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Faiths and Films: Crisis of Thai Buddhism on the Silver Screen1 Pattana Kitiarsa2 Introduction In the eyes of scholars

and social critics, Thai Buddhism has experienced chaos and crisis since the 1980s.3 Buddhism in contemporary Thailand has become, in Nidhi Auesriwongse’s words, an “alienated and unwanted surplus” (suan koen) in Thai life and society (2003:5). Its institutional and moral foundations have been considerably weakened by eroding penetrations of modern consumerism and materialism. As critics point out, the crisis of Thai Buddhism has manifested in both its establishments and popular perceptions toward its clergies’ conducts. The Sangha (the Buddhist official organization) has been questioned for its moral legitimacy and authority. In his monumental work, Phra Phaisan Wisalo (2003) traces the origin of the crisis of Thai Buddhism back to key modernist reformations and changes since the early Bangkok era.4 He argues that Thai Buddhism has been facing difficulties and challenges from both inside and outside Buddhist institutions. Thai Buddhism has by and large lost its moral authority, spiritual leadership, and cultural significance in contemporary Thailand, because its leaders and institutions lost their battlegrounds to the aggressive and complex forces of modernization and globalization from outside. Moreover, the Thai Buddhist Sangha has often been criticized for its corruption-stricken
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Paper presented in an interdisciplinary conference on “Religion in Contemporary Myanmar—Burmese Buddhism and the Spirit Cult Revisited,” organized by the Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies, Stanford University, May 22-23, 2004. An earlier version of this paper was read in the Conference on “New Southeast Asian Cinemas: Where Big Budget Meets No Budget,” organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, May 3-4, 2004. The author would like to thank Dr. Khoo Gaik Cheng, the conference organizer, for allowing him to use some of the Thai films and other materials from her private collection. She also renders him her critical comment and editorial help over the early drafts. I am grateful to Thelma Fadgyas for her additional editorial assistance. Any shortcoming or inadequacy persisted are my sole responsibility. 2 The author is a former faculty member at Suranaree University of Technology, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand and currently a Postdoctoral Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, The Shaw Foundation Building, Block AS7, Level 4, 5 Arts Link, Singapore 117570. Email: aripk@nus.edu.sg 3 See Keyes (1995); Nidhi Auesriwongse (1999); Phra Phaisan Wisalo (2003); Phra Thepvedhi [P. Payutto] (1993); Phra Thammapitaka [P. Payutto] (2002); Sanitsuda Ekachai (2001); Sulak Sivaraksa (1995); Suriya Smutkupt et al (1996); Swearer (1995). 4 Although many scholars emphasize King Mongkut’s reform, which gave birth to Thai modernist or Protestant Buddhism as the watershed of modern history of Thai religion, I contend that Thai Buddhism’s most severe crisis took place when Ayuthaya fell at the hands of the Burmese army in 1767. Efforts made by King Taksin and King Rama I were to create new regimes fashioning after Ayutthaya with Buddhism as an ultimate source of the political legitimation. Wyatt (1994) describes King Rama I’s immediate responses to the prolonged socioeconomic, political and religious crisis as the “subtle revolution.” Reynolds (1976:203-220) sees early Bangkok era as the cosmological transition from the old Siamese Tribhumi Buddhist cosmography to the new modern one.

administration and visionless ill-adaptation.5 After reviewing a series of infamous monks’ sexual scandal and corruption cases, Keyes (1995) asks: “Does the Buddhist Sangha have a future in modern Thailand?” Furthermore, public faith in the Buddhist monkhood is in a state of decline. As Swearer (1995:159) points out, “The traditional religious festivals that once shaped community life are gradually losing their meaning. A small percentage of the male population is being ordained into the Buddhist monkhood.” Sanitsuda Ekachai, a noted journalist with a keen interest in Thai Buddhism, observes: “Hypnotised by the new magic of science, post-war educated Thais have grown up to see Buddhism—given its emphasis on merit-making, heaven and hell, and the ‘magic’ practiced by many monks —as simply superstition, suitable for the elderly” (2001:7). In his studies of Thai popular religiosity in the 1990s, Jackson (1997, 1999a, 1999b) argues that Thai Buddhism has been undergoing postmodernization characterized by the emergence of “boom-time religions of prosperity” commercialized Buddhism (phuttha phanit) and other phenomena of commercially oriented religiosity. In addition, Buddhism as a modern social institution and as spiritual guidance and identity marker has apparently been fragmented with competing interpretations and practices from various movements and modern agencies. Many studies explore the rise of urban Buddhist movements such as Dhammakaya, Santi Asoke, and Suan Moke Movement in the past three decades.6 They consider the rise of these reformist Buddhist movements as “struggles for modern relevance” (Suwanna Satha-Anand 1990), different paths to make sense of modern socioeconomic changes from Buddhist perspectives, and venues to provide the legitimacy for political power for the growing urban middle class, especially in the case of Dhammakaya Temple. In other words, most scholars, social critics, and public opinion in contemporary Thailand are in consensus in their arguments that Thai Buddhism in the 21st century has been serious challenged by what Tanabe and Keyes define as “secularization and disenchantment” (2002:8). Its moral authority has become very problematic and questionable. Doubts are placed against its capability to provide assurances and resources needed for people to make sense of complex and ever-changing worldly
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Chote Tasaneeyavej, a veteran Thai journalist, comments on series of sexual scandals involving Thai monks in 1990s that “Iron is eroded by its own rust. Likewise, the Sangha is eroded by its own members who abuse the yellow robe” (cited in Sanitsuda Ekachai 2001:47). See also a comment on Thai Buddhism in post 1997 economic crisis by Knox (1998). 6 See Apinya Fuengfusakul (1993:153-183); Heikkila-Horn (1996:93-111); Jackson (1989, 1997); Suwanna Satha-Anand (1990:395-408).

I will look beyond the mainstream critics and intellectual thoughts by re-examining the discourse on “Thai Buddhism in crisis” from popular film perspectives. There is virtually no crisis concerning Thai Buddhism presented or reflected in the films. Mekhong Full Moon Party. namely. they make their judgments mainly based on doctrinally-defined moral Buddhist standpoints. and Ong Bak not only reconfirm prominent places of popular religion in Thai life. I purposefully choose them as case studies of film stories concerning contemporary Thai life. Mekhong Full Moon Party (2002). organized around an apparent theme of popular religious beliefs and practices. They rely on the authority of written texts. These three films are selected based on rather arbitrary grounds. rigid. as rather authoritative. Thai Buddhism. needs to be reformed and restructured from top to bottom (Phra Phaisan Wisalo 2003:246-282). but a firm faith in Buddhist teachings and principles with some critical concerns of its agencies and performances in the fast lane of Thai society.” which “entails an irrevocable rupture with a habitus rooted in an unquestioned cosmology” (Tanabe and Keyes 2002:7—italic original). critics. Thai Buddhism has been momentarily caught up in the “world grown alien to it. Fun Bar Karaoke. and monological. but also remit a message similar to Milan Kundera’s stance on the power of novel: “If the novel [Buddhism] should really disappear. In order to rescue Buddhism and make it “relevant to the present time” (som samai). set forth by scholars and social critics. in this selection of popular films. and Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). Is Thai Buddhism really in crisis? What is the crisis all about? The scholars and social critics’ standpoints toward the contemporary state of Thai Buddhism will be countered with stories based on a selection of recently-released popular films. they strongly advocate. Viewing the discourses on Thai Buddhist crisis. In this paper. and indicative of. Fun Bar Karaoke (1997). while they rarely take into . it will do so not because it has exhausted its power but because it exists in a world grown alien to it” (Kundera 1995:92). When scholars. The stories told in these films are well-embedded in. and government officials in Thailand criticize that Thai Buddhism has been deteriorating.” while its practitioners and followers alike have been struggling and succumbing to the “crises of modernity. especially the Tripitaka and authoritative conventions. the ongoing social discourses concerning popular Buddhism and its fate in contemporary Thailand. I argue that.matters. the contemporary state of Thai Buddhism is narrated and interpreted in very remarkably different tones.

