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March 04, 2010

Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters

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2499 antapan krong muang
Nonzee Nimibutr - 1997
Audio Graphics Region 0 DVD

Often when discussing the "new wave" of narrative filmmaking in a certain country, there is discussion pointing to a handful of films that were released within a short time of each other. For the history of Thai film, there is the directorial debut of Nonzee Nimibutr, with a screenplay by Wisit Sasanatieng, that served as a catalyst for a decade of films that brought some serious attention to a country usually ignored in discussion of Asian cinema. While Nonzee's film was not the only "new wave" film of 1997, it set a new box office record for Thailand, having the kind of impact that Easy Rider created in Hollywood in 1969. Seen out of context, Dang Bireley might simply be dismissed as a derivative film that owes some of its verve to Martin Scorsese's Mean Street and John Woo's The Killers. It was this repackaging of Scorsese and Woo for a Thai audience that created such a commercial success that it paved the way for Nonzee to produce Wisit's debut feature, Tears of the Black Tiger as well as several other films by new Thai filmmakers.

Based on a true story, most of the film takes place in 1956, when the sixteen year old became a gang leader of considerable influence. The film is also about an identity shaped by outside sources. The son of a prostitute, Dang's last name is that of the orange soda that was popular at the time. Dang's home features photos of James Dean, and Dang wears a small photo of Dean around his neck. It is the mutual admiration for Dean that links Dang with his girlfriend, Paa. Elvis Presley also is present, in photographs as well as the soundtrack, with both original songs and a Thai cover band. There is one scene of Dang and his friends scuffling with each other and some girls, with Hound Dog on the soundtrack, that has as much energy and electricity as anything from Scorsese.

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Dang's mother keeps hoping that her son will be ordained as a monk, and at least temporarily forgo his life of crime. Dang gets in deeper, first with a major street rumble that originated from a barely remembered high school rivalry, and then joining up with a former cop turned gangster who sets up a bar and casino near an air base used by U.S. military personnel. Adding to the trouble is the turf rivalry between the ex-cop, Chien, and another gangster, Tek. Chien points out that his casino is open to take both Thai and U.S currency, unlike Tek's joint, making his small operation part of Thailand's increasing attempts at accommodating globalization.

One the surface, Dang Bireley is a story of gangsters in Thailand in 1956. There is certainly some nostalgia in hearing the old Elvis songs, as well as getting a glimpse of the nightlife in what was then known as Phra Nakhon, with Paa act as a lounge singer. The film can also be read as discussion on modern Thai identity, and as as such is a self critical work. Just as Dang and his friends take on some of the style and attitude of Elvis Presley and James Dean in their mass media versions, Nonzee and Wisit have made use of elements from admired filmmakers from outside of Thailand, albeit more consciously then their characters. When Dang shoots a rival, the incident takes place in an outdoor movie theater while the film Nueng Tor Jed, a Thai gangster movie, is running on the screen. In this sense, the film can be understood as commenting on the Westernization of Thai identity concurrently in life and in popular culture. That Dang's ordination as a priest is constantly postpones, and would be done only to please Dang's mother, might be interpreted from a Buddhist standpoint of immutable karma and/or what Buddhist text describe as Dang being a person of incorrigible disbelief.

It is disappointing that this film is currently available on a somewhat sloppily produced DVD. The framing is not always consistent and may not be quite in proportion to the original aspect ratio. The English subtitles are embedded and occasionally not well translated. It's a disappointment that given the historical importance of Dang Bireley, that this virtually out of print DVD has only been made available in Thailand. Unfortunately, with the marketplace being the prime source for determining what films are available on DVD, Dang Bireley may be one of those films known better by reputation, while being unseen by those who might appreciate it the most.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 4, 2010 12:02 AM


Why do I get the feeling that the Elvis on the soundtrack is likely the main reason for its failure to be released on DVD outside of Thailand? I suspect licensing such famous songs for use in various territories would be a huge headache and expense.

Glad I saw it at a film festival several years back. Not a great film, but clearly an important one.

Posted by: Brian at March 25, 2010 01:44 AM