This ain’t no legend

Urban Legends: The Final Cut

Final cut: It’s the quick incision of a blade leading to death, it’s the ultimate outcome of a film’s editing process, and hopefully it will be the second and final film in the Urban Legend series.

It’s winter, and film students at Alpine University are working hard to submit films good enough to be in line to win the Hitchcock prize: $15,000 and a shot at Hollywood success. It’s going to get nasty.

The original crew who survived Urban Legend have been replaced, except for squeaky-voiced security guard Reese (Loretta Devine), and a cameo by the killer in the original – but you’d have to stay beyond the lights being turned on in a Bangkok cinema to catch her.

Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) has trouble hitting on an idea for her film, but is inspired by Reese to make a film about, surprise, surprise, a serial killer who bases his murders on urban legends. Oddly, the actors and crew working with Amy begin to disappearing and getting killed – including her friend Travis, who despite being a promising film student, scored poorly on his Hitchcock entry.

But before we get into the fact that none of the legends Amy films are unheard of – that’s a problem with using them all up in the first, much better, film – there’s a gory but good little sketch on the old kidney-removal tale. Only problem is it doesn’t quite relate to the rest of the film.

The holes don’t stop there. Despite various student disappearances and deaths under suspicious circumstances, the police are completely uninterested unless they’re hauling away the dead in body bags or sticking up yellow crime tape. Travis’ twin brother, who appears from the past following his brother’s death, can’t go to the police: he was involved in something a bit dodgy in the past. Right, that explains it!

And how do a group of university students get complete access to an old disused but incredibly well-kept and working carnival ride?

But back to that crocheted blanket of a plot. The killer could be anyone – take your pick, as there are certainly no sensible clues being woven into the action. But eventually all is revealed in a scene where the too-many-guns-some-are-fake scene drags on and on.

Although her role’s not exactly challenging, Morrison puts in a solid performance and has screen presence worthier of greater things. Keep an eye out for her. Otherwise the acting is pretty unremarkable.

One positive development in the world of Hollywood: a lesbian character who’s "normal" – in other words, she can just be a student rather than having to have her sexuality problematized into a complete film.

But nothing much else can be said about a film that fails to be really smart about anything at all. It’s confusing, derivative of, rather than tributary to, the various films it quotes, and, excepting the kidney scene, lacking in gut-wrenching scariness.

And you can’t say anything worse about a whodunnit, a satire, or a horror movie, can you?

Not dazzled at all


In yet another remake to hit the screens this year, Elizabeth Hurley stars as the devil. But in this American version of Stanley Donen’s 1967 British film of the same name by director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day), the devil doesn’t quite know if she should be acting sweet and seductive or sexy and sly in order to get what she wants.

What she’s lusting after, of course, is a mere earthling’s soul: the soul of social misfit Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser), a romantically inept geek with a crush on co-worker Alison (Frances O’Connor). And she’s willing to wear a slinky red dress, hand out her business card, and buy Elliot a hamburger and coke to prove it.

Elliot surrenders with comparative ease, signing a phonebook size contract in return for the seven wishes the devil promises to grant him. Of course, we can all see where this is going: the wishes all go horribly wrong.

Elliot firstly wishes to be very rich and married to Alison; lo and behold, he’s a Columbian drug lord with an Alison who’s in love with her English teacher. One of the funniest scenes – there are only a few moments of true hilarity in this hit-and-miss comedy – is of Elliot’s utter amazement when he discovers he can speak Spanish fluently.

When things go wrong, Elliot uses the devil’s pager to return to his old identity. And he does need to use it, as in turn he becomes a basketball star with much more than a perspiration problem, a sensitive guy who cries at the sight of a sunset, an articulate author who also happens to be gay, and a president who’s about to be assassinated.

The cuts to the different roles don’t make for much of a plot, and audiences will find themselves growing curious about what’s going to happen to Elliot in the next sketch, rather than derive any pleasure from a coherently structured film.

Hurley, following up on her Austin Powers’ efforts, might not be bad to look at, but has awful trouble swaggering around. She kind of bounces as if she’s uncomfortable when she’s not on a catwalk or standing still for the Estee Lauder photographers – or running past a union picket, perhaps. She also talks rather curiously: it’s as if she’s had one too many elocution lessons.

