Directed By: Rolf Olsen
Written by: Rolf Olsen, Ingeborg Steinbach
Tag line: "Not for the faint of heart..."
Trivia: In Germany, this film had the added title Sin, Sex and Sukiyaki
I’ve seen my share of strange shit during this challenge of mine, films containing scenes so disturbing that they stayed with me for days afterwards. But Shocking Asia, a 1976 Mondo documentary co-written and directed by Rolf Olsen, marks the first time that I actually regret watching a movie.
Making stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, and a slew of other places, Shocking Asia explores the bizarre side of the region’s culture, from its religious beliefs (during the Thaipusam festival, some Hindi faithful pierce their skin, tongues, and lips with sharp skewers, yet do so in a way that doesn’t cause any bleeding) to certain culinary delights (in Japan, snake is considered a delicacy). In addition, the movie exposes the extreme poverty that exists in India, and takes us on a guided tour of how the region views sexuality, including ancient Tantric statues in India and a sex museum in Japan. This is just a sampling of the twisted, sometimes horrific revelations found in Shocking Asia, a movie every bit as exploitative as its title suggests (the filmmakers even managed to attend a midget wrestling match!).
Like the tagline says, Shocking Asia is not for the faint of heart. At several intervals throughout the film, we witness the actual slaughter of animals (a snake in Japan is skinned alive, and the cameras were there when poachers, operating outside the law, beat and dissected a freshwater tortoise), and watch funeral processions in India, during which deceased loved ones are cremated, then tossed into the Ganges (not all bodies are completely burned, leaving some remains to be picked apart by vultures). A few may be offended by the film’s revealing look at sexuality, which includes footage of couples making love in an erotically-themed hotel, yet the single most nauseating sequence involves an actual sex change operation, with images so graphic that I had to turn away a few times before it was finished.
But then, Shocking Asia is a Mondo-style documentary along the lines of Mondo Cane and Africa Blood and Guts, so going in you have to expect some upsetting moments. What really bothered me about this movie, however (and the reason I came to regret watching it), was the running commentary delivered by its narrators, which ranged from condescending (one narrator compares, unfavorably I might add, Japanese restaurants that have snake on the menu to Italian pizzerias and Kentucky Fried Chicken joints) to flat-out ignorant (when assigning blame for the poverty in India, the filmmakers point the finger at Hindi religious men, chastising them because their philosophical teachings fail “to stem the misery” that exists in the country). There are countless other examples of derogatory observations in Shocking Asia (A Japanese woman getting a tattoo is said to possess a “subconscious masochistic instinct” that, according to the narrator, runs rampant in that country), and if the imagery doesn’t get under your skin, its pompous, patronizing commentary most likely will.
A film that definitely lives up to its title, Shocking Asia is, alas, shocking for many of the wrong reasons, and I found viewing it a joyless experience.