Sunday 10 June 2018

Man From Deep River (Umberto Lenzi, 1972) DVD Review

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“He dared the forbidden river where adventure ends and hell begins!” This former 'video nasty' is regarded as the first film in the cycle of Italian cannibal movies that reared their bloody heads throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet Umberto Lenzi's Man From Deep River – otherwise known as Deep River Savages, Sacrifice!, or Mondo Cannibale – ironically features very little flesh eating. Instead, the film focuses more on the culture clash that comes about when a photojournalist from the western world is captured by a remote tribe somewhere in the wilds between Thailand and Burma - as 88 Films' DVD presentation inspires heated debate...

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“Tomorrow's going to be a rough day. I'm beginning to get sick of this whole trip.” John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov, All The Colours of the Dark) is an adventurous man gallivanting about Thailand, seeking to photograph all the various nooks and crannies of this mysterious land (which would have been quite exotic to cinema audiences of the time – before cheap flights and booze cruises became the easily-accessible norm). John is a liver-of-life, care-free to a pretty selfish degree, as evidenced by how little interest he has for the disappearance of the woman he attends a Muy-Thai boxing event with – indeed, what exactly happens to her lingers as a complete mystery to both John and the viewer.

“I've never gone so far up river.” Fleeing a deadly bar brawl, John takes off with his guide down river to photograph the local wildlife, but ends up being caught by a tribe who believe him to be some kind of half-man/half-fish beast (because of his wet suit and flippers). Fortunately for John, he hasn't been captured by the Kuru cannibals from further down the river, but the more civilised clan who are in conflict with those people-munchers. While the tribe's home seems relatively advanced with a clear hierarchy and social system in-place, the way they deal with intrusive cannibals is brutal and swift – they cut out their tongues and leave them to bleed out. “Murderers!” screams John in abject horror.

Befriended by Taima (Prasitsak Sinchara), a village elder who speaks English, she helps John escape during the 'Feast of the Sun', only for him to be hunted down by the tribe's contingent of hunters, lead by Karen (Sulalleman Suxantat). However, when John beats Karen in combat, he is welcomed into the tribe to become one of them (albeit after a gruelling trial). As weeks become months, John slowly begins to adjust to an entirely new way of life, particularly as Mayará (Me Me Lai, Jungle Holocaust) – the daughter of the tribe's chief – takes a romantic interest in the blonde-haired outsider. But will John's yearning for escape – and home – win out, or will something new and fundamental turn him into a new man?

“You know how far London is from here? Six thousand miles. Twenty-four hours in a plane or a month at sea.” At a time when international travel was still a relatively niche activity, especially for the modestly paid masses, films like Man From Deep River offered a glimpse of a strange and unfamiliar world, of exotic practises and colourful sights, all wrapped up in a neat genre package. Lenzi's film, naturally enough, begins more like a promotional tourist video exploring the people, landscapes, and culture of the more developed parts of Thailand before John is captured by the tribes people. Even then, however, according to a lengthy description at the beginning of the film, Lenzi attempts to document the ways of tribal life in the area. How accurate it all is, though, is hard to tell and you have to take him at his word, but many aspects of the tribe depicted in the film at least make a decent amount of sense. A ritual by which Mayará picks her mate seems titillating at first – prospective mates reach through a 'glory hole' of sorts and she, blindfolded, chooses who to pick based on how they handle her. It's one of the film's more fascinating scenes as all those who fail the test do so through immaturity – groping Mayará with vigorous impatience – while the chosen mate, John, merely seeks to hold her hand.

Of course, being an exploitation movie, there is a focus on nudity at times, but the distant nature of how it is presented offers up a slightly more complex picture than mere voyeurism. A scene in which a widow is penetrated on the still warm ashes of her dead husband, for instance, straddles the line between bizarre spectacle and a curious amount of sense. Whether these sort of practises are real, or have a vague basis in reality at least, remains to be seen, but at least in the world of Lenzi's film – scripted by Francesco Barilli and Massimo D'avak – there is at least a purpose for everything presented on-screen beyond simple shock … well, almost everything.

“He's a fishman who lives in the deep parts of the river. He could be dangerous.” Lenzi's film set the template for many cannibal movies to come, from violent rituals and saucy romps with the natives to, unfortunately, killing animals on-screen. The cannibal sub-genre has a cross to bear in its depiction of animals being slain on-screen for shock value, and as-such, Man From Deep River has had 3:01 of footage trimmed out at the behest of the BBFC, whose view of such scenes has softened only slightly since the retirement of James Ferman in the late 1990s (at which point previous banned films started getting re-released onto UK screens). The issue is complex and altogether murky, as Lenzi fairly points out the hypocrisy of him being criticised while delicacies like Fois Gras continue to be consumed all over the world … but still, what purpose is there in scenes where an animal is slain slowly, or prey is thrown to predator as the camera's all-seeing eye coldly observes?

Interestingly, two instances still remain in the film – specifically the death of a monkey (which, according to records, was infected with a deadly disease and was to be put down – seemingly the 'brain eating' scene is conducted post-mortem) and furthermore the slaying of a goat (a quick, but obviously graphic, throat slicing much like how such animals are butchered in rural communities the world over – a similar scene was depicted in the travelogue series Long Way Down). Undoubtedly, these scenes are not for the faint of heart or squeamish, and despite my long-standing opposition to censorship, I've no personal interest in seeing these kind of scenes in films like this, but simultaneously I still recognise the charged and complicated ethical and moral arguments surrounding their inclusion or even exclusion. The line between documenting the practises of foreign lands and staging the documentation of such acts – or outright engineering sicko shock-u-mentary scenarios – should be quite clear now, but four-or-more decades ago this was hardly considered. The important thing is that we now recognise past wrongs, but what things do we say and do today that people will look back on with derision in the 2050s – and should any past event be censored? How are we to remember where we came from, to compare/contrast the then with the now, if the slate is wiped clean according to immediate and searing hot sensitivities? Considering the context of the piece – narrative fiction for entertainment purposes – the issue is clear as mud.

“I'm a human being like you!” In terms of man-versus-man violence, such scenes are relatively brief and limited in the film, with the cannibalism aspect confined solely to the third act in which a tribeswoman is brutalised and then devoured. The scene, again, transpires with a detached matter-of-fact quality that seems to pervade through much of the film, except when it comes to the far more idyllic sequences illustrating John and Mayará's love affair. Indeed, in spite of the film's more lurid moments (which are comparatively brief compared with later entries in the genre, such as Lenzi's own Cannibal Ferox), the focus of the film is more on the nature of John as he grows beyond his man-child exploration of the world and interest in material things (including, of course, the ubiquitous J&B whiskey), to something deeper and more primal – the need for companionship and, ultimately, fatherhood. His journey from cad-about-town to stripped-back tribesman propels much of the film's narrative.

However, the film's rich themes of cultural differences – best exemplified by John using a rudimentary form of a tracheotomy to help a child suffering from Diphtheria, much to the frustration of the tribe's Witch Doctor (Song Suanhud) – as well as sexual power provide even more to digest. Indeed, Mayará proves to be a fascinating character, one of privilege (the chief's daughter) and lust (she commands the men to strip John so that she may watch him work in the nude) and tenderness (the relationship which blossoms between her and the outsider), and how she commands much of the screen time in one way or another means that Me Me Lai's performance is a real treat to behold. Beyond Mayará's seemingly naïve and innocent eyes there lies something more primordial, even lubricious. Even the scene where John – bound to a pole as a desperate captive – breaks down in tears posits some intriguing role reversals. John is thrust into touch with his emotions, after what appears to be years of distantly observing civilisation going on around him, while Mayará – from an entirely different culture – has no concept of what crying is, and it is a testament to Me Me Lai's acting that she earns the respect and genuine affection of the audience in a way that is so rare for this particular sub-genre.

While not as vicious and out-right lurid as other examples of the genre that came along in later years to turn the stomachs of even the hardiest of horror hounds, Man From Deep River is a satisfying watch for those who indulge in this particular sub-genre, and may be a good starting-off point for anyone looking to explore it a bit more without immediately diving in at the deep end where the likes of Ruggero Deodato's notorious Cannibal Holocaust dwell.

“The wind will carry me with you forever.” 88 Films' twelfth entry in the Italian Collection label is available on either DVD or Blu-Ray (this review is of the DVD). The picture quality is clean, bright, and colourful throughout, while the audio is good and clear. Extras wise there's a good selection: 'Deep River Memories' (12:49) is an interview with Lenzi, while 'Inferno of Innards' (12:48) is a sit down with Eli Roth to discuss the film as well as his own, The Green Inferno, but the heftiest of all is the feature-length 'Me Me Lai Bites Back' (76:41) about the genre, the actress and her return from private life obscurity. Academics, festival directors, and film makers explore the merits and faults with cannibal movies, while the actress herself reveals some fascinating tidbits (after her acting career she joined the Essex police force and, during the video nasties moral panic, witnessed the seizure of many condemned videotapes – including films she starred in, much to the obliviousness of her colleagues!) There's also a trailer, commentary, choice of two languages (English or Italian), and a reversible sleeve.

N.B. Screenshots are from the DVD release.

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