'Mindfulness and Murder': A monastic mystery grounded in streetwise realism

'Mindfulness and Murder': A monastic mystery grounded in streetwise realism

Slipping past the Culture Ministry's censor-heavy cutting room, a new Thai crime thriller shows the monkhood in a dimmer and more realistic light

Murder mysteries often work best when they’re set in a sealed-off world that becomes a microcosm of society at large, like the locked drawing rooms of Agatha Christie or the tiny island in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

"Mindfulness and Murder," a new Thai film that opened earlier this month, gives viewers a 90-minute visa to visit one of the most secret of societies: the Buddhist monkhood at a canal-side temple in Bangkok.  

After a senior monk named Father Ananda is instructed by the abbot to investigate the murder of a homeless teenager whose body has been found in a cistern on hallowed ground, the plot starts to slither like a cobra with many a kink and switchback.  

It requires no suspension of disbelief that the local cop, played with jaded panache by the late Abhijati Jusakul, wants nothing to do with the murder of a drug-addicted “temple boy."  

This leaves Father Ananda, along with his unlikely sidekick, a young boy stricken with polio, to decipher the clues and collar the culprit. 

No scenes left on the Culture Ministry's cutting room floor

“I was very surprised that they went so easy on us and gave us a 15-plus rating," says "Mindfulness and Murder" director Tom Waller. In the past, Thai censors have snipped scenes from any films that dared to show monks as anything less than saints and ghost-busters. They insisted that the Cannes-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul cut two scenes from his 2007 art-house film “Syndromes and a Century” -- one depicting a monk playing a guitar, another of the same monk toying with a remote-control UFO.  

Director Tom Waller admits that even he expected the Ministry of Culture to demand some cuts to "Mindfulness and Murder." 

“I was very surprised that they went so easy on us and gave us a 15-plus rating, but I didn’t want to make a movie about religion -- it’s a detective story set in a monastery,” says the half-Thai director, who spent some of his early years at a Catholic boarding school run by monks. 

In trying to portray the monkhood in a realistic way, the screenplay is even-handed. There is not even a hint of the more sensational scandals of recent years, such as the abbot who enjoyed dressing up as an army general at night to pick up karaoke hostesses in his Mercedes-Benz.

And a scene showing how the abbot acts as a fortune-teller for a woman in search of lucky lottery numbers is done with such a light-hearted, distinctly Thai touch that it’s unlikely to rile the staunchest Buddhist. 

“It’s very real, very Thailand,” says Waller of the screenplay he co-wrote. “Here they think of monks as wise men who can advise them of the best time for their children to be born, or for a woman to have a C-section.” 

Drawing the biggest laughs at the pre-Songkran premiere was an off-hand remark by one of the monks that the abbot had left the monastery to go and bless a new convenience store. 

Celebrities, burping geckos and electronica mixed with chanting monks

The tight script is bolstered by a strong cast. Vithaya Pansringarm plays Father Ananda with understated strength and a Zen-like calm that is tested by a cop conspiracy involving an infuriatingly smug police general.

Prinya “Way” Intachai, one of the lead rappers in Thaitanium, is well cast as a thuggish, tattooed monk. Another musician, Charina Sirisinha of the pop group ZaZa, plays a pivotal part as a crime reporter for the Bangkok Post.

Even Miss Universe 2005, Russian-Canadian Natalie Glebova, now a Thailand resident and philanthropist, has a cameo. 

At the film’s premiere in Bangkok, the local paparazzi were out in full force as the celebs took centre stage. As marketing gimmicks go, the stellar casting has been a publicity coup. That’s crucial for a film with as much money behind it, says Waller, “as the catering budget for ‘Elephant White,' a big Hollywood action movie starring Kevin Bacon that I just worked on as a producer in Thailand.” 

The low-tech shoot forms a marriage of convenience with the no-frills script. Shot on location in just three weeks, Bangkok plays a starring role.

The film has so many Thai atmospherics –- geckos burping, long-tail boat trips on the canal, street football and funeral rites –- that it could also serve as a travelogue. Even the original score by Olivier Lliboutry mixes electronica with chanting monks to give the soundtrack local colour and global overtones. 

Mostly faithful to the spirit of the novel by Bangkok expat Nick Wilgus, who also co-authored the screenplay, “Mindfulness and Murder” is less a meditation on morality and monks falling from grace than it is a mystery grounded in streetwise realism and founded on karmic payback. 

"Mindfulness and Murder" is showing only in Major Cineplex's 21 "Silver Screen" digital cinemas. Meanwhile, Bangkok film blogger Wise Kwai reports that it's among three Thai films that will be shown during Italy's 13th Udine Far East Film Festival, which starts on April 29.

A punk rock musician (if that is not an oxymoron) throughout the 1980s, Jim Algie has worked as a writer and editor in Bangkok since 1992. More bytes and pixels at www.jimalgie.com.

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