New York has Woody Allen’s Manhatten. London has 28 Days Later or Passport to Pimlico. Rio de Janeiro has City of God. Vienna The Third Man. What film does Bangkok have?
Tearing back into town in a taxi from Suvarnabhumi airport at 5am last Monday morning, a maniacal driver sits at the helm. A pulsating Luk Thung song pours from the car stereo. The sky is a brilliant radiant blue, the bristling concrete cityscape nothing less than majestic. And, as we soar above the city on the expressway, for a few seconds my eye is a cinemascope tracking the scene, and I wonder: what film does Bangkok have?
In my opinion it deserves many. I’ve long thought Bangkok to be a cinematic city. By that I mean, that it seems, despite its insatiable grey concrete fetish, to have a visual vivacity that lends itself to moving image. It’s the distressed, choked, mottled, dilapidated look of almost everything. It’s the unremitting heat, the merciless equatorial light, the blistering pace.
Travelling through the city, pretty much every red light throws up something that stirs: ramshackle food stalls set up against dilapidated street walls, the hue and hustle of Chinatown's dimly lit streets, the surreal neon carnage of Khao San Road and Soi Cowboy, the crumbling posters within shop front facades, the howling symphony of combustion engines that is the city’s soundtrack, the sweaty drawn faces that each tell a pent up story of drudgery. If only some film director would agree with me, a ride on the city’s raised Skytrain could yield an awesome tracking shot: the swathe of dense fertile green that is Lumpini Park being guarded by the King Rama IV statue, as the train twists round towards Siam Square glimpses of the faithful praying below at Erawan Shrine.
Sleazy, loud, brutal, raw, gritty, majestic: this messy metropolis has so much potential!
Why then, is Bangkok so poorly visualised in film? The Thai film industry produces around roughly 50 films each year. And, while many use Bangkok as backdrop, very few attempt to capture it in all its messy, motley glory. Most typically tackle history, horror, romance, comedy and action (or a mixture of the above) while glossing gleefully over pertinent social, political and environmental tensions. Those that do depict Bangkok present it as a sanitized middle-class milieu inhabited by middle class people dwelling in middle-class apartments. Rarely do you meet the diversity of Bangkok’s social strata, or, on a more visceral level, get a sense of its sheer size, noise, claustrophobia and grime. Or of its opportunity.
An excellent essay by Robert Williamson called ‘In Search of Bangkok’ suggests this is for a variety of reasons: partly Thailand’s long-standing ambivalence to the idea of the city, partly because the Thai film industry typically uses the visual techniques of advertising to depict the city as people would like it to be rather that as its experienced, and partly because most Thai audiences don’t want films that mirror their lives or raise social commentary. “Film here need not appeal to the viewers sense of self”, he says, “and consequently many filmmakers overlook the way in which Bangkok’s physical landscape may reflect something more internal”.
Of course this is too broad a generalization. There are exceptions.
Wisit Sasanatieng's wonderfully whimsical 2004 film Citizen Dog is one of them. With strong aesthetic nods to Amelie and The Wizard of Oz, it tells of Pod – a country boy – being lured into the city. A fairytale metropolis drenched in splashes of saturated dayglo, here Bangkok is a city of opportunity, whose vivid colourings seem to represent the distant allure and pull of vibrant city life to rural folk. Unusally we get see a wide-angle Bangkok skyline, and meet the people who roam the streets: traffic police zealously directing traffic, people squeezing onto packed buses, young garland sellers weaving inbetween traffic. However while the city looks a dream, life in Bangkok certainly isn't, and Sasanatieng tells us so throughout through surreal motifs: fingers getting severed on factory lines, cycle helmets tumble from the sky, piles of plastic refuse touch the sky, and city dwellers grow dog tails! While highly stylized using CGI, Citizen Dog is one of the few films to truly tussle with Bangkok.
Less optimistic, both Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s offbeat crime thriller 6ixtynin9 and the moody meditation on urban loneliness and love, 2003 film Last Life in the Universe, are also notable. The latter especially - with its quirky storyline about a Japanese librarian residing in Bangkok and considering suicide - reflects a migratory trend rooted in reality, and his alienation relevant questions about the assimilation of foreigners into Bangkok society. It also benefits from maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyles shifting, oblique camera work, which captures an eerily empty Bangkok in all its chaotic, ramshackle splendor wonderfully. Set mostly in a trendy Bangkok boutique hotel room that resembles those found in all major cities, his latest film, Ploy, also goes some to way to expressing the architectural monotony and banality that's resulted in Bangkok as a result of its hotel building boom.
There's also the foreign contingent: The Beach (humdrum Khao San guesthouses with wafer thin walls and psychotic neighbours), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Bridget teaching incarcerated prostitutes to sing ‘Like a Virgin’), and The Man with the Golden Gun (a boxing match at Ratchadamnoen Stadium). But what do they offer really beyond shorthand Bangkok scenery and cultural stereotyping?
One ‘foreign’ film in which Bangkok I think really shines, is Wong Kar Wai’s sumptuously shot and highly stylized In the Mood for Love. A chaste love story set in 1960s Hong Kong, the crew struggled to find suitable locations there where the appropriate period-style architecture remains intact. The backstreets of Bangkok’s Chinatown did, and Wong Kar Wai along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle artfully exploited them for most of the films exterior shots. To ravishing effect I might add. Among many mesmerizing scenes, there’s one in which the lovers played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung softly pad along a darkly lit alley and a camera tracks them from within a building – that’s Bangkok. And it looks brilliant!
Which parts of Bangkok do you think are the most cinematic? And which films have done it justice? And why does this veritable feast of urban imagery remain still largely untapped by filmmakers?