e. and political dimensions are inextricably linked” (Ibid:1). arguably the best-known filmmaker in contemporary Thailand. “Films” as Dissanayake (1992:3) points out. discuss. technological. Religion is neither about the sacred nor the profane. Voices concerning the current health and situation of Thai Buddhism are far more multidimensional. What I learn from these three films is that popular tradition is the most dynamic and meaningful part of Thai religious life. “are cultural practices” in which “the artistic. complexity and diversity of religious beliefs and practices are repeatedly acknowledged. Prince Chatri Chalerm Yugala. the gunmen. blame. Thai audiences are familiar with key Buddhist principles and concepts like karma. elephant keepers. law of action. in their next life it will be better” (cited in Richardson 1993). tease. Film renders itself as a dialectical medium of representing social realities and as a venue to reflect popular voices on certain issues. They are part of an “ordinary culture” (Williams [1958]1997:3-14) of the practice of everyday life. or even commodify it. HIV patients. “You see what happened to them is their own karma. there are some subtle connections between religious content and films in Thailand. grains of religious beliefs and practices have been actively portrayed in his films. lively. economic. or the . and open to debates in the stories told in the popular films. In the films. entertainment. taxi drivers. Toward the end. where people are free to talk. especially in Fun Bar Karaoke and Mekhong Full Moon Party.. Prince Chatri Chalerm Yugala (1993). This veteran filmmaker’s view indicates that. And now. In the words of a Thai veteran filmmaker. believes that the Buddhist concept of karma is the most crucial point to understand the lives of struggling people. Although he himself has never produced a film based on explicit Buddhist or other religious stories.account popular versions of Buddhism. what happened to them in their last life. at least. prostitutes. if they make merit. whom he has filmed over three decades. but an ordinary juncture of both.g. “My film is a reflection of what exists. I suggest that popular religion can find films as alternative sites of discursive practices to discuss what matters most for ordinary people in contemporary Thailand.” Filming Thai Popular Religion In an interview. industrial. engaged.

com/cgiin/jump. a leading Thai film critic. Every detail has to be easy to understand.html . The first film shown in Siam was about a play called “Parisan Cinematograph” in 1897.” which derives from traditional Siamese shadow play. film.” observes Anchalee Chaiworaporn (1997). referring to the 7 See the list of the films by Prince Chatri Chalerm Yugala at the website: http://www. They belong to two separate domains: secular and religious. According to Dome Sukvong (n.cornell.moral authority of Dhamma (Buddhist teachings). film and Buddhism are seemingly unrelated subjects. “Thai movies are intended primarily for entertainment.” “rupphayon” or “hunphayon.edu/pages/ter3/thaifilm/tfindex. The story is driven by conversations or a character’s thoughts--often expressing their innermost feelings. Its power to tell stories on the silver screen in a very convincing manner and to reorient people to believe in its ‘make-believe’ reality is almost irresistible. especially those living in Bangkok. ideas and secrets. Dome reveals that perhaps King Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese to use the term nang farang. and movie. which were shown both in popular permanent theaters and open-door makeshift theaters.7 What Prince Chatri Chalerm tells us is that the marriage between religion and film is not a rare phenomenon in Thailand. Since early twentieth century.). Thailand has witnessed the power of this Western-invented entertainment technology as early as when film came into an existence in the late nineteenth century. have been familiar with Western cinema (nang farang) or Japanese film (nang yipun). In his painstaking search to locate the film concerning King Chulalongkorn during his European tour in late 1890s. film as an entertainment media has its grip of power. “phaphayon” has emerged in both official and popular usages. even though it has never been obviously acknowledged.” which were sets of terminologies indicating make-believe entities or things enlivened by certain magical formulas. film was introduced to Thailand soon after it was invented in the West in the late nineteenth century. in his long list of films in the past three decades.thaipro. Siamese. However. In its early days. In popular perception.d.pl?url=http://people. while “nang. has been adopted widely as the most common colloquial term for cinema. film was known in the Thai language as “phaphayon. Of these three terms. Their existences are defined by a totally different purpose. a pioneer film archivist who has been playing an active role in founding and running the National Film Archive. which the audience was limited to wealthy aristocrats and businessmen.

since Thailand became the US collaborator state.cornell. film was a core part of European influences as Thailand was their informal empire. Anchalee Chaiworaporn (n. The life and death of Thai cinema have been closely linked with the “modern world system. 2002). 1993). the Western-oriented bourgeoisie. Boonrak Boonyaketmala (1992:6298). especially USA.” In his view.d. The final period from 1976 to 1992.edu/pages/ter3/thaifilm/tfindex. deal with various aspects of Thai l films.. which are available in the Thai Film Foundation website. in his letter to Her Majesty the Queen in 1897 (see Dome Sukvong 1993). she points out three social segments which compose the “deep structure” underlying the conflicts of the Thai film industry. but part of international politics of trade and cultural/ideological control.. Thai films as mirrors of Thai society (1973-1986) (Anchalee Chaiworaporn). From 1897 to 1945.thaipro. Knee (2000. especially during the 1980s and early 1990s: namely.com/cgi-bin/jump. She suggests that “the Thai power elites’ concepts of the role of film derive directly from an attempt to assert and maintain a curious repressive-modernist control over the political/social consciousness of a society plunged headlong into a postmodernist global economy” (Hamilton 1994:142). 2003). see http://www.. Dome Sukwong (n. Thai film fell into a miserable state under the Hollywood domination as the country had entered the so-called the era of new industrial state. Thai pornographic films and the post-1973 political freedom (Wimonrat Arunrotesuriya) or Thai films in . such as the movie houses (rong nang) (Dome Sukvong).pl? url=http://people.d. or capitalism.d. 2002) outlines the birth and growth of Thai cinema from its early days in 1897 up to the present.Westerners’ shadow play. takes a closer look on the role of the Thai state in the film industry. Hamilton (1994). Anchalee Chaiworaporn (n. Films in fact have a role to play whether the country was under whatever ideological or socioeconomic regimes. From 1945 to 1976. Thai film industry is nothing. film once gain was under foreign influences. Instead of discussing a large modern world system as Boonrak does. Hamilton (1994:141-161). on the other hand. the conservative power elite. communism. and rural/provincial people. Several studies8 trace the history of Thai film through its rise and fall over a period of century. The struggles among these segments are actually the struggles to represent Thailand in the film industry.9 Writing a history of Thai film by using Wallersteinian political economy framework. 9 For a comprehensive timeline of the history of Thai film. Boonrak Boonyaketmala (1992:62-98) argues that the rise and fall of Thai film can be divided into three periods with some distinctive political features. such as European colonialism. Series of articles both in Thai and English languages.10 8 See Amporn Jirattikorn (2003). the heydays of Thai film industry (1927-1946) (Phanu Ari).html 10 There are also other studies which provide informative accounts of Thai films and their illustrative features in different periods.

