If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
Kaala Sona is another example of the Basmati — or “Curry” — Western, that Bollywood take on the Western that seems to draw more on the European model than the American for its inspiration. Of course, the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay, released at roughly the same time, is considered the gold standard of that genre, and Kaala Sona follows along much the same pattern. Like Sholay, for instance, it’s a Western in feel rather than period, setting its action in the present day while taking advantage of some of the still relatively untamed regions lying within India’s borders. Such an approach allows both films to highlight a favorite Bollywood theme: the urbanized ne’er-do-well who, in being called upon to defend a rural community from a destructive outside force, has his soul awakened to the simple and essential virtues embodied by that community. (In more recent films, that urbanized ne’er-do-well tends to be, more specifically, a Westernized product of the Diaspora, but same idea.)
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
When watching one of the Insee Daeng movies — or any other existing example of popular Thai cinema from the 1960s — it’s possible to see a separate story being told in the countless pops, skips and scratches that riddle the severely weathered and damaged available prints, much as you might see a story in the lines etched in an aged human face. And that story, depending on how you look at it, can be either a sad one or a happy one. On the one hand, those wounds and blemishes speak of a unique part of world popular cinema that is on the verge of being lost to history — the ragged condition of each surviving film testifying to the many, many more that have ceased to exist entirely. On the other, as with a child’s threadbare teddy bear, that conspicuous wear and tear serves as evidence of just how much these movies have been loved and enjoyed by their intended audience, thread over and over again through projectors — be they in urban cinemas or makeshift outdoor screenings in small villages — until there was little left of them to thread; in short, loved by their audience to the extent that today they have been virtually devoured.
The filter of age and decay that one necessarily has to watch these films through can also, from a particular vantage point (mine, for example), provide them with an additional layer of beauty and mystique on top of the already strange and distinctive visual experience they provide. After all, in an age when engineered distress and decay are a standard part of the image-maker’s palette, it’s conceivable that someone would actually make something that looked like this intentionally (and, in the case of Grindhouse, to some extent already has). Adding to this illusion of intentionality is the manner in which most of these films are presented today on disc; to compensate for many of them being filmed without sound — with dialog and sound effects to be provided by live actors in the theaters where they were shown — the VCD versions of the films include an audio track with actors reading the dialog along with the movie. The result is a sound track — complete with anachronistic 1980s music — that progresses smoothly over the jumping and skittering image we see on screen, accounting for every beat created by the missing frames.
As you might have gathered from the above, there is a lot that makes these older Thai films less than accessible to Western viewers. In addition to their far from pristine condition, there is the jarring experience of watching them with the provided audio tracks — really more a form of dramatic narration than dubbing, since little attempt is made to match lip movement, or to create the kind of aural ambience that would suggest the voices were actually coming from the people on screen. Furthermore, because these are very low budget films, they often depend a lot on long scenes of verbal exposition to move their action forward, which makes negotiating their sometimes convoluted plots without the aid of subtitles near impossible.
Still, there is a vibrancy and energy to these films that makes them worth sampling. If for no other reason, they should be seen for their unique look, one that is singular in world cinema: a retina-busting suffusion of burst color, which was the result of the inexpensive 16mm color reversal film stock commonly used at the time (and which, because it yielded no negative, was another reason for the lack of clean prints today). With all of the high-contrast, over-saturated hues on display, constantly shouting for attention, even scenes in which nothing is happening give the appearance of being on the verge of jumping from the screen. Considering all of these factors, I think it’s best to approach these films with a goal of immersion rather than comprehension — aided, of course, by an ample dose of your favorite intoxicant.
Since I suppose it’s possible that there are people who don’t enjoy partaking of inebriants and watching weird movies that they don’t understand (though, if there are, I don’t want to know them), it’s a good thing that there exists the PAL region DVD release of Insee Thong, aka The Golden Eagle, the final film in the Insee Daeng — or Red Eagle — series from 1970. Not only does the DVD feature English subtitles, but there is also a subsequently-added Thai language dub track that includes Foleys and sound effects in addition to synchronized dialogue (though the mostly disco-fied music still manages to be conspicuously ahead of period). The condition of the print, however, is still pretty dire — but, as I’ve indicated above, that’s really part of the whole experience.
