Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Overture, The โหมโรง (2004)

One of the things that amazes me about Thailand's film industry is how often its great directors are out of a job, while lesser talents find no difficulty in funding their next small project. It's a pity that trashy, sub-standard flicks (mostly horror) have apparently mopped up the easy money while better directors find it difficult to fund their next great film. In these 3 years that represent a boom in film production benefitting from easy money and excess fluidity fuelled by former Thai PM Thaksin's pump priming policies, directors of undeniably great films like Pen Ek Ratanaraung (Invisible Waves, Last Life in the Universe) and his collaborator and colleague Wisit Sasanatieng (Citizen Dog) have languished in their day jobs in the advertising industry.

That being said, not even Ratanaraung and Sasanatieng can rival the portfolio of director Ittisoontorn Vichailak, who has made just 2 films in the past 20 years, in an apparent attempt to personify the ideal of quality over quantity. It would have been easy for Ittisoontorn to follow up his award-winning 1983 debut Look Bar with any commercial project, any dozen projects of substandard but crowd-pleasing films, to line his pockets (being a just reward for making a critically-acclaimed movie), but apparently this man believes in only doing movies that he can justify to himself. The result is a 20-year wait for The Overture, a largely fictional film based on the life of Luang Pradit Pairoh (Sorn Silapabanleng) Thailand's last master of the renad ek, a wooden xylophone instrument. In a parallel movement, Ittisoontorn tells of the teen prodigy's test of fire in his early career against an enigmatic and frustratingly adept rival Im Khun, and decades later, of the old master's silent opposition to the banning of traditional music performances during the reign of WW2 dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram.

This may be a standard, cut and dry fictional biopic about the education and humbling of a headstrong child prodigy and his dignified opposition to a tyrannical, even fascist regime. In the hands of lesser directors, this movie may be laughably hackneyed predictable - but Ittisoontorn does far better than that. It seems that the director knows more than a thing or two about music and performance arts, and offers convincing performances of reconstructed traditional Thai ensemble scores on period instruments, as part of the many musical competitions that accompany the growth of the master musician. More importantly, the movie rises beyond the standard monomythic narrative, to encompass musings on the relation between culture, innovation and tradition, and the value of music as an art for itself. The director reverence for traditional music and his respect for radical innovators is shown through some unique music compositions in the movie, which features a improvised duet between the renad ek and a Brahms piano piece, a string duet between the lead character and non-diagetic music, and a modernist composition for the renad ek, played by the chief antagonist Im Khun.

Now, even with its multi-layered, contemplative and serious storyline, even with its well-researched and well-performed music that would bring joy to any ethnomusicologist, there are two minor details that may take audiences momentarily out of the magical charm of the movie. Occasionally, the music competition scenes may be overdone. Watching them, you might think how easily the facial reaction shots have already been parodied or unknowingly self-parodied on shows like God of Cookery, Iron Chef, Yakitate! Japan... (The judge's face plainly shows: "this music... it's absolutely delightful! Why haven't I heard anyone play like that before!" The audience faces plainly show: "Oh no, the antagonist is way too good! His playing is flawless! I'm having constipation thinking of just how the poor protagonist can reply to this musical passage!") Secondly, while great effort and care have been taken to reconstruct the scores of traditional Thai music and period instruments, I wonder how even though the movie takes place in WW2, and about 40 years or more before that, the architecture of the stilthouses always look brand new, and the clothing freshly minted from the factory...

Depending on what you expect out of this movie, you might find these 2 issues either trivial or glaring, but I'm sure that the director's heart-felt efforts can still reach audiences easily.

First published at incinemas on 24 May 2007

No comments: