Double Espresso Coffee Talk: “Atong: The Obedient Middle Child” by Greta
Posted on January 10, 2020
Hello folks! We’re here again for another double espresso coffee talk, for Krong Karm (“Cage of Karma”), otherwise known by its English title, “Repercussion”. Again, I thank P’Fia for allowing me to write this piece for her blog even before I finish Nueng Dao Fah Diew (I promise to go back to that soon!) Krong Karm or Repercussion was a finalist in the Asian Academy Creative Awards for Best Drama of 2019. For those who are curious as to why it got nominated, I hope this Double Espresso Coffee talk would not only keep you awake but likewise let you have a glimpse of the lakorn.
Earlier, we delved into the character of Chai, who is the eldest son of the Bae family. While Chai is favored and blessed with so many legacies (and responsibilities) by their parents, at the very first episode of the lakorn, his blessings are taken away by Yoi and relegated to the second child, Atong. While it is an ostensible “blessing” on Atong’s part, the sudden change in their family dynamic only highlights the pitifulness of his character. Atong is the classic middle child; overshadowed not just by the eldest but also by his younger siblings. He is aloof but kind, as he quietly stands by until he is needed. “Tong” means “Center” – from birth, he was meant to be the center, a balance of his siblings. While the others can be in the seesaw when it comes to favors from their parents, Atong is right smack in the middle, so he is neither more favored or less favored. He’s just there, in between. Watching the lakorn, one would easily notice that Asee is the favorite of everyone, being the youngest child, while Achai is the favorite of Yoi. Asa on the other hand is the favorite of Tia Seng (the father of the family) and so that leaves Atong with… well, we’ll discuss that later.
The less fortunate spot that Atong is in makes him a “runner-up”, at best. For the most part, he is overshadowed by Achai, who is meant to be the star of the family. Atong wasn’t groomed to greatness, unlike his older brother Achai, but it was understood that he should step up and take Achai’s place should the need arise. Although it appears as though Yoi pins all her hope upon her “overachieving” eldest child, Achai, it is actually Atong who has that seemingly innate goodness in him that makes him so great on his own, despite being his mother’s second choice. It’s sad, but throughout the lakorn, Atong was a mere afterthought for Yoi, as she immediately thinks of Atong as the “only solution” to the problem Achai created with Philai, without even thinking of Atong’s situation at all. When Achai goes home with a prostitute for his wife, Yoi thinks of pulling his son, Atong, out of monkhood to marry him off to Philai in order not to bring the family shame by 1) having a prostitute as a first daughter-in-law; and 2) breaking off consanguinity with Philai’s family who are known rice traders in the neighboring town. It is even more tragic, when you think about how per Thai tradition, sons ordain prior to marriage in order to make merit for their mothers. My Thai friend explained that per tradition, mothers cannot ordain as monks, therefore, the merit the sons receive are then passed on to their mother. Atong thus confronts his mother with this, and asks why he cannot continue being a monk for her when he ordained for her? Atong entered monkhood for his mother’s salvation, yet she wants to force him into marrying a woman who she did not intend to have him marry in the first place (as she was reserved for Achai) in order to save her face. In any event, Atong very subtly hints at Yoi to let things be and think about Achai and about him too, by saying that “Every person has his own karma” – yet when his mother says she doesn’t give a damn, Atong bows his head and does her bidding. It is ironic how Atong would have continued his monkhood to accumulate some merit for his mother, but in the end, he obeyed her wishes and thus became a catalyst for Yoi creating more bad karma for herself, and the whole Bae family.
Yoi proceeds with making arrangements to ferry Philai over from Achai to Atong. Philai, who harbors ill-will not only against Achai but the whole Bae family, makes several unreasonable demands. One of which is to ensure that the store, which serves as the Bae’s main trade, be given to Atong. Yoi throws a tantrum at this as she is deeply hurt because the store was meant to be given to Achai as the eldest, but now, in order to save her face, Atong has to be the one to inherit it. For the second time, Atong is able to get a blessing supposedly meant for his older brother, notwithstanding Yoi’s vigorous objection thereto. At this point, Tia himself points out that Yoi loves Achai over all their other sons but sadly, this love has turned into vindictiveness as Yoi agrees to Philai’s unreasonable demands not only to save her face but also to “teach Achai a lesson.” – again, Atong is a mere conduit to this scheme and is neither considered, nor consulted on this matter.
Atong’s engagement, right after leaving monkhood, abruptly puts to an end the budding romance between him and the quiet, but strikingly beautiful, Chanta. Chanta not only captivates Atong, but also Asee who immediately asks for permission to court her after learning that his Hia Tong, who had a crush on her, was already getting married. Later on, we will see that she is meant for the third Bae brother all along, Asa, but more of that later. The quiet and virtuous Atong says good bye to Chanta through a letter kept in a book.
Even in giving in to his hearts’ desire, by confessing his love and by saying good bye to the love that never was, Atong did it below the radar, as though fearful of testing fate and dealing with repercussions. But his confession made him human, and showed that he was capable of feelings, despite being used by not just Yoi but also his wife, Philai, later on in the story.
