DVD Review - How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

Premiered at the 65th Berlinale on February 8, 2015, this movie went on to win several awards at various film festivals, including FilmOut San Diego, Out on Film Atlanta and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It became the official submission to the 88th Academy Awards from Thailand. It was one of several submissions to the Academy dealing with LGBT characters or themes.

Written and directed by Josh Kim, a Korean-American, this movie is an adaptation of the book Sightseeing by Rattawat Lapcharoensap who was raised in Bangkok but born in Chicago and who graduated from the University of Michigan. Lapcharoensap published Sightseeing in 2005. It was basically a collection of seven, short stories that in many ways reflect an outsider's perspective of Indochina. Kim's film is similarly a kind of outsider's perspective, which makes it odd that Thailand would make Kim's work its official submission.

However, as you watch this movie, it becomes clear that Kim's outsider perspective doesn't feel outsider at all. It feels ever present, ever immersed and ever connected to that country. If anything, this movie is about a kind of clashing of those perspectives, both outsider and insider, where ultimately the insider prevails. It's told through the relationships of one's brother and that brother's gay male lover.

Thira Chutikul stars as Ekkachai Rattanaram, or Ek, an orphan who's now 21 but who lives with his aunt, called Auntie, and his 10-year-old brother in a tiny home atop a poor neighborhood in Bangkok. Ek has a boyfriend, called Jai, played by Arthur Navarat. As observed by Ek's brother, Jai lives in a wealthy neighborhood and comes from a rich family. It's also observed that Jai is taller than Ek, is more educated and notably is "whiter."

Ingkarat Damrongsakkul co-stars as Urupong Rattanaram, or Oat, the younger brother of Ek. He's your average prepubescent boy, probably 10 but no older than 12 years-old most likely. Because of his poverty, there's a lot he hasn't been able to do, but he seems otherwise happy, despite his fellow orphan-status. Oat is the narrator. The movie is told mostly through his point-of-view, and he's the one who points out the differences between Ek and Jai.

Oat points out that Jai is whiter. He sees the love between them, but he denotes those aspects that divide Ek and Jai. Even though both are Thai, Oat distinguishing Jai's lighter skin-color can't be a coincidence. Plenty of Indochinese people have white skin, but those Asian people are not considered to be "white people." White people are generally Europeans or people in any other country who are of European descent but non-Hispanic.

In the United States, there is a distinction between white people and all other people of whatever ethnicity. White people have more privilege and opportunities, not all deserved or fair. White people have a legacy of getting an advantage or taking advantage of people who are poor and darker skinned. This distinction might be what is an undercurrent or implication of Oat pointing out those differences between Ek and Jai. Therefore, racism is subconscious for Oat and subtext for this film.

Just as white Americans historically were unfairly privileged over minorities, Jai is similarly so over Ek. This doesn't become a problem until both of them turn 21 years of age. The law in Thailand appears to be that all males have to participate in a military draft lottery. Every male is fingerprinted and examined for physical fitness, but not every male enters the military. Each one has to draw a card from a bowl. If the card is red, then he enters the military. If the card is black, then he goes back to his normal life.

Neither Ek or Jai want to enter the military. They know if they do, they wouldn't be able to be together in love. Whether it's homophobia in the Thai military or not, they know this draft lottery could split them apart. The difference is that Jai has the money from his family to determine his fate. Ek doesn't have the money to do the same. In that regard, the undercurrent or subtext might be classism and not racism.

At a crucial moment, Ek tells Jai, "We live in two different worlds." This line of dialogue seems to refer more to the themes of Lapcharoensap's book, that of outsiders and foreigners in an outside or foreign land. Yet, those themes resonate more through Oat's experiences. A lot of it could be the normal discoveries of youth, but it's less about Oat discovering these things as it is about his reactions to them.

Unlike the recent, Michael Moore film Where to Invade Next, the general sentiment is to reject these discoveries as intrusions of foreign people through culture or ideas. Instead, the sentiment seems to be stick to one's own. In a weird way, Kim excitingly makes the film a love triangle between Ek, his boyfriend Jai and Ek's brother Oat. Ek has a choice to make, his boyfriend or his brother. Choosing Jai would almost be like going with the foreigner, whereas the choice of Oat would obviously be sticking to one's own.

But, again, the movie is more from Oat's point-of-view, so it's more about choices that Oat has to make. He has a choice about a burger joint, one that looks like it could be a major chain imported from the U.S. It's not called McDonald's or Burger King, but it might as well have been. The question is if Oat will reject it or not. Oat has other similar choices involving drugs and sex, and it's all revealing or compelling.

The film opens with a shocking moment and one that is scary. Nevertheless, there is a lot of beauty and a lot of humor to Kim's feature. What's great is that the film is so positive on LGBT culture that it's completely comfortable with taking Oat as an underage boy into a gay bar and nightclub and have him experience it with almost no apprehension or judgment. It's extremely inclusive of transgender culture and experience through the character of Kitty, played by Natarat Lakha.

It ultimately ends as a loving tribute to brotherhood. Obviously, there are tons of films about loving relationships between brothers. Yet, this one is particularly tender and sweet. The performances from Chutikul and Damrongsakkul are very effecting and empathetic. A scene of them astride a motorcycle is a prime example. Films from Thailand like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, along with this one, underline the idea and the importance of remembrance, memory and the ephemeral connection to family being as strong as anything else.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations and a disturbing image.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 19 mins.

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