Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: Timeline Jodmai Khwam Songjam

  • Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr
  • Starring Jirayu Tangsrisuk, Jarinporn Joonkiat, Piyathida Worramusik, Noppachai Chaiyanam
  • Released in Thai cinemas on February 14, 2014; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Someone dies in Timeline Jodmai Khwam Songjam (Timeline จดหมาย-ความทรงจำ). But that's not a spoiler, because a death sets up the story of this tragic romance and family drama by Nonzee Nimibutr.

Try as hard as he might, Nonzee failed to bring me to tears with this sad story of missed connections, misplaced desires and general hard-headedness. Which is saying something, because, for example, if I just think about the ending of John Ford's The Searchers, I'll bawl like a big baby. So it's not like I have a heart of stone.

Everyone is crying in Timeline, which is beautifully filmed against a breathtakingly idyllic rural backdrop, features strong performances by a talented cast and has many cute nods to contemporary Thai society, with plenty of Facebooking, smartphones, vintage bicycles and animated drawings. Oh, and there's a puppy! But the movie is emotionally bereft.

The set-up involves Piyathida Worramusik as an achingly young mother who was widowed early in her marriage while she was pregnant. Living on small farm in the hills of Chiang Mai, she tends to her late husband's dream of growing strawberries and holds tight to her memories of him, reading letters that he wrote her. When her young son Tan grows old enough, she has him read dad's old letters to her.

It's a routine Tan ("James" Jirayu Tangsrisuk) has grown weary of, and as he's reading the letters, which he's memorized, he's actually looking at his phone. Tan wants off the farm, and wants to go to university in Bangkok and become a cartoonist. His mother wants him to attend agricultural college and stay close to home.

Eventually, the stubborn mom relents, and Tan is on the bus to Bangkok. As the country boy tries to get his around the fact that he's in the big city, he also experiences his first taste of alcohol, courtesy of a pair of comic-relief roommates. Late to wake up the next morning, he rushes off to school and is tardy to the freshman orientation – a hazing ritual. Also arriving late is June (Jarinporn Joonkiat), a plucky Bangkok girl with a big goofy smile. She and Tan are singled out for special attention and made to look like dogs.

They are a cute couple and form an easy bond as they bicycle their way around the city, share many classes and take a day trip that turns into an innocent overnighter on the beach on Si Chang island.

But Tan isn't picking up on June's signals. He chases after Orn, the more-conventionally attractive filmmaking cousin of June. Orn, who's way out of Tan's league, treats the farmboy like a doormat. But Tan is so besotted he doesn't care, and June slips away to pursue her own dreams in Japan.

Meanwhile back at home, Tan's mother Mat struggles to keep the berry farm a going concern. Wat (Noppachai Chaiyanam), a produce buyer and longtime family friend, wants to help. But heartbreakingly headstrong Mat, who holds tight to her dead husband's spirit, refuses the handsome man's advances.

There are parallels made. June teaches herself to make Tan's favorite stir-fried vegetable dish while Mat learns to make strawberry jam. And June and Mat actually meet and bond during a weekend of filmmaking by Tan and that other girl. Chemistrywise, it'd be nice to see more of Piyathida (Laddaland) and young Jarinporn (Dear Galileo, Countdown) together.

Young soap hunk James Ji is an appealing face fresh but his character is so frustrating I wished I could've reached up into the screen and slapped some sense into him. Piyathida's obstinate character is pretty painful to watch at times as well, but you get the feeling that maybe she might've eventually lightened up and accepted a bit of joy into her sorrow-filled life.

Timeline began as a loose sequel to The Letter, a hit 2004 drama that Nonzee produced and famously had audiences crying so much the cinemas had to hand out tissues with the tickets. It was a remake of a South Korean drama. Nonzee now insists that Timeline has nothing at all to do with The Letter, even though letters are a big part of the movie. Timeline also owes a debt to Bhandit Rittakol's Boonchoo series of comedies, about a country boy who goes to college in the big city and trafficked in the same type of idealized nostalgia that Timeline evokes.

Whether Thai audiences are going for it is debatable. Timeline opened at a distant No. 2 and at the most recent count was in third place – good enough to stay ahead of The Monuments Men and Saving Mr. Banks but not enough to draw eyes away from the likes of the RoboCop remake or the lava-laden 3D spectacle of Pompeii.

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