Despite being married for all the wrong reasons, Atong nevertheless harbors no spite for Philai. Instead, he does his best to make her settle down in their new home and welcome her as a new member of the Bae family. Granted, he wasn’t exactly a favored son before his marriage, but together with his new wife, they had to take center stage as the next in line to inherit and run the Bae family store.
The dynamic between Philai and Atong would have worked, really, as they formed the trope of a spoiled princess type paired with a patient neglected character type (Game Sanaeha, anyone?)
Indeed, Atong and Philai’s temperaments could not be any more different than night and day. Philai was born as an only child to a doting mother, who never made her do any housework. Earlier, she was shown to be dictating what she wanted, and letting her mother abide by all her whims and wishes – much unlike our meek and obedient Atong who just said, “Yes, Ma.” On their wedding day, she was shown as quick tempered and impatient – as she left Atong to attend to the rest of the guests as she “felt tired” – in total contrast to the way Atong always quietly and steadfastly persevered in everything that he did. In their marriage, Atong patiently taught Philai as best as he could, and she, seemingly with the same determination, just continued to brush him off stubbornly.
This is the complete opposite with the dynamic between Renu and Achai, who supposedly married for love. The two can be seen always sweet and warm with each other and supporting each other. Although Atong and Philai didn’t fight at the beginning, it was clear to see that the two of them cannot even be friends. For Philai, Atong was a means to an end. It’s tragic how both his mother and his wife see Atong that way. On the other hand, Atong felt that Philai (and his act of obedience to his mother, Yoi) was the end – he was his wife, perhaps in the most unromantic sense – that is, he was stuck with her and duty bound to stick with her in order for him to continue carrying out his duty in his family and in society. It’s sad how he abandoned his feelings for Chanta after his marriage with Philai, even though he never really did love the latter romantically.
Perhaps Atong’s greatest flaw was that he never did exert any effort to love Philai. Granted, she wasn’t really easy to love. She wasn’t even easy to like to begin with. Instead of being Atong’s wife, she was more focused on beating Renu and being the number one daughter-in-law of the Bae house. It takes two to tango, as they say, and Philai never bothered to give Atong a chance. When things fell apart, Atong just sucked it up and felt resigned to his fate. He focused on other things and just looked at Philai as a necessary inconvenience.
But to cut Philai some slack, she was courted and was later burned by Achai. This means that perhaps she was expecting the same treatment from Atong. Too bad that Philai had no idea that Atong was a hopeless romantic, with more emphasis on hopeless than romantic. Atong didn’t even court Chanta, his first love, to begin with. All he could do was look longingly and reciprocate kindness – which kindness Philai never really showed him.
This is in contrast to the relationship that Asa had with Phiangphen. See, Asa was forced to marry Phiangphen, in the same way that Atong was forced to marry Philai. Likewise, Phiangphen is the spoiled princess type, who, like Philai, loved someone else before marrying Asa. Yet friendship bloomed between Asa and Phiangphen, at the very least, even though Phiangphen was as determined as Philai not to yield to Asa in any way. This is because in the end, Asa took the time and effort to look at Phiangphen as a sister and not just a wife, in the most unromantic and civil sense.
At some point, Philai laments that Atong treats her like an outsider, and he never exerted any effort to love her at all. In this sense, especially in comparison to Asa and Phiangphen, some can also sympathize with Philai’s character. (Just open your mind a bit for me here!) When Atong has had enough of her shenanigans, he decides not only to sleep downstairs, as far away from her as possible, but also spends more time praying and reading books rather than spending time with her. For a spoiled princess who was doted on (by her mother)for most of her life, Atong’s neglect reflects the same indifference that was perhaps shown to Philai by her own father, who had his own family and primarily lived elsewhere. Sure Atong and Philai were husband and wife, just as Philai and her father were related by blood – but these two men were distant from her life and made her life as a daughter and as a wife incomplete.
In one of the notable arguments between Atong and Philai, the later picks on Atong when he seemed indifferent with their family’s property – and how his brothers are out to get more than him, thus leaving Philai (as his wife) with a lesser share than what she felt was rightfully hers. Atong then says that he could let his brothers take more, even from his share as he has no bigger desire than to ensure that his brothers are content. Yet Atong did not seem inclined to extend the same level of generosity to Philai – or at least Philai thought so. Here we have the concept of the generosity pitted against greed. The reason why Atong and Philai can never meet eye to eye is because Philai always wants more than enough while Atong is content with less than enough. Philai was raised as a spoiled child but was deprived of the bare minimum of her father’s love – while Atong was raised as an overlooked middle child but had the bare minimum love and understanding from his parents all along. This is perhaps why the two characters were brought together; to highlight the contrast and irony between their different upbringing – and how similar they really were in the end. The two of them lacked love and were neglected, but they coped in different ways. One became content with less, while the other had an insatiable desire for more.
