A simple premise keeps Note Chern-Yim’s movie focused and fun.
“Stupid. People who don’t believe in bad luck are like a dog with no fear of hot water.”
I’ll admit that I don’t know a whole lot about Thailand’s comedy scene. In the West, Thailand is probably best known for its brutal action, in movies like Ong-bak and Chocolate, or for so-so horrors like The Eye or 13 Beloved. And for those fans of kaiju films, there’s always the ill-fated Gardua to keep you going. But for the others? Romance, dramas and comedies don’t tend to make their way over here. So how does The Holy Man stand as an introduction to Thailand’s funny films? Let’s take a quick look.
Brother Theng (Pongsak Pongsuwan) is a young monk who moves to a small village in remote Thailand, and after settling into a small temple and meeting the caretakers Song (director Note Chern-Yim) Liang and Weirdo he discovers that the town still believes in ghosts and spirits. Not only that, but the town is being deceived by fake shaman Phem (Somlek Sakdikul) and his crew, including his daughter Paneang (Savika Chaiyadej). With the help of his friends, Theng sets out to show the people of the village the truth.
Reviewing a comedy is always a bit difficult, because humour is incredibly subjective and never have I considered this to be more the case than in The Holy Man. Firstly, I will say that a lot of it works on a purely visual level. Note Chern-Yim understands the cinematic language of good comedy and applies it nicely here, using camera angles to hide punchlines until the right moment, and using slow reveals to extend a joke. His skill here is what makes me think that a lot of the rest of the humour is simply lost in translation.
Specifically, I refer to the small verbal asides, of which there are plenty throughout the movie. Pongsak Pongsuwan who plays Brother Theng is a well-known television personality and comedian, often appearing on variety shows. The snide comments and comedic comebacks are definitely a holdover from that style of comedy, but the translation is either off or just way too literal for it to make any real sense in a Western context. Your enjoyment of the movie will hinge on whether you can ignore those and focus on the jokes that do make sense.
You know there’s a joke, though, because accompanying every single punchline – be their verbal or visual – is a barrage of drums and sound effects. In moments when the humour is especially quick, there is so much percussion happening that the audience might get a sense that somebody has left the soundtrack to Birdman playing somewhere. It’s a strange directorial choice, but it helps keep the mood up, not unlike a live audience laughing in a sitcom. The Holy Man is a pretty entertaining movie, made very watchable by its very likeable leads (well, all except for the guy who plays Weirdo, who really fucking milks his moniker with his performance). Pongsak Pongsuwan is very affable, and Savika Chaiyadej makes for a highly entertaining villain (I mean, that moustache alone).
They’re so amiable as characters, in fact, that it’s a shame that we don’t see more of Brother Theng’s past as a layabout. There’s a lot of potential in this backstory that doesn’t really come off as relevant to the main plot. It’s something I hope we see more of in the sequels because there’s a lot to mine here, both in terms of pure plot and in the way the film relates that to Buddhist teachings. The Holy Man doesn’t go purely for laughs, and throughout its runtime enjoys several moments where Theng imparts some good wisdom, packaged in a modern Buddhist view. He understands the world, and doesn’t pretend to be able to predict the weather. To him and the movie, wisdom comes from common sense, and istening to the weather forecast.
Verdict: The Holy Man is nothing special, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
MVP: Liang, all the way
Jokes about eating dogs: More than you’d think
The Holy Man (2005)
Also known as: Luang phii theng, หลวงพี่เท่ง, (Monk Theng)
Director: Note Cherm-Yim
Writer: Theeratorn Siriphunvaraporn
Pongsak Pongsuwan – Brother Theng
Savika Chaiyadej – Paneang
Note Chern-Yim – Song
Somlek Sakdikul – Phem
Sarawut Phumtong – Pian