Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: The Happiness of Kati

  • Directed by Genwaii Thongdeenok
  • Screenplay by Jane Vejjajiva and Genwaii Thongdeenok
  • Starring Patsorn Kongmeesook, Sa-aad Peampongsan, Jaruwan Panyopas, Michael Shaowanasai, Krissada Sukosol, Ratchanok Sangchuto, Kemaupsorn Sirisukka, Nitich Kowsakul
  • Released in Thai cinemas on January 8, 2009
  • Rating: 3/5

As a slice of Thai life, the film adaptation of The Happiness of Kati (Khwamsuk Khong Kati, ความสุขของกะทิ) isn't very filling. It's nice to look at, and has its occasional charms, but on the whole, the movie is a trifle dull and rather sterile.

Kati is a 9-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents in a well-preserved and beautifully appointed Thai-style wooden house along the Chao Phya River in Ayutthaya Province. It's an idyllic life, accompanying her learned, respected grandfather as he paddles the river and canals in a small wooden boat. He rides a bicycle on dirt paths through rice fields to bring Kati to meet the old truck that takes her and the other neighborhood children to school. The modern, noisy world of cellphones, computers, karaoke and 7-Elevens doesn't intrude. It's an idealized vision of Siam, a fantasy.

Kati's closest friend is Tong (Nitich Kowsakul), a boy who lives at the neighborhood Buddhist temple and paddles the boat for the abbot on his morning alms rounds.

At school, while Kati has other friends, she is stigmatized by the school's ogre-like girl bully for being an "orphan". Kati's mother is terminally ill and does not live with Kati. It's something Kati's grandparents are careful to avoid mentioning. They are raising Kati as if she were their own daughter.

But when the time comes for Kati to visit her mother, who is being cared for at a colonial-style beachhouse near Hua Hin, grandfather and grandmother make a point of letting Kati know it is her decision whether she wants to go.

Well of course Kati goes, and she meets her mother (Ratchanok Sangchuto) for the first time in many years. Mom, sitting in a white room, filled with gauze-filtered sunlight, has an angelic glow. She smiles beatifically. But because she's suffering from ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- she can't move her arms to hug her daughter. And she can't speak. Oh wait, she can speak, but it's not until several scenes later that Kati's mother Pat actually lets loose with some words. That's just one of the things that's a little queer about this movie.

One of those intervening scenes has Kati running along the beach, sobbing. Yet she's not crying because her mother died. So what is it? Tears of joy? Tears of sadness for the inevitable death? It's not clear, so it's hard to identify with the scene.

And when Kati's mother does die, it's another anti-climax in a movie filled with anti-climaxes. She simply slips away, in that white room with the flowing gauze curtains.

Pat was being cared for at this beach retreat by her lifelong friends, referred to in the Thai tradition of addressing elders as "aunt" and "uncle" even if they are not related. There's "Uncle" Kunn and his wife "Aunt" Da, and the flower-arranging "Uncle" Dong.

From the beach, Kati is taken to Bangkok, where her mother had a luxuriously appointed condo. Again, she has been given the decision by the adults, handed the keys to open the door. Well, of course she goes in. On the second floor of the spacious apartment is a study that has one long wall taken up by filing cabinets. Each drawer contains a chapter of Kati's mother's life -- from Pat's childhood, to her time studying in England, her career as a lawyer and her eventual return to Thailand.

Kind Uncle Dong sits with Kati on the leather couch in that study, filling in the blanks of Kati's mother's life -- including her short-lived marriage to an Anglo-Asian man who came from one of Thailand's "neighboring countries" (probably Burma).

Flashbacks show Kati's mother when Kati was little more than a toddler, and include the episode of Pat losing her grip on a rope to a rowboat -- Pat's ALS is manifesting itself, and putting Kati at risk. The boat, with Kati already in it, drifts out into the canal during a torrential rainstorm, and Pat is powerless to retrieve her daughter. It's about as powerfully dramatic as the movie gets.

At the heart of this story is whether Kati will want to meet her father. She's given a pre-addressed envelope, written in her mother's handwriting, and all she has to do is send the letter.

The problem with this adaptation of a beloved, acclaimed novel -- winner of the 2006 SeaWrite Award for Thailand -- is that it doesn't really add much to what's on the pages of the book. The best adaptations add another dimension to the source material, and in some cases even improves on them. They increase the appreciation of the authors' works. But the film version of The Happiness of Kati is about as flat as the slim novel that's sitting on my bookshelf. The book is gentle, polite, subtle and sometimes quite clever. However, what works well in the book and in the readers' imaginations doesn't make for a compelling movie.

Author Jane Vejjajiva, who co-wrote the screenplay with first-time director Genwaii Thongdeenok, padded out the film with episodes from Kati's life that aren't in the novel, among them a scene where Kati takes over as goalie in a school soccer match. But it's another anti-climax and doesn't really add much to the narrative -- just another pleasant, well-filmed scene.

Oh sure, the book's narrative is jumbled up a bit. But the movie is still overly slavish. Fans of the novel will enjoy seeing its key moments brought to life.

Also enjoyable are the portrayals of its characters. Among the best are by veteran actors Sa-aad Peampongsan as Kati's kindly, patient grandfather, the good cop opposite Jaruwan Panyopas as Kati's rather strict, rarely smiling grandmother. Apart from Kati and her grandparents, Michael Shaowansai has the next meatiest role, bringing his own unique flair to the character of the gay Uncle Dong. The intense, thoughtful Krissada "Noi" Sukosol seems a bit awkward and intimidating as Uncle Kunn, and as Aunt Da, Kemaupsorn Sirisukka isn't given much to do than just stand there with her big watery eyes.

Playing Kati herself is Patsorn Kongmeesook, who seems perfectly cast for the role of the 9-year-old girl, stoically putting up with the strange world of adults and the mature decisions that have been thrust upon her.

A particularly poignant moment is when Kati is sitting with her grandfather, having one of their philosophical discussions. Staring up at the moon, grandfather says "wherever people are, when they look at the sky, they all see the same moon."

But for moviegoers who haven't read the book, I wonder if they'll really appreciate that moon?

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  1. This film reminds me of Kevin Kline's "Life as a house" from 2001. Bonding over a dead family member, the beach house on a cliff, it's all very similar. Not my kind of film or reading material.

    Patsorn is getting a lot of buzz, I see her everywhere.

  2. I have read the book in Thai language and I loved it. I have not seen the movie yet but I'm sure I will like it. As seen on trailer....I think the movie will full filled my heart.


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