Friday, January 11, 2008

Red Eagle soars again

Red Eagle soars again

A popular Thai superhero of the 1950s and '60s gets a reboot with Wisit Sasanatieng at the helm and Ananda Everingham as the star

Published on December 24, 2007

Joining James Bond and Batman as popular characters who have undergone "reboots" in recent films, a Thai superhero is being revitalised in an upcoming film.

Insee Dang, or "Red Eagle", was a masked crime fighter in a series of around 100 novels by Sek Dusit in the 1950s. In film, the character's most famous depiction was by action hero Mitr Chaibancha. The last film Mitr made, "Insee Tong" ("Golden Eagle") in 1970, was yet another episode from the life of the superhero vigilante. Mitr died while filming the final scene for "Insee Tong" when, grabbing for a rope ladder from a helicopter, he was carried aloft but lost his grip and fell into the Gulf of Thailand, just off Jomtien Beach.

So, Red Eagle will indeed be brought back to life, and the anticipation is high, with director Wisit Sasanatieng overseeing the new vision, and one of Thailand's biggest stars, Ananda Everingham, in the lead role.

The project was first announced by Five Star Production, in October at the American Film Market in California. On Monday, the director, star and producers were on hand at the Esplanade Cineplex to tell the Thai press about it.

"It's going to be very different," Wisit said in an interview following the press conference. "But the production design will be true to the original version," he said, referring to the series of a half dozen or so films that starred Mitr in the 1950s and '60s.

The Red Eagle role has been kicking around in Thai entertainment circles since then. Action star Krung Srivalai has also donned the red mask. There has even been a female Red Eagle, played by Jarunee Srisawat, as well as a TV series. In recent years, other studios and directors have announced projects, but nothing ever came to fruition.

The story of the new film - called "Red Eagle" - involves Rom Rittikrai, a hard-drinking lawyer who spends his days getting drunk at clubs, and then getting saved from making a total fool of himself by his faithful assistant, Oy. No one would ever suspect that the fun-loving goofball Rom was in fact the alter ego of the dark-suited, eagle-masked hero Insee Dang, single-handedly fighting crime and corruption.

According to Sek's son, Manote Prapasanan, the character of Rom Rittikrai was inspired by actor Rock Hudson's 1950s public persona of suave Hollywood playboy. In American culture, perhaps the closest comparison to Red Eagle would be the Green Hornet, a masked crime fighter who was featured in radio serials in the 1930s, films in the 1940s and a television series in the 1960s (with Bruce Lee as his sidekick, Kato). Comparisons could also be drawn between Red Eagle and the Lone Ranger, a masked gunman in the American old West, as well as Batman, and his alter ego, the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.

In the Mitr film series, Red Eagle's sidekick Oy was portrayed by Petchara Chaowarat, making for Thai cinema's most iconic pairing. For now, Wisit is not sure if the new film will have room for an Oy character, or who might play her if there is.

"A lot is going to be changed," Wisit says, pointing toward the recent trend of other "rebooted" characters such as the new Batman in the film series by Christopher Nolan, which seeks to explore that masked superhero's dark side. Or, there was last year's "Casino Royale", featuring a new 007, and starting the James Bond character over from the beginning.

Nonetheless, author Sek, who is still active, writing weekly newspaper columns and pocket books, has given his blessing to the project, saying that if any there's any director who can pull of his vision of Red Eagle, it's Wisit. A graduate of Silpakorn University's Faculty of Decorative Arts, Wisit is a multi-faceted artist - an illustrator, writer and auteur who has an eye for period detail. He also has a taste for the old Thai action films, termed "raberd poa, khaow pao kratom", or "bomb the mountain, burn the huts", films. His attention to detail can be seen in every frame of his 1950s-set Thai Western, "Fah Talai Jone" ("Tears of the Black Tiger"); the colourful contemporary romance and satire, "Citizen Dog"; and his 1930s-set ghost tale, "The Unseeable". A fan of Mitr's old films, Red Eagle is something he's been wanting to do for a long time.

For actor Ananda, working with Wisit is something he's been wanting to do for a while, too.

"I've been keen to work with Wisit for quite a long time," Ananda says in an interview after the press conference.

The hard-working actor has been seen this past year in no fewer than four films: "Me … Myself" by Pongpat Wachirabunjong, "Ploy" by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, "Pleasure Factory" by Ekachai Uekrongtham, and "Bangkok Time" by Santi Taepanich. It's a work ethic that comes close to Mitr's own frenzied filmography, though Mitr was making four or five films a week at the height of his popularity. Upcoming films for Ananda include a thriller, "The Coffin", also by Ekachai; Nonzee Nimibutr's historical fantasy, "The Queen of Langkasuka"; and "Hello Luang Prabang", a Laotian government-financed romance. He's scheduled to start shooting "Red Eagle" in March.

With the film in pre-production, talks between the star and the director have focused on concepts about the character.

"I'm not really too sure what it's going to be like," Ananda says, adding that he's not even sure he's right for the role. "I'm not the superhero type," he says.

He's been asked by producers at Five Star to hit the fitness centre and bulk up a bit, but muscles can only do somuch.

"All the roles I've played, they've had problems," Ananda says. For example, in 2004's horror hit "Shutter" he played a photographer haunted by a ghost. In this year's "Me … Myself", he portrayed a transvestite cabaret dancer with amnesia.

But it's the qualities that Ananda brought to those characters - a fragile vulnerability - that Wisit is likely seeking to exploit in the new "Red Eagle".

"We've talked about a morphine addiction," Ananda says, hinting that Rom Rittikrai might have something a good deal more serious than a drinking problem to deal with.

Wise Kwai

The Nation

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