2006/Jun/26


Thianchai Chaisawasdi plays the usual suspect in "Metrosexual", which is set for release July 13.

The usual suspect is one of those moisturised males in fashionable clothes. If he uses an eye cream, wears an earring, and shops at street markets generally frequented by female shopaholics - or if in a restaurant he orders a item that's somehow deemed girlish, such as a vanilla ice cream with red jelly, or a pink cocktail - he pushes his case beyond reasonable doubt: society, especially women, will conclude that the guy's gay.

"But is it that simple? Are these behaviours the tell-tale signs that a man's not a real man?" says Yongyuth Thongkongtoon, director of the new gender comedy Gang Chanee Kab E-Aib, also known as Metrosexual. "People have come up with these theories about how to spot a closet case, but I think there's a sense of paranoia in all of it. Can appearance and 'suspicious' behaviours define what a person really is? Take me, I use hand cream, and I go shopping for cosmetics with my wife, does that say who I am?"

Director Yongyuth Thongkongtoon awaits the release of his fourth feature.

Detecting the Little Mermaid among sturdy stallions is the keystone of laughter in Yongyuth's new film, but the director, whose previous features include the two Iron Ladies movies, stresses that his film is raising a more complicated question regarding sexuality and social values. The terms coined to define a character - gay, homosexual, metrosexual, ladyboy, katoey, toot - only seem to make things fuzzier, and Yongyuth believes that what is simply a man's habit and taste may now be taken, rightly or wrongly, as an indicator of his sexual orientation.

If "metrosexual" is a made-up term to describe, originally, the blond superhero David Beckham, its true meaning may elude the Thai benchmark of sexuality: here, it seems easier to judge every man with a touch of feminine delicacy as gay, and "metrosexual" may simply become a euphemism of a closet homosexual. The story in Metrosexual thus revolves around the attempts of four female friends (played by Channel 3 news anchors) to find out whether a man, a well-dressed chap who uses eye cream and works in the fashion business and who's about to marry one of the women in the gang, plays for the other team or not.

Because Yongyooth made his name from crafting two films about gender-bending people - the Iron Ladies pictures concern a group of real-life gay volleyball players - it's easy to surmise that Metrosexual is a continuation of the same theme. "I wouldn't say that," the director says. "This is not a gay film. The story is told through women's perspectives, and it's more about how people try to determine what behavioral qualities define gayness, and whether these qualities are actually a myth.

"What interests me is the question, at which point we're confident to pass our verdict whether a man is gay. I mean, to which degree do we conclude that he's qualified as one? Is it his actions, or is it what he perceives himself to be? More importantly, from our research we learn that there are men who're not even sure if they're gay or not. Or maybe they know they are, but to admit that to themselves is not easy. Some of them may stick to the belief that if they get married and perform what others expect of them, that gay tendency will be washed out of their system. But you know as well as I do that it doesn't work that way."

Is he gay or a sex maniac?

The film's Thai title, Gang Chanee Kab E-Aib, is a catchy marketing blitz that also runs the risk of being accused of dubious taste. It's also a noteworthy lesson in the complex meanings of Thai street lexicon. Chanee is a term used by homosexuals and bargirls to refer to straight women; literally, chanee means a gibbon - and a gibbon's shrill cry goes like "phua-phua-phua", which in turn means a husband. Thus a chanee is a symbol for someone who's constantly craving a husband. E-Aib, meanwhile, is a slightly condescending moniker for a closeted homosexual. Aib means hiding, so e-aib is someone who hides his real identity from other people, sometimes by marrying as a cover-up.

Yongyuth says that some gay groups who were impressed with his portrayal of homosexuals in the Iron Ladies films have questioned his intention in using the term e-aib and whether the director has changed his colours by casting gay people in a negative light. He's confident, though, that the film itself will clear up this suspicion and show his real attitude toward the sensitive subject.

"I have a female screenwriter working for me, and we consulted quite a number of gay people with our script," Yongyuth says. "We can't deny that this metrosexual behaviour really does exist and people are still confused about what it really means, just like most of us remain confused about the difference between transvestites and homosexuals, or gay and katoey. The gist of the film, I think, is to encourage people to dare to become what they think they really are, regardless of the label people try to stick on you."

