The Center for Southeast Asian Studies is pleased to add a new student and community produced film review component to our ongoing Southeast Asian film program resources online. Our first cooperative project was done with the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia (see news post). We hope to continue to encourage students and community members to write film reviews both as an exercise in writing about film, but also to encourage them to think more deeply about the stories they are seeing produced by filmmakers in Southeast Asia.
When Religion Meets Modernity: A Review of Jira Maligool’s Mekhong Full Moon Party
Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies
Universitas Gadjah Mada
There are many disputes in Thai society about the existence of the Naga fireballs. The disputes revolve around whether the fireballs are man-made, a natural phenomena, or simply a miracle. Set in the Nong Khai province of Thailand, Jira Maligool presents these disputes in his movie Mekhong Full Moon Party (2002). The dense atmosphere of Buddhism that permeates the film apparently misled some people to consider this a religious film. There are no specific criteria to categorize a movie as â€œreligious,â€ so some people may perceive this movie as religious, and others may not. As Plate notes, the identity of the viewer, such as their gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, life style, and educational background plays an important role in how they perceive the meaning of a film .
Given that Maligool’s previous movies, The Iron Ladies and The Tin Mine were focused on modernity and its influence on Thai life, I would argue that Mekhong Full Moon Party has nothing to do with Buddhism. The film rather serves to tell people about the effects of modernity on religion and reveals the local wisdom of the Thai people. By modernity, I refer to phenomena including modern education, technology, lifestyle, and things that are related to the West. In my opinion, the conflict between religion and modernity, and the conflict between modernity and local wisdom addressed in this film are also found in neighboring countries like Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which share similar cultures and similar issues to those presented in Maligool’s narrative.
On one side, we have the characters of Khan and Dr. Suraphon, and on the other, a group of monks in a rural village, and through these perspectives we see the struggle of young people who are dealing with the effects of modernity, illuminating the struggle between “modernity” and religion. Meanwhile, the local school’s head master and the grandmother of one of the young characters represent the conflict between local wisdom and science (another facet of modernity).
Educated within the Western education system and living in Bangkok allows the main character Khan, a Buddhist boy raised by monks, to see the annual Naga fireball celebration from an environmentalist as well as religious perspective. Returning to the monastic community in Nong Khai province where he grew up, he asks the head monk to stop the monastery’s production of the fireballs because he worries about his own involvement in the process. He is concerned that he and the monks will be caught by certain parties who want to prove that the Naga fireballs are man-made or by those concerned about the possible damage the fireballs are causing the environment. Khan argues with his teacher at the monastery:
“Let’s stop it,” said Khan. “I think our parishioners would be furious if they knew what you did with their donations. If they find out what we did, they will lose respect for our religion,” Khan added.
“We earn merit by helping people see the fireballs and thus giving them hope-we make them believe and make them happy as if they are seeing the Lord Buddha,” the head monk replied with emotion.
“If there are no fireballs, will people still pay respect to the monks, to our faith?” Khan replied, “have you ever seen this issue from another perspective? The tourists, they always throw their trash along the river in front of our house. Have you seen what they leave behind?” Khan argued as if to imply that the environmental damage caused by the fireballs was no different, bringing the conversation to the end.
Considering Khan’s background living in the monastery since he was a child, this dialogue shows us that there has been a change in Khan’s religious identity, or his religious thoughts and attitudes. Living in Bangkok and being exposed to modern education are the contextual factors behind this change. Furthermore, Khan, as implied by the conversation with his teacher, thinks that making fireballs to support the myth of the Naga needs to be stopped because it puts both Buddhism and the environment at risk.
To Khan, Buddhism stands on a fragile base if the myth of the Naga is necessary for its survival. In other words, manipulating people by producing the miraculous fireballs to secure donations for the survival of the monastery is wrong. Furthermore, if exposed, these activities could make people lose their trust in Buddhism. Moreover, Khan has additional motivation for putting a stop to the Naga fireballs festival, because he seriously considers the effect the event has on the surrounding environment.
Although raised with the religious clergy, Khan is also different from his elders in terms of his attitudes. He does not live the monastic lifestyle, eschewing the robes and shaved head. Instead, we see Khan dressed fashionably, his hair cut in a Western style. This is different than Indonesian Buddhist monks who attend classes at urban universities, but continue to observe monastic rules. Another of the film’s characters displays a similar position between two paradigms: Doctor Suraphon somewhat undergoes a paradigm shift in terms of his religious beliefs during the film. Although he worships science, he exhibits his continued belief in Buddhism as in the scene where he asks the head monk to bless his academic work.
The effects of modernity on local wisdom are also displayed in the film. The village school’s headmaster complains that “everything has to be scientifically proven now.” I think the conflict here can be minimized by seeing if science can play the role as supporter of local wisdom, providing logical explanations so that local wisdom can be easily understood through a modern perspective. This is demonstrated in the everyday activities of the grandmother of one of the characters in the village. In these scenes, local knowledge is presented as practical, like when she uses tomato to wash the burnt shirt rather than using the washing machine, or putting a spoon into the sugar to get the ants out. This is one way of presenting local wisdom as something not traditional, but practical and not in need of replacement by modern knowledge.
Although this film portrays a specific example, the effect of modernity on religion and local knowledge is a global phenomena. This is one of the reasons why this movie appeals to audiences in other Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, we are experiencing a similar evolution of the effects of modernity on religious concepts. Indeed, this process has less to do with the moral issues of right and wrong, and more to do with how modernity affects the way people perceive religion in relation to local wisdom and science. What Maligool’s film portrays is how changing attitudes towards tradition and religion are affected by the processes of modernity.