Fraser deals with the lukewarm script with honorable gusto. His energy results in a solid performance for his multiple and disparate roles – and he’s not bad to look at either.

As the love interest, Australian actress Frances O’Connor isn’t given much of a chance to show her stuff – but when she plays the journalist interviewing Elliot the basketball player, her true talent shines through.

There’s an admirable moral to the movie, but it couldn’t have been less subtly pointed out than if it were actually written up onscreen: you can choose whether you’re going follow a good or an evil path while you’re here on earth – no need to wait until after death. There’s a few laughs, but ultimately this is harmless candy for the eyes. How desperate are you for a sugar fix?

Get lost Carter

Get Carter

When a re-make of a film appears, a reviewer needs to ask whether they should really be seeing the original as well. This movie didn’t pose that problem for this reviewer: if the 1971 British gangster original thriller is anything like the remake, there’s no way she’s ever going anywhere near it.

Sylvester Stallone is Jack Carter, and after a five-year absence working as a mob enforcer in Las Vegas, he’s back in Seattle wearing a very silly suit and tie for his younger brother’s funeral in the rain. It seems that, despite the absence, Carter is the only one who is intuitively suspicious about the circumstances of Ritchie’s drink-driving demise – besides Doreen (Raechel Leigh Cook), Ritchie’s daughter, who gives him the only real hint that something might be astray: "He didn’t drink and drive!" Gasp!

So Carter goes to visit a few people. Cliff Brumby, the affable club-owner his brother worked for, is played by Michael Caine, who played the original Carter. Cute but pointless casting, really. Brumby doesn’t think anything was up with Ritchie – although he was having an affair with hooker Geraldine, who just happens to be an acquaintance of Cyrus Paice (Mickey Rourke). Paice is an old "friend" of Carter’s, but their background is as sketchy as the rest of the film.

Paice is dressed even more laughably than Carter – would someone tell Hollywood directors what hip means, please? – but nobody’s making comments to his face. If they did, he would probably have a tough time working out who said what – sunglasses in the dark can be difficult like that. Paice is supposed to be kind of bad-guy groovy, unlike Carter, who’s dress sense is supposed to indicate in some way that he is a bit behind the times here now. Paice has moved on from their real brawn days and is a sleazy "businessman" into Internet porn deals.

Carter just happens to follow Paice and Geraldine to a private golf club, where in another odd scene, he confronts Jeremy (Alan Cumming), a mega-rich effeminate computer geek who somehow fits into the porn deal but is afraid of being caught. He has the gift of the gab, but is of course a bit of coward when it comes to guns – stereotype alert.

The cycle of making house calls and perfunctorily roughing people up continues in a subdued blur that one can presume is director Stephen T. Kay’s understanding of what MTV-watchers are supposed to like. Yet despite the editing tricks and the violence, there’s even less action than decent plot and dialogue in this film – look out for the car chase scenes, as they’re not just good opportunities to take quick naps, they actually encourage them.

In between the biffo and the grunts, Carter tries to establish a caring relationship with Doreen, who warms to his tough-guy, hammocks-under-the-eyes exterior during an interminable scene at a diner where she slurps numerous cups of coffee. So it’s no surprise that in the end it’s Doreen as well as his brother’s memory that Carter is trying to protect.

But just how he ends up helping is unclear. Who were the real baddies? All of the dead guys? Carter will be on the run for the rest of his life, so at least he’ll have time to think about it. You shouldn’t waste yours being baffled in the first place.

Winning wordplayers

"Bahuvrihi" Jakkrit Klaphajone answers without hesitation when asked what his best ever word playing Thai Crossword has been. "I don’t know the meaning – I think it’s Islamic. It was just a word I had memorised. But the best words and the highest scoring words are not necessarily the same."

Good positioning of a word nets a player more points, so a ‘boring’ word can score highly. But an unusual word remembered when the opportunity to play it arises can stick in a player’s memory just as vividly.

Jakkrit, a doctor doing research at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, is currently the highest ranking Thai player on the unofficial international Scrabble ranking list. He believes that he is ranked atnumber 18 in the world, although he modestly says that it could be a bit lower now.

