Cult Movie Revisited:‘Isan Special’
Driven by absurdist melodrama, this is an unexpectedly profound hilarious satire of Thai psychology. ‘Isan Special’ is beloved by many who wish to see it again on a big screen for full immersion in the phony fantasy emotions and handsomely framed images like photography.
Pen (“Moon”), the Nang Ek (Leading Lady) is first glimpsed at the Northern Bus Terminal newsstand, flipping through an entertainment mag. This is inadvertently piquant, given that such a girl would now be scrolling through her phone. The moment she is possessed by the melodrama playing on the bus radio, the audience at the Lido where I first saw the film burst out laughing, nervously at first, then whole-heartedly, and remained with her through the real and fantasy thick and thin of ‘Isan Special’ as all the passengers including Danny the half-breed (Isan and American GI of course) backpacker leading man, play their stereotypical roles with total conviction until the return to reality upon arrival at the newly-created province of Nong Bua Lamphu (Lotus Swamp).
The shift is deliciously done. Two women are in medium shot at the front of the bus with the others scattered behind. The older one, 50ish, a provincial lady politely dressed in a tasteful white and beige lace blouse atop a silk sarong (the costume is spot-on) sits placidly fanning herself across from the Nang Ek as they listen to the radio play voices emote. A visitation from the magic realm ever present around us in Thailand including on our airwaves comes as light falling upon the Nang Ek’s family heirloom from the dead noble father, a golden crescent moon brooch, “enters her” as we say. She calmly tells the driver to please switch off the radio then proceeds to act out her Nang Ek role. Turning to the older woman, now apparently her evil stepmother, she spits out: “You ingrate bitch, no better than a blood-sucking leech!...” The older woman just goes on fanning herself until she too is drawn into the spell.
Director ML Mingmongkol Sonakul’s deadpan at-will shifts in reality bring Shakespearean ‘make-believe’ inevitably to mind. This is none other than a superlative Thai version of ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’, in which theatre happens by tacit agreement between the audience and the players, who can put 3 people on stage, call one of them ‘wall’ between 2 lovers and there you have it: a reality, a drama unfolding. It comes complete with Puck in the form of a suntanned manly-seeming soldier from the back of the bus who turns out to be a flaming queen a la Thai TV soap, initially one of the Nang Rai (villainesses) but turns out to be a good friend in the end.
Arrival in the fabled Northeastern land of Isan is telegraphed with hanging intestinal sausages (referred to in a recurring joke, funny for all its childishness, as “Italian sausages” in the luxury resort the passengers believe they’re staying or working in) and a drunk standing on the dark road with a lance—a symbol of death and not just for the frogs he’s spearing for dinner. Deeper Isan is hailed by a Thai movie horror howl in the dead of night as the bus stops in the wilderness for a classic Thai female ghost to embark. “Welcome to the Jarawee Hotel!’ the Nang Ek, now in reduced circumstances as a waitress, greets her warmly, “Let me recommend our delectable Italian sausage”.
I realize at this point that I forgot to say that the whole movie is dubbed with stereotypical voices like 16 mm Thai cinema of old, further heightening the Midsummers Night’s make-believe spell and patina of romance. Thought bubbles are conveyed by echoey voice-overs, as in Nang Ek’s reaction to the ghost’s silence: “How weird. I speak to her but she won’t reply. Plus she looks kind of pale.” I remember the Lido audience erupting in hysterics at this, but I don’t know if foreigners would find this obviousness hilarious, as we do, unless you can recognize the truth of such obviousness in the mainstream and fascist official culture’s identity branding that so suffocates Thai people and makes of our lives a farce, limiting us to the expected roles of self-piteous victim and vindictive oppressor.
Desired possessions (stud farm, designer clothes, hotel suites etc.) are detailed with precision and yearning, along with the ‘cesspit’ litany of sufferings and misfortunes. Isan accents turn into soap opera central casting central Thai voices. But the movie is the antidote to all this poisonous pretension. Back in ‘reality’ at the end of the enchanted moonlit bus ride, the spoilt, self-pitying Nang Ek turns out to be a decent woman who refuses to live a lie. The ‘villainess’ stepmum is a sympathetic and sensible businesswoman who takes a Burmese illegal worker (supporting actress role) under her maternal wing in a lovely side story. (Alice Skinhead)
Director : ML Mingmongkol Sonakul
Producer : ML Mingmongkol Sonakul
Script : ML Mingmongkol Sonakul , Apichatpong Weerasethakul