The Quiet American: a slow and unassuming film with parallel plots of a love triangle mirroring post-colonial Cold War struggle

Phillip Noyce, “The Quiet American” (2002)

A beautifully made film with much atmosphere, even if it is slow and unassuming in style, and its acting uneven, “The Quiet American” nevertheless makes quite an impression with its parallel plots that reflect and comment on each other. The people in the love triangle can be taken as metaphors for the geopolitical context in which they find themselves. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a jaded and world-weary British journalist working for The Times newspaper in 1950s-era Saigon (Vietnam) who submits little work on the French war on Vietnamese resistance to French rule while enjoying a hedonistic life-style with his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong’s older sister disapproves of the liaison because Fowler is already married – his estranged wife back in London refuses to give him a divorce because of her Catholic faith – and on top of that, Fowler does not have the money or connections that could get Phuong, her sister and the rest of their family out of Vietnam and into a Western country, preferably a rich one.

One day Fowler gets a message from his newspaper recalling him back to London over the little work he has done. Unwilling to return to a loveless marriage and at the prospect of losing Phuong, Fowler is in something of a quandary until he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American doctor working with a humanitarian US mission. Pyle is an enthusiastic follower of a scholar who expounds that colonial Vietnam cannot be saved by either the French or the Communists under Ho Chi Minh, but rather by a Third Force which Pyle earnestly hopes to be part of. By his words and deeds, Pyle challenges Fowler to re-examine his detached relationship to his job as a reporter, stop sitting on the fence with regard to his attitude on Vietnam’s war against France and start seeing Vietnam less as an exotic escapist playground and more as a real country of real people struggling and fighting for self-determination and independence between an old colonial force (France) and a new one (the United States).

Eventually Pyle meets Phuong and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Unlike Fowler, Pyle comes from a wealthy East Coast background, has good career prospects and a clean marital slate, and Phuong’s mercenary sister starts pressuring the younger sibling to leave Fowler and hitch herself with Pyle. The love triangle that forms with Fowler, Pyle and Phuong becomes a metaphor for Vietnam’s struggle to break away from its old European past and determine its own future. What further complicates the love triangle – apart from Fowler’s anguish at losing Phuong and his rage at Pyle for taking her away – is Fowler’s discovery that Pyle is actually a CIA agent working secretly with Vietnamese army officer General Thé, backed by rich businessman Muoi, to wrest power away from France and Vietnamese Communists using violence and mass murder that can conveniently be blamed on the Vietminh.

Caine may be too old to play Fowler but his performance is subtle and suggests a character troubled by many past demons that force him and Phuong to live their lives in limbo amid an opium haze. At the same time this character is forced by changing circumstances to re-evaluate his life and his life’s purpose, and he is challenged to give something back to the country and the people who have been generous enough to host him. Caine portrays Fowler with all his troubles and the dilemma facing him brilliantly even if he is not fully absorbed into the character but plays Fowler as an extension of himself. The real surprise of the film is the casting of Brendan Fraser – who is usually better known for his comedy films and “The Mummy” franchise of low-brow films – as Pyle: Fraser smoothly pulls off playing a character who initially seems idealistic and missionary-like, innocent and bumbling at the same time, yet who turns out to be devious and sinister. Pyle is no less complex than Fowler in his motivations and cynicism, and Fraser expresses the more brutal aspects of the character fairly well. The weak point in the love triangle turns out to be Hai Yen’s Phuong who has very little to do except look very pretty in stunning clothes and obey others’ orders. She does not come across as someone whom two mature men would fight over just for her sake.

The supporting cast help pad out the complex plot against a background of picturesque city scenes and beautiful serene tropical landscapes where scenes of violence, mayhem and bloodshed unexpectedly erupt. Vietnam is suddenly no longer a playground where people like Fowler, fleeing complicated past lives, can escape to in order to play out fantasies of hedonistic freedom. Fowler discovers that to survive, and to stay in Vietnam, he must commit himself to a definite path and purpose in life. He will have to trample over someone and disappoint someone else – and he will have to live with the consequences and his conscience for the rest of his life – but the choice is one he is forced to make.

At the time of release, the film was subjected to censorship in the US by its own main producer Miramax and would have languished in a vault were it not for efforts by director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine, with support from film critics in the US, to get it released. Fifteen years later, one of the film’s messages – that the US will resort to supporting warlords and favour terrorism and violence resulting in mass deaths if such actions are in its interests – is more relevant than ever as US foreign policy in widely separated countries such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela, in which the forces of thuggish violence and chaos are aided and abetted by Washington, becomes more widely known and criticised.

