After the loss of both parents, 11 years old Oat faces an uncertain future when his older brother must submit to Thailand’s annual military draft lottery. Unable to convince his brother to do whatever he can to change his fate, Oat takes matters into his own hands resulting in unexpected consequences. Based on the stories from the bestselling book Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, the film is set in the economic fringes of Bangkok and examines the joys and challenges of growing up in contemporary Thailand. HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME) is director Josh Kim’s debut feature film.
NOTE DI REGIA
I fell in love with the book, which this film is based on, the first time I read it. The language is very cinematic and visual. I could especially relate to the relationship between the brothers – Oat and Ek.
I remember reading that a relationship with a sibling, more so than with a parent, was one of the most important relationships (if not the longest) that a person would have in his or her lifetime.
The brothers in the short story, “At the Café Lovely” by Rattawut Lapcharoensap are Thai. However, even though they grew up in a different country, speaking a different language, their relationship reminded me of the relationship I had with my own brother.
Since acquiring the film rights back in 2008, I worked on two films set in Thailand in order to familiarize myself with shooting in the country and expand my network: “A Better Tomorrow” (2010), which I worked on as Associate Producer that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2010, and “Draft Day” (2013), a short research documentary of transgenders participating in Thailand’s military draft.
Since the release of the short documentary, the Korean Board of Education has also distributed the film to middle school and high school libraries throughout Korea to help teach students about transgender tolerance. This is why I continue to make films and especially this feature project: to make a positive impact on the world we live in through our work.
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… 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).
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? (Clarence Tsui, hollywoodreporter.com)
Interview with the Director: Josh Kim
What inspired you to make the film?
In 2007, I read the book, Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. It felt as if I had just watched a movie. I remembered the vivid sunsets, the sound of motorbikes, the smell of gasoline and all the colors. It was a world I had never seen, yet populated with characters I felt like I knew from my own childhood. It soon became a story I wanted to tell through film.
What challenges did you face in adapting the book?
When I sent out early drafts of the screenplay for feedback, I found that there were parts where people didn’t understand because they had not read the book. I realized then that I needed to put the original source material away and make sure the film script was able to stand on its own. It became very freeing to move beyond the boundaries of the book. I began to add characters and expand on themes and situations to make it my own.
Can you talk about the process of the military draft lottery in Thailand?
It’s a very unique rite of passage. If you’re a male in Thailand, on the year of your 21st birthday, you gather with guys the same age in your district to pick a card from an urn in front of everybody. If the card is black, your service is waived and you don’t need to go. If it’s red, however, you must commit two years of your life serving your country. Unlike the US, where military service is voluntary, yet unlike other countries such as South Korea, where it is mandatory, military service in Thailand is largely dependent on luck.
Before coming to Thailand, I had never actually seen this process before. And while I was writing, it was still unclear what the rules were regarding MTF transgenders. So in 2013, I made a short documentary, called Draft Day, which followed two transgender women on the day of their own draft. This research helped immensely and provided a strong reference for our team as we had to recreate our own draft for the film.
Describe the casting process. How did you find your actors?
Ryu, the young boy, was actually the first person that came in to read for the role. We tried out one of the emotional scenes and he nailed it. It felt way too easy so we kept looking. Some director friends had told stories of how they auditioned hundreds of kids before finding, “the one.” After we auditioned our own hundred, we eventually came back to him, candidate #1.
What is the most challenging thing in making this film?
The draft lottery makes this a story which can only be told in Thailand. It was important that the film was a Thai film first before anything else. I wanted to be able to read the Thai script and communicate with the actors, so I moved to Bangkok in 2012 and enrolled in intensive Thai language classes.
During the production, there were massive protests which shut down the capital and eventually the military took over in a coup. Martial law was declared and soon after, a curfew was imposed. We were all worried whether we would even be able to complete the film because our shooting overlapped with the curfew.
What is the importance of checkers in the movie?
Chess was a game I played with my own brother. He was the one who taught me how to play. Every time I would joke that I would one day beat him, even though I never really believed I would win. So when I did eventually win, I wasn’t sure what to do next because that had been my only goal the whole time. Similarly, when Oat beats his own brother, he begins to see the flaws in him. It’s a bitter-sweet moment where he comes of age and realizes he must start to make decisions on his own.