Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967′s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961′s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.
Simply calling Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay “a Pakistani film” would likely send any serious minded booster of that nation’s cinema into paroxysms of despair. The Pashto language film industry that produced Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, which serves an overwhelmingly male audience in the country’s northern border region, is considered to be pretty much the absolute gutter of Pakistan’s film making culture. For Americans, you’d have to imagine meeting a person from a foreign country whose only exposure to American cinema was through seeing Manos: The Hands of Fate, and who tried to characterize the whole of the U.S.’s filmic output based on that.
Thai filmmaker Sompote Sands’ Magic Lizard has rapidly become something of a legend among those of us for whom such things are prone to becoming legends. Not quite on the level of Shaitani Dracula perhaps, but an experience in deep and scarring pain never the less. I’d seen this movie damage even some of the stoutest viewers of global cult cinema. So when it finally came time for me to watch it, considering it had already been reviewed properly by Die Danger Die Die Kill, WtF Film, and Ninja Dixon, as well as discussed on the Infernal Brains podcast, I thought I might try something a little different. And so I enlisted The Cultural Gutter to partake in a coordinated viewing with me, with our reactions being recorded via Twitter as we were in different states and I was too lazy to try and set up some sort of Skype thing. To sweeten the experience, we would be joined by a couple people already bearing the Magic Lizard Red Badge of Courage — Die Danger Die Die Kill and WtF Film — to act as Sompote Sands sherpas.
The fact is that, when I’m writing about a movie, I’m much less interested in telling you how good or bad it is than I am in justifying the time I spent watching it. As such, I’m looking for those points of interest — either contained in the film itself or in the circumstances of its production — that will make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile, and prevent me going to my grave fretting over how I could have better spent that six hours I invested in repeat viewings of Tahalka.
Providing a break from the rigors of that approach are those occasions on which I encounter films whose WTF quotient is so high that they exist on a plane beyond simple judgments of good or bad–the mystery of whose very existence overshadows any questions of quality. Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen is such a film. And like another fine example of the species, the Turkish superhero mash-up 3 Dev Adam, Hanuman achieves that rarified WTF air by means of positioning some very familiar elements within a very foreign context. It’s just hard to dismiss a shockingly gory movie that teams the world’s most beloved giant Japanese superhero with the Hindu monkey god for not measuring up to some notional standard of “coherence” or “watchability”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t those who consider Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen bad — or who, in fact, revile it. None of them, however, are going to argue that it’s not one weird little foo dog of a movie.
The thing about Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, though, is that once you start looking into the circumstances that surrounded its making — and the events that occurred in its aftermath — the actual content of the movie itself begins to seem less and less strange. In fact, the story that Hanuman sits at the center of is so insane that, now that I’ve become more familiar with its details, I’m worried that my summary of the movie, if I ever get to it, will be a little on the blase side, like “Oh, and then Hanuman and Ultraman gleefully tear the flesh from one of the monsters until there’s nothing left but a giant skeleton puppet which dances around a bit before collapsing in a heap. YAWN!” Still, I promise to bring all of my not-very-considerable professionalism to bear on the task of telling it, without losing site of my greater goal of bringing the movie itself to life for you with the magic of language.
That story begins in 1962, when a young man by the name of Sompote Saengduenchai left his native Thailand for Japan, having been granted a Thai government scholarship to study cinematography in that country. His studies would include an apprenticeship at Japan’s legendary Toho studios, during which Saengduenchai would come into contact with Eiji Tsubaraya, the master of Japanese special effects. Tsubaraya was in the middle of his career peak at the time, having over the past several years been a primary engine in the creation of such classic Japanese movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. He was also on the verge of starting his own company, Tsubaraya Productions, which would go on to achieve great success in the world of television, in addition to continued success in motion pictures. Saengduenchai would eventually characterize his youthful encounter with Tsubaraya as the beginning of a long and close friendship, though, in truth, its exact nature and details would later become the subject of dispute. Whatever the case, however, there is no doubt that it had a profound effect on the path that Saengduenchai’s career would take — and grave repercussions for Tsubaraya and the company he was to found.
