“I-San Special” is a product of Thai cinema’s new wave, playing the worldwide festival and art-house circuits alongside other nouveau Thai films like Pan-ek Ratanaruang’s “Mon-Rak Transistor” and Apichatpong “Joe” Weeresethakul’s “Mysterious Object at Noon” and “Blissfully Yours”. While “I-San Special” may not be as engaging as these fellow Thai films, it does have an interesting twist.
Director Mingmongkol Sonakul, who also serves on the Board of Directors of the Thai Film Foundation, sets her film on a bus heading from Bangkok to Nong Bua, a town in Northeast Thailand. As we meet the characters on the bus, they appear to be under some sort of spell, playing roles in some unspoken soap opera story. The main player in this sappy melodrama is a reserved girl (Mesini Kaewratri) who plays the role of Phen, a model who has fallen from grace. She gets hired to steal an incriminating cassette from a hotel mogul named Danny (Mark Salmon), a handsome but punkish-looking rider in the back of the bus. It’s only in brief interludes at rest stops where we see who these characters really are.
This is where “I-San Special” disappoints. It appears to be taking jabs at the mainstream Thai film industry, which regularly churns out melodramatic flair like the bus story. One need only see last year’s sappy “Jan Dara”, Nonzee Nimibutr’s heavily promoted erotic drama, for proof of this. Mingmongkol unfortunately spends too much time inside the bus, and fails to establish the true faces of her characters. The people behind the Phen and Danny characters seem to have interesting stories to tell, but we catch only cursory glimpses of them.
As an exercise in storytelling, “I-San Special” does have a unique creative spark, juxtaposing the acted-out roles of its characters alongside their “real-life” personae. It’s just too bad that Mingmongkol focuses so heavily on the melodrama she aims to lampoon.