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Monstar or Monseuta or 몬스타 (2013)

MonatR 1

Monstar or Monseuta or 몬스타 (2013) is a Korean take on the Glee phenomenon. At this point, I’ll choose my words carefully. The American series has completed five seasons and has broadcast 105 episodes. It has contrived to win awards while proving itself a vehicle for selling a significant amount of music product. Almost exclusively, the show deals with cover versions of established hits. This makes it relatively cheap to license the rights to the music, and provides a profitable way of recycling old material. In this, the series is proving more successful than Ally McBeal which had Calista Flockhart sing a wide range of cover versions, often with guest artists in tow. Back to Monstar. No matter what you might think about the national effort put into producing the K-pop wave, one fact is indisputable. Some of the groups and the original music they perform is outstanding and the international success of individual tracks and some performing artists is well deserved.

They have to learn to play together

They have to learn to play together

This series balances the music against the context. Both end up outstanding! It’s set in a Korean secondary school with the cohort aged in the seventeen/eighteen range. As is to be expected of a Korean series, the atmosphere inside the school reflects the high priority society places on educational achievement. But there’s one less common feature — Korean schools do not place quite this emphasis on more lighthearted music as a regular feature of scholastic life. Initially, as might be expected, the school encourages those of its students with a talent to perform, the best of whom are in an orchestra which largely plays classical music (some of it light). This group calls itself All For One. However, the focus of interest shifts with the arrival of two very different students.

Yoon Seol-chan (Yong Jun-hyung who is a member of a very successful Korean boy band) is a member of a boy band with a fanatical following. He’s the stereotypical angry young man, burdened by an unhappy childhood and an excess of talent, he lives on the knife edge of exploding in public. Unfortunately, he’s caught on camera pushing one of his psycho fans. When this goes viral, his record company decides to rehabilitate his image by sending him back to school for a while. The second arrival is Min Se-yi (Ha Yeon-soo). She was born in South Korea but has been in New Zealand for the last six years. Leaving her mother behind, she comes bearing her guitar and a sack o’ woe. This brings both of them into a class where the senior monitor is Jung Sun-woo (Kang Ha-neul). He’s currently a member of All For One but knew Min Se-yi before she left the country and has a crush on her. This leads him to abandon All For One and to sing with her. This upsets Kim Na-Na (Da Hee) who’s had a long-running crush on Jung. She’s the daughter of a local gangster and socially inhibited because Jung comes from a wealthy family. The other young musicians are Sim Eun-Ha (Kim Min-Young) who’s abused by her father and has very low self-esteem, Park Kyu-Dong (Kang Ui-Sik) who’s relentlessly bullied by his class, and Cha Do-Nam (Park Kyu-Sun) who used to be friends with Park but had a falling out with him.

Ahn Nae-sang passively helps out

Ahn Nae-sang passively helps out

The catalyst for the story to click into motion is a visit to one of the historical sites around Seoul. By mistake, this disparate group are accused of defiling one of the palaces. As a “punishment”, they are told they must perform a traditional Korean song for the school. Although the school realises the error some days later, the Head of Department does not want to lose face and tells the staff they are to proceed with the performance. This forces the individual students to relate to each other and begin to work out their problems. In due course, the nature of the performance is modified. The Minister of Culture asks the school to send a group to sing at a charitable event. When Yoon Seol-chan hears All For One is to be sent, he issues a challenge. The two groups should have a competition to decide which is the better group to represent the school.

The other major character is Han Ji-woong (Ahn Nae-sang). He’s a recluse who allows the young musicians to use his old rehearsal room. When the sing-off occurs, All For One is deemed to have won but, of course, our disparate group must be given a rematch which comes when a television company picks them for a Battle of the Bands show. In a way, it doesn’t matter which group wins. Music wins. We see almost all the major styles from a classical piano concerto, to Latin American, to heavy metal. When it comes to the original music, the standard is universally high with some impressive musicianship in the playing and the singing. As to the plot, some of the backstory is quite dark and the characters are given the time and space to work through their emotions. The other issue (this being a romantic drama) is to see which of the group pair off. With the usual alarums and excursions, this is also resolved not unsatisfactorily. The adults are also allowed their own opportunities to find some measure of redemption for past mistakes. This is not to say everything is neatly tied up with suitable rejoicing. This is a Korean drama and not everything emotional can be healed so quickly. But there’s enough to know these people have made progress. They will survive.

So if you get the chance to see this, Monstar is genuinely impressive as both television drama and as a vehicle for music.

