Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Review: Yam Yasothon

  • Directed by Petchtai Wongkamlao
  • Starring Petchtai Wongkamlao, Janet Keaw, Chaipan Ninkong, Yaowalak Toomboon, Waew Wongkamlao, Anuporn Wongkamlao
  • Released in Thai cinemas on September 8, 2005

Hard-working entertainer Petchtai Wongkamlao's second directing effort after The Bodyguard finds the comic actor and Ong-Bak sidekick on more familiar ground.

Shifting from a wire-fu action comedy, Petchtai, better known as Mum Jokmok, goes back to the 1960s with this homage to the Thai musical comedies of that era. It was a time when Mitr Chaibuncha (and later Sombat Metanee) and Petchara Chaowarat ruled the silver screen, beehive hairdos were the preferred hairstyle and bright-colored clothing clashed with the vivid green of the rice fields.

It's a style that Petchtai captures perfectly, and it places his film among the pantheon of other recent Thai "color" films, like Tears of the Black Tiger, Citizen Dog, and, dare I mention it, Bangkok Loco. Given its bigger budget and more mainstream star power, it's also more fully realized than the recent Petchara homage, The Adventures of Iron Pussy.

But for all its beauty, Yam Yasothon is rude and crude, and hilariously so. It comes off so well because it's essentially the low-brow cafe comedy that Mum knows so well. But instead of a nightclub, the jokes are on a movie set in rural Northeast Thailand, or Isaan.

Right from the start, Mum lets folks know that this isn't necessarily a family comedy. Take the first scene, when Isaan farmer Yam (Mum) is fishing in the river with his ladyfriend, Juei (Janet). They are fishing Thai style, wading in the river, trying to catch fish with a weighted net.

"I got one. I got one. I caught a catfish," Juei shouts."That's my dick," says Yam.

"Oh, that's why it doesn't have spines. It's quite big, though," Juei says.

"You're rude."

Yam would rather Juei would just leave him alone. She's a sweet enough gal, and is always popping up in the middle of the field to recite Yam a love poem.

He'd probably like her, except for the simple fact: she's just plain ugly. He skin is dark and splotchy, her teeth are rotten and she has a big dark mole above her lip.

He kicks her into a lotus pond. He leaves her to make her pick up his fishing equipment. He shouts and yells. He's just plain hateful. He treats animals with more care -- fixing up birds with broken wings, as well as squirrels, cats, dogs and snakes (well, he does 'fix' them) that people have mistreated.

This only increases Juei's love for Yam.

Meanwhile, there are the young, good-looking sweethearts, Yam's nephew, Thong (Chaipan) and Soy (Yaowalak). They spend all their spare time kissing.

It's all great fun until Soy's black-hearted Aunt Dok Toh shows up and ruins it. This is Mum's sister, Waew, and she's a hoot in her portrayal of the haughty Dok Toh, the village's money lender who looks down on anyone who doesn't have as much money as she does, which means she looks down on everyone, especially poor farmers like Thong and his Uncle Yam. To make her even more ridiculous, she peppers her speech with rude English commands, like "shut up", "go home" and "take a shower". She is aided in her derisive remarks by her maid (Mum's brother Anuporn, in transvestite mode). It's classic Thai comic overacting.

Dok Toh orders Soy and Jeui (who as it turns out is Soy's maid and governess) to go home and stay away from Thong and Yam. She has arranged the local sheriff's handsome shit-for-brains son to propose to Soy -- a match more befitting Soy's status.

The sheriff's son has couple of idiot henchmen working for him -- a pair of guys who can't complete a sentence on their own. They have to work as a pair, even to the point where one says "yes" and the other says "sir". One is wearing a fake pencil mustache and a crazy short leisure suit outfit with go-go boots. The other has these crazy sunglasses. They must be seen to be appreciated.

The climax comes during the village temple fair, when Soy and Juei sneak out to join Thong and Yam -- a night that ends in an emotionally devastating episode for Yam.

For their transgression, the girls are packed off to Bangkok. All contact between them and their boyfriends are cut off by the aunt, who intercepts their letters.

In Juei's absence, Yam's heart grows fonder. Juei, meanwhile, is learning a trade, making some money and having some beauty treatments, which makes her eventually return to the village pretty puzzling for Yam, who does not recognize her.

The boys make a trip to Bangkok, with black and white scenes of Krungthep of old projected behind the action. It's a cheesy effect, but it works because it's a cheesy effect.

Throughout, an Isaan country band (or morlam) stands in a rice field, performing musical interludes that express the longings of the lovers -- much in the same way Jonathan Richman did in There's Something About Mary.

Yam Yasothon is all around the most entertaining Thai film to be released so far this year. It works on so many levels. It's a great showcase for what will surely be recognized as "Thai film", with the use of color. It's hilarious, with Mum leading a cast of cafe comedy vets -- virtually all who never acted on film before. And it's a great display of Thai culture, which works so well because it doesn't try so hard. It's natural, and it seems like the folks at the temple fair or the Thai New Year celebration are really having fun, rather than putting on a labored performance.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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