[2 August 2006]
Isan is a region in northeastern Thailand. It abuts the border between that country, Cambodia, and Laos. Laos has had a strong influence on the peoples’ culture. It’s a poor farming area with no large cities, nothing on the scale of Bangkok or even Chiang Mai.
Filmmakers Robert Millis and Richard Bishop filmed Phi Ta Khon in the Isan village of Dan Sai, where two major Thai festivals, two local legends, and a collection of animist influences have come together in one long conglomerate celebration with its own strange character. The two major festivals are Boon Phra Wate, which is an opportunity to make merit, improving your spiritual standing and your chances of being reincarnated as something interesting in the future, and Boon Bung Fai, a series of rituals that encourage guardian spirits to keep the farms fruitful and the people prosperous.
Of the two legends, one takes as its principle character the holy Prince Vessandorn, who returned to his home town after such a long period away that the brilliance of the ensuing celebration attracted the participation of the dead; and the other tells the story of two star cross’d lovers who died together and became local guardian spirits.
On film, all of this is presented as an excellent reason for the townspeople to dress as ghosts, dance in the streets, play music, get drunk on clear rice whiskey, wave wooden penises (fertility icons) at one another, and cover their faces with beautiful masks. The most striking of the masks have long, pointed chins and enormous, smiling mouths rimmed with sharp teeth. They wear woven hats in the shape of baskets, and their noses curve down their faces, up and over and out again, like the trunks of elephants. The patterns painted on some of these masks are startling and fantastic. They look like stylised feathers, or scales, or butterfly wings, or the intricate labyrinths of lush vegitation—psychedelic stripes and curls.
Millis and Bishop show us the festivities in rough chronological order, beginning before dawn on the morning of the first day with a group of people gathered together in a room. Some of them carry decorated poles; an old man is holding a shotgun. He fires the shotgun. The crowd leaves the room. They walk down the dark street in procession.
We are in the local wat, where a man, probably the abbot, is making a long recitation. People pray and then they start to celebrate. A musician plays the khaen. Women make serpentine gestures with their hands and arms. A stout woman in a clean white shirt catches the cameraman’s eye. She begins to wash invisible windows with the palms of her hands.
Buddhist services appear most significantly at the beginning and end of the film while the middle is taken up with celebrations. We see foot races between people wearing costumes, and bands trying to out-blare one another with truck-mounted loudspeakers. There’s enough musical violence here to suggest that anyone looking for the next Konono No. 1http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/world/reviews/kononono1_congotronics.shtml may want to leave Africa and try South East Asia, instead.
A one-armed man rides inside a fake buffalo. Children dance. A group of boys hang over a model of a penis so large that its makers have mounted it on bicycle wheels. The camera zooms in on the flattened conical bosoms of a huge puppet-woman and moves into a hole cut in her chest. We see a man inside, smiling. The camera retreats and the man pursues it with the large green and blue caterpillar he’s holding in his hand.
These caterpillars make a number of appearances and their presence goes unexplained. Phi Ta Khon is billed as “an immersive ‘you are there’ experience,” meaning that the people responsible for making it have decided not to add a voice-over narration, or staged interviews, or any of the other devices that usually attend non-fiction film. The only exception is a series of short captions that fade in occasionally to tell you what time of day it is, or to explain the stories behind the paintings you can see on the wall of a wat. I watched the film before reading the thin booklet that came with it and I was left pretty much in the dark. Why had those men painted themselves black? Why were those women singing at a raft?
The audience is in the position of an uninformed observer; like a tourist who wanders in . . . doesn’t the language, just drifts around . . . sometimes feeling thrilled, occasionally feeling bored with the procession of people shouting and dancing for reasons the newcomer can’t quite fathom. On the plus side this gives you the freedom to draw your own judgements; on the minus side it leaves you more titillated than wise.