Until the mid eighties, the costumed superhero as we know him in the West was a figure largely absent from Indian cinema. The primary exceptions were those intermittent attempts to appropriate the Superman character that seem to dot the history of modern South Asian film, such as the competing attempts by directors Mohammed Hussain and Manmohan Sabir, Superman and Return of Mr. Superman, which were both released in 1960 and , curiously, starred the same actor, Jairaj, in the title role.
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and ramshackle low budget superhero spectacle are both subjects that will get a lot of play here at Teleport City, and when a film brings the two of them together we’re pretty much fated to cover it, no matter how underwhelming that film may be. Fortunately the 1989 movie Toofan comes to us wrapped in some particularly interesting context. It’s mildly depressing context, mind you, but interesting nonetheless.
Seeing Diabolik was — well, to call it life-altering is to be a bit overly dramatic, I think. But it was something like that, and the movie did have a curious influence on me. For years, there had been this certain look and style of movie playing in my head. I knew it existed, but I had no clue where to start looking for it. Keep in mind that this is some years before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, DVD, and the rise of digitally remastered two-disc special collectors’ editions of Porno Holocaust. I knew these movies I wanted were very much like James Bond without being James Bond movies — sometimes a little cheaper, often more fanciful and outlandish. But just as in those disconnected days with a dearth of information I was unable to find a manufacturer or store where I could purchase a black, slim-cut three-button suit (I’m quite particular about such things), so too was I at a lost as to where I might find these mythical movies I’d invented in my mind and filled with go-go dancing Eurobabes and dudes in fezzes and sunglasses throwing stiletto daggers at each others’ backs.
If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.
God help me, I love Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos. I love it like you love a three-legged dog. Sure, my love may be tempered by pity and mild derision, but I love it, nonetheless. And hopefully you do, too. Because, if not, we’re going to have a problem. Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos marked the 23rd screen appearance by its star, a man who entered the world as one Rodolfo Guzman Huerto, but who achieved legendary status in the world of lucha libre as El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask. Santo was in his early fifties at this point, but, despite his prime wrestling years being behind him, his iconic status in Mexican popular culture was undiminished. In fact, he was still fairly early in his screen career at this point, with another couple dozen films ahead of him.
In the course of doing my usual rigorous research in preparation for bringing you the most carefully considered review of Iron Claw the Pirate possible, I came upon some information that seemed to suggest that it was the second film in a series of Iron Claw movies. That made sense to me, because Iron Claw the Pirate is a film that seems to start in progress, without any introduction of the characters or ongoing conflicts. However, what makes sense does not always prove to be so –especially in the case of Turkish action cinema–and I later determined that I had misinterpreted that information. In fact, it was Iron Claw the Pirate that was the first film, followed immediately by its sequel, Demir Pence Casuslar Savasi. Still, the reality of the situation makes its own kind of sense, simply because that’s just the way that these movies are. Any amount of exposition or character development would most likely have been seen by the makers of Iron Claw the Pirate as a waste of valuable time that could otherwise have been devoted to fist fights, shootouts, and fleshy women doing exotic dances.
Thanks to the release over the past decade of a large portion of the Shaw Brothers catalog on DVD, it should no longer be a secret to anyone who cares that the venerable Hong Kong studio was responsible for far more than the martial arts movies that got imported to the U.S. or horror movies in which people vomit up snakes. Among the more delightful discoveries to come out of this digital mother lode is the handful of James Bond inspired pictures churned out by the studio during the late sixties. Of course, since most of these movies don’t actually feature any spies or espionage (among the exceptions being the Angel With the Iron Fists series, which features Lilly Ho as a lady super spy ranked Agent 009) that influence is expressed mainly in terms of attitude and design.
I’ve got a weird fascination with superhero movies from places other than the USA. Since X-Men (2000) and particularly Spider-Man (2002) demonstrated the possibilities of adapting comic books with a previously unthinkable level of faithfulness to the source material, superheroes have become a staple of Hollywood’s output. And with cash tills ringing in spades for all manner of four-colour-inspired heroics (as I write, The Avengers is already the third-highest grossing film of all time and still in theatres), it’s no surprise that overseas producers began to wonder at the possibilities. Some looked to their local comic properties for inspiration, such as with Hong Kong’s ‘a bit like Batman but played by Michelle Yeoh’ effort Silver Hawk. Elsewhere, filmmakers just borrowed wholesale from American films, as with Russia’s ‘Spider-Man with a flying car’ Black Lightning, or Thailand’s ‘Spider-Man… actually just Spider-Man’ cash-in Mercury Man. And of course Bollywood, boasting the biggest film industry in the world, was hardly going to miss out.
Here’s an interesting factoid for you: every year this century, with the exception of 2001, a superhero movie has been in the top ten highest grossing US films of the year. Some years have had more than one – 2008 had three. Not surprising then that other filmmaking nations are trying to get their hands on those fat comic-book dollars (or in this case, baht). Thailand’s film industry is currently enjoying considerable worldwide success on the back of Tony Jaa’s martial arts movies, and has made some forays into this area such as 2006’s Mercury Man. The film was produced Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong Bak and Chocolate, with action choreography from his long-time collaborator Panna Rittikrai. It was their attempt to cash in on the Hollywood comic-book boom, specifically Spider-Man. Don’t worry if you don’t pick up on this immediately, as the filmmakers (completed by director Bhandit Thongdee, The Unborn) helpfully add extras in Spider-Man T-shirts and jokey graffiti shout-outs to the Marvel movies, not to mention the look and abilities of the hero.
Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.