Saturday, July 31, 2004

Ong-Bak in Taiwan

Tony Jaa, in a promotion for his movie Ong Bak, gave Taiwanese reporters a glimpse of his awesome Thai martial arts powers, according to the Taipei Times. He somersaulted into the press conference and then practiced kicks at a 2m-tall colleague. It was all done so quickly the photographers present had to ask him to do it again, and again.

"I don't smoke, drink or have sex. I don't touch anything that's bad for the body. The most important thing for me is Thai boxing," the 28 year-old actor said. "The sacrifice is worth it."

Jaa has returned to Thailand to shoot the mega-budgeted Tom Yum Goong, a story about saving an elephant from being abducted.

Bangkok's new arthouse

House is open. Bangkok's new arthouse theater is located on trendy Royal City Avenue, or RCA.

Off the beaten path for foreign visitors and residents of Bangkok, RCA is hub of activity for young, wealthy Thais. But the new theater, if it continues to offer decent films that won't be screened anywhere else in the Kingdom, or even Southeast Asia, will likely be an attraction for film lovers of all ages and nationalities.

It's hard to get there, mainly because of Bangkok's gridlocked traffic. It's made easier by Bangkok's new subway. Getting off at the subway's Phetchburi station, exit at Gate 1. Behind that gate is the intersection for Kampengphet 7 Road, which parallels busy Phetchburi Road. Walk across that intersection and hail a taxi on that side of the road. It's a five-minute ride vs a sweaty 25-minute walk. If you decide to hoof it, RCA is about a 20-minute walk to your left as you exit the station. Once at RCA, the theater is on the right in the UMG RCA cineplex. House is located on the third floor. Admission is 100 baht.

Inside the theater is a coffee shop, some books and magazines to browse and a DVD stall. It's the kind of place you could easily spend an afternoon watching movies, talking about films with friends and getting wired on strong cafe Americanos.

When you've gotten your fill of film, there's plenty of other stuff to at RCA, including an indoor go-kart park. There's also tons of trendy restaurants and bars that late at night become filled with the hip, slick and cool. Or, you can get a motorcycle taxi to take you back to the subway station.

The opening weekend program is the Coen Bros' The Ladykillers and The Barbarian Invasions. Upcoming features include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Story of the Weeping Camel.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Bang Rajan at a theater near you

Bang Rajan: The Legend of the Village Warriors (presented by Oliver Stone) gets its US release in August. It's a re-edited version. Director Thanit Jitnukul, producer Adirek "Uncle" Wataleela and other bigwigs will be on hand in Los Angeles for the premiere.

Ken Ywin's Unedited Cuts column in The Nation (sorry, no link right now), offers the screening schedule for a theater near you:
  • August 6 to 26 – Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles, California
  • August 27 to September 2 – Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • August 27 to September 2 – Century Cinemas, Chicago, Illinois
  • September 3 to 9 – Midtown Cinemas 8, Atlanta, Georgia
  • September 3 to 9 – Tivoli Theatre St Louis, Missouri
  • September 3 to 9 – E-Street Cinema Washington, DC
  • September 17 to 23 – Seven Gables Seattle, Washington
  • October 1 to 21 – Starz Film Centre Denver, Colorado
That kicks ass. I'll be in the St. Louis or Chicago areas during those times, so I hope to finally see this film with subtitles.

The saucy Aussie

Cinematographer Chris Doyle likes a beer -- and the perfect shot, says The Times of the UK.

"I think I work better when I walk out of the bar and on to the set," Doyle told The Times. "But you do tend to fall asleep in the middle of a shot if you’re not careful. I mean, there have been moments when I saw the beginning of the shot and I saw the end of the shot, and I have no idea what happened in between."

Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who worked with the hard-drinking Australian on Last Life in the Universe, a sumptuously shot black comedy, confirms that the shoot was fuelled by "dozens and dozens of Heinekens.

"Chris was never 'drunk' on set, though," Ratanaruang said. "He drinks all the time but that’s his diet. I don’t know if he does his best work drunk or not, but the stuff he shot with me when he was 100 per cent sober didn’t work."

In recent years Doyle has worked with more mainstream western directors, including Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence), Barry Levinson (Diner) and Gus Van Sant (Psycho). But his most striking work remains in Asian cinema, from the poetic splendour of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic Hero to the rich, shadowy grandeur he lends as "visual consultant" on Andrew Lau’s and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong gangster trilogy Infernal Affairs, the second chapter of which is opening in London.

"People say, ‘You changed the genre’," Doyle smiles. "I say yes, that’s because I don’t know what the hell the genre’s about! I never see those kind of films, like Infernal Affairs. I fall asleep if I do. Same with Hero, I don’t see martial arts films."

Doyle calls himself a “good whore” who occasionally submits to “missionary position” jobs like Hero. But most directors who work with him would disagree. "Chris is someone I couldn’t control," says Ratanaruang. "It was impossible, and that was great. Chris is great because he doesn’t give a shit about a 'career'.

"He is more like a traveller — unusual places, unusual people, unusual spaces give him energy. If he continues like this for four or five years he’ll be totally bankrupt."

