Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sugar Is Not Sweet, aka Nam Tan Mai Wan (Thailand, 1965)

My viewing of Sugar is Not Sweet provided quite a contrast to my typical experiences of watching Thai films from the 60s. The Thai Film Foundation’s subtitled DVD of Sugar features a print that measures up as nearly pristine when compared to the savaged condition of most everything else that’s available from the era. On top of that, director Rattana “R.D.” Pestonji, while essentially working on the fringes of the Thai film industry at the time, paradoxically worked to a technical standard that put the country’s mainstream product to shame.

Pestonji -- whose reputation has in recent years been rescued from obscurity thanks to his influence upon contemporary filmmakers like Wisit Sasanatieng -- was a technical pioneer in Thai cinema. While the standard practice was to shoot films on 16mm color reversal film stock and either dub sound later or have it added live-in-theater, Pestonji insisted on shooting on 35mm in synch sound, despite the prohibitive cost of processing (which, until the late 60s, required that the unprocessed stock be shipped to the UK).

Also a staunch supporter of Thai national cinema in the face of Hollywood’s encroaching dominance in the local market, Pestonji was nonetheless clearly influenced by America’s cinematic output –- though how much reverence he held that output in is arguable. As such, Sugar Is Not Sweet, his final film, comes across as sort of an anti-version of the typical Hollywood romantic comedy, though sadly one whose cynicism ultimately outweighs its abundant charms.

Sugar centers around the family of Jaroenkesa (Saneh Komlarachun), a wealthy Thai Chinese who has made his fortune with a hair growth tonic called “Boon Treatment”. The formula for Jaroenkesa’s cash cow was the work of his late business partner, a resident Indian whom Jaroenkesa chooses to honor by marrying off his own layabout son, Manas (a young Sombat Methanee), to said partner’s orphaned daughter, Sugar (Metta Rungrattana). By this means, Jaroenkesa hopes to both provide financially for Sugar while, at the same time, putting a permanent wedge between the dissolute Manas and his gold-digging girlfriend Watchari (played by Preeya Rungrevang, who carries on her shoulders the task of providing all of the film’s cheesecake and teasing near-nudity).

Manas, for his part, is none too happy about having to marry a “Roti” (the movie presents an interesting cross-section of inter-Asian prejudice without seeming to comment upon it much), but is more than pleased by the two million baht that his father offers in return -- as is Watchari, whom Manas has promised to share the loot with once the marriage has been officiated. Once the innocent Sugar arrives from Bombay, Manas makes no secret to her of his relationship with Watchari, and tells her in no uncertain terms that theirs is to be a marriage in name only, after which he banishes the girl to the separate living quarters that have been provided her. Little does Manas know, however, that Watchari is herself having an affair with Thawin (Ruj Ronaphop), the singing spokesman for Boong Treatment’s ubiquitous television commercials, and has made a pact to leave Manas for him once she receives her share of the wedding graft.

Despite being played by the handsome and charismatic star Sombat Methanee, Manas is about as repellent a center for a romantic comedy as one could imagine. Yet it is indeed Manas who functions as our protagonist, with the infinitely more sympathetic Sugar afforded nowhere near the same amount of screen time. (Which, to be fair, could also be the result of Metta Rungrattana’s noticeably less sure-footed acting chops.) Given this, it goes without saying that the plot’s greatest pleasures comes during that portion of the film in which Sugar manages to turn the tables on Manas, and we see his life incrementally unraveling around him.

To my mind, Manas’ karmic downfall would have made a wholly satisfying ending point for Sugar Is Not Sweet. Yet, in defiance of my wishes, Pestonji and it soldier on, seemingly motivated by the grim determination to honor the romantic comedy mandate that the male and female leads must be somehow united in the end, no matter how improbable or insanely ill advised that may be. This is motivated, on Manas’ part, by his desire to fulfill his -- at this point late -- father’s wishes for grandchildren, and, on Sugar’s part, by absolutely nothing anything that has yet been established about her character could support. Ultimately, Manas gets his way by way of trickery and implied marital rape, the film closing with him contentedly basking in the undeserved fruits of his bastardry. It’s an oppressively dispiriting resolution. Though, if one were looking for a silver lining, you could look upon it as a prescient commentary on the Hollywood romantic comedies of today, whose plots seem driven far more by inertia than actual logic or character dynamics.

Throughout Sugar, Pestonji displays enough endearing directorial quirks to keep us purring contentedly throughout most of the film’s running time, even if no amount of charm could ease us over that final hurdle. The film’s straightforward narrative is apparently not enough to keep its director from becoming distracted, and so is interrupted by a second act consisting entirely of a party at which numerous musical numbers are performed, several of them American-style rock-and-roll tunes performed by a combo fronted by a Caucasian-looking woman singer. This sequence ends with a protracted drunken brawl, which, like everything else in the scene before it, does little or nothing to move the ostensible story forward.

Pestonji also lets us know right off -- via a prologue in which an off-screen narrator introduces both the characters and the actors playing them -- that this is going to be a production heavy on artifice, and then follows through with a presentation that is resolutely theatrical in its staging. Most of Sugar’s interior scenes are filmed statically from a removed angle that takes in the entirety of the set, with very few close-ups or reaction shots. This conservative approach is offset by a wild use of color that makes many of those sets look like an explosion in a paint factory, albeit a paint factory that only produces varying shades of red and pink. Added to that are moments of giddy irreverence, such as the repetition ad absurdum of the dippy Boon Treatment jingle, which, as elements of manic consumerist satire, suggest the influence -- like that seen in Japanese director Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys -- of Frank Tashlin.

Sugar Is Not Sweet is unquestionably an important film in the history of Thai cinema, as is R.D Pestonji an important director. And it is for that reason that I feel pressed to applaud Pestonji for not delivering the resolution that ages of genre film immersion have conditioned me to both expect and hope for, even though sitting through the forced march that that entailed was an inarguably unpleasant experience. I can’t, however, overcome my ambivalence to the point of advocating that aspect of the movie as being something anyone else should trouble themselves with. I will instead say that it’s a film worth enjoying for the many enchantments on display in its first and second acts, and that, after that, you’re pretty much on your own.


sunil said...

You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn't get much higher
Come on baby, light my fire
Come on baby, light my fire
Try to set the night on fire

sunil said...

P.S. Where's your music link?

Banno said...

Perhaps the resolution also has to do with the notion (definitely Indian, not so sure if it applies to Thailand), that marriage is for keeps, and a woman must do everything to keep her husband.

The colours and frames do look enticing though. I'm sure the film has many pleasures, as you say.

Todd said...

Banno: That occurred to me, and that very well may be the case. But there were other things in the movie suggesting a less conservative ideology that made me think it might be otherwise. To Pestonji's credit, this film at least made me want to watch more of his work so I could get a better idea of where he's coming from.

Sunil: Err... the who and the what now?