If your conception of Thai New Wave cinema doesn’t extend beyond Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or exist at all, it’s time to expand your horizons. Once Upon a Time (now streaming on Netflix) offers not only an introduction to a contemporary in Nonzee Nimibutr. It’s a glimpse at how cinema played a part in the cultural fabric of the country itself.
The Gist: A group of Thai troubadours known as Mr. Manit’s traveling troupe travels around the country to project films and perform live voiceovers (both dialogue and sound effects) to the images. Their comfortable, if always eventful, existence gets quite a shock in the late 1960s. First, they bring on a woman to help with their dubbing artistry. The beautiful and talented Rueangkae (Nuengthida Sophon) immediately attracts amorous attention from the troupe leader Manit (Sukollawat Kanarot) as well as member Kao (Jirayu La-ongmanee). But while they squabble amongst themselves along the winding backroads of rural Thailand, a great shift is at play increasing the competition beyond just other troupes: sync sound for the traveling cinema.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: They’re obviously very different in tone and genre (ahem, no musical number), but Singin’ in the Rain comes to mind as another movie about talented technicians in the cinema arts who must face down their own obsolescence as the art form changes around them.
Performance Worth Watching: For any kind of love triangle formation to work, there has to be a believable object of affection. Nuengthida Sophon’s Kae feels like someone who people could instantly fall in love with.
Memorable Dialogue: “Sometimes our dream…is just that. A dream,” Manit defeatedly suggests. “We may not really love it in the end.” Kae raises his spirits by retorting, “But I already know I’m gonna love it because that love is why I’m standing here today. I dream of it every night.”
Sex and Skin: There’s some brief banter about STIs, and that’s about the extent to which the subject arises in the film.
Our Take: People who have a warm spot in their heart for outmoded ways of consuming art, especially cinema, will find Once Upon a Star like getting wrapped up in a warm blanket. Nonzee Nimibutr’s filmmaking is overwhelmingly gentle and sweet, frankly to the point of fault. The film teeters over into mawkish, maudlin territory with the sincerity of its emotionality. It makes the whole enterprise feel a bit featherweight, as if the whole thing might float away with the wind if you poked at it the tiniest bit. Whatever insights Nimibutr might have into the changing nature of cinema or the human heart feel buried underneath filler scenes to protect the fragile core of compassion.
Our Call: SKIP IT. True cinephiles might find some value in looking at a different kind of cinematic artisanship as displayed by the dubbing artists of Once Upon a Star. Yet most of this slice of Thai history is too caught up in coddling the emotional states of its characters to go beyond that initial novelty.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, The Playlist and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.
Watch Once Upon a Star on Netflix