Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blissfully Thai: Mon-Rak Transistor

Poor Pan is not about to become the next Thai Idol. He actually has the look and the voice for it, but destiny is doggedly working against the provincial crooner in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Mon-Rak Transistor (trailer here), which screens as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s retrospective of Thai cinema in the Twenty-First Century.

Pan can sing, but he is not too bright. However, that hard head of his is a blessing when wooing the sweetly innocent Sadaw. Her father does not exactly approve of the big dummy, but he is worn down by Pan’s persistence. They indeed marry and share about five minutes of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, Pan is drafted into the army, where he proceeds to make a thorough hash of his life.

Initially, Pan plugs away as a grunt, but when he happens to win a fly-by-night talent contest in town, he goes AWOL to pursue his dreams of stardom. Instead of crooning though, he winds up as the indentured gopher of a sleazy promoter. In the tradition of one-darned-thing-after-another melodrama, just as Pan appears to turns a corner, fate slaps him down harder and lower.

Transistor is a pseudo-musical, incorporating the songs of Surapol Sombatcharoen (1930-1968), a popular Thai easy-pop balladeer who died at the height of his fame. It also consistently bobs and weaves between comedy and tragedy, making any hard-and-fast classification difficult. Indeed, Ratanaruang employs a variety of styles, simultaneously. Yet, somehow they never seem to clash. At least it is safe to definitively say Transistor makes Thai prisons look like a good place to avoid.

Supakorn Kitsuwon is maddeningly effective as Pan, the big dope. As Sadaw, Siriyakorn Pukkavesh is ridiculously cute and genuinely endearing. Viewers can absolutely believe Pan would claw his way back to her through some rather nasty muck and mire. While more of a framing device than a character, Chartchai Hamnuansak sets the perfect tone as the old prison guard who serves as our fourth wall-defying narrator.

It would seem like a dubious recipe mixing Sombatcharoen’s sugary songs with salty tears and a fair amount of scatological humor. Yet, the chemistry between the romantic leads holds it all together. Zesty but fundamentally humane, Transistor is considerably deeper than the average quirky for quirkiness’ sake indie. It is very strong selection for the Blissfully Thai series, definitely recommended when it screens at the Asia Society this Friday (6/3).