No, Yongyuth hasn't seen that gay/metrosexual/gender drama movie of the year, Brokeback Mountain. "I'll wait until my film is done then I'll watch it!"

'Metrosexual' opens on July 13

Sad songs

The remake of "The Last Song" opened in theatres last weekend to a lukewarm reception.

Back in the 1980s the flamboyant antics of transvestites earned them a unique place in Thailand's pop culture. The gaudy cabaret shows in Pattaya where androgynously good-looking showgirls, who were born boys, preened and strutted in Broadway-style gigs were considered family-oriented entertainment, and these "third-sex" performers acquired the image of a jolly, good-humoured minority whose lives were full of joy and colour.

In 1985 film and TV director Pisal Akraseranee flouted that perception and made a film detailing the tragic destiny of a transvestite singer in search of true love and acceptance. Pleng Sud Tai, or The Last Song, became one of the first Thai movies to examine the issues of homosexuality and transgenders in a serious manner; the film attracted interest because of this thematic novelty, while its Streisand-esque finale song and heart-wrenching, brazenly theatrical climax still haunt some viewers to this day.

Quite a few eyebrows were raised, however, when Pisal announced earlier this year that he'd remake Pleng Sud Tai. The film opened in the theatres last weekend to a lukewarm reception. Apparently, the status of the gay/homosexual/transvestite population in this country has gone through changes in social attitudes from the time when Pisal's original film came out in 1985. As queer characters have become a mainstay in Thai movies of the past decade, and as queer people in society suffer less marginalisation - to an extent - the tragedy of Somying Daorai, the transvestite songstress in Pleng Sud Tai, may appear a little outdated.

At a time when the gay movement fielded a candidate in the senatorial election, is the portrayal of the third-gender as helpless victims and lewd freaks still relevant?

"In a way it still is," says Pisal, who hasn't directed a feature film for more than 10 years. "The status of transvestites hasn't changed that much from the time of my original film. The point I try to reiterate in this remake remains the same - that these people suffer from prejudice since they were born, and that their love is always doomed. Society may change to a degree, and these people may be able to change their sex, but it's not easy for them to alter their destinies."

Not every homosexual/transvestite will agree with Pisal. Pleng Sud Tai follows the original storyline and centres its melodrama on Somying Daorai (Araya Ariyawattana) the star songstress of a cabaret troupe who falls head over heels for a garage mechanic-turned-showtune singer. Somying dotes on the lover, lavishing him with gifts and attention, only to discover the truth that he has his heart for another, real woman. The heartbreaking news leads to Somying's hysterical outburst, which climaxes in the final scene when she bares her heart to sing her last song.

But the movie also risks a sour tang of exploitation when it shows more than one scene of bare male buttocks, and it freely plays on the gay stereotype by depicting them as an invective-spewing bunch who lust after good-looking toyboys. The fact that the lead actor, transvestite Araya Ariyawattana, is an attractive gender-bending figure means the audience will have a hard time sympathising with her plight.

Pisal has a different idea though. He believes that since recent Thai films have cast gay characters as arm-flapping buffoons whose only merit is to provide simple laughs, his characters present the darker shade of the homo-world to the public.

"Some people still look down on the 'third gender' and see no good values in them, but I don't think that's the right attitude," says the director. "The transvestites themselves are aware of the social stigma inflicted on them, but they have to pretend that they are happy, that they can live a normal life when in fact it's not so easy."

The director says that his decision to remake his own film came when a dance coach at a Pattaya cabaret suggested to him that since society is now more open, Pisal could make Pleng Sud Tai without holding back like he had to do in 1985, when the thought of making a movie about transvestites was considered radical. But what's radical in terms of visuals and dialogue doesn't always mean it signifies radical thinking. And it's doubtful whether Pisal's old-school directorial ethics in his remake will communicate effectively with the new generation of audiences. Maybe this is really Somying's last song.

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