SARS War (Khun Krabi Pi Rabad)
(By: Robert Williamson)
It is not so very long since East Asia was in the grip of the terrifying outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), but evidently the memory is distant enough for the jokes to begin. Taweewat Wantha’s lunatic comedy SARS War is set in the near future at a time when four different and progressively more severe strains of the virus have developed. Thailand is the only Asian country unaffected by SARS 4 until an irritable farang is bitten by a mosquito and becomes a slobbering zombie, pusing, puking and biting the virus into others. Various agencies propose preventive measures, from the ‘Stop Virus Bullet’, an ingenious, locally-invented biomedical weapon, to a government plan to blow up buildings containing infected citizens. As the growing hordes of zombies lay siege to Bangkok, a group of oddball characters end up trapped together in a mutant-infested high-rise building, among them a gang of kidnappers (led by Sumlek Sakdigul) and their young, female hostage, Liu; Khun Krabi (Suppakorn Kitsuwan), an eccentric superhero crimefighter hired by Liu’s wealthy father to rescue her; Krabi’s elder mentor, the appallingly-named Master Tape (Thep Po-Ngam); and the alluring Dr Diana, who finally gets the chance to test the twenty-six experimental vaccine formulae she has developed, though their consequences and side-effects cannot be guaranteed. (Unsurprisingly, the true cure, discovered by Krabi quite by accident, turns out to be much more mundane, if unpleasant.)
As if you hadn’t realised by now, SARS War is unashamedly one of the silliest films of the year. From a giant, ravenous zombie snake to an abundance of weird transsexual innuendo, the film rarely feels the need to conform to reality, logic or common sense. The characters are generally typified by their incompetence and crudeness, and any positive contributions to their plight are invariably completely inadvertent. As for why Dr Diana turns out to be wearing a leather bondage outfit under her contamination suit, perhaps it’s best not to ask.
SARS War is sometimes a little clumsy and always deeply tasteless, but sheer exuberance pulls it through. The greatest weakness of the film is that it tries to juggle too many characters in too many different locations, meaning that certain figures disappear from the film for long periods. This applies to Liu, Khun Krabi and Yai (Sumlek), and even the zombies are absent for long periods towards the end of the film. (In Sumlek’s case this absence is eventually explained in the film’s maddest plot twist.) Although the broad comedy is generally well-handled, some of the gags – for example Master Tape’s cunning escape from the zombie snake’s belly – are over-explained. On the plus side, however, there is some droll parody of horror and disaster movie conventions (our heroes are continually distracted from the task at hand by the opportunity to have sex with the beautiful women they happen to be trapped with), and the influence of comic books on the director translates nicely into his images. Further to this, the film is bookended with two manga-style animated sequences, the first in the style of an urban street battle with Master Tape engaging in some brutal bloodletting, the second a flashback revealing what happened to Liu and putting to good use manga’s fascination with voluptuous naked breasts.
These are only some of the ways in which SARS War engages with popular culture; there are many others besides. Alongside some entertaining pastiches of western genre films – Master Tape’s all-powerful Green Freeze Sword is an obvious joke about light-sabres, a pregnant woman giving birth to a zombie baby recalls Alien – the film is chock-full of self-reflexive comments and gags ranging in reference from the censorship of nudity in Thailand to the film’s bad dialogue and cheesy soundtrack songs. Taweewat really pushes this knowing absurdity as far as he can. Unable to prevent the building being blown up any other way, Khun Krabi finally resorts to pausing the film by remote control. One character even exclaims: “Zombies, a bomb and a giant snake? This film is really aiming for some cash!”
Sadly this last reference carries with it some irony as Thai audiences failed to connect with the film’s over-the-top comedy onslaught leading to a poor performance at the domestic box office. But it could well prove to be the type of film that develops a cult following on DVD and at midnight screenings at festivals in Asia and beyond. Promisingly, the film was well-received at the Hong Kong Film Festival – potentially hostile ground for a film which casts SARS in such an insensitive light. In any case, Taweewat certainly isn’t downhearted. He promises that his next film will star giant, roaming sperm. I for one can’t wait.
Director Taweewat Wantha
Thailand, 2004 105 minutes, Color, 35 mm.
Production Company FILM Bangkok
4 Views House production
Producer UNCLE, KIM
Screenplay Taweewat Wantha, Kuanchon Phemyad
Editor Kittikorn Sundaraketu
Cinematographer Art Srithongkul
Production Designer Rachta Punpayark
Cast Tep Pho-Ngam