The draft within Thailand has been a central interest point in Josh Kim’s work as a filmmaker for the last few years, beginning with his 2013 documentary short Draft Day – which focused on transgender draftees within the system. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) operates on a significantly different level as a work; it’s an adaptation of Rattwut Lapcharoensap’s short stories, focusing on the emotional effect within kinship circles, examining the class factors that play into the draft and life in the country, and drawing out its message in great subtlety through its significantly different medium – as a full-length feature, rather than a documentary short. Kim’s work does maintain a close proximity to reality and experience, however, and achieves a certain poignant sense of authenticity that permeates the work with its strongest achievements often largely reliant on this.
Thailand’s queer cinema scene has been broad and thriving in recent years – with Anucha Boonyawatana’s captivating gay-horror crossover The Blue Hour premiering a day after Kim’s work at the Berlinale – with How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) emerging as the country’s nomination for the 88th Academy Awards a palpable indication of the growing strength of the scene. At the centre of the film is Ek and his younger brother Oat, the latter of which the audience is most frequently positioned alongside. Ek and Oat are from a lower socioeconomic background, while Ek’s partner Jai is from a wealthier part of society. Initially a side note, these class divides become to define the film as Kim’s work begins to focus specifically on the drafting process within Thailand.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) owns its slowness, with the camera lingering on paused expressions, stalled tensions and anticipations throughout the lengthy take where the draft occurs – with the decision coming down to whether a red or black card is pulled out of a jar. The scene – where the wealthier figures are sat at the back and conveniently pull out a black card – serves as the starkest expression of the effect of the class divides within the country, and used by Kim as the catalyst for the deterioration of Jai and Ek’s relationship. The performances and acting are framed with Nikorn Sripongwarakul picturesque, yet perhaps overly saturated, cinematography; which Kim bleeds into Oat’s positioning within the film – powerless, yet intrinsically tied to every event played out on screen.
Kim’s film is slightly overly reliant on quasi-reflective, ambient, piano-driven music which, albeit successful in its endeavours, feels like a cheap compromise at drawing emotion from an audience – when the rest of the film manages to achieve this already through careful subtlety and pacing. In the aforementioned cyclical scenes of the drafting process, Kim conveys a stunning sense of insignificance and temporality – as lives are determined in split seconds. While the pacing and escalation of the film takes place in a restrained and skilful manner. In one of the final scenes of the film, where Ek takes Oat to a gay bar called Café lovely – that simultaneously functions as a brothel where Ek works upstairs – Kim carefully chooses to bounce the imagery off Oat’s perception; wonder, disconnect, and awe. The scene is illuminated with neon lights in the background, with the previous saturation of lighting in the film less present as Oat is presented at the precipice of coming-of-age within the film.
There’s a certain authenticity in the emotion expressed on screen, with peaks and schisms within the film used to prompt introspection and conversation. Tense encounters are played out in the moment, on screen – and resolved there – without falling into the cliche of characters having to run off in shock in a way that simply serves to prolonge the film. The final transition in How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) – from Ek and Oat riding home from the club on a motorcycle to the closing scene – is beautifully executed, with the film wrapping up at a trim 80-minutes. The length of the work results in a lean, effective and moving look at class divisions, sexuality and politics in Thailand; as a piece that manages to be simultaneously confronting and heartfelt, affirming Josh Kim’s strength as a director and screenwriter to keep an eye on in coming years.