Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Bangkok Love Story

  • Written and directed by Poj Arnon
  • Starring Rattanaballang Tohsawat, Chaiwat Tongsang, Weeradit Srimalai,
  • Chatcha Rujinanon
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on September 13, 2007

A shootout in a Buddha factory.

If all I had to do was write that sentence as a means of critical response to Bangkok Love Story, I would be very happy indeed, because then I could move to more enjoyable matters. Unfortunately, there is a bit more to tell about this film, which will likely gain what stature it can in pop culture as the "Thai Brokeback Mountain" or maybe "that gay hitman movie".

Written and directed by Poj Arnon, Bangkok Love Story, or simply Puen (Friend), is the tale of two young guys who weren't looking for love when they first met. Thrown together in odd circumstances, they are sort of dumbstruck at first by lust, and love comes later -- a lot later.

Poj has said he had the idea for the story long before Brokeback Mountain was made into a smash-hit, Oscar-winning film. But since Brokeback, it's lot easier to get a movie like Bangkok Love Story made, and like it or not, comparisons will be drawn.

Bangkok Love Story is about a loner hitman named Mhek (Cloud), played by Rattanaballang Tohsawat, who supports his HIV-positive mother and brother (Mhok, or Fog) with his assassination jobs. His usual hits are simple, walk-by affairs: sneak up, pull the trigger and run away. But for his next assignment, Cloud must kidnap a guy named It (or Stone), played by Chaiwat Tongsang, and bring him to his scar-faced bosses (including Ong-Bak baddie Suchao Pongwilai).

The confrontation with the bosses goes awry, with Cloud declaring he won't kill Stone because Stone's a good guy and Cloud only kills dirtbags. The aforementioned shoot-out in the Buddha factory occurs, with Cloud taking a bullet, Stone picking up Cloud's gun and returning fire, and then the two guys escaping and eventually holing up in Cloud's rooftop hideaway. Stone then digs the bullet out of Cloud's shoulder, and, while wearing nothing but his undershorts, proceeds to give cloud a sponge bath. The two men hide out, usually wearing nothing but their undershorts. They sneakily stare at one another, and finally get it over with in the rain, on the rooftop, as the skytrain whizzes by.

It's unfortunate that Bangkok Love Story has been marketed as Brokeback Mountain was -- as a gay love story. Knowing that walking in, there's no surprise. It's not a matter of will the guys get together, but when, and how, and who will be the Heath Ledger and who will be the Jake Gyllenhaal (Rattaballung and Chaiwat, respectively, more or less, though Chaiwat takes on some of Ledger's character's attributes later). The movie really has no place else to go after that first bit of PG-13 sex, though it does try for a twist at the end to keep things interesting.

The sexual tension gone, Cloud wants nothing more to do with Stone, and much of the rest of the picture is spent with Stone wallowing in tortured pain at not being able to be with Cloud, and the harmonica-playing Cloud slyly hiding from Stone when Stone comes looking for him. Of course there is the issue of Cloud's fiancee, Sai (Sand) who wonders why her husband-to-be isn't the same since he returned from his strange disappearance. One day Stone turns up with a ragdoll he found in Cloud's room, and spends his nights pathetically hugging it, much as a denim jacket was pathetically hugged in Brokeback. At that moment, Sand knows that Stone is lost to her.

Subplots? Well, it wouldn't be a film without one. In Bangkok Love Story, it involves Cloud's brother, Fog (Weeradit Srimalai), who is HIV positive, and is persecuted for his affliction, and gets revenge by working as a hustler. Both boys were sexually abused by their step-father, who infected the mother and Fog with HIV. It's not clear how the story of Fog really fits in film, other than to just be there and make a well-intentioned social statement about the treatment and stigmatisation of AIDS- and HIV-positive people in Thailand.

Chemistry-wise, the pairing of Cloud and Stone never really gels, beyond a couple of make-out scenes in the rain. By the time they really get together emotionally, it's too little, too late. As a supportive big-brother stand-in, Stone and little brother Fog share more tenderness in the friendship department.

Where Bangkok Love Story falls apart with its storytelling, it makes up for in the style department. Bangkok has never looked so beautiful on film, with super-saturated colours, sped-up motion and jumpy editing. The love scenes are in the rain (did I mention that?), which must be symbolic of something or other. Some colourful Siamese fighting fish figure into the story, too, and I have to wonder if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Siamese Fighting Fish had a say in any of the proceedings.

