Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How to Win at Checkers, Blue Hour and So Be It at Berlinale

Three Thai film are featured in the Berlin International Film Festival this year. Two of them, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) and The Blue Room are world premieres, while the third is the Buddhism documentary So Be It, which makes its European premiere.

Directed by Josh Kim, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), is based on the best-selling book Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and is the coming-of-age story of brothers struggling to survive and stay together in a land plagued by social and economic inequality.

Originally called Draft Day, but presumably changed to avoid confusion with the Kevin Costner sports drama, the story involves Thailand's military conscription, in which all males turning 21 must participate in the military draft lottery. Drawing a black card grants exemption. Drawing a red card results in two years of service. When his older brother, Ek, faces the possibility of being drafted, 11-year old Oat must begin to learn to grow up and take care of himself.

Representing one possible future of Southeast Asian filmmaking in the Asean Economic Community era, the producers of Checkers hail from Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and the US. They are Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Andrew Thomas Tiernan and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

The Blue Hour (อนธการ, Onthakan) is garnering solid buzz among those in the know. Described by them as a "gay murder mystery", it's directed by Anucha Boonyawatana, an indie helmer who made his debut in 2004 with Down the River, and was in competition in Berlin in 2012 with the short Erotic Fragments No.1,2,3. Here's the synopsis:

Tam, a loner gay boy is always bullied by his friends at school. At home, his father who works in the army always beats him. His mother and brother never trust him. One day, Tam gets to know Phum, a mysterious boy on the Internet. He goes to meet him at an abandoned swimming pool. The begin their relationship which will lead Tam to commit the biggest crime of his life.

Checkers and the Blue Hour are both in the Panorama section, while the Generations program has So Be It, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's documentary about two very different boys and how Buddhism touches their lives. It's the second consecutive year for Kongdej in Berlin, who was there last year with his teen drama Tang Wong.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Vanishing Point – no, not that Vanishing Point – appears in Rotterdam's Tiger competition

Each year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam provides a good look at things to come in indie Thai cinema, and this year's big highlight is the world premiere of Vanishing Point (วานิชชิ่ง พอยท์), a new feature from video artist and indie helmer Jakrawal Nilthamrong.

Containing a car – though likely not a 1970 Dodge Challenger – and twisted wreckage, Vanishing Point is not a remake of the cult-classic car-chase drama, though like the characters in that 1971 flick, the folks in 2015's Vanishing Point are also dealing with existential crises.

It's actually a partly autobiographical picture by Jakrawal, who opens it with photos and words from Thai newspaper articles from 1983, reporting on a horrific car-train wreck that left his mother severely injured and his father permanently disabled. From there, he branches out with a fictional drama, involving various characters struggling with their beliefs.

Here's the festival synopsis:

A serious film about serious, complex issues (including a dramatic car crash), presented in a light, playful way. The film follows two very different men, each of whom changes his life in his own way. This doesn’t seem to be a direct result of the choices they make. Change can be like that.

Vanishing Point is an exercise in self-examination, even if Thai director Jakrawal Nilthamrong doesn’t appear directly in the film. It opens with images of a car crash involving Nilthamrong’s parents. Disturbing original news photos are initially used, but the director quickly switches to a fictional reconstruction at the scene of a crime, deep in a wood. We don't yet know how this shocking crime is related to the car accident. Various facts and stories are cautiously presented; the pieces of the puzzle don’t fall into place straight away.

Vanishing Point follows a young reporter who attends the reconstruction without being particularly impressed. He is against injustice, but is unable to give concrete expression to this feeling. Another storyline involves motel owner Yai, a joyless voyeur with little feeling for his family. His attempts to escape his day-to-day existence don’t really help.

The film is not sombre, however. Nilthamrong makes good use of diverting elements such as karaoke videos and popular music to develop his themes with a light touch. The question of how his parents’ accident has affected his life is a serious sidelight: how all of our actions affect the rest of our lives.

For more details, check the production PDF or Facebook. There's also a trailer. Just keep scrolling.

As usual, IFFR has a passel of Thai short films as well. Here's the line-up:

  • Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport – Sorayos Prapapan's well-travelled festival entry satirizes Thailand's foreign affairs and even film festivals like Rotterdam with a story about an elderly lady who appears in Thai indie films who gets a chance to travel overseas to a film fest.
  • Deleted – Nitas Sinwattanakul directs this 2013 short, about a man who continues to post on Facebook even after he dies, and his wife is powerless to block him.
  • Endless, Nameless – Pathompon "Mont" Tesprateep's wacky experimental short was shot on Super 8 film that was hand-processed. Yes. It's a flm made on actual film. Not sure what the heck it's about, but it won the top prize at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival.
  • Thursday – Festival regular Anocha Suwichakornpong, who got her big break in Rotterdam with her debut feature Mundane History, collaborates with Sarajevo filmmaker Sejla Kameric on a 44-minute visual dialogue that offers wordless impressions from old Europe and changing Asia.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 21 to February 1.

Songs of Rice hooping into Thai cinemas

My favorite film of 2014, The Songs of Rice (พลงของข้าว, Pleng Khong Kao), opens in a limited release in Thai cinemas on January 22.

Directed by Uruphong Raksasad and produced by Pimpaka Towira, The Songs of Rice is a joyous celebration of the often-lively (and even explosive) rites and festivities that accompany rice cultivation in Thailand. It premiered about a year ago at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it won the Fipresci Award, and made several other festival appearances. I saw it twice, at Salaya Doc and in Luang Prabang, and both times I was blown away by the film's gently building tempo and the vivid intensity of the images.

A documentary, it is the completion of a trilogy of farming films that Uruphong began with in 2005 with The Stories from the North, a collection of short stories from around his native Chiang Rai province. He followed that up with the ambitious documentary Agrarian Utopia, which followed two families growing rice by hand for a year on a small plot of land, also in Chiang Rai, way up in Thailand's North.

With The Songs of Rice, Uruphong starts out in that same location, but then moves further afield, travelling the length and breadth of the country as he documents religious ceremonies, beauty pageants, parades, communal food preparation, dancing and music. He covers the rocket festival in Yasothon in the Northeast, the buffalo races in Chonburi in the East and falls in with a travelling band of workers and their rice-harvesting spaceships in Roi Et.

Released by Extra Virgin, The Songs of Rice opens on January 22 in Bangkok's SF World Cinema at CentralWorld, and then spreads to other SF cinemas in the following weeks, hitting Chiang Mai's Maya on January 29 and Khon Kaen on February 5.

For more details, check the movie's Facebook page. There's also a trailer.

Oh, it's nothing, it's just The Isthmus

Thai cinema has started off 2015 with the release of an independent film that's been around the festival circuit for the past year or more, The Isthmus (ที่ว่างระหว่างสมุทร, Teewang Rawang Samut).

A drama, surreal comedy and road movie, the singulary strange film is about a young single mother's search for answers after her precocious little daughter starts speaking only Burmese following the death of the family's Myanmar maid.

Directed by a pair of university film-studies lecturers, Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint, The Isthmus premiered way back in 2013 in the New Currents competition at the Busan International Film Festival (Concrete Clouds, released here last year, was in the same slate) and came to Thailand courtesy of that year's edition of the World Film Festival of Bangkok.

Now it's back, with the mind-boggling new poster tagline, "A celebration of nothingness". Thing is, the clever bit of marketing places The Isthmus alongside other recent contemplative Thai indie fare, such as the enigmatic W., which generated steady social-networking buzz in its limited release at Bangkok's "boutique" cinema, House on RCA.

Similarly, The Isthmus is also at House (alongside the indie Thai documentary The Master), as well as at the venerable Lido multiplex in Siam Square.

More posters can be found around, and there's a trailer.

Meanwhile, The Nation has a story offering a bit more on the Thai films in 2015, so check that out.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Top 10 Thai films of 2014

As the military strongmen took over and began to map out the country’s future, independent Thai filmmakers soldiered on in 2014 with more of their unique stories, told in a string of documentaries and dramas. And the mainstream film studios offered their own distractions, with a handful of gems among the usual crop of cross-dressing comedies, horror and weepy melodramas. Here are the 10 Thai films I most enjoyed over the past year.

The Songs of Rice (เพลงของข้าว, Pleng Kong Kao)

What’s it about? The colorfully festive rites that accompany rice cultivation across the length and breadth of Thailand are surveyed in this documentary that screened on the festival circuit last year. I saw it twice, and it blew me away both times. In Thailand, it comes to SF cinemas on January 22.

Who directed it? Uruphong Raksasad, completing his trilogy of rural films that began in 2006 with The Songs of the North and was followed by Agrarian Utopia in 2011.

Why’s it good? A genius lensman, Uruphong continues to demonstrate his knack for astonishing viewers with amazing photography. His eye-popping images are coupled with expert editing and sound design, so the blasts of those rockets in Yasothon or the thwacks of a whip on a racing buffalo in Chon Buri are all the more vivid.

Village of Hope (วังพิกุล, Wangphikul)

What’s it about? A young man on leave from the military returns to his poor farming village and feels uneasy as he gets reacquainted with his elderly relatives and the slow pace of life.

