Sunday, December 4, 2011

Money Money Money (Thailand, 1965)

So far my coverage of Thai megastar Mitr Chaibancha has -- as you might expect from a blog bearing this title -- focused exclusively on his work in action films. And while the actor’s background as a boxer made him ideal for such roles, his ubiquity during his brief reign necessitated that he be something of a jack-of-all-trades. 1965’s Money Money Money illustrates this nicely, showing that Chaibancha could carry his own in a romantic musical comedy as well as in one of his two-fisted adventures as the Red Eagle. (By the way, the Romanized spelling of this film’s Thai title is Ngern Ngern Ngern -- but before you take on the treacherous task of pronouncing it out loud, please be advised that, within the movie, it’s pronounced “Nun Nun Nun”.)

Money Money Money was helmed by Prince Anusorn Mongkolkarn, a popular director of the era who continued a long tradition of film industry involvement on the part of the Thai royal family, one that goes all the way back to the earliest days of Thai cinema, when King Chulalongkorn’s younger brother, Prince Sanbhassatra, returned from Europe with his first movie camera and took up filmmaking. (Mongkolkarn was the brother of Thai director Prince Bhanu Yukol, and the father of Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol, a well regarded director of the 1970s.) Money Money Money is a musical comedy that’s very heavy on the music, showcasing a wide cross-section of Thai music that ranges from the classical and traditional to the Western pop influenced. And from his handling of it, it’s easy to assume that Mongkolkarn had a sincere fondness for the subject. His involvement might also explain why one of those songs is an almost hymn-like paean to the glory of the king.

Giving us no relief from the tongue-tripping names, Chaibancha here plays Akkaraphol, a Western-educated young aesthete who is called back to Bangkok by his millionaire Uncle, Lord Hiran, to begin his apprenticeship in said uncle’s loan-sharking business. Sent to the village of Bang Ruen Suk to collect debts from the impoverished residents upon whose backs Hiran has made his fortune, Akkaraphol happens to see a local talent show, and is impressed by one of the bands that perform there. He is also impressed by feisty local girl Kingkaew, which is no wonder, as Kingkaew is portrayed by Petchara Chaowarat, the actress whom Americans might call the Hepburn to Chaibancha’s Tracy, and Pakistanis might call the Anjuman to Chaibancha’s Sultan Rahi.

These impressions combined inspire the kind-hearted Akkaraphol to impulsively forgive all of the villagers’ debt, and declare that he will instead open a nightclub in Bangkok where he will exploit the villagers’ musical talents to sensational effect. Soon he has allies in this project in the form of his sister Paradee (popular Thai singer Sumalee Thonglong) and her lover Rangsun (Charin Nantanakorn, another singing star), an underemployed music teacher who moonlights as a pop songwriter. The money-obsessed Lord Hiran, as might be expected, is none too pleased with this plan, and sets out to derail it at any cost. Thus Mitr and crew -- while mitigating the myriad culture clashes encountered by the bumpkin-like village musicians in the big city -- must struggle to ensure that the show goes on in the face of meager resources, crippling debt and the many obstacles thrown at them by the not-correspondingly-hamstrung Hiran.

Money Money Money is a pop film with the emphasis on the populist, although its politics, while manifestly heartfelt, aren’t all that strident. Still, it’s no less heartening to watch its climactic scene, in which Mitr and a crowd of placard-carrying villagers essentially “occupy” Lord Hiran’s lavish birthday party, ultimately expressing their economic grievances in the form of a catchy song. As for Chaibancha, his performance as the gentle and soft-spoken Akkaraphol is an ego-free one conscious of its place within a vibrant ensemble cast, always fading into the background as necessary when it’s a talented co-star’s turn to shine. Underscoring this self-effacement, the film pokes good-natured fun at the more screen-hogging exploits of Chaibancha’s action hero persona, in a scene where three idiotic thugs hired by Lord Hiran sport ridiculous looking parodies of the mask worn by him in the Red Eagle films. All of this really showed Chaibancha in a new light for me, making this film one that I think is essential for anyone who wants to understand the legendary star in all of his dimensions.

It being a musical comedy that clocks in at a full three hours and fifteen minutes, it can truly be said that Money Money Money is absurdly long, with even its epilogs having epilogs and subplots being introduced in the eleventh hour seemingly just to keep the narrative wheels turning that much longer. But, in its favor, you really do end up spending a lot of time with its characters. And at the end, when an MC steps onstage at Mitr’s club to present those of them who have married one another during its course, you really feel like you’re at the closing end of some lengthy family obligation, like a wedding reception at which no tradition -- be it the garter toss, the money tree, the throwing of the bouquet, the conga line -- was overlooked. Fortunately (and hopefully as with those relatives for whom we’ve endured that conga line) both those characters and their stories have proved endearing enough that we are willing to indulge them.


Sid said...

A good review. A most good review. Another way to look at the actor most Westerners would associate with the Red Eagle movies.

Todd said...

Thanks, Sid! Glad you enjoyed it.