htm. fantasy. 11 In the website Thaiworldview.Religious issues or religious aspects of Thai life are not among the dominant contents in Thai film stories. which involve rituals concerning spirits. and (4) stories concerning superstition and supernaturalism. horror (nang phi).d. 12 See more examples of Thai films with religious contents. discussing cultural and ideological messages and other complex discourses represented in the widely-hailed new waves of Thai films. crime. see also Min 2004:56-57).11 Religious beliefs and practices. perhaps the largest collection of Thai films available on the internet (184 titles).thaiworldview. They include (1) stories based on the life history of Buddha. and some superstitious laymen are among examples of religious subjects represented in Thai films. Finally. Khun Phaen: Legend of the War Lord (2002). Anchalee Chaiworaporn (2002). Of many published works on recently-released Thai films and current situations of Thailand’s film industry. Mae Bia (2001). Religion certainly cannot be classified as a genre in Thai films.com http://www. there are at least four possible ways. monks. Popular ghost stories. action (nang bu).. especially horror and fantasy movies in http://www. There are also a number of movies released in 1970s and 1980s with an emphasis on dramatic love stories of a young man emerging from a boy living in a Buddhist temple and a well-to-do woman such as Luang Ta (1980). Amporn Jirattikorn (2003). 12 1980s and 1990s (Sutthakorn Santithawat).) writes about the overall situations of Thai films in the 1980s and 1990s and classifies them into five major genres: drama (nang chewit). More published works also depict the contemporary state of Thai movies. there is a large number of Thai films on ghost stories and other supernatural power. or spirit doctors/exorcists. including. especially popular Buddhism. history. Some recently released films. but they are more often featured in the horror movies. Most religious content and themes in Thai films predominantly belong to popular rather than doctrinal Buddhism. Out of these Thai movie genres. (3) stories of popular spirits/ghosts.d. which some authors claim as “a new golden age for Thai movies” (Cummings n.com/tv/cinema.thaiworldview. Pra Apai Mani (2001). Nang Nak (1999). and pornography (nang po). comedy.com/tv/cinema. Thai films are classified into 9 genres. (2) stories about famous monks and their prominent sacred biographies. Superstition and magical power are frequently featured in the films like Kraithong (2001). action. and Knee (2000. drama. Aungulimala (Ong Kuliman) (2003) and “My Story: Luang Pho Khun Paritsuttho” (2003) could be examples of popular films based on the Buddhist legend of a Brahminturned-Buddhist monk and a biography of a contemporary famous magical monk from Northeastern Thailand. where religious content is incorporated into Thai film stories. 2003) have stood out. famous/legendary magical monks. and Three[Arom Athan Akhat] (2002). horror. comedy (nang talok). romance and thriller.htm . Sutthakorn Santithawat (n. might appear in almost all of these genres.

The intention of this film is to study how these two extremes co-exist.. In other words. people still go to fortune tellers every week. Despite living in a complex postmodern environment and working in a highly dynamic business sector. it is very westernized. asking them what to do with their lives. Fun Bar Karaoke’s storyline shows how Thai superstition has persisted in the postmodernizing Bangkok realities through the life of a typical middle-class Bangkok family struggling at the downturn of the late 1990s bubble economy. Bangkok is like any other cosmopolitan city in the world. It is full of tall modern buildings. he would like to be a professional soccer player or a fortune teller. e. but it certainly depicts the religiosity of ordinary urban dwellers in contemporary Thailand. Focusing on the gender meanings of the Thai economic crisis. He studied art history and philosophy at the Pratt Institute in New York City. 14 For his biofilmography. Pu is a traditional Thai girl. We still believe in ghosts and spirits. (cited in Wenner 1997) Whether or not it is a satire as Pen-ek intends. Fun Bar Karaoke is his debut feature film” (Wenner 1997) . 6ixtynin9 (Ruang Talok 69. a family-oriented dutiful daughter. His film addresses a question set forth by generations of sociologists and anthropologists of religion: how primordial religious forms. 1999). Fun Bar Karaoke (1997). When the film was completed. Middle-class and upper-class people wear Armani or Paul Smith. has kept building a house model. 2001). who. a young lady working with an advertising agency. and rational modernity. he worked as a graphic designer at Designframe Incorporated in New York for 3 years before returning to Thailand.Bangkok Superstition and Its Pre-1997 Economic Crash Insanity13 Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) does not represent the film stories discussing the crisis of Thai Buddhism per se. Thailand.g. and Mon Rak Transistor (Transistor Love Story. When we have important projects. we give food to monks hoping to turn luck our way. while also addressing the place of Thai tradition to these upheavals” (Knee 2003:102). Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s14 debut feature film could resemble many academic research projects on the sociology of religion in cosmopolitan Bangkok settings and urban centers elsewhere. superstition. “Tom Pannet (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) was born in 1962 in Bangkok. In Thailand he worked for an advertising agency until 1993 when he started directing television commercials. Pu. The dream keeps coming back to 13 Knee (2003:102-122) provides an extraordinarily insightful reading of the films by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. There is a Seven-Eleven or a McDonald’s at every corner. in Pu’s dream. and an old-fashioned superstitious person. However. Streets are full of cars. could co-exist and blend themselves into the extremely chaotic and noisy Bangkok prior to the 1997 economic crisis. I felt that a study of this topic could turn out to become nothing but a satire. Lately she has been having a strange dream (fan ba) about her dead mother. Pen-ek himself sees his film project as “a social study of the city of Bangkok and its inhabitants” with an emphasis on their syncretistic religiosity and modern life constraints: Physically. In his next life. After graduation. lives with her playboy and karaoke bar-going father. he argues that these three films depict “the gendered resonances of Thailand’s turn-of-millennium cultural and economic upheavals.

