Learning the Colour of Money

By Oriana Franceschi

Oat’s childhood is made up of baby-pinks and blues: a boat slipping down a still canal, flitting fish in a strip-lit tank, a sleepy Thai sun setting over the banana plants.

The Berlinale Panorama film HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME), Josh Kim’s adaptation of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s book, takes us back to that twilight period between Oat’s boy-and-manhood, before he “knew the colour of money“.

It’s a time when the colour red makes a bold intrusion into Oat’s life; red is the colour of the ballot that could force his older brother, Ek, into mandatory service to the Thai military. At 21, every male citizen in Thailand is subjected to a random draft lottery: if a man draws a black card, he is free to continue living as a civilian; if he draws red, he says ‘goodbye’ to his loved ones, cuts his hair, and serves wherever his country needs him. Oat’s brother Ek, whose poverty forces him into sex work, is drafted, while Ek’s wealthy boyfriend Jai bribes his way to a black ballot.

At home, red, white and blue blasts from Oat’s television, peaking his interest in American popular culture and diet. At first, HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS even mimics the music and narrative style of American gangster films like GOODFELLAS and DONNIE BRASCO.

This technique peters out a little clumsily in the middle, though, and the film’s strongest moments are when it draws on the visceral experiences of childhood. These are made up of plastered fingers toying with the edges of leaves, the image of a precious object broken in play, and Oat’s first bite of a cheeseburger in a scene that moves quickly from bliss into tragedy—as is the way before one’s feelings develop beyond the all-consuming—when the taste of cheese makes him vomit.

In the steely grey of his future, adult Oat—who tells us he has found wealth through cheating, lying and winning—rides away from drawing a black ballot on his motorcycle, with his hair slicked back and a leather jacket on, James Dean-style. The exact details of how he became so affluent are never divulged, but we have seen Oat learn the hard truths that poverty is a trap, wealth is the master of justice, and nobody is blind to the colour of money.