Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Based on a novel by Wat Wanlayangkoon
Thailand, 2001, 115 minutes
When: Friday, June 3rd, 2011 at 6:45 PM
Where: Asia Society
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), NYC
After a week's hiatus, the Blissfully Thai film series resumes at Asia Society tomorrow night with this wonderful film, sometimes spelled Monrak Transistor and a.k.a. Transistor Love Story. The story centers on the unfortunate adventures of Pan, a poor, but charming young man and his love for Sadaw, a lovely village girl who embodies sweetness and innocence.
The film opens with Pan in a prison cell, shitting out a necklace he has swallowed. We don't actually see him, as the cell is far in the background and out-of-focus. The only object in focus is a bottle, apparently a laxative, sitting in the right foreground. After a policeman deposits the necklace, which isn't even real gold, on the table next to the bottle, the jailer, who's from Pan's village but who hadn't seen him for years, breaks the "fourth wall" and starts to directly tell the story of Pan's sad journey to his current predicament.
In a flashback we see Pan before he became so hapless and forlorn. A talented singer in a band, he courts and wins the heart of Sadaw, overcoming the opposition of her father, Old Chuey, who occasionally has taken shots at Pan, more in an effort to drive him away than to actually injure, maim or kill him.
Things are going along fine for the two lovers, and Sadaw becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, Pan's bad luck arrives when he is conscripted to serve in the military. From that point, things go from bad to worse for him. A traveling troupe of entertainers holds a contest for singers, the best two of whom will join the company. One of the winners is the lovely Doa (Porntip Papanai, who would appear as the hotel room maid in Ratanaruang's 2007 film Ploy, which screened earlier in Blissfully Thai).
The other is Pan, who leaves the army to seek fame and fortune, but instead encounters a life of drudgery mopping floors for over two years because, unlike Doa, he doesn't have "tits and ass." When his big singing break finally comes, his "good fortune" is short-lived, and he's soon on the road again, now working on a sugar cane cutting crew.
That too doesn't last and circumstances bring the story up to date as Pan excretes the necklace that had been obtained in a "snatch and grab" orchestrated by Pan's new traveling companion Siew. Prior to this there's a hilarious, satirical scene at a fundraiser to help the poor, where the most authentically poor-looking attendee will win a prize. After he finally gets out of prison, Pan faces a final temptation to acquire financial wealth. Will he take it, or finally return and try to renew his life with Sadaw? And if he goes back, will she accept him?
Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has aptly described the movie as "A piece of candy with just a taste of satirical poison at its center." Now everyone knows that you can't have a "sweet" film with an unhappy ending, so there's no real surprise that Pan and Sadaw end up together. But, oh, what a magnificent journey getting there!
And while Suppakorn Kitsuwan is great as Pan, the real revelation for me was Siriyakorn Pukkavesa as Sadaw. She has a winsome, disarming smile that could melt even the coldest heart of the stanchest misogynist. More than that, she has a face that does wonders expressing a number of emotions, including rage, anger, disappointment, and heart-rendering despair. Hers is a simple, nuanced, and unaffected performance that's a joy to behold.
Mon-Rak Transistor is a terrific film, that well deserves its ACF Rating of 3.5 out of 4 stars, highly recommended. It's a fine example of how good Thai films can be, and I hope you'll get to see it.
And when you do, there is one scene that is almost sure to remind you of a scene in Slumdog Millionaire. Just keep in mind that Danny Boyle's film, which I love, was released roughly seven years after Transistor. I'm not suggesting that Boyle necessarily cribbed from Ratanaruang, only that one would be quite mistaken to think Ratanaruang "borrowed" from Boyle.