Jan Dara (2001) Movie Review

As the Thailand movie Jan Dara opens, a note from director Nonzee Nimibutr cautions the viewer that the movie they are about to see is not to be taken seriously, that it’s not meant as an insult to any religious groups, but is only meant for entertainment value only. That, dear friends, is the first of many lies you will be told in Jan Dara. Jan Dara is an arthouse film, meant for the arthouse crowd, which immediately should ring some bells, because if arthouse films (that are serious dramas) are known for one thing, it’s their “different is cool” concept. Most, if not all, arthouse films have one or more of these plot points in their story: incest, love affairs, a dysfunctional family, rapes, lots of meaningless sex, and oh yeah, that Holy Grail of all arthouse films: gay themes.

Jan Dara, going for a record of “How many arthouse cliché can we cram into one movie before we get bloated and explode”, manages all of the above! Hard to believe, but oh so painfully true. Jan Dara is perhaps the most depressing movie I have seen in a long while, the kind where when you think the film can’t get any more depressing, it proves that your assertion was foolhardy, and yes, it can get even more depressing.

Our Depressing Serious Arthouse movie opens with the birth of the titular character, Jan Dara (Suwinit Panjamawat), whose birth causes the death of his mother, and garners him the undying scorn, hatred, and surprisingly violent outbursts of his father, Luang (Santisuk Promsiri). Jan lives life as an outcast in his own home, and the only person who cares about him (and indeed prevents him from being beaten to death at a whim by not-the-best-dad-in-the-world Luang) is Jan’s aunt, Waad (Wipawee Charoenpura).

Aunt Waad eventually becomes a surrogate mother for the nurture-deprived Jan, and the two form such a close bond that it threatens to wander into incest. Luang, meanwhile, has begun having an affair with Aunt Waad, and soon produces another child, Kaew (Patharawarin Timkul), a tempest of a girl who is taught at birth to despise her stepbrother. Not only does Kaew grow up spoiled rotten and evil to the core, but also she’s developing lesbian tendencies, and is sleeping with one of the female help. I know what you’re thinking. Can this family get any more dysfunctional? Yes!

Let me first say that if you enjoy feeling like an ounce of that thing you tell the waiter to throw into your doggy bag when you leave the restaurant, then you should see this movie. It’s technically very proficient and the film has a polished, ethereal look that defies its Thailand background. Having seen my share of Thai films with horrific aesthetics (a mainstay of the cheaply-produced and amateurishly-acted and directed Thai films), I can safely say that Jan Dara’s aesthetics are miles beyond what I’ve seen so far. The film looks very good.

But is it good as a movie? No, not really. The acting is sometimes too stilted and rings untrue. Many of the cast speaks their lines like they’re reading from a cue card, without any conviction or personality, an element of the film you’ll immediately notice if you can speak the language. Non-Thai speakers won’t have a clue. The film is also prone to overwrought melodrama that just looks and feels artificial. There’s the “Look, here’s my evil stare because I’m evil, see?” and “I know you’re evil, but I’ll take it or this movie will be over too quickly” situations that revolves around the Kaew character. The movie shifts between time periods, with an elderly Jan Dara narrating through the years. The adult Jan Dara is very nicely performed by the actor, but the child Jan Dara, like the child Kaew, are too fake, and their performance screams of too much coaching.

There are also some good performances that need mention. Christy Chung plays Boonlueang, Luang’s mistress who moves into the house, and begins an affair with Jan. Chung’s sultry Boonlueang is hard to figure out, and her subtle, but highly erotic, performance is easily the best in the entire movie. The other exception is Wipawee Charoenpura as the kindly Aunt Waad, whose patience and kindness is reminiscent of Mother Theresa. (And in fact her character later becomes a nun, and is, not surprisingly, the only character in the entire movie that is “saved” in any manner.)

Jan Dara is based on a novel by Utsana Phleungtham, who must have been stoned to death or banned from Thailand, because I’m prone to believe that such a story would still be too controversial for the Thailand of today. Director Nimibutr co-wrote the screenplay with Sirapak Paoboonkerd, and the duo seems determined to make the Ultimate Serious Depressing Arthouse film of all time come hell or high water. Not having read the novel, I don’t know if the story is actually so infused with tiresome sex, rampant lesbianism, incest (the insinuated and actually shown kinds), and enough dysfunction to keep an army of psychiatrist busy for centuries.

Then again, Jan Dara is undeniably the best looking Thailand film I’ve seen ever, and if just for that accomplishment alone, it bears a look. But be warn — have a copy of Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back ready to play immediately after watching this movie, because once you’ve sloshed through the misery that is Jan Dara’s story, you’ll need something to remind you life is actually worth living. Even if Jan Dara convinces you it’s better to run into the wall until you crack your skull open and “get it over with.”

Nonzee Nimibutr (director) / Nonzee Nimibutr (screenplay)
CAST: Suwinit Panjamawat …. Jandara
Santisuk Promsiri …. Khun Luang
Christy Chung …. Khun Boonlueang

Buy Jan Dara on DVD