Friday, July 1, 2016

Out to pasture

Covering Thai cinema and living in Thailand for the past decade or so has been an illuminating experience, one that I'm not sure whether I'll regret.

I started this blog when the Thai film industry was in the midst of an upswing, and was being discovered by the movie-going public around the world. After university studies in music and journalism and then a career in small-town Midwestern American newspapers, I took a sudden, prolonged sojourn to Southeast Asia. It led me to seeing Thai films, more Asian films and rediscovering film in general. This blog was a way to enter the wide world of cinema and to record my becoming acquainted with Thai and Southeast Asian film culture.

Over the years, I have seen the region's film industry go through cycles of growth and contraction. Now, as the scene enters yet another period of what will hopefully be growth, maturation and an acceptance of new and different voices, I have reached a point where I am struggling to find new things to say about it all. While Thai and Southeast Asian filmmakers will continue their struggles, for me it is time to move on, seek greener pastures and other rewarding opportunities. Although the blog will hopefully remain online, this entry will be the last.

My reasons for this move are mostly personal. If pressed for more details, I will give my official answer, which is to say I hope to spend time researching His Majesty King Bhumibol's sufficiency theories and putting them into practice.

Thanks first to the readers. Also thank you to former colleagues at The Cambodia Daily, co-workers at The Nation in Bangkok, as well as the filmmakers, festival programmers, experts, academics, critics and fellow enthusiasts who have shown me kindness and been patient with me all these years.

I hope that my devotion to you all has somehow been reflected in my writing.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Festival, festival (and awards)! Here be dragons for The Forest; Heart Attack and Grace in NYAFF

The Forest producer David Cluck cradles the Golden Dragon.

The Forest, the new thriller from Paul Spurrier, the Bangkok-based British filmmaker who makes Thai films, is continuing to tour the festival circuit, and recently won an award at the Ferrara Film Festival in Italy.

Producer David Cluck was in Ferrara, and he picked up the Golden Dragon Award for Best Director for Spurrier. The attractive trophy now occupies a newly installed shelf in Spurrier's Friese-Greene Club in Bangkok. Perhaps more shelves for more trophies will be put up.

You can find out more about the award on the the Facebook page for The Forest.

Meanwhile, Spurrier says he's submitted the film to the Thai Culture Ministry's ratings/censorship process and awaits word of whether he'll be able to show The Forest in the country where it was made.

And now some news about one of my favorite film festivals that I've never been to – the New York Asian Film Festival. After recent years of programming not so terribly much in the way of Southeast Asian films, the NYAFF has loaded up with a decent selection from the region, including two Thai films, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's Heart Attack (known in Thailand as Freelance .. Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More, ฟรีแลนซ์.. ห้ามป่วย ห้ามพัก ห้ามรักหมอ) and Grace, which was released in January as Awasarn Loke Suay (อวสานโลกสวย).

Heart Attack – that's Nawapol's original and preferred title – is the multi-award-winning comedy-drama about a freelance graphic artist who works too hard and comes down with a rash. He's treated by a young female internist at a public hospital. She is working through her own issues.

A sprawling piece of quirk, Heart Attack humorously comments on many, many aspects of Thai society, and is wholly a Nawapol indie joint, just with the addition of marquee-name stars and marketing muscle from the studio GTH, which broke up toward the end of last year and then reformed (minus one partner) as GDH 559. They will be back in action shortly with a new slate of films.

Grace, an indie effort that was released by Kantana Motion Pictures is a pulpy exploitation story of an Internet idol, played with gusto by Thai indie-film darling Apinya Sakuljareonsuk. She turns murderous when her status as the Thailand's Top Net Idol is threatened by young upstarts. Two versions were supposedly released in Thai cinemas, one as an 18+ that anybody could see and another with the restrictive 20- rating, which you're supposed to show an I.D. to see. I saw the 20- one and I guess it must have really freaked me out, because I never got around to writing a review.

Saipan Apinya, a fierce, hard-working young actress whose break-out role was in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy, will put in an appearance at the NYAFF, which runs until July 9, so ask her questions if you dare.

