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Realtime >> Friday January 25, 2008
A fine romance

Kongdej Jaturanrasamee is that rarest of things: an in-demand Thai scriptwriter. Here he talks about the process of writing, making his own movies and his reputation as the king of romance


Kiatkamol Latha and Supaksorn Chaimongkol in Kod.

With his geeky film-school glasses, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee hardly comes across as a man who makes a living out of romantic surpluses. Love, as the fools say, is in the air.

For the screenwriter it is a bubble made solid, a stream of sweetness and uncertainty that sometimes appears on the blank page of his Toshiba laptop. Kongdej writes, he says, "to cure myself", and in the process, who knows, maybe he'll cure us, too.

Busy, practical, Kongdej has for the past year claimed an unlikely cachet in Thai film circles, that of a hotly sought-after screenwriter, especially for romantic movies. In an industry known for its sorry lack of smart scripts, the 36-year-old has carved out a niche for assured, sometimes gimmicky, essentially marketable screenplays. And although the label of "bankable romance writer" comes to him through chance rather than choice, this father of two is still happy to continue spinning love yarns for us all.

Film directors with ideas - sometimes just seeds of rough, scattered ideas - come to Kongdej so that he can shape those intangible fancies into filmable scripts, usually with enough saleable aspects to secure funding from studios. Or, when a script needs doctoring this man, known for his surgical faculties, can operate on a weak plot and turn it into a compelling one. His credits to date include the hit weepie The Letter, the popular romantic comedy Me... Myself and the adapted-from-cartoon Noohin The Movie; he also had a hand in Tom-Yum-Goong (it's believed that without him the film would have been even worse), the upcoming pirate epic Puen Yai Jom Salat, or Queen of Lankasuka, and a till-death-do-us-part tale to be shot in mid-2008, reportedly called Happy Birthday.

He's too ambitious to be just a hired-gun though. When directing his own scripts, Kongdej feels uninhibited enough to tell stories the way he really wants to. His 2003 directorial debut, Sayew, is an oddball coming-of-age flick set in the pulpy world of pornographic magazines (he co-directed the film with college friend Kiat Songsanant). In 2005 Kongdej wrote and directed Cherm (or Midnight My Love), which centres on the bittersweet romance between a night-shift taxi driver and a lovelorn massage parlour girl. Next month, Kongdej will release his new film, Kod (or Handle Me With Care), another eccentric romantic story between a three-armed man and an ample-breasted woman.

Kongdej Jaturanrasamee's new movie, Kod, will be released on Feb 21.

"I wouldn't call myself a romantic person," says Kongdej smiling. "Some of the romantic films I wrote happened to become successful with the audience - it started with The Letter - and people got this perception of me as someone who's an expert in love stories. But actually, I always see something else in the scripts I write. I see, for example, our search for security in life or the struggle to find our place on earth."

That theme runs through each of the three films he has written and directed. In Sayew a tomboy misfit wants to be part of the underground porn circle she thinks she belongs to. In Midnight My Love a lonely cabbie seeks refuge in the make-believe world of radio drama, as he falls for a beautiful prostitute. And in the upcoming Kod, which literally means "to hug", the road-movie narrative begins when Kwan, a man with two left arms and one right, hitchhikes from Lampang to Bangkok to have his extra limb hacked off after being subjected to continual humiliation since childhood. On the way he meets Na, a woman who regards her outsized bosoms with less anxiety. They hit the road, and Kwan soon realises that, with the right attitude, what he has always regarded as an embarrassment may not actually be that unbearable.

None of us is satisfied with what we've been given, says Kongdej, and that feeling drives us to try to make ourselves feel safer in the world. "It's a universal anxiety, I believe. We look into the mirror and we don't like what we see. In Kod, I stretched it to the extreme. The case of the man with the third arm, and his struggle to become normal, to feel secure in a world where he's seen as a freak, is not much different from other characters in my previous films. Kwan is perhaps worse physically, because he can't even hide that extra arm when he looks at himself in the mirror."

