Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
To Khon graab maa/My Teacher Eats Biscuits
Observers of Thai cinema identify 1997 as a major turning point, the successes of which have defined the ensuing decade. It was the year that an advertising director called Nonzee Nimibutr released his debut feature, Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, scripted by Wisit Sasanathieng, a film whose distinctive look accounted for its tremendous box-office success. Another ad director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, completed his debut feature in the same year. Although Fan ba karaoke didn’t make as much money as Nonzee’s film, Pen-ek’s debut was still something of a stylistic departure. The brothers Oxide and Danny Pang, while not Thai by nationality, also completed their Thai film debut, Who Is Running?, in that same year. 1997 introduced these male filmmakers to the public, before their follow up films catapulted them to the limelight: Nang Nak, Tears of the Black Tiger, 6ixtynin9 and Bangkok Dangerous respectively.
1997 also saw the inauguration of the Thai Short Film & Video Festival. The event provided a platform for the early works of some filmmakers who have since gone on to produce fresh, novel works for Thai cinema. They are, for instance, Parkpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter), Chukiat Sakveerakul (The Love of Siam), and independent filmmakers Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Thunska Pansittivorakul (Happy Berry).
History has often shown that social crises can unleash artistic creativity. One of the driving forces behind the emergence of this handful of good films in 1997 was surely the economic crisis that had begun to unfold in July that same year. The economic downturn must have badly affected the advertising industry, which then provided the impetus for these ad directors to try their hands at feature filmmaking. (The temptation must have been even greater after Nonzee’s first two films demonstrated how much revenue could be reaped from a commercially successful film.) At the same time the crisis also brought to the screen stories of ordinary, struggling people, such as the people in the films of Pen-ek (only the first two though!) This is the other impact that the economic crisis had on cinema. In the first place it drove the success of nationalistic films such as Nang Nak, Iron Ladies (Yongyoot Thongkongtoon) and Bangrajan (Tanit Jitnukul). (This past year, as Thailand is undergoing its current political crisis, Tanit has just released Bangrajan Part 2.)
This brief account is a history as written by the victors, whether in terms of the films’ revenues, the prizes garlanded on them, or even the acclaim granted to them by the wider public. The losers have disappeared, not having been graced by much historical documentation. A prime example of this fate is the filmmaker Ing K.
Ing K, or Samanrat Kanjanavanit, is often omitted from the inventory of Thai female filmmakers. (There is in any case only a handful of them; yet, still, she often doesn’t figure in the list.) This is probably because Ing K is not generally known as a filmmaker in Thailand. Few of her films have been shown here, and she’s more widely recognised for the other things she does: as a journalist, a painter, or a writer. (She is the author of a bestselling book called Khang lang postcard/On the Back of the Postcard, written using the nom de guerre ‘Laan Seri Thai’/‘granddaughter of a Free Thai’.) Ing K is also an activist, one who uses the documentary form as her main weapon, in fact. She has made Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993) and Casino Cambodia (1994). The title of each of these documentaries gives one a sufficient flavor of the menaces that they set out to explore.
There is another film that Ing K has made, a film so controversial that it has been ‘disappeared’ from history. It’s called, in Thai, Khon graab maa, which literally translates as ‘man prostrates to dog’; though the official English title is My Teacher Eats Biscuits. The film has been described as an insult to Buddhism, an insult to all religions in Thailand, in fact. And it’s been accused of social depravity. Khon graab maa was meant to be screened at the 1st Bangkok Film Festival in 1997, but after an anonymous complaint was mysteriously faxed to the police an investigation took place resulting in the banning of the film. Ing K went to parliament to defend her rights and to clarify her artistic intention, but she was severely attacked with various allegations. In the end she decided to stop fighting for the film to be shown and, for a while, turned her back on filmmaking. Instead, she threw herself into environmental campaigning, most notably the protest campaign highlighting the environmental havoc caused to Maya Bay, Krabi province, by the shooting of Danny Boyle’s The Beach in the area.
Since only a handful of people have had the chance to see My Teacher Eats Biscuits, the accusation about the film’s so-called depravity has come to be taken as accurate. The fact that Ing K is a straight-talking woman who refuses to bend to the creaking conservatism of Thai society also encouraged people to believe the worst – they imagined the film to be very aggressive and violent. Twelve years after this debacle, I finally had the chance to see the film for myself. I now realise that to call My Teacher Eats Biscuits a dangerous, depraved film, is the equivalent of the Thai government accusing Pink Flamingo of national treachery, or of clinging to the logic that the films of Paul Morrissey have the power to destroy religion.
