Thursday, February 11, 2016

In Thai cinemas: Luk Thung Signature and the return of The Act of Killing

Star-studded stories unfold to the toe-tapping beat of Thai country songs in Luk Thung Signature (ลูกทุ่ง ซิกเนเจอร์, a.k.a. Love Beat), a sprawling musical drama by producer-director Prachya Pinkaew. Best known for directing the Tony Jaa martial-arts dramas Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong, Prachya has long wanted to make a luk thung musical.

Featuring 13 songs, the stories include a brooding business executive (Krissada Sukosol Clapp) who is searching for the cleaning lady he heard singing while he was in the toilet. She's played by Rungrat Mengphanit, a singer who is best known as "Khai Mook The Voice", thanks to her winning appearance on a Thai TV talent show.

Another story centers on a washed-up overweight pop singer (singer-actor Chalitit "Ben" Tantiwut) who finds new popularity when he puts on a glittering rhinestone suit and switches to luk thung.

Other stars include The Voice Thailand Season 1 winner Tanon Jamroen as well as Siraphan Wattanajinda, Chaiyathat Lampoon, Sombat Metanee and Pitsamai Wilaisak, Sumet Ong-art, Su Boonliang and luk thung songwriter Sala Khunawut.

Read more about it in a story in The Nation.

Also in cinemas is a revival run for the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, which has the perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s re-enacting their gruesome deeds in often self-aggrandizing fashion, in scenes from their favorite types of movies – westerns, film-noir mysteries and lavishly staged musical numbers.

The Act of Killing rubbed me the wrong way when I saw it in a one-off special screening in Bangkok a few years ago. I felt it let those colorful politicians and military figures mostly off the hook for their wave of politically motivated killings in 1965-66. But it was part of a one-two punch by director Joshua Oppenheimer and his "anonymous" team of filmmakers, who followed up the The Act of Killing with the powerful and essential counter-punch, The Look of Silence, which focused on one gentle survivor's personal search for truth and justice.

Brought back by the Documentary Club, this is the 159-minute "director's cut" of The Act of Killing. It won many awards, including the European Film Award for Best Documentary and the Asia Pacific Screen Award. It was also a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Act of Killing opens this week, and the must-see followup The Look of Silence is released next Thursday. There's a special screening of both films from 6pm on Saturday in an event put together by the Documentary Club and Film Kawan, an academic group that specializes in Southeast Asian films. It's at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.

Apart from that special screening, regular venues for The Act of Killing are SF World, SFX Central Rama 9, SFX Central Lad Phrao and SFX Maya Chiang Mai. For further details, check the Documentary Club Facebook page or SF Cinemas booking site

Departing first-run cinemas after of two-week run is Khon Muay Kab Rak Thee Taektaang (ฅนมวยกับรักที่แตกต่าง, a.k.a. Boxing in Love), in which former childhood sweethearts – traditional dancer Roong and boxer Yord – are reacquainted years later in Bangkok, where Yord gets mixed up with mobsters and is tasked with going undercover in a police sting. Roengsak Misiri and Kriangsak Phinthutrasi direct.

Other new movies this week include Deadpool and Carol. There's more details on the other blog.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Festival, festival! Island in Rotterdam and Goteborg, General in Berlin, plus Motel and Executioner

One of the cleaner scenes I can use from Motel Mist.

Pimpaka Towira is on a victory lap of the festival circuit, following her Asian Future Award win at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year, with her latest feature The Island Funeral  (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน, Maha Samut Lae Susaan).

She’s joined the seasonal migration of Thai indie filmmakers, who each winter fly to such frigid northern cities as Rotterdam, Berlin and Goteborg, Sweden, where they are mated with funding, awards and critical acclaim. They then return to Thailand, where they further propagate the species.

In addition to the Bright Future section at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Pimpaka will show The Island Funeral in Goteborg, where it is in competition for the Ingmar Bergman International Debut Award. Like Tokyo’s Asian Future Award, the Bergman prize is for filmmakers making their first or second feature, and Island Funeral, which is Pimpaka’s second drama film and has been eight years in the making, definitely qualifies. The Goteborg fest runs until February 8.

Starring Actors’ Studio-trained Heen Sasithorn, The Island Funeral is a road movie, covering the journey of a young Bangkok woman and her friends into the heart of Thailand’s restive Deep South.

