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Love Letters
Feature by: Tiffany Limsico

From one ordinary viewer to Lav Diaz – man of the digital people

From Sonthaya Subyen/Filmvirus

August 2009

Goodness! You actually did it. You were crazy enough to take up our invitation to come to Thailand. Astonishing to think that a passing reference to you and Andrei Tarkovsky on my blog could deliver you to us like this.

Wasn’t it great though? The cinephiles in Bangkok surprised us all with their response to your films. Before the retrospective began I had to battle with the dreaded thought that us organizers would have to double up as your viewers. You’d turn up and get angry about how badly your retrospective was going – hardly any viewers, inadequate sound system and projector. I was already preparing myself in case we got raised eyebrows from our main venue, who made us rent our own equipment to use in their auditorium, and I resigned myself to getting an earful from you as well. Not so as it turned out. Our viewers were far more engaged than I’d anticipated – they were actually prepared to sit, or recline, for hours and hours watching your films. They even laughed along with the humorous moments in them. And you were far easier to talk to than I’d expected.

I guess I could blame my pal Filmsick for stressing me out before you turned up. He’d posted a terrifying image of you on his blog, the one of you leaning fiercely over a table taken at the Venice film festival. The posture was so alarming I had to imitate it for you the night we went to that bar by the river. Based on that photo, whenever people asked me whose retrospective it was that I was organizing, I would reply “Carabao”. I hope this doesn’t offend you. I’m not talking about the word for buffalo in Tagalog. I’m thinking of a Thai band famous for their ‘music for life’ style. In fact, I even joked to my friends that if you blew us out at the last minute I’d invite any of the Carabao band members to come and make an appearance instead. You guys look alike enough – long hair, jeans, goatee – we would have gotten away with it. The only catch being we would have had to pay these Carabao guys some several hundred thousand baht, whereas you and Alexis turned up out of your own pockets. Your coming to Bangkok was a sincere, friendly gesture, and we Filmvirus people loved you for that.

I can still vividly recall those amusing stories you told us, about how some student once accused you of not using hair conditioner, about how you accidentally featured a pop-up umbrella in a film you were working on, set in the Japanese occupation period. These memories are as deeply etched inside me as the afternoon we took you to see Khrua In Khong’s temple murals, hopping on a bus at Wat Arun, an afternoon which extended well into the night. That night ended memorably too with a ghostly encounter – all of us heard the same eerie, spectral moaning from one of the speakers attached to a public lamppost. And let’s not forget the consensus we stumbled on – all five of us around that table seemed to find Pen-ek’s films uniformly hollow. You really surprised me with your friendliness, and your entertaining conversations. You even bothered to ask me about my publishing projects, and the state of my health, about which you advised a daily dose of Wonderbra. Sorry! Wonderplant leaves. Of course I also discovered your intense cinephilia. You watch the classics – Mirror, Last Year at Marienbad – and the contemporary films – Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis. If I hadn’t happened to pop into a bookshop to buy Tarkovsky’s diary translated into Chinese, and the novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, I would never have found out about the extent of your knowledge of other people’s films. No wonder you got my joke about responding to Nicole Kidman the way Roberto Rossellini did to Ingrid Bergman – if Kidman ever wrote to you asking for a job.

There’s one thing I’m really curious about. Before you started turning your back on the market, on the majority audience, you used to make fully commercial films. I’m really curious about these films, made before Lav Diaz became Lav Diaz. Can’t begin to imagine what they’re like. Probably melodramatic, wildly emotional, am I right? Are they anything like those excessively dramatic radio soaps you show in Evolution of a Filipino Family? I’d really like to know too what you make of Filipino films in general, and what you think about those chaotically energetic entertainment films our hot humid region of Southeast Asia churns out. (If you ever want to know what would happen if you crossed the Famous Five stories with superstition, sci-fi, Seven Samurai and the TV series Six Million Dollar Man, don’t forget to check out a Thai film called Yod manut computer/Supercomputer Man. It’s a great example of the cultcult Thai movie.)

