To dump or not to dump

To dump or not to dump

How To Ting (Happy Old Year) is the first film you should see in the new year

To dump or not to dump

The title of a new Thai film is a bilingual wordplay: How To Ting is literally translated as "how to dump". That, I think, is sharper than its tired official English title, Happy Old Year. To dump or not to dump -- things and people, mementos and memories -- that is the question. In the film, a young designer who's dressed like a Muji model, and who has just returned from studying in the minimalist-paradise Sweden, plans to dump all useless objects from her maximalist Bangkok house, where she lives with her mother and brother, and to turn it into an all-white, supremely sparse and unapologetically decluttered interior nirvana -- a home office lifted straight from a Scandinavian style book.

But as Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) -- who's also inspired by, of course, Marie Kondo's joy-sparking cult -- begins sifting through her and her family's stuff, the painful past is unearthed. Old memories return from a heap of junk -- photographs, trinkets, CDs, gifts from friends -- and they prevent her from, as the film stresses, "moving on". Jean realises that to trash physical objects is to trash pieces of her history, to cut them loose is to lose parts of her autobiography, and to declutter is to delete. And so begins Jean's process of digging into her own past, especially the unfinished episodes concerning her ex-boyfriend Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanon), whom she unceremoniously dumped a few years back, and her father, who seems to exist only in a forgotten photograph found among rubbish.

How To Ting is directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, a trick-master who has treated his audience to a range of styles and temperaments in the past decade (he has a strong following in China and Taiwan, and at international festivals). Nawapol was an indie star with 36 and Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, which constructs a narrative from tweets, and a 100 million baht hitmaker with the mercurial comedy Heart Attack; he also conceived two stylised documentaries, BNK48: Girls Don't Cry and The Master.

His latest feature is a rare breed in Thai cinema: a contemporary relationship drama, told as a cleanly structured, solemn adult story and made with his eyes firmly fixed on the 20-something generation. How To Ting doesn't hit the peak of emotional highs and along the way it gets a tad too self-absorbed with its conceptual rigour, but it is still a mature, solid work from one of the best-known Thai directors today.

Jean's epic house-cleansing compels her to visit old friends, to return their items that got stuck with her, and the hardest visit is to Aim, an old flame who's now living with a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, of all the objects Jean wishes to part with, the piano that her absent father used to play is a centrepiece of her family's sentimental history -- the one item in the house that her mother (Apasiri Nitibhon) staunchly refuses to let Jean get rid of.

And here the film raises its stakes: we gather that maybe Jean is not a nice girl in the typical mould but a cold-hearted, possibly selfish woman who often ignores other people's feelings. The process of revisiting her friends and her ex may prod her to examine herself, but there's no telling if it's enough to redeem her from past guilt and present ordeals. The film is told from Jean's point of view, but it's not always easy to understand her decisions -- and this is probably a challenge Nawapol throws into the ring for his audience to deal with.

On another level, Jean's wish to turn her maximalist family home into a minimalist utopia hints at the widening generational divide, and the film's message about the pain of moving on could be interpreted in a larger Thai context. Look at the house she's living in with her mother and brother: it is one of those 1970s shophouses on a side street favoured among Thai-Chinese families, a "home office" of the traditional, uncool sort, without any clear architectural ambition, a place that has grown increasingly higgledy-piggledy over the years, as an accumulation of items either useful or useless adds layer upon layer of dust, neglected dreams and discarded memory.

This is typical of Thai houses, or I would say Thai-Chinese houses, which see attachment to objects as proof of family ties and loyalty. In short, it's the polar opposite of the sparse, sub-Arctic, Zen-like detachment of the European home that Jean seems to aspire to. For her to "move on", to carve out her own space, Jean has to reject the burden of sentimental history from her parents. How To Ting is conceived as a chamber drama (not quite Marriage Story, that Netflix film is useful for the sake of comparison), though it's tempting to read it as the millennials' cathartic struggle to find their place in the world.

Shot with a tight frame ratio by Niramol Ross, the film favours claustrophobic composition and relies heavily on the close-up of Chutimon, the 23-year-old actress who shot to fame in Bad Genius. Hers is a striking face: attractive but inscrutable, not quite deadpan but not willingly expressive either, and when she's required to hit a dramatic cue (crying, shouting), there's a note of girlish arrogance that makes her seem vulnerable -- a modern creature, a child grown out of the 21st century contemplating whether to dump, delete or declutter the excesses created by those who came before her.

How To Ting (Happy Old Year)

Starring Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Sunny Suwanmethanon, Apasiri Nitibhon

Directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit

In Thai with English subtitles

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