Two young men contending with grief and familial dislocation begin to wonder if it’s possible to love someone knowing that you’ll lose them, or conversely if it’s possible to live without love in Chookiat Sakveerakul’s melancholy drama Love of Siam (รักแห่งสยาม, Rak haeng Siam). The title may sound overly patriotic but in actuality refers to the Siam Square shopping area when the boys meet again as teenagers after many years apart and rekindle their friendship only to be confused by their growing feelings for each other while each struggling with contradictory demands from fracturing family and romantic drama to the responsibilities of friendship and career.
When they first meet as small boys, Mew (Arthit Niyomkul), who has come to live with his elderly grandmother, and Tong (Jirayu La-ongmanee) live opposite each other in a small Bangkok back street. When Mew is hassled in the school toilets, Tong comes to his rescue and gains a black eye in the process, cementing the boys’ friendship. Everything begins to change, however, when Tong goes on holiday with his family to Chiang Mai. His older sister Tang (Laila Boonyasak) stays on to hang out with friends and later disappears during a hiking trip leaving the family devastated. To escape their grief they decide to move away, breaking the friendship between the two boys. A decade or so later, they re-encounter each other by chance in Siam Square where Tong (Mario Maurer) is trying to buy a CD of rising boyband August of which Mew (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul) just happens to be the lead singer.
In the intervening years, Tong has become somewhat distant and is now in an unsatisfying relationship with one of the school’s most popular girls, Donut (Aticha Pongsilpipat). As we discover, his father has developed an alcohol problem unable to overcome his guilt and grief over what happened to Tang, while his mother attempts to power through by exerting control over every aspect of her life. In a shocking coincidence, Mew’s band manager June (Laila Boonyasak) happens to look exactly like Tang, Tong and his mother eventually asking her to play the part of the absent sibling in the hope of curing his father’s depression.
As much as the film revolves around the love story between the boys as they begin to figure out their sexuality, at the end it’s a story of love in its many forms and key among them the familial. Both the boys are in a sense displaced, Mew for reasons not explicitly stated living not with his father but his grandmother and then as a teenager alone following her death while Tong is caught between his grieving parents looking for new signs of stability. Understandably anxious, Tong’s mother still makes a point of picking him up by car though he is already a teenager when such solicitation might seem embarrassing. When she catches Tong kissing Mew, her world is destabilised attempting to reassert her control by asking Mew to stay away from her son fearful of losing him and the life she’d envisioned for his future with a wife and children. Yet through her interactions with June, who is also displaced having lost her parents in some kind of accident, she begins to realise that her need for control is not the way to save her family as they each begin to face their grief and repair their familial bonds accepting both the continuing presence and absence of Tang as symbolised by the family photo taken on their last holiday in which she is not pictured but only because she was standing behind the camera.
In this way, Mew perhaps gets his answer to whether it’s possible to go on loving someone knowing that you’ll lose them unwilling to live a life without love even if the price is grief and loneliness. Where there’s love, there’s hope according to a Chinese song translated by Mew’s lovelorn neighbour, Ying (Kanya Rattapetch), who becomes an accidental friend of Tong learning to put her hurt and jealousy aside to embrace her friendship with both boys. As someone else puts it, mistakes are just opportunities for change and perhaps doing the wrong thing out of love is better than doing nothing at all. Nevertheless, as the family begins to repair itself, healing in mutual acceptance along with acceptance of their loss, the youngsters discover the strength to accept themselves discovering their place amid the admittedly chaotic streets of Siam Square.
Love of Siam screens at Rich Mix on 29th May as part of this year’s Queer East.
Original trailer (English subtitles)