That’s Still Khrungthep to You, Mister…

One year.  That’s how long I’ve lived in Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udom Ratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit (กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทราอยุธยามหาดิลก ภพนพรัตน์ ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์ มหาสถาน อมรพิมาน อวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะ วิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์).  This roughly translates as “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam,” according to Wikipedia.

So where do I find myself after a year?  It seems like it should be a momentous accomplishment.

The condominia being built in my neighborhood – five of which I can see from my balcony – are all much further along in construction.  That’s one sure sign of progress.  The new airport opening is another, although there are a lot of reports that it still has a lot of details to be worked out: Airports of Thailand, the operator, has announced they will install 200 more toilets, increasing the number to 300.  That’s right, only 100 toilets originally.

How do I feel about a year?  Very good.  I can say that I have been free of any regrets about my move, at any point in the past year.  Truly, there has been no point at which I’ve questioned the decision.  While I’m not sure that I will want to live in this city for the rest of my life, I’m certain that I want to be here, now.  Maybe somewhere quieter like Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son in the future.

Taay phom phuut aan gap kien pasathai dai ru plow?  (But am I able to speak, read, and write Thai or not?)  I’m still two weeks away from my one-year anniversary or studying, and I took one or two breaks along the way for holidays and visitors.  Still, I have made some really good progress: I can read and write at or around a first-grade level (but much more neatly as my motor skills surpass most six-year olds’!)  I can speak at about the same level, too, although most Thai six-year olds have me beat when it comes to that.  This is especially true since they’ve been exposed to slang and idiomatic expressions since birth.

How are things with Tawn?  In our nearly seven years together, we’ve had two periods (11 and 14 months, respectively) when our relationship has been long-distance.  After that second period there was a lot of re-learning how to live together.  He became used to living at home with his parents and I acclimated to living on my own and being around my family.  It took several months to re-synchronise our living habits.

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-chaaanges,” as David Bowie sang, “just gonna have to be a different man.”  Living here, living within the Thai culture, has had an effect on me.  I can sense it and am sometimes acutely aware of it, although I think the effect is measured glacially.  Very broadly, Thai culture’s critique of Western culture (they would never say it to your face, though) is one of, “you think too much.”  That would be a very appropriate diagnosis of what ails me, no doubt.  And I think that, one year on, I’ve learned a bit and reflected a bit and – at least in some small way – have started to think a little less.

Not “think less” in an intellectual sense, since these blog entries are a reflection that I consider and think about my surrounding world regularly.  Instead, “think less” in the sense of being less concerned about details that are ultimately not very relevant.  Much like that pop-psychology self-help question, “will I remember this a year from now?”  If the answer is “no,” then it probably isn’t worrying about.

Tawn may entirely disagree as there still seem to be plenty of occassions where I’m the one worrying about details, details, details.  Must plan.  Must-have-a-plan.

Still, I think, some progress there.

I believe that Great Opportunities abound; you simply have to open yourself to experiencing them.  This year has brought a plentitude of opportunities to me.  I have met many, many interesting people and have developed a few good friendships.  I have encountered the school at Bang khon thii nai (which re-opens today after a month holiday) and the teachers and students there, seeing a side of Thai life I would otherwise never see.  I have been able to share my experiences of this place with others, visitors both physical and virtual.

Most of all, though, I’ve been able to be together with the man I love and keep building a life together.  Not just to “be together,” but also to “be,” together.  And that’s been a great experience.

 

The week came to a hectic conclusion – multiple revisions of one key 90-minute self-paced training presentation kept me up until almost midnight Friday night.  But it is finished and done and I can move on to other projects, hopefully a little less workload-intensive.

Friday evening I did duck out for a bit and Tawn and I went to the corner Thai restaurant Krua Bai Thong and then for a foot massage next door at 5-Star Massage.   

DSCF9001 These are two businesses we’ve patronised regularly in the past year although for the past month we’ve been quite busy and haven’t been.  I was very happy to see that when I walked in, Achi, the pet dog of the massage parlour (who has grown a lot in a month!) recognized me and came running over to jump up and sit on my lap. 

Right: Here’s a picture from back in July with the massage parlour’s owner’s boyfriend letting Achi sleep on his lap.

 

DSCF1584 The past few days I had noticed that the air conditioner in the bedroom had not been cooling as effectively as it had in the past.  Set it at 23 C when you went to bed, it would still be at about 25 C even after running all night long.

For several months I had been planning on calling a company come out and clean and service our two air con units, so this was the motivation I needed to actually give them a call. 

So Saturday morning at 9:00 a team of five arrived and in the course of 90 minutes did a thorough job cleaning out the interior air con units as well as the external machines, refilling the near-empty freon.  They use high-pressure water on the interior units and manage to not spray too much extraneous water on surrounding walls, although I did have to do a little bit of clean up afterwards.

 

DSCF1589 Saturday evening we had guests over, Ken and Suchai.  Ken is a former 19-year United Airlines employee who contacted me via airliners.net many months ago with questions about moving to Thailand.  In the past month he has made the move and just took possession of a rental condo yesterday. 

It was nice to have them over for drinks, snacks, and then a trip across the street to Big Mama’s Italian Restaurant.  Didn’t take any pictures of them – sorry, I’ll get to that next time – but we had a good time.  I think I need to buy one of those small measuring cups used by bartenders; my Cosmopolitans were way too heavy on the vodka. 

Our appetisers were as follows: Blanched asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, pork laab salad served in cucumber cups, and pan friend mushroom bites with Haloumai cheese and fresh sage.


Side note: My trip report for my August trip from Bangkok to Penang, Malaysia has been posted HERE on airliners.net.

 

It Takes A Village… Sometimes

DSCF1574-1 Above: Rainy Sunday night in the Pratuwan (watergate) area.  Central World Plaza is on the left, Gaysorn on the right.  Looking north toward Khlong San Saeb and Thanon Phetchaburi.


Sunday evening instead of joining me for the screening of the Battleship Potemkin, Tawn met up with his friends for what might be described as an engagement party.  Sa, one of his friends, is getting married to her long-time boyfriend this December and she needed to distribute the official invitations.  This was reason enough for a dinner.

Over dinner, Tawn mentioned to his friends – he told me later that this was probably way premature – that he and I had been discussing the idea of raising children.  Now, point of clarification for my readers: Tawn and I have just been discussing the idea and the point of making any decisions would still be a few years away, but as we’ve been discussing buying a house and other longer-term arrangements, the discussion of a family came as part of the package.

The reaction of Tawn’s friends was uniformly negative and non-supportive: gay, straight, married and unmarried, each of his friends dismissed the idea out of hand.  Most of them raised the concern that children raised by gay people would face unnecessary teasing and discrimination and wondered why we would want to “subject” a child to that.

Tawn’s gay friends responded more along the lines of their continued disbelief that a gay man would actually want to settle down into a monogamous relationship.  But they’re shallow, so that response didn’t surprise me.

The most measured response, ironically, came from the husband of Tawn’s only friend in the group who is married.  He said that he could see us adopting because, given a choice between an orphanage and having gay parents, a child would ultimately rationalize that they were better off with gay parents than no parents at all.  This coming from a man who left his wife and two young children to marry his mistress.  I get his rationale, but am not sure he would serve as evidence that straight parents provide any better stability or environment for their children.

Anyhow, Tawn came home pretty disappointed, having expected more from his friends. 

Initially, I shared his disappointment.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is hard to expect people to be any more enlightened than the society in which they are raised and live – at least initially.  If we do eventually decide to raise children, through natural means (birth mother, artificial insemination, etc.) and/or adoption, there will be a long path of educating our friends, family, and others about the issues at hand.

I’ve always taken it on faith that my friends and family would be supportive of us starting our own family, but given the reaction of Tawn’s friends, maybe that faith is unfounded. 

Of course, the whole question of us raising children is a big “if”… there’s a few dozen high hurdles to overcome from adoption laws to different citizenship and immigration rights for the parents.  Just purchasing a home will be a necessary first step.  We can see where it goes from there.

Side note – when I run my spell check on Xanga, “gay” keeps coming up as misspelled.  What, are they nuts?

Below left: Morning sun streams into the living room on one of only about three days when the light hits a narrow corner of a nearby office building and is reflected in.  This will repeat again in about six months.  Below right: Erawan Shrine, often mistakenly called the “Four-Faced Buddha” in front of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. 

DSCF1554  DSCF1565  

Sugarless

Sugarless Thai director Patana Jirawong produces an interesting feature film about two very different people who are both looking for love in the big city.  The first is a taxi driver from upcountry who came to the city to look for his girlfriend, who moved there years before.  The second is an illiterate preoperative transsexual who works as a prostitute.  They meet through a newspaper advice column and carry on a correspondence (the transsexual having johns read the letters and transcribe responses in lieu of payment) before deciding to meet on New Year’s Eve.  Despite high personal standards, they end up meeting unknowingly when the taxi driver picks up the prostitute.

The Proposition

Proposition Australian director John Hillcoat helms this late 1800s-set picture starring Guy Pearce, written by indie rocker Nick Cave.  Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his men capture two of the four Burns brothers, Charlie (Pearce) and Mike. Their gang is held responsible for attacking the Hopkins farm, raping the pregnant Mrs. Hopkins and murdering the whole family. Arthur Burns, the eldest brother and the gang’s mastermind, remains at large has and has retreated to a mountain hideout. Capt. Stanley’s proposition to Charlie is to gain pardon and – more importantly – save his beloved younger brother Mike from the gallows by finding and killing Arthur within nine days.

This film is starkly shot and very interesting.  Reminded a great deal of 2003’s Ned Kelly with Heath Ledger. 

The Battleship Potemkin

Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 silent black-and-white revolutionary film about a 1905 mutiny that occurred on the eponymous naval vessel that brought on a massive street protest an subsequent police massacre in the coastal city of Odessa.  Ostensibly, this presentation was going to include an updated score by the Pet Shop Boys, but what I heard sounded to me to be the original score.  The film is considered a classic of the era and the famous Odessa Steps sequence was paid homage to in the climax of Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables. 

Eisenstein’s use of montage technique (putting together separate, individually neutral shots to form an effect greater than the sum of its parts) was grounbreaking.  One can argue that modern music videos with their hyperkinetic frenzy of cuts, owes a debt to Eisenstein.  Very good analysis of the film here.


And so the World Film Festival comes to an end…

On to other news, my Seagate 120gb external hard drive stopped working – it gets power but the disk isn’t running – after just shy of a year.  Very disappointed in a hard drive that craps out after such a short period of time. I returned it to the store and it is still under warranty.  They will send it in to the workshop and are confident they will be able to extract the data (which includes over a year’s worth of pictures!) and will send provide a replacement for me.  I think I’ll have to purchase a second external drive however, to ensure I have a backup of the backup.

 

Saturday was sort of a movie marathon day with tickets to a trio of screenings.  Fortunately, they were all quite good, the result being that at the end of the day I couldn’t think clearly about any of them.

12:08 East of Bucharest

Bucharest 1 Set in a small village in Romania, sixteen years after the revolution that saw dictator Ceausescu flee the country at 12:08 pm, the owner of a local television station invites two guests on the air to discuss the question of whether a revolution occurred in their own village or not.  In other words, were people protesting in the town square demanding Ceausescu’s ouster before 12:08 pm, or did they fill the streets after the dictator’s live televised escape by helicopter?

Bucharest 2 His original guests cancelling out on him, the television personality calls upon two acquaintences, on old retiree and sometimes Santa Claus, and a history teacher who has just devoted his entire salary to paying off his drinking debts.  On screen, they discuss their role in the historic revolution.  But phone-in viewers dispute the claims of these erstwhile heroes: were they really there at all or were they drinking in the corner bar?

The film, the winner of the 2006 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is tightly-made, clocking in at just 89 minutes.  Director Corneliu Porumboiu captures the absurdity and humor of the situation while also mining it for poetic beauty, asking whether we all don’t reinvent our pasts to some extent.

 

My Brother Nikhil

Nikhil 1 The debut feature of writer/director/editer Onir, this Hindi-language docu-fiction is based on the true story set in Goa of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The story concerns Nikhil (Sanjay Suri), a swimming champion and the pride and joy of his father, and his close relationship with his sister Anamika (Juhi Chawla). 

One day the team doctor calls him in to discuss the results of a recent blood test and Nihil learns that he is HIV positive.  The doctor’s claims of confidentiality are meaningless and the word spreads quickly through the town.

Shortly thereafter, he is arrested and isolated in a run-down sanitorium, the result of the Goa Public Health Act.  His friends abandon him and his parents move away.  The only people who stand by him are his boyfriend Nigel, his sister Anamika, and her fiancee, Sam.  They fight very hard to educate the public and after several months, earn his freedom.

But freedom from a sanitorium is not the same as true freedom.  He still faces tremendous discrimination and difficulty through a combination of laws (still on the books today) that make homosexuality a criminal offense, and the ignorance and fear of the population.

In the end the movie plays a bit like an Indian version of “Philadelphia” which is to say that it has an A-list cast, lots of stirring songs (actually, that’s more of a nod to Indian audiences than a comparison to the Tom Hanks movie), skillfully crafted tugs on your heartstrings, and no displays of affection by Nikhil and his partner.

