Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stranded in the jungle

“Todd, it’s such a lovely day out today. Are you sure you don’t want to go outside?”
As will surprise exactly no one who reads this blog, that was something that I heard a lot while growing up -- usually as I was planted in front of the TV sullenly watching Spectreman or some such. And the answer then, as it is today, was a resolute “no”.

I am simply not what you might call an “outdoorsy” person. And while my shunning of natural light has today resulted in me having a lovely alabaster complexion, it has also resulted in me having a dramatic shortage of rugged, manly adventures involving pith helmets, crampons, extra complicated Swiss army knives, or short pants of any kind.

Given that, one might assume that, by watching the type of jungle adventure movies that I frequently review here at 4DK, I am vicariously compensating for that lack of experience. But that is not the case. In fact, my antipathy towards dirt, open air, and isolation from modern conveniences extends even to their representations in popular media. (That is not to say, however, that I am “anti” the environment itself. To the contrary, I’m a strong believer that the natural landscape and the wildlife within it should be preserved for those people who, you know, actually enjoy that kind of thing.) No, the genres that I instead tend to gravitate toward are those that typically rely on the type of urban settings that I am accustomed to: your film noirs, your action thrillers, your spy movies, etc.

It was only with a little movie called Zimbo that things started to change for me a bit. I became fascinated by the fact that a genre I think many people would assume was the exclusive territory of Hollywood had provided so much grist for various foreign film industries over the years. The seeming universality of the Tarzan mythos -- as well as the use of jungle films as an outlet for xenophobia and blockheaded statements about the essential savagery of man -- filled me with a thrill of discovery that lead to a bit of a binge on my part.

To cut to my point, I, as a result, ended up with quite a backlog of unwatched jungle adventure films, one that made up a substantial portion of the larger, perpetually looming backlog of unwatched DVDs and VCDs that, from their perch aside my DVD player, taunt me on a daily basis with all their untested potential for titillation, horror, boredom and misery. But, ladies and germs, now May is coming. And all of that is going to change.

For the entire month of May, 4DK will be observing Jungle Adventure month -- or, as I prefer to put it, we’ll be “Stranded in the Jungle”. For those four weeks, every post will be redolent of impenetrable growth, exotic flora and fauna, savage rituals, fetid thickets, tropical climes, and sweaty men in leopard skin loincloths. Oh, and, of course, LOTS of monkey sidekicks.

So put on your hiking boots, and don’t forget the sunscreen. We’re going to get dirty.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Magic Warriors (Taiwan, 1989)

There are certainly things to be said against the Peach Kid films -- especially if you don’t like 80s hair metal coiffure, depictions of people receiving involuntary golden showers, or Chinese synth pop songs sung by small children. But there are also many things to be said for them. My experience of most Taiwanese fantasy martial arts films is that one has to wade through a lot of fairly pedestrian chop-sockey or swordplay action to get to the good bits. And by “good bits”, I of course refer to cheaply realized monsters, crazy and wholly unconvincing wire fu and scenes of people shooting cartoon lighting bolts out of their palms. In the Peach Kid movies, on the other hand, you’re pretty much guaranteed crazy from first frame to last.

That said, there’s some room for argument as to whether 1989’s Magic Warriors can accurately be called a Peach Kid film at all -- despite the fact that it sometimes goes under the title Peach Kid 3. While it features a lead performance by Lin Hsiao Lan, the star of the Peach Kid films, and is co-directed by the director and cinematographer of the Peach Kid films, the role that Lin plays in it -- rather than that of Tao Tai-lang, aka the Peach Kid -- is another, non-peach-themed young hero by the name of Little Flying Dragon. This means that Magic Warriors contains no flying peaches with babies inside or giant peach robots as seen in the previous films. It does, however, contain pretty much everything else seen in the Peach Kid films, which means, yes, plenty of hair metal dos, child screeched synth pop, and numerous ostensibly comical instances of people being peed on.

