Choompae
Thailand 1976
Directed by Unknown.


Pherg Choompae (Sombat Methanee) goes back to his hometown to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the smuggling kingpin Tom (Kecha Plianvithee). Sounds simple, right? Think again! I never knew a simple revenge plot could be so complicated. This is a two and a half hour epic of gang fighting in the villages of northeastern Thailand was a smash hit on its release in 1976 and has at last come to DVD so the rest of us can desperately try to figure out what the hell is going on!

When Pherg first arrives back in his hometown, he is immediately set upon by a group of thugs, whom he handily beats, while making sure his boots stay clean. In the background, a tenor sings the operatic, Morricone-inspired themesong, until at last a villager comes up to Pherg and says, "That was impressive. What's your name?" And the song, the dialog, and the title card all merge into one: "CHOOMPAE!"

Though, that's just his last name, which is taken from the village of his birth. So naturally he goes by Pherg, otherwise how to tell him apart from everyone else from that village? He has returned to get revenge on Sergeant Tom, the former policeman and current criminal kingpin of the area. But there are complications. Tom has two daughters, one of whom, Veawdaw, Pherg pledges to marry no matter what, though she looks a bit confused by the idea. The other, Duangporn, is the girlfriend of police captain Chaiyo (Nart Poowanai), who feels a bit compromised by the relationship but agrees that Pherg is an outlaw who must be captured.

Pherg, with his trademark sawed off shotgun, assembles a gang of his own, and kidnaps various members of Tom's organization to try and get them to stop helping Tom and cross over to the "good" side. He converts a few gang members, and gets the whole village on his side, then starts breaking up Tom's evil bus route monopoly scheme. Well, perhaps not quite on a par with his gun smuggling, but I guess if you're trying to break up a gang you've got to start somewhere. Meanwhile some other gang of guys is terrorizing the villages and pretending that they are Pherg to ruin his reputation. Apparently the villagers are too savvy to fall for this, as nothing much happens to Pherg as a result. In desperation, the gang calls in hitman Phu Namphong to troubleshoot. By this time, we've been introduced to too many characters to keep straight. Gangsters I think get killed in one scene turn up immediately afterwards. One guy that I thought was doing all kinds of stuff actually turns out to be two different guys when they end up in a scene together.

Though Pherg is untouchable, most of his henchmen, especially those he converts from the other gang, tend to get killed. One gets shot in the back, then a grenade thrown on him for good measure. But bullets and guns and grenades aren't infinite, and one of the very special touches in this film is that recognition. When the baddies head off to the final confrontation, they load up all the guns they can find, and say they have enough to fire for a week. Not quite! Just about everyone runs out of ammunition during the exhaustingly long final battle (in a quarry, naturally). By the end, even the police are stoning people instead of shooting them. It was a refreshing recognition that sometimes, you just can't carry enough bullets with you to a gunfight, and you'd better have some other hand to hand weapons on you just in case.

Although the film runs two and a half hours, there are staggering plot leaps. In one scene, a man brings Tom a letter from his daughter saying he should come to her. In the very next scene, that same man has been captured by Tom's men, for "kidnapping Tom" some time ago, and they've only now just found him. Turns out the letter was a clever plot by Pherg, but who knew? We certainly never saw it planned or executed.

Instead of these crucial scenes, the movie spends a lot of time hanging out in Tom's driveway. Every time he leaves the gang hideout, a pointless conversation ensues: "Hey, aren't you going to take the car?" shouts a henchman. Tom contemplates that for a moment. "No, I think I'll just take the tricycle." (Meaning the Thai bicycle/rickshaw). Just take the damn car already!

On the other hand, there are some pretty good action scenes, and one amazing action scene, a fight on top of a bus, that looks impossibly dangerous. The DVD case claims the fight is "the most classic in the history of Thai movies" and I can well believe it. I don't think even Jackie Chan would have done the fight the way it appears here.

The backdrop of CHOOMPAE combines incredible seventies fashions (huge collars and bellbottoms), unbelievably tacky "modern" interiors, and straw-huts and wooden tables typical of rural Thailand. The soundtrack, like so many asian movies from this period, borrows liberally from THE PLANET OF THE APES and who knows what else, with the title track perhaps being the only original piece in the whole film.

While not a great movie, CHOOMPAE is very interesting as a historical document of Thai cinema of the mid-seventies. Kecha Plianvithee is a classic scene-chewing, cigar-chomping villain, who reminded me a little of Ricardo Montalban, while the hero Sombat Methanee was charming and charismatic. Perhaps he was supposed to be a bit rougher around the edges, but for the most part he maintained a pretty friendly Sam Hui-type look and demeanor. The supporting characters, other than Pherg's pot-bellied drinking buddy Old Plot, were pretty difficult to tell apart, let alone distinguish themselves through their acting.

I'd encourage anyone interested to purchase a copy of the DVD, which in turn may encourage the DVD company to release additional movies from the period onto DVD with English Subs as well [So far, they have released three], and perhaps even try a little restoration work.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 07, 2006.


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