When it comes to LGBT people, Thailand breaks all the rules.
Gay people are offered no special legal protections, but form one of the most visible communities on earth. Equal marriage goes unrecognized, but a symbolic three-way gay Buddhist wedding ceremony went by this year unprotested. Transgender people are, if anything, more recognized than gays, and even have their own beauty pageant, but cannot change their legal sex on government documents.
This is what makes Josh Kim’s new film How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) so pleasantly disorienting. The film’s gay and transgender characters pass almost without comment, blending easily into their environment as if a budding romance between two teenage boys, or a girl who fills out both the top and bottom of her jaunty one-piece bathing suit, are hardly worth more than a passing mention.
The story, based on American-Thai writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s short fiction anthology Sightseeing, is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Oat, who watches his brother Ek struggle with the pressure of the military draft, navigate a relationship with his wealthier boyfriend, and become entangled in drugs and prostitution. Oat finally takes his brother’s fate into his own hands, learning the adult games of corruption and manipulation in the process. There is no shortage of harassment, violence and discrimination, but along the axes of poverty and power — the central themes of the film — not sexuality.
How to Win is a quiet rebuttal to the Western-centered belief that developed countries must save less fortunate gay people from their repressive environments. Thailand is no gay rights paradise, but Kim’s portrayal is enough to make a Canadian viewer rethink the usual hierarchies.
How to Win is distinctly retro. The film’s smooth, soft-lit style recalls 1980s burger commercials. The short stories into which Kim injects his gay plotline (neither of Lapcharoensap’s originals had gay characters) are set in the indefinite past, including details like the public drawing of draft lottery cards, a custom that was discontinued years ago. In reality, Thailand is moving forward; a new constitution expected next year may expand protections for LGBT people, and prevent humiliating moments like one in which the film’s transgender character is asked to strip for a draft inspection.
The last moments of the film leave Oat staring glumly into the grey distance, pondering the past. But Thailand’s future, for LGBT people, actually looks surprisingly sunny.
For an interview with director Josh Kim click here.