Speaking of not exactly inspiring confidence, how do you think I felt when Spirited Killer opened with untranslated Thai credits which nevertheless prominently featured the number 4? What the hell? It turns out that the "first" Spirited Killer is the fourth in the Plook Mun Kuen Ma Kah series. That title apparently means "Wake Up to Kill," but the films are also known as the "Forest Man" series. No doubt being set in forests has something to do with that.
The credits roll over someone preparing a potion. He proves to be some sort of snake-oil salesman with a flair for presentation. His concoction explodes like a cartoon version of Dr. Jekyll's potion, the better to impress the rubes. And here's the pitch: this stuff will make you immortal and restore the old to youth. It's good karma to drink it, the pitchman claims. One crone is eager to pay up so she can attract a new husband, and another idiot follows her. But before the third sucker can take his dose someone notices that the first two are dead. "You murdered them!" young Pyak protests, "You bastard!" Yes, the dubbing is like that, rendering Thailand a land of Bills and Teds. And yet I get the feeling from the action on screen and the work of the actors that this is a spiritually faithful translation of the original script. But more on that later. For now, Pyak is going to tell on the mean old patent-medicine man, which means that the poor doctor is going to have to kill them. He takes down two out of three before Pyak flees across a river, moons the villain, calls him an asshole, and makes good his escape. Pyak was lucky, because the doctor can run at superhuman speed. Who is this guy? I wasn't sure, didn't want to believe at first, because I was certain that a victim referred to him as "Doctor Dong." That would have been too good, but the rest of the cast refers to their enemy as "Doctor Duong." It's a moot point anyway, since Pyak and the chief put together a posse, chase down the dude who can run superhumanly fast (but apparently forgot to), hack him to within an inch of his life with machetes, and dump him into the river. End of Act One.
Some time passes, though my ignorance of Thai prevents me from telling you how much. A group of twenty farmers are transporting some goods when they find their path blocked by some guy in a Member's Only jacket with his back to them. When he won't get out of the way they insult him more vigorously. "What the hell do you want, freak?" one asks as the stranger turns to face him. The director probably thinks this moment is on the level of James Whale's reveal of Karloff in Frankenstein, but we just see a surly looking little guy. Then he attacks. He disarms men and kills them with their machetes. This guy is a wrecking machine.
Only two of the original group manage to escape to the same village from Act One, where the same guy is still chief. Pyak is still around, also, trying to impress the chief's daughter Faa.
Pyak: I don't want to brag, but when it comes to fishing in Sidong village, everyone hails me as the master.
Faa: Oh yeah? So I guess that makes you the master baiter.
Be honest, readers: didn't the same joke occur to you sometime, back when you were twelve? But before this banter can go further, the two survivors of the attack, Boomay and Maha (all names approximate; IMDB doesn't help much here) meet them with their awful news, which they all take to the chief. I don't think I'll have to cite anymore dubbing samples after this extended exchange, which sets the tone for the whole film:
Boomay: I'm sorry to tell you this but a bunch of our people got killed. Me and Maha were the only ones to get away.
Faa: Wow...That's pretty impressive for just one guy! What does he look like? Is he handsome?
Chief: Hey, Faa, this is life and death, here. Don't joke around.
Maha: Chief, I'm scared! What should we do? I think that that thief is still out there in the forest. Our villagers must be in trouble.
Pyak: Bullshit! You guys can't take care of one lousy thief? You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. It's pathetic!
Boomay: Hey, man! This guy is really a monster. You didn't even see him.
Pyak: Well, he better hope I don't see him, 'cause I'll kick his ass for sure.
Chief: C'mon, guys! No more bickering. Things are bad enough as it is. We need to stick together....
Again, this seems to be a thematically accurate rendering of the actual Thai performances, and it may only be because the filmmakers have portrayed their own people as a pack of imbeciles that China did not declare war on Thailand when this film came out. It so happens that Sidong village is hosting two expeditions, one Japanese and one Chinese, who are looking for some legendary local "holy metal." The Japanese come off relatively well. One of their group, a kid named Shiba (or is that "Chiba" by way of homage to the master?) is actually the nearest thing to a pure hero the film has. But from this film's evidence the Thai people have a pretty poor estimate of their Chinese neighbors. The Chinese expedition includes two stunningly obnoxious comedy relief characters, one a dude in a safari suit who carries a battery-operated fan, the other a mute respectfully known as "Mute" who gibbers and gesticulates quite vocally through the rest of the picture. Why is Mute traveling with the expedition. As another Chinese explains, everybody wants to get rich, even a mute. And you thought they were unworldly saints! I guess you've learned an important lesson in humanity from this film.
Banliu Srisaeng as Mute (above) proves that the art of pantomime is not dead.
"Why does this feel like it hurts?" Actual dubbed dialogue from Thailand's notion of a comical Chinese person.
Once the two expeditions reach Sidong, the film becomes a series of skirmishes between the international idiot force and the individual whom we must apparently call the Spirited Killer. They attack and he kicks their asses, repeatedly. At times he seems to have iron skin, as machetes clang harmlessly on contact with his body. After several rounds of this you really have to ask yourself what the Spirited Killer has to do with the first part of the movie with Dr. Dong -- I mean Duong. I went back and checked and he was not one of the victims of the doctor's potion. But eventually the Doc himself reappears, all better from his early misadventure, to claim the Spirited Killer as "my immortal warrior." Since the doctor is now as invulnerable as the SK, Sidong village is seriously f*cked unless some hitherto unseen holy man should happen to show up with a sword made of holy metal for our heroes to use. And what are the chances of that happening?
I haven't laughed at a movie so hard in some time, and it has some halfway decent martial arts, too. This is definitely an early effort from the unit that now sets the standard for wireless fight scenes, but everyone performs enthusiastically, taking great bumps and happily slashing one another's shirts with their machetes. Spirited Killer, or whatever you want to call it, is exactly what I'm looking for a lot of the time from the wild world of cinema. It's a genuinely popular, unpretentious film from another part of the world, not aimed at art-house critics (Thailand has stuff for them as well) but for the native rabble who apparently like to see obnoxious young people get killed as much as the rabble of any nation. The only difference is that these kids fight back a lot. Imagine a Friday the 13th film in which everyone knows kung fu and you still root for the mindless killer and you get close to the essence of Spirited Killer. Add to that the utterly brain-dead dubbing and this first film alone justifies the bargain-basement $5 I paid for the entire trilogy. I think I can confidently commend the entire set to connoisseurs of cinematic garbage.
Here's a video trailer for the film under yet another title, desperately trying to hype Tony Jaa's brief appearance. It was uploaded to YouTube by abbottwhite
And here's a clip from the third film in the set, Spirited Killer: Ghost Wars. Such a parade of awesomeness cannot be missed.