Writer: Monthon Arayangkoon
Producers: Monthon Arayangkoon, Pawinee Wichayapongkul
Cast: Sornram Theappitak, Sara Legge, Daniel Bruce Fraser
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: Thai VCD
Wow! Just one viewing of Garuda has jumped this film right up into my list of ‘favourite movies ever’. This is how to do a monster film; it has deservedly been a massive domestic hit and should hopefully do well when distributed internationally.
Twenty-eight years ago, western archaeologist Dr Pierre Janvier (Ken Streutker) is excavating a cave in Thailand when he encounters what appears to be some strange creature entombed in the rock. His local guide warns him not to continue but Janvier ignores him, bringing down the rocks around them. Janvier survives and retrieves a claw from the animal.
Jump forward to 2005 and we find Janvier’s daughter Lena ('Leena' according to the end credits), played by German-Thai model Sara Legge - credited as ‘Sarah Leigh’ by some sources - making her acting debut. Lena works in a dinosaur museum alongside her colleague Tim (Canadian actor Daniel Bruce Fraser) whose appearance seems to have been modelled on Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.
Lena and Tim are approached by a mysterious military figure who takes them to the excavations being carried out below Bangkok for a new underground railway. The drill, it seems, has hit something solid and the authorities believe that Lena and Tim might be able to help them because a weird fossilised skull has been retrieved from the tunnel. The two palaeontologists are intimidated by the gritty young soldiers who surround them, especially the moodily handsome Tan (played by the moodily handsome Sornram Theappitak, son of Choomporn Theappitak and voted Thailand’s favourite actor in several polls) who has experience of dealing with monsters (in a brief flashback we see that he once lost one of his squad to a giant water-snake).
At the tunnel’s end is a solid wall of rock. “This layer of rock must have collapsed about 80,000 years ago,” says Tim in one of his occasional lines of English. Lena and Tim want to proceed slowly and academically - but the soldiers attach a bunch of explosive charges to the rock face and blast their way through. Inside is a vast cavern containing petrified trees, within the branches of one of which can be glimpsed a very large scaly arm. Attempting to illuminate the cavern, the soldiers let a live electrical cable touch this arm - without their noticing - and next time we look, it’s gone.
We’re 42 minutes into this 109-minute movie before we get our first glimpse of the monster, and it is just a glimpse. Something at the far edge of the frame swoops down and removes a soldier in the background. Then we get a yellow-filtered POV shot as it attacks the mission commander.
What we have here, it seems, is a garuda. This is the legendary flying beast which served as the mount of Lord Vishnu; the primary religion of Thailand is Buddhism but it is coloured with elements of Hinduism and other faiths. The garuda is also known as the paksa wayu (‘wind bird’) - which is the Thai title of this film - and while not renowned as a flesh-eating monster, you could see how it might become one, especially when irritated.
Take a human torso on animal legs, not unlike Pan or a satyr. Add long arms like a gorilla but make them scaly with three savage claws on each hand, like an allosaurus. Give it a head like a cross between a harpy eagle and a triceratops, with a wicked looking beak, and add a pair of large, feathered wings. Now make the whole beast about twenty feet tall and thoroughly pissed off, and you have something that you do not want to meet in a confined space.
Director Monthon Arayangkoon, who learned his trade on pop videos, knows how to show - or not show - the monster, giving us quick glimpses in half-light, gradually revealing more and more but never dwelling at length on the beast. As long as we never get a really clear, long look at it - and frankly we never do - it remains a genuine horror. The monster itself is a skilful piece of computer animation, seamlessly blended into this, the first Thai film to be shot on high definition video (like the Star Wars prequels). What is especially wonderful is that, when it walks, it has the sort of slightly off-balance gait which characterised all the great stop-motion monsters. I don’t know whether this is animation or motion-capture, but somebody somewhere has watched Talos and the Ymir and other Ray Harryhausen creations and realised that they established the convention: this is how movie monsters walk.
The middle act sees Lena, Tim and the remaining soldiers running around in various combinations, gradually being picked off by the beast. There’s a terrific sequence where Tim has been locked in a store room for being a troublemaker: he hears crashes and screams from outside, then something huge batters against the metal walls and as he cowers three giant claws tear three gashes through the wall, stopping inches away from his head.
Eventually the cavern is flooded. Lena and Tan, who have grown to respect one another, survive - and find that Tim has too. They make their way back to the existing railway where they are harangued by an officious comedy relief guard whose come-uppance arrives swiftly when it transpires that something big and mean has survived the flood too and is now in the railway tunnels.
The station is surrounded, the army are called in, government ministers debate what to do. Suddenly, the ground outside the station caves in and two enormous wings, each about fifty feet in length, emerge, followed by one extremely ferocious garuda. Guns and rockets can’t stop it as it flies around the city, picking up people and cars. These scenes are reminiscent of Q: The Winged Serpent but that may just be coincidence and is certainly no bad thing as that is a very fine monster movie indeed.
It’s difficult to follow the details of the plot without subs (should have paid the extra few dollars for the DVD, but I was skint) and some points may have passed me by. For example, some English language publicity says that Lena wants to capture and study the garuda while the Thai soldiers want to leave it alone because its mythical status is essential to the country and would be destroyed if it turned out to be merely a prehistoric survivor. That doesn’t come across at all on the VCD and I’m only half-sure that the creature is trying to recover the claw which Lena was given by her father and now wears on a cord round her neck. Certainly the climax has the creature aiming specifically for Lena, who is trapped atop a skyscraper with Tan.
But when a monster movie is this good, you really don’t need the intricacies of the plot as well, at least not on first showing (I would like to see a subtitled version someday to find out what I’m missing). Monthon Arayangkoon directs with a sure hand and keeps the action flowing without turning the film into one of those ghastly non-stop things so beloved of Hollywood. We care about these characters - even if we don’t know what they’re saying - and we care about the monster. Kudos also to visual effects supervisors Surashet Thienbunlertrat and Atithan Sangarvut and a tip of the hat to Jiradech Samnangsanor's stunning HDV cinematography.
Made for 40 million Baht (just under one million US dollars) Garuda looks expensive by Thai standards - and indeed it is - but the money is there on screen. Much has been made about the innovative use of HD video, inviting comparisons to The Phantom Menace, and frankly this film is a million times better than that load of tat because everything here exists to serve the story and illuminate the characters, not to show off the effects budget. The special effects are not only excellently done but they are used sparingly which benefits the film. When we do see the garuda, it really is seamlessly integrated into the film and there are plenty of shots where I genuinely can’t work out whether I’m seeing computer animation, a man in a suit, a model or some combination of the three - and it frankly doesn’t matter. It should never matter how the monster was created, only whether it works as a believable monster, and this one certainly does.
MJS rating: A+
review originally posted 3rd January 2005