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Friday, August 07, 2009
With the mini-showcase of Thai films about the South taking place at Paragon Cineplex from Aug 7 to 9 (hosted by the Tourism Board and the Film Archive), below I've reprinted my article about the cinematic impression of southern Thailand -- with the emphasis on the film I believe to remain a masterpiece about Buddhist-Muslim relationships, Peesua Lae Dokmai.
In Siamese cinema, the South is not a prime peninsula of inspiration. The region has at best been exploited as a backdrop, but there are not many pictures that aspire to capture the true spirit of the land and its people, especially in the cryptic deep South where touristic images of virgin beaches give way to confounding reality.
The audience seems to prefer the perception of the beautiful South than the disturbing one. In 1968 a Thai musical called Koh Sawat Hat Sawan (Paradise Beach) was shot on location in Koh Samui, a perfect setting for a singalong escapist flick about carefree young lovers. A 1970s MC Chatrichalerm Yukol movie Kwam Rak Krang Sud Tai (Last Love), remade by the prince director this year, uses the spectacular bay of Krabi in key scenes where the lovesick heroine enjoys her happiest moments and when she sinks into her suicidal ones, though the limestone outcrops of the jade waters only bear quiet witness to the human tragedy. On the other hand, during his social realism heyday of the 1970s, MC Chatrichalerm made U-ga Fa Luang (The Yellow Sky), a sea-borne drama about a group of struggling villagers on the southern coast in which the foaming ocean comes alive with fury.
Inevitably, the image of the deep South is firmly associated with the Islamic sub-culture. But again, hardly any movie takes us inside the little-understood world-within-a-world of Thai-Muslim communities. Men in skull caps and sharp-featured women in veils come to represent merely southern exoticism, and no directors have made an attempt to record their worldly or godly uniqueness on film. Most recently, a typhoon flick Taloompuk, released last December, features many Muslim lead characters but squanders the chance to portray them with emotional honesty. It even develops a key plot-point of a romance between a Muslim girl and a non-Muslim boy, but the script is too weak to raise a tired star-crossed lovers' theme into a serious cultural discussion.
One movie, however, persists in the memory of viewers despite its release 18 years ago. Euthana Mukdasanit's Peesua Lae Dokmai (Butterflies and Flowers) is a gem of Thai cinema in the early 1980s, a sincere, effortless youth drama that, watching it now as life-hardened adult, should still move you into that magical moment when it seems as if all secrets in the whole world are opening up before your very eyes.
All major characters in Peesua Lae Dokmai are Muslim villagers in Songkhla, but the story has a universal life-affirming pull of adolescent fable that transcends its Islamic setting. Suriya Yaowasang plays Hu-yan, a boy who has to leave school and look for work to provide for his family. ``If we pray, will Allah help us?'' he says to his despairing father at one point, and that's the only time the name of God is evoked in the film that shows how growing-up is not only a matter of faith, but also a tangible process where doubt, love, death, and adventure all play a part. Hu-yan joins a band of rogue kids who smuggle rice to sell in Malaysia, and his trips on the roof of the border-bound train as it snakes across the landscape of uncertainty is truly one of the most memorable journeys in Thai cinema.
Above all, Peesua Lae Dokmai reminds us that there are people like Hu-yan living in this very same country; the movie doesn't regard him as a Muslim, but as a human being who shares the same problems with many others of different religions. In this current period when Muslims in southern Thailand are under the glare of the media spotlight, one only wishes that the art of cinema should peek into the veil and present their lives in a more illuminating way.
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