Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in Thai cinema: Thai films on DVD

Only one Thai film released on DVD in Thailand bucked the local industry's now-standard practice of omitting English subtitles. And the winner is: Me ... Myself.

I've not actually picked this one up yet to see what the quality is like. I did like the film. Me ... Myself is the story of a transvestite (and presumably gay) cabaret dancer (Ananda Everingham) who gets amnesia and thinks he might be straight. It had a lot of the loopy qualities that I love about Thai cinema. So it's one worth having around.

But I've been disappointed before by Thai DVD releases. I think the last one I bought was The Tiger Blade, and it was riddled with pixellated censorship! Notably, The Tiger Blade was from Mono Film, the same studio that made Me ... Myself.

Worth noting for this year is the release of Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger in Region 1 by Magnolia. This is the first release of the complete version of the film since 2000, when it was issued on DVD in Thailand by Digital Right (now out of print). There are other DVD releases out there, but they are the 100-minute "international" version that cuts out some transitional scenes and some funny bits. Another version released in Singapore chopped the violence out! The release by Magnolia was preceded by a limited theatrical run, after the company managed to spring Tears of the Black Tiger from the vaults of Miramax, where it had languished after Harvey Weinstein bought the film, and then found he didn't really like it. Miramax screened a re-edited, happy-ending version of the film at Sundance in 2002 and then shelved it. It's a great save by Magnolia and one of two Thai titles they released this year, the other being the fun Dynamite Warrior. Also it makes for a trifecta year for Wisit: All three of his feature films were released on English-friendly DVD, Citizen Dog early in the year in Hong Kong, and The Unseeable in Singapore.

Most DVDs of Thai films released in Thailand do not have English subtitles, a practice that started about three or four years ago. It's gotten to the point that I hardly bother even looking at the DVDs when they hit the store shelves, because I know I'm going to be disappointed. When I first moved to Thailand in 2001, the English subs were routinely being included. But since then, DVD publishers discovered they could save a lot of money by not having to pay royalty fees to the subtitle writers. And an unintended(?) effect of this move has been to shut down the gray market, online mail-order sales of Thai-film DVDs from Thailand. So international distributors who pick up the films have exclusivity when it comes time to market the film on DVD.

Singapore and Malaysia are now the first places to look for English-friendly DVDs of Thai films. Censorship has been an issue with DVDs from these places in the past, but I don't know if it is still an issue. Hong Kong also picks up a lot of Thai films and puts them out on DVD with English subs. Good resources in this area include MovieExclusive out of Singapore and Yesasia. Take your pick of mail-order site for any of the Western-released Thai DVDs.

Oh, worth mentioning is the Thai Film Foundation, which has released several classic Thai films on DVD. These include Ngern Ngern Ngern, Country Hotel, King of the White Elephant, Dark Heaven and Forever Yours. The DVDs have been available for sale at Thai Film Foundation events, or you can try to e-mail them and arrange a mail-order.

Trouble is, not all Thai films get picked up for international distribution. And sometimes it takes years for a film to make its way overseas for a quality DVD release. And, if a Thai film wasn't a horror film or martial-arts action film starring Tony Jaa, or is not by a director with a fairly large fan base in the West (namely Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wisit Sasanatieng or Pen-ek Ratanaruang), then it probably won't be released on English-friendly DVD. This leaves out several good dramas and one or two smart comedies that have been made in recent years.

The lesson here is, if you love Thai film but can't speak Thai, then learn to speak Thai. (Note to self.) Or, at the very least, get to the cinemas in Thailand when the film is released and watch it there, because that's the only way you'll get it with subtitles.

Or, hope and pray that a film festival near you will program the film you want to see.

English-friendly Thai DVD Releases in 2007

Here is what is likely an incomplete list of notable Thai DVD releases in the past year:

Coming in 2008: Syndromes and a Century, which was pulled from release in Thailand cinemas over censorship concerns, will be released on DVD on January 15 by Strand Releasing in the US. Order early and order often. Buy one for yourself, and another one or two for your friends.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top 5 Thai films of 2007

2007 was a strong, eventful year for Thai cinema, with many great films, but also some troublesome developments in terms of the way the government treats films, with more heavy handed censorship, and now a forthcoming ratings system that still includes censorship and banning as part of the mix. Narrowing down the choices to single out the best film has been difficult. But time is running out, so let's get to it.

Syndromes and a Century

Although Apichatpong Weerasethakul's drama was screened worldwide to great acclaim throughout 2006, it finally came home to Thailand this year. It was screened once for the press and then pulled from release. Why? Because censors objected to four scenes: A Buddhist monk playing guitar, two monks playing with a flying machine, some doctors drinking whisky in a hospital break room and a doctor kissing his girlfriend and getting an erection in his trousers. Meanwhile, far more lurid and violent films got a pass. Thai authorities had no good reason to pick on this gentle ode to the director's parents. But, the censorship of the film galvanised the Free Thai Cinema Movement, which formed to call for a change in the way films are treated by the government. The movement has been ignored, however, by conservatives at the top of the Culture Ministry, who were successful in having a new film ratings system passed by the National Legislative Assembly in the body's final hours during the week before the recent general election. The new act, to replace the 1930 Film Act, still contains provisions for authorities to censor and ban films, which filmmakers had fought against.


After making a couple of abstract pan-Asian, multi-national productions, auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made a return of sorts to his Thai roots with Ploy, which premiered during the Directors' Fortnight event at the Cannes Film Festival. This drama about a jet-lagged Thai couple holed up in a Bangkok hotel, rehashing their dysfunctional marriage, was still pretty weird. But it was good kind of weird, with some strong performances by an ensemble cast led by Lalita Panyopas, Coca-Cola executive Pornwut Sarasin and newcomer Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, supported by (censored) steamy scenes with Porntip Papanai and Ananda Everingham.

