January 30, 2008

Movie review: รักแห่งสยาม (The Love of Siam)

I meant to write about the movie รักแห่งสยาม (The Love of Siam), directed by Chukiat 'Matthew' Sakveerakul, (มะเดี่ยว ชูเกียรติ ศักดิ์วีรกูล) back in December when I saw it. I hope the window of interest (and relevance) hasn't entirely passed. The hit song from the soundtrack is still getting endless radio airtime, but the mini-controversy surrounding the film appears to have blown over. I say "mini" because it didn't get much attention in the mass media, compared to things like the then-impending election. After its release there was some backlash against this movie. While the content of the movie itself was part of the issue, more to the point, the outcry was about how the film's trailer and other advertisements intentionally misrepresented that content.

My wife and I enjoy seeing movies in the theater fairly regularly (at least, we used to back in those heady pre-parenthood days), so we saw the trailer for รักแห่งสยาม before at least two movies prior to its release. We both thought it looked good, and definitely much better than most Thai movie fare. My wife shares my dim view of Thai cinema. It seems like 99 out of every 100 Thai films these days is some combination of three themes: slapstick, cross-dressers, and ghosts. Many combine all three. Now, those themes don't automatically disqualify them, but when I see trailers for movies like โปงลางสะดิ้ง or หอแต๋วแตก, I tend to shake my head, enjoy a guilty chuckle or two, and know that I've already seen all the funny bits and would only be punishing my brain cells by watching the whole thing. Most films outside of the above categories are (pseudo-)historical epics and high-action, low-plot popcorn flicks.

Films in Thailand tend to have a short shelf life. This is starting to change for some newer films, but if a movie is more than a year old, it may be difficult to find in stores. If it was made in the 20th century, forget about it.* So it feels like Thai film culture is caught in a vicious cycle whereby the movie going public is tired of seeing the same themes rehashed again and again, and at the same time due to the scarcity of older films, that's all they're aware even exists. It's like the cultural memory for Thai cinema is so short that movies are forgotten almost while it's still in theaters.

Personally, I prefer well-written drama and smart comedy, exceptions to the rule in the world of Thai cinema. And these exceptions tend to come from just a handful of directors, so I keep a close eye on those few. Folks like เป็นเอก รัตนเรือง (
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang) and วิศิษฐ์ ศาสนเที่ยง (Wisit Sasanatieng). So when I saw the trailer for รักแห่งสยาม, I was looking forward to it. It looked like a good coming of age story, perhaps like the excellent แฟนฉัน (Fan Chan), only with teenagers.

Take a look for yourself and see if that isn't the impression you get:

As it turns out, the movie focuses around the budding romantic relationship between the two teenage male leads, มิว "Mew" (วิชญ์วิสิฐ หิรัญวงษ์กุล) and โต้ง "Tong"
(มาริโอ้ เมาเร่อ/Mario Maurer). That's the heart of the story. And even after seeing the film, it's only the very last shot, where the two are walking with arms over each other's shoulders in slow motion, that actually hints toward the film's central theme. And a very, very subtle hint at that.

I confess I was surprised by the fuss this caused. People complained that the trailer was dishonest, and that parents were taking young children to this film, unaware of the gay content. Here I was thinking Thailand was very accepting of homosexuality.
Maybe it's because I'm from a conservative region of the U.S., or more probably because I'm from a small town, but gay culture just seems so visible in Bangkok, in a way that it isn't where I grew up. Turns out it's not that simple. After witnessing this reaction, I can only conclude that for a good portion of Thais, it's okay if the comic relief in the movie is gay, if the character is a flamboyant gay caricature (the stereotypical กะเทย), but folks are less comfortable with such seemingly normal characters being gay. And especially teenagers! Shocking!

After seeing the film, I wondered how Thais felt about this movie. From what I read on internet message boards, plenty of people had no problem with the film, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that the advertising was misleading. This upset the film's fans because the film shouldn't hide what it is, and it upset the film's detractors for tricking people into seeing a film that might offend them. The director said in one interview that he made the trailer what it was to make the movie more marketable. Okay, so there's a direct admission that the trailer was intentionally misleading.

