Sunday, July 19, 2020

Pandji Tengkorak (1971)

... aka: 鬼面人
... aka: Das Geistergesicht der roten Dschunke (Ghost Face of the Red Junk [?])
... aka: Ghostly Face
... aka: Gui mian ren
... aka: Karaté à Bali (Karate in Bali)
... aka: Karate Fantôme (Phantom Karate)
... aka: Lem mien kuel
... aka: Panji Tengkorak
... aka: Spøgelse Ansigtet (Ghost Face)

Directed by:
A. (Abdillah) Harris
Shih-Ching Yang

A mysterious figure wearing a grotesque corpse-like mask rides through the countryside on a horse, does a huge leap over a fortress wall and then has a sword / spear fight with a man named Hua Chia (Bao-Liang Chen) and one of his guards. After dispatching both of them, the figure then steals the man's precious heirloom sword. The masked man soon reveals himself to be a warrior named Chief Tang (Hui Lou Chen), who is working for the evil, white-haired, eye patch-wearing One-Eyed Lung (Maruli "Sitompoel" / Sitompul); the evil emperor of a rival dynasty who wants absolute power. It turns out Tang was merely impersonating a well-known figure in the area by the name of Ghostly Face as a way to implicate him in the killing and throw suspicion off his clan. The real Ghostly Face, despite the freaky mask, isn't a bad guy at all. In fact, his reputation up until this point in time has been pretty stellar. After an elaborate beachfront burial ceremony where a bull replica and huge temple float are burned, Hua's disgruntled fighter daughter (Polly Shang-Kuan) decides to avenge her pop's death and sets out on a mission to kill his murderer, whom she first assumes is the innocent Ghostly Face.

The daughter, who is referred to as either Fightress Hua or Miss Hua in the subs, stops by a stream to get a drink and then makes short work of a half-dozen wannabe rapists who attack her; even managing to impale one with a sword she chucks across the water like a spear! She then wards off more warriors working for Tang, using her martial arts skills, slashing them with swords, throwing pink roses into their eyeballs and even ripping out a throat with her bare hand. Spying the fight from the top of a coconut tree, Pan Chih (Deddy Sutomo), eventually comes to her aid once she finds herself wrapped up in rope. He's able to fight the rest of the men off until they flee. Hua reveals her plans on killing Ghostly Face to Pan Chih, little realizing that he actually is the real Ghostly Face. He doesn't reveal that to her but comments that she'll eventually realize Ghostly Face is innocent before heading off.

Venturing on, Miss Hua charters a boat, kills an assassin who tries to stab her and then teams up with another young woman named Anny Ma (Nanin Sudiar... I think). Anny is also looking for Ghostly Face but has other, more noble motives for wanting to find him. The two ladies face tough obstacles as they are soon attacked by about a hundred armed pirates (more of Tang's men) who kill the captain, chop off the boat's sail and try to shoot them with arrows. Even worse for Hua is that Anny is not a fighter and just screams and cowers while she does all of the dirty work. Still, Hua manages to lay waste to dozens more men, including Hsu Pu Lai (Godfried Sancho); one of the evil dynasty's top men.

After surviving that ordeal, the women take refuge in a cave and Anny relates a flashback... that goes on for twenty long minutes! Prior to crossing Hua's path, Anny's peaceful village was attacked by Tang's men, who started looting and killing everyone in sight. Ghostly Face / Pan Chih eventually showed up and successfully stopped further carnage, but Anny's brother, the village chief, was mortally wounded during the attack. On his deathbed, he asked Ghostly Face to take care of Anny and their younger sister, Wah Ti (Lenny Marlina). And that he's done. Only Wah Ti has now been kidnapped by the evil clan and in need of saving.

While our star is skilled, deadly, beautiful and otherwise a joy to watch, she's also annoyingly hard-headed when it comes to accepting Ghostly Face's innocence and even starts helping the bad guys in trying to take him down at the finale! Speaking of the finale, it's a complete mess, too. After only being shown for a few seconds in the very first scene, Indonesian actress Rita Zahara pops in to take center stage as if she's suddenly one of the main stars. I had to reverse the movie to even figure out who she was and even then was left puzzled why this character was even in the film. This also frustratingly leaves the fate of one of the main bad guys completely up in the air when it cuts away from Zahara and One-Eyed Lung mid-fight and simply never returns! I'm not sure if this is how the original film is or if the version I watched got butchered by the distributor.

