Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Review: The Overture

  • Directed by Itthisoontorn Vichailak
  • Starring Anuchit Saphanphong, Adul Dulyarat, Arratee Tanmahapran, Narongrit Tosa-nga, Pongphat Wachirabanjong, Phuwarid Phumphuang, Somlek Sakdikul, Sumeth Ong-Ard
  • Screened commercially in Thailand in 2004, submitted to 77th Academy Awards, will screen in North America in 2005.
  • Rating: 3/5

When biopic films about musicians come to mind, I think about Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, The Buddy Holly Story, The Benny Goodman Story, La Bamba or Amadeus. So I have to give the Thai film industry credit for putting Thai classical music on the radar with The Overture, even if it is pure fiction that is only based loosely on the life of a court musician.

Overly melodramatic and theatrical, what works in The Overture are the musical moments.

The story is about Sorn (Anuchid Spanpong from Mekhong Full Moon Party), a young boy growing up in a musical household. One day, just a mere toddler, he sneaks into music room, picks up the mallets and starts playing a tune on the xylophone, or ranad-ek as it is called in Thai. His brother and father catch him and are astounded.

Sorn grows up wanting to be a musician, like his brother. Then his brother shows up dead after a music contest - possibly killed by the rivals. Thai classical music is taken pretty seriously.

Not wanting his only surviving son to end up the same, the father bars his son from playing ever again.

But the kid sneaks off to the jungle to keep practising his xylophone. Practising with chains on his wrists to weigh them down, he becomes quite a prodigy. This is one of the aspects of the story that seemed shortchanged. You expect the kid to avenge his brother's death somehow, maybe meet the killer and beat him in a musical face off. But he never does, at least not in a manner that is made clear.

Eventually, he catches the ears of a palace official, and goes off to join the palace ensemble.

There he sees a beautiful palace servant girl and plays the Thai violin for her. He helps carry some things for her. But there's no love scene. Him making love to her with music will have to suffice. Did they hook up? Who knows? Later in life he has a daughter, though, so he must've gotten married at some point. And, indeed, it was to the girl from the palace, but this wasn't made clear.

The film shifts back and forth from his time as a young man in the early 1900s (King Rama V or Chulalongkorn) to the dark days of the 1940s and the Japanese occupation.

In the early times, the drama has to do with the musical battle between the kid and an intense bearded musician named Khun In (real musician Narongrit Tso-nga who performed much of the music on the soundtrack). The kid wears white, the bearded man wears black. He is the devil. The kid is, well, he's the kid.

Earlier, the kid is intimidated by Khun In's playing at a local temple fair. The black-beared man's performance is so intense, it literally whips up a storm. So later on, everyone is nervous during a palace music contest - the famous duelling xylophones scene. For the record, I thought Khun In's performance was better - just as the bad guy's performances in such films as Crossroads, Purple Rain and Blues Brothers 2000 were better. But he's the bad guy, so he must lose, no matter how much better he sounded.

In the 40s, the drama has to do with modernisation decrees handed down by the government. No more sitting around on the floor or listening to traditional music. People must sit on chairs at tables. Musicians and performers must have permits. The kid, an old man now, fights these by keeping on playing, and emboldening the townspeople against the government enforcers.

Oh, there's one other cool musical moment. It happens in the 40s, and Sorn's son has ordered a piano. For a minute you think the old man is going to explode and scold his grandson for bringing a Western instrument into his house. But he asks his grandson to play for him. He plays a nice little jazzy number. Then he asks him to run through it again, and Sorn joins him on the xylophone. A split screen shows the mallets and the hands at the keyboard at the same time.

Really, The Overture is about the music. The drama is overwrought and fragmented. Too many loose ends, with things not explained clearly.

However, this film did create some new interest in Thai classical music, and it was used to spread a positive image about Thai culture around the world, so it's not all bad, is it?

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