Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review: Opapatika

  • Written and directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan
  • Starring Somchai Khemklad, Chakrit Yamnam, Ray MacDonald, Atip Nana, Pongpat Wachirabunjong,
  • Kemaupsorn Sirisukka, Nirat Sirichanya
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on October 23, 2007
  • Rating: 3/5

Suicide is painful in Opapatika, a karmic, supernatural action drama involving a class of people who gain superpowers after they kill themselves, but use of those powers also have a negative effect on them.

The high-concept story is compelling, even if it is simplistic – suicide is bad. Duh! A strong ensemble cast of young and veteran leading men makes it watchable.

Unfortunately, the production fails to support the positive aspects. The action mainly consists of fight scenes and gun battles taking place under murky circumstances, with too-tight framing and too-fast editing. There are flashes of good-looking special effects and a couple of car stunts, but those don’t make up for the overall shadiness of the picture.

A private detective played by Putthipong “Leo Putt” Sriwat puts things into action. A human, he’s been trying to uncover the secrets of the Opapatika, and is given a chance to join them by the elderly Sadok (Nirat Sirichanya). Given a revolver, Leo’s character Techit must shoot himself. His mortal body covered with maggots, Techit is reborn with the powers of a mind reader. But as with all Opapatika, use of his powers will have a negative effect – karma coming back to bite them. For Techit, he will eventually lose all five of his senses if he uses his powers.

Sadok pairs Techit up with Thuvathit (action veteran Pongpat Wachirabunjong), a human who leads a paramilitary army that is devoted to one thing – finding and capturing other Opapatika and bringing them to Sadok. Sadok seeks to consume the flesh of other Opapatikas and gain their powers, because he is deteriorating - the cost of using his power, which remains unrevealed for most of the film. Pongpat's character narrates the story, too, providing helpful information. It would have been really confusing without his explanations, so thanks for that!

Their targets: Paison (Chakrit Yamnam), a ruthless assassin who bears scars from all the knife and bullet wounds of his victims; Jirat (Killer Tattoo's Somchai Kemglad), an immortal who considers his immortality a curse; Aroot (Fun Bar Karaoke's Ray MacDonald) who is a powerful fighter by night, but is weak during the day; and Ramil (Atip Nana), a daredevil who can project a fierce ghost (the best special effect in the film, and I'm not sure what the drawback of his power is).

Written and directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan, the story shares a similarity with Thanakorn's enigmatic 2003 drama, Fake (which also featured Leo and Ray), in that all the characters are drawn to a mysterious, ethereal woman (Kemaupsorn Sirisukka).

Opapatika also channels the likes of Night Watch, Blade and Underworld, especially with the themes of immortality and a secret parallel world of supernatural beings. Except for scene when the paramilitary army is burned alive, Opapatika lacks the spark of those three franchises. If it hadn't been so dour and serious all the time, and had better-presented action sequences, Opapatika might have been a contender.

More information:

Friday, October 19, 2007

Now, how about making a movie together?

This photo is a week old by now, but I don't care.

Gordon Liu, star of the Shaw Bros' 36th Chamber of Shaolin series, Kill Bill and countless other films, meets Thai action star Tony Jaa at the inaugural Global Chinese Martial Arts Presentation Ceremony in Shenzhen, on October 12.

More about the ceremony is here.

Jaa won the award for Best Action Actor. Jackie Chan was present at the ceremony as well - I can well imagine an awestruck Tony greeting Jackie in in the green room. Jackie was presented the Chinese Martial Arts Global Influence Grand Prize by a Shaolin monk.

Meanwhile, Tony Jaa is still at work on Ong-Bak 2, his directorial debut. It is due out sometime next year. Also meanwhile, Ong-Bak/Tom-Yum-Goong director Prachya Pinkaew is working on Chocolate, which will star female martial artist Nitcharee Wismitanant, who is basically being hailed as a "female Tony Jaa". Previews are already playing in Bangkok cinemas. The film will be released on February 7, 2008, during the Chinese New Year holiday.

The revived and even more fun to read Kaiju Shakedown has more on that.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review: Short Films for the King's 80th Birthday

The Short Films Project in Commemoration of the Celebration on the Auspicious Occasion of His Majesty the King's 80th Birthday Anniversary is organized by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, the Minitry of Culture, and features across-the-board participation of all Thailand's film studios, as well as independent filmmakers.

The films are being shown for free in limited screenings in Bangkok, and they come at a time when the King is very much on people's minds in Thailand, as he has been hospitalized.

Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng

This is a Wisit Sasanatieng film in full flower, with the director making his most colorful, visually stylized film to date. And that's really saying something, if you're familiar with his previous films, like Tears of the Black Tiger or Citizen Dog.

