Thursday, October 1, 2015

In Thai cinemas: May Who? and Shnit fest

Teenage angst takes the form of electricity in the Thai teen romance May Nhai .. Fai Raeng Fer (เมย์ไหน..ไฟแรงเฟร่อ, a.k.a. May Who?), which is about a schoolgirl who is afflicted with a powerful electrical charge, which she releases when her heartbeat reaches 120 beats per second. This makes it difficult for her to get close to anyone.

Sutatta Udomsilp stars as May. She keeps a low profile at school in order to keep her shocking condition a secret, but her heart gets racing whenever she sees the star athlete Fame (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn). Her superpower is discovered by classmate Pong (Thiti Mahayotharak), a shy guy who also keeps to himself but has a crush on the school's most popular girl (Nareekul Katepraphakorn). So May agrees to help Pong score with his crush if he keeps her secret and helps her hook up with Fame.

May Who? has movie studio GTH doubling down on the last few months of the year, as the film is being released less than a month after the studio's current hit Freelance. Usually the studio makes just two or maybe three films a year, and spreads them out more. Sure to also do well at the box office, May Who? is directed by Chayanop Boonpakob, a former indie filmmaker who got his big commercial break with the 2011 hit SuckSeed, about a teenage rock band. Along with the special effects related to the girl's superpower, May Who? also includes animated segments, inspired by notebooks Chayanop drew in when he was in high school.

The new film has been accompanied by the usual promotional blitz by GTH, but it's been a bit awkward because talented young actress "PunPun" Sutatta has been suspended from working by the company after she and members of the cast of Hormones the Series misbehaved on a train while visiting Japan. They posted a clip of their rowdy behavior on social networks, not realizing that being disruptive on public transport is seriously frowned upon in orderly Japan. To prevent the breach in etiquette from becoming a major international incident, GTH made all involved issue apologies, and they punished PunPun and the others by banning them from social media and suspending them from work. And PunPun's suspension doesn't end until sometime next week, too late to support her new film before its release.

You can read more about the movie in an article in The Nation.

Next week is the third Bangkok edition of the Shnit International Short Film Festival, which runs from Wednesday until October 11 at the Lido multiplex in Siam Square.

Now in its 13th year, the Switzerland-based Shnit fest is held simultaneously in several cities, with Bangkok joining Bern, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Cape Town, Moscow, San José and Hong Kong.

The selection includes new short-film entries from around the world plus a special bloc of "Made in Thailand" shorts.

Find out more at the festival's Facebook events page.

Other new releases in Thai cinemas this week include the The Tribe, the troublemaking entry at Cannes last year. For more, please see the other blog.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Festival festival! Masters and Newcomers in Busan, premieres in Tokyo and Taipei, an award in Rio

The autumn film festival season is upon us, with Thai films highlighted in Busan, Tokyo and Taipei. I also have an item from late in the summer, of an award in Rio.

The Busan International Film Festival gets underway on Thursday, paying tribute to the masters of Asian cinema.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul will of course be taking part in that. He's among the festival's "Top 10 directors" and was also among the experts polled for the fest's "Asian Cinema 100", listing the 100 best Asian films of all time. The top 10 (actually 11) will screen at the fest.

And Apichatpong's latest feature, Cemetery of Splendour will screen at Busan as part of the Window on Asian Cinema. Splendour has been on a tear since taking the Cannes Film Festival by storm back in May, recently playing in Toronto and in New York.

Apichatpong also contributed to a new collection of short films for the Busan fest, Color of Asia – Masters, along with Naomi Kawase, Wang Xiaoshuai and Im Sang-soo. Apichatpong's short is called Vapour, "a lyrical piece absent of any dialogue". There's a trailer embedded below.

Busan also highlights newer talents with another shorts compilation, Color of Asia – Newcomers. Up-and-coming indie filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng is behind the segment titled Ferris Wheel, about a migrant-worker mother and her son attending a rural carnival and encountering a creepy stranger in a monkey costume. Again, there's a trailer for that one, and it's embedded below.

Beyond Splendour and the short films, Busan also has a couple of Thai documentaries. There is Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's talking-head parade The Master, which has Thai film luminaries reminiscing about Mr. Van, the guy who briefly ruled Bangkok's pirate-movie scene in the days before bittorrent. It was shopped at last year's Asian Project Market.

Aditya Assarat also looks into the Thai movie-going scene with The Scala, a 52-minute piece about Bangkok's endangered landmark Scala cinema. The link on the BIFF website sent me in a circle back to the homepage, so I turned to the director for help. He provided me with a PDF that details the Power of Asian Cinema project of the Korean Broadcast System and the Busan fest, which brought together 10 Asian directors to make documentaries for South Korean TV. All 10 will be shown during the festival. Aditya's short recalls his memories of the Scala. Here's the synopsis:

I always like to watch movies at The Scala. It reminds me of my childhood when all the cinemas in Bangkok were standalone cinemas. At the time, I never thought it was anything special. But now that I am older, I have become nostalgic. There are many things about it I wanted to document: the staff, who are all old now, the space, which is very beautiful, and the ideal, of movie-watching as a special event. In a way, The Scala is similar to all of us who persevere, despite the difficulties, to celebrate cinema in the way we remember it to be.