But back to his most memorable words : This year, the highest scoring has been "outdoorsy" for which he landed 141 points.

And his highest-scoring word ever was "quatorze", which netted him 232. "And my highest ever game score was about 680," he adds.

Amnuay Ploysangngam, president of the Thailand Crossword Club ( Thailand’s version of the international game of Scrabble is known as Crossword), is also quick to recall his highest scoring word. "Knowledge,for 212."

Jakkrit and Amnuay are among thousands of avid Crossword players in Thailand. And Amnuay is in no small way responsible for the phenomenal success of the game.

When he started playing Crossword 16 years ago with one of his teachers at high school, he couldn’t have foreseen that he would one day start Thailand’s Crossword Club and be organising national and international tournaments for the game. But he knew he was onto a good thing.

"I love this game!" he enthuses. "Playing it makes me happy. It’s fun."

He went on to study business administration at Assumption University, and during his second year started a logic club. "We played Crossword and other games like chess."

He started organising gaming tournaments. "At first I got by just asking my friends to come along and play in the tournaments, but by the third year we had members of the public coming along and it became much bigger."

In his fourth year at university, he set up the Thailand Crossword Club – so there’s no prize for guessing what his favourite game in the tournaments still is.

But still Amnuay’s vision wasn’t complete. "In 1986 I decided to organise the first Thailand Crossword championship. I was hoping that maybe we would get 25 players."

In fact, 147 players turned up to compete for the honour of being named Thailand’s first ever Crossword champion. The winner? Amnuay’s former teacher, the Reverend Brother Arun Methaset.

The second year saw more than 200 players compete, and the third more than 300. Other games were also played at the tournaments, but Crossword has always been the main attraction. The fourth year saw the first foreigner compete, and Amnuay also organised the first youth tournament (see box below).

By the fifth year Bangkok’s tournament had become truly international, with players from around the globe converging here with their word lists in hand, eager to play.

This year saw something like 4,000 players gather for the 16th tournament. Of those, more than 70 per cent played Crossword. The open division had 80 players, 50 of whom were from overseas, competing for prize money of US$6,000 (Bt200,000). And since 1998, the tournament has been honoured to accept a trophy from His Majesty the King to award to the winning player in the most prestigious division.

In between organising over the years – smaller tournaments happen around once a month – Amnuay invented a Thai-language version of the game, known as Kumkom, and a maths version, A-Math. And he still manages to squeeze in the occasional game with friends. He’s unofficially ranked at no 37 in the world.

Jakkrit, on the other hand, plays against his computer around three times a week – other players in Chiang Mai are simply too weak to give him a run for his money on the board. "I prefer to play against people, but they’re just not strong enough here. The computer lacks the psychological aspect. You can use tricks when you play with people – you can stare at a corner to make your opponent think you are going to play there. Or you can shuffle your tiles to make them think you have very good tiles when actually they are not."

Jakkrit hasn’t done too badly for someone who started playing "by accident". He was attending an indoor sports tournament at Chiang Mai university when a student, and the university had decided to introduce Crossword for the first time. "I was going to play checkers," he says, "but they asked me to play Crossword instead."

And he liked it. "At first people think that you need a good vocabulary to play. But that’s not enough," he warns. "Strategy is more important. It is like chess; you must use strategy."

The doctor started competing in the international competition in Bangkok six years ago, and finished as 1st runner up. In 1995 and 1997 he scooped the winning award. He next scored a place this year, again as first runner up.

He has also travelled to the US, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia to play. "I think I’ll play forever," he says. "I play to keep my life exciting. It’s a real boost."

Does he bother learning the meanings of the words he learns? "I like to remember the meanings, but can’t remember them all. I use link theory to learn them. I memorise the derivatives of words, and group them."

You would certainly need some sort of strategy to try to memorise the more than 200,000 two to eight letter words that are admissible in the game.

And that list changes, depending on where you play. Thailand, along with the US, Canada, Israel and Malta, follows the Merriam-Websters dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), while the UK follows the Chambers dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Words (OSW).

Other countries, such as Australia, follow a combined list called "Sowpods", an acronym composed from anagramming OSW and OSPD. This list was first used at the World Championships in London in 1991, and at subsequent world championships since. "I have to separate these lists in my brain," says Jakkrit. "It’s a problem."

