Time Travel Thursdays: Back to the 90s (2015)
Time travel tropes8
Matthew Turner | On 31, Oct 2019
Director: Yanyong Kuruaungkoul
Cast: Dan Aaron Ramnarong, Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon, Achita Pramoj Na Ayudhya, Chonlakarn Puangnoy, Chanintorn Jitpreeda, Vichuda Pindum
Watch Back to the 90s online in the UK: Netflix UK
Wondering how to fill the time travel gap now that Travelers and Timeless have been cancelled? Then transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursdays, our column devoted to time travel movies on Netflix. It’s on Thursdays.
Directed by Yanyong Kuruaungkoul, Back to the 90s (or 2538 alter ma jib, original title fans) is a time-travelling Thai rom-com that, as its international title suggests, gently riffs on Back to the Future. As such, it’s extremely sweet, well acted and shot through with gentle humour, but also hampered by an overly simplistic plot.
The story centres on 2015 Bangkok teenager Kong (Dan Aaron Ramnarong), whose parents, Tam (Achita Pramoj Na Ayudhya) and Mam (Chonlakarn Puangnoy), are constantly fighting, with Mam accusing Tam of never having gotten over someone called Som. One night, while going through old photographs, Kong finds a mysterious pager and when he enters a phonebox to call the number, he’s unexpectedly transported back to 1995, when his father (now played by Chanintorn Jitpreeda) still had dreams of rock stardom.
Befriending Tam and getting a job in his uncle’s music shop, Kong discovers that Tam’s childhood friend, Som (Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon), has romantic designs on his father-to-be, even though Tam only has eyes for Mam (now played by Vichuda Pindum). Kong takes it upon himself to steer Som’s affections away from Tam, but in the process, he falls in love with her himself.
Back to the 90s starts off in promising fashion when it comes to time travel tropes. It has a solid, if slightly confusing, time travel method – at first it seems like it’s the combination of the pager, the phone booth and a thunderstorm – and Kong figures out what‘s happened almost straight away. Similarly, the film gets a lot of mileage out of nostalgic jokes (including an excellent Tamagochi gag), as well as highlighting just how far technology has advanced since.
Needless to say, several of the jokes are somewhat lost in translation, particularly if you’re not up to speed on 90s Thai bands or current Thai pop culture. Thankfully, however, the film’s best joke – namely Tam and Kong shouting “Mam!” and “Mom!” respectively at young Mam – survives. The characters are extremely likeable, thanks to appealing performances from each of the younger cast members.
The film’s most frustrating aspect is that the story is almost ridiculously simplistic, especially when laid alongside Back to the Future, which receives a name-check, so it’s not like the producers and screenwriters didn’t have a reference point for more ideas. One significantly absent plot element is a confidante – no one believes Kong when he initially says he’s from the future, so he stops telling people, meaning he’s not obligated to explain his plans (if he has them) out loud for the audience.
Perhaps the simplistic plot is partly because the film is also a musical of sorts – a previously unmentioned music competition suddenly becomes an important plot point about halfway through and both Leuwisetpaiboon and Chanintorn Jitpreeda get to sing pretty decent musical numbers. On top of that, the “alter” in the film’s original title refers to alternative music, which apparently enjoyed a short-lived popularity phase in Thailand in the 90s, something which is used to make a surprisingly poignant emotional statement in the film.
Kuruaungkoul’s direction is generally decent, though it could use both a slightly faster pace, as well as a clearer idea of what exactly is at stake for Kong. There are also some odd directorial decisions, such as the use of jarring comedy sound effects to underscore random moments, eg. a “boing!” noise to accompany a double take.
One particular area where the film makes strange decisions is in the climax. Without giving too much away, a fatal bus crash is set up early on, so the audience are constantly expecting it to pop up in the story. When it finally does, there’s an unexpected twist that’s subtly effective, in that it cleverly alters the audience’s perception of the story, allowing you to see a previous plot point in a different light. However, the bus sequence is also quite shocking, in that it doesn’t play out the way you might expect (particularly in regard to time travel tropes) and if it ever gets remade, that scene is likely to be significantly altered for international audiences.
Any plot shortcomings, though, are compensated for by an underlying sweetness that makes the whole thing extremely watchable.
Back to the 90s is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.