Doyle has also staged art exhibitions in London and Berlin, published a photography book and even directed his own debut feature film, the impressionistic Away With Words, in 1999. Having just completed a marathon session on Wong Kar Wai’s time-jumping epic 2046, his future work schedule is already full.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Born to Fight previews

I just caught the previews for Born to Fight, the new film by Ong-Bak action director Panna Rittikrai. I'm pumped. It stars various Thai national athletes. There's a young female muaythai star who looks pretty fierce. Even fiercer is a female taekwondo star. There's also a top tawkraw player. Tawkraw, for those who aren't aware of this Asian sport, is a combination of soccer and volleyball. It's played with a 9'' wicker ball, with the players kicking it back and forth over a net. So there's a few shots in the preview of the guy doing backflips as his feet kick pomelos (very large, deadly citrus fruits) out of trees and at the head of the bad guys.

The film opens in Thai theaters on August 5.

The Nation has also recently done an article on Panna and the new film. He talks about working with Ong-Bak star Tony Jaa. For seven years Panna had worked with Jaa to go past the obsolete kung fu moves and create a new style. And Ong Bak was exactly what he was waiting for.

"I cried when I watched Nang Nak being screened to a full house and dreamed that Ong Bak would do the same. When it came true I cried again,” Panna told The Nation.

With Jaa going on to hopefully greater fame (as well as an Ong-Bak sequel, Tom Yum Goong), the star of Born to Fight is a young fella named Choopong Changprung, who attended the same college as him and Jaa.

The story is about some Thai athletes who become caught up in a squabble on the border. They have to fight not just for themselves but for their country. Apart from Choopong, Panna cast champions like Olympic gold medallist boxer Somluck Kumsing, hotshot football player Piyapong Pew-on and Sepak Takraw striker Suebsak Pansueb; gymnast Amornthep Waewsang. There's also the female taekwando champion, a member of the national rugby team, a junior female Muay Thai champion and a 70-year-old martial arts guru.

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee recently did some nice stories (sorry, link expired) on Panna.

A veteran stuntman, the 43-year-old Panna has been making B-movies for years.

"You've probably never heard of my movies," Panna told the Post. "They are popular among taxi drivers and som tam vendors and security guards and Isaan coolies. My loyalest fans are folk people in the far-out [villages], where they lay out mattresses on the ground and drink moonshine whisky while watching my outdoor movies."

Panna admitted that most of his movies are crap, made to scrape up just enough money to invest in the next one, in real indie filmmaking style.

"My inspirations, above all, were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee," says Panna. "The James Bond movies also made me wonder how the stuntmen did what they did."

Born to Fight is actually a remake of his first film, made decades ago for around $12,000.

In one scene in the new film, two men, standing on the roofs of two speeding trucks, are fighting frantically when one of them falls. He lands on the ground as one of the trucks giant wheels rolls past his head, missing him by mere centimetres. No fear. No hesitation. No computer retouch. [This is in the preview and it looks dangerous as hell.]

"It's not violence I'm showing. It's amazement," he told the Post. "We'd rehearsed that scene for probably a year before we shot it. We calculated the guy's weight -- he couldn't be too big or too small. We projected how he'd bounce off the truck once he fell. We looked at every possibility. We knew we couldn't afford a single mistake.

The new film, he says "is totally different from Ong-Bak. "In Ong-Bak we show off the spectacular martial arts moves. In Kerd Ma Lui, it's all death-defying stunt works. This time I just went berserk and throw all the crazy stuff in!"

Born to Fight tells the story of a hodgepodge of national athletes who make a trip to donate money to a poor mountainous village. While there, a gang of villains strikes the villagers, and the bare-handed athletes are forced to use their athletic skills to combat the gun-wielding bad guys.

"My idea is that if we can train regular actors to do a stunt, why can't we use athletes, who already possess great athletic abilities, to do something even more exciting?" Panna told the Post. "Athletes represent the patriotic sentiments of the audience, and in this film, patriotism and harmony are the main themes."

Golden Network Asia, a sales agent representing Kerd Ma Lui, has reported strong interest from foreign distributors in the film due to Panna's reputation from Ong-Bak. With the frenzy of the upcoming Olympics, the director hopes that his movie about gifted athletes going on a fighting rampage would cash in on the wave.

"The action is raw, but with a bigger production I think I can take it to the next level," says Panna.

Beautiful Boxer awarded at Outfest

Outfest, which ran from July 8-19 in Los Angeles, featured Ekachai Uekrongtham's Beautiful Boxer. According to Indiewire the film "was a particular standout".

Telling the true story of Nong Toom, one of the most famous kickboxers in Thai history, the film follows his surgical transformation into the woman he always knew he was, and the unlikely cult hero he ultimately becomes. Beautiful Boxer won the special programming award for emerging talent at the festival."

More information:

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Thai actress honored at Korean fest

The Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival was held last week in Korea, and featured, among films from Korea and other countries, the Thai romantic comedy, Suicide Me, starring Nat Wattanapat. She won the best actress prize at the fest.

In its eighth year, the festival, also known as PiFan, was held for 10 days in seven locations in Puchon, Kyonggi Province. The festival features sci-fi, fantasy and horror films from Korea and abroad. A total of 261 short and feature films from 32 countries were presented.

Casting calls from Hub Ho Hin

Bangkok-based film company Hub Ho Hin is seeking three Thai-speaking Westerners for the upcoming film, Muang Rae (Mining Town), as well as 40 extras with southern Thai looks, according to the Phuket Gazette.

