Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Tang Wong

  • Written and directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee
  • Starring Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich, Siripat Kuhavichanun, Sompob Sittiajarn, Anawat Patanawanichkul, Natarat Lakha, Chonnikarn Netrjui, Prinsadapak Jongkumchok
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 29, 2013; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

A refreshing departure from the usual crop of overly slick and idealistic teen-oriented Thai comedies and dramas, veteran writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee goes the gritty route with Tang Wong (ตั้งวง), his second indie effort following last year's psychological drama P-047. Here, he takes realistic look at how the youths of today view traditional Thai culture.

Set in a solidly working-class Bangkok apartment block against the background of the 2010 red-shirt political protests, the story involves four schoolboys of varying backgrounds who all make a vow at the spirit-house shrine in their building's courtyard. All wish for success in their various endeavors, but they are then reminded of the superstition that bad luck will befall them if they don't somehow pay tribute to the shrine if their wishes are granted.

Two of the boys are bespectacled nerds, Jay (Siripat Kuhavichanun) and his chubby pal Yong (Sompob Sittiajarn). They wish for success in winning a school science-quiz tournament. Best (Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich) is a table-tennis champ who is struggling to raise his younger brother while their single-dad parental figure is absent most of the time, spending his days at the red-shirt anti-government rallies that have taken hold of the city. Best hopes for a scholarship to take him away from all that. And ladies man Em (Anawat Patanawanichkul), a spiky-haired K-pop cover dancer, wants his girlfriend Fiang (Prinsadapak Jongkumchok) back.

Various other figures in the boys lives remind them of the misfortune that will befall them if they don't pay tribute to the shrine if their wishes are granted. For Best, it's his girlfriend May (Chonnikarn Netrjui), who hilariously slaps the guy upside the head for his general dickishness.

Eventually, the four come together and agree to perform a traditional Thai dance, though none of them have a clue about how to perform it. Luckily, one of their neighbors, the transgender woman Nut (Natarat Lakha), is a traditional dancer at the Erawan shrine. And, reluctantly, especially from the violently homophobic Best, they ask for her help.

Throughout the film, contemporary foreign culture and general teenage angst distract the boys from fulfilling their oath. In icon-laden asides, Jay chats on instant message with a stranger named Doctor Who, who is sort of a clueless Greek chorus to the proceedings. Jay is also under pressure from his parents, who hope he'll follow his older brother to study overseas, preferably in the U.K. like big bro. There are references to Japanese manga, and, thanks to cover-dancer Em, generous doses of K-pop music. Also, owing to Kongdej's P-047 star, indie rock musician Apichai Tragoolpadetgrai, there's a few ear-wormy Thai alt-rock songs on the soundtrack.

Em also has a pregnancy scare from his girlfriend Fiang. Yong is more into playing first-person-shooter video games at an Internet cafe than learning the dance. He also briefly becomes attracted to the dancer Nut, apparently unaware or not caring that the attractive woman is actually a man. This earns him derision at school, where bullies gang up on him. Nut meanwhile hopes to marry her foreign suitor. Jay goes off in search of his father just as the red-shirt rallies are coming under fire from the government forces, and he spends a desperate night alone under a freeway as gunshots ring out around him.

Fight scenes and chases around the school are done in the Paul Greengrass shakey-cam style, thanks to no-nonsense camera work by go-to indie cinematographer MR Umpornpol Yugala, which suits the general aesthetic of the film and the sloppy, uncoordinated style of the awkward teens.

Instead of pulling together, the four boys grow further apart. Jay, being the first to master the graceful backwards-bent-hands "tang wong" dance pose, is the first to break away, leaving the other three to complete the ritual. A fire puts the spirit shrine out of commission, and as it's being reconstructed, there's more pressure for the boys to put on their dance in dedication of the new shrine.

For Thai culture, it's all rather pessimistic, which is a departure from the formula-driven commercial Thai films that are a whitewash of idealized, old-fashioned notions, with characters who predictably overcome all odds to cooperate with each other and win. With Tang Wong, there's no clearcut end, with the takeaway being it's just a slice of real life that's been generously shared and is worth pondering over in the days that follow.

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