Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's the 4DK Animalympics! Round 18

Suraj from Appu Raja

Skill Set: Master of the evil laugh, harbinger of doom

I'm not entirely clear on how involved Suraj is in the creation of the elaborate death traps cooked up by demented dwarf Appu in Appu Raja, but he obviously has some role. I say this because he is always at the scene, looking down sardonically from his perch, whenever some unwitting victim is about to meet his fate at Appu's hands. Thus there is no mistaking that Suraj is a cockatoo of pure evil. I didn't mention it in my review of the film, but there's a scene in Appu Raja in which he demonstrates his ability to produce a human-like laugh so sinister sounding that it would make those of Amrish Puri, Ajit and Amjad Khan all sound like girlish titters in comparison. It's truly bone chilling.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Diya Aur Toofan (India, 1995)

Some of my Bollywood blogging friends often make reference to a phenomenon they call "the curse of the second half", by which they mean the tendency of many Indian films to expend a lot of razzle-dazzle on their first halves, only to fall flat and wheezing like a distance runner who has failed to pace himself during their final stretch. While this notion certainly applies to a good number of Indian films, what it fails to take into account are the near equal number of Bollywood movies that, while being somewhat run-of-the-mill or even outright dull during their first hour, end up being shit awesome for the remainder. (One shining example that immediately comes to mind is Kalabaaz.) In some ways this is an even more irksome phenomenon, because it has been the inspiration for me sticking with many, many films that turned out to be crappy throughout not only their beginning, but their middle and end, as well. In any case, what I'm getting at is that the subject of this review, the Mithun Chakraborty vehicle Diya Aur Toofan, is a pretty good example of one of those films that is the antithesis of the aforementioned curse. And now, lot's of pictures:

Handsome engineer Amar (Mithun!) shows up for his first day on the construction site sporting some neckwear that I'm fairly certain isn't up to snuff with safety standards.

Amar's predecessor was mysteriously killed as a result of being murdered by Amar's new bosses, a pair of crooked contractors played by Shakti Kapoor and Prem Chopra.

It seems that Shakti and Prem objected to said predecessor's plan to blow the whistle on their black marketeering activities. Amar knows nothing of this, of course. But it's not long before he begins to sense that something fishy is going on, at which point Shakti tries to buy him off.

This does not meet with the desired results.

In the course of going Full Mithun on Shakti, Amar demonstrates what will come to be his signature move, and also shows us the true purpose of that festive scarf he's been modeling.

Using the scarf, he ties his two fists together, in effect combining them into one giant fist, a super-fist of sorts.

Later, Amar meets his neighbor Asha in an embarrassing NSFW accident.

Okayyyy, not really. Suffice it to say that things get off to a bad start.

Asha is played by Madhoo, one of whose main duties here, given that this is a Bollywood movie from the 1990s, is to wear a succession of outfits that look as if they were purchased at the outlet mall in Hell.

Of course, Amar and Asha soon decide that they are madly in love with each other, which does not play well with Joginder (Mohnish Behl), the son of the evil contractor played by Prem Chopra, who sets his goons upon Amar.

Fools! Do they not know about the super-fist?

Finally Prem, Shakti and Joginder get fed up with Amar's righteous antics and murder him in earnest.

Soon after, his body is discovered by Dr. Vijay Mehra, who is not only Amar's best friend but also a pioneering neurosurgeon with some radical ideas about brain transplantation.

Did I mention that it was Amar and Asha's wedding day? When she hears the news, Asha goes nutzoid, and in the course of her berzerkery accidentally kills her own mom!

At which point Asha goes permanently nutzoid.

Meanwhile, pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Vijay Mehra has decided what he must do.

And so Mithun's startlingly tiny brain (look, I'm just sayin') is removed...

...put on a dinner plate and placed in the Deep Freeze.

Fortunately, it is not long before crazy Asha is doing an angry dance to Krishna...

...which she concludes by dashing her already addled brains upon the steps of the temple.

Pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Vijay Mehra knows what he must do.

And so Asha's defective brain is scooped out and, I assume, tossed into a nearby medical waste receptacle, to be replaced by Amar's undamaged, albeit very tiny, brain.

Later, Amar wakes in fine spirits, and with an appropriately mannish haircut.

Only to be greeted by some shocking news.

(This film didn't have English subtitles, so I can't tell you if Dr. Mehra broke it to him with the old, "I have some good news, and some bad news" gambit, but that's what I would have done.)

Anyway, once the news has sunk in, Amar quickly returns to his old self.

Which is bad news for Shakti Kapoor, who is busy praying to a pile of money.

