Krong Karm: Entering the Cage by Greta
Posted on May 12, 2019
Hello everybody! Today, I’m not here to do a shameless plug of Krong Karm (Cage of Karma) but I opted to talk fully about it instead. This lakorn was shown late February this year and has since started a hype among Thai fans. As the show ended and the subs of the final episodes had already been uploaded, I think it’s best to give a full overview of the plot in order to let those who haven’t seen it have a glimpse and hopefully catch up or binge watch the show now that it’s over.
First, as a disclaimer, I write this as a foreigner, and a non-Buddhist at that. I was born, raised and live in a predominantly Catholic society, but that is not to say that the plot of Krong Karm is not relatable – In fact it is. It’s just that I wish to point out from the get go that this is written from an outsider’s point of view so my take in it might not exactly be in the way it was intended to be presented, but I guess this is how foreigners like myself would be able to appreciate it; so please don’t take it as a textbook review of the lakorn.
To begin, the very title of the lakorn mentions the word “Karma” – which is essentially a religious concept but is more or less understood by many in the simplest terms as “what goes around comes around.” (Again, I apologize for my ignorance in this, especially in the Buddhist context, and I mean no disrespect). To me, it’s like the concept of absolute justice, where people get their due no matter what, as the powers that be can pull strings beyond man’s control. Hence, Karma is presented in the lakorn as a “cage” that can trap and cause suffering for the characters, and yet just the same, is it really a “cage” as we ordinary mortals see it? Or is it a wall of protection that keeps people on track and away from harm? The two aspects of this “cage” are shown in the lakorn as it plays with the concepts of darkness and light, good and bad, past and present – it is like the very Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, which is apt, considering the story focuses on a Chinese Family in Thai society back in the late 1960’s.
The story prominently features “Baan Bae” (House of Bae) and their Family Business, yet it is only but one aspect of the whole story.
On that note, it is only with Thai lakorns that I found this subgenre of “Chinese-Family”, or more accurately, “Thai-Chinese Family” themed lakorns. In the past few years, we’ve mostly had the mafia ones or those that dealt with wealth and power struggles among the mysterious but often stereotyped Chinese-immigrant families. Of course, other lakorns such as Botan Gleep Sudtai, circa 2008, focus on a Thai-Chinese Working Class Family. Both Botan Gleep Sudtai and Krong Karm, highlighted the values that make Thai-Chinese Families so admirable and enduring, regardless of country and age. The highlight of this type of lakorn, I realize, is that the characters, especially the earlier generation, are shown to have a tougher “hustle” since they’ve immigrated into a new land and tried to make something out of themselves with nothing but hard work and endurance. This molded them to have a different perspective in life, or have a different set of values that may be shown as either a strength or a source of conflict (or both) later on. Likewise, a Thai-Chinese family drama would almost always feature at least two generations – the first being the immigrant generation, as just mentioned, and the second being the succeeding generation which grew up in Thai society but raised with Chinese roots. Emphasis is placed in keeping tradition and culture that they’ve brought with them from their ancestors in China, but just the same, Thai beliefs and traditions are also well respected by both generations.
At first, I was wondering why the family in Krong Karm had to be Chinese, despite the lakorn revolving around a concept which I felt was very “Thai”. In fact, in the lakorn, at least from a foreigner’s perspective, the lines between what is Thai and what is Chinese is often blurred and mixes in well with each other in this unique blend that I imagine is descriptive of this subculture at that time. It does not help that two driving forces of the lakorn, namely the Bae Family Matriarch, Yoi, and the Eldest Daughter-In-Law, Renu are both 100% Thai. I guess, just in the same way as the Chinese families are portrayed in this sub-type of lakorn as persevering and struggling to establish themselves in a foreign land, the Thais who end up fitting in with them, either as the spouses and later on their “half-blooded” children are likewise shown to work just as hard to fit in and belong. The “Great Wall of China” – or the concept that children of Chinese decent cannot marry someone outside their cultural community – is downplayed in this lakorn, with the daughters in law all being Thai, and Yoi insisting that what was more important (at least, for her) was whether they can uphold the honor of Baan Bae and if they had a worthy social stature. In the end, the concept of the Bae Family being “Chinese” in a “Chinese Community” creates a division only ostensibly at best, but in truth, as the story progresses, the audience will see that the characters all belong in this one cohesive community that is bound by this concept of “Karma”. Karma transcends race, status, gender or even time.
