20 December 2009

นางนากเดอะมิวเซียม | Nang Nak The Museum

Those who are Thai or live in Thailand for a certain period of time would more than likely know about the legend of Nang Nak of Phra Khanong, of how she died at childbirth and became a ghost waiting for her husband. Of course, her ghost is scary and well-revered by Thai people as her statue is propped up in Wat Mahabutr, nowadays reachable by BTS.

So it comes as no surprise that there should be a play that parodies the legend and exposes some prejudices that hide behind the powerful myth. Veteran director Damkueng Tithapiyasak manages to do so as well as add some humour to this play, making it one of the most funny plays in this year. So funny that the play has been restaged twice and I was one of the audience of the second restaging at the Makhampom Studio in Saphan Kwai.

The plotline is crisscrossed between the past and the present, beginning at the attempt of some people to make a film about Nang Nak. Their decision to invite a media to make the whole show more realistic creates a setback in which Nang Nak is called back to the present, pestering one of the staff whom she believes is her reincarnated husband. The premise is interesting in the sense that we see how Nang Nak tries to adapt and learn about Thailand at the present, such as the Skytrain, and Westernised commodities that litter the contemporary Bangkok landscape, as well as the redefinition of Nang Nak herself not as a scary ghost but a confused woman. Also, she needs to face the fact that her husband is no longer the same man but a modern man who is now seeing someone else.

As the story progresses, we start to see how the play touches on various prejudices that the myth seeks to hide. We start to realise how in the old days Nang Nak was maltreated by her husband and domestic violence was something so common that people didn't talk about it. We also learn how lonely Nang Nak was, waiting for her husband to come back. However, the play also acknowledges the role of gossips and rumours that makes the whole legend blurry and we are not so sure which part is fact and which is fiction, yet it cannot be denied that the power of the legend is firmly engraved on the mentality of Thai public.

The ending is ingenious as it turns out that the ghost of Nang Nak will only disappear if her reincarnated husband simply finds a new girlfriend and forgets her completely, thus re-emphasising the power of men who can dictate the life and death of women. Women, on the other hand, are dependent on men and live on their mercy. Nang Nak's resignation at the end is somehow not as important as the flippancy on her husband's part and the dominance of patriarchal codes that is very much latent in Thai society.

Eternal Summer

Lately I have watched quite a few Asian films, especially Taiwanese and Korean ones. Eternal Summer is one of those that I have managed to watch despite my increasingly busy schedule (Facebook is, of course, to blame for this!). I didn't know anything about this before, but the idea of a triangle love relationship among two men and one woman sounded pretty interesting, especially when a man and a woman compete for the same guy.

The gender dimension does add some spark to this film, as it makes the whole thing much more complicated. Jonathan and Shane have been best friends since childhood with the former secretly falling in love with the latter. The film focuses on Jonathan's sexual growth, from innocence to gradual acknowledgement of same-sex desire. However, for him, Shane is obviously a straight guy stereotyped by his gifted ability to play basketball and, thus, being a heartthrob at school. Yet, Shane seems to be loyal to his best friend and spends more time with him than other people, thus making Jonathan at once fragile, confused, angry, and frustrated.

The entry of Carrie into their lives changes the structure of their relationship, as she is compared to a comet that comes in the orbit of the earth around the sun. Her gradual fondness for Shane makes Jonathan even more bitter and jealous, as he tries to channel his emotion for Shane onto his study. What I find rather intriguing is the fact that, despite having Carrie as his girlfriend, Shane does not ignore Jonathan, but tries to engage him even more for fear of losing their friendship, which Shane deems as precious.

The ending is of course one of the most challenging parts of the film, as Leste Chen the director faces with the dilemma of Shane choosing either Jonathan or Carrie. However, Chen's decision to have the story stop at the point where the the development of the three characters remains indecisive has a highly emotional impact, as the audience becomes confused and wishes Shane to settle for one or the other. Personally, I like this kind of "unending" ending as it is both realistic and artistic at the same time -- artistic in the sense that life is artistic and that life is intensely ambiguous and fuzzy.

When the film finishes, I just sympathize with all three characters who emerge both sad and smitten with unfulfilled desire at the same time. Shane wants his friendship with Jonathan and his love for Carrie to last forever, but Jonathan cannot keep being friends with Shane because he does not want to get hurt from unrequited love. What he needs is love, not just friendship. This is reinforced by the fact that he repudiates and abhors Shane's successful attempt to rape him, knowing fully well that Shane does not want him sexually but that he does it so that Jonathan can be "friends" with him. Sex here does not mean love but power and oppression.

However, watching this film makes me wonder such complicated issues as love and friendship. Do we really have a clear boundary between the two? Is sex really one of the factors distinguishing between love and friendship? Of course, each person has their own answers to these.