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June 08, 2010

Somtum

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Nontakorn Taweesuk - 2008
Big Warner All Region DVD

Somtum is a Thai movie mostly about spicy Thai food and Muay Thai boxing, sometimes simultaneously. The film also takes some of the basic premise of The Karate Kid and turns it completely on its head. Yes, you have the novice from the west learning from the Asian master. But in this case, it's seven foot tall Nathan Jones taking lesson from little Sasisa Jindamanee. Not only is Sasisa a Junior National Muay Thai champion, she's being groomed for stardom from the studio of Tony Jaa (and probably not a moment too soon, with Tony taking time off to be a Buddhist monk).

Jones portrays an Australian visitor, Barney, in the tourist town of Pattaya. Encouraged to keep drinking by one of the local bar girls, Barney wakes up to find himself with nothing but his pants. While waiting to make a police report, he is seen sitting by himself until a little girl drops her ball. Part of the humor of this film is purely visual contrasting the outsized Jones with the Thais. The little girl is clearly overwhelmed by the sight of this giant foreigner although she gradually warms up to him, falling asleep in his arms. The scene introduces Barney as not only a giant, but a very gentle giant, too gentle for his own good.

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Barney almost literally runs into a young girl Katen, running from a gang of older boys. The boys at first are intimidated by Barney when he stands, only to see him cower in fright at the sound of motorbike backfire. Another girl, Dokya, arrives at the scene to take on the boys, sometimes using the passive Barney as a prop for her kicks and leaps. Barney temporarily stays at a temple, and is later taken to visit Dokyo's mother, who runs a small beachfront restaurant. Treated to somtum, also known as Papaya salad, Barney turns beet red, and out of control, virtually knocking down the little restaurant. Taking a variety of jobs, Barney does what he can to rebuild the restaurant while waiting to get a new passport.

Dokyo also does what she can to make money, going into the ring for a boxing match with an adult fighter. And here is where cultural differences have probably kept Somtum from getting even a DVD release in the U.S. While the film is considered the equivalent to a PG rating in Asian countries, the fight scene is mostly in earnest. The MPAA, and probably a few parents, would probably feel discomfort in watching a young girl smacked several times in the face, even with boxing gloves. Dokyo leaves the ring battered, bruised and a little bloody, as well as gipped by a shady promoter who forces a tie, even when most of those attending the match let it be known who should have been named the winner.

The film descends into a live cartoon as Barney is forced to fight a gang of foreign crooks, including the seven foot tall Mark 'Conan' Stevens. At this point, the film seems to take its inspiration directly from 'Popeye', as Barney is conveniently fed somtum, turning into a raging red madman, vanquishing the bad guys and destroying a small jet plane. Dan Chupong makes a guest appearance as a policeman, with a brief scene to show off his martial arts skills. Even better is the appearance by Kessarin "Nui" Ektawatkul, a former national taekwondo champion, seen here as a toothpick chomping papaya vendor who's ready to stand her ground. Hopefully "Nui" will be seen in more films that will use her to advantage for her martial arts ability and comic presence. Both Sasisa and Nawarat Techarathanaprasert, the girl who plays Katen, will be seen in Power Kids, scheduled for DVD release soon. Somtum is the directorial debut of Nontakorn Taweesuk after fulfilling screen writing and editing for the Baa-Ram-Ewe team. Nontakorn's flair for visual comedy is quite evident, and I've never seen Thai chillies filmed so lovingly.

One additional note: This DVD version did not have English subtitles. There is enough spoken English, about a third of the dialogue, to follow most of the story, and this in no way hindered my enjoyment of this film.

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Posted by peter at June 8, 2010 12:21 AM

Comments

very interesting

Posted by: mumu at June 8, 2010 08:12 AM