Happy Old Year (Thailand, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

Pitched perfectly between satire and drama, Happy Old Year sees writer/director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit testing the limits of ruthlessness needed to conduct the Marie Kondo minimalist lifestyle with a main character who is wholly unlikeable and yet, by the end, quite sympathetic.

It is almost December and Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) returns home to Thailand after four years in Sweden. This 20-something has a mission: to net herself a job. To do that, she must live a minimalist lifestyle and convert the family home she shares with her mother and brother into a home office before January. The look she wants to capture is all bare white walls and spartan furnishings, as shown in lifestyle magazines. However, the reality is that her home used to be a music studio that her father ran before he left, so there is lifetime’s worth worth of objects to remove.

It’s all fun and games at first as the camera floats through the home while Jean blithely trashes old jewellery, clothes, cassette tapes, school reports, and other things superseded by new technology or just consigned to the dustbin of history. Seeing these items is like getting a glimpse of a life – the mixtapes made for lovers, the photographs stored on rewritable CDs, the holiday knick-knacks that bring back happier memories. Every audience member will have their own memories of stuff like this.

But there’s no time to get soft. Jean’s work ethic borders on zealotry for the cult of Kondo as she spouts aphorisms to inspire others and has an “ends justify the means” attitude that sees her bulldoze all opposition. The film is split into chapters with intertitles flashing up like in a Marie Kondo guide in a parodic fashion. During these sequences, Jean becomes rather unlikeable as we see flashes of selfishness and insensitivity in her drive to get things done by ignoring the protestations and feelings of others. Then come the substantial things like the piano her father used to play or the camera her ex-boyfriend gave her to take to Sweden. For these items, she has to get back in contact with the original owner and return them. This is the real challenge for the mini-Marie Kondo as she has to confront what they mean to her and the influence the owner had over her.

Without missing a beat, the film moves into heartfelt dramatic territory as the breezy steadicam sequences slow down to become more thoughtful static shots. Observant close-ups examine the emotions flashing over Jean’s face or the faces of others as they rake over shared history held by an item. We discover that the characteristics motivating her now have not only always been a part of her personality, but have hurt others and are rooted in childhood trauma. It’s a genius turn of events that makes an unsympathetic character rather pitiable.

“More emo, more problems”, Jean says as emotional outbursts and apologies take place and those parodic intertitles become ironic as characters struggle to let things go. The film earns this change in tempo and makes it work because Chuengcharoensukying’s central performance. Also, Thamrongrattanarit’s direction places us in the home, amidst the characters, experiencing the nostalgia and hurt that the simplest of things can contain. On some level, everyone can understand the difficulty in de-cluttering, that not every item can be trashed so easily because imbued in them is a human connection which the film expertly explores.

Happy Old Year is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and 12.