Shooting on Phuket island is scheduled to begin in early October. From the title, I'm assuming the film will be an action-drama of some sort and reflect that tourist resort's heritage as a tin-mining outpost.

Hub Ho Hin had also planned to shoot the upcoming comedy Jaew (Operation Maid), starring Pornchita “Benz” na Songkhla, in Phuket, but the company has decided to movie production to Chiang Mai so it can highlight the Northern Capital, the Gazette said.

Jarunee "Maew" Boonsake, second assistant director on the movie, was quoted as saying: "The director, Yongyuth Thongkongtoon, has decided to shoot in Chiang Mai because we need Songkran festival scenes set there.

"The movie will be released worldwide, so the director wants to show Songkran in Chiang Mai as a way to show [the world] Thai culture.

"We apologize to the people in Phuket who have applied for parts as extras. However, we will forward their files to Jarupas "Jib" Padmasiri, the casting director of the movie Muang Rae."

Interested actors may contact Khun Jib at (01) 8026702 (66 1 802 6702 outside Thailand) or by e-mail at

Friday, July 23, 2004

Review: Goodman Town

  • Directed by Sakchai Sribonnam.
  • Starring Watchara Tangkaprasert , Suppakorn Kitsuwan , Archariya BuaSuwan.
  • Released on region-free DVD with English subtitles
Set in an arid, post-apocalyptic world, this action comedy gets some good marks for lively action sequences and colorful characters. But the story often doesn't make sense and the action is repetitive.

Invariably, any reviewer that's seen it picks up on the similarities to Mad Max and Road Warrior. It also reminded me of Six-String Samurai, but with more explosions. But instead of gasoline being the sought-after commodity, it's bullets. Bullets for fuel. Bullets for water.

The story concerns a lone hero, driving his van across the dusty plains looking for fuel and water. His name is Mr. Climax. He enters the picture as two opposing forces of are ready to face off -- the Afghani-like outcast militants of Dark Commune and the people of the more prosperous Goodman Town, which is run by the evil but stupid Tiger Yai.

While they are burrowing underground in a move to attack Goodman Town, the Dark Commune folks contrive a way to distract Tiger Yai - they send a false fortuneteller (an unfortunate one-eyed, wheel-chair-bound man) to tell Tiger Yai he must be married to a certain woman in four days.

That woman turns out to be Mr. Climax's wife, whom he has forgotten because he has amnesia.

The mix also includes four killers who Climax used to be the leader of: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. These are among the more colorful characters, as each has a distinct weapons choice (one favors a nickel-plated shotgun; another is a flaming stereotyped gay).

Former WWE star in Tom Yum Goong

According to the pro-wrestling blog,, former WWE star Nathan Jones is in Thailand shooting Tom Yum Goong, the followup to Ong Bak, which stars martial arts sensation Tony Jaa.

Thai prison documentary on BBC

Thai people call Bangkwang Penitentiary "The Big Tiger" -- it eats men alive. Westerners use the ironic name "Bangkok Hilton".

It's the subject of a new BBC documentary, The Real Bangkok Hilton.

The Mirror reports that the "fascinating but grim documentary should be made available on in-flight channels. "If it were, every cocky young drug smuggler who thinks they can try their luck in zero-tolerance Thailand would be abandoning their suitcases at baggage reclaim."
Cameras have never been allowed inside until now, says the Mirror.
What lurks behind the white plaster walls is a society of 7,000 murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and, of course, innocents. For 15 hours a day, dozens of men share cramped cells - many find it a small luxury if they can lie flat on their back.

We meet Andrew and Michael from England, otherwise known as prisoners 6-798 and 5-158, who have been jailed for smuggling drugs. As Andrew - who is serving a 50-year sentence - says: "I was arrested for stupidity".

Life there is hell. Many inmates have HIV, trouble can flare at any second and as the guards are outnumbered 50 to one, the potential for a massacre is real.

We also see the Thai ladyboys sharing their make-up, the executioner who has to take fingerprints before and after execution to make sure he has killed the right man and the monk who performs the last rites.

Bloody and brutal, this is not comfortable viewing but it is a not-to-be missed piece of film-making.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Review: The Commitment (Arthan Kaebon Phee)

  • Directed by Montree Khong-im
  • Starring Prangthong Changtham, Virithipa Pakdeeprasong, Pinsuda Tanpairoh
  • Wide release in Thai cinemas in July 2004.
As an alternative to checking out I, Robot, which I planned to see with another friend, my girlfriend suggested this.

Now, I don't like scary movies that much, so I was reluctant. The movie poster features a picture of a girl slicing her wrist with a butcher knife. That gave me chills to look at. But in the interests of checking out a Thai film, I gave this one a chance.

The beginning was promising, with some young guys dying in a car wreck after trying to gang rape a girl.

Then it cuts to "present day Bangkok". Eight young pretties are in an abandoned house. They get scared and run away. They go to another place. What the heck are they doing? Well, it turns out they are looking for an auspicious place to offer some prayers and ask for their wishes to be granted. The place they choose is an alter set up outside a creepy old wooden house. Turns out it was not such good place to offer a blessing.

It takes awhile -- too long -- to get around to explaining why.

The girls are led by a couple of sexy naughty bitchy types named Pim and Moss. Both are upper-class girls. They constantly snipe at each other but are really good friends. They are also friends with a girl named Muay, who is lower class, but smart.

