Saturday, November 14, 2009

RAGE OF THE MASTER (The Destroyer, 1971)

One thing that kept me sane while watching the Thai supernatural martial-arts comedy Spirited Killer in its bodaciously dubbed American version was to ask: "What do the Thais have against the Chinese?" Two of the film's Chinese characters are borderline retarded comedy relief characters, one of them a mute named Mute. Do Thais have that low an estimate of Chinese people that two out of a fairly small party are practically subhuman? Or is it just tit for tat, given a Chinese cinematic history that's unflattering to Thais?

Rage of the Master gives the Chinese side of the argument. As may be appropriate for the opposing viewpoint, it goes to the opposite extreme of bad dubbing. While Spirited Killer's American dubbers homogenized a possible babel of exotic accents in the original into a miracle whip of banal dude-speak, Rage seems oblivious to the purpose of dubbing a film into English, which is to make it comprehensible to English speakers. Rule Number One: the dubbers should speak English, preferably as a first language. Rage says: what rule? The dialogue here is barely articulate, much less literate. This is the sort of film where people curse each other by saying, "You stupid son of bitch!" or advance the plot by commanding, "Don't forget to avenge for me!" or go, "uhhh" and "errr" a lot to fill in the original lip movements. An extended example follows, and let me call your attention to the "well-known boxers" from Thailand who have nothing better to do than tag along with the black sheep of a martial-school family who wants to come back and take over. Their very appearance should have been an international incident.

Destroying the master's school was just a means to an end for Brother Long. Now that he runs the place, he turns it into an "amusement park." And what a bunch of attractions it has: a troupe of female acrobats (they don't get involved in the fighting, alas), a knife-throwing act, gambling, occasional exhibitions of Thai boxing, and more gambling. Brother Long as a very profitable system: let your patrons lose all their money, then lend them some. Then when they lose that, beat them up and confiscate their daughters. Don't neglect to beat up the old men until they die, because everyone else will keep coming anyway.

Anyway, the remaining Fang siblings seek assistance from the semi-legendary Tiger Wong, who lives a humble life with his enfeebled ma, who seeks to shelter him from his natural calling of violence. Tiger frequently gazes up at a Chinese motto framed and hung on a wall. I have no idea what it says, but I imagine it goes a little like, "Promise me son, not to do the things I done, etc." Nevertheless, Tiger has natural skills that come in handy when Long's men try to snatch the kids and their remaining retainers. But the old lady insists on keeping those skills under wraps. Maybe she knows something we don't about her boy.

Chinese speakers or readers: What does this mean???

But about those Thai boxing exhibitions: here's another clip showing one. I found this fascinating for the disdainful attention paid to the presumably broadly caricatured version of the Thai's pre-fight prayers and preparations. Especially when you get glimpses of the disgusted gazes of the Chinese spectators, it reminds you (well, not necessarily you, but me) of old-time professional wrestling when the Japanese heel wrestlers would throw salt in the four corners of the ring. You imagine the Chinese response to the Thai rituals was much the same as the American response to the Japanese antics: what the hell is this crap? It wouldn't surprise me, either, to learn that Chinese martial artists somehow thought that muy thai was some kind of dishonorable dirty fighting, the way some boxing fans still think of mixed martial arts. At the same time, however, the Chinese had to admit, or maybe they just imagined, that Thais had almost supernatural skills, as you'll see when the fat guy tries to throw the Thai boxer out of the squared circle. The exhibition starts about halfway through the first clip:

While this is going on, and while Tiger Wong is somewhere between there and his mom's house, shopping for medicinal herbs, Long's goons attack again, and despite some vicious skills displayed with scissors and other sharp objects by the "feeble" old lady, the bad guys manage to annihilate the entire supporting cast of good guys, though Miss Fang manages to eliminate herself by falling off a cliff. When Tiger sees this, that's where the "Rage" part of the picture (or depending on the edition, the "Destroyer" part) begins. It's William Munny time at Long's amusement park when Tiger Wong shows up with two long knives and killing on his mind. The body count is easily in the dozens, and this scene has to be one of those that influenced the House of Blue Leaves fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

But while Long is the villain of the picture, his defeat is only a preliminary to the actual climax of the movie, which is Tiger Wong's showdown with the Thai boxers on White Beach. That sort of tells you what the filmmakers thought their Chinese audiences wanted to see: Jimmy Wang Yu driving Thais head first into the sand and otherwise killing the crap out of them. Now there are plenty of films in which Chinese heroes kill carloads of Japs with equal relish, but that's understandable given that Japan invaded their country and slaughtered millions of their people. What did the Thais do to deserve their cinematic treatment? I know that Thailand took Japan's side in the war, but it's not as if they were deep in the heart of China raping cities and conducting experiments on people, is it? If there is real hatred, it probably goes back further in time than that. But neither side felt any reticence about airing their contempt for one another on screen long after most similar expressions had been driven from American screens. Seeing that kind of blatant ethnic animosity is a transgressive thrill for some tourists in the wild world of cinema, but it makes me feel a little sordid afterwards. Fortunately, Rage of the Master can be enjoyed for its pure stupidity and for its straightforward brutality, at least by those of us who enjoy such things. It's no film for martial arts aficionados who enjoy seeing different styles in action, but for ninety minutes, give or take, of stunning viciousness and primitive kinetic thrills, it'll do.

All clips from Rage of the Master were uploaded to YouTube by Profanum91.

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