In Magic Warriors, Little Flying Dragon finds himself (again, as in the Peach Kid films, our hero is a boy, despite being played by a female) in charge of protecting a young child by the name of Golden Boy, who reluctantly plays a key role in the ongoing and quite literal battle between the forces of good and evil. Golden Boy is the product of an unholy union between one of Heaven’s warriors and the daughter of the King of Evil, who is simply referred to in the subtitles as Evil Lady and appears to have appropriated David Bowie’s wig from Labyrinth.

As Golden Boy is in possession of a map detailing the whereabouts of the only weapon capable of killing the King, he is a subject of great interest for many of the denizens of Magic Warriors' freaky fairytale world. These include, among others, a character called Red Haired Weirdo, a guy with a mushroom for a head, another who turns into a snail, and a guy who I think is supposed to be a bag of garbage given human form.

One thing that I find refreshing about Asian action films like Magic Warriors is that their makers tend to lack the overweening sentimentality about children that their Hollywood counterparts have, and so have no qualms about depicting them as being in harm’s way or giving us scenes, like the one in Magic Warriors, in which Golden Boy gets drunk off his ass and trashes a tavern with his magical palm rays. (Yes, I hear you. Showing a fictional child with Vince Neil hair getting blotto is indeed a very terrible thing, and definitely not at all completely fucking hilarious. But, hey, wasn’t that you who was all ZOMG ROFLMAO when your coworker sent you “David After Dentist”? I thought so.) Golden Boy also dedicates a lot of his time to pissing on people (hence the name?), and at one point repels a couple of attackers by first farting on them and then spraying them with diarrhea. Golden Boy, ladies and gentlemen.

Magic Warriors is a pretty solid example of the kind of fantasy martial arts films that increasingly got made in the wake of Tsui Hark’s game-changing Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain. Like that 1983 film, it delivers a ceaseless stream of frantic, wire-assisted motion and bizarre special effects -- though, of course, on a demonstrably more measly budget, which only adds to its charm. In that spirit, the movie offers a climactic battle royal in which the majority of the cast chaotically ricochets back and forth off of the walls of the King of Evil's cartoonish lair as Little Flying Dragon fights against a giant red hairball and the garbage guy chases everybody around with a giant pair of scissors.

Some people understandably find these kind of movies headache-inducing, but they tend to give me a pretty big happy. The key, though, is to give up entirely on imposing any kind of narrative sense on what’s going on in them. (Especially when you’re confronted with subtitles as typographically challenged and incoherent as those here: “No one can fight against use!”) No, it’s best to just let Magic Warriors' insanity and childish stupidity rain down on you like a golden stream of… well, you get the point.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We have a winner!

The winner of 4DK's first ever contest involving human beings is sharp eyed reader Anton (not pictured), who flat-out earned his prizes by correctly identifying a whopping 26 out of the 31 films represented by the screen caps lining this humble blog's sidebar. As promised, I will be sending Anton a lovingly used copy of Pete Tombs' Mondo Macabro book, as well as a VCD of the classic Cantonese "Jane Bond" film The Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa. See? It pays to play with 4DK!

The correct answers, working from top to bottom, are as follows:


Ah, each one a golden memory.

Stay tuned for my next exciting contest, which will take place whenever I next find some cool stuff that I just happen to have sitting around that I can give away as prizes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mosagallaku Mosagaadu (India, 1971)

In this 2007 interview with the website, Tollywood director K.S.R. Doss (or Das, as they spell it) makes the claim that his Mosagallaku Mosagaadu was India’s first cowboy film. And who am I to disagree? It certainly predates the country’s most well known example of the genre, 1975’s Sholay, as well as earlier Bollywood oaters like the Feroz Khan starrers Khotte Sikkay and Kaala Sona. Though I think it has to be said that there are some older films in the less well respected and recorded stunt genre -- the recently reviewed Awara Abdula among them -- that could arguably be described at least in part as being cowboy films. Even though my saying so is more of an act of compulsive nerdery than anything else.