The character of The Red Eagle was created by popular Thai novelist Sek Dusit in 1954. In a series of books that lasted into the sixties, the author chronicled the adventures of Rome Ritthikrai, a seeming ne’er-do-well who, under the cover of night, would don a red, eagle-shaped mask to take on the forces of organized crime and international communism. Masked vigilante heroes of this type were a common feature of the pulp crime novels that became popular in Thailand during the postwar years, but, of all of them, The Red Eagle proved to be the most enduring. That the character is still fondly remembered today may in large part be due — as much as to the character itself — to the fact that, when it came time for the Red Eagle to make the transition to the big screen, the man chosen to portray him was Mitr Chaibancha, inarguably the biggest star of 1960s Thai cinema.
A man of humble origins who made the transition from boxer to film actor in the late fifties, Chaibancha at his peak was in such demand that, during the years of his box office reign, he starred in nearly a third of all of the films produced in the country (though other estimates put it closer to half), making literally hundreds of films by the time of his premature death in 1970. While this prolific output made the prospect of him being cast as The Red Eagle a near statistical certainty, Chaibancha, though by necessity capable of carrying off a variety of roles, had a reputation as an action hero that made him an obvious choice. Making his debut as the masked hero in the late fifties, Chaibancha would return to the part again and again, fronting a series of films that extended through the decades’ end. In the process he would forge an identification between star and role that survives among his public to this day.
As portrayed on-screen by Chaibancha (and perhaps as also portrayed in the novels, though I haven’t had the opportunity to read them), The Red Eagle, despite his somewhat super-heroic appearance, doesn’t appear to be blessed with any exceptional powers, or even to possess much more than the average amount of strength or agility. In fact, most of his exploits seem to simply require a penchant for breaking and entering into the homes or offices of his chosen prey, tip-toeing around in the shadows, stopping to seduce whatever convenient female he comes across in the process, and then blasting his way out with his trusty sidearms once detected (which seems to happen in most cases). In this sense, he bears a family resemblance to that staple of popular narrative the world over, the masked bandit with a conscience, specifically of the sleek, cat burglar variety we see in Asian films like Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose and The Lizard, and — though in a decidedly more amoral guise — in European pop culture in the form of characters like Diabolik and Kriminal. True to that model, The Red Eagle, though a patriotic hero, works in opposition to the law, and must often evade capture by the police in the course of his self-appointed mission to protect Thailand from nefarious interests.
Though there are certainly many precedents for The Red Eagle, where Chaibancha really stakes out some unique territory in costumed hero lore is in his portrayal of The Red Eagle’s alter ego, Rome. Taking the idea of the effete society boy turned masked avenger to an absurd extreme, Chaibancha plays Rome as, not just a hard drinking playboy, but a hopeless lush, a grown man who drinks like a suicidal frat boy and ends most evenings getting hurled face-first from one or other of Bangkok’s most posh nightspots. As he presents himself to the public, there’s nothing the least bit suave or charming about Rome. At the beginning of the 1968 film Jao Insee, for instance, we watch the pathetic spectacle of Rome careening haphazardly from table to table, hand cupped over mouth, as well-heeled nightclub patrons duck and weave to avoid the projectile spray that appears to be impending. Of course, it’s all an act; and it’s a good one. No one would ever suspect this sad, gin-soaked creature of being The Red Eagle, even if he told them that he was — which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Rome, in a drunken stupor, to do.
Always on hand at the end of Rome’s latest feigned bender, standing by patiently to help pour him into her waiting car, is his faithful girlfriend, Oy, whose back-watching duties extend to Rome’s activities as The Red Eagle. Oy is played by the beautiful Petchara Chaowarat, an actress who was paired with Chaibancha in well over a hundred pictures. Their track record of hit films together made them one of Thai cinema’s iconic screen duos. As portrayed by Chaowarat, Oy has a substantial role in The Red Eagle’s adventures, not only assisting him in strategizing his next move — and helping him make his getaway when it goes awry — but also on occasion fighting at his side. In Jao Insee, one of the films in the series that precedes Insee Thong, she even becomes a masked avenger in her own right to help the Eagle capture a particularly elusive villain.
