Saturday, June 26, 2004

Body Snatchers of Bangkok in Boston

A Singapore director's look at the bloody traffic situation in Bangkok is screening at the Boston International Film Festival this weekend.

Body Snatchers of Bangkok is about the volunteers who race through the insane traffic to whisk the injured to hospitals or deliver the dead to grieving relatives.

I live near a busy motorway, which is often the scene of teen motorcycle races, and have seen firsthand the grim work of these volunteers. They supposedly get 500 baht (about $12) for each body they bring in to the morgue -- nothing at the emergency ward -- so it's joked (or maybe not) that they'll drive around with the injured until the person dies so they can collect the reward.

The director, Michele Guai, talked about her documentary in the Boston Herald.

Guai spent a month in Bangkok, speeding around in pickup trucks with rescue workers on the overnight shift.

"I don't think I truly had a concept of what death was about," Guai said. "You watch movies, but when you see real blood, it's completely different: the smell, the texture."

Bringing out the dead is stigmatizing and potentially dangerous work. To touch a corpse is to tempt a ghost to enter your own body, many Thais believe. And gangs have been known to fight over victims at accident scenes for the right to ransom the bodies to families.

But money wasn't the motive for Guai's subjects. Most are driven by the Buddhist concept of making merit: A good deed in this life will earn bonus karma in your next incarnation. For one young karaoke-club manager, the work was also a way to overcome her own fears about spirits; for a fearless 13-year-old schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming a nurse, it was a way to have quality time with her parents, who both volunteer.

"Their perception of death is very different from us living in a Westernized world,'' remarked Guai. "We tend to see accidents, violent death, as horrific events. They see it as, it was your time, and your soul moves on another life.''

Which must explain the body snatchers' own aversion to passive-restraint systems.

"Nobody in Thailand wears a seat belt, even these people," said Guai. "And God knows how many accidents they go to a day."

And they do have accidents! See this story.

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