Monday, August 29, 2005

Review: Nang Nak

  • Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr
  • Screenplay by Wisut Sasanatieng
  • Starring Intira Charoenpura, Winai Kraibutr
  • Released theatrically in Thailand in 1999. Reviewed on Thai-released DVD.

As a love story, Nang Nak really works. And as a psychological thriller, it isn't too bad. But as far as horror, Nang Nak doesn't go far enough, especially today when the Asian horror genre has become so widespread and well known.

Nang Nak is a story that's been told dozens of times on film and television in Thailand. There's also a successful opera production called Mae Nak. And yet another film is due out soon that will likely upstage this 1999 version in terms of horror.

So it's a famous story, well known to ghost-obsessed Thais.

In Nonzee's version, set sometime in probably the late 18th or early 19th century, Nak (Intira) is a simple country woman who is deeply saddened when her husband, Mak (Winai) leaves to go to war with the Burmese.

Pregnant, she has a difficult childbirth while Mak is away and dies.

Death is all around Mak. On the battlefield, he picks up the body of his best friend, only to have jugular vein blood spew in his face. Mak is then wounded in the chest somehow, and nearly dies himself.

His recovery takes a long time. Finally, he returns home. But things back home along Prakhanong Canal (now in the heart of the sprawling Bangkok metropolis) aren't the same. The houses are all rundown, and nobody seems to be around.

But at home, Nak and his newborn son are there waiting for him. All is well at home, it seems, even if the neighborhood is falling apart, beset by disease and strife.

Little by little, the reality of Mak's world is revealed. A friend runs away from him. The area underneath his normally fastidiously clean home is overrun by rats. One of the wooden steps to his porch snaps in two, as if the house has fallen into disrepair.

Meanwhile, Nak's ghost is working overtime to keep Mak clueless. An old woman who stole her wedding ring when she died suffers a mysterious death. Mak finds the old lady's remains being eaten by monitor lizards -- the scariest scene in the film.

Oh, there is one other really cool, creepy scene -- a dream sequence when Mak is holding on to his friend's body and it turns into a dried-out corpse in his arms. Yikes!

Anyway, the gig's up after one of Mak's friends tries to warn him. Then the guy ends up in the canal with his neck broken.

A monk comes to visit Mak. They all can see the dilapidated state of the haunted house Mak is living in. He tells Mak to think of Buddha and duck his head between his legs and look behind him -- then he'll see the reality.

The pace picks up nicely from there, but it all could have been a lot scarier.

As a love story, Nang Nak is very tender with Intira doing a great job of conveying her character's love and devotion to her husband and baby. Winai is a solid leading man, so it's sad to see him deluded, living in a dusty, old house. Together, he and Nak share a tender, warm relationship that's erotic in the strangest ways, like when Nak shaves his face and clips his hair, or when Mak asks Nak to give him the already-chewed betel nut she has in her mouth.

The ghost Nak employs no special effects, no make up, no gore and hardly any violence. What little creepiness there is comes from atmosphere -- a bad-omen owl, crows gathering in trees, wind blowing, a storm brewing. On her own, she's not really terrifying at all. What's terrifying is the villager's reactions. They are scared so you should be, too. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of Nonzee and Wisit (who went on to greater things as writer-director of Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog), who just wanted to concentrate on the psychological and romantic aspects of the legend.

Horror fans, however, will be left wanting more, even if fans of the nebulous genre known as "Thai film" will be satisfied. One of the early films to really put Thai film on the international map in this current era of the industry, Nang Nak has a special place in the canon of contemporary Thai films.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saving the Thai film industry

The Ministry of Culture wants to save Thai film, the Bangkok Post reported recently.

Permanent secretary Tipawadee Meksawan told a seminar in "Thai Film Promotion" that the ministry will form a new agency, the Institute of Cultural Innovation, to help the industry.

"A movie is more than just a form of entertainment. It unveils the imaginations of filmmakers, script writers and all those involved in its production," she was quoted as saying. "Most importantly, it is also considered culture that can be transferred from generation to generation over the centuries."

Tipawadee said the ministry would concentrate its support on the new crop of filmmakers, the Post reported.

Filmmakers have urged the government to set up a film promotion agency and create a bureaucracy to support Thai films, similar to what South Korea has.

The Post also carried statements from Hong Joon Kim, dean of the School of Film, TV and Multimedia at the Korean National University of Arts, who said some major factors that contribute to the success of Korean films include hosting of important international film festivals, the existence of film schools and the forming of a national film commission.

"The other important factor is the recognition of films as an important part of national culture," he was quoted as saying.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomaotes)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Review: Tom Yum Goong

  • Directed by Pracha Pinkaew
  • Starring Tony Jaa, Mum Jokmok, Bongkote Kongmalai, Johnny Nguyen, Jing Xing, Nathan Jones, Lateef Crowder, Jon Foo.
  • Wide theatrical release in Asia on August 11, 2005

There’s a reason Tom Yum Goong is titled such. Not just an arbitrary title, it's the name of a restaurant in Sydney that is a front for various illegal activities, including elephant smuggling.

Which is what brings country boy Kham (Phanom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum) to Australia. Essentially, it’s the same story as Tony’s first movie, “Ong Bak” – something is stolen from his rural home and he must go to the city to retrieve it.

Two years have passed since “Ong Bak”, which became an international sensation. The acclaim has given Jaa, director Prachya Pinkaew and stunt coordinator Panna Ritthikrai a reason to try and aim higher and do more. Though the stunts and fighting are still breathtaking, the spicy action is watered down by a convoluted, preachy story. It’s been diluted for international tastes. The title, while having an actual connection to the story, announces the movie as just another product in Thailand Inc's marketing blitz.

There’s an international cast as well, including Chinese ballet dancer Jing Xing as the lead villain, with Spider-Man stunt double Johnny Nguyen and Australian strongman Nathan Jones as henchmen.

Thai stars include Ong Bak comic relief Petchtai “Mum Jok Mok” Wongkamlao, this time as a cop, and stunning leading lady Bongkote “Tak” Kongmalai (Ai Fak, Bangrajan)

The story begins poetically and reverently, with Kham growing up with elephants and being taught by his father all the lore about these great beasts – how to protect them and fight like them. Then, amidst the Songkran celebration and an elephant roundup, things go awry and Kham’s father’s bull elephant, Por Yai, and a calf, Korn, are stolen.

Kham must find the elephants. He crashes a party, trashes the house and gets into an obligatory long-tail boat chase with gangsters, which culminates with explosive results.

He gets the information he needs, which leads him to Sydney, where at the airport he bumps into someone familiar looking. They exchange glances, but the other guy tells Kham not to worry, just keep going. What was that all about?

Kham, not speaking a lick of English, hops in a cab and shows a picture to the driver – it’s of some people and the Tom Yum Goong restaurant.

But the driver is wanted by the police, and after a brief chase, Kham becomes acquainted with Sgt Mark (Mum), the Asian community liaison officer for the police. Kham is held briefly, but escapes when he recognises the bad guy Johnny (Nguyen) from the picture and gives chase through downtown Sydney. While he pursues Johnny and his thugs, he encounters Pla (Tak), a Thai woman who for some reason must ||work as a prostitute for Johnny’s gang. She tries to warn him not to mess with those guys, but Kham messes anyway.

From the streets, the action moves to a warehouse, where Kham must battle a gang of extreme-sport punks wielding fluorescent light sticks for no apparent reason other than it looks cool.

The story is confusing. Johnny is the chief thug for Madame Rose (Jing), a transsexual Chinese crime boss who’s trying to consolidate her territory. She’s aided by a corrupt Australian police detective. The story also involves Sgt Mark being framed for the murder of a police commissioner, which puts him on the run.

Among the enterprises fronted by Rose’s Tom Yum Goong restaurant is another restaurant upstairs where smuggled wildlife is served up.

Kham eventually makes it inside the restaurant, bursting in and scaring all the regular customers. But upstairs, where fat cats are dining on pangolins and pythons, no one bats an eye when a Thai guy in a red scarf bursts in and hollers, “Where are my elephants!” Indeed, when Johnny knocks Kham down with another series of roundhouse kicks, the crowd applauds. But even they start screaming when Kham keeps getting up and coming back for more.

Eventually, Kham and Mark hide out in a Buddhist temple run by an Australian monk. Later, the bad guys come looking for Kham at the temple, beating up the monk and his followers and setting the place on fire, which makes the sprinkler system go off and creates a scene that’s straight out of a John Woo movie. All that’s missing are white doves.

But to make up for that, there’s menacing capoeira figher Lateef Crowder who has a go at Kham. More martial-arts ballet comes from wushu artist Jon Foo. The terrible trio is completed by the hulking Jones, who gets to enjoy much more action than he did with Brad Pitt in the opening scenes of “Troy”.

The closing fight scene at Madame Rose’s darkened headquarters features Kham laying waste to dozens of men, leaving them moaning on the floor, similar to what Uma Thurman’s character did in Kill Bill Vol 1. Kham then faces Jones again, along with three other giant bruisers. This is where his expertise with elephants (and some old elephant bones) comes in handy. He has a final showdown with Johnny and even Rose gets in on the action, swinging a bullwhip, and later trying to make her escape by helicopter.

Not to throw too much cold water on this hot and spicy action movie – the action is what fans will come for – but “Tom Yum Goong” cannot make the claim of “no wires, no tricks, no CGI”, like “Ong Bak” did. There are certain digital effects done in post production that detract from the authenticity of Panna’s and Jaa’s hard-hitting stunt choreography. Perhaps if the story had been kept as simple as “Ong Bak’s” was – and based in Thailand – there would have been no need for the visual trickery.

Tony is solid as always. He has a natural presence that has carried him far and will continue to carry him. But the best acting is by Mum, who is hilarious whether he’s speaking Thai or his heavily accented English. Make sure you stick around for the closing credits to catch him bungling his lines. Tak is excellent in all her scenes, however brief, though her sexy charm shines in a mud-bath segment. Nguyen exudes charisma, unless he’s in a scene with Jing. In those, both he and Jing are horrible. On their own, they’re both fun to watch.

Tom Yum Goong is clearly an effort to cash in on the runaway success of Ong Bak. It shows that there are some great talents at work – Tony and stunt director Panna. They are already planning a third film, which hopefully will be back to the basic, old-school movie martial arts that were better showcased in Ong Bak.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tom Yum Goong: The game, the action figures

Gamers can play action hero Tony Jaa in Tom Yum Goong: The Game, which was developed by Game No Limit, a 10-million baht joint venture company between Sahamongkol Film International and Show No Limit, an IT event organiser, the Bangkok Post reports.

"After watching Ong-Bak I was so excited about his marvellous Thai kickboxing skills. I was inspired and wanted to develop a game by using his character," Game No Limit managing director Pongsuk Hiranprueck told the Post's Database section.

In addition to a financial partnership with Sahamongkol boss Somsak Techarattanaprasert, Pongsuk also had help from his thesis adviser from four years earlier, Prachya Pinkaew -- the director of Tom Yum Goong, who also helped direct the game.

It's the first time a Thai movie has had a tie-in through a computer game. The game will be available with English subtitles through distributor New Era, which will market the game in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Brunei and Thailand. The price is 299 baht (about US$7).

The company expects to sell around 50,000 copies and will also launch the game for mobile phones. has more about the game.

Not only is there a computer game, the merchandising behind Tom Yum Goong is huge -- the biggest ever for Thai film. In addition to movie tie-ins and product placement, there's Tony Jaa, the action figure. They're already for sale on e-bay.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sunday, August 7, 2005

King Naresuan the Great

Haven't had anything about MC Chatrichalerm Yukol in awhile. He's the director of Suriyothai and many other films. His career stretches back into the 1970s.

Twitch has just had some news about Chatrichalerm, though, and his upcoming film, Naresuan the Great. While Suriyothai was the biggest Thai film ever made, Naresuan, a sequel of sorts to that historical epic of epics, looks to exceed that, with a budget of US$12 million.

Naresuan was a 14th century king who fought the last battle for Siamese independence from the Burmese.

The nut graph in this latest news is that the film's production is building a vast ancient city of palaces, villages and temples that will come into use for other films and television series after filming is completed.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Invisible Waves in 2006

For some reason, Fortissimo Films has pushed Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's next film, Invisible Waves to release in 2006 instead of late 2005. Somebody over at Twitch noticed the date change on the Fortissimo site and decided to make a note of it. So, something to look forward to next year instead of later this year.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Weinsteins buy US rights to Tom Yum Goong

Variety and Screen Daily are reporting that the Weinstein Brothers have purchased the rights to Tom Yum Goong. Given the record of the Weinstein's old company, Miramax, has with Asian films, no one is very excited by this prospect. There's plenty of grumbling over at Twitch about it. And with good reason.

Miramax bought the rights to Tears of the Black Tiger and have sat on it ever since. Come on! It's been five years! Show it already!

They had Shaolin Soccer and botched the release of it. They had Iron Monkey and rescored it and edited it and made it a "Quentin Tarantino presents" film. They had Hero and it turned into a Quentin film as well. I can't think right now what other injustices they've done to Asian film.

Most folks would have thought that Asian film companies wouldn't sell anymore to the Weinsteins, but apparently the money was good enough and that was all that matters.

But there's a part of me that's hoping the new Weinstein company will do a better job, since it isn't connected to Disney, which I think jealously stockpiled Asian films with an eye toward remaking them first. And because the Weinstein's are a new company, perhaps they will go ahead and release the film in a timely manner because they have fewer other options.

Tom Yum Goong is set for an Asia-wide release on August 11 and in Europe sometime early next year, according to a recent article in ThaiDay.

The rights to Tom Yum Goong outside Asia were initially purchased by the French company, TF1, which outbid Luc Besson's EuropaCorp.

Now this is where it got confusing for me. TF1 only purchased the sales rights -- it isn't a distributor. TF1 passes its French distribution rights on to TFM. And the Weinsteins have distribution rights for North American and other places.

Contender Home Entertainment bought the UK rights to both Tom Yum Goong and Ong Bak. And there's another company doing the release in Korea, and will likely send the movie to DVD shortly after the theatrical run.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Review: Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers (2005)

A trio of short films by three up-and-coming Asian directors: Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Shinya Tsukamoto from Japan and Il-gon Song from Korea, are being shown at the Ninth Thai Short Film & Video Festival.

The films were commissioned earlier this year by the Jeonju International Film Festival and this was the first chance to see them in Thailand -- possibly anywere else in world outside of Korea.

Apichatpong's Worldly Desires started things off. It could very well be a long-lost third part to this Cannes-winning Tropical Malady, delving back into the jungle. The shortest of the shorts, a lot is packed into its 28 minutes.

First, a couple is stumbling around lost. No wait, take that back. First, there is a music video, with five women in white dancing to a sexy, breathy jazz-pop Thai vocal by Nadia (her music also was used over the open credits that roll smack dab in the middle of Joe's Blissfully Yours). Those ladies come back at least three times, dancing to the same song, like fairies in the night.

Back to that lost couple. Turns out they are making a movie. So it's a short film about a film, which is being made by fellow indie Thai director, Pimpaka Towira (One Night Husband).

There's some other random stuff as well. It's fun.

Next up is Haze by Shinya. This is one fucked up little film. I felt like it made everyone uncomfortable. Running at 40-plus minutes, this hellish vision of a guy trapped in a concrete crawlspace, looking for a way out, whizzed mercifully by, but not without leaving scars on everyone's psyche. This is one powerful film.

I had read a bit before, then forgotten that Shinya was the same guy who did the just as fucked up Snake of June. So I wasn't mentally prepared. When it was over, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Whew!

Last was Il-gon's Magician(s). It explores some relationships -- between a couple of friends reminiscing over an old tape they made while hanging out at a bar isolated in the cold, Korean countryside. A monk shows up to get his snowboard, but it's not as weird as it seems. Each guy then chats with a girlfriend, hashing over that relationship, and then the girls chat. Not really much to it, but after Haze, it was an entertaining relief.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Tom Yum Swag

With Tom Yum Goong opening on August 11 across Asia, there is a massive marketing and merchandising push, possibly the biggest ever for a Thai film.

First of all, there's the cool popcorn-soda set you get at Major Cineplex and EGV cinemas. The bucket and cup have Tony Jaa's face from the movie posters, and the cup is crowned by a figurine of Tony giving the elephant-bone business to Nathan Jones. This is so cool!

Tony's face also is on Mama instant noodle cups (tom yum goong flavor, of course), so I'll have my eye out for that.

Thai mobile-phone operator Dtac is selling recharge cards with the movie poster images on them. Lucky me. Dtac is my operator, so another trinket to watch out for.

The movie itself is rife with product placement.

The most blatant and clever is for M150 energy drink, which is hawked by supercool Thai rocker Sek Loso. Early in the movie, during the long-tail boat chase, a boat crashes through an M150 billboard, just missing Loso's face. This establishes the image.

Later, on location in Sydney, (edit: a double for) the sunglasses-wearing rocker from the billboard steps out of a doorway next to Mum Jokmok, cracks open an M150 and guzzles it right down. It's hilarious.

While it gets the product placement out of the way, it also gives exposure to the pitchman who is making a major push to "go inter", bringing his brand of Thai rock to North America and England with an English-language album.

Mama noodles also find their way into the film, as does another sponsor, Thai Airways, which shows off one of its "Royal Barge" liveried 747-400's. Actually it's good to have this preserved on film, as the Royal Barge artwork -- a favorite of planespotters the world over -- is giving way to a new, less spectacular paintjob.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, August 5, 2005

Tom Yum Goong: The press preview

Here's some photos from the Tom Yum Goong press preview last night at Major Cineplex Ratchayothin.

I stood up front, hoping to snap a photo of Tony Jaa doing a kick. But then Nathan Jones came and stood right in front of me. It was a tough place to be in -- being crushed by the crowd behind me and having the hulking Mr Jones in front.

Off to the side, though, I did manage to snap a shot of Mum Jokmok (who is funny no matter what he is doing or what language he is speaking) and the great stunt coordinator Panna Rittakrai.