The Scala opened its doors in 1970. It had one thousand seats and every night, they were filled. In those days, going to the movies was something special. The cinema was a place where people got dressed up, went on dates, and fell in love. But today, everything has changed. There is a multiplex in every mall and the young generation watch movies on their phone. But at The Scala, time has stood still. The cinema is still run by many of the same staff who have been there from the beginning. It is now the last remaining standalone cinema left in Bangkok. And soon, its time will come to an end too.

Next up is the Tokyo International Film Festival, which has two world premieres of Thai films, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee's Snap and Pimpaka Towira's The Island Funeral (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน, Maha Samut Lae Susaan).

Part of Tokyo fest's main competition, Snap is a romantic drama produced by TrueVisions and is set against a period of martial law in Thailand. It stars newcomer actress Waruntorn Paonil as a young woman returning to her hometown for a friend's wedding. The wedding photographer (Toni Rakkaen) turns out to be a young man from her past.

Pimpaka's long-awaited second dramatic feature The Island Funeral is in the Asian Future program. A road drama, it features a screenplay by film critic and documentary filmmaker Kong Rithdee. Check out the trailer, embedded below.

Moving on to Taipei, there's the Golden Horse International Film Festival, which will open with Distance, an omnibus feature put together by Singapore's Anthony Chen, who made the Cannes' Camera d'Or winner Ilo Ilo. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Distance stars Taiwanese actors Chen Bolin and Yo Yang alongside Hong Kong star Paul Chun. "The experimental drama sees Chen play three separate roles in each of three stories, separately helmed by Xin Yukun, Tan Shijie and Sivaroj Kongsakul. The directors hail, respectively, from China, Singapore and Thailand."

Sivaroj is the maker of tear-jerking sentimental short films as well as the emotional drama Tee Rak (Eternity), which was a prize-winner at Rotterdam and other fests.

Finally, here's some award news, which a reader gave me a tip on – Night Watch, a short film by Danaya Chulphuthiphong won the Special Jury Prize at the Fronteira Festival in Rio de Janeiro in August. According to a review, the experimental short takes place during a coup d'etat and the unrest that accompanies it, as seen from scenes on the streets and through television images. Danaya previously served as a cinematographer on Endless, Nameless, which was the top-prize winner at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival..

And so ends my second "Festival festival!" round-up of festival news. Thai filmmakers, if you have film in an upcoming festival or won an award somewhere, please feel free to let me know.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Mard Payak, Siam Yuth

Nation Multimedia Group’s Now 26 TV channel breaks into film with Mard Payak: The Great Muay Thai Fighter (มาดพยัคฆ์), a documentary on boxer Samart Payakaroon.

Winner of four national weight-class titles and the 1982 World Boxing Council featherweight champ, he was a fearsome pugilist who was known as the "Jade Tiger".

Made with Samart’s support, it includes dramatized scenes from his upbringing and career, with actors portraying him at various ages. The documentary also covers a 1986 bout in which Samart avoided almost 20 punches from opponent Juan Mesa. There's also his controversial 1987 loss in Australia to Jeff Fenech.

Along with Now 26, it's produced by Local Color Films, a production shingle formed a few years ago by Pawas Sawatchaiyamet, a.k.a. Saksiri Chantarangsri, the veteran production designer who worked closely with Wisit Sasanatieng and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Norachai Kajchapanont directs.

You can read more about the film in an article in The Nation. It's at SF Cinemas.

Two-fisted swordfighting shirtless youngsters fight for honor and country in the historical-action epic Siam Yuth: The Dawn of the Kingdom (สยามยุทธ).

It's been on the release schedule for many months, but has been repeatedly postponed for reasons I'm not privy to.

But now, I guess the time is right for a jingoistic war flick. To arms!

The story, near as I can make out, deals with a tight-knit group of friends who take up the fight against a local warlord in ancient Siam.

For other offerings in Thai cinemas this week, please see the supplementary blog, Bangkok Cinema Scene.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Checkers jumps into place as Thailand's Oscars contender

The independent coming-of-age drama How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), a.k.a. P'Chai My Hero (พี่ชาย My Hero) has been chosen to represent Thailand in the 88th Academy Awards.

As announced today in a press release by the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, Checkers was picked by an eight-member committee that considered films released in Thai cinemas from October 1, 2014 to September 30 of this year.