Speaking of time, as I mentioned earlier, an element of a Thai-Chinese family themed lakorn is it being multigenerational – it shows the perspective of the parents vis-à-vis those of their children. The concept of Karma, as shown in the lakorn, involves acts in past lives and how it affects the present and can possibly impact the future as well. So apart from the concept of having one’s past lives affect the outcome of the future, there is also an idea presented to the audience that the seeds planted by the parents are reaped by their children; whether these fruits are good or bad would depend not just on the sower-parents, but the harvester-children as well. Also, as mentioned, there is more emphasis in upholding traditions and honoring the past when Thai-Chinese families are involved. This steadfastness in preserving the culture and traditions of their ancestors has a certain religiousness to it, and also plays a role in the way the characters in the lakorn deal with the concept of Karma.
Now that I’ve mentioned “Bae Family” or “Bae House” (“Baan Bae”) I guess it’s time to introduce the bunch.
The base of the family are the parents, Tia and Mae Yoi. Just like Yin and Yang, they are like night and day, with Yoi being so extra, whether it be with her temper tantrums or with her tears, and with Tia being so chill.
Arguably, the main character of the story is actually Yoi – who is the center not only of her sons’ worlds but also driving force of all the karma (and drama) going on around this lakorn. Her character goes through drastic changes although the audience would realize that she only came full circle once you get a full picture of her character. She is essentially a good person whose decisions, both good and bad, affected her life path. Despite her strong personality, she actually is the heart of the lakorn – for she is motivated by nothing else but… love. This love can either give life or destroy everything. How love is intertwined with the concept of karma is the main point of her character’s development, and essentially the meat of the lakorn.
Opposite Yoi is her husband. His name is mentioned once or twice in the lakorn, yet he is sure to be remembered fondly by the viewers as “Tia,” or “father” in Chinese. One would think that Tia is such a minor character, what with all the drama going on around Yoi. Watching the lakorn, however, would make you realize that his quiet stares and subtle yet on-point advice steers not just Yoi but other characters into the right path. He may not have as much screen time as others, but you’ll get attached to him. I guarantee it. Moreover, he actually serves as the guiding light of the characters of the story, not just by living by example, but also by imparting words of wisdom to those around him. Yoi is love while Tia is morality – together they bring about harmony.
What can spell harmony better than these four Bae Boys?
The four sons of Baan Bae, whose nicknames are based on their birth order (Chai – 1 , Tong – 2, Sa -3, See- 4), are actually the stable walls, so to speak, that are erected upon the strong base of their mother and father. Notably, while all hell breaks loose and all the characters seem to have simultaneous breakdowns, these brothers, like four legs of a stable structure stay united and their brotherhood keeps the house standing. Unlike most other lakorn siblings, these brothers never actually have drama amongst themselves, even more so, a fight. Instead, they are shown to stick together through thick and thin. Even when others instigate intrigue or force them to fight, these brothers remain tight, as though in perfect harmony. Though their brotherhood is harmonious, that is not to say the Bae brothers are perfect characters. Far from it – each brother has his own problem that they each have to deal with. In addition, these brothers also hurt each other, one way or another, but ultimately, they stick together and help each other through thick and thin. It is almost funny how in one episode, Tia tells Asa to have daughters instead of sons, because when they Bae Brothers had a fight, Tia had such a headache in keeping them in check. While watching the lakorn, I personally wanted to have a bunch of sons, if only they turned out to be like the Bae brothers.
Now that we have the base, as well as the walls of Baan Bae, what else do we need to build the house?
Drama starts when the girls come knocking at the walls of Baan Bae. In fact, the series starts when Achai brings home a new wife. (*Note, my Chinese friend explained to me that “A” before the name is like a form of endearment among the Chinese so you would often hear them call the characters Ayoi, Asa, Ajee, etc.)