Pimpaka might also be on the road to the Berlin International Film Festival, where to prove she has enough love in her heart to spread around, she has Prelude to the General, a short that that is spun from one of her many spinning plates, a work-in-progress feature called The General’s Secret (Kam Lub Khong Nai Phol), which she offered at the Thai Pitch in Cannes in 2013.

Perhaps she’ll stop by the Berlinale Talents Campus, where she’s a 2005 alumnae, and run into a few young filmmakers who look up to her as a mentor, including Thai indie director Sorayos “Minimal” Prapapan and Korean-American director Josh Kim, who broke into the Thai film industry last year with his debut feature How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), which garnered much acclaim when it premiered in Berlin last year. The Berlin fest runs from February 11 to 21.

Back in Rotterdam, Thai producer-director Anocha Suwichakornpong has arrived after a flight delayed by a psychotic passenger and a dented aircraft door kept her on the ground overnight in Warsaw. She’s there to be part of the jury for the Hivos Tiger Awards, of which she’s a past winner, for “Mundane History” in 2010. Rotterdam has been most kind to Thai films in past years, with other winners being Aditya Assarat with Wonderful Town in 2008, Sivaroj Kongsakul with Eternity in 2011 and Jakrawal Nilthamrong's Vanishing Point last year.

Among the entries to gander at this year will be Motel Mist, the debut feature of Prabda Yoon. A SEA Write Award-winning novelist, Prabda is best known in the movie world as the screenwriter of Pen-ek Ratanruang’s trippy 2003 classic Last Life in the Universe. His Motel Mist appears to be another existential freak-out, luridly taking place in the rooms of the Motel Mistress, an alien-looking love motel in Bangkok.

Motel Mist was a film born out of a mixture of inspiration and frustration, but it was completed with great trust and support from a group of talented and devoted lovers of the cinematic art,” Prabda says in a press release from Thai film distributor Mosquito Films. “The film is about ‘otherness’ and ‘dislocation’ but the experience of making it has ironically given me the sense of acceptance and belonging. It’s been a very delightful and meaningful exercise.”

And if that’s not enough wonderful Thai weirdness for Rotterdam festival-goers, they can feast eyes on Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 3, a short film by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai that blends denim, drones and body paint. A crocodile is in the mix as well.

There's another Thai film in Rotterdam as well, but I will refrain from naming it.

In other festival news, director Tom Waller is continuing to win awards with his 2014 feature The Last Executioner, a biopic of Thai prison guard and executioner Chavoret Jaruboon. At the Dhaka International Film Festival recently, Waller was awarded Best Director, while Executioner leading man Vithaya Pansringarm shared the Best Actor prize with Iraqi’s Mahmoud Abu Abbas, who won for Samt Al Rai (Silence of the Shepherd), a slow-burn thriller by Raad Moshatat.

The Last Executioner was notably snubbed for the Thai film industry’s Subhanahongsa Awards last year, but won screenplay and best picture in the Surasawadee Awards, the long-running movie honors that’s also known as the Tukata Tong or Golden Doll Awards.

There is much more to report on the festival scene. Please be patient while I slowly catch up.

(Cross-published in The Nation; print only)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Festival, festival! Forgotten masters in Vesoul

Rarely shown classic Thai films, some that were believed to be lost, will be shown in next month's International Film Festival of Asian Cinema in Vesoul, France.

Among those nearly-lost masterpieces in the festival’s "Forgotten Masters of Thai Cinema" is the so-called Citizen I (Thongpoon Khopko Rasadorn Temkan), MC Chatrichalerm Yukol’s 1977 drama about a poor taxi driver from Isaan struggling to retrieve his stolen cab from Bangkok thugs. It’s been compared to the Italian classic The Bicycle Thieves, and it spawned a sequel, Citizen II, which is more commonly in circulation, thanks to a home-video release in Thailand. The newly restored version of Citizen I will make its world premiere in Vesoul.

Programmed by Bastian Meiresonne, who was assisted in tracking down his titles by the Thai Film Archive and some studios, particularly Five Star Production, the "Forgotten Masters" range from 1940’s anti-war historical epic King of the White Elephant (พระเจ้าช้างเผือก, Prajao Changpeuk), produced by statesman Pridi Banonmyong, up to Wisit Sasanatieng’s 2000 homage to 1970s Thai action films, Tears of the Black Tiger (ฟ้าทะลายโจร, Fah Talai Jone).

Both those films, as well as Citizen I and many others, are listed in the Thai Culture Ministry’s Registry of Films as National Heritage.

Others at Vesoul include 1957’s rollicking comedy Country Hotel (โรงแรมนรก, Rong Raem Narok), by pioneering auteur RD Pestonji and Permpol Choei-arun’s Muang Nai Mhok (เมืองในหมอก, a.k.a. A Town in Fog), a taut 1978 drama loosely based on Albert Camus’ The Misunderstanding.

Permpol’s 1978 followup, the drama Pai Daeng (ไผ่แดง , a.k.a. Red Bamboo), about a monk in conflict with his communist childhood friend, will also screen, along with another socialist-leaning tale, 1981’s On the Fringes of Society (ประชาชนนอก) by Manop Udomdej.

Celebrated auteur Cherd Songsri will be represented by his gender equality story from the Rama IV era, 1994’s Amdaeng Muen Kab Nai Rid (อำแดงเหมือนกับนายริด, a.k.a. Muen and Rid), and writer-director Vichit Kounavudhi will have his 1982 rural drama Luk Isaan (ลูกอีสาน , a.k.a. Son of the Northeast).

And among the directors in focus is Euthana Mukdasanit, who will be part of the international jury. His films include the at-one-time-banned 1977 socialist drama Tongpan (ทองปาน), his 1985 Deep South childhood tale Butterfly and Flowers (ผีเสื้อและดอกไม้, Peesua lae dokmai) and the rarely seen 1978 musical romance Angel of Bar 21.

Others taking part in the festival will be South Korean director Im Sang-soo as jury president and Thai producer Donsaron Kovitvanitcha on the Netpac jury. Thai Film Archive deputy director Sanchai Chotirosseranee will also be on hand.

The Vesoul International Festival of Asian Cinema runs from February 3 to 10.

Stayed tuned for another "Festival festival!" entry on the newer films making the rounds in places like Rotterdam and Berlin.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

In Thai cinemas: Awasarn Loke Suay, Krasue Kreung Khon

The year in Thai cinema commences with Awasarn Loke Suay (อวสานโลกสวย), a teen-oriented psychological drama from Kantana Motion Pictures.

Apinya Sakuljaroensuk stars as a faded Internet idol who becomes upset at being unseated by a new schoolgirl star (Napasasi Surawan). She decides to teach the naive upstart a lesson in cruelty. Pun Homcheun and Onusa Donsawai direct, adapting a short film of the same name.

In a gimmick to gin up publicity, there are two versions – rated 18+ and the “uncut” 20-

And there's another Thai film to start 2016 – veteran actor-director Bin Banluerit's horror-comedy
Krasue Kreung Khon (กระสือครึ่งคน) – which has a jungle tribe of dwarfs being terrorized by the notorious krasue, the female ghost of Southeast Asian folklore that’s a floating vampiric head and entrails. It's a mainstream release, from Sahamongkol.

New releases in Thai cinemas this week include the Oscar-nominated 45 Years from upstart indie distributor HAL Film, which made its debut last year with the release of the offbeat foreign indies White God and The Tribe. And, oddly, the Documentary Club is releasing a dramatic feature, that iPhone movie", Tangerine. Shows the possibilities for doc filmmaking, I suppose.

Upcoming events to mention include the Bangkok Art and Culture Center's Cinema Diverse: Directors' Choice series, which wraps up on February 6 with a screening of the Chilean drama No hosted by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand's most-celebrated filmmaker. He and film critic Kong Rithdee will talk about the movie afterward, with translation in English. Registration opens at 4.30pm with seating on a first-come, first-served basis.

Still more events this year include the Goethe-Institut and Thai Film Archive's Wim Wenders Retrospective, which will include Wings of Desire outdoors at Lumpini Park in February and a 3D screening of Pina at the Archive in March. There's also the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in March, the Archive's travelling Memories fest in April, the Silent Film Festival of Thailand in June and the Thai Short Film and Video Festival in August.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top 10 Thai films of 2015

Zombies shuffled, independent films delighted and a favorite studio released two more winning entries before closing up shop, helping to make 2015 another memorable year for Thai cinema. Here, mostly in the order viewed, are some of the best Thai movies I saw in Bangkok cinemas last year.

