Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Dek-Khong

  • Written and directed by Taweewat Wantha
  • Starring Nopparit Suriwong, Keerati Mahaprukpong
  • Released in Thai cinemas on June 11, 2009
  • Rating: 3/5

A childlike playfulness has imbued Taweewat Wantha's feature films so far. There's been a sense of wonder as the director has crafted fantastic films seemingly out of whatever toys and bits and pieces of household junk he had handy.

Nonetheless, after the zombie-kidnapping comedy SARS Wars and the exceedingly strange sci-fi The Sperm, which is about, uh, sperm, I didn't expect that the director would make a children's movie.

But that's what he's done with Dek-Khong (อนุบาลเด็กโข่ง, Anuban Dek-Khong or literally The Kindergarten).

It's a kid's comedy that's about as twisted and weird as can be expected from Taweewat, about a man-sized child named Ohm (Nopparit Suriwong) who's seemingly stuck in kindergarten, and because of his bulk, he's the leader of a fearsome children's gang.

And what a gang it is, the King Kong Gang, who rule over the playgrounds and clubhouses of an entire district, mowing down and usurping all the other children's gangs. One by one, the flags fall, with the primate visage of King Kong rising to take their places.

The opening scene of the King Kongs storming another gang's fort is rivaled only by perhaps Saving Private Ryan for carnage. There's no blood-letting or loss of limbs, but the violence is the same, enhanced by the sound effects of real gunfire and explosions as water balloons are lobbed and a hail of peas are fired from plastic straws.

As they head off to war, the boys sing a rousing martial song, penned by none other than folk rocker Ad Carabao, a specialist when it comes to writing march-like, patriotism-stirring themes.

For armor, the kids wear whatever can be scrounged. Pieces of cardboard become arm guards, a plastic basket is a bullet-proof vest. Various toys and action figures are transformed into helmets and weapons.

Ohm tenaciously holds onto power by always acting the tough guy, and is reluctant to show any signs of weakness, such as the need to use the toilet.

But he's caught in the act by a mysterious teddy-bear-toting eye-patch-wearing girl named Jamnien (Katnataní Yasirohtwatana ). Like Firefly's River Tam, she uses math to defeat larger opponents. Aside from that eyepatch, there's something creepy about the pig-tailed Jamnien, who's always lurking around, seeing all with that one good eye of hers. She's snapped a photo of Ohm in the can, which she uses as blackmail to join the King Kong Gang, making Ohm break his rule that forbids girl gang members and girlfriends.

One woman in a boy's life -- his mother -- is more than enough, says Ohm.

And why wouldn't the boy have issues with his mom, who denies that the photo of the tough-looking pug of a man on their wall is his father, despite the uncanny resemblance. As for Ohm's unnatural size, mom blames that on a batch of radioactive mushrooms fed to him as a baby.

She's a handful, Ohm's mom -- the leader of a gambling ring in the quiet riverside community. The cops know full well what goes on in her house, but with a cellphone-equipped Ohm stationed as a lookout, the police can never catch her in the act.

It's while Ohm is on the lookout that he sees a red-haired high-school girl just at the moment a gust of wind catches her red school-uniform skirt. Ohm doesn't know why, but he's overcome with a feeling for this girl, Om (played by gravel-voiced university student Keerati Mahaprukpong). She's dancing in slow motion in his dreams. But so is his mother. And so is the bicycle shop mechanic who's Ohm's mentor. Weird, huh?

A chance meeting during a science-museum field trip and a stolen high-school uniform makes Om believe the oversized kindergartner Ohm is her age, and the two embark on an innocent romance of bicycle rides and Frisbee throwing in the park.

Ohm is clearly overmatched. Following the fashion of Seth Rogan's comedies, here we have yet another male protagonist hooking up with a woman who is way too hot for him. In contrast to the fit young men in Om's life, it's clear that even for his bulk, Ohm is still just a boy. And perhaps Om is still just a girl, even though she's blossoming into womanhood.

Meanwhile, Ohm is losing control of his gang. His pint-sized lieutenant Jorn is rebelling against Ohm's letting the eye-patch girl Jamnien in the gang. Jorn eventually crosses over to the much-feared rival gang, the Pandas, who are so evil you can't even speak their name. And this is despite all their members dressing up like cute panda bears, with blackened eyes and noses. Who knew pandas could be so ominous? Jorn secures his admission to the Panda gang because he knows his multiplication tables -- so kids, learn your math.

A soul-searching journey by Ohm and a furious face-off with the Pandas -- evoking Kurtz's hellish encampment in the final stages of Apocalypse Now -- are highlights toward the end. Some of these kids might be being groomed by the producers at Baa Ram Ewe to be the next generation of Power Kids, with a few flying double-knee kicks and elbows thrown in battle.

But the energetic innovation of the early parts of the film give way to sweetness and sentimentality. So many characters have been introduced, some are simply forgotten, so there's no real resolution in the story arc. It's a bit unsatisfying, as Dek-Khong coasts by on cuteness alone -- of which it has plenty. But it was cleverness that made the movie so charming to begin with.

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