The festival trailer is embedded below.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Extra Virgin unlocks indies with Distance, Rice Trilogy and Island Funeral

Extra Virgin, the indie production and distribution shingle run by producer-director Pimpaka Towira, has a new initiative with SF cinemas in Thailand, Unlock Indies, a film series that opened last week with the multi-country co-production Distance.

Others in the series will be The Rice Trilogy by Uruphong Raksasad and Pimpaka's own latest feature, The Island Funeral
The films are being released in a very limited run. Don't blink, or you will miss them. For example, Distance was initially released at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld and SFX Cinema Central Rama 9 in Bangkok, and at SFX Maya Chiang Mai. Today, it's down to just one screening a day at CentralWorld.

Next week, the program changes to what's now known as Uruphong's Rice Trilogy, with Stories from the North, Agrarian Utopia and The Songs of Rice (เพลงของข้าว, Pleng Khong Kao) taking turns on the big screen. They are among my favorites, and I hope he makes more films like these.

And on July 21, Pimpaka will release her own film, The Island Funeral (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน, Maha Samut Lae Susaan), which premiered last year in Tokyo and has been on a tear around the world, screening in places like Seattle, Aichi and Valetta and winning awards in Tokyo and Hong Kong. The Island Funeral will also be shown at the Singapore Festival of the Arts.

Meanwhile, Distance is an ambitious project headed up by Singaporean director Anthony Chen, winner of the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his 2013 debut drama Ilo Ilo. He gets help from Thai producer Aditya Assarat, who also wrote one of the segments.

With Distance, Chen and Assarat pay tribute to their Taiwanese and Chinese cinema influences and rounded up three young-buck award-winning Asian directors to do the job. They are Tan Shijie from Singapore, Xin Yukun from China and Sivaroj Kongsakul from Thailand. Each take a crack at directing Taiwanese actor Chen Bo-lin in segments that explore the notion of "distance" and what it means in our societies.

Friday, June 17, 2016

I gave FilmDoo a whirl

Finally, we can forget about DVDs. Streaming video is the future for independent films from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, with new online platforms popping up to offer hard-to-find movies online.

Among the new companies is FilmDoo, a U.K.-based video-on-demand (VOD) startup that was launched at the Cannes Film Festival.

I recently gave FilmDoo's "bespoke" platform a try, and found it worked just great on the laptop. I imagine it would also work fine on a Smart TV, with a laptop connected, either through a cable into the HDMI port or with something like Chromecast. FilmDoo didn't work so well on my tablet, nor on the Smart TV web browser.

Anyway, the company was co-founded by a Thai, Weerada Sucharitkul and Briton William Page. Most of the company's offerings are availlable only in the U.K. and Ireland, but they recently released a few titles for worldwide consumption. They are:

  • The Last Executioner
  • The Second Life of Thieves
  • I Carried You Home
  • Ghost of Mae Nak
  • Mindfulness and Murder
  • Butterfly Man
  • Boundary
  • Vientiane in Love
  • Psiko: Pencuri Hati
  • At the Horizon

And three titles are available for streaming on FilmDoo exclusively in Thailand:

  • Patong Girl
  • Soi Cowboy
  • The Elephant King

The selection includes the bulk of the back-catalog of producer-director Tom Waller and his Bangkok-based De Warrenne Pictures, with Thai indies Boundary and I Carried You Home rounding out the Thai slate.

Further Southeast Asian offerings come from Lao New Wave Cinema with At the Horizon and Vientiane in Love, plus two from Malaysia.

There is further information about FilmDoo in an article in The Nation.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cannes premiere set for Santi-Vina, a film misplaced for 60 years

A scene from Santi-Vina, via the Film Archive (Public Organization) Thailand.

Long considered an unattainable "Holy Grail" of Thai cinema, the 1954 romantic drama Santi-Vina (สันติ -วีณา) was once lost. But really, it was there all the time, hidden away in mislabeled cans at the British Film Institute archives.