That’s because My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a 'cult' film in the spirit of John Waters. It’s low-budget, stars friends of the filmmaker, and is shot in the back of somebody’s house. The resulting film is one that had myself and a group of friends helplessly laughing every five minutes when we finally got to see it. The film is about a man (played by the Eurasian Krisada Sukosol, who's since become a famous rock star and actor) who hopes to win back his estranged wife. He and a farang friend disguise themselves in order to go join a strange sect that his wife belongs to. The people in this sect dress in white, live in the same ashram, and worship a sacred dog (a particularly cute dog as it turns out). They eat dog food and dog shit, and imitate the movement of dogs. The inhabitants of this ashram are both Thais and farang. The leader, who acts as a kind of right hand person to the sacred dog, is a beautiful woman played by Ing K herself. There’s also a sub-plot involving a necrophiliac monk who claims that having sex with corpses is a form of education in dharma, and in any case there is nothing sinful about such intercourse with the dead since the corpses happen to be male! The film is shot on 16mm with 70% of the dialogue spoken in English. Despite the low budget, production quality is actually very impressive.
Khon graab maa makes serious fun of the superstitiousness that has long taken root in Thai society. Thais are no longer clear whether Buddhism or animism constitute the national religion. Ing K makes precisely this point, while adding another layer, which is the exoticism of Buddhism as a kind of rehab center for Westerners. (Though there is more to it than that. In the film Westerners are investors in the ashram but the picture isn’t one in which Thais are deceiving Westerners. Thais and Westerners are co-operating with each other in order to pull a fast one on Thais and Westerners alike.)
What lifts Khon graab maa above the usual satirical cult movie is its climax: a monologue by Ing K herself on the benefits of deception. All members of the sect are well aware that the ‘sacred dog’ is a nonsensical conceit, yet all are willing to remain within this fictitious world. On this point the film is comparable to the social parables of Satyajit Ray.
Though the canon of contemporary Thai cinema has been constructed out of the films of Nonzee, Pen-ek and Wisit, I regret the exclusion of Ing K’s film from it. If Khon graab maa had been shown at the time of its completion the consciousness of the younger generation of filmmakers might have been much better challenged. It is a truly powerful film that to this day cannot be circulated freely. Despite the fact that we only got the chance to see it a decade or so after its completion, my friends and I still found the film hugely engaging. More importantly, Khon graab maa is still truly relevant. The acuteness of its theme is probably even more powerful now that Thailand is at this point of major change.
How different Ing K’s film is, in its exploration of the commodification of Thainess, from those films by Nonzee, Wisit, or others – films that deliberately sell Thainess. If Khon graab maa had been shown 12 years ago, it’s possible that we may now have more films – both mainstream and indie films – that set their sights on radically questioning the rotten foundation of Thai society. (Two years ago Ing K returned to filmmaking with a documentary called Citizen Juling, which questions the prejudices with which Thais regard the violence in the far south of their country.)
One wonders what was swirling around in the subconscious of the officials who ordered the banning of Khon graab maa. Perhaps they truly believed the reasons they gave; or it could be something as shallow as the fear of a film whose dialogue is largely in English. The real reason might have been fear of the unknown: state officials in those days would not have come across ‘independent films’ before, and therefore would not have known how to deal with them. Or we could be talking about deeper forces at work: the characters in the film may have reminded the censorship board of the highest of Thai high society. Or this one image from the film: man prostrating to dog, might have struck them as a representation of that which has the potential to shake up the whole of Thai society. The real reason could well be something bizarre, such as the coincidence that one of the characters happens to look like a well-known aristocratic woman.
There are many cult filmmakers in Thailand. Every year at the short film festival, around 40% or so of the submissions are, variously, zombie films, slasher films, or crazy comedies. But at the end of the day they remain the type of film that Alexis Tioseco described as 'complaint films' (when he was in Bangkok with Lav Diaz in a conversation with Thai cinephiles about cinema and politics). That is, they're films that are content only to make short, forgettable statements of complaint. Khon graab maa teaches us that cult movies are capable of piercing through to the cancerous cells that for hundreds of years have been poisoning Thai society, and still continue to do so.
Translated by May Ingawanij
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