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).