Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shikari (India, 1963)

We now near the end of Jungle Adventure Month, a series that has tried to wring the most entertainment value possible out of the irony of a man who rarely goes out of doors trying to assess the value of films in which people venture deep into the wild. I mean, honestly, who am I to judge the verisimilitude of these movies? I’ve never encountered a gorilla in the wild. Maybe they really do look like this. And perhaps lions and tigers really do go all floppy and limp after they pounce on you. It just might be that those are older cats who are trying to preserve their energy by simply overcoming their opponent with dead weight. And it could be that the jungle really is populated by light-skinned people with bones in their hair who eat a steady diet of explorers, pith helmets, jodhpurs and all. I’m simply in no position to make that call.

But what I will tell you is that, if there is one film that truly represents the reality of jungle adventure, I hope that it’s Shikari. Not that Shikari is free of those clichés mentioned above. It’s not. But, in addition to those, it also features several things sorely absent from all of the jungle films I’ve reviewed in the past weeks -- those being a mad scientist, some giant monsters, zombies, and Bollywood’s premiere item girl Helen. It is also so beguilingly candy colored that even the lava looks like molten bubblegum:

I mean, where else are you going to find a movie that’s a collision between King Kong, Dr. Cyclops and Willy Wonka?

Shikari (which is not to be confused with Shikar, which is another shit awesome Bollywood jungle movie -- or with Shakira, which is some kind of South American werewolf or something) was directed by Mohammed Hussain, who, to me, is a towering figure in the world of Bollywood B movies. When he wasn’t doing other cool things -- like making a musical version of the original Dirty Harry, or one of Bollywood’s earliest rip-offs of Superman, or positioning Feroz Khan as India’s answer to James Bond -- Hussain was one of the Indian action directors who you could most count on to fill the screen with rubber beasties and other unhinged fantasy elements. Shikari shows him in fine form in this regard, while also demonstrating his ability to craft a cracking good -- albeit rough-hewn -- piece of briskly paced pulp entertainment.

The film concerns a jungle expedition on the part of a group of circus folk lead by Madan Puri. Also along for the trip are an eccentric scientist and Rita (Ragini), the lovely young daughter of the circus owner. Along the way, they also hook up with a heroic hunter by the name of Ajit, who is in fact played by Bollywood actor Ajit, still in those days before his Lo Lieh-like descent into ugliness and recurring villain roles. Now, without English subtitles, it is impossible for me to say with certainty what the object of this expedition is, but my guess is that those involved are searching for the legendary giant ape that the natives refer to as Otango.

In any case, whether they’re looking for him or not, Otango is indeed what they find, although not for a good while. In fact, the gang’s initial encounter with the beast is a bit anticlimactic, with Otango, rather than menacing them outright, really just kind of heckling them as he passes by. It’s like one of those brief traffic altercations that ends when the light changes. Anyway, we’ll eventually get a chance to see Otango in all his glory later...

...and, until then, there are plenty of perilous scrapes, upbeat musical numbers, and encounters with hostile natives to keep us interested.

Finally, our explorers come upon the remote underground laboratory of Dr. Cyclops, played by KN Singh. At first, Cyclops makes nice with the group, but it is not long before his -- I think -- daughter Shobha (Helen) is cluing them in to the fact that he is fucking cah-ray-zee. If the fact that Cyclops takes no pause at Helen walking around his cave lair dressed like a gypsy milkmaid all the time isn’t enough to bolster that claim, then the fact that he’s got a miniaturized lady in a jar in his lab and a horrible dinosaur chained up in his basement might be.

The viewer could also be forgiven for thinking that this whole section of Shikari is meant to be some kind of acid flashback on the part of the principles, as for most of it we see them traipsing around through upturned brontosaurus ribcages and caverns filled with giant mushrooms.

Dinosaurs, whimsical alpine attire, and happy drug associations aside, Shikari is not a perfect film. But even its flaws are kind of adorable. For one thing, its most egregious and lengthy instance of padding occurs within the first five minutes of the movie, in the form of a scene in which we see Madan Puri and co. watching some kind of protracted ice capades performance. I’m not even sure if the footage of that performance is original to the movie -- well, I’m pretty sure it isn’t, actually; the whole thing screams of stock footage. But that’s no matter, because, whatever its origin, that footage documents in part the performance of an ice skating chimpanzee, which is more than enough to justify its existence.

