Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BKKIFF '09 review: The Gem from the Deep (Ploy Talay)

  • Directed by Cherd Songsri
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Sinjai (Hongthai) Plengpanich, Chanutporn Wisitsopon Aranya Namwong, Witoon Karuna
  • Released in 1987; screened as part of the Cherd Songsri Retrospective at the 2009 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Greed, ambition and conflicted love twist tighter and tighter in Cherd Songsri's The Gem from the Deep, about lovers in a fishing village on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. Their love for each other and their peaceful way of life changes after a gigantic red ruby is found.

The film itself is also a gem, with beautiful cinematography, including pretty stunning underwater sequences.

Sorapong Chatree stars as Rung, a strong, highly capable swimmer, diver and fisherman. He is Aquaman, apparently, for he has no need for oxygen tank or snorkel. Self-describing himself as the "king of the seas" with perhaps only a bit of pride, Rung is deeply in love with village beauty Kratin (Sinjai Hongtai). He flirts with her and courts her non-stop, pausing only to dive beneath the waves to fetch a horn-shaped shell, which he then blows on as a love call for Kratin -- the horn speaks only her name, he says.

After a night spent together cuddling in a cave, Kratin declares Rung her husband, but has to keep it a secret from her family and the rest of the village because Kratin's family wants her to marry a more prosperous man. Little do they know that from the depths of the ocean, Rung has uncovered a flawless ruby that would choke a whale.

Now, add to this scenario Rung's mother, whose illness weighs heavily on his conscience.

And then there is another young woman -- Sampao. This is Chanutporn Wisitsopon, playing much the same kind of character she did in Cherd's Puen Pang -- a spirited, singing, tomboyish young woman. As part of Cherd's Thai cultural display, Sampao is introduced singing a folksong with a baby monkey on her head while she is holding a rope tied to an adult macaque that has been trained to climb trees and harvest the coconuts. The plucky Sampao has essentially been raised as Rung's sister in one of those typically Thai ways of stretch and confuse the meaning of family. They are not related. Nonetheless, Rung enjoys a playful relationship with his "sister" Sampao, remarking that he'll kiss her until her cheeks are bruised.

Word of this gets back to Kratin, who is quickly given to pettiness, and the complications of jealousy arise. Kratin's anger is soon smoothed over by the butter-voiced Rung, but then a boat arrives to complicate things even more. The people on this remote island want off, and the infrequent boat that stops by to buy fish and coconuts is their ticket out of there. But places are limited. Rung thinks he has secured a spot by secretly offering his ruby to the boat's captain. But the gemstone has also secretly been entrusted to Kratin. Meanwhile the other men of the island jostle for a berth. In the fight that follows, it appears Rung is left for dead. Kratin and her family depart. Sampao has stayed behind, and when the die-hard Rung washes ashore, Sampao nurses him back to health and the bond between them evolves to the cusp of romance.

Ashore, Kratin's family is fitting in to their new surroundings. The harbor city is run by a benevolent, fair-minded "boss lady". This is the regal Aranya Namwong. She sees the brooding, silent and mournful Kratin and takes pity on her, and invites the girl to stay in her home. Of course, she probably also had it in mind that her gem-trading brother Samniang (Witoon Karuna) would probably like Kratin. And the way the camera zooms when he first spots her, there is no mistake.

Back on the island, Rung is desperate to get ashore to get his sick mother to a doctor. He convinces the fishing boat captain to haul them all in. The arrival of Rung stirs up trouble for Kratin, who hasn't told her wealthy new sweetheart Samniang she "married" Rung.

There is more jealousy and greed for that big gemstone. Loud-mouthed, plain-spoken Sampao is ordered to be beaten for speaking the truth.

The dramatic net is pulled in and drawn tighter. There are only so many more places for these fish to flop.

There is yet another situation where Rung is thought to be dead and an ending that is explosive, with possibly the harshest language I've heard used in a Thai film yet. In the subtitles, it was translated as "two-faced bitch".

As critic and scholar Adam Knee told me after the screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival, "Rung may have forgiven Kratin, but the film does not."

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