Friday, June 4, 2004

A tribute to Duangkamol Limcharoen

Something I've been meaning to do on this journal is write about Duangkamol "Aom" Limcharon, the late head of the Cinemasia studio, which she co-founded with director Nonzee Nimibutr.

Aom died on December 8, 2003 at the age of 39. She had only been working in the Thai film industry for a few years when she passed away, but she has left quite an impact.

Among her credits was working on Bangkok locations with Wong Kar-Wai on In the Mood for Love. She then co-founded Cinemasia, which spawned Nonzee's Jan Dara. She fostered pan-Asian relationships, which led to Nonzee's participation in the horror trilogy Three - a trio of horror shorts by Nonzee, Hong Kong director Peter Chan and Korean director Ji-woon Kim.

Her triumph was luring Christopher Doyle to work on Pen-Ek Ratanuruang's Last Life in the Universe, a film that starred Japan's Tadanobu Asano and found roles for Riki Takeuchi and director Takeshi Miike.

What has prompted me to write about Aom now, many months after her death? An article (temporary link, registration req'd) in the Bangkok Post today invoked her name.

The story, by Kong Rithdee, is about a Thai remake of the Korean romantic tear-jerker called The Letter. Here it is:

It may sound melodramatic, like the stuff movies are made of, but only when a dying friend begged her, with the finality of a last request, did Pa-oon Jantarasiri agree to direct a movie after years of indifference and procrastination.

Pa-oon chokes back the bitter lump in her throat when she recounts her deal with the dying -- and now dead -- friend.

Such a mortal bargain, with real death as a trump card, only compounds the tear-jerking effect of this story since the movie itself is about an undying love denied by an unnegotiable death.

To be released on June 24, The Letter is a romantic tragedy that promises to lead urban young chicks to cry rivers down the streets of Bangkok, a guarantee given the casting of drama queen Ann Thongprasom in the lead.

The movie signals the film-making debut of this veteran stage performer, scriptwriter and TV director, who faces the aesthetic challenge of creating a sincere, authentic love story with cinematic integrity, despite the early snub that the material is more suitable as a small-screen soap opera, complete with oversweet sentimentality and, of course, lots and lots of tear-shedding.

That's a challenge Pa-oon has finally found the inspiration to tackle. Five years back, she was taking her career lightly, doing sporadic TV scriptwriting jobs, when her long-time buddy, the late producer Duangkamol Limcharoen, asked her to cross over to movie-making.

Duangkamol is credited as a pioneering force in promoting Thai cinema among the foreign audience, succeeding with titles like Jan Dara, Three, Monrak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe.

At the same time, Duangkamol long harboured the hope of grooming female directors, a virtually non-existent breed in the male-dominated industry.

A self-confessed procrastinator, Pa-oon repeatedly declined her hyperactive friend, citing various excuses from lack of time to unsuitability of scripts.

"I kept saying no until April of last year when Duangkamol started to cough heavily," recalls Pa-oon, a funny woman with a hearty laugh. "A week later she told me she had a tumour. Then a week later she told me it's last-stage cancer. It was so sudden. I was in shock. Everyone who knew her was in shock.

"So one day she called me over to her house and played a video of this Korean film The Letter. It was the part when the character was crying her heart out over her loss, and Duangkamol, crying too, asked me again to direct a remake of this movie, which she liked so much," Pa-oon suppresses her emotions with an unconvincing giggle. "Seeing her like that, how could I say no?"

Whether Pa-oon could pull off an impressive debut is something Duangkamol wasn't around to see. The producer, aged 39, passed away last December while the film was being shot on a cold mountain in Chiang Mai.

A film of love and loss, The Letter will become the last memento that bears her name as a producer.

"It's almost too late for me," says Pa-oon, bouncing back to her usual offbeat humour. "Somebody had to die in order for me to make a film!"

The article is quite long and I wasn't going to run all of it here, but I found some more stuff of interest -- some quotes from the director that shed light on why Asian films and television, especially Thai soap operas, are so damn melodramatic:

"Yes, I know it sounds like an after-news soap opera," says Pa-oon. "That's my worry from the beginning, plus the fact that I cast Ann [Thongprasom, who's well-known for her TV roles] in the lead even made people speculate that this is just a movie version of a usual TV drama.

