Photo depicting Ninlawan Pinyo sitting in a hairdresser's chair on her cell phone while the hairdresser works on her hair.

‘Yai Nin’ Explores Powerful Thai Matriarch Ninlawan Pinyo

by Beverly Aarons

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Stern and powerful matriarchs are central to most Thai families — they’re not big on hugs, but they will “yell at the people that need to be yelled at in your defense,” filmmaker Champ Ensminger said during a telephone interview. Ninlawan Pinyo, Ensminger’s grandmother and the central character in his short documentary Yai Nin, is a matriarch who defies all Western stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian woman — she’s feisty, confident, and the owner of the successful Naem Pinyo sausage factory in Chiang Mai, Thailand. But it wasn’t until after Ensminger moved back to Chiang Mai in 2013 that he began to witness the breadth of Pinyo’s personal power and her willingness to wield it to protect her family.

“The neighbors [thought] I was with a bunch of white backpacker folks trying to grow weed,” Ensminger said of the day his grandmother rescued him from Thai immigration police. The truth was that he was working with the nonprofit Documentary Arts Asia to build a theater and exhibition space. But nonetheless, he found himself and the other volunteers covered in dirt from the construction site and sulking in front of the immigration office. Pinyo arrived at the office and demanded to see the manager. 

After “twenty minutes of raised voices in Thai and some yelling,” Ensminger said that his grandmother exited the office and said to him, “I’ll see you later. Just let me know when you’re done with your thing,” then she left with her driver. Moments later an immigration officer stepped out of the office and “profusely” apologized to Champ. 

“She was such an authority for her age,” Ensminger said. And the magnetism of that authority and the power of her personality were recognized by other filmmakers, who suggested that Ensminger document her story. At first he was hesitant, but he warmed to the idea after encouragement from the Asian filmmaking scene. But getting his grandmother on board with a documentary wouldn’t be so easy. Pinyon is a private person; Ensminger couldn’t just sit her down and ask that she share her story with the world — that would be a little too direct. The conversation happened over time with the help of Ensminger’s mother. He had to assure his grandmother that the film would be well-done and that he would maintain the integrity of his family’s story. 

Telling Pinyon’s story was just the beginning of Ensminger’s cinematic exploration; he also wanted to capture Chiang Mai as it existed during his grandmother’s youth in the 1940s. Fortunately, there are parts of the city that are perfectly preserved as if in “a time capsule, just like my grandmother” whose daily routines haven’t changed in decades, Ensminger said. And Yai Nin’s music score, composed by Bangkok-born Satta Rojanagatanyoo, transports the viewer back through time with music reminiscent of the Thai pop stars of that era. 

Yai Nin uncovers just a tiny slice of one woman’s extraordinary life journey, but if Ensminger had an opportunity to dig deeper, he would ask his grandmother “if she had any regrets [about] not being present for her family” living in the United States. He knows that it’s a sensitive subject — most of the family immigrated, Pinyo stayed behind and visited when she could — but he said it might be cathartic for her to discuss the issue. Ensminger isn’t so sure his grandmother would be willing to explore such a vulnerable place. “She’s a very guarded woman,” he said, “and I admire her for that, but [that means] there’s a line that we may not be able to cross.”

In Yai Nin, it’s clear that Pinyo has a familial connection to the factory workers. In one scene, a worker is brought to tears as she describes how Pinyo is like a mother to her. The documentary is filled with intimate moments like this where Pinyo is referred to as mother and the workers as family. But even in the midst of those close connections, Pinyo’s successor has not been named. 

“The future of the factory and the business probably doesn’t lie in our family,” Ensminger said. The relatives in the U.S. have established their own lives, and they probably won’t return to Chiang Mai. “It’s very likely that my grandmother will sell it to one of the workers or someone who has been very close with the factory.”

Champ Ensminger is certain that his future is in the filmmaking industry, but after more than two years spent producing Yai Nin, he’s hyper-aware of the time required.

“This project has definitely been a test of slow cooking an idea and making sure that you haven’t dropped the ball …” Ensminger said. “My fear is [that] if I’m really committed — like a lifer, as far as filmmaking goes — the best things that I want to make are going to take decades.”

The love of cinema runs in Ensminger’s family. When he was a kid, he and his cousins would “nerd out” on martial arts movies, and for years his grandmother has been a huge fan of action flicks like the Fast and Furious franchise. And while Ensminger has visions of expanding his craft into the narrative film space, for now he feels at home with documentaries.

He isn’t sure what topic he will explore in his next documentary, but Ensminger said he has a strong interest in the story of immigrant kids working in family restaurants. “I had a good number of relatives who owned restaurants in Spokane,” he said, “and my cousins and I all grew up playing with pots and pans in the kitchen, and the dishwasher would be our babysitter.” The film Roma by Alfonso Cuaron inspired him because it explores history from the vantage point of “someone you would think of as very small” or someone you wouldn’t notice, he said. That small and overlooked character would be the “restaurant kids watching their parents struggle through trying to own a business and [trying to be] taken seriously in a country where they don’t speak the language … I thought it would be a powerful story.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

📸 Featured Image: Filmmaker Champ Ensminger’s “Yai Nin” documents the story of his grandmother, a matriarch and owner of the successful Naem Pinyo sausage factory in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Champ Ensminger.

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