Wednesday, May 21, 2008

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

Hanuman and the 5 Riders

Following the successful collaboration with Japan's Tsubaraya Productions that resulted in Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, Sompote Sands (aka Sompote Saengduenchai) approached the Japanese studio Toei about coproducing a sequel featuring their popular Kamen Rider character. Toei wisely replied "Hell no", or something to that effect, so Sands simply went ahead and made the movie anyway without their consent or participation. This still worked out better for Toei, for, if they had signed anything with Sands, they might have found themselves in the same boat as Tsubaraya, who would later have to contest Sands' various claims of ownership over their character Ultraman.

Kamen Rider, like Ultraman, was a Japanese TV hero whose popularity lead to a series of offshoots featuring various reinterpretations of the character, such as Kamen Rider Amazon, Kamen Rider V3, etc. As he had with Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, Sands wanted to team his hero Hanuman with all of his co-star's various incarnations up to that point. Fortunately for him, a Japanese feature had already been produced featuring all five of the Kamen Riders, enabling Sands, as he already had with both Giant and Jumbo A and Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, to liberally pad his own film with pre-existing Japanese footage, saving a fortune on costumes, sets and special effects in the process. As for his own contributions to the film, the freedom from having to answer to a rights holder who otherwise might have had legitimate concerns about the context in which their character was portrayed seems to have liberated some of those darker impulses that we've seen at play in Sands' other work. The result is that Hanuman and the 5 Riders is a queasy amalgamation of colorful kiddie sci fi adventure and perversely lurid downscale sleaze.

I'm sure that elsewhere on the internet there are many fine reviews of Five Riders vs. King Dark, so I'm going to limit myself for the most part to discussing those contributions to Hanuman and the 5 Riders that are uniquely Sompote Sands' and Chaiyo Productions' own. The thing is that, for a good part of its first hour, the film depends so much on that original Japanese production for content that what there is of Sands' original material is reduced to little more than wraparound segments. The bulk of these are shot on one fairly primitive looking set representing the dungeon-like lair of the Masked Riders' enemy King Dark, who in the Japanese footage is represented as a giant, mostly stationary talking statue, but who here is a man-sized figure in an armor-plated demon costume. While King Dark sits on his throne making evil proclamations with over-caffeinated enthusiasm, his ski-masked drones set about the gruesome task of draining the blood from a procession of captive young women. This blood is siphoned into urns, which King Dark then drinks from thirstily. When he's not drinking virgin's blood or directing everyone's attention to a monitor showing action scenes from Five Riders vs. King Dark like some kind of hellish kiddie show host, King Dark is tormenting a young scientist who he has captured, at one point urging one of his minions to tickle the scientist's feet until the scientist ends up pissing uncontrollably in that minion's face.

Eventually we also get a replay of the Hanuman origin sequence from Hanuman and the 7 Ultras, depicting the murder and subsequent resurrection of the young boy Piko, who the Ultra family -- at least in the original film -- has saved by merging with the Monkey god Hanuman. This sequence is interesting for two reasons. For one, all of the footage depicting any of Tsubaraya's Ultra characters has been carefully excised from it. Secondly, the part of it where Hanuman deals out harsh justice to the three bandits who murdered Piko is extended so that, when Hanuman takes the last bandit in his fist and smashes him with an open palm, we also get to see Hanuman crushing the bandit's body in his fist like a grape and yukking it up as the blood oozes out between his fingers.

This recap takes place within a larger sequence that comprises some of Hanuman and the 5 Riders' most astonishing moments, one in which we witness the three dispatched bandits' arrival in Hell itself. This scene is reminiscent of Jigoku in ambition, but closer to Coffin Joe's journey to the underworld in Jose Marin's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse in terms of execution. Introduced by a series of artist's representations graphically depicting all manner of tortures and disembowelment, 5 Riders' visit to Old Scratch's digs really gets underway with some choice shots of chained naked women being bloodily prodded with pitchforks, and then goes on to show some men in skeleton suits stirring a giant stew pot full of agonized souls. The three bandits are then presented to the lord of the underworld, who decides to grant them a second chance of sorts, sending them back to the world of the living to assist King Dark in his evildoing.

