Thursday, April 29, 2010

Does Thailand Need a Superhero?

How is comic book action like a war? I went to see "Kick-Ass" (above) last night to escape the gloomy news yesterday of a soldier killed by "friendly fire" in a battle with anti-government forces in a northern suburb of Bangkok. It's a film about the impact of comic books on an impressionable teen who yearns to be a superhero despite the absence of any real powers. So he begins his adventures by buying a colorful wet suit and mask from eBay. And he gets hurt. It reminded me of the scenes this week of soldiers in their helmets and camouflage outfits and the police in their Robocop suits carrying plexiglass shields, many with guns, and I wondered about the impact of violent and bloody Thai action films (its most popular genre) on their expectations of war.

Real war, as writers tell us and photographs depict, is hell. The above photo shows one of the injured after several grenades exploded near a crowded Skytrain station last week. As of this morning, 26 people have died and over a thousand were injured in several violent episodes over the last 19 days. Tens of thousands of security forces face off against tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying nearly five kilometers of streets in central Bangkok where they are protected by large "Mad Max" barricades of tires and sharpened bamboo sticks. For many days, the newspapers and internet have predicted a sure-to-be bloody crackdown on the protesters' encampment which would certainly spark a civil war throughout the country.

"Kick-Ass" is an enjoyable and fast-moving farce on many levels, but it begins with the premise that in an imperfect world (the hero-to-be lives in a very gritty neighborhood of New York City where he is routinely mugged), we are encouraged to believe in saviors like the ones we see portrayed in comic books, on TV and in films. In a world of bullies and gangsters, we feel someone has to stand up and eliminate the bad guys. Outside of our cultural fantasies, this mantle of a righteous savior was most consciously adopted by George W. Bush and his gang of crusaders who waged war on the "Evil Empire" by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and whose successor, Superfly Obama, is poised to punish Iran for being uppity. In Thailand there are many heroes lined up to save the country, from Prime Minister Abhisit and PAD (yellow shirt) leader Chamlong to the UDD (red shirt) panel of leaders -- Veera, Nattawut and Dr. Weng -- as well as numerous looser cannons like Seh Daeng and Arisman.

In "Kick-Ass," the pretend superhero, awkward Dave, meets the real thing in 11-year-old Mindy (aka Hit Girl) and her trainer/father Damon (aka Big Daddy), a disgraced cop out to get revenge on the gangster he blames for putting him in prison and the suicide of Mindy's mom. The foul-mouthed Mindy was raised to kill and she slaughters numerous rooms full of bad guys before enlisting Dave's help in the finale. Manohla Dargis at the NY Times says the film "at once embraces and satirizes contemporary action-film clichés with Tarantino-esque self-regard — it’s the latest in giggles-and-guts entertainment." The distinguished Roger Ebert called it "morally reprehensible." Dare we suggest that it's just a film of what began as a comic book which takes the influence of comic book morality seriously?

I won't pretend to know what Thais read but I know that action TV dramas and films and stories about evil ghosts are extremely popular, and I've seen many people reading cartoon and manga books on public transport and in cafés and restaurants. There are two ways that young Thais who can't afford to go to college can escape the country's pervasive poverty: join the military or police, or become a monk. Most soldiers are conscripted (I expect the wealthy can buy their way out of service). Aside from a long-lasting violent Muslim insurgency in the south, the Army has it easy with relatively stable borders and no outside enemies. I doubt that soldiers receive much training in crowd control (the last riot was 18 years ago). They are very well-equipped because of the bloated military budget (much increased after the 2006 coup) but untrustworthy since it is believed many are "watermelons" (green outside but with red sympathies within). Some say there is enmity between the Army and the police. The bloody battle April 10 was a rout for the misguided troops; some were even captured by the stone-throwing reds and their weapons and uniforms confiscated. Most of the dead and injured that night were civilians, but a mysterious group of "men in black" targeted a troop command post with deadly accuracy and some believe it indicates rebellion in the ranks (the reds denied they used lethal weapons). The explosions in Silom were likewise apparently committed by a shadow "Third Hand." The government claims the reds did it, and put in charge of the investigation a forensic "expert" who recently touted the value of fake bomb detectors purchased by the military for an outrageous sum.

Yesterday a caravan of 2,000 red shirts (actually, they have abandoned red now for a less identifiable pallet of colors) on their way to meet supporters in a northern suburb were met by a large force of soldiers and police who blocked the road. Without warning they fired live rounds as well as rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring 19. Protesters threw stones, shot metal balls from sling-shots and launched fireworks in response. The soldier killed was riding a motorbike toward police lines when he was shot and another was wounded. The battle was cut short by a torrential tropical storm and the red caravan retreated to central Bangkok. In videos shown on TV last night, those with guns can be seen firing wildly. There seems no organization or method in the violence, just as on April 10 when soldiers attempting to close down a protest rally site got caught in their own tear gas and fired their guns aimlessly while retreating. I watched it on live TV and it was not a pretty sight. But I also want to consider the mind of the young cop or recruit who has little knowledge of war beyond cartons, movies and video games. The Thai Army is top-heavy with generals but apparently few officers schooled in leading their troops.

In an amazing serendipity, the nemesis of Kick-Ass in the film is another amateur superhero who calls himself Red Mist. He's the nerdy son of the gangster HG and BD want to put out of business (by dramatically killing all employees and their boss). Although this isn't intended as a film review, he's played with aplomb by the delightful Mclovin' from "Superbad." I say "serendipity," because the day before the Times of London ran an editorial about Thailand headlined "Red Mist" in which it was argued that "
Mr Abhisit must accept the Red Shirts’ proposal of new elections in three months, a wholly reasonable proposal that he rejected out of hand." According to the editors "He must acknowledge that he has become part of the problem, and step down immediately — not for exile, as the Red Shirts demand, but for an honest fight at the ballot box." In "Kick-Ass," Red Mist survives to, no doubt, appear in the sequel. If Abhisit resigns, I doubt he will be back, and that's probably the root of his stubbornness (when in opposition, he urged the government, faced with yellow shirt protests which closed the international airport, to do what he refuses to do now).

Unfortunately, there are no superheroes at the moment in Thailand. Abhisit gave interviews yesterday to CNN and BBC in a unconvincing attempt to make his intransigent position seem reasonable to an international audience. At home he has smeared red leaders and the opposition Puea Thai party with the anti-royal brush, claiming that they are involved in a conspiracy to topple the monarchy. It's the ultimate card in Thai politics, and can justify any sort of repression against the nation's enemies (many are comparing it to 1973 when protesting students were beaten, slaughtered and lynched, as seen in videos currently available on YouTube). It reminds me of the reprehensible McCarthy and the witch hunt for un-Americans. On their side, red leaders here constantly vilify their enemies from the encampment stage, comparing Abhisit to Hitler and worse. Chamlong and his yellow shirts, whose street campaigns brought down Thaksin and his successors, has warned Abhisit that his group will soon take matters into its own hands if the Army cannot end the red rally.

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