Monday, July 18, 2005

Review: Crying Tigers (Suea Rong Hai)

  • Directed by Santi Taepanich
  • Starring Pornsak Songsang, Lua-fua Mokjok, Nate Insee Lek, Oay Sing-nukkub, Man Haupla
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on July 21, 2005

It took me a couple of times to appreciate this film. The first time I saw it, at a press screening, it lacked English subtitles, though I still came away with a better understanding of the hardships faced by migrant workers from Isaan, as well as showbusiness people in Thailand.

The second time I saw it, was with subtitles, so I could understand what was actually being said.

Northeast Thailand, or Isaan, is a largely rural and somewhat impoverished area of Thailand. Ask about any taxi driver, maid, massuese or bargirl working in Bangkok where they are from and they will likely mention a province from that section of the country -- Roi Et, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Sakon Nakon, etc.

Looking to investigate how the sons and daughters of Isaan are faring in Bangkok, director Santi Taepanich put together this documentary, which according to Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post, is the first Thai documentary to recieve a wide commercial release in cinemas.

Santi initially wanted it to be an indie production, but the project ended up attracting Ong-Bak backers Baa Ram Eew productions and Sahamongkol Film, which backed the film to the tune of 30 million baht (about US$700,000 - so by Hollywood terms it still is an indie film).

After seeing the subjects he chose, it's easy to see why Baa Ram Eew and Sahamongkol got all excited about it. And I'm sure they had some influence on the subject matter as well.

After filming more than 100 subjects, the documentary has boiled down to five people, all natives of Isaan: a folksinger, a member of a nightclub comedy troupe, a tout for a seafood restaurant, a stuntman and a taxi driver.

Of the five, at least one has aspirations that connect him to Sahamongkol talent -- stuntman Neth Insee Lek (or Neth Iron Eagle) worked on Born to Fight and aspires to follow in the footsteps of another son of Isaan -- Tony Jaa of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong. Indeed, the stuntman, Ned, receives a thrashing in a scene with Tony, which is from Tom Yum Goong. He's a thug in a barroom scene, and Tony pins him against the bar and wails on him.

Pornsak Songsang is the famous folksinger, actually morlam, the infectiously energetic form of country music that is popular in Isaan, especially close to the Lao border. He achieved great fame, even "going inter", touring the world -- one of the first Thai singing stars to do so.

But he's a down to earth guy. He's interviewed in his room at a rundown shortime hotel, with tattered curtains and worn-out furniture. I figured maybe he's washed up, but he's been living in this short-time room for 20 years. Turns out, this is where he and his singing troupe ended up when they first hit Bangkok, and they've stayed there. It keeps them real. And, since it's only temporary -- he longs to move back to his farm and live with his wife and kids -- why spend money on a big, nice house?

There's some cool old footage of him, probably from the early 90s. He talks about outdrawing Thongchai Bird McIntyre, currently Thailand's reigning king of pop.

Man, the tout for the seafood restaurant -- he dresses up as a fish and tries to lure passing cars into the place -- aspires to be a nightclub comedian. Aside from the stuntman, most of the screentime deals with Man's quitting his job as a fish and going to work for Luer Fluer Mok Jok's nightclub comedy troupe.

Man starts out as a roadie, sitting backstage or off to the side, keeping track of how long the act has been on and how long they have to go. Eventually, he's given some bit part, where he dresses up in a short skirt and heavy makeup and simply packs up the set in that costume. Then he gets his break, by becoming a regular part of the act, singing a song.

But his life is a mess. There's family problems back up in Isaan, then he's called up to report for the military draft lottery, and his mother dies.

By the end of the film, he's joined the comedy troupe with the other comedian featured in the film.

Oay, the taxi driver, loves to drive. She's been driving a cab but dreams of driving a big rig. So she learnes how to jam them gears and signs on with trucking firm, driving an 18-wheeler hauling shipping containers. Eventually, she makes the trip she's been longing to make.

Stuntman Neth was the most interesting guy for me. In fact, I think fans of stuntmen, Ong-Bak and Born to Fight, will want to check this film out just for his segment alone. They show some punishing stuff -- hard falls and throws, getting set on fire, and getting smashed over the head with a clay pot. Ouch! That's got to hurt! And it does. He's got the cuts and bruises to prove it.

He starts out working for the Iron Eagle stuntman team, doing some direct-to-VCD productions -- the kind of low-budget stuff that Ong-Bak choreographer Panna Ritthakai started out doing. It's amateur stuff -- the kinds of stunts you might do in your backyard if you didn't have any sense and/or parental guidance. At one point, they go to pick up a real pane of glass, just so Neth can smash through it.

In another scene, he's set on fire. And in yet another -- a stuntman show on a parking lot -- another stuntman is severly burned in a stunt gone awry. He blames Neth and another stuntman for not helping douse the flames quickly enough.

Neth also works on soaps and does on-the-set catering part-time as well.

I think with the help of some liquor, Neth and Man both tearfully pour their hearts out.

Nate is especially bitter in one scene, bemoaning the life of the stuntman. "I do backflips, and he becomes famous", he says, though it's never clear who he's talking about. "My knees, my elbows, they hurt," he says, sobbing.

All profess their love for Isaan, which under the best of circumstances is a lovely, rural area with an easygoing lifestyle. But drought, isolation and a lack of jobs, education and other opportunities leads Isaan folks to seek better fortunes in Bangkok. But eventually, for one reason or another, all most make the return trip.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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