Thursday, November 29, 2007

Harsh new film law closer to reality

The new Film and Video Act is being railroaded through Thailand's National Legislative Assembly by the Ministry of Culture.

The make-up of the proposed film-ratings board has already been decided by the NLA sub-committee, Culture Minister Khaisri Sriarun tells Nation News Service. Now the the committee is deciding on the proposed ratings system, which would restrict people as old as 24 from seeing certain films, or ban Thai films outright, from being exhibited anywhere in the world.

The moves by this military-installed parliament to clamp down on freedoms and stifle expression come ahead of a general election on December 23, and appear deaf to protests by the Free Thai Cinema Movement, which staged a demonstration on Wednesday, outside Parliament House in Bangkok.

Poet and writer Jiranan Pitchpreecha led the demonstration, by about 30 artists and filmmakers, including Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wisit Sasanatieng, Pimpaka Towira and artist Manit Sriwanichapoom.

Jiranan submitted an open letter to Wallop Tangkananurak, a member of the NLA panel considering the act.

“The movement believes the new Film Act will impact on the freedom of expression of filmmakers as well as human rights of audiences, especially youths, who will be deprived of the opportunity to develop intellectual and analytical skills,” the letter said.

The group has asked that the provisions that empower the state to ban films and order filmmakers to cut scenes judged inappropriate, be stricken from the draft law. The filmmakers say the law is too vague and is open to broad interpretation. Furthermore, there are already laws on the books regarding national security, that could be applied to films. No need to single filmmakers out.

They also requested the NLA to consider increasing the number of nongovernment members on the proposed filmratings board. As the draft act stands now, mainly bureaucrats and governmentappointed representatives would sit on the ratings board. Led by prime minister, the board members would include ministers of Culture and Tourism and Sports ministries, as well as general secretaries from other ministries.

After the protest, Culture Minister Khaisri told The Nation's Thai-language news service that the composition of the film-ratings board has already been decided by the NLA committee.

The committee is now working on the structure of the ratings system, she said, and the full Film and Video Act is expected to come before the entire NLA during the second week of December.

The draft Film and Video Act has been written to replace the existing Film Act of 1930, but rather than being more progressive than this 77-year-old law, the new act is even more restrictive.

The ratings system has a PG for general audiences, PG-15, restricting people 14 and under, and a newly proposed PG-25 rating, under which people 24 years and younger would be prohibited. An earlier draft had 17 as the oldest age to restrict moviegoers. If passed, it would be the highest age-restrictive rating in the world. Notoriously controlling Singapore, for example, has a 21-and-over category for films as its most restrictive rating. The United States’ most restrictive rating is the rarely used NC-17, which bans people 17 years and under from seeing certain films.
The Culture Ministry is also calling for an X rating, under which films would be banned outright, and their distribution outside the Kingdom would be prohibited. Films falling in this category would be ones that, in the view of the proposed Film and Video Board, “impact sovereignty, religion, and the monarchy”.

But, just what constitutes "impact"?

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Upcoming Thai film releases: The Life of Buddha, The Screen, Ponglang

December 5, His Majesty the King’s birthday, has become an auspicious day for film premieres in the Kingdom of Thailand. This year, the King’s 80th birthday, is more auspicious, and among the films celebrating the occasion is The Life of Buddha, an animated historical fantasy film tracing the life of the Lord Buddha.

The film has been a labor of love for producer Wallapa Pimthong, who has been working for four years to bring this project to fruition. Not only does the film concern history, it is historic, being only the second traditionally animated feature film to come out of Thailand, and the first since 1979’s The Adventure of Sudsakorn by Payut Ngaokrachang, which I would love to see sometime.

It’s also a rare, traditionally animated film in an era when most cartoons are 3D animation, such as last year’s Khan Kluay, the first Thai 3D-animated feature.

Ahead of the film's release, talk seems to teeter between excitement at the possibility of the story of Buddha being made accessible to the masses, to dismay, that the Lord Buddha's life is being trivialized in a cartoon that looks like it was made by Disney (indeed, many of the Thai animators on the film have actually worked for the Mouse).

Also set for release on December 5 is The Screen at Kamchanod, from Five Star Production, which was featured at the recent American Film Market.

Directed by former Pang Brothers’ assistant Songsak Mongkolthong, The Screen is based on an actual event that took place at an upcountry outdoor screening in 1987, when an audience of ghosts turned up to watch a movie.

In the film, a group of medical professionals try to solve the mystery, and in the process endanger their own lives.