15 Pu’s father is among the prime examples of Thai de-meritorious persons in boom-time Bangkok. immaterial. mystery. playboy days. and his boss enjoy themselves with obtaining or exercising their masculine power by making money in the stock market. the female gender is connected with dream. Noi. or having pleasure smoking. Pu decides to seek advice concerning her mysterious dream from Pum’s father. but with ethereal and non-earthly realms more broadly. Men like Pu’s Father. or womanizing. her only friend. who is a daughter to a fortune-teller and works as a 7-11 store clerk. her father will soon die when the house is finished. His advice makes Pu sick with worry about her father’s fate. he visits karaoke bars regularly. drinking. Keep advice from the fortune-teller seriously. The spirit of Pu’s mother is building a house. The difference this time is that he has no parental obligation because his daughter has already grown up or perhaps he is simply ignores his family responsibilities. and parental responsibility… [T]he maternal is linked not only with dream. superstition and home-nurturing tradition against the backdrop of Bangkok materialism and modernism. being hired as a gunman. Pu’s father will soon die so that he can reunite with his wife in their never-fulfilled real-life romance. With assistance from Pum. It means that in one way or another. The fortune-teller tells Pu that if the dream continues. Women possess complex. the spirit wishes to spend her life after death with her husband in her dream house. and spiritual” (Knee 2003:105). After the death of his wife. The male gender. is linked closely with extremely mundane activities. He has made easy money from the stock market and real-estate speculation during the boom era. Like most nouveau riche Thai. having fun 15 Further analysis on the emergence of Sino-Thais in contemporary Thailand’s economy and politics. see Ockey (1999) and Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsun (1992) . paradoxical qualities as a rescuer and a mysterious destroyer. always looking sorrowful and lonely. he returns to his single. indeed suggesting an alignment between the feminine and things mystical. “the film situates Pu’s mother with tradition. Dressed in black with cigarettes. who are mostly from a Sino-Thai background and widely addressed as sia.haunt her whether she is asleep or awake and she simply can not steer her mind away from it. home. Pu realizes that only her magical tricks can save her father’s life from this mysterious tragedy. on the other hand. In Fun Bar Karaoke. which she herself had dreamt about when she was alive. With unlimited amounts of cash at his disposal. which can be considered as seriously de-meritorious from a Thai Buddhist perspective. Through Pu’s recurring dreams of her mother.

yet his tough manhood hopelessly vanishes whenever he appears before the girl he loves. supernatural power fails to save him from the lifethreatening misfortunes by the chaopho’s cronies. where Pu hangs out with Pum. a money-conscious crook yet teaching himself English. Noi’s unusual mercilessness and sadism as a gunman is a personal symptom of a young man being abandoned from normal parental guidance or familiar relationship during his childhood. or raised outside Thailand could be an understandable excuse for not being a culturally-conformed Buddhist or traditionalist. Neither superstition. smoking. He is a regular customer at the 7-11 Store. being born to a foreign father or mother. What does Fun Bar Karaoke contribute to the understanding of the current state of Thai Buddhism and urban religiosity? Apparently it has nothing to do with doctrinal or established Buddhism. a chaopho’s16 mistress through his fun-loving friend. He suffers the consequences of his own fun-loving behaviour as well as his neglect of his paternal responsibility at home. control. which is considered an asset for modern professions. and well-maintained connection with established power structure. Noi has a crush on Pu. In the Thai cultural context. but is too shy to ask her out. Singing and performing karaoke allows him to gain access to freedom to express his inner voice as a lonely man. One way to understand Noi’s fate is to look at him as a racially mixed person (luk krueng) and as a mentally abnormal young man. Why doesn’t Noi suffer from his karma as a sadistic gunman and his other criminal activities? This is an apparently self-contradict point in the film. there are many otherwise impossible mixtures. literally godfather. nor flashy Bangkok night life could influence Noi. He is perhaps a product of a short reunion between American soldier and a Thai woman. Together with nakleng (bandit or strong man). His power and influence lie in his economic wealth. The law of karma shows its obvious force against Pu’s Father. and fooling around with girls. while releasing him from the prison of his own daily frustration and anxiety. . However. chaopho represents macho types of Thai masculinity in Thai popular and political culture (see Ockey 1999:1033-1058). Although Pu’s father possesses expensive and most auspicious Buddha amulets as advertised by the amulet dealer. He can easily and cold-bloodedly kill. In Noi.drinking. He works as a gunman for the chaopho. His fate takes a dangerous turn when he meets Yok. Fun Bar Karaoke vividly recaptures real-time possibilities of everyday urban religious beliefs and practices among Bangkok dwellers 16 Chaopho. refers to the Thai mafia who could manipulate the state’s power and exercise his agency in various economic and political domains. a sadistic gangster yet naïve at womanizing. What fascinates him most is saving money he earned from his job and learning English (from tapes) with the hope of travelling to the USA.

If you do not believe. the Thai terms “Fan” (dream) and “Ba” (crazy. treatment of linguistic signs in the Thai-English switch of the film’s title by its director and production team is very notable. When Pum makes fun of her reading. “you cannot make fun of it. yet playful. He is ready to do whatever necessary to actualize his dream. Except for a fixed meaning of Japanese-invented “Karaoke” in some degree. she does not hesitate to give Pum a warning shot with a popular Thai expression that reflects the superstitious roots in Thai popular culture. and reconstructed into a new set of signified and signifier --“Fun” and “Bar. you can’t ever offend supernatural beings” (mai chuea ya lop lu).17 Superstition has occupied its stronghold in the Thai mentality and penetrates the tissues of their daily life. and lovemaking with hired bar girls. especially through female agency. 17 In other words. transformed. A young working woman follows the fortune-teller’s advice concerning her unusual dream. popular in the Thai daily press. devotes himself to worshipping money and America. mad. symbolized through the scenes of notorious traffic jam. crazy or mysterious dream) is disassembled. 1999b. the original Thai term (Fan Ba. It illustrates how superstition works through the portraits of a family and a group of people deeply in psychological and spiritual crisis. this film confronts them with a stunning story. an old lady customer overhears this. Pen-ek’s intention is to play with the free-floating or arbitrary nature of signs to acquire trans-linguistic meanings of words. Her father does not know how to deal with his lustful urge and material greed amid chaos and turbulence. . The masterly. and an old lady customer illustrate this point. Disgusted. Pattana Kitiarsa 2002:160-176). Pum reads outloud a horoscope column. work.” In its Thai version. to Pu which predicts varieties of personal romance. his heavy drinking and smoking while singing karaoke. and luck. or insane) are displaced or doubled by “Fun” and “Bar” in English. Fan Ba connotes a far different meaning from Fun and Karaoke Bar in English. health. The old lady warns Pum that. Dialogue between Pu. Pum. Fun Bar Karaoke among other things portrays that “superstition [is] alive & well in Bangkok” (Bangkok Post. An unusual hit-man who has no sense of moral guilt from his paid job to murder other people. In this act of “trans-linguistic double-entendre” (Knee 2003:107). February 5. 2002).and elsewhere in Thailand when the country’s economy was on the verge of socioeconomic turmoil. While critics and scholars constantly cry foul on the extreme popularity of prosperity cults and the rise of the commercialization of Buddhism (Jackson 1999b.