Upon returning to Thailand, Saengduenchai formed his own company, Chaiyo Productions, and went about fashioning himself as a sort-of Thai version of Eiji Tsubaraya. He began to produce and direct a string of special effects-driven and giant monster movies the likes of which had not previously been seen in the Thai film industry, and would continue to produce such films well into his career. (Of all of these, the only one to receive an English language release was his 1981 contribution — under the name Sompote Sands — to the Jaws-but-with-a-crocodile micro-genre, Crocodile, which featured a giant crocodile whose proportions changed radically from one shot to the next.) One of the first of these was 1973′s Ta Tien, which featured a kaiju-style battle between reanimated giant statues of Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, two demon-like guardian spirits from Thai folklore. Of course, on the way to presenting that climactic battle royal, Saengduenchai also provided his audience with scenes of a giant suitmation frog smoking a giant cigarette, a discomfitingly ponderous dinosaur fight, and one of the most extensive and gratuitous skinny dipping sequences in cinema history.
The above serves to underscore a major difference between Tsubaraya and Saengduenchai, which is that, while Tsubaraya’s work was generally infused with a sense of fun and wonder that made it for the most part family friendly, watching Saengduenchai’s films, it’s easy to find yourself wondering who they were intended for at all. A good example of this is Hanuman and the Five Riders, a direct sequel to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which, along with its very kiddie-cozy depiction of masked superheroes from the Japanese Kamen Rider series and its offshoots fighting with men in rubber monster suits, also features tons of cheap-but-nonetheless-extreme gore and a Coffin Joe-like vision of Hell that includes copious amounts of female nudity. Suffice it to say that, cultural differences aside, when you watch these movies, you definitely get the idea that Sompote Saengduenchai is one weird dude.
As for Tsubaraya, in the years immediately following his first meeting with Saengduenchai he would produce what would become one of his most loved — not to mention lucrative — creations: the skyscraper-sized kaiju-fighting superhero Ultraman. Ultraman would make his way to the States just a couple of years after his 1966 Japanese debut and begin a long life in syndication on American television. As such, he would become a favorite of successive generations of our great nation’s hyperactive ten year old boys, not to mention the cause of untold playground injuries, and the inspiration for some of those ten year old boys, once grown, to inflict Power Rangers on generations to come.
But while America had only the very manageable one Ultraman to account for, the Japanese had a whole army of them to keep track of. This is because, whenever one Ultra series would end, Tsubaraya Productions, rather than simply producing a second season, would instead create a sequel series featuring a whole new Ultra hero. The initial wave of Ultra hero series, between 1966 and 1975, resulted in seven separate, successive shows, including Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Ace, Return of Ultraman (which, despite the name, featured a completely different Ultraman), Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Leo, all of which included, in addition to their main Ultramen, ancillary Ultra characters as well. This proliferation has continued, with some interruptions, to the present day, with the depressing result that a concept as simple as a giant superhero beating up men in monster suits has grown to become as needlessly complex as the Lord of the Rings cycle.
One of the many places where Ultraman was very popular was Thailand, and in 1973 Sompote Saengduenchai approached Tsubaraya Productions with the idea of coproducing a series of films that would team their heroes with figures from Thai folklore and mythology. Sadly, Tsubaraya senior had passed away by this time, and his son Noboru was now in charge of the company. For whatever reasons, Noboru saw fit to give this idea the go-ahead, and the first of these features, Giant and Jumbo A — a teaming of the aforementioned Thai giant Yuk Wud Jaeng with one of Tsubaraya Production’s lesser heroes, Jamborg Ace — went into production. Following immediately on the heels of Giant and Jumbo A came Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which featured Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Jack (from Return of Ultraman), Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Zoffy (a supporting Ultraman introduced in the original Ultraman series) joining with Hanuman to defeat an assortment of monsters salvaged from past Ultra episodes. (That, if you’re counting, only adds up to six Ultramen, which suggests that the “7″ in the title includes Mother of Ultra, the matriarch of the whole Ultra clan, who’s seen only in the sequences on the Ultra brothers’ home planet, M-78.)
