Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 27, 2014 4:29 pm 
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A Twitter romantic comedy

The playful, drifty, metafictional Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is a film by Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit about two adolescent best friends in their last year of an all-girl high school. "Celine and Julie" have been mentioned, and, indeed, this film has several references to Godard, the Nouvelle Vague, and Wong Kar-wai. The focus is entirely on the flustered, fatalistic Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya), her useless love for a boy met by a snack stand called Gift and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui), who encounters a tragic event and may have had a mad crush on Mary. But most importantly all this action is based on 400+ Tweets in the Twitter feed of an actual adolescent girl, @marylony, which are shown in the middle of the screen all the way along and are woven verbatim into the dialogue and action.

With this challenge to deal with, the screenplay has a shaky time getting started and seems not so sure of how to wind things up at the end, which may explain a 126-minute length for what is essentially lightweight material.

There are running jokes. Mary has a cheap Chinese knockoff phone, an "iFeng" instead of an iPhone, so poorly made it repeatedly gives her electric shocks in the ear. After a while the school headmaster dies and is replaced by an absurdly fascistic one: once he take charge everything revolves around him. Classrooms are shut to use to store his possessions. The girls are no longer allowed to express an opinion about anything and the final exam is entirely focused on his life and tastes. Mary is editor of the senior yearbook but has no say in its color scheme, and it's made up to be thicker than the Cairo phone book because that makes it look important. She had wanted it to be thin and "minimalist" (though the motto "Less is Less" is glimpsed).

Whimsy and surrealism are adopted to make the action fit with the unedited tweets. Thus at one point Mary purchases a mail order jellyfish that arrives frozen ("it's hibernating") and at another she winds up for a day or so in Paris -- perhaps a nod to Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It Over There?, which makes constant references to Truffaut's 400 Blows.

Mary's tweets are constant, and sometimes are the same as what she's saying onscreen, though she's never actually shown tweeting. At times they are like proverbs or advice, such as "Our bodies change, but our hearts remain the same" or more neutrally, "Different rhythm, same understanding" or "Being correct can be a boundary," which are ambiguous, but made into comments on the action happening to Mary and Suri.

At one point the film enters metafictional territory when Mary's seen in a drama class where the teacher criticizes her, or the film's plot. Mary and Suri are nearly inseparable. But while Suri is good humored and upbeat, the more sophisticated Mary's thoughts are full of worry. She and Suri often stroll along some abandoned railway tracks: the minimalist, Brechtian sets largely seem desolate or in storage, including the school), and there are only a handful of teachers or adults seen. Mary meets a handsome young man next to a food stand called Gift. She's instantly smitten and too shy to speak, but he surprises her by introducing himself all of a sudden and saying "I'm single." But thereafter he's a teaser who won't reveal if he's interested or not. When another boy called Pacoum turns up and says he's single and seems to care, Mary walks away.

Events toward the last third are so unnerving to Mary that she gets into a state where she's sometimes unsure if she's dreaming or awake. Maybe the lack of realism in the school and other settings maybe all this is happening in Mary's head. Mary looks sometimes young and girlish and sometime mature, suggesting fanciful flashbacks. Suri comes upon Mary posing moodily with a cigarette and says to her, "What are you doing? This is no time for Wong Kar-wai. You don't even smoke."

All this is handled lightly and deftly and with both humorous detachment and sympathy for teenage girlish angst, but it sounds better on paper than it plays out on the screen, due an unfulfilled need to pare down and sharpen up the dialogue and action, which the writer-director's conceptual method of slavishly following actual consecutive tweets makes impossible. The filmmaker's first film 36 had a successful festival run starting in 2012 and was well received by Variety's Richard Kuipers, as is this. 36 was about a photographer, which Mary partly is also, shooting portraits of classmates and even of her would-be boyfriend.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, 127 mins., debuted 1 September 2013 at Venice, also playing at Busan and Tokyo; it got a Best Film nomination at Valdivia. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 24 April-8 May 2014. It shows 6 and 8 May.

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