...only to be interrupted by Amar, who proceeds to beat him to death in a surreally phony looking stable set.

Next it's Joginder's turn, in a disturbing scene that sees Amar deciding to make effective use of some of his newly acquired assets.

Of course, once Amar has Joginder where he wants him, the mood turns very quickly.

Finally, in an attempt to determine just who is killing off his associates, Prem Chopra kidnaps pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Vijay Mehra, taking him to his lair, where he is mercilessly tortured. This because, in Bollywood movies, even crooked contractors have lairs.

Of course, it is not long before Amar shows up on the scene to deliver some machine gun justice.

And when it comes time for the coup de grace...

Aw, yeah...


Many Hindi films have told us that love inspires miracles. But you know what inspires even more miracles than that? Wrath. So far we've seen the thirst for payback as the impetus for countless reincarnations, house pets becoming serial killers, and now a case of science-assisted, cross-gender body switching. What's next? A man avenged by his own breakfast? A favorite pair of socks, long thought lost in the wash, that returns to strangle those responsible for its owner's death? Whatever the case, I'm sure you'll be reading about it here at 4DK.

Anyway, thank you for joining me on my journey through Diya Aur Toofan today. And remember, don't try the super-fist at home. Mithun is a licensed professional.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's the 4DK Animalympics! Round 17

The Subliminal Marmoset from Pyasa Shaitan

Skill Set: The way he just... looks at you.

Pyasa Shaitan is filled with images that are at once hard for the mind to grasp yet impossible to unremember, and of all of them, the Subliminal Marmoset is the most indelible. Sure, he's just a still photograph that was probably clipped out of some old copy of National Geographic. And, yes, he's just one of many random visuals that Joginder throws at his audience to distract them from the fact that he has simply taken an old Kamal Hassan film and inserted lots of footage of boobs and himself yelling at the camera into it. But, people, let it go; star quality is star quality, and this little guy definitely has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes him stand out from the crowd. We think it's the eyes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Insee Payong (Thailand, 198?)

As any self respecting She-Hulk fan well knows, the true measure of a male superhero's iconic status is whether or not he has been spun-off into a female version. In the case of Thailand's masked hero Red Eagle -- introduced in a series of postwar pulp novels, but immortalized on the screen by star Mitr Chaibancha during the 1960s -- such honor was bestowed in the 1980s with the release of Insee Payong, whose title roughly translates as "Proud Eagle".

Insee Payong stars Jarunee Suksawat, Thailand's top female action star of the 80s, in the role of Red Eagle (or, as the character is referred to in Thai, Insee Daeng). Playing alongside her is her frequent co-star, Thailand's most employed leading man at the time, Sorapong Chatree. Every era of Thai cinema seems to have had one male star with a near-ubiquitous screen presence, and in the 80s it was Chatree who stepped into that role, filling the shoes of aging 70s superstar Sombat Methanee, who had himself risen to prominence in the wake of Mitr Chaibancha's untimely death in 1970. Sadly, what little name recognition Chatree has in the West is the result of a number of his Thai films being acquired by notorious Hong Kong producer Godfrey Ho, who then reworked them, using his patented Franken-ninja formula, into such incomprehensible, patchwork creations as Ninja Destroyer, The Ultimate Ninja and Raiders of the Golden Triangle.

Insee Payong sets out to establish a connection with the classic incarnation of Red Eagle right off the bat, with a scene in which Suksawat's character is shown praying to a shrine centered around a photograph of Mitr Chaibancha in the Red Eagle costume. Now, because this film didn't have subtitles of any kind, I can't tell you whether this means that Jarunee is meant to be some kind of descendant of the earlier Red Eagle, or whether she's just a big Chaibancha fan. It also means that I can't tell you why exactly Jarunee then, in her Red Eagle garb, goes about the business of assassinating a bunch of underworld types in quick succession, using a sort of eagle-shaped throwing star to do the job.

In fact, I'd have to say that this version of Red Eagle -- who, I'm happy to report, is simply referred to by the other characters as "Red Eagle", without the gender-specific amendment to her title that you might expect -- generally takes to the carrying out of her crime-fighting duties with extreme prejudice. Her basic m.o. seems to be to show up wherever the criminals are and immediately kill all of them. Not that Chaibancha's version of the hero was markedly more noble in his comportment -- if perhaps not as bloodthirsty, he was a terrible philanderer -- but Jarunee really does just seem to be all about the "kill, kill, kill".