NewsAsia Interview with Sergei Lavrov: how to behave gracefully under pressure from an interviewer with a prejudiced agenda

NewsAsia “Conversation with …” Interview with Sergei Lavrov (2015)

For an example of an interviewee displaying grace under fire from a biased interviewer, I direct interested readers to this NewsAsia “Conversation with …” interview of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a range of issues with a particular emphasis on the Dutch investigation of the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Boeing Flight MH-17 in Ukraine in July 2014 and Russia’s opposition to the draft resolution that would lead to the establishment of a UN tribunal to examine the evidence and come to a conclusion as to culpability for the shoot-down. The video of the interview and its transcript can be viewed at The Vineyard of the Saker website here.

Lavrov is a very impressive if rather monotone speaker: he knows the details behind the push by various UN Security Council members and Malaysia to create a criminal tribunal to investigate the shoot-down very well, and his staff who have briefed him have also done excellent work. The interviewer appears impatient and uninterested in what he has to say. Lavrov insists that the UN Security Council Resolution 2166 should be followed to the full and this has not been the case so far: the four countries initially involved in the investigation (Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ukraine; Malaysia joined the investigation much later after its government complained that as the country whose national carrier lost the plane it should have been included in the first place) have ignored this resolution. The interviewer seems to lose track of what Lavrov says and continues to ask loaded questions implying that Malaysia is being manipulated by Ukrainians or by another third party and its agenda. Lavrov deftly returns to his point that proper procedures have not been followed in the investigation of the jet’s downing.

Eventually both interviewer and interviewee agree to disagree on whether Russia was right to have vetoed the draft resolution proposed by Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ukraine to establish the criminal tribunal and to insist instead on adhering to Resolution 2166 so the two go on to discuss a range of other issues such as Russia’s relations with various Asian countries such as China and Russian intentions in Asia. Again and again the interviewer seems to goad Lavrov into saying something that would incriminate Russia in some activity aiming at destabilising a part or parts of Asia, such as supporting Chinese military build-up in the South China Sea or anywhere near the Korean Peninsula or Japan. At one point in the interview, the interviewer insinuates that Russia is jealous of the level of trade that the United States conducts with ASEAN countries, and Lavrov laughs off the idiocy.

Lavrov comes off as a skilled and intelligent diplomat who prepared well for the interview. The interviewer herself, if she has brought an agenda to the interview, is frustrated at every turn and concludes the interview having not extracted from Lavrov whatever it is she was after. She appears to have been looking for a fight and has got none.

Incidentally what was left out of the interview – because the interviewer was unaware (and even if she had been aware, she probably would not have cared much for it) – is that Russia had good reason to veto the draft resolution for setting up the criminal tribunal: Article 7 of the statute is worded in such a way that, if used in the tribunal, would help place blame for the MH-17 shoot-down on Russian President Vladimir Putin. It becomes apparent that the tribunal, if allowed to go ahead, would have been a trap for Russia and a way of extending regime change to Russia. That the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 and the 298 people who died should be used as pawns by the West to bring down a democratically elected government is nothing short of cynical and malevolent.

 

The Look of Silence: a grim and monotonous film about a personal quest but no context to make sense of it

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence” (2014)

A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s earlier documentary “The Act of Killing”, this film considers the effects of Indonesia’s purges of Communists and people suspected of being Communist in 1965 on society and the general public. Adi, a fortysomething eye doctor in his village, seeks out the people involved in the torture and killing of his brother Ramli, whom he has never known, the brother having died before he was born. His journey takes him around various families in his village. The murderers of his brother hold considerable power and respect in the village, and Adi’s questions have the potential to put him and his own family in danger for their lives. Indeed, a number of people, not the murderers themselves but their children and other relatives, do make threats towards Adi and Oppenheimer himself. Throughout the film, Adi conducts himself with quiet dignity, asking hard questions about how the killers themselves feel about living with lies, and how they think their victims and the victims’ families might feel about them.

It’s a gruelling and unrelenting film to watch, and one that could have been edited for length in parts: I confess I felt quite tired and drowsy during parts of the film. The film’s style is spare and its focus is on Adi’s unassuming yet quietly determined quest to gain some justice and peace for his brother and parents in a country that continues to glorify the mass murder and tortures and teaches schoolchildren highly distorted versions of this dark period of Indonesia’s history. The extreme minimalism can make proceedings quite monotonous and dreary. The film becomes more than one person’s search for answers about his brother’s fate: it’s also an investigation into the nature of denial and evasion, and how continued denial keeps families apart in society from one generation to the next. At the very least, Adi and Oppenheimer are able to get the killers to make idiots of themselves when they revel in the details of Ramli’s murder and how they drank the blood of their victims in the bizarre belief that this would stop them (the killers, that is) from going crazy.

