Sunday, January 23, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Son of the Northeast

  • Directed by Vichet Kounavudhi
  • Starring Tongparn Phontong, Chanpen Siritep, Krailad Kriang-krai and Pailin Somnapa
  • Screened as part of the Vichet Kounavudhi Retrospective at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

This is Vichet Kounavudhi's masterpiece. Screened as part of a four-film retrospective, I saw three of his films, all from the early 1980s. The only one I missed was First Wife, which didn't have subtitles.

Based on the book, A Child of the Northeast (Luk Isaan) written by Kampoon Boontawee (winner of the 1979 Seawrite Award), this is Vichet's strongest film. The pandering and racism of Mountain People and heavy-handed melodrama present in Her Name is Boonrawd - is less evident here.

Son of the Northeast is more of a slice of life film about a group of close-knit familes living in hardscrabble northeastern Thailand - an area known as Isaan - in 1939. A drought has stricken the region, as it always seems to, so rice growing isn't happening. The families are reduced to eating whatever they can find - lizards, snakes, dung beetles (picked from cow manure piles that are territorially defended by the young boys), spiders, turtles, small birds, etc.

The king of the little manure pile is the titular son - Keng, and his parents are rock solid. Around them are the village drunkard, a younger horny guy, a pretty niece (object of a horny guy's affections) and a Vietnamese merchant.

Culturally, the area was traditionally rural and settled by farmers who speak a different dialect - more a mix of Lao and Khmer than Thai. This dialect was adhered to in the film. So there were Thai subtitles in addition to some haphazard English subs.

Part documentary, the wildlife photography is particularly vivid - lizards on tree limbs, turtles and snakes crawling through the grass.

The film opens with another group of families leaving the area. It's just too damn dry. But Father of Keng (as he's referred to by his friends and neighbors) wants to hold on. It's his ancestral land.

After about an hour and a half of sweating it out in the arid region - and dealing with an old drunkard, a greedy Vietnamese merchant, a horn-dog guy forced into marrying the pretty niece at machete- and gunpoint - the families decide enough is enough. They pull together and build nets, forge tools and build carts and head for the river to catch enough fish to make it through the season and have some foodstuffs to trade on. So more travelogue. But it's all really vivid and beautifully shot.

The only quibble I have with the film is one girl's character - a girl who wanted to run off with a folksinger but was locked up naked in her room by her mother. The girl escapes, gets some clothes and goes to the city. She returns wearing an outfit that is straight out of 1982, or 1965, or 1973. Whatever. I don't think they were wearing those colorful getups in 1939.

But other than that, the way of life in Isaan is depicted as it had been lived in 1939 and probably for hundreds of years before that and for at least a couple of decades afterward. Today, water buffalo are replaced by diesel-powered tillers and tractors. Pickups have taken the place of ox-carts. Grass and wood huts are replaced by stifling hot, land-eating concrete monstrosities. Rice paddy acreage is gobbled up by superhighways, factories, housing estates, military bases and golf courses -- progress.

Son of the Northeast is a love letter, a picture postcard, a souvenir to a long, lost, romantic past - a simpler, though very impoverished and hard-ship filled time in Thai history.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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