Who directed it? Boonsong Nakphoo, an indie director who specialises in hardscrabble stories, filmed with members of his own family around his hometown of Wangphikul in Sukhothai province. Village of Hope is a sequel to his 2011 effort Poor People the Great.

Why's it good? Somboon’s films are unpretentious and compelling portraits of folks who have been surpassed by society and are out of step with the increasingly urbanized, digitized, plastic-coated modern Thailand.

Concrete Clouds (ภวังค์รัก, Phawang Rak)

What’s it about? During the 1997 financial crisis, a New York currency trader (played by Ananda Everingham) returns home to Bangkok to settle affairs after the suicide of his father. While trying to bond with his younger brother (newcomer Prawith Hansten), he also seeks to rekindle romance with an ex-girlfriend (Jansuda Parnto), a former actress having mixed success as a businesswoman. And the brother strikes up a relationship with a lonely neighbor girl (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk).

Who directed it? Lee Chatametikool, making his long-awaited feature directorial debut after having helped shape Thai indie cinema as an influential film editor for the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

Why's it good? A fantastic cast, eye-popping visuals and cool ’90s music lift Concrete Clouds, which captures the anxiety of the era with karaoke-video vignettes – super-saturated dreamy asides to the bittersweet twin romances of the screenplay.

Vengeance of the Assassin (เร็วทะลุเร็ว, Rew Talu Rew)

What’s it about? A young man (Chupong Changprung) becomes an assassin while looking for answers about the death of his parents. As he gets closer to the truth, his brother (Nathawut Boonrubsub) joins in to help.

Who directed it? Action maestro Panna Rittikrai, who died last July at age 53 of liver disease. Aside from his string of gritty action films like Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior, Panna was best known as mentor and martial-arts choreographer to Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong star Tony Jaa, who last year broke from studio Sahamongkol to strike out on his own in Hollywood with Fast and Furious 7 and in Hong Kong on SPL2.

Why's it good? The first two minutes alone are worth seeking this out. Panna pulls out all his bone-crunching stops as he has his fighters playing combat football in a burning warehouse next to a lake of gasoline.

The Swimmers (ฝากไว้..ในกายเธอ, Fak Wai Nai Guy Ther)

What’s it about? Speedo-clad high-school swimming champions Perth and Tan come into conflict over a girl, who fell to her death from a diving platform into a drained pool.

Who directed it? Sophon Sakdapisit, GTH studio’s resident scare specialist. He previously did the 2011 psycho-thriller “Laddaland” and 2008’s “Coming Soon” and had a hand in writing the hit horrors “Shutter” and “Alone”.

Why's it good? The slickly produced flick keeps viewers off kilter with a taut psychological drama that has the added horror of having a message about teen sex.


What’s it about? A brainy college freshman is thrown into the deep end of campus life when she is assigned to the faculty that was her last choice – sports – where her only friend is a slacker classmate who hopes to copy from her test papers.

Who directed it? Chonlasit Upanigkit, who made W. as his undergraduate thesis film at Silpakorn University. He had previously served as film editor on director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s indie hits Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy and 36. A jaw-dropping three hours when he turned the film in, W. was shepherded by veteran indie filmmaker Aditya Assarat, who became a producer and guided it through an editing process that trimmed an hour off. It became bankable enough to enter the Busan film fest and secure a limited run at Bangkok’s House cinema.

Why's it good? With a burbling electronica soundtrack, moody natural lighting and overall dreaminess, W. fits solidly in the realm of “contemplative cinema” or “shoegaze”, sort of like Drive, though instead of Ryan Gosling staring blankly in silence over his steering wheel, you have college girls nattering as they double up on a bicycle for a ride across campus.

The Teacher’s Diary (คิดถึงวิทยา, Kid Tueng Wittaya)

What’s it about? A man and a woman, teachers at the same rural schoolhouse, but a year apart, fall in love over their writings in a shared diary.

Who directed it? Nithiwat Tharatorn, one of six directors of 2003’s Fan Chan, the film that built the highly successful GTH studio. He went on to direct the hit romantic dramas Season’s Change and Dear Galileo.

Why's it good? Toeing a fine line between sweetness and mawkishness, the sentimental romance mostly sticks to that line thanks to a fairly tight script, top-notch technical work, a memorable location and, of course, appealing performances by two fine lead actors, Sukrit “Bie” Wisetkaew as an ex-jock teacher whose enthusiasm makes up for his lack of brains, and Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak as a bright schoolteacher whose rebellious streak lands her in the rural post.

Fin Sugoi (ฟินสุโค่ย)

What’s it about? A young woman’s boyfriend becomes jealous after she gets to be in the music video of the Japanese rock star she’s been obsessed with all her life.

