Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Review: Boonchu 9 (Boonchoo 9: I Love Sara Aoo)

  • Directed by Bhandit Rittakol
  • Starring Thanachat Tulayachat, Santisuk Promsiri, Jintara Sukapat
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 28, 2008
  • Rating: 3/5

"It's a long story. Are you sure to want to hear it?"

Boonchu, a Suphanburi rice farmer, has a way of telling a tale about something as simple as setting out food for monks on their alms rounds, that he starts the story 2,500 years in the past, making the lingering passerby suddenly decide he has someplace urgent to be. But you might want to stick around for this.

Boonchu 9 focuses on Boonchu's son, Boonchoke, a young former monk from the provinces finding his way around the big city of Bangkok. He's played by the fresh-faced and earnest Thanachat Tulayachat, and is joined by a supporting cast of other up-and-coming teen stars.

This is a reboot of the Boonchu series, which ran in the late 1980s and early '90s. There was Boonchu 1 in 1988, followed by Boonchu 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8, with Boonchu 3 and 4 intentionally skipped as the result of a fast-forward marketing gimmick. In celebration of the series' 20th anniversary, and to promote this film, the six movies were released in a DVD box set (sorry, no subtitles) earlier this year by Five Star Production.

The stories centered on Boonchu, the idealistic, sentimental country boy played by Santisuk Promsiri. In the first film, Boonchu travelled from his Central Plains village to Bangkok to study agriculture at a university. There, he met Mo (Jintara Sukapat), who would become his wife, and a group of other kids who would become his lifelong friends.

Now Boonchoke is following in Boonchu's footsteps. But that's not how Boonchu wants it.

Back in the village -- where paved roads are yet to be laid, and Boonchu's open-air, wooden-shack 7 Elephant store will likely never serve dimsum -- Boonchu would love nothing better than to see his teenage son Boonchoke become fully ordained as a Buddhist monk. The boy has been a novice since he was a child and knows little outside Buddhist scripture. He's about to embark on a pilgrimage that will take him to sacred sites from the Lord Buddha's time, places that today include embattled territories in Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mother Mo (Jintara Sukapat) doesn't want Boonchoke to take the journey. She'd rather see him experience the world outside the monkhood. So she hatches a secret plan to spring Boonchoke from the monastic life, and pack him off to Bangkok to attend university without his father finding out.

She arranges for two of her old university chums -- Praban and Nara (Kriengkrai “Ae” Amatyakul and Arun "Tui" Pavilai, both reprising their roles from the original series) -- to meet the boy when he arrives in Bangkok. Things go awry. Praban and Nara pick up the wrong monk, a boy hilariously named Fug U-man, and have him disrobed as a novice, and then reordained when they realize their mistake.

Boonchu arrives in the next van. With no one to meet him, he falls prey to a cheeky pair of little orphan grifters, the scene-stealing sisters Kratae and Katan, who get him to drink drugged chrysanthemum juice. They take his shoulder bag -- all his worldly possessions -- and give it to their older sister, Pim. Boonchu comes to just in time to see the girls with Pim (Kittilapas Korasutraiwan). He's visibly dumbstruck by the almond-eyed beauty, and he chases her.

In searching for Boonchoke, Praban has enlisted help from his son, fiddle-playing street musician Prabaan (Worarit “Gapper” Nilklom) and Nara has his daughter Ning (Apinya "Saipan" Sakuljaroensuk) meet them, along with Yon (Ratchu "Wan" Surachalas, previously seen in Hormones), the son of another of Boonchu's and Mo's old gang, portly loud-mouthed dessert maker Yoi (Kiat "Tik" Kitcharoen).

Praban, Nara and their kids see the shaven-haired young lad running through the alleys off Ratchadamnoen Klang. The movie then settles into an easy rhythm of the scripture-quoting Boonchoke and his new friends getting acquainted, finding a place to live and hanging out. When they aren't at home in an old house haunted by a dead granny, they are eating at a riverside restaurant, where everyone trades barbs with the irascible owner.

Or they are at a Chester's fast-food franchise, where Ning and another friend, Ant (Nalintara Holler), work and put on spirited floorshows, dancing for customers. Playing Ning, Apinya is one of the stand-outs in the cast, showing plenty of bubbly confidence, quite the contrast from the quiet, Afro-haired teen she portrayed in her debut, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy. Anyway, if there really is a branch of Chester's where there's dancing and sing-alongs like in Boonchu 9, I want to know where it is so I can pay a visit and make a special request.

This being Bangkok in 2008, the kids also hang out in a shopping mall, where Boonchoke catches sight of Pim and gives chase, clashing with her in a photo booth, and accidently snapping some pictures that Apinya's character later discovers and stirs up pangs of jealousy. But not much real attention is given to those emotions, as Boonchoke explains them away. He just wants his bag back. Honest. Meanwhile, a gang of pickpockets working the mall plan to do something about Pim invading their turf. Pim's angle is chatting up older men on MSN, arranging meetings and stealing their wallets.

The homespun humor is spurred along by a country-and-western soundtrack provided by Suphan Buri native Ad Carabao, ably standing in for the late folksinger Jaroen Manopetch, who sang the original series' theme.

It's a refreshing break from the indistinguishable comedies that are churned out cookie-cutter style, with the same cast of comedians running from the same ghosts, screaming and making the same scatalogical jokes in every movie.

The situations, relationships and conversations in Boonchu 9 are contrived and and feel forcibly old-fashioned, but this is the intent of veteran, old-school director Bhandit Rittakol, who also helmed the original series.

As a refrain from the back-and-forth conversations and Boonchoke's parables, there's madcap action that felt not too far removed from the frenzied chase scenes in Bhandit's classic youth drama Once Upon a Time ... This Morning. The climax is a knock-down, drag-out warehouse fight between Boonchoke and his friends against the mall toughs who have kidnapped almond-eyed Pim. Outtakes from the stunts can be viewed over the end credits, the highlight being Saipan Apinya flung through the air in harness-and-rope rigging.

The ending is suitably and sweetly satisfying, setting the stage for a Boonchu 10, that is unless they skip a few years and move on to Boonchu 13 or 14.

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