Friday, May 20, 2005

Review: The Tin Mine

  • Directed by Jira Maligool
  • Starring Pijaya Vachajitpan, Anthony Howard Gould, Niran Satta, Sonthaya Chitmanee, Jaran Petcharoen
  • Released in cinemas in Thailand on May 26, 2005
As ambitious as the miners it takes as its subject manner, Maha'lai Muang Rae (The Tin Mine), is really just a simple coming-of-age tale.

The sophomore film from producer-director Jira Maligool (Mekhong Full Moon Party), The Tin Mine is a sight to behold, making the raw, industrial process of dredging for tin look like a thing of beauty. Indeed, the filmmakers thought about using A Beautiful Mine as the English title, but thought better of it because it would’ve been deemed as too silly a word play on Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. So it’s best left to the headline writers.

Though there are hardships in the story, they are overridden by a spirit of giddiness and nostalgia.

Set in 1950 and based on the series of autobiographical short stories by Archin Panjabhan, the beginning finds Archin (Pijaya Vachajitpan) expelled from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in his sophomore year. He is packed off to southern Thailand, where he has supposedly has a job waiting for him. It's in a remote, mountainous jungle that doesn't even "rate a spot on the map", a place that is little but all-consuming red mud and seemingly endless, torrential downpours.

Archin arrives, letter of recommendation in hand, at the mining company office, only to be told that there are no jobs. But a stern voice beckons the boy further into the offices. It's the company's superintendent, Sam (Anthony Howard Gould), a stern Australian veteran of the Death Railway who asks Archin if he is willing to do manual labour.

The first sight of Sam is with his feet propped up on his desk. There are English words are coming out of Sam's mouth as this rude image is conveyed. But then Sam takes his feet down and switches to fluent Thai. He's one with his workers.

Archin answers to the affirmative and he's hired. He's even given a house of his own, and it comes with its own ghost - a pregnant woman whose husband left her to die alone. She visits Archin one night, in one strange, chilling scene.

Archin is about to learn more than just ghost stories, however. He's to start his education all over again, serving four years at the mine before "graduating" his "senior year".

Everyone, from the lowliest Malaysian labourers to John (Niran Satta), the burly chief of the mining staff, derides Ajin as a "Bangkok boy" who isn't fit for hard work.

Eventually Ajin is shown the heart the mining operation -- the steam-powered dredge, with a conveyor belt of buckets that bring the ore-laced soil up from the bed of the river. As part of the set on this movie, it's an impressive sight, with immense, twin boilers.

Production designer Ek Iemchuen, who’s worked on period films like Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters, Jan Dara and Nang Nak, built it from scratch, relying on old photos and the author Archin’s memory. He’d hoped to find an old dredge and renovate it, but all them were scrapped years ago. The hand-built one cost 7 million baht, or about US$175,000. Maybe it could be used to mine some tin, now that the filming is over?

Archin is put to the test -- asked to stand guard duty one night to stop thieves from stealing the ore. The culprits are surprising, but Archin does not fail. Soon, he's trusted and becomes an integral member of the company, working as a surveyor.

Others on the mining crew include Kai (Sonthaya Chitmanee), a big, curly headed oaf who constantly goofs off, and becomes Ajin's best friend and assistant. Another friend is an old man, Grandpa Deang (Jaran "See Tao" Petcharoen), who dispenses advice to Archin.

And there's a greedy shopkeeper (Jumpon Thongtan), whose store serves as a bar, where the miners drink their boredom -- and their pay -- away. Archin, especially, falls prey to the demon alcohol, with his wages being garnished by the shopkeeper immediately on payday.

But no one seems to mind. Bosses Sam and John are a couple of the biggest drunks of all, insisting that their workers join them for all-night binges that involve singing and dancing to the American country tune "You Are My Sunshine" (a major refrain in the lush score).

What money doesn't get spent on booze is gambled away on absurd wagers, such as how many seeds are in a durian or how many lines on a mangosteen or whether a miner’s wife’s baby will be stillborn.

The film is not without heartbreak. In leaving Bangkok, Archin left behind his girlfriend, who seldom sends letters during his first two years at the mine (much to the frustration of the company clerk who has to pedal his bicycle 100 kilometres to get the mail), except for a wedding invitation. Later on Archin finds a love interest in a local girl La-iad (Donlaya Mudcha), but nothing really comes of this, except perhaps a perilous tumble in a rain-swollen river.

Music was a focal point of the May 17 press screening/premiere gala, with the Chao Phya Symphony, which was assembled to record the soundtrack, performing parts of the score to a packed lobby at Major Cineplex Rathchayothin. Sonthaya Chitmanee and Jumpon Thongtan appeared to sing one of the Thai folk songs that is used as the theme song, "Sieng Khruan Jaak Duangjai". Another common refrain in the film was the "Tin Mine Theme", composed by cellist Edgar Meyer. "You Are My Sunshine", composed by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis and a feature on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, cost the filmmakers 200,000 baht, about US$5,000, to use. For the premiere, it was given a full orchestral treatment with none other than a tuxedoed actor-director Somchai Sakdikul belting out the tune to the gathered press.

The author Archin also put in an appearance at the premiere. He shows up at the end of the film, in a documentary clip from the set when he was reunited with his old friend Kai, who still lives in the Phuket area where this was filmed.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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