Who directed it? Tanwarin Sukkhapisit followed up the critically acclaimed transgender drama It Gets Better with two well-made, solidly commercial entries this year. In addition to Fin Sugoi, Tanwarin made Threesome, an entertaining romantic comedy about a woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and starts dating a ghost.

Why's it good? A surprisingly provocative script and a fun premise gives Fin Sugoi the edge over Threesome as well as the overly formulaic GTH blockbuster rom-com I Fine … Thank You … Love You. But the highlight of Fin Sugoi was the bravura performance by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, whose portrayal of an obsessed fan was quite a departure from the usual quiet dramatic roles she lands in indie films like Concrete Clouds. She also was in a third film last year, the lesbian marriage drama 1448: Love Among Us.

Somboon (ปู่สมบรูณ์, Poo Somboon)

What’s it about? The documentary follows an elderly man as he cares for the overwhelming medical needs of his chronically ailing wife of 45 years.

Who directed it? Krisda Tipchaimeta, making his feature debut.

Why's it good? Documentaries were huge in 2014. Veteran writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee turned in his first doc, So Be It, a portrait of two boys and Buddhism; and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit did The Master, in which Kongdej and other film folk share memories about Van VDO, the infamous pirate-movie dealer. But the bittersweet Somboon, about a stand-up guy who doesn’t shirk his responsibilities, felt the most pure and poignant.

The Last Executioner (เพชฌฆาต, Petchakat)

What’s it about? The biographical drama spotlights Chavoret Jaruboon, the executioner at Bangkwang Prison, the “Bangkok Hilton”. He was the last to dispatch death-row inmates with a rifle before the switch to lethal injection.

Who directed it? Tom Waller, a Thai-Irish filmmaker who has for many years run a company that provides services to foreign movie productions. He broke into making his own indie arthouse films with 2011’s Mindfulness and Murder.

Why's it good? Chavoret struggled to reconcile his lethal duty with his Buddhist spirituality, and whether his killing in the name of justice was good or bad. Giving weight to that conflict is another excellent performance by Vithaya Pansringarm from Mindfulness and Murder and Only God Forgives, and a fine supporting cast that includes Penpak Sirikul as Chavoret’s wife and David Asavanond (Countdown) as a shadowy spirit figure. The backdrop, the inner-workings of Thailand’s prison system, is also interesting. Unfortunately, Thai audiences didn’t find the film’s morbid subject matter compelling, and The Last Executioner was largely gone from cinemas after just one week.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: W.

  • Directed by Chonlasit Upanigkit
  • Starring Patcharaporn Samosorn, Siriphan Rattanasomchok, Suttipong Klummanee
  • Limited release at House cinema in Bangkok on December 11, 2014; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating 4/5

A college student is thrown into the deep end of soul-crushing mediocrity in the enigmatically titled W., the remarkable directorial debut of young filmmaker Chonlasit Upagnit.

Neung, a brainy freshman, is captured in her first days at university, trying to get her head around the fact that she's been assigned to the faculty that was her last choice – sports – even though she's not particularly "sporty".  She's befriended by a red-haired girl, Ploy, and the two enjoy a close friendship – Ploy tries to teach Neung to swim. But it becomes apparent to Neung that the slacker Ploy is cozying up so she can sit next to Neung in classes and copy off her test papers.

It's a reality check for the naive Neung, who is talented in math and science and had hoped to get into medical school, but for some reason was denied that chance by Thailand's extremely competitive university placement system. Ploy, meanwhile, only aspires to be an aerobics instructor at a shopping mall.

Neung then moves on to a guy friend, Ton, whom she encountered on campus one night. She goes on a date or two with Ton, but then it becomes apparent he's just using her to recreate moments he had with his previous girlfriend, who he's broken-hearted for.

The friendship dramas are interspersed with lighthearted segments in which Neung, Ploy and their friends rehearse English-language speeches about themselves as part of a class assignment.

But loneliness and despair are the main themes for Neung, whose parents are estranged and no longer stay in the family home. At school, she's also mostly alone, thanks to a roommate who never moved in.

Generated out of Silpakorn University, which is also the setting, Chonlasit's film caused a bit of a sensation when word about it spread through the Thai indie community. I mean, it's pretty unusual for an undergraduate student to turn in a three-hour feature as a thesis film.

Aditya Assarat took the project under his wing during the editing process, working with the director to trim the massive drama down to a more-commercial two-hour running length.

With help from ace sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr (Wonderful Town, Headshot), they shaped W. into yet another solid entry from the Thai indie "shoegaze" movement (or contemplative cinema, if you prefer). Think Hi-So, Mundane History, Concrete Clouds or Uncle Boonmee. Like those films, W. made its initial splash on the festival circuit, world-premiering at Busan and also screening at the relaunched Singapore International Film Festival.

