Friday, February 16, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Magic of the Universe (1986)

aka The Magician

Original title: Salamangkero

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Stage magician Professor - we never learn Professor of what, though I do suspect trundling through the jungle to be his main area of expertise - Jamir (Michael De Mesa) loses his little daughter Freza (Sunshine Dizon) when he's doing a standard disappearing act. The little girl disappears well enough but she doesn't reappear again when she should. Looking not quite as worried as the situation would suggest, Jamir, his wife and his pudgy little boy assistant (Tom Tom) go off to visit a friendly black magician, hoping he can explain what happened to Freza. Alas, despite some tasteful licking of raw monkey brains (I don't think no animals were harmed in the making of this movie), there's not much concrete to be gotten from the magician, except some mutterings about Jamir being in terrible danger and some vague hints pointing the family in the direction of another jungle village.

Once arrived there, the family has nothing better to do than to stage another show (that is the sort of thing you do to find your disappeared daughter, right?), during which Mum disappears too. While Jamir and the pudgy boy start to get a bit depressed now, Mum finds herself reunited with Freza - as captives of an evil witch named Mikula (Armida Siguion-Reyna) who lives with a horde of child prisoners, some horned pig people and a cross between a gremlin, a toad, your worst nightmares and a TV in a palace in the jungle. Mikula finally deigns to do some exposition, so we learn that she has kidnapped the Jamir women to avenge herself on Jamir's dead great grandfather, who was her teacher at magic but cursed her with growing a big, pulsating head once he realized how evil she was.

Jamir hears about the same story from the ghost of said great grandfather the very same night, because now it's finally exposition time, the film just can't stop itself anymore. Gramps also adds that Jamir needs to find some magical doodad to be able to fight Mikula, else he and his family will die and Mikula will rule the world.

The rest of the film sees Jamir and the pudgy boy wander aimlessly through the jungle, getting saved from the attentions of a guy with a very big sword by the Guardian of the Woods (whose power is shooting cartoon laser beams from her eyes, if you need to ask) and impress a tribe of feral little people with the old pigeon trick. Then the boy is kidnapped too and the film spends most of its time with everyone not Jamir escaping from Mikula, meeting strange things and people and getting kidnapped again, until it is time for Jamir to become undeservedly powerful and win the day with his own new cartoon lightning beams. What a hero!

I suspect Filipino Magic of the Universe to be one of those at least part-time disturbing kids movies all Asian countries seem to excel at, though its combination of naive and round-about plotting, bad rubber masks, cruelty to adorable little monkeys, freakish creatures making even more freakish noises, and little children (sort of) saving the day might just as well be explained by everyone involved in the production being batshit insane or hopped up on snorting crystallized EC comics; actually, now having thought about it for a few seconds longer, it's probably all three.

Connoisseurs of this sort of movie - the little sister genre to my beloved weird fu genre - will pretty much know what to expect from Magic: awkward and somewhat dull direction (by Tata Esteban); a primitive - possibly borrowed from somewhere - synth soundtrack that fluctuates between the trite and the disquieting (the latter is especially awesome here in the fight scene between Tom Tom and a demonic kung fu kid, or whatever he/she/it is supposed to be); editing of the rough and tumble kind; ideas and concepts so disturbing most Western movies for grown-ups wouldn't dare use them (that poor monkey at the beginning or the Guardian of Forest's head being eaten to give Mikula more magic power, anyone?) presented with shoulder-shrugging nonchalance; a lack of explanation for a lot of things (what is Mikula doing with all these children?); an English dub job so atrocious one can't help but think it was done by random tourists who were kidnapped and locked up in the cellar of the film's producers as a cheap alternative to professional voice actors.

All that and more is there and accounted for in a film that does its best to sabotage its rather mind-blowing effects with somewhat ponderous pacing and a hero of utmost incompetence (he's really just wandering around until he points a stick at his nemesis), but that just can't be anything less than entertaining as long as it is adding one weird and wondrous thing after the next. When the film's not actively disturbing you with Mikula's increasingly pulsating head, it's weirding you out with a sudden monster synth rock party (Mikula has her own band, just like a Bollywood villain, although the film lacks a scene where Jamir pretends to be part of a dance troupe), or throwing in a random easily depressed swamp monster and a woman turned to stone for good measure.

I don't really like ending a write-up on a "you'll like this thing if you like this sort of thing" note, but what can a boy do when confronted with a movie whose main achievement apart from being oh so very strange is that nobody making it does seem to have just stopped for a moment and said "what are we doing here, guys?"?

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