The Philippines probably has its fair share of over-the-top, cultish horrors. As far as I’m aware, Filipino filmmakers used to make B-movies for the Americans – mostly low budget gross-out horrors and women-in-prison shockers in the style of Roger Corman, or some such. Before you enrolled at that Goethe workshop with Christoph Janetzko (teacher of Raymond Red and our very own Paisit Punpreuksachat, also Pimpaka Towira), before you got into films, like Lino Brocka’s, that scraped the hard skin underneath the feet of politicians, was there ever a part of you that loved home-style entertainment movies? I get the impression there are many similarities between our national film cultures. So perhaps before you became the Lav Diaz who makes films at the very limit of our idea of cinema, before you became our digital hero, you may once have fallen under the spell of the 100% entertaining entertainment film too.

Since we both share a common ancestry, our dubious parallel heritage of nonsensical, instant noodle films, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about the Thai films of days long past. The films that were made before consciousness, morality, aesthetics, or plain old affectation took over, resulting in the robotic standard of propriety that imposes itself on Thai films today.

Back then Eden was filled with cheapie home-style movies, sincere in their transparency of purpose: to make a bit of dough by getting stars to do whatever they did most lovably in front of the camera. That was more than sufficient, economically speaking. The consciousness of the director as auteur was about a zillion kilometers removed, the demand for serious content was met, backhandedly. Miss Morality was always wheeled out, hurriedly, in the final closing minute – that was enough fodder for social decency. (Don’t get me wrong, the filmmakers meant well enough. It’s just that amusement went the opposite direction of aesthetics, and refused to exit the garden of infantile pleasures.) These were the days before the mass arrival of new waves figures such as Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, Cherd Songsri, Khunnavutr, or Permpol Choei-arun, whose socially responsible films earned them the sacred halo of quality. Before they took over, we could boast of films once so ‘primitive’ that foreigners who get the chance to see them today would begin to understand that the stork didn’t deliver Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Thailand. We needed more help than that – perhaps some artificial insemination concocted by the gods of cinema.

Well, let’s face it, Thai films back then answered only to their own odd logic. Kids these days probably can’t begin to imagine what they were like, these films which were held captive to the monogamous coupling. Whoops! The monopolistic pairing of the leading man and lady. They’d also have to get used to the theatrical style of the voice performers, who gave our leading couples exaggeratedly crystalline intonation. This was the same period as the first generation of TV soaps, broadcast in black and white and performed live. Viewers bore witness to everything, the mistakes, the whispered prompting which sometimes had to be repeated several times before the actors could pick up where they left off. It’s true that, when compared to the TV soaps, the films of this period could at least edit out the mistakes. At least they used actual locations for background, rather than cheap wooden boards painted the texture of the sky or sea. But if we were to go further and speak of the 'lighting composition' of these films, we’d have to admit that the light did all the composing. All the human hand had to do was to shine as much light as was maximally possible onto the set. The heroines were over-the-top too, going to sleep in full makeup in a bedroom electric bright all the way from the foreground to the background. (This was the reason why this cinema’s biggest star, Petchara Chaowarat, went blind.) And what about the camera? With its love of the rapid zoom in and out, it made viewers travel through space faster than even the time machine itself.

The members of the cast: the mother and father, the minor royals, the major dignitaries, the servants, the baddies, the jealous mistress, the comedians positioned by the throne and the spittoon ready to massage and humor their masters, and don’t forget the sex bombs. All of these characters would line up in a single file in front of or behind the sofa, mouthing the longest dialogues – the lines that set sail and got lost, drifting further and further into distant water. The unfunny formula of getting the lines wrong then right then right then wrong again and again and again. (Just like what I wrote.) The lines that sometimes strayed below the belt (literally), playing for time while the couple inched their way back to their abode. That’s right, the taproot of likay folk opera runs deep in Thai cinema. This is a truth not recognized by the new wave army just mentioned, or the teen filmmakers of the Tai Entertainment era (mid-1980s to 1990s), intent as each of them were to scrub Thai films clean of their primitivism. This trajectory they call progress has since delivered us the company GTH (Gmm Tai Hub), whose films display not an iota of awareness that the more they try to create decorative, trendy mise-en-scenes, the further their films stray from the lives of ordinary people. This is why us oldies, who have fallen out of the trend, have had to flee into the embrace of TV, both as viewers and producers.

