Thursday, September 30, 2004

A pure art film

A rich community of filmmakers in Thailand has emerged from the deep wellspring that is the contemporary art scene in Thailand. I haven't delved to much into it here, but one item from a Pennsylvania newspaper caught my eye because it compares a Thai artist to eccentric underground comic legend R. Crumb.

It's about the Carnegie exhibit, which has selected more than 400 works, including a film installation from Chiang Mai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. The article touches on the commonalities that the curator found in the different works.

Their works are made of such things as oil on linen, ink on paper and canvas stretched on welded steel. The artists -- both men and women, young and old -- are from as far away as Thailand and as near as central Pennsylvania.
But the curator of the 2004-05 Carnegie International sees a commonality in the more than 400 works that were selected for the survey of contemporary art, which begins Oct. 9 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh ...

Consider Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, of Chiang Mai, Thailand. In one of her works, a film called Thai Medley, Rasdjarmrearnsook sings and reads a poem. Then there's cartoonist Robert Crumb ... Characters in his strips talk to God.

It seems Crumb and Rasdjarmrearnsook have little in common, but "they have one thing in common -- a spiritual search," Hoptman said.

The installation will include Crumb's drawings, strips and notebooks, and it marks the first time the Carnegie International will display comic art.

Andrew Carnegie's goal when he established the exhibit was broad enough that the installations continue to meet his ideals, Hoptman said.

"The Carnegie International reflects on the current discourse, but it also moves the discourse forward," she said.

Iron Pussy, Malady in Milwaukee

Iron Pussy and Tropical Malady, both directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, will be screened at the the Milwaukee Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film/Video Festival. The Cannes prize-winning Tropical Malady will be screened for free on Tuesday. The Adventures of Iron Pussy, co-directed by Apichatpong will be shown next Saturday. The Journal Sentinel has an overview of the fest.

Iron Pussy, meanwhile, began screening today in a limited engagement at two Bangkok theatres.

Nude pictures of Thai starlet

Ai Fak actress Bongkot "Tak" Kongmalai has dropped charges against a man who was said to have uploaded nude photos of her to a Thai website.

News of these photos, taken from an unedited version of Ai Fak, put to rest the rumors that she had used a body double for the nude scenes in this sexy romantic comedy-drama.

The arrest of the man created quite a stir back in July. According to a followup story, the man received the photos from an insider on the set of Ai Fak. This leads me to believe the skin that's seen in this film is indeed the lovely Tak's.

Tak also has starred in Kun Pan and Bang Rajan.

Police raided the uploader's apartment, finding among other things a hard disk containing more than 10,000 pornographic pictures of Tak and several other actresses, plus, to the authorities' astonishment, some with Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan's head superimposed. These last are being treated with strict security, The Nation story says.

The guy, Sornyut “Jo” Senamongkon, 25, was let out of jail after four days. He's was also being sued by Tak.

Also, a letter to the editor takes the authorities to task for heavy handed tactics against this guy when there are bigger fish to fry. Good stuff.

Ai Fak has yet to hit the international festival circuit. It's out on DVD in Thailand, but has no subtitles, limiting the international reach of this fine film even more.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Beautiful Boxer at San Sebastian

The 52nd San Sebastián International Film Festival just wrapped up on September 25.

The International Herald Tribune had an overview of the fest.

For directors from the film world's margins, the festival seems especially welcoming. "Its audiences have a deep appreciation of film and are open to world cinema," said Ekachai Uekrongtham of Thailand, whose first feature, Beautiful Boxer, was warmly received here. "It's a festival for the people, not for the trade."

Thai films in Toronto

Three Thai films were shown at the recent Toronto International Film Festival:

  • Rahtree: Flower of the Night. Also known as Buppha Rahtree, I find this film's placement in such a prestigious festival encouraging for Thai film, also for the prospects that the film might be re-released on DVD with English subtitles.
  • The Overture. A interesting overview of Thai history, culture and especially music. Some noteworthy performances, especially from the intense Khun In.
  • Tropical Malady. Awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, it's good to see this film continuing to get some attention.

