Isan & Nat Pwe DVD reviews [Sublime Frequencies]

Film / Video Reviews
Isan & Nat Pwe DVD reviews [Sublime Frequencies]
Jul 13, 2004, 23:07

ISAN: FOLK & POP MUSIC OF NORTHEAST THAILAND directed by Richard and Alan Bishop; Sublime Frequencies NAT PWE: BURMA'S CARNIVAL OF SPIRIT SOUL directed by Richard and Alan Bishop; Sublime Frequencies

Thanks to modern recording technology, world-traversing ethnomusicologists the Bishop brothers are picking up where Alan Lomax left off. In fact, with the video wing of their Sublime Frequencies imprint, the Bishops may have actually trumped the legendary folk collector's efforts by capturing not only the sounds of the Earth's diverse and vanishing cultures, but also their rarely seen, shockingly mysterious images.

Isan is a visual and auditory overdose. Shot in crisp definition with only a handheld camera in Thailand's northeast Laos/Cambodia border region, it typifies Sublime Frequencies' no-narration, you're-on-your-own presentation. (But, as with Nat Pwe, the release does include an eight-panel booklet of stills and notes.) Isan is true to its subtitle, taking the viewer on a kaleidoscopic journey that includes striking images of nighttime fire rituals; Britney-esque popettes squealing over Westernized lam sing bands in a sleazy gentlemen's club; a flashy, Vegas-style lam sing revue complete with opulent chorus line; and several raw solo performances by backwoods and street musicians on indigenous instruments like the three-stringed phin (similar to a lute) and the multi-tubed, bamboo khaen flute. Weird, wild, and absolutely worth your money.

But, weird as Isan is, Nat Pwe just might take the prize. Filmed in the Burmese village of Taungbyon's annual pwe (gathering) in honor of the ghost spirits known as nats, the program focuses on the activities of and around the peculiar shamen known as kadaws. The flamboyant kadaws are believed to be the spiritual mediums of the nats, and are honored by the more than 100,000 pwe-goers who solicit good luck by pinning money to the mystics' elaborate costumes and giving them gifts of cigarettes and booze (which they waste no time in consuming). Wait, it gets even better. Many of the kadaws are male transvestites said to channel female nats; perhaps it's no surprise that these she-shamans are believed to be the most magical of all kadaws. Possessed by spirits, the colorful gurus ascend into trance states, dance insanely and stagger in their stupors. As this six-day incarnation of a Mardi-Gras on Mars approaches its revelatory critical mass, the unstoppable, titanic sound of the nat pwe orchestra pushes it closer and closer to its orgasmic finale. These people know how to party!

-Peter Aaron

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