Phi Ha Ayodhaya (The Black Death)

Just as my interest in Thai film had hit an all-time low, MR Chalermchatri “Adam” Yukol reinvigorated my passion with Phi Ha Ayodhaya, the first honest-to-goodness Thai zombie film.

Made with the same props and costumes as the “Suriyothai” and “Naresuan” historical epics of his father MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, Adam’s “Phi Ha Ayodhaya” was set in 1565 and covered what’s possibly the first historical instance of zombies. As the dead come shambling from the battlefields with a hunger for brains, a disparate band of survivors hole up in a brothel and fight back.

With plenty of cartoonish action and a decent helping of cinematic gore, the familiar tropes of George Romero’s “Dead” franchise mixed with the stately pageantry of “Naresuan” and “Pantai Norasingh” to create something refreshing.

Y/our Music

Indie filmmakers David Reeve and Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every begged and borrowed cameras as they shot their documentary over the course of several years, during which they explored the divide between urban and rural folk and examined contrasting Thai music scenes – mostly-unheard-of indie musicians in Bangkok and almost forgotten country stars in the Northeast.

I got to see Y/our Music twice, and both times the film demonstrated its power to move usually reserved Thai movie audiences into spontaneous applause, as if it were a live concert.

P’Chai My Hero a.k.a. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

Korean-American director Josh Kim brought much-needed fresh perspective to the scene with his debut feature, a sweet, multi-layered comedy-drama about an 11-year-old boy and his relationship with his openly gay teenage older brother.

At the heart of the story is the Thai military’s unusual lottery-drawing draft, which Kim had previously dealt with in his short documentary Draft Day, covering transgender draftees. Checkers is adapted from the short stories of noted Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and adds more observations about the class divide. It was one of two major Thai premieres at the Berlin fest and Thailand’s official submission to the Academy Awards.

Freelance .. Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More (Heart Attack)

Exploited workers and the rickety state of public-health services become unlikely sources of comedy in indie filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s directorial debut with the big studio GTH.

He had previously made the abstract romance 36 and wrote screenplays for the hit GTH films Bangkok Traffic Love Story and Top Secret. Nawapol’s quirky deadpan indie style was burnished with the backing of GTH, which provided its bankable stars, leading man Sunny Suwanamethanon as a freelance graphic artist who pushes himself too hard and gets sick, and Davika Hoorne as the lonely young overworked doctor who treats him.

Subverting the “feel good” style of most GTH films, Freelance turned out to be one of the two last films from that company, which broke up at the end of the year. Freelance now provides one possible template for the reformed company, GDH 559, to follow.

Onthakan (The Blue Hour)

Representing the best that Thailand’s burgeoning indie gay cinema movement has to offer, Anucha Boonyawatana directed this remarkable thriller about a bullied gay teenage boy who arranges to meet another young guy. From their initial rough coupling in a forbidden place, their relationship leads to even darker territory.

The other major Thai premiere at Berlin last year, The Blue Hour had a foreboding atmosphere and electrifying performances from the young lead actors, Atthaphan Poonsawas and Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang.

May Nhai .. Fai Raeng Fer (May Who?)

The final film made by GTH before it broke up and then reformed as GDH 559 is more in keeping with the youth-focused slate of films from that company, with its story about a high-school girl with a weird condition that causes her to generate a powerful electrical charge.

The sophomore feature from Chayanop Boonpakob, who followed up his 2011 rock ’n’ roll romance SuckSeed, May Who? was highlighted by a domineering performance by Sutatta Udomsilp as the electrically afflicted teen. Full of positive energy, the picture was further polished with manga-inspired animated sequences, giving May Who? the colorful feel of a comic book.

Vanishing Point

The lives of two men in the midst of existential crises converge in Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s arthouse drama, which won the Hivos Tiger Award at the Rotterdam fest.

