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In the shadow of Buddhism

After three years of discussion, a dark drama featuring fake gun-toting monks finally comes to Thai cinemas

More than three years after director Phawat Panangkasiri called out "it's a wrap," and cast and crew of the movie toasted the completion of filming, crime drama "Nak Prok" ("The Shadow of the Naga") is finally coming to Thai cinemas in its original version. It's being released uncut with two ratings, Rate 18+ with pop ups and Rate 20 without, meaning that it contains strong language and violent scenes involving a monk with a gun that might offend those with strict Buddhist principles.

The story depicts three thieves - Singha (Ray MacDonald), Parn (Somchai Khemklad) and Por (Pitisak Yaowananon) - who think they're being clever by hiding their loot in the grounds of a temple. But when they return to collect the money, they find it's been buried under the new chapel. Their solution is to force head monk Luangta Chuen (Sa-ad Piampongsan) to conduct an ordination ceremony for them so that they can stay in the nearby monastery while they dig for their money.

Por chooses to be a temple boy instead because he feels it's a sin to do bad things while wearing the saffron robes.

Tension erupts when Singh's girlfriend (Inthira Charoenpura) turns up while the trio is digging.

While the plot may seem to foreign film fans similar to "Blue Streak" and "We're No Angels", with robbers posing as good guys for nefarious purposes, the juxtaposition of Buddhist monk with dark drama has a very different context.

Each character, says the director, is like one of the four types of lotus in Buddhism, which refer to the different levels of understanding of Dharma. The Singha character, for example, is not open-minded to any teaching and cannot understand Dharma at all even though he has the chance to be a monk. Por, on the other hand, opens his heart and mind to the Buddha's teaching when he spends time in close proximity to the monks despite having led a life a crime.

The director, himself a deeply committed Buddhist, says he doesn't present these ideas in a complicated plot because he knows that making a story with bad monks is already strong enough for a local audience.

"Even though we read reports about monks doing wrong in the papers most days, most people feel awkward at seeing it on the big screen," he says.

"I constantly hear that religion is on the decline. That's not true. It's people who are falling by the wayside, not the religion," he says.

Actor Ray, who plays the dangerous and aggressive Singha, says he doesn't see his character as a monk but simply as a bad guy who wears the saffron robes to commit a crime.

"It's the most challenging role I've ever played," says the actor, who usually plays a loner.

Phawat, who first worked with Ray in the '90s on variety hit "Teen Talk", says part of his reason for selecting the actor was his mixed British/Thai blood.

"Thai actors would inevitably feel uncomfortable about playing that bad monk character. Ray doesn't have that barrier," he says.

Phawat says 'Nak Prok' was always intended as a film noir and that he has no regrets about refusing to bow to social sensitivities, even if it's meant such a long wait.

When movie mogul Somsak 'Sia Jiang' Techarattanaprasert saw the final cut three years ago, he ordered Phawat to re-edit and erase the gun from many scenes. "It looked so bizarre when the characters just point their hands at each other!" laughs Phawat.

"They decided to return to original version but with one condition. Somsak knew that the film would be banned under the old film law. So he asked me to wait for the new law, although back then we didn't know really know about the ratings and if and how they would help."

Phawat agreed, especially as there was nothing to stop the film being shown out of country. Indeed, it was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, where it received mixed reviews.

Meantime, Sahamongkol Films Company tested local waters by taking the film on campus tours.

"We got good feedback and most understood what we are trying to do," he says.

But faith and crime are always taboo in Thai films. Many movies have faced strong protests from conservative Buddhists, sometimes even they've been released, as was the case with "Angulimala" in 2003.

Phawat urges people to be open-minded and watch the film from beginning to end before passing judgement. If they do, he's confident they'll understand what he's trying to say.

"Nak Prok" goes on release on March 18 with two optional ratings" Rate 18+ with pop-up warning signs in some scenes and Rate20+ without the signs.

Talking movies

The film was recently screened on a public hearing tour for more than 1,000 people. Here's what some of them had to say:

Phra Phayom Kalayano.

"A monk holding a gun is too violent for me even though the character is in fact a thief. However, I think people who can follow the story idea shouldn't have a problem. I believe the film helps to promote Buddhism."

A graduate student from Chulalongkorn University

"Religion is just one context of this film. It talks about gratitude to parents and that's exactly what parents want from their kids.

Pramote Sangsorn, actor/short filmmaker

"Thai society is conservative when it comes to talking about religion. Buddhism and the saffron robe is a great institution, one we cannot harm. But it's a very good film with a great plot.

A member of the board of censors

"I admire the writer's team for their attempts to compare the characters with the four types of lotus while at the same time sending back questions to the audience. The film not only give us the characters' types but the audience types as well."


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