Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Kru Bannok

  • Directed by Surasee Patham
  • Starring Petthai Wongkumlao, Pichet Kongkarn, Fonfa Patham, Asongkai Saengtam, Panna Rittakrai, Kampanee Wongtongkam
  • Released in Thai cinemas on January 14, 2010; rated 13+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

I've not had the benefit of seeing the original 1978 version of Kru Bannok. By some accounts I've heard or read, Surasee Patham's film is held in high regard as a fine example of the socially conscious dramas that were made during that era but are sadly virtually non-existent today.

Nonetheless, Surasee felt his film was inadequate, and like George Lucas going in and messing up his original Star Wars trilogy with added CGI and Han Solo shooting second, Surasee wanted to remake Kru Bannok, to take advantage of the technological advances in filmmaking and apply everything he's learned since then in hopes of producing a better film.

Again, not having seen the original, I can't authoritatively say he's succeeded. But I have a feeling that this new Kru Bannok isn't an improvement.

Kru Bannok Ban Nonghi Yai (ครูบ้านนอก บ้านหนองฮีใหญ่, literal title The Country Teacher of Ban Nonghi Yai, international English title To Sir, With Love) is the same story as the 1978 film, about an idealistic young teacher who arrives to work at a ramshackle schoolhouse in a remote impoverished rural village in Northeastern Thailand. Like the original, the story is still set in the 1970s.

It is an old-fashioned tale, told in an old-fashioned way. The acting is wooden, the dialogue creaky and the drama feels lifeless and contrived.

Portrayed by Pichet Kongkarn, the teacher Pichet is an enthusiastic and idealistic young man whose virtuous ways rub off on everyone he comes into contact with.

He magically reforms the school's headmaster Kru Yai Chalee, who is a gambling addict, drunk and wife beater who also visits a brothel when he goes to town to pick up the teachers' salaries. He's played by Petthai "Mum Jokmok" Wongkumlao, a natural fit for the role because he's a native Northeasterner. On one hand it's great to see Mum taking on a meaty dramatic role, but on the other hand, his headmaster character is given to quips and wisecracks that are so constant he's somewhat annoying.

Other characters include Kru Chat (Asongkai Saengtam), another new faculty member who is more concerned with trying to bed local beauty Lamduan (Kampanee Wongtongkam) and looking cool in his sunglasses than he is educating the children. There is also Dao, the kind-hearted niece of the headmaster who only intends to teach at the country school until a job opens up in the city. She's played by Fonfa Patham.

Panna Rittikrai has a role as a wise man in the village who puts on a puppet show that depicts how pigeons fought an eagle. It's a proverb about standing united against an overwhelming threat. His methods inspire Kru Pichet, who quickly becomes a beloved and popular figure in the village. Later, Ajarn Panna emerges as the village's chief tactician and martial-arts expert. Indeed, the Ong-Bak stunt guru throws a few Muay Thai kicks when the going gets tough.

The village is so poor that the kids are all wearing old school uniforms, which are faded, torn and ragged. One family can't send its two boys to school at the same time because they can only afford one set of clothes. Pichet and Dao (Fonfa Patham) campaign to get the children new uniforms.

But the chief threat to the village is an illegal logging operation run by a "mafia" figure. With the gunman patrolling the woods, the villagers are unable to forage for plants, roots and mushrooms and they are starving.

Pichet, emboldened by his success in securing new school uniforms, exposes the illegal timber harvest, and risks his own life in doing so.

Released by Sahamongkol Film International and with Prachya Pinkaew among the producers -- though Surasee handled a large part of the financing -- Kru Bannok is unquestionably well-intentioned as it seeks to entertain while addressing serious issues.

More attention is paid to the tableau of old-timey Isaan culture. The soundtrack is in the Isaan language and there are ample scenes of wizened grannies spinning silk, women pounding rice grains and fetching water from the well and villagers foraging for food. The keening sound of the khene reed mouth organ of Isaan and Lao music dominates the film's score. There are even a couple of musical numbers as teacher Pichet takes a guitar in hand and rhapsodizes about the beauty of the countryside and its people.

Ultimately, Kru Bannok carries no weight because of its 1970s setting.

A truly updated Kru Bannok ought to depict what is it like in the Northeast Thailand of twenty-ten, and ask the questions nobody is asking and no one wants to or is able to answer. Are there are corrupt politicians? Are there influential figures encroaching on forests? Are young women still working in brothels? Are men still drinking and gambling their salaries away, and lying and beating their wives? How are people in Isaan eating these days? And what are the children learning?

This new Kru Bannok treats these issues as things of the past. I fear that audiences for the most part will dismiss them and learn nothing from this teacher drama. And that is the real tragedy of Kru Bannok Ban Nonghi Yai.

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  1. You are totally right about the film’s message being lost in its out-datedness. Otherwise I somehow found it an enjoyable piece; pretty to watch and moving at nice pace, so as to keep the viewer occupied. Whatever technical advances Mr. Patham felt he needed employ this time round I don’t know understand, however. It was pretty basic.

  2. Just a thought:

    I wonder whether (in keeping with your assertion that it should have perhaps been set in the present) moving the story to the South and focusing on the plight of teachers there wouldn't be more powerful or resonant today?

  3. I am disappointed it only gets 2/5. I liked the first opus in 1978 very much. Of course if it only relates same issues as 30 years ago, it is understandable that nowadays viewers may not feel interested. As the movie was supported by the Culture Ministry, maybe it could explain why it was not so critical over the institutions? Social problem movies don't raise same interest as 30 years ago. Anyway I am eager to see it when it will be released in DVD. I like Surasee Phatham very much. Maybe you have seen หนองหมาว้อ (nong ma wo) that is the sequel of the original movie in 1979. The young lady teacher continues to fight for farmers and convinces the farmers to unite themselves in cooperative to fight against low cheating prices.


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