Monday, August 1, 2011

Balaa (Pakistan, 1992)

Balaa has been scientifically determined to consist of 89% zoom shots, with 77% of those accompanied by thunderclap sound effects. Of course, if you are someone who is at all familiar with the Pashto language cinema of Pakistan, the scientific odds of you being surprised by that fact are precisely 0%. Look, then, for novelty in the film's conspicuous lack of wet spandex and insistent taxidermy motif.

Like so many Pashto films of its day, Balaa centers on a feuding pair of he-men in which one of the pair is played by Badar Munir. The other half of the pair is our villain, the demonic warlord Kublai Khan, who has a penchant for yanking small children from their parents' arms and gleefully tossing them into a huge bonfire that always seems to be burning in the center of his gang's campground.  Badar Munir, for his part, plays a tribal leader who is intent on ending Kublai Khan's reign of terror. In this he has a partner, a just as generously mustached fellow capable of gravity defying feats of kung fu that belie his somewhat cherubic stature. This character may be played by Shahid; I'm honestly not sure, though the build-up he gets -- serial shock zooms, a ground-up pan that makes him look the height of Konga, LOTS of thunderclaps -- suggests that he's quite a big deal, whoever he is.

Alongside these vociferously warring mortals, Balaa also presents us with a gaggle of snaggletoothed witches. These consistently walk the fine line between laughable and disturbing, with the hags and their creepy milieu actually providing a few genuine scares here and there. Elsewhere, their carryings on will merely be a source of confusion for those who, like myself, are trying to parse Balaa without the aid of translation. Such a scene is the one where Kublai Khan's lady friend (Chakori), seemingly  bewitched herself, digs up a corpse and then starts to maniacally knead dough on it's bare chest.

Not surprisingly, it is the witches -- and Balaa's horror elements in general -- that provide the most interest, as well as the most fun. As in the previously reviewed Adam Khor, a lot of effort is put into ramping up a cheesy, funhouse atmosphere, with obscene amounts of howling wind, ominous cackling, and closeups of leering skeletons put to the task of cluing us in whenever something spooky is about to happen, has just happened, or simply may happen. Unfortunately, the intervals between such "boo" moments are generous in length, and tend to contribute to Balaa being dispiritingly tiresome at times. This, however, may be more my fault than director Qaiser Sanober's, as the film comes with a surfeit of characters and subplots that make it a somewhat unfriendly watch for a viewer ignorant of the language.

Also filling out Balaa's non-supernatural moments -- alongside, of course, a lot of throaty yelling back and forth between our two leads -- are a literal shit ton of musical numbers. These, as I indicated above, are relatively chaste for a Pashto film (or at least they are in the cut of the film I saw). This is not to say that the posteriors of the female dancers go wholly ignored by the camera, mind you, just that the crotch cam is kept at a comparatively discreet distance, and that there are few scenes in which any dancer appears to be on the verge of literally sitting upon the lens. Relieved of such preoccupations, Sanober even seems to have put a little thought into making these sequences look interesting, as is evidenced by one dance number that employs a nifty split screen effect. I also have to point out that I think this is the first time that I've actually seen a song picturized on Badar Munir himself, and that, having now seen him dance, I can imagine why it might not have been a frequent occurrence.

Stepping up to balance the sleaze deficit left by Balaa's less porny approach to the balletic arts, Sanober piles on the blood and guts, delivering a series of gore sequences that are stunning in their audacity. At one point, a female captive of Kublai Khan's caresses and smooches the severed head of her lover, at another, Khan cuts gory chunks off of a bound captive and then gleefully holds them up for the victim's inspection, and finally, a puppet dog's head gnaws at a bad guy's abdomen until his entire intestinal tract is torn out of a piece.  As you might have guessed, none of this looks at all realistic, and instead suggests frequent trips to the butcher's shop for remnants. But if you're a fan of thrift store Grand Guignol with an obnoxiously in-you-face attitude -- as I most certainly am -- there is much to adore here.

There is enough that is enjoyable about Balaa that I'm a bit sad that I can't more wholeheartedly recommend it. There are, in fact, some parts of it that need to be seen, though at the cost of also slogging through many parts that don't. To deal with that, I suggest you tend to some household chores while it's on, and only snap to attention whenever you hear echo-y cackling, rattling bones, or howling wind on the soundtrack.


memsaab said...

"To deal with that, I suggest you tend to some household chores while it's on..."

OR we can just read your worthy review and skip it, although I confess I kind of love Badal Munir (was he not in Haseena---he is the cross between Charles Bronson and Kris Kristofferson?).

I'm glad you watch these movies so I don't have to :)

memsaab said...

Um, Badar Munir. I guess I don't like him enough to remember his name...

Todd said...

I think you're confusing him with Amitabh's horse from Mard.

Anonymous said...

Hey, how do you understand the dialogue in these films? And, I mean, how did you even come to hear of Pashtun cinema? I mean it's a relatively obscure part of the foreign cinema experience (does that make any sense?).

Anyway, all this is coming from a Pashtun who loves reading your reviews. Seeing a Western take on the post-modern monster that is Pashtun horror cinema is hilarious. Keep it up, man.

Todd said...

Thanks! I think I will.

The short answer to your question is that I don't understand the dialog in these films. Because of that I owe a great debt to Omar over at The Hotspot Online for the detailed synopsis he provides for a wide assortment of Pashtun films. Fortunately, a lot of the films' elements -- ridiculous gore, funky monsters, and violent manliness -- translate pretty well across borders.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see. Now excuse me as I link your blog to every Pakistani I know.

Todd said...

By all means!