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Garuda (PAL)
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Box Front Thai Title: Paksa Wayu
Director: Monthon Arayangkoon
Original Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 109 minutes

DVD Released By: Mangpong (Thailand)
Video: Anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1 OAR
Audio: Thai 5.1, Thai DTS 5.1
Extras: Featurette, theatrical trailer
Subtitles: English, Thai
Closed Captions: None
Region: 0
Format: PAL
Chapters: 12
Packaging: Slimcase
MSRP: 229 baht
UPC #: 8852635070451
Catalog #: N/A
Status: Available


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The Film: In 1975, French archaeologist Dr. Pierre makes an incredible discovery along the Indian / Pakistan border:  The fossil remains of Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature!  However, military bombardment destroys the burial chamber.  Upon returning to Thailand (where his family lives), Dr. Pierre is ostracized and ridiculed.  Years later, Dr. Pierre’s daughter Leena continues his work.  However, the pretty and headstrong young woman has no more success than her father did.  Her request for permission to explore Thailand is rejected by government bureaucrats.  Part of the reason is Leena’s mixed Thai / French heritage.

Leena gets a chance to prove her father right when a massive underground construction project uncovers more Garuda remains.  Leena, her co-worker Tim, and her uncle are called in to examine them.  Complicating matters is the deployment of a Special Forces military unit to the site.  Ostensibly there to protect the find, they instead endanger it with their predilection for blowing things up first and
not asking questions later.  They uncover a large underground chamber that had been sealed for centuries.  Inside is part of a petrified forest, and the perfectly preserved body of a Garuda.  However, the Garuda is not dead.  It revives, and begins decimating the soldiers’ ranks en route to escaping to the surface.  Once free, the city of Bangkok is plunged into chaos when Garuda takes to the skies!

Garuda is a promising modern monster movie from Thailand.  The title creature is a bird-god from Hindu mythology.  Garuda’s religious significance is one reason the Thai government is so secretive and cautious when dealing with it.  Are the Special Forces there to protect this discovery from foreigners, to cover it up from the Thai people, or to destroy it?  This is never really explained.  The film does have a palpable sense of xenophobia, however.  Leena is continually derided as a “farang” and “half-caste.”  The inclusion of so much hostility towards anyone not 100% Thai is somewhat puzzling in a modern film with international appeal.  Perhaps this reflects a real problem in Thai society?

The monster itself is well realized via CGI.  The CGI looks much better than that in the Korean kaiju epic
Reptilian.  It’s on par with American CGI; not Jurassic Park-quality, but superior to many American B-movies like the Python films.  The Garuda design is interesting.  It’s a humanoid bird with a muscular frame and a combination of reptilian scales and feathers.  It can walk upright through subway tunnels, but when it spreads its wings, its wingspan is enormous.  It’s also an intelligent creature that outwits the military several times.

One of the film’s more interesting premises is that the Thai Special Forces have dealt with this sort of thing before.  There is a flashback showing them fighting a Naga, a legendary giant serpent.  One of the men describes his unit as “soldiers who kill gods,” and he has a special knife for that purpose.  Sometimes, the film goes overboard in presenting the soldiers as macho tough guys, though.  There are many scenes of them smirking and snarling as they go about their soldier-business in slow motion.  While these injections of cinematic testosterone are no doubt meant to be bad-ass, they’re unintentionally humorous.  There are other instances of “borrowing” from Western action films, such as the use of
Matrix-style bullet time.  Like the many Western homages in the Heisei Godzilla series, they merely inspire chuckles.  They’re unnecessary imitations in a film that should be trying to establish its own identity.  Garuda could also use some originality in the plot department.  The monster doesn’t emerge from underground until almost 90 minutes in.  Until then, it’s the standard game of monster and soldiers chasing each other through dark corridors, as seen in hundreds of B-movies.  The scenes of Garuda in the city are well done; there should be more of them.  Luckily, the film is made with enough style to elevate it above its Sci-Fi Channel brethren.  While Garuda has its share of flaws, it gets enough things right for kaiju fans to look forward to more monster films from Thailand.  Grade:  B

Video: Stateside viewers should keep in mind is that this DVD is in anamorphic PAL format.  A DVD player with only basic PAL conversion will vertically stretch the image.  (Please see the entry on PAL conversion in the DMI glossary.)  I have both basic PAL- and correct PAL-capable DVD players, and compared the two.  Correctly converted, the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is displayed properly.  A player with only basic conversion shows the film in the equivalent of cropped fullscreen.  The image doesn’t look stretched, but the sides of the frame are lost.  The rest of this review is based on correct PAL conversion.

Garuda was shot digitally (a first for Thai cinema), the DVD was apparently transferred from a film source.  There are a few errant specks on the print, but they’re hardly noticeable; certainly not enough to be distracting.  The image is sharp and the colors are vibrant.  Neither grain nor digital artifacting is a problem.

There is one odd thing about the picture:  The contrast between light and dark is too stark.  Shadows, and other dark areas, tend to be solid black, with little or no graduation from lighter areas.  While the level of detail in brighter areas / scenes is good, it suffers in darker areas / scenes.  This isn’t a major problem; it’s just a strange quality that keeps the image from being truly lifelike. 
Grade:  B

Audio: There are two audio options:  The film’s original Thai soundtrack is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1.  The Dolby 5.1 track sounds great.  The dialogue is clear and sounds good, despite some occasional awkward-sounding English.  Fortunately, the English subtitles don’t quit when English is being spoken, as they do on most subtitled movies.  (The Thai subtitles are only available when another language is being spoken, however.)  The music and sound effects are loud and clear.  This is a very powerful soundtrack; definitely one to wake the neighbors with.  I don’t yet have a DTS system, so I can’t comment on that option.  Grade:  A

Extras / Menus: There are two special features, both in non-anamorphic widescreen, with no subtitles.  The main extra is a 22-minute making-of featurette.  Film clips are interspersed with members of the cast and crew talking about various aspects of the production.  The special effects are discussed at length.  There is footage of a robotic Garuda prop, as well as CGI work-in-progress and blue-screen filming.  There are also fleeting glimpses of storyboards.  Some early or alternate creature designs would have been interesting to see.  Another element that is sorely missing is some background on the Garuda mythos.  A few photos of traditional Garuda artwork and statues are shown, but nothing substantive.  Of course, Thai viewers are probably already familiar with the creature.  The lack of subtitles would have rendered it moot, anyways.  This featurette was apparently made for Thai television.  It seems images of smoking aren’t allowed on Thai TV, as a smoking character’s cigarette is pixelated in some of the film clips!

The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.  It runs almost 3 minutes, and is a bit short on monster action.  The menus are still images with film clips that play when you move from one to another.  These clips suffer from digital macroblocking, a problem that thankfully doesn’t mar the film itself.  The scene selection menus also have animated clips playing in the selection windows.  All of the menus have the same background music, the film’s end title theme.  It’s a rock song with some record scratching and other hip-hop conventions, kind of like a Thai version of
Linkin ParkGrade:  B-

Final Analysis: The film itself is enjoyable, if familiar enough to fit in comfortably on the Sci-Fi Channel.  The DVD is well done, with good picture quality and an intense soundtrack.  It’s also stylishly packaged in a slimcase, which makes standard DVD cases look fat and clunky in comparison.  The subtitles are decently-written and easy to read.  (They sure say “shit” a lot, though.)  This “Thaikaiju” film is recommended for monster movie fans looking to sample something a little different, but not too spicy.
Final Grade:  B+
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