The Peter principle, revisited

My life as a Citizen Dog

By Chuck Stephens

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March 2004: A filthy, red-dirt dawn is breaking behind the derelict skyscrapers that line the mostly deserted central thoroughfare of Muang Thong Thani — a planned satellite city just outside Bangkok that largely went bust during the financial crisis that crippled much of Southeast Asia in 1997. Muang Thong Thani's prematurely optimistic name means "golden city," but though you can still find real estate Web sites trumpeting the location's desirability with come-hithers like "Traffic and pollution are practically zero!," the same could be said of the most desolate stretches of the Mojave Desert or the dark side of the moon.

But on this sooty, sweat-stained March morning, the streets of MTT are strangely bustling and overpopulated — with an assortment of men, women, and children all identically dressed in powder blue maid's uniforms, and with the chaos from an environmental street protest that surrounds a pair of love-struck country kids still dazed by the chaos of the big city. Along one crowded sidewalk, a zealous beat cop gets ready to apprehend a conspicuously white-skinned street vendor of suspicious reading materials who's been blocking shoppers' ways.

Today, for one day only, the Golden City's deserted central corridor will be reborn as the latest of modern Thai cinema's garishly cartoon-colored tinseltowns — and the larger-than-life location for an oddly infectious and deliriously overdesigned love story titled Citizen Dog, to be directed by my friend Wisit Sasanatieng, one of the country's most promising young cinematic mavericks. Approaching from a distance, I watch the insect dawn over MTT begin to evaporate from my vantage in the cramped backseat of a Toyota minivan that serves as the production's talent wagon. And I once again remind myself that (1) everything changes, or can at least be made to appear that way, and (2) I am dressed accordingly, in a billowing tie-dye shirt tinted an altogether unseemly shade of chartreuse, and a pair of slightly-too-small white Converse high-tops that are definitely not my own.

April 1993: I first came to Thailand on holiday the year after I started writing for the Guardian. I'd been in Hong Kong for that year's film festival, and an expat friend had suggested I make a couple of additional stops while in the region. I got hooked on Bangkok and Thailand in general, but any professional prospects for an American film critic trying to live there seemed less than remote. Thai cinema was a nowhere town in 1993: Annual local production had dropped to about eight films a year, most of them teen-marketed comedies. The wildly successful Thai blockbuster Nang Nak — a stylishly revamped version of Thailand's most enduring ghost story, directed by Nonzee Nimibutr and written by Wisit, which would soon help jump-start the Thai film renaissance — was still five years away.

When I got back to San Francisco, I somehow managed to put Thailand out of my thoughts, mainly by distracting myself with, among other things, long afternoons spent scheming with the programmers at the Roxie Cinema to bring cultural heroes like Abel Ferrara to town, and writing about the results in articles for this paper like the one titled "The Peter Principle," about a long and an unforgettable weekend spent in the company of Peter Fonda, then still longhaired and acid-frazzled from his fabled past, even as an Oscar win and subsequent recertification as a member of mainstream Hollywood society was only a few months away.

In 1998, I went back to Bangkok for two weeks, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a handful of old Thai films had been made available on VHS by the Thai Film Archive; I decided to go back again later that year, and ended up staying two months. Within the next year, two new first-time features by young Thai filmmakers — Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon and Wisit's Tears of the Black Tiger — confirmed the arrival of something I'd spent years quietly hoping for: a rebirth of Thai film culture that hinged not just on commercial success stories like Nang Nak but on an ongoing convergence of strains of fiction, documentary, history-savvy cine-nostalgia, formal experimentation, and ad agency–trained graphic sophistication. By the end of 2000 I was counting both of those directors, and a few others as well, among my best Bangkok friends, and spending nearly half of every year in Thailand. In 2002, the year after my daughter was born in Bangkok, I moved here full-time.

December 2003: I got an e-mail from Wisit asking if I could meet him at a nearby Starbucks that evening, as he had a rather ungainly present for me, and a job he wanted to discuss. Wisit, it needs to be stated, isn't just one of Thailand's most innovative directors; he's also one of Thai cinema's biggest and most historically minded fans. Back in 1993, when I couldn't seem to scare up even a single old Thai movie on VHS, Wisit had long since been busy getting his film education in front of his TV set, studying the hilariously stilted moves and murky "action" mayhem of every Thai-film rerun he could find. It was our mutual devotion to the country's cinema that had first formed the basis of our friendship, and when I arrived at Starbucks, the gift Wisit had brought for me turned out to be an enormous bounty from the past: some 300 VCDs of old Thai movies from the Five Stars library — a bribe to secure both my further fascination with, and documentation of, Thai film's fading history and my active participation in the immediate future of that cine-cultural same. "There's a farang [a Westerner] in my next movie," Wisit sheepishly smiled. "He's a strange guy, and though the heroine of the movie is in love with him, what it is he's doing in Thailand is at least a little bit suspicious. Maybe his name is Peter; maybe he's an environmental activist; maybe he's selling pornography. Whatever he is, there's one thing I've known about Peter ever since I heard about him: He is you."

A deal memo (including a provision that Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee and I would be hired to do the film's subtitles) was signed over our next Frappuccino, after which I swung an enormous plastic shopping bag filled with new old Thai movies over my shoulder, flagged down a motorcycle taxi, and sputtered off toward home. The script for Citizen Dog arrived by courier the next day.