Complicating things further -- though no fault of the film itself, and all the fault of my not being able to understand Thai -- is the fact that Insee Payong does not take the tack of using the boldface moral shorthand we typically like to see in our unsubtitled superhero melodramas from other lands. Thus we don't have the villains resorting to any of the mustache-twirling, relief map-assisted proclamations of world domineering intent or "how bad are they" demonstrations of moral depravity that would make it easier for us to root along without any detailed comprehension. Rather, these are more your typical urban crime thriller kind of bad guys, whose motivations mainly seem to be established via dialogue, and whose illegal activities are mainly established by lots of scenes of them sitting in a room together smoking cigarettes and scheming or occasionally exchanging suitcases full of cash with someone. As a result, the spectacle of Jarunee Suksawat mercilessly slaughtering them all is somewhat unsatisfying for the monolingual Western viewer such as myself, who has no indication of why they might be deserving of this harsh treatment.

To be honest, when it comes to the viewing of old pulp movies from other countries, it is Thailand in particular that consistently confronts me with the most challenges. It's not just that the films are frequently heavily dependent on dialog and rarely blessed with transparent plotting, but also that it's difficult to find any information -- synopses, dates, production info, etc. -- on them either in English or in another easily translatable language. The wide variations in the romanized spelling of Thai words from one source to another also insures that it's even difficult to nail down an agreed upon version of a film's title for the purposes of research. This all means that my typically blind and pathetic gropings through world cinema are even more so when it comes to Thailand, whose lucky status of never having been under British or American occupation means that they don't even have a local equivalent of Hinglish, Taglish or mandatory English subtitles to throw me a bone.

As a result of this, my process of selecting Thai films to view is spectacularly uninformed, and basically amounts to me scouring the "classics" section at eThaiCD and picking VCDs based on how pretty the covers are. The problem is that all of the covers of Thai VCDs are pretty. As anyone who's ever marveled at the majesty of hand-painted Thai movie posters knows, nobody can sell a film like the Thais. So the end result is that I really don't know what I'm getting at all.

To illustrate this by example, Insee Payong is the fourth from a recent batch of films purchased from eThai that I've watched in the hope of finding something to write up, and the first to at least marginally fit the bill, despite the fact that I obviously can't offer much in the way of solid information or critical opinion regarding it. The first film I watched was an alleged horror film starring Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat that was so heavy with talk and indecipherable rural comedy that I gave up on it before the first disc was through. (I think watching all of those Sompote Sands movies took their toll on my patience.) The second was a 1990s movie about a young woman who leaves a Buddhist nunnery to bald-headedly avenge her sister's rape that was somehow so exactly what it sounds like that it was almost completely uninteresting. The third was an unfathomable comedy in which all of the male characters wear enormous bow ties and one of them occasionally sprouts vampire teeth and shoots steam out of his ears. This one I have left half-watched, at least for the time being. (I mean, it sounds kind of awesome, right? Even though I hadn't the first clue what the hell was going on.)

Which all brings me back to Insee Payong, whose good points -- within the narrow criteria with which I am equipped to assess them -- include a fast pace, a generous amount of costumed derring-do from the appealing Jarunee Suksawat, and a few none-too-shabby fight scenes. In contrast to the Red Eagle films of the Chaibancha era, the action here is fairly kinetic, with our heroine executing a fair share of back flips and flying leaps in the course of systematically murdering the baddies -- many of these moves doubled, but some also obviously pulled off by the star herself, who, though without formal fight training, was a nonetheless enthusiastic participant in her roles' physical requirements.

On the minus side, Insee Payong lacks the wild color and unique visual pop of the 60s entries, an attribute that made those films entertaining to watch even without any knowledge of what was going on in them. Instead it exhibits the same drab look as pretty much every other cheap action movie made during the 80s, which doesn't help to make the time pass any more smoothly. As indicated earlier, a more flamboyant set of villains would also have been nice -- for instance, one like the guy in Insee Thong who could cause his victims to have heart attacks by making his maniacally laughing, disembodied head appear before them -- as these ones are more your run-of-the-mill, sunglasses and floral print shirt wearing scumbags, and as such don't seem to embody any particularly palpable kind of threat.

Of course, what I didn't mention earlier about my slog through classic Thai pulp cinema is that, alongside the misses, it has uncovered its fair share of real gems. Insee Payong was not one of those, unfortunately. But it was still enjoyable enough to sustain my interest in slogging further. Maybe this one with the blue masked guy on the cover will prove to be my next great discovery, or perhaps it will be this one with an armed and denim-clad Sombat Methanee and Aranya Namwong emerging from a bikini girl-filled explosion. Or maybe I should just start reviewing the covers.