Thursday, January 27, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom, Art After Red May, 4

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Art After Red May, 4’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr. 58, Vol. 13. 17 Nov. – 23 Dec. 2010.

‘Manorah and the True Friend of the Cobra’
When the political exhibition, ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Green,’ by Rerkrit Tirawanich, ended, many drawings were erased from the walls of the 100 Tonson Gallery. Sakharin Kreu-on, a contemporary artist, young and famous, immediately followedwith his new show of ironic political commentary by unfurling a theatrical backdrop with images of palaces, forests, mountains and waterfalls in nature. These become panoramic settings for a new video work, ‘Manorah and the True Friend of the Cobra,’ 9 Sept. – 24 Oct. 2010.

Sakharin has taken something old to retell – a work of literature from the Ayudhya period: the story of Phra Suthon and Manorah. He has adapted the story to fit with contemporary events in our country today. Even so, Sakharin has barely preserved the old structure [of the story] at all.

I’d like to summarize the original story to refresh our memories a bit. Ahthitwong, king of the city of Banchalonkorn, had a consort named Chantrathevi. In time, this consort bore him a son. This child brought treasure with him. The king gave the young prince, his new son, the name Suthon, which means ‘having perfect treasure, having great treasure.’ The city flourished and prospered. Prince Suthon studied and became skilled with the bow and arrow.

One day, the hunter, Boontrik, using a snare and a rope, was able to capture Manorah, a kinnaree, who had alighted in the Anodat Pool to play in the water. The hunter brought the kinnaree as a present to Prince Suthon, who was very pleased. King Ahthitwong and his consort, Chatarathevi, arranged a wedding ceremony for Prince Suthon and Manorah.

Later, the frontiers of the kingdom were attacked by enemies. Prince Suthon had to lead the army to quell these invaders. While he was away, one of the king’s advisors, a Brahmin who had a grudge against the Prince because he had refused to marry the Brahmin’s daughter, made the provocative move of asking the king if Manorah might not have brought bad fortune with her. If she was such a woman, she should be sacrificed for the good of the kingdom.

King Ahthitwong was loath to consider this because he knew that Manorah was greatly loved by Prince Suthon, but he could not disagree with the suggestion of this powerful and ranking courtier,
so he ordered that the sacrificial ceremony be readied. When Manorah learned about this, she did not resist the order that she be killed. However, she asked for her wings and tail to wear in the ceremony’s ritual dance. Queen Chantarathevi returned the wings and tail, which had been left in her keeping by Prince Suthon, to Manorah. When she had put them on for the ritual dance, Manorah flew away, returning to the Krailasathin Mountain, which had been her home.

When Prince Suthon returned to the city and learned that Manorah had flown away, he was extremely upset. He hurried to beg his father and mother for permission to follow Manorah. Prince Suthon went on his journey and met the noble Hermit, Kassop, from whom Prince Suthon learned about some tricks and some magic that Manorah had left behind to help him escape safely from danger. Prince Suthon was encouraged on his journey and carefully followed all Manorah’s instructions. He traveled on like this for seven years, seven months and seven days. On that final day, he arrived at the Krailat Mountain and found Manorah at last.

Manorah’s father, the noble King Toomrath received Prince Suthon in audience. The prince demonstrated his skill with bow and arrow which greatly pleased the king. But there was still another test
. The king’s seven daughters all dressed themselves alike and came to sit together before their father. At that point, Prince Suthon had to point out which one among them was Manorah. All the daughters looked very much alike, and it was very difficult to identify Manorah among them. Prince Suthon therefore made prayer: if he had in former lives never had another wife, and if he had a heart only for one woman – then may he recognize her. The Lord Indra, therefore, changed into a golden fly and flew round and round the head of Manorah.

In the end, Prince Suthon was able to correctly identify her. King Toomrath was pleased and arranged a great wedding celebration for Prince Suthon and Manorah. The royal couple remained firmly in love and went on to rule the city of Banchalonkorn after King Toomrath.

So you could say that the story of Prince Suthon and Manorah is about a test of ‘true love’ between a human – Prince Suthon - and a demigod. Humans are seen to be full of desires and burning jealousy, driving the divine away from humanity till human beings have to their own sincerity to the test. Humans are then able to return once again to unity with the divine and find happiness in the end.

In the short film by Sakharin, ‘Manorah and the True Friend of the Cobra,’ which is filmed in imitation of the old silent movies, the story is given new meaning.
Though the actors dress in the theatrical garb of olden days and dance with sweet delicacy, growth and development comes to the city of the ‘true friend of the cobra’ which is ruled by Phra Suthon, a human and a commoner, by a lady with hi-tech knowledge of a very exotic nature. This knowledge, called ‘innovation,’ spreads among the citizens to use in making their living. The lady – Freedom - has the wings of a kinnaree which allows anyone to freely fly. In sort, Manorah becomes a symbol of civilization and freedom.