At one point, the love-tortured, whitey-tighty clad Stone puts a pistol to his head and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber, clicking it over and over. Running on empty. That was one bit of symbolism that was probably appropriate, for a film about love that left me feeling a bit hollow afterward.

(Cross-published at The Nation weblog)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Review: The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong

  • Directed by Pimpaka Towira
  • An Extra Virgin Production, 100 minutes
  • Premiered on September 6, 2007 at the Thai Film Foundation's Digital Forum

The spirits of pre-coup Thailand are revisited in the new documentary film, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong. Directed by Pimpaka Towira, it's an epic piece of filmmaking, following media-rights activist Supinya on her three-year legal odyssey. It also chronicles Thailand at a turbulent time in its history, from the growing dissatisfaction with prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

Supinya, an NGO worker, was forced into the glaring spotlights of media celebrity, after she made some comments in 2003 to the Thai Post, saying that the Shinawatra family's Shin Corporation benefited from the policies of the Thaksin administration. Her opinions must've hit too close to the mark for officers of the telecommunications conglomerate, for they filed both a criminal and civil lawsuits against Supinya and the Thai Post. Supinya faced a jail term for her statements. In fact, on the night of the film's premiere at the Thai Film Foundation's Digital Forum, Supinya said September 6, 2007, was the four-year anniversary of her being bailed out. The company also sought 400 million baht in damages, because it said Supinya's comments adversely affected Shin's stock value and credit rating. But what the company hoped to gain from suing an activist and university lecturer who earns a 14,000-baht monthly salary is unknown. If Shin officials had ignored the statements, they would have been largely forgotten. Now there's no chance of that happening.

Through the lens of the documentary, the man at the centre of the controversy, Thaksin, is virtually invisible. He's seen for perhaps 10 seconds in some footage shot at a rally, before his beatific smile and square-faced visage disappears behind a wall of dark-suited supporters. But his name is heard. Repeatedly. "Thaksin! Get out! Thaksin! Get out!" Shouted over and over again by marchers and political rally attendees. There are crude caricatures, even a Chinese opera performance devoted to him. He is everywhere, but never seen.

The focus is on Supinya, and in looking at her, people and issues that have been forgotten are suddenly remembered. The spectre of missing civil rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit hangs over the proceedings. And there's a chance meeting with some Electricity Generating Authority Workers, who have been fighting privatisation of the state-owned utility.

And there's Supinya's family, chiefly her mother, who was genuinely fearful that her daughter was going to disappear, after all, Supinya was going up against the most powerful man in Thailand. At times, Supinya's mother steals the show. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if things were run by concerned mothers, aunties and grannies, rather than men with big-business connections. The films of Apichatpong Weerasethkul feature striking women like this, too. With more character, backbone and charisma than just about any of the latest one-shot, 18-year-old actresses-of-the-week, they give real meaning to the term "leading lady". I think all the Klangnarongs show up at some point, putting a genuine and heartfelt human face on this story. They're all really lovely people, and I had to wonder why a big company like the Shin Corp. thought they were so threatening.

In March 2006, Shin, by then controlled Singapore's Temasek Holdings after a still-controversial stock divestiture by the Shinawatra family, offered to drop the civil suit, if Supinya would apologize for her remarks. But she remained steadfast, to the horror of her mother and others around her - even herself - leaving the case in the hands of the court. Anyway, the criminal court threw out the lawsuit, saying, in effect, Supinya was just doing her job, and that her comments were fair. The civil suit, a moot point, was withdrawn.

But, as anyone who has not been hiding under a rock in Thailand would know, the story didn't end there. The documentary might've been completed sooner, but on September 19, 2006, the Thai military took over while Thaksin was out of the country.

To not address the coup, which changed everything, would have been unsatisfying. So Pimpaka and her crew kept at it, making for a compelling and informative view of Thailand's political landscape. There are no gimmicks, nor manipulation. No rousing rock music to create atmosphere. This makes the rhythmic cries of "Thaksin! Get out!" that much more powerful. It's bone-dry at times, yet refreshing, and it jumps around in a non-linear fashion, making things a bit unpredictable, which is a good thing.

For Supinya and the wearied anti-Thaksin protesters, the coup has left many discouraged about the democratic process in Thailand. To oppose the coup is to appear pro-Thaksin. Even though there are many colors when it comes to political stripes, in post-coup Thailand, with the military still in charge, there's only black and white.

Thank goodness for The Truth Be Told, to add back some color.

See also:
(Cross published at The Nation weblog and Rotten Tomatoes)