The Overture

Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly.

Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak’s The Overture has the distinction of being the first film in Thai cinema that explores the indigenous musical instruments of Thailand. It’s also the first movie to portray the musicians who struggled to become masters of an art that falls between folk and classical. There, however, distinction ends. Wichailak’s depiction of a Thai musician’s life is as steeped in clichés as a standard Hollywood biopic.

“Inspired by,” though not precisely based on, the life of percussionist Luang Pradit Phairao, The Overture focuses on Sorn, a composite figure drawn from several highly regarded Thai music teachers of the early 20th-century. Sorn, a child prodigy, hears complex harmonies in the interplay between mallets and struck surfaces. He becomes a virtuoso of the ranad-ek, a wooden keyboard that resembles a marimba yet has the higher register of a xylophone.

The sequences of making music have logic and power, qualities absent from the drama that Wichailak invents to fit around them. The writer-director (he’s also his own editor) structures the movie to shuttle between scenes of Sorn as a young man finding his path through life to footage of Sorn as an elderly sage, weathering the storms of Japanese occupation during World War II and an increasingly repressive Siamese government. We’re shown nothing that happens in midlife. The two actors who share this role, Anuchit Saphanphong as the younger and Adul Dulyarat as the elder, are fine individually, but neither matches up to the other physically or temperamentally. Saphanphong, a dancer who had no prior expertise in playing traditional percussion, has a lissome grace to his movements that the square-shaped Dulyarat isn’t equipped to imply.

The Overture, I think, would have succeeded as a concert film or documentary. The movie’s flights of musical improvisation create the most suspense: How far can a performer extend or stretch creatively with two mallets and a small range of scales and tones? Wichailak and cinematographer Natthawut Kittikhun generously give us several overhead shots of Sorn striking the instrument, its beautiful keys, dyed a deep, dark cherry red, taking up the full width of the screen. But the movie isn’t character-driven. We never learn much about the people around Sorn or, aside from his stern father, what their relationships are to him.

The father initially opposes his son’s desire to play music, then comes around to being a sort of coach and manager. Raised in rural Ampawa, Sorn grows accustomed to being a big fish in a small pond, but on his first trip to Bangkok, an older, more experienced ranad-ek soloist surpasses him in a display of sheer virtuosity. The young Sorn goes through a period of self-doubt before, of course, a climactic rematch with his feared Bangkok rival. The filmmaker treats each of these incidents as sentimentally as possible, right down to the linking motif of a butterfly that the child Sorn chases and its symbolical flitting past the deathbed window of the old Sorn. I wish that Wichailak had delved into this material with a less commercial approach; Thai music, culture, and history deserve far better than they receive in The Overture.

The Overture shows Dec. 2 to Dec. 8 at The Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th St., Seattle. For tickets or showtimes, call 206-523-3935.