Category Archives: Thailand

The Half-Child

We love a good guest review here at Pulp Curry and today’s is about a book very dear to me, Angela Savage’s The Half-Child. For readers who don’t follow Pulp Curry on a regular basis, in the interests of full disclosure I need to declare that Angela has been my partner in life (and crime) for the last 20 years. Her book, The Half-Child, is also a great read. Many thanks to Sulari Gentill, whose own crime novel, A Few Right Thinking Men, was published in 2010 by Pantera Press.

I am a greedy reader.

When I opened The Half-Child, Angela Savage’s second Jane Keeney crime novel, I looked forward to reacquainting myself with the streets of Thailand, about which Savage writes with an intimate knowledge and affection.

I wanted once again to be shown the colour, the contrast, the cultural crater of a place where West has hurtled into East.  I wanted to see past cliché: the neon, the sleaze, the confronting corruption, to the beauty of an ancient culture and a tenacious and adaptive people. On top of all this I wanted intrigue, excitement, perhaps a little romance, and definitely some humour.  I did start out by saying I was greedy.

The Half-Child completely satiated my literary gluttony and then offered me dessert!

What Savage served up was a story set primarily in the resort town of Pattaya, Thailand, where Jane Keeney investigates the death of a young aid worker.  The novel, particularly for those who have had children, presents the heart-wrenching issues around overseas adoption.

Savage handles it all with non-judgmental compassion.  Rather than give the reader a trite outcome of good and bad, Savage shows us the sadness and uneasiness on both sides of the coin.  She makes us realise that we accept things from the developing world that we would not tolerate in our own country, that the term “better off” is unfairly weighted against the poor, but that sometimes Western concepts of social justice have no place in the harsh reality of the developing world.

Savage also subtly draws upon those common motivations in the hearts of mothers from both East and West.  Mayuree, the unwed mother of a half-child is determined to “…hold her head up high enough to protect [her child] with her shadow”.  I think of this line every time I leave my sons for some work commitment.  Motherhood, and perhaps life in general, is about making choices.  Savage’s book brings home how much harder those choices are for some.

Despite the tragic issue at the centre of this novel, the story is far from grim.  Jayne Keeney is comfortable and natural in this world.  Through her eyes we see it without cultural judgment and as a result we also see humour in the darkness.  Savage has a keen eye for the absurd and not only was I often giggling aloud whilst reading, I found myself thinking of scenes from The Half-Child and grinning insanely at later (often inappropriate) moments.

Jane’s penchant for slipping into the guise of religious zealot simply by responding to everything with “praise the Lord” makes me laugh every time I think of it.  I liked Jayne Keeney in Behind the Night Bazaar (Savage’s first novel), I felt really connected with her in The Half-Child.

This latest novel also introduces us to Rajiv Patel, who becomes a “Watson” to Jayne’s “Holmes”.  He is to say the least, endearing.  He softens, challenges and supports Jayne.  The dynamic between them is beautifully written…a friendship, a partnership and something more.  Again Savage flouts gender conventions without it being a simple and self-conscious reversal of social roles.

In the end, as I closed The Half-Child, I felt well nourished.  I am already hungry for another taste of Jayne’s world and am heartened to hear that Angela Savage is hard at work on the third Jayne Keeney novel.

The Half-Child and its predecessor Behind the Night Bazaar are both so much more than detective stories.  My philosophy on books is admittedly simple.  Make me think and you’ll have my respect, make me laugh and I’ll be you’ll have my friendship.

The Half-Child has both.

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Red Eagle Review

My earlier post on Wisit Sasanatieng’s rebooting of the cult Thai super hero Red Eagle (Insee Daeng) generated a fair bit of interest. The film opened in Thailand earlier this month to rave reviews and is generating a lot of buzz internationally.

According one of my favourite film sites, Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal, Red Eagle is “Perhaps the most Hollywood-like movie yet made by the Thai film industry, a big, loud and brash superhero action flick that is mostly relentless in its pace and hyper-stylized violence”.

