Wednesday, July 19, 2006


THE DEVIL’S SWORD is a very weird movie. We say that a lot around here, but this time – boy, do we mean it. Indonesian exploitation and genre movies are often acclaimed or declaimed as being some of the oddest and most alien films you could see, and with such delirious examples as MYSTICS IN BALI or LADY TERMINATOR abounding it’s hard to argue with that. But this is really one of the absolute strangest though, something I guarantee you have not ever even come close to seeing before. Mondo Macabro has established themselves as the go-to company for Indonesian cinema and this is probably their best release from that country since the astonishing R2 DVD of MYSTICS. With terrific extras and a sparkling picture presentation, MM has done world cinema a great service in letting loose this unhinged fantasy spectacle.

It’s hard to describe certain aspects of THE DEVIL’S SWORD. It has a supercharged surrealism that hardly ever abates, with a succession of visual events that almost seem randomly placed, like a Burroughsian cut-up of a more linear epic fantasy sliced to reveal an occult transmission from an alien dimension. The story involves an evil crocodile queen and her efforts to both secure an ancient and powerful magick sword and as many young studly dudes as she can get into her greedy vulvic clutches. Indonesian superstar Barry Prima plays Mandala, a pure hearted sort who tries to circumvent the evil bitch’s plans by getting to the sword first and aiding a young maiden (herself a fine ass-kicker) whose husband has been shanghaied, along the way confronting wild crocodile men, a stone Cyclops with a headlight for an eye, dastardly warriors with similar mystical powers also out to get the sword and perhaps most diabolically, an overall décor scheme that would’ve made even Liberace blush. The story makes some sense if you’re really paying attention, but I don’t think that matters all that much. The film burns with an uncanny and hallucinatory quality that will eventually break down all attempts at rational analysis. Better to just give in, and let the images roll through your eyes into your reeling brain. Entertainment has never been this cosmically grotesque.

But it isn’t just the parade of weird images and unreal action that makes THE DEVIL’S SWORD such a thoroughly odd movie-viewing experience. It has a strangely static ambience, there seemingly is no forward momentum. Scenes coalesce from the previous scene with little or no logical progression. The film unfolds like a dream, or a fairy tale, feeling like a yarn that has grown organically out of the unconscious, more like a myth than a typical fantasy flick. SWORD grips you in this odd way, but it almost doesn’t work. We’re so accustomed to the epic sweep of western fantasy that it almost feels detached at times, alienated from our typical sensibilities. The musical score might have something to do with this peculiar texture, it’s an almost avant-garde electronic buzzing that carries no emotional cues that typify western soundtracks. Some moments have no score at all, circumventing entirely our sense of expectations of cinematic importance and the signals they usually bear. The movie feels really, really foreign. Truly something that originates from a mindset in large part different from our own. While watching SWORD I felt a little lost in my emotional expectations, and sometimes, when not slack-jawed at the awesome imagery, a little bored. Upon reflection, however, I found myself meditating on the film’s oblique power, it’s truly unusual mis-en-scene and the pull towards its entertainments became overwhelming. The movie exists now as much in my brain as it did on my TV screen, occupying an idiosyncratic and individual place in my cinematic memory. Trust me, you have never, ever seen anything even remotely like this. Really. EVER.

Mondo Macabro’s stellar DVD of this weirdfilm classick really kicks the experience into high gear. The beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer is damn near perfect showing a care and understanding for this sort of unique cinema that to my mind is exceedingly rare even in this digital disc heavy era. Obviously MM got it hands on unimpaired elements and have given it the kind of t.l.c. usually reserved for Criterion-esque “classics” of world art-film, the kind recognized in the sort of pointless film appreciation classes I used to take in order to assure an easy ‘A’ when I was in college. Gods bless Macabro honchos Pete Tombs and Andy Starke and all their henchmen (and henchwomen) for doing this. If not them, then who?

If the movie itself and its wonderful presentation weren’t enough, then the extras will melt what’s left of your still-unyielding mind. A trio of typically outstanding essays from Tombs lead off the special features, an “about the film”, a Barry Prima bio and an article concerning the history and mythical importance of magical swords respectively, are all extremely entertaining, well-written and most importantly very informative. The ‘sword’ essay in particular is fascinating, detailing the symbolism and history of the Magic Sword throughout many cultures with of course special attention to the Indonesian variant. The topper, the extra among extras is the video interview with Barry Prima. It might just be my favorite video interview extra ever. Questioned for the UK teledocumentary series MONDO MACABRO by Tombs and Starke, Prima comes across as wholly uninterested, distracted, incredulous, and not-at-all taking it seriously. It reminded quite a bit of how weirdo singer-songwriter Will Oldham used to treat interviewers early in his career meeting their questions with a bemused indifference; only in Prima’s case this is no intellectual affect, no self-conscious attempt at myth-making. Prima just really has no concept of himself as someone that anyone would ever want to interview, he really seems genuinely surprised that anyone has even heard of his films outside Indonesia, much less actually be interested in them. Add to this, the language barrier and Prima’s odd sense of humor and you have the making for the most uncomfortable and entertaining interview session possible. Unbelievable. A trailer for the film is also included, as well as the ubiquitous Mondo Macabro promo reel, which I seemingly never get tired of viewing.

You might have qualms about picking this oddball bit of deranged celluloid up, especially if you have an aversion to foreign weirdness. My recommendation to you then would be maybe rent it first, try it out, maybe even over two successive nights or something. But those with a taste for something truly out of this world, those looking for something that is really, really different, consider it imperative that you must get THE DEVIL’S SWORD. It will leech its way onto your brain in way that will cause as much joy and it does incomprehension.


Akanksha said...

Great review for a great movie. I have an old crappy DVD from some "Kung-Fu Classics" series. I can't wait to upgrade!

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