Though it looks like 3D animation, it is not. It is all live action, but is heavily altered and colorized in post-production, as is customary for Wisit. It is a blend of khon (Thai masked dance) and swordfighting, and is something that I think Wisit has been wanting to do for a long, long time.

Adapted from Thai mythology, the story is about a egotistical god who is finally put in his place.

My First Report
Directed by Bhandit Rittakol

Veteran filmmaker Bhandit Rittakol riffs on themes from his 1983 film Duay Klao (The Seed), which received a limited re-release last year to celebrate the King's 60th anniversary of accession.

My First Report is about a young female journalist, taking a ride in an army water truck to a drought-stricken rural village. The reporter hopes to see first-hand the devasatation of the drought, and then quickly return and talk to the governor. But the water truck runs off the road to avoid hitting a cow. Stuck in a hole, the truck must be unloaded by hand with buckets, rather than just dump the water. Though the villagers are working furiously, the journalist becomes increasingly impatient, making it even harder for her to see that the real story - the people - are right there in front of her.

As in Duay Klao, the King's cloud-seeding project figures into the storyline, and takes viewers into the clouds and aboard the airplanes to see the project in action.

The Tale
Directed by Pornsak Sukongkarattanakul

Alternative titles for this were The Mule or The King's Mule, and indeed, this film is about a mule in a rural Akka hilltribe village in Northern Thailand, where years ago the King visited and was borne into the village on the back of a mule.

A young man wants to buy a pickup truck, and he can get one by trading away his family's prized mules, a difficult decision because they are the King's mules.

Directed by Sivaroj Kongsakul

A bushy-headed, bearded and bespectacled sound man takes a trip to the southern sea coast in a vain effort to record silence, but much like the late genius producer Martin Hannett is depicted in 24 Hour Party People, the sound man finds his efforts are futile.

Eventually, he must remove his headphones and put down his bayonet mic and really listen to what is going on around him.

The Most Beautiful Man in the World
Directed by Phuttipong Aroonpheng

This gorgeously shot film looks at the sky and nature, and takes long, loving looks at a boy and his young father. Living in a rural village, they are shown working in the fields, where they must stake off part of their land to make way for a Royal Project irrigation dam.

Comic actor Jaran "See Thao" Petcharoen (he played the grandfatherly character in The Tin Mine) co-stars as a flute-playing old man.

9th Gift
Directed by Araya Booncherd

This hilarious hand-puppet play involves an evil two-headed dragon from hell, which is sucking water from the earth, and generally making life difficult for everyone.

A king knights a young man and his dog to do battle with the dragon. Eventually, the king must become involved himself to rid society of the dragon, and in so doing imparts advice to society about building a sustainable economy, which involves everyone living within their means, buying only what is truly needed and can be afforded and living a simple life - a philosophy that the HM the King has himself espoused with his sufficiency economy theory.

The Sanctuary of Sea
Directed by Pramtanee Wongprommed and Supharut Boonmayam

A deaf high school student is struggling with her studies, but finds inspiration from the book Phra Mahachanok, a mythological tale penned by His Majesty the King, about a young prince who struggled to swim in stormy seas, but is guided and uplifted by a goddess in the sky.

The film is partially animated, with live-action segments.

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

This slice of life from the rural Khon Kaen home of Apichatpong doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the project's films, which is a way of saying that it does indeed fit, because everything has its place.

Like all of Apichatpong's films, I wasn't sure what was going on, or what any of it meant, yet here I am still thinking about it, and wondering if I could see it again.

Luminous Sound
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanarueng

On a darkened soundstage, with stark lighting effects, the off-camera voice of Pen-Ek asks questions of blind pianist Sila Namthao, who talks about his life and inspirations. For interludes, he plays a few selections of his classical and ragtime-inspired solo piano pieces.

Interestingly, Pen-Ek talks about film with Sila, who says he has actually been to films, and prefers Chinese and Hong Kong martial arts films over American films. Though American films are superior in quality, Sila says, the Chinese films translate better for him because the characters in Chinese films always say what they are thinking, while he can never hear what characters in American films are thinking. Besides, Chinese films have better dialogue, with such rich lines as "Return a favor, tax a revenge."

Sila regularly performs at the Marco Polo on Khao San Road in Bangkok.

More information:

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Review: Body #19 (Body sop 19)

  • Directed by Paween Purijitpanya
  • Starring Arak Amornsupasiri, Ornjira Lamwilai, Kritteera Inpornwijit, Patharawarin Timkul
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on October 4, 2007
On the surface, GTH studio’s new horror film, Body, looks beautiful. There are some convincing computer-graphic effects and the performances are excellent. The story, which has some parallels to a recent Thai true-crime case, is deliberately and evenly paced and maintains its suspense throughout.

But peel back the layers and things don’t quite make sense, especially when, in GTH’s formulaic style, everything is neatly tied up at the end, so that no matter what convulsions your brain went through during this psychological thriller, there’s not much to think about.

Body is the debut feature by Paween Purijitpanya and is written by Chukiat Sakweerakul and Ekasit Thairat, the director-screenwriter and writer of last year’s visceral puzzler 13 Beloved.

The story finds an engineering student, Chon, sympathetically portrayed by the wide-eyed Arak Amornsupasiri of the Thai band Slur, having bad dreams that are steadily becoming more real. They involve a corpsified woman with her guts hanging out and, following the conventions of Asian horror, long, greasy black hair. There’s also a foetus that turns up in his soup. Prawns that he’s cleaning for dinner start wriggling around and bleeding. The special effects behind these are smoothly rendered and complement the story – a notable achievement for a Thai film.

Chon’s medical student sister Aye (Ornija Lamwilai) finally gets Chon to go for treatment. At the hospital, he sees a young doctor who thinks the boy is on drugs, and he refers Chon to a Dr Usa (Kritteera Inporwijit) for psychiatric care. Somehow, Usa and Chon, and Usa’s increasingly distant husband, Dr Sethee, share a connection, and Chon’s horrifying visions become more realistic. He sees somebody cutting up a body in the storage room of his house, and an evil, misshapen black cat keeps turning up.

Usa’s probing leads her to another female doctor, Dr Dararai, portrayed with gusto by Patharawarin Timkul. Patharawarin is a classic bad-girl actress with such a powerful presence, the energy she creates is palpable. When one of her students uses her cellphone during class, Dararai casts an angry gaze that leaves the schoolgirl a bruised, battered wreck, urinating on herself, and it’s a wonder Dararai’s powers didn’t reach beyond the screen to affect the audience as well.

Others who get too close to the truth meet grisly ends. In a creepy room where jars of animal specimens are stored – a place that screams “don’t go in there!” – a teaching assistant is strangled by gleaming barbed wire so realistic it threatens to cut anyone sitting too close.

The mystery all leads back to a corpse that is behind door No 19 in the hospital morgue, hence the Thai title for the film, Sop 19, literally, “corpse No 19”.

There are obvious parallels between the movie and the recent case of Wisut Boonkasemsanti, a physician who was given the death sentence after he was convicted in the dismemberment death of his estranged wife.

The story has a refreshing slow pace, and despite following many conventions of horror films, it feels fresh. But there are leaps in logic – flouting of basic medical ethics that must have been overlooked because it would have made the story too difficult to abide by the GTH rulebook of keeping things blissfully simple and never challenging the audience.

Lastly, Body gives rise again to the question of why this film could be shown in Thailand in the first place. Like Sahamongkol’s Sick Nurses earlier this year, here are medical professionals acting unprofessionally, with deadly consequences. Yet Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century was censored for showing doctors who weren’t murdering anyone – just having a wee nip of some whisky or sharing a passionate kiss.

Now there’s a case that someone should make a movie about, but the truth of the answers would be too shockingly real for general audiences to believe, probably too complex to understand, and too ugly for a studio marketing team to try and sell.

More information:

(Cross-published at The Nation weblog)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Cherd Songsri Retrospective review: Puen Pang

  • Directed by Cherd Songsri
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Chanutporn Wisitthasopon and Kanungnit Rirsasarn
  • Reviewed on September 30, 2007 as part of the Cherd Songsri Retrospective
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Made five years after his landmark Plae Kao, Cherd Songsri's Puen Pang packs a harder emotional wallop than the earlier film, with a more tightly focused story about a young man and his relationship with two sisters.

Like Plae Kao, Puen Pang is set in rural Siam of the 1930s. It is an epic story about Lor (Sorapong Chatree), an orphan boy who was adopted by the father of two girls, Puen and Pang. Even in childhood, it's assumed that Lor will one day marry the eldest, most favored daughter, Puen, and not the younger, clowning, clumsy Pang. But when Pang is in trouble as a child, it is Lor who comes to the girl's rescue - a theme that is revisited later in the story.

In young adulthood, Puen is the more attractive of the sisters, but is vain, teasing and non-committal in her relationship with Lor. Pang, meanwhile, is more down-to-earth and eager to please, and she's always turning up in the rice fields to pester Lor. Singing and dancing, every time Pang shows up, you just know there is going to be trouble for poor Lor.

When it's finally agreed that Lor will indeed marry Puen, a date is set. Puen tells Lor in no uncertain terms that he should stop being friendly to Pang, and Lor follows suit. But the poor boy is conflicted, and, after telling Pang off one night, he sits outside brooding until he passes out. He wakes up covered with mosquito bites and malaria.

Taken to Bangkok for medical treatment by a wealthy aunt, Puen and Pang accompany the comatose Lor. In the big city, Puen is courted by a cousin, Boonpeng, despite warnings that Boonpeng is a ladies man and will only hurt Puen's feelings. Pang, meanwhile, watches over Lor, and her love for Lor deepens as she sees her sister wooed by car rides, pretty dresses, dance dates and tennis lessons.

Lor does wake up, and they all return to the farm, where Lor eventually confronts his true feelings for Pang, with disastrous results.

While overtly melodramatic, the strong performances by Sorapong Chatree (he enters the picture standing atop a galloping water buffalo!), Chanutporn Wisitthasopon as Pang and Kanungnit Rirsasarn as Puen, make this film eminently watchable. The story speaks volumes about relationships, selfishness, inner desire, true love and vanity, and how all those things can come into conflict.

The movie left me an emotional wreck, and it was all I could do to keep from blubbering as I met actress Chanutporn, who was present for the screening, and told her how amazing she was in the film. Quite a few other fans were similarly affected, and the outpouring of nostalgia made Chanutporn a bit tearful herself as she posed for photos alongside a display of Cherd Songsri.

Capsule reviews

  • Am Daeng Muen Kab Nai Rid (Muen and Rid, 1994) -- Muen and Rid opens with a bit of shocker - Jintara Sukapat's bare breasts! And it's those bare breasts that a young Buddhist monk named Rid, portrayed by Santisuk Promsri, cannot get out of his mind, even as he meditates in front of a human skeleton, reminding him that the flesh is just a vessel for suffering and ego. Jintara's Muen also can't get the monk out of her mind. The monk rescued the struggling, topless Muen from a raging river at the beginning of the film. In doing so, he touched her flesh, and that makes him her husband. It's true love. To be close to the monk, the plucky and resourceful Muen pesters Rid's elderly abbot to let her attend classes at the temple, not knowing she would be making herself a pioneer for women's rights in Rama IV-era Siam - women just didn't do that sort of thing. There was a saying back then, "Woman is buffalo, but man is human," which stemmed from the fact that women could be openly and freely sold or given away by their fathers, in order to pay debts. Such is the case with Muen when her alcoholic, gambling-addicted dad sells her to the wealthy owner of a Buddha-statue factory - a guy with a huge empire and many wives already. Any other woman would probably go for the arrangement, but the determined Muen is different - she dares to use her brain. The case of Muen and Rid becomes a legal battle, with a trial held in an open-air pavilion. Eventually, the fugitive Muen petitions King Mongkut, who agrees with her, setting into motion equal rights for women in Thailand. Though made in 1994, the film feels much older than that, which is in keeping with the timeless quality of most of Cherd Songsri's films. (4/5)
  • Tawipob (Another World, 1990) -- The story of a time-travelling young socialite who finds a more meaningful life in Rama V-era Siam than 1988 Bangkok, I was beguiled by the wide-eyed leading lady, Janjira Joojeang. While still a loopy, somewhat disjointed affair with the disco-light time-travel sequences through the looking glass, it's superior to the 2004 remake, The Siam Renaissance, because it relies on genuine emotion and decent, measured acting rather than slickness and gimmicky plot changes that detract from the message of the novel. I wish I would have seen this before I'd seen Siam Renaissance three years ago. (3/5)
  • Plae Kao (The Scar, 1977) -- This landmark film is, I guess, the alpha and omega of Thai melodrama. Though there were Thai films before it, ever since then any Thai television or film melodramatic references Plae Kao, sometimes overtly, but mostly subconsciously. It has everything: feuding fathers, a headstrong young woman (Nantana Ngaokrachang), a determined hero (Sorapong Chatree), a rich-boy villian (Setha Sirichaya) and even a rich woman who adopts the young woman because she looks like the rich woman's dead daughter! But Plae Kao has plenty of heart, as well as water buffalo. Mainly, it's a tour de force for Sorapong Chatree, who sings and plays his bamboo flute to win the heart of his Riam. The Romeo and Juliet story of ill-fated lovers living in rural, 1936 Bang Kapi, there are even a few chuckles. One was when Sorapong's character, Kwan, goes in search of Riam, who has been sold into slavery to a rich woman in Bangkok (hey, I thought that had been outlawed in 1865!). Not realizing how big Bangkok really was, the naive Kwan asks around, but nobody will give him the time of day, except for an old codger boatman, who tells Kwan he'll just have to look for where Riam is staying himself. (4/5)

In all, five films were shown in the Cherd Songsri Retrospective, organized by the Thai Film Foundation. Sadly, I was unable to see one of them, Ploy Talay (The Gem from the Deep, 1987).

There was some talk about possibly releasing the films on DVD, and I think it's a great idea. Cherd envisioned his films as a way to promote his concept of "Thainess" to international audiences, which would seem perfect for an overseas venture, such as the Criterion Collection, rather than just limiting the films to the Thai market. By giving the films as wide an audience as possible, there could possibly be no more appropriate tribute to the late director.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes and Bangkok Cinema Scene)