Sars Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis Review
My knowledge of Asian cinema doesn’t greatly extend beyond Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. While I’ve seen a couple of efforts from Thailand it’s not been enough for me to want to seek out more. Naturally then, when Sars Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis came through my door I had no idea what it was. It also appears to be a film that’s escaped many people, having been released across Thailand in 2004, with little sign until now. In the hopes of having it reach a wider audience, Discotek has picked up what will undoubtedly be a cult hit, as Thailand slowly emerges as being something of a contender amongst the bigger boys.
The 4th generation of the deadly SARS virus has been discovered in Africa. Due to a mutation in the virus, it turns those who comes into contact with it into zombies. Soon the world is plagued by this unstoppable virus, all except Thailand, who proclaims a virus free zone. However, when an infected cockroach bites Dr. Bryan Thompson (Andrew Biggs), who has been working on an anti-virus, it turns him into a zombie and he soon infects the entire apartment complex where he lives.
Meanwhile a girl named Liu (Phintusuda Tunphairao) has been kidnapped by a gang who seek a ransom for her safe return. Retired crime fighter Master Thep (Suthep Po-ngam) is called upon to rescue Liu, but as he informs his prospective employer, he’s got a gammy leg and would sooner entrust the job to his young protégé Khun Krabii (Suppakorn Kitsuwan). As luck would have it Liu is being held in the same apartment building that now houses a horde of zombies. It’s up to Khun, with the help of Thep and the sexy doctor Diana (Lene Christensen) to enter the building, rescue the girl and destroy all zombies in the space of one evening.
Alright, so everybody’s done it; it was only a matter of time before Thailand latched on to the grand scheme of things and produced a big zombie film. Sars Wars comes totally out of left field, but at the right time. The recent resurgence in zombie related cinema has been overwhelming in recent years, with Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Zombie Electric Boogaloo, being but just a few examples of a genre that has encapsulated entire continents. I’m not sure why the zombie craze in particular is so popular; I guess people just like watching other people eating people. I do. Then you have the social commentary angle that Romero put to great use many years ago, but I’d wager your average zombie fan doesn’t care about that. The trick with zombie films is to try and present something that no one has seen before. Sure, zombies eat brains, they walk slowly and groan a bit and people run away from them screaming and flapping their arms, but sometimes they’re cornered by a zombie and then a horde of zombies turn up and devour one, poor person, and then a cop or someone will kill a load with a shotgun and there’ll be some mysterious island, naked girls - maybe a dead dog. Which brings us to writer/director Taweewat Wantha’s Sars Wars; a film that although is monumentally silly, manages to inject some new life into an ever increasingly popular genre.
It took me five minutes to realise that Sars Wars was going to be an immensely insane and deliberately stupid feature film, and that’s the key to enjoying it; just switch off, because otherwise you’re not likely going to appreciate what it has to offer. Mixing as many genres into one film can prove to be devastating, and yet Wantha handles his debut feature remarkably well. We’ve got horror, comedy, a little drama and a lot of fantasy play going on in as little as eighty seven minutes. The fact is, is that Sars Wars knows exactly what it wants to be. It never, for one moment, takes itself seriously - and boy, how could it ever? A techno soundtrack fuels the adventures of a rag-tag team who dispose of zombies with battery powered energy swords and magic whistles. The lead hero Khun, who is also a bit hopeless (a la Ash from Evil Dead) is only concerned about looking hip, even when performing menial tasks and we even get giant zombie snakes and fresh from the uterus babies. With its tongue poked so far into its cheek Sars Wars relishes every dumb opportunity to have the viewer sit back and have a good chuckle; it may not provide oodles of hilarity, but it’s certainly stupid enough to just work. Clearly the director takes influences from several zombie films and then challenges those lifted scenarios with light doses of whacky humour, but to be honest I don’t wish to spoil the gags, which are terribly cheesy and simple, yet they somehow triumph within the context of what we’re witnessing.
