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Realtime >> Friday April 04, 2008

Back to the fuchsia

Classic Thai ghost story gets a makeover, with limited success


Monsters Inc: Nak the single-mum ghost in a reincarnation as a pop-heroine.
Nak, Animation featuring the voices of Sasikarn Apichartworasin, Petchthai Wongkamlao and Chukiat Eiamsuk. Directed by Natthapong Rattanachoksirikul : Nak, the new animation from Bboydcg studio, is a clumsy clash of civilisations: rustic postcards of old Siam vs LCD-billboarded mega-capital; Japanese anime pop-aesthetics vs sci-fi mytho-babble; liberal swagger (the legendary Nak is depicted here as a sexy, single-mum ghost) vs conservative reassurance (the ghosts cup their hands to pray when facing the film's monster-in-chief, a lava-breathing iron buffalo).

In short, the film wants to look Thai and it wants to look contemporary. And by straddling those two realms it poses the same anxious question upon itself whether it's possible to gel the two pressures and construct the right "contemporary Thai" look - and sensibility. Because the idea of "contemporary" seems be borrowed from outside, primarily the West, but also from the geekdom of pop-cult like Japan, the attempt to present something recognisably Thai yet also "modern" - something that doesn't look old and choie - is not just an artistic but also a social challenge.

Some Thai artists have succeeded in that elusive quest, to varying degrees. Kamin Lertchaiprasert drew deeply from the wellsprings of Buddhist thoughts in his new-age art pieces, and in Sakarin Krua-on's famous installation, he gave us gallery-friendly real rice paddies. Then we have someone who goes beyond the tribal classification of Thai or non-Thai and dallies with the liquidity and fluctuation of global cultures - someone like the New York-based Rirkrit Tiravanija, who once turned a Thai cooking class into a performance art and who staged the Ramayana rock opera in Manhattan's Lincoln Center in 2006. In cinema, we have Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films are so steeped in the wealth of Siamese folklore yet so metaphysical in their textures that a lot of Thai moviegoers just don't get him.

The new Nak cartoon, produced by songwriter Boyd Kosiyabong and action-maestro Prachya Pinkaew, harnesses startling technology, but it is also an example of the awkwardness when the filmmaker wanted his work to look both cool and customary, to be fashionable and to be grounded in the familiar audience perception. Nak, usually known as the lovelorn wife who died in childbirth when her husband was away fighting in a war, is pictured here as a sassy pop-heroine with fuchsia hair and pink, midriff-baring traditional robes. Her eyes are the egg-sized portholes of Japanese cartoon nymphs, her breasts prominent under the tight wrap, her naked shoulders square, her waist supermodel-slim, and her skin the ashen colour not of a dead woman, but of a chic girl who regularly uses UV-protection whitening cream.

As a mother, she's quite hot (not too hot, maybe, to become a spokeswoman of the Culture Ministry). Yet as a Thai from a rural community, she preserves the value of a loving parent who's ready to sacrifice herself to protect her children in the face of mortal danger. Or is that the logic from Harry Potter?

In Nak, the rural ghosts live in peaceful symbiosis with the humans: the ghosts play the moral police by spooking bad people, while the good humans supply them with food offerings. But when the city ghosts - led by an underaged Anakin Skywalker-like child demon and a replica of that hideous woman from The Ring - abducts a human child from the village to use in a ritual that will enable them to rule the world, Nak and her motley crew of local demons (one of them has the features of a dwarfish Shrek) board a train to the city to rescue him.

They arrive at a megapolis of humans and spirits whose relationships aren't as pally as those in the province. The transition from the bucolic setting in the first half to the industrial archi-texture of the second is jarring, despite the elegant design by the team of Thai animators who've been working diligently on the project for nearly four years. Nak and her sidekicks battle the horde of flying, hooded, skull-faced ghosts of no clear ethnicity in spaceship-like corridors and then a large, grey-steel bowel resembling something from an early Star Wars movie: the film becomes a half-realised sci-fi extravaganza, even though the legion of Thai ghosts still display their traditional qualities with relish.

Again, I have no doubt that Thai animators have adequate technical proficiency to produce an eye-popping 3D animation like the Americans or Japanese. But something is lacking here: the wit, the shrewdness, the cinematic fluency, a script that would play the traditional-contemporary swing with humour and flair, the independence from its assorted influences, and maybe the boldness to claim that independence. Nak is pretty to look at, but the film is stiff in the joints, cramped in the muscles. Its protracted climax is a jumble of confusing tones - wacky, sentimental, spiritual, magical - and above all, it leaves no clear conviction about what the movie really wants to be: Thai, contemporary, Japanese, Pixar, all, or none of the above.

In 2006 the expensive Thai animation Khan Kluay, made with over 100 million baht, exploited the sleek technique to relate a uniquely Thai narrative: the vanquishing of the Burmese, our de facto enemy. In the process the chubby Khan Kluay became the most right-wing elephant in the history of our moving images; and the movie sticks out as an odd package of children-oriented entertainment, made with superb craft and technology, that tells a cynical adult's tale of deep-seated conservatism.

Nak wants so much to be visually progressive, but its underlying mentality is that of a straight-laced middle-class type; it has no messages, it only has reassurances. Wonderful Japanese cartoons, such as Spirited Away or Grave of the Fireflies, or even a mainstream Hollywood product such as Ratatouille not only tell good stories, but they also challenge young viewers to see adults - or the world in general - a little differently. These movies ask questions, instead of just reminding us of the old answers (that every mother loves her child, and that evil always looks like evil).

Recently, another exceptional animation played in Bangkok. Persepolis is the tale of an Iranian girl who grows up during the Islamic Revolution, based on the autobiographical comic books by Iranian Marjane Satrapi. Hand-painted in black-and-white, with the flat, destylised design of old comic series, the movie feels more "contemporary" in its look and outlook than any 3D computerised cartoons.Nak is a familiar character who has been reborn in Thai cinema over 20 times (usually she haunts people; and in one movie she even invades Japan). In this animation she's been put in an unprecedentedly colourful context, and however refreshing it seems, it's too bad that we learn nothing new about her at all.

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