Specific cultural and political accents flavor universal coming-of-age territory in Josh Kim’s appealing, unassuming “How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)” — a gay-themed drama in which sexuality informs characterization rather than conflict. Woven from multiple stories in Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s acclaimed 2004 collection “Sightseeing,” this low-key but deeply felt tale of fraternal bonds splintered by social inequality reps a confident feature-length debut for the Texas-born Kim, who brings both non-native objectivity and a traveller’s eye for geographic detail to the pic’s earthy Bangkok setting. Wolfe Releasing picked up U.S. rights to this mellow audience pleaser shortly after its Berlinale premiere; after an international festival run, “Checkers” may win biggest on non-theatrical platforms.
Just as the parenthetical “(Every Time)” in the title seems an unnecessary affectation, it’s the narrative bracketing in Kim’s film that proves least effective: A rushed, somewhat undercooked framing device introduces protagonist Oat (played as an adult by Iirah Wimonchailerk), a swaggering Bangkok gangster plagued by nightmares reaching back to his troubled youth. Happily, the pic wastes little time in rewinding to said childhood — “before I knew the color of money,” the adult Oat portentously narrates — where Kim is on much surer, warmer tonal footing.
11-year-old Oat (the eager, inquisitive-looking Ingkarat Damrongsakkul) is a scrappy orphan living with his curt but caring aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) on the capital’s poverty-stricken outskirts. The most influential figure of authority in his life, however, is his openly gay older brother Ek (Thira Chutikul), whose upper-class b.f. Jai (Arthur Navarat) is a casually accepted presence in the family. With homosexuality having been decriminalized in Thailand in 1956 — with the age of consent set at 15 — Thailand has long been credited with a relatively liberal stance on LGBT issues, though Kim’s script deftly traces less formalized strains of prejudice and misunderstanding in a society governed by class difference. Critical to the story, meanwhile, is a more belated official gesture of gay tolerance, though it’s a barbed one: the 2005 dissolution of the ban on LGBT soldiers in the military.
The threat of conscription — whereby 21-year-old men are selected for the army via a “Hunger Games”-style lottery — hangs heavily over Ek, whose status as the family’s chief breadwinner makes dodging the draft even more of an imperative. There’s more to it than mere luck, however, in a thornily corrupt political climate where those with sufficient means can buy their way out of the draw; fully aware of their lowly place on the social ladder, young Oat makes his first foray into criminal activity in attempt to secure the necessary funds. Despite a classically fable-like structure, however, the moral conclusions here are anything but clear-cut: Corruption is a nuanced sin in Kim’s measured, bittersweet narrative.
Away from such institutional concerns, however, it’s Oat’s growing awareness of sexuality and self that both lightens and deepens the pic. In a standout sequence, notable both for its tender child’s-eye humor and tingling sensuality, Oat accompanies Ek to the gay bar where the latter plies his trade as an escort; with precious few words, the gap between the boy’s unconditional acceptance of his brother’s sexuality and his understanding of its physical implications is closed with immense delicacy. A subplot involving a transgender friend of Ek’s, also under threat of conscription, broadens and enriches Kim’s understated study of alternative identity.
Tech credits are humbly adroit across the board. Niporn Sripongwarakul’s softly-lit, dust-coated lensing, in particular, strikes a tricky balance, evoking the humid haze of summer nights in the region without romanticizing its rough realities.
Film Review: 'How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)'
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 8, 2015. (Also at Hong Kong Film Festival.) Running time: 80 MIN.
(Thailand-U.S.-Indonesia) An Add Word Prods., Chris Lee Prods., Electric Eel Films production in association with Hidden Rooster Films. (International sales: M-Appeal, Berlin.) Produced by Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Anocha Suwichakornpong. Executive producers, Andrew Tiernan, Kup Loon Loh, Mark Chen, Paul Wong, Stea Lim, Michael Rogers. Co-producers, Maenum Chagasik, Pornmanus Rattanavich, Anthimes Arunroj-Angkul.
Directed, written by Josh Kim, adapted from the book “Sightseeing” by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Camera (color/B&W), Niporn Sripongwarakul; editor, Kamontorn Eakwattanakij; music, Boovar Isbjornsson; production designer, Rasiguet Sookarn; art director, Maenop Changsawang; costume designer, Phim U-Mari; sound, Sarawuth Panta; supervising sound editor, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr; visual effects, Chilli House; line producer, Maenum Chagasik; assistant director, Tongpong Chantarangkul; casting, Chatchai Phutsorn.
Thira Chutikul, Ingarat Damrongsakkul, Iirah Wimonchailerk, Arthur Navarat, Vatanya Thamdee, Warattha Kaew-on, Natarat Lakha, Anawat Patnawanitchakun, Kovit Wattanakul, Nanthita Khamphiranon. (Thai dialogue)