Monday, August 10, 2009

Ghostly Face (Taiwan/Indonesia, 1972)

This obscure co-production between Taiwan and Indonesia -- which also goes by the title Lem Mien Kuel, aka Pandji Tengkorak, aka Karate a Bali -- is a far cry from the kung fu vehicles starring Polly "Don't Ask Me To Play Mama" Shang Kwan that I typically review on this blog. While it does have a few vague fantasy overtones, absent are the giant rubber octopuses, lobster men and other "Shaolin Puff'n'stuff" absurdities of Polly's later films like Zodiac Fighters and Little Hero. Instead we have a grim and uniquely atmosphered take on the genre marked by fight scenes that are about as brutal and bloody as they come, serving as a welcome reminder that Polly, in addition to being kung fu cinema's most accommodating good sport, was also a serious martial artist of formidable skill.

By the way, that appellation I threw out earlier was inspired by the documentary Deadly China Dolls, in which a forty-something Polly, looking for all the world like a kung fu version of Little Edie in her leopard print fur coat, answers the question of whether she'd ever return to the screen by saying that yes, she would, adding "But don't ask me to play mama. I want to fight." How can you not love this woman?

The Ghostly Face of the film's title is in fact a hero, albeit one who sports a fugly buck-toothed fright mask in his fight against those who would prey upon the common folk. However, when we first see him, he appears to be engaging in an act of villainy, fighting his way into a fortress to steal a weapon known as The Precious Sword and, in the process, murdering Hua, Polly's father. This spurs Polly, who refers to herself throughout only as "Fightress Hua", to set off on a mission of vengeance. It turns out, however, that this Ghostly Face is an impostor, a member of a vicious gang of pirates lead by Tang (Chan Bo Leung), who plans to frame the hero for his crimes.

As Polly's quest goes on, she charters a boat to take her downriver and ends up having a pretty spectacular fight with an army of pirates, who come at her both from across the water in a fleet of catamarans and from underneath it via the employment of some primitive Martial World snorkeling gear. In the process, she rescues a young woman named Anny Ma (Indonesian starlet Lenny Marlina), who, it turns out, is also looking for the Ghostly Face, but for very different reasons. It seems the Face had earlier saved Anny's village from an attack by Tang and his men, but not before her brother, the village chief, had been killed. She is now seeking out the hero in the hope that he will help her track down Tang and settle things with him for good.

Polly also finds that she is being shadowed by a mysterious protector in the handsome form of Pan Chih (Indonesian actor -- and, more recently, politician -- Deddy Sutomo), who, as will surprise absolutely no one, is soon revealed to be the Ghostly Face himself. Sadly, and despite all of the evidence before her, Polly proves to be frustratingly slow on the uptake when it comes to the matter of the Face's innocence, and when the final showdown with Tang comes, she proves to be as much of an obstacle as an aid.

I realize that all of this sounds like the standard stuff of martial arts revenge drama, but what really sets Ghostly Face apart from other such films is, not only the novelty of its Indonesian locations, but, more importantly, the several long, dialogue-free sequences depicting traditional Indonesian ceremonies that crop up throughout the film, each of which provides a sort of meditative pause between the ferocious action scenes. The most striking of these is a seaside funeral procession that ends with Polly kneeling silently on the beach and watching as a towering funeral pyre slowly burns and collapses. I realize that such "travelogue" sequences were most likely just meant to provide some local color and will just be seen as annoying filler by many viewers. But to me they add a sense of brooding poetry to the proceedings and, in combination with the film's minimalist overall aesthetic, give Ghostly Face an appropriately haunted feeling.

I would highly recommend Ghostly Face to anyone who's interested in seeing a different, less manic kind of oddball martial arts film. While it is certainly a low budget production, with all of the seams and limitations that go along with that, there is something about it that really sticks with you. A lot of these Taiwanese cheapies tend to just blur together in one's mind, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this one will ferret out a weird little space all its own.

