In "Farangs," a short story by Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a guesthouse owner grumbles about foreign tourists and their narrow tastes. "P---y and elephants," she says. "That's all these people want."
Actually, we foreigners want much more. We want a drug-dealing monkey and an ass-kicking monk. We want a facial tattoo, men with breasts, and Mike Tyson tunelessly singing "One Night in Bangkok." And we get them all in The Hangover Part II, a sequel to the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in U.S. box-office history.
The movie has reportedly angered and embarrassed Bangkok foreign residents like myself, and it's true that the plot makes my adopted city look seedy and life threatening. Our three American heroes, Stu, Phil and Alan, wake in a grim Bangkok hotel to discover that they have lost the teenage brother of the Thai woman Stu is about to marry. To find him, and save the wedding, the groggy trio must retrace their steps through a night of epic debauchery. Helping them is that monkey, who before long is mock-fellating an elderly Buddhist monk.
None of this made me fume or blush. Fatuous, clichéd or selective depictions of Bangkok by visiting filmmakers are so commonplace that foreign residents quickly stop registering them. Most of us don't stay there because the sex is cheap, but because we're pursuing careers, raising families and enjoying our lives. Thais are easygoing and treat foreigners with a respect we don't often deserve. Bangkok is one of the world's safest capitals. Food is cheap and delicious. A white-sand beach is only ever a short drive away. It's never cold, not even when it rains.
What did puzzle me at first was why Thais weren't more upset by The Hangover Part II, and why the government of Thailand which, as a major tourist destination, is rightly obsessed about its global image allowed it to be filmed there.
One reason could be that the movie isn't nearly as unflattering to Thais as reports have suggested. The film's only real Thai characters belong to the sophisticated family that the idiotic Stu has managed, inexplicably, to marry into. His fiancée is smart and beautiful; her father is snarky but successful; her brother is 16, plays the cello and studies at Stanford. Many Thais would regard this as a dream family.
None of the bad guys are Thais. That includes the flaccid and forgettable Mr. Big played by Paul Giamatti. The monks don't look Thai either; with their burgundy robes and prayer beads, they seemed more Tibetan. Even the insect that makes a cameo in the Bangkok hotel room looked to me like a Madagascan hissing cockroach and not the local variety. The owner of the film's only brothel is also a foreigner, as are its customers, which lets Thailand off the hook for its most notorious industry.
Thailand is sensitive about its image, especially when it comes to its booming sex trade. When I first visited Bangkok in the early 1990s, the government was livid about an entry in a Longman dictionary that described the capital as known for Buddhist temples and "a lot of prostitutes." The dictionary was banned. "We do not deny the existence of the problem," explained a government spokesman. "But we do not believe it should be used as the definition of this city." This, he said, would be like using football hooligans to define London.
That government spokesman was called Abhisit Vejjajiva, and today he is Thailand's Prime Minister. Last year, he visited the Hangover set. This is not necessarily because he shares the movie's view of Bangkok, or likes its juvenile humor (although Abhisit attended a posh English school and must know a few fart jokes). It's because Thailand's earnings from foreign film productions doubled to $60 million in 2010, according to the Department of Tourism. Perhaps a quarter of that sum came from The Hangover Part II.
While brainless foreign movies get the prime-ministerial seal of approval, Thai filmmakers receive scant government attention except from prudish censors. In his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul showed monks playing a guitar and with a radio-controlled toy. The censors told him to cut these scenes. Apichatpong balked, and it was two years before a heavily edited version of the movie was released in Thailand. While celebrated abroad, Apichatpong remained relatively unknown at home until his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year.
The two Hangover movies have now earned close to a billion dollars. I love infantile and tasteless humor I'm British but I may be alone in finding Zach Galifianakis too smug and joyless to be truly funny (although I did laugh when a Buddhist monk beat him up with a stick). The father of the bride compares his American son-in-law to a favorite Thai breakfast dish, johk. "Soft white rice in lukewarm water," he says. "You feed it to small babies." He could be describing the film.
The Hangover Part II won't win a Palme d'Or or many other awards. Worst Hollywood Film Recently Shot in Bangkok? That prize goes to Bangkok Dangerous (2008), starring Nicolas Cage. Most Disappointing Sequel Set in Thailand? Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). Big Budget Movie with Most Thai Clichés? Danny Boyle's The Beach (2000).
Even the original Hangover can't compete with Very Bad Things (1998), with Jeremy Piven and Cameron Diaz. It is also a black comedy about a bachelor party in Las Vegas going dreadfully wrong. You might remember it. After a night of booze and drugs, five buddies kill a prostitute and a security guard, chop up the bodies and bury them in the desert. It's very funny. But maybe not if you live in Las Vegas.