The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong

Not enough documentaries are made in Thailand, and even fewer dare to take on the contentious topic of politics. But The Truth Be Told dared to dance with the 800-pound gorilla, surveying the tumultuous Thai political events of the past four years, from the Thaksin era to the post-coup military regime. Directed by Pimpaka Towira, and covering the lawsuits against media activist Supinya Klangnarong by the Shin Corporation, The Truth Be Told is a sometimes discomfiting mix of political documentary and art-film aesthetics. But the fact that it was made at all makes this one of the best films of the year.

Muay Thai Chaiya

Director-screenwriter Kongkiat Khomsiri made his solo directorial debut with this hard-hitting, nostalgic crime drama, centred on the underworld of Thai boxing in the 1970s. It featured some great-looking period settings and punches brutal enough to leave blood in your stool, yet was also unabashedly full of misty-eyed romanticism.

The Love of Siam

It's rare that a drama film is made with Thai mainstream audiences in mind. Even more notable is that this one has a controversial, yet sugary sweet romance between two teen boys at its centre, making for a stunning surprise toward the end of the year. Director Chukiat Sakweerakul's film was actually one of two films that dared to confront prejudices and present romance between straight-acting gay male characters, the other being Poj Arnon's rain-drenched crime drama, Bangkok Love Story, about a hitman and his intended target falling in love.

Honorable mentions

The presence of a couple of "important" films edged out a few favourites. Among them is The Legend of King Naresuan Part II: Reclamation of Sovereignty, a tightly paced, action-packed historical epic that is part of MC Chatrichalerm Yukol's Naresuan trilogy. Parts I and II were released this year, with Part III due to start production next year. As King of Fire, Part II is Thailand's submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Unlikely to win any awards or receive very much attention is The Sperm, an insane, sharply satirical sci-fi comedy directed by Taweewat Wantha. But The Sperm does have some pretty pertinent things to say about contemporary Thai society. And to that end, there was also Phone Mood, an independent digital drama about women and their phones. Along with The Truth Be Told, Phone Mood was among the works shown at this year's inaugural Digital Forum, an outgrowth of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival - a welcome development on the cinema scene.

Cherd Songsri Retrospective

I was absolutely blown away by Puen Pang, a period countryside drama by Cherd Songsri. The Thai Film Foundation screened five of the late director's films in a special retrospective in September. I was drawn to the retrospective by Cherd's most renowned film, Plae Kao (The Scar), but came away most impressed by Puen Pang, a tightly focused, neatly arcing story of a man (Sorapong Chatree) caught between the love of two sisters. I really wish these films would get a broader release on DVD. Somebody, please call the Criterion Collection and get them working on releasing the works of Cherd Songsri, one of Thailand's true cinematic treasures.

The soundtracks

Soundtrack albums are not routinely released with Thai films, but those few that do hit store shelves are usually worth picking up. I really enjoyed the soundtrack to Final Score, a documentary about schoolboys in their final year of high school, struggling to pass their tests and choose a college. The Thai indie rock from the likes of Modern Dog and Pru lent a nice edge to the film and made it authentic. It was surprising. The big hit for movie soundtracks this year was The Love of Siam, which flew out of the stores. I feel lucky to have obtained a copy. The music - some sugary Thai pop - isn't really the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to, but after a couple of listens, for, uh, research purposes, I find that it has grown on me.

At the box office

Unsurprisingly, the top films at the Thai box office tell a different story. The quiet, artful dramas that are the favorite of critics are nowhere in sight. In their place are obnoxious comedies, with the few exceptions being the Naresuan historical epics, and the decently put-together horror film, Alone. Here's The Nation's rundown of the top Thai films at the box office in 2007:

  1. Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Part II: Prakad Issara Phab (The Legend of King Naresuan: Reclaiming Sovereignty), 256 million baht
  2. Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Part I: Ong Prakan Hongsa (The Legend of King Naresuan: Pegu's Hostage), 254 million baht
  3. Bodyguard Na Liam 2 (The Bodyguard 2), 98 million baht
  4. Teng Nong Khon Ma Ha Hia (Teng and Nong: The Movie), 91 million baht
  5. May Narok Muay Yok Lor (Bus Lane), 85 million baht
  6. Ponglang Sading Lumsing Sai Na (Ponglang Amazing Theater), 71 million baht
  7. Tud Soo Fud (Kungfu Tootsie), 70 million baht
  8. Sailab Jab Baan Lek (The Bedside Detective), 70 million baht
  9. Faed (Alone), 65 million baht
  10. Ma Mah See Kha Krub (Mid Road Gang), 58 million baht

Worth mentioning out of this batch is Mid Road Gang, the Thai talk dog film, which I saw and enjoyed, and Bus Lane, a comedy starring Thep Po-ngam and Note Udom about a hijacked bus, which I missed out on due to travels earlier in the year.

More information:

  • Lights, camera ... CONFLICT (Parinyaporn Pajee, The Nation)
  • The Year that Was ... At the Movies (Kong Rithdee, Bangkok Post)

  • (Cross-posted at Rotten Tomatoes)

    Saturday, December 29, 2007

    Bangkok Time, out of time

    After just one week of screening once a day at the Lido in Siam Square, indie director Santi Taepanich's Bangkok Time has already left the cinema.

    Seems Santi had personally rented a digital projector so his film could be shown at the Lido, which lacks the equipment. The film's premature close is simply because he couldn't afford to keep hiring the projector.

    There are other cinemas in Bangkok, Cinema 3 of the Grand EGV Siam Discovery, just across the street from the Lido, for example, which are already set up for digital screenings. But Santi wanted the Lido crowd to see his film, and being part of that crowd, I can't blame him. He thought something would be lost if it were shown in one of the newer shopping mall multiplexes.

    Such sacrifice in the name of art.

    Thursday, December 27, 2007

    Review: Syndromes and a Century

    • Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    • Starring Nantarat Sawaddikul, Jaruchai Iamaram, Nu Nimsomboon, Sophon Pukanok, Jenjira Pongpas, Arkanae Cherkam, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Sin Kaewpakpin
    • Reviewed at Bangkok press screening on March 28, 2007; set for limited release in Bangkok on April 5, 2007, but canceled by director over censorship concerns.
    • Rating: 5/5
    For a director whose production company is called Kick the Machine, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has the art of making a film down a finely tuned process that includes the following steps:

    Have a concept in mind, or general idea of a story to tell.
    • Assemble a cast of first-time actors.
    • Find a location.
    • Tell the story.
    • Repeat.
    Like his previous feature film, the Cannes prize-winning Tropical Malady, Apichatpong's latest, Syndromes and a Century is broken into two films, and the effect of this revolutionary storytelling method is no less jarring and thought-provoking than it was in Tropical Malady, which veered wildly off the rails into the dark jungle fantasy.

    In Syndromes, it's like a reset button was pushed, and the results are mind-blowing. It took me three days of wandering around, barely able to comprehend what I'd just seen to be able to write about it. By a miracle, I survived the assault and have lived to try and tell the story.

    This is Apichatpong's story, a tribute to his parents, who were both physicians. It's a jumbled-up cavalcade of amusing memories and anectdotes, presented in a carnival sideshow-like atmosphere that takes on a positively Felliniesque quality at times. The characters are a delightful bunch: A strong, upright female physician, a handsome orchid expert, a monk who wishes he was a DJ, a singing dentist and an elderly female doctor who keeps a bottle of whisky hidden in a prosthetic leg.
    It begins with a sad sack of a male physician, Dr. Nohng (former webmaster Jaruchai Iamaram) being interviewed by a female doctor. She asks him all kinds of weird questions that don't really seem to have anything to do with anything. The lady is Dr. Toey, portrayed by the striking Nantarat Sawaddikul, a first-time actress with a master's in psychology who works as an expressway toll collector. She ought to make a movie about her life someday.

    Self-assured and determined, Dr Toey is observed in her work at a rural Thai hospital. She is dogged by Toa (graphic designer Nu Nimsomboon), a young puppy of a man who is so in love with her, yet trembles when she speaks to him. As he tries to pour his heart out to her, she tells him of when she courted Noom, a dashing orchid expert (celebrity hair stylist Sophon Pukanok). That would intimidate the strongest of men. She tends to an elderly monk, who gives her an herbal remedy. As an aside to the story, a young monk (Kick the Machine regular Sakda Kaewbuadee) who wishes he was a DJ develops an odd friendship with a luk-thung singing dentist (jewellery designer Arkanae Cherkam). These are people who seem so real, they can't possibly made up. And indeed, the singing dentist character was inspired by a real person, Apichatpong has said.

    Dr Toey then drinks the monk's herbal tea, and the scene resets: The same sad-sack male internist, the same strange, non-sequitir questions by the female doctor, the same old monk with the same maladies, except it is taking place in a modern Bangkok hospital. This part is more meditative, yet crazed as it focuses on the male Dr Nohng as he goes through his rounds.

    Eventually, he finds his way into a basement ward reserved for military veterans and their dependants, where a teenage guy is swatting a tennis ball against a steel door, making a lot of racket with his racket. He passes through a machine shop where prosthetic limbs are being made and tested by patients, and then winds up in a file room, with pile of plastic limbs in the corner. Here he encounters a pair of elderly women doctors, one of whom retrieves a fifth of whisky from the hollow of one of the legs and proceeds to "get a little tipsy".

    The camera hones in on a machine-shop exhaust vent, with smoke flowing into the round, dark opening. I'm not sure what to make of it, but the frame holds on this picture for a good long while.

    Make of it what you can, but have fun in the process.

    (Note: This review was originally published in Nation Weekend on April 6, 2007, but I never got around to posting it on the blog until now.)

    More information:

    Monday, December 24, 2007

    Lena Christensen in Bombay to Bangkok

    Lena Christensen is starring in a Bollywood film, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Bombay to Bangkok. She's playing a Thai massage girl.

    A Thai TV presenter (she hosts an aerobics exercise program) and singer, Lena co-starred in one of my favorite films, SARS Wars, playing Dr. Diana, the love interest for Suthep Po-Ngam's character. Memorably, she played a genius doctor wearing a white lab coat, who stripped it off to reveal undergarments made of black PVC, accessorized by spikes and chains.

    From the Times of India:

    The casting happened in Thailand. Nagesh came there looking for the female lead for his film and I auditioned for the part. I consider myself very lucky as he chose me out of around 200 people. I was reluctant in the beginning as the character required a traditional Thai English accent and my accent is Americanised. But I think it was easier to communicate for both Nagesh and me as I understood him very well. I thought he would be this serious person but I found out that he was fun. He let me be myself.

    Actually there's a lot of activity by the Bollywood industry in Thailand, which is a prime location for Hindi films and music videos. There's so much going on in fact, it's hard to keep track of and assign any importance. But this recent bit caught my eye.


    Here comes Red Eagle

    Enough of Thai politics for a minute. My story is in today's Nation about Red Eagle, stemming from last week's press conference by Five Star Production, Wisit Sasanatieng and Ananda Everingham, to announce to the Thai press that yes, they will be making a new version of Red Eagle. The announcement was first made in October at the American Film Market, but last week's press conference was the first time it had been announced to the Thai press.

    Five Star isn't the first company to propose a remake of this 1950s and '60s Thai action series, which is based on a series of novels by Sek Dusit. Both Sahamongkol and RS Film have also proposed their own versions, but neither seemed to get off the ground.

    My gut feeling is that the Five Star bid is serious, because they are earnest people who mean what they say, and when they decide to make a Wisit Sasanatieng movie, well, they do just that. It helps also, that author Sek Dusit has given his blessing to Five Star, Wisit and Ananda.

    Seeing Wisit and Ananda mobbed by the Thai press was quite amusing, and being the only farang at the press conference, I didn't have much of a chance to speak to them, though I did get a few quotes from Wisit and Ananda. Ananda was especially self effacing, musing out loud whether he is right for the role. "I'm not the superhero type," he said. But that's probably a quality that Wisit will embrace as he makes this film - think Christopher Nolan's Batman, or Daniel Craig as James Bond.

    I also managed to pass along my own Red Eagle business cards to executive producer Charoen Iampungporn and Sek Dusit's son, Manote, and both were bemused by the fact that there's a farang who knows about Red Eagle.

    More information:

    Thoughts and questions on the politics of Thai cinema

    Samak Sundaravej has declared his People Power Party the winner in the Thai general election, though it appears his party does not have a majority in the National Assembly. Samak is the conservative former governor of Bangkok. He's a blustery, blabbermouthed sort who yells at female journalists. He also used to have a cooking show on television. If anything, having him as prime minister might be entertaining, but I'm too horrified at the moment laugh very much. Samak's party is the ideological successor to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was unseated from power in a military coup last year, and the party was subsequently outlawed.

    Will the military sit idly by and let Samak run the government? Thaksin and his quick-fix policies were divisive and did more harm than good in the long run, but the military's taking the government by force was wrong, too.

    Was the US trying to influence the vote? Freedom Against Censorship Thailand seems to think so, saying that the bribery scandal tied to the Bangkok International Film Festival was obviously timed to influence the Thai election. How? Because the arrest by the FBI of the US-based film festival promoter and his wife, who had close ties to former Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Juthamas Siriwan caused the Thai official to hastily resign from her party, just days before the election. As much as I love a good conspiracy theory, though, I don't think the plot by the Americans, if there was one, had much effect. Juthamas was a member of the Peua Pandin party, a group of political moderates that neither favored nor opposed Thaksin. So even though Juthamas ran a festival that very much smacked of the type of big-spending prestige projects the Thaksin administration loved, I'm not sure there was enough of a connection for her resignation to do much damage to the populist juggernaut that is Samak and Thaksin.

    Meanwhile, I'm still pondering over the coming horror that is the 2007 Film Act, which includes a film-ratings system. How will that system fare under a government run by a guy who asks whether a reporter had "sinful sex last night?"

    For years, Thai filmmakers and fans have been clamoring for a ratings system to replace the antiquated 1930 Film Act, which just censored films. I was clamoring for ratings myself, until I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which, ironically, I viewed at this year's Bangkok International Film Festival (which was not run by Festival Management). After that, I shut up about how great ratings are. If you want to see how NOT to do ratings, then watch that documentary. But in theory, a ratings system is a helpful thing. Filmmakers who want to target a mature audience can now do so, unless, of course, their film is deemed against "good morals, national pride or state security". Whatever that means. Then it will be banned and no one can see it.

    As approved by the military's National Legislative Assembly in a frenzied flurry of questionable lawmaking in the final days before the general election, the ratings system has two general audience tiers, "P", as in "promote", for films that are deemed educational (read nationalistic) and should promoted for all Thai citizens to view, and G, for run-of-the-mill films for general audiences. There are then four age tiers: Under 13, Under 15, Under 18 and Under 20. If you're younger than the stated ages, you can't watch this film.

    Like the Motion Picture Association of America's PG-13 rating, I imagine most Thai studio films will aim for the Under 13 category, in order to maximize their audience share while still providing something entertaining enough that viewers 13 and over will want to see. It will take awhile for directors and production companies to get used to this new system, but once they figure it out, they will self-censor themselves in order to appeal to the broadest demographic.

    Under the American system, I think the majority of Hollywood films are rated PG-13. It's rare anymore for the big studio films to have the R rating, which is similiar to the new Under 18 (or possibly the Under 15) category for Thai films. Some people may like the midway Under 15 category, but I'm not sure how much difference it will make. What will be the criteria that determines an Under 13 film vs an Under 15 film? Can you say the F-word (or whatever the Thai equivalent is) more than once in an Under 15 film? How many times can you say the F-word in an Under 15 film, or an Under 18 film? What's the difference between Under 18 and Under 20? Will language even be a consideration when it comes to rating films? It generally hasn't been under the censorship system. Especially in comedy films, characters will curse up a blue streak, even if there are impressionable kids in the audience.

    Indeed, it's going to take another law to put the system into operation, so it's going to awhile yet before we start to see films with the ratings assigned.

    Which leads to many, many more questions.

    What will the criteria be? Will the criteria be transparent? Or, will things be done in secret, with filmmakers kept in the dark about why their films are being banned or given a high age restriction? Will there be an appeal system, if the filmmaker doesn't agree with the rating? Will studio films and independent films be treated equally, or will independent filmmakers have to work harder to get their films released under the system? Will the system be similar to the MPAA system in the US, in which promotional items such as posters and preview trailers are also scrutinized? Under the US system, the rating has a big effect on how much the film can be marketed, which is another reason the studios try to aim for PG-13, because it can be marketed more heavily.

    As I say, many questions. But not many answers at this point.

    Friday, December 21, 2007

    Film ratings law passes National Legislative Assembly

    The Film and Video Act has passed the National Legislative Assembly, Kong Rithdee, writing for Variety reports. The law includes a complex new ratings system:
    • P - films that are of educational value and should be promoted for Thai audiences
    • G - fit for all age groups
    • Under 13 not admitted
    • Under 15 not admitted
    • Under 18 not admitted
    • Under 20 not admitted
    Additionally, under the law, the government has the power to ban films that "undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency, or that might impact national security or the pride of the nation".

    Also, note that though there had been talk of an "under 24" rating, it is not part of the final law.

    In addition to bureaucrats, the chief of the national police will sit on the ratings board, with apparently no representation for the film industry.

    The film ratings system replaces the 1930 Film Act, under which films are censored to make the content fit for all ages. But the censorship was never applied evenly, and was toughest on depictions of sex and nudity. Violence and coarse language generally got a pass.