That said, given the state of public awareness of the issues surrounding homosexuality and HIV/AIDS on the subcontinent, this movie serves a very good purpose and is quite notable, enjoying a modest commercial and critical domestic success.  Organizations including the United Nations are using it as an educational tool and it is being dubbed in other Indian languages for showing throughout the country in schools and elsewhere.

The director was present for Q&A afterwards and provided some intersting insight into how he got this film made, a five-year process that overcame a lot of obstacles.

 

The Feast of the Goat

Goat 1 In this UK-Spain co-production, based on the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabella Rosselini plays Urania Cabral, who returns to her homestown in the Dominican Republic in 1992 after having been away three decades.  Her invalid father is Agustin (Paul Freeman), the President of the Senate and right-hand man of the dictator Trujillo – until he fell into disgrace a long time ago.  Over dinner with her aunts, who chide her for having been away from her father for so long, she discloses the experiences that haunt her as her father gave away his most cherished possession in order to try to regain Trujillo’s trust.

09_thefeastofthegoat The film also tracks the story of the men who sacraficed their lives to end one of the bloodiest tyrannies of recent Latin American history.  Their story and that of Arania are intertwined in an intense kaleidoscope of love and hate, violence and death.

Under the direction of Luis Llosa, the actors achieve very strong and believable performances, while lensman Javier Salmones captures the bright airiness of the tropical setting and contrasts it with a darkness that echoes the developing story.

 

Two days, three films left.

Chinese Minimalism in Two Flavors

A quartet of films yesterday, the first two of which I chose not to attend because of work that needed to be done.  The final two, though, were ones I was unwilling to miss:

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Sleep Alone 2 Director Tsai Ming-Liang (Rebels of the Neon God, Viva L’amour, What Time is it There? ) makes incredibly minimalist, visually stunning films.  Dialogue is always virtually non-existent and the narrative, if it can be described as that, is more a series of vignettes moving in one direction rather than a story that goes from A to Z.  His films touch on themes of loneliness, love, and how people in modern life struggle to find a connection with others.  For most viewers, his films move at much too languid a pace – a scene of a woman crying over a failed relationship in Viva L’amour goes on for five minutes – but I find his works to be haunting, lingering in my mind for a long time afterwards.

The story is not too complex, although unlikely: set in the darker, multi-ethnic immigrant side of the director’s native Kuala Lumpur, Hsiao-kang, a homeless Chinese man (Lee Kang-Sheng, the director’s muse) is beaten by some con men, subsequently discovered on the street by a group of illegal Bangladeshi workers who are carrying a flea-bitten mattress they’ve found back to their flat.  They load him onto the mattress and bring him back, too.

Sleep Alone 4 One of the workers, Rawang (Norman Bin Atun) nurses Hsiao-kang back to health with a loving attentiveness that never blossoms into anything more.  Perhaps he is content just to have another human being to care for, when his job is working alone at the abandoned construction site of an office building (these shells where building stopped after the economic crisis of 1997 will be familiar to those of you who’ve travelled to Bangkok or KL), supervising the pumps that are slowly removing water from a flooded basement.

As Hsiao-kang regains his strength, he starts to explore the surrounding neighborhood, meeting Chyi, a waitress at a coffee-shop who lives upstairs at her female boss’ house where she is also responsible for carrying for the boss’ paralyized, possibly comatose son (also played by Lee Kang-Sheng, in a bit of confusing casting).

Sleep Alone 3 A love triangle forms between Hsiao-kang, Chyi and her boss, and eventually becomes a rectangle also involving Rawang.  As the title implies, no one wants to sleep alone.  But none of this develops very clearly; instead every attempt to find physical connection is halting and, often, halted.  One of the most interesting scenes is when Hsiao-kang and Chyi drag that flea-infested mattress to the construction site and attempt to make love.  Amidst the heavy smoke that has blanketed the city from forest fires in far-away Indonesia, despite their improvised masks, Hsiao-kang and Chyi’s love-making descends into a symphony of hacking coughs that keep them from connecting in their intended way.

Sleep Alone 1 Cameraman Liao Pen-Jung has paired with Tsai on his previous works and together they continue to create beautiful images that show a masterful understanding of light.  One of the most gorgeous shots – apart from the scenes in the abandoned shell of a building, which are incredibly beautiful – is when Rawang helps Hsiao-kang to the bathroom to relieve himself when he is too weak to do it himself.  As they stand there, arms around each other, the light falls across them from a nearby window illuminating a dark and barren concrete room.  It is an image that would be considered masterful in any other medium.