While there are massive holes in the plot if you want to get technical about it and the revenge premise is average at best, it's an adequate framework to showcase lots of entertaining, rousing and sometimes excellent action scenes with lots of kicking, flying, flipping, jumping, weaponry and gore. As travelogue and a cultural document, this does a great job of showcasing the beauty of Indonesia, though some viewers think a little too much time is spent on that. Personally, I quite enjoyed it. The costumes are colorful and creative, the beaches and various outdoor backdrops all look great, we get to see several long ceremonies with gyrating men, maidens, a witch doctor, a monkey demon, a monkey jester, a lion and men boring holes in their own chests and there are striking landscapes and temple ruins throughout. Also featured are a cockfight (unfortunately), a bat-filled cave, a monkey-infested temple, some very brief nudity when a village girl is hassled by a thug and a body count that probably matches the entire Friday the 13th franchise. I was never bored.

There's a lot of contradictory information online about this title, so I'll attempt to clear some of that up the best I can right now:

Production title: IMDb and Letterboxd both currently list this same film twice in their databases. The first listing is for Panji tengkorak (though the poster and title screen spell it "Pandji"), which is the Indonesian release title. This is how the film should be listed seeing how this was loosely based on the popular 1968 Indonesian comic serial Panji Tengkorak by Hans Jaladara (below; photo credit) and appears to have been released in that country first. The second listing is for Lem mien kuel, which is the simplified version of the Chinese release title and where the English "The Ghostly Face" moniker is derived from.

Release year: The Indonesian poster and opening credits both list the release year as 1971 while most sources give the Hong Kong and Taiwan release year as 1973. However HK Cinemagic and a French source claim 1972. Either way, the Indonesian release in 1971 was the first.

Cast / characters: Depending on which version you watch, the character names change. The characters I have listed in my write-up are from the Mandarin language print. In the Indonesian language version our hero is (of course!) called Pandji Tengkorak, while Polly's character is Dewi Bunga. The younger sister played by Marlina is called Mariani and the main bad guy is Kebobeok. Many sources credit Filipino actress Elizabeth Oropesa as playing Anny (called Warti in the Indonesian version), though I don't think that is correct. Her name is not listed anywhere in the credits and she would have been just 16 or 17 when this was filmed while the actress playing the role seems older. While the Chinese sources claim it's her, the Indonesian ones list actress / singer Nanin Sudiar. We run into a problem here as well as Sudiar's listed birth date is 1959 so the actress would have only been 12 when she was in this! I guess I'm going with Sudiar for the time being just assuming either her birth info is wrong or she just looks really, really mature for a 12-year-old.

Running time: I found three different prints of this film. An Indonesian language print, a Mandarin language print with English subtitles and an English-dubbed print. Both the Indonesian and Mandarin language prints clock in at just under 83 minutes, while the English-dubbed one (which inserts a new title screen, removes the rest of the opening credits and cuts out most of the travelogue stuff) runs a little over 72 minutes. Film Indonesia gives the full running time as 86 m. though I was unable to find a release that long. A version that circulated around Europe is listed with a 78 minute run time.

It is also noteworthy that this was a co-production between Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan and four different production companies were attached, including the Taiwan-based Union Film Co., Hai Hua Cinema Co. out of Hong Kong and two one-shot Indonesian companies. Billing is different between these versions. On the Indonesian print, the only credited Chinese actor is the female star (billed as Shan Kuang Ling Fung) but both directors are credited. On the Mandarin print, only the Chinese director receives credit and the Indonesian stars were given different names. On some of the English prints the direction is credited to one "S.K. Yang" and a German release falsely gives co-direction credit to prolific actor / director Wu Ma!

There was a 1983 sequel, Panji Tengkorak Vs Jaka Umbaran, from director M. Sharieffudin A. and with Deddy Sutomo reprising the role, a 1993 version with Barry Prima and a number of television adaptations featuring the same characters. Outside of Asia, this was released throughout Europe (at least in Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany) and in the UK (on the Ocean Shores label). I'm not aware of any official U.S. release though it's now easy to find on Amazon Prime and Youtube.

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