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Tantan and the Jataka Tales

I developed this idea a couple of months ago for a proposal for a film challenge in Thailand but which I never made. Having done the research into elephant symbology and the linkages of Asian cultures (living in China for some years as well) gave me a good background to script it out in one very late evening, however it wasn't as detailed as this now, the original version started from what I've structured as Act 2 here. I've never written this type of film before or even a screenplay like what I wrote in the original, but I have worked in film, predominantly documentary, for some years and only very recently, started to learn more seriously about story structure, arch and drama.

I don't know how well this fits that anyway but it's a first shot and I'd love any and all feedback! My initial reaction is it's a bit cheesy and the end could have perhaps more unexpected twists, so I'm open to ideas.

Tantan and the Jataka Tales

(ACT 1)

Tantan is a contemporary, elegant Chinese girl raised in the city of Peking. By day - she works at a leading fashion magazine, arranging dresses for high-profile commercial shoots and brokering multi-million yuan business deals. By night - she drives around in her boyfriend's black BMW Mirage eating luxurious meals and attending illustrious parties for the rich.

Her father, a powerful man with roots in ancient Chinese religion, receives notification one day from the authorities of an unpaid tax debt, upward of 100 million yuan. In order to negotiate, he seeks cooperation from his spoilt daughter, largely responsible for the debt – to cooperate with the authorities and reason with them as to their business' unclaimed expenses and unethical behaviour. Fed up with her fathers orders, she dismisses him and curses his name for putting her in the position to fix her family's problems.

Powerless, but with a 14-day curfew to deliver the repayment, Father Wang considers his situation. If the family does not pay back the debt, or somehow negotiate an agreement with the authorities, they will be forced to mortgage their house and effectively end up on the street, ruining their reputation and respectability - a big deal in China.

While smoking late in the evening and contemplating his family's history, Father Wang comes up with a plan. He recalls his Buddhist ancestors from the borderlands of India who once raised elephants, and when under heavy suppression from external forces, withstood their ground and with patience, agility, honesty and loyalty were able to negotiate their way with powerful competitors staking claim to their possessions. They had been elephant trainers, and such had acquired the skill & sensitivity to manoeuvre in such situations.

Late into the night with the midnight candle burning, he thought of Tantan. In northern Thailand he still has a distant cousin. 40 years ago they reunited after the cultural revolution, but long since fled.

They still raise elephants.

(ACT 2.1)

Traveling in a van through northern Thailand, Tantan is dressed in a blue denim one-piece, sunglasses, lipstick and purple designer hat. Shouting to the driver at her discomfort, she pulls out the envelope handed to her by her father. The family's red stamp embellishes the ink-scrawled Chinese scripture on the page:

Dear Uncle Haw,

I know it's been generations since our family connected. Moons wane and mountains fall. I never thought I'd have to do this, but...

Bored she shoves the letter away in disgust, looking out the window at the countryside. “I didn't come here to see elephants. I came to fulfill a family wish.” She says to herself. "Bastard".

Arriving at the elephant home in lush, Thai countryside she is greeted by the family. Two middle-aged, casually dressed Thai adults are her distant Uncle and Aunt Haw: elephant trainers and keepers of the Pakam rope legacy, and their two children, an 8 year old girl and 12 year old boy.

During dinner in the living room, Uncle Haw opens, “We're very honoured you made the trip so far from old Peking, Tantan. Your fathers legacy rings a special relation with us here in Lanna...”

“As much as I appreciate your precession, Uncle Haw,” Tantan intrudes, “I'd much rather get on with the task of learning your mammoth beast's ways. Investors in Peking await my return.”

Uncle Haw looks at her.

“The words of Buddha, we must never forget - claim virtue in patience, Tantan.”

Uncle Haw's children bow with hands pressed in respect of Buddha, and we see the the red ethnic Chinese shrine in the corner of the room with a small statue of Buddha inside – the boy turns to glance at it. Tantan rolls her eyes.

(ACT 2.2)

In the morning grazing and preparing the elephants on their stunning natureland – Tantan begins the process of learning to be a “Mahout”: trainer & rider of elephants. Under her strict father's orders, however, she is extremely reluctant. She follows her relatives' orders, but increasingly gets frustrated at what she thinks is a complete waste of time.

Her mind still distracted with the intoxications of fast life back home, Tantan fights with her elephant. Whilst trying to guide the elephant in grazing a wheat field, she trips and curses at the elephant who refuses to follow her lead. Her Aunt gently guides her, “with patience and agility, dear...”. Tantan blows up, and storms out of the grazing field in a fury, demanding to be taken back to Peking.