I'm a big fan of Five Star Production, mostly their arthouse efforts by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng. But Five Star has a good pedigree when it comes to scares, as witnessed by the success of its Art of the Devil franchise, which has won worldwide acclaim, and even some critical acclaim in Thailand. So even though ghost movies aren't my favorite thing in the world to watch, I will try to catch this out of curiousity.

Opening today is a new comedy from RS Film, Ponglang Amazing Theatre. It features Ponglang Sa-on, the colorful Thai musical country comedy trio getting up to some ghostly hijinks in what I believe to be their first big screen venture.

The director is Rergchai Paungpetch, who has been doing a string of critically derided, yet financially successful films, including last year's smash Noodle Boxer and 2005's Dumber Heroes.

Ponglang Sa-on is a musical-comedy group I've seen on Thai television that features a pair of similar-looking, always-screaming women. Are they twins? Are they sisters? What's their story? I can't tell for sure.

They are led by a young guy with a goatee, who's always wearing a kilt, though he is sans kilt in this movie, and is oddly sporting a Star of David pendant.

I have no clue what they are on about, yet I watch, transfixed. Truly amazing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Last-ditch effort by the Free Thai Cinema movement

Kong Rithdee, writing for Variety, seems to be the only journalist in the Thai English-language press relentlessly tracking the moves by the military-installed National Legislative Assembly to pass a restrictive ratings law, which would give the government the power to ban a Thai film from being shown anywhere in the world, if they don't agree with it.

The draft Thai Film and Video Act comes before the NLA tomorrow. Members of the Free Thai Cinema movement, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng as well as artists, media reform activists and the Thai Film Foundation, have submitted an open letter to the sub-committee that is debating the law.

The Free Thai Cinema Movement also plans a demonstration in front of Parliament tomorrow.

It's a race for freedom, with the Free Thai Cinema Movement in a last-ditch attempt to halt a desperation power grab by the conservatives who control the Ministry of Culture to pass a law before the December 23 election.

The act would create a ratings system, which might seem like a positive step for Thailand, which still adheres to a 1930 censorship law. But the ratings system is even more restrictive, with an R-25 rating, restricting some films only to viewers 25 years and older. Then there is the "rated X" category, under which films would be banned if they are deemed to "impact sovereignty, religion, and the monarchy" of Thailand.

Just what constitutes impact? The wording is overly broad. Filmmakers fear it will simply be used as a political tool by politicians and police to ban films they don't agree with or understand.

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Review: Brave

  • Directed by Thanapon Maliwan and Afdlin Shauki
  • Starring Pairote "Mike B." Boongerd, Supaksorn Chaimongkol, Afdlin Shauki, Sahaschai Chumrum
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on November 22, 2007
  • Rating: 3/5

Fearlessness will be required if you are to attempt to watch Brave, an action-comedy starring Thai stuntman Mike B. and Malaysian comedian Afdlin Shauki.

Shaky, handheld camera work and fast-motion film speeds obscure the gritty stuntwork being performed by Mike B., an action film veteran who has worked as a stunt double and choreographer. He performs some acrobatic, hard-hitting feats, and has a cheeky charm that could go a long way with better production values.

Poor dubbing in the Thai release is another distraction. Particularly bad is the looping of Malaysian co-star and co-director Afdlin, who is paired up with a voice-over artist that proves to be annoying match.

The film opens with Mike B., wearing a suit-and-tie, spectacles and Converse All-Stars, going to an office building, ostensibly to apply for a job. But speaking to him through his Bluetooth headset is someone giving him instructions. He's supposed to get some data from a credit card company in the building. After bluffing his way past the guards, he calls in some orders for pizza and chicken delivery while riding the elevator. These will later serve as diversions. He then launches into his first fight scene, laying waste to an office full of workers, who all must be taking advantage of the company gym. A couple of female receptionists even know taekwondo!

So far so good. He eventually makes his way into the head office, grabs the executive, Lita (Supaksorn Chaimongkol) and copies the data to a USB rubber wristband. He then eludes the security guards and police.

The whole thing is a set-up. Bee, as he's called, has been forced into stealing the data in order to free his brother or cousin or friend (it's never really clear what the relationship is), played by Afdlin. The rotund comic is suspended on a rope, tied to some oxygen cylinders, with bomb strapped to him. After a bit of motorcycle stuntwork, Bee makes a big leap to latch on to his friend, only to find Tong has wet his pants. The moisture is causing the bomb's timer to short circuit. And there are more pee-based jokes to come. Anyway, the guys get out of it.