UPDATE 8/11/09: Reader Ash, in his comment to this post, kindly provided me with a good deal of background info on Ghostly Face. The film was based on a popular Indonesian comic book called Panji Tengkorak (rough translation "Panji the Skull Face") that was created by artist Hans Jaladara in 1968. The comic would also provide the basis for another feature film that was produced in 1985, as well as an Indonesian television series that aired in the mid 90s. Given that the character referred to as Ghostly Face in the version of the film I watched was so obviously the central character in the comic, I have to wonder if there is an Indonesian cut of the film that gives more play to that character, as well as to Indonesian actors Deddy Sutomo and Lenny Marlina.


Ash said...

Hi.. I just stumbled upon this movie some days ago while chasin' it for months.. So it is really a nice coincidence to read the review on one of my favourite blogs.. I'm just going to watch it on these days :)

Btw.. I wanted to add some details.. The movie should be the reduction of the original comic Panji Tengkorak by Hans Jaladara.. You can find some of the original artwork on his Deviantart page:

More interesting the author blurbs in the info about another movie based on the comic, maybe a sequel to the original one, which was shot in 1985: Panji tengkorak VS Jaka Umbaran.. It is available on unsubbed vcd:

Moreover in 1995 an entire tv series was broadcasted on INDOSIAR VISUAL MANDIRI tv channel..

About the releases.. The movie was distributed in Germany, but it should have been cut to 73 minutes of the original 82 minutes.. It was also distributed in Belgium, but it should have been done in its entirety.. Unfortunately I don't know german, but some details are provided here:

Copies of the hk vcd or the ocean shores vhs should be uncut.. Hopes are that Union film which has to be the taiwanese coproducer is going to remaster and reprint this movie as it has already done for some of Shang Kuan Ling Feng flicks :)

Todd said...

Ash, thanks so much for so thoroughly filling in the information gaps on this one, as well as for the informative links! (Anyone who thinks my screen caps weren't gory enough should check out the ones on that German site.)

Given that the Ghostly Face was obviously the central character in the source comic book, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there was an Indonesian cut of this film that more prominently featured him and gave more screen time to the Indonesian stars in the cast. What I watched was the Ocean Shores release of the HK version, in which the Ghostly Face is reduced to a supporting character, with Polly Shang Kwan being front and center for most of the running time.

Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting! I love Polly's look in this film.

Jack J said...

Thanks for all this cool info!

I've had "Ghostly Face" in my collection for yrs and it's one I keep coming back to. Unfortunately most of the (few) sites that have reviewed in the past have been kung fu sites that tend to write it off as a lesser martial arts film. Yours is the first positively excited review I've seen. Good on ya!

And I never knew it was a co-production with Indonesia!

I have the Danish VHS and it runs 82 min like the Belgian tape which I believe is the uncut international version. It's dubbed in English and halfway letterboxed.

I also have a boot dvd off eBay which is in Chinese (Mandarin afair) and has subs. Unfortunately the copy isn't very good (looks like 3rd generation dupe).

Todd said...

Thanks, Jack. I'm glad you liked the review. Sounds like the version I have is the same Mandarin boot that you have. I'm still convinced that there has to be a different, Indonesian cut of the film, and I'd love to see it someday.

I'm actually kind of glad that I don't come to these films from a background in straight-up martial arts fandom, because I think that sometimes those fans get caught up in the technical quality and number of fight scenes and lose sight of the things that make these movies really interesting, this film being a perfect example.

Anonymous said...

so glad i found this site i've been looking for this film for the last 2years i first saw this film when i was 9yr old i am now 34 and i think this was the film tat turned me into a martial arts film freak.i do need to say for me this is this is the best!

Todd said...

Thanks! I'm glad you found 4DK, too. I think it's pretty obvious that I, also, regard Ghostly Face pretty highly, and would love to see it more widely appreciated. Keep the torch burning!

Unknown said...

Ive gone down a rabbit hole of curiosity involving the 1999 song In Hell - Choking Victim. Both you and they use the same reference to a Shaolin PuffnStuff. What the fuck does that mean.