The prize money on offer can make such effort worthwhile though. In August, for instance, when the US hosted a competition offering the equivalent of Bt 1 million, several Thai players attended.

With that much money up for grabs, you can imagine some people getting hot under the collar when they lose.

"Some people do get upset when they lose – this kind of game depends on both luck and skill, so they can always blame their luck, " says Jakkrit. "In Thailand, foreign players can get upset with the level of noise at competitions. School children like to come and watch, and they can get noisy with their cheering. In other countries, it’s either very quiet, or they play soft music. You just have to accept the noise if you’re going to play here."

And for those of you who have been dying to know, the word "bahuvrihi" means a class of compound words whose meanings follow the formula "[one] having a B that is A" where A stands for the first constituent of the compound and B for the second; it’s also a compound word belonging to this class (greybeard, barefoot).

Maybe those word lists look quite alright without their definitions after all.

Oh god, they’re back!

Nutty Professor II: The Klumps

They’re back!

The sequel from the 1996 box office smash The Nutty Professor is finally in Thailand, with Eddie Murphy playing no less than eight of the main Klump characters.

Genetics professor and – let’s be blunt – fat man Sherman Hump (Eddie Murphy) is in love with a fellow researcher, the syrupy sweet Denise Gains (Janet Jackson). She confesses her love for him, but Sherman is scared: he can’t control Buddy Love, his straight-shooting alter-ego who occasionally takes control of his body and threatens to ruin his relationship with Denise.

But otherwise, things are looking up: Sherman has just made a major scientific breakthrough. He’s created a "youth formula" which will take years off someone’s life, at least for a little while. Using the genetic information he has uncovered in the course of this discovery, Sherman decides to exorcise Buddy once and for all.

Unsurprisingly, things go wrong. With a little help from a dog hair, Buddy escapes into the real world, eager to take responsibility for the brilliance of the formula, while Sherman slowly loses his intelligence. It’s a race against time to save Sherman from becoming the sort of person who would really enjoy this film.

Now while an audience can be expected to suspend disbelief over certain issues, they shouldn’t also have to deal with a ticking computer clock that moves at different speeds every time the camera cuts to it. How difficult can it be to get a clock to be believable?

The script bumbles along from one burping/farting/breast/penis/excrement/sex joke to the next, which is only to be expected given that the co-writers are also responsible for American Pie while director Peter Segal has the distinguished Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult on his curriculum vitae. If bathroom humor’s your thing, then this is your movie.

Discerning viewers seeking clever humor should stay well away, although I will confess to smiling at Murphy behaving like a human dog – this is comic Murphy at his best – and at the giant horny hamster. The marriage proposal by fireflies is a cute touch, but it’s too bad the audience can’t read what Denise apparently can.

Sure, it’s true that Eddie Murphy does do an exceptional job playing eight very different characters in this film – although the post-opening restaurant scene with lots of shrill and screaming Murphies in it made me want to stick my fingers in my ears and damn surround sound to hell.

The make-up and editing people too have done a fine job dealing with all the technical problems having eight Murphies on-screen must have entailed – the kiss scene with the raunchy, gummy Grandma Klump stands out in particular.

But in the final analysis it was all a great waste of time. Murphy’s multiple roles do not add anything except novelty value to the film; it merely encourages people to say "Isn’t Murphy clever!" What it won’t make people say is something much more important: "What a great film!"

A quiet achiever

Bless The Child

Religious thriller Bless the Child almost works.

Psychiatric nurse Maggie (Kim Basinger) returns home one evening to find her sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) waiting for her with her newborn daughter, Cody. Maggie discovers a syringe and spoon in Jenna’s bag, and promises to help her: "But first you have to get off these drugs!" Hmm – usually addicts require help while they are getting off the drugs.

Jenna of course flees into the night, leaving Maggie to raise Cody on her own. Cut to six years later, and it turns out that Cody (Holliston Coleman) is autistic, although Maggie believes she is special in another way. In fact Cody is something of a prophet, a child with a gift for leading people closer to God.

Cody is so gifted that an evil cult, masquerading as a self-help group for youth, wish to get their hands on Cody to use her for converting people to satanism. But it’s taken them a while to find the right child; cult members have been killing a series of other six year olds born on December 13, 1993, the day that the star of Jaakov shone over New York – apparently that was meant to be the sign of the birth of this special child.

Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) plays the evil cult leader very well. He tracks down Jenna and marries her in order to get closer to Cody; when Eric and Jenna sweep into Maggie’s home one day to retrieve the child Jenna hasn’t seen since abandoning her, Maggie is understandably riled and a little suspicious.

Christina Ricci plays a small role as a junky trying to escape from the cult; she’s able to warn Maggie that they are planning to sacrifice Cody if she won’t turn to Satan. With the occasional assistance of cult-specialist and detective John Travis (Jimmy Smits) – and various angels – Maggie sets out to save her niece.

There are some beautiful and eerie special effects. The rats swarming around Cody’s bed in a dream sequence are memorable, while Maggie’s ephemeral visions of flying demons are absolutely superb.

The film has a quiet, other-worldly feel to it, and although it doesn’t match the class of The Sixth Sense – to which it has been compared – it is very watchable, if a little dragged out. There seem to be far too many scenes of Maggie and Cody walking along the street holding hands, for instance. And one blooper to look out for: Maggie decides to take Cody shopping because it’s such a beautiful day. When they go outside, however, it’s clearly been raining.

The performances of Basinger and Smits lack energy – it’s as if they’ve been sucked into the quietness of the film themselves and are struggling to show any real personality. Coleman, however, is compelling, particularly in a tense rooftop scene where Sewell tries to get her to jump off if she really believes in God. "You first," she eventually says in a brilliant comeback line.

Bless the Child will draw audiences in, but might lose them along the way. It’s a film worth catching for its beauty, and it will have you clutching your armrest in its more frightening moments. Ultimately, however, it’s not quite satisfying, with an ending that’s just a bit too convenient – and it’s a shame that teenagers wearing black and sporting piercings are stereotyped as being Satanists.

A cool romance in New York

Autumn in New York

When hotshot restaurateur and womanizer Will Keane (Richard Gere) meets Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder), she’s a diner in his restaurant having her 22nd birthday party dinner with friends. The other guests are quick to chat with him – they all clearly think this old guy is drop dead gorgeous – but arty hatmaker Charlotte stays quiet and demure. “Do you speak?” an already-lusty Will asks.

Well, Charlotte doesn’t really speak much, and herein lies one of the main problems with this film: Given Charlotte’s 22 years to Will’s 48, what is it that draws these two together? Sure, it’s partly lust, but to really care about what happens to these two characters, the audience needs to know why they care about each other.

Will cleverly connives to get Charlotte to go on a date with him in an awful white dress, one things leads to another and it’s morning – time to discuss their “relationship”. Will tells Charlotte he can only offer her “this”, and he’s only being honest because he really likes her. Charlotte responds that she, too, can only offer him “this” because she has a terminal illness and she’s only telling him because she really likes him.

And so, despite the warnings of friends – and of Charlotte’s grandmother (Elaine Stritch) – Will falls for the dying Charlotte, and Charlotte for some reason falls in love with Will. The age difference between the two is emphasized by the fact that Charlotte’s mother also fell for Will, but, the script emphatically points out, they didn’t sleep together. Yeah, sure! We already know that would be utterly unlike Will.

Ryder, despite slowly succumbing to a fatal illness with no name, couldn’t possibly look more radiant and vital if she tried – she’s just inconvenienced by an occasional fainting episode at dramatically appropriate moments. She and Gere both put in reasonable performances, but there’s just no convincing chemistry between the two.

Actress-turned-director Joan Chen (Xiu Xiu: the Sent Down Girl) makes the most of it being autumn in New York, and cinematographer Changwei Gu does a good job of capturing the city’s beauty. This is a fine film to watch; besides parks filled with russet leaves, boats in lakes and ice rinks, there’s Charlotte in her white bedroom, playing with stringed glass beads hanging from her ceiling, there’s rainy streets, cozy restaurants, trendy apartments and eventually there’s a dusting of snow on the streets to indicate – a little obviously – that time really is ticking away for Charlotte.

