Since the day Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai suddenly popped up on fight film fans’ radars, Thailand has become the go-to place for the hyperactive, bone-jarring, stunt filled, totally ridiculous style of film making that defined the Hong Kong action film industry in the 1980s. The arrival of Thailand on the martial arts movie scene was a breath of fresh air, or if not fresh air, it was at least a second wind that gave us hope in a time when Hong Kong action cinema was basically dead, and the only place cranking out halfway decent action films was, weirdly enough, France. Ong Bak was like a long lost star quarterback showing up to save his team in the final minutes of a big game, and we rejoiced. What was even better was that Jaa’s success spawned a bunch of imitators in his native Thailand and seemed to light a fire under the ass of Hong Kong film makers, inspiring them to maybe think about making fun movies again.
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.
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.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
The title Shadow Music of Thailand evokes ideas of ancient and mysterious folk traditions. A CD with such a title, one might assume, could offer the listener a portal to arcane, culturally insular sounds that were never intended for Western ears. The truth, however, is a wee bit different. In 1960s Thailand, the term “Shadow Music” was used to refer to current groups whose sound was influenced by the British instrumental combo The Shadows. Originally formed as a backup band for singer Cliff Richards, The Shadows, while never making much of a dent in the U.S. charts, were an international sensation throughout much of the 60s, scoring hits at home and abroad with tunes like “Apache”. Their sound was similar to that of America’s Ventures, consisting of upbeat instrumentals centered around twangy, reverb-drenched guitar melodies.
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 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.