he was too weak to resist his lustful urge and the powerful seduction of the karaoke bar. The cycle of suffering and karma has made a complete self-orbit. The moment he pulls up his car at the bar’s parking lot and enters the bar through the rainfall is the moment when his fate is decided. With certain insane dreams in an unusually extreme socioeconomic environment. fittingly exemplifies the cycle of suffering endured by people living in the pre-1997 crash Bangkok. in Thai and dukha. its original Thai word has rendered its authoritative voice dictating the whole story. In one way or another. This adjectival term tells us that people living in Bangkok and overall Thai society on the verge of the 1997 economic crash were caught in the unconscious state of insanity. Thai Buddhism and Its Defenders . Spiritually. greed. They yearn for assurance and sanctuary to help make sense of existence in a very confusing social world. Underground crime and their operators were on the rise. and resentment. people lose their vision and destiny and hopelessly get stuck in their immediate worldly life guided by lust. hysterical about their luxurious lifestyle and anxious and aimless in their fast-paced daily lives.I argue that the most central idea for this movie is “Ba” (literally. People suffer as consequences of their own past and present life actions (karma). In short. as was corruption in both private and public sectors. Bangkok was in the midst of madness and its population. the film shows everybody desperately seeking material as well as spiritual solutions to their life constraints. Although Pen-ek and his production transliterate it into “Bar” in English. frustrated and busy living their surreal life. struggling to find ways out to release enormous tension and survive the suffocating forces. or insane). mad. everything seemed out of control. They were mad at making money. life as seen in Fun Bar Karaoke is swimming in a boundless sea of suffering (thuk. Translated into Thai Buddhist terms. which acquires a totally different meaning and connotation. Using dream and karaoke as metaphors. in Pali). The scene which leads Pu’s father back to Yok for the last time and his eventual beat up by the chaopho and his cronies. crazy. Left without any clues as to the direction of their lives with their overheating economy in the final stage of melting down. They are prisoners of their own insane dreams (fan ba). Bangkok traffics were heavily jammed and the government had run out of ideas for effective solutions. people are mad. He could have regretted his decision for the rest of his whole life. Spiritual and moral aspects of their life were particularly weak.

Rotterdam 2004. religion (read Buddhism). Muay Thai as Thailand’s true national heritage. Bunting or Ting. Elbows. simultaneously.html). called Ong Bak. And second. especially during its old glorious days. he reminds his Thai audiences and. which has been culturally woven into delicate tissues of the country’s national tripillars: nation. was beheaded and stolen by urbanite thieves from the worship hall of Ban Nong Pradu’s temple. telling a story of both authentic and imagined Thai masculine national identities or Thainess and their internationally-acclaimed defender in the name of “anciently genuine” Muay Thai (Thai boxing). As a director and producer he is widely known as a master in translating Hollywood formulas to the local Thai variety. plus never-say-no 18 For a brief bio-data.com/en/person/85547. “Prachya Pinkaew studied architecture and in the early 1990s started making music videos. shows their international counterparts. knees.filmfestivalrotterdam. . Boonting uses Muay Thai to defeat a wide variety of foreign devils—including a brutal western solider. First. In this case. if not all. to the international martial arts world. Muay Thai is second to none when it is treasured and practised up to its maximum capability and perfection. is not just a male pastime. It is far superior to most. a style recognizable to anyone who has ever watched Thai kickboxing. He eventually uses his Muay Thai skills to win George’s support to his endeavors to recover the Buddha statue’s head. as it is symbolized in a famous Buddha statue from Ban Nong Pradu. and monarchy. Vail 1998:75-95). its true existence is to protect the pillars of Thainess against intruding enemies (see Pattana Kitiarsa 2003. Ong-bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)” (see. a wildlegged Japanese gangster and an insane Australian—to get the information he needs to find the man responsible for selling Thailand’s religious treasures to the highest bidder” (Whitney 2003). a skillful Muay Thai practitioner and son of this poor village. The film story begins when the head of a revered Buddha statue. Kerd Eek Tee Tong Mee Ther/Romantic Blues (1994). the film chooses to depict how Muay Thai has become a bodily lethal weapon to defend Buddhism. which is provided for the International Film Festival. He also relies on his physical and mental strength. Muay Thai. volunteers to bring back the village’s most valuable asset. a fictitious rural village located somewhere in Northeastern Thailand. of much advertised martial arts disciplines in the international market.. Prachya intends to dialogue with his audience on at least two counts. In the film’s central set piece. Prachya Pinkaew’s18 intention to glorify Muay Thai and some other authentic Thai martial arts (i. The film also glorifies aspects of supposedly harmonious continuities of local traditions and village Buddhist institution.19 In Ong Bak. His film credits include Rong Ta Lab Plab/The New Shoes (1993). traditional fencing) is the central theme in this film.e.Ong Bak (2003) is essentially an ultra nationalistic film. http://www. shins and forearms all come into play in fights that value flexibility as much as ferocity. 19 An international film reviewer notes that “…Ong Bak is propaganda for Muay Thai.

Although villagers have endured their lives in poverty and hardship. respectively. Ting’s adventurous journey and attention-getting Muay Thai fights serve as moving mediators between these two markedly different and contrasting worlds. Ban Nong Pradu and Bangkok symbolize two contrasting idealized extremes in the Thai cosmology. It is the place where its members have possessed unshakeable faith in their Buddhist institution and moral leadership.fighting spirit to fight the city crooks and finally is able to overcome them all. while internal bad omens are represented by existing social ills. It resembles a typical troubling cosmopolitan city. but also physical and spiritual guardians in the form of Thai boxer-heroes to ward off both external and internal threats to the existence of Thai national identities (see Pattana Kitiarsa 2003). In moral and spiritual senses. Bangkok is the complete opposite to the idyllic Ban Nong Pradu. Tradition in the form of Buddhist ceremonies and festivals is their cultural foundation. gambling. This impoverished land has provided Thailand and the world not only migrant labor forces (see Mills 1999). ranging from human cockfight. prostitution. It is the cosmopolitan city and center of Thai modern universe. The famous tourist center of Khao San Road is indeed the center of criminal and illegal activities. prostitution. where devout villagers and their traditional ways of life are posed as authentically fixed images of Thainess. Ban Nong Pradu represents an extremely and ideally traditional community. underground gangster. However. the sense of unity and togetherness in their community appears to be strong. drug. the movie intends to display Ban Nong Pradu as an ideal Buddhist land.. traditional heaven and modern hell. In other words. but of devils and crooks. gambling. Once again the villagers are able to celebrate their annual festival with their religious faith and pride in their village Buddhist symbols intact. but also a guardian hero to Thailand’s national identities and pride in their “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991). Their glorious son/boxer has emerged as a rescuer not only to their village Buddhism. The film polarizes the countryside and the cosmopolitan Bangkok. Bangkok as displayed in this film is not the capital city of angels as indicated in its Thai name. which could be found in any third world country. In such environments. and antique treasure smuggling. namely. Daily lives of Thai people in the post-1997 economic crash . e. drugs. The head of Ong Bak is returned to its headless body at Ban Nong Pradu’s temple hall.g. Some external threats can be seen in foreign tourists and martial arts practitioners. and corruption. popular Buddhist-based ancient Muay Thai knowledge and skills have been taught and nurtured.

