Romance among the ruins

The directorial debut by Lee Chatametikool is a poignant love story set during the 1997 financial disaster

Love is a crumbling currency in the wistful, strangely affecting Pavang Rak (Concrete Clouds). Set in 1997, during the economic meltdown that burst our bubble and left urban carcases of unfinished skyscrapers, the film remembers the emotional inertia of that year and watches its characters drift like ghosts as they realise that even love — of all the catastrophes — can't give them salvation. There's voluptuous despair. There's a full cabinet of 1990s pop-cultural reminiscence, and there's the filmmaker's awkward strive to reconcile the narrative flow with his experimental impulses — and yet here's a Thai film that's as tender as it is bold. It's also a film about the mood (and not necessarily the actualities) of that fateful, uneasy moment of 17 years ago when the market crashed and our sense of the future dashed.

Ananda Everingham and Janesuda Parnto in Pavang Rak (Concrete Clouds).

First up, we hear news reports about the collapse of the financial sector (the chill comes back to those who remember it). Then the director, Lee Chatametikool, keys in what will be the movie's visual stratagem: a montage of blurry television shows from the late 1990s, those quaint, slightly kitschy and yet sincerely familiar images, scored to a pop song of that time. This is the first half of the parentheses that frames the story in a specific temporal and aesthetical period; the atmosphere of 90s is both the concrete and the clouds — firm, present and ungraspable — of the film (the second half of the parentheses, which is more terrifying, comes right at the end).

Lee's attempt to weave his keen sense of visual experimentation into the Rimbaud-esque love tragedy is his principle mission (ours too, maybe). There are two pairs of lovers here, one at 18, the other at 30, all four of them having stepped into the void without even knowing it. Nic (Prawit Hansten) is a teenage boy whose father, when the film opens, commits suicide by jumping off a roof, right after the crisis hit. Left alone in the house that looks older than it actually is, Nic, a Thai-American, calls his elder brother Mutt (Ananda Everingham) to return home from New York. Back in Bangkok, Mutt ponders selling the family house and brings Nic to the US, where the future is less cloudy.

Mutt lives with an American woman in New York, but an old flame fans him back to the office of his former Thai girlfriend, Sai (Janesuda Parnto), as he attempts a half-hearted rekindling. At the same time, Nic hooks up with a teenage girl who lives in the opposite building, Poupee (the intensely sad Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), whose sister is a prostitute and who has her eyes on the same career.

Theirs are spectral romance — not exactly the Wong Kar-wai type, but the kind of vague poetry darkened by the gloom inside their heads as well as in the concrete skeletons around them. The specificity of the time and place — Bangkok in 1997 — gives the film a pathos that touches those who lived it and perhaps detaches those who didn't.

It's interesting that this is a year that has past but yet to fade entirely from memory, and the not-too-distant moment has becomes a fog, real and ethereal. Lee accents that idea by switching his four characters in and out of their realities and fantasies through the use of pop-cultural shorthand that signifies the time: Nic and Poupee appear in a 90s-style Thai music video, with its display of high emotionalism and youthful histrionics, while Sai gets to ramble on about her dream life on a staid, mannered TV show (the casting of the TV hosts of that period is near-genius).

In the broad sense, this is how the characters "escape" their miserable outlook through daydreaming; at a deeper level, the film's insistence in the conceptual and structural inclusion of the 90s tackiness into the story — without mocking it, this is important — means Concrete Clouds aspires to capture more than the mood but also the state of mind.

This works, though it requires you to work with it. In the geography of world cinema, Concrete Clouds has us aware of time being frozen, as in East Asian arthouse films, and it purrs with a sense of European solitude, as in the mid-century Antonioni drama. It's also a film that thinks about itself too much. The conceptual foundation sometimes overshadows the flesh of the characters; they're sometimes in the clouds, real yet almost ungraspable. To me, I feel more strongly towards the relationship between Nic and Poupee, the young lovers who embody the confusion of the period — the slow madness dumped on them by adults. The two young stars, Apinya as Poupee and newcomer Prawit as Nic, envelope us in their stuffy, doll-littered flat, dazed and confused, their love doomed at the moment it starts. Along with the older couple, they reveal the movie to us as a tragedy, and what's most tragic is when they realise that love and dreams can never overpower, let alone change, the half-ruins of reality.

This is Lee's first feature-length film as a director. For a decade, he's best known in his capacity as Thailand's top film editor who's worked with both arthouse and commercial films, locally and internationally.

Concrete Clouds has the characteristic of a debut film: it's partly autobiographical (Lee's half-American, like Nic and Mutt), it draws on his experience in Thailand during 1997, and most of all, it's so stuffed with ideas, styles, allegories, experiments and efforts that I wish he could allow a little more room for the story to breathe, that he would be a little more relaxed.

Other than that, this is a film whose treatment of the past is more alive and relevant than most Thai films that merely exploit the craze for nostalgia. It's a mature film about youth, and a youthful film about adults, and for all its shortcomings, it does a service of remembering Thailand at a time when, if you didn't pretend all was well, it felt like all was lost. That doesn't seem old at all.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist