“I am definitely not going to cry”, I thought to myself, after seeing someone who tweets about Muay Thai post a link to the above video, saying that it had made them hysterical.
About five minutes later, face awash with tears, I realise that I may have been mistaken. Fifty percent of me is blaming my period, whilst the other fifty percent is praising the beauty of this short, titled “The Greatest Word is that of ‘Brother’” (ความหมายที่ยิ่งใหญ่ของคำว่า ‘พี่ชาย’).
Despite receiving many of my highest essay grades for unabatedly criticising nostalgic and romanticised films, where the exploitation of emotion can become a means of controlling a nation, I could not help but be drawn into all nine minutes and thirty-eight seconds of this nostalgic, emotional and romantic short.
Before you give up on me for being a sap, let me explain not only why this film moved me, but also why I think the nostalgia and romanticisation in this film opens the door to an interesting discussion.
I think that it is important to remember that nostalgia is only effective as a tool because sitting in the back of everyone’s head, on a little rocking chair (if you’re British), or perhaps squatting on the floor under the shade (if you’re Vietnamese and have a grandma like mine), there is a little old lady. She sits there and recounts soothing tales of family, the homeland and times gone by, giving people a sense of (perhaps false) comfort and safety. To be honest, in writing that, I myself am romanticising nostalgia. So, here we are, in a tangle of emotions, which is in fact the perfect place to begin to look at the contradicting characteristics of nostalgia and romanticisation within Thailand.
Forget the land of smiles, this is the land of contradiction.
As someone who is half Vietnamese, I feel closely affiliated to Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Throw into the mix the fact that I was in a relationship with a Thai for three and a half years, lived in Thailand on and off for that period and speak better Thai than Vietnamese, was born and raised in London and have a Jewish father, I think it is fair to say that I am rather culturally confused.
As my cultural hotpot begins to fill up, my range of languages grows, and my love for Southeast Asia deepens, I have begun to encounter a series of challenges from local intellects who challenge my right to love and learn about their country.
One Thai acquaintance in particular, relentlessly criticises me for romanticising the Muay Thai world. She argues that I am not Thai and will never understand it. She says that just because I have lived in and out of Muay Thai gyms for four years does not mean that I know more about this martial world than her. The thing is, I think that I do. We are all allowed to have passions and specialise in certain subject ares. It was never something planned, but as it turned out, I met Muay Thai, we fell in love, and it is through this relationship that I have travelled to all corners of Thailand. I have been able to get to know Muay Thai intimately, slowly discovering the faces, personalities and stories that make up this martial world along the way.
In and out of Muay Thai gyms for the better part of four years, living amidst a sweaty blur of Muay Thai fighters and trainers, both young and old, I learnt and experienced a lot. Whilst I do not claim to be an expert in all that is Thai, or presume to place myself on some sort of ridiculous ‘expats in Asia’ pedestal, I am confident that I was able to scratch the surface of what it is to be a Muay Thai fighter, and in doing so, learnt many things that challenged my preconceptions of nostalgia and romanticisation within the context of Thailand.
In one discussion, my aforementioned acquaintance once heatedly asked me if I would spend time with the same class of people in London. In a frustrated fury, she asked that if I were in London, would I spend my time with the working class, the uneducated. The thing is, my answer was, and always will be, yes. My father was working class. In fact, he likes to pretend that he still is. Sorry Dad.
In Thai society, where there exists a huge void between the rich and the poor, surely a bit of romanticisation would not go amiss, if only to begin to bridge the gap?
In Thailand, much to the disagreement of Muay Thai fighters, the word violence (ความรุนแรง) is often associated with Muay Thai. In using this label, what many forget is the reason that many enter this sport: family. Additionally, in Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) for example, there is a big problem with gangs and drugs. Certain Muay Thai gyms therefore not only train local children in the ways of Muay Thai, but also in the way of life. Children are kept out of trouble, learn self discipline, and understand the need to keep their bodies in peak condition in order to fight.
In the youtube short that I discussed above, the key themes are that of family and loyalty. The story centres around a brother and his younger sister. When their parents pass away, the younger sister goes to live with her older brother. Whilst trying to navigate the loss of their parents with little money, the two find themselves in unsafe territory. In order to earn enough money to buy his sister a doll, and later to fund her studies, the elder brother puts his body on the line and starts to fight. The money from his Muay Thai fights is able to support them both.
The short opens with a powerful close up shot of a Muay Thai fighter’s face, bloodied and disoriented. The shot then cuts to the eyes of an older man, years later, similarly disorientated.
Whilst the story of putting yourself at risk for others is a dangerous fable to perpetuate, it also seems to be human nature to do so, not only for the ones that we love, but also for our own survival. Ultimately, we are creatures of instinct, designed to survive. Therefore, before criticising Muay thai for being an inane world of violence, perhaps those who choose to fight physically within the ring, in order to fuel their fight for survival outside of the ring, deserve some credit, some respect and some breathing space to make the decision to fight when their options and opportunities are few and far between. Perhaps this criticism needs to be redirected, so that we instead look at the societal and economic structures that isolate people and, to some extent, negate their freedom of choice. For when the choice is between life and death, fighting or perishing, there is no real choice to make. We choose life, every time.
So, as we live, as we thrive, perhaps we can utilise the extraordinary opportunities that we have been given to empower those whose choices were made for them. Whilst fighters are martial artists inside of the ring, perhaps we can help them with the fight that occurs outside of the ring, when the gloves come off and the pain from the fight begins to set in. We are all fighting something.