Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thailand's choice for BFLF Oscar: Josh Kim's HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME)

If you listen to our cultural guardians, you might think that the only films from Thailand worth knowing about would be those of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or, "Joe" to his friends), the fellow who has given us any number of impenetrable movies, including the famous Cannes prize-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Turns out there are other films worth knowing about from Thailand, too, one of which -- HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME) -- was this year's submission from that country as Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film. Though it did not make the shortlist, not to mention the finale five nominees, it's a movie very much worth finding and viewing.

The film's writer/ director, Josh Kim (shown at right) is a Korean-American born in Texas who has based his movie on two stories by the writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, another Asian-American of, I would guess, Thai ancestry. (I am assuming this because of his unusual, Thai-sounding name.) Checkers... is Kim's first full-length film, after writing and directing several short ones, and it combines two distinct genres: coming-of-age and the GLBT movie.

Both of these genres have been, over the years, pretty much done-to-death by enough movies of inferior quality that, when you hear the mention of either genre, you can't be blamed for wanting to take a pass. It is a pleasure, then, to be able to tell you that Mr. Kim's Checkers combines the two genres into something quite beautiful, heartfelt, poetic, occasionally funny and finally very moving.

This is the tale of a boy named Oat, who we see both as a youngster (above, left) and as a young man (below). We watch as Oat grows from one to the other, with the help of his adoring and adored older brother, Ek, his aunt, and various friends of the family and co-workers of Ek -- as well as Ek's lover, played by a gorgeous newcomer named Arthur Navarat (shown center, two photos below)

Filmmaker Kim weaves into his tale -- based of two of Lapcharoensap's short stories entitled Draft Day and At the Café Lovely -- much of the life in Thailand today: it's economics, politics, social classes, and work environ-ment, along with the manner in which society handles GLBT characters.

As shown here, at least, the life of the gay and transgendered may be less fraught than it is in the USA. (In one telling scene, it is only the "fat kid" who is made fun of in public. Some things never change.) The character named Kitty (played by Natarat Lahka, above left), in fact, is a gorgeous, curving chick who also sports a dick and proves to be the movie's most beautiful, interesting and sought-after character.

We also meet a young man named "Junior," and his crime boss/businessman dad, for whom Ek works. Power, we note sadly, is as corrupting here as it is anywhere else. Evidently, when young men in Thailand turn 21, they must take part of a draft/lottery (shown above) that ensures a certain number of them serve in the military, and the movie smacks us, along with several of its characters, into the middle of this "draft day" and its consequences.

All of this is shown us in relatively quiet, simple manner. But the movie's simplicity never computes as merely simple-minded, while the beauty of face, figure, landscape and color we see here is often exquisite enough to take your breath away (the cinematographer, Nikorn Sripongwarakul, has done masterful job).

The movie begins with a bad dream that our hero remembers and that we head slowly toward as the film progresses. Yet Kim and Lapcharoensap have a surprise or two up their sleeve, so that things do not turn out entirely as we expected. How they evolve provides one of the most quietly thoughtful and thoroughly moving entrances into male adulthood you will have experienced on film in a good, long while, in the process transcending both the coming-of-age and GLBT genres.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), from Wolfe Video and running 80 minutes, makes its DVD and VOD debut this coming Tuesday, February 2, for sale and rental. 

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