"Like everybody else, I think I have that anxiety too," Kongdej laughs. "Writing is a form of meditation to me. It's a therapy. The process of writing these stories is a way of taking myself through the clues that might lead me to answer the question, 'Am I happy with myself?"'

More or less, he should be. To become a professional screenplay writer in Thailand is something of a feat in itself given the peculiar fact that a screenplay is probably the most undervalued element in the Thai filmmaking process. The lack of trusted and inspired writers means most filmmakers take on the dual role of writer/director, and while some of them carry their projects to success, the majority of poor-quality Thai films are the result of bad scripts. Film studios, meanwhile, decide to invest in movies based on genre (horror and comedy are priorities) and marketability (stars and hype factor) rather than quality or the originality of the scripts.

In others, writers are not properly respected. Written words are not as revered as visuals, or the ability to create visuals. This is a symptom of an immature film industry. As the ongoing Hollywood writers' strike show that scribes hold certain negotiating power with big studios, Thai screenwriters are often seen as dispensable.

That puts Kongdej in a special position. A graduate of the film department at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Lad Krabang, Kongdej began his career as a director of music videos at the music label RS Promotion in the late 1990s. When the company wanted to expand into filmmaking, he was asked to write several screenplays, none of which was turned into an actual movie. Those early scripts, however, were Kongdej's training ground, where he learnt to negotiate the anatomy and pitfalls of a decent script. And it paid off when he got a deal to write and direct Sayew in 2003.

Then came the proposition from the late producer Duangkamol Limcharoen for him to write The Letter, a remake of a Korean love story in which a dying man spends his last days doting on his woman. The success of The Letter and the unique, idiosyncratic quirks of Sayew established his name as a writer who could craft popular plots that also have a certain level of depth. Last year, Kongdej wrote Me... Myself from the original idea by director Pongpat Wachirabanjong - the movie is about a gay man who has amnesia and falls in love with a woman - and his reputation was cemented. (A Korean company has bought the rights to remake the film).

"I'm lucky that I can practise my skill and get paid for that," he says laughing, referring to his capacity as a hired-gun. "When I write scripts for other directors, the final products are not as 'pure' as I imagine them to be, because they were processed through another prism. But I feel happy with everything I've written so far, and I know how to stop caring too much to prevent myself from feeling the pain of seeing a movie that's so different from what I intended it to be.

"To an extent, I have more control when I direct my own scripts - in Sayew, Midnight My Love and Kod - but the process of moviemaking means you can never transform the picture you have in your head into a finished film without sacrificing something along the way. That's just the nature of filmmaking."

To preserve the sacredness of the vision in the text, a writer needs to harness other art forms. Novels, apparently, or comic books, even writing songs. Kongdej leads an indie band called Si Tao Ther, in whose songs he sometimes channels the scenarios that he cannot put in movie scripts (one of the songs on the band's latest album is about "a city of snow").

And a book?

"That's holy!" he exclaims. "I sincerely want to write one, but I don't think I'm ready for the challenge. Maybe a comic book would suit my style better, so that's what I'm looking forward to."

At this point though, Kongdej says he still has enough ideas stuffed in his drawers, mental and physical, for a dozen more movie scripts. Some are made up of a single sentence, other a few pages long. Some came to him from a fully-fledged vision of a character, others from his desire to express a certain theme. And no, not all of them are romantic stories.

"Maybe becoming a father has changed my way of seeing things," says Kongdej. "But it doesn't mean I have a new approach to writing, because the bottom line, I believe, is that human beings are stuck in this apprehension that we're not perfect, though we want to be. Some may treat this anxiety, for example, by singing karaoke and pretending to be famous singers, others may become fitness freaks because it makes them feel secure seeing their firm bodies in the wall-length mirrors. I write to cure myself, and hopefully it's working."

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