Aside from Checkers, other titles that were pondered were the current hit romantic comedy Freelance, the just-released literary-classic adaptation Mae Bia (แม่เบี้ย, a.k.a. The Snake), the gay psychological thriller The Blue Hour (Onthakan, อนธการ), the time-travel comedy 2538 Alter Ma Jive (2538 อัลเทอร์มาจีบ) and the Catholic schoolteacher biographical drama F. Hilaire (ฟ.ฮีแลร์).

However, after much debate and analysis by the committee, it was decided that Checkers "transcended" the other choices, said Weerasak Kowsurat, the committee chairman.

The debut feature by Korean-American director Josh Kim, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) is adapted from Sightseeing, the short story collection of noted Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. The comedy-drama, set against the backdrop of class conflict in Thai society, centers on 11-year-old Oat, a poor orphan raised by his openly gay older brother Ek and their superstitious aunt. With Ek facing the upcoming military draft lottery, Oat takes a big risk to ensure his brother will not be conscripted.

Checkers premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and has made the rounds on the circuit. It was given the Thai title of P'Chai My Hero (literally My Brother, My Hero) for local release in July. It was produced by an international consortium of filmmakers from Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and the US, including Thai director-producer Anocha Suwichakornpong.

The film federation's selection has a notable omission from this year's festival circuit, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, which has garnered much acclaim since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and more recently in Toronto. However, it has not yet been released in Thailand. Apichatpong's previous feature, the 2010 Cannes Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, was submitted for the 83rd Academy Awards.

Checkers is the 22nd Thai entry in the Oscars race for Best Foreign Language Film, which Thailand has taken part in since 1984. None have made the short-list of nominees.

Spotlight on Cambodia at sixth Luang Prabang Film Festival

The outdoor main venue of the Luang Prabang Film Festival hosts nightly screenings. Photo courtesy of LPFF.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival returns for its sixth edition from December 5 to 9, in the Unesco World Heritage former royal capital of Laos, with a selection of movies from across Southeast Asia.

Highlights this year will include a new "Spotlight" program, which focuses on Cambodia. There are workshops and talks planned, with local and foreign filmmakers lending their expertise.

In addition, the festival this year coincides with the 20th anniversary of Luang Prabang's listing as a Unesco World Heritage site.

The fest will also take place during the Elephant Caravan, which will see a team of 12 elephants marching into the city, accompanied by artists and performers in a campaign to raise awareness about the plight of the pachyderms in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Films include a mix of hard-hitting documentaries, such as The Act of Killing and its companion piece The Look of Silence from Indonesia, edgy indie features like Thailand's Village of Hope and Malaysia's Men Who Save the World, to crowd-pleasing commercial hits, such as Thailand's I Fine Thank You Love You and the Lao comedy Really Love 2. There's also offbeat docs, such as The Cambodian Space Project and The Search for Weng Weng.

Some films will be shown outdoors, while others can be seen during the day at the indoor venue, which is the same as last year, the Hotel de la Paix, now branded the Sofitel Luang Prabang.

Here's the line-up:

  • Above it All (Laos)
  • The Act of Killing (Indonesia)
  • The Cambodian Space Project (Cambodia)
  • Crocodile (Philippines)
  • Dandelion (Vietnam)
  • Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (Vietnam)
  • Gems on the Run (Cambodia)
  • Hanuman (Cambodia)
  • I Fine Thank You Love You (Thailand)
  • I Love You! (Laos)
  • The Last Executioner (Thailand)
  • The Last Reel (Cambodia)
  • The Look of Silence (Indonesia)
  • Mariquina (Philippines)
  • Men Who Saved the World (Malaysia)
  • The Monk (Myanmar)
  • Ms J Contemplates Her Choice (Singapore)
  • My Teacher (Laos)
  • Pu Bao Tai Ban – Isaan Indy (Thailand)
  • Really Love 2 (Laos)
  • The Search for Weng Weng (Philippines)
  • The Second Life of Thieves (Malaysia)
  • Siti (Indonesia)
  • Slam! (Singapore)
  • Somboon (Thailand)
  • Still I Strive (Cambodia)
  • That Thing Called Meant-To-Be (Philippines)
  • Village of Hope (Thailand)

Special Work Print Previews:

  • Dearest Sister (Laos)
  • River (Laos)

Here's more from the festival press release that goes out today:

In addition to LPFF’s feature film screenings, LPFF will also have multiple short film programs, including selections from the Cambodian Chaktomuk Short Film Festival, and the short film competition from the Laos-based Vientianale.

LPFF is also pleased to present a collection of 21 videos and three animated films, featuring ethnic minority women in Laos telling traditional folktales. This project, which documents intangible cultural heritage, was produced by LPFF and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, with a grant from the US State Department.