In that same interview, Doss emphatically denies that Mosagallaku Mosagaadu is a remake of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And while that denial is true in spirit, it’s nonetheless impossible to miss the signs of TGTBTU’s influence on Mosagallaku -- especially given that the latter takes great pains to recreate several of the former’s key scenes.

These include, memorably, Clint Eastwood’s forced march through the desert at the hands of Eli Wallach -- although here the filmmakers use that scenario as an opportunity to have Jyothi Laxmi and Nagabhushanam perform a jaunty musical number, during which they dance around and mock Krishna, the film’s hero, as he dies of heat exposure. The vertigo-inducing overlap of sensibilities that this particular bit embodies made for one of the more surreal cinematic moments I’ve witnessed of late -- and, keep in mind that I just saw Hausu again, so that’s really saying quite a lot.

Those familiar with Indian cinema’s often freewheeling approach to period won’t be surprised to learn that Mosagallaku Mosagaadu’s is a bit hard to nail down. Its opening narration places its plastic-Stetson-wearing, gun-slinging, Wild West action somewhat preposterously around the time of the Battle of Bobbili -- in other words, sometime near the middle of the 1700s. Chances are that the writers were simply trying to capture some of the aura of heroism projected by that pivotal event in the history of Andhra Pradesh -- as well as find an excuse to use all of the stock footage we see of the French storming the fortress walls that obviously came from another, much more well funded movie.

Suffice it to say that the event that sets the film’s story in motion is the fall of a mythical kingdom called Amaravedu, which is invaded and taken over by the awful British. Before this can take place, however, two of the kingdom’s loyal sons spirit its vast treasure away and secure it in a cave hiding place that can only be accessed with five special keys.

Another loyal son of Amaravedu is Prasad (Krishna), whose disgust with the corruption that thrives under British rule spurs him to leave the kingdom and style himself as a Robin Hood-like defender of the poor and oppressed. Now, we never actually see Prasad doing any of this defending of the poor and oppressed, mind you, and instead see him partaking in a lot more of what, to the uninformed eye, might appear to be run-of-the-mill banditry. Nonetheless, I’m sure that all of that stolen loot will find its way into the hands of the needy eventually.

Ultimately, Prasad becomes one of a number of people who become aware of the existence of the treasure and sets out to find it. Arrayed against him in this endeavor, this being a 1970s Tollywood film, are an assortment of villains with identical mustaches and greasy, towering pompadours. This cast of lookalike scoundrels combines with a plot rife with shifting allegiances and mistaken identities to make MM’s overall story a bit difficult to parse at times, but its of no matter. What matters is that Mosagallaku Mosagaadu delivers on all of the hyperactive violence, thunder-thighed leading ladies, and compulsive use of camera angles shot from between peoples’ legs that the Doss name promises.

And toward that noble end we have on hand the aforementioned Jyothi Laxmi, playing a mean cowgirl named Bijili, one of whose musical numbers literally involves her lustily chasing a visibly perturbed Krishna hither and thither across the prairie (or, at least, the South Indian equivalent of the prairie).

Providing a yin to Jyothi’s yang is good cowgirl Radha, played by Vijaya Nirmala, who just a couple of years previous had become Mrs. Superstar Krishna. Never mind that Nirmala herself was a director of numerous films and, as such, a heroic crasher of gender barriers in the Indian film industry. What matters for our purposes is that her presence in a K.S.R. Doss film, so evenly paired off against Jyothi Laxmi, can only mean one thing:


For the most part, Mosagallaku chronicles the assorted double-crosses and skullduggery -- not to mention the many, many fistfights -- that the race between all involved parties to find the treasure entails. Yet, at a later point, one of the subsets of mustache and pompadour sporting no-goods manages to murder both of Prasad’s parents, temporarily transforming the film, for a good portion of its final third, into a bloody revenge thriller a la… well a la pretty much every one of K.S.R. Doss’s other films. Though this episodes ends with Prasad retrieving all five of the needed keys, it’s still digressive enough to feel like another movie nested within the larger one. Perhaps this was due to the filmmakers feeling that a South Indian action film without these revenge elements would be too outside the norm for their audience to relate to. But, whatever the case, it affords us the opportunity to see the righteous and true hearted Prasad gorily chopping people with axes, beating them to death with branches, and totally going postal on a bunch of angry tribals who are this film’s stand-ins for “renegade” native Americans.

