Leading Thai helmer Nonzee Nimibutr eschews the lush production values of his previous “Jan Dara” and “Nang Nak” in his fourth outing, “Baytong,” a frequently amusing and touching plea for religious tolerance. Pic did respectable B.O. on local release late last year and should travel widely among fests, especially those with Asian leanings. However, Nimibutr’s move away from rich imagery may translate into less theatrical bookings internationally, unless critical response is strong.
After his sister is killed in a terrorist attack on a train station, Buddhist monk Tum (Poowarit Poompuang) leaves his monastery to look after his niece, Maria (Saranya Kruengsai), in the southern Thai city of Baytong. A novice in the ways of the world, Tum becomes confused in his attempts to adapt to the surroundings of his dead sister’s hair salon.
Following the terrorist scenes, pic’s tone is generally light-hearted, centering on gags about Tum’s lack of experience with everything from cell phones and bicycles to sex and even zippers (a la “There’s Something About Mary”). Except for Tum’s wilder fantasies, laughs are largely predictable, but do the job.
Subplot about Buddhist Thais living alongside Islamic communities has more bite. While avoiding a nightclubbing hairdresser who plies him with pornography, Tum falls for a Chinese travel agent, Lynn (Jeeranan Manoojam), who’s attached, like Tum’s dead sister was, to an Islamic man. This love triangle loops pic dramatically back to its initial gravitas.
Just as Tum starts to like his new surroundings, his niece’s Islamic father reclaims her and his beloved Lynn converts to the Muslim faith, and the humble monk must seek emotional refuge in his Buddhist belief system of non-attachment. Ending ties things up rather too neatly but, given religious tensions in southern Thailand, film is still courageous in local terms.
Perfs are largely just adequate, but Poompuang is impressive as the monk who experiences a series of rude awakenings. Thesp’s comic timing and humble aura carry the day, and he’s equally good in scenes where he confronts his own grief and hate. Direction and lensing are pro and straightforward. Whimsical music by Chatchai Pongprapapan lends an almost Italo atmosphere to the proceedings.