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (2011)

The conversation with my wife began inauspiciously. I suggested we go see a Thai film. She was immediately up in arms. “I don’t like horror films,” was the first of several minutes of complaint, switching from horror to the Muay Thai films with Ong-Bak beating everyone up in his search for a white elephant. I did my best to remind her of The Iron Ladies or Satree lek and its sequel but, for a while, everything hung in the balance. “A comedy? A coming-of-age film? Out of Thailand?” Incredulity was temporarily her middle name. Eventually, curiosity got the better of her and I duly handed over money. We huddled in the back row, trying to blend in while surrounded by a crowd of youngsters. Fortunately, none of them were interested in adolescent canoodling and, as the lights went down with modesty preserved on all sides, we were into SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (the three Thai words translate as “Brilliantly Bad”).

Pachara Chirathivat and Jirayu La-ongmanee consider their options

 

I vividly remember the first two singles released by the Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the UK” was raw energy. Their version of “God Save the Queen” was hilariously irreverent. Within weeks of their arrival, they had outraged everyone that should have been outraged and amused the rest of us. Naming a band SuckSeed should give you a clue about what this trio of young Thais is all about. Their first single as an entry into a competition for bands is appropriately anthemic. It runs along the lines, “We suck. We’re complete failures. We’re all going down in flames, but we’re going to do it together. Yes, we all suck together. . .” and so on. So what you have to imagine is three youngsters who cannot play properly, thrashing away on guitar, bass and drums while the “singer” shouts himself hoarse. For the live performance in competition, they even arrange for a young boy to run on stage to be sick while a fat boy does potentially obscene things just out of camera shot. By Thai standards, it’s all a bit radical, but it beautifully captures what the film is all about.

 

Here we have two boys. Ped (Jirayu La-ongmanee) is terminally shy, while his best friend Koong (Pachara Chirathivat) has an older and very talented brother. Consequently, Koong never tries seriously to do anything, having already decided he cannot compete with his brother. Nevertheless, in his relationship with Ped, he finds some degree of liberation and is dominant, always organising Ped into yet another activity. In junior school, they are in the same class as Ern (Nattasha Nauljam). Inevitably, Ped loves her from the start but is incapable of doing anything about it. When he discovers she is moving to Bankok, he does his best by recording an attempted song to declare his love but, when he telephones to arrange delivery of the tape, he’s so intimidated by Ern’s father, he claims to be Koong and then puts down the phone. This leads to the predictable confusion at school when the gossip links Ern and Koong.

Nattasha Nauljam demonstrating real flair on the guitar

 

We now leap forward to secondary school. Ern has returned and, from Koong’s point of view, there’s the worst possible development. His brother has proved himself a wonderful rock musician and is fronting a band called Arena. So great is his charisma, he can pull any girl in the school. This finally provokes Koong into direct competition. When he discovers Ern is also a great guitarist, he decides to form a band. Ped is deputed to hold the bass and a boy, enigmatically named Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert) whose flair at basketball is demonstrated when he falls and breaks his arm, is roped in as the drummer. Needless to say, he’s not a great success with one stick lodged in the plaster cast on his arm. But for a moment, with Ern playing lead, they have purpose and don’t sound too awful. Unfortunately, Koong tries to form a relationship with Ern and drives her away — inevitably, she joins Arena — and Ex has the same unhappy experience with his hoped-for girlfriend. Hence, all three boys are total failures when it comes to girls and reflect this in their song which, not surprisingly, propels them into the final of the competition.

Thawat Pornrattanaprasert thinking about becoming a drummer

 

So, first of all, the good things. Without exception, the acting is naturalistic and affecting. All four leads come out of this well. Although it’s a long time ago, I can remember what it was like as a teen trying to summon up the courage to talk with girls. This script focuses on the inevitable conflict as our two heroes fall for the same girl with first-time director, Chayanop Boonprakob using the music well to capture their moods. The convention of having the lead singers from the original recordings turn up on screen to sing to the cast just about avoids overstaying its welcome. One more time and it would have become annoying albeit one or two sequences are actually amusing. Which brings us to the second good thing. Thai humour is laugh-out-loud when it’s allowed to surface. There were times when the cinema erupted — always a good sign. But this hides a problem. There’s great energy in the direction with there even being some quite witty animation to capture one moment. But the whole is too long by about twenty minutes. It actually lasts 136 minutes with the director showing his inexperience by allowing some of the scenes to overrun. It gives the whole a slightly laboured feel. Yes, the jokes and the central triangular relationship between Jirayu La-ongmanee, Pachara Chirathivat and Nattasha Nauljam keep up the interest, but the slow pacing prevents the film from being a complete “success”.

 

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep is fun as a coming-of-age film set to a mixture of punk and contemporary Thai rock music. When they set out to try playing and singing, the boys are gloriously bad and celebrate that fact. Even though shy, they make a sustained attempt to break through their inhibitions. Arena, by contrast, are very professional. On a personal note, I was always slightly more quiet which means I’m probably the wrong generation to judge this. It’s a universal truth that, by our own high standards, we all suck as human beings when we’re young. Perhaps I should just go with the flow of the the young audience around me who found it immensely enjoyable. Continuing the positive side, my wife is now recommending it to her friends as the best Thai horror film of all times.

 

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