It’s unclear the extent to which Oy is aware of the philandering that’s involved in the Eagle’s nightly crime fighting duties, but it’s hard to believe that she’s completely ignorant of it. In 1963’s Awasan Insee Daeng, for instance, it’s left to Oy to breach the villain’s hideout and rescue a trio of captive beauties, each of whom the Eagle has romanced — for ostensibly strategic purposes — at one point or other in the course of the film. If she is indeed aware of it, it’s difficult to say whether her apparent blasé attitude toward the fact is indicative of Thai sexual politics at the time or simply a symptom of Rome and Oy having a particularly progressive relationship.
In Insee Thong, the final film in the series — and the first to be both directed and produced by Chaibancha — Rome and Oy find themselves in a unique situation (though not so unique to anyone familiar with Mexican lucha films). An impostor is posing as The Red Eagle to pull off a string of assassinations. Though Rome has promised Oy that he will give up his crime fighting activities and settle down, he finds this insult to his reputation too much to bear, and so decides to don the eagle mask one last time. Following a logic that is perhaps unique to Rome, he also decides that, until the Eagle’s name is cleared, he will need to operate under a new guise, that of The Golden Eagle. This fools no one, of course (The Golden Eagle’s costume is identical to that of The Red Eagle, only gold), least of all the police, and soon Rome finds his search for the real killers hampered by the diligent efforts of police captain Chart, a dedicated and longtime believer in the Eagle’s inherent rotten-ness.
The real force behind the assassinations is the Red Bamboo Gang, a shadowy organization with ties to Red China whose ultimate goal is the communist takeover of Thailand. While gang member Poowanant goes about murdering the gang’s political enemies under the fake Red Eagle guise, their leader, Bakin, sets about extorting money from the country’s wealthy businessmen by using an even more unconventional means. Bakin, we are told, learned hypnotism from “the same place as Rasputin”, and the real key to his power is that he can not only hypnotize others, but also “himself” and “his soul”. The result of this, in the first case, is him somehow being able to physically split himself in three — which, we are further told, makes him immortal — and, in the second case, being able to project his image via a red crystal Buddha statue that is given anonymously to all those who fail to meet his blackmail demands. The unvarying result of these poor souls seeing Bakin’s fearsome visage emanating from the seemingly innocuous gift is death by heart attack.
By means of his usual nocturnal incursions, strong-arm tactics, and tactical dalliances (which this time include the bedding of a gang higher-up’s comely niece), The Golden Eagle eventually susses out the gang’s plan. After discovering the whereabouts of Bakin’s Island headquarters, he notifies the authorities, thus setting in motion a climactic set piece that — judging from this film, Awasan Insee Daeng and Jao Insee — appears to be something of a Red Eagle standby: a hyper-violent and chaotic Bondian assault on the villain’s compound in which the Eagle, Oy and armies of armed-for-bear policemen run around firing at will at the evildoers’ colorfully outfitted foot soldiers, be they retreating or advancing. As this mini D-Day rages on the beach outside, the Eagle slips into the compound to stage his final confrontation with Bakin and his seemingly unstoppable commie voodoo.
Sprinkled throughout the machinations of Insee Thong‘s plot is a liberal amount of broad humor, as if we needed further cluing in that we shouldn’t be taking all of this too seriously. This consists of the usual crowd-pandering comic relief in the form of bungling policemen and officials, as well as Rome’s recurring drunken pratfalls, and also (we now know, thanks to the subtitles) lots of lowbrow jokes. It seems that Rome is not only a drunk, but also a bit of a potty mouth; In an early scene he tries to dissuade a friend from opening a possibly booby-trapped gift by telling him “It might have dog shit in it.” Also in evidence is that confusing brand of casual homophobia one comes across from time to time in Asian cinema, the kind that expresses hostility toward homosexuals while at the same time seeming to acknowledge them as a common and normal part of everyday life. Still, as groan-inducing as this all may be, Insee Thong has so much on its narrative plate that it never sets its feet in one place long enough for any of these missteps to completely trip it up.