To me, a mystery equal to that of the circumstances surrounding Ultraman and Hanuman becoming partners on screen is how figures of Hindu mythology such as Hanuman came to be part of the culture of Thailand, a predominately Buddhist country. Of course, Hanuman was an important character in the Ramayana, a central epic of the Hindu religion. The flow of trade between India and Thailand insured that the Ramayana would eventually make its way to Thailand and, when it did, it apparently became quite the hot read. As a result the Thais adapted their own, more culturally and geographically specific version of the Ramayana in the form of the Ramakien. Though practitioners of pure Hinduism never became more than a minority in Thailand, the symbols and characters from the epic became so entrenched in the culture of the country that today most Buddhists there see no incongruity in paying tribute to Hindu deities alongside their observance of traditional Buddhist practices. Shrines to Hindu gods such as Ganesh, Vishnu and Hanuman can be found throughout Thailand, and they are visited by Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Figures from the Ramayana play a part in the prologue to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, as do the members of the Ultra family. In fact, the whole film strikes an interesting balance between being a Bollywood style “Mythological” and a kiddie sci fi movie. Scenes of scientists in space-age control rooms launching rockets are interspersed with those of Hanuman traversing the heavens to make appeals to Rama as he circles the Earth in his flaming chariot. Representing a sort of meeting-in-the-middle is the fact that Ultraman and company are presented in a seemingly more God-like manner than in their usual incarnations, constantly watching over the Earth from their perch in the heavens and descending from the clouds to intervene in times of trouble.
At the opening of the film, Thailand is suffering a severe drought, and we see a group of children doing a ritual dance in the ruins of an old temple in the hopes of bringing rain. The obvious leader of the group is a boy named Piko, who is wearing a Hanuman mask and doing a dance involving lots of scratching and monkey-like capering that we will have become well familiar with by the movie’s end. While the kids dance, a gang of bandits comes into the temple and steals the head from a statue of the Buddha (something that Ong-bak has already taught us is a very bad idea). Piko sees this and takes off after the bandits, grabbing onto the back of their jeep as they make their getaway. It is at this early point in the movie that we get our first notice that, despite the advertised presence of Ultraman, someone very different from who you’d normally expect is calling the shots, as one of the bandit’s response to this is to draw a gun and shoot Piko point blank in the head, after which we get a nice shot of the kid screaming with blood pouring down his face.
Fortunately, the Ultra family has been watching all of this transpire from their Olympian perch up on M-78, and the Mother of Ultra reaches down from the clouds with an enormous hand to pluck Piko’s lifeless body up and whisk it back to their home in the Land of Light. Just as each of the Ultra heroes was created by being merged with a human who could transform into him at will, the Ultras restore life to Piko by merging him with Hanuman, which, again, makes them seem pretty God-like. (It also makes me wonder if the Ultra’s life-restoring procedures are faith-tailored; for instance, if Piko had been a Christian, would they have merged him with Jesus?) The Ultras then return Piko to Earth where, now granted the ability to transform into Hanuman at will, he sets about getting some big time monkey payback on the trio of thugs who killed him.
And Hanuman, when he appears — a gigantic, pure white monkey in elaborately ornamented traditional raiments, with hollow eyes and a creepy fixed grin — is pretty terrifying, and made nonetheless so by all of his constant jabbering, scratching and capering. This initial impression of him is backed-up by the treatment he gives the bandits once he’s caught up with them; one he simply steps on like a bug, another he crushes under a tree, and a third he grabs in one fist and smashes with an outstretched palm, jabbering and laughing nightmarishly the whole time. Then, with vengeance swiftly dealt, he levitates the Buddha’s head back into its proper place, then takes a surreal victory lap in the skies over Bangkok before taking off into the heavens to chat up some of his fellow deities. Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist at a high tech meteorological research facility is launching the first of what looks like a huge arsenal of cloud-seeding rockets into the atmosphere. This appears to work, but since we’ve also been watching Hanuman’s efforts up in the heavens to strike a deal with Rama on the Earth’s behalf, we’re not sure whether to credit this win to science or faith.
