An excellent film not only about Carabao but 1970s Thailand

It would be easy to point out the many little flaws in Young Bao, particularly as a Westerner watching what is a very Thai movie about the quintessential Thai rock band, Carabao. It would be easy to point out the rock band biopic cliches found in the movie. One could also observe that Young Bao, which clocks in at 2 hours and 10 minutes long, could probably have had a half hour edited out and not suffer for it.

All of which would belie the fact that Young Bao is a very enjoyable film in spite of these flaws, a film which works on several levels: as an example of modern Thai cinema, as a rock band biopic genre film and even as an historical drama.

If you are interested in Thai culture, particularly Thai popular music, then you may very well be familiar with the legendary band Carabao. Even if you aren’t, if you’ve ever hung out at a bar or club where Thai music is played – either over the PA system or by a live band – then the odds are you’ve heard a Carabao song or three. In fact your humble reviewer was first introduced to Carabao’s music by the house band of local bar in Suphanburi, a few years back.

Carabao was and is famous for mixing a variety of styles of music, both Thai and foreign, into their music. Known most for their “songs for life” (as it translates from the Thai), a style that emerged in Thailand among the unrest of the 1970s, this is only one of many musical genres the band dabbles with, both Thai and foreign. They are in effect a musician’s band – as opposed to a pop band merely echoing what’s popular at the moment – blending the styles that appeal to the various members and creating something new.

To say that Carabao at the height of their popularity – popularity which continues today more than 30 years after the release of their first album in 1981 – was huge in Thailand and neighboring countries would be an understatement. Fortunately as the title of the movie implies, Young Bao sticks to the creation of the band and its early years, and doesn’t try to tackle the entire history of the band, but rather ends with the release of its landmark 1984 album, “Made in Thailand.”

The film does dip frequently into the childhoods and earlier experiences of the band’s members, however. Here it deftly weaves the social and political unrest in Thailand of the 1970s and the early history of the band and its musicians – principally the stories of its founding members, Keo, Aed and later, Lek.

It would have been easy to get heavy handed with this aspect of the film – the 1970s were particularly tumultuous times for Thailand – and I daresay in the hands of a Western director it might very well have. But the film steps lightly around this; there is no preaching. Rather the changes going on in Thailand at that time are there in the background, particularly in the flashbacks that illustrate how the times influenced and molded the band members and their music.

Even when examining Aed’s experiences as a Thai communist, the movie never deigns to offer an opinion or social commentary. One might argue that it is sympathetic to Aed and his experience fighting a losing battle, but then this is a movie about Aed and his colleagues, after all.

But this is neither here nor there, as this is, at its heart, a movie about music and the people making that music, and the director and writers seemingly know this. Consequently Young Bao never goes off the rails into social or political commentary. No, this is a movie that is ultimately about music and those that make it.

But What About Those Flaws?

It seems that in almost every movie about the history of a popular rock band, there is a scene where one of the original members is backstage or in a hotel room, under the influence of one or more illicit drugs and drunk, limbs intertwined with one or more groupies. Then another founding member walks in, throws down his instrument or maybe grabs a liquor bottle and shatters it on the floor.

“What happened to us, man?” he cries. “What happened to you? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t about the money and the fame. It used to be about the music, man!”

To Young Bao’s and its makers’ credit, this scene never happens. Maybe if the film were to examine the later history of Carabao, perhaps we would see this, but not in Young Bao. That is not to say the movie isn’t without its band biopic cliches.

There is the portrayal of the founders in the early days, poor and hungry, busking at a train station because they have no money for food – because no one will by their albums or hire them to play in their clubs. Then there are the fights over “artistic differences” or driving around in the car that is literally falling apart, the floorboards rusted through – these are only a few examples among many.

Then there are stock characters: the fat and vain club owner and the gruff but likeable indie record label executive who “gets it,” and so on. These things don’t really detract from the film however; one might even argue that these are universal experiences of all rock bands everywhere. In fact I’m sure the movie perhaps contains more than its share of moments that are more apocryphal rather than biographical, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t any less valid or true.

One thing that does detract from the movie somewhat is it’s reliance on flashbacks. These happen so frequently and with varying points of view that at times it is difficult for the viewer to keep up, particularly if one is relying on the subtitles to follow the dialogue. Furthermore, at least a few of these flashbacks could easily be cut from the film without interrupting or otherwise disturbing the flow of the plot; others could have been easily edited down.

But speaking of subtitles, I would note that subtitles in general and English subtitles in Thai movies in particular are rarely perfect and it would be silly to expect them to be. Nevertheless, at times the subtitles in Young Bao are problematic enough in both grammar and translation that it proved momentarily distracting. Again, this is a problem one must endure in watching a film that isn’t in one’s native tongue, and Western film goers should be prepared if going to see this film.

Given that this is a Thai movie, it also has its share of melodrama, perhaps at times more than a bit heavy handed for farang viewers. But this is tempered by the humor that is laced throughout the film, at turns both subtle and outright goofy.

Cinematically and visually the film is wonderful, in spite of a few choppily edited scenes. It relies on traditional techniques – flashbacks with washed out colors and slow motion, for example – and uses them well, to good effect. While I certainly couldn’t make any claims to the veracity of the film’s portrayal of 1970s Thailand – I was a schoolboy in the American Midwest in the 1970s, after all – it has a ring of truth to it (the few Thai audience members I talked to after the film seemed to agree).

The soundtrack is, of course, excellent, and one might argue one of the best parts of the film. In fact as I left the theater I couldn’t help but wonder if the soundtrack was available in shops yet or online, as I want to have it. In fact that’s the highest praise I can offer this film; it made me want to go listen to Carabao.

If you are interested in Thai pop music, modern Thai history or just Thai culture in general, then Young Bao will not disappoint.

What’s in a Name?

Carabao is Tagalog – one of the native tongues of the Philippines – for buffalo. As you may know, to call someone a buffalo in Thai – “kwai” – is not an inconsiderable insult, implying one is stupid (as a buffalo). In fact in Young Bao, whenever someone calls someone “kwai,” it is translated in the subtitles as “moron.”

But in the Philippines, the buffalo is the symbol of a fighter and laborer and equally one of patience. In fact there is a scene in Young Bao (perhaps apocryphal, but I couldn’t say) where the band’s founding members visit a small monument to the carabao in the town where they were attending university in the Philippines.

They decide to take the name Carabao for their band not only because of its symbolic nature in Tagalog as a fighter and laborer, but also because of the irony the name would subsequently took on in their native Thailand. In essence they are adopting an insult and turning it around by taking it for their name and symbol: are they fighters for social change or just morons? It is something that whether they realized it or not at the time, was very rock and roll.

While Carabao’s music couldn’t be described as punk, in a very real way, the band personified the spirit of punk – both by choosing a name that means “buffalo” but also by playing music that was quintessentially Thai at a time when many Thai audiences were seemingly only interested in Western pop music.

By Jeff Chapel