Based on an infamous novel, this 2001 Thai melodrama follows the life of Jan Dara. He is the unwanted son in a chaotic household. His father, Khun Luang, is devastated by the death of Jan Dara's mother, who died giving birth to Jan Dara. Khun Luang blames the child and calls him a bastard, so as Jan Dara grows up he becomes Khun Luang's whipping boy, a subject of scorn, quietly observing his father and his various sexual dalliances with the help. Some relief comes in the form of a compassionate aunt and a boy (hired help) who move into the compound. Jan Dara's aunt gives birth to a daughter, Kaew, who Khun Luang fathered. Khun Luang remarries a cultured beauty named Khun B, who, despite his love for a virginal local girl, Jan Dara begins to have a steamy affair with. Eventually Kaew, the favored, spoiled, daughter who was taught to hate Jan Dara, has him kicked out of the family and left on his own after she falsely accuses him of molesting her. Years pass and Jan Dara, now a man, is asked to move back into the house and save it from embarrassment. During his time away he has learned much about his mother and real father, but once he is in control of the household he finds himself perpetuating the same cruelty he grew up with.
Jan Dara first came to my attention when I read a blurb about it being denied a premiere at some International film festival due to Thai censors insisting the films sexual scenes be cut down. Well, unless you know anything about Thai film, you would assume that meant it was incredibly explicit. Jan Dara has far less flesh over the course of almost two hours than you will see in an average 20 min episode of Red Shoe Diaries. The reaction was because such a sexually charged movie is uncommon in Thailand; I guess they are still a little behind in the times. I imagine the Thai censors getting into a tizzy over the films sex was a bit like attempting to tame an already tepid beast.
Which leads me to a little runtime confusion- The Internet Movie Database lists that the film is 2 hours. The DVD box lists the runtime as 1:55. The actual DVD is 1:48.
Director Nonzee Nimibutr faces one of cinemas great challenges, a film that relies heavily on the sexual dalliances of its characters to tell the story. It is a tricky thing, and unfortunately he fails. While films like Wide Sargasso Sea or Annuad's The Lover may have stumbles in their execution, they at least capture the appropriate steamy, exotic sensuality. My memory, right now, can only think of two film that succeed in well-rounded tales that rely heavily on sex, Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses and Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, though I am certain there are more. Jan Daras sex is sex for pleasure, sex for power, so it is lacking in any sensuality whatsoever. But the rest of the drama is equally void, excessively predictable, so it becomes a passionless film filled with passionless sex.
Essentially, the problem with Jan Dara is it wallows in the much tragic melodrama and soap operalike patterns you can easily predict. Except for the young Jan Dara, the film is devoid of any sympathetic characters. Even those who are kind to the oppressed child/teen kowtow to his domineering and abusive father. Well, there is also the innocent schoolgirl he meets outside of his home, but even she bows to the fate of melodrama plotting and dies while he is in exile, their love never consummated, giving him one more reason to go further down the spiral. By the third act when we meet the older Jan Dara who has been allowed time to find his past, escape the household, and returns with confidence and an assured manner, we then just watch him go down the expected tragic path and become a monster. So, it is just hard to care; the one sympathetic character just becomes another emotionally scarred victim who lashes out abuse on those around him. Basically, despite a few heavy-handed third act twists, it is the kind of erotic-tragedy plot that doesn't say anything in an hour and forty-eight minutes you couldn't already figure out by reading the synopsis on the back of the DVD box.
I must give a nod to Christy Chung who plays Khun B. A familiar face to HK cinema fans from her roles in Bodyguard from Beijing, Tai Chi 2 and Red Wolf. She is radiant in the film and manages to rise above her sketchy character a little more the an other actors. The teenage Jan Dara dominates most of the film, and unfortunately he is not a very good actor. Luckily this is the point where her character is introduced, giving a nice respite from the teens limited acting skills.
The DVD: Seville
Picture: Widescreen, 1.85:1, 16X9 enhanced. Print is clean and sharp with good contrast depth. Some slight fogging in a few scenes, but otherwise technically fine and free of any artifacts. My only complaint is with the cinematography itself, which is has very warm and dark tones. It succeeds in its lushness but to the detriment of its depth, making much of the film in very shallow focus.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Thai language, with optional white English or French subtitles. Sound is fine, crisp, clear; no complaints.
Extras: 12 Chapters--- Trailers for Pandaemonium, Love Street, Late Marriage and Jan Dara
Conclusion: I found the film to be a tepid melodrama. The DVD is fine. Maybe of interest to Asian film fans, certainly those of Thai film, which is usually pretty under the radar in world cinema, otherwise it is best reserved as a rental.