Friday, May 9, 2014

Review: Village of Hope

  • Directed by Boonsong Nakphoo
  • Limited release at Bangkok's Lido cinema, May 8-14, 2014
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Indie filmmaker Boonsong “Sueb” Nakphoo tells authentic, hardscrabble stories of contemporary rural life, enlisting his family, friends and neighbors in his native rural Sukhothai province to help him make his low-budget movies. They are unpretentious and compelling portraits of folks who have been surpassed by society, and they are out of step with the increasingly urbanized, digitized, plastic-coated modern Thailand.

Boonsong’s latest feature is the ironically titled Village of Hope (วังพิกุล, Wangphikul). A drama, it’s a sequel to his 2010 effort, Poor People the Great.

In between Poor People and his new one, Boonsong, who also directs short films, acts in mainstream films and coaches actors, did the ambitious Four Stations. A 2012 compilation of four short stories by noted Thai authors, it won a jury prize at last year’s Deauville Asian Film Festival.

With Village of Hope, which premiered at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival and was featured in the World Film Festival of Bangkok, Boonsong further hones his craft, presenting the succinct tale in black and white.

The grey adds weight and shadows to the story of Sorn, a sombre young soldier on leave who returns home. In Poor People the Great, Sorn was an idle teenager, prone to hanging out with motorcycle-riding troublemakers. He ended up in jail, requiring his debt-ridden, jobless father Choo to scrape together cash to bail him out.

In Village of Hope, Sorn is introduced walking back home – too poor to afford a bus, taxi or motorcycle ride. Trudging along the highway as cars whiz past, his steps quicken and become bouncier in anticipation as he approaches the old homestead. But his mood quickly deflates as he greets his aunts who perfunctorily return his greeting with an “uh”. It’s quiet. Few others are around. Most people his age have all left to work in Bangkok. Any male relatives who happen to be around are prone to bossiness, and sternly lecture him about getting a job, thinking about the future, “you’re a man now”, etc.

Uneasiness sets in as he reacquaints himself to the village’s slow pace and the struggles of his impoverished, heavily indebted relatives, who all live in a tight-knit collection of rustic wooden houses. Boyhood has slipped away and the reality of adulthood is looming for young Sorn.

He checks in with his grandmother, an ancient, bent-over woman who is so infirm she spends most of her days in bed. “I don’t know how long I can live,” she croaks from beneath her deeply wrinkled face.

An aunt’s mobile phone rings – one of those old candybar models – no smartphones here. It’s a Bangkok nephew who plans to visit and wants to talk to grandmother. So begins a routine for the family, who live in a place with lousy cell reception. The aunt has to go to the middle of the yard, and Sorn is stationed at granny’s door. With the auntie shouting from across the way, the conversation is relayed in two steps. It shows just how out of touch this place is.

Fortunately for Sorn, there’s a younger male cousin around, who has a motorbike. The boys are dispatched to the market to fetch provisions for the Bangkok relative’s forthcoming visit. It’s a chance for Sorn to be a kid again. He even gets to chase a girl his age, but only briefly.

A bright spot is a visit with cousin Champ to Uncle Sueb’s place. He’s off somewhere making a film, and doesn’t want anyone swimming in his pond, but the boys take a dip anyway, figuring the water will clear up by the time Sueb returns.

But for the most part, this is not a fun visit for Sorn. Being there reminds him of the family life he never really had – mother ran off when he was young, and father Choo, an itinerant labourer, is constantly broke and constantly on the move.

Sorn eventually gets put to work by Uncle Choob, who is a character. Pot-bellied, he’s introduced coming back from the doctor. “All my organs are failing,” he says. Could be the eight or 10 cups of coffee he drinks, but it’s the only way he can keep going. He has Sorn help him spray pesticide on the rice paddy – no respirator masks or protective clothing. Part way through the job, Choob stops and grips his chest, but the pain is momentary.

They return to find the Bangkok uncle has driven up for a visit. He’s sitting down to lunch with the rest of the family. He’s brought his son, a chubby, happy little boy. Introduced to a young niece, the boy tries to get his head around why the little girl calls her grandmother mum. Later, the kid entertains everyone by performing the “Gangnam Style” horse dance.

Sorn, shunted off to the side, feels left out. He greets his uncle, and the man frowns. Uncle then pulls out his wallet, hands over a few baht and gives Sorn the same lecture he’s been getting from everyone else.
His visit over, Sorn takes a last look around his old house, and grabs a photo of his mother. He stops by granny’s and “borrows” a few hundred baht. “You never pay me back,” she grumbles, and he just smiles.

But perhaps those stern lectures will sink in for Sorn, and as he marches back down the highway, there is a sense of hope after all.

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(Cross-published in The Nation)

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