Specific cultural and political accents flavor universal coming-of-age territory in Josh Kim’s appealing, unassuming “How to Win at Checkers (Every Time),” a gay-themed drama in which sexuality informs characterization rather than conflict. Woven from multiple stories in Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s acclaimed 2004 collection “Sightseeing,” this low-key but deeply felt tale of fraternal bonds splintered by social inequality reps a confident feature-length debut for the Texas-born Kim, who brings both non-native objectivity and a traveler’s eye for geographic detail to the pic’s earthy Bangkok setting. Wolfe Releasing picked up U.S. rights to this mellow audience pleaser shortly after its Berlinale premiere; after an international festival run, “Checkers” may win biggest on non-theatrical platforms.
Just as the parenthetical “(Every Time)” in the title seems an unnecessary affectation, it’s the narrative bracketing in Kim’s film that proves least effective: A rushed, somewhat undercooked framing device introduces protagonist Oat (played as an adult by Iirah Wimonchailerk), a swaggering Bangkok gangster plagued by nightmares reaching back to his troubled youth. Happily, the pic wastes little time in rewinding to said childhood — “before I knew the color of money,” the adult Oat portentously narrates — where Kim is on much surer, warmer tonal footing.
Eleven-year-old Oat (the eager, inquisitive-looking Ingkarat Damrongsakkul) is a scrappy orphan living with his curt but caring aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) on the capital’s poverty-stricken outskirts. The most influential figure of authority in his life, however, is his openly gay older brother, Ek (Thira Chutikul), whose upper-class b.f., Jai (Arthur Navarat), is a casually accepted presence in the family. With homosexuality having been decriminalized in Thailand in 1956 — with the age of consent set at 15 — Thailand has long been credited with a relatively liberal stance on LGBT issues, though Kim’s script deftly traces less formalized strains of prejudice and misunderstanding in a society governed by class difference. Critical to the story, meanwhile, is a more belated official gesture of gay tolerance, though it’s a barbed one: the 2005 dissolution of the ban on LGBT soldiers in the military.
The threat of conscription — whereby 21-year-old men are selected for the army via a “Hunger Games”-style lottery — hangs heavily over Ek, whose status as the family’s chief breadwinner makes dodging the draft even more of an imperative. There’s more to it than mere luck, however, in a thornily corrupt political climate where those with sufficient means can buy their way out of the draw; fully aware of their lowly place on the social ladder, young Oat makes his first foray into criminal activity in an attempt to secure the necessary funds. Despite a classically fable-like structure, however, the moral conclusions here are anything but clear-cut: Corruption is a nuanced sin in Kim’s measured, bittersweet narrative.
Away from such institutional concerns, however, it’s Oat’s growing awareness of sexuality and self that both lightens and deepens the pic. In a standout sequence, notable both for its tender child’s-eye humor and tingling sensuality, Oat accompanies Ek to the gay bar where the latter plies his trade as an escort; with precious few words, the gap between the boy’s unconditional acceptance of his brother’s sexuality and his understanding of its physical implications is closed with immense delicacy. A subplot involving a transgender friend of Ek’s, also under threat of conscription, broadens and enriches Kim’s understated study of alternative identity.
Tech credits are humbly adroit across the board. Niporn Sripongwarakul’s softly lit, dust-coated lensing, in particular, strikes a tricky balance, evoking the humid haze of summer nights in the region without romanticizing its rough realities.