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Gangs of old Bangkok

Director Kongkiat Komsiri offers a fresh take on the infamous young gangsters of the '50s with 'Antapal'

Back in 1997, director Nonzee Nimibutr's gangster story "2499 Antapan Krong Muang" ("Dang Bireley's and Young Gangsters") did much to resuscitate a Thai film industry that had spent several years in the doldrums.

Now comes "Antapal", another gangster movie with a similar title, this time directed by talented filmmaker Kongkiat Komsiri and with a background and characters that are that reminiscent of "Dang Bireley's".

However, Kongkiat insists that "Antapal" is neither remake nor sequel though it is set in the same era as Nonzee's film and has much of the same atmosphere.

The fact-based tale is taken from accounts of Bangkok's mafia in the late 1950s, an era when it was fashionable to dress like James Dean and Elvis and rave about rock 'n' roll. And once Kongkiat had decided to make a gangster film, he says it simply had to be set in the '50s.

"You can't make an interesting gangster story with a backdrop of 1972 because there's no cultural background or transition period," he explains.

"The problem with Thai movies is that we are limited in terms of the audience's mindset. When people first heard about the film, they decided it was going to be like 'Dang Bireley's'."

"Antapal" depicts two generations of gangsters that mirror each other's destiny. The story starts in the '50s when young gangsters Jod (Krissada Sukosol Clapp) and Dang (Somchai Khemklad) find themselves up against prime minister Sarith Thanarath's policy of wiping out the mafia, which sees them serving long prison sentences. When they are released, another two young gangsters want to follow in their footsteps. But Bangkok's grim underbelly has changed, guns have replaced knives and the two realise that the gangster cachet no longer has the same meaning.

"The two generations mirror each other but the point I am making is nothing lasts forever and the changes affect their lives in many ways," Kongkiat says.

The gangster society of 50 years ago, says Kongkiat, was less violent than today, when people are murdered over minor arguments. When conflicts arose, the gangs would negotiate and fight directly, mostly with their fists or knives rather than guns. When guns became more accessible, the method for solving strife changed and the violence increased.

"Guns make it easy for people to double-cross each other. The world has changed and honour among gentleman no longer exists," he says.

Kongkiat, who directed such critically acclaimed films as "Muay Thai Chaiya" and "Chuan" ("Slice"), sticks to his signature realistic style in portraying the gangster world.

"It may be more entertaining to see gangsters dressed in cool gear and fighting like heroes but I think that's very superficial. I try and give the story more depth by making it more true to life."

That idea also extends to the brighter side of the gangster world. While Thai movies tend to portray bad guys as nasty people, "Antapal" portrays gangster society from both its good and bad sides. Gunslingers too have a romantic side, feel brotherly love and their gang activities affect their love ones.

Just as "Dang Bireley's" was carried by its strong cast, with Jessadaporn Pholdee shining in the lead role, Kongkiat has chosen his actors with care. Singer-actor Krissada Sukosol Clapp plays the subtle Jod while Somchai Kemglad stars as Dang.

"They are totally different in acting style but when they play together, the balance between them is perfect," says Kongkiat.

Despite winning praise from critics and bringing home awards, Kongkiat's films have not scored high at the local box office. He's hoping "Antapal" will reverse that trend.

"One problem is that my movies are serious and that doesn't suit the audience. From my observations, local filmgoers tend to open their minds more to serious movies from Hollywood but expect only light entertainment from Thai films. It's neither right nor wrong, it's the way it is," he says.

Moreover, with a Thai film, the audience is quick to pass judgement and in a world where everything is posted on the Internet, hasty negative comments can do a lot of harm.

"People comment about everything and anything, even if they know nothing about the subject. More and more often, what they say is cruel and harsh. They don't seem concerned that what they post on the Internet affects someone's life and work. But who cares since we are anonymous in the cyber world?

"I find it an interesting idea and I want to make a film about it. What happens out there is the act of cowards and it reflects on our society as a whole," he says.

MEAN STREETS

- "Antapal" opens in cinemas today.


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