|Behind the buffaloes: Noo-Hin, played with comic brio by Runglawan Tonahongsa, offers an eyewitness to the bourgeoise trivialities of Bangkok urbanites.|
Noo-Hin the Movie, Starring Runglawan Tonahongsa, Kochakorn Supakarnkijkul, Panisa Buajaroen, Directed by Komkrit Treewimol, In Thai with English subtitles : Since it is no longer possible for the current Thai film industry to produce a movie like Luk Isan (Son of Isan), Vijit Kunawut's 1982 social-realist masterwork that depicts the sweat-soiled distress of the Northeast's inhabitants, recent cinematic representations of the Isan spirit, if there really is one, have come only in the form of raucous comic gigs like last year's crudely-scripted Yaem Yasothorn and now in the motor-mouthed, lizard-hunting, buffalo-mounting servant girl in Noo-Hin the Movie.
Intrepid and disaster-prone, Noo-Hin - the dimunitive housemaid played with flair by Runglawan Tonahongsa in this screen version - has enjoyed the status of a cult starlet for 10 years in a comic book series drawn by Isan native Padung Kraisri. Noo-Hin's antics and wide-eyed flippancy have been a rich resource of verbal gags and situational jokes - and her stint as a servant girl in the capital after leaving her drought-stricken Northeastern village also supplies a series of off-handed critiques on class-conscious Bangkok society. As her buxom female bosses, the 38D cup Milk and her equally-endowed sister Som-O, strut about performing frivolous activities, Noo-Hin rolls her eyes, licks her lips, and scrubs the house dutifully before taking time off to join her employers in amusing adventures.
If movies like Wijit's Luk Isan in 1982 or Surasee Patham's Khru Bannok in 1978 are Leftist statements that prompt city people to contemplate the hardship endured by the people of this country's least developed region, contemporary movies that feature Isan people in a farcial, entertainment-oriented light seem to perform the basic function of a Third-World melodrama: to render a necessary fantasy that people from different socioeconomic classes can live happily together in this land.
Bangkok's bourgeoisie may not treat their Isan maids as pitilessly as, say, the nouveau-riche from some Asian countries known for beating up their Filipina "domestic helpers", but it would be a lie to say that Bangkokians regard Isan migrant workers without a certain degree of contempt and prejudice. Civility and good education, of course, ensure that we don't make such an attitude known in public, and a number of TV series featuring Isan maids as confidantes to their middle-class employers entertain our illusion (and probably that of the Isan migrants) of an equal, prejudice-free society.
But the scenario of Isan-maids-vs-urban-bosses also has a subversive possibility. Noo-Hin the Movie, for example, can be read (I try, at least) as a satire on bourgeoise trivialities - a jolly smack at the growing cult of the middle-class and perhaps at the failure of the National Economic Development Plans (now into the 10th edition) to stop country people from following an empty promise of making it big in Bangkok.
Noo-Hin, after failing to secure her dream job at a factory, ends up working as a servant (she quickly promotes herself to a "household manager") for the family of Milk and Som-O (Kochakorn Supakarnkijkul and Panisa Buajaroen). At first Noo-Hin only witnesses her female bosses living their sofa-bound lives; she wonders why Som-O is so obsessed with the size of her waistline and is dutifully grateful when Milk kindly passes on her collection of hairclips to the young servant after she gets bored of them ("Just tell me when you get bored of your watch, ok?" quips Noo-Hin).
True to her comic book original, Noo-Hin in the movie - and the credit goes to Runglawan - performs her rubber-faced escapades with gleeful abandon. Seeing a TV ad looking for contestants in a supermodel competition, Noo-Hin takes the liberty of sending in the applications for her two sexy bosses. The plot then involves Noo-Hin wreaking havoc at a bikini fashion show, wrecking a hi-so party, spoiling a kidnapping plan and saving Milk and Som-O from peril in a final showdown in a fresh market. What would the prim Bangkok girls do without the rough brawn of their Isan maid?
To be frank, I'm not sure how much of the satirical note the filmmakers intended to put in Noo-Hin the Movie, which is being marketed as an all-out entertainment fare; the movie has been directed by Komkrit Treewimol (Puen Sanit) and produced by Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak, Jan Dara). Perhaps I'm reading into things too much in the vain attempt to say something meaningful after having had no opportunity to do so with most Thai films released this year. Most of us will also lament the film's below-par production quality - the whole package looks like a rush job, and I wonder where the heck the art director was during the shoot. Moreover, the film plays along with the stereotype of Isan humour; among the requisites are the presence of buffaloes, roast lizards, fermented fish, as well as the tongue-twisting Northeastern dialect, which gives the simplest word a droll touch.
Yet the cartoon-like Noo-Hin emerges as a clear-cut character, an onlooker in a Bangkok household in a society that values superficiality. Noo-Hin's physical presence is an anomaly; her short, tomboyish frame, her less-than-stellar nose and grimy haircut stand out in contrast against the whitened complexions, the ample breasts and robotic babe-ness of Milk and Som-O, who must be only a few years older than their servant girl. After all the mishaps and misunderstandings they may live happily together, but Noo-Hin will always remain a presence that sticks out in the conscience of her well-to-do employers. And perhaps ours too.