Sunday, January 8, 2006
Review: Innocence (Dek Toh)
Directed by Nisa Kongsri and Areeya Sirisopha
Starring Prayoon Kamchai and Grade 9 students of Ban Mae Toh School
Premiered at the 10th Pusan International Film Festival; screened at the 3rd World Film Festival of Bangkok in October 2005, and limited screenings in Bangkok in December 2005 and January 2006.
I thought I'd missed Innocence, which the Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee cited as one of the better Thai films of 2005. So when I saw it was still on the schedule at the Lido cinema, I beelined it for the box office and got in line for its once-daily showing.
There was still a pretty good crowd for this documentary about the Ban Mae Toh School in Chiang Mai province. And I was glad I saw it.
Often, when viewing Thai films, I have a hard time resisting the urge to compare them to other films. I can't help it. Innocence is very much like Born Into Brothels, though with vastly happier circumstances and a much more hopeful outcome.
It's the story of Prayoon Kamchai, the school's principal, who has dedicated his life to the school, which is in one of Thailand's most isolated and impoverished areas. Situated in a mountainous area, the school's students are hill-tribe kids, many who come from up to 100 kilometers away. During the rainy season, the single-track dirt roads in the mountains become impassable and the kids can't get to school. The solution was to build dorms and make it a boarding school.
Parents are told by Prayoon not to worry about money. Ways will be found to get by. Education must come first. The schoolchildren remarkably handle the situation with aplomb. Since most of them are from farm families, they naturally take to growing vegetables, raising pigs and chickens and serving up their own meals. The entire student body pitches in for building projects to improve the school as well.
Prayoon is a kind, caring soul whom the children all look up to as a father figure. At one point, he has to go into the hospital for cancer surgery, but comes out it with a clean bill of health. Thank goodness. The teachers are all great as well.
There's one scene when one teacher decides to leave the school to be nearer to his family, and it's positively gut wrenching, there's such an outpouring of emotion during a karaoke party. It's backed up by a disturbing, discordant and psychedelic squawl from the karaoke machine. It's a tough scene to watch.
Of course the big goal for the kids is that when they reach Grade 9 (the highest the school goes) they get a trip to the ocean. It's a journey of about 1,000 kilometers and three days on the road from the mountains of Chiang Mai province to the beaches of Prachuap Kiri Khan. Prayoon uses the trip as a metaphor for their schooling, saying he's taking them from the headwaters of the stream all the way to the ocean. Brilliant.
The documentary is shot on digital video, and making it must've been an adventure for filmmaker Nisa Kongsri (who came out and gave a little talk after the screening) and her co-director, Areeya "Pop" Sirisopha, who was Miss Thailand Universe 1994.
What I really liked about Innocence was that the hill-tribe children are seen as just that -- just plain kids -- and smart ones at that. This is not at all like the pitiable primitives that were portrayed in Vichit Kounavudhi's Mountain People (Khon Pu Khao). And it's a much better image, than say, Luther and Johnny Htoo from God's Army (remember them?).
As encouraging as the results are for the children -- most of the ones featured are continuing their education and have plans of giving back to their communities -- there's still some troubling news: The Thai government reduced the student meal allowance from 20 baht to 12 baht, which will make it harder for the school to keep stocked up with enough rice.
I wonder why the government reduced the meal allowance? Shouldn't such things be increased in this day and age?
The film's website has information on how to donate to help the school by transferring money to a Thai bank account set up for that purpose. Or, if you contact the producers, they might have more instructions on how to send some money to the school.
(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)