One of the joys of discovering other cultures is realising, in a somewhat Whiggish manner, where they stand on the public debates that fill the public sphere of one’s own country. What are their attitudes towards gay marriage? Do they still assume that everyone will get married and have kids? Do they have a similar intolerance for racism? More often than not, particularly in the West, this is simply a matter of chronology : Some places are ahead of ‘the times’ while others are ‘behind’ them. However, leave the gilded circle of what was once Christendom and you find cultures with attitudes so different to ours that they actually shed some light on the buried assumptions of our own debates.
One such culture is that of Thailand. Thailand’s attitude towards gay rights is genuinely fascinating. Since the military coup of 2006, Thai government has been edging closer to using a third gender for administrative purposes. A third gender designed to accommodate the Kathoey, a caste of Thai society that we tend to refer to either simplistically as transwomen or, with the teeth grinding that accompanies potential political incorrectness, ladyboys. In truth, “Kathoey” is a much broader category than male-to-female transsexual. Originally, it was coined to describe intersexuals but since the mid 20th Century onwards, it has come to designate everything from post-operative transsexuals to effeminate gay men. This category of person has existed for a long time in Thailand and, thanks to Buddha’s teaching of tolerance, they are not mocked or physically attacked in the way that TG people can be in the West. However, they are also victims of terrible discrimination and frequently find themselves working in the ‘entertainment’ industry because people refuse to hire them for other jobs. Even if they are university graduates. I mention the Kathoeys as, for a long time, the Kathoeys served to mask the existence of Thai homosexuality. In Thai culture, sexuality is defined largely in terms of gender and the idea of two masculine men having sex or a relationship simply did not figure. It was not a common mode of identity. Indeed, in the late 70s there were only ten gay entertainment venues in the Patpong area of Bangkok. A decade later, there were over a hundred such places spread out across the country. In a sense, homosexuality – as we in the west understand the word – only really appeared in Thailand in the 1970s and since then it has attracted more than its fair share of ill-treatment from officials who are more than happy to crack down on a new mode of being.
It is against this rather alien and seemingly conflicting set of cultural attitudes that Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films such as Tropical Malady (a.k.a. Sud Pralad), a lusciously atmospheric film comprising a a beautifully chaste love story and a fable in which one of the young men turns into a tiger.