How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
Written and Directed by Josh Kim
Steve Murray’s Interview with Kim follows this review
Premiered February 2, 2015, a the Berlin International Film Festival
Review by Stephen O. Murray
January 19, 2016.
The touching feature film debut of Korean-American filmmaker Josh Kim is a wistful coming-of-age drama filmed in Thai with a Thai cast and crew.
Based on two short stories by Thai-American (or American-Thai) Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) is the recollection by Oat [Toni Rakkaen], who has just turned 21, of the time when he was eleven [with Ingkarat Damrongsakkul poignantly playing the younger Oat] and lost his older brother Ek [Thira Chutikul] to the Thai military draft lottery.
All 21-year-old Thai males are subject to this lottery, which proceeds each year on April 5th one young man at a time (in contrast to universal conscription in Korea and the former system of national drawing of birthdays in the U.S.).
Ek’s richer, taller, and lighter-skinned lover Jai [Arthur Navarat] and their transgender, in-transition friend Kitty [Natarat Lakha] go with Ek to the same drawing of red or black slips. Kitty is dismissed, and Jai has paid a bribe to be passed over. Jai has told Ek that he will take care of Oat if Ek is drafted. He isn’t, but he does not offer to pay a bribe to keep Ek out of the military.
(Even if Jai had an additional 20,00 baht, the going rate, which is about $600U.S., Ek’s scorn for cheating precluded any attempt by his more affluent lover to pay to protect Ek from being drafted).
More frightened for Ek than Ek is frightened for himself, and less fatalistic than his older brother, Oat takes (childish) action: he makes a very foolish attempt to raise the money for a bribe by breaking into the car of the king of the local black market. This leads to Ek being fired as a bartender at Lovey’s Café, a boy-bar run by the ganglord and having instead to turn tricks instead in the cubicles upstairs from the bar.
Oat’s memories of Ek, the gay older brother who protected him and whom he tried to protect from the draft, are shot gauzily by Nikorn Sripongwarakul. Ek’s relationship with Jai is not an issue for Oat, either in retrospect or when he was eleven years old. Nor does their aunt [Vatanya Thamdee], the sister of the orphaned boys’ father, with whom they live, reject having Jai staying for their humble, meatless dinner. (There is no indication what Jai’s family thinks of their son’s liaison with Ek.)
Similarly, Kitty’s gender transitioning is not an obstacle to friendship with her agemates Ek and Jai or to her acceptance by Oat. Nor, for that matter, does Ek seem bothered about being prostituted (though, when he finds out, Jai is appalled).
The movie’s title indexes a book that Oat reads to learn how to beat Ek at checkers. Only when he wins a game will Ek teach him how to drive the motorbike inherited from their father, and soon to be left behind when Ek goes off to military service against Islamist insurgents in the south of Thailand.
Ek takes Oat along to Café Lovey’s to wait downstairs (in the bar) for him, which results in Oat learning what goes on upstairs, and what Ek has to do following Oat’s theft that was supposed to fund bribing Ek’s way out of the draft. (Ek tells Oat that not everything is about him and he is not to blame, though he actually is.)
I think the take-aways from the movie are that homosexuality, transgenderism, official corruption, and extreme stratification of life chances (that is, economic equality) are accepted by Thais. The passivity, which might be called “fatalism,” provides a sad story for Ek—as viewed through Oat’s eyes—but no real conflict to dramatize. I consider this more the fault of the society than of the film-makers who provide a window to the lack of resistance—or even resentment—of corruption and class privilege. Fraternal bonds, even strong ones like the one between Ek and Oat, or the one between Ek and Jai did not save the uncomplaining, very likable, pure of heart, and rather resilient Ek. Having observed that, Oat does what it takes not to suffer Ek’s fate when his cohort comes of draft age in the movie’s present day, following the rule that serves as the title for my review.
In a phone interview from Seoul, 31-year-old Kim told me that when he read Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s stories “At the Café Lovely” and “Draft Day” in Sightseeing (2005), they resonated with his own childhood (in the U.S.) and inspired him to learn Thai. As a child Kim had played chess with his older brother and, like Oat, exalted in finally winning a game—when he was nine. Kim made two short films in Korea and a nine-minute documentary about the draft and two MTFs dressing in men’s clothes on draft day in Thailand. Kim told me that he expects some day to make a film about Korean Americans, though he does not yet know what story it will tell.
I asked how his film has been received in Thailand. He said that he and the producers were worried that it would be censored for showing official corruption and, in particular, corruption in the populating of the armed services. (21-year-old Thais may also be drafted into the police force.) Though the initial press screening was, he recalled, eerily quiet, the film was sufficiently embraced to become the official Thai submission for the foreign-language picture Academy Award (it did not receive one of the five nominations).
The movie has not led to demands to change the Thai draft system, though in recent years there have been big and long-running protests against the status quo in Thailand. Belief in karma has not ensured total acquiescence with the rampant corruption and great inequality. The army suspended the constitution in a May 2014 coup (the twelfth coup since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932) and ostensibly ended martial law eleven months later, with the army chief, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, becoming prime minister.
There were curfews at the time the film was being shot, which obstructed night shooting. (I’d add that increasingly extreme economic inequality in the U.S. has not produced much in the way of protest movements even without a widespread belief in karma.)
This first appeared on the Out In Jersey website, 19 January 2016
©2016, Stephen O. Murray