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September 05, 2006

The Overture


Hom Rong
Ittisoontorn Vichailak - 2004
Kino Films Region 1 DVD

In preparation for my anticipated visit to Chiang Mai, I am currently reading Culture and Customs of Thailand by Arne Kislenko. It's not a very good book, but it is the only one on Thailand in general that I could get from the Miami Public Library system. The essay on the history of Thai cinema makes it seem like only a handful of films were made that are only of historical value, but nothing of serious interest occurs until the release of Iron Ladies. Still, there is value in reading the book at this time because I also got to see one of two Thai film in Miami Public Library, and to appreciate The Overture some knowledge of Thai culture and history is helpful.

What needs to be understood about The Overture is that this is an idealized self-portrait of Thais. The film is loosely based on the life of Luang Pradith Phairao, master of the ranard-ek, a wood instrument similar to the xylophone. The Overture is primarily a fictionalized account of the challenge to preserve Thailand's musical culture through the life of a master musician named Sorn. Western culture is tolerated, as illustrated by Sorn engaging in a duet with his piano playing son. The bigger battle is against the Japanese who attempted to eliminate much of Thai culture during World War II as being obsolete. I have to suspect the main reason why Thailand essentially changed sides during World War II was because the Allies had there own culture to import, they also allowed traditional Thai culture to continue.

It should be no surprise that The Overture was chosen over Tropical Malady and Citizen Dog to represent Thailand for Best Foreign Film of 2004. In addition to being about the effort to save traditional Thai music, the film represents a traditional Thai view of the world. The main characters are all male, and there is an emphasis on respect for patriarchs - fathers, mentors, and royalty. The few women in the film are wives, mothers or servants, and barely register as ciphers in the narrative. The biggest problem for a non-Thai viewer may be to sustain interest in a film about a musician who plays the xylophone, even one as dazzling as Sorn.

Maybe this reveals a cultural failing on my part. I could recognize the musicianship and the mastery of technique, yet I have to admit that watching a xylophone face-off is less compelling than the Steve Vai-Ralph Macchio dueling guitars in Crossroads. For me, a film about competiting xylophone players is to films about musicians almost analogous to a film about bowling to most sports movies.

And that other Thai film in the Miami Public Library system? Last Life in the Universe may not be how official Thailand would like to be seen, but it is the better, more inventive, film.

Posted by peter at September 5, 2006 08:22 AM


This is hilarious Peter! Losing for loving "Lolita" is just no fair! I'm glad you love it, because it will be part of our Kubrick retrospective in November. Looks like you are the perfect one to help Shelley Novak (named after Shelley Winters and Kim Novak, of course)introduce that one.
Dana Keith
Miami Beach Cinematheque

Posted by: DK at September 13, 2006 03:09 PM

I think you nailed this film completely, Peter. As for a cultural history of Thailand that considers Iron Ladies to be square one for relevant Thai films, it sounds informed by a common view among a younger generation that Thai films, especially older ones, are "nam nao" (stagnant water) and full of too many cliches to be worthy of much respect and attention. That this view started changing around the same time as the release of Iron Ladies gives that film a strange historical importance to some, I guess.

Posted by: Frisco Brian at September 16, 2006 06:34 PM