January 4, 2008

New "Life of Buddha" animated film misses the point

There is a rather scathing review of the new Thai animated film The Life of Buddha over at Prachathai. In the review, Pali scholar Eisel Mazard points out both its anachronisms (for example, the Buddha is seen reading a manuscript written in Khmer, and he is portrayed as having no female monastic followers) and its flat out failure to portray any of the actually meaningful events in the life of the Buddha, instead focusing on his "magic" abilities. Says Mazard:
He evidently never said, wrote, or recited anything of philosophic significance, and is instead an object of worship simply on account of his (supposed) royal blood and conjurer's tricks.
These are harsh words, and although I haven't seen the film, this state of affairs doesn't surprise me. There is much that is elegant and profound in the theodicy, cosmogony, and other philosophies of Buddhism. But as the recent จตุคาม (Jatukam) amulet fad--gone as quickly as it came--shows us, so very little of it penetrates the everyday lives of the masses of a supposedly Buddhist nation, who adhere more to ไสยศาสตร์ folk traditions and หมอดู fortune tellers.

Mazard has no shortage of vitriol for this film. He goes on:
The film is garbage; however, the monks and laypeople that now step forward in praise of it (as an accurate depiction of the historical Buddha) do us a great favor in discrediting themselves.
And he finally concludes:
There was (and is) "a point" and "a plot" to the Pali canon; and it's a shame that both the film-makers, and so much of the Thai audience, simply miss the point.
Does this film indicate that Thailand is forgetting why the Buddha became a significant historical figure in the first place? Anymore, is he worshipped merely for worshipping's sake?

That it turned out this way is ironic, if not sad, as it appears to have been the passion project of its primary funder, Thai businesswoman Wallapa Phimtong. After numerous setbacks, she reportedly had to sell off her cars, land and other assets to cover the more than 100 million baht
price tag of the project.

If the email forwards that I've seen going around are any indication, the film, which opened a month ago on the King's 80th birthday, hasn't done well. The email I received from well-meaning acquaintances urges everyone to go see this upstanding and moral film so that it doesn't get pulled from theaters. I agree with the sentiment--good films deserve to be watched so that more good films can be made. But if the movie is this poorly executed, perhaps the fact that it's an apparent box office bomb might be interpreted as a good sign for the state of Buddhism in Thailand. But I don't think so, and Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee would seem to agree:
"[The film] mirrors the national climate of institutional worship and the indifference, if not the ignorance, to how modern society has twisted Lord Buddha's teachings into something much less pure than their original meanings."
Perhaps I'll go consult my fortune teller now about which day is most auspicious to go see this movie.


  1. Where I can buy this movie - DVD in English?