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12 Jan 2011

The first Thai ‘Tom’ movie

Thailand, which has the world's only 'Tom' (butch lesbian) magazine, has a new 'Tom' movie. Doug Sanders reports.

The new Thai-language movie, "Yes or No" (Yak Rak Kor Rak Leoi), happily has English subtitles. There are two lead female characters.

Pie is a typical Thai college girl, dressed in the obligatory black skirt and white blouse. She is pretty, self-centered, bossy and from an apparently privileged and prosperous urban family background. In western slang, she is a ‘spoiled brat.’ 

Kim is a ‘farm girl.’ She is a ‘Tom’ with short hair, no visible breasts, and, in some scenes, cargo pants. She smiles boyishly on the cover of the November issue of the Thai language magazine Tom Act. Tom Act is celebrating its third anniversary. 

Oops! Pie and Kim are booked together as roommates in a college residence. When Pie first sees Kim, she asks “are you a girl?” Kim is innocent; it seems, about being a Tom, asking what it means and what signals that she is a Tom. She has never had a boy friend or a girl friend, she says.

“Yes or No” seems to be the first film giving a serious lead role to a Tom (butch lesbian) character played by Supanat Jittaleela while Sucharat Manaying plays Pie whose hostility to Toms parallels her mother’s strong and vocal prejudices.

In Thai society, where Toms are all around, her innocence is not very credible. Yes, she is a ‘farm girl’, but it turns out that the farm is a vineyard, and the family business makes and sells wine. Yes, wine is made in Thailand. Like Pie, she comes from a prosperous family background.

Pie immediately indicates her hostility to Toms, paralleling her mother’s strong and vocal prejudices. Pie wants to switch roommates. But she has already switched roommates once, and a serious Tom matron (with the shortest brush cut on record and the body of a Bulgarian wrestler) informs her that she can only switch once and she should get used to having a Tom roommate. 

Pie is forced into co-existence. She uses red tape to mark off her side of the room and Kim’s side of the room and blocks Kim from playing music or video games. Kim responds with gentle initiatives – offering Pie some food she has cooked in her rice cooker – and making Pie’s bed in the morning after she breezes off to class. 

There are three layers to the story. The core story is about Pie overcoming the vehement hatred of Toms that she has inherited from her nasty mother – and Kim coming to terms with being a Tom. 

At a second level there are two figures who serve as potential alternate boy-friends/girl-friends. Van, a bland handsome male, wants to be Pie’s partner. He is characterless – as if all straight men are boring. Jane, a weepy, pathetic femme lesbian, tries and tries to seduce Kim. She is a thoroughly unpleasant character, overplayed in contrast to Van’s minimalism. These side characters prompt mistaken jealousy on the part of Kim (against Van) and Pie (against Jane). Neither Van nor Jane are credible characters, which weakens the film. 

At a third level there are some additional characters at the school. Here the film descends into the comedy patterns of many popular Thai films. There is an over-the-top lady boy, who camps it up and makes inappropriate passes at straight men. There is a very odd short female student, Nerd (yes, that’s the name given to this character), who is the only figure who is not fair skinned. She is depicted as mentally slow. 

These extras are comedy figures, giving us a break from the on-again / off-again relationship developing between Pie and Kim. Thankfully missing from the cast of characters are the standard ridiculous kathoey comedy figures that show up on television and in films. 

As a non-Thai, living here in the magic kingdom, I have to say that the film seems to me to be very Thai. I have been giving classes at Thai universities here in Bangkok for over ten years, and the depiction of the students certainly fits many of my images from these years.

The neurotic mother is, for me, a more problematic figure. But she parallels the neurotic mother in the 2007 gay classic Love of Siam. Both are tense mothers in urban middle-class Bangkok, not the relaxed friendly figures we associate with Thai culture.

 The film lacks a good over-all story line. We get a number of episodes in which Pie and Kim are getting to know themselves and each other. These often seem like a string of separate episodes from a TV soap opera or a serialised novel. I kept thinking we were at an ending – but then a new episode in the story would begin. 

The film is a breakthrough in its serious depiction of a Tom character and her interaction with others. I have been told of one earlier Thai film with a major Tom character, but it is before my time. There was also a sympathetically portrayed Tom character in the popular 2007 Thai film Me – Myself

“Yes or No” seems to be the first film giving a serious lead role to a Tom character. The part is well handled by Supanat Jittaleela. Sucharat Manaying is convincing as the rather empty-headed Pie, who matures in the film. Together, they outshine all the other characters. Well done!

Douglas Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor living in Bangkok. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb@yahoo.ca.


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