Bringing Vanishing Point to Bangkok, Jakrawal chose a rundown porn cinema in Klong Toey for the Thai premiere, creating a visceral connection between our sin-filled realm and the world of the movie, which had things to say about materialism, merit-seeking and willful self-deception. Quietly released in a handful of mall multiplexes, Vanishing Point had much more to say about Buddhism than did another Buddhist-themed drama Arpatti, which created controversy with its trailer showing a novice monk nearly kissing a girl. The film was briefly banned before the filmmakers trimmed the scenes that offended censors and clergymen.

Runpee (Senior)

The year just kept getting better with the unexpected return of New Thai Cinema Movement leader Wisit Sasanatieng, who came back after a five-year hiatus with Runpee, a teen horror comedy released by M-Thirtynine.

Similar to May Nhai, Runpee also had a strong young superpowered heroine. Played by Ploychompoo Jannine Weigel, she’s a Catholic schoolgirl who has the ability to smell ghosts, and teams up with a boy ghost to solve a 50-year-old murder.

It has all the hallmarks of Wisit’s earlier works, including Fah Talai Jone and Pen Choo Kub Pee, with spooky Gothic settings and inventively stylish (and funny) horror sequences.


More fresh perspective came from Rooth Tang, a US-educated Thai-American filmmaker, making his feature debut with a story about dysfunctional romances in three cities.

Sway was filmed over the course of several years, starting in 2010 in Bangkok with Ananda Everingham and Sajee Apiwong as a couple trying to figure things out.

Subsequent segments filmed in Los Angeles and Paris provide a look at the developing style of a new filmmaker, whose cultural views about East vs West are coincidentally similar to other Western-educated Thai filmmakers, particularly Aditya Assarat and Lee Chatametikool.


Another New Thai Cinema figure, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, combines quietly snarky commentary on social-media oversharing with anxiety about the junta in this contemporary romance, which is still playing in Bangkok cinemas following its premiere in competition at Tokyo.

The multi-layered story is about a young woman who spends her days plugged into social media, sharing her heavily filtered and hashtagged photos of everything. But the realities of life come crashing down as she attends the wedding of old friends, reconnects with her high-school boyfriend and has second thoughts about marrying her current beau, a junior Army officer. And it’s all taking place under the cover of martial law.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Netflix comes to Thailand

I choose GoodFellas as a test and got recommendations based on that.

Netflix, the popular U.S.-based video-on-demand service, made the surprise announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in the Las Vegas yesterday that it had added 130 countries to its roster overnight, including Thailand.

Plans are 280 baht per month for standard service, which gives you one screen in non-HD format; 350 baht with HD and the ability to stream on two devices and 420 baht for Ultra HD on four devices.

With the Netflix app automatically appearing in my smart TV's menu, I went with the standard plan and it looks fine.

The Netflix Thailand selection appears extremely limited, compared to the U.S. version. For example, there are no Thai films that I can find, presumably because the rights to Thai films are already tied up by other broadcasters in Thailand.

There are also no Thai subtitles, and all the menus are in English, a fact that has to have a lot of expats in Thailand feeling smug.

The popular Netflix series House of Cards is not available yet in Thailand, again likely due to the territorial rights to House of Cards being held by someone else. So no FU for me and you, for now.

There are several other decent series to choose from. For example, the Netflix series Marvel's Jessica Jones is there, as is Daredevil. And Better Call Saul is there. I recommend that. And Gotham.

After staring at the menu for far too long, I picked GoodFellas, and was pleased to find there was none of the type of censorship you see on Thai television, with the blurring of cigarettes, liquor bottles and guns. Also, no bleeping censorship of language. The content. so far as I've seen, appears as it was intended.

Anyway, I took the service for a spin late last night, and live-tweeted the event at both my regular wisekwai twitter and my new TVKwai twitter. Read on for more about my first Netflix experience.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Insects in the Backyard still banned

Back after the holidays and following up on news from the end of the year, it turns out that Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's Insects in the Backyard is still banned, according to news reports of a court ruling issued on Christmas Day.

In a ruling issued on December 25, the Administrative Court held that the ban on Insects is legitimate due to scenes that shows sex organs and intercourse.

“The Court said Insects in the Backyard has a scene showing sexual intercourse for around three seconds,which it deemed to be against good morals,” Tanwarin's lawyer Yingcheep Atchanont was quoted as saying by Khao Sod English.

