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Queer Sexuality and Vernacular Buddhism in Contemporary Thai Cinema
By Arnika Fuhrmann
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
NANG NAK — GHOST WIFE
DESIRE, EMBODIMENT, AND BUDDHIST MELANCHOLIA IN A CONTEMPORARY THAI GHOST FILM
A poster for Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 film Nang Nak introduces the problem of the story in two lines of poetry: "Mae sin lom sin jai / rue ja sin alai sineha" — "Although she was dead / her desire persisted" (fig. 1.1). The film poster summarizes the predicament of the ghost Nak, who aims to prolong her love life beyond her death. Throughout the film she faces a problem of temporal incongruity when she attempts to reclaim her lover, a situation that is productive of great agony for her.
This chapter investigates how the temporal features of haunting in Nang Nak underwrite the symbolic work that femininity performs in the contemporary Thai heritage cinema as well as in the arena of nationalist politics. It begins by examining how Nonzee's tale of nostalgia for an invented traditional femininity can be correlated with new normative parameters for Thai femininity in the social and cultural policy of the early 2000s. I analyze the role that Buddhist concepts play in the film as well as in bourgeois nationalist visions of a contemporary sexual order and in state rationales for economic revival.
Nang Nak and other contemporary Thai horror-ghost films draw on a notion of temporal incongruity that is central to Theravadin Buddhist pedagogy. This pedagogy vitally relies on the double temporality attributed to the female body that lets this body incarnate illusionary beauty as well as the fundamental Buddhist truth of impermanence, or constantly impending loss. This Buddhist-derived anachronism structures contemporary Thai cinematic renderings of ghostly femininity that are closely bound up with dominant national ideals of sexual culture after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
My analysis argues against scholars who claim that the Buddhist tradition of depicting and contemplating (mostly female) death brings about uniformly progressive political effects. However, rather than declare the prominent trope of femininity-as-impermanence only a deplorable misogynist tradition, I delineate the conditions under which this convention may also enable feminist practices and conceptualizations. In contrast to scholars who have diagnosed a "silence" of female desire for Thai culture, I maintain that with its focus on Buddhist anachronism, the horror-ghost genre devotes itself precisely to parsing the vicissitudes of women's desires.
I track two different operations of this anachronism. I first investigate how the deployment of femininity as impermanence in the heritage cinema parallels contemporary trends in social and cultural policy that aim to distress femininity. Nang Nak's notion of an invented traditional femininity manifests in the embodiment and sartorial style of its protagonist as well as in the concept of privacy that it presents; this aligns the film with several of the features that contemporary policy demands of women. A subsequent level of analysis takes seriously the critical potential that the anachronism of haunting nevertheless offers and investigates how the invocations of temporal incongruity in the film can be made available to feminist perspectives.
To understand the operations of Nang Nak's deployment of Buddhist anachronisms, it is useful to review Harry Harootunian's contextualization of anachronism in the historical present. Harootunian describes anachronism as the unprecedented compression of historical time into a "boundless present" after the Cold War. This present is marked by the coexistence of multiple, differing temporalities, or by a "noncontemporaneous contemporaneity." The form that anachronisms take in this historical present is that "diverse local times" resurface to coexist with the empty homogeneous temporalities of nationalism and capitalism. As Harootunian explains, what has thus attained greater visibility since the late 1980s "is the persistent identity of a different accenting of temporality usually effaced by both capital and the dominant narrative form of history, especially with regards to its nineteenth-century vocation to vocalize the achievement of the nation-state and what has been called modernity. What has constantly been suppressed and kept from view everywhere is the persisting figure of Gramsci's Southern Question and both its challenge to a dominant historical culture and its conception of progressive time driven by an anticipated future." This statement seems to imply that the introduction of temporal difference will by definition effect a progressively transformative intervention into the temporalities of capital and nation. However, Harootunian proceeds to argue that current assertions of temporal difference do not represent a progressive challenge to nation and market but rather underwrite fundamentalist turns that have marked the recent present.
Although not necessarily globally applicable, Harootunian's perspective on post–Cold War temporality is useful for approaching a neoliberal political context that is simultaneously marked by great recourse to tradition and history. I argue that in contemporary Thailand, temporalities of nation and capital coexist in a troubling synthesis with those of Buddhism and cultural revival. What has reemerged with greater intensity in political rhetoric and artistic media since the 1997 Asian financial crisis are claims to Buddhist heritage and conceptions of economy and collectivity posited as Thai. At the same time, the biopolitical component of a refurbished nationalism positions bodies and sexualities as central variables in the development of a new, originary figuration of Thai citizenship and a revised approach to a world market now regarded as hostile to Thai interests. In this context Buddhist-inflected temporalities do not necessarily contest temporalities of market and nation.
