Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

  • Written and directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
  • Produced by Aditya Assarat
  • Starring Patcha Poonpiriya, Chonnikan Netjui, Krissada Sukosol Clapp
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 28, 2013
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

It's the world's first Twitter movie – Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy – a fancifully weird comedy about teenage angst by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

The inventive writer-director took 410 consecutive messages from the Twitter feed of a Thai schoolgirl named Mary Malony (@marylony) and created a story around them.

The result is a dense narrative that is repetitive and sometimes hard to follow. Mary’s tweets are displayed as intertitles, accompanied by the click of a computer keyboard’s return key. Sometimes they will quickly be followed by Mary pretty much repeating the message. Other times, what’s happening will be completely different.
And if you’re stuck reading the subtitles, good luck at keeping up.

But Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is the kind of movie you might want to see two or three times, just to get feel of it.

And it’s fun to watch, for Nawapol has succeeded in creating an intriguingly bizarre world, a place that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.

Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) is an often-depressed, accident-prone high-school senior. She’s constantly in need of encouragement from her more-level-headed friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui). They are assigned to work on the school’s yearbook.

Their boarding school seems to be in a warehouse, which is stacked up with old computers and dusty school desks. They walk to school along a railroad track, often stopping along the way to hang out by a pancake vendor, whose cart is right by the tracks.

It’s the same kind of insular universe Wes Anderson creates for his movies, and of those, Mary is most like the schoolboy comedy Rushmore. And the comic-strip nature of a film formed by 140-word snippets also reminds me of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts and by extension the Charlie Brown animated TV specials.

The cartoon-character feel is enhanced by the girl’s uniforms – they wear the same 1983 school sport day T-shirts and red shorts everyday, just like Charlie Brown has his zigzag shirt.

The school’s faculty are a bunch of oddballs, especially their first yearbook sponsor, played by SEA Write Award-winning author Prabda Yoon. His nose is bandaged for some reason. And then he abruptly announces he’s quitting to become a movie stuntman.

His replacement is the quietly intimidating singer-actor Krissada “Noi” Sukosol Clapp, whose awkward intensity is harnessed for laughs. He’s always invoking the name of the school’s headmaster, a man who never actually appears, but is filling the classrooms with the canned coffee and soup his factory makes and forms the basis of the student body’s diet. His picture is on the cans. Turns out it’s Noi’s brother, musician Sukie.

Several Thai indie film figures make cameo appearances, including director Kongdej Jatruranrasmee as a drama coach. Veteran filmmakers Pimpaka Towira and Boonsong Nakphoo are Mary’s mother and father. Musician, photographer and actor Apichai “Lek” Tragoolpadetgrai has a crucial role as head of the audio-visual department. And there’s a chuckle to be had when producer Soros Sukhum’s name comes up in the credits – he plays “Uncle Boonmee”.

Seems relevant at this point to mention the teachers’ uniforms look like something a prison guard or security guard might wear.

Mary’s tweets are often a launchpad for fantasy sequences, including a whirlwind trip to Paris, which mopey Mary sleeps through because she is so jetlagged.

Other moments are repeated, such as Mary’s insistence at taking photographs only during the “magic hour” when the light is just right at the end of the day at a certain location of the school’s roof.

It seems that the yearbook will never be finished.

There’s Mary’s fleeting romance with a boy who hangs around the pancake cart.

But mostly the stories are about the friendship between Mary and Suri. Until one day Suri is no longer there. Her absence leaves Mary rudderless, and the story also suffers a bit because Suri isn’t there to propel things along.

Nawapol made his feature directorial debut last year with 36, an experimental effort that constructed a story out of 36 static camera setups with a story that involved a movie location scout losing her digital images when a hard-drive fails. She then tries to reconstruct the memories of those photos. It shared Busan’s Currents Prize in 2012, and won praise for creating a new cinematic language.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy continues that experiment in creating new ways to tell cinematic stories out of our fleeting, digital consciousness. It’s much more complex than the stripped down 36, and also almost twice as long, running 127 minutes.

But, as it turns out, that’s exactly the time needed to make a story out of 410 tweets.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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