And over Nathan Jones' shoulder I could sort of snap pictures of what was going on on the stage. Here, from left, Panna Rittakrai, director Prachya Pinkaew, executive producer Somsak Techaratanaprasert and star Tony Jaa chat during the dog-and-pony show.

And most of the supporting cast got up on stage as well. From left, Mum Jokmok, wushu artist Jonathan Foon, Chinese ballet dancer Jing Xing, actress Bongkote 'Tak' Kongmalai, Spider-Man stunt double Johnny Nguyen (he speaks Thai!) and Australian Strongman and pro wrestler Nathan Jones.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Worldly Desires gets Thai premiere

Worldly Desires, a short film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, will screen for the first time in Thailand on August 6 and 14 at the Ninth Thai Short Film and Video Festival.

The film will be screened along with the other two shorts, Haze by Shinya Tsukamato and Magician(s) by Song Il -gon, which were commissioned by Jeonju International Film Festival Digital Short Films project.

Like Joe's other films, Worldly Desires takes place in the jungle. It's the story of a couple who escapes their family to go into the woods to look for a spiritual tree. One Night Husband director Pimpaka Towira appears as a filmmaker.

The three films are set for two screenings at 5pm on Saturday, August 6 and on Sunday, August 14 at the 14 October 73 Memorial on Rajdamnoen Road in Bangkok.

Joe is set to give a talk on experimental film ahead of Saturday's screening. Proceeds benefit Thailand's National Film Archive.

(Via, cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, August 1, 2005

Southeast Asia Film Festival, Sept 28-Oct 1

Following up the earlier news about the Vietnam film industry, comes news about some Vietnamese films being shown at at the 50th Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Malaysia on September 28-October 1.

The three films selected are Mua Len Trau (Buffalo Boy); Giai Phong Sai Gon (Sai Gon Liberation) and Chien Dich Trai Tim Ben Phai (The Right Heart Campaign).

While Vietnamese films aren't so popular in Vietnam, the state-run Vietnam News Agency is doing a good job at promoting films. Here's what it says:

Buffalo Boy, which has already participated in many international film festivals and won many prizes, is Viet Nam’s fondest hope.

Sai Gon Liberation, meanwhile, is a State-produced war movie, made over a period of nearly 13 years and contains footage of historical moments of the nation.
The Right Heart Campaign is a high school comedy that has already achieved commercial success in Viet Nam. It is about the relationship between a young teacher and a group of sometimes rebellious students.

Two documentary films – Nhung Neo Duong Cong Ly (Ways of Justice), directed by Lai Van Sinh, which was awarded a Golden Kite by the Viet Nam Cinematography Association, and Doi Muoi (The Life of Salt) – will also be sent to the film festival.

Ba Chiec Ghe (Three Chairs) and Nam Hat Ke (Five Grains of Millet) will compete for prizes in the cartoon category at the festival.

No word yet on films from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. I'll try to keep an eye out.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Vietnamese film hurting

It's a problem that Thai filmmakers share -- local audiences failing to be compelled by locally produced films.

But the problem is more acute in Vietnam, where audiences tend to prefer Korean, Chinese and Thai films. This is according to the Viet Nam Cinema Workers' Association, which recently held a congress. Here's more:

A majority of film-goers said they do not appreciate Vietnamese films as they lack arresting details and fail to mention youth's current problems, therefore foreign films are their choice when they want to relax or amuse themselves.

People's Artist Tran The Dan, Vice Secretary of the Viet Nam Cinema Workers' Association, said it is important to make films entertaining to meet the public's demands, yet he rushed to add that it does not mean it is acceptable to lower the artistic quality to attract larger audiences.

According to Vice General Director of the Viet Nam Cinema Department Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat, the industry's main problem is a lack of quality scenarios; film makers continue to exploit old and easy themes such as the war and country life, while avoid issues of the modern society. A number of recent films popular among young people, which deal with modern issues, are only copycats of Chinese and Republic of Korea films.

Director Vuong Duc said the Vietnamese film industry is in need of new blood, both film makers and actors and actresses. He said there should be a long-term plan to seek and foster talents.

Additionally, Vietnam's Minister of Culture and Information Pham Quang Nghi was recently in Cambodia, where officials are exploring possible cooperation in the arts, something that will be cautiously looked into, given the two countries' prickly past relations.

Cambodians, meanwhile, are hoping to preserve and strengthen their culture, and there's a good website about that (thanks to the Santepheap blog). Also, Cambodia is planning a film festival at the end of November.

(Cross-posted at Rotten Tomatoes)