2006/Feb/05

Urban tears

The pervasive worry is that Thai cinema is becoming a clone of what we're seeing on television. It was a distant yesteryear when audiences went to the theatre expecting something truer and tighter, something that is nice but is also tough, something that touches but also shocks. Of course we enjoyed that period in the 1970s, when Thai cinema still had a point. And I believe that for Thai cinema to continue to have a point, our movies should no longer be inspired by the sentiments made easy by TV spoonfeeding _ from broad comedies to horror hack-jobs and recycled melodramas _ because otherwise a trip to the theatre will become totally worthless.

Santi Taepanich's

What drove Santi to chronicle the day-to-day struggles of four Northeastern migrants in Bangkok was not the journalistic socio-political itch of pure documentarians, but his curiosity about the unseen lives of these displaced individuals. Santi, whose short films are true crowd-pleasers, captures the inherent absurdities and casual optimism of his subjects _ a C-grade stuntman, a gay comedian-wannabe, a female taxi driver, and a luk thoong superstar _ and readies his camera at their confessional, often tearful moments. And as the urban adventures of these people progress (the movie follows them for a year) the director is drawn by the dramatic potential of their unshakeable sorrow, so much so that his objectivity sways and the movie morphs into sentimentalised quasi reality TV.

In other words, the movie knew that the four tigers had to cry, otherwise there'd be no Crying Tigers.

It starts off on a different note though; the movie's strongest point is its ability to record the buried pathos disguised as everyday comedy. Crying Tigers opens with the story of Man, an innocent-eyed Isan migrant who practises an odd job at a seafood restaurant on Ratchadaphisek Road: he'd dress up as a fish, and dances away on the footpath trying to get the attention of passing vehicles (his colleagues are crabs, shrimps and mussels). In the interview, Man begins to croon a sad folk tune and reveals to the camera that he wishes to become a comedian.

The doc then intercuts Man's part with three others. We meet Nate, a husky part-time cook and stuntman who risks his life in direct-to-VCD action flicks, and who says with shy idealism that one day he'd like to make it as big as Panom ``Jaa'' Yeerum, star of the worldwide hit Ong-bak. The next character is Oi, a female taxi driver with a sweet voice who has an unusual ambition to drive a giant truck.

But the subject that moors this shuffled narrative in solid ground is folk singer Pornsak Songsang, a wiry, grave-looking luk thoong superstar. To his credit, Santi braved so many refusals to finally get a rare interview with this reclusive folk artist; the meeting takes place in a sleazy love motel, where Pornsak, despite his status as a top upcountry singer, prefers to stay when he arrives in Bangkok. Pornsak's rueful lament that his fame can never defeat the tyranny of homesickness serves as a counterpoint to the struggle of the three other characters: letting himself be videoed at his most casual (topless, with a towel below), the tired, world-weary singer represents a success case, but the mournfulness in his voice, when he says how much he misses spending time with his family in the rustic Northeast, is an off-handed warning to other Isan natives who luck it out in the capital.

These brief glimpses into the souls help Santi sketch portraits of lives lived below the urban bourgeoisie's radar, and shows us the city's crummier, unhappier other half _ a strata of which we're aware but likely to ignore. But the movie aspires to be more than that, and for me the problem is it eventually gets too close to its subjects. Instead of regarding them, it goes further, at certain points, to dramatise their sorrow. The filmmaker seems to discover the drama of his movie, and there are manipulative efforts to steer the emotion into certain directions.

Man, the comedian-wannabe, gets his shot by joining a band of professional comedians _ with the recommendation of the director. Meanwhile Oi the cabbie fulfills her wish by getting to drive an 18-wheeler back to her village in the Northeast, again with the arrangement of the filmmaker. We also get a tearful sequence when Nate the stuntman breaks down in front of the camera; and what we sense is not the assault of unedited realism, but curiously a familiar melodrama.

I'm not trying to downplay the suffering of these individuals on this page, but I think the power of this ``documentary'' is hampered by its heavy-handed techniques and editing. It's always debatable how documentaries _ even news reports _ can deliver ``truth'' in its purest sense. Every doc goes through a selective filter of its maker, and sometimes it's the attitude of the filmmaker that counts as much as what's showing on screen. Take Fahrenheit 9/11, or Super Size Me, for example.

Fiction films that harness the documentary-like immediacy gain extra mileage, like Michael Winterbottom's In This World and Nine Songs, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. On the contrary, documentaries that let fictional melodrama slip in lose their punchy power due to the intervention of faux realism. Crying Tigers, with all its social relevance, unfortunately belongs to the second category _ and I only complain because I truly wish the movie to be tighter, truer and better.



First Thai documentary to get a wide commercial release tainted by reality TV approach

Kong RithdeeSua Rong Hai (Crying Tigers), the first Thai documentary to get a wide commercial release, represents an important effort to put new kicks into the increasingly jaded movie arena. Making a doc with the aim of getting a theatrical opening is a brash, ambitious task of this young maverick. And that made me expect more from his finished work: I expected greater dissonance, a wilder trick, a truer experience. Maybe it's my own fault to raise the bar, but Crying Tigers seems to betray its risky premise by ending up conventional. It opens with a promise of spontaneous idiosyncracy, only to melt into a TV-style docu-melodrama.

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