While Mosagallaku Mosagaadu delivers in spades on all of the trashy thrills that I’ve come to expect from K.S.R. Doss’s films, I have to say that its primary visual attraction is its wardrobe. Krishna’s ever-changing assortment of all-one-color cowboy outfits -- ranging from powder blue to deep purple to olive green -- are really something to behold. I imagine that the free-spirited female retiree from Florida whom they were obviously designed for would describe them as “fun” and wear them on her holidays (while her husband wore the white pants with pictures of classic cars printed all over them). Clearly, being a thief with a conscience such as Prasad is requires a lot of things, but the element of surprise isn’t one of them.

"Snake, get the Panzer!"

When reviewing a film like Lady Terminator, the temptation is to simply transcribe the entire picture, so rife is it with priceless examples of purely ludicrous and nonsensical dialog. Still, I resisted -- just. Check out my take on this classic of Indonesian exploitation cinema, just posted over at Teleport City.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A contest -- avec prizes!

Some of you may have noticed that I've done a little decorating around the place of late, adding to the sidebar portraits of some of my favorite faces from the movies I've reviewed over the years. (For the many more of you who didn't notice, they're way down at the bottom there, filling the black void beneath the Followers list.) Since then, it's occurred to me that it might be fun to see how well you all could do at identifying the movies that those pictures came from. Anyone who'd like to give it a try, just send me an email at luchadiaries[at]gmail[dot]com, listing the titles that correspond to those of the 31 pictures you can identify, going from top to bottom. In a week hence, I'll gift the person who correctly I.D.'d the most movies with a pre-owned, slightly loved copy of Pete Tombs' tough-to-find Mondo Macabro book, and a brand new, unopened VCD of Suet Nei's first Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa film. What? Keep in mind that I only need the correct film titles, not the name of the character pictured, the actor, or any other production information.

Also keep in mind that all of these pictures come from movies I've reviewed either on 4DK or Teleport City, which means that all you'd have to do to identify every single one of them is scroll through hundreds upon hundreds of posts, carefully studying all of the hundreds upon hundreds of screen caps that appear within them. Of course, given that the prize at stake here is not something like a house or a new car, but rather just a couple of items that I spied while looking around my apartment just now, you might be well advised not to invest so much effort, and to instead just fall back upon your powers of recall and guestimation. (Still, I don't know, that Tombs book... pret-ty hard to find, is all I'm sayin'.)

Okay, have at it folks. I'll be announcing our proud winner a week from today.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Afrita Hanem (Egypt, 1949)

My love affair with golden age Egyptian cinema deepens with Afrita Hanem. This is a true classic of Egyptian popular cinema, starring two of the country's most legendary performers: singer, composer, and virtuoso instrumentalist Farid Al Atriche, and Samia Gamal, whose international notoriety as a mistress of the belly dancing arts extended to her becoming a star nightclub attraction in the U.S. during the 1950s. The pair starred together in several highly successful films during the late 40s and early 50s, and were also a couple off-screen. As with 1947's Habib al Omr -- the film that introduced the pair as a screen duo and established Gamal as a movie star -- Farid Al Atriche also produces here, in addition to co-starring and composing all of the songs. The chemistry between these two is palpable, as is their shared joy in performing, which makes this yet another captivating piece of pure, escapist fluff from an industry that might, to the uninitiated, seem like an unlikely source for such.

