Friday 25 December 2009

Dorm (2006)

Director: Songyos Sugmakanan
Stars: Charlie Trairat, Chintara Sukapatana and Sirachuch Chienthaworn
Yeah, yeah, so I'm strange. What's wrong with letting a Thai ghost story take me into the wee hours of Christmas Day? Bond movies for Christmas are so passe nowadays; I'll go for Extreme Asia every time. This one begins on a Sunday, the last day of the mid term break for seventh graders, and Chatree Anantpitisuk, known to his family and friends as Ton, isn't too happy about it. If he was going back to his usual school with his friends he'd be fine but his dad has shifted him over to a new school, the Saichon Witya boarding school, because they have higher standards or something (we find out the real reason later). His little brother is thrilled about the whole thing but Ton isn't because none of his friends are going with him. He's pissed but he's polite about it, merely suffering in silence.

He does plenty of that at school too, given that he's the new boy who arrives partway through the year, so naturally gets picked on. It's not that serious but must feel like the end of the world to a kid in a strange place who doesn't know anyone. The first night some of his dormmates, Master Peng and Dr Nui and the strange kid Pok who always has cream all over his face, talk him through the usual ghost stories to scare him silly and make him pee the bed. The second night they sucker him into the bathroom and lock him in one of the stalls, which is when he starts experiencing the weird stuff. The stall unlocking all on its own is only the beginning.

In the morning he discovers that at least some of what the boys told him is true, as Miss Pranee, the junior high dorm master, really does play the same sappy old love song over and over while looking in her mysterious empty desk drawer and crying. He knows that because he sees it himself, and if that's true, then what about the cook's beautiful daughter who hanged herself while four months pregnant or the former house master who roams the halls at night? What about the warning to not pee after dark if the dogs are howling outside? Well that one he works out, as the ghost haunting the bathroom area is the one boy who has actually become his friend, teaching him how to steal goose eggs and showing him the ropes. We get hints but he works it out in an awesome way during an outdoor screening of a hopping vampire movie.

And this wonderful scene is where I bought into this being a great film. For all that it's an Asian horror movie with some of the usual fright scenes, it's really a highly sensitive and intelligent ghost story, one in which almost all the characters are children. Charlie Trairat is more than capable of carrying the story, no small achievement for a thirteen year old. Then again he had already arrived in no uncertain terms three years earlier playing the lead in another Thai movie called My Girl, one of the six directors of which was Songyos Sugmakanan whose next film was this one, as both director and co-writer. It's no small achievement, never missing a beat, finishing up everything it begins and taking us in a few directions we don't quite expect. It's very satisfying indeed, an emotional but never trite rite of passage, and I'd take this over Stand By Me any day even though I've never been to Thailand and have no connection to its culture and history.

Trairat is not the only actor to shine either, though I still can't work out out if the kid playing Toei is annoyingly bad or satisfyingly sinister. Sirachuch Chienthaworn is excellent as Vichien, certainly able to keep up with Trairat. There's much that joins these two characters together and the story really needed both the actors to be up to the task. Fortunately for us they are. As Miss Pranee Chintara Sukapatana is the only adult actor to get much of a part, given that her character is the only one with connections to both Ton and Vichien, and she's excellent. Suttipong Tudpitakkul does get a little opportunity as Ton's dad who has a little background to deal with, but that's it for anyone who isn't about thirteen years old.
There's definitely some magic going on here but I'm not sure precisely who deserves the most credit. The actors are superb but they have a superb story to work with, courtesy of three different writers. There are some truly joyous scenes, like the one where Vichien conducts a group of dogs the way he would an orchestra, the one where Ton finds a way to help his friend or the interactive hopping vampire movie scene. Some are surprising, others telegraphed but even those are played off with enough panache to have us grinning at how well they're done. The colours are faded, deliberately so, and they help to evoke atmosphere and the effects, which are sparing, do the same. I was really impressed when Vichien jumps into the empty swimming pool only to drown as if he was in water. So often the cheap effects are a let down in Asian cinema, even in movies by people as important as Takashi Miike, but they don't let anything down here.

And at the end of the day any movie that features a cook's daughter turned majorette as terminally cute as Namtarn can't be bad, though I have no idea who plays her, let alone one that also gives us some blissful scenes from a hopping vampire movie. I honestly believe that hopping vampires may be the single cinematic device that makes me most happy. To me they're the ultimate feelgood factor and I can't see one without my heart rising up and beating just a little bit stronger. Maybe I should go back to all the movies I wanted to like but somehow couldn't and try to imagine hopping vampires in them. It doesn't matter what genre, because this one proves that you can still maintain sensitivity and subtle emotion when you have a slapstick battle with a hopping vampire, even when it's on a big movie screen outside a school. That's a lesson we should all learn from.

I've been a fan of Asian cinema for decades but when I started absorbing all the Extreme Asia I could on the Sundance Channel, I expected it to be the films from Japan and Hong Kong that I enjoyed most. Perhaps that's just the stuff I knew and I was surprised to become a real fan of Korean movies instead. Now I'm becoming fascinated with Thai cinema, something that I hadn't realised was so vibrant. Having now seen films by notable modern Thai directors such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others, as well as some of the films Hong Kong filmmaker Oxide Pang has made in Thailand, I'm still only scratching the surface.

This may be my favourite thus far, beating out competition as diverse as the macabre comedy 6ixtynin9, the hard hitting Tony Jaa action movie Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and the horror movie Shutter. They make it all in Thailand nowadays it seems, from art films like Tropical Malady to bizarrely mainstream movies like Iron Ladies, a true story about a volleyball team made up of transsexuals and transvestites that nonetheless won a 1996 national championship. I have at least one more Thai movie sitting on my DVR. I think it's going to beckon me soon.

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