Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 06/12/04 10:11:46

"If you only see one Thai movie this year... Make it Baytong"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I always enjoy it when I see a film from a country not renowned in the west for filmmaking, where it's clear that the director has grown up watching the same great filmmakers that I have. A film festival can toss up all manner of weird obscure small country film projects that are tiresome to sit through and simply too culturally odd to have an impact on English-speaking audiences. But with technology making the world smaller and filmmaking less expensive, clearly the talented filmmakers who were once restircted to being big fish in their own little ponds are now getting the support they need to be seen by all. A great example of this is Baytong, a film that takes the fish-out-of-water formula and gives it the kind of cultural spin that opens a new world to North American audiences, but in a style they can relate to.

Tum (Puwarit Poompuang) is a monk who has been living a life of seclusion and meditation for most of his 27 years on the planet. His day consists of eating, praying, and learning Buddhist philosophy, so when his sister is killed in a terrorist explosion on a train, the call to ditch the temple and come look after his niece is one that looks certain to change his life forever. And his wardrobe.

Once in the city, Tum has to learn everything from scratch. Living above his sister's hair salon, which is filled to the roof with shrieking women who are only interested in one thing, the solemn new man of the house is confronted with a worl he knows nothing about. Cell phones, drinking, this strange hard feeling between his legs, the fact that you don't ned a driver's license to ride a bike... and then there's how to deal with a small child who wants to hug him, something a Buddhist priest never does. In fact, they are forbidden from even touching girls.

The parallels between Baytong and Lost in Translation are many, and they go far beyond the storyline. The pace of the film is slow and deliberate (in fact, at times it runs far too slow), the dialogue is funny without making you burst your sides, and the feeling of being lost in a world that everyone but you seems to understand is one that most in the audience can surely relate to.

But, for a western audience, it's the cultural side of the equation that really makes Baytong worth watching. It's amazing to watch a people from the other side of the world, with such a rich history and an incredible homeland, essentially imitating our own culture in their pursuit of sex, gadgets, good times and ego. There were several times during Baytong that I actually felt lost along with Tum, only to realize that what I was seeing on the screen was what I would be seeing when Ieft the theater, right outside.

At a time when the world is plunging headlong into war for no other reason than profit and ego, perhaps it takes a Buddhist priest from the other side of the planet to show us exactly what we have become. Tum does exactly that, and filmmaker Nonzee Minibutr and screenwriter Siripak Paoboonkerd can be thanked and applauded for giving life to him.

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