Don’t look now, but the highly open-minded society of Thailand has suddenly gotten itself into a controversy surrounding the local movie “Insects in the Backyard” by Director Tanwarin Sukkaphisit that has already been banned twice for the reason of being against public morals.
Let’s forget the politics of s/he, his/her, bio/sociological _ the politics of trans _ she says. Man or woman, katoey or transvestite or cross-dresser or transgender, no matter the label, no matter what noun or pronoun, she doesn’t mind. What Tanwarin Sukkaphisit minds is why her latest movie was banned, twice, by the rating committee. What she minds is why the board believes her film, Insects in the Backyard, is a ”disruption of national order and public morals,” according to Article 29 of the Film Act 2008. Why her film, and never, say, the slap party insouciantly displayed on TV every night?
”I feel like a terrorist,” she says. ”I was just making a movie.”
Insects in the Backyard, a small film Tanwarin made with less than 500,000 baht, was shown at the World Film Festival of Bangkok earlier this month. Two weeks ago it was banned from general release by the rating committee under the Office of National Culture Commission. The board said it was because the film displayed a shot of a penis. They also said because it contains an allusion to patricide and prostitution. The fact that the board failed to give a consistent, comprehensible reason for the ban _ instead of handing the film the strictest classification, 20-plus, with ID checks at the door _ besides citing a formulaic clause from the law has heightened the frustration of the filmmaking community.
Then there was a complication that exposed the flawed implementation of the Film Act. Last week, Tanwarin and representatives of the Thai Film Directors Association went to lodge an appeal. But the board told them that when the director first submitted the film for consideration, she misplaced the information about the film’s copyrights. So, technically, Tanwarin couldn’t appeal, but she had to repeat the process of submitting the film to the board (and pay the fee again). On Wednesday the board passed the same verdict: once wasn’t enough, Insects in the Backyard was banned twice in three weeks by the same committee.
”It’s illegal to show a shot of a penis in a way that is against good morals,” says Raksan Wiwatsin-udom, film lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and a rating board member. ”A shot of a penis is OK in itself, but not in the way the film shows it. This is obscenity.”
Insects stars Tanwarin as a father who paints the wall of his dysfunctional home lime-green and dresses flamboyantly in a gaudy gown of a cabaret singer, or a miserable 1950s Hollywood actress. His teenage son and daughter, in absence of their mother, call him Tanya and treat their dad like a cross-dressing older brother. Cast into the void of despair, the two teenagers slowly drift into prostitution; the boy rents his body out to men who like boys, while the girl enters a freelancer mode, in which her clients include men and women of all sexual inclinations.
In the film, there’s a shot of Tanwarin masturbating with his penis visible.
”I didn’t set out to make an aggressive movie with taboo-breaking images; not at all,” says Tanwarin. ”There’s a shot of a penis because we’re talking about sexual problems, and that organ is part of the problem were talking about.
”What I present in the film is what I believe to be the problems that exist in society. There are married men who dress up as women and pursue homosexual interests, and there are students who engage in prostitution of various kinds. These things do exist in this country. They are social problems, especially the teenagers who find themselves lost and disoriented, and the film simply wants to tell their stories.”
Tanwarin, 37, a graduate in French from Khon Kaen University and a former English teacher at a northeastern college before becoming a filmmaker, says the issue she raises has stemmed from her interest in genderism, feminism, and the collective belief of society about human sexuality.
”There’s a rigid boundary of what makes someone a man or a woman and that entails a list of social responsibilities,” she says.
”When someone doesn’t operate within that boundary, he’s in trouble. But there are a lot of people who do not belong to those strict boundaries.
”Is Thai society open about gays and katoeys? Most people believe so. We’re not arrested on the streets. Our rights aren’t limited, and we can live fairly happily. But if you ask me if katoeys are accepted as part of the mainstream ‘we’ of society, I don’t think so. We’re still ‘the others’, the insects in the backyard.
”I’m saying this because that’s what’s happening. I’m not demanding anything. I didn’t make the film to present my statement, I just made it because that’s the story I wanted to tell. If katoeys are not part of the ‘we’ in society, so be it. I accept that fact and I’m fine with it.”
The fluidity of sexuality is a running theme of the film. The physical and psychological blur that the characters exhibit in Insects in the Backyard results in sexual preferences of various shades beyond the usual hetero-coupling _ including a scene of role-switching between a man and a woman _ and that might come across as disturbing to the committee who banned it.
Last year, a Thai film called Jao Nok Krajok (Mundane History) contained a shot of a young man stroking his penis. It received the 20-plus rating, without the board even asking for a warning caption.
This is not the first time Tanwarin’s film ran into trouble with the watchdogs. Five years ago, he was asked to direct a straight-to-VCD movie called Krang Raek, or First Time. The film tells the story of a gay man who tries to conceal his identity, and of a group of misbehaving students and their budding sexual experiences. In the early 2000s, the business of straight-to-VCD movies was booming, with many producers testing the limits with softcore content. Apparently, in the official eye, Tanwarin’s film strayed across that thin line. The film was never released.
The theme of homosexuality and taboo love may run close to her heart, but Tanwarin, who started dressing as a woman since high-school, or at least whenever she had a chance, is a filmmaker with a broader range of interest. Her first short film, Waen (The Ring), was named one of the 100 Thai Films Thai People Should Watch by the National Film Archive.
In 2008, his spontaneous, witty four- minute short called I’m Fine Sabai Dee Ka won the top prize at Thai Short Film and Video Festival.
In the film that comes across as a recorded performance art, Tanwarin, lip-sticked and made-up, locked herself in a cage on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from the Democracy Monument. People stop by and peer into the cage, and Tanwarin responds to their curious gaze by repeatedly saying: ”I’m fine, don’t worry, I’m a Thai citizen, so this is fine with me.” It was one of the best films that captured the post-coup sentiment.
Earlier this year, Tanwarin directed an episode in the horror ensemble Tai Hong. While her next film will be a (straight) romantic comedy set in the Northeast, called Hug Sarakam.
”I’ve never positioned myself as a katoey filmmaker who makes film to support homosexual rights,” she says. ”I think I’ve made films according to my feelings and interests at any given period. If you define yourself as a gay or katoey artist, sometimes you’re just limiting yourself in your self-imposed boundary instead of just doing what you want to do as a human being.
”It’s true that the image of katoeys and homosexuals in Thai films and TV series remain the jokers, the crazy, screaming comedians. I used to propose a gay love story to an investor, and they told me to make a gay comedy instead. Many mainstream movies about homosexuals are made from the male perspective. That stereotype remains something we should look into.”
Yet amid the erratic responses from the official view, the flawed world of movie ratings, and the covert marginalisation of homosexuals, Tanwarin realises that Thailand being Thailand, the kind of unpredictability she faces perhaps represents a form of bizarre wisdom that characterises this country and its definition of culture. In the past few years, Tanwarin has been hired by the Ministry of Culture, the agency that oversees the banning of her film, to lecture students in their various workshops on short filmmaking. And of course, she shows up in class looking like she looks in the picture on the front page of this publication.
”Well, when I was a college teacher, 10 years ago, I had to show up in class as a man,” she says. ”Now they don’t mind me teaching the students looking like this, which is good,” she pauses. ”No, I don’t know what it is, wisdom, an awkwardness or just hypocrisy.”