 

While I viewed this movie I considered that the Thai film I saw the other day, Sanctuary Rhapsody, may have been trying to go for the same effect: slow pace, lingering shots, minimal dialogue.  Sadly, while immitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, there is a wide gulf between mimicry and mastery.


Isabella

Isabella 1 Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung (Beyond Our Ken, You Shoot, I Shoot) helms this Macao-set film, which takes place in the days before the handover to China.  Shing (Chapman To), a Macao cop on the take who has been suspended for suspected corruption, is the quintessential bachelor – bringing home a string of girlfriends for one night and sometimes longer.  He wakes up one morning to find a young lady, Yan (Isabella Leong) sitting in his living room, presumably his lover from the night before.  She informs him that she is his daughter and that her mother – his first girlfriend – recently died of cancer.

As he panics over the thought of having slept with his daughter, she explains that she actually slipped in as the previous night’s girl left, but not until she has let him sweat about it for a bit.  When he asks what she wants, she asks for 3,000 dollars to pay back rent and for his assistance finding her lost dog, Isabella.

Isabella 3 The film is ultimately the story of two people trying to find a family, however incongruous a family it may be.  It takes a fairly convention approach to story-telling, although the director throws in a few misdirections, causing the audience to wonder if a romantic spark is igniting after all.  But it is not the case; instead, Shing warms to having a daughter and Yan finds comfort in finally having a father.

Isabella 2 Lest it seem to conventional, there is an additional layer of intrigue as Shing considers what to do with his impending arrest.  He purchases a gun and is set to snuff out the informant who snitched on him, preparing also to flee to Thailand with his new-fond daughter.

Visually, the film looks to owe a lot to HK director Wong Kar-Wai.  Some will assert that this visual style is quite common now among HK filmmakers, but Wong was the grandfather of it all.  Fading Macao makes for a beautiful backdrop, though, with rough colonial textures and hues at once tropical and rusted.  DP Charlie Lam captures it for full effect.  The film also makes strong use of its soundtrack including original music by Peter Kam. 

 

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros

The World Film Festival has started slow – some days I’m not even watching a single movie – but it is picking up.  Yesterday I caught a Thai independent film called Sanctuary Rhapsody by director Supucksarun Sumonnapraprad.  The description was as follows:

A girl tries to enter the world of men, but it’s a world she doesn’t understand and has little feeling for.

What it ended up being was a poorly-made film from a technical, narrative, and aesthetic regard.  It was essentially long shots of a girl lying around the house, doing laundry and other chores, intercut with various conversations in which one man, or that man and his friend, or just the friend, would sit at a small restaurant and talk – or not talk – as the hand-held camera bobbed around like a home video.  Minimal dialogue, no story line, no point of confrontation nor resolution.  And the whole thing looked like crap.  If you’re going to make a film, even an inexpensive one shot on digital video, first spend some time watching well-made movies and observing how the film is put together.

Anyhow, yesterday’s second movie was much better:

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros.

Maximo 2 Like a flower growing from a crack in a slum sidewalk, twelve-year old Maximo (played by talented newcomer Nathan Lopez) is very gay in a very not-gay place: the gritty shanty town on the outskirts of Manila.   Hanging out with his friends, producing campy Miss Universe drag shows, and enduring the occassional taunts from bullies, Maxi is more accepted than not, despite his incongruousness.

At home, where a shrine to his mother sits in a corner, Maxi plays doting mother figure to his father and two brothers, all of whom are petty criminals.  Surprisingly, they are not only tolerant but are very loving of him, teasing him from time to time but accepting him for who and what he is.  (Left: Maxi with one of his brothers)

Maximo 5 Things change when a handsome new policeman (JR Valentin) rescues Maxi when he is being attacked one night, taking him back to his house.  The cop becomes a love interest who takes Maxi’s attention with tremendous patience, despite some teasing from the boys down at the station. 

As a corrupt police chief is forced to retire and replaced, the cop is eager to help the new chief tackle the local crime problem, having a very clear-cut sense of right and wrong.  Trying to set Maxi on a path away from the crime his family is engaged in, the cop tries to get Maxi to rat on his brother, who commits a murder. 

Maximo 7 Ultimately, Maxi is caught in the middle when his family seeks vengence against the squeaky-clean cop and then the police retaliate.

The movie is handled in a loving way, not over-wrought, not over-acted.  Director Auraeus Solito’s debut addresses what might otherwise be a taboo subject – the love of a pre-teen for an adult – in a very sensitive way.  Well-constructed and well-acted, the film grows like that flower in the sidewalk’s crack, becoming so much more than one might expect.