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Thailand uncovered in ‘The Mercury Man’

One of the great pleasures for me in travelling the world is seeing how everyday life differs in each country.
Even an outing to the pictures can be fraught with new difficulties and rich in unexpected blessings.
I’ve seen films in a few countries and know the cinema’s a great place to comfortably eke out those subtle changes.
In Finland they applaud at the film’s end, which is almost as strange as when they stop the film in Germany so that someone can come out and ask if anyone wants an icecream.
Settling back in a luxury seat in Bangkok’s SF Cinema City, athwart the seventh floor of the famous MBK (Mahboonkrong) building, I can appreciate once again what it really means to be in a foreign country.
The seat’s luxurious even though I’m in the regular (carefully allocated) seating instead of the VIP option available next door, mostly to tourists, for the bargain price of $20AUD.
However even VIPs can’t get out of the ritual, peculiar to Thailand, where the pre-recorded pling-plong orchestra starts up and everyone stands to celebrate the king.
They love their king in Thailand, so much so that I obviously wouldn’t dare make any glib Elvis references.
In a country already deeply in love with their monarch, 2006 has been a stand-out year, with half the population adorned in god-awful lemon yellow polo shirts spouting Thailand’s orchid motif.
The shirts and almost every other billboard in sight celebrate 60 years of the king’s reign.
(My favourite is on the ride to the airport, with “show respect to our king — live a self-sufficient life” in letters ten feet high.)
Even us shaggy farangs are expected to stand respectfully in the dim light as images of Thailand’s reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej play across the silk screen.
He’s an unassuming gent in a checkered sports coat, quietly engrossed in good deeds.
The ritual is just another of those weird but wonderful things about foreign countries, like seeing halal McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken served with rice.
As a long time connoisseur of Asian cinema, I’ve also come to appreciate these cultures through an acknowledgement few will make: sometimes they make some whacky films.<!–page–>
On the day in question, The Mercury Man was a long way down the honours list from Ang Lee’s superb (albeit hybridised) Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon.
However, as an effortless excursion into the unusual Thai cultural landscape, I couldn’t recommend a better film.
The Mercury Man uses an almost exclusively Thai cast and various locations to tell a mangled tale of a sacred Buddhist amulet and a plot by al-Qaeda to wreak havoc across the region.
The only non-Thai actor was a muscly white bloke, English probably not his first language given the difficulty he had with his one and only line.
Yes, no Middle Eastern actors at all.
For a long time, Asian movie buffs have understood that films are one of the great arenas in which differences between East and West play out.
There’s vastly different expectations in dialogue, plot and plausibility between the two audiences, and it’s long been the case many Asian directors can better get away with delivering style over substance (though they are hardly alone in that – witness the mind-bogglingly inane Ultraviolet, a new low in the career of poor Milla Jovovich).
Check out one of Jackie Chan’s earlier flicks, 1985’s Heart of a Dragon, where pudgy bud Samo Hung plays the star’s handicapped brother (and yes, to my eventual disappointment, not even a whiff of kung fu), or the infamous Ringo Lam effort Replicant where he directs Jean-Claude Van Damme to pretend (or “pretend”) to be mildly retarded – shocking brutality ensues.
In each case these films underline just how different are our perspectives, along with our social and filmic conventions.
In The Mercury Man we are treated to a wonderful case of cinematic reflection as an escaped Moslem extremist steals the aforementioned mystic amulet and sets about ordering suicide bombings all across – for some reason – predominantly Buddhist Bangkok.
A distinctly Asiatic female bomber steps up and sweatily orders a drink in one of those inscrutable bar-restaurant-guesthouse-cum-massage parlours Westerners know from the Khao San Road.
The truly demonic character of the Western infidel is shown in a spivvy Yank backpacker cradling a coke and wasting no time hitting on her.
In the background, all the other signs of Bangkok excess Western travellers thought they were getting away with – the tasteless hair-plaiting, cheap t-shirts and roadside beer vendors – are spotlighted amid the neon in this unexpectedly sharp portrayal.<!–page–>
It’s a bit like being photographed in the shower – you’d really prefer not too many people saw what we were up to in there.
And as ludicrous as the inevitable bombing is, to Western eyes there’s a moment’s introspection among the laughter as one wonders whether a line’s been crossed.
Thankfully, although Bangkok teems with Israeli tourists, I couldn’t see any among my half-dozen fellow audience members that afternoon.
(On the subject of bad taste, the film incidentally gives me a wonderful pick-up line that, being married, I never use on my fellow backpackers: “Tell me, how likely do you consider a terrorist attack on the Khao San Road?”)
Plausibility as a whole soon goes out the window with the emergence of Chan – the inevitable reckless Anglo-Thai fireman – who somehow absorbs the amulet’s essence while ignoring direct orders.
The only thing more ludicrous than his recklessness is the vigour with which he goes about it.
There’s not a hint of self-consciousness as Chan asks his best friend – who just happens to be drawing super hero costumes on a pad – to make him a close-to-direct copy of a Spiderman outfit.
Copyright infringement aside, what this marvellous little segue introduces is yet another of the film’s distinctly Thai elements: the gender-confused hero(ine).
Yet the most significant thing about the appearance of a bona fide Bangkok ladyboy in the film is that it’s completely commonplace.
Even better from the perspective of “let’s just get on and get over the whole polyamorous thing,” the Thai writers and director don’t feel the need to slide the ladyboy character into some neat but condescending box.
When the bad guys come knocking, the ladyboy kicks some serious tail in one of the movie’s better martial arts sequences (Okay, so I’m a sucker).
Being met with one knife-wielding baddy’s assertion that “I’m gonna cut your balls off,” our hero(ine) laughs, “The doctor has already done that for me”.
She then disposes of the mook, instantly relegated to stunned onlooker along with the rest of us.
The ladyboy holds her own, leads the action and even helps come to Chan’s inevitable rescue.
Don’t even get me started on Chan’s mother.
Jackie (Chan) he might not be, but the surreal otherworldliness of some of the film’s base assumptions and a particularly Thai take on plausibility somehow rescued this film from the cutting room floor of my expectations.
It’s again more of this “hey, who said I needed a reason to include an orphan boy with psychic powers” attitude from the director that I really enjoyed.
It is the unexpected, after all, that is so different, and saves the day just as it made mine.
I might not heartily recommend The Mercury Man, but I definitely say checking out a film overseas is a great way to get a local insight.

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