Monday, June 27, 2016

Thai-ing One on

Films: Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
Format: Turner Classic Movies on laptop.

Documentaries have a long history, and early documentaries have an interesting history in that realism was often eschewed in favor of compelling narrative. That’s at least partially the case with Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, the only documentary ever to be nominated for anything like a Best Picture award. It was actually nominated for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, an award that vanished after the first Oscars and became essentially a part of the Best Picture category. This is sort of an ethnography, albeit with some bits that were staged. To the credit of the filmmakers, though, these events were evidently restaged because the original footage didn’t turn out, so these are at least based on real events.

Chang is the story of a “family” in Thailand back when it was still called Siam. On its face, it’s the story of a family trying to survive in a jungle and trying to raise a small crop of rice while dealing with predatory cats and stampeding elephants. Based on that, it’s hardly a shock that this was such a hit the year that it was released.

I put family in scare quotes in the paragraph above because our hero Kru is pictured in the film with his actual children, but Chantui, his wife on the screen, was actually the wife of a friend. We see their house and food preparations, as well as their pet monkey Bimbo, who seems to cause a lot of problems but also seems to keep the kids entertained. While we’re told that the family depends almost entirely on the small rice crop, we don’t actually spend a great deal of time watching Kru work in the rice field. Instead, we deal with the predators in the area and some hunting.

There’s a nearby village that helps organize hunts for leopards and tigers, and since this is exciting, this is what we tend to focus on. What this means is that we will be seeing actual tiger hunts, which means that we will be seeing actual tigers actually killed. The same is true of a few leopards and a bear or two. Yes, it’s upsetting to more modern sensibilities, but Chang is very much a product of its time in this respect. Killing a couple of tigers wasn’t nearly as much of a controversial issue in 1927 as it would be today.

It’s worth noting that “Chang” is what we’re told is the local word for elephant, and elephants are going to be the main antagonist in the second half of the film. We’re told that Kru’s rice farm is destroyed by a stampeding elephant, so he digs a pit trap and catches not an adult, but an infant, which he tethers to his house in the hopes of eventually taming and training it to help him. The mother comes for the baby, though, and destroys the house, causing the family to run away, which is going to mean more tigers coming after them. Eventually, Kru makes it back to the main village where there are rumors of a massive herd of elephants.

One of the staged events in the film is the stampede of elephants through the village, which was done by building a miniature village and stampeding baby elephants through it. This is generally filmed from above, so it actually looks pretty good. The villagers gather together and build a giant pen, then herd the elephants into it, breaking up the massive herd into much smaller ones and giving everyone a new elephant to train and have for working. Happy endings all ‘round, even for Bimbo the monkey.

Plenty of films need to be viewed from the perspective of the times in which they were made, and ethnographic work like Chang makes that especially true. It’s worth noting that the film is generally respectful of the Thai people, saving comic and mild condescension for intertitles that are attributed to Bimbo the monkey. A great deal is made of the Buddhist faith of the people in many places, and while this isn’t dealt with perfectly, it is dealt with using a measure of respect. There’s a bit of “noble savage” vibe here, but it’s much less than might be expected.

All of this said, I’m happy that Chang is as short as it is. There’s not a lot more that really needs to be said by the time we get to the end of this. Further, at least in terms of its watchability, the version that is available comes with a truly awful soundtrack that is probably supposed to be reminiscent of Thai music, but actually sounds like random people banging on random instruments whenever the hell they feel like it.

Chang is interesting for what it is, and not really for much of anything more. I’m happy to have seen it, but I can’t guess I’ll watch it again.

Why to watch Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness: It’s interesting in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: Aside from the modern sensibility problems, the music in this version is freakin’ terrible.

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