Happy Old Year
Thailand (2019) Dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
Out of sight, out of mind. If something is likely to dredge up ill-feelings or bad memories then the best solution is to get rid of it, and fill that space with positive vibes. But, letting go isn’t always so easy and maybe these things have significance to our history and define who we are.
Approaching 30, Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) returns to Thailand after being away in Sweden with a new perspective on life. She has a chance to get a job but needs a home office, so Jean takes it upon herself to empty the family home, once a music repair shop, and renovate it in a modern minimalist style. She gets brother Jay (Thirawat Ngosawang) on board but faces resistance from their mother (Apasiri Chantrasmi) over her father’s piano.
Jean throwing out everything deemed old and worthless upsets her friend Pink (Patcha Kitchaicharoen) when a CD she gave Jean as a present is on her “to go” pile. Jean is slow to recognise the pain she caused but after a rethink, decides to return items she had belonging to other people, among them a camera and rolls of film from ex-boyfriend Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanont). Returning this to Aim proves a cathartic experience for Jena but not in the way she had hoped.
The flippancy of the title Happy Old Year disguises a poignant and provocative drama from Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit who has form in approaching delicate subjects from an unusual angle. In the documentary style Die Tomorrow he confronts the transient nature of life, but here he returns to the scripted narrative form to examine the importance of our past to our present and future.
Like many films of its type, there is a philosophical battle between the generations at the heart of the story; in this case we have millennial Jean clashing with her baby-boomer mother. Brother Jay is somewhere in the middle, happy to go along with the decluttering of their home but not condemning everything to the rubbish tip. The piano becomes a contentious issue, and it’s hard to decide who is being more stubborn but Jean’s boorish attitude tends to push our support towards her mother.
It is this lack of sentimentality that paints Jean as someone who has either read a self-help book to take control of her life but not read the small print about retaining her humanity. Like a hurricane, she returns home after a four year absence and skipping the discussion stage, announces the clearing out the family home to suit her own ambitions, and expects full cooperation.
Warming to Jean under these circumstances is rather difficult; in fact, even by the end of the film she still isn’t very likeable but at least has learned some valuable lessons along the way. Taking her cue from Japanese lifestyle pest Marie Kondo, Jean is ruthless in her culling of her own possessions – CDs and books are relics of the pre-digital age, whilst anything merely decorative serves no tangible purpose in her envisioned new minimalist black and white world.
Pink’s reaction at Jean throwing out her present catches Jean unaware, taken aback further when Pink points out her selfishness. Jean then gets a rude awakening when she finds a scarf she knitted for Jay in his rubbish bag, provoking a rethink of approach. But it is only brief – Jean still doesn’t understand why people cherish the past, remaining at odds with her mother over selling the piano. It might represent pain for Jean and maybe her mother too, but an old photo shows there were good times spent around the piano.
Following a rather light, almost satirical first half poking fun at the cult of Kondo, the second half deftly switches tone when Jean finally meets with Aim again. They split up when Jean severed all communications with Aim, seeing him as a reminder of what she left behind. Aim has a new girlfriend, Mi (Sarika Sartsilpsupa) and is happy, so Jean apologises and thinks all is well again, but Aim then drops a bombshell that sends Jean reeling.
By now, it is clear Thamrongrattanarit is not just pondering the effects of shutting away the past in one foul swoop, consigning all memories good and bad to the dustbin of time, but is telling modern society not everything from the past needs to be rejected with such militant verve. Had Jean not embarked on this mission to move forward with her life in such a drastic fashion, she may have had to endure the negativity her actions both past and present stirred up in others.
Conversely, had she left them alone and carried on as usual, Jean would still be self-absorbed, lacking in empathy, tact, and consideration for others’ feelings. The modern world continues to move very quickly and things are left behind as technology becomes outdated as soon as it hits the market – Thamrongrattanarit is telling us life shouldn’t be like this, we can only truly move forward if we recognise what is behind us, and if need be fix the mistakes so we don’t make them again.
Since Jean is looking for a minimalist existence, Thamrongrattanarit naturally presents his film in the same manner. This is bare bones and straightforward, yet the film oozes natural energy through sparky verbal exchanges, be they civil philosophical debates, or heated emotional home truths. By dint of appearing in almost every scene, Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying is an absolute juggernaut as Jean, seemingly doing little with her facial expressions but emitting a powerful aura through her body language.
Happy Old Year is a cautionary tale about knowing when to let go of the past, ensuring this is not just dumping your baggage on someone else, but also acknowledging how the bits you keep shape us as people. If you tie up the wrong loose ends, you are bound by them until you figure out the right ones. I bet Marie Kondo doesn’t tell you that!