29 April 2008

4 Bia สี่แพร่ง

Hey, do I need to tell you that there are some spoilers? But I know you want to read it anyway.

A horror film from GTH, also the producer of the critically acclaimed Shutter, 4 Bia (in my opinion quite an awkward pun on phobia) or 4 Praeng ('an intersection' in Thai) is fun to watch. There are four mini-stories that are barely connected, probably a good sign that we nowadays are beginning to suffer from short concentration span. A long, epic film is probably too tedious and we are too lazy to follow all the action and details. These mini-stories are better, like mini-cornettos or mini-kitkat, in that they are not too formidable but cute and approachable.

I am one of those 'mini' fans, preferring of late to watch The Simpsons or CSI rather than an epic film. 4 Praeng is also enjoyable in this sense too. I think that horror films should not be too long that the audience (who nowadays are very hard to please and become increasingly sophisticated and senile at the same time) start to get bored. However, 4 Praeng is still conventional in the sense that it uses ghosts to teach moral, and at times not even a good, acceptable one.

Let me transform myself into a feminist (something quite hard to imagine!) to give examples. In the first story centering around a young woman who is confined in her cramped apartment room socialising with an unknown man through text messages. She is killed at the end, presumably because that man is already dead and finally comes to take her to live with him in a ghost world. What has she done wrong? Perhaps the moral is: don't be a slut because you may be killed by an unknown man (who happens to be handsome). Also, another moral is: don't break a man's heart, because he can take his own life and become very vengeful. Pretending to be a feminist, I couldn't help but find this short film really misogynistic, as it functions as a didactic lesson for all women out there not to be a slut. But what's wrong with that? Women also have desire and living in such a bleak urban space one is bound to desire to have a friend of the opposite gender. Why don't you punish men who are real hunters out there?

This is exactly the point that leads to gender bias in the last short film, Flight 224, in which an air hostess is asked to take care of the corpse of a princess who has earlier died from food poisoning. It turns out that the air hostess has been seeing the princess's husband and the princess becomes a ghost who tries every means possible to scare the air hostess shitless. What I find about this film is that, despite its powerful suspense, the real culprit is not brought to justice. Yes, I'm talking about the prince, who is probably seeing another woman by now. Sadly I think the princess is punishing the wrong person, who turns out to be a victim just like her.

Women are also victims in the second short film too. One of them is presumably punished because she is a slut who kisses a friend in a library. Another is dead simply because she refuses to help or do anything. But the real victim is a young abused boy who is also killed simply because he seeks supernatural help. I couldn't help but wonder what's the message of this. Does this victimized boy deserve to be killed too? Perhaps long gone are old traditional horror films where evil people are punished and good people are rewarded. In their place is a new streak of horror films where everyone dies! For what sake? Or simply for the sake of its pure spectacles of violence?

The moral of this story is: do not fall into the role of a victim or a victimiser. Just run away from them all! But doesn't it also mean that we in contemporary Thai society should just avoid 'action' or refuse to join any political event because once you let your voice be heard, you take sides. And taking sides can be very dangerous ...

Another moral: violence sells.

Let me finish this review with the third story, which involves four young men camping in a forest. Perhaps for me it's the allegory of all four male directors who have done a great job in delivering good horror films that keep the audience in suspense all through (though I don't quite like the CG in some places). But does this third story also signal that these directors may not fully realise the deeper layers of the messages they convey that effectively serve the mainstream ideologies in both sexual and political dimensions. Perhaps what they have done unwittingly is carrying on the legacies of political inactivism and ruthless patriarchy through the disguise of pure violence.

20 April 2008

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone เปลือยหัวใจเหงา

Another poetical film by Tsai Ming-Liang, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone touches on the issues of sexuality, desire, and loneliness in a Malaysian cityscape. Homosexuality features in the film as well, but only as a form of desire caused by loneliness. The three main characters, Hsiao-Kang, Rawang, and Chyi, are labour immigrants whose lives are limited in loitering in a loveless city or liminal spaces where they're allowed to live. In this sense, the film offers a sharp critique of how the authorities deal with the problem of immigration that may be in conflict with the issue of human rights.