Such is Afrita Hanem’s landmark status that even someone with as slight a familiarity with Egyptian films as I has seen evidence of its influence. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but now having seen Afrita Hanem, it’s hard to imagine that the previously reviewed Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, a movie released five years later, would have existed without it. As in that subsequent film, we again have a beleaguered hero’s romantic life being complicated by the attentions of a mischievous female spirit, in this case a fetching, hip shaking genie played by Gamal. (The English translation of the film’s title is Lady Genie.) Not the most original scenario, of course -- and, in fact, the well-tread territory of 1960s American sit coms -- but one that nonetheless has the potential to beguile when handled with the level of wit and sincere eagerness to please exhibited here.

Farid Al Atriche stars here as Asfour, a nightclub singer who is smitten with Aleya (Lola Sedki), the gold digging daughter of the equally avaricious Mr. Queshta, the owner of the club where Asfour works. As the result of a cleverly orchestrated series of misunderstandings, Asfour comes to believe that Aleya has accepted his proposal of marriage, when in fact she has agreed to marry a wealthy, Europeanized dandy by the name of Mimi (Abdel Salam Al Nabulsy). When Asfour goes to seek the blessings of Aleya’s dad, the old man, never one to miss an opportunity to up his take, informs Asfour of the girl’s engagement to Mimi, but also tells him that, if he can top the three thousand dollar dowry that Mimi has agreed to pay, Aleya can be his. Of course, being a classic starving artist type, Asfour has no hope of amassing such a sum, and so goes off, loudly lamenting over his poverty.

It is at this point that a mysterious bearded sage steps out of the shadows and offers to help Asfour -- while obviously at the same time wanting to teach him an age-old lesson about the primacy of character over cash. (“Maybe your poverty has a wisdom you can’t fathom”, he tells Asfour.) The man directs Asfour to a cave, where the young man, not so surprisingly, finds both a lamp and, after applying a bit of elbow grease, the curvaceous and irrepressibly ebullient genie within it, who goes by the name of Kharamana (Samia Gamal). Kharamana is immediately convinced that Asfour is the reincarnation of Asfarot, the man who was her lover at the time of her first being imprisoned within the lamp, over a thousand years previous. This, as you might expect, makes for some complications, for, while it is now Kharamana’s duty to grant Asfour unlimited wishes, most of those wishes will involve getting him into Aleya’s arms, which is something that Kharamana naturally can’t bear.

Thus, though Kharamana constantly reminds Asfour that she is his servant, it quickly becomes clear that she is in fact his puppet master, adhering to the letter of his demands while at the same time guiding his fate as she sees fit. And this she does with no small amount of childlike glee, reveling merrily in her ability to steer every one of Asfour’s attempts to woo Aleya toward chaos and catastrophe. Meanwhile, after losing his job at the nightclub, Asfour, with Kharamana’s encouragement, rents a nearby music hall, where he plans to stage an operetta he’s composing, one long left unfinished, but which he has now found the inspiration to complete. (In a nice nod to real world concerns encroaching upon fantasy, Asfour and his manager decide to take the pragmatic route to securing a venue, leery of the legal and tax ramifications that might accompany a music hall that has simply been materialized out of thin air by a genie.)

Asfour then begins a long and frustrating search for a lead dancer for the production. Of course, Kharamana has already demonstrated that she has all the necessary requirements for this role, but for the fact that she can only be seen by Asfour. To remedy this, she produces a real world version of herself, a trash talking tough cookie (the subtitles translate her oft repeated catchphrase as “No way, Jose”) by the name of Semsema, who is also played by Samia Gamal. Soon, with Asfour and Semsema at center stage, the work-in-progress performances of the operetta are drawing crowds away from old man Queshta’s nightclub. In response, Queshta directs his daughter to focus her amorous intentions upon Asfour, in the hope of wooing him back into the fold and eliminating the competition. By this point, of course, sparks have begun to fly between Asfour and his star dancer, setting the stage for what will become a madcap four-sided triangle involving Asfour, Aleya, Kharamana’s corporeal alter ego, and Kharamana herself.

