Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Cherd Songsri Retrospective review: Puen Pang

  • Directed by Cherd Songsri
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Chanutporn Wisitthasopon and Kanungnit Rirsasarn
  • Reviewed on September 30, 2007 as part of the Cherd Songsri Retrospective
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Made five years after his landmark Plae Kao, Cherd Songsri's Puen Pang packs a harder emotional wallop than the earlier film, with a more tightly focused story about a young man and his relationship with two sisters.

Like Plae Kao, Puen Pang is set in rural Siam of the 1930s. It is an epic story about Lor (Sorapong Chatree), an orphan boy who was adopted by the father of two girls, Puen and Pang. Even in childhood, it's assumed that Lor will one day marry the eldest, most favored daughter, Puen, and not the younger, clowning, clumsy Pang. But when Pang is in trouble as a child, it is Lor who comes to the girl's rescue - a theme that is revisited later in the story.

In young adulthood, Puen is the more attractive of the sisters, but is vain, teasing and non-committal in her relationship with Lor. Pang, meanwhile, is more down-to-earth and eager to please, and she's always turning up in the rice fields to pester Lor. Singing and dancing, every time Pang shows up, you just know there is going to be trouble for poor Lor.

When it's finally agreed that Lor will indeed marry Puen, a date is set. Puen tells Lor in no uncertain terms that he should stop being friendly to Pang, and Lor follows suit. But the poor boy is conflicted, and, after telling Pang off one night, he sits outside brooding until he passes out. He wakes up covered with mosquito bites and malaria.

Taken to Bangkok for medical treatment by a wealthy aunt, Puen and Pang accompany the comatose Lor. In the big city, Puen is courted by a cousin, Boonpeng, despite warnings that Boonpeng is a ladies man and will only hurt Puen's feelings. Pang, meanwhile, watches over Lor, and her love for Lor deepens as she sees her sister wooed by car rides, pretty dresses, dance dates and tennis lessons.

Lor does wake up, and they all return to the farm, where Lor eventually confronts his true feelings for Pang, with disastrous results.

While overtly melodramatic, the strong performances by Sorapong Chatree (he enters the picture standing atop a galloping water buffalo!), Chanutporn Wisitthasopon as Pang and Kanungnit Rirsasarn as Puen, make this film eminently watchable. The story speaks volumes about relationships, selfishness, inner desire, true love and vanity, and how all those things can come into conflict.

The movie left me an emotional wreck, and it was all I could do to keep from blubbering as I met actress Chanutporn, who was present for the screening, and told her how amazing she was in the film. Quite a few other fans were similarly affected, and the outpouring of nostalgia made Chanutporn a bit tearful herself as she posed for photos alongside a display of Cherd Songsri.

Capsule reviews

  • Am Daeng Muen Kab Nai Rid (Muen and Rid, 1994) -- Muen and Rid opens with a bit of shocker - Jintara Sukapat's bare breasts! And it's those bare breasts that a young Buddhist monk named Rid, portrayed by Santisuk Promsri, cannot get out of his mind, even as he meditates in front of a human skeleton, reminding him that the flesh is just a vessel for suffering and ego. Jintara's Muen also can't get the monk out of her mind. The monk rescued the struggling, topless Muen from a raging river at the beginning of the film. In doing so, he touched her flesh, and that makes him her husband. It's true love. To be close to the monk, the plucky and resourceful Muen pesters Rid's elderly abbot to let her attend classes at the temple, not knowing she would be making herself a pioneer for women's rights in Rama IV-era Siam - women just didn't do that sort of thing. There was a saying back then, "Woman is buffalo, but man is human," which stemmed from the fact that women could be openly and freely sold or given away by their fathers, in order to pay debts. Such is the case with Muen when her alcoholic, gambling-addicted dad sells her to the wealthy owner of a Buddha-statue factory - a guy with a huge empire and many wives already. Any other woman would probably go for the arrangement, but the determined Muen is different - she dares to use her brain. The case of Muen and Rid becomes a legal battle, with a trial held in an open-air pavilion. Eventually, the fugitive Muen petitions King Mongkut, who agrees with her, setting into motion equal rights for women in Thailand. Though made in 1994, the film feels much older than that, which is in keeping with the timeless quality of most of Cherd Songsri's films. (4/5)
  • Tawipob (Another World, 1990) -- The story of a time-travelling young socialite who finds a more meaningful life in Rama V-era Siam than 1988 Bangkok, I was beguiled by the wide-eyed leading lady, Janjira Joojeang. While still a loopy, somewhat disjointed affair with the disco-light time-travel sequences through the looking glass, it's superior to the 2004 remake, The Siam Renaissance, because it relies on genuine emotion and decent, measured acting rather than slickness and gimmicky plot changes that detract from the message of the novel. I wish I would have seen this before I'd seen Siam Renaissance three years ago. (3/5)
  • Plae Kao (The Scar, 1977) -- This landmark film is, I guess, the alpha and omega of Thai melodrama. Though there were Thai films before it, ever since then any Thai television or film melodramatic references Plae Kao, sometimes overtly, but mostly subconsciously. It has everything: feuding fathers, a headstrong young woman (Nantana Ngaokrachang), a determined hero (Sorapong Chatree), a rich-boy villian (Setha Sirichaya) and even a rich woman who adopts the young woman because she looks like the rich woman's dead daughter! But Plae Kao has plenty of heart, as well as water buffalo. Mainly, it's a tour de force for Sorapong Chatree, who sings and plays his bamboo flute to win the heart of his Riam. The Romeo and Juliet story of ill-fated lovers living in rural, 1936 Bang Kapi, there are even a few chuckles. One was when Sorapong's character, Kwan, goes in search of Riam, who has been sold into slavery to a rich woman in Bangkok (hey, I thought that had been outlawed in 1865!). Not realizing how big Bangkok really was, the naive Kwan asks around, but nobody will give him the time of day, except for an old codger boatman, who tells Kwan he'll just have to look for where Riam is staying himself. (4/5)

In all, five films were shown in the Cherd Songsri Retrospective, organized by the Thai Film Foundation. Sadly, I was unable to see one of them, Ploy Talay (The Gem from the Deep, 1987).

There was some talk about possibly releasing the films on DVD, and I think it's a great idea. Cherd envisioned his films as a way to promote his concept of "Thainess" to international audiences, which would seem perfect for an overseas venture, such as the Criterion Collection, rather than just limiting the films to the Thai market. By giving the films as wide an audience as possible, there could possibly be no more appropriate tribute to the late director.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes and Bangkok Cinema Scene)

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