Here in the post-modern West, it feels like we’ve pretty much stripped art of any of its cultural and spiritual ties. Art has been replaced by pop culture, and any of the remaining art is usually so highbrow or conceptual that it evokes more head-scratching than wonder and contemplation. And while pop culture isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it’s tendencies for self-referentialism and irony makes it a better candidate for clever TV commercials and parodies than for anything that can remind a people of who they are, what they value, and where they came from.
This is one of the themes subtly interwoven throughout The Overture, a fictional film inspired by the real life of Luang Pradit Phairao, Thailand’s last true master of the ranard-ek (a xylophone-type instrument). The movie’s main character is Sorn, who possesses a preternatural skill on the ranard-ek as a child. But when rivals kill his brother, also a player, Sorn’s father forbids him from playing. However, Sorn is captivated by the instrument and continues playing against his father’s wishes.
By the time he’s a young man, Sorn’s skill has won him great renown, such that he’s eventually called to the royal palace to join the ensemble there. But Sorn, tired of being defeated by a rival master, begins developing his own unorthodox style of playing, which brings him conflict and ridicule. Intercut with these scenes of the younger Sorn are scenes of him as an old man during World War II. Still a recognized master, he has come into conflict with the government, which is trying to remove all traditional artforms in a bid to modernize Thailand. All of which, of course, sets up a final confrontation where Sorn is called upon, once and for all, defend the value of Thai tradition.
Of all of the films I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Overture was easily the most sentimental and honest. And in this day and age of irony, I found that to be rather refreshing. True, the story is told very simply and without any subtlety whatsoever — Sorn’s final confrontation is nothing if not contrived — and it makes no attempt to hide its heartstring-tugging.
Sometimes, such sentimentality does bog down and limit the film. A number of subplots (including one concerning Sorn’s rebellious new student) and minor scenes (one depicting Sorn accompanying his pianist son on the ranard-ek serves as a powerful reminder of music’s universality, and was probably my favorite scene in the entire movie) feel under-developed and truncated, all in service of the larger storyline. However, the film is so obviously a love-letter to Thai culture, and the creators’ enthusiasm for the story is so apparent, that such flaws prove less troublesome than they would normally be.
One thing I found very intriguing in the film was the concept of musical mastery. I come from the indie-rock/underground/DIY side of the tracks, which holds to the basic tenet that anyone can pick up a guitar and create music of value — which does have a certain charm. However, the concept of a master, someone who devotes their entire life to their craft, and who seeks to use it for the elevation of their culture and spirit, is one I also find alluring. While the film doesn’t delve too much into that notion, what it does provide does lend the film a bit more depth.
And in one scene, Sorn’s father instructs him that one must never use their music for evil. The notion that art is powerful enough to even be considered a force for good or evil is one that I also find very interesting. Especially when you contrast it to the current state of things in America, in which music is more a commodity to be shaped and driven by market whims than a nigh-supernatural force.