Just me. (lara7) wrote,
Just me.

Everything I know about thailand I learned from watching Oxide Pang films

A few months ago there was a "meme" going around that asked you to pick 10 films that you thought might "explain America" to the proverbial "man from Mars". Many of the films people chose weren't about historical events that shaped us but things that embodied American values or beliefs. I remember Citizen Kane showing up a few times, presumably as the example of the "rags to riches" American Dream.

So, since I'm about to go to Thailand, and I have no real ideas about Thai ethics or values, I decided to try the same thing by watching 10 Thai films and seeing what I could assume about Thai culture via its cinema. I managed 8 films before I decided I needed to pack and plan instead of watching movies.

Netflix only has maybe 20 Thai films in its catalog, so my source material was limited. One may assume that these films were subtitled and released outside of Thailand because they were better made than other Thai films, or they had plots/elements that distributors thought had international appeal. It is my understanding that, unlike Hong Kong or Japan, Thai film has historically been a low-brow, insular industry and was mostly quickie action and melodramas with little regard for "art film". Only recently has there been a "New wave" of Thai film, so recent that the oldest Thai film Netflix offers is from 1998. The oldest films I watched were from 1999, so this may understandably skew my observations.

1) Ong Bak, The Thai Warrior (2003)

Plot: Ong Bak is a Buddha statue in a tiny rural village. Bad City Guy cuts off the head and steals it, making the villagers upset. An earnest young man trained in martial arts journeys to the city to get the head back. If you guessed there will be lots of Muay Thai kickboxing before the head is recovered, you, like the makers of this film, have obviously seen a Jackie Chan movie before.

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
Muay Thai kickboxing is bloody and cinematic. Thai people like to wager on Muay Thai matches, especially underground "fight club" ones. Thai villagers will pool their meager funds to give to the person attempting to recover the Ong Bak head, rather than expecting that a 20 year old farm guy in Bangkok for the first time would spend their cash on drink and whores (which would be the western assumption). Thai monks, like other Asian elders, enjoy teaching kung fu to young men only to tell them they can never, ever use it.

Did I like it/would I recommend it?: yes. light on plot, heavy on action and stunts (done the old fashioned way with camera tricks and editing rather than wires and CGI, by the way). If you like Jackie Chan's HK work, you'd probably like this.

2) Iron ladies (2001) (aka "Satree Lex")

Plot: group of underdog volleyball players win the national championships. Unlike "The Mighty Ducks" or other sports tales like this, all but one of the players on the team are transvestites or transexuals (MtoF). Based on a true story of an actual team from 1996 called "the iron ladies". Film was popular enough to spawn a sequel (I didn't see that, though)

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
Thai sports teams have much looser dress codes than US ones (Dennis Rodman being an exception to the rule). Mocking the conventions of an established sport is much more shocking than being a gay athlete. Coaches in Thailand are more interested in the ideals of sport and fairness than they are in merely winning. This is illustrated in an early scene where the tranny player is added to the team of 4 straight players and 3 of them, including the star player, quit rather than play with the tranny. Instead of firing the tranny to retain the 3 other good players, the coach finds new players comfortable with the tranny, whereas it seems the american thing to do would be to appease the majority if it meant having a stronger team, even if they are homophobes.

Did I like it/would I recommend it?: yes, with reservations. very workmanlike pacing, directing and acting. Imagine a community theatre production of "priscilla queen of the desert" and you have an idea of the acting/script. Still, its kinda nice to see an affirmative gay film come from a non-western (arguably third-world) country.

3) Mysterious object at noon (2001)

Plot: ha ha. plot? this is an experimental film, and the "story" was created using the "Exquisite Corpse" method of plotting, where one person adds a line to the whole, after only seeing the line above and not the work as a whole. So the director films people telling a story fragment, filmed cinema verite style, and then we cut to the story they tell being acted out, which I guess the director shot later? That the story is plodding and often dull doesn't help, though I guess you have to admire the director for sticking to the rules of the Exquisite Corpse method rather than "losing" the footage of dull stories. There are probably cultural and language queues I'm missing which helped me to not understand the story as well, but seriously, it moved five times slower than a Jarmusch film (and I like Jarmusch).

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
In the rural areas/country, fish sauce is sold via "ice cream truck", complete with megaphone to attract business. The Thai film industry has grown enough to support the making of slow-moving self-indulgent "art" films similar to "Gummo" or "The Brown Bunny", except without any sex or freakshow exploitation in them. I did not learn from this film whether Thai audiences enjoy this type of film, but I'd guess not.

Did I like it/would I recommend it?: hell no. I turned it off after 25 minutes, which felt like 155 minutes. I believe this is the only film I've turned off before it was over in at least a year (and I even watched "demonlover" all the way through). I would have turned off Gummo when I saw it 6 years ago, but it was being shown at my house to a group of people so I really couldn't stop it or leave the room. Not only did I hate "MOAN" on its own merits, I also hated it for reminding me of Gummo, which I've been trying to forget for years.

4) Bangkok Haunted (2001)
plot: anthology of 3 ghost stories, held together by flipping back to the 3 ladies at a cafe telling the stories. First story is more traditional ghost/spirit possession tale, second story was the creepiest, about a love potion with horrible supernatural effects, third is a "was it suicide or murder" crime story.