The scale of the narrative, focused on Adi’s personal quest for answers and perhaps an apology or acknowledgement from the killers for how his family has suffered, does not address the issue of how Indonesia’s government and institutions continue to suppress inquiry into the 1965 mass murders and make the search for truth, justice, any reparations and above all reconciliation between the murderers and their victims, and their respective families, impossible. As with Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” gives no background information or context to Ramli’s murder or the 1965 mass killings generally, so viewers not familiar with Indonesia’s recent history come away knowing no more about this dark episode than they did before, or why the government still will not admit that wrongdoing and harm had been done during this period. That this situation continues more than 15 years after the resignation of President Suharto, whose rise to power had been enabled in part by the so-called Communist purges, after 31 years as the nation’s leader, and the part that Western nations may have played in encouraging and directing Suharto and his followers to kill people and take power, is the real puzzle that gnaws away at the film’s credibility.

A curious aspect of the two Oppenheimer films is how the director manages to get adult men and women, even Adi’s aged father, to act in childish ways. For most of these people also, acting like little children (boasting of their exploits, drinking blood in the belief it will protect them from harm)  incriminates them as murderers but viewers might question the methods that Oppenheimer uses to encourage these people to condemn themselves.

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

The Act of Killing: chilling documentary on mass murderers and the society that supports and celebrates their deeds

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” (2012)

A chilling film, made all the more so by moments of black humour, kitsch and banality, “The Act of Killing” focuses on a group of elderly men in North Sumatra (Indonesia) who participated in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people scapegoated as Communists in Indonesia over 1965 – 1966. This event occurred in the aftermath of the military overthrow of President Sukarno and the chaos that resulted. The military government arrested people suspected of Communist Party membership and affiliations, and many were tortured brutally and killed; their bodies were disposed of in equally horrific ways. In some parts of Indonesia, gangs of thugs and people belonging to the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organisation were hired to do the killing. The people killed included intellectuals, trade union members, landless farmers and ethnic Chinese.

The film centres around one ex-gangster, Anwar Congo, and his various buddies. The men are invited to make a movie re-enacting what they did in 1965, using any film genre they want for inspiration and to express their ideas and aims. The men fancy themselves as Hollywood mafia gangsters and cowboys and film various scenes for their flick dressed accordingly; they even import elements of Hollywood musicals such as a sappy music soundtrack and a chorus line of attractive young women dancers. For some strange reason, the chubby Herman Koto appears in outrageous drag in many scenes.

Over the course of making their film, Congo and Company explain why they did what they believe they had to do in the past. They believe that making the film will help explain to young generations of Indonesia that the killings did really happen, that the nation must face the truth of its history, and that in some way the bloodbath was necessary to extirpate the baleful Communist influence at its roots. They view themselves as heroic in the way John Wayne’s characters were heroic in his movies. Slowly though, another reason for the making of the movie is apparent: Congo and his pals admit to experiencing qualms and psychological issues over their past behaviour. Congo has nightmares and fellow killer Adi Zulkadry, in denial, tries to justify his actions by saying that winners make the rules and what constitutes moral actions or immoral actions changes all the time. However, as the film within a film progresses, Congo realises the true evil of his actions and he reacts viscerally (literally) when forced to face up to what he did.

The film is very long and meandering but its focus on Congo’s own coming to terms with what he did maintains viewer attention and provides the structure for further exploration of various issues that crop up throughout. Initially the old men treat their homemade film and its subject as one huge joke and strut about as would-be Hollywood film stars. There is the sense that these men have distanced themselves from their behaviour by viewing their deeds as a form of acting, as if participating in the killings was like participating in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, Congo began his criminal career as a ticket-scalper for Hollywood movies at his local cinema.

At times the home-made movie edges uncomfortably close to reality especially in those scenes where particular incidents are being re-enacted and actors, even extras, are overcome by the import of the scenes: a man playing a torture victim becomes visibly upset; and in a later scene various women and children playing villagers are also inconsolable with one woman collapsing and Koto’s daughter unable to stop crying. Actors playing Pancasila Youth paramilitaries throw themselves rather too enthusiastically into their roles for viewers’ comfort.

Viewers will be disturbed by the old men’s astonishingly childish and gleeful behaviour: they not only view their actions through Hollywood movie imagery and language but they also believe themselves entitled to the rewards given them by the Suharto government and its successors. Several killers including Congo have become wealthy men, able to travel overseas, go on hunting expeditions and shower gifts on their wives, children and grandchildren; some of these men have become politicians and have risen to high positions including Cabinet minister positions in the Indonesian government.

