Sunday, November 14, 2010

WFFBKK 2010 review: Insects in the Backyard

  • Directed by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit,
  • Starring Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, Suchada Rojmanothum, Nonpavit Dansriboon, Anupong Sakulmongkollap, Steven Fuhrer, Anchalee Saisoontorn
  • Thai premiere at World Film Festival of Bangkok on November 6, 2010
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Confusion reigns in Insects in the Backyard, which examines mixed-up feelings about sexuality and gender roles. While warmly campy and humorous, this debut feature by gay transvestite filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit takes a long trip through the dark, depressing parts of the heart before emerging through tears to a tiny glimmer of hope.

Tanwarin, who's been making short films since 2001 – many of them award winners – stars in Insects. She portrays the father of a teenage daughter and son. At some point, possibly when his beloved wife died in childbirth, dear old Dad became big sister Tanya to 17-year-old Jenny and 15-year-old Johnny.

So the main confusion, at least for me, is pronouns.

Kathoey comedy movies go over the top with the characterizations, with rotund, balding comedians donning wigs and dressing themselves in drag while they shriek and mince their way to collecting big box-office earnings.

Indie filmmaker Tanwarin's playing an exaggerated character too, but she plays it naturally, without having to force things, fitting into the role like one of her elbow-length black gloves. She is introduced wearing an exact copy of the iconic outfit Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's – slinky, floor-length black dress, bouffant hairdo and a big choker pearl necklace. There's a picture of it on the bright-green wall of Tanya's home, along with pictures of Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood starlets. Appropriately for the Tiffany's outfit, she's making breakfast – eggs, bacon, sausages, toast. And this glamorous maternal figure calls her kids to "have breakfast" – not gin khao as would be said in Thai, but in English.

The schoolkids don't want any part of this big American meal Tanya has cooked up, and they quickly head off to class. So Tanya eats all three plates by herself, which gives her the energy to split into three parts and get the housework done faster. It's a running gag, which has Tanya wolfing down hamburgers and other Western foods her kids don't want to eat.

But when she's not cooking and cleaning, Tanya is lounging by writing table, taking deep, luxurious drags off cigarettes and fortifying herself with big glasses of red wine. She writes erotic stories for magazines, and it's not clear whether the things she's writing about are the product of fantasy or actual experience. Probably fantasy.

One scene has her being thrusted at from the rear by a young man. What actually happens leaves Tanya with a stained dress.

Meanwhile, Jenny and Johnny are seeking escape.

Jenny heads off to the northern mountain town of Pai, to hang out and play guitar. But she's actually meeting her boyfriend, a prostitute who rents himself out to wealthy older gay men. The guy takes Jenny deeper and deeper into the sex trade, until at one point she's wearing a strap-on dildo – possibly a first for legitimate Thai cinema – and pegging her boyfriend in a fetish show for a client.

Johnny gets out of town too. He sets up a meeting on MSN messenger with a person he hopes will be a girl. It's a guy, but they hang out anyway, and eventually Johnny brings his new buddy home, where the kid is captivated by big sister Tanya. And that makes for an awkward situation.

Johnny's uncertainty about his own sexuality leads him to the sex trade as well. Working out of an Internet gaming cafe, he gets messages from potential clients and has them lining up to spend time with a uniformed schoolboy. Johnny seeks comfort in the arms of a transgender client, seeing her as more of a comforting mother figure than his father has turned out to be.

In his dreams, Johnny wants to kill his father. One scene involves a smothering pillow while Tanya is watching porn and fondling herself.

Another scene shows for certain that Tanya, despite her feminine ways, is still indeed male.

Tanya, weighed down by mournful sadness over the death of her wife 15 years before, and probably depressed that her kids don't want anything to do with her, seeks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, putting away so much wine that at the end of the day, she's passed out on the floor.

Sad as it becomes, there is an angelic vision that brought forth an unexpected gusher of tears. I mean, I haven't cried so much since my cat died.

Yet there also a little bit of hope for the future, for the kids at least. As for Tanya, who knows?

Hopefully Thai audiences will someday get their chance to shed a view tears and speculate on things.

The movie premiered in the Dragons and Tigers competition at the Vancouver International Film Festival and made its Thai premiere in the World Film Festival of Bangkok.

In a question-and-answer session after the first Bangkok screening, Tanwarin announced she was working to get a limited commercial release for Insects in the Backyard under Bioscope magazine's Indie Spirit Project, which earlier this year supported Apichatpong Weeasethakul in the limited one-month run of his Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

While Uncle Boonmee and its potentially controversial disrobing monk was given a 15+ rating that allows anyone to see it, Thailand's censorship board, perhaps feeling the depictions of gay sex are too real, has said it can't allow Insects in the Backyard to be seen, even by people aged 20 and over.

“The film’s content goes against public order or morality,” says the board, which I guess would feel it wasn't doing its job if didn't ban at least one film this year. The ruling is being appealed, so there's hope yet I suppose.

The board is probably making a big deal out of the depictions of masturbation and other sex acts. But it's not like Tanwarin has made a porno. The movies Sin Sisters 2 and Brown Sugar, which were allowed to be shown in cinemas, also depicted sex acts.

Likely, the movie is just too real, and an all-too-bleak a picture of Thai society. It's making statements about things that like the metaphoric title Insects in the Backyard refers to, aren't really seen or even paid attention to. But they do happen.

So the censorship board is just sweeping more stuff under the rug, rather than allowing audiences to decide for themselves whether they want to confront the issue head on.

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