Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Four Stations

  • Directed by Boonsong Nakphoo
  • Limited release at Lido cinemas, Bangkok, June 14-20, 2012
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Boonsong Nakphoo once directed a mainstream Thai comedy called Crazy Cops. He eventually became fed up with the film industry and went the indie route, last year self-releasing the low-budget Poor People the Great, the story of a downtrodden farmer that he patiently shot in the rural areas of his home province of Sukhothai, with his friends, neighbors and family as cast members.

Now Boonsong takes another look at poor Thai folks, with a compilation of four stories in Four Stations (Sathanee See Phak, สถานี 4 ภาค). The interwoven tales about two rural families, an elderly monk and a disenfranchised migrant worker are taken from short stories by well-known Thai authors, mostly winners of the prestigious Southeast Asian Writers' Award (SEA Write). Each of the writers represents one of the "four regions" of Thailand –  North, Northeast (Isaan), Central Plains and South. The stories are "Dtu Pboo" ("ตุ๊ปู่") by Mala Kamchan (มาลา คำจันทร์) from the north, "Songkram Cheewít Suan Dtua Kongtoo Taa"  ("สงครามชีวิตส่วนตัวของทู-ทา") by  Wimon Sainimnuan, a.k.a. Wat Wanlayangkoon (วัฒน์ วรรลยางกูร) from the central plains, "Lom Laeng" ("ลมแล้ง") by Khamsing Srinawk a.k.a. Lao Khamhom (ลาว คำหอม) from the northeast and "Baan Glai Reuan Kiang" ("บ้านใกล้เรือนเคียง") by Paitoon Tanya (ไพฑูรย์ ธัญ ญา) from the south.

The movie screened in limited release at the Lido cinemas in Bangkok's Siam Square, and the director himself was present for a Q&A session afterward, but due to pressing other engagements I couldn't hang around, so any questions I had went unanswered, so this is perhaps not the most-informed review of the film.

For one thing, it looks like all the segments were shot in the same general area, despite coming from the authors of the "four regions". But it still works.

One story is about an elderly Buddhist monk, who despite his bent-over, general state of decriptness, insists on going on the morning alms rounds. He slowly plods along in his hunched-over, Yoda-like state, his wooden cane banging on the ground to punctuate his slow, methodic steps. The younger monks are the paragon of Buddhist calm as they plod along behind the slow-moving senior monk. But back at the temple, the younger monks find various ways to disresprect the senior monk. Boonsong himself shows up in this segment as a travelling vendor of woven mats that he tries to sell the monks or exchange for a night of room and board at the temple. Stuck in his ways, the elder monk refuses to allow the man to stay, but he stays anyway.

There are two family stories. One has a pair of neighboring farm families, on either side of a forest thicket entering into an escalating feud. The wives of the families can't stand each other, and shout shrill insults while the men engage in more passive-aggressive activity. For example, one guy urinates in his neighbor's prized sugar wine. A tragedy ultimately brings them together and they put aside their differences.

The other family tale has a former novice monk, a chubby little boy, returning home to an overburdened family of two sisters, an angry mother, a henpecked father who can't find work. The family's only real asset is a water buffalo who later plays a crucial role. And it seems that since the boy returned home, nothing has gone right for the family, and the boy begins to blame himself for their misfortune.

And there's the story of the migrant laborer from Myanmar, whose Mon wife from back home shows up. But their reunion is all too brief. She's soon snatched up by the police. So the guy goes to his Thai boss for help in bailing her out of jail. At one point, it gets absurd, with the worker and his boss on a motorbike trying to chase down the police paddy wagon on the highway. Later, the guy goes to work in Bangkok and finds himself playing hide-and-seek with a couple of thugs – they are either plainclothes cops or just shake-down artists who prey on foreign migrant workers.

The story of the migrant worker is the main constant of the picture, with its story told from beginning to end. The segments about the old monk and feuding families peter out about halfway through, leaving the stories of the migrant work and the little boy and his troubled family to take up the slack.

I found the uneven length of the stories a bit distracting because as the other stories continued I was left wondering if the other stories had really run their course.

But what I liked about Four Stations, and Boonsong's previous feature Poor People the Great, was their unpretentious and forthright manner of storytelling. I look forward to more films by this guy.

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