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
They have 7-11s in Thailand, which sell Slurpees. Thais are prudish about nudity, but not about vomiting. It's astonishing to see a succubus type-story,where you see the girl in bed twice and never even see her breasts except in outline, but when her lovers take a turn for the worse, you get a CLOSE-UP of the vomiting, in one case seeing the inside of the toilet as the vomit hits it. There were at least 2 scenes of explicit vomiting, perhaps 3, and it was as graphic as that scene from the Exorcist.

Did I like it/would I recommend it? Maybe. First story is a little hard to follow. I wouldn't recommend it as your first Thai film, but it's overall likeable (except for the vomiting).

5) beautiful boxer (2005)
Plot: A fey young boy discovers he has a gift for kickboxing (Muay Thai), and trains even though he doesn't really like the sport. He starts wearing makeup in the ring, creates a scandal, and retires from the sport after he's made enough money for a sex change operation. Based on a true story.

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
Thai moviegoers REALLY enjoy biopics about transvestite athletes (see #2 above). Male homosexuality in Thailand is much more corrolated with transvestitism and transexuality than it is anywhere else in the world with an open gay subculture. Young Thai teens at kickboxing training camp are more accepting of a gay teammate than you might think, even when taking communal showers after practice. It is not unusual for boys as young as 8 to become Buddhist monks, especially if the family is poor. Buddhist Monks are stern but kind. The Thai equivalent of the county fair has rides, amateur boxing matches with cash prizes, and Buddhist rites.

Did I like it/would I recommend it? yes, especially to people interested in gay issues. Not really worth watching just for the kickboxing (watch Ong Bak instead). Interesting especially because its a true (and bizarre) story.

6) nang nak (1999)

Plot: based on a 19th century legend/ ghost story that had already been filmed at least 20 times since the silent film days (and every version has apparently been a box office hit in Thailand), this is a love story about a man returning from war to his wife and newborn son. Unfortunately, his wife has died in childbirth while he was away, and he's the only one in the village that doesn't know it. He lives with the ghosts of his wife and son, and anyone who attempts to convince him that his wife is a ghost is killed by her. Its a story of doomed love not unlike Romeo and Juliet, except with ghosts, Buddhist Monks, and lush jungle scenery.

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
Just as Catholic priests are always called in for an exorcism in the west (no matter the religion of the possessed), Buddhist Monks perform the same function in Thailand. Perhaps ghosts hate the color orange and bald heads. 19th century methods of childbirth in Thailand require a setup that looks uncannily like a modern SM dungeon- low light, ropes dangling from the ceiling, screams, withered old midwives...okay, maybe not the last one for the dungeon. Ghosts look like you and me, but get really mad if you point out their non-corporeal state. The draft in rural areas consists of going by boat to villages and taking away all the young men.

Bonus fun fact: This movie was so popular in Thailand that it outgrossed "Titanic" that year.. Considering that Thailand's film industry has been sluggish precisely because of the popularity of films from elsewhere, you'll be impressed that a film with an 150 year old story that had already been filmed 20+ times managed to be more popular than a blockbuster American film with a budget the size of Thailand's GDP.

Did I like it/would I recommend it? yes, emphatically. lush landscapes, doomed love, vengeful ghosts- this movie has it all!

7) Jan Dara (2001)

plot: a turn of the century saga about an unhappy family, except with lesbianism, incest, rape, and abortion. It's hard to explain the plot briefly (the netflix description is especially awful and unhelpful), but basically it's about a bastard son taking revenge on his dad by being as big an asshole as dad was. oh, and there's lots of bare male buttocks thrusting on top of nubile Thai ladies (if you like that sort of thing in a movie). From the director of Nang Nak

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
Like in the US, having box office clout (see bonus fun fact about "Nang Nak") allows you to get usually objectionable/shocking ideas past the censors. As this film ALSO features a woman dying in childbirth, the statistic thus far says that 100% of Thai films I've seen with a birth scene ends in the death of the mother (that's only 2 films, but out of 8, so it's significant statistically, though the stat is certainly skewed). Rich people in the 1930's like to have sex with their servants. You can abort a pregnancy via non-invasive abdominal trauma.

Did I like it/would I recommend it? yes, but not for everyone. probably not as sordid as I described it, though it's pretty risque by Thai standards.

8) 6ixty-nin9 (1999)

plot: a wacky crime caper, of sorts. An office lady is laid off unexpectedly, and that same night a box full of money is left outside her apartment as the "6" on her door loses a nail and flips on her door to become a "9". needless to say, the money is soon missed, thugs come after it, and soon the bodies start piling up and must be disposed of. Will she get to keep the money and escape the thugs?

What you might assume about Thailand from watching this film:
If you are a boss with 25 female employees, the best way to choose who gets laid off is by drawing straws, rather than merit or seniority. Thai Boxing is often "fixed" by crime bosses. American audiences have no idea what the Baht is worth (currently about 39 Baht to the dollar), so the subtitles translate whatever baht into $25,000. This makes the American audience wonder if that many bodies are worth a mere 25K, whereas "a million baht" would sound like much higher stakes. Thai cars have right hand drive (like the brits), even trucks made by Nissan. The Thai equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor is borrowing fish sauce. Travel agents can be bribed if you need to leave the country immediately. Travel agents are jingoistic, so that when looking at a flight manifest, all the Suponthongs and Thaksins are safe, but "Mr. Peter Lee" will find his reservation unexpectedly cancelled.

Did I like it/would I recommend it? halfheartedly. it was fine, but there have been many more original or zany caper films.

I'm off in 24 hours! Whee! I'll try to update from the road...

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