Although the documentary is by turns difficult to watch and can be horrifying, it has some value in demonstrating the complex psychology of mass murderers and how they cope with their past histories. The film also shows that the men’s crimes are still celebrated in modern Indonesia, as disturbingly evidenced by a TV interview Congo and his friends give to a fawning female interviewer. Scenes depicting Pancasila Youth rallies can be shocking to viewers. In one section of the film, Congo’s younger pal Herman Koto embarks on a campaign to get elected to parliament and viewers are able to see something of how political parties and candidates bribe voters with gifts, money and promises in order to gain influence. In one memorable scene Koto visits Chinese shopkeepers and all but threatens them if they do not hand over money. It becomes apparent that corruption is widespread in Indonesian society and is at its most insidious in the most ordinary everyday settings.

There is not much historical context given in the film – what is needed is given in titles in the documentary’s opening scenes – and Oppenheimer does not dwell much on contemporary Indonesian society and how its support of the thuggish murderers is a crucial part of how the men view themselves.

One thing that is absent in the film is the role that foreign powers, the United States most of all, played in encouraging the Indonesian military in 1965 to start hunting down so-called “Communists” which led to the hiring of thugs like Congo to kill anyone and everyone suspected of disloyalty to the military regime. This in turn provided an excuse to thump outsiders like ethnic Chinese who were seen as wealthy and preferring their own over native Indonesians. After all, the language, ideology and cultural values Congo and his pals use to demonise their victims and justify their acts came from the US, not from their own culture and society. Because that aspect is missing, Oppenheimer overlooks the fact that the United States and other Western countries like Australia continue to support the Indonesian government and military in shaping Indonesian society as a fascist society, one capable of future mass violence in which a new generation of thugs will re-enact Anwar Congo’s crimes – for real. By concentrating on small-time killers like Congo, the film misses a much greater and more horrific truth.

 

Living in Fear: unusual and eccentric black comedy about finding redemption in digging up landmines

Chuyen Bui Thac, “Living in Fear” / “Song trong so hai” (2005)

It’s mid-1975, the war has ended and the Americans have gone, and the North and South halves of Vietnam are reunited under Communist rule. Nguyen Tai (Tran Huu Phuc), a soldier who fought for the “old” regime (that is, the corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the West), has been released from jail and education camp and is now adrift in a new society with no skills and little confidence in himself. He happens to be a bigamist in a society that now frowns on “promiscuity” and both his wives Thuan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) and Ut (Mai Ngoc Phuong), living separately, have young children to feed and bring up. Thuan’s brother, a minor revolutionary official who despises Tai, harasses him by forcing him to report to his office regularly when there is no need. What is Tai to do?

A chance at a new life comes unexpectedly when Tai discovers an unexploded landmine in front of Ut’s home. This discovery leads Tai to learn all he can about finding and defusing landmines from a friend, Nam (Mai Van Thinh), in spite of the dangers and prohibitions involved. He gains new skills and knowledge which also help him relearn farming skills and his self-esteem improves. Though the government forbids trading in found landmines, Tai sells them anyway to earn money to feed his growing brood. His immediate community, initially suspicious of him, ends up rallying around him and grants him land for personal and family use if he can clear it of landmines.

This is a very straightforward and simply told story, based on fact, about a man, cast into an unfamiliar world that is wary of him and his past, who finds new purpose, gains personal redemption and eventually wins social approval and acceptance by doing work that forces him to confront his fears and to accept responsibility for past actions, both his own and those of others he once served. The conventional narrative style and matter-of-fact acting in a context where people practise emotional self-restraint don’t allow a layered story of flashbacks to past histories and conflicts and of complex character development to develop so Western viewers must accept the film’s implicit assumptions about post-1975 Vietnamese politics and society. The new society is idealised as beneficent and allows Tai to find his niche as long as he works hard and fulfills his family and personal responsibilities. The dangerous work he does atones for his having fought for an enemy that planted the landmines. A very minor subplot that involves Tai’s brother-in-law and the female leader of the cadre in the area where Ut and Tai live is worked into the film.

Slow and patient, the film allows viewers to take in the beautiful rural landscapes, the farming lifestyle common in Vietnam in 1975 and absorb the little nuances of the actors’ minimalist style. Tai isn’t very emotional most of the time but camera close-ups show him perspiring heavily when he is defusing a landmine so the audience certainly knows he is anxious and fearful. There are comic touches: whenever the brother-in-law visits Thuan and Tai happens to be at her house, hubby has to hide in a huge pot or in the bath to avoid being seen; and both Thuan and Ut fall pregnant and end up in the same hospital giving birth at the same time so Tai has to dash back and forth between the two women in pain! Then of course there is the ultimate black comic punchline: Tai finds his landmine work less stressful than dealing with two wives, his children and an angry brother-in-law! The only problem with the plot that viewers may have is that near the end, the story-line suddenly jumps several years into the future and resumes its near-glacial pace; the only major change is that the brother-in-law and the cadre leader have found love and marriage and the brother-in-law is now at peace – probably thanks to Tai who saw they were made for each other!

