Sunday, January 23, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Mountain People

  • Directed by Vichet Kounavudhi
  • Starring Montree Jenaksorn, Walaikorn Paovarat, Supavadee Thiensuwan and Petcharat Indharakamhaeng
  • Screened as part of the Vichet Kounavudhi retrospective at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

A well-meaning movie in its day, Mountain People comes off today, in these more politically correct, sensitive times, as being horribly racist and condescending to the hilltribes of northern Thailand.

It starts out as a documentary, showing the various hilltribes and their characteristics as if the various groups were zoo exhibits to be gawked at. And if the specimens happen to be virgin Karen girls (you know their virgins because they wear white dresses) wading in the river, pulling up their dresses and showing their bare butts, there's really something to gawk at. Later on, there's some more skin shown with a whole bevy of hilltribe girls in the buff, bathing in the rapids of a stream.

The men, the documentary notes, know only four things: Eating, drinking tea, drinking whiskey and having sex with their women. That's all there is to life. The women do all the work.

The documentary ascends up the mountain. It depicts the all knowing, caretaking Thai government going into the village, telling the tribespeople about family planning. But they are stupid. A doctor demonstrates how to put the condom on his thumb. And that's exactly what one man did and he ended up with two kids. But another guy has had 12 kids. The doctor suggests a vasectomy. He is taken to a covered army truck for the operation. When it finally dawns on him what is to happen, he gets the heck out of there. So he's not so stupid.

After that bit of uncomfortable comedy, the drama starts, centering on a young guy named Ayo in Burma's Shan State who goes from village to village, selling dogs for people to, well you know, eat.

Back in Ayo's home village, he sees his best girl. Turns out she's pregnant. They have to get married. The woman has twins - a bad omen in the village. Rather than being seen as a blessing, the two fine strapping baby boys are viewed as the spawn of the devil and are killed. The new mother and father are banished from the village. Their hut is burned. But he gets some opium to take along so he can trade it for food. They are to go into Thailand and live with the guy's uncle. It's a long journey, involving a river crossing. The young woman doesn't make it.

Ayo forges on. He comes across a village that has been converted to Christianity. There is a white guy preacher leading the choir - singing hymns in hilltribe dialect. They help their fellow man, even though he's from different tribe. With some food and parting gifts, he's on his way.

Soon he spies a the bevy of primitive beauties bathing. A column of Chinese traders soon comes on the scene and heck breaks out. The Chinese are all over this part of the country. They are the bad guys in this movie. It's true, though way overdramatized. When Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomingting Nationalist forces fled China, some went to Taiwan and some went to northern Thailand and Burma's Shan State, where they remain a powerful force today.

Ayo ends up with a big bump on his head and is taken in by yet another tribe until he heals. Being a randy primitive guy, he gets involved with another tribal girl.

Soon it's time to move on. They head back to the Christian village and are given land and a hut. It's an interesting couple - different tribes, different governing spirits now under God and orders not to grow opium. But those pesky Chinese guys show up with pretty trinkets and the lure of opium growing can't be denied. Of course it leads to more soul-crushing drama.

Okay, with respect the drugs message - and today yaa baa (amphetamine) production is the big problem - the movie scores some good, socially conscious points. But it is still so heavy handed with showing how simple and stupid the hilltribe guy is. Those people need the Thai government's help, doesn't everyone see that?

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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