They offer their prayers -- their commitments. One offers to shave her head if she finds her wallet. Another offers to bless Moss's feet if Muay passes her university exams. I forget the others.

The movie promptly shifts into dull, soap opera mode, focusing on the girl's family lives.

I kept wanting to walk out, but my girlfriend kept me there. Each time I wanted to get up and walk out, something decent would happen -- a little bit of gore or a mild scare.

One good scene was when a group of traditional Thai dancers performed. There was some nice slo-mo, stylised photographry going on then.

Other than that, this played like a crappy TV movie. Why it needed to be shown in the theaters is beyond me. It must be because of all the young pretty stars. But even my Thai girlfriend didn't like this movie when it was all said and done. Too dull. Bad acting. Bad special effects. Not enough gore. Not scary enough.

"This is a bad movie, but many people will go and see it. I think that isn't right," my girlfriend said. "I will tell all my friends not to see this."

As will I.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Satire about Thai PM greenlighted

A satire that pokes fun at the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family is set to hit Thai cinemas in September.

The director, Somjai Sukjai, or Der Dok Sadao, planned to make a satire about Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but ran afoul of the authorities. He remains undaunted and talked about his project in a recent interview.

Somjai's film will star Sayan Muangcharoen, a comedian with Down's Syndrome, as the son of the "prime minister".

Both were featured in the recently reviewed Buppha Ratree.

Documentarians seek single American male

From Stickman's weekly journal:
A small group of filmmakers are working on a documentary about Thai woman and the fascination Western men have for them. They are looking for a single American, preferably from Los Angeles or California, who is interested in going to Thailand for the first time to meet a love interest. Since this is a documentary there is no budget and all expenses are coming out of their pockets but they are willing to pay for the single American man's air flight and stay at a hotel in Thailand. Sounds like a good deal! They are looking for: a single American man, must be looking for a love interest, must be interested in Thai woman, must be willing to be filmed the entire time - good times and bad, from start to finish. He will have to pay for his own, food and recreation. They will pay for the flights and hotel stay. If interested, get in contact with Banyan Entertainment at

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Review: Buppha Rahtree

  • Directed by Yuthlert Sippapak.
  • Starring Chermarn "Laila" Boonyasak, Kris Srepoomseth.
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2003, released on English-subtitled DVD
Apartment 69 is haunted and nobody can get the ghost out.

The setup takes a while. A rich college boy sets out to bed the bookish, poor Buppha (Laila Boonyasak, seen all-too-briefly in Last Life in the Universe). With his hip, slick and cool ways (and a BMW convertible) that is easy for him. Turns out his intentions were less than honorable and Buppha is left alone in her room, where she dies.

Actually, she is lives in apartment 609, but the zero has fallen off the door.

Other reviews delve into her sadness, but I went into this not knowing what was up, so I'll leave it at that.

Eventually the bitchy landlady comes around, smells something bad and enters the apartment to investigate. She calls the police. Among the authorities on the scene is a spikey-haired medical examiner who is seen throwing up in the sink. Later she's getting sick again and has to lean over the balcony. This is an obvious, comic reference to Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, Thailand's famous forensic pathologist (though Yuthlert has been said to have outright denied this).

There's also a skinny cop with a huge adam's apple who reminded me of Barney Fife.

The door shuts on its own and the cops are locked out of the apartment. A voice from within shouts out for people to go away.

So the landlady calls in the first of several ghostbusters or exorcists to get rid of the angry spirit.

The first is a strange shaman who seems in a trance. He communicates to his helpers through a series of yips and barks. He is introduced at his temple, removing the meanness from a guy's girlfriend. He kung-fu kicks her, then spits rice wine on her. He places a bag over her head and says an incantation. A bloody, fetal creature is removed from the bag, which he then spits at with flaming rice wine. At apartment 69, he tries his monkey dance out on the ghost, but is chased from the room covered in blood. His helpers jump from the balcony and end up with broken bones.

Next is another Chinese-Thai shaman (Somlek Sakdikul), who fares even worse. He ends up with a knife in his back for his troubles.

A couple of bumbling Catholic priests try next. They end up with pea-soup vomit on their frocks. The spirit even speaks in tongues like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, but the director wisely avoids going for the trademark head spin. That would've been too much.

As a last resort, a Cambodian shaman is called in. He nearly succeeds, but the red paper keeping the spirit at bay blows off while the body is being hauled down the road in the back of a pickup. Next thing the Khmer shaman knows, the truck is being driven by a crazy ghost. Not a good place to be.

Eventually a hacksaw comes into play, but further details are best left for viewing.

This film is derivative of other Asian horror, especially Takeshi Miike's Audition. Damn, I know there's a body in that bag, yet when it sits up, I jump out of my skin!

What I really liked about this film, and I guess it is a trademark of director Yuthlert Sippapak (Killer Tattoo), is that it makes extensive use of Thai television comedians, yet tones down their over-the-top slapstick with the arthouse sensibilities of a director like Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. A few players from Pen-ek's stock company are seen here. In addition to Leila, there's Ampon Rattanawong as the monkey shaman. He's the large-foreheaded guy who had a prominent role as Pan's buddy in Monrak Transistor and had a small role in Last Life.