Now, as both the plot and the specializations of its stars have probably already indicated, Afrita Hanem is indeed a musical, though perhaps one that those accustomed to the more Western-ears-friendly cadences of woods Bolly and Holly might find an acquired taste. Unlike the tunes in the aforementioned Ismail Yassin’s Phantom -- many of which were Jazz influenced -- Farid Al Atriche’s compositions here all feature the spiraling quarter step melodies and mournful cadences of traditional Arabic music. And, while these all give our male star the chance to demonstrate what is without question a beautiful and marvelously supple voice, they are not likely to set the toes of uninitiated non-Arab listeners immediately to tapping. (Interestingly, the only time that European style harmony enters the score is as an accompaniment to the devilish enticements of some underworld denizens who are attempting to tempt Asfour away from his destiny with Kharamana.) That said, those who find themselves alienated by the sounds of these songs will perhaps find an ameliorating comfort zone in the manner of their presentation, which is a cozily familiar concatenation of twirling, smile-pasted chorus girls and fanciful sets marked by glittering stairways to the stars and gauzy billows of curtain.

And speaking of familiar, let me say that, in choosing to review Afrita Hanem, I initially thought that I was taking a step further into the broader world of classic Egyptian popular cinema, and away from those Ismail Yassin comedies -- like Phantom and A Trip To The Moon -- that had provided my introduction to it. Well, look who turns up in Afrita Hanem! Mind you, the part of Asfour’s best friend and manager Boqo is a great role for Yassin. Far from being just a comic relief simpleton, he in fact appears to be the only mortal on hand who knows what time it is, and as such tirelessly -- and with much good humor -- tries to steer Asfour toward his own heart’s best interests. Such a substantial supporting role, to my mind, offers a perfect showcase for Yassin, whose sleepy eyed bearing and marble mouthed delivery give him a kind of unique, slack-jawed charm that, while a welcome contrast to Afrita Hanem’s traditionally glamorous lead players, runs the risk of overstaying its welcome when burdened with carrying to much of the action.

Afrita Hanem concludes with a show-stopping production number in which Asfour and Semsema, having finally acknowledged their love for one another, are plunged into the underworld, where they must plead their case to the devil himself. Needless to say, Old Scratch ends up being won over by the depth of their affection, and frees them to live out there lives together in the mortal realm. The whole thing ends with a chorus line of male and female devils and demons prancing in circles around the couple while singing love’s praises. Like all of the production numbers in Afrita Hanem, it has its share of visible seams, but is nonetheless leant a considerable amount of glamour by the sheer wattage and infectious enthusiasm of its star participants. If the appeal of all of this sounds dubious to you, I nonetheless suggest that you check it out for yourself. Honestly, I dare you -- nay, I double dare you -- to hate this movie.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Awara Abdulla (India, 1963)

Over his long and prolific career as a star of Indian stunt films, it seems like Dara Singh at one time or another embodied every type of iconic movie adventure hero. It's almost as if he was some kind of human paper doll whose all-purpose heroic proportions allowed him to be dressed as Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Hercules, James Bond, or a swashbuckling pirate as suited the occasion. In the case of 1963's Awara Abdulla, that range of guises was expanded to include Zorro, with Dara playing a black clad, masked rider fighting for the rights of the poor and oppressed. It's a pretty obvious transition for Dara, and one that only Dara's horse, buckling under the wrestling star's famous bulk, might have seen as inappropriate.

Awara Abdulla was written by K.P. Pathak, who would later contribute to the screenplay for Manmohan Desai's delirious masala masterpiece Dharam Veer. This also makes a lot of sense, as, like Dharam Veer, Awara Abdulla involves babies switched at birth and families torn apart and then reunited by fate, as well as a fast and loose approach to period detail. Elements of Arabian Nights tales and Westerns recklessly carom off one another, with scheming princes in ornate towers, captured princesses and Parvin Chaudhary as a gunslinging cowgirl all maintaining an uneasy coexistence. Awara Abdulla even ups the ante on Dharam Veer about half hour in, when a couple of characters are seen speeding off in an automobile. For all its generosity, I have to admit that this is something that Dharam Veer is lacking -- something, in fact, that would make it even more perfect than it already is: a scene in which we see Dharmendra and Jeetendra tearing around in stock cars, or perhaps a motorcycle chase involving Zeenat Aman and Neetu Singh. Damn you, Bollywood; just when it seems like you've given us too much, you prove once again that it is in fact not enough.

Beyond the above details, Awara Abdulla sticks pretty close to the template set by Dara's debut vehicle King Kong, which had been released just a year previous. This was the early phase of Dara's stardom, after all, and, given that, I doubt that the filmmakers were eager to mess with the formula -- or to put too many demands on their hero's still budding skills as a thespian. Once again, we have Dara as a hero whose humble circumstances belie the fact of his noble birth, Master Bhagwan as the comic sidekick, and Chandrashekhar reprising his role from King Kong as the adversary who ultimately proves to be a sibling whom Dara had not previously known existed. Helen is also on hand in a substantial supporting role as the bad girl gone good, and, of course, the cast is also augmented by a coterie of "world renowned wrestlers" -- including Dara's brother Randhawa -- for our star to engage in some extremely drawn out fight sequences with.

Of course, the difference here is that Dara's fugitive status eventually requires that he don the aforementioned black mask and go about his heroic business incognito. How effective this might be as a means of disguise seems dubious, though, not only due to the star's distinctively imposing silhouette, but also to the fact that, once bemasked, he continues to go around spinning his opponents over his head and tossing them in the same signature manner that he did before. I also have to draw special attention to a later scene in which Dara engages in a wrestling match while wearing a head covering, Santo-style mask. I've crowed on insufferably about the parallels between Dara and Santo in the past, and I think that here is the closest thing we're going to see to Dara bringing it full circle.

The version of Awara Abdulla that I watched had been pretty savagely cut, with not only a number of transitional scenes missing, but also quite a few noticeable chunks missing from those scenes that remained. In this case I think we can place the blame more on those projectionists back in the day who were too eager to take home a souvenir than on the folks at Bombino or Moser Baer, but the result either way is that this version of Awara Abdulla barely clocks in at 90 minutes, which indicates substantial amounts of missing footage. This, combined with the VCD's lack of subtitles, means that any attempt on my part to describe the finer details of the film's plot would require an act of clairvoyance -- which is fine, really, because I suspect, from what I did see, that those details are pretty incidental. If you choose to watch this VCD, you will see plenty of Dara Singh hurling people over his head and flexing his pecs while being chained between two pillars, which are exactly the type of visual thrills that Awara Abdulla, and other films like it, were designed as a delivery device for.

Despite the considerable number of Dara Singh's films that I've already reviewed, I still have a pretty formidable stack of unwatched ones ahead of me. Of course, it's possible that I may throw my hands up and eventually abandon the project of watching and reviewing all of them -- but, even though what's behind me has revealed a whole lot of sameness, there have also been enough singular moments to make me wonder what I might be missing if I did choose to do so. "My God, man," a little voice in my ear might say. "Think of the dinosaurs!" And so, for the moment, I forge on. The only question will be which Dara I will find in the next entry I choose. Will he be wearing pants?

Okay, admittedly, that's what it all boils down to: Dara Singh movies can be roughly divided into those in which he wears pants and those in which he doesn't. In Awara Abdulla he does both, so it's something of a tour de force really.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Murderers Are Among Us (East Germany, 1946)

The Murderers Are Among Us was the first film produced by East Germany’s DEFA Studios, as well as the first post-war German film period. You could also say that it was the first in a long line of German films to both explore the complicity of the common German in the horrors of Nazism while at the same time expressing the country’s collective guilt over same.

