film review: The Love of Siam

The Love Of Siam (in Thai, Rak haeng Siam) was one of the first movies I replaced when I recently began reassembling my collection after a major data loss. (That’s a euphemism for: I got robbed.) I’d only watched it once but it left such a lingering impression on me that I wanted to see it again to find out why my memory of it was so, well, sweet.

[Warning: Some small spoilers.]

The romantic friendship of two young Thai boys lies at the center of this often sentimental family drama. It’s a friendship based not so much on desire as on shared loss and freely given comfort.

Tong and Mew in bed together

Tong and Mew in bed together

Perhaps it’s the durability of that friendship that moved me so much. The pair were separated in childhood by tragic circumstances and later met in adolescence. Despite the separation, each immediately recognized the longing and need in the other and picked up where they left off.

Those longings are not unambiguously focused on each other. For Mew, the longer-haired boy on the right in the above photo, life has been lonely since the death of his grandmother, someone who loved him unconditionally. He’s worried that he’ll never find that again or that he’ll be too afraid to love someone because he might lose them.

He seems to have accepted his sexuality but something about that acceptance has set him apart from his other friends who are fellow members of an all-boy pop band of which he is the lead vocalist and primary songwriter. He’s a loner who, as his best friend says, can’t ever believe that anyone else cares about him. When Tong re-enters his life, it not only brings him out, it also finally allows him to write love songs. He’s no longer so introspective that he can’t pay attention to the world.

Tong, on the other hand, is much more social, hanging out with typical, gregarious teenage boys and getting drunk. He has a girlfriend but he doesn’t pay much attention to her. When he meets Mew again, she is replaced. His mates can’t help but notice and ask him directly if he’s gay or not. He’s not ready to accept this about himself and refuses to answer, later breaking down in sobs after failing to prove his heterosexuality: “Everyone is mad at me because I don’t know what I am!” Unlike Mew, he frames his identify in social terms.

On the other hand, Tong easily accepts Mew’s rather public declarations of love. For instance, at a party Mew sings a new love song directly to Tong in front of all their friends and families.

“I want you to know that a love song/Can’t be written if you’re not in love” he sings and looks at Tong, (played by an angelic and very good Mario Maurer) who responds with spontaneous, innocent joy.

Tony listens to Mew singing about their love

Tong hears Mew’s love song to him

Most Western ears will find the music pretty bathetic but you’d have to have a tin heart not to feel something at that moment, particularly anyone who has memories of a vivid young love.

And so, that leads to this after most everyone else has gone home:

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This tender and low-key first kiss is typical of how the film dramatizes most of its big moments – on a slow simmer rather than a furious boil. This kiss is framed in medium shot, rather than in closeup as we might expect. So, despite some of the soap-opera plotting and schmaltzy details, it steers away, just barely, from melodrama. The film cuts away from this kiss before it ends, as it does several times after a principal actor asks a big question that the other doesn’t want answered, or already has been.

Tong’s mom sees what Mew and Tong are up to from the kitchen doorway. She doesn’t intervene then but later meets alone with Mew and warns him off. This scene between a young actor and one of Thailand’s most seasoned, Sinjai Plengpanich as Sunee, plays out powerfully as a mother attempts to prevent what she sees as the loss of her son – abandoning traditional family life for “the wrong path.” The whole import of the scene is cruel but nothing is as cruel as when she says, “That is life, Mew,” after describing the kind she wants for Tong. To her, whatever Mew has or wants is not life.

There’s some justification for her interference. In the film’s other major plotline, she’s already lost a daughter and her husband has been disintegrating from alcoholism ever since, so Tong’s choosing Mew registers as another kind of loss for her. She feels like all normality has fallen away. In a series of tense shot/reverse shots between the two characters, Mew responds evenly but not dispassionately, pausing before he speaks but repeating that he and Tong are “just friends.” I didn’t get the sense that he’s afraid of coming out or of defying her but that in the context of Thai culture and his own genuine feelings for Tong and his family, he decides to sacrifice what he desires for their good. But still he’s floored and hurt. Because he’s still afraid of loving he refuses to answer Tong when he comes calling for him outside his window. He retreats back into himself, and stops writing songs.

mewwerejustfriends

Both times I’ve watched the Love of Siam, I’ve been perplexed by the resolution of the love affair between Tong and Mew. The film sets up the boys’ reunion as inevitable — Tong’s mother separated them but Tong eventually brings her around by telling her subtly that he’s ready to choose a boy to love, and she accepts; Tong finally breaks up with his girlfriend and runs to attend a concert where Mew is performing; Tong has a present to give Mew and follows him backstage to do it. So there’s a determination on Tong’s part and because of that my expectation at first was that the boys would finally get back together.

But when the boys meet, Tong tells Mew, after a few seconds of chit chat, “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend.”

Then, after a reaction shot of Mew’s fallen smile, he adds, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

He then gives Mew his Christmas present, which was the missing part of a wooden doll that had been part of a childhood friendship ritual – the younger Tong had spread the parts around their neighborhood and engaged Mew in a treasure hunt. But the final piece had been carried away by a garbage truck before Mew could find it.

What does this re-assembly/non-reunion mean, really? Why can’t Tong be with Mew? I’m still not sure. Maybe because he doesn’t feel Mew has woken up enough to life. But it’s satisfying in a bittersweet way.

I’ve spent a lot more time on plot details than I usually do in my film responses, but I’ve only covered one of the two major plotlines in Love of Siam. The other also begins with a loss, dealing with that loss and the provisional return of the lost thing. I say provisional because in both the protagonists are wrong about the irreversibility of that loss, or at least what it had really been. The film’s final shot before a quick fade to black becomes not a literal return of a treasured thing but a symbol of promises kept, and of hope.