Thursday, February 11, 2010

A dishoom by any other name: Kaen (Thailand, 197?)

It’s not impossible to find information in English about certain films featuring 1970s Thailand’s premiere screen super-couple Sombat Methanee and Aranya Namwong. It’s just that Kaen isn’t one of them. Thus, as is becoming sadly typical of my reviews of old Thai films, I come to you with an almost complete ignorance of its plot’s finer details.

Fortunately, the broader, more archetypal aspects of Kaen’s story speak a language that I, thanks to my having viewed hundreds of Bollywood films, am well versed in. We have deep interpersonal bonds (between siblings? Childhood friends? I’m not entirely sure.) severed in youth by an act of violence perpetrated by some leering OTT villains, and then those two separated parties rediscovering one another as adults in the course of much unnaturally loud punching as each seeks to avenge the wrongs done to his or her family. We even get a flashback in which we see the younger version of our male hero, seriously wounded, fleeing from the gang that has just massacred his family, only to collapse while crossing a river and be carried to safety by its waters -- safety, naturally, in the form of a kindly stranger who finds his unconscious form washed up on the river bank and decides right then and there to raise him as his own.

So, yes indeed, Kaen could conceivably be considered to be a sort of narratively leaner, Thai version of a “lost and found” style Indian masala film. And it’s not so surprising that such a thing should exist, given both the popularity of Bollywood films in Thailand and the affinities between Thai and Indian culture. But what does it all mean?

It seems to me that the message of the lost-and-found film is that the bonds of family and community exert an irresistible, even magical pull that can neither be weakened by the expanse of time nor broken by even man’s most destructive acts of violence. These stories frequently play out within the context of the type of action-oriented revenge dramas with which Western audiences are well familiar, and, as such, offer up the opportunity to make some interesting comparisons.

Both Indian and Western action films romanticize the figure of the loner, but in Indian films the loner’s state is seen as being a temporary one; in the end, community, rather than isolation, is presented as being the natural state of things. By contrast, in his Western incarnation, the loner, despite whatever connections he might make in the course of his adventures, is often presented as having to “move on” at the end of the day, once again alone and free of entanglements to face what ever challenges lie ahead. And there is usually no explanation for this beyond the implicit understanding between filmmaker and audience -- based, more often than not, on the simple fact that all of us have seen the scenario played out so often that it’s come to assume the weight of established truth -- that this is simply “how it has to be”.

This last approach suggests that such connections are a source of weakness, which is about as far from the Indian lost-and-found film’s point of view as you could get. For an especially blunt allegorical example of this, look no further than the scene in Charas in which the reunited brother and sister played by Dharmendra and Aruna Irani use the handcuffs with which they have been bound as a weapon against their captors -- this physical manifestation of the ties that bind having only made them more formidable as opponents. As Bollywood sees it, the loner, while occasionally presented as the locus of Amitabh-style cool, must always come home -- even if it is, as so frequently happens, in death.

And so, while so much of Kaen’s unsubtitled goings on escape me, I can tell you that in it the characters played by Methanee and Namwong do indeed come home, and in doing so must face the forces that initially tore them asunder. And those forces come in the form of an especially motley gang of thugs -- the kind whose feral machismo drives them to casually beat one another up when they’re not terrorizing others. Of course, I can’t say exactly what it is that this lot is up to, but as they’re presiding over an encampment where what appears to be a small army is being trained for some dire purpose, they obviously must be stopped. And so policeman Methanee and civilian-of-unknown-occupation Namwong -- accompanied by what appear to be two younger, equally martial arts skilled siblings -- set their punch happy, spin-kicking sights upon doing just that.

And if the similarities to a 1970s Bollywood movie aren’t already enough for you, Kaen also manages to shoehorn in a couple of nightclub numbers as musical diversions:

As well as some pretty exuberant examples of 70s hipster fashion:

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Kaen to my Bollywood loving readers, I will say that viewing it in its available form -- on a VCD struck from the kind of traumatized, deeply striated print that is pretty much par for the course for any Thai film made before the last twenty years -- might at least offer them some consolation as far as their own film preservation based frustrations. (See? It could be even worse, people.) Beyond that, though, until the action-packed finale, the lack of translation makes for a difficult haul.

Sadly, it is things such as this that leave me grasping for elements of formula in old Thai films when I should instead be appreciating them for their avoidance of transparent plotting. I can’t help it, though. And in the case of Kaen, I’m not ashamed to say that there were certain aspects that really made it feel like home.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Your thoughts about the position of the "loner" in different cultural circles are interesting.
I always thought that the loner type in Western films is usually not coming home because he (and it is usually a "he") has reached a point of no return, seen things and done things which make him unfit for a "normal" life.

Todd said...

Right, he's done or seen too much to be fit for normal society. But interestingly, it seems to me like, because of this, he's often presented as the only guy who can act out of pure motivations. Despite whatever dark or tragic trappings he's saddled with, it's presented as a kind of perfect state, whereas in an Indian film I think it would be seen as an imbalance. I mean, nobody wants Django or The Man With No Name, at the end of the movie, to grab the girl and say "I think I'll kick off my boots and stay a while", right? (Not that this character only appears in Spaghetti Westerns, but I think you'll agree they offer a pretty pure example.)

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Yeah, Westerns are a perfect example for that, I agree.
To me, there's often a certain ambivalence about the way the loner is portrayed in the West, mostly focused on what to do with the loner after he has done his work. Newer films kill him off more often, I suspect as a way to solve the ambivalence somehow.

Interestingly, unlike in the Italian West, there are quite a few US films which are mainly about the loner settling down again and still not belonging; that line of thinking about the trope suddenly culminated a few decades after filmmakers had stopped talking about it in Eastwood's Unforgiven.

I think you're absolutely right about the loner in Indian films. That way to look at the figure bugs me a little, I have to say. As a product of my culture, I have difficulty believing that you can go home again.

Todd said...

Or worse, that you can never really leave! I've got to admit that I'm a little too rooted in my Western ways to be comfortable with that myself.

Tars Tarkas said...

Another Thai film with Bald Henchguy in it. Bald Henchguy rules even if I don't know his name in English.