foreign tourist audiences. constructed spaces. Muay Thai has carried him through his otherwise impossible mission. like gambling.). Muay Thai helps erase all cultural capital deficits he certainly possesses as an unsophisticated young man from the countryside trying to survive in the harsh world of devils. Mae Rim. between these two realms. increasing globalizing social problems. and of course. February 25. who stole ancient Buddha statues and treasures in many temples in Doi Saket. therefore. the police arrested a gang of thieves with their connection to Bangkok amulet dealers. his real-life patriots and international viewers. Buddhism and other markers of Thainess. In the case of Ting. and Saraphi Districts Chiang Mai Province (“Lang Bang Gang Chok Phra” [Cleansing a Robbery Gang Stealing Buddha Statues]. need to be rescued from greed and lust of complex forces in contemporary Thailand. Ting and his extraordinary Muay Thai talents provide some possible examples of how the Thai could fight back and stand firm against the merciless attacks of the globalizing forces. Ting has risked his life to bring back the most invaluable asset to his village. such an act reflects the state of mind and faith in Buddhism by the parties involved. Tony Ja’s role in Ong Bak in turn opens up the possibilities of affirming and enhancing the dominant discourse of masculine heroism in contemporary Thailand. Materially. Khom Chad Luek. 2004. The story of Ting and his village folks has a happy ending episode. . especially an ideal masculine. San Sai. smuggling and trading of valuable ancient Buddha statues and other religious treasures as depicted in this film is part of current crimes in Thailand. morally and communally-oriented heroism to save its national identities. It also helps him attain his glory and heroic role as a defender of Buddhist faith and pride of being Thais. It elevates him from an ordinary country folk to a prominent status of imagined national hero in the eyes of his village folks. The movie leads us to believe that Thailand needs a hero. Hod. who regard Buddha statues and other treasures as profitable commodities. and underground crime which have been eroding Thai Buddhist20 For example.20 Morally.have commuted and transported back and forth. I argue that Ong Bak epitomizes Muay Thai as bodily weapon and as masculine cultural heritage to transcend and transform both too-obviously idealized. Despite its surreal portrayal of two extreme worlds and its simple action movie plot. in and out. The human world exists temporarily as a liminally dynamic state somewhere between these two symbolic realms. Buddhism has been threatened in both material and spiritual fronts. prostitution. in February 2004. however. drug. He also commits himself to the Buddhist ideal for Thai men by temporarily serving the monkhood toward the end of the story.

000 people flocked to the usually peaceful town of Phonphisai to witness the event.” said Boonthan Netmuk. . or manmade. It usually occurs every year on the full moon night of the 11th lunar month…” (“Reallife Fireballs a Damp Squib as Rains Come Down. Lai (2003) points out that this movie is highly regarded “for its joyous dialogue with one’s own folk traditions and accessible representation of ThaiLaotian mythologies to the international audiences. Jira personally sees the Naga Fireballs Phenomenon. a leading production house of TV commercials in Thailand. the Nation reports more than 200. In his post-production interview.” The Nation 2002). They want to see it with their own eyes” (Ibid. Multiple Voices and Contesting Terrains of Popular Buddhism Mekhong Full Moon Party [Sip-ha Kham Duean Sip-et] effectively transforms the mysterious Bung Fai Phaya Nak [Naga Fireballs] into multidimensional and intertextual fields of discourses on a traditional Thai-Laos belief. there are a lot more than last year. 22 For his bio-filmography. In October 2002.based cultural values. as it is called by the locals. “Since graduating from the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University. This makes the event so special. Everyone has his or her own version of the Naga Fireballs. laying out a broad spectrum of beliefs. Jira Malikul has cultivated his reputation as a leading director for music videos and television commercials.). and that might be due to the movie hype. argumentation. modes of praxis and managerial operations around the issue of whether the fireballs…are indeed the work of serpent-god. He has won critical acclaim for both. natural.” 21 Miracle. “It’s all curiosity… whether it’s a miracle or manmade. when the movie was first released just days prior the real-life Naga Fireballs as part of their smart marketing strategies. had an interest in joining the mainstream movie market. in which reddish pink balls of light—usually in their thousands—shoot skywards out of the Mekhong River. a resident of Nam Pe Village. one of the most popular spots for viewing the fireballs. The film story is based on the real-life mysterious Naga Fireballs. It reflects the religious 21 An English-language Thai media describes the event that “…the naga fireballs are an annual occurrence. He took this opportunity to develop a personal project a feature film about a mysterious natural phenomenon takes place annually on the bank of the Mekhong River in Nong Khai province” (Pattara Danutra 2002). The film is like a rich ethnographic document. Jira Malikul22 and his production team demonstrate the complexities and diversities of beliefs and perspectives people have when they come to view the Naga Fireballs. He became interested in being a film director when his Hub Ho Hin Bangkok Company. this is exactly the starting point of the film. Nong Khai Province. Looking beyond the oversimplified polarization concerning the event (a work of nature or a hoax). still remain unresolved and continue to beg for further effective solutions. Northeastern Thailand. “Obviously. which has taken place for generations in the Mekhong stream running through Phonphisai District. as an event of contesting discourses. he comments that “thousands of people from all over the country get together along the river bank on the full moon night of the End of Buddhist Lent interacting and discussing their own beliefs and ideas regarding a common subject.

he argues that the mystery concerning Naga Fireballs is not a religious miracle. taught to him and inspired by Luang Pho since childhood. The traditional and modern worlds come into conflict in the opposing positions adopted by old Luang Pho and young Khan. For years. but decides to keep alive this local tradition as well as his personal faith in the Naga King. these opposing positions are further complicated by the arrival of other authoritative modernist and rationalist agents. Dr. Rather than being seen as a hoax or a criminal act by most authoritative and modern rational minds. but can be uncovered with his scientific method.” (Mekhong Full Moon Party 2002). a young local orphan whom Luang Pho had raised and personally trained to become a diving expert in placing the Naga Fireballs down in the riverbed. and placed behind the storyline. For people like him. Luang Pho and his fellow monks firmly believe that their invention of Naga Fireball tradition is nothing but an integral part of their sacred duties as local Buddhist monks and devout worshippers of the cult of the Naga King. Upholding science over local religious tradition.and overall characters of Thai people. Possibly regarded as a generational conflict and clash over their own “primordial attachments” (Geertz 1966). science is the ultimate sanctuary and watershed to whatever humans want to know. Khan recently returned from school in Bangkok. It is Buddhist monks’ duties to nurture and sustain Lord Buddha’s religion by planting seeds of Buddhist faith in the public’s mind. Luang Pho repeatedly insists that making the Naga Fireballs to worship Lord Buddha is meritorious. has established their secret base on the Laos side of the Mekhong to manufacture the fireballs and set them up annually on the auspicious day at the end of Buddhist Lent. He sets up his experiment to collect data concerning the . Influenced by his modern education and urban experience. multilayers and multivoices are carefully crafted. They certainly do not view themselves as myth-makers. Luang Pho is shocked and in despair upon encountering Khan’s aggressive rationalization. In this film. who believe that diverse views and faiths can coexist with a certain degree of tolerance. the creator of the Mekhong and local domains in age-old mythology. Khan rejects his previously-held myth and faith in the Naga King. let by Luang Pho (abbot) Lo. a group of local monks. interwoven. the sacred savior of Buddhism in the Tripitaka story. Norati represents the educated who subscribe to the scientific worldview. Luang Pho’s faith and secret behind the Naga Fireballs is tested by Khan.

he is made speechless by a question from one of his local audiences. but not to the local community of faithful members to the cult of Naga King. He finally withdrew himself from his aggressive challenge to nature. He shares with Luang Pho a common knowledge that the West emphasizes on conquering material and physical domains with its science and technology. Dr. . and ignites when it hits the air” (Quenby 2002). can I ask if you still adhere to the Buddhist faith?” His dialogue with Luang Pho is central and epitomizes the tension between Eastern and Western worldviews toward “truths” about nature and the world. but human invention. Suraphon’s version is apparently corrupt and opportunistic. explain them. While Dr.” said Dr. Suraphon finally learned his lesson from his arrogant and egoistic experimentation when one of his divers was killed mysteriously in the riverbed. “Keep walking. Luang Pho gives him some punch lines of practical philosophy. He explains that a fireball appears when “submerged methane is sucked from the riverbed by a sporadically freakish lunar gravitational pull. Suraphon after the tragic end of his scientific experiment. Suraphon from Khon Kaen University takes an empiricist stance in his endeavors to prove the Naga Fireballs a hoax. while the East is the master of spiritual and ethical spheres. In a public presentation of his research findings. which reads. In return. He holds a firm hypothesis that the Naga Fireballs are part of natural phenomena particularly specific to this area.” The latter motto is perhaps taken from a popular whisky commercial. “we humans have never had an exactly equal length of one second in each of our heart” or “commit yourself to what you believe in and keep up your faith in what you have committed yourself to. “Doctor. Dr. for example. Norati wins some local support and his findings imply that clean and healthy environments of the Mekhong are major factors in guaranteeing the sustainable occurrence of Naga Fireballs. Norati’s life and personal faith in science are radically tested and transformed by episodes evolving around the “politics of truth” behind the Naga Fireballs. Norati tells Luang Pho that human beings desire to unlock the secrets of nature in order to understand them. He was hired by an owner of tomato sauce factory from the neighboring Tha Bo District to create some Naga Fireballs in his area as a proof that industrial wastes from his factory do not pollute Mekhong River. Dr.” The existence of the Naga Fireballs draws more challenge from another rationalist mind.geographical and topographical configurations of the Mekhong and its seasonally varied currents. “Perhaps. and live with them in harmony. In the film. the nature is telling us something. Dr. He assumes that the Naga Fireballs are neither miracle nor natural occurrence. Dr.

and a fiancée to Dr. especially arrogant scientists. She adapts well to her multiple roles as daughter of the abbot in control of the Naga Fireballs’ secrets. have no right to “destroy” or “uproot” local beliefs and traditions for the sake of science. female characters like Teacher Alice and Aunty Ong tell their sides of the story too. that “Nowadays. Although he himself has been teaching mathematics and sciences to school children for years. She is an old lady with a bag full of .” Khru Yai voices out that no one really cares about what would actually happen to local people. who. who decides to stand up against both Dr. and continuity must prevail against what he calls “scientific aggression” and “intrusion of the global forces” at any causes. They are definitely not “a guinea pig” for scientists or opportunists. Local dignity. Aunty Ong’s wit. Norati. To him. Local people do not care for the business of scientific truths. an elder sister to the young Khan. Their life and their religious tradition are more delicate and complicate than just dying to know the secrets behind Naga Fireballs. in his view. he sarcastically blasts the police officer. and total devotion to the worship of Naga Fireballs somehow stand firm as satirically contrasting evidence to the male-dominated scientific or political truth-seeking or-defending enterprises. and their once peaceful town. integrity. once again.Local voices have made their own presence through the roles of the school master (Khru Yai). Norati. he puts his local tradition first. their ways of life. While most attention is paid to male-dominated truth seekers or defenders. the film shows that religious belief and faith are traditionally fostered by women. Local people are entitled to the right to defend their own cultural domain. who once was his student. Norati and Dr. He once exclaims to release his frustration before Teacher Alice that “Damn it! How come globalization (lokaphiwat) has reached Nong Khai so soon?” When he was arrested by the police for his criminal act against Dr. His mission was to defend the right to existence of Naga Fireballs as the town’s traditional domains. people from outside his town. Norati’s equipments with some pig dung. as a school teacher. He decides to humiliate them by damaging Dr. scientists are exercising their authority to establish themselves as new Gods for human beings. “have been hurting Phaya Nak” (tham rai phaya nak). She supports her men. Suraphon. meanwhile making sure that traditional gender cultures continue to be relevant to their ever-changing community. charm. Here. Teacher Alice represents thousands of ordinary women who emerge and live as mediators between the traditional and modern worlds or who situate themselves on both sides of the dispute.

but also asserts that the Naga Fireballs indeed should be perceived as a metaphor of human life. “Don’t waste it. Conclusion: Crisis of Buddhism in the Popular Perspectives Towards the end of Mekhong Full Moon Party. Ong Bak. Religion. and live it mindfully and righteously well. I argue that the films offers far complicated and engaged visions to evaluate the current situations of Thai Buddhism. She has inherited her practical knowledge from her parents. Her keen eyes are trained on every small detail around her domestic domain. then disintegrates and disappears over the dark sky of the Mekhong. they ask: “what does it mean to be a Buddhist [Thai] in a religiously pluralistic world?” (Tanabe and Keyes 2002:8). but those problems have hardly been presented as “crisis” or “serious threats” to the existence of Thai Buddhism in these storylines. live it. Nothing in life is permanent. In his own words. Reading through these three films. These popular films do not deal with the questions: “Is Thai Buddhism facing crisis?” or “what causes the crisis?” or “what possible solutions are?” Rather.” Luang Pho’s interpretation of this mysterious Naga Fireballs lends itself as a common ground to rethink and recapture the crisis of Buddhism in contemporary Thailand as it is presented in Fun Bar Karaoke. Luang Pho reminds his audiences that human life does not last long. Her character stands as proof that local villagers too have carried out something equivalent to scientific experiments for ages.local wisdom and “how-to” practical tricks to solve almost every aspect of daily problems. . The difference is that local folk knowledge especially that possessed and practiced by ordinary women. Luang Pho’s voice not only confirms that making the Naga Fireballs is meritorious as it has been part of a local religious homage to Lord Buddha. is usually overlooked or gone unnoticed. relatives. flashes its reddish light skyward for a moment. the Naga Fireballs symbolize the “fireballs of human life” (bung fai haeng chewit manut). faith and respect matter most. and neighbors. plus her years of direct experience. There are problems concerning the Buddhist clergy and their organizations as well as social problems affecting Thai Buddhism. When it comes to a religious tradition like the case of the Naga Fireballs. The fireball shoots itself up from the bottom of the river. This is actually the moment of truth for everyone. and Mekhong Full Moon Party. Thais have indeed continued to be religious at heart regardless of the higher degree of modernization. their society has been experiencing lately.

