Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tone (Thailand, 1970)

Tone is the Thai equivalent of a 1960s youth rebellion movie, which is to say that there's no youth rebellion in it at all: Just good kids being good, dancing sedately, trying to get into good schools, drinking punch, bowling, and settling their romantic differences in the most clear-headed and amicable way possible -- even if they do so while wearing some seriously funky period clothes and listening to that crazy longhair music. Fortunately, there are also some vicious underworld characters on hand so that we can still have the traditional Thai movie finale in which the Thai police show up en masse to shoot the hell out of some people.

The immediate attraction of Tone is that it features The Impossibles, a band that was phenomenally popular in Thailand throughout the seventies, and who still draw huge crowds for their reunion concerts today. In keeping with Tone's lightweight, um, tone, The Impossibles (and, yes, their name apparently was taken from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon) were seen as the safe alternative to the protest music that the actual rebellious youth of Thailand were listening to at the time, and, as such, here perform original songs that celebrate the innocent joys of things such as school vacations and rail travel. The band was also the first Thai band to record English language versions of Western pop hits, and here they perform The Beatles "Birthday", Crazy Elephant's bubblegum chestnut "Gimme, Gimme Good Lovin'" and "Time is Tight", among others. Though they would soon adopt a sound heavily influenced by American funk -- even doing covers of early Kool and the Gang songs on later albums -- they here demonstrate a garage-born, harmony-inflected sunshine pop sound.

The film follows the journey of Tone, an orphaned young country boy whose dream of attending university in Bangkok is hampered by the fact that he has no family or friends to sponsor him in the big city. His fortunes change, however, when he rescues Aod, a visiting college kid from the city, from a gang of local thugs. Aod, who is also an orphan, invites Tone to come live with him in Bangkok in the home he shares with his brother and sister. Unfortunately, while in Tone's village Aod has also met and become smitten with the beautiful Kularb, a childhood friend of Tone's to whom he has recently confessed deeper feelings. Ultimately Tone, Aod and Kularb all end up in the city, making for a low-key love triangle that the filmmakers provide an easy exit strategy from in the form of Aod's also beautiful sister Dang, who quickly falls for Tone. Somewhere in all this the kids get on the wrong side of a nasty pimp with ties to the thugs in Tone's home town who has evil designs on Kularb and Dang. This situation leads to the aforementioned guns-blazing denouement, one that is somewhat at odds with much of the wholesome shenanigans that have preceded it.

Tone started out quite slow, but as it went on I found myself becoming completely charmed by it. Once the action moves to the city and starts to focus on the with-it, Nehru jacket wearing ways of its young protagonists, it creates a winsome, candy colored and completely unreal bubblegum psychedelic world in which the stubborn decency of those protagonists actually makes a strange kind of sense. (Note that these kids have posters of Petula Clark, rather than Hendrix or Jim Morrison, on their bedroom walls.) Given this, the film is also quite the visual treat for fans of kitschy late sixties fashion and decor -- and, with its combination of musical numbers and wholesome antics, would be an especially smooth entryway into classic Thai cinema for fans of Bollywood's more carefree confections from the period. Recommended.


Wise Kwai said...

This is one worth watching again and again, for the music of The Impossibles and the crazy outfits worn by foxy Aranya Namwong.

Todd said...

Agreed, Wise Kwai. I should point out that, while I had some minimal cast info on this film, I didn't know for certain who played whom. There was a lot of competition in terms of the crazy outfits, but, from your comment, I'm guessing that Aranya Namwong played Dang?

Wise Kwai said...

Here's what I have from my old blog:

Chaiya Suriyan as Tone
Jaruwan Panyopas as Kularb
Sayan Chantaraviboon as Aod
Aranya Namwong as Dang

The film is directed by Piak Poster, who also did Choo (Adulterer), which is another subtitled old-timey Thai DVD you've probably come across. Piak Poster also directed a series of teen flicks in the late- to mid-70s. He's still around, but is retired from filmmaking.

Interesting facts about Aranya, who played the dynamite Dang (via Wikipedia). She was the second runner up in the 1964 Miss Thailand pagaent. The winner Apasra Hongsakula went on to become Miss Universe in 1965, the first Thai to win an international beauty pagaent. Aranya starred in many films with Sombat Metanee. She is married to Setha Sirichaya, the lead singer of The Impossibles.

I am guessing Jaruwan Panyopas must be the mother of Lalita Panyopas, who has starred in two Pen-ek Ratanaruang films, 6ixtynin9 and Ploy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Todd for turning me on to this! For me at least, Tone didn't quite live up to its promising beginning. I loved the psychedelic opening credits and vacation song.

