Sunday, January 29, 2017

Super Girl (Pakistan, 1989)

While looking for background information about Super Girl, I slipped into an internet K-hole that contained a bunch of weird, fan-made Supergirl movies and a community of “underwater peril” fetishists. During one of the many showers I’ve taken in the hours since then, it occurred to me that, if you are a regular reader of 4DK, I don’t really need to present you with a lot of background on Super Girl. All I have to do is tell you that it is an old Pakistani movie starring Sultan Rahi and Anjuman and your head will immediately be filled with the sound of people bellowing insults at each other in Punjabi against a background of thunderclap sound effects.
The bellowing in Super Girl starts right off; with Rahi charging into his sister’s wedding on horseback to loudly object to her arranged marriage. A scuffle follows with several knife wielding guests (the groomsmen, perhaps?), whom Rahi either kills or just beats up really bad. His mother, chagrined by what Martha Stewart might say about such a departure from protocol, smacks him with the hard truth that he, also, is party to an arranged marriage, although he does not even know his bride due to the arrangement taking place when he was a young child. Cue the thunderclaps!

Rahi demands to know where this wife of his is, and his mother tells him that she is in London, living the life of a swinging single girl in the big city. This prompts from Rahi a chilling vow that he will bring her back and “make her drink the water of the village well”, which I assume means that he will cleanse her of her filthy western ways and reduce her to a state of trembling servitude appropriate to the wife of an exemplar of Punjabi manhood such as himself. He then doffs his kameez in favor of a button down shirt and slacks (the closest thing to male nudity that I have yet seen in a Sultan Rahi movie) and hops on the next plane to Blighty.

We are then taken to a London disco, where Rahi’s better half, the notorious Super Girl, backed by a chorus of chrome spangled boy toys, is singing the movie’s theme song, a percolating disco number that randomly incorporates the riff from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Super Girl is portrayed by frequent Rahi co-star Anjuman, whose status at the time as a female superstar in the hyper-masculine world of Punjabi cinema was at least unprecedented, if not completely anomalous. Anjuman had put on a few pounds at this point in her career, and I’ve read that the Pakistani press gave her a really hard time about it. This perplexes me, because, at the size she is here, Anjuman could have easily played the heroine in a Pashto movie—and you don’t hear about anyone giving the likes of Shehnaz Begum trouble about her weight. (Of course, there was probably an element of fear for one’s physical safety at play in that.)

Anyway, we soon learn that Super Girl is a stylish master criminal who, when she is not playing at being a disco diva or shaking down drug dealers, is careening around town with her two doltish cronies in either a purple dune buggy or a little red corvette convertible. Of course, at this point, she has no idea that an aggrieved Sultan Rahi is heading her way, or that he is carrying with him a conservative dress that he plans to force her into. And that is probably for the best, as, at the moment, Super Girl seems to have other problems. No sooner have she and her stooges left da klub than they are attacked by a band of ninja assassins. Super Girl makes short work of these assailants with some lightning fast kung fu moves—which are mainly accomplished via lots of quick cutting and some very loud sound effects that will make you fear that the building you are in is collapsing. Obviously, Super Girl has made someone in London really pissed off, and one of her henchmen suggests that she head to Manila until things cool off.

Of course, no sooner has Super Girl left London than the newly dapper Sultan Rani arrives. He wanders around forlornly for a while, showing Super Girl’s photo to random passersby (The Chi-lites “Have You Seen Her” would have worked really well on the soundtrack), before learning from a helpful merchant that she has hightailed it to the Philippines. He follows.

And it is here in Super Girl that, if not for Omar Khan’s fine review of the film for The Hotspot Cafe site, I would have become very confused. You see, most, if not all, of Super Girl’s location footage was shot in Manila—an unsurprising fact given the cozy economic relationship that Pakistan and the PI enjoyed at the time. The problem is that those parts of the film that were meant to be taking place in London—including most of the film’s first half hour--were also shot in Manila, with the only concession to verisimilitude being occasionally inserted stock footage of Big Ben. I, of course, watched this film without subtitles, and the combination of that and the recurring shots of planes taking off, which suggested long-range travel, might have left me with a very strange idea of where Super Girl was meant to be taking place. Of course, the prominence of a hotel called The Philippines Village in many of the shots probably would have clued me in eventually.

Anyway, as soon as Rahi arrives in Manila, he encounters a fellow Pakistani who is begging for change on the street. This fellow will be the first of a number of comic relief back-up players who will be bulking up Super Girl’s running time from this point, so consider yourselves warned. It is also around this time that he meets PJ, a giggling deviant in a bad hair metal wig who is a member of the vast criminal network of which Super Girl is also a part. PJ, whose lair gives prominence to a fountain shaped like a giant liquor bottle, is in charge of a human trafficking operation that involves recruiting/tricking young Pakistani girls to work in the Filipino sex trade. His most recent victim is Gauri, a feisty village belle who, according to Omar Khan, is played by Anjuman’s actual sister.