Renu is initially presented as Yoi’s worst nightmare. She is the love-potion wielding prostitute, who not only uses the pregnancy trump card, but also has enough spunk to stand up against Yoi, either way. Normally, Renu would have been looked upon as a Damsel in Distress – as a single, unattached decent man, in the person of Chai, sweeps her off her feet and draws her back up from a lowly place and brings her back into an acceptable spot in society. But the moment she has an encounter with Yoi, and Chai is placed in the backseat, looking helpless (and almost pathetic) she is painted as the cunning temptress who snatched Chai’s innocence and forced her way out of Takhli herself, and will now bulldoze her way into Baan Bae.
As early as episode 1, the audience would be shown that Renu is neither an angel nor a devil. She is but a woman, who loves, who goes through crap but who struggles to be good. I suppose we could say that Renu is the archetypal hooker with a heart of gold (I didn’t invent this, it’s in Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooker_with_a_heart_of_gold) .
Yet even that archetype isn’t fairly accurate. She knows her roots and does not deny (at least to herself) that she was a tainted woman, yet she stays humane and does not let the word “prostitute” define her. She sure knows how to work her charm and put her womanly wiles to work yet she also loves purely and puts great value in dignity. She does not take an easy way out – in fact she suffers a lot through the lakorn and becomes a self-made woman, not even needing help from her man. Eventually, far from being a bulldozer, she actually becomes a pillar of the Bae House, and is instrumental in keeping it upright and stop it from crumbling. Her journey to get there is a joy to watch in the whole course of the lakorn.
The second woman who knocks on Baan Bae was actually supposed to be the first – she is Yoi’s intended wife for her eldest son. Before even Chai meets Renu, Yoi already found Philai as a “suitable” wife for her son, being more educated than most women of her time, and being from a well-off Thai-Chinese Family. Yet the moment she is shown, she is painted as far from the ideal wife as she lacks the patience, the sweetness or even just the softness which a wife is supposed to bring to a home. One would think that no man in his right mind would want to marry this money-hungry, superficially nice yet perpetually PMS-ing and stiff Prima Donna. It’s ironic how it was actually Yoi who brought her into the picture, again (even after Chai already ditched her) as Atong’s wife, and caused her to wreak havoc – when all this time, Yoi had been pointing at Renu as the one who would ultimately come smashing the walls of Baan Bae.
When Chai returns from the military with a new wife, Yoi scrambles to get her second son, Atong to do damage control and marry Philai instead. Yet that band aid was no match for the deep slash that Achai’s betrayal had done to Philai. As it turns out, Philai absolutely hates being second to anyone, after being born as a daughter of the second family of Rich Chinese Man. She thus decides to still go to Baan Bae, in a mission to get the top spot and be number 1, for once in her life. She is demanding and unyielding and more than Renu, it is actually Philai who tests the limits of Yoi’s control.
The third woman does not even dare to come knocking at Baan Bae, nor did Yoi ever spare her a glance. Unlike Philai who desires to be number 1, Chanta doesn’t even aspire to be any number at all. She is quiet for the most part of the series and designates the number zero for herself. Yet, of all the girls in the lakorn, Chanta actually gets the greatest number of admirers in the Krong Karm universe. It’s safe to say she’s the most desirable girl in the whole lakorn. She represents gentle grace, or dare I say it, perhaps she is the archetype of the Ideal Thai Lady – filial, respectful and enduring. In the behind the scenes, James Ji describes her character as the old-school Nang’ek. She is kind and loved by everyone and never fights back, but only cries. The fiery Renu or the knights in shining armor have to come in and rescue her and actually make her realize her worth. That is not to say there is not much to learn from Chanta, as compared to Renu or Philai. Of the three, she is the one who is shown to be accepting of her fate and who does not actively seek greener pastures, for a reason that will be revealed later on in the lakorn. Of the three, she values the concept of Karma the most and dares not to test it by throwing caution to the wind for love. Instead she chooses to live morally and to atone for whatever past sins she has made. Her steadfastness pays off in the end as she is able to be loved and give love freely with her whole heart.
