Elephant’s Leg


SIX OF THE BEST: THAI MOVIES

With late April marking the anniversary of my move to Thailand, and with this year marking my sixth anniversary, I have decided to compile a series of “Six of the Best” features encompassing my hobbies and interests, which I have enjoyed during my time here. I will start with films made in, or set in, Thailand. The list is in chronological order of the year of production.

1. MUAY THAI CHAIYA (2007)

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The first Thai film I saw after moving here remains one of my favourites. I watched Muay Thai Chaiya (simply Chaiya/ไชยา in Thai) almost as a token – “I’m in Thailand so I should watch a Thai film” – but I had a similar experience to when I watched Fight Club for the first time. Expecting a simple beat-’em-up, I was given so much more. Chaiya is, on the surface, a martial arts movie, but its narrative charts the coming of age and moral corruption of three pugilistic brothers as they move from the idyllic southern district of the film’s title to ’70s Bangkok to chase big bucks in the ring.

The three brothers’ fates take differing turns; one’s boxing career is cut short through injury, another pursues legitimate championship aspirations, and the third is drawn into Bangkok’s lucrative but increasingly dangerous underground fighting circuit. Organised crime influences all three, and their competing egos and influences make for a blood-soaked morality play of love triangles, sibling rivalries and childhood bonds. Chaiya culminates in an absurdly violent climax that some of Japan’s more notorious splatterhouse directors would be proud of, yet it is testament to director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s work that it somehow doesn’t come across as unrealistic. (Kongkiat would later direct another of my favourites, Slice – see next entry).

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2. SLICE (2009)

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A brave bit of local filmmaking in a country which prefers its movies to be as formulaic and safe as possible, Slice (Cheun/เฉือน in Thai) was unfortunately, but predictably, buried at the box office as its opening week competed with typical but profitable trash such as Haunted Universities and Bangkok Traffic Love Story. True enough, the gore-spattered Slice is no date movie, but its intelligence, sophisticated plot, stylish cinematography and unflinching depiction of Bangkok’s and Pattaya’s underbellies deserve attention from the more discerning movie buff.

Aforementioned director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s horror/thriller begins as a blood-soaked urban serial killer flick, with a mysterious caped avenger slicing up sexual offenders around Bangkok. With the police baffled, they release a jailed hitman who they believe might be able to crack the case. As the identity of the killer becomes clear, the film morphs from whodunnit to an explanation of why’d-he-do-it, with flashbacks to a tortured rural upbringing leading to innocence truly lost in Pattaya.

For a country so concerned with its image and “face”, Slice‘s uncompromising depictions of vice, paedophilia, immoral cops, sex tourists, the impunity of the upper classes and the effects of this disturbing cocktail must make for uncomfortable viewing for a lot of head-in-the-sand Thais. It’s clear why this was commercially trounced by movies about pretty girls chased by ghosts and office girls finding love on the skytrain, but for viewers who like to be challenged – disturbed, even – Slice is highly recommended.

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3. ETERNITY (2010)

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This modern production of a classic Thai tale stars young, beautiful co-stars Ananda Everingham and Ploy Cherman as ill-fated clandestine lovers. For western perspective, pitching Ananda and Ploy together is the Thai movie equivalent of a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pairing (although, no, they did not become a real-life couple afterwards).

Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai/ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย in Thai) tells the tale of Yupadee and Sangmong, the twentysomething wife and nephew, respectively, of wealthy, older rural landowner Ni Han, who embark on a doomed affair in 1930s Siam. When Ni Han learns of the tryst, he “sentences” the lovers to be chained together – in other words, to be bonded for the eternity of the movie’s title. At first Yupadee and Sangmong laugh off the punishment, as in fact being together at all times is what most young couples want. But soon enough, the peculiar curse of literally never being able to part starts to take its toll. As the prospect of this being a permanent arrangement dawns on them, and when Yupadee falls ill, the true horror of the situation becomes increasingly apparent. The vengeful Ni Han, the only person with the key to unlock the chains, remains vengeful to the last, refusing to release his traitors even in the direst of circumstances.

Eternity was originally a book by Malai Choopinij, published in 1943, and was first adapted to film in 1955, and then again in 1980. A TV series then followed three years later. Having not read the book nor watched its previous screen incarnations, I can’t comment on how this 2010 movie compares, but it is a powerfully performed period piece, and while the “doomed lovers” theme is nothing new, this is a way Western viewers may not have seen it told.

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4. LADDALAND (2011)

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It seems there is a new Thai ghost movie every other week, and very few of them rise above the level of formulaic dross. Laddaland (alternatively Ladda Land, or ลัดดาแลนด์ in Thai), though, dares to be something a bit different. The majority of Thai horror movies rely on – and succeed despite, or perhaps even because of – unimaginative tropes of pretty young things being scared by pale-faced vengeful spectres and/or rural animistic myths. Plot development is often of scant interest, and the special effects usually look like early ’90s experiments with CGI. But Laddaland, released in 2011, served as a reminder that Thai moviemakers are capable of helming intelligent, character-driven horror, and that the audiences can respond at the box office. The film was a critical and commercial success, and has since been turned into a hit stage show, so it is a shame similar efforts are not more routinely made.

