Film: The Love of Siam (รักแห่งสยาม)
Director: Chookiat Saveerakul
Notable Actors: Mario Maurer, Sinjai Plengpanich
So I’ve been meaning to write this review for a long time, but to be honest: it had been a long time since I’d last seen this film and I was afraid I wouldn’t do justice to it. Thankfully, my mum gave me a reason to whip it out and as I sought to prove a.) that the Thai movie industry does produce some amazing films and b.) while still a minority of the LGBT representation in Thai pop culture, Thai media is totally capable of representing its gay characters with sensitivity and complexity.
The Love of Siam follows the story of two childhood friends who reunite in their teens after several years of separation. Tong is from a Roman Catholic family, and as a child his older sister disappeared whilst on holiday in Chiang Mai with her friends. Mew is a sensitive musician-type from an ethnically Chinese family with distant parents. He is closest to his grandmother, who passes away when Mew is in his teens. Both boys are familiar with losing a loved one and this is what initially brings them together. Their story is further complicated by issues within Tong’s family – since his sister’s disappearance his father has turned towards chronic alcoholism and it is his mother, Sunee, who has to keep it together despite the tragedy as she becomes the sole caretaker and bread-winner of what is left of her family.
So…not your average teen romantic comedy. Despite the way the film was marketed, the Love of Siam really is just what it says on the tin – it’s about love. All kinds of love. It’s about the love you have for your family, the love you have for your friends and of course, the love you have for the first time you meet someone who touches your soul and sets your heart racing. I’m not going to lie – I tear up every single time I watch this film. Every single time. And although my knowledge of Thai films is by no means extensive, I feel like I watched a significant handful of recent blockbusters and The Love of Siam for me still ranks as one of the best Thai films I’ve ever seen.
First of all, the acting in this film is flawless. I don’t think there is a single weak performance amongst the main cast, although Pchy (Mew) and Sinjai Plengpanich (Sunee) deliver some particularly outstanding performances. Seriously though, both of these two just break my heart every time they’re on screen and just trying to hold it together. This is also of course, the role that launched Mario Maurer’s acting career and it’s certainly one that shows despite being (at the time) an amateur, the boy is definitely more than just a pretty face.
Secondly, although the running time is very long I feel the film really benefits from showing how the lives of these two broken families intertwine, how all these characters interact and the lasting impact they have on each other. While the focal point of the film is on the two boys who’re just coming to terms with their feelings for each other, there is a much wider story being told – after all, life doesn’t just stop happening because you’ve fallen in love. And sometimes, there are bigger things going on that just can’t be put aside.
Really, I think my only complaint with this film would be the role June’s character plays in the narrative. As a dead-ringer for Tong’s missing sister Tang, she gets recruited by Tong and Sunee to pretend to be Tang in an attempt to save Tong’s father from his crippling alcoholism. I guess this was the point where my disbelief officially stopped being suspended. I don’t know what else could’ve been done with this character to make her story-line more believable while keeping the lasting impact she has on Tong’s family, but as it is in the film it is the only thing that rings false to me.
I know I’ve read reviews that saw the ending as a bit of a cop-out, as Tong ultimately tells Mew that although he loves him, he cannot be his boyfriend (earlier on in the film when his mother discovers the nature of Mew and Tong’s relationship she forbids Mew from contacting her son and forbids her son from seeing Mew). I can completely understand this reaction – it’s an old and worn-out trope: gay couples can never have a happy ending; things must always end in tragedy. But in defence of The Love of Siam, I actually interpreted the ending as fairly optimistic? I don’t think people necessarily understand the amount of importance placed on duty to one’s parents in Thai culture, and as far as Tong was concerned – he had a duty to his mother and to his family. Growing up with a Thai mom, I have to say that the relationship between (most) Thai parents and their kids, particularly regarding sexuality, is a pretty closed one and my personal experiences have always involved being very patient about when and how I broach the topic with my mom. I’d always understood the ending of the movie as Tong wanting to help his family heal first, help them get to a better place before he could act on his feelings for Mew. Perhaps I had interpreted it too optimistically – but I had always seen that ending as an ambiguously happy one. “I know who I am – and although I cannot be with you yet, one day I will be able to”, or maybe even “I know who I am – and although I can’t have a boyfriend yet, one day I will be able to be open about my feelings for another boy, and that boy may not be you but he will definitely exist”. I had never interpreted that final scene as him repressing his new-found sexuality. Particularly as he had just broken up with his girlfriend prior to the ending scene. By breaking up with his girlfriend, Tong was affirming – at least to himself – that he knew who he was now and he knew that he had to be honest with himself. He was no longer confused about where he stood and was free to admit to himself (and to Mew) that he knows who he loves. I could not believe that anyone who had taken such a self-confident act could deny himself his own happiness forever. And I had always interpreted that scene as an indication that Tong would have to wait for his happiness a little bit longer, but he would definitely get it one day. But of course, I could be wrong and I am always happy to hear alternative view points.
Watching this with my mom I thought I’d observe her and see what she had to say, as I usually use her as my gauge for whether I’ve understood the subtext of a Thai setting correctly. At the end of the film, she said “well they are not together today, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be one day.” And that is exactly what I’d taken away from the ending too. One day I am hoping for an unambiguously happy ending for Thai gay protagonists, but in the meantime I am incredibly glad this film exists and if you’ve never seen it you should definitely check it out.
On an entirely different note: I am also super in love with the main theme song for this film