The Onion AV Club has an entertaining overview of the festival, including a bit on Tropical Malady.

Over the past several years, the festival has been dominated by emerging Asian masters such as Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring), Jia Zhang-ke (Platform), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours), and 2004 was no different ...

For those unschooled in Thai mythology, the second half of Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady will seem "foreign" in the strictest sense of the word, as an overwhelmingly sensual love story transitions abruptly into the obscure tale of a shaman who inhabits the body of a tiger. While it's hard to make the connection between the film's halves, Weerasethakul extends his fusion of narrative and experimental techniques into ever more daring and challenging terrain, but with such a lyrical touch that the effect is more seductive than alienating. And thank goodness it has homoerotic overtones; otherwise, it probably wouldn't have found a US distributor.

Friday, September 24, 2004

6ixtynin9 up for remake

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's 1999 comedy-thriller 6ixtynin9 is targeted for a remake, according to Variety. The director will be Jim Fall, produced by Fran Rubel Kuzui for Bohemian Films and Tom Gorai for Shadowcatcher Entertainment. Shadowcatcher president David Skinner, Fortissimo Films co-chairman Wouter Barendrecht and Kaz Kuzui of Bohemian will serve as exec producers. Pen-ek's original screenplay is being adapted by John Patrick Nelson.

The story follows a young woman desperate to shake up her uneventful life by appearing on a reality show, who returns home to find that dead bodies are stacking up in her apartment.

Ratanaruang's original, which I very much want to see, premiered in competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2002 and went on to win prizes at the Berlin, Hong Kong and Singapore fests. International sales on the film were handled by Fortissimo.

The remake is scheduled for CineMart, a sidebar to the Rotterdam Film Festival, a place that has been friendly to the films of the original 6ixtynin9's director, Pen-Ek, as well as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his Tropical Malady.

Infernal Affairs - The Thai connection

Infernal Affairs is being screened in the States, and I've just gotten around to seeing it myself, thanks to the loan of all three movies in the series by a co-worker. After watching most of it, I've decided the only way to really appreciate the scope of this film, which is Godfather-esque, is to see all three installments in one sitting, if physically possible. In fact, it's probably been written before that this is Hong Kong's answer to the Godfather series.

Anyway, the Thai connection? It's sort of tenuous at first. Christopher Doyle, who worked with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang on Last Life in the Universe (as well as Wong Kar-Wai and many others) is credited as a "visual consultant"

Danny Pang, firmly rooted in the Thai film industry as the director or co-director with his twin brother Oxide of such films as The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous and Bangkok for Sale, was an editor on all three films. Another editor on Infernal Affairs was Ching Hei Pang. I am unsure whether he is related to the Pang brothers.

A firmer Thai connection with the series comes from the storyline, in which the leading gangster, Sam (the great Eric Tsang), makes a deal with "the Thais" to supply Hong Kong with cocaine. In Infernal Affairs II, Sam even visits Thailand and some location shooting took place in Bangkok, including the iconic Hualumphong railway station.

Meanwhile, the deal is set for a Hollywood remake of Infernal Affairs with, I think, Scorcese directing and Di Caprio and Matt Damon starring. Even with a master like Scorcese at the helm, I have serious doubts that it will be as taught and stylish as the original.

Blissfully, Tropical Malady in New York

Blissfully Yours is playing on general release in New York. John Anderson of Newsday has a nice capsule review:

Like a rose breaching a cracked sidewalk, Thai film keeps pushing its way into the constricted field of world cinema, mixing corruption and innocence in a way perhaps only Thailand can. Or does. The country's current chefs d'oeuvre include Pen-Ek Ratanaruang of the recent Last Life in the Universe and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose virtually impenetrable Tropical Malady is part of this year's New York Film Fest. It's a far more lucid Weerasethakul on display in 2003's Blissfully Yours, which sets up its characters in a series of sordid, pedestrian scams that are meant to represent urban Thai life in general, and then segues to the countryside and a kind of Edenic parable that poses its principal trio - the middle-aged hustler Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), the young female Roong (Kanokporn Tongoram) and the hunky Burmese rustic, Min (Min Oo) - in a "what if" scenario of unblemished perfection. Poetic and rhythmically confident, "Blissfully Yours" is a subtle seduction.