There will also be three major public discussions this year for visitors of the festival:

  • The Lao Department of Cinema will host a seminar on encouraging foreign film production and co-production in Laos. This panel will include guest speakers filmmakers Mattie Do (Chanthaly;, Dearest Sister) and Anousone Sirisackda (Sabaidee Luang Prabang), who will discuss their own 2015 international co-productions. Audiences will be treated to special work prints previews of these films, Dearest Sister and River, at LPFF’s open-air Night Venue.
  • Celebrated Cambodian filmmaker Sok Visal (Gems on the Run) will introduce LPFF’s “Spotlight” program this year with “Spotlight on Cambodia,” an entire day devoted to screenings and discussion of Cambodian features and shorts, showcasing the nation’s exciting and rapid development in film production.
  • Veteran Hollywood filmmaker Stephen Lim (Born on the Fourth of July, Inside Job) will lead a discussion on the integral role of the producer in film production, including how to maximize resources, managing expectations, as well as budgeting, scheduling, and other preparation work.

Over half of the festival’s films have already confirmed the attendance of their directors and/or producers. These filmmakers will participate in numerous festival events, including post-screening Q-and-As at the LPFF Day Venue, Sofitel Luang Prabang.

LPFF will offer live evening performances on its main stage before headline screenings. Notably, LPFF will welcome famed French guitarist Jo Dihan and the Elephant Caravan artisans, the top three winning teams of this year’s Vientiane-based Urban Youth Dance competition, and a performance by the annual Fang Mae Khong international dance festival.

On display will be a new limited edition typology-style portfolio from the lauded Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, accompanied by a presentation by the initiative’s founder, Philip Jablon.

All screenings and activities of the festival are free and open to the public.

With a newly-opened bottling plant in Laos, Coca-Cola is the festival’s biggest sponsor once again this year, having also made a generous donation to LPFF’s Lao Filmmakers Fund, a publicly-generated fund that allows filmmakers in Laos to apply for grants to help realize their film projects.

Other major supporters of the 2015 festival are Beerlao Gold, the US Embassy, the Asia Foundation, Exo Travel, Chillax Productions, the Nam Theun 2 Power Company, and Lao Airlines.

This year’s festival coincides with the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Luang Prabang’s UNESCO World Heritage status. The week also marks the arrival of the much-anticipated Elephant Caravan, a convoy of 20 elephants marching to bring attention to the plight of elephants in Laos and throughout Asia. LPFF is in collaboration with both of these projects and looks forward to an exceptional week of entertainment in Luang Prabang!

To book a trip to the Luang Prabang Film Festival, please contact Exo Travel at As LPFF’s Official Travel Partner, Exo Travel has exclusive access to preferential rates with Lao Airlines and LPFF’s Hotel Partners (listed on the LPFF website). Furthermore, booking with Exo Travel directly supports LPFF, as a percentage of each booking goes back to the project.

Art review: Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting

If Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting were a mechanical drawing, the current art exhibition of his short film would be the "exploded view", as it's broken up, magnified and detailed on more than a dozen screens across four galleries at the Silpakorn University Art Center in Bangkok.

It's also a refreshing approach to interpreting classical literature, as Behind the Painting is yet another one of those Thai stories that has over the decades been repeatedly adapted for film, television and stage.

Written by Sri Burapha, Behind the Painting is very much a product of 1930s Thailand, following the country's adoption of the constitutional monarchy, which gave rise to the different-thinking educated middle class of today. The romantic tragedy, set in Japan, centers on a young Thai man studying there. The student Nopporn is contacted by a family acquaintance, an elderly Japanese gentleman who is coming home with his new wife Kirati, a younger Thai woman of noble birth. He wants Nopporn to squire Kirati around and help her adjust to life in Japan. Naturally, unrequited romance develops between the two young people.

Chulayarnnon is one of those Thai filmmakers whose work is primarily seen in art galleries. His contemporaries in this area include Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who still does art installations even as he has found broader fame for his feature films at the Cannes Film Festival, and Jakrawal Nilthamrong, who broke into features this year with Vanishing Point, now touring the festival circuit.

Chulayarnnon is still sticking with art galleries, though his inventive shorts have been a highlight of the recent editions of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival. He was chosen this year to produce the festival's annual new title sequence, a brief "bumper" that is shown before each program. He actually did two title sequences for this year's fest. One involves soldier statues "guarding" a military base, a blank movie screen in an empty auditorium and villagers praying to shrine. It includes an egg, one of the icons of the Thai Short fest. He also did a stop-motion animation, with insect-like birthday candles and a spiky egg.

He employs multiple experimental-film techniques in his multi-layered works, so the art gallery is really the best place to see Chulayarnnon at his freest range of expression.

Behind the Painting is the result of his participation in the artist-in-residence program last year at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center in Japan. It was previously exhibited there as part of the Aomori's Media/Art Kitchen program curated by Hiroyuki Hattori. In Bangkok, the exhibition is supported by the Japan Foundation, so be sure to complete the survey and reassure them that their efforts are most welcome.

Set in a colonial-style building on Silpakorn University's historic campus, right across the street from the Grand Palace in the old part of Bangkok, Behind the Painting gets progressively more interesting the deeper into it you go.

