Historical inspiration
29/03/06 (By: Kong Rithdee)

A new Thai comedy uses the historic film `Nangsao Suwan' as a backdrop

`Today Mr Henry A. MacRae came to see me. I assured him of two things: first, travelling; second, finding a place for film processing and screening. Above these, he has to take care of himself. For our benefit, he has to give a copy of the film to the State Railway in return...''

The year was 1923. The quote above is an excerpt from the writings of Prince Kumbaengbejr of the Siamese Royal Court. Henry A. MacRae was an American producer of moving pictures who wished to ``take picture [sic] of Bangkok and the Beauties of Siam, including the King and the Palace Buildings''.

MacRae finally finished a film called Nangsao Suwan, or Suvarna of Siam, the first feature film with Siamese ``stars''. The American did give a copy to the Royal State Railway, who oversaw the kingdom's filming activities in those days. He also gave another copy to King Rama VI. The film was shown in three Bangkok theatres for three days. But at some obscure point in our history, the two copies were lost. Contemporary film historians have searched, but the original negatives of the film could not be found in any American archive. There is no evidence that the film was shown in the United States in the years following MacRae's return either.

Nangsao Suwan, a silent love story shot on black & white 35mm, acquired a special status in the history of Siamese cinema as its brief, elusive existence marked a vital point in Thai movie history. It does not qualify as the kingdom's first feature movie (that accolade goes to Choke Song Chan, made four years earlier), but before MacRae's endeavour, Siam had never seen a narrative fiction film featuring Siamese actors and Siam-set stories before.
Next week, the release of a new Thai comedy will resurrect the spirits of Nangsao Suwan and Henry MacRae, though its aim is less historical than commercial, less academic than entertainment. Contemporary Thai viewers, forever deprived of the chance to see the real Nangsao Suwan, will have to be content with glimpsing a fictitious set of MacRae's movie as a key plot point in the potentially belly-tickling film Nong Teng, Nak Leng Phukhao Thong (literally, ``Nong and Teng, the Golden Mount Gangsters'').

The sepia-tinted movie, directed by Phanich Sodsee and produced by Sahamongkol Film and major TV production house Work Point, stars TV gag-masters Nong Chernyim and Teng Terdterng as the titular tough guys of the Phukhao Thong district in 1932. In the film, their ancient neighbourhood of traditional likay performers is being threatened by an eviction notice as their landlord wishes to make room for the novelty of the day: the filming of the American-directed Nangsao Suwan.

Disregarding the order, Nong and Teng, one plump and one beanpole, devise comic stratagems to disrupt MacRae's filming. The main pull of Nong Teng Nak Leng Phukhao Thong is the feature-length showboating of the two funnymen's slapstick instincts, their tricky wordplay and riotous personas, but in a way, the movie also depicts the invasion of the new medium _ film, brought by a foreigner to boot _ on the tradition of folk entertainment of likay.
Phanich, the director, says his movie tries to balance humour with the integrity of a period production. ``You will see Henry MacRae and his crew, but we didn't reproduce scenes from Nangsao Suwan,'' says Phanich. ``The idea is to capture the authentic look of Siam in the 1930s. The movie is a comedy first and foremost, though I hope that the story will allude to certain aspects of society in those days, the feudal attitude of the landlord, for example, and the cherished folk performance of likay.''

Was Nangsao Suwan a prototype of today's culture clash, or was its filming a model of ``cultural exchange'', as modern day film enthusiasts purport that such quality is the ultimate virtue of the cinematic medium, remains a worthy discussion. According to Chalida Ua-bumrungjit's master thesis on the history and impact of Nangsao Suwan, the rulers of Siam ``allowed the making of this film in order to show the world the positive image of Siam at the time. Therefore, many incidents in the film featured the modern elements in Thai society such as travelling by express train or mail plane.''

But MacRae, in a faulty move that was later repeated by several Western filmmakers shooting in Thailand, overstepped the line and underestimated the sensitivity of the Thais when he used a real-life prisoner in an execution scene. This led to a critical piece from a Thai newspaper columnist. ``I would like to blame the local officer who did not save the honour of the country by forbidding them to do so. The execution will represent the barbarism of Siam,'' wrote the editorial in Sambhand Thai.

The film went through a censor committee, and it was believed that the execution scenes were cut in the process. Nangsao Suwan received its first public screening on June 22, 1932, at Nakornsrithamarat theatre in Bangkok. A day later it opened at Phattanakorn, Hong Kong, and Victoria theatres. Henry A. MacRae left Bangkok on June 25, and nobody, here or anywhere, ever laid eyes on his curious little movie again.
``Nong Teng, Nak Leng Phukhao Thong'' opens March 30. The National Film Archive helped provide part of the information for the report.

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