The path to nirvana is a rocky one in “The Judgment,” a slow-burning but eventually compelling contempo Buddhist fable from first-time Thai helmer Pantham Thongsang. Pic’s ambling tone in first 45 minutes could well bore the restless; but as the narrative path of this Job-like tale becomes clearer, auds who persevere are sure to become devotees. Local B.O. was strong on February 2004 release, thanks to original novel’s high profile, and Asian- themed fests are surefire targets. Pic could also find a niche in more general events.
After completing his military service, Fak (Pitisak Yaowananont) returns to his village to live once more with his aging father (Thedsak Yaemniyon), before preparing to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. New to their household is Somsong (Bongkot Kongmalai), dad’s nymphette wife who, Fak’s father insists, is not crazy, merely unstable. However, the prevailing view among the other villagers — that Somsong is as nutty as a Thai salad — is lent credence by the beauty’s erratic behavior, which includes giggling, stealing, fighting and exhibitionist tendencies.
When Somsong makes amorous moves on her stepson, pic seems set to travel the well-worn path of intergenerational jealousy, with the added wrinkle of Fak’s Buddhist vows of chastity. However, when dad dies, the movie takes a different turn.
Unable to believe a man can live with a provocative woman without bedding her, the village gossips tut-tut over Fak’s perceived relationship with Somsong, who doesn’t help matters by referring to Fak as “her man” and inviting him to shared showers.
Fak is determined to keep to his religious pledges and ignore the gossip, but reluctantly accepts his role as Somsong’s protector and only friend when she’s beaten up by villagers for disrupting a funeral. The backbreaker for Fak comes when the entire village refuses to attend his father’s cremation, driving him to a drinking binge.
From the desolation of the cremation scene onward, pic hits its stride, creating an intensely dark view of village life and finally dumping the cuteness which mars the first few reels. Final scenes are a damning depiction of smalltown prejudice which seems light years from the whimsicality of the beginning.
The beguiling Kongmalai is a tad out of her acting depth, but good enough, as the “unstable” Somsong. In contrast, the virtuosity of Yaowananont’s perf becomes more apparent as the movie progresses and Fak’s life declines. Supports are convincing but a little stiff.
Direction is generally even, though pacing could be tightened in the middle reels. Lensing is exquisite, showing both the Thai jungle and thesp Kongmalai’s ample charms to advantage. Aside from the annoying use of the Mexican hat-dance theme every time Somsong does something wacky, soundtrack is fine, and other technical credits are well above the Thai average.
One scene, depicting the killing of a dog, is so vivid that it outraged locals. In response, director Thongsang held a press conference — with the dog — to assure everyone that all safety regulations were observed during filming.