Dang Bireley & The Young Gangsters

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Nonzee Nimibutr (debut film)
Year: 1997
Starring: Jessadaporn Pholdee (Dang), Noppachai Muttaweewong (Lam Sing), Attaporn Teemakorn (Piak), Chartchai Ngamsan (Dum), Suppakorn Kitsuwan (Pu), Champagne X (Wallapa)
Running Time: 1 hr 45 minutes

Dang Bireley's mother is a prostitute, and he kills his first man at the age of 13 (a customer that got violent with his mum). One might say that fate had him down for the gangster lifestyle from the start. In 1950's Thailand, under a corrupt military government, it seems that the only options for the youth are to become a gangster or one of their bitter rivals, the engineering students, so maybe it didn't take that much of fate at all. At the age of 16 he starts his first business, a protection racket, and from there goes on to become one of Thailand's most famous gangsters of the era.

DANG BIRELEY has a lot in common with the Korean movie FRIEND - in fact, if Thai cinema has penetrated Korean shores at all then I have no doubt it strongly influenced the latter movie. Despite FRIEND'S record box office, I found it to be a rather dull affair - perhaps due to over-high expectations. Perhaps my expectations for DANG BIRELEY were not quite so high, or perhaps it's just that it's a better movie because I definitely enjoyed it more.
Friendship is the theme, as the movie follows the lives of Dang Bireley and his close friends, not all of whom will remain close friends as inevitable conflicts come between them. DANG BIRELEY pays quite a bit attention to recreating the 1950s mood, and it is pretty evocative, if not quite down to the finest detail that FRIEND manages. This is balanced with a very modern filming style though - a very kinetic camera and edgy framing/editing, not over done but there are some very cool and interesting visuals.
The movie comes from writer Wisit Sartsanatieng and director Nonzee Nimimbutr - the director and producer of the transcendent TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, with which it also shares some key cast members. A testament to the great talents of these film makers is how completely different the two movies are though (with Nonzee's NANG NAK being utterly different again). The movie is pretty serious in tone, though not as dry as FRIEND and definitely not suffering from the vaguely sickly nostalgia that permeates the Korean movie. It is presented as the occasionally narrated memories of one of Dang's gang - and though he obviously remembers Dang very fondly, his memories of the times are not particularly cheerful. There's a lot of violence, corruption and hardship around.
The story of Dang Bireley's life is a touching one. The bonds between the friends are very strong, and the characters mostly well painted and believable. I think the performances are top notch, though my unfamiliarity with the Thai language makes it difficult to judge this completely accurately. Script is great, direction great, cinematography great... generally a quality movie, though it is let down a little by an ending that feels a little awkward (though presumably this is due to the inconvenience of the real world having ended that way). Whilst not flawless, the movie still comes with my recommendation.

Note: When it was released in 1997 it broke the box office record for Thailand at the time. It also won the Thai award for Best film that year as well as being the Grand Prix Winner at the 1998 Brussels International Film Festival. The film is based on true events and was sourced from a book (The Mafia Route) written by one of the gang members many years later.