Of course, Chonlasit already has impeccable credentials of his own in the youth-oriented shoegaze realm, serving as editor on Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy and 36. In fact, W. is similar to Mary, but instead of Mary's punky irony there's palpable sadness. There's also a swimming pool angle that W. dwells on, which might earn it comparisons to the slickly commercial (and somewhat shoegazey) GTH thriller The Swimmers.

The burbling electronica soundtrack, moody natural lighting and overall dreaminess also reminded me a lot of Drive, though instead of Ryan Gosling staring blankly in silence over his steering wheel, you have nattering college girls Neung and Ploy riding their bicycle across campus.

Related posts:

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Monday, December 15, 2014

LPFF 2014 reviews: The Patriarch, Iskalawags, When the Rooster Crows

The Patriarch (Kabisera)

Walter White, meet your kindred amoral spirit from the Philippines. In The Patriarch (Kabisera), he's Andres, a humble fisherman who rows out to sea one morning, hears gunshots and then discovers several floating crates. Upon inspection, he finds the boxes are full of crystal methamphetamine. What to do? The best thing would be to leave them and forget about them, but then there wouldn't be a movie. So Andres hauls in his illicit catch. If he can unload the drugs, he stands to make millions of pesos, but more importantly the ex-con Andres would finally be able regain control of his family from his domineering wife, a college-bound son who is desperate to leave the nest and headstrong daughter who is ready to get married and also move out. To sell the drugs, Andres turns to his slick gangster best friend Jose (Arthur Acuña), who has a ragtag band of street-level idiots peddling the meth. A bent local cop becomes another partner in the scheme. Soon there are federal drug agents sniffing around, and there's that pesky Muslim cartel, which wants its drugs back. It's a pressure-cooker situation that's as heart-pounding as an episode of Breaking Bad. Ultimately, Andres betrays everything he believed in. Leading man Joel Torre, a veteran actor with a list of credits that makes him the Bryan Cranston of the Philippines, except more kick-ass, is amazing, and I want to seek out other stuff he's been in, such as John Sayles' Amigo or Erik Matti's hitman drama On the Job. The debut feature by Alfonso "Borgy" Torre (a nephew of the leading man), Kabisera scooped up three prizes at least year's Cinema One festival, including best director, best actor and supporting actress for Bing Pimentel as Andres' wife. The film is very, very dark, not only with its subject matter of ambiguous morality, but in terms of lighting. Many of the action scenes were so low lit, it was frustratingly hard to see what was going on. But perhaps that was a technical problem with the projector setting at the Luang Prabang Film Festival's daytime venue? (4/5)


Fun-filled and nostalgic, the childhood friendship drama Iskalawags is a lively recounting of the adventures of a club of boys in a small town on the island of Cebu. It's a partly autobiographical effort by director Keith Deligero, who appeared at the Luang Prabang Film Festival to explain he aimed to recapture the atmosphere of an outdoor movie festival he organizes in his Cebu hometown. Along with the usual shenanigans by the ragtag group of boys, they share a love for the gritty Filipino action films of the 1990s and act out their various shoot-out scenes. These are the types of movies that were popular during the Betamax era, when communities would attend outdoor screenings of the videotapes. A Cinema One entry, Iskalawags is also notable for its use of the local Cebuano dialect, making it part of the regional dialect movement in Pinoy film. Among the mysteries in this coming-of-age story is that of the boys' stern teacher, Ma'am Lina (Dionne Monsanto), whose estranged husband is ominously hanging around, trying to fix his broken motorcycle. With a crucial role to play, he's portrayed by none other than Jeric Raval, the leading man of many of the old action flicks the boys are fans of. (4/5)

Southeast Asian Cinema: When the Rooster Crows

From Thailand to the Philippines, the crowing rooster is the often-heard soundtrack of Southeast Asian films, the plucky spirit of which is captured in the documentary Southeast Asian Cinema: When the Rooster Crows. A last-minute entry to the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the documentary was a fine complement to the fest's panel talks with regional filmmaking talents and its selection of the best of Southeast Asian films. And, fittingly, it was accompanied by a soundtrack of the actual roosters and hens that live next door to the festival's daytime screening venue in an old-style wooden house on the grounds of the Hotel de la Paix, a colonial-era edifice that used to be a prison. Italian Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso, who previously did Through Korean Cinema, was inspired to look Southeast after the surprising 2009 best director win by Filipino Brillante Mendoza for Kinatay. He starts with Mendoza and then picks Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Singapore's Eric Khoo and Indonesia's Garin Nugroho. Each of the four countries are given standalone segments, which in addition to the interviews with the directors are supplemented by generous film clips – even Pen-ek's hard-to-find debut Fun Bar Karaoke is highlighted. And there is testimony from film producers, actors, crew members and film critics, among them Kong Rithdee. Pen-ek's regular cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong recalls that time when Pen-ek collaborated with lensman Christopher Doyle on two career-changing landmark features, Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves. And Pen-ek's regular sound designer Koichi Shimizu offers an added treat, plugging wires into his magic box. Electronic bleeps and bloops emanate and pretty soon it's music. For regular fans of Southeast Asian cinema, the documentary will likely offer little in the way of new information, but it's still essential viewing. Already a huge fan of Pen-ek and Mendoza, the segments on Khoo – a versatile auteur – and Nugroho were eye-openers and piqued my interest in seeking out more of their films. (4/5)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

LPFF 2014 review: Vientiane in Love

Longing for Love

  • Directed by Anysay Keola, Phanumad Disattha, Vannaphone Sitthirath, Xaisongkham Induangchanthy
  • World premiere at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, December 6, 2014
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

There's a feeling of urgency or maybe even impatience when it comes to the burgeoning Lao film industry. In the decades since the Vietnam War era, filmmaking in the Lao People's Democratic Republic was strictly for propaganda efforts under the purview of the government, but it was chronically hampered by a shortage of funding, resources and properly trained professionals.

The digital photography age has changed all that. And after decades of being pent up, commercial filmmaking in Laos is beginning. Showing an eagerness to get to work and tell their stories, the directors involved with the collective called Lao New Wave Cinema have put together the five-segment omnibus Vientiane in Love (ຮັກນີ້ທີ່ວຽງຈັນ), telling short stories about romance and relationships in Laos' capital city.

For the world premiere at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the package was led with Longing for Love (Kid Hod Kuam Hak), written and directed by Anysay Keola, a founding LNWC member who made his debut with the thriller At the Horizon.

Here, Anysay shows his knack for broad comedy and the conventions of Asian rom-coms – slide-whistle sound effects, bloody noses and all – with an amusing story of a photographer who earns his living taking pictures of couples at the city's Patuxai arch monument. One day a single young woman asks Mon to take her photo and as she comes into focus, she starts crying and says she's just out of a bad relationship. The two strike up a friendship, but the comically homely Mon has fallen hopelessly in love and thinks he has a chance for something more with the pretty red-haired girl.

Next up was I'm Fine, Thank You (Kob Jai), written and directed by Phanumad Disattha, director of LNWC's sophomore feature, the country comedy Hak Aum Lum. Just as Anysay switched gears from thriller to comedy, Phanumad goes for impressionistic drama in a story about the reunion of a rock musician (Deuk, the former guitarist of the popular band Cell) with his ex-girlfriend. They had an ugly break-up, as shown in flashback scenes, but are on friendly terms as they stroll the streets of Vientiane by night. It's a glimpse of an increasingly cosmopolitan city and its hip clubs and a reminder that I am long overdue for a visit. Skateboarders and BMX bikers cavort behind the handsome couple – he with his augered earlobes, hipster goatee, skinny jeans and Bob Marley T-shirt, and she with her high-waisted slacks, crop top and glamorous updo.

The proceedings turn dark with The Truth (Kam Tob), a neo-noir thriller that I thought for sure was directed by At the Horizon's Anysay. But, nope, it's written and directed by newcomer Vannaphone Sitthirath. The shadow-filled tale follows a businesswoman who suspects her husband is having an affair, and she sets up a situation so she can confront the girl.

I'm Fine, Thank You

Social networking enters the fray with the intriguing Update Status (Juud Lerm Ton) by Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, in which two boys sitting a coffee shop spot a schoolgirl at a table with a middle-aged American man. They post about the sighting on Facebook, and soon the girl's reputation is in tatters. Meanwhile, the girl has spotted the boys and catches one of them flexing his biceps for his friend, and she posts potentially damaging comments about him. And there's that weird expat guy, who is yammering on and on about the government, channeling Noam Chomsky as he warns of the impending "idiocracy".

Xaisongkham, also a newcomer, is one of two recipients of this year's edition of the Luang Prabang Film Festival's Lao Filmmakers Fund, which dispensed $15,000. He's working on a drama, Those Below, which addresses the deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance left by the American carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam-era "Secret War". A crowd-funding campaign was also held to boost the film's budget. The other recipient of the Lao Filmmakers Fund is Vilayphong Phongsavanh, whose at work on a short documentary on the trendy sport of freerunning, which he aims to capture using a flying drone camera.

