Walking off with the trophy
Op-ed Commentary, Bangkok Post, Mar 3, 2007
So a military dictator staged a coup and later won the Oscar-- no, I don't mean the real Idi, just that big man who plays him. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth locked horns with Tony Blair and was awarded a nude male doll--not the real queen mind you, but the majestically wrinkled Helen Mirren who portrays her. Cut to a much less glamorous turf, our very own 16th Century fighter-king rules the multiplexes, valiantly warding off the Burmese without ruffling the perfect contours of his stiff moustache. He's not at the Oscar party but hey, The Legend of King Naresuan is "the film of freedom''. Does that include, as sardonic banter goes, the freedom not to see the film?
Idi Amin's dictatorial rule of Uganda during the 1970s is the subject of The Last King of Scotland, starring Forest Whitaker in the award-winning role. British actress Mirren won the statuette for depicting the icy Windsor monarch in The Queen, a dramatised version of the crisis between Queen Elizabeth and the recently-elected Blair following the death of Princess Diana. The Thai gentleman who plays King Naresuan, cavalryman Capt Wanchana Sawasdi, though persuasive, is unlikely to win any awards local or international, unless a new kudos is created to honour best independence-declaring speech, or best performance by a moustache.
Amin died in 2003 in exile. Now Uganda is one of the most stable countries in Africa. The Last King of Scotland (Amin adopted that as one of his nicknames) is reported to be a major hit at Uganda's tin-roofed theatres, since it brings back the ghost of the infamous dictator and reminds citizens how lucky they are to have gotten rid of him.
Meanwhile, The Queen acquires a prickly political overtone since Blair is rounding the last corner of his term, bruised by his Bush-socialising stunt but still smiling, and his imminent departure only emphasises the transient nature of a political pursuit, even a democratic one like his. His queen, by the way, is wrinkling fast though she's not going anywhere.
And does King Naresuan echo any contemporary political spectacle of ours? Sceptics rushed to judge the movie by its poster when they scoffed at the picture's supposedly jingoistic posture, suspecting the perpetuation of the ancient myth that we're history's only good guys. There were rumours that theatres would scan the ID of every moviegoer and that proof of your "nationalism'' from supporting this film could be produced for tax deduction, military exemption, or to collect points at 7-Eleven. I confirm that this is just hearsay. It's as absurd a fib as when some demented publicist said that rapper P Diddy would play Senator Obama and Ellen DeGeneres would be Hillary Clinton in their respective biopics made for the fund-raising campaigns.
Luckily the war chants are kept to a minimum in Naresuan. Contrary to some predictions, there are no subplots involving an attempt to buy back satellites or an insurgency by invisible extremists. And if casting a neighbouring country as an arch-enemy is a reliable trick in diverting public attention from shaky domestic politics, no one in this ginger cabinet stands to gain much from the movie. Xenophobes, however, have been looking up to the animation Khan Kluay, in which King Naresuan's royal elephant murders a Burmese beast with bloodthirsty glee and spouts the ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you lecture. Bizarrely, Khan Kluay recently won quite a few local trophies, including best picture at the Supannahong Awards. It's like giving an Oscar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Somebody, and not just that mad elephant, needs to be put inside a zoo.
With Whitaker playing Idi Amin, we're seeing a pattern, though: to get a shot at an Oscar, Thailand should produce a movie based on the life of our notorious past leader. All we need is an actor with a geometric face and a knack for verbal diarrhoea. But unlike the Amin film, which reminds Ugandans how fortunate they are to have thrown him out, this new film of ours will only pose the bitter question of whether we've been truly better off since that guy went into exile. The Amin movie is a drama, ours will be a black comedy.