The Strange Story of a Strange Beast: Receptions in Thailand of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady

Tropical-malady-c891eeed01166b11454b35e45bf25578-

Towards the end of A Life Beyond Boundaries, Benedict Anderson describes how his retirement allowed him to renew his passion for film. "No one interested me more," he writes,


than the young Thai genius Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won two top Cannes prizes in three years for his Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady...The irony is that Apichatpong's films have never been allowed a normal commercial run in Siam itself, and he has been locked in a running battle with the imbecilic censors in Bangkok. So, for fun, I wrote a long article about Tropical Malady itself, but especially about the reactions of different audiences (villagers, arrogant and ignorant Bangkok know-it-alls, students, middle-class families, teenagers, etc.) It turned out that people in the countryside understood better what the film had to say than urban intellectuals. In July 2006 the article was translated by my former student Mukhom Wongthes as "Sat Pralaat arai wa?" (What the Heck is This Beast?) in Silapa Wattanatham. Three years later the text was republished in as "The Strange Story of a Strange Beast: Receptions in Thailand of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Sat Pralaat," in James Quandt's edited collection Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Later I also joined, in a quiet way, the fight against the imbeciles. It was in this way that I first met Apichatpong, with whom I soon became close. (The deliciously unacademic cover for the Thai translation of Imagined Communities was designed by my new friend.)


Below we present the version of Anderson's essay that appeared in James Quandt's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, published by the Austrian Film Museum. Though out of print, the book is currently included with the Film Museum's DVD release of Apichatpong's Mysterious Object at Noon. 


(From Sat Pralaat [Tropical Malady])

Two years ago, at the end of a talk for perhaps one hundred professors and students at Thammasat University in Bangkok, I took the opportunity to ask those in the audience who had heard of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his astonishing film Sat Pralaat 2 (2004) to raise their hands. I was quite surprised when only about fifteen hands went up. When I made the same request for those who had actually seen the film, only about eight or nine people identified themselves. How was this possible? After all, Apichatpong had won the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, which is generally regarded as the single most important international film festival in the world. Nor was this triumph a one-time fluke. Two years earlier, he had won another important prize at Cannes for his Sut Saneha (2002).3 One would have thought that a Bangkok public eager to claim Tiger Woods as a “world-class Thai,” even though he speaks no Thai, would have been enormously proud of, and excited by, Apichatpong’s impressive success. But no. The question is: why not?

If one watches the very intelligent, biting and funny mockumentary of ‘Alongkot,’ entitled Room Kat Sat Pralaat [Ganging Up on ‘Sat Pralaat’] (2004), the beginnings of an explanation emerge.4 The mockumentary repeatedly tells watchers that Sat Pralaat played in only three Thai cinemas (all in Bangkok), and for only one week in each.5 Why so? A series of short interviews follows with various types of Bangkokian minor celebrities and “talking heads,” who say that the film is “great,” “extremely interesting,” and reaches a “global level above that of other Thai films.” (They are responding to the Cannes prize rather than to the film itself.) But their descriptions of it as “surreal,” and “abstrak maak” [extremely abstract] indicate both that they do not understand the film at all, and also that they are sure that it would be pointless to circulate the film in provincial cinemas. It would be way over the cheuy [hick, unsophisticated] heads of the khon baan nork [up-country people].

The mockumentary then proceeds to wonderful extended interviews with four young chao baan [villagers, rubes] (three boys, one girl), after they have been brought to Bangkok to see Sat Pralaat at a special screening put on by the Alliance Française. After the show the unseen interviewer tells the four that many Bangkok intellectuals find the film “yaak [difficult]” and “lyk lap [mysterious],” and asks them whether they share that reaction. The chao baan all say that the film is great, that there is nothing specially “yaak” or “lyk lap” about it and that they would like to see it shown at cinemas back home. They say they understand it perfectly. We shall discuss some details of their reactions later on.

Before turning to the question of why both Cannes and the chao baan really liked the film while many Bangkokians did not, it is worth reporting on a brief amateurish research trip that I recently took with Mukhom Wongthes and May Ingawanij. We decided to spend two days interviewing personnel working at video stores in Chonburi, Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkhram, Ratburi, Suphanburi, and Ayutthaya, in a rough half circle around Bangkok, all about an hour’s drive away. These businesses come in two types: stores which are rental outlets, mostly in downtown areas, and stores, always located in malls, which sell legal and pirated DVDs at quite low prices. What did we discover? First, that all the people interviewed, except in one small store in Suphanburi, knew about Sat Pralaat, and a good number had the DVD of this film on their shelves. How did they know about it? Not from newspapers or magazines, but from references on TV and, most interestingly, from customers’ requests. When we asked what kind of customers were interested in Sat Pralaat, the most common answer was “oh, all kinds, mostly families.” Others said, “young people who already have jobs” — i.e. in their twenties and early thirties, as opposed to teenagers. But still others said they also had requests from teens. How did the film do with the public? “Not bad,” “average,” “in steady demand,” in other words not outstandingly successful, but not a flop either. One store-clerk told us the customers were mainly male, but others denied there was any difference between the sexes. One should note that these customers were not chao baan, but people living in small provincial towns.

