How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

June 23, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I don’t know how much of a wide release this film will get as I saw it at the Frameline film festival. However, it was popular and has garnered some international attention, so it may end up with a distributor. Filmed in rural Thailand, it tells the story of two 21-year old men, who are also boyfriends, who are both awaiting the draft. In Thailand, every male must participate in the lottery by picking a sheet of paper out of a basket. Those who draw red must serve for two years, those who draw black are exempt from service. Jai is from a wealthy family, while Ek is poor and much of the tension of the film is in how those differences play out. The fact that they are gay, and their friend is transgendered, is treated as irrelevant in this almost utopian view of Thai attitudes toward sexuality. The director and producer, who were present at the screening, acknowledged that this was an idealized take designed, in part, to help the audience “envision” what the world could be like. I admit, it was nice to see these issues dealt with as absolute non-issues and, in the end, sexual orientation was irrelevant to the story line. The core story was of Ek’s relationship to his younger brother, Oat, who was the narrator of the story. He is the one who must learn to beat his brother at checkers and buys a book that shares the movie’s title. Winning at checkers becomes symbolic of how to succeed in their stratified, unfair community and also represents Oat’s loss of innocence. His finally winning the game ultimately sets in motion a rapid a painful growing up. The film ends somewhat cryptically and leaves the audience wondering what, if anything, Oat did to affect the final outcome and what he has been finally willing to do to win (every time). I liked this ambiguity and liked the film generally. It was visually quite beautiful and there were some smart moments of cinematography and scene construction. Also, the acting was very polished for a smaller lower budget film. Given that neither the director (who is Korean American) or the producer (who is Indonesian) could speak Thai before starting this film, it’s impressive that they were able to get such natural performances from their actors. If I have a criticism it is only in that there wasn’t much surprise in the film. It telegraphed where it was going and went pretty much exactly there. There was one nice twist, a genuine shock, shortly after Oat won this game. I would have liked to have seen that revelation (and its implications) explored and it really wasn’t. Those implications are hinted at by the apparent life path Oat takes but I couldn’t help but feel that was a missed opportunity. That could have made this pretty decent film into a really good one.

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