As Anderson mentioned, Apichatpong's Tropical Malady is at the New York Film Festival, the only Thai entry as far as I can tell. Here's what the festival's website says about it:

There may be no more beguilingly mysterious film this year than the Festival debut of the lavishly gifted Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Leaving Bangkok for the seemingly peaceful Thai countryside, the story begins as a conventional, if marvelously achieved, love story between a young soldier and a young man from the country. But just when we've gotten comfortable with Apichatpong's tender account of two men falling for each other (including one startlingly erotic moment), he launches us into the realm of myth and legend, in which human and animal join together in a fantastic union. As formally audacious as it is visually stunning, this strikingly original work reminds us that when we wander the forests of love we encounter the most unexpected of creatures.

Also of interest at the festival is a Shaw Brothers retrospective. A thread on Rotten Tomatoes Critics' Discussion is devoted to this.

Thai films invade Vancouver

The Vancouver International Film Festival played host to a dozen or more Thai films. An online review of a couple of the films barely scratched the surface.

All playing in the fest's Dragons and Tigers category, the films were:

  • The Adventures of Iron Pussy - Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai, this campy romp is about a transvestite Thai secret agent. Thankfully, it is also finally showing in Bangkok.
  • OK Baytong - This is the most recent film from Nonzee Nimibutr. It delves a bit into the unrest in Muslim southern Thailand while also getting inside the head of a young former Buddhist monk who moves there.
  • - The biopic about Thai boxer Nong Toom continues its international tour. It was named as a runner-up for the People's Choice Award for Most Popular Foreign Film.
  • The Macabre Case of Prompiram- This gritty crime drama has gotten good reviews at other film festivals. But not at this one. This website filed it under "mediocrity". "Nothing here is surprising or hard-hitting," it said. "In the way of social critique something far sharper and harsher is required."
  • The Overture - Somewhat dull film has some good musical performances and is a decent overview of Thai history from the late 1800s to the WWII occupation.
  • Tropical Malady - Half romantic comedy, half a dark thriller, this won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Motorcycle, Waiting - Two shorts by Aditya Assarat (now developing his first feature at the Sundance Institute). In Motorcycle, an elderly couple in a village receive bad news from Bangkok, news which strains their already very limited resources. In Waiting, an elderly man travels the length of the country in search of a woman he once loved: a woman whose husband just died, a woman whose face he no longer remembers. has a couple more capsule reviews:

  • The Macabre Case of Prom Pirom - The Accused meets Murder on the Orient Express in this numbingly effective police procedural spun from an actual sex crime that tends to lower our opinion of people in general and men in particular.
  • The Overture - When Dad isn't sure he wants you to carry on the family tradition of playing the wooden Thai marimba called the ranad-ek, what do you do? Well, you go out into the forest and practise, practise, practise--until you are so good you can win all regional contests and maybe get some royal patronage. And if this happens to be during the height of the Second World War, you'll have the additional burden of defying the military, which has decided to "cleanse" the country of its archaic traditions. The passion for music is lovingly rendered, with several performances bordering on the astonishing. One, mixing old and new skills on an Irving Berlin song, is just plain wonderful.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Ong-Bak at Woodstock

Woodstock. The name is evocative of the '60s counter culture. It's a pretty cool place to this day and puts on a nice film festival, which not only has lots of good films, also has live music.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior will get its East Coast premiere at the festival, which runs from October 13-17, according to Indiewire.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Extreme Asian horror

Horror films still live, jump and breathe in Asia. An example of horror's pan-Asian appeal came a couple of years ago in the form of Three, which brought together directors from Thailand (Nonzee Nimibutr), Korea and Hong Kong to make a film out of three short horror stories.

