13 September 2011

Umong Pa Meung

Umong Pa Meung
Pundhevanop Dhewakul's film Umong Pa Meung transposes Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon to northern Thailand circa 1500. It was filmed in and around Chiang Mai, with some scenes shot in the atmospheric Wat Umong compound. The cast includes several of Thailand's most popular contemporary stars: Ananda Everingham, Mario Maurer, Petthai Wongkumlao, and Chermarn Boonyasak. (Ananda, Chermarn, and Pundhevanop have worked together on several previous films.)

The plot, in which a monk, a woodcutter, and a commoner discuss a perplexing murder trial, is told in a series of flashbacks, each of which presents a different interpretation of the action. All the witnesses agree that a bandit ties a man to a tree and rapes his wife, though their stories diverge when the husband is murdered. The structure, plot, and characters are all familiar from Kurosawa's original masterpiece.

Perhaps to avoid unfavourable comparisons with Kurosawa, Pundhevanop insists that Umong Pa Meung is not a Rashomon remake. He told The Nation newspaper: "do not expect to see what you see in 'Rashomon'. They are totally different". To further minimise the Kurosawa connection, and to add literary and Thai-historical credibility, the film is being marketed as an adaptation of a play by Kukrit Pramoj. Kukrit reworked Rashomon as a theatrical drama, which Pundhevanop subsequently directed on stage.

Despite Pundhevanop's disclaimer, Umong Pa Meung is clearly a Kurosawa remake. Many shots - such as the woodcutter's entry into the forest, the witnesses giving evidence direct-to-camera, and the triangular compositions of the three principal flashback characters - are direct imitations of sequences from Kurosawa's film.

In a rare deviation from Rashomon, Pundhevanop has chosen to depict the judge observing the witnesses in court, thus distancing the audience. Pundhevanop's most substantial additions are the backstories he develops for each of the protagonists: the upbringings of the monk, the wife, and the bandit are presented as flashbacks. He has also modified the commoner character, who is now reduced to a comically grotesque figure.

While remaking one of the world's greatest films may seem sacrilegious, there have already been several Hollywood Kurosawa remakes: The Outrage remade Rashomon and The Magnificent Seven remade Seven Samurai. Rashomon has also been adapted into a Broadway play and an opera.

Kurosawa's Rashomon was a modest film, achieving success to the surprise of its producers, though Umong Pa Meung is a self-consciously prestigious production, a lavish widescreen epic. In contrast to Kurosawa's emphasis on the subjective nature of truth, Pundhevanop heightens the melodrama and uses frequent slow-motion to romanticise the action. Mario and Chermarn have appeared together in two previous films - Love Of Siam and Rhatree Reborn - though Chermarn is more famous for (and more suited to) her lakorn (soap-opera) roles, and Umong Pa Meung does sometimes feel like an expensive soap-opera.

Following the relaxation of censorship since Rashomon was first released in 1950, a modern remake could conceivably present the central rape and murder more graphically than Kurosawa was able to. (Kurosawa circumvented such restrictions by representing the rape symbolically, with a dagger dropping into the ground.) However, aside from a briefly gory prologue, Pundhevanop's film remains as chaste as the original. Which begs the question: why remake Rashomon, if not to present its plot more realistically?

The answer, and the reason for the lack of explicit sex or violence, is that Umong Pa Meung is intended as a reflection of the Buddhist 'dharma' philosophy. Carried away by this overt religiosity, the film arguably takes itself too seriously, especially during the monk's extended backstory flashback, with earnest dialogue and an unintentionally camp sensibility.

1 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Although I did not know it was a "Rashoman" remake going into the theater, I immediately recognized it as such when it began. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was refreshing that we weren't regaled with unnecessary violence; even the beheading scene was handled somewhat with taste. The artistic direction of the film was also superb,using color, sound, makeup, and costumes to full advantage.

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