There are other girls who come knocking at Baan Bae for the Bae Boys but to discuss them here at this point would serve as a spoiler. Yet each girl, and how Yoi relates to them, teaches us a lesson about life. To say that Krong Karm is essentially a story of how all four Bae Boys got married amidst their mother’s meddling is too simplistic, but essentially, being a multi-generational lakorn, it has to show how the past-present-and future generations of Baan Bae are able to live and exist. The interplay of past, present and future is one of the most important tenets in the whole lakorn, as time is shown as both lasting yet fleeting. Families live on, while individual lives can end any second. What better way to continue existing than through progeny? Yet this progeny is meaningless if the parents do not instill on their children the values and traditions that would not only help them survive, but also keep them morally upright.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Although I’ve been throwing philosophical concepts at you, this lakorn is actually presented in a very humanizing and relatable light that the lessons the characters convey aren’t highfalutin at all. It’s very basic, yet very deep, which is why it’s a joy to watch and yet so painful at the same time.
Let’s step out of the story for a bit and look at one aspect of the production value of the lakorn, shall we? Foreigners who would be interested to watch this lakorn would likely be initially drawn to it because they are fans of the actors of the lakorn. For such a “simple” lakorn, the ensemble cast are actually heavy weights in their own right. Yet it’s noticeable right away that the top billed actors were casted out of type. More importantly, fans of Jiranee get the shock of their lives to see James Ji and Bella reunited in a lakorn, not as lovers but as siblings-in-law. While it is so painful to see them together but not together in a lakorn (yes, I’m hardcore Jiranee), watching it would make you love their platonic relationship. It’s actually no spoiler when I say it out right now that there is no plot twist. It’s true, they really won’t end up together as lovers in this lakorn. But please don’t let that dissuade you from watching this.
The reason why they were both cast for these roles would make sense once you see Asa and Renu being siblings in this lakorn. Some level of chemistry still exists between James Ji and Bella, and for the first time, they actually play it right and make Asa the younger of the two. But still, the way Asa protects Renu and how Renu is affectionate to Asa still tugs at the heartstrings, despite them being completely platonic in this lakorn. (One more mention of the word “platonic” might make me hurt myself.) Don’t worry, both James and Bella became Asa and Renu in this lakorn so well that, you can completely dissociate them from their being Chai Pat and Kaew, or Saran and Rin. It went in the way that Off Pongpat initially envisioned it when these two were cast for this drama. See, nothing is simple about this lakorn at all because ultimately, each actor plays his or her part so well that you will feel catharsis at its finest.
The three main characters of the lakorn are dressed down (or dressed up, depending on how you look at it) and appear nothing like the characters they’ve portrayed before. So for those who are here for the gorgeous or handsome factor, well….. they are still gorgeous and handsome, but not in the way you’ve seen them before.
Bella Ranee, who is arguably the top actress of Ch3 at the moment, discards her almost regal image and portrays a supposedly “lowborn” yet dignified ex-prostitute whose signature whore-red lips have launched many make up tutorials in YouTube. Bella shows that she is worthy of her name, for she is shown as beautiful despite donning the hooker attire, or the peddler attire, having her hair undone and lying on the ground. Heck, she’s beautiful even when she’s flinging knives and spitting at Philai. Yet it isn’t her beauty that is highlighted in this lakorn but actually her bearing which gave Renu a dignified character despite everything. Even when she’s down and beaten and crying like there’s no tomorrow, she still has that firmness in her that does not dim the inner spotlight on her at all. Moreover, what I like the most about Renu is that she has so many sides to her. One of Bella’s most iconic portrayal as of late is perhaps the twins Karakade and Kadesurang of Bhuppae Sanniwat – yet imagine her playing those two characters molded into one character. That’s Renu. She has the spunk and sweetness molded in together, but this time, with a depth not found in those two characters. The drama is so heavy in Krong Karm that the tears produced by the actors are just the tip of the iceberg. The complexity of the feelings shown by the characters’ eyes (without dialogue), in tight shots are so heavy that I, as the viewer, actually start feeling it myself. Bella Ranee performs this so well. Bella gets the top bill in this lakorn (her name is shown first in the opening credits) and justly so. Her performance in this lakorn deserves major acting awards as she showed versatility with just this character alone. She can be funny, sweet, sexy, scary, and very dramatic.
