Dir: Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Thailand. 2002. 120 mins.
Monrak Transistor may win a few friends on the strength of its ingenuous charm and attractive performances, but the shapeless direction and meandering story make this dark musical comedy unlikely to have much impact on arthouse audiences outside its home turf. Its best prospects are the odd festival booking and some nibbles from specialist distributors prepared to take a chance on a modest scale. Drastic pruning would considerably improve its prospects.
Discovered at the beginning in a prison cell, the naive and well-meaning Pen can't seem to keep out of trouble. Narrated by a prison guard, his story starts well enough: the village boy wins a brawl with a rival to woo the lovely Sadao, and soon they are married with her father's reluctant blessing. As a wedding present, Pen gives his bride a transistor radio, before long Sadao is pregnant and the couple looks set fair for the happiest of endings.
This, as the narrator comments, would usually have added up to no more than an charming short story and the audience would now be heading for the exits. But the plot thickens when unlucky Pen, alone among his friends, is conscripted into the army. In an amusing musical number, he sings of his longing for Sadao while on shooting practice, with his mud-stained fellow soldiers pausing from their exercises to supply the chorus.
When a talent contest comes to town, Pen enters. His unskilled but heartfelt a cappella performance of an improvised love song to Sadao has the audience in tears and, star-struck, he deserts the army to seek his fortune in Bangkok. Alas, his dreams soon turn sour: only pretty female singers are in demand, and he's put to work instead as a dogsbody while fending off the unwanted attentions of his sleazy gay impresario.
Many more misadventures conspire to keep the two lovers apart. They include some droll scenes - in one, the penniless Pen and a friend infiltrate a charity benefit whose wealthy guests are dressed up as beggars, and win plaudits for the authenticity of their costumes. Meanwhile the lonely Sadao is tempted by the overtures of a smooth-talking quack medicine salesman.
Monrak Transistor has a colourful, slightly retro look, but is directed with no particular sense of style. The story becomes increasingly rambling, and both its ironic touches and the delightful musical sequences peter out as the film goes on. It's also hard to keep sympathy with the feckless Pen and cheer on a romance in which the hero seems to have lost his own personal investment. A very downbeat ending does little to lift the spirits.
The performances go some way to redeeming these weaknesses: Suppakorn and, especially, the radiant Siriyakorn are both very sweet presences in the main roles and the comic supporting turns from a cast of likeable character actors add texture to a flimsy narrative.
Prod cos: Five Star, Cinemasia
Int'l sales: Fortissimo
Exec prod: Charoen Iamphungporn
Prods: Nonzee Nimibutr, Duangkamol Limcharoen
Scr: Ratanaruang, based on the novel by Wat Wanlayangkoon
Cinematography: Chankit Chamniwikaipong
Prod des: Wittaya Chaimongkol
Ed: Patamanadda Yokol
Music: Amornbhong Methakunavudh, Chatchai Pongprapapan
Main cast: Suppakorn Kitsuwan, Siriyakorn Pukkavesa