Finally, there's a fifth segment, Against the Tide (Kuam Sook Kong Por), written by Xaisongkham and directed by Anysay and Phanumad. The story involves an elderly fisherman who is compelled to leave his Mekong River island home and move in with his daughter and son-in-law in the city. It's a segment that doesn't seem to fit with the others, and could be titled "Vientiane, I Hate You", because the old man can't stand living in the city and he feels trapped in his daughter's fancy modern home.

Of the five segments, I liked Anysay's comical Longing for Love the best, followed by The Truth. I had a hard time following I'm Fine, but Lao viewers will probably dig it for its rock-star leading man. And Update Status is as I said, intriguing, for its look at the spread of social media in the Socialist country. Against the Tide feels like another movie entirely, but is anchored by a strong performance by its lead character.

According to Anysay, plans are to release Vientiane in Love in Laos' cinema around Valentine's Day, perhaps with the order of the segments swapped in order to give viewers some more upbeat in the end.
The Truth

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

LPFF 2014 reviews: The Jungle School, Shift, Madam Phung's Last Journey

The Jungle School

If it's been awhile since you've seen a Riri Riza film, then The Jungle School (Sokola Rimba) is a great way to get reacquainted with one of Indonesia's finest auteurs. Despite the gaps in his IMDb page – the last entry was 2008 – the veteran writer, director and producer is steadily working. His latest effort, making its way around the festival circuit, is based on the true account by teacher and community activist Butet Manurung, a determined woman who brought literacy to the loincloth-clad indigenous people of Indonesia's jungles. She's portrayed by martial artist, actress and model Prisia Nasution, who'll be in the next action film by The Raid director Gareth Evans. She rides a dirtbike into the mountains and with a blackboard strapped to her back, she hikes far into the forest. Pushing herself too hard, she collapses from exhaustion but wakes up in the tribal camp where she was heading. But she is then told she was rescued by a young man from a "downstream" tribe, a group the upstreamers are wary of. Butet wants to find this mysterious downstream tribe, and she does. But she's regarded with suspicion by the tribal elders, especially a mean matriarch who believes that the teacher's pencils and words will curse the tribe. Along with that conflict, Butet also struggles against the bureaucracy of her NGO and a boss who wants her to stage her classes for the media in the easier-to-access upstream village. The coverage means more funding for the NGO, but the money isn't really helping the tribes, which are under increasing pressure from encroachment by loggers, palm-oil plantations and national park expansion. Butet perseveres and forms a  bond with the downstream tribe boy, teaching him to read. It's a skill that comes in handy when the palm-oil guys come with their cases of packaged food to trade for the tribal lands. The looks on their faces when that kid starts reading the contract to them is worth the effort of seeking this film out. A fantastic animation sequence that illustrates the tribe's mystical beliefs adds even more visual loveliness to the picture, which is clearly lensed against a beautiful jungle backdrop that also includes many close-up shots of wildlife. (4/5)


One of the highlights of the Luang Prabang Film Festival is getting to catch up with the latest of the so-called "maindie" offerings from the Philippines, which churns out dozens of low-budget films that are aimed squarely at mainstream audiences. Shift, an entry from the Cinema One festival, which commissions original digital features for competition and then holds the broadcast rights to them, is an eye-catching romantic comedy about a rebellious young woman with a shock of punk-rock maroon hair. Directed by Siege Ledesma, who makes her feature directorial debut, Shift won the Grand Prix at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Her main character is portrayed by TV talent show singer Yeng Constantino, who expresses frustration by running her hand through that crazy dyed mane. And she's frustrated a lot. Estela works in the Philippines' extremely competitive call center industry, but she'd rather be playing music or pursuing her hipster hobby of film photography. She's also under pressure at home, where her family's apartment is about to be demolished. Her folks are out of town, but they keep tabs on Estela through her tattletale younger sister. In the midst of company restructuring, Estela is assigned a mentor, a long-haired gay dude named Trevor (Felix Roco). The two quickly form a bond, and tomboyish Estela finds herself falling for the guy. Much confusion ensues over sexuality and gender roles. Fun as it is in the beginning, the energy of Shift slackens in the latter third, causing a few heads to shake in the LPFF screening. Like last year's LPFF entry, What Isn't There, which featured Felix in a cameo as a twin of the mute character portrayed by twin brother Dominic Roco, Shift looks at the trendy youth culture of the Philippines. It's a cycle away from the "poverty porn" of so many Filipino films a few years ago. At some point, I suppose there will be a shift back. (3/5)