But I think that the target of the film is also more general than that. City living, which makes people become strangers to one another, may perhaps be a reason why these people feel so alienated and lonely. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone in this light is not different from Help Me Eros or Bangkok Love Story, which portray the city as a breeding ground for such negative feelings. However, what distinguishes this film from Bangkok Love Story is a superb storytelling. Like Help Me Eros, by reducing the dialogue down to a minimum and letting the silent narrative tell the story, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone manages to make us feel uncomfortable, thus forcing us to look back at our own empty life. Cinematography may not be as good as in Bangkok Love Story, but the choice of angles and perspectives manages to convey the senses of discomfort, loneliness, and despair.

Symbolism plays a great part in the film. The smoke that is believed to have come from Indonesia makes the whole city look like a ghost town. The smoke actually impedes human intimacy, as can be seen in the scene whereby Chyi and Hsiao-Kang try to make love. A paralysed man whom Chyi needs to take care can denote how we urban people are left in a state of emotional indifference and become essentially unresponsive to what happens around them.

A mattress also functions to denote a form of both spiritual and physical sanctuary and it is moved more than once all around the city. The ending scene whereby the mattress is shown floating adrift in a pool in a construction site is perhaps a telling image of how these labourers are being cast adrift in the big city jungle. I think the director not only portrays the negative senses of despair and loneliness these people feel, but also manages to show how they survive all these obstacles. However, long gone is the recourse to natural imagery. The mattress itself is man-made and the lamp that Hsiao-Kang buys for Chyi is also very artificial. These artificial objects somehow tell us how far removed we are from nature in this comtemporary urban setting.

However, the use of such artificial settings as makeshift living areas, lonely roads and a neglected construction site does not mean that beautiful things do not exist. It is actually in the construction site that a butterfly (not a colourful one, but one that looks more like a moth) flies and perches on Hsiao-Kang's shoulder. If we take butterflies to mean love and desire, perhaps it means that in such a desolate space there is still desire and love and it can potentially turn this space into a magical land. From this point of view, we can still see that great things still exist. The fact that Rawang, out of his love and forgiveness, decides not to kill Hsiao-Kang and even let him have the mattress to sleep with Chyi, is worth mentioning here. We are however not told what happens to Rawang but understandably we can see how painful this may've caused, especially if we take into account that it's Rawang, who has helped Hsiao-Kang to recover from the beating. Rawang's unrequited love for Hsiao-Kang is sad but his forgiveness is heroic, especially when one thinks that he hasn't got much and the mattress seems to be his most precious object.

Some people may find this film sad and ugly, but I find it very beautiful and optimistic.

18 April 2008

Design + Culture ดีไซน์ + คัลเจอร์

I just read Design + Culture by Pracha Suveeranont (Sameskybooks, 2008) and I was impressed with a wide range of cultural issues that this book touches on. The book itself is divided into five parts: identity, style, icon, information, and object. Each part consists of essays on things from everyday life, ranging from toothbrushes to the fist symbol. For Pracha, design is not there just to impress lookers-on, but entails a complex system of meaningful production. A fist, for example, can represent different political ideologies in different contexts. The design of a map is not always a realistic rendition; sometimes it means abstraction and unavoidable simplification.

I think the publication of this book is timely, as our culture is getting increasingly visual. We are forced to see more or make sense of our life through our eyes much more than other sense organs. What we see is not always innocent but those who work in design and advertisement tend to hide something underneath. In other words, it is not only aesthetics but commercialised politics that plays a significant role. Reading this book then is perhaps indispensable for those who wish to decode modern-day commercials or other visual propaganda in a properly informed way. By the way, this book is reader-friendly and jargon-free. You don't need to be a semiotic guru to read it, but you may wish to be one after you read it.

So what's next? I just wish we'll have our own Thai version of Judith Williamson's Decoding Advertisements. Our ads industry is very vibrant right now and perhaps it's also very timely to have a good book that is about the development and trends in Thai ads. Anyone out there wants to accept this challenge?

