Hoang Tan Nguyen

‘Wer’ Aesthetics and the Remaking of Kinship in Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (2010)”

In the Western imagination, Thailand is a paradise for transgender people. The actual state of things is more complicated as kathoey (male-to-female transgender) are tolerated but marginalized in everyday life, frequently depicted as comic buffoons and tragic figures in TV dramas and movies. In recent years, a handful of films (Iron Ladies, Beautiful Boxer, and Saving Private Tootsie) have shifted the media terrain by portraying heroic kathoey individuals who triumph over personal adversity to bring renown and pride to the nation. This inclusion in the national project, however, requires capitulation to hegemonic social structures. In the past decade, a burgeoning independent, alternative film and video scene challenges mainstream media’s disciplinary monitoring of sexual and gender dissidence, as can be seen in the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thunska Pansittivorakul, and Tanwarin Sukkhapisit.

Tanwarin’s Insects in the Backyard (2010) tells the story of glamorous Tanya (played by the director herself) who writes pulp novellas to support her young siblings Johnny and Jenny. At the climax of the film, Tanya is revealed as their biological father. I contend that Tanya’s performance as sister constitutes a denaturalization of kinship ties, one that imagines the kathoey as a reproductive and productive force within the family. Crucially, the refashioning of kinship is registered cinematically, through acting and mise-en-scene. Through a mode I call “wer” aesthetics (Thai slang for “over” as in “over the top”), Tanwarin marks her character’s resistant embodiment of kathoey head-of-household. Within the diegesis, she acts as if she were in a movie: whether striking an Audrey Hepburn pose in the kitchen or emerging from the ocean like Halle Berry in a James Bond flick. Tanya’s “wer” aesthetics, her theatricalization of everyday life, can be seen in her novellas’ fantasy scenarios of being gang raped by the neighborhood soccer team or in the meticulous preparations of a Western breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. The over the top, exteriorized style is mirrored in the self-conscious mise-en-scene: colorful tableau vivants, long takes, stilted compositions, extreme lighting, and low production values. By acting out and over-acting, Insects affirms that “all kinship may, indeed, be a matter of poses, gestures, [and] performance” (Freeman).