And it's actually pretty interesting right out of the gate, with the first room devoted to "Forget Me Not", a mixed-media work that comprises a 1:23-minute one-channel video loop of a key scene from Chulayarnnon's film, when Kirati hands Nopporn a "forget me not" flower. Text from a crucial hand-written note that says "forget me not" is rendered in neon and lights up the room, which came pre-installed with a checkerboard tile floor that seems like it has always been part of the exhibit.

The bulk of the short film is in the next room, a darkened gallery with 12 small lightbox/video screens suspended from the ceiling. On the back of each box is a watercolor painting of a still from a key scene, while the front of the box has the video. Each scene, about 2 to 4 minutes or so, runs on a loop.

You walk into the room looking at what I think is the back of the lightboxes – the side with the paintings. I found the best approach to appreciating the piece is to walk around the room clockwise as you enter, and watch each video starting with "The Letter from Siam", in which Nopporn is informed of the impending arrival of the Japanese man and his wife. The tale of Behind the Painting is further spelled out down the line, from "The First Trip" to the reflective epilogue, "Behind the Painting".

Others are "The Last Moment", "Nopporn's Letter", "Nopporn's Dream", "Kirati's Letter", "The Death of Chaokhun", "The Return of Nopporn", "Bad News", "Nopporn's Wedding" and "The Death of Kirati". The titles all read as if they are lifted from sequels to a goofy B-movie franchise. Which makes them great.

In addition to the suspended video screen/lightboxes are those janky little earphones that all galleries use for exhibitions like this. There are English subtitles, but if you listen in, you'll hear dialogue that's lifted from an actual Thai movie of Behind the Painting. It's the one from 2001 that was the last film of revered auteur Cherd Songsri – a director who had an inimitable knack for being faithful to the text of the old stories while still making his films relevant to modern audiences.

Chulayarnnon has employed a similar technique before. For one of his very early works, Golden Sand House, he used the audio from the 1980 Jarunee Saksawat classic Baan Sai Tong over his own version of the often-adapted tale of blue bloods feeling threatened by commoners, filming it in his own home with members of his family, including his very aged and infirm grandparents. Helpfully to me, Golden Sand House was part of a Filmvirus retrospective put on in Bangkok last year, during which Chulayarnnon offered a sneak preview of the partly finished Behind the Painting.

Another of Chulayarnnon's trademarks is that he often appears in his films, and he's an immediately relatable, friendly everyman character. In Behind the Painting, he plays both the Thai student Nopporn and, to hilariously entertaining effect, the refined noblewoman Kirati.

With the help of photo doubles and filmmaking magic that is convincing in various degrees, he puts Nopporn and Kirati in the same scene. He also uses that schoolboy trick of wrapping his arms around his shoulders so from the back it looks like he's making out with someone. Still, it's pretty slick.

About halfway through the lightbox display, I got over Chulayarnnon's drag act and despite his 5 o'clock shadow, I began see him as Kirati, not as a dude playing Kirati. And I suppose that's a commentary on the increasingly fluid nature of society's perceptions of gender and sexuality – notions that are being challenged right now in mainstream culture with TV shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black winning Emmys, and the debate over same-sex marriage licenses in Kentucky.

As far as acting goes, Chulayarnnon is particularly good in the scene titled "Bad News", in which Nopporn, seeming very cheerful and pleased with himself, announces to Kirati that he's getting married. Kirati's face just drops right to the floor, even though in Chulayarnnon's mind her crestfallen expression was probably much more subtle.

Another fun scene is "Nopporn's Wedding", in which the tuxedo-clad Nopporn and his lovely Thai bride in her white wedding gown cavort in the landmark places where Thai brides and grooms tend to have their photos taken, like Sanam Luang, the public park that's a stone's throw from the art gallery and the Grand Palace. They also twirl about at the Democracy Monument, a symbolic spot I'm not so sure is very popular with couples or anybody these days.

Further concessions to contemporary comfort are found in the scenes from modern Tokyo, including Nopporn meeting Chaokhun and his bride outside the Japan Railways station.

After I did a round or two of the room with the lightboxes, I ventured deeper into the museum and was happily surprised to find there's more. Among the other works prepared for the exhibition is a table with an unfinished jigsaw puzzle on it. It's from "Nopporn's Dream". Titled "Incomplete Dream", it's 1,000 puzzle pieces, arranged just so the couple's faces are not yet filled in. If you visit, especially you obsessive-compulsive types, please don't feel compelled to complete the puzzle.

And finally, there's the piece "Mitake", in which you can actually go behind the painting of the painting from Behind the Painting. One one side of the 8-foot-wide lightbox is the titular watercolor work that the classically trained artist Kirati made of her and Nopporn sitting by a pool in a Technicolor forest. The other side has the video, containing scenes of Kirati's art education and her isolated, noble upbringing.

