Sia Dai (1994)

Directed by
Reviewed by Simon on 2003-03-09

I decided a long time ago that I never want to be a parent. The reason is very simple - I don't think I'd be at all good at it. I don't berate myself too badly for this, because I think being a good parent is incredibly hard - probably the hardest thing you could ever undertake, in fact, and there's no quitting when it gets tough. Sadly, I think there are a lot of people that become parents without ever having actually thought about this. Some of them no doubt succeed admirably, but it's hard to look at the way a lot of kids grow up and say that their parents have really done them justice.

Such is the theme of Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's 1994 movie Sia Dai/Sei Dai/Daughter, anyway. It tells the story of four teenage girls whose parents have let them down in one way or another, and the harm their upbringing has done to them. In the absence of a loving home and familial support, the girls have taken to skipping school to go to the mall... and then sniffing glue or prostituting themselves, amongst other things.

Disaffected and troubled youth is not an unusual theme in movies these days - it seems that no movie about kids is complete without a murder, a rape and a suicide these days. Sia Dai manages to avoid two of these, but manages to provide a bleak enough existence for the four girls without them.

There are some directors whose name is enough to make me buy a DVD without knowing anything more about the film - Chatrichalerm Yukol is one. Sia Dai is a million miles away from Suriyothai or The Elephant Keeper, but shows the prince's talents as a filmmaker again. The movie is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style, telling most of the story in a series of flashbacks that fill in the details of incidents that characters mention in the interview-like sections. It's a very effective way of telling the girls' story.

And what a grim story it is! The four girls are all very sweet and likeable, but life has not treated them well, and their own attempts to achieve happiness are surely misguided. Their friendship with each other is the one thing they have that they can really depend on in life, and together they try to get by in the world the best they can. Either that or escape it for a while with drugs.

The movie seems very realistic, and I don't doubt that the story of these girls is very much like thousands of true stories out there. This is a sad thing to think about, and Chatrichalerm wants to make sure we get this point. The underlying message throughout is "This could be your daughter... what are you doing each day to try to make sure it's not?". It's perhaps unfair to point the blame so completely at the girls' parents, though the social conditions they are in are perhaps given a vaguely critical glance too. Being a parent is hard, but being a poor parent is *really* hard.

Although the girls' story is a sad one - harrowing, even - there is ultimately a little light at the end of the tunnel, and the possibility of redemption is offered.

The prince's directing and story telling is good, but the movie really rests on the performances of the cast. Everybody does a good job, but especially the four girls that are the core focus. The actresses all give very powerful performances in demanding roles. It must have been very hard to go through all the most personal and painful moments of these characters lives, and I imagine that being in the film will have left them quite affected. I don't have a clue what the background of the actresses is, but their powerful performances (and expert handling of the various drugs paraphenalia in the film) perhaps indicate that their own lives have not been terribly rosy. Or perhaps they're just very good actresses working under a great director - it's nicer to think that anyway

With so many movies about kids on the rocks these days, it's hard to say whether Sia Dai makes for essential viewing or not. Certainly it's a good film, but there a better ones out there - at least, ones that are more enjoyable. Sia Dai is not meant to be entertaining, and it isn't going to make you feel good when its over. If you're looking for escapism, look elsewhere, but if you don't mind something a little more challenging then Sia Dai is at least well made.

The Thai DVD is presented full frame with removable subtitles. 4:3 appears to be the correct aspect ratio for the film, as nothing felt cropped. Picture and sound are about the quality of a VHS - which is probably because that's exactly what it was transferred from. The removable subtitles mean it's a big step up from The Elephant Keeper or Gunman DVDs, at least - and to be honest I'm just happy to see more films by this very interesting director getting released with English subs at all.