    How and when the law will actually be implemented remains in question, and another law will have to be passed that governs the operation of the ratings system.

    The Free Thai Cinema Movement had been lobbying since April to give filmmakers a voice in the law, and wipe out the censorship-and-ban provision, to no avail.

    The Film and Video Act was passed on the back of the even-more-controversial Internal Security Operations Command measure, which empowers the military to order curfews, curb the powers of elected officials, possibly censor the Internet and listen in on phone conversations.

    The laws were hastily passed in the final days of the National Legislative Assembly, a body appointed by the military that took over the government in a coup on September 19, 2006. After a general electon on Sunday, the Parliament would be filled with elected representatives.

    For the past two weeks, non-governmental organization activists led by Jon Ungpakorn have been protesting outside Parliament House, calling on the junta's rubber-stamp lawmakers to stop passing laws. At one point last week, the activists succeeded in storming the Parliament grounds and disrupting the proceedings for a day. For the past week, though, in fear of being arrested for treason, they have stayed outside the fence and yelled their objections.

    More on the Bangkok International Film Festival bribery scandal

    Just a bit more followup on the Bangkok International Film Festival bribery scandal:
    • The festival's former president and former governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Juthamas Siriwan, has resigned as deputy leader and member of the Puea Pandin (For the Motherland) Party. She was running for Parliament in Sunday's general election.
    • Thailand's Department of Special Investigation will be looking into the case, as will the National Counter Corruption Commission.
    • A Nation editorial notes that this isn't the first instance of corruption in Thailand that has first been exposed by the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Previously, the US-based InVision company had paid bribes to get Thai officials to buy their bomb detectors for Suvarnabhumi Airport.
    Previous posts:More information:(Photo credit: Uthorn Sriphantha of The Nation)

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Whither the Bangkok International Film Festival?

    The Nation today digs into the interesting reading that is the US Justice Department affadavit about Gerald and Patricia Green, detailing not only the Hollywood couple's ties to the Bangkok International Film Festival, but to various other Tourism Authority of Thailand endeavours as well, including the Thailand Priviledge Card, a calendar book and more.

    But it's the bribery scandal's effect on the Bangkok International Film Festival that really pains me. Quite possibly, it marks the end of a film festival that was started with the best of intentions, but became burdened with a vain legacy of ostentatious red-carpet ceremonies, peppered with Hollywood celebrities who were flown to Bangkok at taxpayers' expense, to give the illusion that Thailand is the "Hollywood of Asia".

    This obscene display detracted from what should have been the true aim of the festival - to heighten the appreciation of film as art, and not just mere entertainment. For audiences who attended the festival to just see films, this was enough. But others wanted more, more, more.

    The festival has its roots in the Bangkok Film Festival (note, no "international" in the title), which started in 1998. It was organized by Nation Multimedia with Brian Bennett hired as programmer. After a few years, Bennett and The Nation parted ways, with Bennett continuing to independently run his Bangkok Film Festival for a few more years. I attended some screenings at the Bangkok Film Festival in 2004, at The Emporium.

    Nation Multimedia, meanwhile, had started the Bangkok INTERNATIONAL Film Festival in 2002, in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The two organizers proved incompatible, and Nation Multimedia split from the TAT and went its own way to found a rival festival, the World Film Festival of Bangkok, held in October each year since 2003.

    The TAT, meanwhile, continued with the Bangkok International Film Festival. From 2003, the Greens' Los Angeles-based Film Festival Management handled the programming and organization. The budget ballooned to more than US$5 million annually. Lavish red-carpet premieres, cocktail parties, gala dinners, golf tournaments, concerts, cultural performances and river boat tours were arranged for celebrities, dignitaries and the press corps. There were also grand announcement ceremonies and parties on behalf of the festival at Cannes and in Los Angeles. And, oh yeah, they showed some films, too.

    This wild frenzy of feeding at the hog trough continued through 2006. After the coup in September, TAT saw its budget slashed by two thirds from 180 million baht to 60 million baht. The governor, Juthamas Siriwan, was replaced. The TAT cancelled its contract with Film Festival Management, and then postponed the 2007 edition of the festival, usually held around January or February, to July.

    This year, the TAT managed the festival on its own, but for programming - here's an interesting twist - it hired Nation Multimedia's Kriangsak "Victor" Silakong, director of the rival World Film Festival of Bangkok. With the smaller budget, the number of invited celebrities dwindled. The actors, directors and producers who did show up, came because they wanted to promote their films. It was a move back in the right direction, but perhaps it had come too late. People had been spoiled, and the damage was done.

    Even before the 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival was held, word was that it was the last one, though no one would provide a definitive answer to questions on that issue. However, since the festival wrapped, management of the film festival has been transferred from the TAT to the Department of Export Promotion, which so far has not issued any announcements about when the next festival will be held, if ever.

    But at least there's the World Film Festival of Bangkok, which without the taint of corruption surrounding it, could very well emerge as the predominant annual film event in Thailand.

    More information:
    (Photo credit: Thanis Sudto of The Nation)

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Bribery scandal hits Bangkok International Film Festival

    A Hollywood producer and his wife have been arrested in Los Angeles, with a US Justice Department statement saying the couple paid more than US$1.7 million in bribes in order to obtain contracts from a Thai government agency to run the Bangkok International Film Festival, a deal worth $10 million.

    Gerald Green, 75, and his wife Patricia, 52, were arrested after a criminal complaint was filed in federal court in Los Angeles on December 7. The arrest was announced by the Justice Department yesterday.

    The Greens owned and operated Film Festival Management, a Los Angeles-based company that was formed in 2003 specifically to bid for the management contract for the Bangkok International Film Festival, a deal that would bring in $10 million.

    From the US Justice Department press release:

    The complaint alleges that from 2003 and continuing into 2007, the Greens conspired with others to bribe a senior Thai government official who was, at the time, the president of the BKKIFF and the governor of the TAT. As a result of her position at the TAT, the Governor was able to influence the awarding of the BKKIFF contracts as well as other TAT contracts. More than $1.7 million in payments were allegedly made for the benefit of the Governor.

    The press release does not name the governor, who, up until last year, was Juthamas Siriwan.

    "I don't know about that at all. I have no knowledge about this," Juthamas was quoted as saying by Reuters, though she confirmed that during her time as governor, the Greens had worked for the TAT, which oversaw the staging of the Bangkok International Film Festival.

    "I want to talk to the arrested couple first before saying anything," Juthamas was quoted as saying by The Nation.

    Furthermore, she says she will sue the US Justice Department if it linked her to the case.

    "All the procedures involving the case had been done according to the regulations and with fairness and transparence to all agencies concerned. TAT had set up a panel to handle the process," she was quoted as saying at a press conference.

    Juthamas is running for Parliament in Sunday's general election under the Peua Pandin banner.

    The US government says the Greens set up dummy businesses in order to conceal the large amount of money being received from the TAT, and to make the "commission" payments to the TAT governor through the foreign bank accounts of intermediaries. Acting on evidence supplied by two confidential witnesses, the Greens were arrested by federal authorities on violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on all charges, the press release said.

    Gerald Green is a producer of such films as Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, which was filmed last year in Thailand. He is the president of Viridian Entertainment, a production company for The Rape of Nangking, an upcoming film based on Iris Chang's book.

    The Bangkok International Film Festival cancelled its contract with Film Festival Management late last year, after the Tourism Authority of Thailand had its budget slashed by the post-coup, military-appointed government. The festival, originally set for January 2007, was then postponed to July.

    Management of the festival has since been transferred to the Department of Export Promotion, and its future is uncertain.

    More information:
    (Photo credit: Via AFP; from left, TAT governor Juthamas Siriwan, actor Michael Douglas, Patricia and Gerald Green of Film Festival Management, Inc., and director Joel Schumacher at a private dinner at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival.)

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    A Thai film about a Cambodian king

    A proposed Thai-produced documentary about the Khmer Empire's greatest ruler, Jayavarman VII, is causing concern in the Cambodian media.

    It's the latest dust-up for Thai-Cambodian relations, which have been on the rocky side in recent years, and Thai cultural exports have been at the root of the disputes.

    In 2003, riots erupted in Phnom Penh when a Cambodian newspaper printed falsely attributed quotes from Thai soap opera actress Suvanant Kongying, who was alleged to have said Angkor belonged to Thailand and had been stolen by Cambodia. Things quickly got out of hand. Thailand's fairly new embassy was burned and several Thai-owned businesses were ransacked.

    Last year, there was the debacle that was Ghost Game - a crass slasher about a fictional reality game set in what was unmistakably the former Khmer Rouge torture center of Tuol Sleng.

    This time around, Thai diplomats are working overtime to assure the Cambodians of their best intentions, saying that an (unnamed) Thai production company is seeking to make the documentary, but will do so only if it receives Cambodian technical assistance, and if the plan is opposed, they'll drop the project.

    More information:(Photo credit: Egui via Flickr)

    Monday, December 17, 2007

    Ananda Everingham in Laotian film

    Thailand's hardest working man in show business is now Ananda Everingham, who has been in no fewer than four films this year. And he has more lined up. In addition to the upcoming thriller by Pleasure Factory's Ekachai Uekrongtham, The Coffin, Nonzee Nimibutr's Queen of Langkasuka (and a little something called Red Eagle - more on that in a few days), Ananda will star in Saibaidee Luang Prabang, or Hello Luang Prabang, a Laotian government-financed romance film about a young Lao-Australian (played by Lao-Australian actor Ananda) falling in love with a Laotian woman (Khamly Philavong), with the setting of the Unesco World Heritage city Luang Prabang as the backdrop.

    Filming, done with a mixed Thai and Laotian crew (I'm told that several Thai directors participated in the project), has mostly wrapped up, and the plan is to release the film in time for Laotian (and Thai, and Khmer) New Year in April.

    This would be the first Laotian feature film in 20 years, the last one made being Red Lotus (Explorer only), by Czech-trained director Som Ock Southiponh, who is now running a bakery in the capital, Vientiane, and trying to find backers for independent film productions.


    Friday, December 14, 2007

    First Flight delayed yet again

    First Flight, a historical drama film about the beginnings of aviation in Thailand that has been in production for five years, has had its release delayed yet again to January 30, 2008.

    According to the film's jaw-droppingly detailed production timeline, it was due for release in November, but was delayed due to the fatal airliner crash in Phuket in September. It was then being promoted for release on December 27, and trailers have been playing in local cinemas. They play up the comedic, light-hearted aspects of the film, but I expect it will be heavier on the melodrama than is being let on.

    From RS Film, First Flight has been dogged by various delays throughout its long production history. Bangrajan director Thanit Jitnukul was originally attached to direct, but was removed at one point. I think he's still being credited as director, though.

    The film has been promoted at the Cannes market for three years running, and had some of its thunder stolen by Flyboys, a CGI-heavy Hollywood release covering the same aviation era, with the same kind of ensemble-cast camraderie.

    Earlier this year, one of the stars of the film, Sornram Theppitak, ran into some legal problems after his car struck and killed a woman in June. Charged with reckless driving, he was facing a three-year jail term and a fine of 20,000 baht (about US$600). But just last week, he was given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay a 10,000 baht fine after he had made a confession, restored the telephone booth and trees he had damaged and paid compensation to the victim's family.

    I don't know if that negative publicity had anything to do with the film's release date being pushed back to the end of January.

    Chronicling the formation of the Royal Thai Air Force - the first flying corps in Asia - a lot of CGI has been used for the aerial sequences in First Flight. This heavy use of CGI and various other technical difficulties has more than likely been the sticking point. But there comes a point when you have to just go ahead and release the film to cut your losses and hope for the best.

