Only God Forgives


The new Ryan Gosling revenge thriller set in Thailand is a grisly and despairing affair

god forgives

Bangkok has been referred to by Christian puritans, in the guise of journalists, novelists and filmmakers, as Babylon or Sodom and Gomorrah, countless times. In the new film, Only God Forgives, director and screenwriter Nicolas Winding Refngoes one step farther by lighting half the scenes as diabolically red as if he were filming Dante’s Inferno in the Thai capital.


Bangkok is supposed to be hell on earth. That’s the film’s big picture.After some opening fisticuffs at a Muay Thai gym with a big red and black dragon on the wall, which is a front for a drug-dealing operation led by Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his older brother Billy, the scene cuts to Billy drinking in a “fishbowl brothel” and leering at the sex workers behind the glass. He asks the owner how many of them are women? The owner says, “Fifty fifty.” This is the first and second to last laugh in the movie.

The drunken redneck demands a young girl. The owner says cannot. Then the lout asks to rent his 14-year-old daughter. Once again the owner refuses. Enraged, Billy breaks a bottle over his head.

So he makes tracks for a different brothel where he murders a teenage girl. Like so many other aspects of this existential crime thriller, we never learn why. Leaving it vague, in the eyes and lenses of European arthouse directors, is supposed to connote mystery and artistry.

Thai cop 2

Enter the po-faced cop played by VithayaPansringarm. “Time to meet the devil,” as the movie poster’s tagline goes. He’s the one who metes out vengeance with a deadpan phrase or two and a sword like some Biblical character. Soon enough he’s embroiled in a plot where Billy has been killed by the father of the prostitute he murdered and his family is out for revenge. In fact, revenge seems to be the only force animating any of the characters.

thai cop 3

We don’t get to know Chang the cop or any of his subordinates. There’s only one scant scene where he arrives at home and apologizes to his wife for being late and then plays with his daughter.

His main obsession is karaoke. The scenes of him singing romantic Thai pop songs while the other cops sit around

watching and drinking soda (no bottles of booze in sight, and no wisecracks either, as is the norm with these hardnosed characters) are juxtaposed against the more brutal scenes. The music scenes are like comic relief (well, me and my Thai girlfriend and a few other people in the crowd were sniggering into our popcorn), and a fair depiction of Thailand’s sweet and sour extremities.

Kristin Scott Thomas

None of the characters are likable.None of them are any more than one-dimensional scarecrows. The only exception is the mother, played with vitriolic charm by Kristin Scott Thomas. A chain-smoking, peroxide blond with a nasty streak, she injects some much-needed liveliness into the film. When her younger son Julian hires the prostitute to come to dinner and pretend to be his girlfriend, the mother asks what she does. Mai (whom she keeps calling May) says she’s an entertainer. The mother scoffs, “How many cocks can you entertain in that cum dumpster of yours?”

Pity poor Mai (YayingRhathaPhongnam). She’s got to play the stereotypical Thai prostitute and be the butt of the jokes. Other than that, she isn’t given very much to do except look forlorn, like most of the other characters do, and finger herself to an orgasm while Julian watches, his arms tied to a chair.

The only real moment of tension between her and Julian is when he demands that she give him the dress back and she takes it off in public.

god forgives 1

Gosling seems to be sleepwalking through his part. In Drive, the last collaboration between the Danish director and the Canadian actor, he played a getaway driver. Similarly stoical as Julian in some ways, the antihero he plays in that thriller at least has a shot at redemption through his love for a woman.

Only God Forgives offers no such escape hatch; this is noir of the darkest pitch and most nihilistic strain.

To the director’s credit, there are a lot of great Bangkok

atmospherics. The city’s noodle stalls and street vendors add flashes of realism.

Refnalso knows how to craft a suspenseful scene rife with gory details. When the Thai cop is unraveling the plan to have him

whacked, he catches a foreigner in a kitsch-crazed brothel and begins to interrogate him using the chopsticks from a hooker’s hair. It’s a nasty scene pushed to torture-porn extremes. Many viewers will be reminded, no doubt, of Michael Madsen going psycho with the blowtorch in Reservoir Dogs. But Refn does not have Tarantino’s loony sense of humour, nor his taste in retro hits from the ‘70s.

As the movie limped to its grim conclusion, I had forgotten

about Tarantino’s bloodlust and David Lynch’s juxtapositions of horror and kitsch – (ie. the beating scene in Blue Velvet set to a sugary ‘60s’ hit with a woman in a beehive go-go dancing on a car), and started thinking more about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle.

Based on a novel by Jean Genet, the movie deals with a debauched sailor played by Brad Davis (Midnight Express) in a seedy port town lit almost entirely by hellish orange light. Fassbinder wanted to make it look like the end of the world. He must have sensed some personal ap

ocalypse on the horizon because the German director died of a drug overdose at the age of 37 only a few months before the film’s premiere in 1982.

Querelle is set in France. That’s a better place for philosophical meditations on the human condition.

In Only God Forgives, the Bangkok setting is mostly there for a theatrical set and to up the titillation ante with the usual hookers and brothels. It’s like many of the foreign films shot here, such as Hangover 2 and the Chinese blockbuster Lost in Thailand– it doesn’t have much to do with Bangkok or Thailand.

The mindset of this film is still very European. For one tantalizing shot, when Gosling’s bloodied and bruised face is juxtaposed against the Buddha image on the cop’s wall, do we have a glimpse of how good this film could have been: a clash between Buddhist and Christian values, a tug-of-war between Thai and Western characters who fail to understand each other.

With the exception of the alienated killers in John Burdett’s novels Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Vulture Peak, Western existentialism has never played well in Asia. The grim and empty nature of modern life that figures so prominently in European literature and cinema means nothing, both literally and figuratively, in Buddhist or Taoist thought, where emptiness is something to be cherished and cultivated.

Buddhists covet peace. They worship silence. They practice non-attachment to possessions and sensory phenomena. In one of Lao Tzu’s poems that underline the Taoist faith, he talks about how the useful part of the bowl is that which is empty: an apt analogy for the human mind and ego.

That’s not the sorrowful deal with Only God Forgives. Ultimately, this is an existential revenge thriller about emptiness – the emptiness of hedonism, the emptiness of family relations, the emptiness of violence

and vengeance – which, unfortunately, remains as hollow as its characters and subject matter.







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Review: Vulture Peak by John Burdett

vulture peak coverTHE PEAK OF THE FLESH TRADE

By Jim Algie

Starting with the first shot, the brilliantly warped Bangkok 8, John Burdett’s series of mysteries starring the Thai-American detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep have traded on flesh: of sex workers and the transgendered, the skin art of a deranged tattooist, the needlepointed epidermises of heroin fiends, and the corpses of those slain in turf wars between Sonchai’s boss, Colonel Vikorn, and his nemesis, Colonel Zinna of the Royal Thai Army.

In Vulture Peak, the fifth novel in the series, the flesh trade is taken to its most gruesome extreme: organ trafficking.

The author’s research on the subject is formidable. In 1950 the first kidney transplant took place in Illinois and the first heart transplant was carried out in 1967. But the biggest development in recent years is the commercial production of cyclosporine, which ensures that the new organ will not be rejected by the recipient’s immune system.

Even with that failsafe in place, hearts and lungs will only last up to six hours. Eyes, when refrigerated, are good for a week.

In light of the payouts, those drawbacks are almost negligible. How much would a former glitter rock star living in Pattaya and in need of another liver be willing to splash out for a new mortgage on life? And how much would a young heartthrob with a wealthy benefactor in the Thai army pay for a face transplant after losing his looks and sense of self-worth in a disfiguring accident?

These kinds of scenarios and medical details are the novel’s backbone. The first strand of the plot unfurls after a triple homicide in the ritziest part of Phuket known as “Vulture Peak”. All three victims have had their internal organs expertly removed.

Sonchai is assigned to the case. Quickly he realizes that it must be linked to Colonel Vikorn’s new campaign to run for the governor of Bangkok. To promote his candidacy he tells the incorruptible and staunchly Buddhist detective, “That your soon-to-be-world-famous crusade to put an end to the nefarious practice of illegal trafficking in body parts, which is so vilely exploiting the poor and the helpless, et cetera, is driven by me.”

Ever since Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled heyday back in the 1930s, the wisecracking detective has been a fixture of the genre, but Sonchai’s retorts often reveal humour of a blacker hue. “In twenty years as a colonel in the Royal Thai Police, you have never done a single thing to fight crime, while doing a great detail to contribute to it,” he says of his boss.