16 April 2008


Wednesday afternoon. The last day of the holiday season, the last hours of relaxation and peace before hectic life resumes tomorrow morning. I've heard of Shortbus for a long time and the DVD has been on the shelf for a long time. But the problem is I didn't have time to watch it. So today is a good day to fulfill my wish -- watching the film and writing something about it.

I'm sure a lot of prudes will be put off by the first five minutes of the film, when there're scenes of strong sexual nature like self-fellatio, orgasm, and weird sexual positions. These scenes are meant to draw attention and set the general tone and as the film progresses we start to realise that these sexual scenes are not there to make you cum but are there to make you think. (I think this is a good reason why it's not porn -- but hey what's wrong with porn anyway!) Sex in Shortbus is a substitute for love and the film is strategically set in New York after the 9/11 incident. John Cameron Mitchell wishes to portray, I believe, how the tragic incident has changed how people, including him, view their lives. Along with other cultural manifestations of the same era, Shortbus shows how cynicism doesn't help, how such a blase feeling of been-there done-that is suddenly out of place. Cynicism and such a blase attitude (which is very urban) desensitise people, making people 'feel' less and becoming more reserved and indifferent, insensitive to their own and others' emotion. Somehow this also incapacitates their ability to love.

This indifference to love is rendered symbolically through some bodily taboos -- how Sofia hasn't experienced orgasm and how James hasn't allowed anyone to 'penetrate' him. Sex is used here not as a celebration of life, but as a reiteration of how we are left unfulfilled emotionally. I think this is especially the case with cosmopolitan people who have so much sexual experience of many kinds and with many species of beings, but have so little time to reflect on them. After all, who wouldn't want to impress their friends with their sexual escapades?

Like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus manages to give an optimistic view on this premise. Perhaps what we need in this new millennium is once again a spirit of camaraderie, a rapport among those who are equally 'lost' in the big city. And this has never been more true than in a post 9/11 New York, when people realise that at least there's something 'real' in their lives. It's sad though to think that one needs such a tragedy to affirm that their life is real.

The soundtrack of the film is also good. If you like the songs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, you will probably like those in Shortbus too. They're kind of uplifting and perhaps good to sing along in your bad days. Let me give you my favourite part of the song at the end:

there's a past stained with tears

could you talk to quiet my fears

could you pull me aside

just to acknowledge that i've tried ...

13 April 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera

If you don't have anything to do during the Songkran Festival, when people become so mad with hot weather that they just splash water to others, I would recommend you go to see Love in the Time of Cholera. Of course, a lot of people would say that it cannot be compared to Garcia Marquez's novel, but I think at least if you want to see what the atmosphere of Colombia's tropical town of Cartagena is like, you'd better not miss it. I read the actual novel quite a while ago, and I was quite intrigued by Gabo's portrayal of love by two old people, something that will probably be looked upon with contempt by youngsters or middle-aged people. Of course, it's a sort of melodrama, playing on the ideal love of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza which hasn't changed for over fifty years. If you expect this novel to be like One Hundred Years of Solitude, where magical events abound, this one is different: it doesn't show Colombia as peopled by flying carpets or supernatural events, but a country where real passion still exists and, along with it, dignity and charm.

Watching the film brings these features to the fore, as we see how Florentino Ariza, the source of which is Gabo's own father, who was also a telegrapher, stays 'loyal' to his love. Well, at least it's 'loyal' in the sense created by Latin men influenced by the cult of machismo. Florentino still sleeps with other girls (622 to be exact) along the way while Fermina is married to a prestigious doctor. However, as can be expected, Florentino finds these sexual encounters empty and just a form of temporary release. (I'm sure there can be a very interesting feminist perspective on this.) His ultimate quest is for the hand of Fermina in a marriage after the death of her husband. Yes, he plans to wait until his arch-enemy dies. The beauty of course lies in his patience and his 'loyalty' to Fermina.

