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Jan Dara

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  • Noel Vera
    Softcore Noel Vera Nonzee Nimibutr s Jan Dara came out way back in 2001 and was screened in Cinemanila in December the same year, after having made the
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 26, 2004
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      Noel Vera

      Nonzee Nimibutr's "Jan Dara" came out way back in 2001 and was
      screened in Cinemanila in December the same year, after having made
      the festival circuit through London, Toronto, and Vancouver, so it's
      odd to find it having its Manila commercial run only now. Based on a
      famous erotic novel published in 1966, Utsana Phleungtham's "The
      Story of Jan Dara," it was considered unfilmable because of the
      scandalously explicit sensuality. A relaxation of censorship
      regulations and the determination of Nimibutr--who with his gangster
      picture, "Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters," and horror
      picture, "Nang Nak," has become one of the rising young stars in
      Thai cinema--finally allowed translation of the novel to the big

      It's about a boy named Jan Dara (Suwinit Panjamawat) in 1940s
      Bangkok; his mother died giving birth to him and he's being raised,
      in a manner of speaking, by his sexually decadent father Khun Luang
      (Santisuk Promsiri). Actually, his father blames Jan Dara for the
      death of his first and favorite wife, and only pays attention to him
      long enough to give him the odd punitive lashing; Jan Dara in
      response despises his father and his father's many sexual escapades
      with the women in the household. Jan Dara soon grows into a handsome
      young man (Eakarat Sarsukh), and starts noticing the women about him
      as more than just the receptacles of his father's lust; he comes to
      have his own share of sexual adventures, particularly with his
      father's latest wife, the sophisticated, Westernized Khun Boonlueang
      (a spectacular Christy Chung). Jan Dara is banished for a rape he
      did not commit, is exiled for a few years, returns to take over the
      household and assert his authority over even his father, and
      ultimately becomes what he once beheld with such hatred.

      The film sounds interesting in outline, but the actual execution is
      wanting. The initial premise--that father hates son with a passion,
      and vice-versa--is established vividly enough, but when Jan Dara
      grows old enough to develop his own passions, the narrative gets
      lost in an endless series of lovemaking, photographed in amber light
      and soft focus for a beautifully arty sheen. Perhaps the most
      memorable sequence in the picture--and admittedly one worth the
      price of admission--is Khun Boonlueang's seduction of Jan Dara,
      involving an extremely hot day and an ice cube. It's leisurely
      paced, but the languor--the sense that the woman feels little
      urgency--creates an electric friction with Jan Dara, who is nothing
      but urgency; when things come to a head, the conclusion is so
      unexpected (and beautifully timed) that you can't help but laugh.

      "Jan Dara" is amply filled with the bountiful, luxurious softness of
      flesh; what's missing is the skeleton, the spine of a coherent plot.
      We see Jan Dara undergoing all these changes to his status and
      sexuality, but we never get a clear picture of exactly what he
      thinks of the changes; he's always an eager and rather passive
      accomplice to whatever acts or ideas are suggested by whoever
      happens to be in front of him. Everyone else is equally
      underdeveloped: Khun Luang is unfailingly malevolent; Khun
      Boonlueang unceasingly languid; Aunt Waad (Wipawee Charoenpura), Jan
      Dara's adoptive mother, unrelentingly good-hearted; her daughter
      Khun Kaew (Patharawarin Timkul), sworn enemy of Jan Dara,
      unwaveringly hateful. Not enough time is spent on showing us the
      inner workings of these characters, not with most of the running
      time squandered on showing the outer workings of their various
      copulations; you might say that in this case, unlike what F. Scott
      Fitzgerald once wrote, action isn't character, it's window dressing.

      It's the same problem Nimibutr had with "Dang Birely" (not so much
      with "Nang Nak," since the story was so simple): the window dressing
      (gang violence, horror, sex) overwhelmed the narrative. A pity,
      because you can see where the movie--and, presumably, the novel-
      wants to go (not the necessary steps taken to actually go there): a
      multigenerational epic about the sins of the father and their
      consequences visited upon the innocent son. Add the beautiful cast
      (Christy Chung being a standout), and Nimibutr's skill at evoking
      hothouse sensuality, and you should have something: if not great, at
      the very least impressive and involving. As is, the charms of the
      flesh, though plentiful and varied, tend to pall, and the hints of
      something more--of unsettling relationships and unruly passions
      seething under all that glossy melodrama--tend to make the picture
      all the more frustrating for what it fails to achieve.

      Some critics have compared this to what is generally considered the
      ultimate erotic art film, Nagisa Oshima's "In The Realm of the
      Senses." Actually, I've seen humble "pinku" shorts with more
      characterization and narrative coherence (though admittedly less
      ambition), and even films here in Manila that are sensually superior-
      -Laurice Guillen's "Init sa Magdamag" (Midnight Passion), for
      example, a discourse on the dangerous nature of female sexuality and
      the ability of women to use passivity as a lure; and Peque
      Gallaga's "Scorpio Nights," a no-holds-barred, no-holes-barred crash
      course on how to choreograph, edit, and shoot wild sex (I actually
      prefer "Scorpio" over the better-known "In the Realm," because the
      former has something the latter doesn't--a sense of tense
      desperation, of defiance, of literally fucking in the face of
      death). Both Filipino films aren't just object lessons in tight-
      budget, rapid-fire filmmaking (shot in under a month and for a
      fraction of "Jan Dara's" budget), they're examples of strong scripts
      (in "Scorpio's" case not even a script, but a great idea) with big-
      balls sexuality that teeter on the edge of--what? Church
      condemnation? Government censorship? Discovery of sensual
      territories undreamt of by supposedly prudish Filipinos? Nimibutr
      should be taking down notes.

      (First published in Businessworld, 8/20/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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