There is a subplot of mystery, as an attractive woman (Vera Farmiga) who could be a former lover tries to find out more about Will. Who is she? Is she a threat to Will and Charlotte’s relationship? It’s an interesting diversion that serves to emphasize the difference in age between Will and Charlotte, and allows Will a bit of character development, but once her identity and past is revealed, one has to wonder why Charlotte doesn’t already know this woman.

Plot inconsistencies aside, this is a film that isn’t too ambitious from the start, so it doesn’t fail to deliver. It’s a sentimental romance that’s nice to watch; there just should have been a little more substance to the romance part.

Poking fun at Thailand’s cliches

Yawn: A Thriller By Collin Piprell

Chloe and Waylon are living a quiet married existence in suburban Vancouver, Canada, along with Chloe’s sister Meredith. Insurance man Waylon is neurotically tidy and conservative, and lingers housebound at the weekend asking questions like "Sorry, but who put the can of three-in-one oil on the condiments turntable?" Chloe, a feature writer who has lost touch with her reasons for writing in the first place, is itching for something more out of life – something more than Waylon, at least – but dabbling in adultery hasn’t improved things much. Meredith is, in her words, into psychoneuroimmunology.

And the three of them are coming to Thailand for a month-long holiday.

The first morning is really where all the trouble begins. Waylon yawns, his jaw locks, and before his disinterested wife has rolled over in bed he’s seeking help from Meredith, who’s staying in the bungalow next door. One locked jaw leads to one mighty big marital indiscretion and sisterly betrayal.

Appearances are maintained, and the typical Thai holiday gets underway in earnest (or perhaps not quite so typical – there’s no trip to Chiang Mai before heading to the beaches). Pattaya might not be the most typical spot for a bunch of conservative Canadians to head, but it suits the plot and is painted well.

A soapy tryst between a prostitute, Waylon and Chloe, leads to Waylon going off on his own, abandoning Meredith in a bar, and getting roaring drunk with a new bunch of prostitutes. The fate of the holiday is pretty much sealed.

While Waylon gets side-tracked into the world of go-go bars and scuba diving, Meredith heads to a vipassana retreat with Chloe following in hot pursuit. But she’s too late – Meredith has been locked away (with consent) – so she compromises by staying at the 4H Club next door. That’s the Holistic Herbal Garden and Institute of Holographic Healing.

Half-hearted attempts to contact each other – their answering machine back in Vancouver is one medium that works for a while – let each of them know that the other is alright, but a break seems to be just what they need.

But while it seems they are holidaying in worlds apart, they are spiralling closer and closer together. Waylon gets stuck – and laid – with a pill-popping malevolent woman called Jessie who has a driving reason for doing her dive courses. At the 4H club Chloe studies meditation under Gorgi, who likes "to smoke dope and watch screensavers till he [is] pretty well as enlightened as he was ever going to get." But Gorgi has a darker past, as his connections with Terdsak, a Thai underworld figure with fingers in every crooked pie there is – including the 4H club – would suggest. But are they on the same side?

As the book rips along, sketching in a whole motley crew of colourful second-tier characters, all is revealed.

A light-hearted, entertaining read that cleverly pokes fun at all of the cliches Thailand so very readily supplies on the backpacker and Westerner fronts – as well as a few pokes at the Thais themselves. Terdsak’s attempt at singing karaoke, for example, leads to him performing "The Wrong and Widey Load", "My Way" and "The Yeroe Loase of Teksat".

Piprell also manages to capture the reality – and exaggerate it in good humour – in the hype of many things such as meditation retreats.

Take for instance Ruthie, who’s in charge of fining people at the 4H club for breaking house rules, but loses her temper at one of the dogs for taking off with some of her food stash: " ‘That innocent puppy stole by beef jerky,’ Ruthie proclaimed… ‘Beef jerky?’ said the Rev. ‘Beef jerky? This is a vegetarian establishment, is it not? What, may I ask, are you doing with beef jerky?’ ‘Don’t you talk about rules to me, you fat prick."

Very well done to the author, too, for not mentioning that "main pen rai" means never mind until half way through the book.

On the one hand, you shouldn’t expect this book to change your life or expand your literary horizons; on the other, it’s a good long read suitable for a weekend on Samui. Munch through the fast-paced chapters, sip on a cool beer, and from your deck chair have fun spotting the various clich?s strolling past – before realising that perhaps you’ve turned into one yourself. Have fun deciding which one.

