Friday, March 28, 2008

Khon Nuer Khon aka Top Secret (Thailand, 1967)

Reviewing Top Secret is going to be an interesting proposition, because I can't say for sure that I actually saw Top Secret. I mean, the slip case said "Top Secret", the VCD itself said "Top Secret", and that VCD definitely contained digital information that translated into some kind of image on my screen, but for the most part that image looked like this:

So it's sort of like one of those grainy, out of focus photos of a purported UFO sighting; one person can look at it and see the northern lights, another a paper plate on a string, and another the real deal. It's subjective. Assuming this is Top Secret, though, I've got to say that this is the most abused Thai film of its era I've yet to see (and if you've read any of my other pieces on 1960's Thai cinema, you know that's saying a lot).

The paradoxical thing about watching a film that's in this advanced a state of decay is that it makes you feel fortunate to be able to see it at all, no matter how underwhelming it might actually be behind that noisome curtain of funk. In a way, it gains that "survivor" aura that we Americans seem to value so much. In the case of Top Secret, assuming that the VCD was made from the best print available, the film looks to have had only a couple months before turning into celluloid dust, so it really is a kind of minor miracle that it can be viewed. Because of that I felt honor bound to watch it, even though the experience was akin to watching a satellite transmission from Mars with my head wrapped in grimy cellophane.

Another reason that I stuck with Top Secret is that, at times, when I could see it, it looked like this:

So you have Thai mega-star Mitr Chaibancha in all his pompadoured glory, doing his best James Bond impression against a groovy pop art back drop, which is exactly what I signed on for. I'm easy that way.

Top Secret pairs Chaibancha up with the other great action star of Thai pop cinema's golden age, Sombat Methanee. Both play secret agents--Methanee working from the inside, posing as a member of the bad guys' gang, and Chaibancha working from the outside--and it's a straight up 007 clone. In fact, just like in Goldfinger, Mitr spends a large part of the film imprisoned by the villain while the supporting cast steps up to move the plot forward.

I'm not going to pretend that I even bothered to try to follow that plot, but from what I could see, it looked like it could be a fun film if watched in a context that didn't threaten permanent eye damage. There's a squadron of female karate commandos, a cool mod villain's lair with all kinds of hidden doors and booby traps, and plenty of shootouts between our very similar looking heroes and the villain's uniformed, tommygun toting hench-army. The production values are quite good, with an impressive display of military hardware on hand. (I've concluded that either the Thai government was very supportive of the film industry, or their military was just movie mad.) Finally, it's also something of a musical, with characters taking time out from the action to burst into song, and as such has it's own, equally distressed, audio track--which you can't always count on with Thai films of this vintage.

So here's my--undoubtedly naive and completely unfounded--hope: That Wisit Sasanatieng's upcoming revival of Insee Daeng (aka The Red Eagle) will be so awesome that it will inspire renewed interest in both the films of Mitr Chaibancha and 1960's Thai cinema in general, and that as a result we'll finally get to see more of these older films restored--if that's even possible--and subtitled on DVD.

Don't let me down Wisit. You've got me a little nervous, because The Unseeable kind of sucked.

Top Secret, like all of the Thai films I review here, is available from the ever-reliable eThaiCD.


Wise Kwai said...

Triple X has released Insee Daeng on DVD - no subtitles though. Still, in the spirit of your Top Secret and Operation Bangkok reviews, I might give it go.

Todd said...

Thanks for the tip! I'll put that one on the shopping list. Insee Daeng is definitely worth checking out. I included some screencaps from the film in my review of Insee Thong, and you can see from those that the movie has a beautiful look, a really striking combination of dark, moody lighting and vibrant color.

Thank you also for the very generous mention on your blog! It's nice to have you reading.