Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Tukkae Rak Pang Mak (Chiang Khan Story)

  • Directed by Yuthlert Sippapak
  • Starring Jirayu La-ongmanee, Chonthida Asavahame
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 28, 2014; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Yuthlert Sippapak pays homage to his roots with the partly autobiographical romantic comedy Tukkae Rak Pang Mak (ตุ๊กแกรักแป้งมาก, a.k.a. Chiang Khan Story.

Spanning 20 years from the 1970s to the '90s in the Mekong River town of Chiang Khan in Yuthlert's home province of Loei, it's the story of childhood friends, the poor little orphan boy with the odd name of Tukkae (after the large chirping house lizard that's believed be a bad omen) and the wealthy girl Pang. They later grow apart, but are forced back together by circumstances that only happen in romantic comedies.

The first half of the movie, featuring a cast of child actors, is energetic, sweet and nostalgic, weaving in memories of 4-baht wooden cap guns with the rubber-band action, the then-newfangled foreign treat of jellybeans and GAF Viewmasters.

Tukkae and Pang take to hanging around the town's wooden shophouse cinema. It's during a magical time when such Thai cinema classics as Sombat Metanee's gritty actioner Chumpae is playing alongside Payut Ngaokrachang's animated triumph The Adventures of Sudsakorn and Sompote Sands' insane Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman.

The kids are mentored by the theater's poster painter, played by Yuthlert's longtime collaborator "Uncle" Adirek Watleela. His character Pong Poster is a heartfelt tribute to still-living 1970s' director Piak Poster, who started out as a poster artist, as well as Uncle's late Buppa Rahtree co-star, character actor and production designer Bunthin Thuaykaew.

Tukkae, always on the defensive because of his funny nickname and his status as a poor orphan kid, seeks to play with the gang of chubby boys who always bully him. In lively action scenes, they blast away with their cap guns while wearing Red Eagle masks, like Mitr Chaibancha. And Tukkae accepts a dare that drives Pang out of his life, seemingly forever.

Flash forward a few years to Bangkok, Tukkae is a comic-book artist with aspirations of getting in the movie business. He's partnered up with a level-headed and experienced film hand, amiably played by Slice director Kongkiat Khomsiri, one of several film industry hands in the cast. In another scene, Thanit Jitnukul (Bang Rajan) turns up as a producer. He can't believe Tukkae doesn't know what a "treatment" is.

The guys are tasked with making a Mae Nak "liverscape" movie by a hilariously marble-mouthed B-movie producer who sees nothing wrong with moving the famous ghost story from Phra Khanong to Chiang Khan. Tukkae has other ideas, and he writes an "untitled" screenplay that is basically his life story, with a focus on his relationship with Pang.

The implausibilities stack up as Tukkae encounters Pang by chance in a Bangkok disco, and she doesn't remember him at all. In fact, nobody from Tukkae's old school remembers what anybody looks like. But this is, refreshingly, before Facebook and selfies, so I suppose the disbelief can be suspended somewhat. Mistaken identities and misunderstandings add to Tukkae's woes as Pang wakes up in Tukkae's bedroom and doesn't recognize Tukkae or any of his stuff (not even the Viewmaster she gave him).

But the two are thrown together anyway when Pang, now a famous actress, is cast for the role in Tukkae's movie. Awkwardness ensues on the set as Pang is confronted with the guy she only recognizes from that bad night out. She doesn't realize it's her old childhood friend, nor does she seem aware that he actually wrote the screenplay for the movie she's in.

The energy and sweetness of the movie's first half gives way to a wallowing slackness that's struggling to find an ending. It's not helped by the rather wooden performances by Kao Jirayu and Pleng Chontida. Kao, a former child actor with many credits, has better chemistry in later scenes with his character's dementia-addled grandmother who raised him. Pleng, the celebrity offspring of singer Nantida Kaewbuasai and scandal-plagued politician Chonsawat Asavahame, is making her screen debut, but seems to let a curly hairstyle and aviator sunglasses do all the work for her.

The supporting cast, especially the Tukky-type actress who plays Pang's best friend and manager, help to liven things up. She is friends with soldiers at the local army base, and they turn up on command to dish out beatings to anyone getting on her wrong side. Boriboon Chanruang portrays a director who spent so long in New York he's forgotten to speak Thai. He becomes Tukkae's chief rival in romancing Pang.

Yuthlert seems to have suppressed his infamous genre-jumping tendencies in an effort to make what he's called his first romantic comedy, though melodrama, horror and slapstick all creep their way in, just not as much or as often as his past films.

Tukkae Rak Pang Mak also marks a comeback of sorts for Yuthlert, who has done more than a dozen films over around half as many years up until a year or so ago. However, his last effort, the potentially controversial Deep South drama Fatherland (ปิตุภูมิ พรมแดนแห่งรัก, Pitupoom) was yanked from release by the film's producer. So Yuthlert retreated to Loei to regroup.

His new film is the first release from a new studio, Transformation Films, which is a joint venture of M Pictures, Bangkok Film Studio (formerly Film Bangkok), True I-Content and Matching Studio.

Box-office performance for Tukkae has been middling, with 12.7 million baht in earnings at last count, but hopefully the company will soldier on and perhaps give one of Thai cinema's most distinctive voices yet another chance to tell his stories.

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