There's now a new instalment in the series, Three -- Extremes, which brings together Korea's Park Chan-Wook, Japan's Takeshi Miike and Hong Kong's Fruit Chan. The film is showing in Bangkok right now.

I missed the first Three, and it's difficult to find in subtitled form. So I'll be sure to catch this latest one, especially as I have enjoyed other films by Park and Miike.

On the heels of the current Thai horror hit, Shutter, it's a lot of horror for me to take in.

Review: Shutter

  • Directed by Banjong Pisonthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
  • Starring Ananda Everingham, Natthaveeranuch Thongmee, Achita Wuthinundsurasith
  • Released across Asia in late 2004.

At the end of night of drinking with friends, a young couple are driving home, late at night. She's driving and he's flirting. He distracts her with his sweet nothings. Her eyes turn back on the road and bang -- there's a woman in front of the car. Too late to stop, they flatten the person, the car goes out of control and smacks into a billboard. The corpse is on the road. Another car is coming. The boyfriend urges his lady to drive, to flee the scene, as is customary in such cases in Thailand.

It proves to be a bad decision. The guy, portrayed by Ananda Everingham (whose father is famous photographer and publisher John Everingham), is a photographer and every picture he takes from then on contains some ghostly glare, or spirit images. Plus, the guy is having bad dreams. And his neck has been in pain since the wreck.

Their conscience weighing heavily, the couple drives back the next day to see the site. They find a workman and ask him about any injuries. "No, just the sign was hit, probably by a drunken driver," the guy tells them.

So no body was found.

But a spirit is lingering. It is turning up in the sink in the photog's home darkroom, scaring the bejeezus out of his girlfriend. The ghost chick is in photos the guy is taking. One minute she is seen in profile. But keep looking. She's looking right back.

Things just get worse for the guy and his girlfriend.

Shutter is good and scary. There's a moment toward the end when I think it had petered out, but it was a short-lived moment. The suspense was pretty intense throughout the whole movie.

A real sense of dread was felt in a university science lab, where there are shelves upon shelves of embalmed little critters in jars. Scary! The girlfriend goes in there looking for answers. What a stupid place to be! Get the @#$@#% out of there!

Shutter is Thai horror in the grand tradition started by the Pang Bros and The Eye. It goes back even further, with ghost stories involving female ghosts a popular staple of Thai culture. Think about Nang Nak, or more recently, Buppha Rahtree. It's also promising to see in the wake of the awful example of The Committment.

The first feature film from a commercial production house, Phenomenon, it's an auspicious start. It's also good for new studio GMM Tai Hub, as Shutter is pulling in audiences in droves and is being shown at multiple screens around the country.

I predict this will be an international hit as well. The opening and closing credits are already bilingual (Thai and English), so the filmmakers used good foresight in marketing the film overseas. I could also see a major Hollywood studio buying the remake rights to this, as they did with such other Asian horror films Ringu and Ju-On (The Grudge).

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Legal DVDs still 'piracy'

For fans of Asian cinema, especially those based in North America, DVD is often the only way they'll get to view such films as Hero, Infernal Affairs, Shaolin Soccer and Tears of the Black Tiger. All those films have been available on DVD for years, even though the films haven't been released in the States until just recently or not at all.

Understandably, film distributors have a dim view of this "gray market" for DVDs. The Chicago Tribune recently examined the issue.

Miramax actively fought the importation of Hero and other movies awaiting release that are already available on DVD overseas, the Tribune said. But with Hero, the imported DVDs may have actually helped the film's US release.

"It's a 'presentation' movie, so what we feel is if you see the movie on DVD, you'll want to go see it in the theater," Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands said. "On the screen it looks magnificent. I think if it was a small movie, the piracy issue would be more impactful."
Yes, Sands calls this "piracy" even though the discs in question aren't necessarily bootlegs. Hero has been legitimately released on DVD in Asia, although some resellers have been known to make unauthorized copies.

