Teacher Somsri (1985)
Somsri is a teacher in one of Bangkok’s slums, teaching the slum kids as best she can in a beat up old building with no budget for equipment or books etc. At the time the film was made (or is set), 1/5th of Bangkok’s population was apparently living in slums – I have no idea if the situation has improved since. Somsri is also the leader of a slum committee, organized primarily to fight the property development company that is trying to evict the people from their homes. Somsri is idealistic, proud and strong-headed and determined to organize the residents and fight the company every step of the way. Unfortunately, many or most of the residents are reluctant to fight, accepting the idea that as slum people they have no rights and can’t possibly win against a big corporation. The fight is a difficult one as the company is not afraid to use nasty tactics against the people that stand in the way of their profits.
Once again, Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol chooses to tell a story of Thailand’s poor and dispossessed, in a piece of social criticism that is pretty harsh about the Thai government (I guess the royal family and the government don’t get along well). The poor folk in the film are certainly not idealized, though the value of keeping one’s dignity is, and the greedy capitalists are definitely demonized.
The film is played very straight, and is perhaps over-serious at times in its pursuit of depicting hardship – it feels slightly manipulative. Although an attempt is made to personalize the story by focusing on Somsri, none of the characters feel rounded or fully developed except perhaps the old drunken teacher that runs the school. Characters seem to exist basically to serve the purpose of making the social statements the Prince wants to make.
Despite the lack of depth in the characters, the cast give good performances. Somsri’s fierce and bull-headed persona is well realized by the actress that plays her, and it’s largely this that makes the film enjoyable. The direction is solid, as usual. The soundtrack is very good, and adds a lot to the film.
Perhaps it’s just that I’m fatigued from too much suffering in his films, but it does seem to me that I’m not enjoying the more recent releases from the Prince as much as the earliest ones that I saw such as Gunman and Elephant Keeper – or perhaps it’s just that I saw the best of his work first. Whilst Kru Somsri is a pretty good film, it’s definitely not a must-see unless social drama is your particular thing.
The recently released Thai DVD is similar to the other releases of Tan Mui films – fairly faded and worn print that probably went through a VHS phase at some point. It’s watchable but not one to show off your home theatre with. The subtitles are rather disappointing, in that they’re clearly a minimalist translation of what’s being said (quite a few things get no translation at all, others a few words to cover a few sentences). There are also several places where they’re badly synchronized with the dialog, making it difficult to follow who is saying what. They’re sufficient to follow what is going on though.