The Con-Heartist (Aii Con Lor Luang)

Thailand (2020) Dir. Mez Tharatorn

Never kid a kidder. My dad used to tell me that whenever I tried to pull a stunt on him in my younger days, unaware that he had done the same or similar during his childhood. It begs the question, can a con artist be conned by another con artist?

Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) a debt collector is strapped for cash herself after her younger boyfriend Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk) conned her out of a lot of money, which actually belonged to her mother, which she is secretly trying to pay back. One day, Ina gets a call from someone claiming to be from her bank to authorise a 500,000 baht transfer to her account, but as an ex-banker, she gets wise and tracks the man down.

Having recorded their conversation on her phone, Ina meets the conman, Tower (Nadech Kugimiya), but instead of reporting him to the police, she enlists his help to get the money back from Petch by playing him at his own game. With additional help from Tower’s partner-in-crime Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilas) and Ina’s old school teacher Ms Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh), an audacious scam is put into motion.

Moral ambiguity aside, there is a lot to like in The Con-Heartist, a Thai comedy that is genuinely funny and not completely reliant on low brow humour (just a little bit). Whilst the story travels down some familiar paths – the puntastic title is a dead giveaway – there is no denying the script is cleverly constructed, boasting a sinuous battle of one-upmanship and a litany of perspicacious scams.

Despite its 127-minute run time – a good ten minutes of extraneous nonsense and fat trimming would have sufficed – director Mez Tharatorn maintains a remarkably brisk pace throughout, and keeps the humour alive too. Usually Asian comedies tend to peter out quickly, but the light drama and suspense of the scams in action helps give room for the gags to take a breather.

Opening with Ina’s YouTube video in which she explains her debt problems and implores the viewers to send donations, posting her bank details in the clip. Learning Ina is an ex-banker after doing something so idiotically reckless like this seems like an oversight in the script unless she really is that dense, the proof being Tower targeting of her the next day.

Tower’s scam was telling Ina she received a huge transfer to her account, but only part of it is paid, and to avoid paying tax Ina needs to pay a larger deposit to him. Again, with her background no red flags are raised, but luckily, Ina twigs at the last minute and locates Tower via his account number whilst recording the conversation. When they meet, Ina’s demands are simple – she will delete the recording if Tower helps get her money back from Petch, now conning his female boss at a tour company.

Looking to get 3 million baht out of Petch, Ms Nongnuch is recruited to pose as Mrs. Lui, head of a Chinese beer company, wanting to hire an expensive hotel which she books through Petch. Jone, as the hotel’s rep, asks for 3 million baht for the rooms, and with Mrs. Lui’s funds tied up, Petch either pays the full amount on her behalf or a 1 million baht deposit, with a discount for cash.

Getting to this point isn’t so easy, requiring smartly conceived ploys, quick thinking, and physical dexterity to ensure the illusion is complete and Petch falls for it all. But, as a con man himself, he isn’t so easily fooled meaning Tower and co. need to be one step ahead, which doesn’t always happen. Fate has a habit of intervening just as Petch’s own plan to rip Mrs. Lui off is moving along at the same time.

Because of its length, we know things are going to go so smoothly that this is a one and done scenario. Almost hoisted by their own petards, the good will created between this makeshift bunch of con artists is disrupted when some people just can’t help themselves and revert to type. Yet, the title’s romantic connotations have yet to be fulfilled, leading to the second half of the story to cover the redemption arc we knew was coming.

As it transpires, the script cleverly predicted this expectation and smartly messes with them, keeping its cards tight to its chest as to whether a feel good ending is delivered or not. Perhaps most intriguing is how the clichés of this trope are eschewed for something less tactile and mawkish, and it is not about the pandemic either, although this becomes relevant in the film’s coda, providing some stirring topicality.

With so many moving parts to the story, the recalling of small details is something to look out for; it’s an old ploy but when used effectively as it is here, it enhances our enjoyment and investment in this crazy situation. Animated kooky asides, and other visual motifs keep energy levels up and the humour flowing, sometimes working better than the scripted gags – like hotel manager Samson’s (Chantavit Dhanasevi) projectile spittle when saying words with “s” in them, gets old very fast.

Effectively an ensemble piece, the unapologetically photogenic cast all get moments to shine; smooth but rugged Nadech Kugimiya, boyband worthy Thiti Mahayotaruk or “The Showbiz Princess” Kathaleeya McIntosh commit to their roles with aplomb. For this writer, the effervescent and infectiously perky Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul stole the show, her cute moon face is made for comedy, and her timing is exceptional.

Could The Con-Heartist be a turning point for Thai comedy? Previous outings have been hit or miss but, a few tawdry gags aside, this rarely misses and boasts an involved and compelling story to hold us captive to boot. Not a reinvention of the wheel but great characters and sufficient building on extant concepts to make us overlook this and have a great time watching. And you can trust me on that – I hope!