I was initially convinced that the aforementioned dashing young scientist, Professor Virut, was played by the actor Sombat Methanee. That is not just because he looks like Methanee, or because Methanee starred in both of Saengduenchai’s preceding films, Ta Tien and Giant and Jumbo A; but also because it’s very difficult to find any Thai film from the seventies that Methanee didn’t star in. Methanee was Thailand’s biggest action star of that decade, a position he stepped into on the occasion of Thai cinema king Mitr Chaibancha’s accidental death in 1970. (Chaibancha died while performing a stunt for Insee Thong, one of several films in which he portrayed the masked hero Red Eagle.) Similarly to other Asian film industries, the work ethic of Thai movie stars at the time was truly a world away from that found in Hollywood, where being a star meant having the luxury to appear only in the one or two hand-picked prestige projects you’d deigned to appear in that year. For a Thai actor, being a star meant maintaining a constant presence on the country’s movie screens, week in and week out — a practice which, in Methanee’s case, meant appearing in as many as a dozen films a year, and which now accounts for him having over 600 film roles under his belt.
However, as more scrupulous research on my part later revealed, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen was in fact not one of those over 600 films burdening Sombat Methanee’s belt loops. That is because Professor Virut is instead played by Yodchay Meksuwan, another dashing young Thai actor who — if I may be so churlishly reductive — seems to have starred in all of those Thai movies from the seventies that Methanee couldn’t fit into his schedule — and even starred opposite Methanee in Killer Elephants. Meksuan, like Methanee, would become a familiar face in Saengduenchai’s films, not only starring in the aforementioned Hanuman and the Five Riders, but also 1977′s Yod Manut Computer, a bizarre hybrid combining Thai folklore with a sweded version of the Six Million Dollar Man. All of which is to say that I owe Mr. Meksuwan a profound apology for my previous oversight.
Anyway, bolstered by the success of his first rocket, Meksuwan’s Professor Virut launches a second with far less satisfying results. The rocket explodes on the launching pad, leading to an impressive sequence of Thunderbirds-style miniature mayhem as a chain reaction causes all of the many rockets on the pad to explode. In turn, the Earth underneath the launch base is rent apart, and the five bad guy monsters come marching single file out of the bowels of the Earth to wreak havoc. These monsters include Gomora, one of the most iconic beasts from the original Ultraman series — and here equipped with Godzilla’s roar — plus a trio of Monsters recycled from Ultraman Taro. Also in tow is a fifth monster from another Tsubaraya hero series, Mirrorman, who I guess must really be called “Dustpan” because — as hard as I find that to believe — I can’t find any source that refers to him otherwise. At first, most of the monsters’ havoc-wreaking consists of them just bouncing from foot to foot while waving their arms around and rearing their heads back as if they were laughing as everything blows up around them. There is also a lot of garbled Thai dialog on the soundtrack that seems to suggest that the monsters are supposed to be talking — and from the tone of it, they’re heckling, maybe even calling the assembled human race “bitches” or something. Mutual back slapping can also be observed among the monsters, and at times they appear to be on the verge of giving each other high-fives.
Because nobody wants to see a bunch on giant monsters high-fiving one another like drunken frat boys, the Air Force is called in, and soon toy jets are being swatted out of the sky left and right. Finally, Piko transforms into Hanuman and, between dancing, scratching and jabbering, manages to put up a pretty good fight against the chatty creatures. Just when it looks like they’re about to get the drop on him, the six Ultra brothers sweep down from the sky, signaling the beginning of the real mayhem. At this point, the monsters are so outmatched that the simple substitution of tragic music would have revealed the fight for the brutal slaughter that it is. Monster heads are sheared off, torsos bisected, bodies incinerated, and finally, as alluded to earlier, one ogre-like beast has the skin unceremoniously stripped from his bones. When it’s all over, standing amidst the steaming offal that was once their adversaries, the Ultras watch, perhaps in bewilderment, as Hanuman does one final dance for them. The monkey god then gives each of the brothers a hug, bidding them farewell before they take off back to their home planet. The end.
The fact that Tsubaraya’s effects team participated in the production of Hanuman is obvious from the final thirty minute sequence described above. The special effects and model work are quite impressive, and actually better than a lot of the work done on the various Ultra TV series. One of the reasons for this is that the producers wisely narrowed the scope of the action, limiting all of it to the area around the rocket base. Because of this, only a small number of models needed to be built, and what budget there was could be devoted to making them look as good as possible. On top of that, the physical action is very nicely choreographed, with both Hanuman and the Ultras doing all kinds of crazy flips and cartwheels in the course of the battle, all while constant, large explosions are going off on all sides of them. This frenetic activity helps a great deal to distract from the somewhat restricted scale of what’s going on, and contributes to making Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen a pretty wild ride overall. Some people who hate the film for other, largely understandable, reasons name as one of its many sins that it’s shoddy looking, but they’re clearly looking at it through jaundiced eyes. You can certainly complain that this film makes no sense (it doesn’t), but there’s no getting around the fact that the kaiju battle action it delivers is wholly first rate.
