Film Review: Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Monrak Transistor”

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s melodramatic musical Monrak Transistor tells the sad, pathetic tale of Pan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), an aspiring singer who, through a series of episodes detailing poor choices and colossal bad luck, is separated from his wife Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh).  The film begins with Pan imprisoned and forced to excrete a stolen necklace he had swallowed earlier.  A prison guard, who happens to be from Pan’s home village, addresses the camera and tells the story of how he ended up in prison.  Pan’s story is one of the hoariest of tropes: that of the innocent country naïf who becomes corrupted by the bad old sinful city, in this case Bangkok.  But the charm of Monrak Transistor is that the film itself is very much aware of how hackneyed and maudlin that story is, so Ratanaruang impishly plays with it by utilizing narrative devices such as direct address to the camera, as in the prison guard narration, and several instances in which characters briefly give asides to the camera.  Another instance of this occurs in an early scene in which Pan sings to Sadaw in her room to demonstrate his love for her; a cutaway shows Sadaw’s angry father (who dislikes and distrusts Pan) listening in on the fully orchestrated song on the other side of the door.  Later in the film, in a sequence detailing Pan getting drafted into the military and sent to boot camp training, Pan and his fellow soldiers join in on singing “Mai Leum” (“Never Forget”), a famous Thai love song that becomes a repeated refrain in the film.  This song is reprised in a later scene, where some characters return from the dead to sing the song.

The film also has a lot of fun with the contrasts between the rural village and Bangkok, playing up these contrasts to a consciously absurd extent.  The outdoor concert, in which we are introduced to Pan as a featured performer on the stage, is populated with a large number of ducks and goats, who seem almost as numerous in the crowd as the humans.  Pan cures the back pain suffered by Sadaw’s father with an elaborate folk remedy with fanciful names.  This is the environment that surrounds and protects Pan and Sadaw, and is the source of their moral virtue.  The government breaks this bond by drafting Pan into the army, and this enforced separation is the catalyst for Pan’s precipitous downfall and Sadaw’s destitution and abandonment.  Pan’s pursuit of a singing career is also a corrupting influence, causing him to go AWOL from both the army and his family, and eventually leads to his incarceration.  What makes Pan such a pathetic figure is the fact that so much of what happens to him is a function of accident and happenstance.  He is almost never an active agent.  Whether he has to mop floors for two years in pursuit of his professional singing debut, is propositioned by a skeevy impresario, or is falling into a vat of human excrement, he allows himself to be passively carried along on the tide of machinations done to him by others.  Pan always has our sympathy, but he never comes across as very smart.

Monrak Transistor is dedicated to, and is an homage to the spirit of, the famous luk thung (country music) singer Suraphol Sombatcharoen, whose song “Mai Leum” recurs in the film.  It has affinities to other Thai films by Ratanaruang’s contemporaries who also mined Thai cinema to fashion their own post-modern nostalgia reworkings.  One of them is Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (screening June 10 at Asia Society), a candy-colored “pad Thai Western” that is cannily referenced in Monrak Transistor; it is the film that plays in a scene at an outdoor theater.  (Tears also stars Monrak’s lead actor Supakorn Kitsuwon.)  Despite Ratanaruang’s cheeky stylistic games, Monrak Transistor retains a genuinely emotional core, helped in large part by its very attractive cast, including Kitsuwon and Pukkavesh as the central couple, and also the very striking Porntip Papanai as Dao, who becomes an alternate love interest for Pan. (Papanai also portrays the hotel maid in Ratanaruang’s Ploy.)  Inventive and beguilingly charming, Monrak Transistor – which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight atCannes, and was Thailand’s 2002 foreign film Oscar submission – helped greatly to cement Thailand’s prominent place on the world cinema map at the turn of the millennium.