So often festival films are sombre and slow, preoccupied with human frailty and mortality. The lighting is subdued, the cinematography jerky and unsharp. Or else the camera is locked down on some banal vista, such as waves crashing on a shore, while its operator seems to attend to business elsewhere, leaving the viewer in limbo for perhaps minutes at a time. It is a relief to discover a film that fulfils none of these criteria, but delights and surprises at every turn.
Citizen Dog (Mah nakorn) originated from Thailand, and its director, Wisit Sasanatieng, won the Dragons and Tigers Award at Vancouver for an earlier film, Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah talai jone).
His new film is an engagingly funny yet captivating love story of two dysfunctional people, incapable of communicating with their fellows, and each inhabiting a strange private world of his or her own. No doubt a clinician would identify Asperger’s Syndrome, but that would be only the half of it.
Pod is a country boy who goes to the city to better himself, first working in a sardine factory where he loses a finger, only to be reunited with it after sifting thousands of cans. He meets a village girl, Jin, whose job is that of a cleaner, and is so obsessive that she cannot pass a lamp post without reaching for her duster. He takes to taxi-driving so that he can chauffeur her, and she becomes hooked on the Green movement, collecting every plastic bottle in Bangkok until there is a mountain of them outside her front door, reaching twice as high as the tallest skyscraper in the city.
Pod has a friend who takes him to work on his motorcycle. One day he looks truly terrible, and tells Pod that he is dead, having been killed during a rainstorm of safety helmets. He so likes riding his machine, though, that he is carrying on as if nothing has happened. At one point Pod, depressed, contemplates suicide, but is deterred by his late grandmother who has been reincarnated as a gecko. One of his regular taxi fares is a man with a compulsion to lick everything clean, like a cat. Another is a girl of eight who behaves as if she is 22, or perhaps she is a 22 year-old who looks as though she were eight. She chain smokes and quarrels incessantly with her talking teddy bear, who is as voracious a tobacco addict as she is, and eventually becomes her marital partner.
Clearly this is pushing the imagination very hard. Even Terry Gilliam has not entered territory as unremitting as this. As Pod conducts his quest for the elusive sometimes everybody on the street, on buses and trains, and even the faces on advertising billboards, sings to him. At one point he sees Jin’s blue maid’s dress worn by everyone, even traffic cops and puppy dogs. The last is particularly relevant because eventually the entire population but for him grows tails.
This is not a film that is easy to describe since even an attempt to do so seems to subscribe to its wonderful craziness. It is sufficient to hail the director’s singular, astonishing vision and note that he has performed one of the most difficult feats in cinema, to come up with a truly original concept.