As mentioned earlier, Sompote Saengduenchai quickly followed Hanuman and the 7 Ultras‘ 1974 release with a sequel, the noticeably seedier Hanuman and the Five Riders (which was, in contrast to the two Tsubaraya co-productions, completely unauthorized by Kamen Rider‘s copyright holders). His appetite for co-opting Japanese Tokusatsu characters seemingly quenched, he then continued in his pattern of making movies about giant lizards, snakes and statues well into the nineties, leaving everyone outside of Thailand, excepting those unfortunates heedless enough to rent the VHS of Crocodile, largely unbothered for the next twenty years. Tsubaraya productions, for their part, would continue on in the lucrative Ultraman business, creating their sixth Ultra hero series with Ultraman Leo in 1975, and then a seventh with Ultraman 80 five years later. Though production of new Ultramen would slow down a bit for a while after that, the fact that Tsubaraya’s original creation was one of the most recognized characters in the world insured that fees from licensing and merchandise would continue to stream uninterrupted into the coffers of the company he founded. Life in the Land of Light was indeed ultra good.
Then, in 1995, Noboru Tsubaraya died, and very soon thereafter Sompote Saengduenchai made a dramatic re-entrance into the lives of Ultraman and his corporate guardians. On this occasion, Saengduenchai produced a contract that he alleged had been made between Noboru and himself in 1976, granting Chaiyo Productions exclusive international rights to all of the Ultra series made up to the time of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen‘s production, as well as to the series Jamborg Ace and the two co-produced movies. While it’s true that a previous contract had been made between the two companies granting Chaiyo television broadcast rights to those same properties, this was something of an entirely different magnitude altogether. Saengduenchai would claim that Noboru had granted him these rights in order to settle a debt — a debt that arose in part as a result of Noboru entering into a licensing agreement with Shaw Brothers Studio for the Hong Kong rights to Hanuman without Chaiyo’s approval. It would later be shown, however, that it was in fact Saengduenchai who had entered into that contract with the Shaws.
Still, Saengduenchai’s dubious assertion of Noboru’s debt was only one of many compelling reasons for Tsubaraya to consider his contract a joke. For one thing, there was the matter of the wording in the contract itself, which misspelled or misnamed not just the titles of most of the subject TV series, but also that of Tsubaraya Productions. But most damning of all was the simple fact that Saengduenchai had stayed quiet about the contract for twenty years — never stepping forward to assert the rights it allegedly granted him, while that whole time Tsubaraya was happily exploiting its licenses across the globe — and only came forward with it once the only person who could dispute its contents with firsthand knowledge had been silenced forever. Still, astonishingly, the Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade Court largely affirmed the legitimacy of the contract in a 2000 decision, which was in turn upheld by the Japanese district court in 2003, saying that, while Tsubaraya retained the copyrights to all of the characters and series covered, the contract did grant Chaiyo license to exploit those series outside of Japan.
This legal victory seems to have emboldened Saengduenchai, for not only did he quickly begin to robustly exercise his newly legitimized rights by licensing as much Ultra product as he possibly could within the shortest time possible, but also to expand exponentially upon the grandiosity of his claims. Soon Saengduenchai was saying that he had, in fact, contributed to the creation of Ultraman, suggesting to Eiji Tsubaraya back in 1963 that he create a character whose appearance was based on Thai statues of the Buddha. Even Ultraman’s name, it turned out, had been Saengduenchai’s idea; he would later claim that, with the idea of evincing the mien of an armored Turkish warrior, he had suggested the name “Ottoman” to Tsubaraya, and that that had been the inspiration for the character’s final appellation. In a further suggestion of a sort of creepy assimilation, Saengduenchai and his associates began referring to an entity called Tsubaraya Chaiyo Co., which would be the home of all of their future Ultraman related projects.