At this point we can profitably turn to the film itself, in order to deepen our enquiry. Except for an enigmatic opening scene — in which a group of young soldiers out in the countryside come across a corpse, while the viewers see in the distance the obscure figure of a naked man moving through the high grass on the edge of a jungle — the first half of Sat Pralaat shows us how a handsome young soldier (Keng) woos an odd-looking youngster (Tong) who works in a local ice-business. The two men never take off any clothes, never kiss each other, let alone have sex, but the film shows us the progress of this chao baan courtship in a wide variety of village and small town settings.

In Room Kat Sat Pralaat the interviewer, pretending to be a middle-class Bangkokian, on several occasions asks the four chao baan about this courtship: “Up-country, are there really men who are in love with other men?” The villagers matter-of-factly answer, “Oh yes, it’s quite ordinary.” All agree that Tong and Keng really love each other, and the shyest of the boys goes so far as to say that the courtship is very “romantic.”6 The girl comments, with a broad smile, that the scene where Keng lies with his head in Tong’s lap gave her goose-pimples (khon luk). The interviewer pretends to be surprised by all this, and asks the girl whether she thinks Keng is maybe a kratheuy soldier.7 She giggles and replies: “Yes, the soldier most likely is a kratheuy.” And Tong? “Well...he’s a bit coy... um... most likely he is the same.” It is plain that the mockumentary is trying to show how ordinary a romance between two young men is up-country, while for some Bangkok people it might seem “trendy, aping the West,” “shameful,” or even “un-Thai.” (But it is the interviewer who introduces the word kratheuy, and before he does so the chao baan just use chai [man] or khon [person]; the boys never describe Keng and Tong as kratheuy).

The attentive viewer, however, will quickly notice one very striking feature of the first half — the soundtrack. There is no background music at all: instead the sounds of everyday country life, motorbikes, dogs barking, small machines working, and so on. The mostly banal conversations are also essentially “background,” and one does not need to pay careful attention to their content. Foregrounded are faces, expressions, body-language, silent communication with eyes and smiling lips. The elderly woman whom Tong calls mae [mum] shows by her expression that she understands the courtship going on, but she says nothing about it, nor does anyone else in the village. A Bangkok viewer who does not pay attention to the strangeness of the soundtrack could easily dismiss the first half as something very cheuy, even wondering when the two men will finally undress and fall into each other’s arms.

The real problem for such viewers, however, arises in the astonishing second half of the film, in which almost no human word is spoken. It shows us Keng setting off alone into the jungle to track down a sat pralaat which has apparently been killing the villagers’ cattle. In this half, the soundtrack moves into the foreground, and what we hear, most of the time, are the sounds of the jungle and the sounds that Keng makes as he moves deeper and deeper inside it. Much of this half takes place at night. As Keng tracks the puzzling foot or paw-prints before him, human and animal, it seems to dawn on him that they belong to one creature, and this creature is a seua saming or were-tiger, but also perhaps Tong. Eventually, he is attacked by a “beast” in whom viewers will recognise the strange naked figure in the opening scene. It is Tong, and completely human in shape, except that he has tigerish stripes self-painted on his face, and he growls and snarls without saying a human word. In the hand-to-hand fight that ensues, Tong is the winner. He drags Keng’s stunned body to the edge of a steep hill, and shoves it down. No attempt is made to kill (let alone eat) Keng, who is not seriously hurt at all, and the last we see of Tong is the silhouette of him standing at the top of the hill as if to reassure himself that Keng is really all right. In the remaining part of the film, the viewer follows Keng as he resumes his search, experiencing various ‘magical’ events (a dead, half-eaten cow getting up in perfect condition and disappearing into the jungle, a wise monkey giving him advice, and so on). The film ends with Keng on his knees in the mud looking up at a motionless tiger crouched on the high branch of a tree in front of him. We hear his inner voice saying: “Strange beast, take them, my soul, my blood, my flesh, my memory... In every drop of my blood there is our song, a song of happiness... there it is... do you hear it?”

What to make of this second part? When I showed the film to some highly-educated, bourgeois Filipino gays in Manila, they quickly decided that it was “another type of the now very popular genre of Asian Horror Film,” pioneered in Japan, and spreading to Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines etc. This is not the reaction of the young up-country people interviewed by "Alongkot." Two of the boys have had personal experience of the jungle, and say it is like that: sayong [scary] and tyn-ten [tense, exciting], sometimes even "hair-raising." They have never seen a seua saming, but are sure that “they existed in the old days.” The only thing that puzzles them is the very last scene, which they felt was cut short, unfinished.

An even more interesting reaction was that of my bosom friend Ben Abel, an Indonesian Dayak who was raised by his animist grandfather on the fringes of what was then, 40 years ago, the immense, largely untouched jungle of Borneo. When I asked whether he found the second half “difficult,” he said “Not at all. I understand it perfectly.” He had often gone hunting in the jungle, also at night, with his grandfather, his friends, and even alone, and could immediately identify all the animal and bird sounds on the film’s soundtrack. “The jungle is where you really have to listen all the time, and keep as quiet as possible yourself. Yes, it can be frightening, but it is like a strange and wonderful world all of its own. You keep wanting to go back. You know you are testing yourself, and learning about yourself too.”

