Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Pumpuang (The Moon)

  • Directed by Bandit Tongdee
  • Starring Paowalee Pornpimon, Nathawut Sakidjai
  • Released in Thai cinemas on July 21, 2011; rated 13+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Singer Pumpuang Duanchan was given her stage name by a mentor. The auspicious name, Duanchan, means "the moon", which is the English title of the musical biopic Pumpuang (พุ่มพวง).

But she was a shooting star, who shot to fame and quickly burned out.

As portrayed in the movie directed by Bandit Tongdee, the story of her life – an illiterate farmgirl who became a superstar – is as inspiring as it is a sad, cautionary tale of the pitfalls of stardom and the dark side of showbiz.

Bringing Pumpuang's story to the big screen hasn't been an easy task. Though there was a TV movie, made shortly after her death from lupus in 1992 at the age of 31, a film about her life has been complicated by bitter disputes among her family and threats of lawsuits.

Consequently, Pumpuang, based on an unauthorized biography by SEA Write Award-winning writer Binla Sankalakiri, is a much-sanitized version of the singer's life, glossing over and omitting the details of her two troubled marriages. Though as much as the filmmakers tried to scrub away the dirt, there's still characters who end up looking bad. Perhaps even Pumpuang herself comes away looking the worst, just because she couldn't say enough was enough. The dog-eat-dog entertainment industry is the real villain, just for the way it uses people up and spits them out when they have no more to offer. A life that was as sad as Pumpuang's can't be totally cleaned up.

Of course there's always the music: Ballads of tragic heartbreak and goofy love songs buoyed by bouncy melodies, jangling guitars, shimmering horns, cascading keyboards and a tight, funky rhythm section. Later on, her music added a disco beat. The stage shows rival Las Vegas nightclub acts for sheer spectacle, with rows of dancers in sequined costumes and the lead singer in a get-up that would give LIberace the jitters. No wonder Pumpuang became a gay icon and idol of drag queens.

The music is luk thung, Thai country. It's the sound of the central plains, Northeast and North. It was Pumpuang who popularized luk thung, making it mainstream enough for Bangkok nightclubbers to dance to. Put side-by-side with the sounds, looks and backgrounds of such American country-and-western artists as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or Porter Waggoner (who had the audacious costumes to rival Pumpuang's), and you might see the correlation, especially in view of what American country has become today.

It's entertainment for the masses, pure and simple.

Unable to get into the salacious aspects of Pumpuang's life, the filmmakers give us music, and they haven't skimped. Thanks to a licensing agreement with showbiz moguls GMM Grammy, producer Prachya Pinkaew and the folks at Sahamongkolfilm have filled the movie with enough of her songs to make a soundtrack CD.

They are performed by the lead actress, 19-year-old Paowalee Pornpimon, who like Pumpuang, is a luk thung singer from Suphan Buri and a winner of many talent contests. Paowalee gives a perky, spirited performance as Pumpuang. She'll surely be a nominee for best actress when awards season rolls around. I just hope she isn't ground up and wrung out like Pumpuang was.

Like Coal Miner's Daughter, Walk the Line or Ray, the movie follows the usual patterns of a musical biopic, tracing the artist from her childhood and chronicling her talent, rise to stardom, romance and hardships on the road. Unlike those other movies though, there's a tragic end.

Pumpuang Duanchan was the fifth of 12 children of a family of migrant farmers in Suphan Buri. She grew up singing to her siblings in the sugarcane fields. The family was poor, and could not afford to send their children to school.

When she was around eight years old, Pumpuang was taken by her father to see a singer-songwriter whose troupe was playing at a local temple fair. Dad begged the music guru to take his daughter, in order to get the girl away from the hardships of farm life and to make for one less mouth to feed at home. Though he was visibly moved by Pumpuang's a capella singing audition, the music man refused, telling the Pumpuang and her father that she should go to school and grow up a little.

Pumpuang never went to school, but she did enter music contests, winning many prizes.

As a teenager, she again asked her father to take her to see the music guru. But the man was in Bangkok; how could they find him?

Well, Pumpuang may not have ever learned to read, but she did possess a steel-trap mind – she had memorized the man's phone number, which she'd seen on a poster during her visit years before.

So the father and daughter boarded the bus to Bangkok. I think the same ricketedy old bus they used back then is still running today. They tracked down the music guru, and after a suspenseful all-day wait on the street, he took the girl into his home.

Here's where Pumpuang recalls some of the same story beats as Pen-ek Ratanaruang's luk thung comedy Monrak Transistor, in which the main character, following his dreams of being a singing star, ends up mopping floors at the music company for two-and-a-half years, waiting for his big break. That's what Pumpuang started doing – swabbing the deck while watching others dance and singing to herself while sorting sequined costumes.

She moves up after another singer is let go because she was caught having a romantic relationship. That's one of the rules of the house, posted like the 10 commandments beneath a photo of god himself, the slain "Thai Elvis" Suraphol Sombatcharoen.

It's a rule Pumpuang herself would not heed, as she finds herself growing close to saxophonist Teeraphol Saensuk (Nathawut Sakidjai) and the two are eventually caught and kicked out of the musical troupe.

On their own, Pumpuang and Teeraphol develop a symbiotic relationship – she needs him to read her the lyrics, which she memorizes with her photographic mind, and he needs her for her singing talent, so he can ride on her glittery coattails.

But Pumpuang is also capable of forging her own path. A scene that demonstrates her indomitable spirit is when she's working as a back-up dancer in a nightclub and the club owner is blatantly going to cheat her out of money. She refuses to accept that kind of treatment, and though the club owner forbids her to return, she's back the next night, and stares the old man down with fiery eyes. Later, when a comedian doesn't show up, Pumpuang takes the stage herself, and shows she's not only a great singer, she excels in slapstick as well.

Forming her own band with Teeraphol as manager, she hits the road, but runs into problems with rival luk thung troupes and their hired thugs. Sparsely attended shows are countered with lowered ticket prices. A bullet hole in one of her signs is plastered over with a sticker saying "free admission". A sleeping driver of the tour bus threatens to bring everything to a halt, but then a Bangkok producer makes her an offer she can't refuse. And I have to wonder if the slick Bangkok promoter drugged the bus driver himself.

While Teeraphol is opposed to changing luk thung to appeal to Bangkok audiences, Pumpuang eagerly accepts – she wants her music to be heard by as many people as possible so she can make more money so that she can take care of her family. Her goal is to perform luk thung in one of Bangkok's finest hotels, the Dusit Thani.

It's this iron-willed work ethic that Pumpuang has, to please her fans and take care of her family, that proves to be her undoing. After she collapses onstage, it's revealed she as lupus, an autoimmune disorder that saps her strength and worsens if she works too much or gets stressed out. In short, she has to stop performing or she'll die.

She does try to make a go of doing less work. She takes time to learn to read and write, making for a particularly tearful scene in which she sends a note to Teeraphol, who has run off, telling him to come back home.

The movie ends with Pumpuang strapping on her iconic leopard-print headband to perform for a crowd of shieks, rajahs and high-rollers at the Dusit Thani. A montage of photos summarize Pumpuang's life and death (sorry farangs, there's no translation for the text).

Questions to ponder: Was it so terrible that she put everything she had into working, sacrificing herself so she could support her family and please her fans? Why couldn't she put her energies to work in a less-stressful position in the music industry. How long would she have survived? What would her legacy be today?


  1. Thank you so much for the links on where to purchase this film. I can't wait to see it!

  2. I am Brazilian. my English is not very good. But I want to thank you for the review of this film. I would love to watch but never met with subtitles in Portuguese or English. Good job, thank you.



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