A bittersweet story of young lovers separated by circumstance, “Mon-Rak Transistor” represents a considerable step forward in terms of ambition and control from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 2000 comic thriller “6ixtynin9.” A retro-styled mix of comedy, romantic melodrama and musical enlivened by appealing leads, an amusingly kitschy song score, sharp production values and a colorful, bubble-gum pop look, the film is unsophisticated in certain aspects and is significantly overlong. But it has enough charm and vitality to follow the similarly eye-catching “Tears of the Black Tiger” as a light-hearted arthouse entry for selected export dates.
Set between a rural village and the congested capitol, story follows the mixed fortunes of happy dumb hunk Pan (Suppakorn Kitsuwan) as he attempts without success to carve out a singing career. Opening in a Bangkok prison cell where Pan lands for a snatch-and-grab jewelry job he didn’t commit, and narrated by a guard (Chartchai Hamnuansak) from his native village, the action backtracks to begin at his first encounter at an upcountry music event with pretty farmer’s daughter Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesa).
Overcoming resistance from her ill-tempered father (Prasit Wongrakthai), Pan marries Sadaw and she becomes pregnant, but Pan is drafted into the army before their baby is born. He leaves her his battered transistor radio for company. Pan gets distracted from his longing for Sadaw when he enters a singing contest and comes in second, after which he abandons the army and heads to Bangkok in search of fame.
Afraid of being traced and arrested for desertion, he cuts off all contact with home after going to work for a singing troupe run by sleazy Suwat (Somlek Sakdikul), who insists on being called Daddy. But two years later, Pan is still mopping floors. His lucky break comes when the star male singer fails to show at a gig. Pan goes onstage and is a hit despite his nervousness, a triumph witnessed by Sadaw who has tracked him down.
But the sweethearts are separated again when Daddy whisks Pan off after the show and makes drunken sexual advances. Pushing him away, Pan accidentally kills the man and must flee town. He takes a cane-cutting job that again ends badly when he steps in to defend a fellow worker (Ampol Rattanawong) from their unjust boss (Black Pomtong). The law catches up with Pan when he goes back to the city and he must serve a jail sentencebefore he heads home to ask Sadaw’s forgiveness in a tender final act.
Basing his screenplay on a popular novel, director Ratanaruang often runs with the story’s more cornball aspects. These are underlined with sweetly hokey C&W-style songs by nationally popular singing star Surapol Sombatcharoen, who was murdered in 1968 and to whom the film is dedicated. The comedy often is on the broad side, laced with a few too many excremental moments, and the film cries out for a tighter edit, particularly in the sluggish midsection.
But the main characters are played with disarming innocence, the film’s cheery energy and spirit prove contagious, and its snappy visuals add vibrancy. The word mon-rak in the original title, used to indicate romance, literally means “magic love.”