Insee Thong‘s final scene sees The Red Eagle vindicated and suited up in all his restored glory. Triumphant over evil once more, he grabs hold of a rope ladder hanging from a waiting helicopter and is carried out across the sea and toward the horizon. The scene was shot in one long take without a stunt double. Mitr Chaibancha, unable to hold on as the helicopter started out over the ocean, lost his grasp on the ladder and fell hundreds of feet to the beach below. Originally the footage of this fatal fall was included in Insee Thong, but has since been replaced with a freeze frame accompanied by text describing the circumstances of Chaibancha’s death. A permanent shrine, featuring a statue of Chaibancha and numerous photographs from his films, was erected at the site of his fall and is still visited by his fans today. His death is further commemorated in one of the strangest DVD extras I’ve had the opportunity to witness, a documentary short entitled “The Cremation of Mitr Chaibancha”, in which attendant’s are shown holding Chaibancha’s corpse up to the temple windows so that the throngs of fans gathered outside can have a final look at him. As unpleasant as this may be for some to watch, it goes a lot farther than any mere words can to communicate the intensity of feeling that Chaibancha inspired in his public.
When the circumstances of a film’s creation are as tragic and momentous as those of Insee Thong, it’s tempting to reserve for it nothing but respectful praise. Still, it must be said that Insee Thong, while highly entertaining, is no great film — and it’s not too difficult to assess the flaws in its construction that account for that. There’s the aforementioned over-abundance of grating humor, for instance, as well as the fact that Chaibancha obviously isn’t in as near fighting trim as he was in previous outings. But to judge the film by those shortcomings would be unfair, because the charms that would mitigate them — all of those things that are wonderful about Insee Thong — are less easy to fully appraise. For, even with a forgiving attitude, its difficult for the film’s ragged condition not to provide some obstacles to its full appreciation — especially in those moments when it becomes obvious that there are substantial parts of Insee Thong missing. More than once, major plot developments (such as the death of a main character) are referred to in the past tense without having occurred on screen. In addition to this, the color in the existing print is considerably washed-out, making it possible for us only to imagine just how head-spinning its array of lurid tones might have been had we been able to see them in all their glory. Regardless of all of these concerns, however, the film is an important one that should be seen by anyone with an interest in Thai cinema. And for those who are simply curious, the hint of greater thrills it provides just might be enough to inspire further exploration.
In the years since Mitr Chaibancha’s death, The Red Eagle has continued to stake out a place in Thailand’s popular culture. The late nineties saw broadcast of a Red Eagle television series (notable to martial arts fans for featuring a young Tony Jaa as the lead’s stunt double) and, most recently, director Wisit Sasanatieng announced plans to bring the character back to the big screen. This last bit of news is a happy one for all concerned. Sasanatieng’s mind-blowing 2001 feature Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone) was widely — and justly — praised for its audacious visual style, but many in the West missed the fact that that style — popping with high-contrast, saturated colors — was a direct result of Fah Talai Jone being one long, passionate love letter to the very Thai cinema of the sixties of which Insee Daeng was a product. This deep affection, along with Sasanatieng’s international stature, puts him in a unique position to update this iconic Thai hero while at the same time introducing new audiences to the joys of that strange and vibrant corner of world cinema past from which he sprang.
And broader awareness of those earlier films could only be a good thing, right? After all, it could perhaps even lead to release on DVD of the other surviving films in the Red Eagle series — which is the type of thing that I’m generally in favor of. But I have to say that, in comparing Insee Thong to those earlier films, I found that the latter film was made somewhat less enjoyable for me by being made more comprehensible. After all, without those subtitles, I wouldn’t have known that it didn’t really make sense, and so would have remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that it was incomplete. Better just to pop in one of those unsubtitled VCDs of the earlier films and get lost in the colorful nonsense of it all. That to me is pure cinema, after all. And pure cinema is what these movies are all about.