I was able to enjoy Shikari immensely without the aid of subtitles. In fact, this was my second time viewing it in that manner. Yet it’s another one of those Bollywood B films, like Wahan Ke Log, that I think would be quite a big cult item were it presented in a manner that would make it accessible to a wider audience. Lord knows I won’t do it, but I’m convinced that there is someone out there for whom forking out the cash to release a restored and subtitled DVD of Shikari is not only their solemn destiny but also a moral obligation. DAMMIT, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Jungle Ka Jawahar (India, 1952)

Let’s face it: Jungle Adventure Month hasn’t been easy on any of us. That’s why, after suffering through the stubborn just-there-ness of Jungle King, I thought I’d turn myself over to the professionals. And that brings us to Jungle Ka Jawahar. It was produced and directed by the king of Indian stunt films himself, Homi Wadia, and stars his queen -- and wife -- the Australian-born Mary Evans, more legendarily known as Fearless Nadia. But, wait, that’s not all! The film also benefits from the set design and special effects work of the great Babhubai Mistry, who was not only a pioneer of Indian special effects, but also the director of a number of captivating Bollywood fantasy and mythological films in his own right.

Granted, the forty-something Nadia looks a bit matronly here, but she’s still game enough that I think we can extrapolate from Jungle Ka Jawahar what those stunt films from her 1930s heyday might have been like. (Which, sadly, is all that we can do for the moment, as none of those films are currently available for our viewing.) While some of her feats of daredevilry are filmed from a safe enough distance that they could conceivably have been performed by a double -- or are aided in part by rear-projection trickery -- in the film’s many acrobatic fights scenes we can clearly see, for the most part, that it’s Nadia getting down and dirty in the thick of things. She even pulls off one of those Dara Singh moves where she twirls a guy over her head before tossing him back at her opponents. (Which, now that I think about it, could just as easily have been an original Fearless Nadia move that Dara Singh later borrowed.) Hers is definitely a commitment to hands-on, sweaty, rough-and-tumble action that is very far indeed from what we’d expect to see from the typical Indian film heroine of this, or any previous, era -- which is another way of saying that Nadia indeed delivers in full on her reputation here.

The film’s story concerns a perpetually pissed-off jungle queen called Sheena -- played with fiery-eyed petulance by Leela Kumari -- who is scheming to return to her tribe a sacred scepter that has somehow fallen into the hands of a kindly jungle doctor played by Aga Shapoor. Aiding her in her scheming is one of those awful big city fortune hunters who so often arrive in the jungle to stir things up, in this case played by Dalpat.

What these two hadn’t counted on, however, is the facility that the doctor’s daughter, Mala (Nadia), has with swinging from vines, high diving, leaping from her perch high atop the backs of elephants, and generally kicking ass in the name of keeping things in the jungle status quo. And, by the way, I love the switch-up that Jungle Ka Jawahar pulls by having a fur-clad character named Sheena who, despite being -- like the famous comic book character from whom she takes her name -- the Queen of the Jungle, spends the whole of the movie stomping ineffectually around her cave lair in a big snit, while it is the dowdy Nadia, in her sensible safari wear, who takes part in all of the traditional jungle heroics.

Aside from that, however, Jungle Ka Jawahar doesn’t throw much at us that’s not covered in Jungle Adventure 101. Present are all those elements that have seemed to become part of the very air we breath here at 4DK over the past month: Pith-helmeted explorers tied to elaborately carved posts as natives dance in supplication to a creepy giant idol, one of their number eagerly stirring a giant stew pot in anticipation of the meal to come; someone wrestling with an uproariously fake looking stuffed lion; the outrageously phony gorilla costume; and, of course, the climactic elephant charge. What Jungle Ka Jawahar brings to this stew of familiar elements is an enthusiasm that works somewhat toward belying their not-so-freshness, as if this oft told tale was instead being told for -- well, maybe not the first, but perhaps only the hundredth time, rather than the thousandth.

The film also benefits from a sort of antique charm, even by the standards of Bollywood circa 1952. Take away the abundance of novelty musical numbers and comic relief sequences, and what you have is almost indistinguishable from a Hollywood movie serial from the 30s, complete with all of the last minute escapes, diabolical traps and rowdy physical stunts that entails. Even the film’s music, with all of its big band dynamics and whimsical clarinet leads, seems anachronistic, often coming across as a sort of Cab Calloway take on jungle exotica. All of this works together to instill the movie with an appropriately “gee whiz” kind of breathlessness, granting it just enough of an air of innocence and sincerity to keep the reeling out of its tropes from becoming tiresome.

Babhubai Mistry’s work here also goes a long way toward weaving a little bit of old fashioned magic around Jungle Ka Jawahar’s otherwise modest presentation. While clearly some location shooting was involved, the film is largely a backlot affair, and Mistry’s fancifully stylized sets -- from the jungle environs to Sheena’s expressionistic, idol-adorned cave lair -- conjure happy associations with set-bound Hollywood jungle adventures from the 30s and 40s like The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong. (I also couldn’t help thinking of the recent Filipino film Independencia, whose self-consciously artificial jungle sets were designed as an homage to such films.) It also has to be said that Mistry’s miniature work here is top-notch, and definitely on par with what was being done elsewhere in the world, Hollywood included -- which leads me to wonder again what the hell happened to Bollywood special effects, and why in later years they fell so dramatically (and hilariously!) behind pace with what was being done in the field elsewhere.