Viewers hoping for Hollywood-style marital discord might be disappointed that Tai’s two wives already know of one another’s existence and accept each other without complaint. The only really significant character study is of Tai himself who relentlessly pursues his landmine work as if there’s no tomorrow and even includes a landmine on his makeshift Buddhist shrine; whenever a cow or someone important to him is killed by a landmine, he goes to his shrine to pray. At one point in the film, Tai finds a landmine and faints as if in ecstasy. Such strange details limn Tai as an oddball though likeable character, but some viewers might find his actions hard to stomach and understand. It would probably take a psychological paper to explain Tai’s behaviour fully but for the purpose of this review, the landmines represent many forms of freedom for Tai: they free him from his old work as a soldier, they give him a new personal and social identity, they help provide for his family and free him from family strife, and they give him new knowledge, new skills, new opportunities – in short, they give him a new chance of life. Their power to give life to Tai and take it away from others borders on whimsy and absurdity. Why wouldn’t he pray and thank them at his shrine?

Lovely and easy on the eye with lots of greenery and farming scenes, this film combines an important social and political issue – the presence of landmines in many impoverished countries and the dangers they pose to farmers and children – with an unusual and eccentric tale of redemption. It’s very much a film for the arthouse circuit with its leisurely pace and distinctive though underplayed comedy.

 

 

Nang Nak: ghost horror story of a love that transcends death and passage of time

Nonzee Nimibutr, “Nang Nak” (1999)

This Thai ghost horror story about a love that transcends death is very moving and tragic. The messages the film conveys about the fragility and impermanence of life, the Buddhist concept of the sin of attachment and refusal to accept change and flux, and the importance of community and the individual’s obligations to conform to its requirements, make “Nang Nak” complex and thoughtful. Set in rural Thailand in the late 1800’s, it follows the fortunes of a young married couple, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and Nak (Intira Jaroenpura): Mak is required to fight for King and country and leaves his pregnant wife to work the rice farm on her own. He loses his friends in heavy fighting, suffers serious wounding himself and recuperates for a long time under the care of doctors and monks. After he recovers, the monks suggest to him that he should be ordained but Mak is anxious to go home and see his wife is all right. He travels back to the farm and sees Nak with their baby, both happy and healthy. Little does he knows what’s happened to Nak while he’s been away. Their village certainly knows; some of the villagers had to bury Nak and the newborn child some months ago …

Many viewers will come away with the impression of “Nang Nak” as a visually beautiful film with many shots of lush rainforest, grass and farming landscapes filmed under varied weather conditions at different times of the year. The emphasis on nature throughout the film serves many purposes: it shows how close humans and nature are; it demonstrates that the border between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds, is more porous than we realise; it shows the passage of time and the changes it brings; and it is a distancing device separating Mak from the rest of the community, enabling Nak to deceive Mak, and also preventing viewers from identifying too closely with Mak and Nak’s dilemma. We know Mak has to learn the truth eventually and that Nak must go to the spirit world where she belongs. The village, led by its local monks, reclaim Mak and a senior abbot, Somtej Toh, advises Nak’s ghost to acknowledge her death and to stop terrorising and killing villagers who try to disabuse Mak of his delusions. Mak and Nak eventually realise they must separate and they promise each other that when the time comes for them to be reborn, they will be reborn in the same time period and become husband and wife again.

The film’s pace is leisurely and tension develops slowly but steadily. It picks up speed during the scene when some headstrong young men try to burn down Mak’s house and a storm generated by Nak’s ghost leads Mak away towards safety. The film’s pace bogs down during the ritual at Nak’s grave in which Somtej Toh soundlessly chants to Nak and for Western audiences, the emotionally intense farewell between Mak and Nak can come close to mawkishness. Why the chanting is soundless may be a puzzle to some: it may be that the intended audience (Thai people who know the legend) know the words anyway and they need not be repeated, or that Nimibutr might not have wanted to offend religious sensitivities by making them audible, especially as only part of the ritual might be used.

In spite of the simple and straightforward plot, practically given away by an unseen narrator at the beginning, the themes that flesh it out sit very lightly in the film. Kraibutr and Jaroenpura play their parts quite minimally, their actions and speech doing most of the emotional expression though Nak is very clingy and weepy where Western audiences might be concerned. The minimal acting fits in with the tenor of the film which treats its subject at a distance with the use of voice-over narration at the beginning and the end of the film, which clearly states that the story is a popular legend in Thailand.