Now accounted for, the film, directed by Thavi "Kru Marut" na Bangchang with a screenplay by Vichit Kounavudhi and cinematography by pioneering auteur R.D. Pestonji, will get a new premiere at the Cannes Film Festival tomorrow (May 19) as part of the Cannes Classics program.

Having undergone a complete digital restoration, Santi-Vina is the only Thai film officially selected to this year's edition of the prestigious festival.

Added to Thailand's national registry of historic films in 2014, Santi-Vina is significant because it was the first Thai film to be shot on 35mm color with sound. It was also the first Thai film to win an award at an overseas film festival, taking away three prizes at the 1954 Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo. There was a kerfuffle when Pestonji returned from the festival, and had to pay customs duties on the camera he was awarded as a prize. Also, authorities fined the filmmakers for showing the film overseas without first passing through censors.

Nonetheless, it was shown in Bangkok that same year, according to various accounts. But from there the film's path into the collective pop-culture consciousness becomes sketchy.

No one today seems to know exactly why or how Santi-Vina went missing. Or maybe they do know, but can't say. Anyway, archivists searched for decades, and had pretty much given up hope. But the film was there, somewhere in England, just sitting and waiting to be rediscovered.

A recent Bangkok Post article had more details:

"In the early 2000s there were clues, but none was substantial. When Rank Laboratory in the UK sent us back several Thai films marooned in their lab, Santi-Vina wasn't among them. We checked with British Film Institute [BFI] too because they kept so many films, but they didn't find it. So we thought it had been lost forever," says Chalida [Uabumrungjit, deputy director of Thailand's Film Archive (Public Organisation)].

But then luck struck. In 2011, a film critic and student in London, Alongkot Duangmai, was browsing through the BFI library when he accidentally found the title Santi-Vina. Then followed a flurry of communication between the Thai Film Archive and BFI, which eventually found the sound negatives of the film, but no picture. More digging revealed that BFI had also kept the picture negatives, though they were misplaced with the wrong registration number and misspelled title, thus making it untraceable in the beginning. Against all odds, Santi-Vina came into existence again.

There will hopefully be a screening or screenings of Santi-Vina in Thailand in the not-too-distant future. Keep an eye on the Film Archive's Facebook page for those developments. In the meantime, feast eyes on the trailer, embedded below.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

In Thai cinemas: Embracing Khemarat, Keep Scala petition

Three loosely connected stories of romance take place in Embracing Khemarat (อ้อมกอดเขมราฐ, Aom-Kod-Khemarat), set in an idyllic small town in Ubon Ratchathani on the banks of the Mekong.

They involve a young female physician who is posted to the local hospital and runs into cute conflict with the owner of a local coffee shop. Other stories have a young Lao immigrant woman who falls for a photographer and a "nerdy girl" who has attracted the eye of a quiet and shy schoolboy rock musician.

Among the stars are Miss Thailand 2009 runner-up Kobkullaya Chuengprasertsri, who is an actual physician. Other stars are "Fluke" Teerapat Lohanan, "Palmy" Nantariya Namboon, "Tao" Phusin Warinrak, "Nong" Puttason Seedawan and "Golf" Anuwat Chucherdwattana.

The film is written and produced by Dr Ritt Pokkrittayahariboon, a surgeon and businessman who settled in Khemarat and wanted to make a movie to promote the town and its attractions. The Nation had a bit more about it.

Apart from a new Thai movie, there is also news about an old Bangkok cinema – the Scala.

Despite the threat of imminent closure by landlord Chulalongkorn University, the leaseholder and the theater's management remain devoted to the profession of showing films. Recently, the Scala installed a new screen because the old one was showing its age and was long past due for an upgrade. The result is a much clearer and brighter picture that makes going to movies at the Scala well worth your while. It is the best value in movie-going in Bangkok. Please support the Scala while it exists, which will hopefully be through 2017 and into 2018.

Meanwhile, general Thai public awareness of the Scala's plight is finally starting to emerge, perhaps too little, too late. There was a Nation editorial this week, and there is also a Thai-language petition that asks Chula U. to "keep Scala" open and recognize that its unique cultural and architectural values outweigh the supposed economic benefits of building yet another shopping mall in a city already saturated by shopping malls.

Along with Captain America: Civil War, which is held over at the Scala for a third week, newer movies in local cinemas include the Oscar-nominated Colombian adventure Embrace of the Serpent; which is brought in by indie distribution outfit HAL Film. There is also The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Angry Birds Movie and the great Sammo Hung in The Bodyguard. More new releases are detailed on the other blog.

The Scala marquee on opening day for Captain America: Civil War, April 27, 2016. Photo by Wise Kwai.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Buppha Arigato

  • Written and directed by Yuthlert Sippapak
  • Starring Supassara Thanachat, Charlie Potjes, Chalermpon Thikampornteerawong, Yok Teeranitayatarn, Aphichan Chaleumchainuwong, Thana Wityasuranan, Triwarat Chutiwatkhachorachai, Navin Yavapolkul
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 5, 2016; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Yuthlert Sippapak is one of the Thai film industry's more distinctive and prolific directors. His signature move is to throw all kinds of ideas into the blender and then somehow assemble them as mostly coherent films that I have more or less enjoyed over the years.

After a bit of a hiatus, he's back at it with Buppha Arigato (บุปผาอาริกาโตะ, a.k.a. Buppha Rahtree: A Haunting in Japan).

Not only does it blend the horror, comedy and romantic-drama genres, it's also an Asian cultural mix, with a blood-and-slapstick story about a Thai musician and a film crew visiting a winter resort in Japan, where they are haunted by Japanese-style ghosts as well as the ghost of a spurned young Thai woman. I also couldn't help but feel a bit of John Carpenter vibe, with perhaps a nod to Halloween.

Additionally, it is trading on a combination of well-known Thai movies, tying in with Yuthlert's own Buppha Rahtree franchise of ghost comedy-horrors and the hit 2003 film Fan Chan (แฟนฉัน, a.k.a. My Girl). The bulk of the cast are the boys from Fan Chan, all grown up, including that film's lead actor Charlie Potjes along with the schoolyard bully, Chalermpon "Jack" Thikampornteerawong. It's the first time all the guys have been reunited onscreen since they were children.

The story follows the familiar template of the Buppha Rahtree films, which dealt with the ghost of a vengeful heartbroken young woman haunting an apartment building, and mined comedy from the colorful procession of police, priests and shamans who are recruited to perform exorcisms.

Buppha Arigato changes things up by having the action take place in a rental lodge at a picturesque Japanese ski resort. And instead of one ghost, there are several. The most lethal is a knife-wielding mother and her creepy little boy, spirits of a family who stayed in the house years before but could not pay their rent.

Meanwhile, there's a young Thai woman named Buppha who comes to the resort on a solo trip to mend her broken heart. Seems she caught her boyfriend having sex with another woman. Somehow, she has passed away but her soul is hanging on at the lodge, and is drawn to Charlie and his crew because Charlie looks a bit like her cheating ex.

The lodge's shady landlord, a Thai expat portrayed by "Tar" Navin Yavapolkul, is aware of his property's status as a haunted house, and he has various clergymen brought in to get rid of the bad spirits. Among the bumbling exorcists is a Thai Buddhist monk who is hung over after having too much beer and a sake bomb the night before. His saffron robe is accessorized by expensive sunglasses and a designer handbag, reflecting an actual controversy about a jet-setting monk in Thai religious society. Later, a Thai Hindu priest takes a crack at the spirits. Neither are successful at much except getting plenty of laughs.

So it's up to Charlie, Jack and the rest of the gang to solve the mystery of why the ghosts are haunting the place.

It's a chance for the former child actor Charlie to stretch his dramatic chops, and to show his talent as an indie singer-songwriter. He gets an extended scene during the closing credits, with a stylishly shot close up of just him, his tenor voice and acoustic guitar.

