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June 21, 2011


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Suay . . Samurai
Manop Udomdej - 2009
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The couple of reviews I read should have been warning enough. But I decided to see Vanquisher for myself. How bad can an action film with some reasonably attractive Thai women be? As it turned out, writer-director Manop Udomdej must have spent some time studying the frequently incoherent fight scenes in the Rush Hour movies, and set out to prove he could do worse than Brett Ratner. It's all well and good to have your actors train at using guns, swords and personal combat, but it comes to naught when the basics like a reasonably constructed screenplay and a sense of clear visual presentation are ignored.

Manop Udomdej's desire to make a Thai action film featuring women is fine. According to the DVD supplement, the idea came to him while at Cannes, seven years ago. As it turned out, at least three films beat him to the punch: Bullet Wives, Chai Lai Angels and Chocolate. The last of these is the best not the least of which is because the action sequences were filmed Hong Kong style, with most of the action filmed in full frame. Manop ran behind schedule due to an order to cut out one of the actresses, Chotiros Suriwong, from the original production. By the time the film was first released, in November 2009, George Bush, who is mentioned by one of the characters, was no longer the U.S. President, further hampering any notions Manop had about being topical. There are also several scenes in English, with such wooden delivery, that it occurred to me that Vanquisher might have been a more successful film had it been made with marionettes in the style of Team America: World Police.

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I don't know how good an actress she is, but I'd like to see a Thai filmmaker give the lead to Kessarin (Nui) Ektawatkul. It's already been established that Nui can seriously kick ass as a national Tae Kwon Do champion. Nui was also cute and funny in her bit as a papaya vendor in Somtum. I would also argue that she is more attractive than the woman given the lead role, newcomer Sophita Sribanchean. Maybe it's me being totally superficial, but it didn't help that the close ups of Sophita indicated a hint of mustache. I'd even hope that Jacqueline Apitananon is given some more opportunities to show what she's capable of, as she seems to enjoy being the villain of the piece, as long as speaking English not part of the deal.

Manop's plot has something to do with Muslim terrorism in Thailand. Somehow, both the C.I.A. and ninjas are involved. The title translates as "Beautiful Samurai", but any connection to the code of Bushido is but a very slender, frayed, thread. There's some kind of plan to blow up Bangkok. Except for the part about an African guy who arranged for a small explosion in an open market turning out to be a C.I.A. plant, the various story threads are sometimes challenging to follow. The question is raised as to whether Manop was being deliberately confusing, are was just lazy and hoped that no one would mind that the story, as such, makes no sense. There are some very real problems regarding Muslim's in Thailand, including a faction that wants to make part of southern Thailand a separate country, but the only half-hearted attempt at any seriousness is in a brief scene when a mother asks her son if he thinks what he is doing is truly the will of Allah.

Some of the faults of the film might have been overlooked if Manop didn't find a way to, and pardon my bluntness, fuck up what should have been some spectacular set pieces. Sophita hops on a moving motorcycle, and then is able to ride on to the top of a moving train which catches fire. Or at least that's what I think happened. The problem is that with a series of very short close ups, I wasn't sure if that's what I actually was suppose to think I saw. Even that master of montage, Sergei Eisenstein, understood that there had to be some long shots to give the viewer an overall sense of what was happening on the Odessa Steps. The fight scenes are composed of close ups or medium shots of the individual combatants, mostly in dimly lit environments, further undermining any sense of visceral excitement. Even with titles announcing where some of the scenes take place, Monop provides very little sense of location. Where Monop is more interested in geography is an overhead shot studying the peaks and valleys of Sophita's cleavage.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 21, 2011 08:46 AM