When I asked him about were-tigers, he confirmed what Professor Nidhi Iowsriwongse told me from his childhood days.8 “The true seua saming are always human males. Only men have the spiritual power to change their shapes as they wish. They can appear as tigers, but inside the tiger is a human intelligence and soul. Usually they change shape to escape some danger, mostly from other human beings. There is another kind of seua saming which is female, but it is a spirit, not a human being. It can appear as a tiger or as a beautiful woman, but it is always a malevolent spirit.” A very short scene in the second half of Sat Pralaat — which at first seems inexplicable — shows one of Keng’s experienced older military comrades on night-guard at the fringe of the jungle. Suddenly a beautiful woman appears and asks him to go with her to help her sick mother. But the soldier refuses to leave his post and tells her to go home at once, as the jungle at night is too dangerous for women. As she turns away, the man notices a long tiger-tail protruding from under her skirt. She is there, one could say, to show exactly what Tong is not: she is a malevolent spirit, but Tong is human.

In any event, Ben Abel went on, more or less in the following vein: “You know, if you grow up in or near the jungle as I did, the distance city people feel between human beings and the animal world is hardly there. You begin to understand the meaning of the different sounds the birds and beasts make hunting, mating, escaping, warning, and so on. Also, people can pass from one world to the other — an uncle who died recently can be recognised in an owl hooting at night. When they sleep, people’s spirits leave the body, and bring back messages, sometimes in dreams.” He added that he thought that in the second half of the film, Keng is looking for something, answers to what he doesn’t understand about himself, Tong, and many other things. “What is so wonderful about the ending is that Keng’s love is so deep that he is willing to give up ‘his soul, his body, even his memory,’ in other words a certain idea of human beings as gods, apart from the rest of the natural world. His spirit is in the process of finding Tong’s.” His final comment to me was: “This is the most wonderful movie I have seen. I can’t believe that anyone making a film today could get inside the world in which I grew up, and present it with such perfection. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the summer of 2005 I was invited to a scholarly convention in Fortaleza, a remote town on the north coast of Brazil, just in front of the vast, empty, wild interior prairie called the Sertão, which is the source of many Brazilian legends and also films. In the municipal museum, I found something remarkable, an exhibition of tiny hand-sewn booklets of about 20 pages, with rough etchings on the covers. These booklets are sold mainly at bus stops, and to very poor people. They are written in poetry, often beautiful, and usually without a named author. The subjects are typically famous rebellions, massacres, and miracles in the past. But the collection included a section devoted to deeply felt romances between unhappy girls and their goats, and between cowboys and their horses and donkeys. When I asked my educated friends about them, their answer was rather Bangkokian. “Well, you know, on the ranches out there deep in the Sertão, there are no women, so the men either have sex with other men or with their animals. What can you expect?” I replied that this seemed difficult to believe. “What about the poor girl who flees her cruel master in the company of her beloved goat? What about the wife who cuts the throat of her husband’s horse out of jealousy? So far as I can tell, the cowboy and his horse are in love, but they don’t have sex.” “Hmmmm! Hmmmm! I see what you mean.” But what did I mean?

If, as it seems to me likely, Apichatpong was trying to make a film, not “about” the world of the chao baan of Siam, but rather “from inside” that world, from inside its culture and its consciousness of itself, then one can easily see why Alongkot’s four young interviewees found the film both clear and gripping. At the same time, one can see why many of the city people of today’s air-conditioned Bangkok find it “difficult” and “mysterious.” They are accustomed to films about themselves and their social superiors, with chao baan included only for local colour or comical side-effects. They do not find it at all odd that the poor Isan 9 lad who plays the main role in Mom Chao Chatrichalerm Yukol’s otherwise excellent film Thongpoon Kokpo Ratsadorn Tem Kan [The Citizen, 1977] should be played by a fair-skinned utterly Bangkokian pretty-boy. They enjoy Tony Jaa’s stunning martial arts skill in Ong-Bak (2003, directed by Prachya Pinkaew), only adding, as I heard some well-dressed girls say to each other as they came out of the multiplex of the Central Mall in Taling Chan: “What a pity, the hero isn’t handsome.”10 They like, up to a point, films using Thai legends, but to be agreeable, these films have to be versions of well-known “legends” and the viewers have to be able to take a certain anthropological distance from them. A good example is the very popular recent version of Nang Naak [Snake Girl] (1999, directed by Nonzee Nimibutr). It recreates an originally eerie folk-tale, which everyone knows at least in rough outline, in the Bangkok TV bourgeois manner.11 The folk-tale is about a young woman who dies in childbirth while her husband is off at war, and returns as a vengeful widow ghost; the film, however, has the woman so deeply in love with her husband that she returns as a spirit who magically reappears to him as if she were still alive. When the villagers try to get the entranced husband to see the truth, she retaliates violently. So: “It’s a love story!” The Snake Girl is not a Strange Beast at all, but a nice woman who can’t bear to leave her husband even after death. Here we can detect Apichatpong’s cunning. Sat Pralaat is in some respects legendary in character, yet it is not based on any legend with which people are generally familiar. But he makes sure that the film cannot be Bangkokised and banalised by strategically introducing the theme of chai rak chai [men love men].12 Just imagine if Nang Naak were turned into Num Naak [Snake Boy]!

