Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Young Bao

  • Directed by R. Jo
  • Starring Thana Iamniyom, Arak Amonsupasiri, Pawalit Mongkolpisit, Chulachak Chakrabongse, Supawon Kitsuwon, Somchai Kemklad, Pitisak Yaowanon
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 30, 2013; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

The formation of Thailand' popular songs-for-life band Carabao (คาราบาว) takes on mythical proportions in the biographical drama Young Bao (ยังบาว เดอะมูฟวี่ ), which was made as part of efforts celebrating Carabao's 30 years in show business.

The film project got off to a rocky start after it was announced last year. Initially, charismatic singer Atiwara "Toon" Kongmalai of the group Bodyslam was cast as Carabao frontman Yuenyong "Ad" Ophakul. It seemed like a perfect choice, because, after all, Toon is a nephew of Ad. But Toon dropped out and was replaced by newcomer actor Thana Iamniyom.

Nonzee Nimibutr was introduced as a producer, but he dropped out too. Eventually, the job fell to veteran director Thanit Jitnukul. The director is a newcomer, Yuthtagon Sookamonktapa, credited as "R-Jo".

As Ad Carabao, Thana is as inert as his whispy mustache. Ad in real life is pretty outspoken and mercurial, but in the movie, the singer-songwriter is so brooding and quiet he hardly registers. It's hard to believe he united a disparate group of musicians to form his band.

Thankfully, Thana is surrounded by a cast of seasoned actors and actor-musicians who all tease out their hair and paste on mustaches and beards to get into their roles.

The strongest support comes from Pawalit Mongkolpisit, star of the original Bangkok Dangerous. He plays Keo Carabao, who first encounters Ad at university in Manila. It's from there where Carabao got its name, from the Tagalog word for the water buffalo, which in the Philippines is revered as a symbol of the hard work and strength of the common people (unlike in Thailand where the word for buffalo, kwai, is a synonym for "stupid" commoners). The band pledges their unity at the carabao statue in Manila's Rizal Park.

With around a dozen or so members, a Carabao biopic is a pretty unwieldy prospect, and Young Bao is on the lengthy side as it attempts to fill in the back stories of Ad and the others. It's also potentially controversial, as the history of the songs-for-life (เพลงเพื่อชีวิต, pleng puea chiwit) genre and Carabao are intertwined with the student democracy protests and the communist movement of the mid-1970s. The politically sensitive aspects of the tale are likely why the film was given the 18+ rating.

After returning from the Philippines, Ad and Keo go their separate ways but eventually meet again in the Bangkok music scene. They encounter lead guitarist Preecha "Lek" Chanapai, ably portrayed by musician-actor "Pe" Arak Amornsupasiri. Lek is in a band called The President that plays "string" music, a popular genre of the day that mainly consisted of Western rock and funk covers. He's dressed in an outfit that looks like something the Commodores might wear. Lek and his bandmates end up backing Ad in the studio and then some of them follow to join Carabao, among them studio whiz and bassist Anupong "Ot" Prathompatama (Pitisak Yaowanon).

Others include session keyboardist "Ajarn" Thanit Siklindi (Supawon Kitsuwon), rock 'n' roll drummer Amnaat "Pao" Luukjan (Somchai Kemklad), and guitarist-singer Thierry Mekwattana ("Hugo" Chulachak Chakrabongse).

Carabao's early struggles involved a fight for acceptance in a music scene that actually discouraged Thai lyrics in favor of Western pop hits. But, like the water buffalo, they kept plowing away, eventually finding their audience. As more and more members were added, the band's folksy songs-for-life sound evolved, adding in the "string" music funk and rock sounds as well as traditional Thai music. They even incorporated luk thung (Thai country) sounds, playing as a backing band for a record producer's female singer.

Backstories include Ad's time living in the forests with the communists. He apparently was sent to school in the Philippines to get him away from that scene. Lek is depicted as having been caught up in the bloody October 1976 crackdown on the student democracy demonstrations. And Thierry, played in a screen debut by pop musician Hugo, struggles with discrimination because of his mixed racial heritage.

Recent songs-for-life concerts have been marred by brawls between audience members, action that goes against the easy-going songs about the common man, such as Carabao's "Drunken Uncle", and odes to nationalist unity, like Carabao's mega-hit "Made in Thailand". And apparently audience brawls were common in Carabao's early days, with trade-school students planning to attend the concerts for the sole purpose of starting fights and blowing off steam. Lek, Ad and the boys make a vain attempt to stop the fights but have little effect. They can't even stop fighting among themselves.

Eventually it's up to Ad to unite the group and take them to the next phase. It leads them back to the Philippines and Rizal Park and everyone taking the family name of Carabao.

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