Director: Sompote Sands
Original Title: Suek Kumphakan
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.
Even when he was adapting properties like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, Sompote Sands embellished the familiar Japanese characters and situations with characters from Thai mythology. So it is that Japanese superheroes found themselves fighting alongside ancient Thai deities and monsters like Hanuman, Yuk Wud Jaeng, and Yuk Wud Pho. In 1973, Sands made Tah Tien, one of his first films based more on Thai legends than Japanese superheroes. It has its moments, and I’d rather watch it than a romantic comedy, but it’s a pretty boring movie in which the film’s poster boys, fearsome and colorful guardians Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, barely appear . Instead, Sands concentrates on hijinks involving a goddess who is sometimes a giant cigarette-puffing frog and on the slapstick adventures of a big game hunter. Yuk Wud Jaeng would appear again in a bit part in what is perhaps Sands most notorious movie: Magic Lizard. Thai folklore and religion played a role in just about everything Sands did, but it wasn’t until 1984’s Noble War that he pulled out all the stops, adapting a story (in his own peculiar, distracted, and meandering way) from The Ramayana. The result is possibly the single most colorful film ever a made, a lurid candy-colored spectacle that sees Sompote Sands drawing inspiration not from Japanese superhero shows, but rather from the lavish mythological epics produced in India.
The Ramayana is, along with The Mahabharata, one of the great epics that comprises the foundation of the Hindu faith. When it was brought to Thailand, The Ramayana became The Ramakien, and it is from this book that Sompote Sands drew for the plot — such as it is — of Noble War. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Hindu or Thai mythology probably knows that it is a heritage overflowing with gods, devils, monsters, adventure, epic battles, and of course, solemn lessons about faith and fate. In other words, ripe territory for Bollywood filmmakers with an eye for spectacle. The 1960s Indian film Sampoorna Ramayan is based on the same story Sands would tap for Noble War, and given his appetite for special effects films from other countries, I’d bet good money on Sampoorna Ramayan being a major reason why Sands eventually decided to make Noble War. Despite the fact that Indian cinema (and Indian culture in general) is famous for the vibrant, saturated color-palette of its costumes, Sompote Sands apparently judged them all just a little bit too somber in tone, and so decided to take the technicolor marvels of India and jack them up.
Noble War thus becomes one of the most dizzying and reckless displays of color ever committed to screen. Nothing is one color if it can be fifteen colors, and no color in even the most expanded of Pantone collections seems to have been left out. Somewhere amid that glorious visual chaos is the story of the war between Hanuman and his army of monkeys (yay!) versus the scoundrel demon Thosaganth, but Sompote Sands is, like me, way more interested in giant monsters kicking stuff over than he is in advancing the causes of religion. And so the movie becomes a luxurious parade of multi-colored gods and demons trashing miniature sets, squashing humans, and at one point even engaging in protracted scenes of “comedy” vomiting. Lest you worry about Sands breaking from his tradition of recycling footage, rest easy. At least some of the Hanuman action here is taken from Hanuman and the Seven Ultramen, and the crocodile that first appeared in Crocodile then in every Sompote Sands movie made since puts in an obligatory appearance here.
But I don’t want to sell the director short by implying that he was taking it easy. Sompote pulls out all the stops on this one, and it’s really something. Hanuman was an old friend by this point, having appeared in so many of Sands’ movies. Thosaganth, whose kidnapping of Rama’s wife sets the entire conflict in motion, is a wonder of riotous colors to behold. But the film’s most impressive accomplishment is a bright red, six-armed monster that is realized in part by a man in a suit and also by using full-scale models of the giant arms grabbing hapless people. And that’s just the start of things. The movie is crammed with so many monsters and gods, some of which are more than a little similar to one another in appearance, and Sompote Sands style of storytelling is so scattershot, that keeping track of everything and everyone becomes a mission impossible even if you speak the language. I got through it by reading (well, skimming a summary) of the original story so that I had the gist of things. Then I just sat back and let Sompote Sands marvelous kaleidoscopic spectacle wash over me.
