Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Review: The Judgement (Ai-Fak)

  • Directed by Pantham Thongsang
  • Screenplay by Somkiat Vituranich, adapted from novel by Chart Korbjitti
  • Starring Pitisak Yaowananon and Bongkoj Khongmalai
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004; no English-subtitled DVD
  • Rating: 5/5

Society's hyprocrisy, prejudice, selfishness, vanity and lack of compassion are on full display in Ai-Fak, the story of a young man named Fak who is saddled with caring for his beautiful but insane stepmother. It's a gorgeous film, at times funny and sensual, but mostly heartbreaking.

The story opens with townspeople turning out to the temple to hear the respected novice monk, Fak, give a sermon. He's very well thought of. His sermon, however, is ominously disrupted when his father has a loud coughing fit and must be carried out. He struggles to maintain serenity and carry on the message.

Fak soon leaves the monkhood, promising his ailing father that he will come home to help him. He promises the head monk that he'll follow the five Buddhist precepts:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not commit adultery.
  4. Do not tell lies.
  5. Do not use intoxicants. (This was translated in the subtitles as stimulants which caused me to wonder about the monks I've seen getting jacked up on instant coffee and Red Bull energy drinks.)

Okay. Fak is good to go. He's a good kid. But first there's a hitch in the military he must complete.

That done, he returns to the village. It's an isolated place. There's one dirt road leading to it, with one broken-down farm truck providing transport. There is no electricity nor phones. But things are looking up. The village headmen are making plans for power any day now. And the driver of the broken-down truck is hoping for an upgrade.

On the way home, the old truck does indeed break down. Fak gets out to take a leak, praying to the tree before doing so. It's beside a lotus pond. He hears someone bathing. It's a woman. A beautiful woman. She's bathing fully clothed, which is how it is done in Thailand. But her clothes are clinging to her, revealing her sensual shape. Fak is captivated. He and the woman stare into each other's eyes. Then the truck gets working and Fak has to go.

At home, he is reunited with his father. Something's different around the house, though. Yes, there's some bright colored dresses on the clothesline. Dad is different, too, appearing light-headed. The answer is inside the house, and from behind the mosquito net the vision from the lotus pond appears. Her name is Somsong and his father has married her.

Soon it appears that the woman is not all there mentally.

"She's a little unstable," Dad explains.

Fak takes on the role of defending "the nutcase" around the village, where she makes trouble.

"She's not unstable, that woman is crazy," Fak's "auntie", a shopkeeper, says.

Still, Fak makes the best of the situation, helping his father out in janitorial duties at the school and performing pratfalls to entertain Somsong. Among the many beautiful scenes in this film is when Fak and his father are fixing a roof and his father explains that Somsong is angel sent from heaven. He then stands up to offer his prayer to skies and asks Fak to stand as well. As this is going on, thunder is heard in the distance. You half expect lightning to strike both these idiots down. "Look at the crazy men on the roof," Somsong calls out.

After an episode in which Fak's father feels faint, he asks Fak to care for his stepmother. Fak promises he will. Dad then dies. Fak had hoped to return to the temple to be ordained, but now he must put aside that aspiration in order to care for this crazy woman.

Next thing Fak knows he's watching a village stage performance. He's left Somsong to watch the show while he gets some sweets. She turns around and sees the candy vendor flirting with Fak and hollers out for the woman to leave her "man" alone and then goes to beat the vendor up. It's an extremely embarrassing moment for Fak. The villagers now all believe that Fak is sleeping with his widowed stepmother. It's a beautifully done scene, fantastically performed as if it were a traditional Thai folk opera.

Later on, Somsong takes her clothes off and starts streaking around. Fak, in an effort to subdue her, tackles her and wrestles her to the ground just as an elderly couple is walking up. It looks bad for Fak and it doesn't get any better.

But Fak stays true. Until he is offered some rice whiskey. He can't bear the pain of rejection by the villagers or the temptation of living with a beautiful young woman any longer. The bottle offers salvation and he dives in wholeheartedly.

There's a temptation to see this movie as a comment on strictly Thai society - pointing out that Thais have strayed from the Buddhist precepts and evolved into a selfish, materialistic people with concern only for their electrically powered gadgets and flashy new cars. There is no compassion for people less fortunate, like the mentally ill; no sense of family loyalty. But the brush is broader than that. While it certainly does appear damning for Thailand specifically, the comments really apply to everyone - whether they are in Thailand, Europe, North America or other parts of Asia.

The performance by Pitisak Yaowananon, in his film debut as Fak, is worthy of some awards. Somsong is portrayed by 19-year-old and Bongkoj Khongmalai. Her character sees a transformation through the acts. By the end of the film, you might think Somsong is the only sane one in the village.

Ai-Fak was promoted in the previews as a slapstick romance with nudity as a punchline. That did a great disservice to the film and audiences. People who heard the truth that this movie was a true work of art based on a Seawrite Award-winning novel had to contend with boorish crowds who thought they were seeing a broad comedy. Also, I had the misfortune of seeing this on a school holiday. Inconsiderate parents brought their impolite, noisy small children to the theater.

I have little tolerance for this and wish the theaters would refuse entry to little kids. Ai-Fak, with its nudity and domestic violence, was definately inappropriate fare for the young ones. I am beginning to see the sense of having a ratings system in place for the Thai theaters, one that might provide a guideline to ticket sellers and ushers and handling the crowds. Ai-Fak is rated R or at least PG-13 fare and children should not be allowed in.

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