March 11, 2003
In a small village in Thailand's countryside, Pan and Sadaw grow up and fall into a sweet, shy love. For a brief happy time, their idyllic romance revels in its furtive glances while the music Pan loves so much swirls around them. But unfortunately for the young lovers, the world they live in is due to go badly out of tune.
Recently, Thailand's film industry has come to the attention of fans and critics on an international scale. While production-wise the small country's movie business falls far short of other Asian territories such as Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, there has been a spate of films that have emerged in the last few years that have attracted some high-profile attention. The Pang Brothers have mined the gangster and horror genre space both alone and in tandem (The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous, One Take Only), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's strikingly original full-length features (That Mysterious Object at Noon and Blissfully Yours) drew many critical raves, and Wisit Sasanatieng colorfully brought the spaghetti western to Thailand with his brilliant Tears of A Black Tiger.
To the above list of accomplished Thai filmmakers the name Pen-ek Ratanaruang can now be added, as his creative drama-cum-musical Monrak Transistor is yet another winning achievement for Thai film. Sometimes fun, sometimes emotionally wrenching, this lively tale has enough ups and downs to keep the viewer interested throughout its two-hour length. Along the way, good-natured Pan haplessly stumbles through a set of adventures that takes him from "the gutter to the stars" with his long-suffering wife along for the ride. What will ultimately become of the couple is never assured, and the director here is far too sharp to ever reveal his intentions before the final denouement.
Pan and Sadaw's misadventures really begin when fate makes Pan the one villager chosen to go off to serve in Thailand's army for a year. Leaving his pregnant wife behind him, he at first does his duty but later deserts the military in hopes of pursuing his dream of becoming a singer. Coming under the wing of a sleazy record producer (who hilariously demonstrates that the phenomenon of lowlife music industry executives is seemingly an international one) he passes much of his time as a gofer before garnering what seems to be his big break. Events continue to keep him away from his wife and child, and while at times it is the vagaries of the universe that cause the difficulty Pan himself is also personally responsible for much of the luck that befalls him.
Though the movie's symbolism is at times overwrought, its lush emotional depth more than compensates for any seeming heavy-handedness. Beautiful touches abound throughout the film; placid moments of contemplative calm alternate with wildly frenetic action in a mood swing mise-en-scene. Other scenes are vibrantly awash in gently lilting Thai song, as the local music serves as an integral part of the movie's structure. The principal actors' performances are both solid and engaging, helping to delineate a believably magic universe that draws you over to its side. While the entire ensemble of actors is capable and turns in utterly heartfelt work, it's the two leads (Supakorn Kitsuwon as Pan and Siriyakorn Pukkavesh as Sadaw) that really carry the day here and make the outing a successful one.
The quality of the cast in Monrak Transistor should deservedly get a lot of
the credit for why the film works as well as it does, but it's impossible to overlook the triumph of the man behind the camera. Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who has also trained as an art director, lends the proceedings a unique visual look that colors the world in varied hues and draws the action with lively camerawork. While the movie's pacing is slightly inconsistent, its tonal swings are never distracting enough to derail the film's impact and the end result is a caring and insightful fable about love and its fallout within a capricious universe. Also of note is the interesting use of the songs here, for while the film is for the most part not an out-and-out musical, there are a few scenes that employ the artificiality of style
that particular genre is known for to truly great effect. The lyrics of the songs played during the course of the film are additionally important within the context of the screenplay; far from being extraneous bits of fluff, they are instead central to the dramatic development of the characters and the storyline.
From the very first scenes to the final conclusion, Monrak Transistor proves itself to be a captivating celluloid enterprise made carefully and with plenty of heart. At times mesmerizing, this lovely Thai story takes the audience on a bumpy trip backed with lilting and entrancing song that serves as far more than mere background accompaniment. The steady hand of the director backs up the wonderful cast's enchanting work, and the simple tale is told in a stylish manner that keeps interest high throughout its two-hour length. While the fabulist tone might put off some whose tastes run more to realism, this viewer found the film's more magical fancies to play well within the framework of the musical story. Ultimately, then, Monrak Transistor stands as a successful and enjoyable film that demonstrates unequivocally that the boundaries of quality Asian film have definitely extended beyond the borders of the big production centers that dominate movie production in that part of the world. Taken in tandem with the other fine product to emerge from the country in the last few years, it seems obvious Thailand has emerged as a real player on the international scene and surely bears watching for the foreseeable future.