Concrete Clouds (Pavang rak): Rotterdam Review

Engaging drama from Apichatpong Weerasethakul's longtime collaborator.

Thai editor Lee Chatametikool revisits his country's economic meltdown in 1997 as backdrop for his feature film directorial debut.

A tale of youthful dreams and ideals silently and slowly vanquished by the harshness of Thailand's economic crisis in the late 1990s, Lee Chatamatikool's feature-length directorial debut takes its cue from many an aesthetic thread from the country's much-revered arthouse auteurs from the past decade, many of whom the editor have collaborated with.

Boasting more kinship with the commercial mainstream -- what with a linear narrative, touches of melodrama and even nods to pop culture via one of the protagonists retreating into cheesy MTV-style flights of fantasy – Concrete Clouds, which premiered at Busan and has just made its European bow as an official competition entry at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, should easily drift its way through the festival circuit as well as Asian-themed showcases.

Though best known for his work on the more artistically challenging works emerging from 21st century Thai cinema – he has edited all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's features since 2002, and has also contributed to Anocha Suwichakornpong's award-winning Rotterdam entry Mundane History (2009) – Lee has always dabbled in the more commercial projects such as the 2004 box-office hit thriller Shutter (2004) or Kongdej Jaturanrasamee's 2005 romantic comedy Midnight My Love.

It's a flexibility which is well illustrated on Concrete Clouds, which counts Apichatpong and Anocha (alongside Taiwanese veteran Sylvia Chang) as its producers: the film is a mix of suppressed ambience, elliptical storytelling but also harbors tropes drawn from melodrama: lovelorn phone calls, deliberately mistranslated letters, and a the film's final shot-counter-shot which lays quite bare characters' inner emotional turmoil.

Drawn from Lee's own teenage observations of his country's descent into chaos in the late 1990s – from a certain distance, that is, as he spent that period in time studying the US – Concrete Clouds is set in 1997, when Thailand was beginning to get cast asunder by an impending economic crisis. A middle-aged businessman is seen surveying, for the last time, blueprints of buildings which would eventually remain unfinished; when he jumps off the roof of his four-story townhouse to his death, his two sons are left to pick up the pieces: the listless teenager Nic (Prawith Hansten), who spends most of his time moping around, and his elder sibling Mutt (Ananda Everingham, the star of Shutter), forced to return home from his currency-trader existence in New York.

Nearly strangers because of their inter-continental separation – it is assumed Mutt left for the US when Nic was still a toddler – the siblings hardly ever grows that much closer as the film progresses; it's only for the viewer to detect how these two trajectories are parallel's with the young one nearly about to retread his elder brother's path. Seemingly discontent with his American life – the job (a profession which feeds on speculation and indirectly leads to the patriarch's bankruptcy and suicide), the relationship with a local, the existence in general – Mutt tries to reconnect with Sai (Janesuda Parnto), the puppy-love girlfriend he left behind in Thailand ten years ago and an ex-film star who has left showbusiness to forge a career in marketing research on, among other things, the modern working woman's consumption patterns.

Unbenownst to Mutt, his past is played out in Nic's life as the teenager engages with a former classmate living in the next building. A dreamer of sorts, the boy would imagine the development of his relationship with Poupee (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) in the form of karaoke videos (which Lee, taking a leaf out of a similar device in Midnight My Love, would bring into the film complete with its corniness, bland colors and on-screen lyrics), tracing a starry-eyed courtship and then tragedy in separation. Like Mutt, Nic is too cocooned (or self-centered) to know the other side of the equation: the innocent-looking but extremely worldly Poupee would soon follow her sister's footsteps to earn a living as a bar hostess – a resignation to fate mirroring that of Sai's, whose dreams of self-attained financial independence is soon to end as debts pile up beneath her confident and slick veneer.

Quoting Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Lee begins Concrete Clouds with a text saying how "the only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past". It could be a description of what Mutt is trying to do and failing; it could be what Nic would soon try to do and inevitably flounder on. What's more important, perhaps, is how this film – made and screened just as Thailand, again, is on the brink of social meltdown – returns to the origin and looks at how the end began, through the eyes of young men and women who dared to dream but then crashed and burned.

In some ways similar to Apichatpong's explorations into the more distant episodes in 20th century Thai history – that is, the military's bloody white terror unleashed on a so-called communist insurrection in the northeast of the country in the 1970s – Lee's Concrete Clouds could be seen as an examination of where things begin to go wrong, when false hopes floundered and marginal individuals like Sai and Poupee are forced to play along with (sexually-derived) norms to survive. It's an angle supported by the real news footage interwoven into the story: the father's death followed by a montage of vacuous images from TV serials, commercials and sports programs, or the harrowing glimpses of empty, unfinished husks of skyscrapers towering over Bangkok.

Far from nostalgic, Concrete Clouds could be seen as an origin-story, a bit part which epitomizes a social catastrophe; Akekarat Homlaor's production designer has contributed a lot in bringing out the awkward ambience of the time, from the brothers' creaking mansions, Poupee's gaudy décor and the vacuity which anchors the TV studios and locales Sai visits, where her glam girlfriends could still afford to say, unflinchingly, things like how "the currency thing is infringing on my rights to shop". The screenplay itself sometimes errs on the side of conventions – it's a challenge, at times, to tell the differences between pastiche and reverence of soap-opera values – but Concrete Clouds still provides a forecast (or should it be backcast?) of the rain to come.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Hivos Tiger Competition), Jan. 24, 2014
Production Companies: Kick the Machine, Far Sun Films, Electric Eel Films
Director: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Ananda Everingham, Janesuda Parnto, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Prawith Hansten
Producers: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sylvia Chang, Anocha Suwichakornpong
Director of Photography: Jarin Pengapich
Editors: Lee Chatametikool, Kamontorn Eakwattanakij
Production Designer: Akekarat Homlaor
Sound Designer: Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr
International Sales: Mosquito Films Distribution
In Thai and English
No rating, 99 minutes