More damaging was the fact that Saengduenchai’s tendency to confabulate extended beyond just the nature of his relationship with Eiji Tsubaraya and his involvement in the origin of Ultraman, but also to the scope of the contract itself. Though subsequent court decisions would actually limit Chaiyo’s rights, it seems that Saengduenchai continually chose to view them as expansions of them. As a result he began talking up all kinds of grand schemes, from the creation of an Ultraman theme park in Thailand to the production of new series featuring Thai-specific Ultraman characters that would be the exclusive property of Chaiyo, one of whom was to be called Ultraman Millennium. Providing a further suggestion of what were beginning to seem like some fairly complex motivations on Saengduenchai’s part, to say the least, his lawyers announced plans to initiate a lawsuit again Tsubaraya, projecting that the outcome of such a suit might be Saengduenchai actually taking over the company!
It took until February of 2008 for Tsubaraya and the courts to deliver a final legal smackdown to Saengduenchai, though not before Chaiyo had invested a lot of money in a new Ultraman series starring Ekin Cheng that probably no one will ever see. Looking over the cold facts of the case now, its hard to find any overt clues to the personalities involved. But in the case of Saengduenchai, it’s very easy to see the whole affair as an extreme case of over-identification. There are reports that Saengduenchai had a framed portrait of his good friend Eiji Tsubaraya prominently displayed in his home, and I can’t help imagining based on that that he also had a secret room off of his bedroom plastered with disturbingly lipstick-smeared snapshots of Tsubaraya, and perhaps newspaper clippings in which Tsubaraya’s name was scratched out and Saengduenchai’s crudely written in with pencil.
Though it’s easy to hate — or at least be mildly creeped out by — Sompote Saengduenchai, perhaps our judgment of him can be tempered somewhat by the fact that, somewhere within the confused tangle of his motivations, was a certain misguided affection. For myself, the fact that Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen — a film that’s very enjoyable to watch while drunk — was a product of that affection goes a long way toward seeding forgiveness within my heart. I’m easy that way. However, had Saengduenchai succeeded in his scheme to introduce yet more Ultramen into the world — and perhaps, in the process, inspired other countries to pitch in with their own versions, prompting a sort of Tokusatu equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest — forgiveness would not have come so easily. There are just too damn many of those guys.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty hard on the whole concept of CGI in movies. Part of this, as I’m sure you can surmise, is the old crank in me who still thinks special effects should be executed with miniatures, and stunts should actually be executed by living stunt people. But more than it simply being a reactionary current running through my brain, my distaste for CGI stems simply from the fact that it is so colossally overused. Movies like that Van Helsing thing or those wretched Star Wars prequels or the new Die Hard movies stick it in anywhere and everywhere, making their films so artificial while striving for some sort of sweeping realism that the end product completely loses the ability to astound or engage on even the most basic of levels. In effect, the movies mimic the experience of watching someone else play a video game. Plus, a lot of the effects just look crummy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened in some ways to certain uses of CGI. Used properly, it’s quite a potent brush in an artist’s arsenal, especially if it’s employed to detail or augment rather than dominate a scene. Alternately, some film makers have gone the opposite route and rather than making films that fail to be realistic because they employ too much CGI, they disregard any pretensions toward realism by using computer generated sets, characters, and effects to create a completely alien world in which special effects don’t have to worry about mimicking real life. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is one of the first films to employ this style of film making, and since the aim is to create a world that is pure fantasy, even if it’s based on something recognizable as some concept of the real world (or in the case of Sky Captain a well-documented future that never came to be because we were too anxious to walk around with our gigantic t-shirts and pants down around our knees), I don’t really have any problem with the CGI.
Vying for the right to claim the title of “first CGI-staged adventure” is the French production Immortel, based on a comic book by Yugoslav-born graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Bilal, who moved to Paris when he was a lad, became a mainstay in the world of French science fiction comic books during the fecund decade of the 1970s, when artists like Moebius and many others were creating something of a renaissance around science fiction and comic books. Bilal’s first substantial work as a comic artist was Legendes d’Aujourd’hui written by Pierre Christin, a trilogy that was published between 1975 and 1977. He worked steadly as an artist and in 1980 began publishing his next notable trilogy, The Nikopol Trilogy, which he both wrote and drew. As I am an illiterate, the original graphic novels are a complete and utter mystery to me (they’re on the list to read, but so are so many other things), and so I’m left to judge this computer-generated science-fiction adventure purely on it’s own merits, and let me just say that despite some truly gorgeous art design (which is becoming a staple of CGI adventures and thus, less of an excuse for glossing over other short-comings), the merits of Immortel are few and far between.
