Thainess, ‘Luk kreung’ & The Siam Renaissance
The Siam Renaissance (Thawiphop, dir. Surapong Pinijkhar, 2004) is a movie about a young Thai woman named Manee/Maneechan (Florence Vanida Faivre). She is from the early 21st century and educated in France but with the help of a mirror she is able to travel back and forth in time.
Hence, she visits Siam’s early modern past and then goes back to the present. The movie is adapted from the historical Thai novel “Tawipob” (Two Worlds) by Tamayanti which is also a love story. Thus, the movie can be classified as historical and romantic film because apart from time travelling, Manee finds valuable lessons in life and love along the way with soldier Dhep (Rangsiroj Panpeng).
The Siam Renaissance
Being in 19th century Thailand at the court of King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868), Manee criticizes the Western influences in modern Thailand. When asked by two nobles at the court, she generally presents the ‘farang‘ (Westeners) and tawan-tok (the West) as a threat to Siamese cultural identity. Thus, it seems that her point of view is in accordance with Thai nationalist discourses.
Although we know that Thailand has never been colonized, there have nevertheless been strong Western influences. Hence, the movie also raises the question what Thainess is or rather what remains of it considering these influences. In addition, it also deals with the question of Thai national and cultural identities and points out ambiguities implied in a modern construction of Thainess which is devoid of Western contamination.
Here is a trailer to the movie. By the way, you may also watch the full movie with English subs here.
Florence V. Faivre in the part of Manee is interesting in the context of this film, since she is luk kreung (Thai-French), considering the fact that Thainess in brought into question by the threat of the farang Other. That is to say, it might appear weird that a half-Thai (who is herself partly farang) expresses nationalistic thoughts. However, we must also note that in the movie the protagonist Manee is supposed to be a full-Thai woman. Nonetheless, since the film dwells very much on her beauty and often focusses on her body and facial features, we may assume that she, Florence Faivre, as a luk kreung, represents the Thai beauty ideal of the day.
Nonetheless, the half-Thai actress might also reiterate the message for the Thai need to accommodate and to move with the times but above all the movie is about a young woman’s quest for her identity.
This is emphasized in the scene when Manee/Faivre is transformed from a traditionally dressed lady of the Siamese court to a kind of ‘farangized’ guest at the French diplomat’s residence. The film pays very much attention to Manee’s transformation. Thus, she is shown rotating behind a screen until her naked form is revealed. She is then bathed and massaged in a traditional and aestheticized Thai manner. Finally, she is dressed in a Victorian garb.
However, despite her outer appearance, the protagonist Manee is and remains essentially Thai at heart. The point is that she may look and seem to be half-Thai and hence, all the prettier for being so in contemporary Thai viewers eyes. Nevertheless, her core and heart are completely Thai through her performance of the protagonist Manee. For this reason, we might be justified in claiming that the movie is not so much about the ‘farangization‘ of Thainess than it is about the ‘Thai-ization’ of the farang.
In other words, we may argue that the Siam Renaissance shows how the concept of the powerful West is stripped of its foreignness in order to become part of modern Thai selves. This might seem a controversial topic. What do you think about it?
(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)