Kiss My Snake

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/29/07 10:07:47

"Out-extremes extreme sports."
3 stars (Just Average)

You gotta admire a man who’s been bitten by snakes so often in his life that anti-venom has become poisonous to him.

Such people you will meet in “Kiss My Snake,” Tom Tavee’s clumsy yet entertaining documentary on Thailand’s snake boxing culture. Tavee, a Thai-American filmmaker looking to challenge his own fear of snakes, headed off to Ban Kok Sa-Nga, a tiny village (population: 655) whose entire livelihood revolves around snakes, either for sport or for medicine. The locals use them to make all manner of herbal remedies, and, as one daring snake handler explains, one such salesman found customers became interested in his wares once he started showcasing the mammoth and quite deadly snakes in his possession. From that, a tradition of snake boxing grew, and today, hundreds gather in the village to watch master daredevils face off against these poisonous beasts.

The stunts they perform are both mesmerizing and completely insane: one trick involves grabbing a snake’s head with your own mouth; another is a deadly game of chicken in which you try to slap and/or kiss a snake’s head before it can strike. Children also train to do the same, using non-poisonous substitutes to accommodate them without placing them in danger.

And dangerous it certainly is. Despite the “it’s all part of the show” casualness with which the emcee handles any “snake victory” during an event, every bite is certainly an emergency. Boxers spring into action the moment they are struck, sucking out poison, applying ancient herbal remedies, and vomiting like mad (an unfortunate side effect of the cure).

Even outside the boxing stage (which itself is usually a makeshift tent with chairs scattered around the edges), danger lurks. Boxers proudly display hands swollen from decades of bites, some of which are missing a finger or three. One interviewee describes a bite as being “like all the pain in the world jumped into my hand.” And yet these memories often come with a smile of pride.

These interviews are the best moments in the film, revealing a human side to these men. Tavee paints a full portrait, letting us see them as ordinary folks with pride in their work. We meet clowns with a taste for the vulgar (one older gentleman drops a snake down his trousers, then makes a series of giggly “big snake” jokes), desperate men struggling to get by (even after being bitten during a match, one boxer still finds time to take photographs of audience members, which is how he makes most of his living), and humans just as flawed as the rest of us (a snake handler admits a paralyzing fear of horses, of all things).

Tavee’s documentary style is crude but highly effective - his video style allows him to get close to the action and his subjects - while attempts to “spiff up” the action by dropping in flashy editing and distracting rock music seemingly at random ultimately lessen the impact of the presentation. A straightforward approach would have been fine.

Still, “Kiss My Snake” makes for an occasionally exciting, often engaging little travelogue. It takes us to the other side of the world, wows us with flashy sights of derring-do, then reminds us about all those little things that make us alike. Even if some of us put cobra heads in our mouths.

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