Somlek Sakdikul portrays the second Chinese shaman. He had high profile role last year in The Overture. He also played "Daddy" in Monrak Transistor and was a cursing, scene-stealing scientist in Mekhong Full Moon Party.

The comedians featured were Somjai "Der Dok Sadao" Sukjai and the Down Syndrome-afflicted personality Sayan Meungjarern. Somjai was in the news recently for his plans to make a movie that made fun of the Thai prime minister. The star of that project was to be Sayan, who has a true gift for comedy. Some folks might moan about him being exploited, but I don't think that's the case.

Other cast members include a couple of plus-sized transvestites who runs a beauty parlor. There's also some Thai rap singers. Their music is featured in the film, though I couldn't really hear where. There's a soundtrack album available and in some respects it's better than the film itself.

The DVD edition of this film is pretty attractive, with some nice comic-book like art. There's a commentary track as well. Of course it's all in Thai. There's also a very cool soundtrack album, featuring some Thai rappers. I'm digging it.

On the film, I was at a disadvantage because there are no English subtitles. This is being done more and more with DVD releases of Thai films. I guess it's a form of region control so the film companies can market the films to festivals without having to compete with the gray market of DVDs being sold overseas.

Update: Buppha Ratree is starting to be featured at film festivals under the title Rahtree: Flower of the Night. It also has been picked up for DVD release in the UK by Momentum.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Review: Tears of the Black Tiger

  • Written and directed by Wisit Sasantieng
  • Starring Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucci, Supakorn Kitsuwan, Sombat Metanee
  • Released in Thailand in 2000; Region 3 DVD release in Thailand by Digital Right with English subtitles (out of print)
  • Rating: 5/5

The first Thai film I ever saw, I was captivated initially by the colors.

It's raining steadily, and a woman, dressed neatly in a 1940s magenta dress is walking with an umbrella and a suitcase, across a wood plankway in a vivid green lotus pond to a white gazebo (or sala) with a roof that matches the color of her dress.

She's waiting.

Elsewhere, a couple of 1940s cowboy-looking guys are outside a bungalow, where some bad guys have holed up. There's shooting, disturbing a cow. The guys go in. A bad guy is hiding behind a post, hoping to get the drop on the heroes. The more somber looking of the two -- dressed all in black with a shoulder holster, draws. He aims at the wall, away from the man that's hiding. The bullet richochets around. The man falls dead.

Did you get that? If you missed it, we'll show it to you again, says a bit of advertising-like sunburst text.

The shot is repeated in slow motion, with the bullet bouncing off various things in a Rube Goldberg manner until it goes through the guy's forehead with a big, bloody, red splat. It's a sign of more fun to come.

There's still another bad guy. He's up in the ceiling. He tries to get the drop on the boys. A gun barrel pokes through a hole in the floor. The man in black sees it, pushes his friend out of the way and shoots lead into the ceiling, cutting away a perfect hole for the guy above to fall through.

The man in black is Dum (the Thai word for the color black). His friend, dressed in a bright blue cowboy shirt, is Mahesuan.

Dum's got to run. He must meet the woman. But it's too late. The woman waited long enough. She returns home, heartbroken. She must marry another man -- a man she does not love.

Through this highly stylized tale, that blends bits of Golden Age Thai cinema of the 50s and 60s with the westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, we learn about the tortured romance between Dum and the woman, who's name is Rumpoey.

They first met when they were children. Rumpoey, the daughter of a high government official, was visiting the countryside and was hosted by Dum's father, a village headman. An incident in that beautiful, green lotus pond leaves young Dum scarred for life. It also deeply affects the young, bratty Rumpoey. As she matures, her love for Dum grows deeper.

The story of how Dum becomes an ace gun hand, riding with a band of outlaws, is best experienced while watching the film.

The highlights in this film are many. Besides that first display of trick gunplay, there are a couple of battle scenes with the outlaws vs the government's forces -- led by the man Rumpoey is to marry. Just as the outlaws appear to be losing the fight, Dum and Mahesuan show up with a pair of rocket launchers to turn the tide back.

This reminds me of the final battle scene in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Music is key. Dum has a sad theme. Just like Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West, Dum plays the harmonica, a mournful refrain in remembrance of love lost.

Another giddy, upbeat theme, with whistling and happy violin playing is used when the outlaws are riding their horses across Thailand's Central Plains. The lyrics are quite, sad, however.

The set design is also noteworthy. At one point, Dum is playing his harmonica against an obviously fake, bright yellow sunset. That it was shot on a soundstage is quite apparent.

Appropriately, the acting is all overplayed and theatrical, especially Mahesuan (the versatile Supakorn Kitsuwon from Monrak Transistor). He talks with a booming, bragging manner of speech and carries himself with a swagger. A pencil-thin fake mustache completes the outfit. He laughs a lot -- an evil laugh that is infectious. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Another great supporting player is veteran Thai action star Sombat Metanee, who plays Fai, the leader of the outlaw gang.

"Remember Fai's law," he tells his men. "Whoever betrays Fai, dies."

And he laughs. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

In once scene Fai proves his point by shooting a traitor. He flips a coin with a hole in it into the air. The the bullet passes through the hole, the man will die. He dramatically turns, draws and fires. Of course the bullet passes through. A brain is shown and then the man's head explodes.

Rumpoey is placed by Stella Malucci, who's costuming and hairstyle are combine to make her an amalgamation of all the great leading lady icons. She's quite the drama queen, always pouting, depressed and crying.

The only one who shows restraint is Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), who is unerringly stoical and fatalistic (some might say wooden, but I disagree). He keeps it bottled up inside. Okay, sometimes he does go out of control, but it's only when others have provoked him.

Yes, the acting and cornball plot are all so over the top that Fah Talai Jone might be considered satire along with lines of Blazing Saddles. In lieu of a baked beans campfire scene, Dum and Mahasuen pledge their friendship together by getting drunk on snake blood wine in the presence of a Buddha statue. It's another dizzying scene.

Comedy reaches its high point with the character Sgt Yam, a government solider. Sporting a Charlie Chaplin brush moustache and slight build, he's a definite reference to the Little Tramp.

On inspection before the big raid, the little Sgt Yam reports he has seven wives.

"Well, I'm afraid they will all be widows," the inspecting officer says.

Yam proves to be an expert grenade thrower. He tosses one up into a machine gun nest, conks a guy on the head and knocks him out. The grenade doesn't go off.

"Request permission to throw another," says Yam. And he tosses. And the tower blows up in a fireball with a stuntman diving away out of the flames. Spectacular.

The set designs, colors and wide-eyed sensibilities remind me for some reason of Wizard of Oz. I think it was a conscious effort on the part of the director, which he reinforced by including a midget among the extras in the outlaw gang.

This is one movie I can't recommend enough. It's goofy, but so tragic. It's familiar, yet so different. It is indeed, a very special film.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Blissfully Yours in Chicago

With all the attention Tropical Malady has been receiving lately, through the news and film festivals, it's refreshing to see Apichatpong's previous film, Blissfully Yours, get some attention. The 2002 film has opened this weekend at Chicago's Fullerton cinema.

Meanwhile, the merits of Malady vs. Blissfully are being discussed in the Spotlight on Thai Cinema Thread over on Critics' Discussion.

Here's the short review from Sun-Times:

After an auspicious tour through the Cannes, Thessaloniki and Rotterdam film festivals, this 2002 experimental drama from Thailand gets its world theatrical premiere in Chicago. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who got his masters in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, begins in a clinic where two women, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), seek treatment for Roong's boyfriend Min (Min Oo), who suffers a skin ailment. They also seek an official health certificate so Min, an undocumented worker from Burma, can find work. He feigns muteness to hide his accent and status from the Thai doctor, whose next patient is a hard-of-hearing oldster quarrelling with his daughter over his hearing aid and the volume on their TV set.

That comic scene is reprised from Weerasethakul's black-and-white feature debut, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), a meandering quasi-documentary exercise where a non-professional Thai cast tells fragments of a story. The color-drenched Blissfully Yours employs first-time actors in a simple day-in-the-life plot that's all about sensation. Roong skips work at a factory where she paints Disney figurines and goes with Min for an erotic picnic in a secluded tropical forest. Weerasethakul's eccentric touches include placing the opening credits 45 minutes into the film, superimposing white-lined drawings and diary scribblings from the characters, and playing the end credits with no music.

This is languorous fare for those summertime fans of French novelist Marcel Proust who savor reads of sensual detail where little happens except you doze off. Although a distant gunshot is heard at one point and Orn quietly sobs a few scenes later, the alluring action of Blissfully Yours peaks in the play of sunlight passing through tree branches stirred by a gentle breeze. Late afternoon shadows flit over nude Min's back and beaming Roong's upturned face. They don't mind the ants.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Review: The Colonel

  • Directed by M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Sompop Benjatikul, Niyana Chiwanon
  • Availability: DVD (zone free, removable English subtitles)
  • Rating: 4/5

Here's one I viewed awhile back and I just gave it a repeat viewing.

Some things I was confused about were made clearer on second viewing.

First, I wasn't sure where this was taking place. I thought maybe it was Laos. Or maybe it was Cambodia. Possibly Burma. Even Vietnam. Turns out it was none of those. It takes place in a fictional country of Chiang Riang and the confusion arises because this place could be any one of those places mentioned. Even more confusing, everyone speaks Thai, but some of the signage and newspaper headlines are in a script that my Thai girlfriend did not recognize. So possibly it was Khmer or Lao or ancient Sanskit.

Keep in mind this was made in 1974, so the real world events of 1975 Southeast Asia - the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the fall of Laos to the Pathet Lao, the fall of Saigon - hadn't taken place yet. But it was pretty heavy then, and Thailand - with Red China looming to the north and revolutions taking place all around - was determined not to fall. This is the atmosphere in which this film was made.

The story is about a Thai army intelligence officer (Sompop) who parachutes into this tiny, fictional country to assume the role of a double agent colonel who was murdered. The dead guy was working for the local government's Central Bureau but was also an informant to Red China and was working to aid the local People's Army.

His ruse is short-lived, however, as the dead colonel's wife (Niyana) immediately knows the jig is up when the two sleeps together. Later on, a doctor - a friend of the real colonel - has to treat a gunshot wound on the secret agent's upper thigh. He lifts the towel and sees that there's a difference of some sort. I'm guessing the real colonel was circumsized; his double is not. The doctor has to be bumped off.