But with this dynamic, the two were bound to destroy each other in their marriage. Their situation is the opposite of “give and take” – Atong doesn’t give but rather lets himself be emptied, and Philai does not take but wants everything instead. While Atong is content with being inexistent or being nothing, so much so that he ends up with no “life”, Philai wants the title of Sor, the title of the eldest daughter in law, the badge of being the daughter from the first family – in order to create something for herself, which, in the end means nothing after all.
Yet Philai does have one gripe, which, even I found to be understandable, – that is, Atong is too much of a Mama’s boy. Even when they were already husband and wife, his world – and his most important words – were still “Yes, Ma.”
All the other Bae children actually had their own moments of rebellion and went against their mother. It was only Atong who, for the most part, did everything in accordance with Yoi’s wishes. He does try to be the voice of reason to his mother sometimes, but it always ends with him saying, “Yes, ma” in the end.
Even him sticking with Philai was brought about by his obedience to his mother. Yet his mother does not seem to appreciate his obedience, until the very end. When his marriage was in shreds, and Yoi finally realized how much of a crazy brat Philai truly was (I.e. when Yoi realized it was Renu who was the ideal daughter-in-law all along, and Philai was her curse) Atong finally confesses to his mother how much he has suffered in his loveless marriage to Philai. But even so, Atong tells his mom that all is well and he will fix everything and do better for his mother. Isn’t that sweet? Earlier, in Tia’s deathbed, it was also Atong who apologized to their father for any misgivings that he’s had – and this was after Tia finally acknowledged Atong for his patience and kindness to the family. His last instructions to Atong was never to abandon his brothers. Tia knew that although Atong was the second runner up, and the often-neglected middle child among the brood, he was the one tasked to stay in the background and keep everyone together. In times of difficulty, he was the one who had to sacrifice for the good of the family – just like the time they had a crisis with Achai’s sudden marriage, he had to step up and marry Philai. Tia thus tells Atong to be thankful that he was born with patience – as it was this patience that made him carry on with his life and duties. The same patience made him more aware of himself and made him conscious enough to seek for forgiveness and understanding, even when he was already quite saintly to begin with.
In the end, Atong finally throws his morals to the wind and has a tryst with Boonplook. Huh! After all that building up of Atong’s character, this happens! What happened to the slow and patient Atong? It was quite a shock really when they threw this curveball at the last episode. To me, it seemed out of character even. In the novel, I was told that Atong actually ends up with another girl, who gets introduced later on in the story. Understandably, Krong Karm would need another 20 episodes had they stuck with the novel scenario (with Atong’s hopelessness and all). In any event, it was the quick and no-brainer resolution for Atong and Boonplook’s happy ending.
So going back, was Atong really such a pitiful unloved brother? As Tia said, despite Atong being caught in the middle and never being the most or least favorite child, he wasn’t exactly “unloved.” In fact, like all the Bae sons, his parents loved him too. Also, apart from Boonplook, he was also someone else’s favorite guy.
Atong is Asa’s favorite brother, and vice versa. One of the highlights of the lakorn for me is watching these two. The two middle children are ostensibly different, with Asa being an extrovert and Atong being the introvert; but more or less these two brothers have the same temperament.
Many scenes show them reflecting on life, love, and karma together. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that they fall in love with the same girl. Yet even this did not serve as wedge between these two brothers – for their love for each other saw them through their love for Chanta. Asa was the one who fell in love with Chanta first but he stepped back to give way to Atong. Yet when it was time for Asa to choose, it was Atong who finally told Asa to go for it and pursue his love. Atong, being the obedient middle child always gave in to fate and just allowed his mother to dictate his life path – in this regard, he often admired Asa who seemed inclined to choose love and take his own path.
Atong, who, more than any of the other brothers believed in the concept of karma, actually advised Asa to follow his heart and choose what he desires, irrespective of others. I wonder if this was Atong’s own desire, deep in his heart – something he wishes to do but knows he can’t, something which he wishes for his own brother to fulfil. It was even made harder, when you think about it, when you consider how Atong had wanted to marry Chanta himself. Ultimately, he gave this happiness to his brother. (In the beginning, it was clear that Asa was willing to do the same for Atong.)
These two remind me of that scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest thinks about the interplay between destiny and choosing your own fate. Karma, from what I understand, is highly dependent on one’s good deeds and misdeeds, but at the same time, it can also be from things beyond one’s control (such as from deeds from the past life, or one’s ancestor’s actions, etc.). Atong represented the outlook of adhering to whatever it is that life has laid down for us – to accept whatever it is that come our way with an obedient and patient heart and work hard with what we have. On the other hand, Asa teaches us that we can still actively change our fate with good deeds and a positive mindset – that we mustn’t be caged by this “karma”, neither should we blame it for what has happened to us. In consonance with Forrest Gump’s realization, I agree that maybe, it’s both. We need both Atong and Asa in our lives (yes, I want more of these two! They’re the cutest!… but I digress…)
With that I end this double espresso coffee talk for Atong. Did I miss out anything? Do you want to talk more about Atong and Philai… or even his sudden and abrupt ending with Boonplook? P’Fia and I would love to hear from you. Let us know your thoughts!
Until next time! I’ll see you guys when I see you. Happy new year! ~Greta (@Gretutay)