Like Sky Captain, which for the record I loved, Immortel places a cast of live actors in a CGI world, in this case the New York City of the future where city planners and automobile manufacturers seem to have been heavily influenced by the Moebius designs used in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. As is often the case with comic book adaptations, we’re given almost no background as to how the world has become the way it is or why anything that is about to happen is going to happen. As viewers can discern from holographic graffiti that shows up from time to time, there’s apparently some sort of revolution against the growing ubiquity of genetic engineering, but this conflict seems woefully underrepresented in the movie if it is meant to be some sort of motivating factor for any of the action. Instead, we seem dropped into the middle of the story and expected to either already be familiar with everything because we read the comic, or we’re expected simply not to care because hey, pretty pictures. If it’s the former, then all I can say is why bother making a movie, especially one as expensive as this one apparently was, if no one is going to care about it except people who are already fans of the graphic novels? If your defense of the film’s atrocious writing is that you have to read the comic first, then the screenplay has failed. You should be able to construct a story that covers the basics.
We learn that for one reason or another a giant floating pyramid has appeared over Central Park, and everyone wonders what it could be. Inside, three very poorly rendered CGI Egyptian gods lounge about until one of them, Horus, departs for the mortal realm for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — though they seem to mostly involve him trying to get laid. I guess that’s as noble a motivation as any. Meanwhile, a blue-haired amnesiac named Jill (Linda Hardy) who we keep getting told isn’t human arrives in the city and is cared for by research scientist Dr. Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling). Exactly who Jill is — or who Dr. Turner is — seems not to be important enough for the film to care very much about developing. All we know is Jill can’t remember something and a guy who dresses like Darkman shows up from time to time to utter those inane cryptic statements that are supposed to pass for wise and knowledgeable. Eventually, some guy named Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) falls out of a passing cryogenic prison barge and is revived by Horus so that Horus can use Nikopol’s body to go searching for a little sexy action.
And meanwhile still, some terrible-looking computer generated cop is investigating a series of serial murders, but I can’t remember exactly what the hell was going on with those. I think they were supposed to be people with whom Horus tried unsuccessfully to merge, resulting in their heads exploding. Horus/Nikopol eventually stumbles across Jill and decides she’s the one, which leads to a series of fairly casual rape scenes that aren’t played with nearly the gravity they should. As is often the case in movies, the woman who is raped ends up falling in love with the rapist, in this case Nikopol, who at least manages to convince her that it’s not entirely his fault since he has the lustful spirit of an Egyptian space god in his head. She falls for him despite the fact that he shows absolutely no personality whatsoever, and never once does anything interesting other than look good with his shirt off. Eventually, a hammerhead shark hitman tries to kill Nikopol, and everything ends with a big flying car chase and journey into some “cross-over point.”
The film is, to be kind, a disaster, albeit a somewhat attractive and interesting one. Sky Captain proved that you needn’t jettison a coherent story to have a beautiful movie, and it also proved that even one-dimensional characters can be fun. The characters in Immortel don’t even have one dimension. There is absolutely no depth to any of them, and we’re never given any reason to care about them or understand their motivations. They simply progress through the mess of a narrative because that’s what they have to do in order to get to the end of the movie. Who the hell is this John guy with the bandaged face? Who is Jill? What’s the deal with Horus? Don’t bother wondering, because the film never gets around to even providing a hint about any of the characters. About the biggest amount of development comes after Horus has raped Jill a couple times and, upon deciding it’s about time for him to hit the ol’ dusty trail, says something to the effect of, “Yeah, that was kind of dickish of me, wasn’t it? Oh well!” And then we’re supposed to maybe even like the man-god after that.
