Friday, February 11, 2011

TV Bites: Citizen Dog (Mah nakorn)

Nam Tok Moo (Waterfall Spicy Pork Salad)

Note: volume on this trailer is high, turn down volume before playing

Well, I'm on the road in Southeast Asia, so posting will be sparse on the writing, but interesting in the recipes.

My plan is that I've written the movie stuff prior to the trip and will fill in some background & context on stuff from my adventures, but most exciting for you is that I'm taking some cooking classes along the way. So I will be posting recipes from them for this post and the next one on Vietnam. In planning and researching this trip to Thailand & Vietnam I went catching up on some indigenous films looking for one that I wanted to chef-du-cinema-ize.

While the Thais have been making home grown films since the late 1920's, they have always been mainly low-budget comedies, melodramas and action titles directed solely for Thai audiences. It wasn't until 1997 when Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made his film Fun Boy Karaoke and Nonzee Nimibutr's Daeng Bireley's and the Young Gangsters, which ushered in a new wave of young filmmakers, that international audiences started to pay attention.

Of the Thai films I grabbed from my local video store or that I've already seen, first up - I didn't care too much for the Ong Bak series, which is surprising, but it just didn't grab me. Chocolate I'd seen when it first came out and loved, and I thought about choosing it for this post but, I didn't want to do a martial arts film - though I think I'll revisit this film later. Bangkok Dangerous gets disqualified as the Pang Brothers are from Hong Kong (and if you ever see a copy of the American remake, burn it so as not to scar others who might foolishly want to view it). So then I went to director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and really, really liked Ruang talok 69, but I didn't want to do another dark comedy right now (but later, yes). And Last Life in the Universe, I found the Goddard influences a bit overloaded and eventually got bored. Then I went to Wisit Sasanatieng. Tears of the Black Tiger is like dipping your eyes in a thousand colors of paint, and I need another viewing to think about it. And while Citizen Dog had some similar complaints of style over script from some critics, I thought it was a fun watch and served my desire to use a film that gives some insight into the Thai soul. And I needed to pick something already, so Citizen Dog it was.

Citizen Dog is available for rent from Netflix.


"Yod believes that the harder we search for the things we want, the less likely we are to find them. And if we'd only stop, they'd probably find us.... Like the way Yod's finger came back to him."

After finishing art school, Wisit Sasanatieng began directing TV commercials, which he continues to make, as well as illustrating comic books (in fact, his latest film, Red Eagle, is based on a Thai comic book hero). Citizen Dog, made in 2004, was Wisit's second directorial effort, following Tears of the Black Tiger, which garnered him international acclaim.

But it took four years for him to find a project and make his next film. “I wanted to make a ‘modern’ Thai-style film,” he said, as Tears was a tribute to period Thai Westerns. He found his vehicle in his own home - a novel written by his wife, Siripan Techajindawong (published under her nom de plume, Koynuch).

"The Thai title of Citizen Dog, by the way," explained San Francisco film critic Chuck Stephens, "is a pun on the regal Thai designation of Bangkok as the nation's 'Royal City' (Maha Nakorn), which, in dropping its second syllable, sheds its exalted status and becomes 'Ma Nakorn,' a rather lowlier designation that translates as 'Dog City.'"

Now Mr. Stephens is not just a film critic and expert on Thai film, but also appears in Citizen Dog, as the "farang" (a non-Asian), Peter. "I got an e-mail from Wisit asking if I could meet him at a nearby Starbucks that evening," Stephens recalled. "'There's a farang in my next movie,' Wisit sheepishly smiled. 'He's a strange guy, and though the heroine of the movie is in love with him, what it is he's doing in Thailand is at least a little bit suspicious. Maybe his name is Peter; maybe he's an environmental activist; maybe he's selling pornography. Whatever he is, there's one thing I've known about Peter ever since I heard about him: He is you.'" And so the critic got to be on the other side of the camera.