Director Sophon Sukdapisit, best known for Thailand’s most famous horror movie, Shutter – one of many Asian fright flicks to get the Hollywood remake treatment (evidence of the original’s worth) – delivers what is, on the surface, a simple haunted house story. Something lurks in the housing estate of the film’s name, a development which attracts a middle-class family when they relocate from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The father, Thee, gets a new job and buys a property he can’t really afford, thinking  a move and a showpiece home will be the answer to family’s problems – namely a dissatisfied wife and a spoilt, distant teenage daughter.

Suffice to say, a Laddaland home is not the panacea Thee envisaged, especially as it comes with unadvertised supernatural extras. Or does it? Sophon focuses on his characters’ doubts over their own sanity as the scares intensify and the mystery deepens. And with something very wrong going on in Laddaland, but nobody quite sure what, Thee stubbornly keeps his family in the new home he is so proud of, which of course only harms their relationships further.

Laddaland is primarily a horror movie, but as it concentrates more on how people are affected by a haunting, rather than the haunting itself, it rises above most of the pack.

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5. THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

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This dramatisation of the Indian Ocean tsunami as it hit Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, and specifically the real-life story of one Western family caught up in it, boasts towering acting performances, terrifying disaster scenes and fantastic cinematography that captures, in turn, the tropical beauty of southern Thailand and the sheer scale of the destruction wrought on the region on December 26, 2004.

Some critics decried the fact that the narrative focused on privileged Western tourists when so many locals were affected just as badly, or worse, but to me this is a rather blustering attempt at political correctness. Privileged Westerners feel physical pain and emotional anguish for loved ones just the same as anyone else, and if it takes English language and the casting of well-known faces such as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts to boost the reach of a film with such a poignant theme, then so be it.

Yes, some 250,000 people perished in the tsunami, but that The Impossible focuses on just one family actually increases its emotional punch, as it’s a tale that anyone with a spouse, children, parents or siblings can relate to. It also “gives back” in that many of the Thai characters and extras are portrayed by real-life survivors of the catastrophe.

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6. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

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All cities of a certain size have seamy underbellies, and Bangkok’s is seamier than most. However, it is not as seamy as Western filmmakers have traditionally depicted it. Still, seedy, dirty and dangerous Bangkok continues to be a big screen trope, with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives diving head-first into a melange of gore, crime, revenge and vice.

The base ingredients may be familiar, but Refn’s style may not be. As the film’s American protagonists mix with with local antagonists, the culture clash is illustrated with flair. The in-your-face opening credits are redolent of 70s’ Hong Kong actioners, but the squealing synthesiser-led soundtrack evokes ’80s Western thrillers and horrors. The unrestrained depictions of violence are inkeeping with latter-day Hollywood “torture porn”, while the characters’ stoic reactions to said violence and frequent pregnant pauses take their cues from Japan’s crime noir master Takeshi Kitano.

The plot revolves around Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer operating out of Bangkok, using a muay Thai promotion as his legal business front. When his brother Billy is brutally murdered in a revenge attack, Julian’s mother flies in and demands revenge of her own. As Billy’s murder was permitted – and overseen – by Chang, a local police chief, he too becomes a target. But the American family and their associates may have picked on the wrong policeman in Chang, who despite taking the right side of the law in terms of his targets, is more than liberal in his use of violence against them.

Only God Forgives begins with a brutal Thai boxing match, shifts quickly to a brothel and progresses soon after to murder and the morally dubious police force. While the stall seems to be set out in predictable fashion, it is the movie’s delivery that is highly unorthodox. At times drenched in garish reds or blues, with that jarring score and bouts of psychedelia, it can be a difficult watch. But as familiar as the themes may be, Only God Forgives ends up quite unlike any previous mainstream depiction of Bangkok. You may love it, you may hate it (critics were divided in such a way), but you will definitely remember it.



BALI HAIS AND LOWS – 5 DAYS IN INDONESIA’S TOURIST HAVEN
Balinese Hindu architecture

Balinese Hindu architecture

Last month I travelled to Bali, Indonesia, in what was primarily a social visit, as I have a friend who lives and works there. It hadn’t really occurred to me to visit Bali before, being that is an uber-touristy destination, but I figured that I would see more than beaches and bars with the combination of a local friend and my own inquisitive style of travelling. And so it was. As expected, the main tourist area of Kuta didn’t hold my attention, but some other parts of the island – unfortunately time constraints limited me to the south – were charming.

My thoughts on what I saw of Bali are as follows. It is not a chronological travelogue; more like a scrapbook of impressions and recommendations. Continue reading



RUNGSAN AND THE REWARD FOR HONESTY

Rungsan and Jamie

“Hey, where you go?” “How much you pay?” “Meter not work.” Phrases that are all-too familiar for anybody who has been to  Bangkok, beginning as soon as you leave the arrivals area of the airport and following you all along downtown,  around the visitor attractions and surrounding your hotel.  Yes, it’s the hawking call of the notorious Bangkok taxi driver.

