Sometimes you just wanna wade in the shallow end of the pool, not dive in and race a stop-watch. One Take Only is not a serious movie, not by any means, although Oxide Pang’s post-production process attempts to manipulate our emotions. No one told the actors that there was a message, not by judging the obvious glee in every off-handed remark, every sly drug deal, every kick to the head. Rumors abound that the shooting was improvised with a cast of non-actors and this might explain the excitement captured; everyone gets to play the roles they’ve learned from watching movies and TV. If Oxide Pang had left the morality at home and quit trying to prove what a back-lot auteur he could be in the editing suite than this would be a perfect pizza and beer flick.
The skeleton plot is tried and true. Two kids from the more septic side of the gutter are trying to survive the rough and tumble poverty of Bangkok, possibly the world’s most bankrupt cesspool that’s not an active war zone. Bank (Pawarith Monkolpisit) runs small packets of dope from drop to drop, sometimes selling to users, sometimes buying from the bigger dealers. Som (Wanatchada Siwapornchai) is a prostitute working one of the innumerable clubs, having her hostess set her up in hotels with clients. Neither of them seems to have any idea what they would rather be doing but they can both agree that they would rather be doing something else and they would rather have more money than they’re making at the nickel slots. They meet randomly several times without realizing it until Bank’s good intentions find him surrounded by some guttersnipes tougher than he can manage. Fortunately Som is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty. The courtship leads to romance but both are keeping their lips sealed about the most tawdry aspects of their lives. The truth will come out and it’s not an easy truth for either of them.
Sounds like the set-up to an action packed gangster flick, but that’s only partially true. It’s also a light-hearted romantic comedy and it even becomes something of a melodrama at times. Although the camera never raises above the gritty alleys and fluorescent back rooms Pang has a gift for visually altering the mood. The externals creep by, observed from afar with hand-held cameras suggesting we’re witnessing something we shouldn’t be watching. The drug deals are partially obscured shots, the dialogue coming through traffic and city noise. Bank and Som’s courtship is pursued from afar as well but the camera accentuates their bubble of solitude in a greater mass of people. Interiors are carefully staged and angled to displace the viewer slightly, accentuating the anxiety and violence. My greatest complaint for the straight shots is the music which shifts from pulsating Euro-trash techno to saccharine synth ballads of young love; the soundtrack is laid on top of everything with the subtlety of of a garbage truck crashing into a restaurant. However the basic scenes are intercut with Oxide Pang’s demo reel for Hollywood which rips apart the simple but fun movie. At its most inspired these deviations serve as Bank’s violent fantasy reactions to situations beyond his control; he’s too small fry and wimpy to do anything when he’s taken advantage of and so his anger vents through his imagination. At its worst Pang moralizes with montage, flashbacks, color filters, flashing lights and a donkey show. Someone comes from a broken home? Their inner anguish is expressed through editing and camera tricks instead of through story and acting. It’s a music video for a band you hate. It’s a commercial for a perfume that makes you sneeze. It’s tacked on, pompous and worthless and detracts from the cheap entertainment you should be able to rely on.
I’ve read a lot of criticism about the weak plot but I’m not terribly concerned with twists and turns and surprises within certain contexts such as the slice-of-life exploitation on display here. Still there are some annoying omissions and illogical leaps. Most glaring is the question of how two people developing a close relationship avoid the topics of what they do– it’s not that they lie about being a drug dealer and a prostitute, it just never seems to come up. A lesser head-scratcher was attempting to understand the nature of Bank’s drug dealing, specifically who he’s dealing to, who he’s working with and how he’s profiting at all. They also make frustratingly bad decisions which run contrary to the nature of the characters and while you can assume that greed is the motivating factor this overrides the expectation that these are two nominally intelligent and cautious people.
There’s also a lot of criticism about the shallowness of Som and Bank and while I’ll admit that the story doesn’t enhance their personas beyond a one-line summary the two actors manage to express plenty. The opening sequence of the movie, Som with a john, is focused entirely on her bored eyes, her tired distraction and her eagerness to end the transaction as quickly as possible. Siwapornchai carries through the movie upright and unapologetic, never the victim, accepting what she does as a matter of course and a means to an end. When she’s discussing business matters with her madame she’s friendly but firm, when she’s hanging out with her friends she’s free and unburdened, when she’s talking to her mom on the phone she’s exasperated and annoyed but, without any poetic dialogue, caring and concerned. Monkolpisit pulls off a less subtle but equally powerful performance as the dogged nobody balancing his impulses and desires for underground greatness with that of an affable and fun character who suffers from sadness when he’s alone at home with his haunted mother watching TV in the kitchen. Their blossoming romance is awkward and uncontrived, so much so that their meandering small-talk and shy pauses becomes almost unbearable because it rings so true. When they become a couple they compliment one another so naturally you forgive their holding hands as they walk towards the abyss. The enjoyment of a lackluster script and tired plot is perhaps attributable more to these two actors than any other element of the movie.
And Oxide Pang’s duplicitous nature behind the camera? While I suspect he always has one eye on the horizon he still seems invested enough in his little movie to take care with his direction. He steps back and lets events happen when they need space, he jumps forward and gets in everyone’s faces when the shit hits the fan and he seems to be enjoying himself during each scene. The temptation to leave his stamp as an artist, or his calling card as a professional hack, is to his detriment. Now that he’s arrived in Hollywood (The Eye made him internationally famous and he’s recently remade his movie Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicolas Cage) I suspect Wayne Wang syndrome to settle in. There’s no going back to those simple stories, those back alleys and that child-like enthusiasm unless a studio’s footing the bill. It won’t be a great loss to the world of cinema but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth all the same.
One Take Only was released domestically by Tartan Video’s Asia Extreme division. It’s widescreen, well transferred, with good subtitles and sound except when the soundtrack is involved. It can be Netflixed or torrented easily if you’re so inclined. I’m showing the Dutch trailer because it looks a lot better than the English-language one even if it reveals a lot of the movie.