As for Phra Suthon in this new story, he is more violent than before; he breaks the wings of Manorah to prevent her from flying away. And Suthon also has a friend, a tricky, persuasive cobra who persuades Manorah to teach the Prince how to fly with her wings. Manorah is naïve and gullible, agreeing to everything. Soon PhraSuthon can fly. When the jealous citizenry see him in flight, they come protesting and calling for the chance to fly too. They also want wings. In the end, Phra Suthon, under pressure, hands the wings over to them: the picture, in this case actually shows the wings of the kinnaree lying upon a dais which looks like the ceremonial tray upon which the Constitution sits in the Democracy Monument on Rachadamnoen Avenue.

Because there is only one pair of wings, when a male of equal stature wants to control them for himself alone, not sharing with anyone. In the end, there is quarreling and contesting for the wings of freedom. The kingdom is no longer at peace. There is lying and trickery by the creation of false ‘wings of freedom’ to persuade people that when they use the wings to fly they will fall to their deaths, and their land will suffer terribly.

Phra Suthon sees events intensifying increasingly and decides to take the wings back by force, returning them to Manorah, ‘because she was divine.’ Though she has her wings again, she decides to remain with Phra Suthon out of love. As for Phra Suthon, he ‘ruled over the country as a father rules his children,’ and the land became peaceful once more.

We see Sakharin’s attempt to adapt a story from ancient literature to serve the country today in a situation which is very hot and full of dislocation and conflict and political division with the hope that a short film will be an example for Thai people to think of their own weakness and fragility, so easy to be ensnared, to be exploited by one side over another. This is a good intention and deserves support.

Even so, the question arises about the plot of Phra Suthon – Manorah – is it suitable to adapt or not. I wonder if Sakkharin chose this story more because the ‘bird’s wings’ of Manorah could be used as symbols of ‘freedom’ in a democratic sense. But perhaps he forgot to develop the structure of society and politics – a monarchy - in this story, i.e. ruled by a king. He should have brought this all up to date with a democratic system with a king as figurehead, as in Thailand today.

Then, bang! Comes Sakharin’s shocking conclusion. He solves the problem of the townspeople who are fighting over the ‘wings of freedom’ by having Phra Suthon, the symbol of the old monarchy, cut through the problem by taking the wings of freedom away from the people. In other words, freedom was the source of the problem! At the end of the story, the tricky cobra warns Phra Suthon to remember the prophesy of a wise old priest:

“…To solve the problem, changing bad to good, as before, you must offer a sacrifice. You must bring the cause of the uproar (the woman, Manorah) and burn her on a pyre till she is turned to ashes. After that we will all have peace.”

Strange. Why doesn’t Sakharin think that freedom isn’t something that comes with human beings from birth? As the saying goes, ‘Man is born free.’ And why doesn’t he see that the citizens who are fighting among themselves are doing so because democracy / freedom is at work. Phra Suthon could have ‘solved this problem’ easily by having the citizens set rules and responsibilities about each person’s ability to master the wings - for how long, making it just for all the people of the city – instead of taking an approach which resembles ‘might makes right.’

Looking at it this way, is there a proposal in this short film, ‘Manorah and the True Friend of the Cobra,’ by Sakharin Kreu-on about how to solve the problems which are causing the uproar in Thai society today? Is it the wrong era, the wrong time, a citizenry not emerged from ‘childhood,’ who remain dependent on ‘grownups, the big people,’ the highest institution, to solve their problems, including political ones.

Or is it possible that I misunderstand?
Sakharin himself who comes above the clouds: is he mocking the situation in the country in a crafty way, the period past, the coup d’etat of 19 Sept. 2006, was taking power and burning the wings of freedom of the people.

In addition to these important points is the issue of the writing which tells the story which uses titles [instead of voice over] because it is a silent film without speaking or narration. The pictures and storytelling titles are interspersed. Sakharin chooses to tell the story entirely in English. There are no Thai titles at all. Both the length and size of the English titles are unsuitable for on-screen reading, and are a great obstacle to following the story when the artist wants to communicate with Thai viewers, and they are the primary audience….right? Why isn’t the story told with Thai titles, with translations for white viewers? Unless this film was made for white audiences. And that would be MOST ANNOYING!

In any case, the strong point of this short film lies in the images. They are beautifully photographed. And the special effects are very well done. For example, the blooming roses of many colors piled up in the scenes of love between Phra Suthon and Manorah in black and white.

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