Jack, now a ubiquitous TV personality and commercial pitchman, gets to play director, heading up the film unit that is comprised of other four other now-grown child actors from Fan Chan, namely Yok Teeranitayatarn, Aphichan Chaleumchainuwong, Thana Wityasuranan, Triwarat Chutiwatkhachorachai.

There is a passing of the torch, with former Buppha Ratree actress "Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak putting in a cameo in a limbo dream sequence, and offering guidance to new-face actress Supassara Thanachat, who takes over the role.

But the real hero of Buppha Arigato is of course Yuthlert's long-time collaborator, actor and veteran film-industry hand Adirek "Uncle" Watleela, again playing a police officer as he has throughout the franchise, and in other films. Here, he's a Japanese cop, but helpfully speaks Thai, and he comes up with an unusual way of defeating the ghosts, involving the use of an umbrella and the Thai military's infamous divining-rod-like GT-200 "bomb detector".

Also, all the guys are required to strip down to their tighty-whitie underwear briefs, so at least these young emperors have a shred of dignity.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bangkok Asean Film Festival review: Manila in the Claws of Light, Bitcoins Heist

The titan of Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka, always focused on the unfairly exploited working class. His gripping 1975 picture, Manila in the Claws of the Light (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag) is the pulpy story of a young man from a fishing village, who comes to the cruel metropolis to track down his ex-girlfriend Ligaya. She was lured away by a pig-woman, with promises of working in a factory and furthering her education. Yeah, right. We all know how that goes.

In rough-and-tumble Manila, he's zeroed in, locating her likely whereabouts to a certain shophouse on Misericordia Street, which he watches like a hawk.

To support his stalking efforts, Julio takes jobs in construction, and, um, other fields.

Much of the film deals with the hardships of big-city construction work, where laborers push wheelbarrows, shovel gravel, haul on ropes and die. They are building the flashy concrete high-rises that inundate the metropolitan skyline. Later, he's laid off from the construction job, and drifts into the sex trade, which Brocka depicts with flamboyantly entertaining flair.

More than a few folks in the classic film's one-off screening at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival were murmuring about how Julio, played by still-steady-working actor Bembol Roco, looked just like Thai action star Tony Jaa. So it turned into an exercise of folks imagining what it would be like if Tony mostly ditched the flying double-knee-drops and just did dramatic acting. Where, indeed, is my elephant?

Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light is a marvel. And Martin Scorsese was well aware of the film's power. He supported efforts to have a 4K digital restoration done. One of the cinematographers, Mike de Leon, cast his eyes on the laborious wet-scanning process, and shepherded through the color-grading effort, making sure all the grit, grime and blood clearly and vividly pop off the screen with no muss and no fuss. It is Taxi Driver. It is Mean Streets. And it kicks the butts of both those films. (5/5)

Speaking of kicking butts, there's Vietnamese action cinema, which has rapidly grown and matured since the early 2000s arrival of many U.S.-schooled Vietnamese returnees who grew up watching Spielberg movies and working in Hollywood. They jump-started Vietnam's commercial film industry and make solidly mainstream box-office hits in all the crowd-pleasing genres.

Among them is Ham Tran, who made his breakthrough in 2007 with the post-American War drama Journey from the Fall. Since then, he's become solidly involved in the Ho Chi Minh City film industry, racking up a dozen or so credits as editor, including the action films The Rebel and Clash.

Adding writer and director to his name, his latest effort is Bitcoins Heist (Siêu Trộm), an action-comedy-romance that is basically the Vietnamese Ocean's Eleven, with perhaps a bit of Now You See Me tossed in.

So darn slick, I kept sliding out of my seat, Bitcoins Heist enjoyably hits the usual and expected beats of the heist flick, with team assembly, double crosses, triple crosses and sleight of hand.

The attractive and colorful cast is toplined by actresses, chiefly Kate Nhung from Tran's Hollow as Dada, Vietnam's top cyber-crime cop. She is in pursuit of Ghost, a cyber-criminal who remotely takes over people's laptops and demands ransom in bitcoins or else the device will be bricked.