James Jirayu, who is almost always shown with his gelled hair and crisp suits, completely steps out of that swoony pra’ek image and instead plays the ultimate boy next door – like literally, a normal village boy you’ve picked off the streets while he’s on an errand to buy fish sauce for his Ma from the local store. Yet just the same, there’s a certain genuineness and easy-goingness in his portrayal that many people comment that Asa’s just James acting as James. Gone is his deep pra’ek voice and self-assured stride. Instead, he is the bumbling, giggling boy on a bike who sits in a chair with one foot up and eats bowls and bowls of noodles. Asa isn’t actually your normal pra’ek. In fact, he’s not even a pra’ek at all. He’s just a character, a human being in this human drama. It’s hard to say (with unbiased eyes) whether James is actually made handsome or made ugly in this lakorn because he’s just made to look… well… natural (and he is naturally narak maaaak). He is adorable in all his scenes yet not strikingly handsome as he is made to appear in all his previous lakorns. I was telling P’Fia earlier that Asa serves as the plain white rice in this lakorn, while all the other girls are the red, green, yellow curry, nam prik and what have you. He is made to be the neutralizer that would prevent you from getting overwhelmed from all the flavors popping out from the other characters of the lakorn and yet he would also want you to stick around and gobble it up some more. James earned the moniker for this lakorn, Asa Lavender, as being with his character is like walking in a lavender field (a Thai metaphor for having a sweet relaxing time.) That is not to say Asa has no problems too – in truth, Asa, like Renu and Yoi, also grow in the course of the lakorn and we get to see passion and pain from his character beneath the bubbly surface.
And finally, Mai Charoenpura, who is practically a glam Thai Pop-Rock Goddess ditches her fabulous sexy image and plays the hypertensive stingy matriarch of the Bae Family.
To be honest, I haven’t seen Mai in any show or heard her songs before Krong Karm. But a single Google search would show just how famous she is. She’s the one who sings the powerful and moving entrance song that will surely give you LSS. Her heart is already in the song, and I was expecting to see even more heart in the lakorn. She did not fail to deliver, granted, she was over the top in the first few episodes. Fair warning to all those who is yet to watch Krong Karm, you should get through the first few scenes of Yoi where she seems at high risk of getting an aneurysm. She is the typical high-strung Asian mother x 100. But what’s so amazing is that Mai said in the behind the scenes that has never had a child so she had to get tips on how to portray a mother. I was thinking, whoa! But she seemed so motherly in the lakorn. After Krong Karm you’d be remembering your own mother fondly after seeing Mai’s portrayal of Yoi.
Mai Charoenpura played femme fatales in the past (from the pic above, it seems she would’ve given Bella a run for her money), and Yoi …. Well…. Yoi just seems like someone who would be up and ready to kill anyone. I cannot overemphasize how this character is such a big leap and perhaps a something completely out of the comfort zone of the actress. Yoi is like a villain, a heroine, and a caricature and your very own mother, all rolled into one character. The love and passion that she has is so strong, that despite her being so extra, you would still feel her heart. Yoi started the lakorn at, I beg to disagree P’Fia, she wasn’t at level 100, she was level 1000! In those scenes when she isn’t shouting or burning about 500 calories a second however, Mai’s actually very good. Those pointed stares and those flowing tears… oh god, her tears, are just on point that you’ll see her performing at the optimal 100% level.
With that, I would like to end by saying that this isn’t an ordinary Thai lakorn. This isn’t a lakorn about the heart fluttering romance, or the sinfully rich and famous. Instead, it’s about the average joe – or shall I say, the working-class family which is found not only in Thai-Chinese, or even Thai society, but relatable even for someone from a South-East Asian country, such as myself. If you’re in here for the slap and kiss, or the waffy feels, well… this lakorn actually also has that too – yet it has so much more that it’s actually worth the watch. Just be prepared for swollen eyes and stress eating (or even that rage you didn’t know you had surfacing) as possible side effects of this lakorn. What do you guys think? Which story arc should I discuss first? P’Fia and I would love to hear from you. Till next time! ~ @Gretutay