Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: P'Chai My Hero (How to Win at Checkers (Every Time))

  • Directed by Josh Kim
  • Starring Ingkarat Damrongsakkul, Thira Chutikul, Arthur Navarat, Natarat Lakha
  • Released in Thai cinemas on July 16, 2015; reviewed at Bangkok Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

A much-needed fresh perspective in Thai cinema emerges in the indie drama P’Chai My Hero (พี่ชาย My Hero), a.k.a. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time).

It’s the unique view of outsiders – Chicago-born, Thai-raised writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Josh Kim, a Korean-American filmmaker from Texas. To tell the heart-warming, bittersweet tale of orphaned brothers growing up, writer-director Kim added flourishes of his own to two stories from Rattawut’s Sightseeing anthology, “Draft Day” and “At the Cafe Lovely”.

Checkers, which premiered to much acclaim at the Berlin film fest and is re-titled for Thailand as P’Chai My Hero, centers on the tender bond between insecure 11-year-old Oat and his openly gay older brother Ek. Orphaned at an early age, the working-class boys live with their aunt and her pest of a young daughter. They also have a tight-knit group of friends, including Ek’s higher-class boyfriend Jai and transgender pal Kitty.

The gay characters are naturally drawn, avoiding the tendency to turn such figures into shrieking, flailing comic relief. Ek is positively masculine as he tinkers with the motorbike his father left him. And it’s this ordinary treatment of queer folk that makes P’Chai My Hero so refreshing.

They are also quirky characters that seem plucked from the New Thai Cinema Movement of the late ’90s and early aughts, when the now-snoozeworthy Thai film industry was awakened by such figures as writer-directors Wisit Sasanatieng, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Kongdej Jaturanrasamee and writer Prabda Yoon.

The aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) is superstitious to a fault, and spends her hard-earned dough buying eels to release in daily merit-making rituals. Her urchin of a daughter always seems to come out of nowhere, catching the boys at inopportune moments, and her forthcoming appearance is forever mystically presaged by a clucking red hen.

The boys hang out at a swimming pool with their ladyboy friend Kitty (Natarat Lakha), who is the embodiment of confidence as she struts past admirers in her red one-piece bathing suit, which shows off her prominent bulging groin. No one seems to care that she is a he, and Kitty points out that plenty of the guys at the pool are actually “into that”, albeit secretly.

So being gay is not really the issue. The real conflict of P’Chai My Hero is one that has always dogged Thai society – class differences. And those differences are highlighted by the approaching annual military draft lottery, which is unique to Thailand and thus compelling for the rest of the world. Ek pessimistically believes he is fated to pick a red card, be drafted into the army and sent to the restive South. It’s a subject Kim previously covered in his 2013 short documentary Draft Day, which covered transgenders taking part in the drawing.

Jai (Arthur Navarat) believes he can buy his way to picking a black card, and thus dodging military service. Yes, it’s our old friend corruption. This gives Oat an idea, but following through on his plan will have dire, life-shaping consequences for all.

Oat, portrayed remarkably by Ingkarat Damrongsakkul, begins to come out of his shell. Along with scheming for ways to keep his brother from being drafted, he also wants desperately to beat Ek at checkers. It’s a deal the brothers have, and if Oat wins, he’ll get anything he wants. Looking for a winning strategy, Oat scrapes together a few coins to buy one of those self-help books from a newsstand. The title is "How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)", but he’s too young to realise that that’s merely metaphorical and the only person being helped is the book’s shyster author. But, with his new win-at-any-cost ethos, Oat is finally granted his wish – to go with Ek for a night out in Bangkok.

And here’s where the extremely dark “At the Cafe Lovely” story kicks in. It takes the boys to the gay bar where Ek works for explosive events in a night that will haunt Oat forever. It’s this segment where the actor portraying Ek, Thira Chutikul, is particularly potent.

Having previously portrayed the young Chavoret Jaruboon in The Last Executioner, he’s one to keep an eye on.

Oh, and Michael Shaowanasai, a pioneering New Thai Cinema filmmaker known for his crossing-dressing Iron Pussy character, turns up as a bar patron who takes a creepy interest in Oat.

The tumultuous tale is bookended by segments that show Oat all grown up and portrayed by brooding singer-actor Tony Rakkaen. He’s haunted by nightmares and bad memories, but somehow has escaped the cycle of poverty and death that claims so many young Thai men. That might be another tale for Kim to tell.

Not only is this Thai film cobbled together from the English literature of a Thai-American writer by a Korean-American director, the producers hail from all over – Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and the US. They are Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Andrew Thomas Tiernan and Anocha Suwichakornpong. This spirit of multinational collaboration could well signal a direction to follow in the Asean Economic Community as Southeast Asia’s filmmakers look for ways to tell stories that resonate with home audiences as well as those abroad.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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