- Directed by ML Bhandevanov Devakula
- Starring Mario Maurer, Bongkot Kongmalai, Sakkaraj Rerkthamrong, Ratha Po-ngam, Savika Chaiyadej, Sho Nishino, Chaiyapol J. Poupart
- Released in Thai cinemas on September 6, 2012; rated 18+
- Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5
Despite the ample bare breasts and bodacious curves of actress "Tak" Bongkot Kongmalai, ML Bhandevanov Devakula's new version of Jan Dara comes off rather flat.
Aiming to capitalize on the new era of film ratings instead of censorship, Jan Dara: The Beginning (จันดารา ปฐมบท, Jan Dara Pathommabot) has plenty of sex scenes but little sizzle in the way of compelling storytelling.
Adapted from a 1966 novel by Utsana Phleungtham. Jan Dara was adapted into film just a little over a decade ago by Nonzee Nimibutr, so many people already know the story.
I guess Mom Noi realizes this, which is why he quite literally stages the story in a very theatrical fashion. He's turning the pages of the novel while you sit there and wait for stuff to happen. It's all very painterly, but it has about as much life as a dusty old oil painting. Set in the 1930s, the movie has Mom Noi's eye for lavishly detailed period settings and costuming, but it still somehow seems rather fake.
The story begins in modern times, with Mario Maurer sitting on a bench on a Bangkok sidewalk in a grey-haired wig and appallingly unconvincing aging makeup. If your eyes didn't roll to the back of your head like mine did, you'll see him open up a notebook, and then he starts telling his story literally from the beginning, while he's still in his mother's womb.
His mother, a young woman from a noble family of timber barons in Phitsanulok, had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, so a stepfather of suitable nobility is arranged for Jan's mother to marry. But childbirth does not go well, and Jan's mom dies, leaving his stepdad (Sakkaraj Rekthamrong) with a huge grudge. From then on, the dad refers to Jan as "scum" and treats the boy miserably.
Having moved to a mansion in Bangkok, Jan's social-climbing father seeks to cement his position as head of the household. So when Jan's great-aunt (singer-actress Radklao Amaradit in a comical scene-stealing turn) is away, the dad sets about to seduce all the servants, using sex as power. He starts with opening his sarong and having the ladyboy servant give him a blowjob, and then works his way through all the maids. It's probably the best sequence in the movie, and is played as a comedy. When the great aunt returns, she finds she's been ousted as head of roost, leawithout her protection.
Fortunately for Jan, he has another aunt, Waad (Bongkot), the younger sister (or maybe cousin – it's not quite clear) of his mother. She moves into the house to keep watch on Jan. She too falls prey to Jan's stepfather's sexual prowess, but she also uses her sexuality to get him to promise not to kill Jan. They have sex right there in the room as baby Jan watches from his crib. It's one incident that Jan's mind will always flash back to. Waad is the mother Jan never had, always there to comfort him and let him nuzzle her breasts. That's another thing Jan thinks about a lot later on.
Aunt Waad should have asked the stepdad to promise not to hurt Jan at all, because at one point, he's severely beaten with a stick, just for trying to pay his respects to his father figure. That beating will also come back to haunt Jan.
Meanwhile, Waad has a child with Jan's stepdad, and the daughter Kaew is given as much love by her father as he gives Jan his hatred. He also raises the girl to despise her stepbrother.
Jan, having been banished to live in the servants' quarters, becomes friends with the head maid's son, Ken "the Golden Bull" (Chaiyapol J. Poupart), a rakish, rough-and-tumble guy who is the household's champion Muay Thai boxer. There's even an old-timey Muay Thai match (fight choreography by Panna Rittikrai) to liven things up. Ken also steps up to save Jan from being sodomized by a gang of ex-con opium addicts. He's everything that Jan is not.
Much of Jan's sexual upbringing is thanks to his buddy Ken, who lets his girlfriend tutor Jan in bed artistry. Later, there are orgies in Ken's sex clubhouse, with Jan sketching the amorous scenes in his notebook.
Meanwhile, Jan wants to have a life as a normal teenager, and he tries to strike up a relationship with a sweet schoolgirl. But you know it's doomed from the start because she's played by "Pinky" Savika Chaiyadej – the same actress who plays Jan's mother.
More confusion for Jan comes when his stepdad moves his old mistress Khun Bunluang into the mansion, sidelining Aunt Waad as the lady of the house. Bunluang is portrayed by singer Ratha "Yaya Ying" Po-ngam, and she gets a chance to show her vocal talents in a musical interlude.
Eventually, there is the scene that everyone is waiting for – when Jan goes to the seductive Bunluang's room and cools her down with ice cubes but gets all hot and bothered himself.
Eventually, stepsister Kaew's evil plotting frames Jan for a heinous act he did not do, and the boy is sent packing, but not before it's revealed who Jan's real father was in an ambitiously staged action scene.
As far as the performances go, Sakkaraj as the hateful stepdad chews up the most scenery with his sexual scheming and constant berating of Jan.
Tak Bongkot as the unflappable Aunt Waad gives probably the performance of her career, and puts on a brave face as she's finally taking all her clothes off for Thai movie audiences. There was an audible gasp as her ample pointed breasts and curvy nude torso were revealed for the first time in a breathtakingly mounted scene in which she meets her old lover by a waterfall deep in the misty jungle.
Ratha Po-ngam puts her own stamp on the Bunluang character, but she'll probably be less-remembered for her portrayal than Hong Kong actress Christy Chung was in Nonzee's version.
A curious casting choice was Japanese AV actress Sho Nishino in the role of the devious Khun Kaew. Her lines were post-dubbed by singer-actress "Nat" Myria Benedetti, and the effect is jarring with Nat's strong voice clashing with Sho's delicate, anime-like appearance. The role of Khun Kaew was more memorably realized in Nonzee's version by "May" Patharawarin Timkul. But perhaps director Mom Noi felt no Thai actress would be willing to partake in the sex scene that leads up to Jan's dismissal from the mansion.
The elephant in the room that no one seems to be talking about is Jan, portrayed by Mario Maurer, who doesn't show the range to be convincing in the role. That dopey-dreamy expression that's made him a favorite in romantic comedies, and a heartthrob across Asia, never changes, whether he's being insulted by his stepfather or making sweet talk with his schoolgirl friend.
Perhaps that innocence is what director Mom Noi was going for, but it makes for tedious viewing.
Taking a cue from Hollywood blockbusters like the Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games and Hobbit movies, the single book of Jan Dara is being broken up by Mom Noi and the Sahamongkol studio into at least a two-part film.
Jan becomes a stronger character as the story continues, and hopefully Mario will rise to the occasion with that character's strengthening arc.
- Government blushes, film fans see red [Soopsip, The Nation, on Culture Ministry requiring ID checks for the 18+ movie at some cinemas]