There are so many films that feature some young hot shot with musical skills or dancing skills and they have to compete in some trail in which they prove just how good they are. These films are supposed to be fun and heart warming and maybe teaching us the value of believing in ourselves and the power of performance arts has in our culture. Guess what? Those films are complete crap. I can’t stand any of them. They are cheesy. Yet, there are always exceptions, right? One such exception is the Thai film The Overture, or โหมโรง or Hom rong. Don’t get me wrong, it has cheese like the others, but at the center of this story is a kernel of importance.
The Overture, directed by Ittisoontorn Vichailak is a fictional telling of the life of Luang Praditphairoh ( born as Sorn Silpabanleng), a Thai musician whose speciality was the ranat ek, which is very much like a xylophone. The ranat e, while it can be played alone, is usually leading an ensemble and is an important part of Thai classical music, or ปี่พาทย์ (piphat). Sorn was raised in a small village and played at local events but eventually gained fame and was accepted into the service of Prince Somdej Chaopha Kromphaya Bhanuphantuwongvorradej. As a royal musician he was something of a public servant promoting the traditional arts of Thailand. Luang Praditphairoh was the title he earned in the service of the royal family. It doesn’t sound that horribly exciting, right? Remember, the movie is a fictional telling of his life, and therefore dramatized unnecessarily to make a certain point.
The movie is very simple, it bounces back and forth from when Sorn is an old man, played by Adul Dulyarat, during the second world war and when he is a young man, played by Anuchyd Sapanphong. The first few minutes of the movie sees him age twenty years. This can be confusing at times, but like all biopics it has the problem of shoving someone’s entire life into two hours or less. However, the film just doesn’t handle these transitions well. Sorn has to compete twice against another musician named Khun In, played by Narongrit Tosa-nga, who beats him and leaves him hunted by his defeat. Khun In is also just a title, but one held by Narongrit Tosa-nga who is an actual master of the ranat ek. Sorn has to compete against Khun In later for his patron’s honor, the Prince. This is just one plot line, the other follows the older Sorn who has to stand up against the modernization laws being imposed on Thai people by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who was running a dictatorship at the time. He was concerned that Thai people should modernize like their Japanese allies and therefore began outlawing aspects of Thai culture that was deemed outdated. This included much of Thai traditional music. The older Sorn has to prove to a young brash Lt.Col. Veeta, played by Pongpat Wachirabunjong, who you might know from Chocolate and Ong Bak 2, that the roots of Thai culture is what will keep the nation together during these difficult times.
Let me be frank, the acting is not done very well. I am not sure how much is the actors fault and how much is the script. I have seen some of these other actors in other movies and they do a much better job in those films. However, when making films about Thai history, Thai film makers have a tendency to ‘play it safe’, or just tell the story in the best light possible, especially when the royal family or government might be involved. To make something that would make Thai culture look bad would really offend a lot of people. So, the acting is not method based. Everyone is stiff and delivers lines like a public service announcement. Thankfully, the acting is not the point, the music is.
I would not recommend this movie just for entertainment purposes. Anyone who does that might find themselves disappointed. There are some very good reasons to watch this film however, and they all connect to better understanding Thai culture. Thai classical music is the focus here, so you get to hear a lot of very wonderful examples of it. The music is amazing, expect for the actually film score, but the parts were people like Khun In Narongrit Tosa-nga are playing is absolutely amazing. Various styles are showcased as well as incredible soloist pieces. The movie was responsible for a new wave of interest in Thai classical music, which is not surprising and most likely the reason the film was made. I also would not view this movie to learn Thai history, for it falls away from the facts of Sorn’s life and focuses more on using him as a messenger of Thai traditional culture.
You also get a look into the concerns of many modern Thais. The West has always been a blessing and a curse. They brought technology, which the Thais were never afraid of, but they also brought suffering. Sex trades, drug trades, greed for land and wealth. The Thais did what Japan did in the 19th century, modernize, all in an attempt to compete with the west. This desire to modernize was pushed into the 20th century and always there was the debate of how far away from traditional culture the Thai people should go. The debate popped in everyday life and the highest politics, even when considering the power that should be allowed the crown and the prime minister. Today there are many pundits that are quick to accuse the West’s influence for all of Thailand’s problems, like movies and video games, but also pushy western governments. While the film does pander to this demographic, it still makes the point that art is not just defending tradition, but keeping alive the creative seed that makes people who they are as a community. As Sorn tells the Lt.Col. while his troops need discipline, artists need a different discipline, one that allows them to express of the soul of humanity and the cultures we develop. At one point in the film Sorn plays his ranat ek with his son who plays a piano, at the time a very modern instrument. They find away to create a tune as they play together, driving home the point of the film, modernize all you want, just don’t lose what makes you Thai.