It all began, in the words of author Nick Wilgus, "with the image of an old Buddhist monk walking into a bathroom early one morning and finding a dead body. I thought about that image for a long time, thinking there might be a story in it."
There actually is. Wilgus is a former Bangkok Post chief subeditor who took time off from correcting copies of writers to spin that sole image into a novel called Mindfulness and Murder. In the vein of Father Brown, the detective priest, or even Sherlock Holmes in his deducing process, the unlikely sleuth in Wilgus' book is Father Ananda, a ruminative ex-cop who's now a Buddhist monk in a Bangkok temple.
When a dead body turns up in a water jar and the police are reluctant to take action, Ananda begins the investigation himself and soon uncovers a few inconvenient truths about his monastery.
Today, the movie version of Mindfulness and Murder _ or Sop Mai Ngieb _ opens in the cinemas. Adapted for the screen and directed by Tom Waller, an Irish-Thai producer/filmmaker, the film is adding a new shelf in the menagerie of monk characters in Thai movies. Though not exactly a mind-twisting detective flick of the highest order, the film rides on a moody atmosphere, while its portrayal of the cloistered monastic existence _ in good and bad ways _ is honest and far from simply flattering.
In the film, we see men in saffron robes walking around puffing cigarettes, exchanging furtive looks and and swaggering like thugs. One monk sports a tapestry of gangster-style tattoos, another is implicated in a secret drug ring. There's a hint of sexual repression and dark secrets; meanwhile in a lighter-hearted way, the abbot of the temple casually gives out lottery numbers to desperate villagers and then goes out to bless the newly-opened 7-Eleven.
''I didn't mean to shock people at all,'' says Waller, who read Wilgus's script and instantaneously decided to turn it into a film. ''The idea was to make a police detective story _ you can think of CSI, or In the Name of the Rose [Der Name der Rose]. But I wanted to do it with the backdrop of a murder in a monastery, to put a new spin into it.
''It's not a film about religion, and certainly I'm not picking on Buddhism. What I want to do is to show how monks really live, to make them into real characters, because I don't see many films like that getting made here.''
Mindfulness and Murder slipped past the authorities with the 15-plus rating, with no order to cut anything, despite past cases that showed how the Thai censors sometimes feel overly prickly about the depiction of holy men. ''I wasn't worried when I was shooting the film, but everyone in my team was,'' says Waller. ''They said 'we're scared, but you're not, you're not Buddhist.' To me that's strange because the film is really about this good monk who's protecting his faith. It's a good message and there's nothing to be scared about.''
On the one hand, the combination of Waller-Wilgus, two non-Thais, non-Buddhists who show obvious enthusiasm in the story of Buddhist clergymen may raise some eyebrows. But on the other, the filmmakers' backgrounds could be a unique ingredient that renders Mindfulness and Murder more than just a straightforward whodunit narrative, especially when both men aren't novices in the context of religion and monk stories.
Waller, whose mother is Thai and whose company has provided services for a number of foreign film productions in Thailand in the past eight years, made a documentary called Footprints of the Buddha in the mid-1990s. It records the life of Thai monks at a London temple, and how they have to adapt their daily routine to suit the unfamiliar environment _ like wearing hats and socks, or travelling by public transport that has no reserved seats for them. The film was shown at the Bangkok Film Festival in 1999, after narrowly passing the paranoid scissors of the censors who initially threatened to ban it.
Then in 2003, Waller made Monk Dawson, a feature film about a Catholic priest who's confronting a crisis of faith.
''Maybe I have a thing about monks,'' says Waller, who's also a Catholic. ''It's a strange thing for me to have a lot of men living together as a community. There's a lot going on in that place and I'm just interested in showing them.''
Wilgus, meanwhile, says that the path he's found for himself is agnosticism. A long-time resident of this country, the writer says he doesn't subscribe to any particular faith, though he has spent more than 30 years studying religion and spirituality in their various forms and manifestations, and at the end he feels most at home with Theravada Buddhism.
''I find a lot of solace in the original teachings of the Buddha,'' he says. ''They were about suffering and how to stop suffering, and the teachings did not concern themselves with metaphysical questions like the existence of gods, souls, eternity and so on, but only with the here and now and what we can do to improve our lot in life.''
Thai films are known to feature monks in various capacities, originally as the indisputable moral force and later, in more contemporary interpretations, as sidekicks, clowns, and now detectives. When two non-Thais, or half-Thai in Waller's case, choose to tell monk stories in the Thai context, they wade into a shaky, robed territory yet also bring with them new perspectives on what seems to us a banal subject. Waller knows he has more to prove, and he spent a lot of time talking to a lot of monks to get the detail of the visual right. The script, written by Wilgus in English, was translated into Thai, then into the Buddhist vernacular language (as good as it gets, it turns out.) On the set, Waller got help from his lead actor, Vithaya Pansri-ngam, who plays Father Ananda, in localising the English dialogue into something smooth and correct. Mindfulness and Murder also stars a New York-born rapper, Way Titanium, in one of the supporting role (see box).
''People look at me and say, you're not 100-percent Thai, so how can you do this?'' says Waller. ''Of course try to make the film as Thai as possible, but it's also my film, and we have this rapper playing a monk, so I guess it has its own elements.
''In making the film, I think I'm not as kreng jai as Thai people usually are with monks. I respect monks of course. I respect that they're respected. But I think I have an objective look. So I go into the monastery with a magnifying glass and I look around and find out what's interesting. That's my film.''
Wilgus takes a more modest stance. ''I don't feel I have any special insight to offer [as a foreigner],'' he says. ''I've done a lot of research trying to understand Thai Buddhism, but I will always be an outsider. But as a former 'monk' myself, I understand monasticism and the roles that priests and monks and nuns can play in society. I am hesitant to pass any sort of judgment, but it seems to me that Thai Buddhism is at a crossroads, the very same kind that other major religions have faced when confronted with the newly industrialised and much better educated world.''