- Directed by Somkiat Vituranich
- Starring Ratchawin Wongviriya, Thanawat Wattanapoom, Pitsanu Nimsakul
- Released in Thai cinemas on December 23, 2009; rated G
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
Fresh and surprisingly engaging, even as it is steeped in dusty nostalgia and soggy melodrama, October Sonata hits the right notes as it touches on 1970s historical events and follows the misfortunes of a couple who meet one night and fall in love but can never quite get back together.
The couple, Sangchan ("Koy" Ratchawin Wongviriya) and Rawee ("Pope" Thanawat Wattanapoom) run into each other on October 8, 1970 in Pattaya at the funeral of superstar actor Mitr Chaibancha. Rawee is driving his car and in trying to negotiate the throngs of people in the rain-soaked streets around the Pattaya temple, he almost hits the crying and confused Sangchan. She's mourning the death of Thailand's most famous actor, who fell from a helicopter while making Insee Tong (Golden Eagle).
The couple drives through the night. They stop for a moment at the beach where Sangchan thinks Mitr fell, and she cuts her foot on sharp rocks. Then in a magical moment, they encounter a swarm of fireflies. It's as if they are fated to be together. They spend the night -- in all innocence and chasteness -- in a hotel beach bungalow. He gives her his shirt to put on while her clothes dry and dresses the wound on her foot. It's true love. Rawee is the sun and Sangchan is the moon. And he is leaving the next day to go overseas to study. Hooking pinky fingers together -- oh, how cute -- they promise to meet two years later at that very spot. Sangchan memorializes the moment by carving a sun into the bed's wooden headboard.
But Sangchan's life changes. During that fateful night with Rawee, he read to her -- reciting author Sri Burapha's classic 1932 novel Songkram Chiwit (The War of Life), a story of tragic romance and class conflict -- and then gave her the book. Inspired, the illiterate Sangchan enrolls in night classes, and it's at school where she meets Lim, a Chinese-Thai immigrant, who with much embarrassment points out that the zipper on Sangchan's school-uniform skirt isn't functioning. The son of a garment-district wholesaler, Lim ("Boy" Pisanu Nimsakul) helps Sangchan leave her sweatshop seamstress job and abusive aunt for an apprenticeship with a fine dressmaker.
But nice guy that he is, Lim's also a bit creepy and he doesn't stand a chance. Not with Sangchan, not against Rawee and not with the audience.
October 8, 1972 comes, and Sangchan puts on a pink chiffon dress she saved up to make herself and goes to the bungalow, but Rawee does not show up.
It seems Sangchan is doomed to life with Lim, who is pragmatic about relationships and holds no romantic notions, even as he expresses his love for Sangchan, and begs her to give him a chance, because, after all, he is here and her storybook boyfriend Rawee is not.
But Sangchan cannot forget Rawee, and she goes back to the bungalow on October 8 year after year in hopes that Rawee will turn up.
October Sonata (Thai title รักที่รอคอย, Ruk Tee Ror Koi, literally "love that waits") falls into a rhythm that is perhaps reminiscent of 1978's Same Time, Next Year, in which Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn carry on an affair for years, meeting annually in a hotel. While sex is implied in the Hollywood film, it's not the first thing that comes to mind in this Thai drama. It's about being together and sharing a moment, not a bed. There's sobbing. And hooked pinkies and hugs. When sex does happen in October Sonata, it's a traumatic experience.
Rawee does eventually turn up at the bungalow, and boy does he have some explaining to do. It turns out he is a communist, or at least suspected of being a communist with his liberal ideas about educating poor people and reading novels by the communist author Sri Burapha. The story touches on key dates in Thailand's student democracy demonstrations -- October 1973, which saw students, including Rawee, arrested but also got a military dictatorship briefly removed, and October 1976, when the right wing, fuelled by Vietnam War-era anti-communist fervor, staged a bloody coup and caused the activists to flee into the jungles and join the communist fighters.
Sangchan, meanwhile, has never been satisfied in her life as a seamstress. Taking the Sri Burapha novel to heart, she leaves her apprenticeship when it becomes clear that her mistress is not going to pay her. When Sangchan dares to question about whether she's being treated fairly, the high-born woman ends the argument simply by asking "what is my family name?" And that is that. But even lower in the social strata than an illiterate Thai country girl is an immigrant Chinese -- Sangchan looks down on the industrious Lim even as he marries her, gives her a home and names his business after her.
Sangchan becomes a writer herself, with that bungalow hotel serving as her writing retreat. The pages pour out of the typewriter. And so do the tears. One tumultuous night, the manuscript pages and the tears mix together violently. The years continue, life goes on, the pages turn yellow, relationships change and more tears flow. It's a dizzying mix that transcends the run-of-the-mill melodrama and makes October Sonata a bit unpredictable.
Handsomely mounted, with fine performances all around by Koy, Pope and Boy, the film is written and directed by Somkiet Vituranich, who previously penned the screenplay to 2005's Ai Fak, which is adapted from Chart Korbjitti's Khamphiphaksa (The Judgment), a novel on class warfare and societal ills. Somkiet also wrote and co-directed 2007's canine comedy Ma-Mha 4 Ka Krub (Mid-Road Gang), which also managed to have social commentary even though it was about talking dogs performing stunts.
Produced by NGR, executive producer Napat Pavaputanont na Mahasarakham, has stated she'll commit suicide if October Sonata doesn't become a hit.
Hopefully she's just joking or being overly dramatic, because the crowds have been drawn away from her film by the special-effects-laden magic of Hollywood's Avatar. Distant second and third places were taken by Sherlock Holmes and the Pang Bros.' green-screen Hong Kong martial arts fantasy Storm Warriors. October Sonata debuted at No. 4 at the box office, according the website Nang Dee, earning around 3.4 million baht. It's an official flop.
In another time and place, October Sonata might have been a hit. In 2004, it was the weepy melodrama The Letter (Jod Mai Rak, a remake of the 1997 South Korean drama Pyeon ji), that drew record Thai audiences. And this year the top Thai film was a contemporary romantic comedy-drama Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story (Rod Fai Fah ... Ma Ha Na Ther).
Perhaps Thai audiences were turned off by the retro look of October Sonata and thought it was "nam nao" (stinky water), or was just too sad-looking for holiday-time viewing. It's too bad, because October Sonata doesn't stink, and seeing it made me happy, because afterward I thought I'd seen a great film.