Adapted from two short stories “At the Café Lovely” and “Draft Day” by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win At Checkers (Every Time) is a coming-of-age film that touches on sensitive issues in Thai society, including the military draft, violence in the south, drugs, sex trade, homosexuality, and religion. Yet, that is all the film manages to do in its short 90 minutes – simply touch and go.
Each topic is complex enough to be explored at length in an individual full-length film, but when they are squeezed into a single film, there is danger of superficiality. For instance, the conflict in Southern Thailand starts the film and is central to what eventually happens to the lead character, Ek. However, after the passing mention, it disappears into the background and only makes sporadic appearances. Also, the correlation between Ek’s class status and the job he is forced to take are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out.
With the exception of Ek and his younger brother Oat, the characters seem flat, making brief appearances to propel the story forward but do not leave any lasting impressions. Kitty, Ek’s transgendered friend and colleague, could have been given a stronger voice and Jai, Ek’s boyfriend, showed some potential as a conflicted upper-class Thai but he is inexplicably missing for most of the film. Rather than Ek’s boyfriend, he is more convincing as a good-natured counterpart of Junior, the bully who manages to avoid the military draft because his father is a mafia boss. The tender last moment between Ek and Jai at Café Lovely is arguably the only moment when the emotional intensity of class differences comes to the forefront. But Jai completely disappears after the confrontation and one gets the sense that their relationship is simply a footnote in the story.
The most frustrating component in this film is the treatment of homosexuality. Within the world of this film, homosexuality is not frowned upon and the main lead is openly homosexual without facing any discrimination from society, not even from the “villains” of the show. Ek and Jai could be a heterosexual couple and it would not make any difference to the story. While the desire to create an alternate universe, where homosexuality is accepted as “normal,” can be understood, I wonder if the struggles and realities of being homosexual in Thailand are glossed over. Even though Thai society is arguably more open than some Asian countries, it remains a land which is inextricably linked to Buddhism and traditional understandings of a family unit. Many homosexuals living in Thailand still face discrimination and struggle with expectations from their families. Ironically, progress in sexual equality is sometimes a result of arduous negotiations and even conflict. While this film offers respite in a make-believe universe where such struggles do not exist, it may perpetuate the notion that this world can only exist as fiction. A thoughtful engagement with the harsh realities of the struggle may be more fruitful.
This film is celebrated in LGBT circles and film festivals; and it is also chosen as the Thai submission for the Oscar’s. But the question is, what exactly is being celebrated? If it is about celebrating sexual equality, then we must ask if a simple normalisation of homosexual relationships warrants merit. Ek and Jai’s relationship is not prominently featured or developed, and it is not clear how they deal with the major changes in their lives as a couple. In the absence of other couples in the show, heterosexual or otherwise, no comment is made on how a homosexual couple can function like other “normal” couples. In fact, the absence of such tensions could belittle the daily struggles of Thai sexual minorities. This film appeals to certain audiences but it stops short of provoking discussions and raising awareness among the general populace.
Perhaps the focus is not on homosexuality but the military draft and class struggles. Then the question is, why feature a homosexual couple at the centre of the story? The inclusion of a homosexual couple cannot be accidental and is, consciously or not, always a politicised choice. If the intention was to focus on the military draft, homosexuality becomes the elephant in the room.
All these create a confusing film which cannot be faulted for being superficial because it brings up important issues, and yet it does not go deep enough into those issues. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that the international production team has to navigate the complicated Thai society (with its strong military presence and controversial lèse majesté laws) in conceptualising and producing this film – the three pillars of Thai society (nation, religion and monarchy) are only mentioned once throughout the movie.
With commendable acting by young actors and a heart-warming story, this film is not without value. It gives us a glimpse into the state of affairs in Thailand and there is an interesting use of colour symbolism – red (blood, life, the colour which indicates that you have been picked to serve in the military, Ek’s colour when playing checkers with Oat), black (corruption, night, the colour which indicates you are safe from conscription, Oat’s colour in the checkers game, darker skin tone which is associated with lower classes) and white (light, freedom, fairer skin tone associated with the upper class).
However, it is a pity because this film could have been a great cinematic production if there were more nuanced engagement and development of its characters and plot.