This story, told retrospectively as a memory by Oat, a young man who remembers his eleven year old self living in poverty in the outskirts of Bangkok, is the most touching narrative on fraternal love at this year’s Inside Out Festival. Oat’s older brother, Ek, is gay and surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any negative social or familial stigmatization around his sexuality. There is no question of it being accepted or not, it merely is—at least as narrated through Oat’s perspective. His innocence is most touching aspect of the film. He doesn’t understand the world he lives in, the dangers and implications of living in poverty in Bangkok.
When Ek is called upon to participate in the annual conscription which uses a lottery system to see who must enter military service and who can stay at home, Oat’s love and naivety is expressed in the most tragic ways. Because he interprets Ek as resigned and passive about the lottery, the young Oat decides to act on his behalf and his gesture, a desperate act of love, results in consequences that will break your heart if you can empathize with the main characters.
Director Josh Kim based his debut feature on the short stories “At the Café Lovely” and “Draft Day” from the best-selling 2004 collection Sightseeing by American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap (in a self-referential move, the title of the film, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), comes from a book that Oat is read). Sightseeing takes readers to the streets of Thailand, to all the dark corners tourists don’t see. Dubbed a “post-post-post colonialist writer,” Lapcharoensap “was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, and is now a fellow at the University of East Anglia.” Many of his characters are like Oat, living in Thailand but immersed in images and cultural iconography of the West. Oat, for example, salivates at the idea of tasting a cheeseburger after watching an Americanised ad on TV. When Ek buys him a meal in a McDonald’s-spin-off-burger joint for his birthday, so much is expressed in one scene: poverty, humiliation and disgust.
Class distinctions and corruption are central themes in the movie, showcasing the crude reality of those living in poverty. Ek’s boyfriend, Jai, comes from a rich family. In his description of him, Oat notes that Jai is taller, richer, whiter: in short, everything that Ek isn’t. Orphaned, Ek and Oat live with their aunt and her young daughter, and Ek has to work at the Café Lovely to sustain them. The aunt is a complex character, strict with little Oat and always defending her daughter; she is superstitious, yet, in her own way, she loves and worries about the boys, particularly Ek, in anticipation of the conscription lottery. She tells him that he can love any boy, but not Jai. Jai is rich: they cannot be together since they come from different worlds. And indeed, her words turn out to be prophetic, since what ultimately separates the two young men is Jai’s privilege and Ek’s circumstance. Social inequality is deeply related to corruption. In this movie, nothing is left out, from bribery to prostitution.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) plays at the Bytown Cinema on Sunday, October 25, at 12:15 p.m.