Film: Antapal, aka The Gangster (อันธพาล)
Director: Kongkiat Khomsiri
Notable actors: Krisada Sukosol Clapp, Somchai Kemglad, Sakarin Suthamsamai
Kongkiat’s vision of 1950s Bangkok is super stylish and initially presents a seductively cool image of what it means to be a gangster or antapal (‘hooligan’) in 1950s Bangkok. Like the two newcomers in the film (Plak and Tong), viewers are initially seduced by the stylish clothes, effortless confidence and action-packed fight scenes – but as in all gangster movies, nothing is what it seems and the film very quickly reveals the grim reality of being an antapal.
The main story follows Jod (played by Krisada Sukosol Clapp), a jaded gangster who, following a stint in prison, wants to get out of gang life but seems to be pulled back in despite his best efforts. Parallel to this story is the story of the aforementioned newcomers, Plak and Tong (Kritsada Suphapphaphrom and Sakrin Suthammasamai), their idolization of Jod and his crew as young teenagers and their own destructive and tragic path into the world of gang warfare as adults.
What I really love about this film is the sense of everything coming and going in cycles, and of themes being repeated and mirrored in the stories of different characters. The film chronicles the changes in gang crime between the 50s and 60s (the movement away from knives as the main weapon to guns) and is interspersed semi-documentary style with modern-day interviews of old-timers recalling what life was like at the hands of these gangs.
The film really shines when it deals with the internal motivations and lives of its main characters. It’s hard not to feel a sense of pathos at Plak and Tong idolizing gangsters in the same way they idolize James Dean and Elvis Presley. Especially as the further you get into the film, the more you realise that none of these gangsters are actually in control of their own destinies at all. While Plak and Tong admire them for the apparent power and respect they command, behind the scenes you realise that the gangsters are just hired muscle – the real power lies with the mafia and the businesses that control them and that they’re merely pawns in a wider game.
The brutality of the violence in this film has been noted by many reviewers – I have to admit I don’t know how I feel about it and I can’t always tell how serious it is. It’s clearly there to show the brutal reality of a life of violence and how much damage and hurt it leaves in its wake, but at the same time it’s kind of hard to take seriously when your main character kills another by stabbing them in the jugular with a crab claw.
The other thing that bothers me about this film is the lack of women in it. I understand that this film is about a hyper-masculine micro-society, but characters like Jod have mothers and sisters and women in their lives that they care for and they want to protect. Which is why it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of their perspective – outsiders whose entire lives are disrupted on a daily basis by the brutality of this boys club. In Antapal the women serve mostly as background characters – victims of the violence meted out by the main characters, but not actually characters in their own right with any kind of agency and that’s a real shame.
All in all definitely worth a watch – it’s a flawed film but one that deals with its themes in really interesting ways and really makes you feel for the main characters despite the reprehensible things they end up doing.