Isaan Idyll

7 July 2014, TV = 829.0 hours

A while back when my internet connection was down, I finally got around to watching ครูบ้านนอก (kru bannok), which I had had lying around on VCD for a number of months.

Actually, I’m not sure why I bought it. They used to show excerpts from this film at AUA in the AT3 (intermediate level) and AT5 (advanced level) movies/TV class – and it always looked like a pretty unexciting movie.

But for some reason I’d picked it up at Robinson for something like 49 baht – and then could never motivate myself to actually sit down and watch it.

Anyway, it turns out to be an OK enough film, though kind of slow and meandering. KB opens with three new teachers arriving at a small village deep in rural Isaan (northeastern Thailand) to assume their duties at a rustic one-room elementary-level schoolhouse. An older, more experienced teacher, who also serves as the principal, is ably played by actor/comedian หม่ำ จ๊กมก (Mum Jokmok).

KB luxuriates in its locale to the point where it feels more like a picture of a certain time and place than a narrative drama – almost like a documentary or a vicarious village homestay for the audience. We watch the villagers gather food, eat, drink, entertain themselves, etc., but it’s all very “local color,” i.e. eating snakes, playing folk music on folk instruments, entertaining the kids with traditional handcrafted puppets, etc. I wondered if this movie, despite its being Thai both geographically and culturally, would strike a lot of the Thai audience as being “exotic”: oh, so that’s what traditional life is like in the the boondocks of Isaan.

Then while writing up this post I came across a review of the movie on Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal and discovered that this 2010 film is actually a remake of a 1978 movie. Wise Kwai observes that the remake is not an update, but still takes place in a 1970s “old-timey Isaan culture” that, he implies, no longer exists. So perhaps the film’s setting and characters really would be somewhat exotic to contemporary, younger Thai audiences, regardless of whether they come from Isaan or another region, from the city or the countryside; while for certain older audience members, perhaps the film would serve as a nostalgic recollection of a vanished way of life. I’d be curious to get a Thai perspective on these issues.

There’s something idyllic about all of this, though the movie certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting the downside of village life: grinding poverty, addiction to gambling, domestic violence.

Anyway, KB‘s leisurely and seemingly unfocused approach turns out to be somewhat of a sucker punch. Even before the real plot begins to kick in fairly late in the movie, KB is doing a character study of the four teachers. It becomes evident that the idealism of a couple of the younger teachers is in sharp contrast with the attitudes and behavior of the principal – and that there is a reason for this. This leisurely stroll-through-the-countryside-and-take-in-the-folk-customs movie turns out to have a surprisingly sharp, bitter core.

In a recent review of the movie คิดถึงวิทยา (Kid Tueng Wittaya), Wise Kwai noted that “Country schoolteacher dramas are a time-honored subgenre of Thai cinema. They used to be more frequent in the 1970s and ’80s, when filmmakers tackled social problems.” Depressingly, KB suggests that the monstrously oppressive “social problems” that lie beneath the surface of village life are, given the power inequalities involved, insurmountable.

From a language point of view, what’s interesting is that a lot of KB is not in standard Thai, but in the Isaan dialect, and there are no subtitles. As I’ve noted previously, local dialects tend to get subtitled (in what I can only assume to be standard Thai), presumably because they are largely incomprehensible to Thais from other regions.

It did cross my mind that maybe KB is not so much in Isaan dialect as it is in an “Isaanized” standard Thai. This is actually something I’ve run into on travels in Isaan: people would speak to me in what was pretty much standard Thai, but it wouldn’t sound quite “right” and, with respect to Thai words that I know very well I would notice a pronunciation markedly altered from what I’m used to. I guess it’s debatable as to whether these people were merely speaking Thai with an Isaan accent, or whether they were speaking something of a hybrid between the two dialects, a kind of standard Thai that’s “under the influence” of the Isaan language. I would incline to the latter view, because I suspect that the alterations went beyond mere pronunciation – I can recall someone speaking to me in what seemed to be Standard Thai, and then explaining that what he had just said was the way they would say it in the Isaan dialect, and proceed to give me the contrasting “real” standard Thai version.

Anyway, just on a subjective how-it-sounds-to-me level, I would characterize KB‘s language as being largely actual Isaan dialect: it sounds that different from standard Thai. Of course, this probably meant that I understood less than if the script had been in standard Thai; but on the other hand, I didn’t find the movie difficult to follow – as usual, a lot of understanding comes down to context, visuals, and going by what would seem to be most plausible. This of course is a central premise of ALG (automatic language growth) which I picked up early on in my classes at AUA: that language is merely one component in the communication of information, and not always the most important one.

So what about the decision not to subtitle? It would seem odd, given my impression that few people from outside of Isaan would be able to understand the Isaan dialect – in other words, over 70% of Thailand’s population would have trouble following this movie’s dialogue.
Is the movie aimed exclusively at Isaan audiences (this would seem to be an unusual marketing strategy)? Was it assumed that the visuals would carry the weight of storytelling and that language would be peripheral? Would the lack of subtitles make the movie more exotic (if less accessible) to non-Isaan audiences? Or am I missing something here?

I suppose there’s also the possibility that some versions of this movie were released with subtitles and some without, because some of the video excerpts from this movie posted on youtube do have subtitles. Still, wouldn’t that be an unusual decision from a marketing point of view?

In any event, KB provides the opportunity to check out Isaan village life – at least of a certain kind – as well as sample the local dialect, from wherever you are. A sampling of barbecued snake is not, however, included.

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Note: For Southern Thai – or at least southernish Thai – check out Southern Accent.

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