Interview: Michael Shaowanasai

How did you begin the work that you are doing now?

Michael: I am an artiste and have been active in the international art scene since 1997. I included film as one of my media in college at the San Francisco Art Institute of Chicago. It is not new that artistes make film and video, but it is regarded as ‘art stuff’, hard to understand and such like. Crossing back and forth is fun. It makes your edges sharp and it’s fun to push the envelope and ‘mess’ with tradition. That is the name of my game.

Tell us how you became a film maker and an actor. Was it easy? Did you have to struggle?

Michael: It is fun to sit in the director’s chair. But I do not like it if it is for a big long project, shorter ones are better. Directing is only for a ‘non lazy’ person which I am not. I have told the audiences that I am not ‘in love’ with cinema like other directors. I ‘like’ it. I like it very much. Will I stick with it forever? No! I have other things to do in life. I am a learning actor. I have a lot to learn. I need cash.

Acting is fun, particularly for Iron Pussy. She is my own character. I know her inside out. It is a walk in the park. Well, my co-director tried his utmost to make it most difficult for me. Not that he does not like me; he knew that there was more I could give to the film.

I have acted in other films and with other directors as well. Not all gay or woman characters. It is fun but I know that I have a lot to learn to be a better actor. I take parts that will challenge me and that at the same time I am sure that I can do. When you mess with other people’s money and the mass appeal, I have to be an ‘ actor’ with the touch of an artiste. So, the orders shifted. I like it.

How was the experience of working on The Adventure of Iron Pussy which is so out of the ordinary? Did you expect a lot of resistance from people?

Michael: It is not at all out of the ordinary. If the film was made 40 years ago, it would be the norm even with me as the main character. The time has shifted. My director has made Iron Pussyas a homage to Thai cinema from the 50s to the 60s. It was in the period that I was growing up and watched films. I was thrilled that he came along and chose this route. The audiences all over the world that are 40 and 40+ related to it in a click!

Resistance? Of course, the film was yanked out of the first Bangkok international film festival for the reason that it is not a ‘film’ but in the same breath it was nominated at the Berlinale for the Gay and Lesbian film award. It was a big slap in the face for Bangkok. Audiences love the film but it is the stone in the shoe of Thai film business people. You see we are independent film makers, we have no share in the market. They do not like the new comer or the changes. We got nodded for the award but got shot down last minute. It was fun for me to be the stone in somebody shoes!.

What was the general reaction to this movie from the audience and more particularly with your friends and family members?

Michael: No one really hates it. The ones that hate it, do not understand the concept. And the ones who like it will defend it for me. I am blessed.

No one really knows how to support my works. If they like it (that is if they understand it), I am screwed! If they do not ‘get’ it, I will be screwed too and they will get screwed because others will condemn them.

My family, they love it. You have no idea who my dad is, right? (search his name, Dr. Aroon Shaowanasai) It was a blast! In the film I looked like my mom. She loves it. I turn out to be the second oldest leading lady in Thai cinema.

The audiences valued the person that appeared on the screen as being extraordinary. It is not true. I am still me. I have other media to work with and I have moved on. People think that when you make film, you can make more. I am a lazy guy. I have other loves and talents. It is hard for others to understand. People want more and more films and of course, I will not give it to them.


There are several different versions of Iron Pussy. What is the next version going to be?

Michael: You will see if you look in different media, apart from film. It could be anything, anything at all. You just have to wait. There are four versions of Iron Pussy now. The first three are short videos, under 30 minutes.

Each director will have the vision to transform her into anything he/she imagines. Today is film. Tomorrow might be… Bollywood maybe? Philippines, films tackling sexuality are generally classified as ‘bold’, almost a euphemism for films with nudity and sex scenes, if not downright pornography.

What is the biggest challenge for you? How do you deal with it?

Michael: Money. You need people that believe in you, and those need to be people with money! My way of dealing with it is that we will cross the bridge when we get to the bridge. Like I always say, we are all eligible for seat upgrades; we’ve just got to get to the damn airport first!

Were there any stereotypes that you came across during the making of the film?

Michael: Being a gay film director. Openly gay film director to be exact. It is easier if you dress the dress and talk the talk. But when you get money, you can go wild, in the system. There are a lot of gay directors in the scene now. But those guys are master class. I can see that the younger generation is coming up. I am just one of the lower ones.

On the sets? They love me. The Director of Photography was so in love with me that he got my shots in all the angles for himself!

