“Everything I know about being gay, I learned at Blockbuster Video.”
Born and raised in a small town in rural Texas, Korean-American filmmaker Josh Kim took a rather unusual path into gay themed filmmaking. His hometown had no gay bars, no gay hot spots, and no gay culture. In fact, Kim cites a part time job he once held at Blockbuster, a now dying chain of retail video rental houses, as the first place he learned about all things gay.
Now a successful writer and filmmaker, Kim has left the Texas backcountry behind and refocuses much of his energy on the Far East. In the case of his latest film, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), Kim is putting his brand of storytelling to work in Thailand.
“We shot the film in twenty days, spread over two months in Thailand. But I came to learn to speak Thai two years prior to filming,” explains Josh Kim. “It was during my first time in Thailand I began asking my friends about the draft. That discovery led to Draft Day.”
The draft Kim refers to, of course, is the infamous Thai military draft, which is the subject of his award winning documentary, Draft Day. A lottery where no one really wins, the military draft is a method by which the Thai military conscripts new soldiers. Like something out of the Hunger Games, able-bodied young men must attend the draft upon turning 21 years old and face their fate. Pulling a red card from the bucket means a man must put aside his studies, family, or home life to serve his country for a mandatory 2 years of military service. This is of particular concern in southern Thailand, where radical insurgents have been targeting military personnel for decades. This lends itself perfectly to the setting of Kim’s latest work.
“How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) is based on Draft Day and a short story called At the Café Lovely,” says Kim. “There were seven short stories and I wanted them all, but only had enough money to buy the rights to one story. Café Lovely was the one. So I picked up the feature film rights.”
He goes on to explain, “Draft Day was not a gay film. For How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), I made it gay to make the story more emotional. Having a transgender character in the story, too, makes you think and write differently. Really after all of that things came into place. I found I was pretty much on my own making this film in the Thai community.”
Tastefully combining the two short stories, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), follows Oat, an 11 year-old boy living in the poverty stricken region of southern Thailand. Oat’s brother, Ek, is eligible for his first military lottery, as is Ek’s boyfriend, Jai. With their parents deceased, Ek is the family’s only source of income, which causes great distress for Oat and his aunt, who has been raising the boys in the absence of their parents. Ek, however, earns his money working at a gay sex club, the Café Lovely.
Gritty, hazy cinematography delivers an aged look, and lends well to the appearance of the poor village in which Oat and Ek live. Warm, steamy light is equally juxtaposed with moments of anxiety and Oat’s frequent flashbacks of his father. Kim also employed the use of much handheld camera work, a documentary style trick that brings the audience further into the story.
“It gets better with every shot,” Josh Kim exclaims. “It was shot on a low budget, but it still came out very nice. Selecting certain props can sometimes date a film. I wanted this film to look old from the start.”
A coming-of-age tale, the film concludes with the audience meeting an adult Oat. Wiser, warmer, he looks back on his past and upbringing with a bittersweet sense of hope.
“He’s thinking about the costs of success,” explains the director. “There are moments in life where you can do what’s good, you can do what’s right, or you can do what’s going to help you get ahead in life. Morality isn’t always in the equation.”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Wolfe Video