Exploring destiny, reincarnation and transformation in “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)

The last days of a farmer dying from kidney disease on his farm in a rural area in northeast Thailand, where in 1965 as an army soldier he helped kill Communist sympathisers in Nabua village near Laos, form the portal to an exploration of destiny, reincarnation, transformation and extinction, and ultimately an expression of the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of the physical forms of life. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Jaai (Sakda Kaewbuadee) in his last days at his farm, where he employs migrant workers from Laos, is joined by the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who appears as a forest monkey as he contemplates the reasons for his chronic illness and reviews previous lives he has lived, including those of a water buffalo that ran away from its owner but became lost in the forest and allowed itself to be led back home by its owner, and of a catfish who seduces a disfigured princess who rejects the amorous advances of a soldier she secretly desires.

Through Boonmee and the stories he tells, viewers gain a sketchy overview of the history of Thailand from its peasant origins through to the present day with past political and ideological struggles, and its current status in which Thai traditions and beliefs sit more or less uneasily with the trappings of Western culture and technology. Boonmee becomes more than just a farmer: we see he has served his country, but in a way that troubles him despite Jen’s reassurances; we see that he misses Huay; and we see that though he employs possibly illegal migrant workers, he seems to treat them well and they appear loyal to him. What we take to be reality becomes rather less so: our assumptions about the nature of things, of structures and of the world itself become less sure and more unstable, until some force acting on them or even just as the result of the passage of time they dissolve and become something else altogether.

While the film follows a very basic linear structure, past events and reminiscences intrude at intervals so that time becomes a circular dimension. For viewers watching the film after 2018, the scenes that take place in the cave will remind them of the real-life incident in which a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a network of caves in northern Thailand for two weeks – so that incident becomes an unexpected future addendum to the film! At its end, the film appears to divide into two, so that two endings, one in which two characters stay in a room watching television and the other in which they go to a karaoke restaurant, are possible.

The cinematography is well done with many beautiful shots of the countryside. The background soundtrack of ambient nature and insects in particular exercises an immersive effect on viewers. No plot exists as such: rather, the director sets up dioramas in which scenes take place, not necessarily having much connection with one another, and the action not significantly advancing any particular narrative apart from presenting an idea or concept for contemplation and meditation. For this reason, the film is not likely to appeal to Western audiences wanting a linear story-line where an action leads to another action and so on. Character development is weak and at the end of the film we know no more about various characters than we did at the beginning.

If viewers are prepared to give up preconceptions about what films should do for them, and instead watch “Uncle Boonmee …” as an expression of Buddhist philosophy and in particular of the constant transformation of life that extends even to the transformation of cinema, the methods of film-making and the relationship between the viewer and the act of watching a film, they may find plenty to ponder and marvel at.

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.

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)

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 bucket-loads 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)

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.