There are an estimated 60,000 of them in the city, and to be fair, the majority of them are reasonable enough. It’s just the majority of them do not congregate at the airport, the tourist traps, the nightspots, the malls and the big hotels. It is the unscrupulous few who dominate these places, who can spot a freshly arrived holidaymaker at a hundred paces, who can speak enough English to negotiate a con, and who foster the negative image many visitors take home of the corrupt cabbie.

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THE THAI SMILE: LOST IN BANGKOK, FOUND IN KO SICHANG

Ko Sichang offers Thai countryside atmosphere and attitudes by the sea

Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.

For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.

Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.

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A SPRITELY WAY TO GET LOST IN TRANSLATION

The Lord did there confound the ordering of Sprite of all the earth

I’m learning Thai, but my abilities remain limited, so I’d never criticise a Thai person’s attempts at English.

Still, brand names are the same in both languages, and even allowing for phonetic differences, there’s no way you can get them so spectacularly and repeatedly wrong as in the conversation below, unless there’s something spectacularly wrong with the listener. Is there?

I was at the drinks stand of a Bangkok food court. The vendor stood in front of a double glass door fridge. I appraised his wares, and the lingual fun began.

The conversation was a mix of my limited Thai and his limited English, but for simplicity’s sake I have transcribed it in English only. But even allowing for language differences, there’s no way such a simple transaction should have been anywhere near as protracted. Sprite is Sprite, whether in English or Thai, written or spoken.

Me: Sprite, please.

Him: Bottled water?

Me: No, Sprite, please.

(He reaches for a bottle of Minute Maid orange juice.)

Me: No, Sprite.

Him: No have.

Me: Yes, you have (pointing at the Sprite in the fridge).

(He reaches for the orange juice again.)

Me: No, down.

(He reaches two shelves down, passes the Sprite, and goes for the bottled water again.)

Me: No, up.

(He reaches two shelves up and goes for the orange juice again.)

Me: No!

(He looks at me as if I’m stupid.)

Me: Sprite. Suh-prite? Spuh-rite?

(He continues to just look at me.)

Me: There! (Pointing again).

(He reluctantly opens the fridge again and we begin to repeat the up-down routine.)

Me: No, up. No, down. Right. Right. No, go right! Yes! That one!

Him: (Looking at me like I’m really stupid) Oh, you want Sprite.

Me: *Sigh*

(Note: As Thai for “bottled water” is “nam plao” and “orange juice” is “nam som”, there’s no possibly way he could have confused either with “Sprite”, whether in sound or appearance!)



CATCHING UP: LEARNING THAI

thaiscriptI picked up bits and pieces of Thai simply by virtue of living here and going about my daily business, but it wasn’t until January that I started formal classes. I’d struggled to find one that was both affordable and fit into my timetable. However after a few months of searching, I found one almost opposite where I live! For a set annual fee, I can have unlimited lessons and can schedule them as I see fit. I try to go three times a week, but always manage at least once.

I realise I may not be here forever, and that Thai is irrelevant elsewhere, but of course it is valuable within the country. I haven’t reached a great standard but definitely certain aspects of my life are now easier, and I can read Thai script, which is great for monolingual signs and menus.

If anybody is interested in learning Thai, I recommend the school I attend for both price, convenience and format – the classes are informal and fun and conducted by Thais who are fluent in English. It also offers Japanese, Chinese and English classes. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a website, but the contact details are as follows:

Cambridge Language Centre, 8 Phahon Yothin Road Soi 29, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900. Tel 02 513 4137



MISS THAILAND 2009 REINFORCES PALE SKIN PREJUDICE
Thai beauty

Thai beauty

Thai people have brown skin. Well, there are different ethnic groups within Thailand, but generally speaking, the average Thai person has light to medium brown skin. I state the obvious merely because it is seemingly something the Thai media likes to avoid.

If you had never been to Thailand and only watched the majority of Thai movies, TV shows or music videos, and look at the advertising at subway stations, in magazines, and so on, you’d be forgiven for thinking Thais were a light-skinned race. Creamy, white complexions, sometimes even with rosy cheeks, represent a tiny minority in real life, but the great majority of the media’s idea of what Thais (should) look like. Pale skin is absolutely considered to be – and promoted as – attractive, and in many cases is actually a prerequisite to success. It doesn’t need me to point out how unfair this is, when skin colour is entirely a matter of birth – and something that cannot be changed, regardless of what the enormous market for sinister skin-whitening lotions will tell you.

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CATCHING UP: PROFESSIONAL LIFE
Bangkok Post

Bangkok Post

The first item on the agenda is to fill in the gaps between September 2008 and September 2009, before I will start writing about more timely stuff, as and when it happens. I will be concise, because 12 months is a long time to chronicle, and will perhaps return to certain points in more detail at a later date.

I work for the Bangkok Post, the leading English-language newspaper in Thailand. I edit the stories, which are mostly written by Thai reporters. They write in English, to varying standards, but require native speakers to polish their work to native quality. It’s essentially the same role as a sub-editor on any newspaper back home, but with the added task of dealing with non-native English. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s a rewarding job with nice hours on a publication that has a good reputation and a nationwide readership. In that regard, it’s the best job I’ve had so far.

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