But once upon a time there was a pair of stars I followed passionately, called Sombat Methanee and Aranya Namwong. Their names resonate so strongly still among the folks of my generation. Every time I think of the first Thai film in my living memory their faces come to mind. Up to the 1980s, Thai cinema was a cinema of a handful of stars, coupled off in pseudo-romantic pairs. The last of these was the pairing of Jintara Sookkapat and Santisuk Promsiri. There wasn’t the kind of inflation of stardom you see now. Mit Chaibancha and Sombat each starred in god knows how many movies a month. They literally had no time to sleep. Every time a scene was shot of the hero climbing up to a helicopter, whoever financed that film would reach for the nearest prayer book. (Back then the stars did their own stunts. No sling, no stunt – we had that long before Ong Bak laid claim to it. In fact that was how Mit, the number one leading man before Sombat came along, met his death – plunging off a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter mid flight.)

At the height of his fame Sombat could probably be compared to Gérard Depardieu, the French ex-superstar. He could star in any genre – drama, action, but was in his element in smutty comedies. You could say of all the James Bonds he was most like Roger Moore. Even better was the fact that he had a fine voice, and had been a singer before he became a star. Compared to Sombat, Mit was a leading man in another style – polite, modest, a gentleman both on the screen and off. He was probably more like Sean Connery.

As for the content of films Sombat starred in, there wasn’t much to worry about. In those days if the filmmakers didn’t adapt, or mangle, a novel, they’d make up their own plot. In most cases they’d steer clear of realism or serious content. The stars were so busy working on so many films at the same time they didn’t have time to change their hairstyles to suit each role. And why bother? When their fans loved them as they were, wanted to see them in the kind of stories they were used to, and devoured the sight of their smiles and body language in a manner that they could identify with. Intellectual affectation really wasn’t an appropriate accessory to these films.

The first love is always the best love, right? Although I came to admire male stars like Pairoj Jaising, Pairoj Sungwoributr, Kanchit Kwanpracha, Yodchai Meksuwan, Sorapong Chatree, and Thoon Hiranyasap, each for different reasons, Sombat still remains the number one for me. The fact that he’s been in all sorts of atrocious films (including that one, Tears of the Black Tiger) doesn’t change the way I feel for him. Once I even went as far as to seek out his biography, called Pen phra-ek sa jon dai/A Star at Last. It claims he’s been entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who’s starred in the greatest number of films, more than 617, and opposite at least 87 leading ladies.

So are you beginning to see now how much of this rubbish is in me, Lav? This wasn’t the side of me I revealed during our conversations. How I would like to have a go at making a film in this primitive style, the type of film that might end with a twist revealing the hero to be a police captain in disguise, sent on an undercover mission. I’d especially like to lay my hands on our very own kind of romcom. But there would be no point in doing this only to pay sentimental homage to the films of the past, or to express a yearning for the good old days. And of course there would be no point at all in satirizing them. Anyone who wants to cite these films in the present would have to do so with understanding and attachment. They can neither blindly elevate the films nor raise themselves above them. And let’s hope the result would differ from Tears of the Black Tiger and The Adventures of Iron Pussy (although I do like this film of Apichatpong’s).

Is my letter getting too long for you, Lav? I hope not, since you make 11-hour films. Like I said to you in person, sitting through your films made the tender skin on my buttocks so sore I had to rub Tiger balm on them (true story); to which you replied, “Sorry man”. So consider this my turn to claim your time.

