Good Morning, Luang Prabang (Laos, 2008)

First things first, a brief disclaimer: I didn’t realize until after the DVD had been delivered from Cornell’s library that it didn’t have English subtitles. Since I don’t speak a word of Lao or Thai, I found a couple articles about the film and followed along as best as I could. Here are the links to those summaries:

“Good Morning, Luang Prabang—and Hello to Laos’s Film Industry” by Andrew Buncombe

“Thai & Lao Culture in ‘Sabaidee Luang Prabang'” by Sirinya Pakditawan

A Tale of Two Countries

Directed by Sakchai Deenan of Thailand and produced by Anousone Sirisackda of Laos, Good Morning, Luang Prabang was actually a joint production between the two neighboring countries, and the first commercial release in Laos since 1975, when the country adopted communism.

The film begins in Bangkok, as Thai photographer Sorn prepares to travel to Laos to visit his grandfather. His culture shock as he begins his travels is evident. As Pakditawan observes (and as Sirisackdan confirms, based on Buncombe’s article), the film highlights differences between Thai and Lao culture—between, for instance, bustling Bangkok and comparatively quiet Laos. In another example of the contrast between Thailand and Laos, Sorn tells his (English-speaking) mother on the phone while in Pakse: “The weather’s nice, but the food takes some getting used to.”

But Good Morning, Luang Prabang also emphasizes how Lao culture differs from Western culture. When a white tourist asks to have his picture taken with the female lead Noi (a Laotian tour guide), he puts his arm around her. She tells him multiple times not to do this, signaling the inappropriateness of such physical contact, especially between strangers, in Laotian etiquette.

A Break with the Past

At first I thought to myself, “Wow, this film isn’t exactly heavy on plot.” But then I realized how ridiculous it was of me to think that; since I don’t speak Lao or Thai, about 90% of the film’s plot—any lines not spoken in English and anything not captured in meaningful glances or the musical score—is essentially lost on me. That’s why the plot summaries provided in the links above were so essential to me as I prepared to watch the movie.

A view of Luang Prabang, the film’s titular city. (Image: Thomas Drissner,distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even so, based on what I can tell, and corroborated in Pakditawan’s essay, the film is essentially a tourism film—a more benign form of propaganda than standard Laotian media. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the primary goal mostly seems to be the promotion of tourism. The movie highlights the historic sites and tourist attractions of Pakse and Vientiane as well as the title city, three of the most culturally significant cities in Laos.

That said, Buncombe notes in his article that Sakchai himself admitted that “We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government.” Furthermore, the Laotian government had some control over the film’s portrayal of their nation, redacting any content they found offensive. To be fair, though, their concern was not completely unfounded; Buncombe describes a history of Thai films ridiculing Laos and Laotian culture. With its vaunted release, Good Morning, Luang Prabang signaled a strong break from that tradition.

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Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)

This film, directed by the Nyingma lama Khyentse Norbu, tells the story of Dondup Norbu, a government officer in a small Bhutanese village called Khumbar. Secretly planning to apply for a visa to the United States, Dondup is highly Americanized; he is visibly different from his neighbors, with a shag haircut, an “I Heart NY” shirt, and a denim gho. In order to apply for the visa, he has to be in Thimphu within four days, and it’s a two-day journey from the isolated Khumbar.

On the Road

While waiting for the bus to Thimphu he meets an old apple peddler and a monk. The monk tells Dondup: “There’s no point staring at an empty road. You know, Buddha said hope causes pain.” It’s as easy to sympathize with Dondup’s restlessness amid such isolation as it is to scorn him for his obsessive desire to leave his post.

A view of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. (Image: Douglas McLaughlin, distributed by CC BY 2.5 license)


Finally, after missing the bus, Dondup and his fellow travelers hitch a ride on a truck, where they meet a drunk, a rice paper maker, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Sonam. Sonam didn’t do well enough on her exams to get into college—or so her father thinks. In reality, she did excellently, but she decided to stay and help her father with his failing livelihood. As she tells Dondup, “Isn’t it our duty to look after our parents when they’re old?” These words must have stung deeply for Dondup, considering his plans to essentially abandon his family for better things in America. And yet, a shy, unspoken romance develops between Dondup and Sonam, complicating his American aspirations.

The Monk’s Tale

The film contains a story-within-a-story, told by the monk to the other travelers. Tashi is a young man studying magic in a tiny village. However, Tashi thinks less about magic than he does about women. He yearns to leave the village, and one day, after getting drunk, he mounts an unbroken horse that carries him to a house in the middle of the forest. There he meets an old man named Agay, and his much younger wife Deki.