What are the ways in which you engage with the media?

Michael: Media is fun. Some of people can think a lot of them will write exactly what you said. You throw your ideas in the air and some will pick it up as it is, some will think ‘What are you?’

Iron Pussy is highly entertaining. Was it on purpose? Has it been misinterpreted or mis-read? Was IT intended to make a statement of sorts?

Michael: Nope, I do not think we wanted to make any statements. We just did it and had fun. The styles, yes, they were on purpose.

Misinterpretation and misreading can be because of cultural differences in the audience, but it’s not a big deal. Like the scene in which I fly a kite with my leading man. ‘Flying kite’ is a Thai slang for masturbation. So in the scene there are two men flying a kite, and one is in a woman’s disguise. You do the math. The film is highly intended for Thai audiences and they get it.

Thailand is considered one of the more liberal countries in South and Southeast Asia when it comes to issues of sexuality. Do you think Thai audiences are ready to handle sexuality?

Michael: This is my very own opinion. The first sentence is overrated. Yes, we are open but not that open. I can feel that the door is closing as we speak. Is it good to be conservative? I do not know. What can I say now, there are a lot of issues of sexuality that we are fighting. Human rights for instance. We are not just dressmakers and showgirls. We are still only the ‘colours’ of the society. Without gays and lesbians, the scene will be dull. We are not first class citizens. What we have got is good but do we really want that? Why enjoy the bone when we can have a piece of steak?

We are human. ‘We’ can deal with sexuality anytime. Will it be healthy and fun? I don’t know about ‘them’. It is the cultural things that take time to shape. Audiences are hungry for sex but what are we be able to give them. Woman is just an object? Gays are just sex crazy? People over 35 have no sex? We are ridiculous. films.

What is censorship like in Thailand? Did you have a problem?

Michael: Censorship is another thing that we have to deal with in all areas. I am from the very first set of artistes that ran into problems with censorship law. Most artistes here play by the rules, painting nice pictures and such like. I did not. I thought it is a free country with free speech. But Thailand is not.

My director just ran into a problem with censorship in his new film. With his big name, he is fighting in a civil way. I will give him a hand of course. But his way is too civil, not my style.

What’s coming up in the future?

Michael: I have been sitting by my pool having Pina Colada for the past two months. You know what, the future will come and it will knock me off my derriere. I have no worry about the future as I always said that we are eligible for the seat upgrade but first we have to . . . ?

What are some of the lessons that other film makers here can learn from you?

Michael: Will I tell them? No way! Find out yourself and you will cherish the memory. Lesson that I have learned, is only tailored for me. It is like underwear, we all have a pair or two. But would you wear other people’s underwear? I will live longer and then in the future I will talk about my lessons.

Or, well, if you have not got it by now, read this from the top again opportunities


Michael Shaowanasai and
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
90 minutes / Thai with English subtitles / 2003 / Thailand.

Male convenience store clerk by day, fabulous drag queen/ secret agent by night, Iron Pussy is called into action to investigate a secret cache of foreign money that has turned up in Thailand’s banking system. Our fearless (and always impeccably dressed) heroine must go undercover and infiltrate socialite Madam Pomidoy’s mansion, posing as Lamduan, a maid. But Iron Pussy is no mere maid, she’s also a fabulous singer, as well as the epitome of the ideal Thai woman. When Pomidoy’s crooked son, Tang, falls for her, Iron Pussy is torn to discover the truth about Tang…and about herself!


Michael Shaowanasai and
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
90 minutes / Thai with English subtitles / 2003 / Thailand.

Michael Shaowanasai is a Thai artiste and actor. His works include performance art, photography, video, film and installations. He graduated from the School of Law at Chulalongkorn University in 1985, earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1994 and a Master’s of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. Michael is a founding member of Project 304, a Bangkok-based contemporary art group. Among his more provocative works are Welcome to My Land ... Come and Taste the Paradise, an installation and performance by Project 304 in Bangkok and Fresh Young Boys’ Semen for Sale, a performance on Patpong in Bangkok. Among his film and video works is the 2003 feature film, The Adventure of Iron Pussy, which he co-directed with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Michael portrayed the title character, a transvestite Thai secret agent whose alter ego is a gay male 7-Eleven clerk. The film was screened at several festivals, including the Tokyo International Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and had a limited commercial run in a Bangkok cinema and a DVD release in Thailand.