Shaft shafts


The original Shaft (directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree) shook up the cinematic scene when it was released in 1971 by demonstrating that blacks too could be action heroes – and smooth-talking lovers – akin to a Connery or an Eastwood. While Shaft fought against the stereotypes blacks had to endure until then, the genre of films it helped herald in eventually drew the tag "blaxploitation". In the process of smashing a few stereotypes, it drew criticism for eventually created some of its own – that blacks were the druggies, the pimps, the gangsters. But in the early days of Shaft, the baddies were still mostly white.

Cut to the year 2000, and John Singleton’s Shaft doesn’t shy away from employing some stereotypes of its own. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is a cop in New York who’s called to the scene of a racially motivated murder. With the reluctant help of waitress Diane (Toni Collette), Shaft arrests the right man, the downright distasteful and rich white boy Walter Wade.

Of course, Wade gets off on bail and skips to Switzerland. Fast forward two years, and Shaft gets a tip-off that Wade is arriving back. It looks like he has his man: but the justice system lets him down again, and with bail easily met Wade’s back on the mean New York streets.

Shaft throws in his towel in disgust and becomes a vigilante, seeking justice on his own terms. With the assistance of his old partner Carmen (Vanessa Williams), and the unintentional help of drug lord Peoples (Jeffrey Wright) and various other crooked characters, the noose around Wade’s neck is drawn tighter. But in the end, the one who draws it closed is a total surprise – thanks to a convenient plot twist that let’s the writers off the hook rather easily.

Samuel L. Jackson is let down by a plot that’s weak and dialogue that could have been oh-so-sharper. Moments of humour are scarce, but they cry out to be written into the script. Instead, the writers seem to have had fun inserting all the gun battles they could, turning the latter part of the film into an orgy of pointless and very uninteresting violence. Shaft’s assistant Vanessa Williams fails to impress, while Toni Collette’s amazing screen presence only demonstrates that she needs to play bigger roles than mere bit parts. Jeffrey Wright’s performance stands out, if only for his exceptional street-wise patois.

Shaft is supposed to be a violent creature, but he’s also supposed to be a sharp-talking and smooth-talking – depending on the situation – role model for those seeking justice. Singleton’s film ups the violence at the expense of the sexy, leaving discerning audiences unsated.

Perhaps the one thing the film has remained true to is its attempt at highlighting racism; Wade’s attitude towards blacks might appear dated, but the sad truth is that it’s a demonstration of the sort of abuse blacks still face in US society today.

And at least the funky theme celebrating the wah-wah pedal is still the same. Just remember, you don’t have to sit through to the end to hear it.

Analysing terror

Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison By David Chandler

Some 1.5 million Cambodian people were killed or died as a result of policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror between 1975 and 1979. How do you get your mind around something like that? By making analogies with football stadiums filled to capacity? Statistics simply can’t communicate the reality of systematic horror on this scale.

Historian and Cambodian expert David Chandler spent 10 years working on this, his latest book. Read in tandem with the increasing number of eye-witness accounts from survivors of Democratic Kampuchea, this book is an important aid towards an understanding of what really happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

S-21 was the code name for the headquarters of the regime’s internal security police, or santebal , located in what was an ordinary secondary school prior to 1975. Chandler estimates that some 14,000 people, deemed to be enemies of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, were interrogated and tortured there. Prominent prisoners were killed on site; others were eventually dispatched to the Choeung Ek "killing fields" 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh. A mere seven inmates survived.

Today most tourists to the Cambodian capital include in their itinerary a visit to S-21, which was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes by the pro-Vietnamese regime that replaced the CPK. The place is eerie in its very ordinariness. Metal beds on which prisoners were found dead by two Vietnamese photographers who entered the compound in January 1979 lie rusting beneath photographs of the victims taken at the time. Elsewhere in the building are instruments of torture, paintings by survivor Vann Nath, and unnerving mugshots of prisoners and their interrogators – many of whom were only in their early teens.

