Besides the U.S.A. exporting the wonderful benefits of fast food, gigantic air conditioned malls, tight jeans and bad movies to Asia, reality game shows have also wormed their way across the borders into Thailand. Thank god for globalization! Reality game shows have become a staple of the television diet in this country and earlier this year the film, “Ghost Game”, played with the concept by having eleven people (played by real life contestants of the reality show, “Academy Fantasia”) have to spend the night in an old Khmer Rouge concentration camp where they begin to be killed off one by one. Cambodia was not pleased and the filmmakers were forced to obscure the location of the camp.
This theme is again skewered in “13 Beloved”, a deliciously dark slap that teeters back and forth between black comedy and gritty violent suspense. The 25 year-old director handles this dichotomy very adeptly on a small budget of 15 million baht ($405,000) and gives the film a terrific stark clean look with inventive cinematography, startling imagery and good use of outside locations. The director though is out to satirize much more than reality shows - he uses that premise to make a statement about the human condition – our greed, our callousness and our susceptibility to ever increasing violence. This isn’t done in a heavy manner but instead with a fast moving increasingly tense narrative that is constantly entertaining and surprising.
Phuchit (Krissada) is a racially mixed (half Thai/half Falang) salesman of musical instruments whose life is reaching a critical point – his girlfriend has left him, his sales numbers are way off, his unpaid bills are accumulating, his car has been repossessed , his mother is asking for money and he is out of cigarettes. His boss calls him in one day and gives him his walking papers and Phuchit goes out in the stairwell to have a last dazed smoke – a fly begins to buzz around him. He gets a phone call. “Do you want to win 100 million baht ($2.7 million)” the voice on the other end asks. “All you have to do is accomplish 13 tasks that we ask of you and upon each one we will transfer money into your bank account”. Phuchit responds with suspicion that this must be a joke. “No, it’s a game and we will be watching you. Task number one – kill that fly buzzing around your head and you will win 10,000 baht”.
After accomplishing this proverbial first task (“he couldn’t kill a fly”), Phuchit warily waits for the next ones – and they don’t seem so bad at first – “make three children cry”, “steal the coins from a blind beggar” – easy to justify to yourself in order to win 100 million baht but the violence, tension and humiliation factor increase with each task and soon Phuchit is being sought by the police and is covered in blood and his blank-eyed expression keeps saying to the audience “I can do this and everything will turn out all right”. It doesn’t as the bodies pile up leading up to a rather preposterous but visceral ending. Along the way Phuchit begins to realize his tasks are all tied to events in his childhood and he is being forced to relive them as if in a perverse version of “This is Your Life”. Remember when you were forced to eat dog shit by the neighborhood bullies?
None of this necessarily makes a lot of sense as he is manipulated by this all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful voice, but the audience is quickly sucked into this mysterious improbable reality. The film works to a large extent because Phuchit is never made into a monster but is portrayed quite sympathetically to the point where you have to ask yourself – at what point would I have stopped? It appears that the film was perhaps edited down at some point because there are a few loose ends left unexplained, but at the same time the director cleverly pulls various disparate aspects and side characters together – such as in the opening scene of a little old lady being helped across the street by a young man. For the longest time this doesn’t seem to fit into the rest of the film, but when it finally does you feel enlightened like a flash of light. Remember that little old lady. The only other film from this director is “Khon Pee Pisaj” (Evil), that I have not seen, but based on this assured effort he is someone to keep your eye on in the future.
My rating for this film: 7.5