Carrying a cargo of 1,764 human eyes worth some US$200,000 dollars, Sonchai flies to Dubai to meet the twin Chinese sisters known in the business as “the Vultures.” When a female character in this series does not like sex, a la the poisonous “Mad Moi,” it’s a sure bet she’s headed towards villainess status at a bullet’s speed. Since neither of the Yip sisters enjoy bedroom bodysurfing, but have varnished their prick-tantalizing skills to a porn-image gloss, that means a double shot of “blue balls” for Sonchai, who is already fretting over the possibility that his partner Chanya is having an affair. (In case you’re still a virgin to the series, the author spells out many of the backstories. Chanya, for one, is a former hooker in the Old Man’s Club, a bar owned by Sonchai’s mother on Soi Cowboy.)

Thrillers are slaughterhouses these days. That’s de riguer. This is not a subtle genre. My frequent complaint is that for all the bloodletting many deliver little more than paper cuts to the hearts and psyches of their characters.

This series is a different story. The Yip sisters show the detective some of the emails they have received from prospective clients: desperate, heartrending pleas. One reads, “I’ve been in pain all my life, I couldn’t have done anything to deserve it because I’ve been too sick since childhood to hurt anyone. I am innocent and I’m forty-two years old and I can’t take it anymore. I don’t care what you have to do. I don’t care who has to die. It’s my turn to live a whole day without pain.”

Coldly calculating, the Yip sisters have a whole list of criteria for judging which clients will pay top dollar. They also prey on the ill and the lame who come to Lourdes to pray for a miracle cure from the Virgin Mary.

Caught in a vice-grip between the sisters and the colonel, Sonchai is haunted by visions of eyes popping up in his nightmares. After returning to Bangkok from Dubai and the Monte Carlo, where he escorts the sexy yet sexless sisters on a date to the casino, he moans, “Am I getting softer or are the cases getting harder?”

It’s precisely this vulnerability that makes him more human and likeable than a lot of hardboiled heroes with their bulletproof craniums and cast-iron hearts.

As any follower of the series expects, there will be some scenes set in the fleshpots of Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong. The author’s depiction of Bangkok’s tenderloins for tourists and expats has always been tantamount to a blanket endorsement. Nary a sad old sexpat or burnt-out, meth-afflicted bar hag appears in this series, to throw customers off their carnal kicks.

Whereas some of the earlier books were more concerned with how Bangkok’s carnal kinks revealed Freudian X-rays of the Western male characters’ neuroses, Vulture Peak plays much of the commercial sex for sociological value and satire.

Chanya is writing a thesis about the flesh trade. Her advisor is a “pear-shaped” English prude who sees prostitution in the typically Western feminist terms as a deleterious throwback for the women’s movement. But for Chanya, a native daughter of the Northeast, the sex trade liberated her from demeaning menial labour. In her thesis she conjoins the slave trade in West Africa with organ trafficking. Both are outgrowths of capitalist economics, not dissimilar to how the advertising industry and Hollywood have also commodified the human body. What separates prostitution, she claims, at least when it’s free from the clutches of pimps and organized crime, is that it becomes tarred by a “moral code” when in fact it’s a means of survival and economic betterment for many sex workers.

After visiting the Old Man’s Club, Dorothy, the advisor, has a change of heart and loins about the flesh trade, which adds a few comic interludes to this dark symphony of crime riffs.

From the start, the series has balanced the sacred with the profane, and the mystical with the material, which is really the yin and yang of Thai society. That intertwining has resulted in some startling bursts of poetry, like in Bangkok Tattoo when Sonchai says of his newfound love Chanya, “Not even the Buddha glows like her.”

Occasionally, the detective sermonizes on Buddhist principles but most of the books place the practical over the theoretical. That is still a guiding light in Vulture Peak when a nun uses Buddhist humility and empathy to ward off a hideously deformed, would-be rapist. The detective also delivers an insight into Thai kitsch that I have never heard before. When discussing his own illuminated Buddha image, Sonchai says, “He’s quite gaudy with purple and red lights, which are kitsch enough to remind me it’s only a symbol I’m bowing at.”

Not all the Buddhist details ring true, however. The way that the detective talks about his previous incarnations – an ancient Egyptian in Bangkok 8, an American Indian in this book – sounds more California New Age than Thai Buddhist.

That is a minor quibble. Without spoiling any of the serpentine twists, I’ll go out on a limb to say that this is the most suspenseful climax in the series thus far and packs an emotional wallop too.

Lovers of literate novels fearful of being seen slumming it in the gutters of genre fiction need not get in a flap over Vulture Peak. This is lurid literature with a Buddhist conscience and its libido on overdrive.

(A shorter version of the review was published in The Nation:

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Thailand’s Last Executioner: Obituary for a Kindly Killer







Story and photos by Jim Algie

What sort of person leans over a sub-machine-gun bolted to the floor, takes aim at a target on a white curtain in front of a condemned man strapped to a cross, and then pumps 10 to 15 bullets into his back?

A family man, a rock musician, an altruist, a boozer and civil servant in the Corrections Department for three decades. In short: a man of wild contradictions and divided loyalties.

Chaovaret Jaruboon, who made his mark as Thailand’s last executioner, succumbed to cancer this past Monday at the age of 64, leaving behind a wife of 40-odd years, three grown children, and the bloodstained legacy of executing 55 inmates over almost two decades at Bang Kwang Central Prison on the edge of Bangkok.

Even as a boy, crime and vice had been in his peripheral vision. Chaovaret grew up in the Bangkok neighbourhood of Sri Yan, the family’s middle-class dwelling sandwiched between the mansions of magistrates and the hovels of harlots. On his way to school every morning he had to walk past a brothel that doubled as an opium den, where the dregs and fumes of last night’s debauch mingled.

None of these temptations sent his moral compass out of whack; Chaovaret’s early life was too grounded in religious morals. His father was Buddhist, his mother Muslim, and the Saint Joan of Arc School he attended was Catholic. Much later in life, he would boast that he had never visited a bordello, never taken drugs and only committed one crime in his life: stealing a pack of greetings cards from another student back in Grade 4.

As staunch of a moralist as he could be, forever defending capital punishment until his dying day, he also had a raucously rebellious streak that he vented by playing guitar in rock ‘n’ roll bands that toured the GI bases in the ‘60s.

For him, taking a job as a prison guard served the dual purpose of supporting his family while working towards that final parole for all working stiffs: retirement with a pension. (Anybody who knows what it’s like to be a highly sexed and grossly underpaid rock musician should be able to related to that decision.)

Chaovaret always said that the worst job on the execution team was not pulling the trigger – it was having to walk into the death-row cell to read out the final decision of the court to the condemned man, before whisking him off to a final meal and blessing from a Buddhist monk.  En route to the “room to end all suffering” (as the death chamber is referred to in Thai), Chaovaret said, ““I heard it all—crying, begging and cursing me. But some of them just walked in without a word. They were ready to die.”

Exhibiting the Buddhist grace under pressure that he was renowned for, Chaovaret defused some dangerously combustible situations on death-row. In his 2006 autobiography The Last Executioner, he remembered dealing with a serial rapist, convicted of raping and murdering a 10-year-old girl, who was screaming at the guards and still protesting his innocence. Chaovaret told him, “Just think of it as bad karma coming back to you for what you have done. If you are positive when you ‘go’ you will end up in a better place, so empty your mind of anger and negativity.”

His tranquil demeanour also served as a tranquilizer for the inmate. The now contrite rapist wrote a letter to his father repeating the inescapable Buddhist cycle of life: birth, aging, suffering and death. He also reminded him to visit his brother Narat who had confessed to his role in the rape and murder.

One woman involved in a kidnapping-turned-homicide fought the guards all the way into the death chamber and was pronounced dead by a doctor after taking 10 bullets. But as they brought one of her accomplices into the room, Chaovaret and the guards heard her scream in the tiny morgue. Not only that, she was trying to stand up. Bedlam erupted. “One of the escorts rolled her over and pressed down on her back to accelerate the bleeding and help her die,” wrote Chaovaret. “Another escort, a real hard man, tried to strangle her to finish her off but I swept his arms away in disgust.”

After they executed one of her accomplices, the doctor found that the woman was still breathing. He ordered the guards to tie her back on the cross and this time they used the full clip of 15 bullets to ensure she was dead.

Chaovaret’s experience on the firing line and ability to keep a cool head while everyone else was losing theirs resulted in the prison authorities promoting him to the rank of executioner in 1984. He always said that he did not want the job and only did it because it meant more money for his family.

Susan Aldous, author of the autobiographical The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison about her humanitarian work in Thailand’s largest maximum-security facility, sees it a different way.

“When they asked him to become the executioner, I think they appealed to his sense of masculinity. Do you think you’re tough enough to do this job? Before that he was a low-ranking nobody, but that promotion gave him a sense of importance.”

Having interviewed him in the prison quite a few times and seen him socially on a few other occasions, I often thought that he had a chip, though definitely not a boulder, on his shoulder too, and that he enjoyed the notoriety of his job. In between spells of playing surf instrumentals and Elvis covers on his acoustic guitar in the jail he would take stabs at himself, “I wasn’t handsome or talented enough to make it as a musician.”

At the same time, this contradictory character, who later became the Chief of Foreign Affairs at Bang Kwang, overseeing as many as 800 foreign inmates at any given time, was the only person in Bangkok that Susan trusted to take care of her daughter. “We used to joke that the executioner was her nanny.” He also helped Susan to untangle the prison’s red tape so she could do programmes with the deathly ill and the nearly blind. “He would show me how to do the paperwork and he’d get the signatures. Then I’d be hugging all these AIDS patients and he’d make all these jokes about how disgusting it was and that I was so ugly that this was the best I could get. But when the other male guards were not around, I’d look over and see him with a few tears in his eyes.”

Certainly Chaovaret did have a conscience. He also believed in karma. Before each execution he would pray to a powerful spirit for forgiveness. He was not killing the man out of malice, he said, but because it was his duty. The 2,000 baht he received for each execution he religiously donated to a royal temple in Nonthaburi.

Not long before he passed away, his wife held a special Buddhist rite to appease the spirits of the 55 men and women who ended up in his gun-sights. She asked them to let him die in peace and not interfere with his next reincarnation.

The final book he coauthored, A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton (Maverick House, 2010), was with Pornchai Sereemongkonpol. At the beginning of this year, Pornchai saw him for the last time. “He was in a wheelchair and quite bloated, but still in good spirits and cracking jokes. He always had a good sense of humour. I remember him telling me once that his daughter found it difficult to get dates because all the guys knew what her father did,” he said.

How to sum up this Jekyll and Hyde character? He was both an assassin and an altruist, a rock ‘n’ roller and a civil servant, a hardline moralist and a hard-drinking joker who, above all else, was the most loyal of family men with three children and a four-decades-long marriage.

Knowing him and his love of Elvis and penchant for matching a song to every possible occasion, if you asked him to sum up his life, his leathery features would crack open in a grin and he’d sing a few bars of “Jailhouse Rock.”

The late executioner is featured in Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic (Marshall Cavendish International, 2010).

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The tell-tale art

By Jim Algie
In the middle of 2011, some eight years after the Thai government’s “War on Drugs” stacked up a body count of 2,500 people in three months, the first and only policemen to be indicted were handed down two-year sentences for shooting a nine-year-old boy caught in the crossfire as his mother, an alleged drug dealer, sped away in her car.

The boy was shot as he sat in the backseat. His mother’s body has never been found.

It would be hard for any hardboiled author of crime fiction to compete with such front-page stories, but convictions like that, or even investigations, are rare. Most crime stories disappear from the press within days, leaving journalists to grope for euphemisms and nebulous terms like “invisible hands” and “dark influences”, while the general public has to read between the lines or consult some of the internationally heralded authors in the anthology Bangkok Noir (Heaven Lake Press, 2011) for all the gory details.

At first glance, the title reads like an oxymoron. Given the sunny climate and the sunny-side-up dispositions of most Thais, invoking the word noir next to Bangkok seems a mite strange, because the French word for “black” is more a state of existential despair than a genre of film and fiction. In response to two World Wars and the Great Depression that carved a long dark trench between them, much of the crime fiction and cinema of suspense from the ‘40s and ‘50s was infected with a lethal strain of fatalism.

It’s a bleak worldview best represented in this collection by Timothy Hallinan’s “Hansum Man”. The author of “The Queen of Patpong”, a 2011 nominee for the Edgar Allan Poe best mystery novel award, tells the punchy tale of a Vietnam vet coming back to Bangkok in search of R ‘n’ R after a long time away, only to find a city that is more hostile and foreboding than he remembered. True to the genre’s downwardly mobile nature, the only way for the protagonist to go is to go down screaming blue murder.

Noir’s elasticity is stretched in engrossing new ways by the book’s editor, Christopher G. Moore, in “Dolphins Inc”. Displaying the author’s penchant for melding contemporary concerns like the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan with the imaginative realms of cyberpunk and hardboiled fiction, this genre-jumping tale rewards repeat readings. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to figure it out the first time around.

That stock character of noir, the femme fatale, gets revamped in Thai fashion. John Burdett (Bangkok 8) adds a few touches of tastefully written erotica to a portrait of Thailand’s most infamous female phantasm in “Gone East”, while the eminent travel author Pico Ayer (Video Nights in Kathmandu) returns to the Bangkok scenes of that non-fiction collection in the only story that flirts with the city’s main tenderloin for tourists.

Penetrating the love lives of Thai society’s elite is a subject rarely dealt with in English-language writing from Thailand. Until now, as local author Tew Bunnag sketches the incongruities and murderous passions in a love quadrangle of an older, bisexual politician, his younger mistress, an errant gigolo and a forsaken wife in “The Mistress Wants Her Freedom”. Tew’s sympathy for the plight of the young mistress at the hands of the Viagra-gobbling politician is rendered explicitly well: “He merely needed her to be there as a beautiful trinket to bolster his esteem and as a receptacle into which he could pour his artificially stimulated desire.”

The run up to any election is known in Thai slang as the “killing season” because that’s when the goons and hitmen intimidate potential candidates or eliminate political rivals. Last year’s election was no exception. The Royal Thai Police offered cash rewards of up to 100,000 baht for information leading to the arrest of 112 hitmen. The police also distributed posters of the wanted men across the country.

Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang was assigned by the former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban to keep an eye on the country’s contract killers in some 50 potential flashpoints. Leading a team of 60-odd investigators, the policeman told The Nation. “Suthep wants me to monitor hitmen and figures with dark influence during the lead-up to the balloting.”

There it is again – that term “dark influence” – which rarely comes to light in any newspapers. But a few of these shadowy killers from the margins of society are fleshed out in the anthology by veteran expat authors Collin Piprell and Dean Barrett, who zero in on a stock figure of crime writing. “Hot Enough to Kill” by Piprell deglamourizes the hitman. To Chai it’s just another job that pays better than menial labour. At the end of the workday all he wants is do is have a cold beer and flirt with some good-looking women, like many other working stiffs.

In “Death of a Legend”, Barrett supplies the book’s cleverest and most Hitchcockesque plot twist, with the noir served up in dollops of black humour.

Stephen Leather and Colin Cotterill turn in entertaining yarns in line with their international reputations, but the riskiest story may very well be Pol Gen Vasit Dejkunjorn’s “The Sword.” Of all the different crime and detective stories set in Thailand, the police procedural is off limits, for the simple reason that any author revealing the behind-the-crime-scenes machinations of the force’s do-badders would be bringing down a death sentence on their own heads.

In all of the country’s Thai and English newspapers, the editorial is a yearly déjà vu – “Police in Need of Reform” – but how does the corruption play out on a daily basis? Vasit, a retired police general named a National Artist in Literature in 1998, fills in the blanks and grey areas of a young cop’s rise to riches:

“He did not forget that criminal investigation and interrogation alone were not sufficient for his fame. To be hailed as a police idol, he would have to show that he was skilled too in crime suppression. The young superintendent consequently turned to the easiest prey: the petty thieves. His arrest records were impressively long. When an armed robber resisted arrest, Yuddha did not waste time negotiating. The robber was gunned down in a brief firefight. With the extrajudicial killing, Yuddha joined the prestigious class of police exterminators.”

“The Sword” – a reference to the ceremonial offerings given to graduates of the police academy by a member of royalty – takes the case of a tycoon whose driver has possibly caused the death of a motorcyclist and expands it into a much bigger tale that details how the bribery system works. Unexpectedly moving in places and impressively detailed, the story’s climax turns it into a chilling cautionary tale.

After the canon of noir’s greatest exponents, the American novelists Jim Thompson, Chester Himes and David Goodis, ran out of firepower and readers as the ‘60s came to a close, a new kind of crime tale emerged, typified by Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and the early films of Quentin Tarantino, which plays the darker elements for black comedy.

As the new depression deepens and spreads like an oil spill, only the loan sharks and pawnbrokers are laughing now. So the stage is set for a return to noir’s pessimism, which is all about corruption: corruption of politics; corruption of big business; the commodification of human relationships; and ultimately, the corruption of the individual’s integrity and most cherished beliefs, as happens to the crooked cop in “The Sword.”

After all, in a country and body politic where the default prime minister is a convicted criminal on the lam, noir remains the tell-tale art.

(This is a slightly revised version of an experimental sort of book review/true crime hybrid that recently appeared in The Nation with a different title at:

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Eco Apocalypse

Weather patterns have gone schizo and loco lately with unheard of days of downpours in Bangkok during the dry season, cold snaps and lashes of wintry wind and frost in Europe, and even blizzards and school closures in normally balmy but rainy Vancouver.