Director Wolfgang Staudte, unlike a lot of his fellow creatives, remained in Germany throughout the Nazi years, and made his living in part by appearing as a supporting player in some of the propaganda-freighted feature films then being made under the auspices of the party. Among these was the notorious Jew Suss, which, for those who don’t know, is exactly the kind of hateful screed – dressed up, of course, in rousing melodramatic trappings – that you might expect if you put someone like Joseph Goebbels in charge of your country’s filmmaking apparatus. It was Staudte’s remorse over this contribution to the Nazi cause that eventually lead him to pen the initial script for Murderers.

The film stars then newcomer Hildegard Knef in the role of Susanne Wallner, a young woman who returns to Berlin after a two year imprisonment in a concentration camp, only to find her apartment occupied by one Hans Mertens (Ernst Whilhelm Borchert), an embittered and tightly wound former army doctor who appears to be in the midst of a dedicated project to drink himself to death. Seeing as he is unwilling to leave quietly, Susanne opts to share the apartment with this nasty piece of work, and in time somewhat implausibly falls in love with him. Eventually we learn that Mertens is traumatized by something he witnessed while stationed on the Eastern front, a massacre in which innocent civilians, including a large number of women and children, were callously mowed down by German soldiers. When he learns that the officer who ordered these shootings, contrary to his expectations, is not only not dead, but living a life of middle class comfort in Berlin, he feels driven to personally see to it that the man pays for his crimes.

Staudte’s use of postwar Berlin’s bombed out landscape provides Murderers with a look that could be described as a sort of readymade expressionism, at once documentary and evocative. It’s one of the more textually justified uses of the classic noir style that I’ve seen, as both the city and its inhabitants, like the film itself, exist in the palpable shadows cast by recent history. That these places and faces should be obscured in the pall cast by the omnipresent, looming ruins around them seems about as effective of a means of conveying this as I could imagine. These surroundings also seem to energize the players, as the performances from the main cast are uniformly intense and committed.
Still, the picture that Murderers paints is a powerful, if not particularly deep-delving one, with Staudte clearly striving to keep his message neatly contained within the confines of a fast moving genre entertainment. And while the result is indeed satisfyingly taut, there are still instances in which that approach sacrifices some of those things that could have made Murderers a somewhat more successful picture. Most notable among these is the sad underuse of Hildegard Knef. While the film’s story is initially told from Susanne’s perspective, her character gets reduced to something of a cipher once the drama of Mertens’ past takes center stage. We never learn anything about her experience in the camps, and, while one might speculate as to the reasons a woman like her might fall for a man like Mertens, their relationship ends up feeling less like a means of illuminating the characters and more like an inevitable narrative cog, with Sussane ultimately being reduced to little more than the “good woman” whose love helps to redeem the wayward hero.

In the end, all of this only serves to make Murderers a less complex film than it might have been, though it is a strong and irresistibly watchable one nonetheless. Ever since my blogging about cult cinema has taken me outside my cloistered liberal environs and into occasional contact with the type of folk who could conceivably be leery of getting communist cooties, I’ve made an effort when writing about these old Soviet Bloc movies to preemptively enumerate whatever elements within them could possibly be perceived as propagandistic. In this case, though, I’m going to treat those potential reader like the grownups that they are and assume that they can recognize Murderers as a picture that stands tall on its own merits, despite whatever ideological filters it may have passed through in its birthing process. After all, it should be noted that Staudte initially sought Western backing for the film, and only approached the Soviets with his screenplay after being turned down by the other occupying powers, who didn’t take kindly to the idea of a reinvigorated German film industry so soon after the war’s end.

That said, I will say that the officials at DEFA were probably not displeased by the fact that the conscientious former soldier in Staudte’s story was a doctor, while the remorseless one was an industrialist. It should also be noted that those officials altered the director’s original ending, adding an explicit endorsement of handling war criminals through the court system, rather than by vigilantism. Nonetheless, what one ultimately takes away from The Murderers Are Among Us is not any product of politics or ideology, but instead the overwhelming and free floating sense of haunted-ness that enfolds both its characters and landscapes -- not to mention the very movie itself. That’s something that I think is relatable to anyone, no matter what they bring to the table. Though, of course, some of us are more haunted than others.