Helpfully, there's a little nook behind the painting, with stools arranged to sit on to view the video. It's also a good spot to take a break and soak it all in, which I needed after spending I guess close to an hour viewing the pieces. Meanwhile, a smattering of other visitors, including a small group, breezed in and out in what seemed like five minutes. Give it more time than that.

After seeing the incomplete version of Behind the Painting last year, I told Chulayarnnon that I did't feel the need to see any other version of that story. Of course at the time, I had no idea what he was planning, so now it's the art-gallery edition that must be seen and experienced, and for me it is the definitive version of Behind the Painting.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Behind the Painting opened on September 10 at the Art Center of Silpakorn University Wang Thapra. It is on show until October 13, 2015. Directions to the gallery are available online.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Guest post: How Thai is Freelance aka Heart Attack?

Freelance (a.k.a. Heart Attack), the latest GTH film and the first big-studio directorial effort for indie filmmaker  Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, seems likely to be one of the best films of the year, and will likely also be among the winners at the Thai box office, with reported earnings of 73.5 million baht as of last weekend. While releases in neighboring countries are already planned, guest columnist Lila Ahronowitz takes a look at the broader, cross-cultural appeal of Freelance ... Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More (ฟรีแลนซ์.. ห้ามป่วย ห้ามพัก ห้ามรักหมอ).

In this world of reboots and adaptations, some properties have better success than others being transplanted to a different setting, time, and even language. Whether for good or bad, some stories are inherently a product of the city or country in which they were made, and the stories lose some layers when they’re taken out of that context. Taking a look at the films coming from Thailand, what, if anything, makes the film uniquely Thai – whether it be thematically, technically, or in other ways.

Directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Freelance is a story about a freelance graphic designer, Yoon (Sunny Suwanamethanon), who, through overwork, unhealthy eating and lack of sleep, develops a mysterious skin rash. When he goes to the public clinic, he falls for the caring and kind doctor who treats him, Imm (Davika Hoorne). It’s not quite as simple as that – there are themes of the importance of self-care as one grows older, the pressure to keep up with new talent, the lure of self-destruction, and the profound, inevitable loneliness of tech-based society.

So let’s get down to brass tacks: how Thai is this movie? Bangkok life is evident in certain beats of the story, particularly the humorous ones: the moto driver who accompanies Yoon’s business contact, Je (an exceptional Violette Wautier, whose deadpan delivery rivals Sara Gilbert from Roseanne); the fact that shrimp dumplings from 7-Eleven are Yoon’s favorite food; the traditional Thai-style funeral Yoon interrupts in the beginning of the movie (I was howling when he asked the monk if the temple had Wi-Fi). If we were to move this story to, say, New York, these idiosyncrasies would be lost; sure, Yoon’s favorite food could be cheeseburgers from McDonalds, but taxi-motorcycle drivers aren’t a thing that happens in the U.S., and asking a pastor about Wi-Fi in a church isn’t going to have the same kick – especially when in Bangkok, the monk casually hands over the password to his dwelling Wi-Fi.

The themes of this movie, however, are immediately recognizable and universal, for any 20- or 30-something struggling to balance personal life and career ambitions – and most especially for freelancers without basic health benefits coverage. In that respect, I could see this story set anywhere from Norway to Alaska to Jordan.

On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 indicates that a person could barely tell the film was made in Thailand, and 5 indicates the movie is as inextricably Thai as Wat Pho and pad kra pao moo, I give Freelance 2 puang malai: easily adapted and translated, but you’re gonna lose some charm in the process.

Currently based in Bangkok, Lila hails from Los Angeles and has worked nearly every aspect of production on films, shorts, commercials, and TV. Follow her on Twitter @lilafromlala

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Mae Bia

Giant snake aside, it's the same old story with veteran director ML Bandevanop "Mom Noi" Devakula, who adapts yet another well-known Thai tale with his latest film Mae Bia (แม่เบี้ย, a.k.a. The Snake).

Based on a short story by the late writer Vanich Charoenkit-anant, it's the erotic tale of a married businessman returning to Thailand after many years overseas. Needing a refresher course in Thai ways, he signs up for a cultural tour and becomes smitten with the enchanting guide Mekhala.

Sparks fly, but Mekhala has a symbiotic relationship with a supernatural cobra, which makes her deadly to would-be suitors.

Journeyman actor Shahkrit Yamnarm stars alongside newcomer "Oam" Karnpithchar Katemanee, a third-place winner of Thailand Miss World 2009.

As with the other movies the veteran drama coach Mom Noi has made since his return to filmmaking a few years ago, Mae Bia is an old and often-adapted tale. It has already been made into a film at least twice, including a 2004 version that featured Napakprapha "Mamee" Nakprasert in one of her big break-out roles.

