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KAWOW TEE BANGPLENG (CUCKOOS AT BANGPLENG) (1994)
[aka Blackbirds At Bangpleng]

“What is the natural cycle?
“Birth, old age, sickness, and death.”
“Would you believe that there are places where that isn’t true…?”

Director: Nirattisai Kaljareuk

Starring: Ruj Ronnapop, Hattaya Gatesung, Passawut Maytanee, Surattana Khongtrakul, Saranyu Wonggrajang

Screenplay: Wanit Jaroong-Git-Anun, based upon the novel by Momrajawong Kukrit Pramoj

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Synopsis: During the annual Loy Kratong festival, the townspeople of Bangpleng gather by the river under the full moon to make wishes in the form of lit candles set afloat upon the waters. The school principal, whose wife is pregnant, greets Professor and Mrs Somsak, who are childless after nine years of marriage. Mrs Somsak admits wistfully that she has been wishing for a baby. Further along the river, Pan, a former temple orphan, prays that his girlfriend, Gaew, should love only him; later, he asks her to marry him. Gaew accepts, although she knows that Pan must return to Bangkok for at least two years before the wedding can take place. At the temple, the Abbot finds his novices restless and inattentive. He kindly frees them to attend the festival, only asking of them – optimistically – that they behave with dignity and composure. Outside, the Lieutenant of Police signals to the headman of Bangpleng to set off the fireworks. As the townspeople gather together to watch, there is a disturbance in the night sky, with the moon seeming to grow. A spaceship suddenly appears, and instantly the people are frozen in place, unseeing and unhearing. The ship passes over the town, emitting beams of light that envelope the women, before vanishing. The people recover, puzzled by the feeling that something has happened, but with no idea what…. The next day, Joy Sudarat, a schoolteacher, returns home after visiting her grandmother. As she walks through the town, she meets the Principal and his family, for whom she has gifts. Suddenly, the women of the town are taken ill, feeling faint or overcome by nausea. The sick women flock to the local doctor, who discovers to his mystification that they are all pregnant. The women react in various ways – joy, horror, fear. At the temple, four tearful nuns swear to the Abbot that they have not broken the Precepts. Meanwhile, outbreaks of violence begin to occur throughout Bangpleng as some of the men assume the worst. In a fit of drunken rage, Pan abuses Gaew for her apparent faithlessness. As the girl weeps, her father – whose wife, too, is expecting a child – forces Pan to understand the truth: that all the townswomen are pregnant, and that no-one can explain how it happened…. Professor Somsak travels to the university in Bangkok to consult a scientist friend, Siri, and confesses to him that the child his wife is carrying cannot be his, as he is sterile. Siri agrees to accompany Somsak to Bangpleng. As the two men try to make sense of the situation, Mrs Somsak is disturbed by the report of a UFO sighting in one of Siri’s books. Intrigued by her reaction, Siri begins to develop a theory…. That night, the spaceship again visits Bangpleng; and soon, swiftly and almost painlessly, the babies are born en masse….

Comments:  The opening credits of Blackbirds At Bangpleng tell us – almost the only thing that they do tell us, frustratingly – that the film is based upon a novel by the former actor, writer, scholar, soldier and prime minister of Thailand, Momrajawong Kukrit Pramoj. And just as well they make that clear, too, because otherwise we would certainly suspect that what we have here is yet another adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel, “The Midwich Cuckoos”. In all seriousness, the inspiration for the “original” story on which this film was based is only too apparent. It is not, after all, as if anyone did much to disguise the borrowings. Consider the film’s actual title: kawow, or kawao, is the local term for the Asian koel, a member of the cuckoo family that, like its brethren, is a brood parasite. The most far-reaching consequence of this misappropriation is that, apart from a few screenings at international film festivals, Blackbirds At Bangpleng is a work almost unknown outside of Thailand; and this – to step from the realm of the moral judgement into that of the purely artistic – is rather a shame. The film may lift its central premise and the early sections of its plot from elsewhere, but having done so, it proceeds to put them to quite unexpected uses. Philosophically, Blackbirds At Bangpleng is as different from its literary and cinematic counterparts as it is possible for it to be.

In their initial stages, all versions of this tale follow essentially the same course. A small, nondescript but largely peaceful township suffers an alien visitation. During a period of blanket unconsciousness, the women of the community are impregnated, and in accelerated time give birth to children externally human but fundamentally alien, who may constitute a deadly threat to the very community that bore them – if not to the world at large. To this point we are all on the same page; but here, Blackbirds At Bangpleng departs from the road well-travelled. Both “The Midwich Cuckoos” and the original version of Village Of The Damned are tales of the Cold War, in which a “they” simultaneously like and disturbingly unlike “us” stages an invasion; both argue that the right to self-preservation must sometimes supersede the accepted precepts of civilised life. The John Carpenter re-make--- Well, who knows what the point of that dreary and depressing exercise was? (If we wanted to be generous we could say, to get In The Mouth Of Madness made.) Blackbirds At Bangpleng chooses, compellingly, to take an entirely antithetical stance, re-staging the familiar story in terms of the Buddhist doctrine, and making a case not for destruction of the outsiders, but for acceptance and assimilation.

Blackbirds At Bangpleng is a leisurely-paced film. Unlike its fellows, it never really settles into a single or even a divided viewpoint, but rather tells its tale from the perspective of numerous characters who are variously affected by the alien invasion. The story opens on the night of the November full moon, as the community of Bangpleng celebrates the Loy Kratong festival; and we spend some time wandering around the town, as it were, and meeting the people whose lives are soon to be so drastically changed. The festival comes to a climax with a display of celebratory fireworks, and the townspeople gather together to gaze up into the night sky. No sooner has Mrs Somsak, enjoying a romantic ride on the ferris wheel with her husband, commented on the unusual size of the moon than a spaceship emerges, it seems, literally from the moon. The power, the lights, cut out all through the town; the people become catatonic. Blackbirds At Bangpleng is a film whose ambition outstrips its execution to an occasionally embarrassing degree. Its special effects were certainly designed to be impressive, but in fact are frequently rather cartoonish – not to mention overly influenced by certain Hollywood productions. The spaceship itself is pure Close Encounters, while the ground-level shots of its slow pass over the town are pretty much guaranteed to put viewers in mind of….oh, some space film or other…. Animated beams stream from the ship, enveloping, we see, the women only; and then the ship is gone. The power comes back on and townspeople recover from their brief blackout, only vaguely aware that something untoward has happened. The effects of this interlude become apparent almost immediately – in fact, it is the very next day when the women of Bangpleng begin, collectively, to either pass out or throw up. The town’s young doctor is suddenly swamped with patients. As literally hundreds of people descend upon the small hospital, the mystified medico must break the same piece of news to woman after woman after woman….

The reactions to this news are as varied as the women themselves. Mrs Somsak is both thrilled and deeply moved at having her prayer for a child so unexpectedly answered. The newly-engaged Gaew is horrified beyond words. Young girls become hysterical. An elderly woman, to that moment never seen except when giving her long-suffering spouse the rough edge of her tongue, lapses into unwonted gentleness in the face of this most unlikely happening – although she remains enough herself to taunt her unfortunate husband with the possibility that she has someone else to thank for her condition. “You’re not the only capable man in Bangpleng!” she observes, provoking disbelieving but appreciate guffaws from those within earshot. (The subtitles on my print insist, rather alarmingly, that the woman is eighty! Sixty seems more likely, particularly given that her pregnancy occurs after, as she puts it, “Forty years of trying.”) At the temple, the Abbot first becomes aware of the town’s predicament when he is confronted by four tearful nuns, all of whom swear to him that they have done nothing to violate their vows. As the news spreads to the men of Bangpleng, there are, inevitably, outbreaks of violence. A father beats his young daughter unmercifully, until the Abbot intervenes. Pan, drunk and hysterical, screams abuse at Gaew. But here as elsewhere, the film is determinedly even-handed: set against these violent responses is that of Professor Somsak who, in spite of his awareness of his own sterility, is able to express a simple faith in his wife’s fidelity.

