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December 01, 2008

Jan Dara

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Nonzee Nimibutr - 2001
Dawoori Entertainment All Region DVD

Considering the various convulsions going on with the Thai film industry, it would seem that Nonzee Nimibutr might never make a film like Jan Dara again. Nonzee's third feature is not a genre exercise as are most Thai films. The depiction of sex would also be more likely censored as well. The best way to describeJan Dara is to think of it as a Thai version of a classic Greek tragedy, actually several combined into one. A more contemporary comparison might be with Tennessee Williams, without the coyness, a Freudian nightmare.

The story is about Jan, told with first person narration. His earliest memory is of seeing his father and aunt having sex. Throughout his boyhood, Jan is punished by his father for causing the death of his mother in childbirth. There is some solace to be found in relationships with women, but it is usually sexual. His relationship with his aunt, his mother's sister, takes on an Oedipal dimension. The one time Jan falls in love, with a young woman named Hyacinth, his relationship is so innocent that when the two walk together, he is holding onto the sleeve of her sweater rather than assert himself by touching her hand.

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Jan takes the family name of his mother as his father constantly reminds him that he is unwanted. The father, Khun Luang. takes a mistress, Khun Boonlueang, referred to as Khun B. Along with the aunt, now married ot Khun Luang, Khun B also acts as a protector to Jan. Eventually, Khun B also becomes Jan's lover. The relationships within the family become more complicated, while the narrative descends more deeply into the theme of the sins of the father visiting the children.

Most of the film takes place from the late Twenties through World War II. The images are all awash in a golden hue, yet most of the memories could hardly be described as golden. Utsana Phleungtham's novel is reputed, at least by the author, to be based on true events that took place during the author's youth. For all of the sex, the most erotic scene in Jan Dara is of the teenage Jan (Suwinit Panjamawat) cooling Khun B (Christy Chung) with ice cubes melting on her back. Even though the film is about Jan Dara, Christy Chung takes over the film from her first appearance as the cigarette smoking, Westernized mistress loved by the two men of the house.

Nonzee seems to have lost some of his momentum since his debut in 1997 with Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, the film credited with kick starting Thailand's "New Wave". OK Baytong from 2003 is unavailable with English subtitles, and Nonzee's newest film, Queens of Langkasuka seems to have been hampered by a long running time, and too much similarity to a recent big budget trilogy about pirates. It should be noted that I bought the Korean DVD of Jan Dara which has the complete running time, compared to Kino's Region 1 version that is missing five minutes of footage. Central to this film, as well as his best known work, Nang Nak is the impossibility of love in the material world. Nonzee's characters strive for an ideal existence, but only those with absolute self-awareness find something close to happiness.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 1, 2008 12:13 AM


I saw this at a US film festival where a Thai cultural representative of some sort introduced the film. All he seemed to be able to do was apologize for it, try to impress on us that the morality depicted was not representative of Thailand, and basically come off as old-fashioned as could be.

I remember thinking it was a good but not great movie, but I have not been compelled to watch it since, even though I own a copy: a Hong Kong-produced VCD. I can't recall if it's supposed to be a cut version or not but it was pretty cheap to pick up in Chinatown.

Posted by: Brian at December 3, 2008 12:59 AM