Brief scenes in the film can be very graphic and violent – a scene in which Mak discovers a woman’s corpse being eaten by monitor lizards is especially horrific – but “Nang Nak” is well worth watching. Audiences interested in seeing how ordinary people in Thailand used to view life and how their lives were regulated by austere Theravada Buddhism and folk superstition together should see this film. It’s interesting to see how fear of the spirit world can be used by religious and communal authorities to pull people into line and at the same time preserve a person’s psychological health and well-being; a scene in the movie where some monks visit Mak at home clearly shows Mak to be suffering from psychological denial. The ritual at Nak’s grave can be interpreted as guiding Mak through a process of grieving and letting go, and enabling him to move to a new stage of life. While we may like to see Mak and Nak reunited, the passage of time and change itself dictate that this reunification is unhealthy for both of them.

13 Beloved: clever comedy horror movie with surprisingly deep ideas

Chukiat Sakveerakul, “13 Beloved” aka “13: Game of Death” (2006)

 
Source: www.flash-bang-movie-reviews.com

Your name is Phuchit and you labour rather unenthusiastically as a sales rep in a company that sells musical instruments. You’re far behind in your rent payments, your car’s just been repossessed, your girlfriend left you because you can’t afford to keep supporting her singing and modelling, your family keeps leaning on you for money and the boss fires you for not increasing your monthly sales … Out of the blue, a mysterious person calls you on your cellphone promising you bucketloads of money if you’ll play a harmless game … so you do that and the money gets wired into your account straight away … but then there’s the opportunity to win even more moolah if you play another game … and so on …

The mystery lottery that ensnares Bangkok corporate wage slave Phuchit (Krassida Sukosol Clapp) into a virtual reality online game in which he must participate in 13 levels that become increasingly dangerous, degrading and illegal, challenge his sense of right and wrong, and dredge up unpleasant childhood memories of schoolyard bullying and a violent father, to clear his debts and obligations, is the basis for a combined suspense thriller and comedy horror film that sneaks in pot-shots at the materialistic, competitive and corrupt society modern Thailand has become. Director Sakveerakul does an excellent job in the film’s first half-hour establishing Phuchit as an everyday man, likeable and obliging, with the same money problems as the rest of us in a world where money not only talks, it demands we give up our freedoms and humanity. Thus Phuchit is already vulnerable and primed for the seductions of the mysterious game whose instructions are communicated to him by unidentified callers on his cellphone (and later someone else’s cellphone), which include the rule that he’ll forfeit all his winnings if he decides to quit at any stage during the game or someone discovers him playing it.

As he ploughs through the tasks, the film milks each stunt for its full comic potential. Much of the comedy makes a point about something being rotten in the state of Thailand, or indeed Denmark or any other developed country, be it superficiality, the value of a shiny appearance over a corrupt reality, social alienation of minority groups such as elderly people and the mentally ill, the break-up of human relationships. In one memorable stunt, Phuchit visits a classy, expensive Chinese restaurant and gets a huge table all to himself, only to be served faeces on a plate topped with a silver cover! In another hilarious scene, Phuchit must drag out the corpse of an old man stuck in a putrid well in what seems to be a rundown shack and then dial the man’s family for help in the space of 10 minutes; the family, sitting in their clean, well-appointed house, bicker over answering the phone and finally do so, only to dismiss Phuchit’s plea as a crank call. Suddenly the family members realise they do indeed have an elderly father to care for … and they quickly run out of their lavish lounge-room into the shack to rescue Phuchit and the corpse in the space of a minute!

A couple of stunts give Phuchit an opportunity to unleash some of his frustrations and unhappiness about his life and childhood – beating up teenage bullies, punching his ex-girlfriend’s new amour (who may be abusing her, as Phuchit’s father did to his mother) – and I’m a bit sorry that other stunts don’t give Phuchit an opportunity to hit his co-worker Prem who stole his client and indirectly caused his sacking. There is also the ingenious stunt in which Phuchit’s willingness to help a grandmother fix her clothesline and hang up her washing results in a number of teenage motorcyclists being decapitated, demonstrating that even being a Good Samaritan can have unintended dire if blackly hilarious results.