At length it becomes apparent that no-one – no-one present – is “to blame” for these events, and the town focuses itself upon simply trying to cope with the situation. The women, their pregnancies advancing rapidly, become absorbed by all matters obstetrical; the men, unavoidably marginalised, gather together in endless debate over what has happened – and while some panic and fear is evident, on the whole they prove themselves to be of an unexpectedly practical turn of mind. The doctor, his nurses and midwives all pregnant themselves, worries over who will deliver the babies, while the school principal frets over how town’s educational system can possibly cope when its student numbers are all at once more than doubled. (The Thai government, we learn at this point, has been informed of the events in Bangpleng but has declined to take action, on the grounds that “it’s natural for women to be pregnant”. Serve ’em right if the aliens had taken over!) Professor Somsak travels to Bangkok to enlist the aid of a scientist friend, Siri, who gains permission from the university authorities to relocate temporarily to Bangpleng, taking his research with him. Siri’s first discovery is a strange leaf, found lying near the temple, which is composed of no material that he can identify. As he shows this to the Professor, Mrs Somsak becomes distressed by the description of a UFO sighting in one of Siri’s books, a report that includes a reference to a spaceship that seemed to “emerge” from the moon. Seeing this, Siri puts two and two together and rapidly forms a theory that is very close to the truth. Before he can take action, or even decide on what action might be possible, the spaceship again visits Bangpleng – and the babies arrive, almost simultaneously. Mrs Somsak wakes in the middle of the night to find herself not merely in labour, but through it before she is well aware that it has started. (Her squirming abdomen is unintentionally comical.) Even as her husband begins to speak of the hospital, Mrs Somsak flicks back her sheet to reveal that her baby has been born, painlessly, bloodlessly, and well-nigh instantaneously. If you ask me, there’s something to be said for alien impregnation.

So far, so familiar. But here, Blackbirds At Bangpleng parts company with the better-known renderings of this tale. Fond as I am of Village Of The Damned, the film, to my mind, like the novel that it is based upon, suffers from a very serious flaw, namely, that its tale of alien rape is told exclusively from the point of view of the male characters! The Carpenter version avoids this misstep, but instead falls back upon an annoying “mothers/housewives = good, childless/working women = bad” dichotomy. Blackbirds At Bangpleng is guilty of neither of these blunders, and nor does it make the equally misguided assumption that its story is only about its women. In keeping with its underlying philosophy, the film is at all time mindful of the reactions of its community as a whole; and more importantly still, it devotes time to the relationship between the new parents and their mysterious offspring. In this version, this is simplified by the fact that the children are, initially, both physically and behaviourally human. The camera drifts around the town, silently observing as the residents attempt to return their lives to something resembling normality. Babies are everywhere; Bangpleng resembles nothing so much as a gigantic creche. We see Professor Somsak overcoming his reservations, and willingly helping his wife with her – their – infant son; the elderly couple, bewildered but happy at the unexpected turn their lives have taken; Gaew, silent and sad, raising her child alone. Time passes. A chastened Pan returns to Bangpleng and again begs for Gaew’s hand, promising to look upon her son as his own. The children, at the age of one, look and act like four-year-olds. If they are not, perhaps, as emotionally responsive as their parents would like, they have caused no trouble; and it is not until they start school that their essential difference begins to make itself felt.

The scenes of the first day at school convey a great deal in a few shots. After the flag-raising ceremony, during which all of the students stand quiet and respectful, about a third of them lapse into excited laughing and wriggling about. The majority remains motionless, silent. As Joy Sudarat, one of the teachers, begins to read out the classes for the year, this larger group of children breaks itself up and files into the various classrooms, correctly anticipating Joy’s assignment list. (There is some inconsistency in the film’s depiction of the children’s telepathic powers. Although they are seen throughout communicating amongst themselves in this manner, their ability to read the minds of those around them comes and goes. On one occasion, for instance, they can detect someone spying on them, while on another they fail to do so.) Siri, still trying to make sense of the events in Bangpleng, later questions Joy about her students. She replies that they are exceptionally bright, having completed the year’s syllabus in only two months. (Meaning, as Joy points out, that they will be due to graduate in about a year. As always, this is dealt with in the most practical of ways: the principal simply decides not to graduate them, thus negating the requirement for them to be sent to an institution of higher learning outside of Bangpleng.) Joy also describes to Siri the children’s apparent telepathy, and tells him that there are certain points of physical difference between them and their “normal” classmates – if you look closely enough…. So there are, as there are differences in conduct. Siri visits the school to confirm Joy’s observations. There we find the human children playing all manner of games, the half-aliens sitting apart, as always silent and watchful. His attention caught by some of the children’s failure to react in the slightest way as a ball sails only an inch by their heads, Siri sees for himself that their eyes, in certain lights, glow in a variety of colours….and that they blink with their underlids.

(This is easily the creepiest touch in the film – or would have been, had not some mastermind decided to destroy all subtlety by accompanying the movement with an overt, robotic whirring noise. Sigh.)

One of the main ways in which Blackbirds At Bangpleng stands apart from the other versions of the story is in the absence of what we might call instinctive hostility against the alien children. No outbreaks of violence litter their path as they grow; no fear or revulsion greets their presence at any time. When they start school, there is no confrontation between themselves and their normal counterparts: the aliens may be seen silently observing the humans, but otherwise the two factions simply ignore one another. This status quo is maintained until the children reach what, in our terms, we can only call puberty. (The film’s time-line is fairly indeterminate, but we get a sense of the children’s accelerated growth through a glimpse of the principal’s daughter, born almost contemporaneously with the invaders, but at this point still a small child.) Consequent upon another visit from the spaceship, the children undergo a growth spurt, one accompanied by the development of points at the tops of their ears – again, not one of the film’s more convincing effects – and by the appearance at their temples of a triangular series of small spots, or birthmarks. This evolution is followed by the sudden arrival in town of four more of the alien children, who present themselves at the temple and affront the Abbot by bluntly announcing their intention to stay there – where, they reveal, they were conceived. They are, of course, are the offspring of the four nuns who, alone of their sisters, chose to flee Bangpleng, and to bear and raise their children elsewhere. This quartet swiftly becomes the focal point of the alien gathering, and one of the four, a boy named Somporn, emerges as the group’s leader – although as events prove, he is neither so powerful nor so much his fellows’ spokesperson as it initially appears. Their numbers complete, the children begin to spend much of their time away from their parents’ homes, instead massing together at all opportunities and behaving as a single entity.

(The children’s appearance and behaviour from this stage onwards carries what would seem to be a rather pointed regional allusion. Shortly before Blackbirds At Bangpleng went into production, Thailand suffered through a failed military coup. The aliens’ literally regimented movements and preference for quasi-military clothing may, I suspect, be understood in this context.)

In particular, the children take to assembling at night, secretively. One of these gatherings takes place in the grounds of the school, where the lights attract the attention of Joy Sudarat. She sets out with the intention of investigating, but is intercepted by the principal, who kindly offers to take the trouble instead. So it is he who sees exactly what the children are up to; he also who is found dead the next morning, hanging in an empty classroom…. The principal’s funeral proves to be the catalyst for the various story threads that will intertwine for the rest of the film. As the town mourns, most of the children go through the motions, mimicking their parents’ actions. The temple children, however, stand apart, watching the proceedings with patent bewilderment. They make use of Yumasak, the son of the Somsaks, who of all the children has the closest relationship with his human parents, and send him to inquire into this perplexing spectacle. Yumasak obeys the silent command. What is happening? Why do people “have water in their eyes”? What is sadness? It is doubtful that Mrs Somsak’s answers do much to enlighten the children, but at the sight of her distress, Yumasak himself becomes unsettled in a manner most displeasing to his alien brethren.

(The film stumbles somewhat here, as do all versions of the story: “love”, “sadness”, “compassion”--- The aliens never understand such concepts; but “anger”, “pride”, “contempt”--- Oh, yes. They know all about those, all right.)

