Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blissfully Thai: I-San Special

Evidently, Thailand also has a tradition of evil stepmothers. Unfortunately, Phenprapah is not exactly Cinderella, but perhaps her alter-ego is. Passengers on an overnight bus ride become the characters of a scandalous radio soap opera, but revert back to reality (whatever that is) at every rest stop in Mingmongkol Sonakul’s I-San Special, which screens tomorrow as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s recently launched retrospective of Thai cinema since 2000.

In real life, Phenprapah’s persistent nausea has some of her traveling companions gossiping. In their dreamy soap opera storyline, Phenprapah is a former fashion model reduced to waiting tables in a luxury resort as a result of her evil stepmother Mathavee’s conniving. Naturally, she has fallen in love with her young hotshot hotelier boss Danny, who in ostensive reality is a Thai-American backpacker. Though her co-workers initially resent her as a high-bred outsider, they find common ground with the poor little ex-rich girl. Unfortunately, Mathavee has checked into the hotel to savor Phenprapah’s humiliation and to further pursue her wicked schemes. For what those might be, tune in again, after the next pit stop.

Based on an idea by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the toast of Cannes for Uncle Boonmee), I-San defies all labels. It has been dubbed “experimental,” but there is plenty of melodramatic plot to chew on, all of which is presented in a strictly linear fashion. Yet, it is devilishly difficult to pinpoint the nature of their soap opera reality. It is neither play-acting nor an “objectively real” fantasy world, but somehow Mingmongkol makes it seem perfectly natural in-the-moment. Regardless, whatever this state of being might be, it only exists while the bus is in en-route from Bangkok to the titular northern city.

Despite the film’s deliberate self-consciousness (complete with obvious foley effects), the cast still pulls viewers into the trials and tribulations of their alter-egos. Mesini Kaewratri is particularly effective as Phenprapah and Phenprapah, sweetly endearing, but periodically showing a flinty edge well befitting a plucky soap opera protagonist. She also develops some nice chemistry with Mark Salmon as Danny.

Probably the nearest comparable film to I-San would be Jon Amiel’s charming Tune in Tomorrow, but Mingmongkol and her cast more-or-less play it straight all the way through. Rather, I-San hints at parallels between characters, while ultimately embracing the soothing balm of melodramatic escapism for its struggling working class characters. A wholly original film deftly executed, I-San is an excellent selection for Blissfully Thai. Enthusiastically recommended, even to those normally put off by postmodern cinematic gamesmanship, it screens tomorrow (5/20) at the Asia Society.