Thursday, January 03, 2008

"But she's a Queen, and such are queens..." Notes on Lady Terminator (1988)

A big topic in contemporary scholarship is "acculturation": the ways that cultural aspects are exchanged when different groups come into contact with one another. The idea of a "pure" culture is fairly quioxotic in this day and age when there are Japanese hip hop bands and American university students listen to Parisian house music. I'm not sure if the theorists of acculturation had Lady Terminator in mind, but they certainly could; it's a fairly strange mix of direct rip off of James Cameron's Terminator, exploitation films in general, and South Sea mythology. In other words, this would have been The Terminator if Arnold Schwartenegger was an Indonesian woman with a magical snake living in her vagina.

Admittedly, this is a terrible movie. However, unlike many exploitation films, it lives up to its promise- it's got a terribly stupid plot and a jaw-dropping amount of sex and violence. That's about it; you can't ask for much more from these movies.

The 70s and 80s exploitation films that played in 42nd Street grindhouses have been much romanticized as of late. I think people forget how many of them were actually imports; if they really wanted to go for authenticity, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez should have shot their "grindhouse" films in Italian and badly dubbed them into English. These movies were a sort of cultural exchange program and many grindhouses were also "art houses", showing foreign exploitation films and art films alike. A surprising amount were actually shot in Canada. Visiting Toronto is like walking through the lousy exploitation films that I watched on VHS as a boy, but lacking the slashers and monster demon children.

Lady Terminator was part of a boom-time for Indonesian low-budget cinema that mirrored the Canadian boom in the 70s for the same reason- government financing. The downside of government arts funding is official censorship, which existed both in Indonesia and Canada. Indonesian films from this era are fairly startling because they combine the tropes of kung-fu, action, and horror films with local legends in order to appeal to the working-class Indonesian audience. The effect is rather strange: sort of like watching a Kung-fu film featuring the Infant of Prague!

Lady Terminator largely follows this blueprint.

Here's the story: Years ago, the South Seas Queen, a figure from Javanese folklore, was perfectly happy killing men by letting the snake in her vagina bite off their dingly-danglies during intercourse. Unfortunately, some jerk yanks the snake out of her cootch and turns it into a dagger. She's pissed (who wouldn't be?) and vows revenge on his great-grandaughter. His thought, no doubt, at this point is, "Okay, Crazy, good luck with that grandaughter thing!"

Fast-forward to the 80s, when Tania, an anthropologist, is investigating the South Seas Queen. We know she's an anthropologist because of the immortal line: "I'm not a lady! I'm an anthropologist!" Anyway, Tania is scuba diving in the general vicinity of the old South Sea Queen place when her boat is capsized by a tsunami and she is dragged to the bottom of the sea and onto a bed in a perfectly dry room (No, I can't really explain that) where that sea serpent enters her vag (via really bad animation) and possesses her.

Tania emerges from the surf possessed and naked and the film proceeds to blatantly rip off entire sequences from Terminator as she hunts the grandaughter, who is an Indonesian pop singer, and get hunted by a cop with the worst mullet this side of country music. Countless people get shot, numerous scenes get lifted, clothes get shed with abandon. What's amazing to me about Lady Terminator is how it adapts James Cameron's movie for the Indonesian working-class audience by incorporating so much local mythology. It looks like the film we know until it gets into sea serpents and witchy queens who live at the bottom of the ocean. It's all fairly strange.

And let's not even get into what goes on in Mystics of Bali!


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