Special thanks to Chris Wiggum of Larsen Associates for allowing me to report from the second week of press screenings for the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Like many others I first heard of Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng when his feature Tears of the Black Tiger was bought and infamously shelved by Miramax. Thanks to Todd at Twitch I caught a glimpse of the trailer:
That glimpse tickled my imagination and I've been waiting for Sasanatieng's follow-up on the big screen ever since. Citizen Dog (Mah Nakorn) has wooed the festival circuit (some predict it will be "chained" to it) and has finally arrived in the Bay Area to amuse, seduce, confuse and delight with its quirky, color-saturated love fable. Its SFIAAFF screening will be in San Francisco on Friday, March 17, 7:00 p.m. at the Castro Theater, and the following evening at 9:15 at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. It will surely be one of the hot tickets to catch.
Citizen Dog has been called surreal, but not so much because it follows dream logic as some have suggested, but more because of its distinct comic alterity. It's a preposterous sometimes ridiculous universe Sasanatieng has created. The Bangkok in Citizen Dog is not really Bangkok. The characters are not really people. For that matter, the chainsmoking teddy bear is not really a teddy bear! This is a fantasy that does not pretend its elements are not exaggerated stylizations to suit an extravagant visual design. It's too self-conscious to be dream-like. It is purposely and creatively artificial. But that's precisely why it's seductive, beautiful and entertaining. Citizen Dog's omniscent narrator (Pen Ek Ratanaruang—Last Life In The Universe) describes with wry precision just how incredibly Sasanatieng's universe unfolds and how one exaggeration inflates the next. You are asked to suspend disbelief and be a child and are rewarded with a handful of pink and blue balloons. The pink is hot and the blue is borrowed (plotwise from the bluebird of happiness).
Though some reviewers complain that the balloons pop too readily or escape too soon, that the love story never really develops and no one visibly sports the frequently-mentioned dog tails (a symbol of conformity in the workplace?), such dissatisfactions are unfairly literal. Citizen Dog is an alternate universe with its own rules and it warns us of such at the get-go: "When we are too busy searching for something; often it eludes us. But the moment we stop; it reveals itself to us."
Others have synopsized Citizen Dog down to its most bizarre details so I feel no need to do so here. Suffice it to say that, through intertitled segments the characters of Citizen Dog and their distinct eccentricities are first introduced to us one by one, then to each other, interacting and influencing each other whimsically and fatefully. Look for a cameo by Chuck Stephens (who has taught me tons about Thai and Malaysian cinema). Fine first-time performances from Mahashmut Bunyaraksh (country bumpkin Pod who has a fantastic t-shirt collection) and Sanftong Ket-U-Tong (his love interest Jin who competes with Audrey Hepburn for the longest neck in the world). You'll walk out of the theater humming Thai pop tunes, ready and hoping for anything wonderful to happen.
Todd at Twitch has consistently championed the work of Sasanatieng and has written a glowing review from last fall's Toronto International Film Festival on Citizen Dog, wherein he boasts that Sasanatieng "has a gift for color, design, and shee[r] unadulterated whimsy that few—if any—can match anywhere in the world":
In his report for Senses of Cinema from the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival, Brandon Wee describes Citizen Dog as "infused" with "copious iridescence":
Jonathan Marlow reports to Greencine from Rotterdam:
Phatarawadee Phataranawik provides a detailed synopsis for The Nation:
And Variety reviewer Russell Edwards provides his own reservations and appreciations: