Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Once Upon a Time ... This Morning

  • Directed by Bhandit Rittakol
  • Starring Santisuk Promsiri, Jintara Sukapat, Ronnaroo Buranute
  • Released in 1995 in Thailand; was Thailand's submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, won Best Film at the Thailand National Film Association Awards; screened during the 2nd Bangkok International Children's Film Festival on January 26, 2008 at Major Cineplex Pinklao
  • Rating: 5/5

Once Upon a Time ... This Morning (Kalla khrung nueng... muea chao nee), a 1995 drama by Bhandit Rittakol, made me cry, at least twice. Who knew that paper dolls could have such an effect?

I can think of a couple other films that have brought on the waterworks - Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle is one. It's the ending scene where Chow and his love interest change back into children and then go into the candy store. The end of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi does it, too, when the brother-and-sister geishas revert back to when they were young, before they lost their innocence. This recapturing of a childhood, to go back in time before everything got so damn complicated, I guess, is the emotional trigger, and it doesn't matter how many times I've watched the DVDs.

Once Upon a Time is about three kids, pre-teen sister Ohh, her 5- or 6-year-old little brother Onn and a toddler in a stroller, Umm (Charlie Trairat). The parents, played by the classic '90s Thai cinema pair of Santisuk Promsiri and Jintara Sukapat, are splitting up. The children are closer to their father, Damrong, who is devoted and patient. He tells them bedtime fairy tales, using paper dolls to make shadows on the wall. The kids sit enraptured and are eventually lulled into sleep.

The mother, Pha, is moving away from their cozy little suburban home to a flash three-bedroom hi-rise condo in the city, where she'll be able to devote more time to running her magazine.

Ohh pouts about the situation, and Onn becomes difficult when he's told he can't bring his pet turtle, Ninja, along. Even the baby won't stop crying. Mum's cooking isn't as good as dad's. After a couple of nights, Ohh decides she is going to find her father. Onn goes with her. They plan to slip out while Mum is away from work. But in retrieving the squawling baby from the day-care center (run by a two-faced nightmare of a woman), the plan goes all squiffy, as some young neighborhood hoodlums are being chased by some gangsters. The pint-sized delinquents were trying to deliver some drugs to one of the building's tenants, but the deal goes south, and the package is hidden in Umm's basket. In the confusion, Ohh grabs the basket and takes off.

The missing drugs means that Naklae (Ronnaroo), the charismatic leader of the homeless gang of boys, will be beaten by his boss. By chance, Ohh, Onn and Umm are boarding a train at Bangkok's Hualumphong Terminal, and Naklae spots the basket. He boards the train and tells his friends to inform their adult boss to meet him up the line.

Meanwhile, Pha comes home to find the kids missing. And, here's a 1995 touch, Ohh has sent a pager message to her dad, now coaching soccer up in Chiang Mai, that she's coming to find him. Dad then gets on a train heading south, while Mum pursues the northbound train in her old Volkswagen. The gangsters, who also trade in prostitution, child labor and baby brokering, are also in hot pursuit.

On the train, Naklae sits with the kids and tries to keep a watch on the basket. All the time he is being watched by an old man in the seat across the aisle. Likely a street urchin himself when he was young, the old man sees right through Naklae's sweet talk. Ohh pulls out the paper dolls and tells her father's fairy tale. It works its magic on Onn and Umm, and Naklae and the old man across the aisle, too!

There's confusion when the train stops in Lampang, as the gangsters grab the kids, while Damrong and Pha meet and try to pursue the abductors. Finding that the drugs have been soiled by the baby, the gangster boss decides to cut his losses, and arranges to sell the girl as a virgin prostitute and broker the baby. The boy, Onn - too old to sell as a baby, but too young for anything else - is left by the side of the road, along with the smart-mouthed Naklae.

At the heart of this film is the meaning of family. Naklae leads a gang of homeless boys who were thrown away by their parents. They know they must stick together to survive. Damrong and Pha, the parents of Ohh, Onn and Umm, are just now figuring that out. And now, to get their children back, they must put aside the problems that have caused them to divorce.

There is plenty of excitement, as the homeless kids teach little Onn to swear, and they mount a daring rescue to save Ohh and Umm. There is some gunplay, some crashing utlity pylons, plenty of sparks and a runaway baby stroller. The paper dolls are trotted out for the homeless boys one night, in a shadow play put on by Ohh that leaves them all spellbound. Then there is a fiery climax in a burning brothel, which had been foreshadowed by the paper-doll fairy tales. This where the young actress who played Ohh really shines - I wish I knew her name, but apparently she only acted in a few films and disappeared from the scene.

The ending is pretty powerful, too, with Naklae making an escape to a hopefully better life on a city bus, bidding farewell to the reunited family, by holding up a string of paper dolls as he looks forelornly out the back window of a city bus.

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