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    Blue monk

    In "Baytong," tragedy propels a monk out of his monastery and into Thai society, with occasionally forced comedy but with often touching results as well.


    (Reviewed at the Hawaii International Film Festival in November 2004.)

    "Baytong" tells the story of Tum (Puwarit Poompuang), a Buddhist monk in Thailand who learns that his sister has been killed by a terrorist bombing and, in response, travels south to console his young niece Maria (Saranya Kruangsai). Planning to take only temporary leave of the monastery, Tum instead finds himself drawn into the seductive pleasures and pains of the outside world, and stays to take charge of his sister's business, and to help raise his niece.

    Written and directed by: Nonzee Nimibutr.
    Cast: Phoovarit Phumpuang, Jeeranan Manojam.
    Cinematography: Chankit Chamnivikaipong.
    Edited by: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.
    In Thai with English subtitles.
    Hawaii Film Festival 2004
    • Overview

    • Baytong
    • Clean
    • In the Realm of the Unreal
    • South of the Clouds
      • Steamboy
    • Take Out
    • Tarnation

    • Official site
    By Western standards, the film veers disconcertingly between broad humor and emotional pathos, but is charming enough to carry audiences over some of the rough transitions. The humor is mostly predictable, and results from Tum's confrontation with technology, sexual arousal, alcohol, fashion, etc. These moments aren't much different from what one might expect if Adam Sandler played a displaced Buddhist monk, but director Nonzee Nimibutr frames and paces it all with such warmth and empathy, and Poompuang portrays Tum with so open and disarmingly simple a performance as to make it all feel like somewhat more than it really is.

    The situation comedy and the sweetness of Tum's relationship with his niece are juxtaposed with a constant awareness of the tensions not only between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, but within the Muslim community itself, between mainstream activists and violent extremists, etc. Street scenes throughout the film bustle with a people going about their lives clad in a variety of ways, dressed in traditional Muslim garb or in Southeast Asia's version of hiphop fashion or in orange robes that denote Buddhist monks. For the most part the interactions between these varying groups is friendly and unguarded, but it's difficult for the audience to forget film's opening moments, in which Maria's mother, along with many others, is killed by a bomb left to explode on a train full of apparently innocent civilians. There's mercifully little editorializing on this point; instead, Nimibutr allows the camera to stand in for Tum's gaze, registering the pain and confusion of the situation but reserving judgment.

    In its more serious moments, then, "Baytong" proves itself far more subtle and complex than Western approaches to similar themes. Despite some moments that translate badly for American audiences, there's much worth taking in here, in the tolerance, the empathy and the genuinely humanist gaze of this film.

    NOVEMBER 9, 2004

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