Insee Thong (Review)
aka Golden Eagle
Directed by Mitr Chaibancha
Insee Thong is a legendary film in the annals of Thai cinema, and would be legendary even if lead actor Mitr Chaibancha hadn’t died filming the last scene of the film. As we’ve seen in our reviews of Awasan Insee Daeng and Jao Insee, the Insee Daeng/Red Eagle films have been increasing in pace, scope, and vision. The villains Insee Daeng faces become more Bond villainesque, and the secret conspiracies are grander, more dangerous, and better armed. In Insee Thong, a gang of communists are using Insee Daeng’s persona and a mad scientist hypnotist to assassinate journalists, while their group prepares to overthrow the government of Thailand. To combat them, Insee Daeng becomes a new hero, Insee Thong (Golden Eagle), and sets out to bring down the gang, clear his name, take out the impostor, and once again save the day.
Insee Thong (and most other Thai films of this era) was shot on 16mm color reversal stock with no synchronised sound, meaning the sound was added live as the films played by film dubbers employed by the regional theater house. Dubbers would follow the script for the most part, but were known to add regional references and topical humor. Some of the film dubbers became famous in their own (similar to how playback singers in Indian film become famous in their own right), Sin Sibunruang aka Tit Khiaw being the first famous dubber. Local dubbing continued until somewhat recently in some regional theaters. You can see Thai film dubbers at work in movies such as Monrak Transistor and Bangkok Loco.
Older Thai films have a distinctive look due to their 16mm reversal film stock origins. The reversal film stock keeps some colors longer than most other types of film, and when the films look washed out they still have vivid colors. There isn’t really another group of film that looks like it. The 16mm film means there was never an original negative, so there is nothing in archives except old scratched up 16mm prints, if anything at all. Most prints where projected until the stock was dead, and any surviving prints were scratched to hell and back. Luckily, Insee Thong is a particularly popular film so a lot of copies were made, causing the surviving prints to not be as scratched up as usual.
The limited amount of original prints the producers made were distributed around the country, both to cinemas and to traveling exhibitors who would project the film onto sheets from the back of a truck in rural areas. Some of these stories remind me of the old US drive-in circuit and stories from David Friedman, as well as some of the tales of how low budget horror is done in India.
From ThaiWorldview, here are the three kinds of open-air cinema:
- Nang kai ya (หนังขายยา) – promotional shows by traveling herbal-medicine salesmen at temple gatherings. Informally called “movies to sell drugs”.
- Nang lom pha (หนังล้อมผ้า) – shown in conjunction with a big feast. Dinner and a movie!
- Nang klang plaeng (หนังกลางแปลง) – special event open-air shows, usually free due to a sponsor and timed with events such as funerals.
The studio system in Thailand at the time consisted of pumping out hundreds of films a year, as there was no TV to take up the entertainment slack. Movie stars such as Mitr and Petchara Chaowarat would film dozens of films simultaneously, sometimes moving non-stop from set to set working all day and getting no sleep. These were called klang plang films, and the half-dozen big stars like Mitr couldn’t even change their hairstyles, because it would affect multiple films. Some companies would combine parts of worn out prints with the same stars into new films, and give a new script to the dubbers. And sometimes the dubbers and theaters would do it on their own!
Mitr Chaibancha appeared in 1/3 to 1/2 of the movies made each year between 1958-1970. Exact numbers are not known due to scattered record keeping from the frantic pace of filming. Mitr and Petchara Chaowarat were the leading couple during the 1960s. Their luk thung musical Monrak luk thung played in cinemas for six months. Nang rim maung (หนังริมเมือง) is a term referring to films that make more money in the suburban areas than the urban cities. Many modern Thais look down on these old films, derisively calling them nam nao (น้ำเน่า) – stinky water. This term even applies to the cheap action films from the 1970s and 1980s. The films from this era did inspire director Wisit Sasanatieng to make Tears of the Black Tiger, and we all know he then went on to direct the disappointing reboot of Insee Daeng (more on that in the Insee Daeng 2010 review!)
Mitr Chaibancha’s death on Oct 8, 1970, lead to the incompletion of at least 20 films (I’ve seen estimations of almost 40!), most of which were junked or quickly finished with doubles for Mitr. As those films were using the 16mm reversal film stock, the death of Mitr lead to a transformation of the Thai film industry, so when production companies regrouped and began to promote new talent, they had switched to 35mm film with synch sound.
Successors to Mitr Chaibancha include Sombat Metanee and then Sorapong Chatree. Petchara Chaowarat was followed by Aranya Namwong as the next big box office draw. Other names of note are Pitsamai Wilaisak, Yodchai Meksuwan, Jarunee Suksawat (who stars in Insee Payong), and the last superstar couple, Santisuk Promsiri and Jintara Sukapat. By the 1990s, most Thai stars had moved to tv drama soap operas called lakorn toratat (ละครโทรทัศน์). But those decades are stories best told in reviews of films from those periods. There has been some resurgence in Thai film this past decade, largely led by Panna Rittikrai/Tony Jaa/Jeeja Yanin martial arts movies, but also spillover from the Asian horror boom, a few big budget action spectacles, and some intellectual/art house films.
He’s dead, Jim
So let’s get to Insee Thong! Insee Thong is awesome, and I don’t say that lightly. It is a good introduction to Thai action films, and holds up pretty well 40 years later with its quick pace and near-constant action. There is plenty of weird cool stuff going on, and you won’t be disappointed. Insee Daeng must deal with an impostor working for the communist Red Bamboo gang (it is never addressed if it is the same Red Bamboo gang as the ones in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, but I’ll just declare it so and that makes the Red Bamboo the unluckiest communist gang ever.
By now age is starting to show on Mitr Chaibancha, he looks a bit out of shape, less trim than his previous outings. But he’s still physically fit enough to run around and shoot people and seduce women. For more information on Mitr Chaibancha, you can check out the best biography in English I’ve seen at the Bangkok Post. We’ve also included a gallery of photos at the bottom of this review.
Women have more spots than leopards!
This release has subtitles? I’m so confused…now I’ll know what’s going on!
Rome is “drunk” again, investigating a dance studio, but Rome is supposed to be in retirement as far as Insee Daeng is concerned. The bad guys haven’t gotten the news, because a fake Insee Daeng murders a newspaper editor who wrote bad things about the Red Bamboo gang. The editor knows that the fake is a fake, though that doesn’t save him from death.
Detective Chart witnesses another newspaperman die after psychic communication of the disembodied head of Bakin yelling at him from inside a mysterious red Buddha. Despite witnessing this, Chart is later at a night club with Rome, Oy, another cop named Captain Montree, and a new journalist, who gets a gift of a red Buddha and is also scared to death from the disembodied head of Bakin! Way to do nothing, Detective Chart! The club is owned by the Chinese Lim Jiew Tong, whose goons get into a fight with Captain Montree. Lim Jiew Tong is part of the Red Bamboo. Rome then sees Insee Daeng murder their waiter. He realizes he’s being framed…so he must become…Insee Thong, the Golden Eagle!
He’s instantly in the gold outfit in the next shot, sneaking into Lim Jiew Tong house. Lim Jiew Tong’s guards, and most of the Red Bamboo troops, are wearing black pants and hot pink shirts that are cut to almost look like Star Trek uniforms from the original series. It just makes things more surreal. Also in the house is Benja, Lim Jiew Tong’s niece! But before Insee Thong can seduce the panties off of her, he runs into another girl in the house, one who was kidnapped by Lim Jiew Tong. She’s Rachanee Sindu-arpa, daughter of Admiral Sindhu-arpa, both of which are kidnapped until the Admiral agrees to help Red Bamboo take over Thailand.
Rachanee and Oy are old friends, and explains to her and Rome that Red Bamboo’s chief agent in Thailand is Poowanat, the son of one of her father’s old friends. Red Bamboo agents try a series of ridiculous attempts to re-kidnap Rachanee. Golden Eagle saves Chart from being tossed in the river by bad guys, but Chart tries to arrest him anyway. They end up fighting because Chart is dumb.
