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Jan Dara

Kino // Unrated // May 10, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Todd Brown | posted May 13, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Movie
You think your family's dysfunctional? You aint seen nothin' until you've seen Nonzee Nimibutr's Jan Dara, a visually stunning adaptation of a famous Thai novel.

One of the most acclaimed Thai directors of the past decade, and arguably the most important thanks to his work as a producer nurturing talents such as the Pang Brothers, any Nimibutr film is bound to draw massive amounts of attention in his native Thailand but this was particularly so with Jan Dara. The film tells the story of one young man's growth into the mirror image of the father he despises and uses sex as its primary window into its character's thoughts and emotions. There is skin in this film, lots of it, and this is a major issue for a film coming out of Thailand, a country which to this day has strict rules against nudity on screen. Thus in making Jan Dara Nimibutr picked himself one massive fight with Thai censors, a fight that acquired his film a sight-unseen international reputation as an on-the-edge erotic skin flick, a reputation that is somewhat deserved but entirely misses the point of what Nimibutr is trying to do here.

Set in the Thailand of the thirties the film follows it's title character from birth until adulthood. Jan is born into a wealthy family, a fact that should assure him of a comfortable, easy life but for two simple facts: his mother dies in childbirth and he is quite possibly not the son of his mother's husband, Khun Luang. Luang is a hideous boor of a man, prone to sleeping with any of the servant girls who happen to be in reach and capable of immense violence towards Jan, who he blames for the death of his wife. Jan is beaten routinely and savagely with no maternal figure to protect him until the arrival of Waad, his 'aunt' - possibly a second wife of Khun Luang's, possibly an old friend of his mother's, the film is not entirely clear - who intervenes and takes him under her wing with Jan latching on to her with a hunger born of deprivation. But even that relationship is taken from Jan to a degree when Waad bears Khun Luang a daughter, Kaew, who Luang teaches to refer to Jan only as "Jan the Bastard". Jan eventually ends up living largely with the service staff while he and Luang circle each other at a distance, united only by their immense hatred of each other.

The film follows the lines of a typical coming of age story, but with a much darker edge. Most films of that type treat sex as a positive but, though the skin be present here in large quantity, sex is not particularly a positive force in Jan's life. His first childhood memory is of his father forcing himself on Waad, he loses his virginity to a serving girl passed on to him by the son of one of the cooks, and when he does eventually enter into a more serious relationship it is with his step mother Khun Boonlueang, played by Hong Kong starlet Christy Chung.

Jan is eventually banished from the household not because of his relationship with Boonlueang but because his half sister Kaew falsely accuses him of trying to rape her. When, years later, Kaew becomes pregnant Jan sees an opportunity to both spare Waad public humiliation at her daughters behavior while exacting a degree of revenge on Luang and agrees to marry Kaew on condition that Luang sign over all of his properties in Jan's name.

And this is where the film's reputation does it a disservice: many people have been initially drawn to the film by hearing it described as a Thai erotic film - a description slapped right on the front cover - but as sexual as the film is the sex here is all vaguely distasteful. Nimibutr isn't engaging in voyeurism here, he's using sex to show how hollow these people are, how damaged, how unable to connect on any sort of meaningful level. The sexual content is used to show how Jan follows inevitably in Luang's footsteps. If you come here looking for a cheap thrill you're coming to the wrong place but the film does have an awful lot to say about the damage one generation can do to the next.

The film itself is absolutely gorgeous, very nearly as well shot as anything Christopher Doyle has done for Wong Kar Wai. The period detail is flawless and the entire production is bathed in a warm amber light that gives everything a quiet glow. It moves at a measured pace and the literary roots come through clearly in a structure heavily dependent on voice over to move things from one event to another, from one era to the next. Though none of the performers stand out as truly exceptional they are all perfectly solid, turning in good work from start to finish. Nimibutr - whose previous film was the ghost story Nang Nak - even allows his horror roots to come through with some truly breath taking and shocking imagery in the final act.

The key phrase on all levels here is 'bare bones' ...

The Video
The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen with a perfectly servicable transfer. The colors are rich, contrast is good, and the print is clean - not showing any scratches or dirt. It's not flawless, but it gets the job done reasonably well.

The Sound
The soundtrack is presented in 5.1 surround. You get the original Thai language track with optional english subtitles. The subtitles are good quality. They read well both in terms of grammar speed / placement on the screen. This is a fairly quiet film through most of its running time so there is not very much required of the audio track but when called upon - there is a brief bombing sequence late in the film when we move into the Pacific War period - it is perfectly up to the task.

The Extras
There are none. At all. This is a wasted opportunity of enormous proportions. There are so many ways you could go with bonus features on this that I'm amazed they've included absolutely nothing. How can you release a film like this and not talk about the censorship controversy at all? How can you release a film that looks this good without taking us behind the scenes or talking to the cinematographer or set designers? How can you not talk to Christy Chung about the twin challenges of the sexual content and having to learn a foreign language for the role? How can you not put Nimibutr on camera to talk about his intentions for the film, the themes in his own mind, to counterbalance the existing hyper-sexual reputation? A lot of this material is out there already, it has to be, but not a scrap of it makes it on to the disc.

Though they've done a reasonable job of presenting the film itself with a solid transfer and solid soundtrack every other aspect of this DVD says that KimStim did things on the cheap. The presentation is absolutely bare, the cover art is poorly laid out, even the disc face itself is just plain black writing on a blank silver face. While I'm happy to have seen the film I am more than a little disappointed by the shoddy packaging and missed opportunities to address some significant issues while also introducing a major talent to the western world.

Final Thoughts
I had read a good number of reviews of Jan Dara before finally seeing the film and I often felt as though I was watching a different film than most of the reviewers I had read. Yes, the plot points were the same but far too many people get far too hung up on Christy Chung's breasts or simply write the film off as depressing and seem to miss the other layers of content. As pleasant as Ms. Chung's breasts may be the film is a fair bit more than an opportunity to put them on screen. It bogs down in its own literary-ness at times but from what I've seen of Nimibutr's directed works I place this at the top of the pile. Not a bright and cheery piece of entertainment but stunningly beautiful with something to say about human nature and certainly worth a look.
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