Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Chuck Stephens' Top 10 for 2004

Film critic and subtitlist Chuck Stephens offers his look back at 2004's year in cinema in a recent article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Writing from Bangkok, he relates the unique experience of shopping at a local supermarket and finding the new DVD for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady in an impuse-buy display.

He writes more about his neighborhood on Soi Thonglor in Bangkok:

Of course, the street I live on, Soi Thonglor, isn't anywhere remotely near southern California. It's half a planet away, deep in the heart of Bangkok, on the eastern edge of the neighborhood traditionally inhabited by the city's sizable community of expat Japanese. The only Hollywood nearby is the consortium of go-go bars – Hollywood Stars, Hollywood Carousel, and Hollywood 2 – where a few months back I think I might have spotted Oliver Stone, the Alexander auteur, roaming alone on an all-night odyssey that might easily have ended in the enormous local disco known as Coliseum. Not that Thonglor doesn't have its fair share of homegrown cineastes. Filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang, contemporary Thai cinema's reigning social satirist, has lived for most of his life in a house quite nearby, as did the fictional hero of his latest film, Last Life in the Universe – a disaffected Japanese librarian, played by Asano Tadanobu, whose apparent hobby is deciding how best to kill himself. And director Wisit Sasanatieng asked me to meet him a few months ago at one of those two Starbucks, to discuss subtitling his new film Citizen Dog; in fact, the filmmaker spends so much time in that coffee joint that they ought to name one of their high-caffeine confections Tears of the Black Tiger – after the title of his best-known film.

So it's not exactly surprising that the DVD of Tropical Malady should be so conveniently available in my local grocery store, even though American audiences will have to wait to see the film – a two-part invention wherein a forest ranger and an unemployed country boy quickly fall in love, then just as quickly drift apart as the story shifts from sunny romance to spooky parable about tiger spirits, talking monkeys, and a tree that emits extraterrestrial bleeps in the night – until Strand Releasing begins allowing American theatrical runs some time later in 2005. After all, Tropical Malady already enjoyed its local theatrical run in Bangkok, a modest but surprisingly successful four-week stint that constituted a first for Apichatpong, whose internationally acclaimed films are only just beginning to find an audience at home. What may be surprising, though – particularly for anyone who's never traveled to Thailand, Malaysia, or any of the many places throughout Southeast Asia where intellectual property rights aren't exactly chief among local law enforcement's concerns – is the degree to which so much of up-to-the-minute cinema from the rest of the world is available almost everywhere here.

Not just last weekend's Hollywood blockbusters, either; Wong Kar-wai's 2046, Olivier Assayas's Clean, and the entire fifth season of The Sopranos – the residents of Kuala Lumpur, Kowloon, and Krung Thep can pick up those and a hundred other recent titles from sidewalk vendors and at makeshift stalls in any local shopping mall for as little as $2.50 a disc.

The most important thing to point out about all this – before Jack Valenti comes bursting through these pages like a freshly incubated alien fetus, spewing acid-rich invective and righteous indignation – is that very few of these obviously illegal entertainments originate from the sources the American film industry tends to worry most about_: those seasonal video-screeners intended for Academy members. Nor is the cabal of American film critics – whom the Motion Picture Association of America last year tried to insinuate were less prone to use the year-end screeners sent them by aggressive studio flacks as aids in compiling their annual top 10 rankings than as black-market booty to buoy their eBay accounts – behind this international free-for-all of forged fictions (and, as in the case of that global bootleg blockbuster Fahrenheit 9/11, the occasional doc). Nope. It's the paying theatergoer with the camcorder in her backpack – setting up as the houselights dim and zooming in on her local multiplex screen, and jacking audio direct to tape from those state-of-the-art hearing-impaired audio outputs – who's doing most of the dirty work. And the longer that fans like her are left fed up by distributors too lazy to release the films they've got languishing in their vaults, or who refuse to release those films uncut, undubbed, and otherwise unmauled by their regional marketing department's meat hooks – the longer this market will flourish. And that's before the black market begins to shade into gray. There's no beverage called Tears of the Black Tiger available at Starbucks; nor is there a film with that title available for purchase on DVD in the U.S. of A. – despite Miramax having licensed it for American distribution nearly five years ago. But there are still plenty of available copies, and they're only a Web search away. And as the world grows ever smaller, and the possibility of mistaking Soi Thonglor for a boulevard in Santa Monica becomes ever easier, so too does the temptation to bypass Miramax with a mouse click grow stronger day by day.

Chuck Stephens' 10 best films of 2004
  1. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
  2. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
  3. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
  4. Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
  5. 6horts (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia)
  6. The World (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
  7. Collateral (Michael Mann, USA)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, USA)
  9. Primer (Shane Carruth, USA)
  10. Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, USA)

(Photo: Chuck Stephens as Peter/Andre in Citizen Dog; cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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