Once the film's first half is out of the way, Sands finally takes the wheel of Hanuman and the 5 Riders in earnest, bringing in his own not-quite-there facsimiles of Toei's Masked Riders and some seriously underwhelming homegrown monsters to fill out the final act. This is actually a pretty ballsy move on his part, given that he's spent the last hour treating us to the far superior stunts, costumes and monster suits of Five Riders vs. King Dark, and now his own meager offerings can only serve to invite some devastatingly unflattering comparisons. King Dark finally goads the scientist into creating some kind of monster generating machine, the product of which amounts to three skinny guys in sarongs wearing carnivalesque animal masks (a pig, a bull and a frog, to be exact). Finally King Dark assumes gigantic size and begins to rampage around what looks like the same miniature set of Bangkok that was used in Giant and Jumbo A, at which point Hanuman finally comes on the scene. A pretty decent giant monster battle -- punctuated, of course, by lots of massive explosions for no reason -- follows, which ends with Hanuman stabbing King Dark through the neck with his trident. The three bandits are then returned to Hell, where the lord of the underworld has them gorily decapitated. The film ends with a series of close-ups on the bandits' horribly grimacing severed heads.

I know that Hanuman and the 5 Riders sounds like exactly the type of perverse oddity that would normally set my perverse oddity-loving heart to racing, but the truth is that I found it kind of nightmarish -- and not in the good way. I think that the problem is that, while I would enjoy some of its unseemlier elements within the context of a Cat III HK film or Eurotrash entry, when those elements are combined with the tokusatsu hijinks of Kamen Rider it's a case of two great tastes that really don't taste great together at all. I grew up on Japanese costume hero shows like Kamen Rider, and when I watch them today I do so, to some extent, through the same unjaundiced eyes that I did when I first saw them as a kid. So I guess what I'm saying, as sad as it is, is that I don't want the innocent and wide-eyed child that I was playing in the same sandbox with the jaded, morally corrupted adult that I am today. If the shoe fits...

Anyway, that all doesn't mean that you won't enjoy Hanuman and the 5 Riders, you big sicko. In fact, if you're curious about the work of Sompote Sands, I would have to say that it's essential viewing. I've seen quite a few of the man's films by now and, based on that, I think I have a pretty good idea of what his standards were. And by those standards, Hanuman and the 5 Riders is something of a masterpiece; it simply couldn't be any more creepy, retarded, or aggressively incomprehensible than it already is.



Wise Kwai said...

Brain melted. Can't think of anything to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure yet if I want to delve into the mind of Sompote Sands, but I just read on Wise Kwai's Thai film blog about Wisit Sasanatieng's kaiju short "Norasinghavatar". He says, "They look like CGI animation but they are not. They are live action, heavily processed in Wisit's colorful style in post-production." Did you read about this? Here are some pictures I found on Twitch. I don't know... I've got to wonder if the unique pleasure of watching kaiju can still be had when the giant heroes and monsters stop looking like people wearing suits.

Todd said...

Yes, we should all enjoy Wise Kwai's blog while we still can, because apparently I've killed his brain.

It's a good point you make, one driven home by the CGI versus suitmation sequences in Big Man Japan. I think that the design considerations -- absent when working with computer images -- that go into creating something that a human being actually has to wear results in a very particular type of whimsy that CGI just can't duplicate, and which is a big part of the fun of kaiju movies.

From the description of Norasinghavatar it sounds like a Ramakien-based "mythological" in the tradition of Sompote Sands' The Nobel War. Not to suggest that one followed the other, of course. But given Sasanatieng's affection for Thai cinema past, who knows?

Todd said...

Sorry, I meant The Noble War, not The Nobel War. As far as I know, Sompote Sands never made a film about competition for that coveted Swedish prize.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the appeal with kaiju is the feeling that... yeah, I could be in that suit wrestling with my buddy or trampling miniature cities.

A far different appeal is to be had from the fantasy of being very large to the fantasy of being very small. Of course, it depends on how you situate yourself as a a viewer in this giantess film I found on YouTube...

Todd said...

Thanks, duriandave. You and Sompote Sands have insured that I will never again be able to watch a kaiju movie without seeing all kinds of disturbing psychosexual overtones in it.