The best local production I saw was The Shutter, a scary thriller that spooked me senseless and had quite a few audience members shrieking out loud. It followed typical genre conventions but had enough smart twists to make it seem fresh. The story follows a young photographer who starts seeing strange images in his photos after he and his girlfriend are in an accident. The film's real-life inspirations from mysterious spirits showing up in amateur photos made it even scarier. No wonder it was the top-grossing film in Thailand last year. I was shocked to learn that such an accomplished debut was the work of two guys in their early 20s, Pakpoom Wongpoom and Bunjong Pisunthanagoon. Expect more great things from these two as they now pursue solo projects. And I'd also think a Western remake of this one is inevitable (rights still seem to be up for grabs).
Another Thai film I enjoyed immensely was Citizen Dog, from Tears of the Black Tiger director Wisit Sasanatieng. It was a quirky and fantastical light comedy about a country boy, Pod, who moves to Bangkok and falls in love with the maid in his office. It didn't have much depth, but its playful spirit made for a very entertaining ride.
In the Asean competition of films from Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. James Lee's The Beautiful Washing Machine from Malaysia, took top honors. I also heard good things about Minh Nguyen-Vo's Buffalo Boy and Thai drama The Letter by Phaoon Chandrasiri. I was less impressed with moralistic Thai film The Judgment and Homecoming, Gil Portes' melodramatic Philippine drama about a young woman whose village is threatened when she develops Sars.
There were a number of SARS films here -- the most fun was zombie flick Sars War. In the Thai Panorama section, I can't believe I sat through all of Art of the Devil, a cheesy thriller that wouldn't be out of place on Showtime at 3 a.m. One doc I saw, Yesterday Today Tomorrow, a Thai-Japanese coproduction, was a refreshingly lighthanded doc about people living with Aids in rural Thailand. It captured their everyday lives -- not the big moments we usually see on camera -- as they dealt with the disease.
Meanwhile, Stephen Garrett reports from Rotterdam.
A sidebar on South East Asian cinema was especially frustrating, with a slew of Malaysian movies that felt like warmed-over dramatic themes and formal montage strategies of social alienation from Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao Hsien. Most promising of the lot was James Lee's The Beautiful Washing Machine, a marriage of wry humor with austere direction in its tale of a young man with a clothes washer that strangely takes human form in the shape of an attractive, silent woman fixated on cleaning.
The more interesting South East Asian films were genre-oriented, such as the omnibus Visits: Hungry Ghost Anthology. Lee is represented in this film as well, along with fellow directors Low Ngai Yen, Ng Tian Hann and Ho Yu-Hang, who each contribute to a quartet of horror stories that are admirably philosophical in their approach, minimizing schlock-shock moments and easy scares in favor of deeper ideas about social unease and haunting themes about human relationships.
Another genre-bending selection was The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a tongue-in-cheek satire of Thai melodramas and musicals starring an ass-kicking transvestite and co-directed by Michael Shaowanasai and Apichatong Weerasethakul (whose Tropical Malady couldn't be more different in style and substance).
And also surprisingly satisfying is the seedy thriller Cavite from American-Filipino directors Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon. The film, which follows in almost real-time the story of a young man blackmailed by an anonymous cell-phone caller into committing an act of terrorism, initially plays like a bad Joel Schumacher film set in Manila. But its insights into the Philippines' rampant poverty and desperation, as well as the twist of having a moderate Muslim forced by an Extremist Muslim into violent behavior, makes the movie and its climax a powerful commentary on the complexities of modern-day religious fundamentalism and socioeconomic despair.
(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)