Pretty rash behaviour
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Pretty rash behaviour

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's new film 'Freelance' looks at love, addiction and the tragic hero's journey in a strange yet memorable way

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Pretty rash behaviour
Sunny Suwanmethanon in a scene from Ham Puay, Ham Pak, Ham Rak Mor.

Did we see this coming? In his new film, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit smuggles in a load of contraband sensibilities and pulls the rug out under his audience's feet.

By the look of it -- in terms of market demand -- Freelance Ham Puay, Ham Pak, Ham Rak Mor (Heart Attack in English, or just Freelance) is a romantic comedy starring two good-looking actors, one playing a freelance graphic designer, the other playing his dermatologist.

What Nawapol is actually doing here, however, is not as straightforward as falling in love in the midst of a body rash: the film is a character study of a man who's lonely and insecure, and who lives in the insular world where he feeds on his own obsessions that he calls work. It's a story of a strange kind of addiction, which like all addictions, is destructive to the man's health, mental and physical. In short, this is a rare Thai film about a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

In the ideal world, or at least in Hollywood films, love will redeem him. Here, it's not so simple. The man is Yoon (Sunny Suwanmethanon), a freelance graphic designer who goes for days without sleep in order to finish a number of jobs, a highly skilled and essentially vacuous job of retouching pictures of cleavages and crotches for print ads. On his path towards becoming a zombie, Yoon discovers red spots on the nape of his neck, as well as hands and body, and to save money he goes to see a doctor at a public hospital, where he meets Dr Chonnikarn (Davika Hoorne).

It's a meet cute moment, though one with a tinge of the awkwardness. Nawapol controls the tight framing and brings out the unlikely intimacy between patient and doctor in the confined space of the examination room and he captures the odd dynamics of how a complete stranger -- a medical professional has that privilege -- begins to ask you personal questions and even demands that you take your shirt off.

Yoon and his doctor feel the bubbling chemistry -- and then, again in this weird relationship, they'll only be able to see each other again in a month by appointment. But the love story is not actually what the director is most interested in. This is fundamentally the story of Yoon and his endless struggle to believe that he has something else to do besides work. His insecurity comes from his status as a freelancer -- the jobs can stop coming if he's slow to meet the cruel demands of his employers -- and also from the way he has conditioned himself into believing in his own worth as being assigned to that system.

For mass-release commercial fare produced by a big studio, this is pretty bold -- and startlingly original. Some people will find the film's fluid structure, its tragic hero and his deadpan monologues, which are sometimes too snarky for their own good, a challenge, especially when we gradually realise that Nawapol is not going down the rosy path of a rom-com.

The director's previous feature film Mary Is Happy Mary Is Happy is in fact about two girls who try so hard to be happy when unhappiness, they later realise, is sometimes more natural. Likewise in Freelance, Nawapol is attempting that audacious feat of mixing life and love with the inevitability of bitterness and sorrow, which places him in the school of American independent films from Jim Jarmusch to Wes Anderson.

There is a potential for Freelance to go beyond its characters and translate into something with greater meaning. A critique of bloodlust capitalism maybe? Or a jab at Thai public healthcare (a scene of Yoon's first visit to the hospital is funny, chilling and brutally real).

That the film doesn't choose to stretch itself too thin is probably a conscious choice anyway. This is a story of a man who looks inward, who deflects the outside world by closing himself in -- and makes a joke out of his own helplessness. It's not perfect and it's probably a little too loose in parts, but Freelance is one of the strangest and most memorable Thai films this year has seen.

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