Madam Phung's Last Journey

Making her remarkable debut feature, director Nguyen Thi Tham offers a glimpse at Vietnam's transgender culture in Madam Phung's Last Journey, following a travelling carnival troupe run by two ageing drag queens. It's a much different scene than the one I'm used to seeing in Thailand, where there is high tolerance for transgender folk and they are pretty much part of the mainstream even though discrimination does exist. It's much harsher in Vietnam, where queer and transgender culture is frowned upon by authorities. Men who dress as ladies aren't allowed to hold business licenses, and they generally aren't hired for any legitimate jobs. So the travelling carnival troupes are the only way for these marginalized people to make a living. Madam Phung's troupe travels the countryside and highlands, moving from town to town with their ragtag fair. While the veteran drag queens perform songs and sketches, pretty younger ladyboys roam the fairgrounds, flirting with the local men as they sell lottery tickets. There's kiddie rides and games of chance. One game has you guess which numbered slot a guinea pig will run into. Another attraction involves a shotgun being pointed at performers as they do skits on demand. Early in the evening, it's all good clean fun, with families taking in the entertainment. But later in the evening, after the families go home, the level of bawdiness rises and the audience is mostly drunk (and/or high) young men. Then it turns ugly. Fights break out. The police are called. The townspeople turn against the performers who entertained them, and the carnival troupe is forced to hastily pack up and get back on the road. It's a pattern that's repeated at each stop. In between, there are interviews with the colorful Madam Phung and another senior performer, who recall their hard lives as queers in Vietnam. And you get a general feel for what it's like to be in the troupe, who fill the time between performing and travelling with drinking and card games. It's a wild, rough existence. Nguyen began her project in 2009, spending years getting it together. The closeness of her subjects is palpable, and they frequently turn to the camera, feigning shyness in their padded bras and various other states of undress, and affectionately call her "little devil". Appearing at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the tough and shrewd director was tight-lipped about what her next project might be. Whatever it is, it'll be one to keep a lookout for. (4/5)

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Review: The Eyes Diary

  • Directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul
  • Starring Focus Jeerakul, Parama Im-anothai, Chonnikarn Natejui, Kittisak Pathommaburana
  • Released in Thai cinemas October 30, 2014; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Chookiat Sakveerakul makes his return to horror with The Eyes Diary (คนเห็นผี, Kon Hen Pee), which blends in elements of romantic drama with the story of a bickering couple whose constant fighting his dire consequences.

Like Chookiat's sophomore feature effort, the thriller 13 Game Sayong (13: Game of Death, remade as 13 Sins), The Eyes Diary is based on a comic book. In this case, it's a Siam Intermedia title by Anek Roikaew. No relation to the Pang brothers' Eye franchise, The Eyes Diary actually feels similar to another Thai horror film, Shutter, including references to a haunted photo and a couple other elements.

But with a fine young cast and a story that slowly builds the tension and scares, The Eyes Diary has plenty to stand on its own.

Parama Im-anothai (It Gets Better) stars as Nott, a college drop-out who works for one of Thailand's rescue squads, those notorious crews of pickup-racing bodysnatchers who retrieve corpses from wrecks and clean up after suicides. He's a somber, brooding fellow who has the macabre habit of keeping souvenirs from the bodies he finds. His latest score is a rubber bracelet off the wrist of a motorbike rider who was ripped in half by a truck and spread like jelly on the highway. His co-worker and closest pal Jon (Kittisak Pathommaburana from Chookiat's Grean Fictions and Home) tries in vain to warn Nott from keeping dead people's stuff, but Nott is stubborn.

Anyway, Nott is haunted by the death of his girlfriend Plaa (Focus Jeerakul), who was killed in a bike wreck as the two were fighting. And her last words, "you'll never see me again", haunt him. He's desperate to find a way to communicate with her on the "other side", hence his predilection for collecting curios from corpses. Eventually, Nott is put in touch with an acquaintance of his old school friends, the young woman Modta (Chonnikarn Natejui), who has also suffered a loss of a loved one but has had some success in getting in touch with them. Also, there's Jon, who seems to have a talent for communicating with the dead.

The scares gradually ramp up. There's all that creepy stuff in John's cabinets, and all the horrifying ghosts, putrefied and gross from their various causes of death.

One thing I appreciated about The Eyes Diary was how it sought to build a universe in which belief in ghosts isn't necessarily taken for granted as it is in other ghost flicks. There's a healthy dose of skepticism among the characters. Perhaps, the biggest non-believer is Nott, who despite all the dead people's junk he collects still can't manage to break through and reach Plaa.

It's a solid cast, but the highlight is the two actresses, borrowed from the GTH stock company. Focus, who made her debut as one of the child stars of Fan Chan in 2003, gives a performance that subtly shifts from sweet and vulnerable to terrifying.

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