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A winning gay Thai love story

Josh Kim’s touching film about family and loss screens at the Vancouver Queer Film Fest

A moment of happiness in a story riddled with the complexities of family and love at the Vancouver Queer Film Fest. Credit: Josh Kim

Rule #4: Do whatever it takes to win, even if it means someone else has to lose.

It’s a credo that surfaces frequently through Josh Kim’s beautiful and poignant film, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time). Set in Bangkok, the movie captures a pivotal period in the lives of a family all too familiar with loss.

Oat is 11 years old. He lives with his aunt, little sister and older brother Ek, who has been the guiding force in the boy’s life since the death of their beloved father. The family is poor: meat is a rare delicacy, and Oat fairly salivates over television commercials for fast-food hamburgers smothered in cheese.

Ek has recently turned 21 and now faces the compulsory Thai conscription lottery. Auntie frets over having to care for Oat on her own, while Oat is terrified at the thought of losing his only father figure.

The interesting twist is that Ek is gay, but his sexuality isn’t the crux of the story, nor is it a source of conflict. His boyfriend, Jai, comes from a wealthy family, and Auntie’s only concern is that her nephew has raised his sights too high in romance. Their relationship is loving and passionate, explored as lightly and naturally as the accepted presence of transgender “ladyboys” in their society.

“I lived in Texas for over 10 years,” Kim says. “I didn’t go to any gay bars, and the only gay thing I saw was on TV or in film. But everybody I saw just seemed depressed. I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to be gay and happy.”

Kim adapted his film from two short stories by Thai novelist Rattawut Lapcharoensap: Draft Day and At The Café Lovely, taken from the author’s 2004 Sightseeing collection.

“I think it’s one of the first English language books about Thailand that feels real,” Kim says. “This was one of the first times I felt that these were people that I knew, like my neighbours, my family. And like Oat, I also have an older brother, so I felt that I knew that relationship.”

Such is Oat’s love for Ek that he makes some perilous decisions in trying to keep his big brother out of the military. These backfire spectacularly, jeopardizing not only Oat’s safety but also the relationship between Ek and Jai.

“The original stories were not actually gay,” Kim says. “But I’m gay, and this film was made by gay people and invested in by gay people, so it was important for me. It’s like this Nigerian quote that says, ‘As long as the lions don’t have their own storytellers, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ We have to become part of the stories.”