After the funeral, Somporn confronts the Abbot, and the showdown that has been looming since the arrival of the temple children takes place: the alien threat versus – The Power Of Buddhism!! (And believe me, I’m being neither facetious nor disrespectful here: that is precisely the tone that the film adopts from here on in. Which I guess is why Buddha was invited to join the Super Best Friends, right?) Throughout the Bangpleng crisis, the Abbot has been the voice, not just of reason, but of calm: intervening whenever panic seemed about to take hold, quelling outbreaks of violence, preaching a doctrine of acceptance of what cannot be changed. Here, knowing just what threatens in the sullen, disdainful form of Somporn, he nevertheless remains his usual tranquil self, trying to explain that the funeral, and his own lengthy oration, were designed to remind the town that the principal’s death, however sad, was a part of the “natural cycle” of life. This explanation triggers an outpouring of scorn from Somporn, at the thought of a culture so accepting of “sickness” and “death”: such resignation is clearly a sign of weakness, a lack of power. The boy is stopped in his tracks, however, when the Abbot immediately reaches out and touches his mind with his own, telepathically, explaining that he has gained this power through meditation, and by following the teachings of the Buddha. This power meets a more urgent challenge shortly afterwards, when the Abbot must intervene to save the life of the Lieutenant of Police who, at the prompting of Siri and Joy, has been so unwise as to question the temple children about the death of the principal. Helpless in Somporn’s mental grip, the Lieutenant sees his own gun turned in his hand, feels Somporn’s hands tighten his own fingers on the trigger….but the shot goes wide. Whether Somporn has obeyed the Abbot’s distant command, or whether it is the shock of the intrusion into his mind that is responsible, we cannot be certain. The two adversaries face one another again shortly afterwards, and a clearly threatened Somporn (in a moment that explicitly recalls the climax of the original Village Of The Damned) destroys a brick wall with the power of his mind. The Abbot is unmoved, responding only with a statement of his faith in what may be achieved through kindness. He puts his beliefs into action immediately, stopping Somporn’s instinctive move to kill a snake that has slid into the temple, pleading that instead they treat it with “compassion”. Somporn responds by mentally dashing the creature against the wall, sneering, “This is easier!” But the petulant act does nothing but betray the extent of the boy’s own fears and weaknesses.

Expression of faith in the Buddhist doctrine is a substantial component of Blackbirds At Bangpleng, but it is not the only one. Religion is posited as an essential part of life; but, the film argues, on its own it is not enough. Its tenets must be exercised within the framework of community, of family. Although their behaviour following the arrival of the four temple children suggests the existence of a collective mind, in time the aliens begin to exhibit an entire spectrum of temperaments and personalities according to how and where and by whom they have been raised. Thus, at one extreme we have Yumasak, who not only finds his loyalties torn between his human parents and his fellow aliens, but who in time, and under his mother’s patient tuition, begins to grasp a number of the more abstract terrestrial concepts: not just “love”, but “gratitude”, “obligation”, “duty”. (And considering how many human beings never manage to get that far, well….) At the other extreme are the offspring of the four nuns. We are never granted any hard facts about the upbringing of this quartet, but their entire failure to comprehend even the most basic of human behaviours suggests that they have been kept in near if not total isolation. Given the film’s wholehearted support of the Buddhist religion, as a religion, it is a provocative touch that they who have dedicated their lives to it prove to be the most inadequate parents – and we remember, too, that Pan, the most emotionally dysfunctional of our human characters, was himself a “temple orphan”.

The relationship between the parents of Bangpleng and their alien offspring gives a whole new twist to this particular tale. The children are all-powerful not merely because of their numbers, nor indeed because of their actual powers, but because of the devotion of the adults who have raised them. As in all versions of the story, a struggle eventually develops between the majority of the townspeople and a small band of outsiders perceived as posing a threat – but in this case the “outsiders” are not in fact the aliens, but rather those few humans whose circumstances kept them from being personally affected by the visitation: Siri, the literal outsider; Joy, absent on the night of the festival; the principal, whose wife was already pregnant at the critical juncture; and the Lieutenant of Police, a man whose sense of identity is, patently, entirely defined by his professional authority; an authority that the children, Somporn in particular, take pleasure in flouting and ridiculing. This tiny rebel faction is only too aware of its own vulnerability, even before the death of the principal. That the children are a real and imminent danger not just to Bangpleng, but to the world at large, they do not doubt; but what action is possible when to the power of the children themselves is added their parents’ determination to protect them at all cost? It is Mrs Somsak who voices the parents’ case, crying out to her husband who, like the Abbot, has effectively a foot in both human camps. Intellectually in agreement with Siri’s summation of the danger posed by the children, yet devoted utterly to his family, the Professor is helpless in the face of his wife’s passionate declaration of love for Yumasak, and her determination to go on loving him, defending him, fighting for him, no matter what he is, and no matter what he might have done….

