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Film Review: ‘Tang Wong’

A cynical but thought-provoking coming-of-ager that turns the motivational youth-film genre on its head

Four Thai teenagers get a harsh reality check while trying to learn a traditional dance to fulfill their religious pledges in “Tang Wong,” a coming-of-ager that turns the typically cheesy, motivational youth-film genre on its head. Helmer-scribe Kongdej Jaturanrasmee projects a cynical but thought-provoking vision of confused and apathetic youngsters betrayed by a nation that has lost connection with its cultural past. Though the film is speckled with offbeat humor that underlines Jaturanrasmee’s affinity for adolescent behavior, its message is diluted by a loose and undisciplined style. Pic is best suited to educational arenas and youth-oriented festivals.

The story centers on four high-school boys from different social backgrounds who half-heartedly make wishes at Bangkok’s Luang Poo shrine. K-pop cover dancer Em (Anawat Patanawanichkul) wants ex-g.f. Fiang (Prinsadapak Jongkumchok) to return to him; table-tennis champion Best (Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich) is badgered by g.f. May (Chonnikarn Netrjui) into vowing eternal love for her. Nerds Jay (Siripat Kuhavichanun) and Yong (Sompob Sittiajarn) need some “voodoo magic” to help them win a science quiz. When all prayers are answered, the four are obliged to perform a customary Thai dance in public to express their gratitude to the spirits. Reluctantly, they seek coaching from professional Thai dancer Nut (Natarat Lakha), with unsatisfactory results.

The title refers to the primary posture of traditional Thai dancing, but the protags have difficulty grasping even these basics. In fact, neither the dance, nor the process of learning it, figure much in the plot, except to symbolize how little young Thais care about their ancient arts. Steering clear of such platitudinous themes as team spirit, character building or family reconciliation, often central to films about overcoming a challenge, “Tang Wong” unsentimentally observes the new generation’s lack of spirituality, purpose, self-confidence or mutual trust. This is reflected in the protags’ religious skepticism before and after their wishes come true, and their slack attitude toward honoring their pledges. As the fear of mass humiliation at the performance stretches friendships and romances to the breaking point, Jaturanrasmee depicts the youngsters’ frailty with an honesty rare among the breezy youth-skewing romantic comedies that saturate Thai cinema.

Set in April 2009, when protesters in the grassroots anti-government Red Shirts movement occupied the streets of Bangkok, news footage projects images of a nation set politically adrift, putting the protags’ individual crises of faith in a broader perspective. In one haunting episode during a violent army crackdown against the protesters, a terrified Best runs along a highway in search of his father, who has abandoned his son to become a full-time activist. Other authority figures, principally parents and teachers, are depicted as tarnishing rather than nurturing children’s dreams in a nation that serves up pipe dreams and delivers only an uncertain future.

“Tang Wong” proves to be more realistic and down-to-earth in subject and treatment than Jaturanrasmee’s other works (such as “Handle Me With Care” and “P407”), but it still skips too frequently among the seven main characters’ lives for any of them to stand out. As a result, the performances lack strong flavor.

Umpornpol Yugala’s handheld shooting style has a disorienting effect when coupled with editor Manussa Warasingha’s torrent of jump cuts. Excessive use of manga, K-pop, online games and text messages as the protags’ channels of communication also becomes distracting.

Tang Wong
(Thailand)

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14plus), Feb. 13, 2012. (Also in Hong Kong Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN.

A North Star Prod. release of a Song Sound production in association with North Star Prod. (International sales: Song Sound Prod., Bangkok.) Produced by Soros Sukhum, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, Piyaluck Mahatanasab. Executive producer, Kanyarat Jiraratchhakit.

Directed, written by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Camera (color, HD), Umpornpol Yugala; editor, Manussa Warasingha; music/music supervisor, Chaibandit Peuchponsub, Apichai Tragoolpadetgrai, Yellow Fang; production designer, Rasigate Sookkarn; costume designer, Cattleya Paosrijaroen; sound (Dolby SRD), Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr; supervising sound editors, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, Paisit Panpruegsachart, Teekhadet Vucharadhanin; re-recording mixer, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr; visual effects supervisors, Panya Phasukkowit, Phim Umari; Thai dance consultant, Tassanee Soonthornsaratoon; line producer, Pimonpun Ponjalearn; assistant director, Pipat Jomkoh; casting, Tippawan Narinton.

With: Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich, Siripat Kuhavichanun, Sompob Sittiajarn, Anawat Patanawanichkul, Natarat Lakha, Chonnikarn Netrjui, Prinsadapak Jongkumchok.
(Thai, English dialogue)

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