But I suspect there is even more to the resolution of the puzzle with which this essay is concerned. This is the difficult problem of “Thainess” [khwampenthai]. Some years ago, the famous novelist, poet, and critic Sujit Wongthes’ pioneering and iconoclastic book Jek Bon Lao [Jek Mixed with Lao] caused a stir by its argument that ‘Thainess’ was not something truly ancient, but the relatively recent product of the osmosis between longstanding “Jek” and “Lao” cultures.13

As I have heard it, Sujit was quite surprised by some of the grateful letters he received from readers. They were touched and stirred by his positive invocation of khwampenjek ["jek-ness"]. (This emotional response reminds one of the reaction of gay men and women to the first serious novels with attractive gay and/or lesbian leading characters. “Finally, we are represented respectfully and honestly.”) In the 1990s many books followed in the spirit of “coming out of the jek closet.” There really was a lot to be proud of in the history and culture of Chinese immigrants to Thailand and their descendants. What is less clear is whether these books were carefully read by many who were not in this closet. We have yet to see “jekness” celebrated in the textbooks of Thailand’s primary and secondary schools.

In the 19th century, Bangkok was still overwhelmingly a Chinese city, and even on the eve of World War II, a majority of the capital city’s working class consisted of poor Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants — before the human tsunami down from Isan got under way. Today, Bangkok’s successful middle classes are heavily luk jin (children of Chinese, Sino-Thai, a polite substitute for jek).14

In many countries the successful urban bourgeoisie is culturally removed from the countryside, yet not ethnically so; but in Siam, this removal is twofold, because of the ethnic origins of the bourgeoisie outside the country.

One might think about it this way: the luk jin middle classes are, as elsewhere in the world, energetic, ambitious and social climbing. Hence they are inclined to assimilate upwards (at least to a certain point) to the culture of the upper classes and the state. London’s House of Lords today is full of successful middle class people who adore getting titles as Baroness This or Baron That. Bangkok has plenty of female luk jin who would love to become Khunying.15 It follows — always only up to a point — that such  people are attracted to Thailand’s “official nationalism” 16 — especially as performed in TV “historical” dramas and ritual celebrations, and through the “River of Kings” advertising machine.17 They can find themselves reflected in talk shows and television soap operas, but only in their roles as “Thai bourgeois,” not luk jin. This can’t be wholly satisfactory. They are not at all comfortable with popular films like Tom Yam Kung [the name of a popular spicy Thai soup] (2006, directed by Prachya Pinkaew; a follow-up  to Ong-Bak), which, like The Citizen before it, features cruel and greedy villains who are patently "jek."

Apichatpong’s film is, I think, especially “difficult” for today’s luk jin middle classes, not only because they are invisible within it, but also because it presents a form of “Thai culture” with ancient roots that is “below them” as well as alien to their experience. To be able to dismiss it as “meant for Westerners” is to show one’s own patriotic Thai credentials against the implicit threat that the film provides. Self-deception is necessarily involved, since the biggest addicts of Western consumerist culture are precisely the Bangkok bourgeois. This suggestion might bring us back to Thammasat which is sometimes, half-jokingly, half-proudly, self-described as the Biggest Teochiu University in the world.18 If my argument in this article is even partly correct, it might help to explain the surprising student-faculty ignorance of, and indifference to, Sat Pralaat’s amazing achievement.

Readers will have noticed that at several places above I have emphasised the word “today’s.” I do so because I suspect that the high alienation of middle class Bangkok from “up-country culture” is something relatively new. During the opening credits to Sat Pralaat, Apichatpong mentions his debt to, and affection for, the popular “jungle novels,” collectively called Long Phrai, written in creative imitation of, inter alias, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, by “Noi Inthanon" during the early 1950s  before the massive elimination of most of Thailand’s ancient forests by legal and illegal loggers.19 In these novels, set in the present, were-tigers are often featured as real, if "strange," beasts, though the hunter-hero Khun Sak is quite rationalist and scientific in his outlook. Noi’s readers were mostly young, perhaps also mostly male, townspeople of varied ethnic and class origins, who listened to the radio rather than watching TV, went to noisy, crowded cinemas rather than losing themselves in cyberspace, lived contentedly without air-conditioning like everyone else, and were not locked into a mediocre “globalised” consumer culture.20 This older kind of urban society (middle class and lower class) still exists, up to a point, in places like Samut Sakhon and Ratburi, but it has largely vanished from the City of Angels.

