I’ve been sitting on this entry for two months, waiting for the right opportunity to write it. This entry is about the Thai movie Rak Haeng Siam (Love of Siam), a drama/romance/coming of age story that was a bit of a surprise hit here in Thailand back in November and December. As with all movies here, it came and went quickly and – with the exception of a “Director’s Cut” that has been sold out for weeks in advance exclusively at the House RCA cinema – it is out of the consciousness of most Thai moviegoers.
The movie really struck a chord with some moviegoers, particularly the gay men, as it told a story that we rarely see: that of teenagers who are wrestling with their sexual identities. After watching the 200-minute director’s version of the film on Monday, I’m ready to write about this movie. Apologies in advance if this post is lengthy.
Love of Siam is two stories: that of the friendship and budding love of two secondary school boys, and that of the disintegration of one of the boy’s family, the result of the disappearance of his older sister on a family trip to Chiang Mai a few years earlier.
It is a notable film on many counts:
- As a drama, it is a rarity in Thai cinema, filled as it is with audiences who prefer dumb comedies, ghost stories, and dumb comedic ghost stories.
- At two-and-a-half hours in length, the film is almost twice the length of the average Thai film, pushing the attention span of most Thai moviegoers.
- As a film that treats the gay characters in the story sympathetically, it stands apart from the frequent depiction of gays in Thai culture as either transsexuals, effeminate queens, or effeminate transsexual queens.
- As a depiction of a family of Thai Christians, it is probably the first Thai film ever to have a Christmas nativity scene.
- Finally, it addresses issues of teenage gays – something that is rarely addressed in the cinema of any country.
The Main Storyline
There are several subplots but the basic story follows the fortunes of two childhood friends, Mew and Tong, who are neighbors in their primary school years. Tong and his parents move away after Tong’s sister Tang goes missing on a trip to Chiang Mai, leading his father into an alcoholic depression and his family into disintegration. Mew and Tong cross paths again during their senior year in secondary school. This meeting rekindles old feelings and the two are left to sort out what these feelings mean, especially against the conflict of Tong’s family situation.
If you want to read the plot in greater detail, I’ve included it at the bottom of this entry. Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to watch the movie for yourself. I’m under the impression that the director is actively seeking distribution internationally and I’m sure it will play in at least some film festivals and maybe art cinemas in some of the larger cities.
Impact in Thailand
This film was a modest success – number one opening week, number two the second week, and then falling off from there. As the director’s third commercial film, and a huge departure from the more mainstream films he did before, it caught everyone by surprise. The advertising – both the poster and the trailer – didn’t play up the gay aspect of the story, to which the director later admitted that they wanted to get a bigger audience than they would have had they been as up front about the plot.
Here’s the trailer. Even though it is in Thai, I think you’ll agree after watching it that it leaves the orientation of the main characters’ love in question.
There was a great deal of talk on message boards and elsewhere in Thailand about this film. Equally loud were those who were moved by the film and those who felt duped by it.
For some of the audience, particularly the gay men, this film spoke to their experiences in a way that nothing else they’ve ever seen has. One of Kobfa’s friends sobbed through the entire film, his family experience (minus the missing sister) is so close to the one depicted in the movie. Tawn said afterwards that it was filled with touchstones of his coming-of-age experience: hanging out at Siam Square; sharing an ice cream sundae at Swenson’s with the guy he had a crush on; having chaste affairs in which holding hands for a few moments was as intimate as things would get.
Judging by the crowds at the different screenings I attended, there is a new generation of young gay men in their secondary school and university years, who are growing up with at least this one image of their experience being shown in the media. Someone who looks like them, some life that looks similar to their own, now is validated in the popular culture. It exists! They exist!
The Impact on Me
Of course, the story has greater relevance than just in Thailand. While I grew up in a completely different culture, the film still resonates deeply with me. I recall the crushes I had in secondary school, the boys my age for whom I had feelings that I couldn’t find the words for. “Respect”, “admiration”… these were the impotent ways in which I tried to rationalize what I felt.
