Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Rak haeng Siam (The Love Of Siam, Thailand, 2007)

Director: Chukiat Sakveerakul.

Principal cast: Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, Mario Maurer, Sinjai Plengpanit, Kanya Rattapetch.

When Thailand is mentioned, first things that come to my mind are long, paradise-like beaches overcrowded with Western charter tourists and gay life pulsing around the clock in Bangkok with its world famous ladyboys and prostitution. Somehow, the word ’conservative’ doesn’t fit into the overall image of the place. But I guess the Thai society outside of the beaches and gay bars is a rather different story. In fact so different that when „The Love of Siam” was released in cinemas across the country the promotors did everything they could to conceal the fact that the focal point of this almost 3 hour long film was a gay teen romance. Basicly advertised as a straight teen romance flick (a very popular genre in Thailand, it seems), the film’s posters feature two girls and two boys, there are hardly any promotional photos on the film’s website showing the two main characters together and the film’s trailer clearly misleads viewers making them assume that this will be another one of those sugarsweet „boy meets girl” Asian productions. I can just imagine the unsuspecting „traditional family” movie-goers coughing their popcorn back up when realising what they have been „tricked” into watching, especially if they have brought their „innocent” prodigy with them. I’m a little surprised the director hasn’t gone into hiding as a result.

The plot of „The Love of Siam” centers around two boys and their families who live as neighbours in one of the suburbs of Bangkok. We meet them first time when they’re aged about 11 or 12. Mew lives with his ailing grandmother. He is a bit of a loner, picked on by others at school and not really having other friends than his late grandpa’s piano. One day, when Mew is attacked in the school’s toilets, his neighbour Tong comes to his rescue. Eventually, the two boys bond and become inseparable. In the meantime, Tong’s older sister Tang (yes, the choice of names isn’t very helpful for non-Thai audiences) goes missing on a trekking tour in the jungles around Chiangmai in the north of the country. Her disappearance without a trace leaves her bereaved family stunned. Especially her father seems to be overwhelmed with grief and tries to drown his sorrows in whiskey. Not being able to cope with the situation, Tong’s family moves away leaving Mew without his best friend.

We meet the two families again after what seems to have been five years. After Mew’s grandmother’s death he now lives with his aunt and is a lead singer in a boyband called August. He is also the composer of all the songs that the band performs. One day, when Tong (not knowing the identity of the lead singer) wants to buy their latest album from a records stall, the stall-keeper informs him that the album has been sold out but quickly points in the direction of the band itself since he has talked to them a moment earlier. Tong follows after the band and recognises to his big surprise his long-lost friend Mew in their midst. They exchange phone numbers, and soon Tong finds himself drawn to Mew in a way he has never felt with Donut, the girl he’s officially dating. At the same time, a Chinese girl named Ying whose family moved into Tong’s house after his had left, spends her free time practising „white magic” which she is learning from a book, hoping to make Mew fall in love with her, just like she is with him. Her somewhat unconventional tricks – flipping Mew’s shoes on his porch and stuffing his hair into her teddy bear – don’t really bring about the desired results. Instead, Mew finds himself emotionally involved with Tong and can now (surprise, surprise!) finally write the love song so needed for their band to reach new heights of popularity with the teen girl crowd. He performs the song at a garden party arranged by Tong’s delusional father who is celebrating the return of his lost daughter (in fact just a decoy planted by his desperate wife) and the two end up kissing in the garden after the guests are gone. This is witnessed by Tong’s mother who is all but happy (’a hard drinking husband, a missing daughter and now a gay son’). She tells Mew to end their relationship behind Tong’s back. Mew and Tong are thrown apart but Mew’s love song performed at Siam Square (hence the name of the film) brings them back together. Or does it? The ending is in fact surprisingly ambigious and begs for a sequel. Well, maybe that was the intention.

„The Love of Siam” could have been set as a TV soap opera as it certainly has all the ingredients for it – several parallell drama subplots with rather weird twists on a par with anything „Santa Barbara” has had to offer. At the same time, the acting on the part of most actors, especially our pair in love, is surprisingly realistic, balanced and „non-soapy”. Another thing that separates this film from the mainstream Thai cinematography is the diversity of the society it portrays, even if it doesn’t seem so seen with Western eyes. Tong’s family are Catholics, and apparently the controversy of having a Catholic family as main characters in a Thai film meant for the masses has been almost as big as portraying a gay teen romance. But as for the gay aspect, the main shock is said to have been that the two boys at the heart of the story aren’t shown particularly effeminate. The Thai society can evidently live with those „poor creatures born with the wrong genitalia” (there are even special toilets for transsexuals across the country) but still finds it rather difficult to accept that a man can be gay without constantly having to wiggle his behind and squeak instead of speaking. Nor are the two boys in question forced into prostitution and dying of AIDS. Actually, they seem to be just like any other kid on the block and I guess that is the main point of controversy of this film. With this in mind, I believe that we can safely call this film groundbreaking in contemporary Thai cinematography. Here I have to add that when the film was recently shown on Thai TV the pivotal scene with the two boys kissing was omitted. It seems that the ground in question hasn't been broken with the Thai TV broadcasters yet.

As for concealing the true nature of the film in its marketing, the director himself has admitted that his objective was to reach a wider audience. It reminds me of my own experience at this year’s Kratkofil, a short film festival in Bosnia, when the festival’s organisers completely omitted any reference to gay and lesbian when they included my selection of gay and lesbian short films in their programme. Most of the people who had come to watch my selection had no idea that it was a queer one but only a few left. Had they announced it so that everybody would know beforehand, maybe no one would have come at all. Seen from that perspective the director of „The Love of Siam” might have been right in his tactics: by „tricking” the audiences he made them watch a different reality which in the end wasn’t that different from their own.

„The Love of Siam” is a sincere and rather convincingly made film about family ties and different kinds of love – Tong’s father’s self-destructive love for his lost daughter, his mother’s love for both him and her estranged husband and, of course, Mew’s and Tong’s first aspirations to find love for another human being outside of their families. While one kind of love is desired and even encouraged, another kind of love can be seen as dangerous and a threat to the other love. In a way, this films aspires to show that no love can be a threat to any other love and for that it deserves an immense credit. I can definitely recommend this film, especially if you don't find it all too tiresome to read subtitles for 3 hours. This aspect is certainly compensated by the charm and beauty of the two main leads.

Here is a video compilation of some of the romantic scenes from the film with Mew's love song presented as a karaoke sing-along both in Thai and English


Anonymous said...

You have done a very good review.

Prince Edward Ragasa said...

ive created a site about The Love of Siam... its http://love-of-siam.co.cc


Elliott Broidy said...

Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing this.

DarKScoRpioN said...

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.