You know how people complain that trailers for comedies tend to show you all of the funny scenes, giving the impression that the whole film is funnier than it actually is? Well, that's the main tactic of this trailer. The two female co-stars have maybe ten minutes of screen time between them, and you see pretty much every scene they're in in the trailer. They are extremely insignificant characters, both of them. The other important storyline is about โต้ง's family--how his older teenage sister suddenly disappears on a trip with friends to Chiang Mai, and how his parents cope with it.

Let me interrupt myself for a second to say that this film is not explicit. There is one (pointlessly drawn out) kissing scene between the two boys that sets in motion the final act of the film, where things fall apart. Mostly, though, it's a lot of angstful longing and inner conflict, puppy dog eyes and shy smiles. But the film is still explicit in the sense that there's no question that the theme is about these boys discovering their homosexuality, despite how innocent it is.

It wasn't only the movie trailer that failed to mention the gay themes. This movie was hugely promoted on the radio station I often listen to on the way to work (
Greenwave 106.5), for example, and the DJs were talking nonstop about this movie, and how it's a film about "all kinds of love". After seeing the film, it's clear they were avoiding mentioning the gay love story.

Uproar aside, by the director's own admission the motivation for the misleading press was marketability. But behind that, it seems like it's the director's sincere desire to gain increased acceptance of homosexuality through positive portrayal of gays as normal people, and not caricatures. This is a noble enough cause. I don't think any cultural group deserves to be exploited for laughs or otherwise. I think this was a bad tactic, though, not just because it's deceptive, but it also implies that the film can't stand on its own merits.

Now that รักแห่งสยาม has "come out" as a gay-themed film, though, it has to stand on its own merits if it is to get the mainstream acceptance its director seeks. For another example of not doing that, check out the film's IMDb rating: 91 votes for an average of 9.3 out of 10. Not even The Godfather or Star Wars have an average that high. This is the "friends and family" effect common with lesser-known films on IMDb: you have everyone you know to give the movie a 10 in hopes of enticing more people to see it.

So how do I think it stacks up? After all I've written here, I still haven't made it clear how I feel about the film as a film. So here's what I think: this movie has a lot of good things going for it. I like the atmosphere of the film. But everything good this movie has going for it is diminished by the fact that it's way too long. I didn't know going into it that the movie weighs in at a whopping 2 hours, 34 minutes. This story could have--should have--been told in 90 minutes. During the first half hour or so, I felt like the story was rushed. The family of โต้ง is never shown making any effort to locate their lost daughter, for example. They get a phone call from the police that she's missing and immediately start grieving. At that point, I assumed it was because they needed to move the story along. But the longer the movie got, the more this started to bother me. Scene after sluggish, lingering scene screamed for editing.

I don't have anything against long movies in general. I've watched the entire Godfather trilogy back-to-back. That's 9 hours. Ditto for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended versions, no less). That's like 13 hours. Maybe it was because I didn't expect it to be so long, but this movie felt bloated. Like it was produced from the first draft of the script. I didn't think to watch the credits so closely in the theater, and it's not listed on IMDb, but I have a strong suspicion that Chukiat edited the film himself.
If he was involved in the editing, I feel for him. That's like asking yourself to decide which limbs your child needs most. Few are up to the task.

Now get this: this announcement for a screening of the director's cut says that the full version is four (four!) hours. It's no wonder: if you write a four-hour script for a coming-of-age drama, you're probably getting off on the wrong foot.

So that's it. That's my big beef. This movie is better than most Thai movies in a lot of ways. It's clearly a passion project for the director, but that turned out to be a stumbling block when it came to writing the script. If your starting script is 400 pages, the number of people willing to see the final product quickly dwindles, regardless of the content. It means you've really got to justify all those minutes, and รักแห่งสยาม failed to do so.