When Tashi asks why Agay and Deki live so far away from town, Agay refers to his wife’s youthful beauty. Agay tells Tashi: “We may grow old, but our minds don’t age. Our jealousy stays young.” Living among other (and younger) men, he suspects, would jeopardize his marriage. In fact, Agay’s paranoia is justified; Deki and Tashi begin a secret affair. Deki confides in Tashi: “I’ve tried to leave many times, but he always finds me.” In order to preserve their budding relationship, they concoct a gruesome plan, revealing the terrible lengths to which illicit lovers can go in the name of love.

Loose Ends

When the next bus finally arrives, there’s only one vacant seat. Dondup lets the apple seller take it, presumably because he doesn’t want to leave Sonam. The monk remarks to Dondup: “The minds of human beings are so convoluted. What we hoped for yesterday, we dread today.”

Or, perhaps, the things we hope for are closer at hand than we might think. Travellers and Magicians is a classic iteration of the merry band of misfits trope, exemplified by films like The Wizard of Oz. As Dondup and his fellow travelers follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Thimphu, each treks with their own purpose in mind. In Dondup’s case, that purpose is not to return to his own personal Kansas, but rather to reach his ultimate Oz: America. However, the film’s abrupt ending leaves many questions unresolved. This seems particularly fitting, given its overall dreamlike quality. Which pull ends up stronger for Dondup: America’s, or Sonam’s?

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Third Person Singular Number (Bangladesh, 2009)

Here we go—my reactions to the first randomly selected film on the list…

A Woman Alone

From director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Third Person Singular Number highlights, above all else, the precarious and vulnerable situation of young, and especially single, women in Bangladesh. The protagonist, Ruba Haque (Nusrat Imrose Tisha), faces ostracism and hostility from her community and family for her unconventional lifestyle. To make matters worse, her live-in boyfriend Munna (Mosharrof Karim) is serving a prison sentence for murder, leaving Ruba effectively alone.

In the opening scenes, we see Ruba walking through the city alone at night, which prompts both incredulous and antagonistic questions from (male) passersby. A motorist stops his car beside Ruba, propositioning her: “How much?” he asks. At one point she encounters the ghost of a young woman named Shima Chowdhury, who was raped and murdered at the police station, dramatically highlighting the lack of formal protection offered to young Bangladeshi women. In a later sequence, Ruba fruitlessly tries to find a room for rent; each proprietor angrily dismisses her, refusing to rent to a single girl (and, in some cases, to anyone who is single). In the words of one landlady, “How can one person be a family?” Her rhetorical question points to the importance of conventional family structure and kinship ties in Ruba’s Bangladesh.

Despite the veneer of monogamy, Ruba consistently faces the sexual advances of older, often married, men. With few exceptions, the only “helpful” figures that Ruba encounters are primarily only interested in extracting sex from her in exchange for favors. One man, Siddiqui, offers her a job, before professing his interest in “loving” her. He assures her, “I never jump on anyone, never apply force. I want people to jump on me. I don’t accept anybody if I’m not attacked,” though the film implies (we aren’t shown) that he rapes or assaults her. Finally, Ruba lands a job as a copywriter; her employer, a man named Dicon, tells her what she (and we) already know: “When a girl urgently needs a job, people take advantage.” Such is the perilous condition of a life like Ruba’s; her desperation only augments her vulnerability to sexual violence.

Tenuous Ties to the Past

The relationship between past and present is an important motif throughout the film. At several points, Ruba converses with 13-year-old and 6-year-old versions of herself, both of whom castigate her for her budding romantic involvement with Bangladeshi pop singer Topu (played by himself) and her consequent unfaithfulness to Munna.

Present-day Ruba (left) with her two past selves. (Image: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, distributed by CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Ruba tells her psychiatrist that she refuses to believe that the younger versions of herself do not still exist, frozen in time. To her, the doctor’s diagnosis of multiple personalities implies that the past is not real. Similarly, when Munna is released from prison, he tells her: “The jail-doctor told me that the prisoner’s time gets stopped, while everything else moves outside.” Munna accuses Ruba of changing, and essentially leaving him behind, during his prison sentence, but despite his protests to the contrary, it seems—and this is hardly surprising—that prison changed Munna as well. Both Munna and Ruba cling, with almost desperate futility, to past versions of themselves. Once the pair uneasily readjusts to life as a couple, the sense that their present selves are not longer in sync with one another in the way their past selves had been becomes painfully apparent.

All in all, the film is a touching account of a young Bangladeshi woman’s struggles to find happiness amidst sometimes oppressive societal conventions. While most of the film maintains a kind of understated realism, its occasional dreamlike scenes—particularly those involving conversations between the three Rubas—lend the story a mystical, indeed spiritual quality perfectly suggestive of the intangible tendrils uniting past with present.

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Conversations on Serious Topics (Lithuania, 2012)