Hangover Part II: Social Commentary on a Thailand – USA film

movie poster for the Hangover Part II, a Hollywood blockbuster filmed in USA and Thailand in 2010, hitting the theaters in May/June 2011. PHOTO: IMDB
movie poster for the Hangover Part II, a Hollywood blockbuster filmed in USA and Thailand in 2010, hitting the theaters in May/June 2011. PHOTO: IMDB

Upon learning that a sequel to the Hollywood blockbuster, the Hangover was being filmed in my then-residence Bangkok, curiosities arose. When you’ve lived in Thailand’s capital for the better part of a decade, you pretty much see it all and it doesn’t take long before one becomes jaded amid the cosmopolitan wonder of a city which [international] name’s pronunciation resembles a ludicrous action. What follows is a part-film review, part-social-cultural perspective and critique, and represents the sincere opinions of the author. 

And so curiosity about the plot for Hangover Part II didn’t extend much past that initial craze late last year, when seemingly everyone knew a friend of a friend who was involved in the film’s filming production. Even if they were all sworn and contracted to absolute secrecy, and no matter how many millions of dollars the script writers could have been paid, how complex could one expect the plot of a comical, Bangkok-centered film – which title and theme were based on the after-effects of intoxicated, black-out oblivion – to be?

During the period when word had gotten around town that the Hollywood film crew and cast were in town, I recall anticipating with a friend the elements which its plot was sure to include. Our prediction list included Thai girl imposters, ladyboys, go-go bar girls, tuk tuks, drug mafia with guns, long-tail boats, uncooperative and/or crooked cops, elephants, monkeys and monks alike—all such stereotypical images which Thailand and its capital are all-to-often are associated with.

Fast forward, late May/early June 2011, the film has finally hit the theatres in both the US and Thailand, and elsewhere in the world. Time to finally see what all the hype was/is about! Without spoiling or revealing too much of the plot, I’ll express my personal views and feedback on certain aspects of the film which I feel the record needs to be set straight. For those who want to read specific chronologies and details of the plot, see this link: Hang Over Part II on wikipedia

Not claiming to posess any special psychic abilities, our predictions left us with little surprises.

Thai girl imposters and Ladyboys? Yes. Go Go bar girls? Yes. Tuk Tuks? Yes. Drug Mafia with guns? Yes. Long-tail boats? Yes. Crooked or uncooperative cops? Yes. Elephant, Monkey and Monks? Unfortunately, yes.

First, I must express my disappointment with the filmmakers’ misrepresentation of the last three elements, particularly. The one elephant and monkey which are depicted in the film are simply inaccurate depictions of reality.

Starting with the one shot of an elephant walking through a busy, crowded Bangkok street: In 2011, elephants do not walk around the busy streets of Bangkok in broad day light—not typically, not legally, and after years of strict enforcement of a long standing ban, not anymore. In Thailand, you are bound to see an elephant being led around by their supposed owner who sells bananas and peanuts to tourists to make supposed merit by feeding the massive mammal—but not likely on the streets of Bangkok. If you want to learn more about the actual reality, see the following links:

Don’t Feed the Elephants

New York Times Article One

New York Times Article Two

There are monkeys in Thailand, yes. But again, no stray monkeys in Bangkok, and certainly not the vampire toothed capuchin specie of monkey depicted in the film. Such monkey is indigenous to South and Central America. The monkeys commonly found in Thailand are macaque species which aside from the Zoo, are not living astray in inner city Bangkok. If you want to see such monkeys not in captivity—coexisting in close proximity to humans, you have to go to cities like Phetchaburi and Lopburi, hours from Bangkok.

As for perhaps the most culturally-sensitive misrepresentation, one must set the record straight for the world. I’m guessing that the version I happened to see will not survive in its entirety for audiences in Thailand once the Thai censorship board is through with their edit. Particularly, one monk was depicted using (excessive) violence, the other in a scene being the target of a comical yet sexually demeaning action, while in another shot, such monk was participating in a party. Despite what you might have learned from Shaolin martial arts footage, or yet other misleading media, Violence, Alcohol, Sexual activity (even if only a joke) and Social mingling are of the forbidden precepts which the Gautama Buddha instructed his clergy to adhere while on the path towards enlightenment.

And still there are other disappointments I would like to express about the film.

Yet again, Hollywood has made a film based in Thailand with a lead/supporting Thai character role played by a non-Thai actor /actress. Last major film, Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicholas Cage featured a supporting Thai female character who to cover up her inability to speak Thai, was a mute. The supporting Thai male character, though played by a real Thai actor, was a scam artist, however.

This time, a Korean American actress plays an overseas-educated, upscale Thai girl who only has a few lines, all in English. As if there is no supply of beautiful Thai actresses linguistically, kinesthetically and aesthetically capable of playing the role of a Thai girl. The bride’s Thai father, though shown mostly in a pretentious light, was played by a Thai actor who did speak Thai, which I am happy to see the point was not completely neglected.

I remember being a young boy growing up in USA, ever curious about my Thai heritage. Having never been to my mother’s home country, I had embraced Kickboxer starring Jean Claude Van Damme which set up my initial impressions of what Thailand might look and be like. Complementing the childhood stories told by my mother and coupled with the narratives in Southeast Asian encyclopedia picture books, the film, regardless of whether it was fictitious, played a significant role in shaping my impression, albeit warped from reality. Later in life when I moved to Thailand and learned the language and culture first hand, I would become disappointed to learn that the Thai characters in that film were not even Thai and clearly had learned their two or three brief lines of Thai on the set.

Are Hollywood casting directors and film producers afraid an actual Thai person playing a lead role might actually portray Thailand accurately? I don’t pretend to have the answers nor desire to understand any biased justifications. Working with such a budget, I think they could have paid closer attention to such details.

I could go all day criticizing the mismanagement of the 80 million dollar budget of the Hangover’s sequel which is borderline offensive to Thailand and Thais who actually care about their image being unjustly and inaccurately disseminated to the world. It’s a a common stereotype in the west that Thailand and Bangkok are a wild, unruly jungle full of thieves, scams, hookers, forbidden lust, drugs and greed. With Hollywood consistently reinforcing this inaccurate image disguised as mass reality, it’s no mystery where much of the world’s false impressions are sprouting from. While I don’t claim that Thailand is a utopia without problems, I can’t think of many other places I love to call home, and not for the reasons and elements commonly portrayed in the mass media, certainly not part of the mass culture. As a Hollywood blockbuster with worldwide distribution, I believe it is the duty and obligation of directors and producers to portray cultural sensitive depictions as accurate as possible.

In all fairness, as a comedy film, some parts of the movie did tickle me—as did the first one. While I clearly don’t think either deserve the praise that some of my colleagues have given, I’m glad I watched, having been me with the motivation to rant for more than 1200 words. Watch it yourself and make your own conclusions.

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