"But I tried to counter this by letting a movie scriptwriter [Kongdej Jaturantrasamee] write the script so that it has an inherent cinematic quality. I might be too familiar with the TV script to write a well-rounded film script. And I cast Ann because I really need a good actress: I need someone to carry the whole movie, because this is a kind of movie whose impact relies on a big performance. I couldn't risk having a newcomer."

If Pa-oon sounds a bit defensive, it's because most local TV soaps (including a few that she wrote the script for Channel 7 many years ago) have long earned the deprecating nickname of "stinking water", or nam nao, which refers to their melodramatic cheesiness in the heavily-recycled stories of husbands, wives, mistresses, all tangled up in forbidden love or oversweet romance or heated jealousy. Characters are often mired in stereotypes and actors are well-known for overacting. To be fair, nothing is wrong with that -- in fact, all Thai people grow up relishing the saucy pleasure of TV melodrama -- but to make a film based on that superficial sentimentalism may risk being accused of taking a step backward in our cinematic ambitions.

"I'm aware of that pitfall, but I assure you that the film is more than a simple TV drama," says Pa-oon. "We're careful not to stretch it over the limit. Yes, we set out to make people cry, but we're not forcing them to cry. I believe in the power of the story, in it sincerity to portray this love between these two people, and I believe that my actors are proficient enough to discern what's effective and what's too much.

"Then again, I think that if melodrama is part of our cultural expression _ it is something we do so well _ there's no point in denying it or dismissing it as if it's such a shameful thing. Come on, even Shakespeare's plays are super-melodramatic sometimes! On our part, if we resist that form of expression, it's like we're suppressing the uniqueness of our culture, and we're gonna lose the Thai edge in the movie.

"They say that Thai people are too shy to show their deepest emotions, so it makes sense that our drama, from traditional likay to TV soaps to cinema, tend to be a channel through which the collective feeling of the audience is discharged. Farang viewers [she's talking about hyper-critical Westerners!] may think it's too much, but that's just their standard, isn't it?"

In a sidebar article (temporary link, registration req'd), Thai soap opera diva and star of The Letter Ann Thongprasom goes on to further defend those "stinking water" soap operas.

"What stinks depends on each viewer's taste," the 27-year-old actress says. "For me, no melodrama stinks that bad. Rich, educated people may say the drama series I star in stink, but for the masses, for the majority of people, it's their life, or the life they dream of living. And I, as an actress, connect them to that life."

In her first film role in more than 10 years, Ann plays a computer programmer who grieves over the loss of her husband in the upcoming film The Letter. Observers quickly say that she simply transports one of her TV roles onto the big screen, and doubt if the movie, a supposedly more ennobled art form, will capitalise on the stinking effects of the tube's ubiquitous dramas.

"I'm not running away from myself," says the amiable Ann, who's starred in 27 TV dramas over the past 14 years. "I realise my potential as a dramatic actress, and I intend to use that in this movie. I'm aware, too, of the difference between acting for television and acting in a film, and I'm careful in my characterisation not to overdo it.

"I cry quite a few times in the movie," she says laughing. "But why crying? There's a difference when a character cries because she's sad, or because she's bored, or because she's hopeless. It's important to me that I really feel it when I cry."

In her various roles on TV, Ann is adventurous enough to embody everything from a sweet little kid, which seems to match her princess-like appearance, to an alcoholic bitch and a cursed wife whose three husbands keep dying on her. Despite that, her clean-cut image of urban young woman continues to make her a perennial favourite among TV viewers.

"In every role, I think it's possible to analyse it to reflect the reason why these 'stinking' melodrama remains a staple in Thai entertainment," Ann says. "See, like when I play a woman who has a heartbreak over wrong men again and again. On the surface, she's a sily person, but then you start to think why the woman keeps making the same mistake, why she doesn't stop loving, what she's really looking for in life. These are the questions today's women are still asking, and sometimes they may find the answer in TV dramas.

"But what's also important is that we cannot easily assume that the people want to see these stories so the producers are obliged to produce these stories, over and over again," she adds. "It may happen the other way round, that the producers force-feed the viewers with the same materials so they can limit their perception and dictate their taste. I don't know which is true. But I realise that I'm part of the system, and as long as what I do is harmless, I'm fine."

Women's identification with Ann is likely get even stronger with The Letter, a genuine chick flick that aims to capture the emotional range of modern femininity. "It's a nice, touching, and sad movie," Ann says. "But I believe you'll love your boyfriend or girlfriend more. You'll be happier walking out of it."

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