Monday, 25 May 2009

Son of the Northeast, ลูกอีสาน (1982) (SIFF 2009)

The anxiety of influence

Ostensibly, Son of the Northeast is a historical drama set in the 1930s Thailand, in its Isan (Northeast) province, telling the travails of a small clan of subsistence farmers and their village as a particularly bad drought reduces them to bush living.

I suppose one could enjoy this movie on a literal level, which is encouraged by director Vichit Kounavudhi's moving, documentary-like presentation of this work of fiction. The story plays out like a Thai version of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (পথের পাঁচালী), but like many other films, history has caught up with Son of the Northeast, and we can no longer watch it with naive eyes.

I'm referring to the unfolding political turmoil in Thailand, where the source of the troubles hail from its Northeast province and its turbulent denizens - the only beneficiaries of the otherwise questionable reign of Thaksin Shinawatra, and understandably the only parties angry enough to derail the post-Thaksin political process.

And I'm also referring to the fact that the Northeast province has historically been troublesome for Bangkok: the last territory to be incorporated (or annexed) into the Kingdom during its final stage of expansion just prior to the 20th century, its culture, language, and people are more Lao and Cambodian than Thai, and politically rebellious. That the province was renamed "The Northeast" at the beginning of 20th century is a hint at the Bangkok's simultaneous nation-building agenda and anxiety of influence, under which the film actually operates.

While this story is set in the 1930s, the director behind the camera and the author holding the pen are strictly creatures of the 1980s, an era where Bangkok was already casting its nervous to the Northeast.

The nation-building message and its corresponding anxiety over Isan in the film becomes more apparent and unsubtle through time: the villagers (coded as Thai) are set against their ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian neighbours (coded as foreigners), who fight a cold war between themselves. The villagers are entranced by a gramophone playing a nationalist song praising the monarch and the unity of the Thai state. They happily send their children to Buddhist temples that double up as schools for the Thai language - a function that came only with the region's annexation by Thailand. And best yet, they call themselves Northeasterners.

With that heavy a burden of historical revisionism and nation-building, it is no surprise then that the film does not end up being the Thai Pather Panchali. As a straightforward documentary-like drama, the film is more than watchable in its recreation of rich ethnographic detail of early 20th century life in Isan, but far more can be gleamed if one is aware of the political anxieties expressed inadvertently in this work.


mzhughes said...

Do you know how I could find a copy of the film? I'm reading Kepner's translation right now.

Vernon Chan said...

There's no Criterion release for this film, sadly. No US DVD release either.

Your best bet will be to scour one of the vcd shops in Little Thailand. Print out either the image of the poster or the Thai script title and you'll be good to go.