As one media pundit put it, “Climate change is the only big issue that the media doesn’t exaggerate.”

Slowly but decisively an organic revolution (perhaps evolution is a better word) is sprouting across the planet.

Here is the text for a new feature of mine and a link at the bottom for the online version from the Bangkok Post supplement, Spectrum, looking at the fifth annual Green Products Fair in Bangkok from February 9 to 12.

The premise of the film Food, Inc. reads like an Orwellian take on farming and agriculture, where a multinational has patented seeds, employing dozens of private investigators and a 1-800 hotline to track down farmers accused of stealing them, where just 13 slaughterhouses have monopolized the US meat market and incubated a slew of killer viruses, where abattoirs are run like assembly lines and the illegal immigrants who staff them are treated only slightly better than the animals.

It looks like a dystopian vision of the future, except this is a documentary and it’s all happening now. Many viewers find the film hard to stomach, but its silver lining is the evolution of the alternative agriculture movement.

One of the movement’s pioneers in Thailand is Wallapa Van Willenswaard. As the director of the Thai Green Market Network, she has mothered the annual Green Fair through five years of growing pains. This season’s cluster of events runs from February 9-12 in the Faculty of Arts Building on the Chulalongkorn University campus.

The fair unites farmers, vendors, shoppers, environmentalists, musicians and folkloric performers in a bazaar-like atmosphere bulked out with workshops on making soap and milling rice, cooking classes for veggie fare, and a truly ‘green party’ with live entertainment. Supplying some of the seed money are sponsors like the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and the National Innovation Agency.

“The fair is also about educating consumers and encouraging them to read labels and find out what they’re consuming,” said Wallapa. “These days, so many products claim to be made from all natural ingredients, but the reality is something else. We are also pushing for better labeling in Thailand.”

Participating for the third year in a row is Adisak “Dee” Kaewrakmuk who, in collaboration with his girlfriend, Goy, owns and operates a homey shop called Urban Tree on Bangkok’s Samsen Road. They are part of a new breed of young Thai urbanites with rural roots and a passionate interest in all things organic. “At the moment, this organic movement is still a trend not a lifestyle in Thailand, but that’s changing,” said Dee. “At the end of 2011, we had a huge order from the Kasikorn Bank group for 20,000 pieces to be used as gifts for their premium customers.”

On display in Dee’s shop is a wholesome range of products made in Thailand, like black rice, longan honey, herbal toothpaste and shampoo made with natural ingredients like kaffir limes and Indian gooseberries instead of sodium lauryl sulfate, a cheap and carcinogenic chemical commonly used in soaps and shampoos. Some of these goods will be on sale at their booth.

During a seven-year stint in the Thai heartland as a program coordinator with the Council on International Educational Exchange Programs based in Khon Kaen University, he assisted American college students from big-name schools like Yale and Berkeley to live and study with small-town farmers. That’s when he was exposed to the toxic side effects of modern agriculture. The twin scourges of pesticides and herbicides have reaped a grim harvest in these areas: taking lives and stealing livelihoods, turning rivers septic and transforming fertile earth into barren wasteland.

The friendships he formed with those farmers, many of whom no longer use such chemicals, have also became valuable links in the supply chain for his shop. Ironically, now that herbal products and natural knowhow have become “cool” these rural folks are no longer seen as backwards hillbillies but exemplars of eco-wise living. “The organic farmers are also making money so the younger generation will follow in their footsteps instead of coming to Bangkok to work in bars and sweatshops,” said Dee.

Hawking bushels of pesticide-free produce, the farmers are perennials at the Green Fair, which grew from 50 booths in 2007 to more than 200 in 2010. That growth is on a par with the burgeoning export market for organic fare from Thailand, which now adds up to around Bt3.5 billion per year, according to the number-crunchers at the Commerce Ministry.

Debuting at this year’s fair, Wallapa noted, “is a symposium for students and the general public on the last two days to swap ideas. We are also launching Towards Organic Asia, or TOA, a new network with members from Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia coming to speak in English during a seminar on the afternoon of February 11th. Some products from those countries will be on sale too.”

Now sprouting up across Southeast Asia, the organic revolution is a movement that she compares to “Occupy Wall Street” except it’s a lot more down to earth. For one thing, the major corporations are actually paying attention. Gary Hirshberg, the hippie environmentalist-turned-millionaire organic yogurt entrepreneur spoke in Food, Inc. of Wal-Mart’s decision to stop selling a brand of milk that contained a synthetic growth hormone because of consumer outrage. “Individual consumers changed the biggest company on earth.”