Wisit drafted another friend, fellow director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, to be the voice of the narrator in this story about a naive young man, Pod, who leaves rural life to seek his destiny in the big city. As he departs, his grandmother warns him: "When you get a job in Bangkok, you’ll wake up with a tail wagging out your ass." (More on this in a moment.) He winds up meeting Jin, a simple-minded country girl who too has come to seek destiny in Bangkok. She is obsessed with a book that fell from the sky (actually, a passenger plane crashed), written in a language she cannot understand. Jin believes if she discovers the meaning of this book, it will also give meaning to her life. Pod believes if he can get Jin to love him he will have fulfilled his life's desire.

Bangkokians have non-normal souls,” Wisit said. “We living in a tense city which has so many problems - traffic jams, plastic junk, few parks, a materialistic outlook on life and so many country boys and girls dreaming of finding jobs here. We get used to all this and sometimes forget what constitutes ‘real’ happiness.”

The film has often been compared to Amelie. And while certainly it shares being both surrealist in nature and visually stylistic, with the work of French director Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet, I think it's a bit misleading to compare it so much to Amelie specifically while watching Citizen Dog because it'll force you to have some expectations that will not be met.

"What's naive can be sincere and simple," Wisit has said.

While I found the film definitely charming, it does suffer from its simplicity which causes it to drag in the second half. Pod & Jin could be a bit more complex and endearing. What I see though is Wisit seeming more interested in the joy of the kind of magic you can only perform in cinema. Scenes were characters in a subway car suddenly break out in song. Or my favorite, wherein Pod can't stop thinking about Jin in her blue dress and suddenly everyone in the streets (without CGI effects) is suddenly wearing the same dress, man and woman. It reminds me of the kind of trick they'd do in the old MGM musicals. Though, I'll say the film isn't really a musical. But I'm not saying the film isn't a bit dependent at times on CGI effects, either.

Even Wisit said, “It’s like an experimental art project," and so we should view it as such. And it is enjoyable to watch, let me repeat.

As for the tails, Wisit I thought cops out in the only interview I could find where he states: “Tails can be anything. Let audiences freely interpret the meaning.” It definitely relates to the title of the film and citizens of the city are like dogs. But also to borrow the opening quote from Barry Levinson's film Wag the Dog, "Why does the dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog." It seemed to me that the tail sometimes wags the dog as obsessed the citizens are about them in the film. And you can take it from there to wherever else you wish to.


So that TV chef who travels and eats and acts real smug would start off with something like this: "Bangkok. A city of contrasts. Rich, poor. Dignified, sleazy.... My kind of city." But you know what? That guy can eat my shorts. It's easy to travel and feast with a full time translator, a handful of handlers, and a camera crew. It's just me here with a point & shoot camera and nobody to watch my back.

So, Bangkok is a city like many cities, okay? I've got like 100 dishes I want to try and only a few days to make any kind of dent in that list. It took me 24 hours to get here and thankfully I started screwing with my time clock a few days early, taking lots of cat naps and popping melatonin pills. But still it was a lot of flying and sitting on my butt. I met up with my buddy Barry and we're staying in the same hotel for the Bangkok leg of the trip. The first real meal I had was guided by a friend of Barry's, an American who's lived here for many years. An old music business guy, ex-Vietnam Vet, who likes his privacy so I won't name him. He took us to a little restaurant he likes to go several times a week. I tried chicken feet salad (not for me, it really tasted like it came from a boiled rubber chicken), but the satay, the shrimp curry, the chicken wrapped in banana leaves, beef with noodles, som tam, and couple of other dishes I can't remember which were all delicious.

Also, it's hard to say anything bad about a place where you can get a one-hour incredible Thai massage (nothing dirty here, folks) for like $10. I could do that every day... and I did at my incredible hotel. Great staff, great place. No complaints there. The second day, decided to hit up the food stalls on our way back to the hotel after visiting some sites prominent on the tourist map (this isn't a travel blog, friends, deal with it). We had chicken satay at one stand, roast pork at another, shrimp & veggie stir fry, chicken larb, fried chicken, and something that was probably some part of a chicken, we hope.

