12 August 2014, TV = 843.5 hours
เด็กชายในเงา dek chai nai ngao is one of a few lakorn I’ve seen that I’ve come to think of as “unconventional” or “atypical” in their willingness to break with the formulae and conventions that practically define lakorn as a genre.1 Specifically, DCNN is not about romantic love and does not really have a “pra’ek” and “nang’ek” (the male and female protagonists who form the romantic pairing at the heart of the story). Also, none of the characters are wealthy, powerful, famous, or glamorous; lacking here are the aristocrats, tycoons, captains of industry, actors, models, singers, journalists, fashion photographers, etc., who typically populate lakorn, as well as the expensive cars, palatial mansions, exotic travel locales, ipads, english language books and newspapers2, and all the other props and backdrops that lakorn usually make use of.
In short, DCNN is about decidedly unglamorous people leading rather unspectacular lives. They’re pretty ordinary…though maybe not completely so.
The show focuses on a nuclear family, Wanida and her husband (Pran?), and their young twin boys Pan and Wow. The rub is that Wow was born with some kind of neuromuscular disorder (cerebral palsy?) that limits his mobility and pretty much confines him to a wheelchair; despite this, he has inherited his violinist father’s musical talent. Wanida is an anxious, fretful type, and the family is basically kept going by the energy, optimism, and good humor of the father.
But one day the father leaves on what was supposed to be a several day trip – he has a musical gig – and then never returns. As the days stretch into weeks and then longer, Wanida is forced to assume the role of sole breadwinner and emotional support for the boys – a role that she’s temperamentally unsuited for. When Wow is bullied by some local kids, Wanida decides that the solution is to move to a new neighborhood where they will be completely unknown, and keep Wow confined to the house. Wow becomes the family secret that nobody outside can know about.
As the story develops, various fault lines open up in the small family: Wow wants to go to school and have friends. He also yearns to play the violin. For Pan and Wow, the violin –and the music that Wow surreptitiously plays on it when his mother is away from the house – provide an emotional connection to the father whose love they never doubt; for Wanida, these are painful reminders not only of loss, but of a growing suspicion that her husband may have left her for another woman.
Pan, meanwhile, becomes his brother’s only real connection to the outside world and a “normal” life; but Pan is also saddled with the problem of how to develop outside friendships while keeping Wow’s existence a secret.
There is, however, a further form of isolation that the family is subject to: there are no relatives, no extended family, in the picture (which I would think is pretty unusual within Thai society); why this is the case is something we come to understand as the series progresses, and the absence of any kind of outside support is certainly a big component of the stress that Wanida staggers under.3
As I’ve outlined it here, DCNN is a depressing story. But the boys don’t seem to suffer as much as their mother does. Perhaps it’s a certain childhood innocence (or ignorance), or maybe they’ve inherited more of their father’s emotional resilience than their mother’s vulnerability, but at any rate they go about living their lives as best they can given the circumstances; they are also able to rely on each other, and the supportive love between the two brothers is touching. Luckily, Pan makes a couple truly good friends whose influence begins to make itself felt inside the house; in non-dramatic, nonconfrontational ways, the boys begin to disobey their mother’s rules as they reach out for a more “ordinary” life.
I really enjoyed DCNN and have no reservations recommending it; on the other hand, I don’t think it quite makes the list of lakorn that I from time to time think about rewatching.
“Conventional” lakorn tend to sacrifice realism in order to push the plot (and the characters) into as many high-stakes hyperemotional confrontations as possible. This lack of realism takes a number of forms, but most notable are
- a heavy reliance on coincidence
- a world that socially (and politically, economically, etc) just doesn’t seem to function like the world I live in
- characters who sometimes make decisions that don’t seem much in keeping with their overall temperaments, desires, and motivations
DCNN does none of these things, and its story unrolls in a quiet, sober fashion, with plot and characters believable in ways that those of “conventional” lakorn are usually not; as a result I found it more convincing, on an emotional level, than most lakorn.
On the other hand, there was something not fully satisfying about this show. Sometimes DCNN felt a bit too earnest, a bit too much like an after-school special designed to deliver a public service message. Though surely a worthy message – that disabled people should be given the same respect and opportunities as everyone else – there was something a little heavy-handed about it.
My other reservation hinges on my own preferences when it comes to fiction/narrative. Yes, I want characters and situations that I find realistic or convincing (which typical lakorn usually fail to deliver), but I also personally enjoy narratives about situations that are extraordinary or extreme in some way4; perhaps DCNN was, in the end, a little too “ordinary” for my tastes.
Language-wise, DCNN might be one of the easier lakorn to watch. In keeping with its lack of melodrama and “slap-and-kiss” emotional outbursts, dialogue proceeds at an unhurried pace, without any of the linguistic “fireworks”5 that you get in many a lakorn.
Overall I give DCNN the thumbs up, and hope to see more lakorn that are as socially and psychologically credible as this series. Links to video are on my lakorn list.
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2. English, and command of English, is evidently a status symbol in Thailand, and what seems like a disporportionately high number of lakorn characters can be seen with English reading material. But this actually seems like a realistic detail to me: just based on what I’ve heard and read, all Thai schoolchildren study English, but the Thai public school system fails at imparting any real practical knowledge of the language. I think most Thais who acquire real English language abilities do so through tutors, private language schools, or study abroad – all of which cost money, and which I’d guess would be beyond reach for a significant part of the population.
3. The isolation of DCNN‘s small family actually reminded me of a very different lakorn, สวรรค์เบี่ยง sawan bieng, whose heroine can only escape her tormentor by running away and cutting off all contact with her family; the resulting isolation leaves her virtually without support or assistance at a time when she’s particularly vulnerable.
4. For instance, I really enjoy the espionage novels of John le Carré, something that I’ve worked into a couple posts (here and here) despite the fact that, um, there’s not really any (direct) connection to Thai. Oh well….
5. “linguistic fireworks” – a lot of “conventional” lakorn seem to have exchanges of dialogue where the language just goes way over my head, and though this is necessarily somewhat speculative given that I don’t really “get it”, I’ve had the feeling that what I’m failing to catch is probably laced with puns, word play, multiple (and sometimes ironic) meanings, and maybe slang or non-standard language, all in the service of insults, verbal assault, boasting, taunting, teasing, intimidation, insinuation, etc. Just a couple examples that readily come to mind are the typical speech used by Jae Mieng in มาดามดัน Madame Don, and the “dishing sessions” amongst Ta/Nin’s neighbors in แรงเงา raeng ngao.