Tuesday, August 23, 2011

15th TSF&VF review: Poor People the Great

  • Directed by Boonsong Nakphoo
  • Starring Boonchoo Nakphoo, Kraisorn Nakphoo, Thup Nakphoo, Boonsong Nakphoo
  • Special screening at 15th Thai Short Film & Video Festival, August 20, 2011
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Motorcycles whiz by. Tractors are on the move. Folks are riding in trucks, talking on mobile phones. But poor farmer Choo is a man out of synch with this fast-paced world. While relatives and neighbors zip around on motorbikes, he's on his bicycle. And no cellphone for him. He's pedalling to a payphone.

He's the protagonist of Poor People the Great (คนจนผู้ยิ่งใหญ่, Khon Jon Pu Ying Yai), an independent feature by Boonsong Nakphoo. It had a limited screening earlier this year at the Lido cinema. I missed it then, so was glad to see the 15th Thai Short Film & Video Festival give the 70-minute feature a special screening slot.

It's a quiet, little family drama, captured with a steady and sure hand, with a simple, engaging story about an out-of-work farmer who is heavily in debt.

Boonsong, who once made a mainstream studio comedy called Crazy Cops, went the indie route for this picture, casting his family and friends and shooting around his home province of Sukhothai. The patience and love are apparent in every frame.

Poor People the Great comes at a time when most mainstream movies about Thai rural life romanticize the countryside and/or parody it, such as Mum Jok Mok's Yam Yasothon comedies. A recent exception is Uruphong Rakasasad's Agrarian Utopia, which didn't flinch from the hardships of farming, and it recalls 1977's docu-drama Tongpan, which examined the impact of a dam project on an impoverished farmer.

Right from the start, the pressure is on Choo. He's working in a dusty field, hoeing away at the rock-like soil. No tractor or even a water buffalo. It's just the man, toiling away, alone. Then a guy on a motorbike rides up and shouts at Choo. "Go fetch Sorn," he barks.

The ridiculousness of this request becomes apparent after the motorbike man speeds off and Choo climbs aboard his bicycle to go pick up his son Sorn. Now, wouldn't it be faster for the motorbike man to go get the kid? And then to top that, the teenage Sorn is hanging out with a local group of troublemakers, who all have motorcycles. Yet Choo is still stuck with giving the boy a ride home on his bicycle.

Back at the tin-roofed shack Choo shares with his elderly, bent-over mother, the local money-lender lady is waiting and wants to know when Choo will pay her back.

He's not got a lot of options. There is no work around Sukhothai.

"How about Bangkok?" someone asks.

"Don't talk to me about Bangkok," Choo replies. He's gone that route before, and had little to show for it because it's more expensive to live in Bangkok, even if you are making an effort to save money.

So, despite there being little chance he'll find work, Choo sets about looking for employment, pedaling his bike around the province to ask about construction work. He rides all the way to Sukhothai city to track down a man who owes him money, with no luck.

Meanwhile, Choo's son guitar-playing son Sorn is getting into trouble, hanging out with a motorbike gang of delinquents who spend their day in a rice-field shelter drinking beer and singing songs.

They sell their empty bottles to a pickup-driving scrap dealer (played by the director himself), who spots Sorn's guitar and takes an interest in the kid's music. The scrap dealer has musical aspirations himself, and tells a funny story about getting kicked out of a country-music troupe.

But the scrap dealer is also the type of guy who buys stuff without really caring where it came from, and he's a magnet for a local cop, who is always nosing around. This leads to trouble down the road for Sorn and his friends.

More worries arrive in the form of Choo's estranged wife, who ran off to Bangkok years ago without a word. She comes bearing gifts – a shirt for Choo and a pair of trousers for Sorn. And that's it.

So, with a pile of debt and having to bail Sorn out of jail, Choo's path seems inevitable – a loan to pay off a loan and a bus ride to a place he doesn't want to go.

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