Mom Noi's other late-period efforts are Chua Fah Din Salai (Eternity), U Mong Pha MueangJan Dara and last year's Plae Kao (The Scar).

Aside from the Rashomon remake U Mong Pha Meuang, all are slavish adaptations of well-worn and well-known stories from the canon of Thai popular literature. And to a certain segment of Thai society, these stories never get old. Appearing to have been made in the bygone eras in which they are set, Mom Noi's movies feature unabashedly stagebound acting, sumptuous period costumes, lush backdrops and lots and lots of sex scenes. It's rated 18+

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: SPL 2: A Time for Consequences

  • Directed by Cheang Pou-soi
  • Starring Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Simon Yam, Zhang Jin, Louis Koo
  • Released in Thai cinemas on September 19, 2015; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

You know SPL 2: A Time for Consequences is going to be a different kind of Tony Jaa movie when the stern Thai martial-arts star is introduced wearing ice skates, and he promptly falls on his ass.

Indeed, the reinvention of Jaa's career, post-Sahamongkol, continues apace with SPL 2, Jaa's first, and much-anticipated, foray into Hong Kong action films.

In a supporting role alongside a cast of Hong Kong and Chinese stars, here's a Jaa who takes a page from Jackie Chan's playbook, playing the nice guy. He's immediately a sympathetic character, taking his young daughter to a Bangkok ice rink. After he falls down and is helpfully brought a comical penguin-shaped skating aid to stay upright, his character Chatchai's cute little girl turns around and has blood streaming from her nose. She is, of course, very ill, and in need of a rare type of bone marrow.

The only match, according to the movie medical database, is a Hong Kong police officer named Kit. And because this is a Hong Kong movie, a crazily elaborate plot must be constructed to put Kit and Chatchai on a collision course.

Kit has gone deep undercover in an operation to bring down Hung, a notorious trafficker in human organs who, perhaps not ironically, needs an organ transplant himself. Louis Koo milks his credit as "guest star" for all its worth, brandishing an evil cane and wearing a surgical mask as he orders his minions to do his bidding. On the verge of death, the Hong Kong kingpin is preparing to head to Thailand for an operation that will swap out his heart for the ticker of his own brother.

In Thailand, the Hung operation is overseen by a perfectly coiffed, three-piece-suited prison warden (Zhang Jin). He has an entire secret wing of his prison, where he keeps the victims of human trafficking under lock and key until their organs are needed on the black market. That seems to be a constant with foreign co-productions made in Thailand – there's often some angle involving organ trafficking or people smuggling.

Anyway, it's that very prison where Jaa's Chatchai works. To earn more money for his daughter's hospitalization, he agrees to get on the payroll of the corrupt warden, which sets him up for the meeting with Kit.

SPL 2 is a sequel-in-name-only to a terrific 2005 crime thriller that had Donnie Yen as a tough cop throwing down against the formidable Sammo Hung. The SPL sequel has been in development ever since then, and what has finally emerged is a completely different story. There's no Donnie or Sammo, but Wu Jing was in the first one, in a memorable supporting role as a blade-wielding thug, as was Simon Yam, as the head of the undercover police squad. Yam is back as a senior cop, but it's different character, overseeing the operation that sent Kit down the rabbit hole.

After a bit of running around in Hong Kong, and a big shoot-out at a cruise-ship terminal, the action shifts to Thailand, where Wu Jing ends up in prison, face to face with the guard who wants his bone marrow. Only Chatchai doesn't know that Kit is the potential donor. So a lot of time is eaten up getting the two to realize they have a much deeper connection than they ever imagined.

In the Thai-dubbed version screening in Bangkok, there was an added layer of unintended hilarity as Chatchai, in a prison cell with the bone-marrow donor he's seeking, uses an app on his phone to translate between Thai and Cantonese, to get Wu Jing's character to call the guy Chatchai thinks is still in Hong Kong. Because it's dubbed, even the Cantonese parts are in Thai, so all the lines are spoken the same twice. Hey, the audience needed a good laugh about then.

SPL 2 fares better when there's no CGI wolves or bits of bone marrow to clutter things up, because that's when the action takes place.

Aside from the Hong Kong shootout, there's a great scene in a doctor's office where cops have Hung's injured brother on lockdown. Here, a blade-wielding thug (Zhang Chi) is introduced to great effect.

Back in Thailand, there's a prison riot, giving the evil warden a chance to show off his martial-arts prowess.

Later, Yam's character is trussed up and taken to a scuzzy warehouse where bodies are hacked up. People in various states of disrepair are hanging around, as if they sold off a limb to be able to survive one more day.

In a scene that might have made his late mentor Panna Rittikrai proud, Jaa uses a prison bus to smash the place, and he acquires chains that he wraps around his arms, to add even more heft to his Muay Thai punches.

