Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review: The Scrollmaster (Nuu Gunpai)

  • Directed by Arinthawit Chomsri
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 22, 2010; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Mixing morality messages with over-the-top violence, the biographical action drama Noo Gunpai Seuk Maha Yan Ying Kan Sanan Jor (หนู กันภัย ศึกมหายันต์ ยิงกันสนั่นจอ) plays like one long public-service announcement.

Right from the beginning, there is a warning that anyone pirating the movie will be cursed, but anyone who paid to see it will be blessed forever.

So I've got that going for me.

The movie, says another message, is a fact-based account of the life of spiritual tattoo master Ajarn Noo Gunpai. But some events have been changed "for entertainment purposes".

And the best part: "Viewer discretion is advised." Always a sign of good things to come. And it is actually. Though old-fashioned and hokey in places, Noo Gunpai is entertaining and fun, though I'm still not convinced I need to get one of his tattoos.

The movie begins with documentary-style scenes from a Noo Gunpai tattoo session, where a Westerner receives a spiritual tattoo on the top of his head. Ajarn Noo then asks the man if he believes. "I believe," the man says in European-accented English. A razor-blade box cutter is drawn out and run across the man's ear, but the ear doesn't come off. Heavy swords are brought to bear down on the man's back. Pink indentations are made, but no blood is drawn.

Next we see Noo Gunpai flying into a remote jungle area in a helicopter, where disciples have been kept waiting.

Everything about this location is picture perfect, with the tattoo session set up under an ancient tree on a spit of land that juts out into a gentle waterfall on a clear, flowing river. Ajarn Noo uses an ornately sculptured golden rod with an ink-dipped needle to apply the tattoos in tiny repeated stabbing motions. The tattoo is completed by a breath of air from Ajarn's Noo's pursed lips.

A foreign TV crew is documenting the session while a pair of Thai comedians fill viewers in on Ajarn Noo's life story, how he came from a humble background, discovered his supernatural powers and grew to become a revered tattoo master who's sought out by international celebrities like Angelina Jolie.

One of the comedians, Note Chern-yim, is dressed too young in hip-hop fashion with a sideways ballcap, but instead of a large clock pendant like Flavor Flav, he's wearing an oversized haa taew (five row) scripture tablet. Even so, he doesn't really believe in the tattoos. It's just fashion he says.

And lightning strikes him. Literally. Because burnt crispy comedians are hilarious.

It's a warning to those who would scoff at the notion of tattoos that protect the wearers against blades and bullets.

And then the action flashes back to Noo's childhood in 1960s Nonthaburi, when he was a pudgy 6-year-old boy, bullied by the neighborhood toughs and unhappy with his home life, though his mother and stepfather aren't particularly mean.

He's already showing he has a supernatural gift, and is taken under the wing of the local temple's abbott. Soon the novice monk is giving yantra tattoos that prove to be more effective than prized protective amulets.

Noo Gunpai's reputation grows.

Cut to a few years later, and a neighborhood tough guy is smoking a cigarette. He'll give another guy a light off his smoke, but only if the long chunk of ash off the end is not disturbed. The would-be toker ends up in a heap on the ground, and that's a warning message about the dangers of smoking.

Teenage Noo is a samlor driver, and because of his prayers and powers, he's the most popular tricycle-taxi drivers at the market, earning him the enmity of other drivers.

This leads to the most-exciting, action-packed scenes -- a samlor chase, the likes of which I don't believe have been seen since Sammo Hung's 1989 action-comedy Pedicab Driver. There's shooting and stabbing and even explosions as a bomb-laden samlor blows up.

When Noo isn't being pursued by rival samlor drivers, he's pursuing the village beauty, but despite his incantations, he ends up heartbroken.

Cut to a few years later, the young adult Noo is still driving his samlor. He's an angry, bitter young man who's grown too cocky about his powers and is starting to abuse them.

The action climaxes in a gambling den/brothel -- let that be a warning about drinking, gambling and prostitution -- with a rough-and-tumble shoot-em-up and series of fistfights.

It sets up Tears of the Black Tiger gunfighter Suppakorn Kitsuwon as a powerful amulet-wearing rival to Noo Gunpai, who is protected from gunshots by the clearly visible squib vest underneath his T-shirt.

Veteran actor Kowit Wattanakul gets in on the action as a portly police officer.

And there's another warning to heed, which comes from Thai action-film fan James Marshall -- The Dirty Tiger:

I saw the new Ajarn Noo movie last night, Noo Gunpai and you might like to inform people it has the English title The Scrollmaster ...

What I didn't know is it's part one of two. Nobody knows when part two is coming - that was a real disappointment as all the good stuff in the trailer is waiting for part two.

They had a small promo last night and Ajarn Noo came. We waited three hours for him, he was super late! And he only stayed for five minutes, so disappointing. But they gave us a free book, badge and T-shirt for the movie.

The closing credits have scenes from the hopefully upcoming part two, mainly involving a huge shoot-out with the police, including a familiar pair of buddy cops. There's also an outtake reel of an injured stuntman.

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