From the consumer point of view, buying Hero on DVD is a little different from picking up the British version of the Clash's first album when it wasn't initially released in the US, the Tribune pointed out. The distinction is that movie companies have divided the globe into "territories," [or regions] and product is not meant to cross boundaries.

Hence those incompatible zone codes on DVDs. European discs won't play on American DVD machines, but many Asian discs will.

"We own those rights for the DVD, for all forms of distribution, and we are actively having people take down sites where the DVD is available," Sands said.

Although eBay prohibits the selling of known pirated materials, "legal copies of DVDs are a bit of a gray area," company spokesman Hani Durzy said. With 29 million listings at any given time, Durzy said, eBay can't be in the business of interpreting rights agreements between outside parties. But under its Verified Rights Owner program, it will pull copyright-violating listings at a company's request.

To a small distributor such as Magnolia Pictures, every ticket or DVD sale counts. In November Magnolia is set to release the raved-about Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak, which can be bought on DVD from various eBay sellers for about $15. The DVD of Ong-Bak is readily available in Thailand for around $7, but there are no English subtitles available, not that they really matter for it's the action that really counts.

"You don't want to basically give up revenue that's coming from another territory," Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles told the Tribune. "We'll probably register a complaint with eBay."

Meanwhile, Hero is harder to find online than it was last year. Likewise, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's crime thriller Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong box office champion finally being released by Miramax next month (and being remade by Martin Scorsese), also has become less plentiful, the Trib says.

It's a sign of how long Miramax sits on these Asian films that Infernal Affairs 2 and Infernal Affairs 3 already are out on DVD. These delays, and Miramax's reputation for Americanizing the films, have boosted the import market.

"[Miramax] is notorious for releasing re-edited and chopped version these films in the market, and the majority of the fans preferred direct imports from Asia over Miramax's products," Ye Meng, of the Asian films Web site, told the Tribune.

The Hero that American audiences will see isn't significantly different from the import version, although some ham-fisted exposition has been added.

In contrast, Miramax tried out numerous variations on Stephen Chow's martial arts comedy Shaolin Soccer -- including a dubbed version that was widely previewed -- before finally releasing it in April. That movie had set Hong Kong box office records back in 2001, and over the ensuing years Web sites such as Ain't It Cool News posted glowing reviews as well as updates on Miramax's many delays, thus spurring readers (including myself) to order the movie on DVD.
Given that Shaolin Soccer isn't a Hero-like spectacle, Sands blames the imports for the comedy's box office failure. "All indications were it was going to be a commercial successful film," he said, citing audience tracking studies. "One has to draw the conclusion that the pirated DVDs had an impact."

One also could conclude that Miramax reaped what it sowed. "They sat around on their hands for three years while it wound up becoming one of the most traded things on the Internet, and then they did a very limited release on it," Knowles said. "The movie failed because they never supported it."

No one can track the number of import DVDs bought in the US, but Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of the trade magazine DVD Exclusive, said these movies have such limited appeal that the discs aren't likely to have much impact on theatrical or home-video business.

"They're small films that aren't going to get $50 million marketing campaigns, so the more exposure and acclaim they can get just helps the overall awareness level for both products," he said.

Then again, these films don't have to be small. A few years ago another subtitled film became available on Asian DVD yet still managed to reach a wide US audience. Its title: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Why Thai? Why not?

Bang Rajan and Last Life in the Universe have been playing US theaters. Upcoming in November is Ong-Bak. Also due is Tropical Malady.

IndieWire recently examined the trend, interviewing critic, Asian film scholar and subtitlist Chuck Stephens, Eamon Bowles of Magnolia Pictures (which is releasing Bang Rajan and Ong-Bak) and Adirek "Uncle" Watleela, the big-wheel producer behind virtually every Thai film that's an international hit. Here's most of the article, which includes some good stuff about Tears of the Black Tiger toward the end:
Most watchers of Thai cinema see this "new wave" as largely accidental -- not the coming to fruition of a thriving film scene, but a grouping of disparate movies made over the last few years that just happen to be coming to the U.S. right now.