A certain degree of ethnocultural and religious tolerance and diversity could be found everywhere in this country. In Mekong Full Moon Party. he emphasizes on the realistic quality of Mekhong Full Moon Party. They also imply that local traditions should be 23 In an interview with Pattara Danutra (2002). Both Fun Bar Karaoke and Mekhong Full Moon Party apparently encourage the real-life “inclusive syncretism” (Swearer 1995) of diverse religious faiths. popular or village Buddhism prominently dominates the storyline. I argue that popular perception tends to impose a greater degree of dynamic tolerance and coexistence than the stance adopted by state officials. has been a pervasive and guiding force for the Thais for generations. emphasizes that his film portrays the tolerant and open-minded characters of the Thai when they enter debates concerning religious beliefs and practices. the director of Mekhong Full Moon Party. faith in local Buddhist beliefs and practices is still firm despite some powerful challenges from influential scientists and other authoritative agents. She visits the Chinese-spirit shrine and gives some offerings to the spirits. all these three movies have shown some similar points.” This is the major reason why he casts unknown actors and actresses and features mainly Isan (Thai-Lao) dialect in this film. In Fun Bar Karaoke. In Ong Bak. I want the audiences to believe in the film’s realistic components too.23 Indeed. Buddhism has strong roots in their community. being doubtful and searching for alternative visions of truth is possible. She hard-boils 51 eggs and offers them to propitiate the spirits in her superstitious campaigns to save her father’s life. Said Jira. She consults the fortune-teller concerning her mysterious dream and strictly follows his instructions. Pu is an apparent example of how age-old superstition is made meaningful to the people living in Bangkok in pre-1997 burst of the country’s bubble economy. traditional continuity. Ting’s extraordinarily masculine prowess in Muay Thai and his die-hard spirit to bring back the head of the Buddha statue indeed speaks for his village folks’ collective faith and devotion. but ultimately religion as a living or performing tradition is concerned more with keeping faith and making sense of one’s personal or communal life situations. . scholars and critics. She should be regarded as an active nurturer of traditional religiosity in modern-day Bangkok. It is urban crooks and sinful influences from people in Bangkok that threaten to disrupt the existence and continuity of their religious roots. Jira Malikul. who weighs a balancing act between a masculine modern development and a feminine. “…as this movie deals with the issue of belief.whether they are doctrinal or popular Buddhism or supernaturalism. It demonstrates that when it comes to religious matters in contemporary Thailand.

prostitute. urbanite crook. It is the capital of crooks and underground businesses in Ong Bak. Rather. they also display the assertion of local voices and negotiations of meaning regarding visions of their own religiosity. It is not very surprising that these three movies repeatedly and heavily condemn the wrong side of Bangkok as the center of immoral otherness to Thailand’s national identity. traditional/modern. drug dealer. and cosmopolitan lifestyle). these movies confirm that popular Buddhism is alive and well. Thai/foreign. They tell stories of Thai modernity and its destructive agents. In the meantime.preserved and that people have full authority to determine their pasts and futures. In Ong Bak. who has developed a strong faith in modern life and technologies (i.e.. these three movies address more complex issues concerning the “crisis of modernity. spiritual/material. whether they are the karaoke bar. Putting these three films together and exploring them for some religious resonances. Bangkok is an unbelievably strange and troubling place in both spiritual and material senses in Fun Bar Karaoke. showing them as complex forces pushing Thailand away from its spiritual and moral strength and foundation. By placing popular Buddhism in juxtaposition to the challenges from agents of evil. In Mekhong Full Moon Party. It is perceived as a foundational source of morality and spirituality for its adherents and the future of contemporary Thai society. Instead of discussing the crisis of Buddhism. However. mobile telephone. the film suggests a coexistence and interpenetration of the two realms. Looking back at the center from the periphery.” They openly criticize global forces and their negative impacts on local traditions in the era of post-1997 economic crash. or morally insensitive scientist. science. although the latter would appear to be ascendant at . gambler. popular Buddhism is even considered a true watershed of Thai wisdom and resource to counter the foreign and devil intruding otherness. female/male are repeatedly shown. I contend that the most productive way to understand the Thai crisis of modernity with an emphasis on current popular situation in Thailand is to elude the temptation to read them through the lenses of various sets of dichotomies which are constantly presented in the film stories. Scenes of confrontation and contestation between the global/local. it is the city of modern civilization which has transformed the young Khan from a traditional religious boy into an aggressive rational minded young man. foreign tourist. mass media. I would agree with Knee (2003:107) in his reading of Fun Bar Karaoke that the “it does not pass some absolute judgment against the modern in favor of tradition.

“Interview with Thomas Richardson.. 1992.edu/pages/ter3/thaifilm/tfindex. 1993. Revised Edition. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquish. 6. Available at: http://www. M. New Delhi: MACMILLAN INDIA.asp?journalID=21 ______.” Learning to negotiate and appreciate one’s cultural roots through balancing moves between sets of real-life dichotomies is also experienced by Ting (Ong Bak) and Khan (Mekhong Full Moon Party). “Empire of Crystal and Utopian Commune: Two Types if Contemporary Theravada Reform in Thailand. 1897-1992. 1993.d.” Bangkok. Wimal. 2(July):1-22. December 14.thaipro. and Rashmi Doraiswamy. 441-461. Bibliography Anchalee Chaiworaporn. Anderson.” Available at: http://www.html Cummings. Available at: http://www. Nation. Benedict.” In Being & Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia. “Cinema. 1997.” Sojourn. 1993.cornell.com/cgi-bin/jump. 2002.” The Nation Weekend.the expense of the former and Pu’s movement towards greater maturity and emotional equilibrium appears to involve her coming to understand the balance between these polarities. eds. National Film Archive of .M. 1:151-183. 8. Austin: University of Texas Press.” East-West Film Journal. New York: VERSO. Bakhtin.asp?journalID=16 ______. n. “The Rise and Fall of the Film Industry in Thailand. March 28.pl? url=http://people. Michael Holquish. ed.com/eng/journalDetail. 6. and Khan demonstrate that the realities of the crisis of Buddhism in contemporary Thailand are far from one-sided and authoritarian. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Thailand. Ting. 2(July):62-98. “Desperately Seeking the True Thai Style. Apinya Fuengfulsakul. “Text of Interview with Khun Dome Sukvong.com/thai/journalDetail. “Nueng Sattawat Phaphayon Nai Prathet Thai[One Century of Film in Thailand].” Available at: http://www.d. 1981 The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Latika Padgaonkar. “Endearing Afterglow. This is because popular voices from ordinary people and communities stage their claims for spaces where they can enter into multidimensional and openminded discourses with the multiple parties involved. “Thai Film at a Turning Point. Dome Sukwong. Aruna Vasudev. and Culture in Southeast Asia: Enframing a Relationship.thaifilm. 1991.org/emagazine/1728. Voices from young people like Pu. Chatri Chalerm Yugala. tr.asp Dissanayake. n. Joe. Boonrak Boonyaketmala.” East-West Film Journal.thaifilm.tatnews. 1992.

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