An early attempt at capturing Ghost's accountant Phuc (Thanh Pham) does not go well, and Dada has to turn in her badge and gun. Ngô Thanh Vân, the action heroine from The Rebel and Clash is featured in early scenes as a sexy, tough-as-nails bodyguard to the accountant.

Now working an undercover, off-the-books operation, Dada assembles a team of con-artists, starting with a former boyfriend, the pickpocketing sleight-of-hand specialist Magic Jack (no, it's Jack Magique, he insists), played by the irrepressible Petey Majik, whose acting credits include Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.

There's a veteran jewel thief and career criminal, played by long-time Ham Tran hand Jayvee Mai The Hiep. He is assisted in thievery by his precocious acrobatic pre-teen daughter (Lam Thanh My).

And, of course, they need a hacker, a plucky young woman whose tech-savvy brother was severely wounded in the film's opening sequence, when the action tumbled into a mobile-phone repair shop. She's Vi, played by freestyling rapper Suboi, who has cyberpunk attitude to spare.

Bitcoins Heist is a welcome genre diversion from the preponderance of Southeast Asian arthouse-focused indie dramas that tend to be programmed at film festivals. It was the Vietnamese entry in the Bangkok Asean Film Festival, running April 22 to 26 at CentralWorld, with movies from all 10 countries of the Asean bloc. Even Brunei was there with the unusual female-focused martial-arts drama Yasmine. Add in the "Asean Classic" selection of three films that included Manila in the Claws of Light, there was something for everyone, and Bitcoins Heist was one for me. (4/5)

See also:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Restored Santi-Veena to screen in Cannes Classics

Turns out there will be a Thai film at this year's Cannes Film Festival after all.

It will be the newly restored Thai romantic drama Santi-Veena (สันติ -วีณา) from 1954. It's part of the just announced Cannes Classics line-up.

Historically, Santi-Veena was the first Thai film to screen in an overseas festival. Directed by Tawee "Kru Marut" na Bangchang with a screenplay by Vichit Kounavudhi and cinematography by Ratt Pestonji, it won three prizes at the 1954 Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo.

Ratt, the pioneering auteur of Thai cinema, won best cinematography and was awarded a Mitchell film camera at the festival. As the story goes, upon his return to Thailand, Ratt was charged $5,000 for the camera by customs officials, and filmmakers were fined 1,000 baht for failing the clear the film with censors. The camera is now the centerpiece of an exhibit with a figure of Pestonji at the Thai Film Museum in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom.

A remake was made in the 1970s. And for decades, it was assumed the original Santi-Veena was lost. But Archive officials always kept their eyes out. Here's more from the Cannes festival website:

The original material of this film was considered lost. In 2014 the original material was found in the British Film Institute as well as the release print in the China Film Archive and at the Gosfilmofond in Russia. A 4K scan and restoration was carried out from the original camera and sound negatives found at the BFI. The restoration work was carried out at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.

The original Santi-Veena was added to the National Film Heritage Registry in 2014.

It will screen at Cannes in a program that also includes the world premiere of the documentary Voyage à travers le cinéma français by Bertrand Tavernier, a masterclass by William Friedkin, "a cross tribute to Raymond Depardon and Frederic Wiseman" and "Nine documentaries about cinema", including the HBO Documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

Other restored classics will include Howards End, Marlon Brando's One Eyed Jacks, Tarkovski's Solyaris and Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum.

Review: Take Me Home

  • Directed by Kongkiat Komesiri
  • Starring Mario Maurer, Wannarote Sonthichai, Noppachai Jayanama
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 13, 2016; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5 

The weird culture of Thai high society – entitled families whose perfect, luxurious existences are insulated from the ordinary working-class world – have long been the subject of the often off-putting and alienating films of ML Bhandevanov Devakula, the blue-blooded director of stage and screen who is better known as "Mom Noi" and is revered in the industry as the acting coach to most of Thailand's movie and TV stars.

