B.F. Zeidman Productions, Ltd. Director: Ward Wing.
Creature Feature Bleachers Award: Oldest and Most Heartwarming (so far).
“Samarang” pushes our sharksploitation timeline back pretty far— 25 years farther than its nearest neighbor, 1958’s “She Gods of Shark Reef,” with which it incidentally shares many similarities. Previously, we’ve questioned whether true sharksploitation existed before the advent of “Jaws.” Obviously the genre has changed a little over time, but if we define a sharksploitation film as a movie that seeks to sell itself by sensationalizing sharks, then “Samarang” fits. Simply note the menacing shark on the above lobby card (the interesting sight on the left side. No, the other left. Oh fine, look at whatever you want to look at!), and consider that the film was re-released in 1940 as “Shark Woman.” All things considered, the film is probably more nativesploitation than anything else, but the shark gets his fair share as well.
Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, watch out: this film contains nudity.
A pseudo-documentary, “Samarang” tells the story of lowly Ahmang (Captain A.V. Cockle) and his socially superior love, Sai-Yu (Theresa Seth). Both live in the village of Samarang in the Indian Ocean. Because Sai-Yu is the daughter of a chief and Ahmang is but a poor fisherman, he needs to increase his wealth before asking for her hand. Thus he accepts the perilous offer of the wily Chang-Fu, who seeks pearl divers. Ahmang must brave the treacherous waters of the Forbidden Lagoon of Sakai, home to bloodthirsty cannibals, killer sharks, and a monstrous grasping octopus. Sai-Yu and Ahmang’s younger brother Ko-Hai come along for kicks, too. Ahmang finds his pearl, but he and Sai-Yu are stranded on the island, where they befriend a local orangutan. When they return to the boat, a shark kills Ko-Hai, and Ahmang must get revenge.
As a matter of policy I avoid consulting other reviews, but “Samarang” presents many questions that cannot be answered easily. Consequently, I want to acknowledge the valuable information I retrieved from the Singapore Film Hunter blog, which examines the locations used in Singaporean films. The article “Of lost kampongs, fishnet bondage and remnant tombs in an equatorial Hollywood” examines “Samarang” in greater depth and tries to separate the film’s fact from its fiction. Take it from me, the article is well-worth checking out.
Though a very enjoyable film, “Samarang” has some goofs. A seemingly glaring plot hole is Ahmang’s purported ignorance of the fact that the pearl diving trip will be dangerous. How could he not know? For one thing, the place is called the Forbidden freakin’ Lagoon! And even if place names sometimes lie, there’s the fact that half the male population of Samarang has already died while pearl diving! Nor is this in any way a secret.
Speaking of family, it also seems odd that Ahmang doesn’t know he was adopted. You’d think that being the only white guy in his village would be something of a tip-off, but Ahmang never figures it out. The actor, Captain A.V. Cockle, was in reality a member of the Singapore Police— within two years of the film, he was actually Chief Inspector! Cockle had a habit of rescuing drowning citizens and was also quite the dancer. In 1934, for instance, he hosted the “Cockle Cup,” a fox-trot competition that lasted until 2 in the morning. His love interest in the film, Sai-Yu, was played by Theresa Seth. Ms. Seth, a Singapore resident of Armenian descent, was a beauty pageant contestant in her everyday life. Rounding out this patchwork family, brother Ko-Hai and mother Mamounah were played by local actors.
A note on the nudity: aside from “Tintorerra,” “Samarang” probably has the most nakedness we’ve seen so far. You’re safe for most of the film, but once you hit Cannibal Island, all bets— and tops— are off! But don’t worry, female toplessness is normal in this society. Just be culturally sensitive and respect the fact that women go shirtless in this fictitious Malay village where a couple of white people live and half the men have died (not that we are stretching plausibility too much here or anything). Never mind the fact that none of the old ladies in town take off their shirts (thank goodness!), or the fact that the perennially topless Sai-Yu takes great pains to wear a towel while she showers.
Interestingly enough, “Samarang” is sort of a prequel for “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus.” Well, maybe “Normal Shark Versus Regular Octopus.” And here I thought the Asylum was just making everything up! Imagine my surprise to learn that this is actually a real thing that really happens.
All silliness aside, “Samarang” is a pretty decent movie in many respects. For one thing, it has some very neat cinematography, especially considering the film’s age and limited production values. The narrative is interlaced with documentary-style portraits of villagers, which— if they sensationalize the villagers as exotic— also emphasize their humanity. The faces may look different than yours, but they have a distinctly human quality to them. All things considered, “Samarang” has a much more positive message than most sharksploitation films. The main theme is love— for a son, for a sibling, for a partner. The characters play around with each other, they care about each other, and they do what is necessary to live together, making “Samarang” a heartwarming story on all counts. What more could one ask from a film?
Sorry, no trailer. If you want, though, you can search the National Library of Singapore’s newspaper database for more information on the film or the actors.
“Samarang” is available on Amazon.