Short Film Review: Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall | อนินทรีย์​แดง (2020)


“The essence of Camp,” writes Susan Sontag, “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Not that in Sontag’s conception ‘camp’ is a synonym for ‘kitsch’ or even ‘flamboyance’: it manifests as a code, as a convention, and as a deliberate aesthetic strategy amongst a select group of urbanites, for whom the apotheosis of excess is both the mean and the end. In camp, bad taste tussles with a sense of irony and is transformed into good, at least within a certain context of perspectives, in a reversal of power that flips the conventions of beauty and its judgement topsy-turvy—a rawly visual political act. The political dimension of camp is precisely what came to mind as I watched and re-watched Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall; the short film by Thai filmmaker Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke with a title so long that it is equal parts poetic and parodic.

In Red Aninsri—title shortened to reduce finger, and later eye, fatigue—Ang (Sarut Komalittipong) is a kathoey hooker down on her luck with a deep, dark secret: she is also a spy. Walking the streets dressed like a knock-off version of Brigitte Lin in Chunking Express, Ang bears the code-name Insri, meaning eagle, and shoots other agents of espionage in dark alleys whilst street vendors comment on how suspicious they all look. After a dry spell of non-existent clientele and cases, Ang is tasked by the mysterious Boss to spy on and seduce the seditious schoolboy Jit (Atikhun Adulpocatorn) accused of harbouring an international dissident, questionably named Miss Josh, that threatens the relationship between Thailand and potential investor China.

Her mission is not without a catch: Jit is a bookish bottom (Wherever have we seen this before?) looking for meatier fare, whose profile an Ang shorn of her wig, make-up, and trench coat heartily meets. Clad in a drab, olive green bomber jacket, black browline glasses, and rippling with toned muscles, Ang is now Inn, a picture perfect example of studied masculinity. As with most stories of this sort, Ang expands her worldview, the couple falls in love, and eventually, have fittingly skittish and tender sex. Despite her increasing misgivings, Ang still has her mission though, and with the stake of a restaurant standing in for a future free from whoring, she successfully identifies the existence of Miss Josh, and leads Jit to arrest and interrogation. Haunted by the ghost of a betrayed lover, Ang later gives Jit information needed to break free and inadvertently steers the government right onto his trail and Miss Josh…

A reflexive, visually assured work with a seam of absurdist humour running through it, Red Aninsri toys with the cinematic apparatus and the queer condition as a greater metaphor on identity and selfhood in a nation always on the brink of a civil war. The departing formalist premise is this: in Cold War-era Thai cinema, “every actor is dubbed by the voice that suits their roles. The hero sounds heroic and the villain sounds villainous.” Ang in her womanly guise speaks sweetly and girlishly, and as Inn, speaks in a gentlemanly baritone; the Boss, before their identity is revealed, speaks with an oily and sinister lilt; and Jit, as the enemy of the state, has a reedy, nasally voice. Vocal performance as subterfuge and a contestation of fidelity, be it to gender, political affiliation, or something else, is explored on two fronts: diegetically, as gendered codings in exercises of embodied queerness and power; and extra-textually, with different voices dubbed for the characters which both reference and subverts historical practices.

As a text exploring the violences that institutional structures exact on queer bodies, Ang’s self-identification as kathoey is interesting because of the shades of ambiguity it implies, which as sexologist Sam Winter notes, is “a very broad term embracing any male who contravened gender role expectations for males (including gays, effeminate males), but nowadays commonly applied to transgendered females,” a term that remains contestable as a neutral noun denoting a trans woman; even Winter acknowledges that most simply refer to themselves as phuying, or just women. Ang’s bodily autonomy as a trans woman is violated by the state on multiple count, first through violent language—“We can even get in your vagina if we want”—then through the appropriation of her body, when setting up a honey pot to trap Jit. However, the fluidity of Ang’s self-identification was also apparent in how they donned male drag as Inn without much resistance, and eventually chose to join conventional society as a cis gay man. The camp-ness of Ang’s femme exterior is very much composed of the same artifice as the one that constitutes the butch gay Inn, both of which Ang disavows ultimately, in a blunt act of rejecting his deceits and the labels that come attached to such constructions.

In the Cold War era, Thai cinema is, as historian Rebecca Townsend observes, also “a productive site of negotiation over the construction of a national identity”, an urgent necessity galvanised by “rise of the communist threat, American Cold War intervention, rapid industrialization, authoritarian military politics, and the rise of the monarchy under King Bhumibol (1946-2016) and Queen Sirikit.” On this front, the violence enacted on queerness acts as a larger metaphor for how citizens may be silenced and policed by political structures and elites, a reality that is alluded to in the film but depicted more directly on the queer body. Here, Boonbunchachoke made a sly parody that poses as a pastiche that is really a dead serious piece of social commentary: before the Berlin Wall falls, it trembles; before the Berlin Wall falls, we still have to tiptoe on the edge, wary of the barbed wires, of the power struggles to which we are just pawns, yearning just to be ourselves.

- Alfonse Chiu

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