Friday, December 10, 2004

Review: Citizen Dog

  • Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng.
  • Starring Mahasamuth Boonyarak, Songtong Ket-Utong.
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on December 9, 2004.
  • Rating: 5/5
Wisit Sasanatieng focuses on the contemporary urban scene in his romantic comedy Citizen Dog. It’s an even stranger world than the one he depicted in his stunning debut four years ago, Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger),which embraced the concept of cowboy-hatted gunfighters riding horses across the plains of Central Thailand in the 1940s.

First and foremost, Wisit’s world is a colourful place. To the untrained Western eye (like mine) it appears to be influenced by The Wizard of Oz withYellow Brick Road yellows, Dorothy dress blues, Emerald City greens and ruby slipper reds. But really, Wisit's sensibilities are 100 percent Thai. His true influence is the Thai melodramas of the 1950s and 60s -- the true "Golden Age of Thai Cinema" -- something he wanted to recreate in Tears of the Black Tiger and updates in Citizen Dog.

It's a weird world. Red motorcycle helmets rain down from the sky, conking an ironically helmet-less motorcycle taxi driver on the head and turning him into a zombie. There's a cute little girl named Baby Mam who dresses like a stroppy 20-year-old, smokes cigarettes and ignores her teddy bear Thanchai. And Thanchai? He’s a foul-mouthed wise guy who drinks whisky and also smokes.

Grandmas are reincarnated as geckos. The characters from a serial romance magazine step from the pages to knock on doors. And a mountain of plastic bottles dominates the Bangkok skyline, reaching clear to the moon.

Oh, and there's a taxi-cab passenger who has forgotten where he is going and compulsively licks everything with his tongue.

This is the world that Pod (punk-band guitarist Mahasamuth Boonyarak) lives in. He’s a country boy who moves to the city and takes a job in a sardine factory. One hot day, in a scene right out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, the assembly line goes haywire and, in all the confusion, he chops his finger off and it ends up in a can on the shelf at the grocery store. He searches everyday, buying can after can of sardines. Eventually he sees a can jumping around and opens it to find a finger. He attaches it simply by pressing it into place.

But something doesn’t feel right. He must have someone else’s finger. During a lunch break, he recognises his own finger on a guy who’s getting ready to pick his nose. He wrests the finger away and gives the guy the other finger in return. The nose picker is named Yod (Sawasdiwong Palakawong na Ayudhaya), and the two become friends.

Not wishing to lose any more fingers, Pod quits the factory and becomes a security guard. On the job in an office, he meets Jin (fashion model Sangthong Ket-uthong), a maid who has her nose perpetually buried in a mysterious white book written in a foreign language that she dreams of someday understanding. She has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which makes her want to constantly clean and set things in order. This is an admirable trait for a maid, but it doesn’t make her very popular with her co-workers.

Pod is smitten. He sees her face everywhere – in a light bulb, in a plate of fried rice, even in his Bruce Lee Game of Death movie poster. He wishes to be closer to Jin, like Yod and his unbelievable sexy Chinese empress girlfriend. Those two consummated their relationship on a crowded bus and have the tickets to prove it. Pod asks Jin if she would like to ride the bus. But Jin refuses, saying she breaks out in a rash whenever she takes crowded public transport. Pod quits his job as a guard and becomes a taxi driver so he can drive her to work. Bangkok’s red and blue taxicabs fit especially well with the set design, by the way.

Though she wears the same bright blue uniform everyday, Pod makes a point of telling her how beautiful the dress makes her look. She thinks he’s crazy. Maybe he is. From the fat cop directing traffic to the puppies in Pod’s dog’s litter, everyone is wearing the same blue dress.

Eventually, he expresses his true feelings for Jin, but by then she’s become obsessed with a hippie Westerner (Asian film critic and subtitlist Chuck Stephens) whom she believes is an environmental activist. She starts collecting plastic bottles, gathering enough to create a literal mountain, and joins an environmental protest rally.

On the surface, Citizen Dog is a romantic comedy, but really it’s a satire, poking fun at hectic urban life, cell-phone chatterers and kids hooked on video games and ignored by their parents. Wisit wants to comment on materialism and conformity. Something that reminded me of all the generaic products in Repo Man, the characters in Citizen Dog are given labels. Depending on his job, Pod’s uniform says “Factory”, “Security” or “Taxi”. Jin’s label is “Maid”. And Jin revels in the conformity of joining a crowd of protesters.

Both the lead actors are making their feature-film debut. Mahasamuth is a guitarist, singer and songwriter in a punk band called Saliva. Songtong is a fashion model with aspirations of making it big in the art world. Both are wonderful in this film, especially Songtong who reminds me a lot of Audrey Tautou or even a Steven Soderberg-directed Julia Roberts.

There's a dog motif that manifests itself in many ways. The sardine brand is called "Dog With Helmet". There is a concrete dog statue outside the office building where Pod works as a guard. Also, the company is called Good Boy Industries. Baby Mam's parents have a statue of a dalmation in their living room. Pod has a mother dog and a litter of puppies outside his home. And the name of the band that does the theme song (which is played over and over in many variations throughout the film) is Modern Dog.

From the zombie biker to the granny gecko to the talking teddy bear, there's a lot to take in. We're helped along the way by folksy narration from one of the other leading lights of Thai cinema, Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

But there' still some confusion. Somehow, Pod becomes a celebrity because he’s the only guy in Bangkok without a tail. His grandmother warned him he would grow a tail if he moved to the city. But somehow, he escapes that fate, and his hounded by reporters and packs of teens wanting to see his tailless derriere. If he does grow one, he’ll just be one of the crowd, the “citizen dog” alluded to in the title. The Thai title is Mah Nakorn, translated as "Dogville", meaning Bangkok is a city of dogs. It’s a confusing, oblique concept because the tails that everyone supposedly has aren't ever seen. And this is despite tons of other photographic tricks. It detracts a bit from the overall enjoyment of the film. But that’s part of its appeal. It gives you something to think about long after you’ve left the cinema. There is a lot to enjoy in Citizen Dog and enough to make repeated viewing worthwhile. I hope it will be out on subtitled DVD and on the international circuit soon.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

1 comment:

  1. I just had the opportunity to watch "Citizen Dog" and can understand your enthusiasm for the movie (as well as why you list it in your top 10). Obviously you don't need me to tell you, since you have an ad for it right on your site (to the left of this comment box in fact as I'm typing), that it did in fact get an English subtitled Region Free release. Although I bought mine from, which in a way itself, is amazing since they normally don't sell DVDs like that.


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