Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dark Enemy (1984)

Directed by:
Colin Finbow

After much of mankind has been wiped out by war, "The Valley People" live a peaceful, pastoral existence. They love work. They love animals. They refuse to kill other living beings or consume their flesh. They have their own mythologies and religious beliefs; worshiping something called "The Great Spirit." And they have many rules to keep their small society running smoothly, which include children obeying their elders, never questioning the rulings of their leader, never discussing "the dark time" and never wandering away from their village after dark. According to the elders, outside of the village where the sun doesn't shine lies "the forbidden place," which is rumored to contain a cannibalistic mutant race called "the moon children." They're supposedly albino, deformed and eyeless, eat meat (including humans) and only come out at night. In addition to them there are roving prides of blood-thirsty canines called "moon dogs," that are avoided because one of them supposedly ate an infant.

With many of the elders dying off from something referred to only as "the sickness," the young adults - led by Barnaby (Martin Laing) and Ruth (Jennifer Harrison) - decide to move up in the ranks and reform their society a bit. Tasks are delegated to new people and, at the urging of surviving elder Ash (David Haig), they forbid the kids from visiting old hermit Ezra (Douglas Storm) due to him continuing to speak about the past and scaring the kids with stories about the moon children. Young Aron (Rory Macfarquhar), who has frequent headaches and hears voices in his head, is assigned the tasks of fire-maker and "provider" for Ezra. He's to take him food once a day and leave it outside his hut and then be on his way. Instead, Aron decides to start talking to him and eventually befriends him. Ezra offers up the occasional cryptic warning like "beware the dark" and "beware bright circles."

This first sign of disobedience leads to more rule breaking and wayward behavior from the other kids. One boy makes a bow and arrow and kills a rabbit. After they throw it on the fire, another boy decides to taste it. While out collecting firewood, Aron and his friend Beth (Cerian Van Doorninck) venture a little bit beyond the edges of their society and spot a windmill and what looks like the roof of a home.

Because Ash feels his days are numbered as the adults have recently been dropping like flies, he narrows down the position of potential new leader to Barnaby, shepherd Garth (Chris Chescoe) and Aron. He sends them on a dangerous quest called an "ordeal" where they must go to the edge of their society. When they return, if they survive, they're forbidden to speak of anything they witnessed while they were gone. Whoever returns first will be assigned the position of leader. While on the quest, the two older boys attempt to kill Aron by cutting his rope as he crosses a river, but he survives, proves to have telepathic abilities and crosses paths with both the moon dogs and one of the moon children. The simple, pacifist society of The Valley People starts to crumble once the boys return and perks about what lies beyond their tiny, insulated village are revealed.

Though this is certainly ambitious and well-meaning in touching on mankind's destructive nature (environmental damage, proclivity for war) to satisfy our insatiable greed and materialism, this is lacking in some important areas too difficult to overlook. While it tries to do its best utilizing its outdoor locations and few crumbling old buildings / farmhouses, it doesn't have the budget or production design to quite pull off its post apocalyptic atmosphere (it's mostly just kids dressed in dirty rags sitting around in fields and on the ground) and it's too poorly acted (flubbed lines and all) to be a very compelling end of the world drama. Furthermore, it saves the headier stuff for the very end and a lot of what leads up to that isn't particularly interesting nor does it function to highlight the film's primary point.

This was a Children's Film Unit production. Founded in 1981, the CFU films were made with the strong input of children, who worked in all capacities on these from initial concept through execution. Finbow founded the company, which was financed as an educational charity and had some pretty famous donors at one point, ranging from Steven Spielberg to Richard Attenborough to members of the British royal family. Their final finished feature was made in 1997 and the company ceased operation for good in 2011.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Teeda Sok Puos (1974)

... aka: 蛇魔女
... aka: Girl with Snake Hair
... aka: Neang Sak Pus
... aka: She mo nu
... aka: Snake Girl, The
... aka: Snake Witch

Directed by:
Chin Wan (Kuang Hui)

As a 15-year-old in 1959, Dy Saveth became the very first Miss Cambodia. A highly successful film career would soon follow, lasting from the 1960s until the mid 70s. Her most popular film during this time was The Snake Man (1970; aka The Snake King's Wife), directed by Tea Lim Koun, which was a huge hit throughout much of Asia, especially in Thailand, and won six awards at the 19th Annual Asian Movie Awards in Singapore, including a Best Actress award for its star. Its 1973 sequel was also a huge success and would duplicate the awards just a few years later. At the time, Saveth was married to Taiwanese producer and director Kuang Hui (who was so often billed under different names like Chin Wan, Keng Ming, Huoy Keng and Hui Keung that I don't even know what to really call him!) and the two ran their own production company called Sovann Kiri. Saveth is said to have accumulated over 100 credits during this time, not only as an actress but also as a writer, producer, planner, singer and even occasional director. She was one of the most beautiful and beloved stars of her day; a household name in Southeast Asia... and then things all came crashing down.