I remember taking a field trip with one of the school organizations and in a hotel room with three other students, shared a bed with one of the boys I felt so strongly about. Lying just a matter of inches away and wanting so badly to reach out to him, but not being able to – that memory jumped back to life when watching this movie, a memory so vivid of an emotion so strong: feeling love but not being able to name it.
To this day, whenever I see young people including my friends’ children and my own two nieces, I wonder if they will be able to grow up feeling confident enough, loved enough, to be whoever they are and to feel love for whomever they do, without feeling afraid and unable to name it. It is one thing to love someone in an unrequited fashion – a theme addressed in a subplot of the movie – and quite another thing to have a love that may be shared but be unable to speak it, possibly even unable to know the words necessary to describe it to yourself let alone to the person for whom you feel those feelings.
Watching Love of Siam was particularly powerful for me, because I didn’t grow up with any reference points or role models on which to base my feelings. Despite having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have any recollection of seeing a gay person or a gay character anywhere, anytime before I graduated from secondary school. Certainly, by the point when I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most of the boys, I didn’t have the vocabulary available to me to understand those differences. To that standpoint, I am envious of the gay boys growing up in Khrungthep. At least now they have Love of Siam to help put words to those feelings, if indeed they were in need of a vocabulary – which I suspect they aren’t.
I know there have been some other films (including a German one, I recall) that addressed gay teens in the storyline. But surely in a world where many people are underrepresented, gay teens are highest among those, since they cut across both sexes and all religions, races and countries. Hopefully for more young people who are struggling with who they are, there will be images that positively validate that they are okay. (I’m sure the fundamentalists will love that. Glad I’m not running for elective office.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, wanting more details, or realizing that you might never get a chance to see it, I offer you a more detailed plot summary. Warning: This contains spoilers.
The Plot in Greater Detail – Warning: Spoilers
Mew (below right) is the child who is picked on at school, his classmates having already identified him as likely being gay even in his primary school years. Artistic and musically inclined, Mew’s grandmother is his best friend and she teaches him to play a song that his grandfather used to play on the piano for her, and tells him that she hopes that someday he will love someone so much that he writes a song for them.
Tong (below left) and his sister are Mew’s upstairs neighbors. At first, Mew shies away from them, but then one day at school Tong comes to Mew’s defense when he is cornered in a toilet by tormentors, clubbing the bullies with a plunger pulled from one of the toilet stalls. As a result, Tong winds up with a black eye and a bloody nose.
A friendship develops between the two boys and after Tong’s family goes to Chiang Mai on holiday, Tong returns with a gift for Mew, a wooden Christmas doll composed of several pieces. Following a family tradition started by his father, Tong hides the different parts giving Mew written clues to find them. Alas, when they arrive at the location of the last part – the doll’s nose – the tree in which it has been hidden has been pruned and the branches are being carted away. Nonetheless, the doll takes pride of place on Mew’s desk.
While on the family trip, Tong’s sister Tang receives permission to spend a few extra days in Chiang Mai with her friends. When the extra days comes and go and there is no word from her, Tong’s parents return north to search for her, not returning in time for Tong’s Catholic school Christmas pageant. Tong’s parents ask him to stay at Mew’s for a few nights while they search for Tang.
During these few nights, Tong prays for his sister each night before going to bed, sleeping next to Mew. His eyes wet with tears, Tong turns to Mew for comfort that everything will be all right.
In the weeks that follow, Mew is Tong’s support as there is still no sign of Tang. As the months pass, Tong’s family begins to disintegrate as his parents blame each other for allowing Tang to stay with her friends. Tong’s father begins to drink heavily and ends the ritual of mealtime prayers, having lost his faith.
Finally, Tong’s family moves away from the neighborhood, leaving Mew heartbroken at the loss of his friend.
(As a side note, this is where the opening credit roll. See – it is a long movie!)
Flash forward about five years. Both boys are in different secondary school. Tong’s family situation has continued to get worse, his father now lying about all day, drinking whisky and not eating any food. Tong looks to be a typical – read, “straight” – teenager with a perfect girlfriend that the other boys envy, but he doesn’t seem much interested in their relationship, to her chagrin.
