Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai)

  • Directed by ML Bhandevenob Devakula
  • Starring Ananda Everingham, Chermarn Boonyasak, Teerapong Leowrakwong
  • Released in Thai cinemas on September 16, 2010; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Lavishly produced, with a breathlessly sweeping style that recalls Hollywood's Golden Age, Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai, ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย) is the type of movie that not even Hollywood is making anymore. Among the handful of directors in the world still making films like this are a few Thais, mainly those who happen to have initials in front of their names, indicating royal blood.

And it's a style that ML Bhandevenob Devakula, affectionately known as "Mom Noi", is famous for. He's known for his romantic dramas in the 1980s and '90s, based on literary or theater works and often filmed in scenic foreign locations. He's also the father of drama in the Thai film and television industry, with his acting class being a rite of passage for the country's marquee names and the reason the stage-bound melodramatic manner of Thai thespians seems so similar across the board.

Eternity, based on a 1943 novella by Malai Choopinit, is perfectly suited to Mom Noi's style.

It's a story that has been depicted on film and television before, most famously the 1955 version directed by Tawee "Khru Marut" na Bangchang and filmed by Ratana Pestonji. A glimpse of it can be spotted in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe, and it's available on DVD from the Thai Film Foundation.

While keeping his old-timey style of cinematic storytelling, Mom Noi has stretched the narrative of Malai's thin novella, and taken advantage of modern industry techniques and Thailand's new motion-picture ratings system to make his Eternity attractive to modern audiences.

It's a sexed-up Eternity, with loads of sensuous imagery, though the nudity and sexuality is of such a level that it only warranted a 15+ rating, rather than 18+ or the restrictive 20-. So there's a shot of Ananda's naked butt, maybe a glimpse of the side of Ploy's breast and her derriere, a bit of bare bodies grinding and writing, but that's about it.

Pregnant with symbolism, it's an iconic story in Thai culture, with adulterous lovers ordered to be chained together. Love is a heavy burden, an unwieldy encumbrance, a prison from which there is no escape.

The tale is set in the late 1930s, in a logging camp somewhere in the mountains of Burma. It is seen through the eyes of a visitor, who hears an animal-like howling emanating from the forest and asks his host, Thip, to explain. Thip then relates the story of his master, Pabo, and how it came to be that Pabo's pretty young wife and his beloved nephew became lovers and were ordered to be chained together.

Ananda Everingham portrays Sangmong, the sensitive, contemplative and well-educated nephew, whose arrival in the logging camp is framed like the he's the second coming of Jesus Christ. Though he's ostensibly the manager of the logging operations, Sangmong spends most of his time roaming about the forests, wearing flowing traditional Burmese robes and sitting by babbling brooks. Two favorite books are The Prophet by Khalil Gibran and A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, symbolic literary references added by Mom Noi.

He is his uncle's favorite nephew, and is thought of as more than a son. And Uncle Pabo wants to see the young man married.

So Pabo departs for Bangkok to find Sangmong a wife. Instead, he meets the young divorcee Yupadee, is captivated by the socialite and takes her for himself. She is played by "Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak, and the camera trains in on her on curvy, satin-and-lace swathed figure like a wolf out of a Tex Avery cartoon, howling, with eyes bulging and lips smacking.

The words spill from Yupadee's lush, lipstick-covered mouth. Perhaps reflecting contemporary Bangkok high-society opinions, Yupadee says she is ever so bored with city life and Siam's constantly shifting politics. She readily accepts Pabo's invitation to come with him to his logging camp in the countryside, where she is to be his wife.

Out in the misty mountains, Sangmong is obviously dumbstruck by Yupadee's beauty, and Yupadee seems to be more attracted to the nephew, who's closer to her age and more of an intellectual match than the rough-hewn logger uncle.

Pabo does not help matters when he orders Sangmong to look after Yupadee, and keep her entertained by showing her around. Yupadee takes a whirl in a mountainside flower patch, like a scene out of the The Sound of Music. I think Mom Noi probably has a scene like this for the leading lady in all his movies.

So of course Yupadee and Sangmong become lovers. And everyone knows it and saw it coming, except Pabo.

But he's not blind. Furious at the betrayal, Pabo orders the lovers chained together – for eternity, a point on which Pabo will not waver. Portrayed by Teerapong Leowrakwong, the Pabo in this movie engenders less sympathy than the character in the 1955 version, who is older and more grandfatherly. Here, Pabo is more threatening and quite possibly insane.

The lovers' elation at spending all their time together soon gives way to despair, as the awkwardness of the chain and shackles takes hold. Eventually there is no place for these two caged beasts to go. It must lead to the tragic end and the haunting, animal-like cries, howling from the forest.

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