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Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003

In the wake of the blockbusters



Mon-Rak Transistor

Rating: * * *
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: Thai
Now showing


Orphans

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Peter Mullan
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

I remember faithfully watching the bizarre Christmas animation "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" when I was a child. My favorite part was when the freakish Rudolph is exiled on the "Isle of Misfit Toys," a place where all the unwanted toys -- like a train with square wheels -- were dumped by their unloving owners.

News photo
Siriyakorn Pukkavesh in "Mon-Rak Transistor" (above); Douglas Henshall, Stephen McCole, Gary Lewis and Rosemarie Stevenson in "Orphans"
News photo

If there's such a place for movies, it must be the month of January, where misfit movies are abandoned to die a lonely death. Everyone knows that the pre-Christmas blockbusters continue to dominate the box office, perched like ravenous pterodactyls, ready to gobble up what few viewers are venturing out in this miserably cold, back-to-work season.

One such misfit flick is "Mon-Rak Transistor," a twee Thai film that will have to stretch to find an audience. Its main selling point is its leading man, Supakorn Kitsuwon, who reached some kind of international fame in the gaudy camp Western "Tears of the Black Tiger." Next up is its director, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who had a minor hit here with 1999's "6ixty Nin9." Nevertheless, the maudlin sentimentality and moralistic storyline of his latest make it feel like a film from more than a few generations back, like some sort of mutant remix of "A Star Is Born."

Set in modern-day Bangkok and Thailand's more remote backwaters, "Mon-Rak Transistor" offers a tale that glorifies simple, rustic rural life, while demonizing the city and modern lifestyles. There's a case to be made for such a preference, but this overblown melodrama sure ain't it.

Like the recent "Sauvages innocents," we get a rather dim protagonist who composes his own downfall. Somewhere in a remote river village, paradisal in its lush innocence, a young stud named Phaen (Kitsuwon) woos the local beauty Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh). Phaen is a bit of a crooner and seduces the girl-next-door-ish Sadaw with ultra-camp versions of Thai enka (your tolerance of which will determine your enjoyment of this film).

This continues in a slightly silly vein for awhile -- complete with shotgun-toting Papa who's opposed to his daughter getting hitched -- until Phaen and Sadaw get married, and Sadaw gets heavily, happily pregnant. Cue the happy ending, right?

Wrong. The film suddenly shifts into tearjerker mode as Phaen is drafted into the army, leaving poor Sadaw all by her lonesome with a baby on the way. Stationed far from home, Phaen gets blinded by those big city lights. After winning a karaoke concert, he suddenly going AWOL to work as a broom-sweeper at the Bangkok equivalent of Avex Trax. Someday, thinks Phaen, I'll work my way to the top.

Two years later and he's still sweeping floors. Feeling abandoned, Sadaw begins to get friendly with a local doctor, while Phaen's boss reluctantly agrees to make him a star, though -- in what is the film's most unintentionally hilarious scene -- Phaen can't quite grasp the quid pro quo of the casting couch. Next thing you know, his boss is dead and Phaen has dug himself an even deeper hole.

Rest assured, though, that an equally unlikely happy ending is just a reel away, bearing the final moral lesson that you can make a whole series of idiotic, self-centered bad decisions in life, and wifey will still forgive you when you cry tears of regret. "Mon-Rak Transistor" ultimately seems to have a local taste that just won't export well -- a cinematic durian.

Occupying a similar zone of cultural impermeability is Peter Mullan's "Orphans," a strange mix of comedy and despair set in the streets of Glasgow. Not only does the film's tone never really translate, the thick accents will leave most English speakers trying their luck with the Japanese subtitles: This one makes "Trainspotting" sound like the Queen's English.

Mullan, however, is a fine actor ("My Name Is Joe," "The Claim"), and a director who cut his teeth on gritty street realism in some perfectly constructed short films. His latest film, "The Magdalene Sisters," a corrosive portrayal of dogmatic Catholic nuns, won acclaim across the festival circuit in 2002, but "Orphans," his debut feature from 1997, is worth a look despite its flaws.

I suppose you could call this a "black comedy," but the first scene is just black, period, as three brothers and their wheelchair-bound sister gather around their mother's coffin at a funeral home, uncomfortably trying to figure out how to mourn appropriately. A little later, at a crowded pub, eldest brother Thomas croons a horrendously bad bit of karaoke, dedicated to his dear, departed mom.

In the audience, we're tempted to laugh at Thomas, but aren't sure if we should. One pub patron in the film does and is quickly set upon by middle brother Michael (Douglas Henshall), who winds up getting stabbed in the ensuing brawl. Michael decides to try to fake the injury as a workplace accident in order to gain compensation, a hair-brained scheme that goes awry. Youngest brother John (Stephen McCole), meanwhile, is a nutter bent on revenge against the guy who stabbed Michael. Thomas spends the night at the church with the coffin, which he then attempts to lug by himself, saying, "She ain't heavy, she's my mother," before he's almost crushed under the weight. Again, laugh or wince -- it's your choice.

Mullan's aiming for a kind of sharp observation of the pathetic that's mixed liberally with as much ridicule as sympathy, a formula that Todd Solondz ("Happiness," "Storytelling") has parlayed to much success. His timing is not quite there, but there are moments of absolutely wicked humor: One character is used as a human dart board, while another inadvertently smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary and tries to glue it back together with wax drippings.

Alcoholism, "hard men," obscenity-drenched dialogue, working-class despair -- this is not exactly a new view of Glasgow. But the addition of extreme absurdity, like a storm that rips the roof off the church, compounding the brothers' troubles, casts things in a new light. "Orphans" is an odd, quirky film that doesn't exactly lead you by the hand through its exploration of the pitiful and the pathetic, but fans of both Ken Loach and "Trainspotting" should be able to follow it through.



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