Scene 1: A happy, cherubic toddler chases a butterfly into the family music room, where he discovers, gilded by a shaft of sunlight, the majestic and beautiful ranad ek, or Thai xylophone.
Scene 2: Much later, two old men, one lying weakly on his deathbed. "I'm counting on you to get well soon," says the first, "I want to hear you play the ranad again." The other replies, "Don't worry about me, old friend. Just promise me that you'll never let our music fade away."
Scene 3: The child, now about 9, comes home one day to find his older brother has been beaten to death by rivals jealous of his ranad prowess. Naturally, the child's father forbids him from studying the instrument, which he does in secret late at night.
And so it goes in Itthisoontorn Vichailak's film, loosely based on the life of Luang Pradit Phairao (1881–1954), the last great master of this traditional Thai instrument. The movie continues to alternate between scenes of Sorn (as Luang's character is renamed) as an ambitious young musician driven literally to hallucination by the brilliant playing of his ranad nemesis, Khun In; and the venerable elder Sorn in the days leading up to his death, as he battles the government's proscription of traditional music in favor of Westernization and modernization.
It's a very pretty film, with gentle, charming performances, lyrical pacing, and delectable images. The soundtrack is lovely, with both traditional Thai music and a modern score (spacey, guilty-pleasure Asian synth-pop). But the script ransacks artist biopics, coming-of-age movies, sports movies—every film in which an underdog challenges authority—stringing together one by-the-numbers scene after another, adding up to a veritable encyclopedia of cinematic corn and cliché. Do the big-city musicians sneer and snicker at innocent Sorn? Check. Are his ranad innovations rejected by narrow-minded traditionalists? Check. Does his teacher tell him that flashy technique isn't enough, that music must also come from the heart? Check. Are the jackbooted government officials cold and brutal as they storm in and break up a rehearsal? Why, yes, they are. How'd you guess?
It's all harmless fun until the climactic battle between the two ranad rivals: Sorn's mallet-wielding wrists become a blur, while sweat trickles in close-up down Khun In's wild-eyed face. The movie soars off into risible camp, the sort of thing Baz Luhrmann would stage for ironic fun—leaving me a little irritated that Luang's life, and the Thai government's crackdown on folk art, got no better treatment than this silliness. (NR)