It remains only to consider the Bangkok “talking heads” who claim to like Sat Pralaat very much, but who can make neither head nor tail of it. I mentioned earlier the importance these “talking heads” attach to the high-prestige awards that the film has reaped. As they are inclined to see the matter, these awards mean that “our country” is producing films at the sakon [international, global] level; hence their approval of the film means that they too are sakon. The difficulty is that this word has different and sometimes antagonistic connotations. Some times it means that nowadays Westerners appreciate some Thai films. But which? The unsettling examples are, for instance, Satri Lek (Iron Ladies, 2000, directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon), Beautiful Boxer (2003, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham), Ong-Bak, and a cluster of horror films, since their success overseas seems to mean that foreigners think of “our country” as mainly populated by kickboxers, effeminates, transsexuals, and evil spirits. Sometimes it means that foreigners have helped in the making and distribution of “good Thai films.” A case in point is the role of Hollywood’s Francis Ford Coppola in the final editing, as well as the promotion, of his friend Mom Chao Chatrichalerm Yukol’s huge, nationalist “heritage” film Suriyothai (The Legend of Suriyothai, 2003 version). Alas, the film was a flop overseas, and even in “our country” it made a lower net profit than the populist, nationalist, and gory Baang Rajan (Baang Rajan: The Legend of the Village Warriors, 2000, directed by Thanit Jitnukul), which focused not on royalty but on patriotic chao baan.

Sat Pralaat might seem a good way out of the difficulties, since it is admired by foreign talking heads, film critics, and well-educated aficionados of “world cinema” — “our kind of people,” one could say. Unfortunately, of course, they are not really “our kind of people,” because they are situated differently. Sophisticated filmgoers in New York and Tokyo, Paris and Berlin, London and Toronto, are accustomed by a long intellectual tradition not to expect to “understand” a film in any fixed, unambiguous way. Hence a culture of what is technically called “multiple readings.” They can watch Robert Bresson’s astonishing, austere Pickpocket (1959) as a film about the alienation of modern urban life, or a Catholic meditation on original sin, or a study of repressed homosexuality, or an allegory of French politics in the 1940s, or... without excluding the alternatives. Typically, the intellectual investment is in the aesthetics of the film, an investment that French intellectuals share with their Japanese and Canadian comrades.

This kind of investment is much more difficult for Thai intellectuals, who naturally want a Thai sakon film to be both “world-class/global” and also Thai. This means that the investment is primarily nationalist, which by definition is not sakon. Since the deeper concern is political, there is bound to be some hostility, open or concealed, towards the opening up of anything “truly Thai” to the fluid operations of “multiple readings.” Foreigners, like Cannes juror Quentin Tarantino, can admire Sat Pralaat’s ambiguities and highly sophisticated narrative technique, and yet still happily say, “It is wonderful, and I don’t understand it.” But this position is not easily available for some Bangkok intellectuals, who find it difficult to say both, “It is a great Thai film” and, “I don’t really understand it.” After all they ought to understand it in a straightforward, unambiguous way, just because they are “good Thai.” Apichatpong has made their position all the more difficult in that, at least in Siam itself, he has insisted in his interviews that his film is completely Thai and rooted in Thai traditions, including Thai popular film traditions.21 The "talking heads" in Bangkok, even if they are not completely committed to River of Kings official nationalism, still find it hard to see why a very expensive product of that nationalism, such as Suriyothai, is, at the sakon level, something of no interest. It is merely boring “provincial cinema” — for anthropological specialists only. It says nothing to anyone who is not Thai. Needless to say, these people do not relish the idea that official patriotism at home is provinciality on the world stage.

Why should this be so? One plausible line of argument is that there is some failure to distinguish between the tourist industry and world cinema. The Thai industry has been spectacularly successful in getting short-term holiday-makers to rush-enjoy the Grand Palace, the spectacular Phra Kaew temple, the ancient ruins of Sukhotai, Phanom Rung and Ayutthaya, the beach resorts of Patthaya, Phuket, and Samui Island, as well as Thai food, Thai friendliness, and the polymorphous Thai sex industry. But this enjoyment is superficial, as befits holiday-makers, who, while they are in Siam, form a captive market. On the other hand, this local enjoyment by backpackers, retired people, holidaying Japanese businessmen, etc., has nothing whatever to do with the satisfactions of global cinephilia. This discrepancy can make some educated Bangkokian find it difficult to understand why the droves of tourists who are happy to buy tickets — in Bangkok — to the see the Grand Palace have no wish at all to see Suriyothai in Berlin or Rotterdam, where viewers do not regard themselves as tourists.

Probably this is why Bangkok “talking heads,” in their double position as spokespeople for "Thainess" and members of sakon culture, tend to find themselves trapped. Since sakon culture admires Apichatpong, they wish to admire him too. But they cannot take any pleasure in the idea that they “do not understand him.” The way out of the dilemma is to insist that Sat Pralaat is “difficult” and “mysterious.” We can thus see why it is highly “abstract” and/or “surreal,” and therefore completely unsuitable for circulation in the rural and small-town interior of the country

One can hardly doubt that Apichatpong enjoys all this. This is why his title is so perfectly multivalent. Who, in today’s Siam, are the “strange beasts?” Awkward question, no doubt about it.

Postscript: Receptions Elsewhere

Events in Siam since the coup d’état of September 2006 have made it plain that discussing the reception of Sat Pralaat among different strata and regions of Thai society is no longer sufficient, if indeed it ever was. Early in 2007 Apichatpong’s latest big film, Saeng Sattawat [Light of a/the Century, but given the English title Syndromes and a Century], which had been shown very successfully at various sakon film festivals, came up for review by the state board of censors (a mix of police, bureaucrats, and intellectuals-of-a-sort), which insisted that it could only be released in Siam if four brief scenes were eliminated. In two of these scenes Buddhist monks are depicted in ways that the censor-viewers could not tolerate — in the first one sees a young monk strumming on a guitar, while in the second two monks of different ages are pictured in a public park playing with a battery-charged toy UFO. The other two scenes take place in a hospital.22 First one sees a tired, middle-aged lady doctor at the end of a gruelling day pulling a bottle of liquor from its hiding-place in a prosthetic leg and sharing a drink with a couple of younger colleagues. Later one sees a young doctor passionately kissing his girlfriend, while the camera drifts briefly down to the man’s middle, where one hand is clutching an erection concealed inside his trousers.

The censors are film-viewers of a special type. They are not interested in either quality or commercial success. While they usually share the Bangkok middle class’s disdain for “up-country people,” they also, as an arm of the state, share the bureaucracy’s traditional paternalism. Thus they feel entitled to decide what is good for the “infantile” masses of the people to see on the screen — above all when the films are Thai rather than foreign. (Nothing is less agreeable than Apichatpong’s films, which are deeply sympathetic to “up-country people” and keep the state almost invisible.) They are not required to justify their decisions publicly. It is enough to say that scenes to be deleted are “offensive” to their nannyish notions of “Thai” propriety. In fact, Thai newspapers are full of scandals about monks’ sexual misdeeds, financial manipulations, drug-abuse and so on. But normally the names of these monks are mentioned, i.e., as individuals, and their activities are accessible only through print. What Apichatpong had done, however, was to show in visual motion some unnamed (so to speak, “any”) monks enjoying themselves in a way that would interest no scandal-hungry newspaper. Even if in real life one can easily observe monks having fun, the official nationalist-Buddhist position is that monks must be dedicated, wise, austere, and always serious people. So Apichatpong’s gentle satire could be regarded as lèse-Buddhism. The Thai are a liquor-loving people, and it would be very surprising if some doctors, at the end of the working day, do not have a drink or two in their hospitals, and take a little time out to kiss their girl- or boyfriends in a private nook. But the state tries to sustain the prestige of Thai hospitals and the public’s trust in Thai doctors by cultivating a public image of authority, austerity, wisdom and seriousness.23 So to speak, secular monks.

This was not the first time that Apichatpong had run into censorship, as we shall see, but it was the first occasion where this censorship came from the state. Doubtless to the board’s surprise, Apichatpong refused to cut anything, and withdrew his request for permission to circulate the film in his own country.24 This was also the first time any Thai filmmaker had not caved in to, or attempted to bargain with, the censors.

One cannot be sure, but it is possible that the board might have acted differently prior to the September coup. It did not, after all, either censor or ban Sat Pralaat. To be sure, it has long had double standards, such that foreign, especially Hollywood, films often circulate uncensored, despite their gory violence and fairly graphic sex, while Thai films have been much more strictly policed. But since the coup, censorship of the media has become much more intense, elaborate, and arbitrary. Furthermore, the coup leaders, facing their enemy, Thaksin’s populist nationalism, have felt it necessary to enforce (and reinforce) the traditional official nationalism, with its three icons, Monarchy, Buddhism, and Nation — recipe for pharisaism, euphemism, and conformity. It is also possible, if not likely, that Apichatpong might earlier have acted differently, at least less brusquely; but maybe in 2007 he saw his own troubles as like those of many others whose freedom of expression was being repressed by the coup-makers and the state apparatus.

One could thus speak of an increased politicisation. Though Sut Saneha is ostensibly apolitical, the central male character is a poor illegal migrant from Burma, who is warned by the two Thai women who protect and love him that he must pretend to be dumb, so that his speech does not give him away. Such Burmese workers, fleeing poverty and interminable repression in their own country, have often been the victims of ruthless Thai employers, police, military, gangsters, and social hostility. Without explicitly saying so, the film is on the side of the Burmese boy and his Thai friends. Sat Pralaat is also seemingly apolitical, but this was the first Thai film that focused seriously and powerfully on the love between two men, and so broke with a long-standing official-national taboo.25

Hence, after rejecting the demands of the censors, Apichatpong, along with colleagues, friends, admirers, and activists, began last May to organise a serious protest against the whole system of arbitrary censorship, demanding at the very least a rational, clear, and even-handed rating-system for Thai (and foreign) films.

Yet in some ways state censorship may be less insidious than that practiced by another, less visible, set of "viewers" who mostly share the censors’ indifference to quality, but are deeply interested in commercial success. These are the Bangkok entrepreneurs who control, more or less successfully, financial backing for new films, own the cinemas and multiplexes of the country, and regulate the production and especially distribution of VCDs and DVDs. They are also people rich enough to have formidable connections within the state apparatus. Essentially we are speaking of a sometimes rivalrous cartel of three “family” commercial empires owned by... luk jin! This essay is not the place to go into much detail, since our focus is on Apichatpong and Sat Pralaat. Suffice it to say that the “big enchilada” is the vain “Sia [Boss] Jiang,” aka Jiang Sae Tae, aka Somsak Techaratanaprasert who controls Sahamongkol Film International, for the production of local films and the import of popular foreign films. He also indirectly controls the SF chain of cinemas and multiplexes, which has wide influence through its power to decide what films will or will not be shown. It seems that early on Apichatpong approached “Boss Jiang” to get funds for his films. He must have been partly successful, since the Thai DVD and VCD of Sut Saneha was produced by a distributor contracted to Sahamongkol. Apichatpong reports that the contract included a clause that any cuts required his consent, but in fact he was never consulted and the film was mangled. Busy preparing Sat Pralaat, and feeling helpless, he let the mangled version go through. The authentic DVD, produced in Paris, has not seriously circulated in Siam. The final scene of the film never had a chance to be censored by the state, as private enterprise had already decisively intervened.26 Not surprisingly, Apichatpong and “Boss Jiang” fell out. This is why the only Thai filmmaker to have won a top prize (actually two!) at Cannes has never been included into the lavishly-funded official delegations from Bangkok to the festival. It is also probably the reason why Sat Pralaat was never shown up-country, and shown only for three weeks, at one cinema, in Bangkok.

This fate of Sat Pralaat cannot easily be explained by Sahamongkol alone, but rather by collusion with another component of the film cartel. This is the Major Cineplex Group, controlled by Vicha Poolvoralaks and his kinsmen, who own the largest chain of multiplexes (perhaps 70%). Major is mainly a very powerful exhibition and distribution empire.

The last member of the cartel is GTH, a film production company created by a merger (compelled by the industry’s financial problems) of the production houses Tai Entertainment and Hub Ho Hin, into the integrated entertainment empire GMM Grammy, headed by “Ah Koo” Paiboon Damrongchaitham. GTH differs from the other members of the cartel in that “Ah Koo,” acting on good advice, has championed a number of talented young directors using sophisticated technical methods, but primarily doing edgy mainstream films (for example, Dek Hor [The Dorm, 2006] and Beautiful Boxer). Many of these films are quite good, as well as popular, yet they are nothing like Apichatpong’s creations. It is interesting, however, that “Ah Koo” provided 25% of the budget for Sat Pralaat — at the last minute — allowing it to be finished just in time for Cannes.27 But GTH does not have the distributional power of Sahamongkol and Major, and so does not seem to have functioned as Apichatpong’s censor.

In the end, the cartel probably matters more than the state board of censors, because it operates out of the limelight, and is rooted in huge, entrenched financial interests. Apichatpong’s genius and reputation have enabled him to bypass the cartel at one level, by providing him with financial backers overseas, mainly in Western Europe. But these backers
can only help him make the films, not distribute them to his countrymen.

— A Life Beyond Boundaries by Benedict Anderson is out now


Notes:

1) This is an expanded version of the essay that first appeared, in Thai, in Sinlapawatthanatham magazine, July 2006, pp. 140–53. [Editor’s note: There are two ways of transliterating the Thai language, one following the sounds and the other the letters. Benedict Anderson’s essay employs the sound system, therefore the Thai film titles, names etc. are spelled differently here than in the other essays and in the filmography.]

2) The English language version of the title is the rather exotic Tropical Malady. The Thai title, which means literally "Strange Beast," refers to the shape-shifting were-tiger of folklore and legend. Curiously enough, in the first gay magazines of the early 1980s, one can find the term occasionally used as gayspeak for a penis, or for a male homosexual. When I asked Apichatpong whether he knew of this usage, he said he’d never heard of it, and it must have died out when he was still very young.

3) Sut Saneha means something like "Total Happiness." But the English title given it was Blissfully Yours.

4) "Alongkot" is actually Alongkot Maiduang, who writes film criticism under the pen-name "Kanlaphraphruek." He has published an excellent, searching survey of Apichatpong’s films in his collection of film criticism, Asia 4: si yod phu kamkap haeng asia tawan ok [Four Top East Asian Directors], pp. 123–62. He has also made a number of short films which were shown at the 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival in 2005.

5) Apichatpong has written to me that it was actually shown in only one cinema, the Lido, but for three weeks.

6) He actually uses a Thai-ified form of the word "romantic."

7) Kratheuy is an old Khmer word adopted into the Thai language. It means an effeminate man who likes to dress in women’s clothes. It should be noted that the kratheuy are a recognised group in traditional Thai society, even if usually stigmatised. The word and the concept of "gay" only entered Thai in the late 1970s. Note that the interviewer deliberately poses his question as an oxymoron – could a macho soldier really be an effeminate? – to see how the villagers will react.

8) Nidhi is by general agreement Siam’s greatest historian, as well as a brilliant essayist, columnist, satirist, and principled social activist.