Then that night, one of the gals who works at the hotel offers a walking/eating tour of Chinatown which we had to take. It was just me, Barry, Tukta (our guide), and her Chilean/Swiss boyfriend. We just went from stall to stall until we couldn't eat anymore. I can't even remember all the dishes, but there was a noodle soup with liver that was surprisingly good, a whole fish cooked in garlic, another soup with some kind of meatballs, glass noodles w/ shrimp, roasted cockles, bbq pork, and some coconut/rice drink for dessert. Are you getting hungry yet?????

The following day I took a cooking class (see below) and the last day we went on a full day to the train market - set up on either side of some railroad tracks, the stand owners have to push back their awnings and shoppers have to hope not to be killed by a speeding passenger train that runs through the middle of it. Why they don't just move the market a block over, I don't know. But I guess it makes for a good attraction for us tourists. Then the floating market which was pretty tourista. The highlight of maybe the whole trip was to go to this Buddhist temple, known as the Tiger Temple. Why? Because the monks live amongst tigers (okay, so maybe it's a little travel bloggish today here). And for a special price, they let you pet, feed and play with baby tigers. They're just big cats. With big teeth and claws. But unbelievably adorable.

Next stop on this trip I'm looking forward to is that I'll be crashing for a few days with a buddy who's on location in Khao Lak, Thailand for the new Ewan McGregor/Naomi Watts film set during the 2004 tsunami. Hopefully, there won't be one while I'm there and I'll return with some good stories to tell. Apparently I'm arriving in time for the wrap party this weekend. And then to Chiang Mai. Then it's on to Vietnam. I'll have another post soon. Stay tuned.


I had a totaly wonderful day cooking with Angsana Andersson who teaches out of her home in Bangkok. If you're ever planning a trip there and want to learn more than the tourist curry & pad thai dishes, Ang is the gal for you.

We started at the market and bought all the ingredients to make five amazing dishes which I chose from her list of almost 100. All the other cooking schools around the country mostly only teach the basics for the farangs (foreigners), some Pad Thai, some curry dish, that kind of thing. But when it comes to Thai cooking, I'm pretty advanced already thanks to Jam @ Thai Fresh in Austin for many years of sharing recipes with me. So I learned Kai Jiew Moo Saap, Gai Yang, Yam Plah Duk Foo, Sang Kaya Fug Tong, and Nom Tok Moo. Now you're on an adventure - Google 'em and see what they are.

"Nam Tok" can either mean a waterfall or this amazing dish, typically made with pork, and it is one street dish you'll find almost everywhere there are street food stands in Bangkok. Let me warn you this can be a hot, spicy recipe, but feel free to put as little or as much chili flakes in it for your own palate. As always, cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Nam Tok Moo (Waterfall Spicy Pork Salad)
recipe courtesy of Angsana Andersson
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 2 (or 4 as appetizer)

1/2 pound pork shoulder (or chicken or beef tenderloin)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon white pepper
1/4 cup water
juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ground roasted rice (see note)
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
10 mint leaves, torn
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup scallions, sliced into thin rings
1/4 cup shallots, sliced thinly

Mix meat, soy sauce and pepper in a bowl and marinate 10 minutes.

Grill meat until med-well done. Let sit to room temperature, then slice thinly against grain.

Heat wok to high. Add meat with 1/4 cup water, stirring continually for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, and add rest of ingredients. Quickly toss to combine, and serve on plate.

Note: To make roasted rice, put rice (preferably jasmine) in a skillet and heat high, constantly stirring so the rice won't burn. When they turn a little golden brown, remove and grind into coarse powder.

Wisit Sasanatieng Commercial Reel
12 Thai Films That Wowed Europe, CNN
Thai Cinema History
Brief History/Chronology of Thai Cinema
100 Foods To Eat Like a King in Bangkok, by Mark Wein
Eating Thai Food Guide

Citizen Dog DVD
The Rough Guide to Thailand (Rough Guides)
Thai Street Food, by David Thompson
Vatch's Thai Street Food, by Vatcharin Bhumichitr

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