Sukosol Clapp gives a memorable performance as the meek and mild Phuchit who, through his tasks, becomes more hardened and dehumanised to the point where he is prepared to kill animals and rip them apart just to see the bank put even more money into his account. In his final task, Phuchit meets his father, also lured into the game, and what they are required to do to each other becomes a test of how corrupted and enslaved by the game Phuchit has become. Admittedly the scene is very drawn-out compared to the fast pace of previous tasks, as Phuchit is assailed by conflicting memories of his father as violent but loving and caring, and initially I had the impression that all these memories were tacked on as an after-thought to drag out the suspense. The scene’s resolution does confirm Phuchit’s humanity but it did throw an unpleasant cast over the rest of the film: it made the whole plot vicious in a way Sakveerakul probably hadn’t intended. You realise that Phuchit simply exchanges one form of slavery for one which takes advantage of his fragile financial situation and exploits that and his desire to be free, simply to please the unseen thousands of online viewers. The one thing I think that could have strengthened Clapp’s performance is a suggestion that in some of the tasks, he actually begins to enjoy what he’s doing and revels in a new-found strength and ability to stand up to his tormentors and pursuers; this would have made his character development much more complex and the will-he?/won’t-he? suspense of the final task would be so much more tense and nerve-wracking.

The rest of the cast put in efficient if not great performances, notably Achita Sikamana who plays Tong, Phuchit’s co-worker who cares about his well-being and who discovers the nature of the game that has trapped him; she is more or less his conscience and would-be saviour, and the focus of one of Phuchit’s tasks. Hers is not a great turn where acting is concerned but she does enough to be credible as Phuchit’s support. Some viewers may be surprised at the revelation of the game’s mastermind as a young boy but by the late stage of the movie, we’ve seen enough incredible situations turned on their head that such a scenario causes little shock – and the boy does say that he is one of many, possibly thousands, caught up in the game’s machinations. The intimation is that the game itself now controls people, both viewers and that army of people who maintain the game in some way: creating new scenarios, enforcing its rules, contacting new players, policing the game’s boundaries and sustaining it in other ways. I don’t think it’s implausible that a boy could be mastermind of the game: the casting may be symbolic, saying something about people who work in IT who may lack maturity and insight to understand the effect their games and other inventions may have on the people who use and play them.

Initially the premise of “13 Beloved” is about what people will do for money and freedom in a society that prizes materialism, wealth and competition above other values. Sakveerakul manages to work into a tight and well-structured screenplay some snide attacks at how easily Thai society can be corrupted (the game’s organisers pay off the police to lay off pursuing Phuchit for his various crimes) and how people can be persuaded to exchange one form of oppression for another through their weaknesses. There is a suggestion of an unseen Big Brother, operating through kitsch (at one point in the film, a toy on an office cupboard spies on Tong researching the game on her work PC) and other methods, to draw in people like Phuchit and his father, and exploit their fraught relationship for purely banal reasons of giving superficial voyeuristic pleasure to people who might also be under BB’s thumb. There are other issues worth pursuing: for one thing, the issue of me and other movie-going audiences as voyeurs participating in the game,  rooting for Phuchit to win and what that might say about our humanity and desensitisation to the scenarios Phuchit is thrown into. There’s the question of free will: Phuchit can leave the game at any time though the penalty for doing so gets more severe and exposes Phuchit to police arrest and a long prison term. Given these penalties and that the game is customised to hone in on his softest and most vulnerable psychological weaknesses, is Phuchit ever in a position really to exercise free will and walk away?

This is a much cleverer movie than I thought it would be and one I recommend people to see, though they need strong stomachs for the many scenes of brutal violence and blood-letting. Hollywood has bought the rights to this film for a remake and I fear the many subtleties that appear in “13 Beloved” will be completely lost from the English-language version.

Citizen Dog: comedy with one-dimensional heroes and disappointing plot

Wisit Sasanatieng, “Citizen Dog” (2004)

File:Citizendoghouse.jpg Source: Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org

Living in Australia with its huge Hollywood fixation, even though Hollywood’s output of films has declined a lot since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, means we don’t get to see very many movies from countries in other parts of the world. That’s a pity as some places like Thailand now have a significant movie industry and are exporting some very well-made films with excellent technical production standards. This particular movie with the eccentric name “Citizen Dog” is a quirky fantasy romantic comedy that combines two characters’ quests – one for love, one for meaning to life – with a message that searching for something may not get you anywhere or yield the result you need but if you wait, what you want will come to you eventually. In other words, trust in life and it will give you what you desire. I suppose this is what some people call a Buddhist approach to life, though my impression of Buddhism is that it calls on people not to have a materialistic attitude to life or be attached to “things” (which may include desires), but there’s something about the film’s message that makes me uncomfortable: it just seems so conservative and limiting and turns its hero into a passive being. The film seems unsatisfactory; it’s likeable and has some very amusing characters and situations that make for a very surreal world but the whole edifice, carefully constructed, depends largely on a barebones and disappointing romance plot and the main characters of Pod (Mahasmut Bunyaruk) and Jin (Saengthong Gate-uthong) remain distant, one-dimensional and unremarkable.