The best thing I can say about any of the characters is that Linda Hardy, who plays Jill, is beautiful. Not the best actress, but this probably isn’t the sort of movie by which to gauge her talent. Even experienced actors have a hard time performing in green screen CGI movies, and Hardy wasn’t a very experienced actor. But man is she gorgeous. I admit though that I have a thing for chalky white women with blue hair and lips. Admittedly, a fetish that does not find much of an outlet in the real world. I already had a thing for that gal on Farscape, a show that actually gave me two blue women. I guess that guy who plays Nikopol is all right too, but man alive is his character ever a drip. He’s the most boring and uninspiring revolutionary leader I’ve seen in many a film. He’s adept at reclining in bed and in bathtubs, which is probably what he should stick to.
One hot chick and one hot but boring guy can’t save a film this sloppy. With a hopelessly muddled and half-baked story (adapted and directed by Bilal himself, who should probably stick to writing comic books if this is an example of his skill as a script writer and film director), one can at least hope for some eye candy, and I mean besides Jill’s breast-revealing mesh top. The art design, as I alluded to earlier, draws heavily from The Fifth Element, which in turn drew heavily from Blade Runner and, given that Fifth Element director Luc Besson is French, probably just as heavily from the original Nikopol comic books. Immortel takes the same basic look and feel as the Luc Besson film but drains it of most of the color in favor of an icy blue palette. The backgrounds, vehicles, and Blade Runner wannabe costumes are all pretty good, but there are also a lot of CGI characters in this film, and they represent a major stumbling block in the overall visual impact. CGI work was apparently farmed out to a bunch of different studios, and the result is an uneven mishmash of skill levels that range from wonderful (sets), to average (the CGI detective, shark headed hitman, and a bartender) to downright embarrassing (a fat mayor and his assistant, plus Horus and the other Egyptian gods, who look like something out of an unpopular Playstation game circa 1996). Unfortunately, the worse the realization of the CGI character, the more time they seem to spend onscreen.
It probably goes without saying, but the conversion of French comic book dialogue into English language movie dialogue makes for some ripe lines, my favorite being Nikopol’s limply delivered hissy fit toward Horus. The closest thing I can think of to describe the dialogue is in some of those late 1990s Hong Kong films where they were fond of performing a lot of lines in English, but without a script written by someone with a native grasp of the language. As a result, everything sound stilted, much sounds laughable, and some things are just downright puzzling. In other words, it sounds just like that weird, awkward dialogue characters mutter to one another in video games, and is delivered with much the same listless lack of enthusiasm.
So what, if anything does this movie have going for it? Well, in its own deeply flawed way, it’s a fascinating failure. There’s certainly a lot at which to gaze, not the least of which would be the character of Jill herself. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching movie where just about nothing works. The dialogue is awful, characters are all but non-existent, and attempts at philosophy and meaning come out sounding even more half-baked than that new age hokum they spewed out in the second Matrix movie before everyone prepared for the life-or-death war by raving all night long. Immortel proves that a much-revered graphic artist doesn’t necessarily make a good filmmaker. I really don’t know what fan reaction to the film was, though I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they must have seen what a mess it was along with the rest of us. I gather that not much from the original graphic novels made it into the “story” of this film, but since the graphic novelist himself is the creator of the movie, there’s no one to blame but papa. He showcases a keen eye for design and some truly gorgeous shot composition, but it takes more than that to make a movie.
And yet, as you’ve probably guessed, I still lean toward saying you should check it out. I’m always fascinated by ambitious films that fail utterly to achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves. And what better place for poorly realized grandiosity wrapped in pompous claptrap and aspirations of greatness than a big, expensive sci-fi CGI film based on a supposedly important comic book by a French guy? But you know what? They gave it a go, and the train wreck they produced is an interesting train wreck to explore. It’s frustrating that a potentially great movie is buried somewhere amid this mess, but you can at least spend some enjoyable time sifting through the pieces. And heck, if nothing else, you can treat the whole movie as some really boss van art, or just sit and stare at Linda Hardy.
Release Year: 2004 | Country: France | Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling, Yann Collette, Frederic Pierrot, Thomas M. Pollard, Joe Sheridan, Corinne Jaber, Olivier Achard, Jerry Di Giacomo | Screenplay: Enki Bilal, Serge Lehman | Director: Enki Bilal | Music: Goran Vejvoda | Cinematography: Pascal Gennesseaux | Producer: Charles Gassot