The only notable feature about the 2008 Nicholas Cage movie Bangkok Dangerous, was its success in achieving something I didn’t think was possible – it made the Thai capital of ten million look boring. Bangkok is many things: hot, polluted, crowded, exotic, infuriating, exhausting. But it is never boring.
What possessed the film’s directors, Oxide and Danny Pang, to reprise their 1999 Thai language movie hit of the same name is unclear, although after ten years of in Thailand and Hong Kong, the lure of Hollywood and money probably had something to do with it.
The original Bangkok Dangerous combined taunt story telling with stylish visuals. It also made the most of Bangkok as a setting, a world of neon lit go-go bars, dingy apartments and back alleys constantly humming with the drone of traffic and the two-stroke motorcycles that are the preferred mode of transport for much of the populace.
The film’s breakneck pace is set in the very first scene, when grainy footage from an askew security camera in an anonymous toilet block captures the first killing. Within seconds we are introduced to the main character, the assassin Kong, wandering along a nightclub strip to a bar where he receives instructions about his next job from one of the hostesses, a dissolute Aom.
A deaf-mute, Kong is oblivious to the cacophony of competing noise that is a daily fact of life in Bangkok. That’s not all he is obvious to. Setting up position on a rooftop overlooking a luxury hotel, Kong lines up a clear shot of his target as he alights from a car. Realising he is being watched by a little girl from a nearby building, Kong hesitates for only a second before dispatching his victim and disappearing.
And that’s all before the introductory credits have rolled.
Kong’s back-story is told in black and white footage. Having lost his hearing as a child, he was bullied by other children. Working as a janitor at a shooting range he comes to the attention of Jo, a hit man, and his (then) girlfriend, Aom. Jo takes Kong under his wing and teaches him the assassination business. Then when Jo injures his hand in a botched hit, Kong is ready to take over.
Back in the present, Kong’s next job takes him to Hong Kong, where he dispatches his victim on the subway. Returning to Bangkok, he goes to a pharmacy for cold medicine and makes a connection with one of the women behind the counter, Fon. They go out together, hitting it off over a Charlie Chaplin film festival. It all looks promising until Kong and his date are mugged on the way home and Kong dispatches the assailants with a bit too much skill and force.
Meanwhile, Aom is having trouble fending off the unwanted advances of one of the mob boss’ henchmen. The henchman ends up viciously attacking her, forcing ex-boyfriend Jo to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, after Kong undertakes a particularly high-profile assassination, the mob boss decides to kill him to ensure all the loose ends are tied up.
The Pang brothers made two more Thai films in the style of Bangkok Dangerous, 1 plus 1 = 0 and Som and Bank: Bangkok for Sale. They have also made numerous horror movies, the most famous of which, set in Hong Kong, The Eye (2002), involved a blind girl whose cornea transplant enables her to see ghosts.
The most unsettling aspect of Bangkok Dangerous is the routine, almost disembodied nature of much of the violence. Kong is an anonymous killer, taking his orders indirectly from an anonymous mob boss, whose customers are anonymous ‘people of influence’, as they are known in Thailand, and whose reasons for wanting people dead are never explained. Kong goes about his work without interference from the police and other parts of the state, which are almost completely absent except for the final climatic John Woo-style shoot out in a water bottling plant.
A sort of historical back-story to how organised crime managed to grow so powerful in Thailand is Nonzee Nimibutr’s 1997 directorial debut, Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters. Young Gangsters is credited with rejuvenating Thai cinema and kicking off the “New Wave” of local film making in the late nineties. Despite this, to my knowledge it is currently unavailable on DVD and my copy was copied from a VHS tape of the movie when it was on TV.
Young Gangsters is set in the late 1950s, when the “persons of interest” who ran the Thai underworld in Bangkok Dangerous, were only just starting to carve out their illegal empires, mainly on the back of natural resource extraction such as logging, mining and fishing.
Dang is the son of a prostitute. By 13 he has killed once already – a drunk harassing his mother (another black and white flashback). By 16 he has dropped out of school to start his own gang and is dabbling in small-time criminal activities.
On top of the difficulties eking out a living as a small time crook, Dang’s life has a number of hassles, including a girlfriend who wants him to go straight and a mother who is pressuring him to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. After getting a beating for refusing to supplicate himself to an opium addicted local gangster called Mad Dog, Dang goes to an ex-cop, Sergeant Chien, who is now involved in various illegal activities.
Chien procures Dang a handgun, no mean feat in tightly controlled fifties Thailand, which he uses to dispatch Mad Dog Godfather II-style with a bullet in the head during a local street festival. Next Dang leads his gang in an amazingly choreographed fight scene with another group led by rival small time criminals, Pu and Dum.
Young Gangsters depicts the milieu of gang life in fifties Bangkok beautifully. From the white shirts and James Dean haircuts, to the period rock and roll music. There’s a lot of romantic angst between Dang and his girlfriend that slows the film down, but just when it seems Young Gangsters is content to be a teen movie with an edge, about half way through the story radically changes direction when a military coup takes place, ushering in a law and order crackdown.
Dang flees to the countryside where he hooks up with Chien, now a bar owner near a major US air force base. Although it’s years before the Americans start carpet-bombing Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, there’s a sense things are already gearing up and Chien is making serious money selling drugs, alcohol and girls to US servicemen.
There are also serious risks. Chien is already on the verge of conflict with a rival gangster, Headman Tek. “It’s wild up here. It’s survival of the fittest”, Chien explains as he recruits Dang as a bodyguard.
Dang provides protection and helps Chien build up his empire, including pimping girls from the far north who have been sold by their parents. Then, without Dang’s knowledge, Chien recruits his old gang rivals, Pu and Dum, as additional muscle. Tensions mount and finally explode into the open when Chien is assassinated and Dang must decide what to do with his business interests.
Although the film only hints at it, Dang’s predicament is the start of the steady growth of organised crime and regular bloodshed as gangsters vied for the spoils from the massive influx of American money and servicemen that would accompany the escalation of the Vietnam War.
The one theme unifying Young Gangsters with Bangkok Dangerous is that although they may be very different characters, in the bigger picture Dang and his deaf contemporary Kong are just low lives scrambling for what’s left over by those higher up the food chain.
For both of them, being forced to choose between grinding poverty and a life of crime is no choice at all.
This article originally appeared in Crime Factory, issue 4, July 2010