New York Asian Film Festival ‣ The Con-Heartist

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place August 6–22 with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

Every love con job is a love story. And vice versa, probably.

I don’t know if that’s true, strictly speaking, but it makes for a catchy opener to a review of a movie that combines the con film with the romantic comedy. Though, if you think about it, a good con and a good romance both involve a certain amount of seduction, the sweetest of temptations and… well, probably some lying.

Maybe a lot of lying.

Point being, in Mez Theratorn’s 2020 comedy The Con-Heartist, the combination works far better than you might expect.

The film opens with our heroine, Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) recording a YouTube video on her debt mandated, penny pinching lifestyle. Her online pleas for donations seemingly makes her a prime target for a slick scam artist named Tewa (Nadech Kugimiya), who tries to pull the old “releasing funds” routine. But Ina is not as naive as she first appears and turns the tables on Tewa in short order.

Tewa’s first offer is to pay off a months worth of her debt, then two months worth. But Ina has bigger game in mind: in order to avoid having his identity broadcast made a matter of public record, he agrees to help Ina scam the man responsible for her debt in the first place: the smarmy lothario with the unlikely name of Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk, giving cartoonishly good smarm).

Struck foolish in the midst of love, she took out a loan on behalf of Petch (whose radiant smile is borderline hypnotic), and has found herself on the hook while he refuses to assist with the payments in anyway. He’s already moved on to his next target, the wealthy Ms. Kanokpon, who has hired him in some kind of financial coordinator position.

A plan is quickly formed: they’re going to take Petch for 3,000,000 ฿

Which sounds like a lot. But those familiar with the currency exchange rate will realize that we’re talking somewhere in the vicinity of $92,000 American… Tewa signs off on a cut of 500,000฿, which would leave them with about $15,000.

Hardly the sort of numbers that would get George Clooney or Brad Pitt out of bed.

But that level of ambition plays well when it comes to Ina’s moral footing; though she clearly gets a kick out of putting the screws to her ex, she never seems tempted to cross over to the dark side. Instead, the tension rises and falls on whether she’ll be able to convince Tewa to change his ways and live a more honest life.

Given just how much he seems to enjoy the art of the con, it’s an open question.

Of course, two people isn’t enough for a job like this, so accomplices will be required: Ms. Nonguchi (Kathaleeya McIntosh), a debt ridden teacher who owes to Ina’s collection agency and poses as a powerful CEO; and Jone, Tewa’s slightly screwy former cellmate (a deeply funny Pangsatorn Jongwilas).

Their first move: getting rid of hotel manager Sam (Chantavit Dhanasevi) whose main gag of constantly sending spittle flying everywhere through the gap in his teeth somehow strikes me as grosser than anything the Farrelly Brothers ever came up with. Thanks to a little gift from Tewa, Sam is sent on a discount trip to Russia to get him out of the way so the machinations can begin in earnest.

(And the fervor with which habitual money saver Ina tries to convince Tewa to send him on a less expensive vacation is another fun but for Luevisadpaibol to play)

Now they have six days to get it done, a handy countdown clock for the audience at home.

The joy in watching this unlikely foursome is a joy that not every con movie gets right; their ability to improvise. A clockwork con can have its pleasures, sure, but it’s always more fun for the audience when the plan hits a roadblock and the crew is forced to think on their feet. The movie specializes in these moments, and is all the stronger for it.

The film also milks more laughs than you’d expect from it’s audio effects… the use of goofy sound cues is notable enough that sound designers Narubett Peamyi, Traithep Wongpaiboon and Varut Opaswatanakul get prominent placement in the credits.

Put it like this: by the end of the movie, you might find yourself having a Pavlovian response to the distant sound of a wolf howl.

Getting the details of the con right is one pleasure, but since this is also a romantic comedy, it’s just as important that our leads not only anchor the twists and turns but carry the love story as well. And thankfully, Ina and Tewa make a highly watchable pair. A relative newcomer with only six credits to his name, Nadech Kugimiya makes an extremely strong case for himself as leading man material; he projects cocky cool without tipping into unlikeability and manages to escape the goofier moments foisted upon him without even breaking a sweat. He and Luevisadpaibul banter extremely well, and his sense of chill allows Ina to go bigger and broader and have more fun than female romantic leads are usually allowed to have. She gives good silly, but also sells the sincere. I wouldn’t mind seeing this pair teamed up for more adventures.

(Or, failing that, a buddy comedy with Kugimiya and Jongwilas; their brotherly antics feel lived in like a veteran comedy team)

The Con-Heartist was the last film I watched for this years NYAFF, and it left me on a high note. In a festival that seemed particularly bent on reminding viewers of the joys of pure cinema, this has to rank among the most joyous on display.

Until next time…

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