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Jan Dara
  Year: 2001
Christy Chung gets a hand
  Director: Nonzee Nimibutr
  Producer: Peter Chan Ho-Sun
  Cast: Sunwinit Panjamawat, Santisuk Promsiri, Christy Chung Lai-Tai, Eekarat Sarsukh
  The Skinny: Nonzee Nimibutr's third film is sexy and suffocatingly beautiful to look at. However, stiff performances from the male leads and a clumsy plot derail the film. Christy Chung is slowly becoming a very solid actress. Then there's the film's main appeal for far too many people: she's naked for 3/4 of the film.
by LunaSea:
     You could call it the "Basic Instinct effect." Sometimes films get recognition from some circles for one simple reason: seeing their favorite stars nude and talking about the film like it's a Playboy Video Special. It happened for the mediocre Paul Verhoeven directed thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, and sadly it's happening for Nonzee Nimibutr's latest offering starring Christy Chung.
     That discussion is inappropriate because this is not some Category III sex flick whose main selling point is skin. It's a serious film from an acclaimed and talented director. The fact that it happens to be flawed and eventually disappointing doesn't really matter, because treating Jan Dara like the next Sex & Zen not only sells Nonzee Nimibutr short, but also treats Christy Chung, who's finally getting good roles (Peter Greenaway and the just released Samsara) and trying to improve her acting, like some B-movie starlet.
     Christy Chung has never done anything special, such as display a convincing range or improve a stereotypical character. However, she never really got the chance to do much in the first place. This role, while asking her to bare herself to the camera for one third of the film, also required her to learn Thai (mission accomplished, even if her accent is a little stiff) and attempt a greater range than usual. The problem is not really Chung, as she gives a fine performance and her obvious sex appeal helps give her character form. No, it's the other characters and the storytelling that are problematic. The film looks amazing, the sets are great, the music is evocative and some of the strongest scenes hit home, but it's the messy, superficial and stereotypical storytelling used by Nimibutr that fails to impress.
     The film is based on an erotic novel (The Story of Jan Dara/Rueang Khong Jan Dara) that's quite popular in Thailand. It was published in Siam Rath ( respected Thai weekly newspaper) by journalist Pramoon Unhathoop (writing under the alias Utsana Phleungtham), and caused controversy due to its explicit material. The novel centers on Thai society in the thirties and its relationship with sex. It also portrays the levels humanity can sink into, which are effectively depicted in the film. What's lacking here is characters that go beyond black and white: Jandara's father is one of the most one-dimensional characters seen on film in the last few years and most of the women are just caricatures.
     The plot centers on a brutal, womanizing father who ruins Jan's life because of the death of his mother during childbirth. In fact, Janrai in Thai means "accursed," and that's the reason he gets that name. Father Luang not only has sex with every woman he sets his eyes on, but also constantly reminds Jan of what he did and what he expects of him. He raises his daughter teaching her to hate Jan, and when she becomes pregnant and Jan has to marry her, the film's focus is supposed to shift towards Jan's moral reaction against his father's sins. Jan's revenge should be doing the exact opposite of what his father did, and making his father feel bad for all those years of disgusting behavior. But, the curse he inherited at birth leads him to the same path as his hated father.
     There is one big problem that ruins any attempt to believe the story: we never sense the necessary change in Jan to understand what he did. While his father's sexual adventures were done for revenge and to inflict pain upon his son, Jan's sexual activities are just for fun, like an exploration. For that reason, the "revenge" theme is not believable and the curse is not portrayed well enough (either because of the acting or a poor script adaptation) to make us feel that he's a character who's suffering.
     Nonzee Nimibutr excelled with his two previous offerings (Dang Birley & Young Gangsters, Nang Nak), which brought him fame as one of Thailand's most interesting directors in some time. His style is firmly between the commercial and artistic and his films always benefit from very good cinematography. Perhaps this time he tried too hard to create a more serious product, but it didn't work as well as I expected. While the sex scenes convey Jan's thirst for love (it's lust really, but Jan reacts to his father's actions with a feeling of being unloved, and his answer is trying to find love through sex) and Luang's malice, it's outside that element that the film becomes clichéd and even a little dull. The characters aren't developed enough to make you understand that under all that sex there's a story with themes ready to be explored.
     For all the controversy that the film caused (with several cuts by the Thai film commission), you could put this film next to works like Jang Sun-Woo's Lies and Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm of The Senses for its attempt to portray sex not as a mere physical act. These films use sex to explore a character's internal state, and even as commentary on the cultures in which they take place. While the latter two films are absolute masterpieces, Jan Dara is just a good film. It's likely that my high expectations caused my disappointment. Upon second viewing the film becomes considerably better, but the flaws are still there, sadly.
     However, one thing's for sure: Thai cinema is experiencing a revival of sorts. With the relative success of small works like Tears of a Black Tiger, The Iron Ladies, the films of Penek Ratanaruang (Fun Bar Karaoke, 6ixtynin9), and epic dramas like Bang Rajan, it looks like South Korea is not the only country with a healthy domestic product ready to capture people's imagination. We'll just have to wait and see if Nimibutr takes advantage of this with his next film, as Jan Dara is a minor faux pas for him. (LunaSea 2002)
  Availability: DVD
Coded for Region 3
Universe Laser
Thai and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen