Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Those wacky national costumes

Miss Thailand Universe Farung Yuthithum came in 11th place in this year's Miss Universe contest, in which Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, was crowned Miss Universe.

In a year of protests and a fall by Miss USA Rachel Smith (she still came in fifth place), there was plenty of trouble. The Mexico City pageant drew protests from women wearing white dresses splashed with blood, calling attention to the abuse of women. Miss Sweden was made to withdraw after protests in her country called the contest demeaning. Miss Mexico had to change out of her national costume, which was decorated with images of rebels in a 1920s religious uprising being hanged or shot.

Yes, those bizarre "national costumes", in which the contestants themselves (or their handlers) take a lot of creative license. For example, Miss USA dressed as a white-jumpsuited Elvis Presley lookalike. And Miss Thailand had a belly button-baring ethnic Hmong outfit.

Of course, back home in Thailand, cultural watchdogs were shocked, shocked, by Farung's choice of costume. The front page of the Thai daily Kom Chad Luek had a photo of Farung in her faux hilltribe get up, asking, "A national costume?"

Whatever it is, it is definitely not Thai, said Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Ministry of Culture's ominously named Cultural Surveillance Centre.

The Thai national dress, Ladda stressed, must be Thai. It also must be in line with the official, royal designs and it must be used for proper occasions. She criticised Farung for failing to do her duty and show the outside world an authentic national Thai dress. Instead, Farung turned up in a sort of hybrid ethnic - read not Thai - costume.

There was outrage, yes, though not nearly the firestorm that was whipped up when Chotiros "Amy" Suriyawong wore that dress to the National Film Association Awards.

Still, it raises some troubling issues, points out Bangkok Post assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai, who says there's a narrow view of Thai identity that ignores the nation's cultural and ethnic diversity. She writes in a recent column:

This hegemonic history, perpetuated by all forms of popular media, has brainwashed society to believe that the country belongs to the ethnic Thai only, reducing other ethnic groups to 'outsiders'. This rigid, national identity forces ethnic groups to drop their ethnic names, adopt Buddhism and learn to speak Thai without an accent in order to be accepted as 'true' Thai.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: Me … Myself (Khor Hai Rak Chong Charoen)

  • Directed by Pongpat Wachirabunjong
  • Story by Pongpat Wachirabunjong, screenplay by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
  • Starring Ananda Everingham and Chayanan Manomaisnatiphap
  • General release in Thailand cinemas on April 19, 2007

Identity, sexuality and childhood aspirations are examined in the romantic comedy drama, Me … Myself, which stars Ananda Everingham as a transvestite cabaret dancer who suffers from amnesia after he is struck by car.

The woman driving the car, Oom (Chayanan Manomaisantiphap), takes responsibility for him and brings him back to her place. Before he was struck by her car, he was beaten and robbed by some guys on a motorcycle while he was using a payphone. His only possession is a necklace with a pendant that spells out "Tan". Not knowing his name, that's what they settle on calling him.

Tan initially has a rocky time being accepted into Oom's life. Plus, she's having crises of her own – having just broken up with her domineering boyfriend, Krit, and having to take care of her troublemaking young nephew, Ohm, the son of her dead sister. She's also balancing a career as a budding creative director at an advertising agency, where she's always running into her old boyfriend. A couple of comical slacker neighbours who are always hanging around don't help much either.

One thing leads to another, and Tan is smacked upside the head by one of the slacker guys for saying something deemed offensive. This brings forth a vision of a woman in Tan's mind. He's taken to a doctor and then a psychiatrist for treatment. He's given a journal and encouraged to free associate.

In the meantime, Tan charms his way into Oom's life. Not only is he supportive of her with her work and in her role as a surrogate mother to her nephew, he's great at organising her stacks of magazines and giving her perfect fashion advice. Comfortable in his masculinity, he can wear a Hello Kitty apron without any sense of irony. Tan tries to defend Ohm after the boy gets in trouble in school, and ends up getting punched out by another boy's father. His stronger suit is being able to tell Oom what dress to wear, and the appropriate shade of lipstick. He restores Oom's confidence and self-esteem. So, of course, they fall in love.

"I don't want to remember anymore. I want to be like this with you here, forever," he tells Oom one night as they watch the sunset from a ledge outside her apartment.

At this point, it's not a spoiler to say that before Tan was beaten up by thieves and then struck by Oom's car his name was Tanya. He was gay and was the star of a transvestite cabaret in Phuket. What he was doing in Bangkok, and even how he ended up as the featured dancer in a katoey show, are some of the things this movie reveals.

The issues it raises – would a gay man forget he's gay if he had amnesia, for example – are compelling. Further, if an amnesiac had to start over, what would he do? What are his childhood dreams and would he still work to achieve them even though he's forgotten them?

Me … Myself is the directorial debut of veteran actor and singer Pongpat Wachirabunjong. Who would have thought of this coming from a man who's best known as the red-shorts-clad action hero of the Seven Street Fighters films? He's also credited with the story, though prolific screenwriter Kongdej Jaturanrasamee penned the screenplay.

The film is an assured debut, and has its enjoyable little moments, like the camera focusing on the front wheels of a shopping trolley, when Oom explains that shopping at Foodland keeps her mind off her problems. Another cut-away shot shows Oom backing up from Tan, her dainty high heels clicking on the floor. It's a small detail, but it's one that speaks volumes.

The story gets bogged down in the heartbreak the protagonists feel after the truth of Tan's past is revealed – nothing like an apartment full of transvestite cabaret dancers to break the news. But the subtle performance by Ananda, and a strong debut by Chayanan, along with the interesting issues the film raises, make My … Myself worth watching.

There's some interesting supporting characters. Director Tanit Jitnukul (is he still making movies?) has a cameo as a police officer. Puttachat Pongsuchat portrays "Boss Oil", Oom's workaholic lesbian boss, who offers some kind support and insight. One of the slacker neighbors is that guy from the Mhee Panda video.

It's a film that seems ripe for a remake by Hollywood, though it probably won't be quite as good. Somehow, the idea of, say, Orlando Bloom and Kate Hudson putting this story through its paces doesn't seem as rewarding.

More information:(This review was originally published in The Nation, May 12, Life section, Page 6)