Thursday, June 1, 2006

Review: Noo Hin: The Movie

  • Directed by Komgrit Treewimol
  • Written by Kondej Jaturanrasamee
  • Produced by Nonzee Nimibutr
  • Starring Rungrawan Tonahongsa, Kotchakorn Supakarnkijkul, Panisa Buajarern
  • Wide theatrical release in Thailand on June 1, 2006
  • Rating 3/5

With most comic-book movies, I'm not an avid fan, but it doesn't stop me from understanding the story and most of the time actually enjoying what I'm seeing on the screen.

And with Noo-Hin: The Movie, there's the added disadvantage that I'm not at all familiar with the character. At least with most of the Hollywood comic-book heroes, I have at least heard of them and know a bit about their story.

But Noo Hin, based on the popular Thai manga Noo Hin Inter by Padung Kraisri, is pretty easy to pick up on, and the movie introduces her in the best possible way: with animation.

Noo Hin (an irrepressible Rungrawan Tonahongsa) is a young woman from Ubon Ratchathani in Northeast Thailand, or Isaan, that rural district of Thailand that has been rhapsodized in such recent films as Yam Yasothon and Citizen Dog, and is historically depicted in such films as Look Isaan and Monrak Lukthung.

Diminuative she may be, she is a loud sort and always manages to cause trouble wherever she goes. It is her superpower.

At the opening of Noo Hin: The Movie, she is out looking for something to eat, and she spots a lizard - represented by a tiny, cel-animated character. I always enjoy the fanciful blending of live-action and animation, and though the lizard is small and doesn't have anywhere near the impact of say, a Roger Rabbit, it's still fun to watch.

Noo Hin chases the lizard over hill and dale. She eventually gets aboard a water buffalo and starts a stampede of the serene bovines into a village fair, knocking a guy off a ladder and upsetting food carts. The lizard gets away and Noo Hin is about get punished.

Something must be done. As is usually the case in Isaan, the rice fields are dry and things are tough. Noo Hin, says her father, is grown up now, but useless. She must be sent away.

And with much rejoicing -- the village band turns out at the railway station to celebrate Noo Hin's departure -- Noo Hin is off to Bangkok to work in a factory.

Quickly, there is a wonderful song-and-dance fantasy sequence, in which Noo Hin imagines life working in a glamorous factory, making trendy bags, T-shirts or shoes.

The music is top notch, with songs by Kongdej, and the singing, while not by Noo Hin's favorite artist Jintara Poonlarp, is by perhaps the next best -- Janet Khiew, the co-star of last year's Yam Yasothon and a brilliant impressionist who can imitate many singers from Thailand and the West.

So it starts off with a lot of promise. And even going in, I expected a lot from Noo Hin, because it combines a lot of great talents. The director is Komgrit Treewimol from Fan Chan and last year's Dear Dakanda. He's a hired gun, brought in by Nonzee Nimibutr, one of Thailand's "new wave" producer-directors. And the script is by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, who directed last year's award-winning Midnight My Love. And it's based on a wildly popular comic book.

Eventually Noo Hin makes it to Bangkok and hits the employment agency right there in Hualumphong Terminal. She's hoping for a factory job, but all that's available is something in a rat-trap factory -- a horrifying prospect as Noo Hin fantasizes. Then a male fantasy walks through the door -- a leggy, large-breasted young Thai woman. She's at the agency looking for a maid. And much to all the men's dismay, the maid must be a woman. Noo Hin gets the job.

The sexy young woman's name, it turns out, is Milk, which Noo Hin has the audacity to point out why she thinks that's pretty funny. I'm not going to spell it out here.

After a bit of hassle with the seatbelt in the BMW car (Noo Hin points out she already has a protective belt -- a silver belt holding up her chic, ethnic wraparound skirt), Noo Hin and her new employer arrive at a mansion, where Milk introduces her mother and father and her older sister, Som-O (Orange), a weight-obsessed young woman who's just then on an exercise machine.

Noo Hin settles right in, blasting her morlam music at top volume. But her first time using fragrant insect spray quiets her down.

Then a musical sequence shows Noo Hin getting into her job as "house manager" (don't call her "maid", it's demeaning), wearing dust-mops on her feet, a head-dress of feather dusters, twirling a broom.

She bonds with the family and the girls, who take Noo Hin shopping at Siam Square, where Noo Hin is mystified by the behavior of city girls, who fight over underwear at the sales bins and use whitening cream to make their underarms sparkle.

With the housework in order and the family happy, Noo Hin sets her sights on her next project - making her beloved boss Milk and her sister Som-O famous. So she secretly enters both the girls in a "super model" contest, an idea that the girls are angry about at first, but their plump, blond-highlighted hi-so mother soon warms up to it.

At the contest, the girls catch the eye of a French designer's assistant, much to the dismay of jealous supermodel Sonia (played by an actress who is not Sonia Cooling), but the event is marred when Noo Hin catches a guy snapping cellphone camera pictures of Milk in her dressing room. Noo Hin accuses the guy, but he turns out to be a hi-so's son, and the case is swept under the rug and Noo Hin forced to apologize.

From there, the events spin out of control, as Noo Hin, Milk and Som-O are kidnapped. Noo Hin is whisked away to a sweatshop factory where Isaan girls slave away sewing teddy bears while handsome guys in black slacks and shirts bark out orders and have a DJ playing techno.

And the plucky Noo Hin uses her charm and all her resources to mount a rescue and save the day.

Things move so fast in the last third of the movie that they don't make sense. As with a lot of comedies (especially Thai comedies), it's mainly a lot of running and screaming. Gone are the musical numbers and any hope of further character development, though I did enjoy a Kung Fu Hustle/Coyote & Roadrunner moment when Noo Hin catches up to the bad guys' van, her legs a blur of spinning, cartoonish energy.

When it was all over, I felt like some of the characters had been given the short shrift, particularly Som-O, who was basically used for sight gags as she wore vibrating weight-loss belts; the handsome neighbor guy was just a handy plot device and Milk and Som-O's parents barely registered at all.

But then maybe a sequel will take care of those characters, which if Noo Hin: The Movie is a big enough hit, is in the realm of possibility. And it might be, if the fully packed auditorium for the 7.50pm show on opening night at Central City Bangna was any indication.

Internationally, though, I don't see Noo Hin creating much interest, despite the big names of Nonzee, Komgrit and Kondej attached. It's only a comedy, not horror or martial arts, which is what the West expects from Asia.

There is some underlying commentary about image - that city folk are too image conscious and country folk aren't proud enough of their rural roots - but I fear it gets lost in the jokes about Milk's big boobs and the flood of drool that emerges from the side of Noo Hin's mouth when she sees a handsome guy.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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