Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: So Be It

  • Directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee
  • Starring Sorawit William Caudullo, Bundit Laocharoeysuk, Phra Sanan Titameto, Phra Marhalatsiam Thammutasiu
  • Limited release at House cinema in Bangkok on October 30, 2014; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee harnesses his flair for telling engaging stories about unusual people with So Be It (A-Wang, เอวัง ), his first feature documentary.

It's about Buddhism, but it isn't preachy. There are no talking-head interviews like ordinary documentaries. There's pleasant images of shaven-headed men and boys in saffron, but there's more to it than that. Its accessibility is boosted by clear, high-definition images and polished editing and post-production. A burbling acoustic guitar soundtrack provides ear candy, gently spurring the story along.

Like his narrative features, Kongdej takes an unconventional approach to his subjects. No lost elephant, or three-armed man, or cabaret dancers with amnesia. Here, there's two very real Thai boys from very different backgrounds. Their whose lives are entwined in Buddhism. Although it's an unscripted documentary, the story clicks along as if everyone is reading from one of Kongdej's weird but higlyh compelling screenplays.

It also helps that one of the stars is a celebrity, William, a half-Thai 7-year-old boy, went viral on social networks when he appeared on the TrueVisions reality series Samanean Pruk Panya, which followed boys as they become novice monks.

The other boy is Bundit, 10-year-old son of a Karen family. His family is poor and they sent him to live at Wat Sa Kaeo, a well-known Buddhist temple and boarding school in central Thailand's Ang Thong province.

Parallels are drawn to the stories of these two different boys with help from a Buddhist parable that's related in intertext titles, about Sakka and Pura, monks who each struggled with attaining enlightenment. Sakka seeks to hunt for answers outside the temple, while Pura remains inside, yet whatever peace he's looking for is elusive.

In the TrueVisions series, William is shown at first being bratty, impatient and hot-tempered, spoiling for a fight with another novice who taunts him. But as the spiritual practices of meditation and mindfulness take hold, William's demeanor changes, and he becomes genuinely interested in learning more about Buddhism, and thinks he might want to be a monk when he grows up. Back at school, he's chosen to lead the Buddhism club. With the kind support of his Thai mother and American father, he takes a trip to the rural northern temple of prominent monk Phra Sanan Titameto, who was featured on the TV series. William spends time as a temple boy and watching the monk's every move.

Bundit, who is introduced while he's in a classroom watching the TV show with William, is also bratty and hot-tempered, yet there's nothing anyone can do to control him. A rebellious little gangster who has issues with authority figures, Bundit skips classes, ducks off campus to go swimming in the river and sneaks out of the dormitory at night to sleep elsewhere. He is not the least interested in learning about Buddhism. For him, monkhood is a punishment.

While William makes morning alms rounds with the uncle-like Phra Sanan, Bundit is granted leave by his temple's abbot to visit his home, accompanied by an older relative boy. The angry little Bundit seems happier at the rustic wooden homestead, where the family hand-raises corn and chickens. But, overburdened with other mouths to feed, they can't afford to keep William there. So he must go back to school. And that anger, manifested by a scary look in Bundit's eyes, returns.

And like the monks in the Sakka and Pura tale, enlightment doesn't come easily for the devout and ever-curious William, and his time as a temple boy seems to have raised more questions than answers.

A documentary, So Be It might seem like an odd fit alongside Kongdej's other work, which includes commercial screenplays like Tony Jaa's lost-elephant tale Tom-Yum-Goong or the amnesiac transgender tale Me Myself, and the three-armed romance Handle Me With Care. It's closer in tone to Kongdej's more recent ventures into independent filmmaking, which he and producer Soros Sukhum kicked off with the weird P-047, about two guys – spirituality seekers of a sort – who break into people's apartments and "borrow" their lives while they are away. So Be It is also an examination of contemporary Thai culture, such as Kongdej's most recent narrative feature, Tang Wong, which had bratty teenage schoolboys struggling to learn a traditional Thai dance.

With So Be It, which was produced in part by cable-television company TrueVisions and intended for broadcast, Kongdej finds another angle for examination and reflection.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your input on the cultural background! I saw the film at this year's Berlin Film Festival and liked it very much.


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