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.
According to the liner notes to this 2009 disc from Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies label, the main Shadow Music groups — such as the featured P.M. Pocket Music, Johnny Guitar and Jupiter — all had in common the involvement of one man, Thai singer and musical entrepreneur Payong Mukda. What’s interesting about all of them is that, rather than simply emulating The Shadows’ sound, they instead applied it to traditional Thai melodies, rhythms, and occasionally even instrumentation. The result is a unique mix that sees the exotic injected with the familiar, the familiar made less so, and the combined total somehow made more alien to outsider ears than the sum of its parts. Serpentine organ melodies intertwine with percussive guitar leads toward unexpected resolutions. Familiar elements pop up — a drum intro borrowed from the Surfari’s “Wipe Out”, the odd guitar figure reminiscent of early Ska — only to be swallowed back into the intoxicating swirl of influences both old and new, Eastern and Western.
Shadow Music of Thailand offers an invaluable document of a type of unselfconscious cultural fusion that seems increasingly rare in this era of global pop culture. Its an echo of a pre-internet, pre-satellite-TV age when what artifacts of Western pop culture did reach distant shores often did so in a fragmentary form divorced from context, thus providing the raw materials for endless and unpredictable forms of re-appropriation and reinvention. The CD is also an ideal form of musical transport, taking the listener to a far away place that, while in some ways geographically and historically specific, is also tantalizingly both here and there at once.
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.
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.