Citizen Dog (Ma Nakorn)
(By: Robert Williamson)
Writer-director Wisit Sasanatiengís debut film Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) is perhaps Thai cinemaís most famous export. Its exaggerated colour and genre pastiche made it both visually and thematically one of the most distinct films of recent years. Four years later, Wisitís follow-up film is finally with us, and there is no mistaking the directorial identity behind it.
Citizen Dog retains many of the colourful stylistic touches from Tears of the Black Tiger, but locates itself in a very different environment Ė modern day Bangkok. The protagonist is Pod, a shy country boy determined to make his way in the big city. Unfortunately, his elderly grandmotherís stern warning that people who move to Bangkok end up growing tails makes him more than a little nervous. Finding work in Bangkok proves easy enough, but while working at a sardine cannery, Pod unfortunately cuts off his finger. Traipsing around the city trying to locate the tin of sardines which contains his missing finger is just the start of Podís fabulous adventure.
Having tracked down his finger, Pod decides it would be far safer to become an office security guard. Here he comes across the intriguing Jin, a cleaner with just as many odd habits as he. When not fastidiously tidying and arranging clutter, Jin is obsessed with trying to decipher a mysterious white book which fell to her from a passing plane Ė a moment she believes to be key to her destiny. Unfortunately she is unable to understand a word of the mysterious language it is written in (actually Italian). Pod decides to spend as much time with Jin as possible, eventually quitting the office to become her personal taxi driver. Jinís pursuit of the book, however, brings her into contact with a scruffy westerner, Peter, who also has a copy of the book. Believing him to be a radical environmental activist, and convinced that he has been killed at a demonstration she sees on the TV news, Jin concludes the book must be a political manifesto of some kind. She resolves to honour Peterís work Ė and save the planet Ė by collecting every used plastic bottle in the city.
Adapted from a novel by the directorís wife, Citizen Dog is bursting with weird and wonderful ideas Ė so much so that you almost donít notice that many of them are little more than wacky sketches which donít really advance the plot at all. An array of oddballs appear: an amnesiac with a passion for licking anything that crosses his path; a eight-year-old girl who believes she is twenty-two; the girlís talking, chain-smoking teddy bear; a dead motorcycle taxi driver who loves his job so much he canít leave it behind; a Chinese woman who believes she is a princess; Podís grandma, reincarnated as a talking gecko. The presence of many of these characters Ė at first sight just a string of wacky sketches Ė seems not to offer any great thematic resonance or narrative purpose. But perhaps this is the point. The film, if it is anything, is a celebration of lifeís transient moments and their possible meanings. Is Jinís white book really a sign from God which will determine her ultimate destiny? Or is she actually pre-destined to carry on Peterís activism? Probably not, but Wisit wants to remind us that for all the many odd things we encounter in our lives, some may have real implications for us, and life is really about being open to these possibilities. This reading of the film helps explain the proliferation of oddball moments. Though most of these brief encounters have no particular lasting effect on us, all bring colour to our lives; and in amongst them, moments of real value can be found.
Wisit again plays with ideas of Thai popular culture. Podís home in Bangkok is an old-fashioned wooden house painted with larger-than-life portraits of classic Thai movie stars. Jin, who always has her face in a book of one sort or another, is captivated by the romantic serials published in popular magazines. Her connection with the characters is such that she talks to them, trying to persuade them to see the error of their ways. In her more desperate moments, the characters even appear to her in human form. Before long, Pod also begins to believe the characters can have an active impact on his life with Jin. But despite this ongoing cultural nostalgia, this film is rather more preoccupied with modernity than was Tears of the Black Tiger and there is an acknowledgement that this antique culture must take a backseat in the modern world. Jin knows that her environmental cause is more important than the romance characters with which Pod tries to woo her back. Similarly, the running idea of city dwellers growing tails in introduced as a kind of corruption, but comes to be seen as a metaphor for the inevitable consequences of social progress. Jin tells Pod that the only way to remain tail-less is to remain poor, a fate she does not wish for their children. In the end, when Pod finds himself the only person in the city without a tail, he too must accept the inevitable. The film happily concludes that ĎBangkok never saw another person without a tail.í
The visual style of Tears of the Black Tiger was achieved largely through the use of painted scenery. Filming on location in Bangkok denies Wisit this luxury, so this time the director has chosen to shoot on HD video and use a range of digital effects to achieve the signature visual style of the earlier film. This includes not only the altered colour tones, but also the superimposition of the bottle mountain against the Bangkok skyline and the bringing to life of the magazine story characters. In fact, so much visual artifice is introduced that at times the film starts to look like a CGI animation. But this helps underline the filmís semi-ironic treatment of Bangkok as a loveable yet somehow unreal city. Although it revels in the idiosyncratic details of Bangkok life Ė to such an extent that it might not have quite the same impact when viewed in any other city Ė the film possesses an awareness of the artificiality and conformity that comes with life in Bangkok. That said, life outside the city is no more authentic: scenes in Podís home village in the country are bathed in glowing colours, but actions there literally occur in slow-motion. The prevailing sense of affectionate detachment is underlined by the ever-present Amelie-esque voiceover narration voiced by fellow filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang, and by the muted acting of the two leads. Both lead performances play with expectations, the lead actress spending much time with her face hidden behind a book and indie singer Mahasamutr Boonyarak playing Pod with an air of perpetual bemusement characterised by self-consciously blank looks into the camera. Both of these traits emphasize the filmís philosophy that Ďif you look too hard for something, you wonít see it right in front of you.í Searching for lifeís meaning inside her white book, Jin barely notices Podís adoration, while Pod can never really communicate his love for all his desperate attempts. Itís not a deeply profound philosophy, but it is good advice for the viewer. It might not contain a tightly-constructed narrative or emotionally-charged acting, but Citizen Dogís charm lies in its relaxed, ironic yet optimistic mood and its genial lack of self-importance. Wrap yourself up in its luminous glow and youíll find that it all makes perfect sense.