'How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)': Hong Kong Review

Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival
A winning drama about loss of innocence

Korean-American director Josh Kim's Bangkok-set debut revolves around the attempts of an 11-year-old to get his elder brother out of the military draft

Based on two short stories from Rattawut Lapcharoensap, one of the most promising young novelists of his generation, Korean-American filmmaker Josh Kim's feature-length dramatic debut flows with ample warmth, contemplation and social criticism. Revolving around an 11-year-old boy's introduction to harsh realities of poverty and patriotism, How To Win At Checkers (Every Time) signals the arrival of a talented and observant artist making killer moves in coaxing the best out of his material and his actors.

Just like his breakthrough short documentary Draft Day, a record of two transgender Thais participating in the national military conscription lottery, Kim's latest film goes well beyond its seemingly exotic premise in offering a nuanced reflection on its characters' standing in society. Defying mostly foreign filmmakers' representations of Thailand as an unfettered tropical hotbed for sleaze and crime, Kim elected to hint at rather than play up the devastating consequences of sex, drugs and corruption with his nimbly paced yet relentlessly focused narrative.

Bowing at Filmart and the Hong Kong International Film Festival after its world premiere at the Berlinale's Panorama sidebar, Checkers is well-placed for a sustained journey through the festival circuit.

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Born in Texas and boasting a career in documentary-making and film production in the US, Hong Kong and South Korea, Kim - like the Chicago-born and Bangkok-raised Rattawut - is perhaps aware of the pains and pitfalls of convenient cultural stereotypes. Here, the same-sex romances and transgender identities are portrayed in the narrative as more an accepted part of the social fabric than as devices for titillation or comedy.

Then again, all that only provides a backdrop to the center of the film, which is the rite of passage of Oat (More Iirah Wimonchailerk), an 11-year-old boy trying to make sense of how his world works in a rundown suburb of Bangkok in the 1990s. As the film begins, his dream remains no more than to indulge in a cheeseburger; it's a naivete which explains the boy counting his elder brother Ek (Thira Chutikul), a rebellious hunk earning a living at the local dive bar, as his major pillar of support (and object of admiration). 

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Oat's life takes a darker turn when Ek is finally summoned to attend the army draft lottery - a much-dreaded affair as young conscripts are being sent to serve in southern Thailand, where separatist insurgents are fighting against the army. Fearing the worst, Oat decides to help his elder sibling in evading the call-up, a venture which strips the boy of his innocence as his attempts bring him face to face with not just the criminal ways of the local thugs, but also the betrayal of Ek's affluent sweetheart Jai (Arthur Navarat).

With the help of Nikorn Sripongwarakul's understated camerawork and Bodvar Isbjornsson's music, Kim expands on his proven strengths in documentary making, blending realistic moments with scenes of thoughtful visual symbolism. At the end of the film, a grown-up and jaded Oat stares down from his skyscraper condo: he's finally escaped from poverty on the ground and scaled the heights. But at what cost? 

Venue: Filmart, Hong Kong International Film Festival (Global Vision)

Production companies: Electric Eel Films, Add Word Productions, Chris Lee Productions

Cast: Iirah Wimonchailerk, Thira Chutikul, Arthur Navarat, Natarat Lakha

Director: Josh Kim

Screenwriter: Josh Kim

Producers: Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Anocha Suwichakornpong

Executive producers: Andrew Tiernan, Stea Lim, Kuo-loon Loh, Mark Chen, Paul Wong, Michael Rogers, with Pornmanus Rattanavich, Maenum Chagasik, Athimes Arunroj-Angkul

Director of photography: Nikorn Sripongwarakul

Production designer: Rasiguet Sookkarn

Costume designer: Phim Umari

Editor: Kamontorn Eakwattanakij

Casting Director: Chatchai Phutsorn

Music: Bodvar Isbjornsson

International Sales: M-appeal

In Thai


No rating, 80 minutes