"It often happens that an individual country's film scene will seem to emerge all at once," says Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, "like the spate of films from Iran, China in the early '90s, the German '70s-early '80s era. Quite often a success will inspire [people who are] in the same situation that it can be done, and others [will] follow suit." But Bowles says the film's origins had little to do with where the films originated. "They're just terrifically exciting," he adds.

There's no question there's more films coming out of Thailand than ever before, but the infrastructure is anything but steady. "I don't think there's any concerted business effort from the Thai film industry behind this sudden flurry of Thai films on U.S. screens," explains Chuck Stephens, a Bangkok-based film critic who has recently provided English-language subtitles for a variety of new Thai films. "Frankly, I doubt there's a single Thai film company who'd have a clue as to where to begin to engineer such a feat. What it is, I think, is a mixture of coincidental timing." After all, it was almost two years ago that Oliver Stone stumped for Bang Rajan while passing through Bangkok.

Despite his extensive credits, Film Bangkok partner and producer-director "Uncle" Adirek Watleela (known for his involvement in recent Thai breakouts such as Happy Go Lucky, Tears of the Black Tiger, Bangkok Dangerous, Bang Rajan and Saving Private Tootsie) is only a shred more optimistic. "We used to have six to seven films made each year and now there are 50 Thai films, one literally, opening every week," he recently told indieWIRE, through a translator. "But of those 50 movies that come out every year, only two will make a profit."

Though "Uncle" admits that it was a lot worse 10 years ago and the Thais have since gotten better at marketing their projects, funding remains extremely scarce ("there's not a cent," he says) and they still can't compete with Hollywood's domination of local screens.

The international success of Bang Rajan, however, did help the company funded a number of smaller films. And the director of Ong Bak, Prachya Pinkaew, used the proceeds from that film to bankroll his production company Baa-Ram-Ewe, which is designed to finance works by first-time directors.

These two strands of current Thai cinema -- broad-appealing comedy or action pics and international art-house sensations -- is an appropriate model for a burgeoning Asian cinema. Just look at the Korean film boom. But in Thailand, blockbusters such as Bang Rajan and Ong Bak are few and far between.

In the US and internationally, by contrast, it is festival favorites that are likely fueling interest in the action films. "I don't think the art films are getting a boost from the action films," says Chuck Stephens. "If anything, it's probably the other way round. The time is just right for releasing Tropical and Last Life -- based on the various critical masses involved: prominent festival placements and prizes."

Locally, however, Thai art films do very little business. While lyrical gems like Last Life in the Universe and Tropical Malady get praised at festivals the world over and sweep Thailand's version of the Oscars each year, Thai exhibitors treat these movies like second-class citizens, often restricted to one screening per day, and sometimes banished altogether during busy weekends.

According to "Uncle" Watleela, the country's filmmakers suffer at the hands of an exhibition monopoly, where one company controls 70% of the cinemas in Thailand. "The theaters get a 50/50 revenue share," he adds, "which makes it almost impossible for filmmakers to get anything out of it."

Chuck Stephens relayed news of [other struggles].

"Thai filmmaking is still coping with the loss of one of its major figures, Nonzee's production partner at Cinemasia, Duangkamol 'Aom' Limcharoen, who died last December," notes Stephens. "She was a real visionary in terms of understanding what it takes to make Thai films accessible to the rest of the world. Losing her will continue to have an impact of the sorts of Thai films that get made for the forseeable future."

Stephens is pinning his hopes on another producer to fill Limcharoen's shoes, Mingmongkol Sonakul (Mysterious Object at Noon). She is slated to produce Pen-ek Ratanaruang's next film, on which legendary D.P. Christopher Doyle will again serve as cinematographer, and is working with Aditya Assarat, who won multiple international awards for his 2000 short Motorcycle.

Wisit Sasanatieng, famous for his garish pop-western and Cannes sensation Tears of the Black Tiger -- buried and never released by Miramax -- is also currently editing his second feature, "a cartoonishly-stylized romantic comedy called Citizen Dog," according to Stephens. Now that Miramax's chances of releasing Tears of the Black Tiger are next to nothing, fans should campaign for Magnolia -- the new US home for Thai pics -- to wrest the film from the Weinstein's vaults and pull out another Fellowship Adventure Group release.

