Friday, September 18, 2015

Guest post: How Thai is Freelance aka Heart Attack?

Freelance (a.k.a. Heart Attack), the latest GTH film and the first big-studio directorial effort for indie filmmaker  Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, seems likely to be one of the best films of the year, and will likely also be among the winners at the Thai box office, with reported earnings of 73.5 million baht as of last weekend. While releases in neighboring countries are already planned, guest columnist Lila Ahronowitz takes a look at the broader, cross-cultural appeal of Freelance ... Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More (ฟรีแลนซ์.. ห้ามป่วย ห้ามพัก ห้ามรักหมอ).

In this world of reboots and adaptations, some properties have better success than others being transplanted to a different setting, time, and even language. Whether for good or bad, some stories are inherently a product of the city or country in which they were made, and the stories lose some layers when they’re taken out of that context. Taking a look at the films coming from Thailand, what, if anything, makes the film uniquely Thai – whether it be thematically, technically, or in other ways.

Directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Freelance is a story about a freelance graphic designer, Yoon (Sunny Suwanamethanon), who, through overwork, unhealthy eating and lack of sleep, develops a mysterious skin rash. When he goes to the public clinic, he falls for the caring and kind doctor who treats him, Imm (Davika Hoorne). It’s not quite as simple as that – there are themes of the importance of self-care as one grows older, the pressure to keep up with new talent, the lure of self-destruction, and the profound, inevitable loneliness of tech-based society.

So let’s get down to brass tacks: how Thai is this movie? Bangkok life is evident in certain beats of the story, particularly the humorous ones: the moto driver who accompanies Yoon’s business contact, Je (an exceptional Violette Wautier, whose deadpan delivery rivals Sara Gilbert from Roseanne); the fact that shrimp dumplings from 7-Eleven are Yoon’s favorite food; the traditional Thai-style funeral Yoon interrupts in the beginning of the movie (I was howling when he asked the monk if the temple had Wi-Fi). If we were to move this story to, say, New York, these idiosyncrasies would be lost; sure, Yoon’s favorite food could be cheeseburgers from McDonalds, but taxi-motorcycle drivers aren’t a thing that happens in the U.S., and asking a pastor about Wi-Fi in a church isn’t going to have the same kick – especially when in Bangkok, the monk casually hands over the password to his dwelling Wi-Fi.

The themes of this movie, however, are immediately recognizable and universal, for any 20- or 30-something struggling to balance personal life and career ambitions – and most especially for freelancers without basic health benefits coverage. In that respect, I could see this story set anywhere from Norway to Alaska to Jordan.

On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 indicates that a person could barely tell the film was made in Thailand, and 5 indicates the movie is as inextricably Thai as Wat Pho and pad kra pao moo, I give Freelance 2 puang malai: easily adapted and translated, but you’re gonna lose some charm in the process.

Currently based in Bangkok, Lila hails from Los Angeles and has worked nearly every aspect of production on films, shorts, commercials, and TV. Follow her on Twitter @lilafromlala

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