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February 25, 2011

From the Thai Film Foundation: Sugar is not Sweet

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Nam Tan mai warn
Rattana Pestonji - 1965

Some films are a challenge to discuss because they seem to take place not only in a different country or different time, but in a different universe. in terms of most conventions regarding narrative film, Sugar is not Sweet is almost like a collection of scenes that meanders along to its happy ending. A more coherent film could have been made by jettisoning several musical numbers and other bits of business that seem to pad out the running time to two hours. What makes Rattana Pestonji's last film interesting to watch are some of the various parts, even if they don't add up to whole film.

The story, such as it is, is about the businessman, Chaokun, who has made his millions from selling a hair restorative product. The product was originally the idea of his late friend, Boong, an Indian. Chaokun decides the best way to show his appreciation to Boong, is to have his playboy son, Manas, marry Boong's daughter, Sugar (Nam Tan). Manas would rather spend his time with the sultry Watchari, who happens to have a boyfriend on the side. Chaokun convinces Manas to marry Sugar with an offer of two million baht if the pair gets married, an offer raised to five million if the two produce a grandchild. Manas and Sugar take turns humiliating each other, with Manas temporarily locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Manas finally gets the upper hand on Sugar, who has steadfastly refused to go to bed with her husband, by playing on her fear of gekkos, those friendly lizards often found in Thai houses. (For myself, there was a cute little green one in my Chiang Mai condo that hung around the kitchen that I treated to tiny bits of food.)

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Among the highlights was the comic performance of Chaokun's right hand man, Moti, with his cackling laugh and his Chaplinesque stroll with his cane. Also, the use of color is astounding, with the most intense pastels on the screen. Even when one isn't sure what to make of Pestonji's ideas about character motivation or logic, there is always the unusual colors of the walls and clothing to admire. In one scene, Manas sings a song in the dark, sitting by a blue tinted tree. The use of color can be seen as an inspiration for the imaginative use of color by Wisit Sasanatieng in Citizen Dog.

What may well catch western audiences off guard are the displays how some Thais view non-Thais. Manas initially objects to marrying a woman who is not Thai, and Sugar is often referred to as a "Roti", the name of the Indian flat bread. Sugar is first welcomed to Thailand with a mock Bollywood dance performance where she is almost smothered in garlands. In a couple of scenes, Chinese and Vietnamese gibberish is spoken. I would suspect that even though he was born in Thailand, being of Iranian descent may have contributed to Pestonji's feelings of being something of an outsider in his own country.

Of the cast, the best known actor is Sombat Metanee as Manas, a leading star of the Sixties and Seventies, still active in supporting roles, and perhaps best known currently as the chief villain in Tears of the Black Tiger. Somphong Phongmitr is the scene stealing Moti. As the voluptuous Watchari, Preeya Rungruang could well inspire a search for her other films, subtitles or not, by dint of her scene in the shower. In a small role as a television pitchman is future director Ruj Ronaphop. Unknown to me is the name of the Thai combo that performs at the wedding party of Manas and Sugar, fronted by what appears to an American woman named Roger (?), though their cover version of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin"" ain't bad.

Sugar is not Sweet can be viewed online at Asia Pacific Films.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 25, 2011 08:08 AM