The point of telling you my shaggy dog story is this: I wanted to let you know that Sombat Methanee has directed films too, 16 in total if I’m not mistaken. No, they’re not particularly good, but I expect many Thais remember them still. The most memorable one for me is Salakjit, with Sombat in the leading role opposite the young Jarunee Suksawad (think of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade). But let me tell you about his fourth films, Yae nuad sua or, in English, Operation Black Panther.

That’s right, black panther, though on the credit titles roams a pink panther in the style of a Blake Edwards’s Inspector Cluzot film. In Sombat’s film the Black Panther is the name of a terrorist organization up to no good as usual. In films like this one, if terrorist organizations are not bent on conquering the world then they’re busy killing this or that person. Think of Dr Fu Manchu or James Bond. Everyone in the Black Panther organization wears a mask. The punishment dealt to those lower down the line of command includes the 007 trick of throwing them into the panther’s cage.

What does our hero Sombat have to do with this sinister organization? Well, the nonsensical pretext is that our hero happens to be addicted to mystery novels of the Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin or James Bond varieties. By a series of mishaps the Black Panther takes him for one of their assassins, so our unwitting hero has to carry out the tasks assigned to him.

The assassin from Harvard falls at the first hurdle. He turns up late for work forgetting to load the bullets in his gun. For this piece of stupidity our assassin becomes the man wanted by the organization.

It’s the moment Sombat appears in one particular scene that I would like to make you, Lav Diaz, party to history (this history which is so important to me). It’s the moment of his arrival in Siam Square.

Do you remember Siam Square, Lav? On it sits New Light restaurant where our 20 strong group ended up, on its third floor, after the opening night of your retrospective. Thirty odd years separate the New Light we ate in and the New Light in the film, but in terms of its architecture and atmosphere not a great deal has changed. The shops around it have though – god knows when the Hard Rock Café suddenly cropped up. Back then the clothes, the hairstyles and the taxis looked very naff, but Sombat’s car more than compensates for these lapses in taste. It’s a car that doesn’t look as pretty as Herbie, and at best it’s only a distant relative to the Mini Cooper. But what it has that the other cars lack is two front parts. That’s right, two front parts facing the opposite direction with one steering wheel in each part.

Better late than never as they say. The comical honking of a car horn announces the arrival of Sombat’s silly yet useful vehicle. He may be late for his assassin’s job, but the compact size of the car means our hero can squeeze into the meagre gap that passes for parking space in Siam Square’s crowded hive. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the square that never gets lonely, whatever the age.

Here we are in the parking space in front of New Light restaurant. The spot where Thailand’s leading politician, the arch enemy of the Black Panther, is about to get popped off. He will walk out of the restaurant after his meal and get into his car right here.

Meantime Sombat is waiting opposite the restaurant, the same side of the square as the Doungkamol Bookshop. In the frame you get a crystal clear view of the shop’s sign: D.K. Bookhouse, the original branch of the book company I used to work for, the company that used to publish good books for generations of readers. The company that gave a space for D.K. Filmhouse (Filmvirus), those good people who brought to you astonishing, unusual films (aren’t we modest!) – films like Lav Diaz’s (boundless loyalty).

Next up the chase scene, the universal part of cinematic language that’s been around right from the start, in the films of cinema’s forefathers the Lumières and especially in D.W. Griffith’s films. The scene we’re watching right now records the chase across Bangkok from Siam Square to the Golden Pagoda.

No matter how hard the villains chase him Sombat always eludes their grasp. His weapon is the pocket car’s time saving genius. Whenever he finds himself hounded into a tight corner, Sombat would jump across into the other seat with the steering wheel. In this way he could drive off the opposite direction without wasting time reversing the car. Little Red’s double fronted model is a marvel of motor design giving the car the agility of a town mouse.

