starring Suwinit Panjamawat, Santisuk Promsiri, Christy Chung, Eakarat Sarsukh
screenplay by Nonzee Nimibutr, Sirapak Paoboonkerd, based on the novel The Story of Jan Dara by Utsana Phleungtham
directed by Nonzee Nimibutr
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover It's a testament to the failure of Nonzee Nimibutr's Jan Dara that it contains parental sex, adolescent sex, inter-generational sex, lesbian sex, light bondage sex, even ice-cube sex--and still manages to wear out its welcome. You'd think that with all that screwing, you couldn't help but be a little titillated, but after half-an-hour of its melodramatic excesses it wears on you so heavily that you may decide you have a headache and just go to bed. Sure, Jan Dara contains the sordid detail and shocking revelations that make for really good melodrama, but it turns them all on their head: Instead of releasing the madness that lurks beneath the surface, it chastely peels away the hysterical rind to suck on the virginal fruit beneath. For the sensualist likes of me, this is totally unacceptable, as it takes what could have been a rakish romp and makes it a hypocritical object lesson in the virtues of clean living.
Not that clean-livers are going to be queuing up in droves: the opening quote from source novelist Utsana Phleungtham claims that his story is "not for children, or the very religious," and he's not kidding around. The titular hero is the son of a brutal patriarch named Khun Luang; Khun Luang seems to harbour resentment for the boy as his mother died in childbirth, and it is strongly hinted (well, screamed out during beatings) that Jan Dara is not Khun Luang's son. This, of course, doesn't stop either one of them from having outrageous amounts of sex; as a cousin introduces Jan Dara to the pleasures of loose women, his father besmirches his late wife's memory by turfing her portrait from the main house so that he might screw there without bad memories. This--and the constant beatings from his maybe father--fills the young man with hate, and the stage is set for a spectacular father-son smash-up.
Unfortunately, the two-faced moral code that undergirds the drama is enough to make the most desperate softcore fancier queasy. Jan Dara may enjoy shtupping the help and borrowing his Lothario cousin's women, but he's really got higher things on his mind: the innocent girl--inevitably named Hyacinth--he meets in town and with whom he falls delicately in love. Hyacinth is so pure and innocent that she has three lines of dialogue with more than two words: her main function is to cast a radiant glow in which the protagonist might bathe, to suggest a life away from the twisted family in which he has been unfortunate to find himself. But as anyone who would prefer this Ivory Snow vegetable to a hot-blooded young partner is too stupid to be believed, the film reveals its Cecil B. DeMille duplicity: our indulgence in rampant naughtiness will soon be punished, sending us out into the world better people. And as Jan Dara is framed, vows revenge, and is given his chance, his anger turns him into something awful--making all our indulgence in the proceedings right somehow.
Things wouldn't have been so bad had director Nonzee Nimibutr been able to be honest about his evasions--after all, the turns of his story are enough to make Jacqueline Susann scream and run. But he commits completely to the purpose of the tale, and does the impossible by creating a chaste lasciviousness. Sure, we get ridiculous amounts of copulation, but we're given them in a hands-off kind of way: aside from a scene involving ice cubes (which Spike Lee did better in Do the Right Thing), the film parks the camera outside the action and never cuts in to the fray. It's clinical, not sensual, and while it might do for teenage boys up late watching cable it unpleasantly reflects the cruel sexual hypocrisy at its narrative heart. Jan Dara looks but doesn't touch; it peeps, but doesn't participate. This, ultimately, is the approach that it urges you to take, bringing you close enough to get an eyeful but warning you against taking action in a nasty finale that finds everyone miserable.
One can't say that the movie is boring--it's packed to the brim with enough incident and sex to keep you from nodding off. But it's an exhausting film full of unpleasantness both intentional and unintentional whose mission is to make you swear off wantonness through a sort of cinematic aversion therapy. Give me someone who can live with his fantasies, like a Neil Jordan, or be critical of them, like Michael Powell in Peeping Tom--spare me the letdown caused by men who can't admit to the things they want. As it stands, Jan Dara slams the lid of Pandora's box so that it might lop off your fingers--whether or not you opened the box in the first place. Originally published: July 26, 2002.