Pod is a typical young man who leaves his family’s rice farm to seek work in the huge Bangkok metropolis. He gets a job in a sardine-canning factory where as a result of losing and then regaining his finger, he meets a similar young migrant fellow Yod (Sawatong Palakawong na Autthaya) . Together they leave the factory to find other work and Pod finds himself in a security guard’s uniform escorting people up and down in elevators in a city building. He meets and falls in love with Jin, a company cleaner who is obsessed with reading a book that has fallen out of the sky and which she believes holds the key to success and a meaningful life. From then on, Pod alternately pursues Jin or waits for her to come to him while Jin herself tirelessly – and not too intelligently – chases after a messiah figure or a cause connected directly or indirectly to the book that she believes will lead her to something better in life.

The film is a light-hearted and entertaining cartoon-like comedy with some interesting by-ways and eccentric characters who include a spoilt rich kid (Pattareeya Sanittwate) of indeterminate age with a talking teddy-bear, a salesman with a compulsion to lick everything in sight and a grandmother whose soul is continuously recycled through some very unusual life-forms. The eccentricity can get a bit twee and artificial, even for a fantasy like “Citizen Dog”. Jin’s obsession leads to her taking up protesting against pollution as a cause and this has very comic results: the interiors of her house become a jungle in contrast to its prim-and-proper picket-fenced exterior and the Bangkok city skyline ends up dominated by a huge white mountain of plastic bottles she collects. It’s on this mountain, reaching as high as the moon in the sky, that Jin eventually discovers her life’s mission.

To me, “Citizen Dog” makes fun out of the aspirations of ordinary working-class people, toiling as taxi-drivers, cleaners and factory workers, for a better, more meaningful life that makes them feel special and unique. Admittedly this meaningful life may be no more than being richer or more famous than others, and at first this seems to be what Jin desires but as her desire transmutes into something else and she ends up blundering into doing things that can be monstrous as well as comic, I sense a cruelty to the otherwise gentle comedy. Are we laughing with Jin or at Jin? Ultimately the meaning of life and Jin’s true mission coalesce into helping Granny reincarnate for the umpteenth time and running a plastics factory into the ground.

The structuring of the film into chapters and the use of an unseen narrator (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) aims for a sweetness reminiscent of some French art-house films and creates a distinctive world at once familiar yet unfamiliar but I found this style of narrative quite alienating and fussy after a while. It does though keep the film moving at a good pace and helps pack in a sub-plot and various minor characters to flesh out the universe within the film. I guess one use too, of such chapters to introduce various minor characters who are incidental to the plot is to demonstrate how searching and running after love can end up a pathetic quest, especially in the case of Yod who yearns after a self-obsessed Chinese restaurant worker. The main characters don’t have enough substance to them to carry the entire film; the actors playing them are good-looking and play their parts well enough so that their quirks, though maddening and overdone, do have the feel of plausibility in the mad world they inhabit.

The urban Bangkok environment plays a major role in the film and I would have liked to see Sasanatieng give it even more prominence as a major “character”: the city itself is a place where anything and everything can happen but it tends to be something of a backdrop rather than a semi-active player itself. Indeed, I feel Bangkok as presented here is a generic big city that could be found anywhere in an economically wealthy and dynamic Asian country. The music soundtrack does have some highlights – a bit of Thai-language hiphop here, some laid-back middle-of-the-road rock or country music there (yes, I believe Thailand does boast its own country rock music scene, it’s called luk thung)- but it’s not very distinctive and doesn’t reflect on some aspect of the plot or the characters’ development (not that there is any; the plot requires Pod to be a passive character and so he remains the same wide-eyed thunderstruck innocent throughout the film) as it probably should.

The film might have worked better if Pod had been the obsessive-compulsive cleaner with the neatness streak and love of causes striving for Jin’s attention and Jin a corporate lawyer at the firm that employs Pod. The plot would then have allowed Pod to undergo all the ups and downs of unrequited love and to create the mountain of plastic bottles only to discover that Jin is weary of being a corporate slave and that she longs for a simpler life and loves Pod for all his bungles and blunders. Or at least something that enables Pod to grow and mature in a way that still maintains his essential goodness and naive outlook on life. Jin can still be a bit nutsoid and pursue her book obsession. At the same time the urban Bangkok environment with its particular sights and sounds can be both a positive and a negative influence on Pod’s development.

“Citizen Dog” happens to be Sasanatieng’s second film as a director so perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him. He has created a visually gorgeous film which in its own way lambasts the corporate world and I hope in future films he can build up a distinctive Planet Bangkok reality where magic realism is more realistic than reality itself.