If there's ever been a time to bring out Tears of the Black Tiger, now's it, riding on a Thai tide that needs whatever momentum it can get to keep from floating back to sea.

Still some life

Indiewire recently talked to Last Life in the Universe director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who talked about the collaborative effort with co-writer Prabda Yoon and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. He also talked at length about how the film's main character is a mirror of sorts.

Before the renowned novelist Prabda Yoon revised it extensively, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang had a script for the film that became Last Life in the Universe. The protagonist was (and remains) preoccupied with death, as was the filmmaker. "I didn't want to die, but I thought about death a lot," Ratanaruang says. "In Thai culture, death is not a bad thing. In Buddhism, death is a part of life. You will continue anyway. I felt so tired. I was employed by an advertising company that let me go out and make films. In my spare time I would shoot TV commercials for friends. I found out that everyone around me felt the same way. The world seemed to be spinning so fast. We were saying, 'Maybe we should die. It would be more relaxing -- and that's exactly what Kenji says in the film.'"

The overall tone is dark and moody. "I am 42 now, and look at things differently," says Ratanaruang, who studied art history at Pratt and worked as a graphic designer for Designframe Inc. in New York in the early to mid-'80s. "That's why this film is different from my other films (Fun Bar Karaoke; 6ixty Nin9 and Monrak Transistor). "I'm 42. You have lost a few more loves, you become lonelier."

Last Life is a true collaboration by people who already know one another. "[Cinematographer] Chris [Doyle] and I and Asano and [actor and cult Japanese director] Miike Takashi are friends. I've known [producer] Wouter [Barendrecht] for a long time. I knew Prabda from the set of Monrak Transistor,' because he was at that time the boyfriend of the lead actress," the director says. "I knew Asano from film festivals. He has worked with Wong Kar-wai, who has always been supportive of my work, a few times. Chris, who I knew and who works with Wong Kar-wai, loves Asanao. It's a family film."

Doyle has a reputation for sometimes taking over projects from directors who don't know what they want. Did he make the shoot difficult for Ratanaruang? "No, I enjoyed it very much," he replies. "Chris works like a journeyman. What was great is that he didn't have preconceived ideas about filming in Thailand. He got a bit lost here. He didn't know the place. He wasn't familiar with the temperature or the local color. Space in Thailand is bigger than in most Asian countries, and most of his films have been shot where spaces are smaller. So he absorbed things day by day while we were shooting. We decided to find the film along the way, almost organically."

He takes a deep breath. "Still, we fought every day."

Need another Hero

Salon recently covered the phenomenal success of Zhang Yimou's Hero in US theaters and used the opportunity to chide Miramax for it's ham-handed efforts at releasing the film. Tears of the Black Tiger is mentioned in the article, so it's a good reminder:

To American fans of Asian cinema, the news that Miramax has acquired rights to any Asian film is an occasion for mourning. By now the studio has assembled a consistent track record of re-cutting, dumping on the market, or simply not releasing the Asian movies it acquires. Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop were cut. The 2000 Thai film Tears of the Black Tiger, a hit at the Cannes film festival, has never been released by Miramax. The US release of Shaolin Soccer, the biggest hit in Hong Kong history, was delayed and delayed before being dumped in theaters last spring shorn of 20 minutes. (At one point, the studio considered releasing it dubbed. Luckily, subtitled and complete versions are available on import DVD.) Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong police thriller so popular it has already spawned two sequels, has been bumped from Miramax's August schedule, though it's scheduled to be released Sept 29 .... Hero has been postponed so often that Zhang's latest movie, House of Flying Daggers, starring Zhang Ziyi, has already played Cannes in May and will follow Hero into theaters in December (Sony Pictures Classics is releasing it).