Meanwhile, young buy Haw watches Tantan secretly from the comfort of his elephant compadre, whom he's long since learned to master since a young age. Mixed emotions of deep despise and physical attraction to her taunt him. She does not notice him.

Uncle Haw concerns over Tantan's progress, and reports questionably to Father Wang back in China. “Punish her if you need to”, Wang encourages, “She has to learn. Without her we cannot uphold our family's dignity.”

Uncle Haw does something to motivate Tantan, which conversely only further angers her.

Back in Peking, the authorities begin chasing up on the Wang family history. After discovering their Buddhist legacy and history of pilgrimage, things start to get messy. Father Wang prepares his family for the worst. They pray with incense sticks at local temples and plead to the gods.

(ACT 2.3)

One day, whilst grazing with the heard late in the afternoon, Tantan and her elephant get separated from the herd. They wind up in a forest section that is unfamiliar to her elephant, and Tantan starts to panic as she realizes she's alone with the animal.

After the family discover they are missing, they notice smoke burning in the distant forest –- fire. They immediately set out to look for Tantan and her elephant. Young boy Haw in particular, moves swiftly ahead of the pack.

In the forest, Tantan has led her elephant via distress to a point-of-no-return. When she sees smoke in the air - she begins to panic, realizing that if they do not escape, it could not mean possible death, and a complete disaster for their families. Forcing to succumb to the stubbornness of the elephant, she begins recalling the virtues that her peers taught her. “Compassion and persistence”, she reminds herself. Then with gentle calls and listening to the elephant, they begin to form a bond. Gradually the elephant comes to sense her communication, and gaging the situation, they make progress.

(ACT 3)

In the dense jungles of northern Thailand, however, even an elephant cannot know the route in and out of the forest. Tantan and brother elephant are lost, and instinctively head away from the direction of the smoke in order to escape, however find themselves increasingly in unfamiliar territory. In a bid to seek shelter and rest, they find a nearby stream, where she comforts him.

Meanwhile, young boy Haw glides effortlessly through the vines and trees, calling out to them. He sleeks and slides as a maestro of only 10 years old, but the wisdom of a warrior. The noises of the jungle are so dense, however, that they cannot hear his calls.

Then, out of the blue, young boy Haw pulls up on his elephant at the edge of a forest clearing with the last rays of sunset beaming down through the trees. Through the leaves, he sees Tantan stroking brother elephant and singing in his ear, soothing him from the distress of their loss. Boy Hawk watches closely as Tantan guides him, catching her face as she looks to the forest, considering her options of escape route. For a moment his heart skips a beat, as her immense beauty shows itself to him at that moment. He trips on a root, and Tantan hears the scuffle. She looks suddenly, and boy Haw stumbles out of the leaves revealing himself.

Nervous and overjoyed, but simultaneously confused, they unite and make swift progress out of the forest.

Back at safety, the couple reflect on the situation. “I'm so glad you found me, brother Haw. But kindly may I ask what you were doing back there, hiding behind those vines?”

Young boy Haw blushes and looks at his feet. “I'm sorry sister Tantan, I just... Never noticed you so gentle with the elephant before..” Looking up at her.

Tantan smiles even more gleefully, “With patience we learn virtue, right?”

Later on Uncle Haw gives her a ring made from elephant's tail, a symbol of good luck and prosperity. “This ring is alive with the spirit of the elephant wherever you go - as long as you stay close to it, it will enrich your life with wisdom and patience as long as you need.” Tantan is deeply grateful. “And here, daughter Tantan, is the scroll of our family's Jataka Tale - keep this close and deliver it to your father. He will need it for your wisdom amongst the capitalists.”

Back in Peking, Wang Tantan addresses the issue of her unpaid tax debts directly with the chief of authority responsible for the investigation. Understanding that it is a cultural as well as ethical issue of foreign imported clothes not receiving the right amount of import tax and trades' commission upon arrival, Tantan negotiates that it is in her company's best interests to return these cultural rights through production of traditional Chinese wears after establishment of the business is reached. She agrees a deal to make an ethical partnership with the authority and invest further into the development of her business as a social as well as cultural benefit for modern China. Her family become an advocate of Buddhist philosophy in capitalist culture and promoting ethics through discipline and responsibility in society.

THE END.

----

One other thing I was thinking to include - with the BMW boyfriend from the very beginning, she is expected to marry him after she returns to Peking. After her experience in Chiang Mai, however, she actually falls in love with the young boy Haw, and breaks up with the shallow boyfriend after going back. I don't know quite how to entwine that into the story though, as my current climax is in the jungle, and I feel I should end the story there straight after it is resolved. Though the truth is there are two problems happening simultaneously that are linked, and need to be solved concurrently.

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