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Realtime >> Friday December 14, 2007
MOVIE Review

Taking the middle path

Animated Thai Buddha epic proves far from timeless


``The Buddha'' is a colourful lesson on the genesis of Buddhism that appeals mainly to children.
The Buddha, Thai animation featuring the voices of Ratchata Samorntinnakorn, Vit Vijitranon, Thassawan Seneewong Na Ayutthaya, Phitsamai Wilaisak, With English subtitles, Directed by Aumpira Wongthamma and produced by Wallapa Pimthong : he 100-minute biopic of Lord Buddha in animated form, The Buddha was borne by the Mount Sumeru-size faith of its makers and four years of hard labour from Thai animators. Reportedly the movie cost the producer, devout Buddhist Wallapa Pimthong and her company, 108 million baht, and you don't need a movie mogul to tell you that the outlook of recouping that money is pretty slim.

Wallapa, I believe, didn't regard her project as a financial venture but a spiritual one. Nothing to lose, perhaps, and everything to gain. Lord Buddha's central teaching is to find the paths to end suffering, so maybe Wallapa believed that making an expensive cartoon of moderate quality (the Middle Path, maybe?) is not a form of suffering but a way to end it once and for all.

The Buddha looks and feels like a hand-drawn Disney picture from pre-digital days, from Mulan to Pocahontas and all the way back to Bambi. The story is populated by Indian-eyed characters in tooth-achingly bright saris and robes as well as flocks of dancing animals (plus a Bollywoodesque song sequence). Obviously there are attempts to whip up fantastic spices and make this cartoon more than just school-level educational material - the devil Mara, for example, is a fang-baring beast straight out of Japanese anime - but in the end, that's exactly what The Buddha is: a colourful lesson on the genesis of Buddhism that appeals mainly to children.

This, of course, is nothing to be ashamed of. Wallapa is well-meaning beyond question. But that also means that The Buddha mirrors the national climate of institutional worship and the indifference, if not the ignorance, to how modern society has twisted Lord Buddha's teachings into something much less pure than their original meanings. This prevailing atmosphere feeds our hypocrisy, or maybe naivete, encouraging us to subject artists who ask tough questions - for example Anupong Chanthorn, who painted the "crow-beaked" monks - to humiliation. At the same time it prompts us to embrace familiarity and numb comfort, as if there's no need for Buddhists to realise that to end earthly suffering means to confront it, instead of just having someone keep telling us about how to end it.

What saves The Buddha is the fact that the story of Lord Buddha's life is a very good story; a ready-made drama about the mythical adventures of a great man who has to overcome fierce obstacles to achieve great wisdom. Despite the singing cows and hellraising beasts, the movie adheres strictly to the narration in the sacred text of the Tripitaka. It takes us on a tour of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, from the baroque cloud-pillar that is Heaven to pre-Alexander India and even offers a brief glimpse of the copper cauldron in Hell where sinners are boiled alive.

Every lesson of Buddhism - and other legends - we learned in school is crammed into the narrative, each hot point receiving a touch-and-go treatment. We meet up with Prince Siddhartha when he's born the heir to an Indian monarch 2,600 years ago. As a young man he realises the burden of suffering and fragility of life, and decides to leave his wife and child to become a monk. After trials and errors with misleading gurus and self-torturing, he finds his answer in the virtue of the Middle Path and comes to his enlightenment under a Bo tree by a serene riverbank in Uruvela. Then, for four decades he propagates his teachings, ordains a few thousand disciples, before passing away to attain Nirvana.

Along the way, key Buddhist preachings are uttered loud and clear; The Buddha received guidance from Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University and the Young Buddhists' Association of Thailand, and the whole thing feels religiously textbookish. Among other things, however, the animators did a fine job creating the image of Lord Buddha as a soothing wise man so gentle he can tame wild elephants and forest bandits with a wave of his long-fingered hand. Voiced by Ratchata Samorntinnakorn, a radio DJ, Lord Buddha's pronunciation of the Noble Truth sounds authentic, almost touching sometimes, and that's because of both the prophetic texture of Ratchata's voice as well as the gravity of the words themselves.

But still, this is Lord Buddha carved out of the familiar stereotype of school books and temple statues. He's sacred but bland, oracular but stiff. It would be interesting, for example, to import the swirl of surreal mythology practised by contemporary painters of Buddhist themes, like Chalermchai Kositpipat, and give our 21st century Siddhartha a millennial dimension to hopefully connect more with the audience. Lord Buddha's teachings are timeless, but not this film, which transports a sense of recycled sentiment and style.

That said, no one can blame The Buddha for the lack of heart. Though certainly the movie lacks vision - and courage. In his time, Lord Buddha had all of those qualities, as the filmmakers know well, and perhaps the noblest way to remember this noblest of men is to take after him, not only by being virtuous, but also by being brave and visionary.

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