Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review: Kama

  • Directed by M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Manop Assawathep, Monrudee Yamapai, Piatip Kumwong, Sonchai Dilokwírot, Chairat Tiaptiam
  • Released in Thailand on July 1, 1978; screened as part of of the Week of Siam at House cinema in Bangkok, May 28-June 3, 2009
  • Rating: 4/5

Sex, sex, sex.

It's all about sex.

Society's preoccupation with sex and the portrayal of sex by the mass media is examined in Kama (กาม), a 1978 melodrama about a teenage schoolgirl, the daughter of a sex star, whose friendship with an eccentric artist is misunderstood.

The movie was apparently scandalous back in the day. A co-worker tells me she didn't go see the movie out of fear that that cinema owner would tell her father. It would probably be even more scandalous today, if it were allowed to be made.

What's striking about Kama is that it shows things that Thai filmmakers today shy away from, mainly an overall sense of realism. It's ironic that while acting styles in Thai films have become more natural, moving away from the stagey melodrama that was predominant in the period Kama was made (and remains in vogue for TV soap operas), the plots of films made today are for the most part unreal and out of touch.

The opening titles are superimposed over a sex scene and the close up of a man's chest as he's thrusting away atop a woman. And then the movie opens on the set of a "sex film", or at least the closest approximation to one that can be made in Thailand, since pornography is illegal. The woman is covered by a towel, but the two actors are slurping away at each other's mouths. Now there's something you don't see in Thai films today. There's hardly ever any kissing, let along sex. (The "sex film" actor, by the way is Chatrichalerm regular Sorapong Chatree, making a brief cameo.)

As the director tells the man to move "lower, lower", the actress Manvika (Piatip Kumwong) starts sighing and moaning as the camera zooms on her face. Watching from off the set is Manvika's teenage daughter Veena (Monrudee Yamapai, in her debut role), a boyish-looking schoolgirl whose most striking feature is a pair of big round wire-rimmed spectacles.

Veena doesn't care for her mother's line of work, mainly because it means her mom isn't around very much. Plus she is already on the edge among the gossiping neighborhood idlers, her two-faced classmates and judgmental school administrators because her mother is a "porn queen". But it's when Veena strikes up a friendship with eccentric artist Marut (Manop Assawathep) that the troubles really begin.

With his long hair, beard and clothes that consist of a white sheet, draped like a monk's robe, Marut looks pretty wild. But it's his art -- oil paintings that could be commended for being highly vaginal and phallic and sculptures that are phallic in nature as well -- that capture the attention of the local wags and are the subject of endless ridicule for Marut.

Veena's mother brings more trouble when she grants an interview to Surasak, an influential and unethical newspaper reporter. He surreptitiously snaps a photo of Veena and prints it in his paper, which gets Veena in trouble in school. Manvika slaps Surasak at a party, and the loss of face is too much for the newsman, so he becomes determined to fabricate dirt about Manvika and her daughter.

A struggle between Veena and the artist is then captured by the reporter and splashed on the front page. The incident is misunderstood and taken out of context and everyone's life is ruined.

Except maybe for the journalist. Somehow, he ends up looking better by the time it's all over.

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  1. Talking about realism in Thai cinema, there's 1993 Ph.D thesis researched and written by a Thai woman who studied at the University of Texas. She posits that Thai producers have traditionally steered away from funding films that portrayed "real life" situations due to lack of interest among Thai audiences. She goes on to say, in a nut shell, that this stems from the traditional "La Korn" plays, which usually featured relationships between gods or ghosts and humans. Also that La Korn actors and actresses tended to interact with the audience during the play.

    I wonder if Thai directors/producers drifted back from the realist films of the 60's and 70's as a result of poor box office numbers.

    ("Reun Pae" was pretty good)

  2. Well, that's a very international phenomenon and far from a Thai exclusive, isn't it ?

    Film is, first and foremost, and regardless of any relative notions of "art" - a form of entertainment. The majority of people look for things in entertainment that are different from what they get out of their daily, ordinary lives.

    Which is why the most commercially successful films are typically the ones who use fantasy and pantomime, as opposed to realistic depictions of the real world or pertinent social commentary, which in turn is why the latter are often relegated to be appreciated by intellectuals and film buffs as opposed to a mainstream audience.

    People (as in "the average joe") want panem et circences, not to be remembered about what they already know and want to forget about, or about what they don't know and don't want to know about.


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