Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Problem With "L" Words

Grade school may be an appropriate place to learn about the three "R"s (reading, writing, and arithmetic), but real life is where you learn about the three "L"s (love, loss, and loneliness). Whether dealing with a severe case of infatuation, the death of a loved one, or the crushing sense of isolation that comes from feeling unloved, it's a life-long curriculum in which one never stops learning new lessons.

Love comes with enough variations to inspire an endless stream of novels, plays, and cinema. There is the unrequited love of infatuation, the pain of misdirected love, the maturing love of a long-time partnership, the excitement of instant, often promiscuous love, and the never-ending masturbatory fantasies of self-love (a huge subset of the porn industry). 

There is the love that finds peace and trust with an unlikely person as well as angry love, beastly love. and same-sex love (which was once referred to as "the love that dare not speak its name"). Love, though often given freely, is sometimes purchased as a commodity. No matter how you approach it, love can be used to develop a plot line. 

Loss can be equally useful in advancing a plot. Whether it be loss of life, loss of limb, loss of virginity, loss of money, loss of insurance, loss of direction, loss of faith, or even loss of love, a critical loss can inspire a farce or burn like acid. 

Loneliness often results from a lack of self-love or a fear of being unloved. Sometimes the loneliest people in the world are those trapped in a loveless relationship. Sometimes one's disconnect from the masses can result in a crushing sense of loneliness. 

In many instances, loneliness can combine love and loss, leaving someone caught in the middle of an emotionally complex tug of war. Two films seen this week approached love, loss, and loneliness from very different angles, in different times and different cultures. Each was fascinating in its own right.

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Screening next month at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival is a 2-1/2 hour film about the pitfalls of lonelienss and young love.   Written and directed with great sensitivity by Chukiat Sakveerakul, The Love of Siam follows the rocky adolescence of two young Thai boys whose lives have been separated by tragedy.

As youngsters, Mew and Tong were neighbors and friends. The petulant Mew had a deep love for his grandmother, who would sometimes play the piano with him. Music often comforted him in moments of doubt and pain.

When Tong's sister, Tang, disappeared on a jungle excursion following a trip to Chiang Mai, Tong's grieving parents moved to a different part of Bangkok in an effort to start their lives over again. Tong's ice queen of a mother, Sunee (Sinjai Plengpanit), became overly protective of her teenage son while his father, Korn (Songsit Roongnophakunsri), drowned his sorrows and guilt in alcohol. 

Several years later, Tong and Mew run into each other at the Siam Square shopping mall. Tong's quasi-girlfriend Donut (Aticha Pongsilpipat) ditches him once it becomes obvious that he is incapable of making her the center of his life.  As he struggles to find out who he is and how he can make people happy, Tong (Mario Maurer) must cope with the stresses of his highly dysfunctional family and friends.

Meanwhile, Mew (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul), is starting to get a grip on his musical talent and has become the chief songwriter for an aspiring boy band named August. Mew, who has always cherished the friendship he had with Tong, is also starting to realize that he is gay. One of his neighbors, a girl named Ying (Kanya Rattapetch), has a heavy crush on him which is not going to get her very far. Luckily, the two of them can agree to just be good friends.

When August's promoter, Pee Aod (Pongarin Ulice), assigns a young woman named June (Laila Boonyasak) to manage the band, Mew quickly notices her resemblance to Tong's missing sister. In an attempt to help bring Korn out of the depths of his drunken despair, Mew, Tong and Sunee conspire to have June pay regular (paid) visits to Tong's family while impersonating Korn's lost daughter. She needs the money and her presence seems to help Tong's father.

As Mew realizes that Tong is not just the object of his affection but also his artistic muse, his creativity starts to blossom. When Sunee sees the two boys enjoying a tentative kiss, she cannot bear the thought of losing her son to a gay lifestyle. A narcissistic control freak who thinks that bad things only happen to her, Sunee demands that Mew end his budding relationship with her son.

Mew (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul) and Tong (Mario Maurer)

Since homosexuality is accepted as normal in Thailand, there is no evil overlay to the fact that Mew is gay. What this film captures, instead, is Mew's slow realization of his sexual orientation and Tong's tentative attempts to pry himself loose from his dysfunctional family.

Without Tong's smile to inspire him, Mew loses his artistic passion, but slowly comes to realize that all is not lost. His boy band is starting to enjoy success and he has a career waiting for him (with or without Tong by his side). Eventually Tong gets a clue and chases after Mew to tell him that, while he cannot be Mew's boyfriend, he still loves Mew in his own special way.

Although The Love of Siam is a very long film, it doesn't lose its focus. Dealing honestly with Mew's loss of his grandmother and Tong's loss of his sister, it gently follows the two boys as they start to emerge from puberty.  The music for Mew's boy band is much less energetic than the sound of American boy bands, depending on a gentle type of lovesick crooning that can excite teenage girls and lonely, confused boys.

The acting is quite strong, with Laila Boonyasak doing double duty as Tang and June. The only thing that might cause discomfort to an adult American audience is how clean and young the protagonists are. For a film that features so many teenagers, there is an astonishing lack of acne. You'll definitely leave the theater feeling your age.

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Last Saturday, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a special treat to film lovers with a rare screening of Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. This 1927 classic, starring Janet GaynorGeorge O'Brien, and Margaret Livingston boasts a rare visual beauty.

Directed by the great German expressionist, F.W. Murnau, Sunrise:A Song Of Two Humans is a triumph of camera technique for its time. However, its premiere, on September 23, 1927, was followed two weeks later by the introduction of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, which quickly became an international phenomenon. With the era of silent film coming to an end soon thereafter, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans may not have received all the credit it deserved.

At the start of the film we see a man torn between two women. His wife (Janet Gaynor) is a dutiful partner, but the spark has clearly evaporated from their relationship. Her mere presence is stifling. Meanwhile, he has become infatuated with a sexy city woman who has been vacationing in their small fishing village. 

Margaret Livingston and George O'Brien

She callously suggests that he drown his wife and return with her to the city but, when the moment of truth arrives, he simply cannot bring himself to murder his wife. The wife, however, has figured out that she is doomed. As she makes a desperate break for freedom, she boards a streetcar which takes them both to the city.  

Although the couple's love is reignited while touring the city, as they return home the man's boat capsizes in a fierce storm. The man realizes how deeply he loves his wife.  When her body is pulled from the sea and his wife is revived, the woman from the city returns home alone. Love triumphs over lust and the movie ends on a note of radiance, recovery, and renewal.

Visually, the film is a knockout, with a clear artistic vision and magnificent performances from its leads. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans won several Oscars at the very first Academy Awards dinner in 1929 (including the one and only Academy Award ever given for Unique and Artistic Production).  Saturday's screening was accompanied by organist Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer. As always, his outstanding musicianship became a major contribution to the experience.

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