Citizen Dog wasn't the first of Wisit's projected new projects in the wake of Tears of the Black Tiger's international acclaim and local box office disaster. In between sporadic attempts to get his long-gestating and big-budgeted Namprix — a wholly fabricated "retelling" of Thailand's "origin myth" (something the country had never had in the first place) on par with the "re-creation" of "classic Thai cinema" (of the sort that had also never actually existed) that he'd undertaken in Tears — off the ground, he'd continued making extraordinarily arch television commercials during his day job at Film Factory; completed the script and selected the soundtrack music for a film about a woman's lonely love life in Bangkok's 1950s Chinatown, to be called I Can't Forget; and was quietly writing and illustrating a comic book version of the life of Dracula by night.

The Thai title of Citizen Dog, by the way, is a pun on the regal Thai designation of Bangkok as the nation's "royal city" ("maha nakorn"), which, in dropping its second syllable, sheds its exalted status and becomes Ma Nakorn, a rather lowlier designation that translates as "dog city" — in light of which Kong soon began referring to the film as "Dogville." Not that von Trier's emperor's-new-clothes essay in American agit-pop had anything to do with Wisit's considerably more humanized "tail" about modern love in the ancient Thai capital: In reality, Citizen Dog was based on a novel written by Siripan Techajindawong, Wisit's longtime collaborative partner and wife.

Narrated in a sweetly snide tone of voice by a Film Factory coworker of Wisit's, Last Life in the Universe director Penek Ratanaruang, Citizen Dog's story concerns the conflicted affections of a pair of contemporary naïfs named Pod and Jin (played by first-time actors Mahasamuth Boonyarak, an indie rock musician, and Sangtong Ket-Utong, a lithesome fashion model) and their assorted encounters with missing fingers, chain-smoking teddy bears, zombie motorcycle-taxi drivers, a mysterious white book, true love and true friends, and a mountain of unrecycled plastic soda bottles that eventually grows tall enough to touch the moon. Those in search of lazy likenesses might note the film's passing resemblances to aspects of Amelie, though for all its computer-addled visual dazzle, Wisit's film proves a far more humanizing essay in amorousness than that phony French postcard — even if its lovers sometimes wag their tails behind them.

March 2004: In my hand are what we in show business refer to as today's "sides" — the pages of a script to be performed and filmed that day. As it happens, I've long since memorized the four lines of Thai dialogue I'll soon be called on to deliver in front of the camera and have now turned the last few moments of my pre-celebrity mindfulness to remembering one last thing: Even though the character I will be playing — a shifty-eyed Westerner of uncertain means who may or may not be named Peter, and who may or may not hold the secret to Citizen Dog's heroine's romantic dreams — I am not the movie's star. Five hours of unanticipated stunt work later (a series of seriously ludicrous pratfalls, actually), and with my day's wages tucked safely in pocket, I no longer need to remind myself that the road to glory remains in many places as yet unpaved. "No," the gravel-voiced tranny from the Five Stars costume department snaps at me as I prepare to make my final exit, bone-tired and pratfall-sore, "you cannot keep your wardrobe."

Just as well, I suppose, since in the months after making the movie, I will be told by more than one close personal acquaintance that, in my Peter garb, I look like nothing so much as a refugee from the casting call for Scooby-Doo.

January 2005: Citizen Dog opens in Bangkok theaters — and closes again just as quickly. Another terrific new film from one of the country's most talented filmmakers, roundly ignored by local audiences and gone in a matter of days. Not surprisingly, it's months before anyone other than his closest associates is able to reach Wisit by e-mail or telephone. Even the news, some six months later, that Luc Besson's EuropaCorp has purchased the foreign distribution rights to Citizen Dog — and has guaranteed a small fortune in production funds for the eventual Namprix — does not allay the director's darkness or tele-communicational inaccessibility.

January 2006: Time magazine's Richard Corliss's "Best Films of 2005" list ranks Citizen Dog a surprising sixth, a perfectly nice endorsement from a critic so historically clueless about Thai cinema that he once blamed the languorous pacing and startling mid-movie credit sequence of Blissfully Yours on the American indie film fail-safes he assumed Apichatpong had absorbed while in Chicago attending film school. But by far the best review of Citizen Dog I've seen to date was written by a blogger known to me only as Theo, who saw the movie at the London Film Festival last fall. The movie was pretty good, Theo seemed to think, but it was his salutary parting shot that really made my work in Citizen Dog seem somehow all worthwhile: "When I grow up," Theo bloggingly confessed, "I want a goatee like Chuck Stephens."

March 2006, postscript: One Ton Cinema, a new independent film production company based in Singapore, announces its first project, Armful, a "stylized tragicomedy" and "revenge tale about a failed paper merchant who loses his arm," with a script written in Mandarin Chinese, visual reference points that cover the gamut of Jimmy Wang Yu's wuxia swordplay films from the 1970s — and none other than Citizen Dog director Wisit Sasanatieng set to direct. Who knows? For a filmmaker who's rapidly making a career of going out on a limb to shoot only the kinds of movies he truly believes in, this apparent resurrection of The One-Armed Swordsman might be just the sort of long-distance comeback to make Thailand's most-talented commercial filmmaking failure finally feel right at home. *

CITIZEN DOG

Fri/17, 7 p.m.

Castro

Sat/18, 9:15 p.m.

Pacific Film Archive

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

The 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 16–26, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Kabuki 8, 1881 Post, SF; Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF; PFA, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. For tickets ($5–$55) and information on related events, including panels and "Directions in Sound" music programs, go to www.asianamericanfilmfestival.org.