From there, it is difficult to stay involved with what is going on or why things are happening the way they are, though through the shaky camerawork and editing there are enough visual flourishes from Mike B. to occasionally make things interesting. In one of the most dramatic scenes, he appears to leap off the top floor of an unfinished hi-rise, grab a piece of reinforcment bar and swing onto the floor below.

A bad guy named Kovit (Sahaschai Chumrum) appears to be the mastermind behind the scheme, and he sends a never-ending stream of various thugs after Bee. Among them are limber stuntman Dean Alexandrou as a former friend of Bee, who performs a great backflip over Bee in a setpiece on a fishing boat. Boxer Don Ferguson chips in, in a longer fight sequence towards the end.

Mike B and Afdlin share an easy chemistry, but whether it truly works or not is difficult to determine, because of the horrible dubbing.

Shining through the proceeds is actress Supaksorn "Kratae" Chaimongkol, whose character, the credit card exec Lita, goes through the full range of emotions. For all the physical acrobatics of Mike B., Supsakorn's character has as many ups and downs, contributing to a decent twist in what passes for the plot.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Time for Bangkok Time

Santi Taepanich's Bangkok Time, the darkly dramatic followup to his Crying Tigers docu-drama, is in limited release at the Lido cinema in Bangkok this week.

Focusing on the lives of three people who work around Bangkok's seedy Patpong scene, Ananda Everingham stars as a male prostitute, with Dusita Anuchitchanchai as an emergency room nurse and Uttapon Teemakpon as a hawker of dodgy goods.

After premiering at the Bangkok International Film Festival back in July, Bangkok Time was a Dragons and Tigers nominee at the recent Vancouver International Film Festival, and I understand it may turn up at a few other prominent festivals over the next year.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Review: The Love of Siam

  • Directed by Matthew Chukiat Sakveerakul
  • Starring Witwisit Hirunwongkul, Mario Maurer, Chermarn Boonyasak, Sinjai Plengpanich, Songsit Rungnopakunsri, Kanya Rattanapetch, Aticha Pongsilpipat
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on November 22, 2007
  • Rating: 4/5

Brilliantly conceived, The Love of Siam is a very different film in many respects. Most notably different is the length. At two and a half hours, it’s almost twice as long as most films in cinemas these days.

But there’s nothing wrong with a long film, as long as it’s something worth looking at, and The Love of Siam is most certainly that. The length means that most of the characters in this contemporary Bangkok drama are well developed, which is something else that sets this film apart from others.

Equal parts family drama and teen romance, the aspect that has people talking is a gay love story, albeit a squeaky clean one, full of the wild-eyed innocence of teenage puppy love. It just happens these pups are boys.

And, with a Catholic family at its centre, The Love of Siam is probably the first Thai Christmas movie, and was actually filmed nearly a year ago, to capture the actual lights and sounds of the festive season around Siam Square.

The Love of Siam is also a different kind of film for 26-year-old writer-director Matthew Chookiat Sakveerakul, who last year directed the mind-bendingly awesome (and gory) thriller 13 Beloved, and previously did the socially conscious ghost story Pisaj.

The tender friendship of the two boys, Tong and Mew, is established in a lengthy prologue. Tragedy strikes the family of Tong, when his older sister (Chermarn Boonyasak) disappears while on a northern trek. The loss drives a wedge between Tong’s mother (a relevatory Sinjai Plengpanich) and father (Songsit Rungnopakunsri), as the father turns to alcohol to drown his grief. Tong and his family then move away, leaving Tong’s friend, the musically gifted Mew, all alone.

Sparks fly when the boys are reunited in their university years, while hanging around in Siam Square. Mew (Witwisit Hirunwongkul) is the singer and songwriter for an up-and-coming pop band, and Tong (Mario Maurer) is dating a pretty girl named Donut (Aticha Pongsilpipat), whom he’s not really interested in.

Their reconnection takes on even more meaning when Mew’s band is assigned a manager, June. Also played by Chermarn Boonyasak (the ghost from Buppa Rahtree), June is a dead ringer for the long-lost sister Tang. Maybe she can draw Tong’s dad out of his drunken stupor? This bit of soap opera contrivance is handled so straightforwardly and beautifully, with subtle comic touches, that it seems natural.

Mew, meanwhile is struggling to write new songs, until he digs into his heart and comes up with a hit that is inspired by feelings for Tong that have been nurtured since boyhood.