If that scene is cut, Tanwarin could likely show the film, if it were rated 20-, the court suggested, according Khao Sod English.

The court's ruling backtracks on earlier reports that seemed to indicate that the ban might be overturned. However, those reports were based on one judge's opinion, issued independently "to balance the opinion of the panel of judges adjudicating it", according to the Bangkok Post.

So, I imagine, the landmark legal battle against censorship will continue. Tanwarin, meanwhile, is at work on her next project, more of which will be revealed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Pantai Norasingh, Snap continues

Before his name become synonymous with a brand of shrimp paste, Pantai Norasingh was known as a man who kept his word.

As the story goes, Singh was an oarsman on the royal barge of King Sanpetch, "the Tiger king", during the Ayutthaya Period.

One day, while steering in the fierce river current, Singh lost control and the boat slammed into a tree, breaking the bow. The penalty was death. No ifs, ands or buts.

The king, witnessing that the barge crash was obviously an accident and not wanting to lose one of his best, most loyal men, objected. However, the dutiful oarsman insisted that no exception be made, otherwise, he reasoned, public respect for the law and the crown would be undermined.

He was executed, and the king paid tribute to him by having a shrine ritually installed in the bow of the royal barge.

Veteran director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol presents this story in Pantai Norasingh (พันท้ายนรสิงห์), as the latest in his long line of historical epics on Ayutthaya Period royals, which started in 2003 with Suriyothai and continued with the recently wrapped-up six-part Legend of King Naresuan series.

Filmed at Chatrichalerm's Prommitr Studio in Kanchanaburi, Pantai Norasingh has all the hallmarks of his earlier productions, with lavish period costumes, palatial sets and all the right props, including an entire fleet of replica royal barges. It's all presented in clear, high-definition photography.

In addition to using the same sets and costumes as the Naresuan films (as well as the zombie movie Phi Ha Ayodhaya), there's also some of the same cast, with Naresuan himself, Royal Thai Army Lt-Colonel Wanchana Sawasdee, portraying the Tiger King. Pongsakorn "Toey" Mettarikanon portrays the dutiful sailor.

The story of Pantai Norasingh has been presented in film and television before. One version was made in the 1940s by Chatrichalerm's grandfather, and had pioneering Thai auteur R.D. Pestonji running the camera.

According to Soopsip in The Nation, Chatrichalerm had originally intended his Pantai Norasingh to be broadcast on television, but when he and the station could not agree on the best time to show the series, he took it back and re-edited it into the feature we now have before us.

Meanwhile, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's Snap (แค่..ได้คิดถึง, Kae .. Dai Kit Tung) is continuing its nightly sneak preview run before adding daytime shows tomorrow in a wider release. I've already reviewed it, and I think it's one of the best Thai films of the year. More on that in the next week or so.

Further new releases this week are detailed at the Bangkok Cinema Scene.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: Halfworlds

  • Directed by Joko Anwar
  • Starring Salvita Decorte, Nathan Hartono, Bront Palarae, Aimee Saras, Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Arifin Putra, Reza Rahadian, Adinia Wirasti
  • Series premiere November 29, 2015 on HBO Asia. Season 1 finale January 10, 2016

Southeast Asia's monster mythology and ancient spiritual beliefs are vividly drawn upon in the HBO Asia Original Production Halfworlds, which began airing its first season on HBO in Asia last month.

With all eight half-hour episodes directed by Indonesia’s leading filmmaker Joko Anwar, Halfworlds is set in the shadowy back alleys of Jakarta, where there exists a parallel world of ancient blade-wielding tattooed demons. Known as demits, they pose as humans, live alongside us and feed on our blood. Just as our own world appears on the brink of uncertainty, the realm of the demits is also at a crossroads, with a supernatural event known as “the Gift” fast approaching, and causing much anxiety.

It’s the most ambitious production for Singapore-based HBO Asia and its partner studio facilities just across the Strait, on Indonesia’s Batam Island. There, in a complex of soundstages carved out of a malarial mangrove, is where they made the adventure movie Dead Mine in 2012, the Australian-co-produced series Serangoon Road in 2012 and last year’s supernatural family drama Grace.

Halfworlds is their best yet, judging from the first two episodes HBO Asia provided for reviews.

