Mekhong Full Moon Party
Director: Jira Maligool
Cast: Anuchit Sapanpong, Thidaratana Charoernchaichana, Boonchai Lim-Atibul, Noppadol Duangporn
(Possible spoiler below)
A wonderfully made movie that is based on the real-life Bang Fai Phaya Nark (Naga Fireballs) controversy in Nong Khai, a place situated on the North-Eastern region of Thailand and on the Thai-Laos border. In recent years, with the help of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, hundreds and thousands of tourists come to visit the place to watch the annual Naga fireballs scene when local people celebrate the Buddhist Lent festival. The movie picks up the story of the Naga fireballs phenomenon when movie actors portraying real-life characters involved in the controversial debate over whether the scene on the Mekhong River is authentic or not.
As a much sought-after TV commercials director, Jira Maligool served as cinematographer for the 2000 big hit, Iron Ladies, for which he is also credited as screenwriter. Two years later, Jira was attracted by the current news of a fiery conflict between the television station, ITV, and the local peoples of Nong Khai, when the former disclosed a broadcast story that tended to explain the annual Naga fireballs incident as nothing more than the tracer bullets fired in celebration of the Buddhist festival by Laotian soldiers. The news story immediately was met with stormy opposition both from the local peoples and the officials of Nong Khai. Soon a spiral of incidents occurred that provided the basic flesh and bones for Jira's movie.
In Jira's movie, a local-born Dr. Norati and one Dr. Surapol provided completely different theories as to the explanation of the Naga fireballs incident. These are not stories made up by Jira himself. In fact, the two characters are based on real life persons, Dr. Manas Kanoksin and Professor Montri Boonsaneur, respectively. Thus, Jira's interesting story-telling is to add to one more character set-up, Luang Por Loh, the Buddhist high priest who is actually the man and the instigator behind the whole Naga fireballs incident. With these characters well-placed in the movie, Jira then sets to serve us a modern tale that borders on such issues as tradition and modernity, rural and urban, superstition and science, loyalty and disloyalty, the aged and the young, and the like.
Jira's camera is always moving, around which the place of Nong Khai and the livelihood of the local inhabitants are shot in near anthropology-cum-documentary style. We are introduced to Nong Khai not only as the place hosting the Bang Fai Phaya Nark but also the deeply strong cultural attachment these people manifested to their Buddhist tradition and practices. The event is seen not just as an annual event generating big profits but also serves as one great moment for all Thai Buddhists to celebrate the religious wonder. In this sense, Mekhong Full Moon Party succeeds in educating the audiences on the topic of cultural anthropology by coating the movie with a taint of local humor.
The way Jira reconstructs the contending theories (Natural versus man-made explanations) is humorously shot. Complex explanations based on natural physics and chemistry are deconstructed into various highly elaborate scenes when even local housewives and barbers can get to understand the force of nature behind the miracle. In another scene, Buddhist monks are seen assembling in a covert workshop inside a well-camouflaged cave manufacturing the Naga fireballs. Here the technologies of production are highly primitive but so do their motive: to provide an annual occasion of joy and fun for both local peoples and foreign tourists. The character of Luang Por Loh, a deceitful yet warm-hearted person, is well scripted and best performed by Noppadol Duangporn, who finally meets his own karma while planting the fireballs under the water.
In a full 2-hour movie, the meaning of Thai-ness and Thai Buddhism is well represented by Jira's story and his camera. Even the background music and especially the main theme provide additional emotional capital to this audience, who is completely captive unto the beautiful rural scenes of Nong Khai and this story mix of tradition and modernity.
Cool guy(s) - Noppadol Duangporn
Reviewed by: Sebastian Tse