This is a gritty film, with lots of action. At one point, a band of communist militia storms the colonel's house. The colonel, with his .44 Magnum, blasts back. This is the scene where he takes the hit in the thigh. Although wounded, he's still able to interrogate a man. Brandishing his .44 Magnum, he informs the prisoner, "This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world. If I shoot you at this distance, it will spread your brains all over this room." It was said with such conviction, he might as well have added, "Well, do you feel lucky? Punk?"

The plot is all over the place, with the fake colonel bedding another woman - a Vietnamese spy - with his sweet talk. I guess the character was envisioned as some kind of James Bond. Chatrichalerm wants to show a sex scene, but only does it suggestively, by cutting in one frame of the bed with the nude woman on it. It's just a flash - one frame - just like Brad Pitt showed us in Fight Club in his projectionist job.

The action really gets going for the third act, in which an evil Vietnamese officer comes into play. She's kidnapped an American diplomat. She kicks some major ass and kills off one of the smiling comic relief guys, using some kung fu and then shooting the guy in the back with an M-16. There's lots of endless machine gun fire and fake blood.

The soundtrack sounds like it could be by a great Thai band, The Impossibles, who were one of the most popular bands of the day. I'm not sure if it is or not, but it's the same basic rock set up with horns. Among the rocking tracks on the film, the band breaks into the Hawaii Five-O theme a couple of times. There's also a song by a well-known female singer of the day. I didn't catch the name, but my 32-year-old girlfriend says her mother likes that singer.

There's more confusion about the translation of the title. Since there is no alternate English title, as there is with most Thai films, all I have to go on is the literal translation of Phom Mai Yak Pen Pan To -- I Don't Want To Be a Colonel. Others have said it's I Don't Want To Be a Lieutenant. But a couple of sources indicate the rank is high. In the film, the hero is variously called "Colonel" or "Lieutenant" in the subtitles. In fact, he is a lieutenant colonel. So no wonder there is confusion. I'm sticking with colonel. And now I notice the DVD being sold overseas with the English title listed as just The Colonel.

The DVD is available from the local Mangpong video chain here in Thailand. It several of Chatrichalerm's films on the shelves. This was the first one of several I have bought. I was immediately attracted to it by its exploitive cover art. Out of the nearly one dozen titles by Chatrichalerm that are being sold, this is one of the most exploitive - the one with the most guns, girls and explosions.

The subtitles are a bit dodgy, with typical grammer mistakes. This only adds to the appeal. At one point, a character was advised to "cut the crab".

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

US rights for Beautiful Boxer

Here! Films has acquired North American rights to Beautiful Boxer from Arclight Films, according to Variety.

The director's cut of the film opens this weekend in Thailand. It's about 15 minutes longer than the release that opened here a year ago.

The film is also playing at Cinemanila.

Last Life, OK Baytong in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem International Film Festival will feature OK Baytong and Last Life in the Universe.

The festival has many other entries. And is pulling in some big names.

More information:

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Beautiful Boxer in Manila

Don't know that it will exactly be a "thrilla in Manila", but the transgender bio pic Beautiful Boxer is playing at the Makati Cinemanila International Film Festival.

The festival is screening quite a few Filipino films, as well as other films from other Asian countries.

They had hoped to have Ramona Diaz's documentary Imelda, but a court fight put up by the woman of many shoes is preventing that.

Monday, July 5, 2004

Malaysia wants some

Article in the The Star, talking about Malaysia's film industry. The headline is a bit snarky, saying "Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are getting ahead of us".

I gripe here about Thailand's Culture Ministry and its attempts to muzzle creativity and free speech, but they have nothing on Malaysia, which has a lot of controls on the press. Films are subject to rigorous censorship by a fundamentalist Muslim board.

So directors there have it tough. The subject of the article is Julian Jayaseelan, a producer with a life-long involvement in human rights work, and Osman Ali, a director schooled at a religious school in Kedah, and their film An Angel at the Window or Malaikat di Jendela – Malaysia’s entry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

They compare it to Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, which I watched recently. Not a bad thing to aspire to at all.

Friday, July 2, 2004

Foreign media examines Culture Ministry

It's refreshing to see the foreign media examine the situation with Thailand's zealous Culture Ministry. And all it takes is a look from Singapore's Straits Times to put things in perspective.

Singer Tata Young's sexy pop songs could be slapped with ratings that would restrict who hears them in future.

Fashion shows, other forms of entertainment, even mobile phone messages may also find themselves rated by Thailand's controversial Ministry of Culture.

"If we want to live peacefully in society, a ratings system should be introduced to cover all kinds of media," Vice-Minister for Culture Weerasak Kowsurat, 39, said in an interview with The Straits Times.

He said the ministry was studying ratings systems around the world.

"In some other countries, you can opt for a particular rating. It would be like a restaurant menu which rates dishes for spiciness," he said.

The ministry was particularly concerned about media that promoted violence, such as pornography depicting children, incest and rape.

While Thailand had a liberal culture, violence in the south was "the first volcano" that showed that not everything was acceptable to all Thais, he said.

Earlier this year, the ministry sparked controversy when it objected to lyrics in a song by pop singer Tata Young and said fashion models should not bare too much skin and girls should not wear spaghetti-strap tops during the Songkran water festival.

But one move which few objected to was when it complained about mobile phone service providers which allowed users to send pornographic graphics through SMS, and it managed to get companies to bar the practice.