Rarely has so much power ever been vested in the pockets of shoppers to affect positive change on such a vast number of levels: physical, fiscal, political, cultural, ecological and rural. Rarely has the time been riper to seize this opportunity and use that power.

Outside the Urban Tree shop, a dirty grey dusk that looked like the bottom of a used ashtray was slowly smudging out the sun and sky. Dee looked out the window of his shop at the thunderheads massing on the horizon. “I’ve never seen it rain for five days straight in January in Bangkok. What’s going on out there?”

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Straits Times reviews Bizarre Thailand

Mark Fenn has just reviewed Bizarre Thailand in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, giving the book an all round thumbs up.

Illuminating and irreverent, it offers a taste of Thailand far from Bangkok’s glitzy shopping malls and the well-worn tourist trails, delving into subjects as diverse as Thai folklore and superstition, the criminal justice system, the sex-for-sale scene, off-beat tourist attractions, unusual religious festivals and more.

Mark went on to write: “Highly recommended for anyone with more than a passing interest in the kingdom.”

He also recommended Phil Cornwel-Smith’s Very Thai as a companion read. So a shout out to Phil too.

Read more Bizarre Thailand reviews here.

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Reviewing the Reviewer

Given the ever-more scrawny and space-famished column inches given to book reviews, it takes a surgeon’s skill to tap that vein and distill the blood and bile of a tome these days. But Max Crosbie-Jones, the managing editor of Bangkok101, pulled off that feat in this terse review (okay, the publisher is Marshall Cavendish not Maverick House, but we’ll spare Max any ire since he’s slaving away under the tyranny of that Machiavellian task-master Mason Florence, ha ha):

“It could have been a grotesque freak show, but it isn’t. Whether he’s hanging out with sex workers, cowboys or sacred tortoises, Algie is never anything but the model feature writer, bringing empathy, balance, wit and no small amount of research to his subjects.”

Bizarre Thailand reviewed in Bangkok 101



























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YouTubing on the New Bizarre Thailand Channel

After consulting with a Thai fortune-teller, re-reading parts of the I-Ching, uttering an incantation to Ganesha, the god of art, and waiting until Venus was in Neptune, while staving off much apathy and plenty of petulance (though that last clause should go without saying), the most propitious time to launch the Bizarre Thailand Channel on YouTube finally came at 11.14pm on August 23rd, 2011 – and not a second too soon.
Many thanks to Bill from for putting together the slide show, orchestrating the music and – is there anything this technocrat can’t do? – carrying out the interview in late 2010.
Over the next few months, many more video slices of Southeast Asian bizarro will be uploaded. I appreciate all the letters and suggestion from readers. As always, feel free to recommend more videos via email at bizarrethailand at
Have a gander here.
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Playing the Pimp of Self-Promotion (Reluctantly Once More)

A message from our host, Jim Algie…

Many thanks are due to all the readers, reviewers and good bookwormish Samaritans out there for buying up the first print run of the book back in June: about 15 months ahead of the publisher’s schedule. Now that we’re into another printing it’s time to start pimping myself again, loathsome and mercenary as the task may be.

Over the next few weeks, we shall be uploading an assortment of different reviews and interviews to the website. For starters, here is an interview from the April-May issue of bed sheets which of course is Bed Supperclub’s magazine here in Bangkok. It was quite the surreal honour to be featured in the same issue as both Goldie and Boy George. Feel free to supply your own punchline.


Bed Sheets interview with Jim Algie

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Sabotage Times runs Bizarre Thailand excerpt on See Uey, the notorious child-killing cannibal

See Uey's cadaver on display at the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum in Bangkok

Sabotage Times, the online magazine published by the legendary James Brown of Loaded fame, has just run a full excerpt from Bizarre Thailand.

The chapter from the book’s Crime Scenes section covers a number of morbid and gruesome tales, focusing in on the true story of See Uey, an ethnic Chinese cannibal with an infamous taste for children’s livers.

The piece is capped of with a section from “Feasting on Famine” one of Jim Algie’s award-winning short stories that puts some flesh on the bones of Thailand’s most notorious bogeyman.

As local parents tell their troublesome kids: “Don’t stay out after dark or the ghost of See Uey will eat you.”

Read the full excerpt here.

If you want more, you can download Feasting in Famine in its entirety here.

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