aka Mon-Rak Transistor and Transistor Love Story : Thailand 2001 : Pen-Ek Ratanaruang : 121 mins
Though ostensibly an unclassifiably genre-hopping one-off, Monrak Transistor is really a Thai equivalent of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou: a (mostly) comic, song-filled modern update of Homer’s Odyssey – i.e. hero is separated from wife, travels far and wide, enduring all kinds of melodramatic mishaps before returning home years later.
And, just like O Brother, Monrak doesn’t quite work – proving that even charm this engaging and exotic can’t stretch to two hours. The film’s international distributors would have been well advised to follow the example of Tears of the Black Tiger (a raucous public showing of which comprises one of Monrak‘s comic highlights), which was released to UK cinemas in abbreviated form after a disastrous late-night screening for British regional press (attended by this reviewer) in which half the critics fell asleep. Title-wise, the distributors might also have come up with something better than this weird semi-translation. ‘Monrak’ is apparently Thai for ‘magic love’ – romance – so why not call the picture Transistor Romance?
The machine transistor in question is a gift from happy-go-lucky wannabe singer Pan (Suppakorn Kitsuwan) to his girlfriend Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesa) shortly before their marriage. This radio, and the 1960s-style romantic Thai pop songs its stations play, provides crucial solace to Sadaw when Pan is called up for military service. In his absence, Sadaw gives birth to their first child – but when Pan impulsively goes AWOL from the army to further his showbiz dreams, the dire penalties for desertion make returning home impossible. This proves only the start of his suffering at capricious destiny’s hands.
While Pan is an appealingly sympathetic, happy-go-lucky, irrepressibly upbeat Candide figure, it’s almost impossible to understand what would make him turn his back on Sadaw – on whom he supposedly dotes – for the faint prospect of a show-business career. Then again, little in Monrak Transistor works on a plausibly realistic level: this is a melodramatic, deliberately exaggerated combination of myth, operetta and old-style Hollywood musical (it would probably work well on stage). Writer-director Ratanaruang (working from Wat Wanlayangkoon’s novel) even includes the theatrical device of using an omniscient prison-guard narrator (Charchai Hamnuansak) who speaks straight to camera, guiding us through the episodic events.
When we first meet Pan, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Hysteric Glamour’, and this isn’t a bad summary of what follows – Rataruang’s visuals are bold, alluring and vibrant, and his soundtrack is packed full of eclectic music (score by Amonrbhong Methakounavudh). There are also several sung ‘numbers’ along the way, the most striking of which is sung by Pan and his fellow conscripts as they undergo training: Chankit Chamniwikaipong’s camera observes them from overhead as they crawl beneath a barbed-wire grid.
Elsewhere, however the songs do slow down the action, contributing to a generally paceless feel – this despite jolting moments of intense energy, such as a dynamic Trainspotting homage in which Pan is chased through the streets of Bangkok by the police. While individual shots and scenes work just fine, they don’t really stack up into a coherent whole. The continual shifts of tone make Monrak Transistor feel like several movies in one – or rather, as we follow Pan into the depths of degradation (quite literally, when he falls into a vat of human faeces), several movies played one after the other. This means that the finale – in which Pan finally (and inevitably) returns home to Sadaw, doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should, even if only the hardest hearts will remain totally unmoved.
Nevertheless, This climactic reunion feels strangely hurried and perfunctory, with no sign of the doctor ‘boyfriend’ with whom we’d previously seen the abandoned Sadaw starting a tentative romance. It’s all the more disappointing since Pukkavesa is so excellent in her all-too-limited appearances as Sadaw, equally convincing through a full range of moods. Both actress and audience may well feel somewhat short-changed after the end – especially since there’d previously been no shortage of longueurs throughout the corny undulations of this overlong, romantic rollercoaster.
29th July, 2003
(seen 23rd July : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)
by Neil Young