It’s this very stylistic overkill that makes Noble War not only the most visually ambitious of Sompote Sands’ films, but also one of the easiest to tolerate. His trademark weird senese of humor is well in place, and the stretches between giant monsters and demon battles are filled with goofball antics and slapstick comedy of the “dude gets kicked int he butt and falls down” variety. And of course, there’s the freakishly long bit with the gods all being grossed out by the floating pig carcass. These comedic indulgences are usually part of what makes Sompote Sands a less palatable director to many people, but either because I’m getting used to him or because I was simply taken in by the visual riot and incomprehensible number of colorful creatures, the comedic nonsense and padding in Noble War was practically tolerable. I’m not sure it’s 100% original religious text accurate, but what religion couldn’t benefit from a few extra comedy kicks to the balls?
Complimenting the bold visual style and subject matter, Sompote Sands chose to stage the action in Noble War in a very traditional theatrical manner, not unlike you would find in one of the old Peking or Huangmei opera adaptations they used to make at Shaw Bros. studio. The first recorded known instances of stories from the Ramayana in Thailand come during the early Sukhothai kingdom in the thirteenth century. At that time, it was common for the stories to be told via nang, or Thai shadow puppet theater. Later, once the book had completed its transformation into The Ramakien, it was common for the stories to be performed in khon theater, a traditional Thai style of dance and theater with high stylized and precise movements performed by ornately costumed actors while a chorus reads from the book.
Sands draws heavily from both nang and khon traditions. Although the characters are not silent, they move in a very khon theater style and boast the same incredibly ornate masks and costumes. They actually work remarkably well on film, and it’s easy to buy into them even though one might think the trappings of stage theater would seem out of place in the context of actual location filming. But Sands’ work is always so surreal and screwy anyway that it is remarkably easy to go with it, and suddenly all these lavishly dressed creatures and pink dragon-horse puppets make perfect sense. Similarly, whenever the characters decide to fly to the next location, Sands employs nang puppets zipped around miniature sets on wires. Sands also employs traditional Thai music for the soundtrack. Overall, it works remarkably well in creating a completely alien world, as befits a realm of monkey gods and lecherous demons and holy lords, even if it makes for rather a peculiarly stylized film. It is easy to get pulled into the look of the film, and at no point, even when you can see the seams, does it occur to me that I’m just watching a bunch of people in theater masks.
Noble War dwells a long time on celestial court shenanigans, and if you are not predisposed toward tolerating Sompote Sands’ strange ideas about pacing and comedy, the first hour is a bit of rough going punctuated only by one really good scene involving temple throwing and that six-armed monster. Oh, and the weird pig carcass bit. Patience is rewarded, however, as the finale goes full on psychedelia once Hanuman decides he needs to step up and save us from watching more throne room antics. Then it’s all crazy lights and backflips and a monkey army versus a giant green monster spewing forth water and crocodiles, since Sands is always going to work the crocodile suit into his films. That thing is to Sompote Sands what Kane and Shane Kosugi were to Sho.
In the end, Noble War will probably be of more interest to fans of mythological movies and Thai history than to straight up giant monster fans, who would be better served by seeking out Hanuman and the Seven Ultramen. I found it absolutely engrossing even if I spent half of the movie completely confused about who was who. It is just so much fun to look at though, and it’s obvious that Sompote Sands, problematic director though he may be, really cared about this movie and put everything into it. As a result, I get a lot out of it. It’s only barely a kaiju film, but it’s a very unique take on the genre regardless, and a fascinating melding — or car crash — of Sand’s most beloved tropes: giant monsters, Thai mythology, Bollywood mythologicals, and goofball humor. The whole thing is just wonderful. Like pretty much everything Sands has made, it’s not the sort of film I’d recommend to everyone, but if you think you might be interested, then you are probably the sort of person who would be happy with Noble War.