Ansumalin Sirapatsakmetha, one of the young stars in Hormones.
While some of us might be quick to consign Songyos's Sukmaganan new film into the facile category of kid's stuff, co-ed high-schoolers and college undergrads have been getting pretty excited about it. My nieces (12, 13 and 14), for example, went gaga over the movie ads and its teen cast, and their mothers practically had to restrain them. Are they too young to see through the shallowness of it all? Or the rest of us too old, too life-hardened to go along with a little corny fun? While I hope the nieces eventually grow up, they might be wishing that I could remember what it was to be young and naive.
The film is called Pidtermyai Huajai Wawoon (literally, "Restless Hearts During School Break", though the official English title, Hormones, is strangely less skittish), and indeed this is full-blown kid's stuff - at times pleasant, but mostly childish and frivolous. Songyos, 34, is a gifted director with a genuine interest in the pleasure and pain of adolescence, and in Hormones he tries to remind us that what we adults regard as flippant and foolish are dead serious for teenagers, and that we too were once guilty of the crime of naivete.
But that's a thin excuse for the light-headedness of it all. Songyos doesn't raise his case with much conviction here; Hormones actually puts a brake on the solid stride the director began with his much superior Dek Hor (Dorm), and it blushes in the presence of Chukiat Sakweerakul's more germane Rak Haeng Siam (The Love of Siam); the comparison may seem unfair since the two films have different purposes, but the proximity of their releases and the casting of young, good-looking teenagers illustrate a trend in recent Thai cinema.
Like the title suggests, it's hormones that give a biological licence for kids to behave foolhardily. The movie is made up of four separate storylines which, unlike many other films that follow this tedious structure, do not cross paths with each other. In one, two grade-10 boys compete for the affection of the same girl, and nearly ruin their friendship. In another, a high-school teenybopper goes bananas over a Taiwanese pop-idol and enrols in a Chinese language school to prepare for his concert. Moving up the age groups, the third story is a classic (if classic can suggest redundancy) I-fall-for-my-best-friend scenario between two college freshmen. Lastly, a fun-loving senior-year lad sends his girlfriend off to an internship upcountry and soon flirts with the idea of having a dirty weekend with a (slutty) Japanese woman, played by real-life porn star Sora Aoi.
Some of the stories are worthy of further exploration, but the film is too busy playing trite gags and flaunting the happy-faced appeal of its cast (all pimple-free, despite their boiling hormones). Yet, unexpectedly for a movie of such juvenile pedigree, the best moments in Hormones are when Songyos allows the darker veins to surface, when he recognises the torment and the emotional infantility of being young. When Poo (Charlee Trairat), in a helpless plea, tells his crush Nana "I want to hold your hand", the scene rings with unlikely sadness. Poo and Nana will have another fine scene in a locker room, when desperation drives the boy to steal the girl's phone number, and they're both suffocated by a swirl of anxiety that their young minds don't quite understand - we watch them and we know we're watching the process of innocence being lost.
That is the feeling we also found in Songyos's previous movie, Dek Hor, and in his famous short Dor Dek Cho Chang - and I believe he is a better director when he doesn't see his serious side as a liability, but as his real talent. In Hormones, he has another good story in O-lek (Focus Jirakul), a girl who's so obsessed with a Taiwanese singer that she constructs an imaginary world with him in it. Adult viewers would think that O-lek, like most devoted dropsies of East Asian pretty boys, is annoying and a little nuts. Songyos, again, sees desperation and sadness in it. And I would love to see an unhappy ending in her story (no dice) because that would have made it a bigger test of her young life. Maybe that would have made her transcend the fantasy and to learn to live with reality, an important rite for adolescents.
The other two stories in Hormones concern college students, presumably to expand the target market of the movie. Both of them feature nice kids, and though the film includes scenes of almost-sex-on-the-beach and "glorification of a drinking binge", as my friend calls it, the characters are so petit bourgeois that they become a little tiresome. In Japanese and Korean films, teenagers are often more anxious, more prone to self-destruction, not because all Japanese and Korean teens are like that, but because it's usually more interesting to watch that side of young people, the force of nature that results from insecurity, inexperience, unsharpened instinct and, of course, hormones.
Shall I take the nieces to see Hormones? Maybe. Mainly to stop their screaming, but also because I think they'll have an OK time. But after the film I'll sit them down and talk to them, then maybe I'll show them a DVD of a Japanese teen movie. That'll surely silence them.