9) Isan is northeastern Siam, the poorest region of the country. The people’s main language is a dialect which is closer to Lao than Central Thai. It is especially famous for its popular folk-derived music. Isan people are usually looked down on by Bangkokians as dark-skinned, rough, and unsophisticated.

10) Tony Jaa’s debut was a huge commercial success in Siam, and went on to become a hit in the international market as well. Tony comes from Isan, and is rather dark-skinned. In fact, he is quite good-looking, but the girls’ idea of masculine beauty is centred on skin-colour. Perhaps I should add that Taling Chan is a part of Thonburi on the western ("wrong-side of the tracks") bank of the Chao Phraya river, facing "Bangkok." Charmingly still full of gardens, orchards, and canals, it retains a somewhat rural atmosphere, and very few foreigners live there. But it is being gentrified, and the Central Mall is a magnet for west-bank, upwardly-mobile, middle class people. Not far away is the "hick" Pata Plaza, frequented by the lower classes. If one watches a film there, one hears the audience loudly commenting and cheering on the hero — in the Isan dialect.

11) The translation is not really satisfactory. Naak is not an ordinary snake, but a Naga, a fabulous kind of serpent.

12) Not to be confused with Thai Rak Thai [Thai love Thai], the name of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s huge political party.

13) The title was deliberately provocative. We have seen earlier how the Lao-speaking people of Isan are often looked down on by Bangkokians, who also regard Laos as a "little brother" of Siam. Jek is a derogatory word for Chinese, analogous to "Chink."

14) The upper class, including the royal family, is also of partly Chinese origins, but this is not widely recognised in the public sphere.

15) After the coup of 1932, which overthrew the absolutist monarchy, all the titles traditionally granted by the King to favoured male officials were abolished in the spirit of egalitarian democracy. Oddly enough, titles for females were preserved: it is said that this anomaly was the result of pressure by the wives of a few of the top coup leaders. “Khunying” is a title bestowed on a married woman by the Thai King in two categories; the first one is as recognition of her outstanding humanitarian or social work or involvement. The second one is as the wife of a very high-ranking government officer.

16) “Official nationalism” emanates from the state rather than from popular movements, and was created in Europe in the second half of the 19th century by worried dynastic rulers fearful of just such movements. For a detailed discussion, see my Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991, chapter 6).

17) This machine, celebrating the palaces, temples and monuments of the rulers of Bangkok, through which the Chao Phraya river flows, was originally aimed at boosting the tourist industry: son et lumière shows, luxury river cruises, and so on. But more recently it has evinced as much a political as a commercial character.

18) The great majority of immigrants from coastal South East China have been Teochiu-speakers. In fact the sociological profile of Thammasat is not markedly different from that of other prestigious universities in Bangkok, but Thammasat’s cheerful self-mockery is unique.

19) Noi Inthanon is the pen name of the prolific writer and journalist Malai Chuphinit (1906-1963). These novels have a real life element as Malai himself was an experienced hunter; and, like the bond between the hero and his trusted Karen guide, he counted among his closest friends the Karens who led him into the heart of the Kanchanaburi jungles.

20) In fact, these jungle novels were serially broadcast, with great success, in the pre-TV age.

21) Until quite recently, educated Thai rarely watched commercial Thai film, which they regarded as low-class, unsophisticated, and meant for the "up-country" market. Their tastes ran rather to the products of Hollywood and Hong Kong.

22) The film is taken to be an indirect tribute to Apichatpong’s parents, both doctors, who worked in a hospital in Khon Khaen, the “capital” of Isan, while he was growing up. I was able to view the banned scenes at an open meeting in May 2007, designed to rally filmmakers and film-lovers against the whole arbitrary system of censorship.

23) Apichatpong informs me that the censors invited the Medical Council of Thailand and the Council of Buddhist Monks to a special private showing. These organisations are controlled by elderly conservatives, and are by no means representative. Apichatpong slyly wonders whether the Council of Buddhist Monks representatives had ever watched those popular local horror movies which feature monks running amok.

24) In an unguarded moment one of the censors, a scaly Thammasat University teacher who doubles as a henchman to “Sia Jiang” (see below), allowed himself to be interviewed on tape. His remarks showed that he had it in for Apichatpong as “too big for his boots,” “pretending to be a big international star,” “running down religion,” and “focusing on faggots.”

25) It is a matter of public representation. At least two of Siam’s post-World War II prime ministers have been widely known to prefer their own sex to the opposite, but the media never showed photographs of them with their lovers, or referred directly to their sexual tastes.

26) The Burmese man and the two women have escaped,for a time, into the jungle, where they happily bathe in a little stream, chat and doze off. The man falls into a deep exhausted slumber. The younger woman, his lover, watches him with a contented smile on her faces, fishes his penis out of his shorts, and caresses it without waking him up.

27) As usually happens when three large businesses merge, the leaders of GMM, Tai Entertainment and Hub Ho Hin share seats on the new executive board, and have brought some of their staff with them into the conglomerate’s structure. Opposition to the daring of “Ah Koo” led him to create an autonomous company called Tifa to outflank this opposition. Alas, Tifa has recently been closed down.

Benedict Anderson's A Life Beyond Boundaries is out now.