Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
The most famous Thai movie-musical of all time is song-filled extravaganza called Mon-Rak Look Thoong; one sometimes sees its title translated as ‘Love of Country Music’, though few remember that it’s also a play on the Thai title for The Sound of Music – Mon-Rak Pleng Sawan: ‘Love of Heavenly Songs’. Armed with this foreknowledge, one might then reasonably ask (as I did last year) of satirist Pen-ek Ratanaruang whether or not his new film, Mon-rak Transistor – a bittersweet musical about the travails of a would-be look thoong singer and the various puddles of shit he keeps falling into – is meant as a continuation of a specific Thai cine-musical tradition. ‘No,’ the snarky, New York-educated filmmaker would then probably retort, in his trademark sweetly-snide tone of voice: ‘It’s more like Radio Days.’
The first of the new generation of Thai film mavericks to make a name for himself on the international film fest circuit, Pen-ek has a penchant for barbed sarcasm and brightly cynical cinema that precedes him. His début, Fun Bar Karaoke, evinced enough comic mayhem to gain him an unwarranted reputation as some sort of Thai Tarantino, a sobriquet from which he only partially recovered when his follow-up, 6ixtynin9 (whose title gag makes a freak appearance in Spielberg’s Minority Report!), proved one of the most adroitly acted and photographed comic-thrillers his country had ever produced. Nothing anyone’s done in Thai cinema before can prepare you for Mon-Rak Transistor, though – a film so bright with home-spun emotion, barnyard profanity, spontaneous eruptions into song and poisonous twists of fate that it might have you wondering if perhaps Billy Wilder has somehow been reborn in Bangkok.
Self-conscious without being the least bit snide, and as darkly hilarious as it is unexpectedly heartbreaking, Mon-Rak Transistor flays the body politic of modern Thai soul, from its simple rural roots to its rotten urban core, and – even when its hero is repeatedly (and literally) dipped in shit and hung out to dry – never once wipes the smile of knowing resignation off of its face. Anchored by a pair of sparkling performances by Suppakorn Kitsuwan (performing all his own songs) and the exquisite Siriyakorn Pukkavesa (a former host of TV teen-shows here morphing from tooth-ache sweetness to trucker-tongued harridan), Mon-Rak Transistor isn’t just the apogee of the new Thai cinema – it’s one of the best films you’ll see anywhere this year. — Chuck Stephens