Synopsis: Based on one of the most acclaimed Thai novels of the 20th century and directed by Thai cinema’s most successful and accomplished director: Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak and Baytong).
Enter the exotic and haunting world of Jan Dara, a saga of sex, guilt, retribution and love set in the moody and turbulent Thailand of the 1930s. Jan Dara is a young Thai man with a traumatic background. His mother died when giving birth to him, and his earliest memories recall his father’s sexual relationship with his childhood nanny. Branded a “bastard” by his father, Jan is later disowned and cast out of the house. Years later, Jan Dara returns to seek revenge by outdoing his father’s sexual conquests.
Jan Dara 7.0
eyelights: the ice-rub scenes. the beautiful women.
eyesores: the convoluted plot. the throw-away sex scenes.
‘Jan Dara’ is a 2001 erotic drama based on the classic Thai novel ‘The Story of Jan Darra’, by Pramoon Un-hathoop (a.k.a Utsana Phleungtham). The book is widely hailed as Thailand’s best entry in the genre, and the film was a very successful adaptation of it, being showcased at various film festivals (including its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) and winning a number of technical awards.
It’s the story of Jan Dara, a boy who is raised by his aunt after his mother’s death from complications during childbirth. Despised by his father, Luang, who blames him for her passing, Jan is barely sheltered from his abuse by Aunt Waad, who loves him like a son. Throughout his life, he would have to look on as his father had indiscreet affairs with a variety of housekeepers and other lovers.
Jan becomes attached to Waad, but she become pregnant with Luang’s daughter, whom the father would raise to despise her sibling, poisoning even further the home life. Jan therefore spends his time with his best friend, one of the maids’ son, and Hyacinthe, a girl he has a crush on. He is extremely conscious of not letting Luang’s values have an effect on his behaviour and he struggles to be different.
But there are repercussions, some good, some not-so-good: he would have his first sexual experiences with one of Luang’s lovers, is accused of attempted rape by his loathsome sister, later marries his pregnant sister to help Aunt Waad save face, loses Hyacinthe, and then must face the darkest truths about his mother, his father and even himself. It’s so bloody melodramatic that your head spins.
Still, it is rather entertaining… in a soap opera sort of way.
What it isn’t is sexy. For all the nudity and sexual activity (all Luang seems to do is !@#$ – does he even work?), it doesn’t at all titillate. There’s actually one scene, the ice cube back-rub, that was sexy – but that was due to a combination of how it was shot and the feverish breathing and moaning. The rest of the scenes looked good (‘Jan Dara’ won cinematography awards for a reason), but it was emotionally neutral.
In fact, I was disappointed by this the first time that I saw the picture. Based on the DVD art, I was expecting something steamy and was looking forward to getting my head in a tizzy. It did nothing of the sort, unfortunately, and I couldn’t get beyond the incessant dramatic turns that the story threw in my face. I mean, seriously, they probably covered all possible plot twists one could ever imagine in under two hours!
I enjoyed the picture more this time around, but I appreciated it mostly on a technical level. For starters, it’s a very nice looking film. It has a golden glow and deep blacks that are quite pleasing to the eyes (and that’s saying nothing of the bevy of gorgeous Thai women! Wow!). I also loved the way it was presented, particularly that each new main character is introduced in turn with a picture and title, setting the stage.
But does it make ‘Jan Dara’ a great film? Not really. I would never ever think highly of a film purely on its technical merits – no matter how astonishing it is to watch, it has to have substance to balance it out. In fact, I prefer watching a gritty, crappily-made picture with substance (ex: Night of the Living Dead (1968)), than a technically proficient film with nothing below the surface (ex: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)) anytime.
I guess the real point would be whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the book. Having never read it, nor knowing anyone who has, I have literally no point of reference (in fact, I didn’t know of its literary roots until recently). It’s quite possible, given all the plot developments contained herein, that this is a dense novel and that it would have been difficult to do make it a more faithful adaptation of it.
A couple of details that seem to support this notion is that the story was remade into two movie recently, as ‘Jan Dara pathommabot’ and ‘Jan Dara Pachimmabot’, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. It doesn’t make of them better films, but it does leave one to suppose that perhaps it was near-impossible to adapt it as a two-hour film and that this is actually quite excellent all things considered. Only someone who’s read it would know.
But it doesn’t change the fact that, as an erotic picture, it fails. I can’t say it enough: sex is not necessarily sexy. The problem with this picture is that it makes of sex a common occurrence, something disposable: it doesn’t tease the senses, doesn’t stimulate the brain, doesn’t stir its audience – and those are key to any good erotica. And so we are left with eye candy and emotional turmoil, but no electric charge.
Date of viewing: August 21, 2014