Chukiat has spent most of his movie career in the horror genre.
I'll keep an eye out for his future work, but I just hope that he's got a better editor the next time around, both for the film itself and for the trailer.

[Update: The director's cut is currently playing to sold-out audiences at arthouse theaters in Bangkok. The 5-hour version of Suriyothai never had it so good.]

[Update 2: According to someone who's seen the director's cut, it's only 3 hours, not 4, and the extra half hour dramatically improves the film. This is part of what didn't sit well with me--even with 2 1/2 hours, the storytelling didn't flow. So maybe, just maybe, the longer version really does justify the film's length. I still felt like the film had too many overly drawn out scenes, though, so I wonder if that viewer isn't watching through rose-colored glasses. Hard to say.]


* Except hit-and-miss on VCD. There are two groups that I know of releasing "old" Thai films (70s and 80s) on DVD for the first time, but those aren't widely distributed yet. One is called โครงการรักหนังไทย ("Love Thai Movies Project"--slightly scandalous example cover here) and the other is called XXX Films (way to make yourselves un-Googleable, guys).

10 comments:

  1. Dude, gay culture seems so visible in Bangkok in a way that it isn't where anybody grew up!

    In Thailand there is definitely a different social perception between transsexuals and homosexuals. Maybe it is we the puritans who are mistaken in assuming the two completely different lifestyles belong in the same category.

    However, I don't think the gay thing is the main cause of the backlash. Maybe it's more about parents feeling helpless as parents because they were misled into exposing their kids to an adult theme. This is pretty geeky, but if you ever read the excellent novel Lonesome Dove, you remember that Captain Call nearly kills a man when he catches him whipping Call's son. But later, Call watches calmly as the boy enters into a fistfight. In the second situation, Call was in control, and the fistfight was all part of becoming a man. So having parental control made all the difference.

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  2. LOL, good point.

    Maybe it's because they're forced to do so by the "puritans", but it's common enough for these different groups to lump themselves together, like you see in the initials LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). Regardless, you're right that they're perceived differently. Maybe the division is clearer in Thais' minds than I think.

    And the comparison to Lonesome Dove makes sense, too. Maybe I didn't make it clear enough, but yeah, I think most people had a problem with the deceptive advertising. The fact that they felt like they had to be deceptive in order to appeal to a mass audience is still revealing, I'd argue.

    This reminds me. As one of their last acts, the military appointed NLA passed a new law outlining movie ratings, much to the chagrin of filmmakers. The old law, from 1930, empowered the government to censor films to make them suitable for all audiences. Times have changed in 80 years (ya think?), so the hope was that the government would cede their censoring scissors and let the ratings tell parents which films are inappropriate instead. No dice. But I do wonder what rating this movie will get under the new system. Could be telling. Anyone know when it's supposed to go into effect?

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  3. I know its very late in the game but I just came across your blog/review.
    I am an artist from the west who has lived in Bangkok now for more than 5 years and it's my experience that, while on the surface it seems Thailand is open-minded and accepting of gays and transexuals, a closer reading reveals a very nasty reality indeed, especially for transexuals; whose situation I will largely confine my comments to.
    Most thais 'accept' them as long as they stay put within the extremely narrow boundaries laid out for them. Those boundaries are basically these: A) you will accept being the brunt of every 2-bit comedian's half wit humor B) you will accept that employment opportunities for you will be (nearly) non-existent C) you will agree to be the 'dirty little secret' in the life of any thai man that might agree to honor you with his attention D) you will accept that even the so-called news media here refer to you as 'katoei' (a term which seems harmless enough on the surface until you realize it means 'female buffalo' and that 'buffalo' is one of the worst insults you can hurl at a thai) E) you will accept the crass stares and open insults spoken in your presence nearly everywhere you go (thais believe that its okay to insult someone in their presence, as long as you don't point at them) F) you will accept that if you are the victim of violence or abuse your complaints will fall on deaf ears G) you will accept that even many gays (especially foreign gays who come here in the hundreds of thousands every year) view you as "in denial" of your gayness. That, to them, your sexual choices are the result of social pressures and that, if left alone, you would inevitably 'snap out of it', embrace your gayness and ditch the silly mascara and heels.

