Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: Wongkamlao

  • Directed by Petchtai Wongkamlao
  • Starring Petchtai Wongkamlao, Akamsiri Suwansuk, Apaporn Nakonsawan, Chalerm Yamchamang, Chantana Kitiphan, Somlek Sakdikul, Weawwow Jokmok, Anuwat Tarapan, Sudarat Butrprom
  • Released in Thai cinemas on July 1, 2009
  • Rating: 4/5

Ordinarily I can't stand to watch (Thai) comedies nor soap operas. For the former, it's the broad slapstick humor, fart jokes, shrieking transvestites, wacky sound effects and general lack of direction that turn me off. And with the latter, it's the screaming actresses, overly melodramatic acting and cheesy music that makes me quickly reach for the channel changer or off button.

But for his fourth directorial effort, Petchtai Wongkamlao has discovered the key to making both comedies and soap operas palatable -- combine the two, put a strong cast of comedians in all the roles and let her rip.

In Wongkamlao (วงษ์คำเหลา or literally Family Kamlao), Mum stars as Lord Petcharawuth, the scion of a royal-blooded jewellery dynasty. The setting is like the typical TV soap operas -- an immense, Roman-columned marble-and-granite McMansion, staffed by maids in frilly French uniforms, plus a liveried driver/gardener (Def Duangdee). The family is old money, through and through.

Into this mix comes Piramon (Akamsiri "Jakkrajan" Suwansuk), an attractive young woman from a modest upbringing. She's been hired as a private English tutor to Junior (Chalerm Yamchamang), the developmentally disabled younger brother of Lord Petch.

Almost immediately the earnest young teacher runs into conflict with Praew, the noisy and bossy youngest sister of the family. Apaporn Nakonsawan plays this role for all its worth as she unleashes a never-ending tirade of abuse on the servants and anyone else who gets in her way. Piramon not only attracts the attention of Praew's intended suitor, the foppish idiot Lord Pao (Anuwat Tarapan), but also Mum's character Lord Petch, which makes Praew an enemy of Pao's sister and Praew's close friend Nuch (Sudarat "Tukkie" Butrprom), who's seeking the hand of Petch.

There's also the spineless, doddering family matriarch (Chantana Kitiphan), the strict but good-hearted spinster oldest sister (Weawwow Jokmok) and an enigmatic elderly uncle (Somlek Sakdikul) who feigns being bedridden but has a bevy of lingerie-clad maids attending to his needs.

And then there's the stock transvestite servant character (Orachon Mamchow), who's name changes as often as her ludicrous outfits, wigs and exaggerated makeup. With her inappropriate, off-color comments and physical gags, she's unneeded comic relief in a comedy already chock full of comedians, but it wouldn't be the same without her.

The katoey, as well as a character who farts and then blames it on the family dog, just enhances the ridiculousness of this supposedly noble family.

One puzzling action is Piramon's teaching method -- she coaxes new words out of stuttering Junior's mouth by slapping him on the back of the head. It hardly seems right, but the audience seemed to love the idea of the sweet young woman doling out corporal punishment on her man-boy pupil.

And Piramon is not all she seems. First of all, she's visited at the estate by a mysterious young man. Yet she seems to have a soft spot for Lord Petch, appearing touched by the love ballad he sings at the piano, and singing her own song of unrequited love with her guitar.

Then, pushed over the edge by Preaw's constant abuse -- go, Apaporn, go! -- Piramon lets fly with a kick that wouldn't be out of place in a Jeeja project, landing Preaw in a pile of shattered glass and disrupting dinner. After that, Praew and Nuch can't get near Piramon. Instead of getting fired, Petch promotes Praew to be his assistant in designing a new line of jewellery.

Broad swipes at high society are made through the exaggerated, loud wardrobe -- the men in stifling, three-piece suits, the women outfitted in leopard prints and feather boas. And a visit by the family doctor reveals everyone has ringworm. "Why don't you try taking a bath," the physician advises.

The deeper subtext of all this is Baan Saithong, a classic Thai story that's been depicted countless times in television soap operas and films. Even though I'm not familiar with the actual source, I've seen the plot mechanisms enough -- Jan Dara, Tears of the Black Tiger and The Adventure of Iron Pussy are among contemporary films that reflect the Baan Saithong heritage.

And like the old-time soaps and action-drama films of the past, there's a set of twists toward the end that are crazy but are the only way the story really makes sense.

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