Given the continuing popularity of Asian films, I would think that Miramax couldn't go wrong in releasing Tears of the Black Tiger, which it has held on to since it purchased the rights to the film in 2001. It could at least release it for festival and art house screenings, where it would surely meet wildly approving audiences. A nice DVD release should then follow.

It took the efforts of none other than Quentin Tarantino to finally get Hero released. Perhaps Quentin could next throw his weight behind Tears of the Black Tiger.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Silly Hollywood movie

A controversy over the promotions for a film called Hollywood Buddha have caused an uproar among Thais and Buddhists. One of the promotional pieces features the director sitting on the Buddha's head -- a big no-no.

Now Thailand is threatening to ban entry to anyone who displays such cultural insensitivity, according to Channel News.

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Bang Rajan in US theatres

Bang Rajan has now been reviewed widely by several of the top critics in the US. Among them, the Chicago Sun-Times has reviewed it:

A huge hit in Thailand, the bloody "Bang Rajan" by Thanit Jitnukul joins the genre of battle epics where the good guys are overwhelmingly outnumbered. That archetypal conflict has seen in "Troy," "King Arthur," "The Alamo" and "Black Hawk Down." Over the centuries, the weaponry may change but the heroics are universal.

Oliver Stone lends his name as a presenter to this rousing film version of a jungle legend named after a village that rebuffed mighty Burmese armies en route to Siam's capital of Ayutthaya in 1765. The plot of Bang Rajan should translate easily to American audiences, resonating with global themes of imperialist invaders and homeland defenders.

Jitnukul delivers thrilling battle scenes. Mud splatters on the lens. The invaders steer attack-elephants whose tusks drip blood. The women of Bang Rajan demand archery lessons. Fallen lovers crawl across the battlefield, fingertips almost touching before death arrives. Nationalist mythology aside, the screenplay Jitnukul co-wrote with Kongkiat Komsiri, Boontin Tuaykaew, Patikarn Petchmunee and Sittipong Mattanavee depicts the doomed characters as more than patriotic martyrs.

And the Boston Globe trashes the film, comparing it unfavorably to Suriyothai.

You can't help but admire the spirit and commitment of those villagers, or the pride that a director such as Thanit Jitnukul takes in telling their story. Just like Chatrichalerm Yukol's The Legend of Suriyothai (2001), even when it falls short, Bang Rajan is at least a work of the heart.

But where Suriyothai was all about staging elaborate battles and consequently drew thin sketches of too many confusing characters, Bang Rajan fights guerrilla style and goes for a little more emotional impact between beheadings. It's certainly the right idea, the only problem being that Jitnukul and his army of screenwriters aren't up to the dramatic mission, so you might find yourself skimming subtitles and stifling an inappropriate laugh as, say, dying lovers crawl toward one another on the battlefield. Unintentionally funnier still are moments amid the lengthy battle scenes when the director and his crew splash mud or bodily fluid up into the camera and just let it hang there on the lens, or employ the kind of fake-punch sound effects that even kung-fu flicks now consider parodies. Though the fighting generally has a sickening immediacy, its realism is undermined when corpses lie spattered in blood that looks as if it was applied by a carwash sprayer, or a severed limb rolls over the ground like a mannequin part.

Yes, Bang Rajan introduces Westerners to a slice of history worth noting, but its stirring lesson is told in a way that's too long, too brutal, and too clunky to recommend enthusiastically. That is, unless you're Oliver Stone.

The screening schedule has changed. I'd hoped to catch the film at Landmark's Tivoli Theater in St Louis, but now I"m going to miss it. The schedule can be found at the Magnolia Pictures website.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Beautiful Boxer in Hong Kong

Nong Toom and star Asanee Suwan put some muscle behind promoting Beautiful Boxer in Hong Kong.

The film premiered last weekend in Hong Kong before a star-studded audience. Based on the true story of transgender kickboxer Nong Toom (played by Asanee Suwan), it traces the life of Nong Toom's childhood, his teenage life as a traveling monk and grueling days in boxing camps, struggles with sexual identity and eventual transformation into a woman.