Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Review: SARS Wars

  • Directed by Taweewat Wantha
  • Starring Thep Pho-Ngam, Suppakorn Kitsuwan, Phinlusuda Tunphairso, Lena Christensen, Somlek Sakdikul.
  • Released in Thailand in 2004, reviewed on Region 3 Thailand DVD with with English subtitles from Mangpong
  • Rating: 5/5

Zombies! Thai zombies! I'm all in favor of this. SARS Wars is over the top and silly, but for some reason, I really enjoyed it for its excellent performances and self-referential deprecation.

The story plays on the 2003 health scare that gripped Asia -- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. By the time the film came out, SARS had been eclipsed by bird flu, but that didn't detract from its entertainment value.

Somehow, a virus-infected insect from Africa lands in Thailand and transmits Sars, which turns people into sharp-toothed, frothing-at-the mouth zombies. Now I'm still pretty much a neophyte when it comes to zombies. I've seen the Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days, Versus and the trailer for the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Out of all that, I have to say that the zombies created in SARS Wars were among the most terrifying and brutal. The sound effects accompanying them as they gnawed on their victims skulls was especially sickening. Crunch, crunch, crunch ...

The film opens with an animated sequence, showing the adventures of a super-hero swordfighting crimebuster, Master Thep, and his student. It's meant to be sort of a prologue, showing the hero getting his leg smashed by his student's motorcycle.

Cut to present: A Catholic girls school. Okay, for the guys, we have some fetishes running wild here -- not only are the girls Asian, they are wearing short checkered Catholic girls' school skirts. One of the girls, Liu (Phinlusuda Tunphairso), is picked up by her driver. Along the way, he is distracted by a beautiful woman in a bikini by the side of the road. Then a guy in a bear suit (another fetish, if you can believe it, but not mine) is standing in the road and is struck by the car. It's all a ruse. The girl is kidnapped. And the girl in the bikini turns out to be a man (Somlek Sakdikul).

So the hero, Master Thep, is talked back into action to rescue the girl, on the condition he can give the mission to his new student, Krabi (Suppakorn Kitsuwan).

Meanwhile, the Sars fly has landed in Bangkok and has bitten prominent local television personality Andrew Biggs, who turns into a zombie and starts biting other people. This is occurring in the apartment building where the schoolgirl is being held hostage, so the two story threads meet here.

Add a dance club full of zombies, a zombie Persian kitty that is eaten by a python named Albert that turns into a giant CGI zombie snake (think Anacondas) as well as a flying baby zombie to the mix and it gets pretty crazy.

In addition, there's a nod to Star Wars with Master Thep's Green Tea super-sword (also possibly a reference to the Destiny Sword of Crouching Tiger) that is more of a light sabre (until the batteries die out).

The performances are excellent. First, there's the star Thep Po-Ngam, the bald-headed veteran comedian who's also directed a few comedy films. Though he's been in many films, this is the first I've seen him in (outside of Killer Tattoo) and I thoroughly enjoyed his characterisations. I'm now a fan.

Then there's the No 2 hero, Supakorn Kitsuwan, whom I'm already a big fan of because he was the No 2 in Tears of the Black Tiger and the star of Monrak Transistor, two of my favorite films. Here, he's using his exaggerated, deep voice, like he did in Black Tiger. He's very much the hero.

Somlek Sakdikul, who is apparently in every Thai comedy film being made last year and this year, portrays the villain in SARS Wars. Memorably, he portrayed the sleazy music promoter Daddy in Monrak Transistor, so he gets to interact again with Supakorn. And because Somlek's character has bisexual leanings, just like Daddy, the interaction between the two actors definitely brings Monrak to mind.

There's a couple of cool self-referential moments. Early in the film, the father of the schoolgirl, Liu is trying to tempt Master Thep out of retirement by having a couple of bikini-clad women give him a lap dance. They start to remove their skimpy clothes and Thep tells them to hold on.

"Why, don't you like these girls?"

"Oh, I like them, but I don't think the censors will."

Later on, a TV remote is used to freeze some of the action. Thep says with much glee: "This is the most exaggerated part of the movie!"

"Well, they've watched it this far," says Krabi.

They then high-five each other and do a little victory dance.

In addition to the Catholic schoolgirl getting covered in blood and swinging away a zombies with a fire ax, there's more eye candy for the guys in the way of a Thai doctor who of course is a sexy woman (Lena Christensen). She wears pleather short-shorts, bustier and fishnet stockings underneath her white isolation suit. She's also the romantic relief for Thep's character.

And, in a bid to get around the censors, as well as being a nod to Kill Bill, there's an animated flashback sequence involving Liu and some interaction she has with Somlek Sakdikul's twisted cross-dressing villain. It's pretty bloody, as well as more risque than the Thai Censorship Board would probably allow. Which makes it lots of fun to watch.

There's also some satire involving the stern health minister character who embodies the image-conscious Thai government. She wants to contain the zombies at all costs and is willing to blow up the entire building to protect Thailand's reputation. Her appearance clearly references the bespectacled health minister in Prime Minister Thaksin's first government, Sudarat Keyuraphan, who is now agriculture minister.

The DVD is loaded with extras. Though the menus are all in Thai, it's a no-brainer to navigate -- just select items and see what they are.

Among them is a deleted scene in which Andrew Biggs' character was a scientist looking for a vaccine to the Sars virus and them somehow became infected. This storyline was dropped and Biggs ended up portraying himself. An Australian journalist, Biggs has worked in the Thai media for years, first for Nation Multimedia, and now for BEC-Tero (the producer of SARS Wars), which runs Thai TV Channel 3. He speaks fluent Thai, having earned a degree in Thai language from Ramkamheang University, and is a popular presenter, host and English-language educator. He's also taken his acting cues from Thai television. His acting in character was a bit wooden and overexaggerated -- characteristic of a lot of Thai television actors -- so it was a wise choice to change the storyline and just let Andrew be Andrew the Zombie.

(Cross-posted at Rotten Tomatoes)

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