With the new horror Take Me Home (สุขสันต์วันกลับบ้าน, Suksan Wan Klab Baan), Mom Noi's painterly, stagebound hi-so sensibilities are merged with indie grit, and the combination is surprisingly potent and enjoyable.

Mom Noi, who directed a string of lavish romantic dramas in the 1980s and '90s and then had a resurgence in recent years with a series of new adaptations of classic Thai novels that had been made into movies long before, is billed as a consultant on Take Me Home.

The thriller notably stars big-name talent Mario Maurer, who came under Mom Noi's tutelage in the dramatist's unique Thai take on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, U mong pa meung, which was titled for the U.S. market as At the Gate of the Ghost. Mario then took the lead in Mom Noi's insanely epic two-part reworking of the erotic tale Jan Dara, which was all about bizarrely flawed rich folks and their oh-so-problematic lives.

But the driving force of Take Me Home is Kongkiat Komesiri, a writer-director who has helmed three very fine films, all slick-but-scuzzy crime dramas, 2007's Muay Thai Chaiya, 2009's Slice and 2012's Antapal.

Take Me Home is being touted as Kongkiat's "first horror", though his previous films, Slice especially, had horror elements, and he did take part in the "Ronin Team" collective effort behind the Five Star Production torture thrillers Art of the Devil.

Kongkiat came up with the story for Take Me Home and got help on the screenplay from Piyaluck Mahatanasab and the industry's go-to script surgeon Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Piyaluck is also the producer, whose indie shingle North Star was among the imprints on Kongdej's critically hailed post-coup drama Snap, last year.

Mario portrays a young man who was in a coma around 10 years ago. He woke up with no recollection of his life except his name was Tan. While working as an orderly in the hospital's morgue, he's spookily led to clues about his family, and decides to investigate further. "Once you leave here, you can never return," is the administrator's prophetic warning he should've heeded.

The family estate is a modern architectural masterpiece. And he is warmly greeted at the gate by the family's doting maid Waew (Napapha Sukrit), who immediately recognizes him. Singing a soothingly unsettling Thai song, she gives him a lift in a golf cart to the main building, a stunning structure ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. Inside, the welcome is as cold as all the tile, glass and stainless steel. A pair of horseplaying small children take no heed of Tan. The man of the house is the upright, sweater-clad snob Cheewin (Noppachai Jayanama), who has no clue who Tan is. Cheewin's wife, it turns out, is Tan's beautiful twin sister (Wannarote Sonthichai) Tubtim, whom Tan seems to barely recognize. And Cheewin states flatly that Tubtim never mentioned she had a twin brother.

So right away, nothing is adding up. And therein lies the suspense, as the reality of the house, Tan's family and their tortured history are gradually revealed. Seems Tan's and Tubtim's father was a respected architect who committed suicide. He had bought the house for a song years before, but the former owner felt betrayed. So there's much bad karma in the structure, along with all the right angles and spiral staircases. Tan is trapped, and has to live what appears to be a hellish, Groundhog Day-type existence, repeating fruitless escape attempts over and over.

Mario, the boyish Thai-Chinese-German actor whose career was launched with 2007's Love of Siam, gives what is perhaps his strongest (and sweatiest) performance yet. Noppachai is sure and steady in a supporting role. TV star Wannarote chews up her scenes as the increasingly unstable Tubtim.

With Mom's Noi's hidebound art-museum tendencies kept at arm's length, Kongkiat heads a production that vividly transforms the gleaming white modern home into a moldering, creaking haunted house. It's a welcome, worthy effort from one of the industry's more distinctive writer-directors.

In the meantime, Kongkiat has another feature in the works, the big-budget historical action epic Khun Phan, which stars Ananda Everingham as a policeman in the 1930s who is in pursuit of a roving bandit played by Krissada Sukosol Terrence. The picture, long since in the can, has been on Sahamongkol's release calendar for the past couple of years or so but has remained mysteriously in the vaults. Reportedly, Kongkiat is in the midst of reworking Khun Phan and updating the visual effects.

See also: