Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy
Thailand (2013) Dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
When The Emoji Movie arrived in 2017, aside from being met by universal hostility, it was seen as a lament for modern cinema finding its inspiration in social media. Yet, this Thai black comedy drama got there first by building a story around a series of random tweets, which is no less whacky but considerably more interesting.
Best friends Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) and Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) are approaching their graduation from high school, but face separation as Suri has been accepted by a college in Austria. Mary decides they should mark the occasion with an official school yearbook which she and Suri will edit, but Mary gets distracted by a slightly older boy known as M (Vasuphon Kriangprapakit), unsure if he reciprocates her feelings.
The real life Mary is Thai teen Mary Malony and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit somehow managed to fashion a script based on 410 consecutive tweets Mary posted, shared here in chronological order. None of the tweets has any real relevance or connection to each other – at least to our eyes – so it is to Thamrongrattanarit’s credit that he was able to interpret them into a workable and quietly engaging tale of teenage life.
Mary Malony sounds an interesting character from her tweets (@marylony), hinting at a curious, well read girl with a firm grasp on her complex life, if sometimes a little impetuous in her approach to it, that shines through the pithy epigrams of personal philosophy she shares with us. Her fictional counterpart displays all of these characteristics, fleshed out by the story Thamrongrattanarit has constructed for her.
For some reason, Mary, Suri, and every other girl at school are seen in just the one outfit, a white T-shirt with a 1983 sports event logo and red shorts. At first this dates the story back some 30 plus years, as does the decidedly rundown, tech free surroundings, until Mary get out her mobile phone (which, in a running gag, keeps exploding on her) and later an old PC running Windows XP to clarify its modernity.
Life isn’t moving forward in the way Mary wants it to but at least she has Suri – until her bombshell about leaving for Austria. The narrative and editing is very choppy for the first twenty minutes so it takes a while to get a firm grasp on where the story is going, flitting between reality or fiction, or at least that is how it seems.
Initially, the yearbook is the only thing that galvanises Mary until problems with lighting for the photographs and the insistence that she reins in her artistic ambitions start to gnaw away at her enthusiasm. Then she meets M standing by a mobile pancake stand and is smitten, yet he fails to notice her.
When Mary is not fretting about the yearbook or getting lost in random, surreal cinematic reverie (“This is no time for Wong Kar-Wai.” Suri insists), she is trying to pluck up the courage to confess to M, in a scene of brutal pathos. As with most of the material, we don’t know the ratio between the real Mary’s life story and simply perspicacity on the director’s behalf.
Had the first hour not been so frivolous in openly teasing with its avant-garde approach the change in atmosphere wouldn’t be so jarring but then again, life doesn’t run to any set format, throwing disasters at us as we enjoy a laugh or two. Mary’s tweets don’t follow any tangible path either, leaping wilfully between faux philosophy, jocular opinion, probing queries or random nonsense.
Since it only seems to make sense to Mary, we should be thankful to Thamrongrattanarit for be able to attach meaning and coherence to Mary’s esoteric stream of consciousness for general consumption, whilst staying true to the enigmatic arbitrary delivery. The story being relayed doesn’t break any new ground but it is told through the eyes of a unique individual, and that at least help carries it along when its starts drifting from being relatable.
Beneath the wackiness and slice-of-life drama there appears a simmering satirical under current that might be relative to Thailand only. The school’s headmaster dies suddenly and his swift replacement, who is never seen, makes some extreme changes – all students must live in the dorms and never leave the school during term time, and questions and opinions are forbidden.
The school motto is also changed to “Follow Orders”, and the final exams ask questions about the headmaster’s biography. It’s something you might expect from Monty Python, but feels incongruous as an absurdist idea within a hitherto simply quirky set-up. Whilst Thamrongrattanarit does a great job in making many tweets relevant to the plot, he runs away with his imagination a little too much.
Another issue is the 126-minute run time, for something that is essentially a gimmick driven project. The tweets flash on the screen at quite rate, sometimes as a lead in, sometimes to drive the plot or supply actual dialogue – this loses its lustre after a while, and makes a compelling argument for only some of the tweets to have been chosen. A tight 80-90 minutes would have sufficed to make it work.
Shot cinema vérité style with Godard-esque editing (who also gets a mention) the flights of fancy are often disarming amidst the naturalistic presentation – like the tweeting, working on occasion but not sustainable for two hours. However, the absorbing lead performance from first timer Patcha Poonpiriya as Mary overrides this; an intuitive yet subtle reading of a girl battling a maelstrom of teen insecurity but with the balls to fight back.
Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy should win favour for its bold and contemporary remit alone and for the most part makes it work. Like a tin of Quality Street, some sweets will never to be eaten; Thamrongrattanarit’s resistance to streamlining his choices of tweets will test the patience of many but that doesn’t negate the charming coming-of-age tale it tells.