Everyone it seems is rooting for these two boys to smooch and snuggle – the press preview audience was enthusiastically supportive. But Tong’s mum is devastated, wondering what she did to deserve the fate of a missing daughter, an alcoholic husband and now, a gay son.

The girls have less prominent roles than the film posters might lead audiences to believe. But a neighbour girl, Ling (Kanya Rattanapetch), is more central than the haughty Donut. Ling has a crush on Mew, helps Tong sort out his confused feelings.

The Love of Siam comes to a heartfelt and poignant conclusion on Christmas Eve, when Mew’s band is playing a concert in the Siam Centre courtyard. The gift, though, is one of heartache and tears.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: Fighting Beat

  • Directed by Piti Jaturaphat
  • Starring Thun Thanakorn, Nuttanan Juntarwet, Sura Teerakol, Amornrit Sriphung, Pemmanee Sungkorn, Peerawatcharee Harabut, Sura Sankum
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on November 1, 2007
With its heart in the right place, Fighting Beat, is nonetheless hit-and-miss, irregular and sloppy, with some elements that should have been bypassed to make it a clean kill.

In following the one-two punch of Tony Jaa's Ong-Bak and Tum-Yum-Goong, which have gone "inter" and reaped big sales for studio Sahamongkol Film International, rival Thai studios have struggled to offer the second coming of Ong-Bak. Earlier this year, Five Star offered Muay Thai Chaiya, which fired on all cylinders in terms of storytelling and action, but failed at the local box office. It's just now starting to be shopped overseas, but it's unlikely that it will reap as big as Jaa's films have. Now there's Fighting Beat from Mono Film. In terms of characters and subject matter, it parallels both Ong-Bak and Muay Thai Chaiya.

Like Jaa's protagonists, the hero of Fighting Beat, Khem (Thun Thanakorn) is portrayed as an extremely fit, capable and reverent young man. Khem is an orphan, having been raised since he was a child by a kindly old Buddhist monk. A temple boy, Khem is supposed to awaken at dawn to accompany the monk on his alms rounds. But Khem works late, and has trouble getting up. After the rounds, he moves to his day job, working on a diving boat for the tourist trade on the southern Thailand island, Koh Phi Phi. Here is where the wacky supporting cast are introduced - chiselled young men with killer tattoos and shapely young Thai ladies wearing revealing beach fashions. After the day on the boat, Khem and his merry friends move to their night jobs - working at a bar where the main attraction is staged Muay Thai matches. While the girls serve drinks, Khem and the boys fight in rigged matches, literally taking dives so the foreign tourist opponents always win, stay happy, and stick around to provide everyone on the island with a steady stream of generous tips.

The scheme goes swimmingly until a group of foreign bruisers show up and want to take over the Muay Thai bar. They make mincemeat of the usual foreign opponents and then turn on Khem and his friends. The foreigner bad-asses are aided by a Thai guy, who just happens to be the very guy who killed Khem's father nine years before - a killing that Khem witnessed, was powerless to stop and haunts him in his black-and-white flashback nightmares. So now you know, this is a story of revenge and redemption. There's also a touch of nationalism, with pride for traditional boxing techniques against the corrupted version of Muay Thai "inter".

This all reads better than it is actually executed, with half-hearted jokes (it's not nearly as funny as the preview trailers let on), poorly developed supporting characters and television soap-opera style melodramatic acting. Elements of the story that should get more attention are given the short shrift, while inconsequential parts -- the chess matches between the bar owner, Uncle Phrao (Sura Saenkham, a.k.a. boxer Khaosai Galaxy) and his daughter for example -- are hammered on endlessly.

Among the things touched on too lightly is Khem's transformation into a traditional Thai fighting machine. The whole idea of Fighting Beat is to spotlight a traditional regional style of Muay Thai, Chaiya boxing, just like Muay Thai Chaiya, but it purports to giving an even more accurate portrayal of the techniques. Khem learns this ancient style of boxing in an all-too-brief training sequence, from a mysterious master introduced to Khem by the old monk.

Then, one night, Khem decides to not go to work so he can spend time with the old monk and wake up promptly for the morning alms rounds, the hulking, hairy foreigners come in and kick Khem's friends out of the bar.

