Monday, December 22, 2008

Review: Happy Birthday

  • Directed by Pongpat Wachirabunjong
  • Story by Pongpat Wachirabunjong; screenplay Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
  • Starring Ananda Everingham and Chayanan Manomaisantiphap
  • Released in Thai cinemas on December 18, 2008
  • Rating: 4/5

Breezy, entertaining romantic comedy and right-to-die issues mix deliriously in Happy Birthday (แฮปปี้ เบิร์ดเดย์).

Veteran actor Pongpat Wachirabunjong, making his sophomore directorial effort for Mono Film, assembles much the same team from his 2007 debut, Me ... Myself, with leading man Ananda Everingham again paired with actress Chayanan Manomaisantiphap. The story is by Pongpat, with seasoned pro Kongdej Jaturanrasamee again providing the screenplay. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's go-to lensman) is back to capture everything from jawdropping vistas to intimate close ups that are equally awe inspiring.

The story is about a travel photographer named Then (Ananda), who tries to buy an old travel book but finds that it has been written in. He then arranges to have it left on the shelf, and writes his own note on a page, chiding the vandal. The note finds its mark - a pen-flipping young woman - who writes a note back to Then. They trade barbs at first, but the back-and-forth notes ("updates", she calls them) become friendlier and more helpful. Then tries staking out the shelf, hoping to catch his penpal red-handed, but has no luck. Then, while eating at a little-known backroads eatery that he had suggested in the travel book, he overhears a pretty female tour guide (Chayanan) talking about how she found the restaurant by trading notes in travel guide. Her name is Pao, and from that point on, Then works hard at wooing her.

Their relationship is sweet and innocent, and fun to watch. It's a very different Ananda Everingham from what has been seen in the horror films and thrillers. For once, he gets to be a regular guy, playing it cool and smooth as he tries to get a girl - though later on Ananda gets to switch into his usual mode of being a wide-eyed man under duress. Chayanan is smart, confident and just a little bit haughty, playing the typical hard-to-get good girl. They travel the countryside in Then's old orange Volkswagen Beetle.

Then tragedy strikes. One Then's birthday, Pao is coming to meet him. She gives a phone call to let him know she is on her way. Then can see her car out the window of the restaurant he is sitting in. But as her car moves into the intersection, one of Bangkok's notorious green minibuses plows into it, crushing the driver's side. A musical birthday card is left open, playing a music-box version of "Happy Birthday". Pao is in a coma.

Pao's parents at first aren't willing to let their brain-dead daughter go, so they leave her on life support. When their money starts running short, Then volunteers to take responsibility, and the girl's mom and dad let him. The comatose Pao is moved into Then's house. What follows is a psychological drama, as Then becomes increasingly obsessive about caring for Pao -- trying to prove he is worthy of her love. But when Pao's parents witness Then taking care of their daughter's feminine hygiene needs -- as well as dressing her up and parading her around the city, taking her to department stores and the movies -- well, enough is enough.

There are still a few twists and turns as the story follows Then and his plight. There are flashbacks to their brief, but happy courtship, as well as a futuristic flash forward.

And, even if it is prettified and idealized with good-looking stars and glossy photography, Happy Birthday is a sensitive primer on the right-to die-issue, which has started to get a public airing in Thailand in the last couple of years.

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