If you are a fan of these films, like I am, there is one name that is so far conspicuous by its absence from this review—and that’s Mustafa Qureshi. Qureshi, with Rahi and Anjuman, formed the triumvirate of stars who would star together in dozens of films throughout the 70s and 80s. And though he was repeatedly defeated—and badly thrashed—by Rahi in every single one of those films, he nonetheless remained the only villain who seemed to be a worthy opponent for Rahi, matching him both in volume as well as ferocity until the final turnabout that would bring about his ruin.

It is perhaps by way of compensation for Qureshi’s absence that the makers of Super Girl came up with Black Cobra, the Boss at the top of Super Girl and PJ’s criminal network. I may be wrong, but it appeared to me that he was played by Asif Khan, an actor who I normally associate with Pashto films. In any case, whoever had the idea of making all the bad guys in Super Girl look like members of an awful Bon Jovi tribute band is responsible for giving the film a distinctive visual stamp. Apparently, all of these people hide their evil intentions under their huge hair, and Black Cobra, who brings the look home by wearing enough ill-fitting black leather to look like he stepped out of a Turkish X-Men movie, is no exception. I should also note that PJ and Super Girl appear to have switched wigs at one point, which no doubt has some kind of deep significance.

Super Girl also makes up for a lot by being a film in which Sultan Rahi and Anjuman are actual co-stars. Unlike the actresses whom Rahi had previously been paired with, who were often there just to sing a couple of songs to an indifferent Rahi before being rescued from the villain, Anjuman gets a lot of screen time, especially due to the bifurcated structure of the film’s first hour. Furthermore, Super Girl is presented as being a sort of counterpart to Rahi--equally shouty, violent and fearless—which makes the moment when they finally encounter one another all the more enjoyable.

That moment comes at the instigation of Super Girl’s long suffering father, who arranges a meeting between the two after Rahi tracks him down. Super Girl is just as unware of her marriage to Rahi as he was, and her reaction--well, ladies, just imagine being suddenly informed that you were married to as wrathful a personification of medievalist cultural values as Sultan Rahi, and I think you’ll get the idea. For a woman like Super Girl, Rahi’s ideas of enforced domesticity are a personally tailored nightmare, as is that dress he bears with him.

Finally, Rahi and Super Girl come to blows—and it’s a pretty great fight, featuring as it does two fairly hefty looking people wildly back flipping around like methed-up Russian gymnasts. Super Girl actually gets some good blows in, but is ultimately unable to withstand Rahi’s power slaps (yes, he wins the fight by repeatedly slapping her in the face.) Rahi then drags the defeated Super Girl back to her father’s house and locks her in a room with THE DRESS. This proves incentive enough for her to make a break for it, after which she hides out in PJ’s lair, where Super Girl’s all-fighting/all-shooting climax takes place.

I would love to tell you that Super Girl resists Sultan Rahi’s bullying and never wears that damn dress—and perhaps someday I will make a blog where I review movies as I wish they were, rather than as they are—but I think you would know that I was lying. Indeed, she does knuckle under, demurely avoiding Rahi’s eyes as he looks her over approvingly. The only thing that redeems this scene is that it immediately precedes one in which Super Girl leads Rahi to Black Cobra’s lair, following a route that takes them through a graveyard full of dancing ghouls. If anybody is keeping track of all these South Asian “Thriller” rip-offs, this is unmistakably one of them. Hell, it’s probably already on YouTube.

Once inside Black Cobra’s lair, Rahi and the Cobra get into it in a big way. It’s a pretty spectacular fight--desperate and vicious--which ends when Rahi, at his moment of victory, is set upon by Black Cobra’s minions and stabbed repeatedly. Of course, poking holes in Sultan Rahi only makes him more aerodynamic, and so he handily survives the five story fall that follows.

Super Girl’s action-packed final act observes all of the most important rules of low budget action cinema—primarily the one that says that there must be a helicopter, that someone at some point must hang from that helicopter and, finally, that that helicopter must get blowed up. At the end of the fight, with the Philippines rid of evil and helicopters, our heroes return to Pakistan, where Super Girl sings a love song to an indifferent Sultan Rahi—which is perhaps a less super outcome than she might have preferred.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A treat for the eyes, an offense for the ears

Most of you will understand what I mean when I say that Friday was a very important day. For those of you who don't, it was an important day because the two most recurrent of my recurrent projects became available to all and sundry on the internet. Duh.

The first was the latest episode of Taiwan Noir, the podcast that I do with a charming Swedish gentlemen named Kenny B. With this latest installment, Kenny and I again try to keep things accessible by focusing on plagiarized Taiwanese kaiju films that feature cut and pasted material from better known Japanese titles--in this case, Mars Men and Superriders Against the Devils. You can download or stream the episode here.

