodile puppet from the first film makes a welcome, if brief, return. I also think that a kitten was turned into a human woman at some point. But aside from that, a lot of what you’re going to see is lengthy scenes of conversations shot on tiny, albeit colorful, sets. The fairy tale aspect of the story, which requires the involvement of various and sundry princes, princesses and kings, further guarantees that an inordinate number of those conversations will involve commoners kneeling in supplication before their betters. So there’s that, if that’s your thing.

What I can understand of the story, based in part on the description of the original folk tale linked above, is that it involves the titular Chompa Toung, a beautiful young princess played by the beautiful young Dy Saveth. At the film’s outset we see Chompa cavorting on the beach with some of her friends/subjects/retainers, and learn that, when she laughs, she vomits flower petals, which, as you might imagine, looks pretty weird. One of her companions gives her a crocodile egg, which we later see has hatched and issued forth what will become a grown crocodile, which Chompa keeps in a pool within the palace walls. For some reason, one of her servants one day sees fit to free the crocodile, bringing unhappy results for many of the water loving common folk from the surrounding area and their extremities.

Someone has to pay for this massacre, it seems, and it turns out that someone is Chompa, who, in the company of her kitten/nurse, is set adrift on a raft and banished from the kingdom. From here things seem to diverge from the original tale a bit. It appears that the two women are captured by an ogre in the service of some kind of demon king (perhaps, in fact, the crocodile given human form?), and Chompa is subsequently rescued by a handsome prince played by Khmer superstar Kong Som Eun. Then some kind of super baby is issued as a result of their (apparent/off-screen) union, which someone tries to bury in a box. Your guess is as good as mine, really. All I know is that all this required a lot of kneeling, beseeching and supplicating on behalf of a lot of people, and a lot of considered chin stroking on the part of the royals charged with assessing the rhetorical weight of said groveling.

I clearly need to have movies like Chompa Toung come along and baffle me from time to time. It cures me of any hubris I might have stemming from my familiarity with genre, and the idea that that could somehow provide a Rosetta Stone for understanding films regardless of their linguistic inscrutability. I mean, sure, the language of cinema is universal, but it turns out that language language is still pretty important. Just ask someone who can understand Chompa Toung, to whom its survival might very well be kind of a big deal. The fact that it has the power to pimp slap me into humility is also of value, of course, but it’s not the only reason I’m glad it exists.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Sisterhood (Philippines, 1988)

The appeal that post-apocalyptic movies held for low budget filmmakers of the 1980s is obvious. After all, you can never spend too little on nothing. Once you had a suitably barren landscape to work with, all you needed was some fucked up old muscle cars, a minimal amount of real or imitation leather from which to fashion the skimpy, S&M inspired outfits, and a pacey enough script to insure that no one paused long enough to contemplate just how shitty any of this looked.

It's reasonable to assume that no one understood this better than Filipino exploitation movie hyphenate Cirio Santiago, who produced and/or directed many such films throughout the neon decade. Fortunately for us, by the time of making 1988's The Sisterhood, Santiago had not become so bogged down in formula that he couldn't mix things up a bit.  As a result we have a classic "have your cake and eat it too" exploiter that combines it's many asplosions with well-meaning feminism, magic-based exceptionalism worthy of a contemporary young adult novel, and, of course, tits. Glorious, glorious tits.

The Sisterhood takes place in a world in which a global nuclear conflagration has somehow upset the ideal balance that we currently maintain between the sexes. As a result, women, if you can imagine, are reduced to mere chattel, at once bartered for, demonized as witches, and fought over by the lords of the numerous all-male tribes that now rule. And perhaps most oppressed of all is Marya, a stable girl in servitude to one such lord -- and this despite the fact that she is able to communicate telekinetically with a pet falcon by the name of Lady Shree.

Marya is played by Holly-Lynn Johnson, a former professional skater whose cinematic peak came with, in For Your Eyes Only, being the only Bond Girl to ever make 007 feel like a pedophile (and this was with Roger Moore, so there had to be an age difference of, like, 90 years for that to happen). Here Johnson has graduated from being mere eye candy to being, well, still eye candy, but also a major player in the action, more or less enthusiastically participating in the many sword, bow-and-arrow and big stick fights that pass for warfare in this newly preindustrial society.  Her chance at freedom comes when her master's camp is raided by one of those gangs of scruffy, nomadic bandits driving muck encrusted muscle cars that are pretty much the oxygen that these kind of movies breathe. Unfortunately, her little brother is killed in the ensuing battle at the hands of the gang's leader, Mikal, played by American soap actor (and titular star of the short-lived Automan) Chuck Wagner.

Escaping during the melee, Marya makes her way across what is presumably the most appropriately arid and rock strewn post-apocalyptic landscape that the Philippines had to offer. (Jack over at En Lejemorder ser Tilbage reports that this movie, despite its surplus of D-list American stars, was a 100% Filipino production, and I choose to believe him over the IMDB, because why wouldn't I?). Along the way, she must also tangle with various, smelly groups of marauding men whose R rated action movie idea of rape stops at ripping women's shirts off and then touching their boobs, or in, some cases, just kind of looking at them. She is rescued from all of this by the arrival on the scene of Alee (Rebecca Holden) and Vera (Barbara Patrick), two emissaries of an apparently not-so-fabled tribe who are up to that point only referred to in hushed tones as The Sisterhood.

The Sisterhood, we learn, are a utopian clan of woman warriors who live free of the dictates of men. We also learn that each of them, like Marya, has a magical power, be it the power to heal, transport objects, or to simply shoot random cartoon rays out of their eyes or hands (which, of course, is the best power of all). I got from this not that the Sisterhood sends the non-magical members of their gender packing, but that, in this world, all women are imbued with latent magical powers, whether they are aware of it or not. Men, meanwhile, are denied such gifts, and so must limit themselves to endlessly clubbing one another, roaring around the desert in souped-up beaters, and boob touching.

The rest of the film follows Marya, Alee and Vera's pilgrimage back to the Sisterhood's base in the city of Kalkara, pursued all the while by both Mikal and the armies of the Caligula-like Lord Barak. The women eventually find an advantage when they stumble upon an abandoned subterranean military complex, and within it an armored assault vehicle and a shitload of automatic weapons. Ultimately, they realize that they are playing the man's game by using such weapons, and resort instead to defeating their enemies through the use of magic. But this change of heart does not come before delivering to us the exact kind of third act maelstrom we expect from this kind of movie, complete with lots of explosions, people running around on fire, and scantily clad women affecting wide-legged stances while indiscriminately strafing the horizon with machine-gun fire.

Fast paced, competently staged, and with acting that spans the entire spectrum of mediocrity, The Sisterhood is a film that can most straight facedly be praised for being enjoyably dumb. Yet it also provides some interest for the apparent sincerity of its sparkle pony version of Girl Power, which, coupled with the workmanlike obligation it brings to the task  of delivering the requisite amount of grindhouse sleaze, makes it a film that is somewhat pleasantly at war with itself. I also liked how, unlike other exploitation fantasies dealing with communities of women -- which typically depict those women as having an obsession with dominating men concealing behind it a desperate longing for male companionship -- the Sisterhood really do come across as just wanting to be left the fuck alone. And given that they all appear to be pert twenty-somethings, they still have a while yet to work around the biological dead-end that would seemingly point to. We men really are pretty gross, after all.