You all know what to expect on a Sunday by now, and this week is no exception. It’s back to Asia this time, but we’re stopping in Thailand for a change. This movie’s original Thai name translates as 13 Beloved, but when it made it to the West distributors probably thought people would be expecting some sort of paedophile story. Hence the rather swift rebranding to…
Sakveerakul probably hates Big Brother.
Phuchit is having a bad day. His car has been repo’d, he’s behind on all his bills and he’s just been “resigned” from his job as a salesman. Suddenly his phone rings and he is told by an anonymous voice that he will be given 10,000 baht if he swats the fly buzzing around his head. If he then eats it, he’ll get 50,000. These turn out to be the first two in a series of 13 escalating challenges. If he completes them all he will get 100 million baht; if he quits or tells anyone what he’s doing, he’ll get nothing. So begins Phuchit’s entry in an underground reality game called 13 Beloved. Hilarity does not ensue (except when it does).
[I’ll keep it to a minimum, but this review will contain spoilers. Consider yourselves warned. Yarrgh.]
The second feature from then-25 year old Thai writer/director Matthew Chookiat Sakveerakul is a clever, occasionally hilarious and ultimately disturbing look at where “reality” entertainment in the world is heading, as well as a statement on the materialistic mindset of much of modern Thailand. This materialism is shown most succinctly in two scenes, the first being the seemingly unrelated prologue where a boy scout goes out to help an elderly woman who has been bumped to the ground in the middle of a pedestrian crossing. While guiding her across the street he drops his mobile phone then, when the lights change and the traffic restarts, he runs back out to retrieve it and is hit by a bus. This kid, who has already been shown to be reasonably intelligent and more compassionate than most of his fellow citizens, threw away his own life for a cellphone. Even if it isn’t a part of the main story (or is it?) it is a powerful way to open a movie, particularly since Sakveerakul himself was so young at the time.
Let me ask you a question. Do you struggle for money? If you answered in the affirmative, let me ask you another. What would you be willing to do to make that struggle go away? How far would you go? That’s the question that Phuchit faces each time his phone rings and a new challenge is put in front of him. Of course his tormentors aren’t upfront with him right from the start. Like a dealer on the corner, they give him a taster first; the first two challenges are quick and easy and seemingly come without strings. It is only after Chit has already committed that he finds out the extent of what he is committed to, and as each successive challenge gets more degrading and disturbing he finds that he cannot back out because he is getting hooked, not on the money itself but on the idea of the money. Although each completion results in an increased bank balance for Chit, the money isn’t actually his until he has reached the final challenge. One failure or even a single wrong word to the wrong person and it all just disappears.
So who is it that Chit is performing for? Unfortunately he can make no attempt to find out without forfeiting his prize. Luckily, he has a friend at work named Tong. After overhearing something at the police station, she is able to locate and hack the website broadcasting Chit’s game and takes it upon herself to either stop it or locate those responsible and get Chit out. Tong is the audience in the movie. She asks the questions we should be asking, and makes the points we should be making. Unfortunately most of the answers remain tantalisingly out of reach both for her and us.
The story is an adaptation of an episode of a Thai comic-book called My Mania, but there are also similarities to the classic Batman story The Killing Joke. Whoever is playing with Chit may subscribe to the Joker’s notion that anyone can be brought down to Crazytown; all it takes is a little push. As the film goes on though, it is hinted that Chit may have been chosen for the game for more than just random money problems. A lot of his challenges seem to echo events from his (distinctly unhappy) childhood. This, like so much of the film, Sakveerakul chooses to leave to your own interpretation. It’s a bold decision, even if it means that the ending can seem to come out of nowhere, and it will undoubtedly not survive the inevitable Hollywood remake.
A film like this often runs the risk of being too po-faced for its own good. Sakveerakul manages to neatly side-step that pitfall by acknowledging the absurdity inherent in the story and – when the time is right – playing it for laughs. Challenge number seven in particular is one of the most viscerally gruesome but also the funniest section of the film. A tonal shift like that shouldn’t work at the best of times, but it comes together here thanks to both the script and Krissada Sukosol Clapp’s performance as Chit. The delivery of his steadily increasing exasperation has a real “classic British sitcom” feel to it, even while the script is sneaking in another social justice message – this time for care of the elderly. You can almost picture Basil Fawlty or Reggie Perrin in that sort of situation. In fact this whole story could play in that setting with just a few minor tweaks here and there. They’d have to change the ending for one thing.