However, Love in the Time of Cholera doesn't choose to depict only the good side of love, where the hero and the heroine are happily in love ever after. Florentino himself, for instance, needs to wait for more than half a century to have his dream fulfilled. Florentino's mother becomes mad because she can't forget her husband and what he has done to her. But of course what Gabo beautifully portrays is the heroism of these people who remain sincere to what they believe. In this light, Fermina pales in comparison as she gets married to the doctor, whom she grows to love. I've seen quite a few Ferminas in my life; I have some friends who choose to get married to those they don't fall in love simply because they don't want to be single or because they think that they'll eventually fall in love. I don't think they're wrong but it does make me wonder that in the modern world of fast love, such heroism is perhaps out of date. Or perhaps is it possible that nowadays we're so afraid of disappointment that our system of self-preservation and defence mechanism only works too well to prevent us from knowing what 'love' actually is? Or ... are Florentino and his mother just wrong in sporting such an idealistic view of love?

Another point that is worth mulling over is desire. I believe what makes Florentino stay so loyal to Fermina is because they're not together. The impossibility of their consummation leads to Florentino's own limitless fantasy. It may be possible that if they end up together for real, they may start bickering after the first month or so. Perhaps that's why the experience of heartbroken sadness lasts longer or becomes more intense than that of marital bliss. Or are we such a masochist being that we cannot stop torturing ourselves with sad memories? That can perhaps explain why sad songs are more popular than happy ones. Also, that can explain why such tragic films as Brief Encounter win a lot of people's hearts.

Before I digress any further, I think this narrative touches on these love follies with a certain degree of self-reflection and irony. At least you can see that there're no longer 'ideal' characters as such; everyone is both the perpetrator and the victim in some respects. This certainly makes it different from other melodramas where we see a pretty clear-cut categorisation between the bad and the good. Also, it doesn't make a judgement whether what Florentino does is right or what Fermina does is wrong. This is how life actually is and how human we are. Perhaps in love there is no right or wrong, the point of which I need another occasion to elaborate on.

07 April 2008

Eat Drink Man Woman

Little that I knew that it's going to be a double bill today, but it's a national holiday today, a perfect time for clearing up outstanding bills. Eat Drink Man Woman is one of those things that have remained on my desk for a long long time. A student lent it to me. I watched it long time ago on VHS and have since wanted to refresh my memory of it.

On my second viewing, I discovered that I could get a lot more from the film and could identify more with main characters. The setting is Taipei in the time of change and modernisation, not unlike Bangkok. Like Ang Lee's other films of this period, especially The Wedding Banquet (1993), it deals with the clash between traditional and contemporary cultures or the inter-generational conflict of cultural perspectives.

The aforementioned clash is between the old father and his three daughters who have grown up and acquainted themselves with the new ways of life. The whole plot centres around confessions and dialogues during the Sunday dinner time when a Chinese family normally spends time together, mine not excluded. The film is about female sexuality and its growing acceptance in modern-day Taipei where women do tend to have more and more recognised rights in making their own decisions. However, the film says that this growing recognition does not go in line with happiness, as sometimes they do make mistakes and somehow advice from parents is still indispensable, though the parents are also no less confused in the modern urban landscape where change is quick and unpredictable.

The house is a poignant symbol; it can effectively symbolise Taipei, an old city that needs to constantly adjust itself to change. There's no time for those who linger or hold onto an old tradition. The father himself realises this in the end and chooses not to 'go gentle into the night', letting one of his daughters, Jia-Chien, to take control of the house. If we take this as an allegory, it may mean that modern Taipei is now in the hand of a capable beautiful woman, who is a great cook as well as a successful businesswoman. Gone is the day when one can take hours cooking food for a whole family. Replaced is a compromise between work and life, family and friends. But Jia-Chien is still alone, while her two sisters are married. We're not quite sure whether she's happy but she survives nonetheless.

By ending thus, the film portrays an apt picture of contemporary Taipei, where an influx of western modernisation and capitalism has replaced its old Chinese tradition and way of life. It doesn't promise happiness but it does imply that self-adjustment in face of these changes is necessary.

A Trivial Conversation

This entry has nothing to do with a film or a book, but a person. I read Daily Express, a new Thai newspaper that is given free of charge at various outlets in Bangkok. It's run by the Nation group and I think it's quite a good attempt to please both readers and advertisers. After all, who wouldn't love freebies?

