Hanuman help us from a 'happy' ogre
The crusader has returned to the gate, ready to crush the infidels. I thought the new buzzword was "Thailand 4.0", whatever that means, and yet this week we're still arguing if a portrayal of a mythical ogre in a music video is blasphemy, a transgression against the high culture of Siam, the culture that stares down from a pedestal, that exists like a taxidermied animal on the altar of an abandoned temple.
We know we're stuck in Thailand 0.8, perhaps 0.85, not even 0.9, when the Culture Ministry is jolted into action when a retired cultural watchdog, Ladda Tangsupachai (more on her later), petitioned and even set up a meeting with the director of Tiew Thai Mee Hae ("Fun to Travel in Thailand"), crying foul that the tourism-promotion video disrespects the character Tossakan, or Ravana, the demon king from the ancient literature Ramakien and a masked-dance khon character. In the video, the 10-faced Ravana and his cohort hit the tourist top spots around the country, taking selfies, racing go-karts, riding banana boats, and -- this is the breaking point -- cooking a Thai sweet kanom krok. All of this, said Ms Ladda, is utterly inappropriate since the demon king is a sacred being -- no matter that he lives only in a book, an ancient book we borrowed from India, because the video is sacrilege to khon, the highest form of court art.
It wasn't supposed to be a big story -- why would anyone care about a four-minute music video featuring a dancing demon who, in the original text, is a master kidnapper and war-mongering megalomaniac who lays waste to cities. But it is a big story because the Department of Cultural Promotion summoned the director, Bundit Thongdee, to tell him to re-edit the work. There was mention of banning the video -- Hanuman help me -- but the ministry said it wouldn't as long as the director returns to the righteous path. Let's hope Mr Bundit shows Ravana as he is: a fanged, unloved, insecure monster who wants to have sex with another man's wife.
This is a big story because it shows, once again, the ongoing push-pull between the forces of ultra-conservatism and the progressive wind of the millennium -- the push-pull of Thailand 4.0 and 0.85 that is felt in every facet of society. The spat also shows that the prejudice of class -- and caste -- is alive and kicking; Ms Ladda said that if the video had shown the monkey Hanuman doing all the comical stuff instead of the demon king, it would have been okay because he's a lowly ape and not a sacred character. Even in art we have to respect the hierarchy assigned by our birthright. Likewise, this is a story that shows how far we still are from becoming a secular society when holiness and untouchability are applied even to fiction.
It's tempting to call Ms Ladda and the watchdogs dinosaurs. But it's probably more complicated than that, and in truth my soft heart has some sympathy for Ms Ladda, whom I interviewed a few times when she was still a government official at the Culture Ministry in charge of catching those who violated the sanctity of Thai culture. Her classic quote was uttered 10 years ago when the ministry censored an award-winning film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul: "Nobody goes to see Apichatpong's film. Thai people want a laugh." It was quoted in Time magazine website, a career achievement I don't think any local cultural officer could match in a thousand years.
I sincerely have a dose of sympathy for Ms Ladda because she's incapable of understanding that the world no longer operates according to her rules. She's not a dinosaur or a cultural taxidermist; she's more like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (sorry for the non-Thai allegory). This is someone whose worldview is so limited, whose righteousness is not even a choice but an indisputable verdict, and whose rigid good-vs-evil crusade blinds him/her from the complex reality of life. In Les Miserables, Javert kills himself when his enemy, Jean Valjean, shows him mercy, and that act of kindness devastates the inspector because he can't understand how this supposedly evil man can do such a thing. At the end you cry for Javert, for his noble innocence, and god forbid I may just cry for Ms Ladda.
Of course Ms Ladda has the right to protest. The students of khon have the right to express dismay at the way the video treats Ravana. And the video-makers also have the right to portray this fictional character the way they want. This push-pull is not harmful and the liberals aren't always right. What's harmful, however, is when the authorities dictate the "official" version of culture and thwart interpretation by calling it a distortion and by censorship (re-edit this until we're happy!). The Ravana case won't be the last one.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Life Editor
Kong has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.