Citizen Dog (Mah Nakorn)
Study Areas: Thailand, Bangkok, Thai film, Thai New Wave, Thai pop culture, Rural-urban migration, Urban studies, Surrealism, Magical realism
Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog opens with a prophecy:
Pod's grandmother issues this warning on the day Pod leaves their village for Bangkok. Citizen Dog begins with migration, a phenomenon so common in Thailand that it has become a virtual rite of passage for rural-born Thais. And while the narrator describes Pod as a “typical country boy,?one of the multitudes destined to make their way to the capital, it becomes clear early on in this film that Pod's journey will be anything but ordinary. Wisit renders the film's opening scene in the psychedelic Technicolor palate he introduced in Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), the film that launched him on the international stage and helped define the Thai New Wave. Citizen Dog's similarly surreal imagery suggests that Pod, and we, are about to embark on another fantastical journey.
If Grandmother's prophecy sounds like the superstitious musings of an elderly villager, we soon learn that in Wisit's Bangkok, anything is possible: zombies drive motorcycles, helmets rain from the sky, and a pile of recyclable plastic bottles grows so high it dwarfs the skyline. Do citizens really turn into dogs? Pod, for one, checks each morning to see if a tail has emerged.
The notion that Bangkok turns people into dogs is rooted in a play on words in Thai. The Thai name for Bangkok, “Bangkok, Great City?(Krung Thep Maha Nakorn) is easily transformed into “Bangkok, City of Dogs?or “Citizen Dog?(Krung Thep Mah Nakorn) by altering the position of one letter in the Thai name. Wisit takes this pun as his starting point for an extended examination of city life, an exploration that includes Bangkok's “great?as well as its “dog-like?elements.
If Wisit's vision of Bangkok as a “city of dogs?hints at the dehumanizing force of the city, the director never hits his audience over the head with this social commentary. Citizen Dog explores a number of social problems plaguing Bangkok ?pollution, alienation, and homelessness ?but approaches these with a light touch. The director weaves these social issues together as part of the broader urban fabric, making them the backdrop for the central love narrative between Pod and Jin.
Jin, a woman “in search of a dream,?is also a migrant to the city. When a white book ?seemingly inscribed with her destiny ?falls from the sky, she decides to move to the capital in search of someone who can read it. Jin's narrative unfolds in her quest to decipher this text; Pod's narrative, in turn, unfolds in his efforts to win Jin's love. Both believe that their quests will lead to happiness.
It is only once the protagonists abandon their struggles, however, that they find the contentment they seek. Citizen Dog offers a message: “We cannot always find the things we are looking for. But sometimes, when we stop looking, those things come looking for us.?When Pod and Jin cease trying to produce a particular type of happiness in the city, they find that happiness has been with all along: in their love for one another.
In the climactic scene of the film, Pod and Jin meet by chance atop the mountain of plastic. There, above the skyline of Bangkok, their love is consummated with a kiss. It is at this moment that the magic of Wisit's Bangkok takes over. The blight of a plastic mountain so tall it dwarfs the city becomes something strangely beautiful, a “natural?element of the urban landscape that enables the chance meetings and serendipitous encounters that all city spaces do. Love reigns above this environmental disaster, but does not efface it. All coalesce and coexist in the city.
Wisit has noted that Thai New Wave directors are striving to define a distinctly “Thai?cinematic form. Wisit's fusion of humor, lightness, and social commentary in his films is an important contribution to this effort. Citizen Dog revels in the wordplay and fun ( sanuk ) typical of Thai comedies, while integrating the keen social critique that has characterized Thai “high?art since the 1970s. Citizen Dog's audience may leave the theater feeling light and cheerful, but we are likely to wake up the next morning checking for a tail, as a trace of the underside remains.
Ellen Boccuzzi is a lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Her teaching and research interests include Thai literature and culture, migration studies, and urbanization in the developing world.
How to Purchase: Citizen Dog (Mah Nakorn) is available on DVD from amazon.com, yesasia.com, DVDAsian.com, and similar online sellers, for approximately $15.
Last Updated November 11, 2008