What most visitors to the museum probably don’t realise is that a large archive was also found abandoned here by the Vietnamese. It contains around 4,000 confessions written by prisoners as well as records of admissions and executions, interrogators’ notes, speeches and other information. Chandler based his book on this archive, plus documents that came to light in 1996 and 1997 and interviews with eye-witnesses conducted by other researchers.

Such a subject demands serious academic treatment, but it also cries out to be written in such a way that ordinary people – people not so very different from those who perpetrated crimes at S-21 – will be compelled to read it. (After all, those who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.). Chandler manages to achieve both, giving us six well-structured chapters in which shocking and mundane details are woven into a scholarly rigorous and fascinating narrative.

In the opening chapter, he charts the discovery of the prison and it’s impeccably kept archives, its transformation into a museum under the guidance of Mai Lam (the same man who created the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City) and the recovery and preservation of the documents found.

Chapter Two sets the scene for the horror to follow, describing the physical and operational structure of the prison and giving short biographies of senior members of its staff. The warped nature of some of these individuals – particularly Duch, the party cadre who now awaits trial in Phnom Penh – starts to become clearer after a reading of some of the facts Chandler has unearthed from the archives. For instance: "In Duch’s report on the prison in the first three months of 1977, he takes seven lines to deplore the deaths of ducks and chickens at the prison, and only two lines to report fourteen prisoners’ deaths from torture. In the looking-glass world of S-21, ducks were mourned more than people."

The next section examines the way in which the CPK identified its enemies. The "External" enemies were easy enough to finger: the United States, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and allies of all three. Once the easily identifiable "internal" enemies – town dwellers, intellectuals, people prominent in Cambodian society prior to 1975 – had been captured and killed, the party concentrated on eliminating the so-called "hidden enemies burrowing from within". This was the function fulfilled by S-21 and other prisons of its type across the country. By the time the Vietnamese launched their invasion the CPK had purged its own central committee to such an extent that there weren’t enough senior party cadres left alive to organise an effective defence.

The Kafkaesque arrests, interrogations and the confessions themselves form the next area of study. Chandler notes that people were arrested and "then asked to explain why they had been arrested and therefore why they were guilty".

Extracts are given from the written confessions – which ranged from a few to many hundreds of pages in length – as well as from notes made by interrogators, including the following: "After threatening [the prisoner] with a few words, I had him remove his shirt and shackled his arms behind him, to be removed only at meals. [I thus] deprived him of sleep and let mosquitoes bite."

As Chandler remarks: "There is something unsettling about ‘fine writing’ about pain … [but] writers and readers alike are drawn inexorably toward a subject that is ugly, frightening, seductive and ultimately inexpressible."

It is appropriate then, that Chandler tackles the problem raised by writing abut torture, examining its use in Cambodian history, and, more recently, in connection with the periodic purges and show trials held in the Soviet Union and China.

He has trawled through an incredible amount of material to explain not only what happened at S-21 and how it fitted into the overall operations of the Khmer Rouge, but also to make comparisons with other tragedies. In the final chapter, he canvasses eloquent explanations for S-21, drawing on research done into other unspeakable events and massacres.

One criticism of the book must be levelled at its designers. Given their exemplary detail, Chandler’s notes should be an integral part of the text. Yet they are tucked away at the back as endnotes. For example, in a discussion on the microfilming of records, he mentions the existence of several confessions made by a group of Westerners arrested when their boat sailed too close to the Cambodian coast.

Turning to the relevant endnote, readers learn that research by another scholar "has revealed that the four Americans, who had known each other in high school in California, were caught off the Cambodian coast when they were heading from Singapore t Bangkok to pick up cargoes of process marijuana that they planned to deliver to Hawaii. Because they had a high-school classmate working for US intelligence services in Thailand, it is conceivable that they were taking commissioned photographs of the coastline when they were arrested."

An intriguing piece of speculation, but one which may be overlooked by many – even the most energetic reader will tired of flicking back and forth to unearth other such gems.

A word of advice: Save endnotes for turgid academic texts; an enthralling work of history like this should come with same-page footnotes. But this is a minor point and does not detract in any way from the exceptional scholarship which produced this important book.

Chandler explains that he set out to study the S-21 documents "as a means of entering the collective mentality of the Khmer Rouge and also as a way of coming to grips with a frightening, heavily documented institution." He has certainly gone a long way toward achieving both of those goals.