And that’s thanks to Anwar, who co-wrote the series with Collin Chang. The director of a cult-hit, critically acclaimed string of film-noir-inspired thrillers, such as Dead Time: Kala (2007) and The Forbidden Door (2009), Anwar has an uncanny knack for combining moody lighting, highly saturated colors, comic-book-style framing and richly imagined characters in compelling ways.

At the center of the story is a young street artist named Sarah (newcomer Salvita Decorte). Like young Bruce Wayne in the Batman comics, Sarah’s destiny started when her parents were murdered. Unlike Wayne, Sarah is not rich. She has no butler nor a mansion. She squats in a flat but has a wealth of friends, including her tattoo-artist best pal Pinung (Aimee Saras) and young indie rocker boyfriend Coki (Nathan Hartono). They gather in a watering hole known as The Moth.

Sarah has been understandably haunted by her parents’ deaths, as reflected by the disturbing and graphic images that are alongside the tourist sketches in her portfolio. Like any other crime procedural, she has a “murder wall” of her drawings. Among the monsters she’s illustrated is the palasik, a female demon consisting of a floating head and entrails, similar to a well-known Thai ghoul, the krasue. There are also various figures lurking in the shadows, keeping an eye on Sarah, who they believe to be the “chosen one”, and this gives her a feeling of unease.

It’s those darker figures who make Halfworlds utterly watchable, and it helps that HBO Asia has tapped into Indonesia’s most-trusted film export, the smash-hit martial-arts franchise The Raid, to help complete that world. Among them are The Raid 2 alums Arifin Putra as a mysteriously handsome fellow in a hood who is dogging Sarah, and Alex Abbad as another troublemaking demit figure.

Other characters include veteran Malaysian actor Bronte Paralae as Detective Gusti, a weary lawman who has made the demits his personal beat. His intentions are unclear, as he appears to be under the thumb of demit head honcho Juragan (Anwar film vet Ario Bayu). There’s a killer female demon (Adinia Wirasti) with a cool bloody scene every episode. And Reza Rahadian and Tara Basro are a colorful demit couple.

Rahadian in particular has a stand-out sequence when he and his ladyfriend find a victim in a bar. He puts their mark at ease by posing as a nerd, with shaky voice, glasses, a turtleneck and scruffy beard to complete the look. As he lets the other guy steal his woman, Rahadian slowly sheds his quietly unassuming persona and plunges his blade into the guy. Soon, shots of blood are served up all around.

The action is among the highlights, even though it’s not on the scale of The Raid (after all, this is HBO Asia, not Game of Thrones). Among the stand-out scenes is a guy getting sliced in half. And there’s a cool fight in a men’s room, where the electric hand dryer blows a demon’s shirt, revealing his family tattoo. A knock-down-drag-out results in smashed bathroom fixtures and a load of red painting the walls.

Further eye candy is provided by a graphic-novel opening sequence, which is different each episode and furthers illustrates the mythical world of the demits.

While Halfworlds is a cult hit waiting to happen, just how this HBO Asia series will translate in other territories is unclear. Director Anwar offers one view, with a funny scene of a foreigner hipster getting a tattoo in Pinung’s parlor. Seems he made unwanted advances on the pretty tattoo artist and she decided to teach him a lesson in Bahasa Indonesia.

“I can’t wait to show my friends back home,” he says as he checks out the newly inked script between his shoulderblades.

“Nasi goreng,” the tattoo reads. “Fried rice,” reads the subtitle.

See also:

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Snap

  • Written and directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee
  • Starring Waruntorn Paonil, Toni Rakkaen
  • Sneak preview run in Thai cinemas December 24-30, 2015; wider release December 31, 2015; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Millennials wake up and smell life – unfiltered – in Snap (แค่..ได้คิดถึง, Kae .. Dai Kit Tung), a sharply observed romantic comedy-drama from writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee.

Laden with the hashtags and color-saturated photos of social-media posts, Snap has young Thais reflecting wistfully on the not-so-distant past as pessimism emerges about their impending adulthood, and, possibly, about the future of Thailand itself.