In Nonzee's film it is Thai femininity that bears the burden of molding itself to the exigencies of the multiply structured temporality of the political present. What has been required of Thai female citizens since the late 1990s is thus to perform the labor of embodying a Buddhist-inflected, updated traditionality while at the same time hewing to the demands of capitalist revival. Although Nonzee's film does not deploy the language of policy, the femininity that the ghost Nak stretches to embody represents a radically contemporary model that bears both nationalist-capitalist inscription and Buddhist-folkloric components.
A look at the departure that Nonzee's Nang Nak makes from previous adaptations of the legend is instructive for understanding how the double temporality that the ghost inhabits elucidates the twofold structuring of Thai female sexual personhood in the present. Nonzee's film reinterprets the story of a woman thought to have resided in the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok over one hundred years ago. According to the legend, Nak dies in childbirth while her lover, Mak, is away at war. When the unsuspecting Mak returns to Phra Khanong, Nak awaits him as a ghost, accompanied by her ghost infant. The temporal incongruities that result — she's dead, he's alive; she knows, he doesn't; and both lovers want something that they can no longer have — usually produce comical effects in the story. Nonzee's horror-ghost remake, however, brings an entirely novel perspective to the more than two dozen previous film versions of the story. Nonzee's translation of the legend into a Buddhist parable excises many of the fearsome and sexual as well as comedic aspects of Nak's haunting and instead turns on the grand emotions of love, loss, and Buddhist detachment. Nang Nak's period setting in the nineteenth century, a feature that the director advertises as constituting the film's historical accuracy, further works to present the legend with the pathos of nationalist historiography.
We can understand Nang Nak as a strong example of Buddhist-nationalist cultural recovery in the domain of sexuality. The film achieves this precisely by producing a historically inaccurate relation between the story's setting in the nineteenth century and an ideal of femininity in the present. In Nonzee's adaptation the revenant's desirous gaze from the ghostly sphere at the life that she could have had thus outlines a model of heterosexual femininity of the present. Nonzee's novel, Buddhist framing of the legend is especially instructive for understanding how, since the late 1990s, state agencies and bourgeois publics have imagined Thai sexualities as something that should and can be moored, however minimally, to historical elements. In this context bodies bear some of the burden of representing a baseline cultural good onto which national economic and cultural hopes could be mapped. Nang Nak's deployment of a Buddhist framework in which women have to embody radical temporal difference elucidates the contradictions in the demands that this policy makes of femininity in the present.
The remarkable effect of Nonzee's translation of the legend into a Buddhist genre of stories is thus not only that it legitimates a contemporary nationalist outlook; the film's Buddhist framing also elaborates the affective dimensions of desire in the story and allows for a feminist perspective on the body, desire, and social negativity.
In addition to examining how the film makes Nak into a type, an icon of updated traditional femininity, I therefore argue that when Nang Nak renders the ghost's desire in a Buddhist idiom, a partial failure of typification, of the ghost's consistent performance of a contemporary feminine ideal, occurs. Thus while the ghostly fantasy becomes symbolic of collective, national life, the cracks in the fantasy also provide insight into the breakages of current dominant concepts of sexual cultural difference: the vicissitudes of Nak's haunting reveal the inconsistencies especially of new notions of exemplary femininity in Thailand.
A Distressed Genre: Buddhism, Nationalism, and Embodiment in the Thai Heritage Film
Nonzee's film is the first to present Nak's story in a significantly nationalist context, which is in turn underwritten by the Buddhist narrative of the adaptation. On first viewing, the film's nationalism may not be self-evident. What Nang Nak highlights after all is face-to-face community — to all evidence, in a prenational setting. On the level of its story Nang Nak's nationalism becomes evident only with the dating of an eclipse and the appearance of the abbot Somdej Phuthajan To. The framing by this historically significant person and event marks the communal or local occurrences in the story as national.
According to Susan Stewart, the "nostalgia for the presence of the body and the face-to-face, a dream of unmediated communication" — and the articulation of the communal with the national — are marks of the "distressed genre." Stewart uses the concept of the distressed genre to describe literary appropriations of the folkloric and the oral and their ideological functions. A prominent passage in her work describes the temporal disjunctures that the genre relies on: "Thus distressed forms show us the gap between past and present as a structure of desire, a structure in which authority seeks legitimation by recontextualizing its object and thereby recontextualizing itself. If distressed forms involve a negation of the contingencies of their immediate history, they also involve an invention of the past that could only arise from such contingencies. We see this structure of desire as the structure of nostalgia — that is, the desire for desire in which objects are the means of generation and not the ends."