Across town, Mew’s grandmother has long since passed on. He has become a gifted musician and is the singer and songwriter for a band of classmates called August (he is third from the left in the lower left-hand picture). Mew is also the object of an unrequited crush from Ying (below right – with pictures of Mew all over her walls), the girl who now lives in the house where Tong once lived.
Mew and Tong meet unexpectedly at Siam Square (below – Mew is left and Tong is right), an outdoor shopping area that is ground zero for Khrungthep’s youth culture. They exchange phone numbers and begin hanging out together, rekindling their childhood friendship and – for Mew – rekindling stronger feelings that inspire him to begin writing new songs.
(Side note – the above scene, along with two or three others in the Director’s Cut, were shot in the box office lobby of the lovely Scala Cinema, a classic 1960s theatre about which I wrote in this entry.)
Mew’s band is assigned a new manager, June, who is the spitting image of Tong’s lost sister, Tang. Tong and his mother conspire to hire June to play the role of Tang, in an effort to rouse Tong’s father out of his depression. For a time this seems to work and everyone is happy again.
At a party to celebrate Tang’s homecoming, Mew’s band performs a new song – Gan Le Gan (essentially, “You and I Together”) with the opening line sung with Mew looking directly at Tong (a look not unnoticed by June – above right with Tong), “If I’m telling you that this song was written for you, would you believe me?” After the party, Mew and Tong share a kiss in the backyard that is seen by Tong’s mother. In the director’ version of this film, there is a shot of a few minutes later when Tong escorts Mew to a waiting taxi. They are reluctant to say goodnight to each other, in the love-struck sort of way that you would expect from any two people who had just shared their first, oh so innocent kiss.
Worrying about her son, Tong’s mother forbids him from seeing Mew. But Tong leaves home one night anyhow, leaving his phone and spending the night at Mew’s.
Unable to get hold of Tong and spending the night driving around searching for him, Tong’s mother is further worried. The next day she visits Mew and confronts him, explaining that Mew’s lifestyle is not what she has in the cards for Tong. Mew insists they are just friends, but complies with her wishes. Mew’s secret admirer Ying overhears this conversation and is heartbroken.
Tong keeps trying to get hold of Mew but Mew won’t answer his calls. At the same time, Tong’s girlfriend pressures him about his inattentiveness while his family situation turns bad again as his father is diagnosed with severe medical problems brought on by his drinking.
Ying consoles Tong after his friends ask him whether the reason he isn’t seeing his girlfriend is because he’s gay. While they are together, he sees another of the Christmas dolls and Ying convinces the toy shop owner to give her only the nose piece, left.
Tong finds himself caught on all sides and in a scene where he and his mother are cheerlessly decorating a Christmas tree, he asks her in not so many words to let him make his own choice, represented by two decorations – one of a woman and the other of a man. “Just choose one!” she shouts. “But whatever one I choose, you won’t be happy with me!” he replies. She tells him that whatever choice he makes is okay.
June makes plans to leave the family, the unfolding story still leaving some question as to whether she might not in fact be the missing daughter. She leaves a note to Tong’s mother, telling her that they’ll be all right.
Having cut himself off from Tong, Mew finds his well of songwriting inspiration has dried up and his band members are on the verge of mutiny, about to replace him with a backup singer.
Tong agrees to meet his girlfriend for a date in Siam Square on Christmas Eve. Mew and his band are performing a concert there and when Tong sees Mew on a video screen and hears him start to sing the song Gan Le Gan, he realizes what he has to do.
He apologizes to his girlfriend and tells her that he can’t be her boyfriend anymore. Then he runs to the concern, meeting Ying there, to watch. Mew sees them in the crowd.
After the concert, Tong approaches Mew to give him a Christmas present – the missing nose piece from the wooden doll that Mew still has on his desk. Tong tells Mew that he can’t be his boyfriend, but that he will always love him. With that, they part ways.
The movie ends with Mew at home, putting the final piece onto the doll, crying, wiping his eyes, and saying “thank you” out loud.
The ending was good, if a little disappointing as I was cheering for Mew and Tong to end up together. Talking with friends, the general consensus was that Tong – despite his mother telling him he could choose for himself – still felt the pressure of family obligations over his feelings for Mew. Leaving us all to wonder… could there be a Rak Haeng Siam 2?