Melodrama at its best By Gerald Peary

in 3rd Bangkok Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

“This movie shouldn’t even be in our Competition,” one of our FIPRESCI jurors insisted, dismissing Phaoon Chandrasiri’s The Letter from Thailand as a slick commercial vehicle unworthy of consideration as “The Best Asean Film” (translation: “Best Southeast Asian Film”) at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival. True, The Letter is intended for mass audiences; and, indeed, it was a success when it played theatrically in Thailand a few months earlier. But to me, it’s a too-rare popular movie from any country these days which is made with genuine intelligence and deep feeling, and which, at its finest moments, reaches a kind of philosophic transcendence. Its achievements are even more remarkable because the filmmakers are toiling in that most denigrated of genres, the “weepie” melodrama.

How do you make melodrama work? You must treat the form ironically, subverting its conventions, the way of Brecht and Fassbinder. Or you do it straight, straight, plunging into the emotional world without embarrassment, turning the sentimentality and pathos inherent to the genre into strengths. The latter strategy is that of The Letter, and it’s a sincere methodology. No matter how soupy the story gets, no matter how many tears are shed, there’s unwavering conviction both in the acting and in Chandrasiri’s intense direction. Never do you feel that the emotionalism is being faked, the audience cynically manipulated, the ways of similar Hollywood soapers. The story is unapologetically borrowed from a recent, and extremely successful, South Korean film of the same title. A workaholic Bangkok woman in her thirties receives a letter saying that her grandmother, whom she has never met, has died in the northern part of Thailand; and she has inherited her grandmother’s home. The woman, Dew, travels by train to the far-off Chiangmai Province for the funeral, stays in the house, and, most important, meets a kindly young man, Ton, head of a local agricultural experimental station. There’s attraction between them, the tiny village where her grandmother had lived is unexpectedly serene. But Dew is a city woman, and so she returns to Bangkok.

A wise decision? Dew’s best girfriend is soon murdered, putting a chill on her urban life. Step by step, she moves her life north, until she and Ton marry, occupying her grandmother’s house. Dew still works for her Bangkok company, but she does so long distance, by computer. Mostly, she revels in her quiet, seemingly uneventful life, devoting herself to domesticity, and to spending quality time with her sweet, gentle husband. The Letter embroils itself in the eternal city-country debate, a classic, impossible-to-solve argument which takes a particular shape of questioning in Thailand: whether Bangkok is a world-class, marvelously sophisticated city, the only place that makes sense to live, or, on the other hand, a locus of alienation and disillusionment, where the “real” values of Thai life are devilishly dismissed. (Another Thai film at this year’s fest had a country grandmother warning a wandering youth that he will grow a tail in Bangkok!).

The Letter sides unequivocally with rural living, with “dropping out” from Bangkok life, though, in truth, from a privileged, middle-class perspective. Dew can afford to reside in the countryside. She has a paid-for, comfortable home, a husband with a good job. About her spouse, Ton: he serves the same function in the narration as Rock Hudson’s gardener in Douglas Sirk’s classic 1950s melodrama, All That Heaven Allows. He’s the emblematic “nature man,” who frees his woman of her bourgeois restraints. Part two of The Letter takes a tragic turn, but one familiar in melodrama. Ton comes down with an unnamed fatal disease (a brain tumor?), and he slowly dies before our eyes. Much of his last days is spent in the arms of Dew: they hug each other tightly, she cries and cries, and it’s safe to say that the audience cries too. He does die, and a series of letters that he’s written to Dew as he grew weaker are delivered posthumously. In them Ton declares his one great regret: that in life, he never told Dew “I love you.” Preposterous, especially considering how close they were? A tacky, unconvincing way to end the movie? Again, in Thailand, Ton’s words have resonance. Melodrama at its best says things overtly that need desperately to be said: Thai people need to be more open with each other about their emotions. I checked the ending out with several college-attending Thai woman, and they felt that The Letter addresses a most important issue in their society. “Thai people are very shy,” one of them explained. “My mother has never told me ‘I love you.’ But the new generation is much much more open.”