If there’s one thing that Sars Wars makes clear it’s that Thailand has its fair share of problems with the censorship board; in fact it goes so far as to provide self parody - actually referencing the censors through dialogue - following with several moments that range from being awfully teasing, to cleverly concealed. For a film so into its violence its sex is all the more restrained. There are plenty of slinky women but no booby shots. Bra and panty teasing is as far as it goes before they’re abruptly curtailed, and even mosaic is used to comic effect for male nudity - though I’m not going to dispute that one. Even one sexual encounter in which we see nothing is fuelled by jokes involving bizarrely named positions and mouthfuls of noodles. But the most amusing moment is when Dr. Diana removes her uniform, only to reveal her undergarments which consist of tight PVC and fishnets. It’s so out of the ordinary and yet clearly the film makers are trying to challenge the board as much as possible. They might not be able to deliver tits, but they sure as hell will get close to it. Sars Wars is given a little more free reign with its blood and guts approach and although there’s nothing to shout about there is enough to satisfy gore hounds. The horror aspect is fairly routine stuff, with neck biting, sword slicing and exploding heads left right and centre, but it’s often handsomely staged.
Taweewat Wantha and his cinematographer Art Srithongkul do a wonderful job of nailing the film’s aesthetics. While Sars Wars is a flashy hybrid of genres, filled with some very interesting colour schemes, the director approaches the material with gritty verve. It’s obviously experimental in several areas, where various filters are applied and grain is introduced to maximum effect. The film’s lighting is also complimentary against an otherwise dingy green backdrop in which our lively heroes run around. Poonsup Bualieng’s art direction is equally varied, from strange art-deco apartments to glum hallways. In what I can only presume is some kind of nod to Kill Bill we even have a couple of animated sequences: namely the credit intro and a major plot twist. Unsurprisingly the animation is nowhere near that of Katsuhito Ishii’s level, but it is another medium which is put to good use. In addition CGI is used to enhance a few set pieces (the snake, baby and explosions) and understandably it’s not of Hollywood quality. These moments do stick out in a film where practical effects take precedence, though they’re nowhere near awful enough to see them ruin the overall enjoyment of the feature.
Last but not least is a cast who work wonders with what they’re given. It doesn’t take a thespian to make this kind of material work and by large this isn’t an accomplished ensemble of actors. However, they are talented at what they do, and that is to simply spout corny dialogue and jokes with conviction, while having fun doing so. I am not familiar with any of the cast, but watching Suthep Po-ngam and Supakorn Kitsuwan get through things with their strong chemistry and the knowledge that what they’re making isn’t exactly high art is certainly enough for them to win us over.
Sars Wars is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As mentioned previously, this is a film that utilises several techniques. Where some areas might display relatively normal filmic qualities, others are heavily dark and grainy. I have to say that that Discotek has done a fine job in transferring the film to DVD. There are no compression artefacts, no Edge Enhancement by my eyes and just a little bit of aliasing, which isn’t particularly troublesome. Black levels are as deep as I’ve seen in any film, maybe too deep, and I imagine that they’re intended to be this way due to the overall look of the feature. The main disappointment is that the transfer is interlaced. The run time is listed as 95 minutes, but the film actually clocks in at 87, so this might well be a slightly dodgy standards conversion.
For sound we get Thai Stereo and Thai 5.1 Surround. In theatres this was going with 5.1 EX, so I imagine what we’re hearing here is very close to that intended experience. The soundtrack is lively, which is just as well given the relentless pacing of things. A techno based score fuels the film, being given a lot space to work in. Sound effects are nicely separated and have a very polished quality, while dialogue is maintained largely through the central speakers.
Optional English subtitles are included. These come in a nice, white font and read well, with no grammatical errors. There are a few occasions where dialogue isn’t translated, but this seems to be insignificant stuff, with characters muttering a few words under their breath.
There are nine time-coded deleted scenes in total. Some of them pad out the story a little and go on longer than needs be, such as the fairly awful opening one involving a cockroach and an extension involving a lengthy conversation after the video ransom scene and the intro of Khun. Others are jokey, including a golf ball in the eye and some homoerotic S&M type gubbins. All in all they deserved to be excised 100%. Good call on the director’s half.
Making of Sars Wars (6:31)
At such short length we don’t get much here. There are short interviews with the producer, managing directors, film director, cast members, visual effects supervisors and animation crew. Not a great deal is learned as it’s all very basic stuff, though the main gist is that this is a film, the likes of which hasn’t been done in Thailand before.
The rest of the extras consist of two trailers for the film and two music videos, along with some other Discotek releases.
Sars Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis is a surprisingly good feature from Thailand, just about successfully blending genres and offering an experience that’s a little bit different from the norm. The director has certainly produced an interesting looking piece of work; one that is tightly paced and can never be accused of being boring, despite its sheer silliness and technical limitations.