This was Thai cinema’s answer to the James Bond or other spy thrillers of that period, its effort to match the genre’s formula featuring the talented, charming hero, the ladies’ man with his latest technological or motor gadgets. The gadget in Sombat’s film was novel enough for me at least. The kid that I was then was dumbfounded by the sight of it, which made me fantasize about getting my very own toy version to play with.

Fast forward to the end of the film, the hero and heroine now sit behind each steering wheel taking turns to drive Little Red through narrow lanes dodging the enemies hot on their heels. The end arrives for this trusty little car when action girl on the enemy’s side has a stroke of genius and shoots multiple bullets down the middle of the mini where the two front parts are joined. Oh what a shame, amidst the shower of bullets raining down on it, our little mini becomes almost crippled. The steering wheel still works all right, but the back part of the car now trails limply scraping the road surface. Our hero has no choice except to rely on brawn, and pure luck, to get him out of this final tight spot.

Of course no hero of this period could be a hero without martial arts skill. The other more interesting skill that heroes also needed to have, and Sombat had in spades, was sex appeal. In both the films that he starred in, and the films that he directed, Sombat didn’t shy away from bringing out this quality of his. Every now and then during a film’s running time, ladies adorned with only the bottom half of their two-piece would cling to him (in a manner that no grade-A Thai films these days would dare to do). He’d show off his toned muscles posing in small underpants, the color of bright canary yellow in some films. Sometimes he’d receive multiple blows from the villains, who’d end the lesson dealt to him by stripping him down to his red underpants. Even more astonishing still are the details in the biography I mentioned earlier. Sombat freely discloses in this book his tricks for the love scenes, his experiences in brothels (regarded as acceptable in those days), and even his tete-a-tetes with homosexual men – in the kind of saucy details that beggar belief that a leading man would dare to reveal this much of his life.

Oh yes, I could carry on for days and days telling you more nonsense of this kind, Lav. But I don’t know if you yourself have any fondness left in you for silly, obsolete movies like this. (Or is your foot now itching to thwack the tender spot on my buttock where Tiger Balm was applied?) Yes of course the good old days are only a myth. Knockabout films like Luk sao kamnan/The Henchman’s Daughter, Mue peun nom sod/Fresh Milk Gun Man, or Kai luk khoei/Son-in-Law Eggs may have been part of the sweet scent of my past, but I have long been carrying this immense anger against Thai cinema too. Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much from something that’s as close to me as this. Maybe I should accept what’s real, make peace with Thai cinema in all its limitations, and give up nursing the hope that one day this thing will change into what it isn’t. But then again I’m probably blind to the value of Thai films as a kind of social barometer. I could try harder to fall in love with lowbrow kitsch, to delight in writing about them as a kind of alchemic reinvention – the kind of film criticism that Filmsick does so brilliantly. But then again I lost my head so long ago to the films cultural institutes of the west used to show. I guess you could call my submission to their activities a form of ‘colonial’ inculcation.

As I write this sentence a strangely bitter laugh wells up inside me, yet brings with it a warm glow I experience so rarely in life – a sudden feeling of safety and belonging. Who knows what this is all about – perhaps it’s a sign of the last remaining thread that still binds me to this nation of mine. It’s only a strange thread, though, neither like Spiderman’s nor the web of the Black Widow.

What about you, Lav? Have you ever been in this position? Have you ever had to work through bittersweet attachment like this one? Please send some advice. Tell me how you manage to stay on your feet in the business of cinema that’s so far removed from the realities of Filipino society.

With respect,
and proud to have met you,

Sonthaya Subyen

Sonthaya Subyen founded Doungkamol Filmhouse, or D.K. Filmhouse, in 1995. D.K Filmhouse continues to program screening tours around university campuses in Bangkok and other provinces. Sonthaya writes film and literary criticisms for several magazines and is the publisher of the Filmvirus and Bookvirus paperback series.

Translated by May Adadol Ingawanij
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