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(Un)original sin?

Is a boundary-pushing erotic Thai compilation chauvinist or feminist, artistic or exploitative, or all of the above?

  • Published: 3/09/2010 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: Realtime

Don't rush to proclaim it a triumph of artistic expression. Perhaps it's just a triumph of uncensored breasts.

Lakana Wattanawongsiri in Desire, a segment in the erotic ensemble Namtan Daeng.

A year after the rating system was applied, we finally witness the exposition of mammary organs, female masturbation (long), a wisp of pubic hair (a woman's, again), and good ol' humping seen mostly from male perspective, on the big multiplex screen.

Is it throwback feminism, or immortal male chauvinism, that we still have to use the sight of nipples - female nipples, otherwise we couldn't have seen Rambo or Ong-bak 1,2,3 - as a watershed to measure our freedom of expression in cinema?

Allow me. It's more fun discussing Namtan Daeng (Brown Sugar) than watching Namtan Daeng. The ensemble of three Thai erotic short films were made by directors in their mid-20s, one of them a woman, and at the film's release last week the PR machine was quick to dub the package "erotic art".

The whole shebang (part II is said to be coming soon), besides a ploy to flash young cleavages, represents a gentrification of a dubious genre for commercial purposes; to call it a work of "erotic art" is a defence, for once something is sanctified as art, you're given a leeway to show it.

In this case, the term is (s)exploited as an open sesame to distinguish Brown Sugar from that sordid and beloved genre of pornography. "Art" is a cover, though it may not be climactic.

After seeing the film, at least 55.7 percent of the male audience would feel the itch to relish another art form and rush to Pantip or Klong Thom ASAP.

In the 1960s, Japanese film studios allowed young, hot-blooded filmmakers looking for a break to make softcore porn flicks for specialty theatres; the films could be as artistic, radical or experimental as they wanted, as long as they had at least three sex scenes.

This Roman-Porno genre, as it's called, was an early training ground for a number of avant-garde directors. I cited this because I believe that Brown Sugar, despite all the clumsiness and pretension, is at least performing that function of on-the-job training for the three young directors, namely Panumart Deesattha, Zart Tancharoen, and Kittiyaporn Klangsurin.

They have ideas and courage, though their flirting with the tough trope of mainstream erotica produces a strangely annoying effect, as if they're unable to cook those tricky ingredients of sex (not too much) and art (for their safe cover, but not too much either).

In the first two segments, by the two male filmmakers, the definition of the so-called "erotic art" is explicitly limited to perspiring cleavages and open horniness. You can imagine the first question at the audition to find actresses for these films: "Can you show your breasts? No? What about half your breasts?"

Panumart Deesattha's episode, called So Bon Tiang (literally, "a hooker in bed") depicts a middle-aged men's fantasy of having hot sex with a university student in a tight-fitting uniform.

If nothing else, the sex is not hot enough despite the earnestness of the two leads. For all the twist at the end, which was done quite perfunctorily, the film only confirms the stereotype of the male gaze and the need for women to objectify themselves (by at least wearing dangerously short shorts) to satisfy their men.

Not that the film is devoid of sensitivity, but that the director (or producer) limits his definition of eroticism to what we see, and not what we do not see but desperately want to see - check out the ensemble Eros, in which Wong Kar-wai, the most imitated director by film students across Southeast Asia, contributed a section.

A crumpled bedsheet, a sweaty palm, a glimpse of an armpit, perhaps, are more richly erotic than a cheap simulation of a sexual intercourse in which you only see the backs of the two participants.

Thus more is less, too, in the second episode. Zart Tancharoen, a young director with an experimental flair, chooses to detach himself from his subjects by proposing that the "erotic movie" you're seeing is indeed a shooting of a movie.

But again, the concept of eroticism here is confined to sex; had the young couple in the film not gotten down to it and continued their game of seduction, the film would've been less annoying in its deadpan pretentiousness.

Zart is too cool, perhaps too smart, to direct an erotic flick, and what he's done here is a half-baked study of youthful lust that turns out to be a vague, flimsy simulation of feelings.

Is it by chance that the most delicate episode was made by a woman?

Kittiyaporn Klangsurin's Pratana, or Desire, is about a woman's body and the pleasure that the body aches for when the night gets lonely (there's always such a night).

The hot point of the film is when the main character, a soft-spoken traditional masseuse, masturbates for 10 minutes straight, moaning and rubbing her breasts in the privacy of a bathroom. Later, she visits a tattoo artist and lets her body feel the pain - a bedfellow of pleasure - from his fine needles.

The masturbation scene, filmed in one long take, can be called historic for the mainstream cinema; its notion of pleasure and gender politics are apparent, brash and urgent. But to me at least, Kittiyaporn and her actress, Lakana Wattanawongsiri, couldn't choreograph that scene convincingly; the way the masseuse touches her body seems like she's copying the moves from a porn film, instead of a reaction to the natural desire that's heating up her groin.

The wordless suffocation when she visits the tattoo studio, on the other hand, is surprisingly fraught with body heat and elusive desire. This is the only episode that features no sex, yet among the three parts in the inexplicably titled Brown Sugar, this is the sexiest, effortless of all.

Maybe, and I only assume this, it takes a woman to know what women want. And if that sounds like a throwback feminism, then let it be.

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About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Real Time Reporter

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  • David L. Smith

    Discussion 1 : 06/09/2010 at 08:38 AM1

    I think You missed the point of this film and it's short stories. You've let the idea of sex and nudity cloud your analysis. After i watched the film, I came away with a feeling that Thailand is trying to remove itself from It's own bondage and finally allow freedom of expression. It seems that reality experienced by everyday people, may can finally be shown to the public in other than the evening news.


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