How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

From  How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

Drama, 80 minutes, not rated, in Thai with subtitles, Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, Violet Crown, 3 chiles

Josh Kim’s first feature is a coming-of-age drama set in a small town in Thailand, and observed through the eyes of eleven-year-old Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul), an orphan being raised by his aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) and his adored older brother Ek (Thira Chutikul). Ek is the breadwinner, working as a bartender in a sex club owned by the local crime boss (Kowit Wattanakul), and facing the threat of conscription into the army at the upcoming annual draft lottery. Ek is in an open homosexual relationship with Jai (Arthur Navarat), a rich boy from the upscale side of town.

Though Oat and Ek do play checkers, and Oat buys a book that teaches him to beat his brother fair and square, the answer to the question implied in the title is plain: Cheat. Oat witnesses Jai’s family bribing his way out of the draft, and tries to do the same for his brother. But his naïve bumbling only makes things worse.

Kim deals in an appealingly straightforward fashion with Thai society’s easy acceptance of gay and transgender realities, while at the same time showing the sleazy side of that life when it is circumscribed by poverty and desperation. The story uses a framing device of the adult Oat (Toni Rakkaen), now a successful gangster who has learned how to win, waking from a recurring nightmare and looking down on the city from his luxury hotel room. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. The real strength of the picture is in the loving relationship between the two brothers, and especially Chutikul’s warm, moving performance as Ek. The film by Kim, who is Korean-American, has been chosen by Thailand as its submission to the 2016 Academy Awards.