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Instead of exploring the reasons behind Bangkok's state of emergency (that's what our sister publication AsiaMedia is for), APA's traveling managing editor decided to hide in a movie theater and be reminded of why "Thais must support Thais."
My two-day stopover in Bangkok coincided with the Thai New Year, and I had been forewarned of the playful chaos of the holiday's Songkran Festival -- where energetic locals roam the streets and throw water at each other, often drenching unsuspecting passerbys. Upon my arrival on April 13th, 2009, I got another reason to stay inside: the Thai government had just declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. Reports of violence, fires, and street blockages were circulating in the international media. Army tanks were perched on the streets, soldiers were firing tear gas at rioters, and the injury count had just risen to 75.
The television in my hotel room didn't have any English-language channels, so I was left to guess what Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was saying about the red-shirt protesters who had just taken out their anger on his car. The pay-by-hour internet service gave me a tight schedule for my crash course on Thailand politics. I learned that the American embassy was closed for holiday (how helpful).
If I were a hard news reporter, I would have taken the first Skytrain to Victory Monument, relishing in the opportunity to do some hard-core citizen journalism. But let's face it. There's a reason I write about the arts. After deciding it was way too hot outside to search for the venue of the ladyboy cabaret show (listed in Lonely Planet under "Bizarre Bangkok"), I decided (what else?) to go to the movies.
In the middle of the Pathum Wan district is MBK Center, a seven-story department store packed with food plazas, clothing stores, electronics stands, Thai massage parlours, and an excess of souvenirs for tourists who want their wallets/purses/hats/T-shirts/keychains/socks/underwear to have elephants on them. Located on the top floor is the magical multiplex.
It was a relief to discover the Thai films had English subtitles -- as my English-language options were Fast and the Furious 4 and some Nicolas Cage movie that I'm not bothering to look up -- so I created my own youth-friendly double feature: Khan Kluay 2, the sequel to the hugely popular animated film Khan Kluay, and Taew Teh Teen Raberd, a teen soccer flick which I decided must be awesome because the title translated to "Sassy Players."
The first thing Thailand travel books will tell you is that Thais love their king. Their love is apparent in the moviegoing experience: prior to each screening, the audience stands respectfully for a sepia-tinted montage of King Bhumibol Adulyadej inspiring the nation over the years.
After trailers for an upcoming disaster picture Tsunami (complete with a giant gold Buddha statue being immersed in water) and a Thai teen romance (apparently all teenagers around the world fall in love while eating ice cream at a fair, before getting their hearts broken in the pouring rain), Khan Kluay 2 began with a sweeping, orchestral musical number that took the audience into the huts, canals, wats, and villages of Thailand -- where the elephants were born to be warriors and the friendly pigeons act as their helpful messengers.
Proud to see a nation so majestic, the lyrics read. Love our nation. A gentleman's love is about putting the greater good first and their own lives last. But what love can compare to family's love. After all, the greatest gift is giving one's heart.
In addition to winning Best Picture at the Thailand National Film Association Awards, the first Khan Kluay was released theatrically in India and given a straight-to-DVD release in the US. The Indian version (Jumbo) is voiced by Akshay Kumar, while the American version (The Blue Elephant) is voiced by Martin Short. Khan Kluay 2 takes place after the victory of Ayudhya (capital of Thailand's Ayutthaya province) against the invasion of the powerful Burmese (Hongsa) Empire.
Khan Kluay has just earned the title of "Lord Defeater of Hongsa" and become the King's personal elephant. He comes back to the village a hero, but his wife ChabaKaew is upset that he's never around. She tells him she's pregnant with twins, but because there is another impending war with the powerful Burmese empire, Khan Kluay keeps getting distracted. Despite his plea that he wants them to be a happy family, ChabaKaew is unconvinced. She tells him she's going back to her hometown of Hin Tao to give birth to their twins. Khan Kluay's's mother, who understands her son's duty to his country, tells him not to worry. She will take care of his wife and family in his absence.
However, plans shift when Khan Kluay's entire family is taken hostage by the Burmese soldiers. Khan Kluay deserts his line of duty (a crime punishable by death), and what follows is an action-packed battle to save his wife and children from the evil Lord Hongsa. Columns fall, royal structures explode, prisoners break out of their shackles, and a supernatural cobra brings zombie war elephants back to life to fight -- all whilst we watch Khan Kluay being torn between his personal and national duties.