And I'm surprised you didn't mention my other favorite thing about the movie: that unforgettable friend of Tone with the missing teeth who sings that super cool luk thung song at the village concert. I gotta say, I thought he had more charisma than all four lead stars combined!

The film looked great and was superbly shot, which put into starker contrast one of the things that I find is a big obstacle for me with these old Thai films: and that's the atrocious dubbing. For a while, I turned off the sound, and the performances of the actors actually seemed to improve.

Maybe it was an effect of the dubbing, but I thought that the actor who played Tone was a little underwhelming. He could have used a little of that repressed smoldering quality that Jimmy Wang Yu was so good at displaying (in spite of the otherwise wooden nature of his performances).

Some other things that stood out for me was the "Scarborough Fair" still montage sequence showing Tone and Dang becoming a couple. I found it surprisingly affecting. Same for the scene where he gives Dang some coral for her fish tank.

And how about that mirror glimpse of rear male nudity! Where did that come from?!

I'm definitely curious now about the director Piak Poster. I was pretty impressed by what he made, in spite of some of the film industry constraints and practices that he obviously had to contend with.

Todd said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Dave. Perhaps my failing to mention skeletal, toothless guy was the result of over familiarity, given I already saw him in Jong-arng Payong. In that movie he sings a similarly jaunty number before bandits come along and bloodily dismember everyone in his village. He was obviously something of a star attraction, though I have no idea who he was. Hopefully Wise Kwai will come along and rescue us here, because my google search for "skeletal toothless guy from old Thai movies" proved surprisingly unfruitful.

Having soldiered through all those horribly post-dubbed VCDs of old 60s Thai films like Awasan Insee Daeng, I didn't have the problems with the dubbing in Tone that you did. In fact, it was music to my ears in comparison! I do, though, agree that Tone was portrayed as being a little affect-challenged, and it's easy to see why Kularb would choose the more lively -- and callipigious! -- Aod over him.

The "Scarsborough Fair" montage with all the freeze frames was very period -- and it struck me as odd that the music was one of those almost-but-not-quite cover versions, changed just enough so it was still recognizable without being technically a cover version. Given all of the other straight cover versions of very recognizable pop hits that are in the movie, I have to wonder why they felt they needed to do that.

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to hear that the toothless guy appears in Jong-arng Payong. Now I'm really looking forward to seeing it! Seriously, that guy deserves an entire movie all to himself. In my twisted brain, I'm imagining him paired up with the callipigious (thanks for the new word) Fanny Fan in a HK-Thai co-production. Maybe he plays a country bumpkin who's in HK for some reason and gets on the wrong side of some gangsters. Fanny plays the nightclub hostess who befriends him or the evil gang boss. I'm not sure which would supply the best possibilities to juxtapose their respective charms and physiques.

Getting back to the dubbing issue. I think part of my problem is also that the dubbing voices can sometimes be too similar, usually very soft spoken. Plus, I've gotten accustomed to the synch-sound of the 60s Cantonese films. In fact, I even find the gentle whirring sound of the unmuffled cameras to be very comforting.

And then there are things like indoor-sounding footstep foley during outdoor street scenes with traffic sounds which just throw me out of the film. However, let me just end by saying that I'm definitely intrigued by the Thai practice of live dubbing during film screenings, and I imagine I would enjoy the performance aspect of it very much.

Todd said...

Killer Elephants, is the obvious antidote to your dubbing concerns. The dubbing in that isn't soft spoken at all.

Tao said...

If I recalled correctly,....

This is a "break out/break through" of the director Piak Poster. BTW, I think the director used to be a movie poster painter, thus, "Poster". I cannot recall his real name.

I saw the movie when I was younger, and recalled that I was crying when Tone's sidekick was killed in the "accident". :-( We all know how to sing "Tone" song back then.

Todd said...

Thanks, Tao. Yes, it was quite a shocker when Song (aka skeletal, toothless guy) met his end. I was kind of surprised that the movie didn't make more of a big deal of it after it happened. I don't think his death is mentioned again until the very end.

So, no idea who that actor was?

Todd said...

Scratch that last question, Tao. I just saw your comment over at Wise Kwai's blog. We have a winner!

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Unknown said...

I vauguely remember as a kid seeing the movie Tone at the famous theatre Chalerm Thai in 1970. The song Tone also is forever stuck in my mind.