“Fans hoping for the colorful camp and dry wit of Wisit’s previous films like Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog might come away disappointed with the director’s latest effort.”

Those wanting a big budget Thai action movie that makes the most of the metropolis of Bangkok as a backdrop will not be.

The film is based on the 1960s action franchise that starred the legendary Mitr Chaibancha, which was originally based on a series of crime novels by writer Sake Dusit.

Lao-Australian actor Ananda Everingham portrays “a much darker and brooding character. Instead of the fun-loving drunken playboy lawyer that was Mitr’s alter ego, this Rome Rittikrai is an angry loner – a former special forces operative who was betrayed on the battlefield. One cool customer, he lives in the basement of an icehouse, and takes morphine because of a bullet wound to the head.”

He comes with a range of great gadgets, including a sword with a collapsible blade, bullet-resistant clothes complete with infra-red goggles and rubber masks so he can disguise himself, as well as the usual assortment of more conventional firearms.

Although the creative team behind the film have been keen to stress they didn’t want the film to be a direct political statement, the parallels between the Red Eagle’s fight against a mysterious criminal society undermining  Thai society and the political turbulence that has wracked Thailand over the last few years, have been drawn by many critics.

Those interested in knowing more can check out the complete review of Red Eagle at Wise Kwai’s Thai film Journal.

Return of the Red Eagle

On October 7, Thailand will finally get to see Wisit Sasanatieng’s take on the classic Thai super hero series from the 1950s and 1960s, Insee Daeng or Red Eagle.

Red Eagle has been the focus of huge anticipation ever since Wisit (best known in the West for his homage to the Thai action films of the fifties and sixties, Tears of the Black Tiger) announced the remake.

After three years of political uncertainty, culminating several months ago in pitched street battles in the Bangkok between the military and  red shirt protesters loyal to the ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand needs a hero and the Red Eagle might just fit the bill.

Trailers for the remake floating around the web for a while now. I found the latest, complete with English language sub-titles, on one of my favourite blogs, Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal, and it’s an absolute knock out. Wisit’s updated Red Eagle in his leather jacket and red face mask looks great. Bangkok is perfect as the ominous and chaotic metropolis in which the story  is set (not that big a stretch when you think about it). There are heaps of stunts and  John Woo style action, complete with the slow motion work Thai film makers seem to be so fond of.

Based on the crime novels of Sake Dusit, the original series featured a drunken playboy and lawyer called Rom Rittichai, whose alter ego is the masked vigilante crime fighter. Three films were made, of which the last, Insee Thong (Golden Eagle) in 1970 is the best known. It was produced by and starred one of Thai cinema’s best known action heroes, Mitr Chaibancha, who was born into poverty and went onto star in over 250 films.

In the Golden Eagle, a killer posing as Red Eagle is committing murders so Rom must change his alias to another colour, so he becomes the Golden Eagle. The imposter is connected to an outfit called the Red Bamboo Gang, who are trying to take control of Thailand. They are led by an evil genius who is able to kill his intended targets by beaming his thoughts through red ceramic Buddha statues which have been delivered to various Thai officials. You can check out footage from the original Golden Eagle film below.

I have never seen the film, but from what I’ve read it apparently has a great sub-plot featuring a cop who is also investigating the murders being committed by the fake Red Eagle, and who has to go under cover as a transvestite to infiltrate a ring of transvestite criminals in alliance with the Red Bamboo Gang. Only in Thailand.

After the final battle, the real Red Eagle was supposed to take hold of a rope ladder suspended from a helicopter and be carried into the sun set. The stunt, which took place on the last day of shooting, ended tragically when Mitr lost his grip on a rope ladder and fell to his death.

No word yet about any plans to release Red Eagle outside Thailand, but here’s hoping it won’t take too long.

Young and dangerous: two Thai crime films

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