    The point is the 'acceptance' I hear so much about is rather like the acceptance american southerners had for blacks before the civil war. As long as they said 'yes massah' and didn't cause trouble on the plantation their presence was openly 'accepted'.

    Thailand and the great thai people have many things going for them. Unfortunately, true acceptance of others differences is not one of them, yet.
    Regards,
    Rich C

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  4. Rich C,
    I am Thai and I am not aware of katoei meaning 'female buffalo'. Though the word itself does have a little negative sense when referring to a person, its meaning is not as insulting as the tone that people would use it. Katoei can also be used to the fruits, meaning seedless, for example, ลำไยกะเทย 'seedless longan'.

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  5. Hi Nibert,
    I hear what you're saying about the importance of tone, but I didn't simply pull the female buffalo reference out of a hat (or anything else). After hearing it from a thai friend a couple of years ago, I went home and asked my wife (thai woman) "how do you say female buffalo in Thai?". Her answer: "katoei kwai". Sometime later I asked another thai friend the same question and got the same answer. Perhaps it was 3 seperate cases of miscommunication. Perhaps it's a regional thing.
    Rich C

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  6. Hi Rich C,
    It's very strange that you got the same answers three times, as I have never come across katoei kwai in such a context before. I even asked my colleague, from north-eastern area, how he would call a female buffalo. His reply was 'kwai tua mae' (ควายตัวแม่ literally translated to 'buffalo which is a mother'). Katoei kwai is definitely offensive, as some people refer to a homosexual man whose appearance is still very masculine but dresses and acts like a female. This offensiveness has nothing to do with the word katoei, but with the word kwai.

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  7. doesnt matter..this is just so pure...

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  8. katoei kwai doesn't mean female buffalo., kwai is buffalo
    your 3 seperate answer seem to be just for joke or for fun.

    katoei kwai is instulting word to lady boy who still has musculine body. for the buffalo meaning here is to represent the strength/size of a powerful-guy. for example, if some heavyweight westler is katoei.... then he may be insulted by the word katoei kwai...

    (i'm thai too)

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  9. Love of Siam is thailand's first gay movie. It is an excellent movie. Although there is no happy ending, it is a very touching movie to watch. Love Mario Maurer's acting in the movie. Watch Love of Siam Full Movie Eng Sub here.

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  10. The ending was extremely disappointing for a slow-paced film that was nearly 3 hours long. I really couldn't believe the director had Tong seek his mother's approval with the ornaments on the Christmas tree, THEN break up with Donut, THEN give Tong the same emotions as when he first heard Mew's song written just for him, only for Tong to reject Mew at the very end. The fact that they both say "Good Luck" to each other in the end boggles my mind as well. They suddenly went from being in love to parting ways indefinitely in a matter of seconds. I was so frustrated when I saw the ending, but after cooling off, reminded myself I was watching a film and all of this was acting. (The film is that good to suck me into the story line!)

    Aside from some obvious flaws in the story, I still really enjoyed the film because it offered two story lines. Had there only been the relationship between Tong and Mew, I'm sure it could have been told in less than half the time. This movie had a lot of purity and innocence from the actors-- even supporting actors were great. It made you feel that you were on scene with them. I wish the rumors of Love of Siam 2 were true, but that ship has sailed. Both lead actors have moved on (Mario with modeling and Witwisit appears to be living a normal life as well as being the lead singer for the August band).

    You really have to watch this movie more than once to get a sense of all the characters. I didn't notice the cold relationship between Mew and X (Aex if you're reading the subtitles), and some of the band members are extremely goofy. There are dozens of fan fics online that give us the happy ending we should have received from the film, so if you've got the time and patience, watch this!

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