Soon, Fighting Beat is ready to wrap up -- it happens so fast you wonder where the time went -- and finally there is a flurry of gritty street fighting, well photographed and edited so you can see the moves. The action's highlight is that move where a fighter seems to run up the torso of an opponent and attack their shoulders and head. This is especially effective when the opponent is a tall, beefy foreigner and the fighter is a trim, lightweight Thai guy. Even the women get in on the action -- they've all been trained in the art of Muay Thai. If you're watching the movie for the action, you could just fast forward to the last 20 minutes or so, because that's where Fighting Beat rocks.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Review: Lullaby Before I Wake

  • Directed by Nate Pantumsinchai
  • Starring Dean Shelton, Maiara Walsh, Tawan Saetang
  • Limited release on October 23, 2007 at the Lido cinemas in Bangkok
  • Rating: 3/5
Let's try this again.

Not very often does a film comes along, that's made in Thailand, by a Thai director, that is scripted in English, and features American actors.

But such is the case with Lullaby Before I Wake, an independent, existentialist teen romance that was shot in Bangkok and has been screening since October 23 at the Lido cinemas in Siam Square. It's still showing, though it is down to about two screenings a day. So catch it while you can.

The director is Nate Pantumsinchai, an American-schooled filmmaker who says he made the film in English because he was most comfortable writing the screenplay in that language.

It stars Dean Shelton as Billy, a mopey college senior who is having the kind of existential crisis that geeky guys his age tend to have if they have not yet found a girlfriend. The only thing that gives him any possibility of good cheer is seeing a pudgy kid with thick glasses, and he figures there's no way a guy like that could have a girlfriend. But, sure enough, a girl to match the rotund nerd appears out of the woodwork, sending Billy into a spiral of depression, thinking life is a bunch of crap. So what's the use anyway?

Escaping the suffocating isolation of his dorm room, he walks to a coffee shop, and it's on that walk that he first sets eyes on Megan, a willowy, blue-eyed princess right out of a Disney cartoon (indeed, Megan is portrayed by Brazilian-born Maiara Walsh, from the Disney Channel's Corey in the House). But there's no way a guy like him could ever have any hope of even talking with a girl like Megan.

Even more desperate, Billy signs up for a class trip to the beach, not knowing that's it's actually a freshman class trip. His roommate, Johnny (Tawan "Jibby" Saetang), relates the bad experience he had on the trip when he was a freshman. Sure, there were girls on the trip, but they were also the ones who were later stepping on him as the entire busload of kids were crammed into one hotel room.

Trying to sleep, but can't because of the noisy partying, Billy wanders down the beach, and, not watching where he is going, he trips and falls. Watching the whole adventure is none other than Megan, who comes over and at first offers Billy her hand, but instead sits down. Billy and Megan end up sitting and talking the whole night. Did it really happen, or was it just a dream?

The entire film seems to take place in dreamlike state. Though it is later established that Megan is indeed real, in Billy's mind she is even more real, just because she touched his arm at the beach. Through actual and some hilarious imagined scenarios, Billy thinks he is getting closer to Megan. He takes an interest in an unnamed Italian film she watched (8 1/2 perhaps?), goes to an art gallery with her and lets her borrow a CD. But in reality, she is a young woman who cannot be tied down. Though she attends classes, she is not enrolled, and she flits about, in her bare feet and Bohemian-style skirts and tank tops. Her talents seem endless, stretching from music and art, to an ability to relate to anyone, irregardless of language, age or occupation. Billy is barely comfortable in his own skin. That he's outclassed by Megan is apparent to everyone, except him. Will he ever snap out of it?

The existentialist musings recall the films of Richard Linklater. I've seen Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, so I can't compare it to the two others that are probably closer to this - the romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. There's probably some Aronofsky in there somewhere, too, though I wouldn't really know for sure. I can say for sure that I think it is similar to Rushmore and other films by Wes Anderson, in that it is set in a precious, seemingly carefully calculated world of its own. It's filmed at an international school in Bangkok, but the city as a character is only fleeting. Anyway, the setting isn't the point - it could be anywhere. The feelings Billy has are universal, and I could relate. More of a character in the film is the music, mainly by one band, the Japanese alternative rockers, Oblivion Dust, who provide the song, "Lullaby", appropriately enough, and several other tracks.

Technically, the film is good looking, with interesting camera movement and artful lighting and editing. Dialogue-wise, it is almost unceasingly chatty but enjoyably light, and it's almost squeaky clean. One F-bomb is dropped, making Lullaby Before I Wake a PG-13 if it were screened in the US. Oh, and Megan smokes a cigarette in one scene. What will Maiara Walsh's Disney fans think of that?

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