As a genre, the documentary can do many things. It can elucidate and explain, casting a glaring critical light on subjects that have remained underground or outside the public purview for far too long. It can discover and define, taking these unknown entities and giving them the proper perspective. They can also over-simplify and generalize, taking complex subjects like war, race, and other social struggles and reducing them down to obvious, agenda-based screeds. Still, as long as the truth is located somewhere inside the overall presentation, the non-fiction format is served, and everyone is more or less happy. There's a separate creative caveat that must be discussed as well. As in the realm of literature, the truth remains that, in general, not every story is worth telling. Sometimes, a small subject needs a universal or big picture conceit to keep it from staying just that - small. Without it, what we get is just a filmic footnote. Kiss My Snake suffers from many of these perceptual problems. This notion of the ancient Asian art of snake boxing seems relatively intriguing, but the way the filmmaker offer up the idea sort of subverts his intentions. Instead of being meaningful, what we see is minor at best.
In the small Thai village of Ban Kok Sa-Nga, an ancient performance-sport is still practiced. Several of the local residents remain committed to the dangerous designs of 'snake-boxing', a combination of daring-do and death wish. Working with one of the deadliest serpents on the planet - the fascinating and fatal King Cobra - these brazen men of steel and stealth battle their reptilian opponent, swatting and smacking them until there is a 'submission'...or a bite. There are even sequences where the snake is placed in the participant's mouth, or suggestively stuffed down his pants. For those who continue the call, it's a daily struggle between earning a living and flaunting fate. Many have been bitten, some several times, and they've even created a cottage industry out of the medicinal herbs and remedial poultices they've discovered to aid in recuperation. Still, all it takes in one slip in concentration, and one venom-filled nip, to end a career - permanently. While cavalier about such a prospect, the men we meet still need to work with these vicious vipers if only to make ends meet - while hopefully not meeting their end.
The first things you notice are the missing fingers. Almost everyone has them, hands mangled by a life working with extremely poisonous reptiles. It's not the venom that does it, though the tissue destroying toxins inside a single snake bite could be blamed. No, the men who suffer with these awkwardly amputated digits do so because of pain - long after the danger has diminished, your average serpent nip will throb for days, sometimes years. Heading to the hospital and having the offending entity removed is how many have chosen to cope and respond. The next thing that comes to your attention is how beautiful these misunderstood animals are. The King Cobras used by these so-called "boxers" are striking in the iconic imagery. Smooth, powerful, and absolutely mesmerizing, it's easy to see how the devotees of this dying art are compelled to continue. It's not just the idea of playing God over issues as important as life and death, it's the undeniable emotional attachment and unaffected fondness the participants have for these killer competitors. Argue all you want to about ritual, spectacle, and financial necessity, but the reason snake boxing exists is because certain individuals are uncommonly compelled to interact with these gorgeous, grievous creatures.
Though its nothing more than informational for two thirds of its running time, Tom Tavee's compelling Kiss My Snake does of decent job of diving beneath the surface of this surreal Thai practice. While the cover art tries to sensationalize things ("No Doctors! No Serum! Just Wits Keeps Them from Dying!"), in truth, we are treated to a rather sedate look at life along the far flung fringes of the planet. These people aren't crazy or backwards - they're part of a recognized cultural heritage, and use the unusual "sport" as a means of making a living. Their standard agricultural economy would probably be a safer way to earn a buck, but fame also plays a part in it. In their tiny town, the snake boxers are considered part shaman, part superstar, and during the annual New Years like festival, people flock from far and wide to see these noted daredevils. Obviously, there's ego involved, and when we hear the men discussing their forgotten skill set, you hear the hubris in their well chosen words. Oddly enough, none of this showboating ends up in the arena. As much as they enjoy the attention, these performers never forget how lethal their props can be. Similarly, their approaches are well practiced and never improvised. Like mastering kung fu, or exploring all the angles in a game a chess, these men are masters. It's their focus that can seem foolish.
As stated before, Tavee isn't really going for narrative. We do meet one potential plot-point - an 11 year old boy whose father appears to be pushing him into the boxing ring. Dad comes across as a typical driven stage parent while Junior just wants to hang out and have fun. But Tavee leaves that possible thread to offer more facts on fangs. Finally, in the last 15 minutes, one of our noted experts is bitten, severely, and we witness the arcane herbal medicine that's used to cure the rather serious injury. Eventually, the man is rushed to a local clinic, where the jovial doctors joke about the frequency of his arrivals. It pitches a small amount of outside intrigue into what is an already interesting concept, but once our champion is cured, returning to the festival to the applause of his public, we realize this storyline's going nowhere either. Adding insult to false alarm injury is the fact that another individual we meet has to retire when, while on tour, his presentation results in several near run-ins with death. Between him, and the good-natured jester who dreams up "gags" for the boxers, we have lots of tantalizing tangents. But Tavee is determined to simply state the obvious and then find more facts to thrill us with. This doesn't make Kiss My Snake bad or boring, but it does take what could be a fascinating, in-depth subject and stifle it with unwelcome superficiality.
Presented in a decent 1.33:1 full frame image, Kiss My Snake looks pretty good most of the time. The Thai village is very picturesque, and such legitimate local color infuses every frame of the film. Similarly, Tavee always manages to establish his camera in the proper place, picking up all the actions and reactions without resorting to odd angles or post-production tweaks. It makes for compelling viewing. In general, the transfer is terrific, delivering a nice, no-nonsense picture.
The Dolby Digital Stereo provided for Kiss My Snake is nothing very special. The musical score is reproduced with flair and vitality, and the on-camera conversations between Tavee and his subjects are always understandable. During one sequence, there is some decided distortion and sonic feedback. Otherwise, the rest of the presentation is very professional.
Sadly, all we receive here are text biographies on director Tavee and co-producer Dan Nuxoll. There are no other bonus features and no additional factual context. Both elements are more or less mandatory for an unknown subject like snake boxing.
If you don't like snakes, thinking of them (mistakenly) as slimy, craven creatures, then this kind of film will definitely feed your scaly shivers. If, on the other hand, you can tolerate the cold blooded beasts and actually find yourself intrigued by the motion picture's premise, then by all means give Kiss My Snake a look. It's not the most Earth-shattering documentary ever crafted, and director Tom Tavee tends to focus on minutia instead of making a much bigger cinematic statement. Still, his effort is intriguing and definitely sheds light on a subject and region of the world rarely focused on. For that reason alone, this DVD deserves a Recommended rating. Certainly, Cinema Epoch could have provided more supplemental material to underscore the cultural and traditional aspects of snake-boxing. In addition, Tavee could have pulled away from the personal side of the story long enough to explore the clash between modern and medieval Thailand. Still, for these men, the last of an increasing rare breed with the desire and the diligence to continue a very deadly art, this film stands as a tantalizing testament. While engaging, one senses there is still more to this subject than what's offered here.