Nang Nak's appropriation of folklore, its deployment of "the authority of the oral world," and especially its reliance on structures of "loss and recovery" situate Nonzee's film within the parameters of the distressed genre. From its very beginning Nang Nak frames the legend as a story of personal and cultural partings. For all but a few minutes of the film Nak is already dead, but it is the ghost's unrelenting desire for the life and love that she could have had that enables the film's mode of nostalgia. In an early scene Nak stands on a pier taking leave of Mak, who has been drafted to go to war. This is in fact the lovers' last farewell while Nak is still alive, and a close-up shows Nak withdrawing her hand from Mak's grip, only to grasp his hand again with both of hers. As Mak descends into a boat, her hand slips from his grip for good, foreshadowing the final, Buddhist-coded parting of the lovers at the end of the film. In what follows, Nak waits for Mak's return on the pier over days and seasons. In the sequence's final shot the pier is bathed in blue, the color of the night and of the ghost. The color coding underwrites the temporal discrepancy that structures Nang Nak's narrative. This temporal distinction is further substantiated by the fact that Nak is holding a baby now, which means, as we will understand later, that she is already a ghost.
As the opening credits appear, the theme of temporal disjuncture intensifies: a traveling shot over abandoned houses and interiors, human bones, and murals depicting Nak's story heightens the ambiance of loss, and its sepia tones distinguish this sequence from the green and blue hues of the opening sequence. The color-muted view of the abandoned locales indicates that a narrative of loss is to follow and that everything that is about to happen is already in the past. This sequence links the personal partings of the opening scene to a scene of cultural parting: all the qualities of historical Siameseness invoked by the film's beginning are marked as already lost. The love story is situated at the heart of this past, lending the relationship epochal significance and personalizing imagined cultural community.
The film's opening contains all the elements that will make up its vision of historically grounded sexual and cultural difference. For one, the scene introduces a contemporary rendition of traditional Thai femininity as embodied by Nak. Rather than model an ideal that demands literal emulation, however, the film's protagonist incarnates the capacity of bodies and persons to suture radically different temporalities. This is indicated by the synthesis of historical and contemporary markers of beauty and accoutrement that characterizes the ghost's femininity. A medium shot first shows Nak from behind, highlighting the fact that she is clad in (the latest design of) traditional wide jong kraben pants and a breast cloth, and her hair is cut short in a fashion resembling the historical mahad thai style (fig. 1.2).
In what follows, point of view close-ups further detail the ghost's historico-contemporary beauty (fig. 1.3). With a hint of betel that tints her lips red but does not color her teeth black as betel would, Nak exemplifies the allure and promise of bodies that reference an invented national tradition while accommodating contemporary standards of beauty and hygiene. In Nonzee's adaptation, Nak's dress and embodiment thus actualize the detemporalizing effect of the distressed genre: the ghost's sartorial contemporaneity, her recovery of Siamese fashion and styles of embodiment, also signals to the viewer that nothing has in fact been lost. As this scene lets the desire for something national intersect with the desire for the feminine, the distressing mechanisms of the heritage genre come into close proximity with current biopolitical demands that require bodies to synthesize disparate temporal and ideological registers.
What links Nang Nak to contemporary sexual politics in my analysis is thus the extent to which especially female bodies bear the burden of having to encode Thainess as well as suture different temporal strata. My reading moves on the level of analogy and has thus far relied on visual and narrative analysis; however, the inscription of nationalism onto bodies is also evident in the sonic design of the film.
Excerpted from Ghostly Desires by Arnika Fuhrmann. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Buddhist Sexual Contemporaneity 1
1. Nang-Nak—Ghost Wife: Desire, Embodiment, and Buddhist Melancholia in a Contemporary Thai Ghost Film 47
2. The Ghost Seer: Chinese Thai Minority Subjectivity, Female Agency, and the Transnational Uncanny in the Films of Danny and Oxide Pang 87
3. Tropical Malady: Same-Sex Desire, Casualness, and the Queering of Impermanence in the Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul 122
4. Making Contact: Contingency, Fantasy, and the Performance of Impossible Intimacies in the Video Art of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook 160
Coda. Under Permanent Exception: Thai Buddhist-Muslim Coexistence, Interreligious Intimacy, and the Filmic Archive 185
What People are Saying About This
"Arnika Fuhrmann's brilliant book focuses on nondoctrinal, Thai, Buddhist ontologies where queer female figures form around Buddhist melancholia, affirming an impossible, temporally failed desire. Fuhrmann shows the critical potential of Buddhist-coded anachronism to reimagine attachment and create subjects who are universalizable but only in relation to queer soteriology and to our shared historical time. Beautifully written, Ghostly Desires is a joy to read and to contemplate."
"Through a bravura queering of Buddhist discourses of attachment, loss, and desire, Arnika Fuhrmann advances a deft and compelling critique of the limited framing of the current debates over state sexual regulation and queer and feminist advocacy in Thailand. Modeling how a queer feminist consideration of religion and film might proceed, this extraordinary book advances a queer critique of cinema that draws on Thai politics and counterdoctrinal uses of Buddhism. A brilliant book and an unquestionably major scholarly intervention, Ghostly Desires will galvanize the study of Thai cinema while taking the study of queer and political film more generally in new directions."