The visuals are spectacular, with zooming shots into the luscious rainforests of Thailand. Moss glistens off the tree trunks; the deep colors of the jungle all retain a subtle, golden shimmer. Humor is found from our narrator (a pigeon named Uncle Chitlit) getting stuck in jackfruit sap, and our stomachs are teased by watching the young elephants slurp up juicy pineapples, bananas, sugar cane, and other gifts of nature.
Despite the collapsing bridges and valient underwater battles, the most effective scenes of the film showcase the painful complexities of Khan Kluay's relationship with his family. Sure, he's returned to save them all, but earning back the trust and love of a family you've essentially abandoned is not quite that simple. Especially when it seems like his lady ChabaKaew and the kids are quite good at fending for themselves. When in danger, Khan Kluay continuously assures his twins to not be scared because he's there to protect them, but his words mean nothing. He may have given them life, but how can they call him Daddy when, to them, he is a stranger?
There's a lot we can learn about responsibility from the plights of royal war elephants, but luckily, in the end, this is a children's movie, and songs about "hearts showing us the way," "walking down the path you must take," and "going with confidence because we'll be together in the end" soothe otherwise trepidating nerves and broken hearts.
A different type of battle takes place at a Bangkok Catholic high school, in a film called Taew Teh Teen Raberd (Sassy Players). An all-girls high school decides to let boys enroll for the first time, because some of the faculty members yearn to have their own school football (soccer) team to compete in the national tournament. But with only 16 boys in the school, 12 of them are forced to be on the soccer team. Half of them have never played soccer in their lives, while the other half are ladyboys who would rather be on the cheerleading squad.
While at times entertaining, it's hard to say this is a good film. It takes every juvenile gay stereotype and basically goes for the cheap laughs. There's the flamboyant gay boys who can't play sports, the "fag hag"-ish female coach that can't get laid, the chubby femme kid who insists on wearing baby-blue fake eyelashes to soccer matches, and the homophobic mother who's afraid her shy son is gay. The straight teammates are given female romantic interests that don't go anywhere, and after a while, it becomes clear that the filmmakers would rather concentrate their energies on shots of ladyboys letting out high-pitched screams after geting hit in the groin with flying soccer balls. Through absolutely no logic at all, this team turns out to be good, and they have a shot at challenging the defending champions.
From an American perspective, it was fascinating to watch a variation on the typical sports film that would, for various reasons, never ever be made in Hollywood. While it's a minor point, it's nice to see young straight boys and gay boys getting along, having sleepovers without any homophobic awkwardness. A review by Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal goes deeper by comparing Sassy Players to other recent Thai films -- Seasons Change, Hormones, and the popular The Iron Ladies -- at one point calling it a "rather petty and mean-spirited parody of Chookiat Sakveerakul's [critically-acclaimed film] Love of Siam."
But what was most memorable was the bizarrely nonpartisan ending. [Spoiler alert] The entire film builds up to the championship game where the new underdog team is up against the cocky defending champions. Following the typical sports film formula, Sassy Players' suspense is dragged out to the very end. At the last minute, our heroes tie up the game, and it's down to the penalty shootoff to decide who takes home the coveted prize.
This is the part where the film starts to go in fast forward. One kick, someone makes it. Another kick, someone misses. And before we know it, our underdog half-ladyboy team seems to have lost, but you would never know it by the big smiles on their faces, as they put their arms around the other team and cheer proudly to the stadium audiences. The radio announcer declares that even though they lost by one point, it's okay, it doesn't matter, because in the end "Thais must support Thais." The film ends with a glorious pool party, where all splash around happily, until a teammate arrives with even more good news: the defending champions have just invited them to merge together into one team -- for a game against the Koreans.
Watching these two films back to back, it was odd to think that just around the corner, the Thai people weren't banding together in song; the yellow and red-shirted soccer players had yet to unite as one hyper-nationalistic family; the violence was about to escalate; and it would still be at least ten days before the state of emergency would be lifted. Perhaps that is the blessing and curse of uplifting family-friendly films like these: painting a reality that makes us hopeful, but alternately makes us crawl into a shell and try to forget.
Date Posted: 5/1/2009