When watching one of the Insee Daeng movies - or any other existing example of popular Thai cinema from the 1960s - its 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. 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 ambiance 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 (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 early sixties, 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 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 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 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 blasť 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, 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, 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. Sasantieng'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 Sasantieg'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.
- Todd Stadtman 12/5/07
All text content © Copyright 2007 Todd Stadtman. All rights reserved.