The big climactic setpiece takes place in a ritzy five-star resort hospital where Hung is to have his operation. Here's where the blade-wielding dude from Hong Kong comes back and joins in the mayhem along with the fierce warden. Wu Jing does his kung fu thing, with lightning-fast punches and sweeping kicks, while Jaa flies back and forth, all knees and elbows, as if he's being shot out of a cannon.

SPL 2 is the third in a trio of Tony Jaa movies this year, following his separation from the Thai studio Sahamongkol, where he made Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong. First was his big Hollywood debut in Fast and Furious 7, which featured him in short but crucial scenes with Paul Walker. Next to be released was the local co-production Skin Trade, which had Jaa in a leading role alongside action star Dolph Lundgren, as two rogue cops facing off a human-smuggling mobster played by Ron Perlman.

And though I enjoyed Furious 7 and Skin TradeSPL 2 is my favorite of the three, and it's the type of thing I'd hope to see more of from the Thai action star.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Behind the Painting, No Escape, SPL 2

Time to get out of the cinema and into the art gallery, as the interesting and talented video artist and filmmaker Chulayarnnon Siriphol offers his interpretation of the classic Thai story Behind the Painting.

Set in Japan, the tragic romance involves a young Thai student who has been employed by an elderly Japanese man to look after his young blue-blooded Thai wife. Written in 1937 by popular author Sri Burapha, the novel has been adapted for film, television and stage many times, including a 2001 film version that was the last feature by the revered Thai auteur Cherd Songsri.

In an homage to Cherd, his film is woven into the multi-layered fabric of Chulayarnnon's entertaining experimental work, which has him portraying both the young man and, in the grand tradition of theatrical cross-dressing, the young woman.

I've actually seen this, in a Film Virus retrospective last year, and I told Chulayarnnon afterward that I don't feel I need to see any other version.

It was created last year during Chulayarnnon's participation in the artist-in-residence program at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center in Japan.

Organized by the Japan Foundation and curated by the Aomori center's Hiroyuki Hattori, Behind the Painting is at the Silpakorn University Art Center, opening tomorrow night (invitation only) and running until October 10. Directions to the gallery are available online.

Meanwhile, Thai distributors are dumping a load of movies into cinemas this week, clearing the books ahead of the next blockbuster season.

Among the eight or nine titles is No Escape. Owen Wilson stars as a water engineer who has moved with his family to an anonymous, strife-torn Southeast Asian country. There, wherever that is, a rebellion breaks out and the family become targets as anti-foreigner sentiments boil over. Lake Bell and Pierce Brosnan also star.

There have been at least a couple controversies over this production, which had the working title of The Coup when it was being made in northern Thailand a year or so ago. One was when Wilson posed for a photo with whistle-blowing anti-government protesters. There was also a fuss over the signage in the film, which in a desperate move by the country's film minders to strip any Thai identity out of the picture, so as to not harm tourism, was written in Khmer and turned upside down. That has led to No Escape being banned in the newly emerging cinema market of Cambodia, amid rumors that it would be banned in Thailand as well. No such luck.

Critical reception has been, uh, mixed. It's by the writer-director pair of John Erick and Drew Dowdle, who previously did the found-footage thrillers Quarantine and As Above, So Below.

Thai martial-arts star Tony Jaa makes his much-anticipated debut in a Hong Kong action film with SPL 2: A Time for Consequences.

He's a tough Thai cop who has taken a job as a prison guard while he tries to raise money to pay for his sick daughter's treatment. On the job, he's assigned to watch over a prisoner (Wu Jing) who is actually a Hong Kong police officer who has gone way undercover in a relentless bid to bring down the head of a human-trafficking ring.

Louis Koo and Simon Yam also star. Cheang Pou-soi (Dog Bite Dog, Motorway) directs. This is a sequel-in-name-only to the terrific 2005 Hong Kong crime thriller SPL: Sha Po Leng, which had Donnie Yen throwing down with the formidable Sammo Hung. Wu Jing and Simon Yam were in that one too, but played different characters.

A box-office success in China, critical reception ;for SPL 2 has been fairly positive – much better than for Jaa's English-language debut Skin Trade, which I actually kinda likedSPL 2 is Thai-dubbed only with English subtitles, but still looks like fun.

Also of note in Thai cinemas this week is cult director Bruce LaBruce's offbeat romantic comedy Gerontophilia, the first release from a newly established indie distribution shingle Doo Nang Took Wan, run by Ken Thapanan Wichitrattakarn. He's a movie-loving public-relations professional who got into showbiz a few months ago when he single-handedly brought the Brazilian coming-of-age gay drama The Way He Looks to the Bangkok big screen.

But perhaps the most noteworthy release this week is The Assassin, Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first martial-arts film. After making a buzzworthy premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the best director prize, it comes to Bangkok in a prestige-focused release, screening in Mandarin with English and Thai subtitles at Apex, House, Major Ratchayothin, Major Rama III, Paragon, Quartier CineArt and SFW CentralWorld.