Set just as the military declared martial law last year, Snap is the story of Pueng (delicate singer-actress Waruntorn Paonil in her feature debut), the daughter of an army colonel who is set to marry a junior officer. She is one of those people whose only joy is derived from photographing everything with her phone – the coffee she’s about to drink, the food she’s about to eat, the nature vista she’s just seen – and post the snapshot to Facebook and Instagram, all heavy with descriptive nonsense hashtags.

Before her own big day, Pueng accepts an invitation from high-school friends to attend their wedding in her former hometown of Chanthaburi. There, she’s reunited with her old classmates, including her ex-boyfriend Boy (the quietly intense Toni Rakkaen), a local photographer who happens to also be shooting the wedding.

Melancholy wells up as Pueng revisits her old high school and goes looking for the bench where she and Boy spent their days. The dusty old wooden seat, still with the graffiti markings on it, has been relegated to the school’s rooftop, and no longer holds any significance to the current crop of kids.

Turns out there is little of Pueng left for Chanthaburi locals to remember either, as she left rather abruptly some years before, thanks to a sudden transfer of her military father. As a consequence, Pueng’s picture has been left out of her high-school yearbook, but her presence is still felt by the inclusion of dotted-line-bordered blank spaces in group photos. A second dotted-line figure also appears in many photos, that of Boy, who as the yearbook photographer was behind the lens and not in the frame. They are ghosts in the photos, and those blank spaces represent holes in their souls. Pueng and Boy wonder if those holes can still be filled.

Here, Kongdej is also trafficking in nostalgia for the old film-photography days, and the tactile feeling of developing the rolls of negatives and making the prints. It’s a subject previously referenced in fellow Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s abstract 36. There is also comment on the ridiculously epic proportions wedding-photo shoots have taken on in recent years, something Nawapol observed earlier this year in his Freelance (Heart Attack). Seems there is something on the minds of Thailand’s great movie makers.

The wedding couple are the a-dork-able bespectacled nerds Poo (Soifa Saenkhamkon) and her man Aey (Chakphet Goontong), who met on an online dating site. Poo tells the hair-curling story of their sex-filled first meeting, and rather than flash back to it, Kongdej lets the impact of their coupling register on the faces of Pueng and others.

Pueng, meanwhile, tells the group how she met her husband-to-be, the army officer Mann (Grisana Punpeng), who was her teacher at university, and they didn’t exactly hit it off at first. But Mann kept turning up, and really, he’s a sweet guy even if he's a bit clueless. He goes so far as to ask Boy to photograph his and Pueng’s wedding. Which probably isn’t the best idea. I mean, just look at Pueng and Boy, who seem drawn together like characters out of a manga novel. The connection between Pueng and Mann, on the other hand, appears strained.

Later on, Pueng wants to test the waters of her past relationship with Boy, and the two meet for a late-night reunion at Chanthaburi’s Kung Kraben Aquarium, where the swirls of ocean life and the bubbling water provide a dramatic backdrop for reminiscing.

“How come nothing is as good as it used to be?” That’s the utterance of the frustrated and profoundly depressed Pueng when the gravity of her situation – her own marriage, the junta, the pointlessness of sharing so many darn photos – hits her.

I can’t recall a Kongdej film, especially those of his late “indie” period, that’s looked better, thanks to director of photography MR Umpornpol Yugala, production designer Rasiguet Sookkarn and art director Manop Chaengsawang. In contrast to the movie’s sad, beautiful heroine, the look of Snap is cheery, colorful and pops right off the screen.

Snap is also possibly the most poignant and also the most ordinary film yet from Kongdej. His usual stock-in-trade has been unusual characters, such as a young woman running a smut magazine in Sayew, a taxi driver in love with a massage-parlour girl in Midnight My Love and the three-armed man on a road trip with a large-breasted woman in Handle Me With Care. The writer-director turned away from studio-driven projects to make smaller independent films with his 2011 feature P-047, which was perhaps his most unusual film to date, with an abstract story of a locksmith who loses the key to his identity. But he’s since become more grounded, covering Bangkok boys on the fringes in the drama Tang Wong and boys in Buddhist temples in his documentary So Be It. Fatherhood has had an effect (he made a short documentary, Udon, featuring his brilliant twin daughters) and Kongdej is viewing the world in ways that aren’t the same as before.

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 (Cross-published in The Nation)