- Directed by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
- Starring Penpak Sirikul, Bell Nuntita, Kawin Imanotai, Panupong Waraakesiri, Kisthachapon Thananara, Pavich Suprungroj
- Released on February 14, 2012; rated 15+
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
In her third feature It Gets Better (ไม่ได้ขอให้มารั, Mai Dai Kor Hai Ma Rak), Tanwarin Sukkhapisit takes a broader, more commercially appealing and far more subtle approach to addressing the issues of transsexuals than she did in her first, Insects in the Backyard, which had such vivid sexual depictions and violent, patricidal tendencies it disturbed Thailand's censors so much they banned it.
With a wide theatrical release on Valentine's Day under the full commercial backing of major distributor M Pictures and censor-approved 15+ rating, It Gets Better is ostensibly a three-segment drama, with story threads that intertwine increasingly tighter.
Tanwarin paints a pretty picture, with a beautiful woman standing by her red Alfa Romeo convertible sports car, overlooking a gorgeous green landscape in the mountain country of northern Thailand. But it's an illusion that's almost immediately defecated upon when the woman squats down by her car. Take it as a wryly humorous sign that all is not what it seems, neither in the movies nor in real life.
The woman, it turns out, is Saitan, an ageing post-op transsexual, and is motoring around on what looks to be a well-earned vacation. Stopping in a small town, she is waylaid by a strapping young man over a misunderstanding. But Saitan soon has the young lad Fai (Kawin Imanothai) wrapped around her immacutely manicured finger, and he spends a night with her and takes her on picnic.
Another story thread also takes place in northern Thailand, where a boy's father catches him dancing in front of a mirror wearing his dead mother's clothes. Soon, the boy Din (Pavich Suprungroj) is packed off to a rustic Buddhist temple, where he's to be ordained as a novice monk. The kid is at first apprehensive, but when he sees a handsome young monk (Kisthachapon Thananara) step out of the temple, something in him stirs, and the boy goes willingly.
And the third story has a young man returning to Thailand from growing up in the U.S. Tonmai (Panupong Waraakesiri) is met at the airport by a vanload of screaming ladyboys, including one with a billy goat's beard. All are dressed in their best black mourning dresses. He's there to oversee the closure of his dead father's bar – a ladyboy cabaret in Pattaya.
Penpak Sirikul portrays the older transsexual on vacation. A model and actress who came to prominence in the 1980s, it's genius casting, and Penpak proves ready and able to portray the colorful and alluring woman. She appears to come from a different era, with clothes and hairdo that suggest she stepped out of a 1960s magazine ad. An early scene has her taking in the town, vampishly dressed in a snug-fitting Chinese-style outfit that might have been borrowed from Maggie Cheung's character in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. And Penpak, with her high cheekbones and generally alluring attitude, could give Maggie a run for her money.
Back at the Buddhist temple, the little ladyboy Din isn't taking to the hardships of monastic life. Scared to sleep alone in his rustic quarters, he sneaks under the mosquito net of that handsome senior monk, who issues a quietly stern disapproval to the novice. At mealtime, the novice slips a spoonful of food onto his senior monk's plate – a common-enough gesture between Thais who are close, especially those who are in an intimate relationship – and the monk again disapproves, and tells the novice that it's inappropriate.
The novice's action also prompts giggles from the congregation of women, and among the crowd is Penpak's older-lady character, a sign that just in case you didn't know, the three stories do intertwine.
Down in Pattaya, the cabaret owner's son gets a special show from the girls, who go all out with their acrobatic eight-count song-and-dance routine to try and convince him to keep the place open. He shows signs of softening after he sees the lip-synched performance of the show's star. She's the most-feminine ladyboy of them all, and Tonmai takes an interest, but still can't quite let go of his visions of the pretty young woman as a man. Another vision has Penpek's character stopping in for a drink, but it's clearly just a vision and not reality.
More pronoun trouble and confusion comes from the club's van driver Tonlew. She's an odd duck, being a ladyboy who dresses like a tomboy in loose-fitting men's shirt, trousers and baseball cap but under the surface is even more feminine than the pretty ladyboy star singer.
Tonlew is portrayed by "Bell" Nuntita Khampiranon who surprised a nation in her appearance on the "Thailand's Got Talent" TV show, where she demonstrated a multiple-octave singing voice. And, after the usual morning-after wake-up surprise, it's Tonlew's character who tries to help Tonmai sort out his confusion over whether he's gay or straight because he's fallen in love with a man who looks like a woman. In the end, it isn't labels or romance that are important but acceptance.
Of course, you can't have Bell Nuntita in the movie and not let her demonstrate her robust, flexible vocal cords. And indeed, there's even been a soundtrack album issued, with several of Bell Nuntita's songs that may well find their way into the repertoire of Thai cabaret singers alongside such anthems as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".
Up in the mountains, Saitan has her own heart-to-heart with her boy toy Fai, who reveals he's known all along that she's a ladyboy, and it doesn't matter. He's just out to have a good time, but beyond the simple physical pleasures, there's also a common decency in Fai, just one human to another, without worries about labels.
And at the temple, young Din is trying to sort out his feelings and his faith. He has a "but for the grace of God" encounter with a weeping, heartbroken ladyboy. Din then goes into the woods to cry, and he's found by the older monk Sang, who offers no comfort, other than give a look at Din that tells the boy the get a grip on himself. And somehow, Sang's serene guidance give Din inspiration to make it through this phase of life.
And if Din hadn't found this little kernel of strength, the whole movie wouldn't exist. It's a powerful mix of spirituality and sexuality, but is glossed over by the ending, which is typically slick and commercial, with a happy, affirming message.
But overall, It Gets Better is a sympathetic portrayal of transsexual characters, who in most movies are demeaning cardboard stereotypes used for comic relief.
It's performed modestly enough at the box office to demonstrate that there's probably an appetite for more of these types of movies. And, thanks to strong performances by Penpak, Bell and others, and the competent, assured direction and writing by Tanwarin, It Gets Better should find critical acclaim as well.