Monday, May 12, 2008

Thai-style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands Part III

The Noble War

Despite what my last two reviews in this series might lead you to believe, I come not to trash Sompote Sands, but merely to appraise him. So thank god, then, that The Noble War--aka Suk Kumpakan--has a lot more to recommend it than either Tah Tien or (especially) Magic Lizard. The film is a dramatization of parts of the Ramakien, the Thai national epic that was adapted from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. In its telling it incorporates the Khon style of traditional Thai dance theater, with most of the actors wearing masks and employing stylized movements to communicate emotion. (In fact, if you watch closely you'll notice that, while the film has a post-dubbed Thai dialog track, the actors on screen are not speaking.)

Both the Ramakien and the Ramayana lend themselves well to film adaptation, loaded as they are with spectacular battles and weird creatures. The 1961 Bollywood classic Sampoorna Ramayan covers much of the same territory as The Noble War and is a rousing entertainment, requiring little knowledge of its spiritual origins for one to enjoy the parade of epic thrills it presents. Sands had less to work with than his Bollywood counterparts, however, but still makes a good go of it. One way that he manages to provide some visual dazzle in the absence of resources is to work with a dizzying palette of super-saturated colors, giving the film a striking, hallucinatory glow that might make it a no go for the migraine prone.

A bit of misinformation (since corrected) that I put forward in my review of Tah Tien was my claim that this film featured a teaming of Hanuman with Yuk Wud Jaeng, the giant living guardian statue who appears in the earlier Sands films Tah Tien and Giant and Jumbo A. This assumption, I have to admit, was based purely on the image on the VCD of The Noble War's cover. It turns out that the character I thought was Yuk Wud Jaeng was in fact another figure from the Ramakien, Pipek, the younger brother of the demon king Thosaganth, who defects to the side of Rama to fight at Hanuman's side against the forces of his sibling. In my defense, though, they do look very similar.

The action in The Noble War centers around the battle between the forces of Rama--lead by Hanuman and his army of monkey warriors--and those of Thosaganth, that erupted with the demon king's abduction of Rama's wife Sida. This hallowed and traditional narrative does not prevent Sands from delving into some of his usual nonsense, however. For instance, there is a sequence in which Hanuman appears to turn himself into a rotting animal carcass in order to sicken Thosaganth, which leads to a nice shot of the demon king vomiting up copious amounts of white liquid. (The transformation doesn't leave Hanuman unaffected either, as after he returns to his normal form he spends a good amount of time retching.) The director/producer's tendency to recycle is also in fine display, as we get to re-watch a lengthy scene from Hanuman and the 7 Ultraman and also revisit our old friend the fake giant crocodile from 1981's Crocodile. (As for the date of The Noble War, I'm not entirely clear--one source gives it as 1984--but I think it's safe to say that it's a product of the mid to late 80s.)

Lest I neglect the whole purpose of these reviews, I must also point out that The Noble War does have its share of giant-monsters-smashing-miniature-buildings action. One early scene has the monkey warrior Sukreep transforming into a six-armed giant and going on a rampage through the demon city of Longka. This is accomplished not only by means of the usual man in suit meets models technique, but also by the use of a full-size mock-up of the six-armed creature which allows for live actors to be seen dangling from the monster's giant hands. There is also a short sequence near the end of the film in which Hanuman and Thosaganth assume giant size to do battle across the flooded terrain of Rama's city of Ayutthaya.

With it's large cast of characters, assorted intrigues and back-story rooted in a complex mythology, The Noble War is near impossible to make sense of without either an understanding of the Thai language or subtitles. (I had neither, hence the very truncated plot summary.) Still, many might find pleasure in viewing it as simply a trippy ambient piece. Its wash of lurid colors and menagerie of strange creatures certainly fit the bill in that regard.

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