Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Review: The Siam Renaissance (Tawipop)

  • Directed by Surapong Pinijkhar
  • Starring Florence Vanida Faivre, Pisek Intrakanchit, Rangsiroj Panpeng, Peeruth Tulananada
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004
  • Rating: 3/5

The Siam Renaissance is difficult to classify. It's about a woman who travels back in time from Bangkok of 2003 to the capital in the 1850s, during the time of King Mongkut - Rama IV. So it could be science fiction. But there are no flashing lights or swirling trips through the vortex for this woman, played by Thai-French actress Florence Vanida. Her time shifts just happen. One minute she's there, in her bedroom in a house in Thonburi, the next she's back in the old days, wearing a silk sarong of the period.

It could also be a love story, as the character, Maneejan, gradually falls in love with a young, shirtless official in the Rama IV administration. And basically, I guess, this it what it is - based on a famous Thai historical romance novel, Tawipop.

The story actually opens in Paris, where Maneejan works for the Thai consulate. She has something or other to do with studying a trunk of letters and other artifacts from the Rama IV area that surround a strange incident. A French diplomat recorded the appearance of a strange Thai woman who could speak English and French and foretold of incredible events, such as the U.S. being the strongest country in the world, man going to the moon and that all Thais would be educated in reading and writing. She then heads home to Bangkok, ostensibly to further study these materials. To do so, she must consult with a Thai university history professor - a man who happens to be her father.

She stays at her mother's house (her mother and father are separated, adding an unneeded bit of soap-opera melodrama to this situation), and then the time-shifting begins. Each time there's the shift, she disappears from one era and reappears in the other, causing much running around and screaming by the supporting characters in each time zone.

At first, she lands in the house of an English doctor, Dr. Bradley, and is cared for by the doctor and his English wife. They are among a handful foreign actors in this Thai film who do their best to not appear too stiff or confused as they make their way through this period film.

Manee is brought to the attention of the palace officials, who are suspicious of her. She is thought to be insane, or she could be a spy. This is a politically turbulent time for Thailand, as Britain and France are fighting for territory in the region. Both have sought to colonize Thailand, but have reached a compromise that Thailand would simply be a "buffer" between French Indo-China and Britain's India and Burma. Thailand comes up with the short end of the deal, losing land to both empires. In the film, the palace is under stress because a British warship is in the harbor and it's carrying Lord Bowring, who wants to wear his sword in the presence of the King.

So the palace guys think Maneejan is a spy. Or maybe she's just insane. They don't believe her when she says the USA is the powerful country on earth and that it has sent men to the moon. They really don't believe her when she says that all Thais will be able to read and write, although they "only read six lines a year". I'm not sure what that means, but it got a good laugh from the audience. She also says Thais will be westernized, wearing Western clothes, eating Western foods, thinking Western thoughts.

"We are more accepting of the Westerners than we are of ourselves," she tells the handsome young palace dude. This is one of the more profound statements of the film, as it reflects on where Thailand is today. Not only did it lose land and influence in the region to the British and French, it lost its cultural identity, as Thais today embrace anything Western (and Japanese!) but relatively little that is truly Thai. Even the country's name has changed, from Siam to Thailand.

"Do we still have our King?" the palace guy asks, to which Maneejan replies, "It's the only thing that we keep as ours."

That earlier quote had me thinking during the rest of the film. And it was a good thing, too, what with the mess of melodrama, syrupy soundtrack music and wooden acting by the Thai and Western performers. I had trouble even going to see this film, as I knew it was directed by Surapong Pinitka, who last directed a dully abysmal television miniseries, The Silk Knot, about the strange disappearance of the silk exporter, Jim Thompson.

At first blush, I think most Westerners based in Thailand would laugh that Thailand "is more accepting", as recent actions by the government are anything but accepting (more like excepting) - the raising of visa fees, the stiffer enforcement of immigration and now the still-proposed early closing of bars, which Westerners see as a backlash against them and their culture. But maybe the statement is true - that Thailand is so insecure, so uncomfortable with itself, that its current government does such outlandlishly foolish things as a result.

Back to the movie. A passing reference was made to Anna Leownens, the famous Anna of The King and I and Anna and the King - films that are banned in Thailand because they make light of the Throne. I half expected Maneejan to run into Anna in her time travels, and they very well could have met, since Anna was present in the court of King Mongkut.

Besides the humor in the film (like when Maneejam is ridiculed for her "unclear Thai" - the actress had only learned Thai for the purpose of making the film), there was a nice plot twist reminiscent of The Planet of the Apes. All that is needed would be Charlton Heston, jumping down off his horse and pounding the sand.

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