The cops raid Lim Jiew Tong’s place, but Bakin hypnosis everyone in a car and they drive to their own kidnapping – including Benja, Rachanee, and her dad. The girls are brainwashed while the Admiral is threatened once again. Benja turns on Insee Thong when she meets him to give information, but he’s saved by Oy who beats up Poowanat and gets the correct information from Benja.
This all leads up to huge a gunfight on the island the Red Bamboo are using as a weapons manufacturing plant because the police arrive in force and start shooting the Red Bamboo. It’s like storming the beach at Normandy. The Red Bamboo are still decked out in the pink shirts, and they also have a helicopter helpfully logoed with a skull and crossbones on the front of it. Shockingly, the cops even take some prisoners instead of shooting them all dead.
Insee Thong hijacks the helicopter to get taken to the main base. Even spookier, he makes the pilot jump out of the helicopter into the sea. Rachanee and Oy are along for the ride with the cops, and the battle has intensified with explosions and bigger guns firing everywhere.
Bakin splits into three people when Insee Thong fights him in the HQ, so he smashes the computers instead! Lim Jiew Tong finds out his niece Benja died of complications from hypnosis (whaaa??), and is killed by Bakin when he turns on him. Insee Thong realizes which horcrux of Bakin’s he needs to destroy to kill Bakin – the glowing glass ball in a safe! He smashes it and the Bakin pieces turn to smoke and die.
Now…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…Red Eagle vs Gold Eagle! Gold Eagle quickly shoots Red Eagle dead and he falls off the building. Oh. Okay.
Insee Thong then does the whole kidnap a cop and dress him in your uniform while you pretend to have been Rome held kidnapped the entire time trick he’s done in every other movie, except instead of turning back into Rome he turns into Insee Daeng.
Oy gets in the helicopter and Insee gets on the rope and they fly off into the sunset. This is where Mitr died in real life, thankfully this version now stops on a freeze-frame with text explaining what happened instead of showing him drop to his death.
Now, if you really want to be creeped out, the bonus feature on the Thai DVD is film of the cremation ceremony of Mitr Chaibancha, including them lifting his body up so fans can see him one last time! If you want to see that, feel free to track it down yourself, it’s far too creepy for me to want to put it up here.
Now, like a lot of foreign franchises, Insee Thong got more James Bondian as it went along. One could imagine this as a plot of a James Bond film, just needing suggestive names for the female characters and Bakin carrying a cat. With Mitr directing and producing films like this, the change in the Thai film industry wouldn’t have happened post-death and rebuilding the ashes, but from influx of cash from investors as Thailand became more of a regional player in movies. One also imagines the added influence and money would have finally secured Mitr an elected seat (he ran twice unsuccessfully for office), maybe after the 1973 democratic reforms. But then, he might have been a casualty of the 1976 coup, or maybe even stranger things would have happened. That’s a journey for those more interested in Thai history to make.
What legacy the Red Eagle films do have is one of a legend who fell before his time. It shows how enduring the character is that there were intermittent attempts to bring him back in various forms. But Insee Daeng remains tied to Mitr Chaibancha, from Sek Desit not writing any more stories, to attempts to link films to Mitr’s incarnation, and to reimaginings not having the spark that the Mitr Chaibancha films had. But at least we still have some of the Mitr Chaibancha Insee Daeng films to enjoy.
Here is a short documentary on Mitr Chaibancha from the Ninja Dixon site (it’s in Swedish, so you didn’t hit your head and began hearing weird voices. Or maybe you did and it’s unrelated to this short!)
Rated 8/10 (bald journo, lounge singer, giraffe statue, floating hypno head, red Buddha, more statues, random orb, Lim Jiew Tong)
Mitr Chaibancha Gallery:
Rithdee, Kong “Mitr Chaibancha Siam’s greatest screen legend” Bangkok Post October 16, 2010
Thailand Tatler March 2009, pg 113