Most importantly, perhaps, Jungle Ka Jawahar manages to let us know that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously without lapsing into complete parody. Intermittent winks toward the audience cumulatively serve as a good natured invitation for us to check our incredulity at the door and simply thrill along as god and Homi Wadia intended. A parting shot, in which even the ridiculous looking man-in-suit gorilla waves goodbye to the triumphant Nadia as she speeds off in her plane, lets the viewer know in no uncertain terms that, if he or she spent the previous two hours worrying over Jungle Ka Jawahar’s general silliness or crudeness of construction, he or she just missed out on a whole lot of fun.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jungle King (India, 1959)

Right. I bet you thought that the lion was the king of the jungle. But, in reality, it's a hairy, very slightly paunchy guy in a loincloth -- though, I must point out, one who bears no relation to that more famous and prohibitively trademarked loinclothed jungle king seen in less circumspect Indian movies like this one and this one and this one.

The jungle under this particular, non-copyright-infringing king's reign is a carefree place, one in which the natives while away their days with singing, dancing and general, good-natured horsing around. That is, until a gang of elephant poachers lead by a fancy lady encroach upon their leafy paradise and disturb the natural balance. But, to tell the truth, even that doesn't succeed in disturbing their jungle idyll all that much, as, despite the poachers' increasing depredations, those natives -- Jungle King included -- continue on with all of their singing, dancing and horsing around until pretty much Jungle King's final reel. All told, that translates into Jungle King containing a fuck of a lot of musical numbers, which, given that it's a very low budget film, further translates into it containing even more running around trees than your usual Bollywood movie.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that the fancy lady -- who, when she's not out in the wild in her pith helmet and jodhpurs, wears bauble-y evening gowns and resides in a mansion -- is not, unlike every other villainess in a Bollywood jungle movie, in love with the loinclothed hero, but rather just wants to kill him outright. This provides Jungle King with some much needed conflict. However, things are not quite what they seem. Oh, damn. Well, let's just ignore that for the rest of this review.

Jungle King's top billing goes to child star Shaga Hydoo, who plays the Jungle King's son -- and whom, for reasons of verbal economy only, arising from the fact that I couldn't make out his character's name in the unsubtitled VCD's dialog, I will call "Boy". To tell the truth, that is just weird. Because, although Hydoo gets plenty of screen time, this is clearly Tarza-- I mean, Jungle King's movie. Also on hand is plus-sized comedienne TunTun, who commands a tribe of pygmies played by small boys in fake beards. I have also heard of Sheela Ramani, who plays Jungle King's mate -- and Boy's mom -- Shiva.

Part of me wants to say that Jungle King could not possibly be more generic. But there is another part of me that knows that, with just the slightest amount of coaxing, my brain could in fact come up with something even more woefully rote in its adherence to jungle movie tropes than this one. This leaves me no choice but to focus on those things which, although preciously marginal, slightly set Jungle King apart from the jungle movie pack.

(Sound of notes rustling.)

Hmm... well, in the final act, all of the principles end up being tied to posts by the villains. Um, no, that's not it. Oh, wait: But then Jungle King lets out a mighty cry and a herd of elephants comes to the rescue! Oh, right, that's not it either.

Did I mention that TunTun leads a pack of pygmies played by children in fake beards? I did? Well, fuck it. I'm going to go with that, anyway. Come on. That's really not something you see every day.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.

Georgette of the jungle

Like a virus, Jungle Adventure month is spreading, and not even Teleport City is immune. For proof, see my freshly posted review of The Face of Eve, a Euro-Tarzan movie where the Tarzan is a lady and one of the co-stars is Venerated Horror Film Icon Christopher Lee.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thong, aka Gold (Thailand, 1973)

Thus far in Jungle Adventure month I’ve been covering jungle films of one particular type, that being those which, to some extent, revolve around either men, women or children swinging around on vines, being blissfully in touch with their primitive sides, and communing with wild animals -- and in some cases even, apparently, having sex with them. But there is another type of jungle adventure -- one that increasingly came into vogue during the 1970s and 80s -- that I have yet to put the spotlight on. And by that I refer to those films in which a bunch of violent mercenaries venture into a war-torn jungle to retrieve a fortune in gold. The 1973 Thai film Thong -- whose title translates into English as Gold, and which later saw English language release under the more evocative moniker S.T.A.B. -- is just such a film.

Thong’s director, Chalong Pakddivijit -- or “Phillip Chalong”, as he’s more commonly known to Mr. Round Eye-- made his directing debut in 1968 with Jao Insee, part of the popular series of Thai films featuring superstar Mitr Chaibancha as the masked hero Red Eagle. However, Chalong would not truly make his mark until a few years later, when he would follow a path similar to that of Filipino director/producer Cirio Santiago. That path involved Chalong making action pictures with an eye toward the international market, and casting within those films C List American stars in order to better appeal to English speaking audiences. Thong was the first of these films, and its success -- both in terms of its domestic Thai box office receipts and in terms of securing foreign distribution -- would lead to Chalong repeating the formula with films like 1975’s H-Bomb with Chris Mitchum, 1983’s Gold Raiders with Robert Ginty, 1990’s The Lost Idol with Eric Estrada, and 1992’s In Gold We Trust with Jan Michael Vincent.

In the case of Thong, the downward plane-ing American actor putatively increasing the film’s Western Q score is former Mission Impossible star Greg Morris, whose presence the filmmakers attempt to capitalize upon to the extent of blaring the Mission Impossible theme on the film’s soundtrack whenever he shows up on screen. And for the locals, as Morris’s co-star we have Sombat Methanee, inarguably Thailand’s biggest movie star at the time. Further wattage is provided by Krung Srivilai, who, like Methanee, was also a major action star in Thailand during the 70s. And also along for the ride is Vietnamese actress Tham Thuy Hang, who was no stranger to international productions, having reportedly also starred in films that were at least in part financed by the Philippines, Hong Kong and the U.S.

It only took a few minutes of watching Thong to understand why it was such a big hit in Thailand in its day. Compared to other action films made in the country during the 70s -- most of which were intended primarily for the local market -- Thong’s production values are pretty handsome. This means that, not only do we get the typical exploding grass huts, but also some exploding utility sheds. I think that even some drywall may have been sacrificed. But I kid. In all seriousness, Thong clearly demonstrates that it has the means to provide a steady stream of thrills from start to finish, and then delivers. Little screen time passes without there being some kind of flashy stunt or pyrotechnics This results in the film being a lot of dumb fun, even if you are watching the original Thai version minus English subtitles. (Again: Subtitles are for losers.)

In the film, Morris plays a badass, secret-agent-for-hire guy whose services are engaged to retrieve a planeload of gold belonging to the U.S. that was hijacked over North Vietnam. Once hired, he wastes no time in assembling his crew of rough-and-tumble mercenaries. Sombat’s character is an obvious ne’er-do-well whom Morris hooks up with after Sombat makes a daring escape from police custody that involves him jumping off of a suspension bridge from a moving train and into the water a hundred feet below. Another recruit is a race car driver (played by another Thai actor whom I recognize but sadly can’t identify). Once on the transport plane on their way to Vietnam, this pair meets two other members of the team. One is the pilot (Srivilai), who also proves to be handy with throwing knives. The other is a guy whose sole job is to ride around on a motorcycle with a machinegun mounted on it and shoot people. He even parachutes out of the plane while mounted on his bike -- it just may be that, like the green army man molded into the jeep, he’s incapable of standing on his own.

Once on the ground and in “the shit”, the group meets up with the final member of the crew, a sexy female mercenary in black hotpants (Tham Thuy Hang) who is charged with guiding them all through the jungle, but who is also more than willing to slip out of her clothes whenever a strategic distraction is needed. A flashback shows us that the pilot, race car driver guy and hotpants woman all have some kind of history together, but, without translation, all that flashback really reveals is some to-die-for 70s threads….

…a nightclub with a deeply weird wall mural…

…and a love scene on a waterbed.

Eventually the gang meets up with a couple more gun-wielding babes who are apparently bent on freeing their father from a North Vietnamese military prison. Once united, this band joins together to become one big, machine-gunning, motorcycle-riding, knife-throwing, clothes-doffing machine. And with all of the first act's annoying, untranslated exposition out of the way, Thong’s plot becomes as transparent as a video game’s. Basically, this group just has to make their way through the jungle to the gold, and kill as many communists as they can in the course of doing so. Rest assured that, in the process, motorcycle jumps will be accomplished, helicopters will be blowed up, and machineguns will be fired by people who are going “AAAAAAAAAAA!” for no reason.

The version of Thong that I watched featured the film’s Thai stars far more than it does Greg Morris, which leads me to suspect that the international version released as S.T.A.B. -- which, incidentally, did not hit theaters until three years after Thong’s domestic release date -- features a different, perhaps more Morris-intensive cut. I know that there are old VHS copies of that version floating around, and, judging from what I saw in Thong, it might be worth the effort to track one down. After all, this is exactly the kind of film that could only be improved by haphazardly dubbed English dialog.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.