Monday, September 13, 2010

Review: Namtan Daeng (Brown Sugar)

  • Directed by Panumat Deesatta, Zart Tancharoen, Kittiyaporn Klangsurin
  • Starring Odette Henriette Jacomin, Pitisak Yaowanin, Prakasit Bosuwan, Patsawipit Son-akkarapa, Nathakhun Anumatchimpalee, Chittkhon Songchan, Lakkana Wattanawongsiri, Warin Yarujnon
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 26, 2010; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Thai films have finally come of age. Unshackled from 80 years of censorship and freed under the latest interpretations of the year-old motion-picture ratings system, it's okay to show bare breasts, and maybe even a bit more.

Clumsily, like teenagers groping around for the first time, Namtan Daeng (น้ำตาลแดง, international English title: Brown Sugar) explores contemporary Thai sexual relations. Thai multiplex audiences can finally see something depicted on the big screen that they previously could only do in the privacy of their own homes, hotel rooms, cars, secluded nature spots, or perhaps watch on the "sex DVDs" openly sold by streetside vendors and notorious markets.

Only it's not as exciting as all that. Tediously paced and often quiet as a church mouse, the audience seemed fidgety and bored, even as the actress in one story went for broke and masturbated for 10 minutes. The guy sitting behind me was snoring loudly.

A collection of three short stories by three young independent directors, Namtam Daeng is produced by Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew, who was among the industry figures helping to guide the new motion-picture ratings system. Prachya is joined in this venture by fellow Baa-Ram-Ewe producer Bandit Thongdee. The pair had previously directed segments of the 2008 romance omnibus 4 Romances, and now they have a chance to take things a bit further.

The movie starts with a 5-minute intro segment, starring Odette Henriette Jacomin and Pitisak Yaowanin. She's a woman in an unhappy marriage who's checked in alone at a beachside bungalow and seeks solace from the resort's handyman. This short segment is notable because it has the actress actually removing her top to put her breasts on full view. Unlike other movies in which actresses get body doubles and have the camera pan down so the boobs could belong to anybody, here it's clear the chest is attached to the shoulders that are attached to the neck that are attached to the head and face of the actress. She asks for brown sugar with her coffee, saying she prefers its more robust and natural taste and appearance to the usual refined sugar. In Thailand, brown sugar is coarser and totally unrefined compared to the West. It's called namtan daeng, or literally red sugar.

So with the movie's title explained, it begins in earnest with
director Panumat Deesatta's Sopeni Bon Tiang (โสบนเตียง, literally "prostitute on the bed") a story about an older gentleman (Prakasit Bosuwan) and his affair with a younger-looking woman (Patsawipit Son-akkarapa) who wears a snug-fitting, revealing university schoolgirl uniform. A family man with a Mercedes station wagon and pictures of his three young children hanging from the rearview, he meets her for a tryst that takes them to a lakeside picnic spot, dinner at an outdoor barbecue stand where she steams up the customers, dancing in a nightclub and finally a short-time motel. She has appropriate costume changes for each scene. The narratives at first capture the couple in post-coital conversation. They sound like what I'd imagine a Thai man and his mia noi (minor wife) would talk about. The sex acts are then unspooled in a heavy-metal accompanied flurry of the guy's goatee rubbing around on the woman's cleavage, his bare shoulders bobbing up and down and her face showing expressions of pleasure.

For me, this first segment worked most effectively, just for the twist at the end that makes the male fantasy even more complete.

Next is Zart Tancharoen's Raktongloon (รักต้องลุ้น) about teenage lovers (Nathakhun Anumatchimpalee and Chittkhon Songchan), playfully experimenting with sex while at home alone in the girl's house, sitting on the coach. Zart, who's previously worked under director Thunska Pansittivorakul, a filmmaker who uses no restraint when it comes to expression of sexual desires and exploration, makes some interesting choices in his segment. Just as things are on the verge, the illusion is broken. And even after the illusion is broken, later on when the girl's parents show up while the couple are in the bedroom, it's still pretty tense, but ultimately comical and absurd. This is also the segment that's most "indie" in terms experimentation, with blurred camera movements and jumbling around, as if the camera is being hidden.

Finally there's Kittiyaporn Klangsurin's Prattana (ปรารถนา, literally "desire"), which has a masseuse (Lakkana Wattanawongsiri) in a Khao San Road traditional (non-sexual) massage parlor, fantasizing about a musclebound, long-haired tattoo artist (Warin Yarujnon) who runs a studio in the same building.

The much-talked about 10-minute masturbation scene, which comes after the woman gets all hot and bothered during a massage session with the guy, is actually a letdown. Lakkana, who's said she just "went for it", remains fully clothed during the scene, which takes place in the toilet at the massage parlor. She sticks one hand down her trousers and uses the other to lift up her shirt and play with her breasts. Her bra remains on. Much sighing and heavy breathing ensue. She then goes to get a tattoo from her fantasy man. She wants it in her pelvic region, and so there's the other talked-about scene that involves the upper regions of her pubic hair being shaved. And then the needle starts in with its pain and vibration.

I suppose it's relevant at this point to note that the last segment is by the only female director on the Brown Sugar project.

In all, six short stories were produced for Brown Sugar. I am uncertain at this time about when the other three segments will be released.

The latest box office figures show Namtan Daeng has earned around 8.5 million baht, which is a rather disappointing figure.

But it's still a worthy effort in pushing the envelope of what's acceptable to be seen by appropriate audiences on Thailand's big screen.

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