But the subject today is not about this newspaper, but an interview inside with a Thai tennis player. He's just finished his time as a monk at Wat Bowonniwet. According to the interview, he said that 'I used to be consumed by rankings and ended up playing poorly. But now I let go.'

Reading up until then, I thought that his time at the temple must've changed this man as it'd made him contemplate on life and desire for material goods or superficial stuff, such as winning and rankings. However, I continued to read on and couldn't stop laughing, especially in the last paragraph when he said 'before I left the temple, I prayed to the Buddha that if I ever crack the top 100 again I will come back and be a monk for three months.' What? I thought he no longer cared about rankings and stuff!

I couldn't help but wondering now how little he had gained from his temporary monkhood. It does give a telling index, though, of how Thai people in general approach Buddhism. How much do we understand the religion? Do we practise Buddhism as a sort of superstitious belief? Or is betting our incurable nature, so indelible that we need to bet even when we practise a religion?

Reading the whole interview once again, I couldn't help but feeling sad that we seem not to realise how Buddhism can effectively be beneficial to our way of life if we do understand its essence. Our lack of understanding and the general malpractice by some practitioners of the religion may one day destroy this religion from the face of the earth. Let's hope this is not going to happen.

06 April 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), directed by Elia Kazan, proves to be another mesmerising classic film. I remembered watching his On the Waterfront (1954) quite a while ago in Buenos Aires (which was quite opportune as it was a harbour city) and Kazan did a very great job. In this film, based on Tennessee Williams' play of the same name, Kazan managed to sympathetically portray the descent into madness of Blanche Dubois, with the aid of her brute brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

The film intentionally plays on the binary opposition between female fragility and male brutality. Patriarchy is tacitly symbolised by Stanley himself, who never stops terrorising his wife and her sister. However, what complicates the matter is that male charisma is closely tied to that brutality and that's the reason why Stella cannot stop loving him despite his coarse behaviour. I believe there's some sort of attraction there, not dissimilar to "I'm drawn towards bad guys", an expression Thai girls like to use (and exculpate themselves in the process) whenever they fall in love with wrong men. Hence, the portrayal of Stanley in the film is both sexually alluring and threatening. Marlon Brando is thus not a wrong choice, though I think that he's more of the former than the latter.

I can't help sympathising with Blanche and her wild imagination. Her descent into madness somehow is not her fault but signals her entrapment in patriarchal codes where they have until then led her to the 'illusive' construction of selfhood. But who can say that it's illusive when in fact women have no choice but to identify themselves as men dictate or in accordance with the ideological appellation of patriarchal society? Stella is likewise weak and has no choice but subjugating herself to the manipulating Stanley (though at times he's not aware of his scheming as he is subject to his own emotional tantrums).

Thus, it's symbolically suitable that Blanche asks Mitch, one of her suitors, to put a fancy cover over a bare light bulb, as it means that Blanche depends on the kindness of men around her to construct her own fanciful imagination. What is sad is the fact that Blanche cannot do this without male intervention. Besides, what is even sadder is in the film she's portrayed as buying the cover herself. In fact, it's men who are the reason for her destruction, yet patriarchy always has a way to hide itself and graciously bestow the guilt onto women, to make it appear as though women were the ones who ask for and should thus be responsible for their own downfall.

Is there a glimmer of hope at the end when Stella escapes from home with her baby? I doubt that. As soon as Stanley pleads her to come back, she will be unable to resist her own temptation. I think this is precisely the point that feminism should take a close look at. Some of the feminist works I have read have simply repudiated patriarchal codes tout court, yet what they should pay attention to are the allure of patriarchy and how it makes itself indispensable to women's dependent construction of selfhood. Why does this ambivalent attitude occur? Does it mean that the love-hate relationship between women and patriarchy is unavoidable?

The film begs a lot of questions that need further scrutiny. But I've found touchingly sad is that, despite more than half a century that have gone by, we're still talking about the plight of women and their inescapable situation. What I am wondering now is whether we should stop talking about escape and find a new perspective to look at female entrapment. This will probably need another fifty years or so ...