But its other moves - like disapproving remarks about homosexuals shown on television - have drawn fire.

Columnist Paisarn Likhitpreechakul wrote in The Nation "the ministry is showing multiple levels of ignorance about homosexuality".

Model Methinee Kingpayome said she was "confused and tired of the Culture Ministry". She said Thailand could not hope to become an international fashion hub with a prudish Ministry of Culture peering over the shoulders of catwalk models.

And Ms Young said she did not care what the ministry thought about the lyrics of her hit song "Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy".

The ministry insists it is not a cultural policeman, but just wants to mirror society by promoting self-awareness.

Mr Weerasak, a Harvard Law School graduate, takes pains to paint the issue in Thailand's historical context.

The ministry was scrapped after infamously suppressing Thai culture in favour of Western ways during Japan's occupation of Thailand.

That period was depicted in the recent hit film The Overture, which focused on how Thai classical musicians were pressured into virtually going underground.

'It was first born 60 years ago when the Japanese were controlling the region. The ministry forced people to wear hats and shoes, forced males to kiss goodbye to their wives before they left their houses in the morning; they said you shouldn't sit on the floor or eat with your fingers.

'It was an attempt to show the West we had been modernised,' Mr Weerasak told The Straits Times.

'It was awfully wrong. It lasted only five or six years and was then abandoned, and nobody wanted to start it up again.'

But two years ago, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reconstituted the ministry, with the 'mission to make sure we communicate with our public loudly and clearly that culture belongs to people, not organisations'.

Mr Weerasak said: 'Yes, we want to be a watchdog. The ministry of culture does not feel uncomfortable when we see people not wearing clothes, but we are concerned that it is done artistically, properly, timely, and in the right place.'

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Thai cinema history

Was surfing about and stumbled upon an article by Lonely Planet's Joe Cummings (mirror) about the history of Thai cinema. Here's part of it:
Thailand began experimenting with film very early in the history of world cinema. Within five years of the Lumière brothers' historic first public film showing in 1895, Siam's Prince Sanbhassatra imported film-making equipment and began documenting the royal ceremonies of his elder brother, King Rama V.
In 1922, Hollywood director Henry MacRae was hired to direct the silent Nang Sao Suwan, which used Thai actors for all roles and was released in Thailand in 1924. The storyline followed the tribulations of a beautiful young Thai girl with too many suitors. Unfortunately no viewable print of this early film appears to have survived.

Bangkok Film kicked off the domestic film industry with the launch of the first Thai-directed silent movie, Chok Sorng Chan, in 1927. In Thailand, silent films proved to be more popular than talkies right into the 1960s, and as late as 1969 Thai studios were still producing them from 16mm stock. Perhaps partially influenced by India's famed masala movies (which gained a strong following in post-WWII Bangkok), film companies blended romance, comedy, melodrama, and adventure to give Thai audiences a little bit of everything.

The arrival of 35mm movies in Thailand around this same time brought with it a proliferation of modern cinema halls and a surge in movie-making. During this era, Thai films attracted more cinema-goers than nang farang (as the Thais called movies from Europe and America), and today many Thais consider the 60s to be a golden age of Thai cinema.

Over half of the approximately 75 films produced annually during this period starred the much-admired onscreen duo of actor Mit Chaibancha and actress Petchara Chaowaraj. One of the last and most famous films of the era was Mit-Petchara's Mon Rak Luk Thung, a musical rhapsodizing Thai rural life. The 1970 film played in Bangkok cinemas for a solid six months, its popularity spurred by the film's best-selling soundtrack album and Mit's accidental death while filming another Thai production, Insee Thong.

Tom Yum Goong due out in early 2005

In a flood of industry stories recently came some actual film news.

Sahamongkol Film International has announced the launch of Tom Yum Goong, the followup to Ong-Bak. It will be released simultaneously in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia in the first quarter next year.

Tom Yum Goong will star Tony Jaa, who uses his martial-arts skills to save an elephant from an international smuggling ring.

(Photo: Via The Nation: Sahamongkol Film International chairman Somsak Techcaratanaprasert)

Sahamongkol boss demands fair play

The ever-contentious Sia Jiang continues to be outspoken. As chairman of the Federation of National Film Association of Thailand, his latest salvo is that Thai films be given more of a chance to compete for screen time at Major Cineplex Group theatres.

Keep in mind this is the same guy who said he would no longer show any of his distribution company's films at Major theaters. So this is kind of screwy, if you ask me. It's all a power play.

VCDs are big business

In The Nation recently was a business piece on the still-viable VCD market and the major player in Thailand, a firm called CVD.

This is the company that sell badly dubbed versions of Hollywood films in Thailand. There is disturbing talk in the story about selling badly-dubbed DVDs as well. I can only hope they will leave the English soundtracks intact on these products. Seeing the number of Thai DVDs on the market without English subtitles, I can't help but wonder if English soundtracks are the next thing to be left off the Thai releases of foreign films.

Industry powerhouse Sahamongkol Film plans to expand into the made-for-TV business with a new division for making VCDs, according to this story.

The move comes in response to the merger of Major Cineplex and EGV, the two biggest movie-theatre operators.

Sahamongkol boss Somsak Techaratanaprasert said the VCD subsidiary would give the company another distribution option as they come under increasing pressure from the merger.