The second was the archived version of the latest episode of Pop Offensive, which will be the last episode on which my old friend Jeff Heyman will appear for a few months. I believe he's going to pursue solo fame with a spinoff series titled Heyman! In any case, I will be continuing the show with a parade of guest co-hosts until his return. In the meantime, this latest ep serves as a pleasantly percolating "so long" to our old buddy, brimming over with pure pop perfection. You can stream it here. And if you need further convincing, you can read the complete playlist for the episode on the Pop Offensive Facebook Page.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Friday's best pop song ever

Party in Hell (Iran, 1956)

While popular with Iranian audiences, Party in Hell was controversial in its day—perhaps for its combination of traditional religious imagery and broad slapstick comedy. The religious imagery I’m talking about is, of course, its depiction of hell and purgatory. But from which tradition that imagery is derived is open to question. There are indeed many similarities between the Muslim and Christian conceptions of Hell, but when Party in Hell introduces Biblical figures like Adam and Eve into its narrative, it seems to indicate the latter as its primary source. Of course, this question could be easily set to rest if I’d had access to a translated version of Party in Hell, which is why you don’t pay money to read this blog.

It seems that the makers of Party in Hell were as or more familiar with the story of Scrooge as that of the Bible, as that is the story that is here being warmed over for our delectation. Popular stage comedian Reeza Arham Sadr plays Haji Jabbar, a wealthy merchant who is as tyrannical as he is stingy and grasping. In fact, the film does such a good job of establishing Haji as a complete bastard that it is difficult to swallow the comic antics his character falls back upon during its phantasmagorical second half. Haji is shown gleefully evicting a destitute mother and her starving children and then brutally manhandling his daughter Parvin (Roufia) in a rage over her wanting to marry her penniless lover. Parvin then sings a sad song to a caged bird, because, as with so many national cinemas, music was a key part of Iranian popular cinema—or, more accurately, Film Farsi—at the time. Seemingly, it’s only in America that making a lightweight musical romance with major studio backing is seen as taking some kind of tremendous artistic risk (yes, La La Land, feel the stink eye.)

Eventually, Haji becomes gravely ill and takes to his bed, whereupon he is visited by the angel Azrael, who ignores his pleas and whisks him off to purgatory. Party in Hell was considered quite technically advanced in its day, and it’s true that no small amount of modestly budgeted movie magic was expended in realizing its comically surrealistic vision of the underworld. Haji and his conscientious assistant Ahmad (Ezzatollah Vosough), who is also there for some reason, take in the sights as Haji ceaselessly wails and moans pathetically. What they see are monstrous, fog enshrouded idols, dark winged angels, craggy, desolate landscapes, hideous sleeping monsters, and horned demon sentries. Occasionally they will catch a glimpse of hell itself, seeing tormented souls hung by their heels and toiling at a giant stone wheel while pits of white hot lava roil angrily nearby. They even see Hitler, Genghis Khan and Napoleon greedily pawing at a globe that they have been circling predatorily for, one assumes, eternity. Then someone will stumble or hit their head and there will be a slide whistle or “boing-g-g” sound to accompany it, because this is a comedy.

Much of Haji and Ahmad’s tour through limbo has the feel of a twisted travelogue, like a God-fearing, Middle Eastern take on a Mondo movie. At one point, the pair comes upon a group of grass-skirt wearing movie savages, who entertain them with their native dances. At another, they stumble upon a sort of sock hop of the damned, populated by clean cut rock and rollers who shake and shimmy to an American rockabilly record. Haji has, by this point, stopped his obnoxious caterwauling, to the point that he happily participates in the dancing, though at another point he and Ahmad are happy to sit back and ogle the many scantily clad women on hand. You get the message that purgatory is actually pretty fun, until the two of them are presented to a white bearded figure who gives them a few more buzz-killing peeks at hell and its torments before setting them free.

I think that comparing Party in Hell to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol should count as a spoiler alert, so if you are shocked to learn that, upon waking from his dream, Haji is the picture of magnanimity, approving his daughter’s marriage and gifting his fortune to charity, you should probably clean your glasses and start this review over. Of course, Haji then dies, after which he is shown being transported to heaven in an ornate flying palanquin which is born on the shoulders of angels. Given what a shit Haji has been shown to be previously, this seems like a disproportionate reward, to say the least--but by this point it seems that Party in Hell has less interest in harsh moralizing than in just being entertaining. It’s difficult to imagine a film like it being made in the religiously conservative atmosphere of the post revolution years, just as it is to imagine the festival darling that Iranian cinema would become based on this movie’s comparative frivolity. Seemingly, that cinema had to go through a purgatory of its own before it could reach maturity.