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.


sunil said...

But what a way for Mitr to go!
With a finale like that, it is surprising he didn't become an international cult figure. :)

No reason for you to hunt these movies up, but when died, her haunted mansion story inspired by a certain psychiatric disorder ran for more than a year.

How big the sequel
will be, now that her co-star too has died, is something for the producers to spend sleepless nights gloating about. :)

sunil said...

Plus, if you ARE going to watch movies w/o subtitles - my Rajini recommendations still stand. :)

Wise Kwai said...

Sorapong Chatree continues to be active, with fans of contemporary Thai cinema getting to see him in action in Ong-Bak 2. He also had a major role in 2008's Queens of Langkasuka by Nonzee Nimibutr - widely bootlegged with English subtitles. Queens also starred Jarunee Suksawat.

Todd said...

"With a finale like that, it is surprising he didn't become an international cult figure."

Sunil, that was my reaction exactly when I first heard about Chaibancha's story. I just couldn't believe I'd never heard of him before.

Thanks for the info (and the link) Wise Kwai! I read an interview with Jarunee Suksawat while I was preparing this review that said that Queens of Langkasuka marked her return to the screen after a ten year absence.

Wise Kwai said...

A post at Limitless Cinema has comments about Jarunee's troubled career in the mid-1980s, when she had to leave show business.

Ninja Dixon said...

Great review! :)

Is this out on dvd or vcd?

Todd said...

Thanks! You can find the VCD at eThaiCD.