Asort of cautionary family-values thriller, "Once Upon a Time ... This Morning" spells out in no uncertain terms what parents who selfishly choose to separate might leave their children vulnerable to: thugs, drugs, kidnapping, illegal adoption and forced prostitution -- all within what appears to be about 48 hours. A winner of numerous Thailand National Film Awards last year, director/co-writer Bhandit Rittakol's feature is thoroughly engrossing and well crafted. But its ever more melodramatic progress will limit play beyond select Asian theatrical and tube markets.

Asort of cautionary family-values thriller, “Once Upon a Time … This Morning” spells out in no uncertain terms what parents who selfishly choose to separate might leave their children vulnerable to: thugs, drugs, kidnapping, illegal adoption and forced prostitution — all within what appears to be about 48 hours. A winner of numerous Thailand National Film Awards last year, director/co-writer Bhandit Rittakol’s feature is thoroughly engrossing and well crafted. But its ever more melodramatic progress will limit play beyond select Asian theatrical and tube markets.

Start has a loving suburban dad performing a shadow-puppet play about children imperiled by a witch and a one-eyed monster. But when his wife arrives, it’s clear this seemingly happy home is on the skids: She wants a divorce, a fact that 12-year-old daughter Ohh, 5-year-old son Onn and baby Umm are quite unaware of. Next morning, careerist mom Pha moves the brood out, over everyone else’s teary protests.

Three offspring are left to latch-key status in their new high-rise-apartment digs. Ohh is soon fed up — she packs up her younger sibs and goes off in search of Dad (not realizing that he, too, has already moved from their former home). First in a series of belief-stretching developments has some delinquent kids ditching the drug stash they were delivering in the baby’s bassinet. An angry crime boss orders its retrieval.

After a long train journey — with parents as well as thugs now in pursuit — the runaways are abducted by grown-up baddies. The drug stash is ruined; to make up for that loss, Ohh is sold to a whorehouse, Umm to infant-traders. Onn, too young for slave factory work and too old for black-market adoption, is abandoned. He links up with an apologetic delinquent, Noklae, and they succeed (just briefly) in stealing back the other kids before harm is done. More crises include one over-the-top scene in which the baby’s stroller coasts perilously amid toppling electrical poles.

A fiery whorehouse climax foils the villains once again, leading to family reunion and, natch, a mom finally chastened into giving up that divorce. Pic is ostensibly drawn from the traditional fairy tale it refers to in an early scene; a harridan madam is our “witch,” while a slingshot wound renders the crime boss a real one-eyed monster. But helmer plays things pretty much straight, forgoing the more fable-like aura that might have made so many improbabilities easier to swallow. Portrayal of wife as wanting a divorce for no evident reason beyond crass self-interest also rings rather pat.

Nonetheless, execution is as credible and suspenseful as possible under the circumstances, with plenty of hair-raising interludes during what amounts to one long chase. Despite long running time, there’s never a dull moment. On an impressive budget of 20 million bahts ($ 790,000), several large-scale scenes come off well, and tech aspects are uniformly fine. Perfs are good (major Thai stars Jintara Sukkapat and Santisuk Phromsiri play the parents), the child actors exceptional. “Once Upon a Time” won Rittakol (“The Seed,” “Boonchu”) seven TNF nods, including best picture, director and screenplay.

Once Upon a Time ... This Morning

(THAI)

Production

A Five Stars Production Co. Ltd. production. Produced by Charoen Iamphungporn. Directed by Bhandit Rittakol. Screenplay, Chaninthorn Prasertprasart, Rittakol.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm), Leng-Eiu Wanchai, Wichien Reungwichyakul; editor , Poonsakdi Uthaiphant; sound (Dolby), Chai Kongsilawat; music, Danu Hantrakul; art direction, Pradith Ninsonthi. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, Feb. 29, 1996. (In S.F. Asian American Film Festival.) Running time: 133 MIN.

With

With: Jintara Sukkapat, Santisuk Phromsiri, Martang Jantranee, Ronnarong Buranat, Poramatti Thammamon, Charlee Trirat.
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