Once the Khmer Rouge, who were financially supported by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China, took control of the country under Pol Pot and instituted totalitarian rule, the "Golden Age" of Cambodian cinema was no more. Even though there's no way to come up with an exact number of casualties, it's said that at least 1 million or as many as 2 million (around 25% of the entire country's population!) died as a direct result of the takeover of the country from 1975 to 1979. Individual freedom and independent thought were both detrimental to the Khmer Rouge, so they instituted genocide to remove any perceived threats or subversive elements.

People were imprisoned, tortured, used in ghastly medical experiments and usually killed due to their religion, ethnicity, affiliation to the previous Cambodian government or military, education (those with college degrees were deemed suspect and not suited to the agrarian peasant lifestyle they were going to be forced into) or their current or even former line or work. Caught up in the latter two categories were most of the influential writers, filmmakers, singers and actors, who were considered representative of dangerous Western influence. Most well-known artists disappeared during this time and likely ended up in one of 23,000+ mass graves later discovered. All prints of the movies produced there during the 60s and early 70s were also ordered destroyed.

Saveth and her husband, who fled to Thailand and then France just one month before the takeover, were two of the survivors. After the couple split up (due to - she says - an extramarital affair), he returned to Hong Kong to resume his filmmaking career and reputedly went on to become one of the country's first millionaires while she stayed in France, worked as a nanny and hid her former movie star past. She would not return to Cambodia for good until the mid 90s and now teaches acting and puts in the occasional film or TV appearance, though the industry isn't anything like what it used to be in its heyday when she was a big star. Of the over 400 films produced in Cambodia from the 60s to the mid 70s, only around 30 remain. Of the 100 films Saveth made, there are around a dozen, and the films that still exist only do because they were either co-productions with other countries or received a release outside of Cambodia. These include...


Unfortunately, none of the above are in very good condition due to the fact these are heavily-cut nth generation VHS or VCD releases we're talking about. The only available print of The Snake Man (1970; poster #1 above) cuts this originally 164 minute film down to just 97 minutes. The sequel, re-titled The Marvellous Snake for the Thai release (poster #2), also still exists and has played at film festivals but has never been released to home video. There's also The Crocodile Men (release dates vary from 1967 to 1971; poster #4) and its follow-up Chompa Toung / Crocodile Man 2 (release dates vary from 1969 to 1974; poster #3) and The Snake Girl Drops In (1974; VCD cover and lobby card below), which was made in Taiwan and received a dubbed French release under the new title La Vipère du Karaté. Finally, there's the movie we're about to watch, The Snake Girl, which was a HK / Cambodian / Taiwan co-production that received theatrical releases in all of those countries. Both it and the first Crocodile Man were released on VCD through Ocean Shores and have the added bonus of having burnt in English subtitles. There's no English version of the others as far as I know.

In a small village, the scheming and adulterous Big Madam Meggie is plotting against both her ailing husband and her sister, Ah-hua (Saveth), whom she especially hates due to her beauty and gentleness. Ah-hua is so kind she warns against harming any living creature, including much-hated snakes, per Buddhist teachings, while Big Madam wants them slaughtered on sight. The Master of the family is on his deathbed, something Big Madam, her married lover Su Kuei and a sorcerer they've hired to help hope to speed along by slipping poison into his tea. Before he passes, he specifically requests Ah-hua be the new head of the household due to her virtuous and sagacious nature. However, just seconds after he dies, Big Madam claims the position and threatens the staff. If they don't listen to and obey her, they'll be out of a job and out on their ass. She immediately proclaims Su Kuei as her new husband even though his own wife, who they've also been poisoning, isn't even dead yet!

Much to Big Madam's dismay, Su Kuei is actually head over heels in love with Ah-hua. When she gets word of this and catches him trying to molest her, she attempts to beat her sister to death with a stick. She then sneaks a goofy servant named Monkey into her sister's bed in order to trick Su Kuei into making love to him (!!) instead. Big Madam arranges for three of her goons to kidnap Ah-hua. They gag her, tie her up and drag her through the woods to a deep cave filled with deadly snakes. She's kicked unconscious and bloody and then tossed in and left for dead. However, instead of killing her the snakes decide to take care of her. And by take care of her I mean in every way, including bringing her dead chickens to eat and even fulfilling her sexual needs! After one such encounter, Ah-hua finds herself pregnant and eventually gives birth to a skunk-haired baby girl. Immediately afterward she's killed by a falling tree but, thankfully, the snakes decide to step in and raise the baby themselves.

Many years later, Snake Baby has now grown into perky teenage Snake Girl (also played by Saveth). She climbs trees and swings on vines like Tarzan, has a weird, white hat made of flowers and has somehow managed to get her hands on a matching striped crop top, serrated miniskirt and garter belt (?) to complete the look. Having gotten bored of cave life, she decides its time to venture out and makes her first public appearance at a village talent show. In between the dancing, musicians and comedy acts, she strikes the fancy of Fei-lung ("Kon Samoeun" / Kong Sam Oeurn), who also happens to be Big Madam's son with the late Master, whom Big Madam and Su Kuei are trying to match-make with his teenage daughter Mila, from his late wife.

Much to everyone's disapproval, Fei-lung has become infatuated with the mysterious girl living in the cave and starts spending all of his time pursuing her. The two chase each other around through the woods and on the beach and he follows her into the cave where he discovers she doesn't know their language and doesn't even have a name. He dubs her Ah-mei. In a scene replicated in the same director's THE WOLF GIRL (1974), which actually has a lot in common with this otherwise, the two lick each other as part of their getting-to-know-you process. The deal is finally sealed when they make love by a campfire. Fei-lung and Ah-mei are now officially in love. Fei-lung is even willing to accept the Medusa-like snake hair she has tucked away under her flower cap.

However, Su Kuei and Big Madam are still scheming and dead set on ending the union. They call in a sorcerer who has three of his priests (actually!) cut their tongues with knives and (actually!) drive long pins through both of their cheeks to communicate with their Gods, but the higher powers forbid them from harming the snake-girl. Instead, they decide to ignore all that and send a torch-carrying mob of villagers after Ah-mei. She's beaten with a stick, doused with alcohol and finally dragged off to a temple where they plan to execute her. A facially-scarred female shaman attempts to contact the spirit world, two of the servants who try to help Fei-lung get beat unconscious and a real rabbit is decapitated with a sword and then has its guts ripped out. Eventually, Ah-mei's army of snake friends from the cave decide to slither on over to help her out.

On one hand you have a simple, sincere and somewhat endearing little love story between star crossed lovers with serious dramatic acting from the performers. On the other hand you have a squirm-inducing fantasy-horror flick with grisly moments of real on-screen violence and gore. One moment the two leads are breaking out into a romantic ballad on the beach and the next you're seeing a bunch of actual snakes being sliced in half and dangled before the camera. It's also impossible to forget that most of the cast and crew were likely murdered just a year or two after appearing in this. I don't think the male lead, who was a top Cambodian star at this time, was ever seen again after 1975 and the supporting actors' real names aren't even known (the Mandarin language print uses Chinese aliases). It's quite the jarring viewing experience overall, though an admittedly unique one.

As far as Saveth is concerned, she really should be better known in cult movie circles, if only for this particular movie. Imagine one of today's top actresses, let alone a former beauty queen with model-good looks, taking on a role that requires the following... 1. Having a bunch of real snakes of various sizes crawl all over them. 2. Simulating sex with one of the snakes. 3. Wearing a cap covered in real snakes. 4. Having someone actually hack live snakes in half WHILE they're tied to your head. And, as if that wasn't enough already; 5. Having real blood from a freshly-killed rabbit dribbled all over your face. In interviews, the actress even stated the snakes, though non-venomous, would bite her from time to time throughout these shoots. Talk about going all out for your art!

This film is constantly confused with a number of other snake girl / woman / queen titles made in Asia throughout the 70s and 80s. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, India, South Korea and Thailand all had their own based on local folklore. Saveth herself was even in yet another one I didn't list above called Thida Sak Pos (or, "Snake Hair"), which is one of the destroyed / probably-gone-forever films. That would make five known snake-person movies she alone starred in.

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