And just what is it that the aliens have done? These children, unlike their equivalents elsewhere, are never guilty of the mass, even casual, slaughter of the townspeople. Two people, the principal and an elderly man named Phan, who scratches a living as a professional scrounger, do die at the children’s hands. In both cases it is for “knowing too much”, for discovering the purpose of the night time gatherings that begin with the arrival of the temple children: namely, the disturbingly enthusiastic hands-on slaughter and devouring raw of whatever animals they have been able to capture.

To make the children initially guilty of what may be regarded as a transgression rather than a crime is another of the film’s intriguing details. (So, for that matter, is the children’s seemingly instinctive knowledge of just how their behaviour will be regarded.) When we find out just what has been going on, we, like those who witness the children’s activities, are suitably horrified – yet, when you think about it, it’s really just a question of means and degrees, isn’t it? – particularly when most of the stolen animals are other people’s livestock. The townspeople are genuinely disgusted by what they discover, certainly; but a bigger issue lurks behind their instinctive physical repulsion. The children’s relentless progression up the food chain – they start out hunting frogs and fish, move on to poultry, dispose of all local pigs and sheep, and finally tackle cows and buffalo – finally raises, and seriously, the grotesque threat of cannibalism; and it is a threat that remains extant when the story’s climax is reached. At the very height of Bangpleng’s panic, danger threatens from an entirely different direction. Torrential rain brings flooding, and the imminent collapse of the dam above the town. As the leaders of the community meet to plan what we recognise to be futile action, the children are deep in a conference of their own. As Somporn begins to reveal the full extent of the invaders’ plans for the future of mankind, Yumasak interrupts with a plea that the town might be saved, arguing that with their powers it would be only “a small thing”. Somporn is not deceived by this seeming casualness; and a war of wills erupts between the two. In the film’s defining moment, it is Yumasak who prevails, and the children head to the dam to tackle a task that, far from being “a small thing”, requires the full exertion of their powers – even more than that. Bangpleng is saved at the price of children’s endurance: one by one they collapse, burnt out, exhausted; panic-stricken and terrified as, for the first time in the existence of their species, they face the very human realities of sickness and death….

Behind its surface tale of an alien invasion, Blackbirds At Bangpleng is, like so many science fiction films, a meditation upon the nature of humanity. While a great many films of this nature are prepared to proclaim the inherent “superiority” of Homo sapiens, very few of them – and I have complained of this before, I know – bother to support their contention with an argument. Blackbirds At Bangpleng is, ultimately, all the stronger for not buying into this smug and arrogant assumption of supremacy. The possibility of supremacy, the film does not deny. It is, on the contrary, quite clear what mankind, at its very best, may be, making a passionate case for a life of generosity, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of love. At same time, however, there is the recognition that these are often goals rather than realities; and a further recognition that even these ideals, if blindly indulged – as in the Bangpleng parents’ devotion to their children, regardless of their crimes, for instance – may lead to danger. But Blackbirds At Bangpleng goes beyond this in its examination of humanity. It allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of its aliens – and comes to the conclusion that the predominant characteristic of Homo sapiens is its downright contrariness. A moment of crisis comes when Pan, in a state of incipient alcoholism, finally snaps, and tries to kill Gaew’s son by locking him in their barn and setting it on fire. The terrified Gaew runs to town for help – and the first to the rescue, at considerable risk to himself, is the person most convinced of the danger posed by the aliens and most vocal against them: Siri. Later, individual action becomes mass response: as the children succumb after averting the collapse of the dam, there is not one of the townspeople, no matter how frightened or repulsed they may have been in the past, who does not give everything in the fight for the young aliens’ lives. No wonder the aliens themselves are so bewildered: by our tendency to speak one way and act another; to go from one extreme to the other in a matter of moments; to make sacrifices, and willingly, well past what either common sense or necessity might demand. And it is this very confusion, we feel, rather than the physical reason offered up by the screenplay (a compromise, perhaps, but a graceful one), why the takeover of Earth is finally aborted.

And who knows? – perhaps this is the real secret of how mankind has managed to repel all those attempted alien invasions over the years: not through “superiority”, but rather by being the most perplexing, contradictory and unpredictable race in the universe. After all, how is any self-respecting, rational alien to make sense of us, when we make no sense to ourselves?

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