    And from the trailers, it actually looks pretty good.

    More information:

    Crass comedies close out 2007

    A pair of crude comedies being released on December 27 will bring an ignoble end to 2007 for Thai cinema.

    From Sahamongkol Film comes Konbai the Movie, featuring the usual cameos from the studio's stable of cafe comics. So you can expect Mum Jokmok to turn up, and be yelled at by Janet Keaw. And there's that cross-eyed woman in there, too.

    From the preview, Konbai the Movie appears to be a fish-out-of-water flick about some hill-tribe men who fall in love with a pretty Eurasian-looking woman, and come down from the mountain and into the big city of Bangkok. There, they run into all sorts of trouble, in a set-up that allows for plenty of racist gags at the expense of hill-tribe folk.

    Then, from Phranakorn Film, a production company whose speciality is crass, B-movie comedies, comes something called Yen Pe Le Semakute. It is directed by none other than the prolific Poj Arnon, who earlier this year directed the cross-dressing comedy Haunting Me (Hor taew tak) for Five Star and saw his homosexual romantic drama, Bangkok Love Story, released by Sahamongkol. Acclaimed as a groundbreaking film, Bangkok Love Story recently won the Grand Award in all Categories at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival. But I guess Poj still has the need to make loopy comedies in his system.

    Again, I have no idea what this is about, but it involves a pair of goofy-looking, apparently brainless guys, one of whom has the ugliest set of teeth ever commited to film. Somehow, a come-hither young woman with a leg brace is involved, though probably not as much as she should be.

    More information:

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Bizarre promo for Chocolate ahead of The Warlords

    On Sunday there was a premiere of The Warlords at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld in Bangkok. The place was a madhouse, with Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshiro Kaneshiro and Peter Chan present, making for the biggest movie premiere event ever in Thailand.

    I wasn't given the secret handshake for press access to the celebs, and I was too freaked out by the massive, impenetrable crowds, red carpet cordoned off by steel fencing and a legion of black T-shirted bodyguards to snap any photos. But I managed to score a ticket to the film, so my day wasn't a total waste.

    Ahead of the film, there was a bizarre new extended promo for Chocolate, the upcoming martial arts film directed by Ong-Bak/Tom Yum Goong helmer Prachya Pinkeaw.

    At first, I thought maybe it was a trailer for a documentary about autism, as it featured a couple of Westerner autistic people, showing off the type of superhuman mathematics skills that were played up so hugely in Rain Main.

    After a couple of minutes of that, they then switched so some footage from Chocolate. I guess the intent of the new trailer is to cast autism in a positive light, and make the comment that while some autistic people have uncanny maths skills, Chocolate's autistic female protagonist (Nitcharee Wismitanant) possesses crazy martal arts abilities.

    I searched high and low for an online link to this trailer, but couldn't find one, though I did find this one. But given the amount of attention this film is getting, it won't be long before one surfaces somewhere.

    Chocolate is due for release on February 86.

    Reviews: Ponglang Amazing Theater, The Screen at Kamchanod

    • Directed by Rerkchai Paungpetch
    • Starring Somphong "Eed" Khunaprathom, Duangruedee "Lulu" Boonbumrung and Khwanapha "Lala" Ruangsri, Kavi "Beam" Tanchararak, Visa Sarasas, Duangruedee Boonbumrung, Khannapha Rueangsree, Khom Chuanchuen, Anuchit Kulsri and Kotee Aramboy
    • Released in Thailand cinemas on November 29, 2007
    • Rating: 2/5

    Released within a week of each other, the colourful comedy Amazing Ponglang Theater and the dourly dramatic thriller The Screen at Kamchanod take very different approaches to the subject of cinemas haunted by ghosts. But they share one thing: Neither makes very much sense.

    Released on November 29, Amazing Ponglang is the ostensible star vehicle for the Ponglang Sa-on country music comedy trio. As a comedy, it doesn’t have to make sense, but a concept that seems to have been lost on director Rergchai Paungpetch is if you’re going to have a talented group of singers and dancers in your movie, you should let them sing and dance. After an unbearable 90 minutes of flatulence gags, racist insults and slapstick pratfalls, the trio finally gets to put on a show to close out the film.

    The Screen at Kamchanod, released on December 5, was probably never intended to make any sense either. It has some decent scares and some neat-o imagery, but still left me sitting there after the credits rolled going “huh?”

    But I was probably the only one who gave it any thought at all. For both films, I had opposite reactions to the audiences. In Amazing Ponglang, while people were busting a gut laughing at scatalogical humour, severed tongues and barbs about flat noses and dark skin, I was mortified. In The Screen, while the audience was screaming their lungs out, I was laughing incessantly.

    Both films are steeped in movie-going nostalgia. RS Film’s Amazing Ponglang Theater is set in an old-time Bangkok movie palace. Ponglang Sa-on frontman Somphong “Eed” Khunaprathom portrays To, the nephew of the cinema’s owner. The cinema is old and shows old movies (all from RS Film, of course), but probably the main reason there are no customers is that the place is haunted. The only people who turn up to watch films are an odd quartet of ghosts.

    To wants to sell the cinema, be rid of the ghosts and move on with his life. He sees hope for all that in real-estate agent Ploy (Visa Sarasas), but the pretty ethnic Chinese beauty has no interest in the diminutive To, and is pining over her missing boyfriend, Win (Kavi Tanchararak – Beam of the boy band D2B), who is a taxi driver and just happens to be hanging around the cinema.

    Amazing takes the scattergun approach typical of Thai comedy films, widely broadcasting joke after joke, with lots of screaming and running around, but hardly ever sticking to an actual storyline. After funny bits that do nothing to advance the plot, the last 30 minutes of the film move at a frenzied pace to tie up loose ends and send everyone home happy. The ghosts are largely forgotten about, as is the fact that Ponglang Sa-on is in the film.

    • Written and directed by Songsak Mongkolthong
    • Starring Ashita Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, Pakaramai Potranan, Ong-art Jiamjaroenpornkul, Pornpimol Hoonthongkam, Namo Tongkumnerd
    • Released in Thailand cinemas on December 5, 2007
    • Rating: 3/5
    Five Star Production’s The Screen at Kamchanod is supposedly based on a true story that took place in 1987 in Udon Thani, when an outdoor film screening was booked at the Kamchanod forest preserve. The projection crew rolled the film, but there was no audience, until near the end, when some ghosts came out of nowhere to view the film.

    Now, the big question is: what film was it? But that is never answered in The Screen. It appears to be some kind of art film. So while Thai people, in the words of cultural minder Ladda Tangsupachai, just want a laugh, Thai ghosts appear to appreciate the cerebral, abstract work of the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Go figure.

    The Screen at Kamchanod deals with the obsession of a young doctor, Yuth (Ashita Pramoj Na Ayutthaya), who for some reason wants to find out the mystery behind this screening. With his wife, nurse Orn (Pakaramai Potranan), and journalist friends Ji (Ongart Jiamjaroenpornkul) and Phann (Pornpimol Hoonthongkam), and a neighbourhood street hood Roj (Namo Tongkumnerd), the doctor tracks down the film and arranges a screening in what appears to be the same old-time Bangkok movie palace used in Amazing Ponglang Theatre. Soon after, all the members of the group are seeing dead people.

    Directed by Songsak Mongkolthong, a former assistant director under the Pang Brothers, The Screen has its fair share of scares. What’s really cool is when the horror action seems to cross the threshold between the world of the film and the world of real-life audiences, with a ghost appearing to grab the sides of the screen and try to shove it aside to escape. Who knows, maybe there really are some ghosts lurking about at Major Cineplex Central Bangna and other mall multiplexes?

    Mainly, The Screen is a psychological thriller, probing the mystery of Dr Yuth himself, and the jealousy that comes to the fore as his emotionally traumatised wife seeks solace in the company of the stoner Roj. Yuth's obsession drags everyone and everything down. There is one bright spot through it all: In a brief scene where Dr Yuth and his wacky Scooby Gang are investigating an outdoor screening for clues, the movie being shown is Wisit Sasanatieng’s The Unseeable – a film I’d really like to see again.

    Red Eagle building a nest

    Here is some early promotional art for Insee Dang, or Red Eagle, the upcoming next film by Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog director Wisit Sasanatieng.

    Red Eagle will be a reboot of the 1960s and '70s film series that starred Mitr Chaibancha as a masked crimefighter, based on novels by Sake Dusit.

    There's a website, too, but it's in the early stages of development.

    More information:

    Ratings: Not just for films anymore

    Not only is Thailand's Ministry of Culture planning a motion-picture ratings scheme, it is also going to rate books.

    However, the Ministry's approach to rating books is markedly different from the heavy handed tactics it is using for film ratings.

    According to a Nation article yesterday, the Culture Ministry has backed off a plan to censor romantic scenes from translated novels, after members of the public e-mailed the Ministry with their objections. (The web address for the Ministry is, which is incorrectly stated in The Nation's article.)

    Culture Minister Khunying Khaisri Sri-aroon, obviously more a fan of novels than films, said she disagreed with the proposal to cut "romantic" scenes from translated novels because "it would ruin the taste for readers", according to The Nation.

    She said she would invite national artists, academics and publishers to formulate a rating criteria.

    That right there is more consideration than filmmakers have received as the National Legislative Assembly closes in on passing a harsh new law that will both have the most restrictive film ratings system in the world, and increase the government's power to censor and outright ban films. Filmmakers might have been consulted about the draft law, and they have raised objections to it, but those objections aren't being heard.

    Why aren't filmmakers, which are included among the ranks of National Artists, being given the same consideration?

    More information:

    Friday, December 7, 2007

    Star-studded Thai election

    Thai action star of the 1970s Sombat Metanee is following the paths of many from the ranks of film to politics. I'm thinking he's aiming to be more in mold of Ronald Reagan or Fred Thompson, and not so much Joseph "Erap" Estrada, and probably not even close to Fred "Gopher" Grandy or Ben "Cooter" Jones.

    Sombat was serving in the Senate before last year's coup. He then became a member of the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (the body that's probably going to approve the harsh new film law).

    The Tears of the Black Tiger villain is running for Parliament in the December 23 election as a member of the Pracharaj, or Royal People Party, a minor party that could nonetheless be influential in determining who leads a coalition government.

    Another 70s action star, Krung Sriwalai is also running, as a People Power Party candidate. This is the party that is the idealogical replacement for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's populist Thai Rak Thai party, which has been banned.

    Former boxer Khaosai Galaxy, or Sura Saenkham, recently seen in Fighting Beat, is running under the Puea Pandin Party banner. Another Puea Pandin candidate is Kowit Watanakul, who was in last year's Krasue Valentine.

    Singer Surachai Sombatcharoen, who was in Bodyguard 2, is a candidate for Matchima Thipataya.

    More information:(Photo from

    Thursday, December 6, 2007

    Review: The Life of Buddha

    • Directed by Krismant Whattananarong
    • Produced by Wallapa Pimthong
    • Starring Ratchata Samorntinnakorn, Vit Vijitranon, Thassawan Seneewong Na Ayutthaya, Phitsamai Wilaisak
    • Wide release in Thai cinemas on December 5, 2007
    • Rating: 3/5

    An epic life, condensed to a 100-minute cartoon feature, The Life of Buddha contains episodes from Lord Buddha’s life that could have easily made a dozen 100-minute films.

    So while The Life of Buddha paints a broad picture, it’s a gorgeous one. In a time when most feature-length animated films are done in 3D on computers, The Life of Buddha is refreshingly old-school, traditional animation. Budgetary concerns, rather than aesthetics have been cited by director Krismant Whattananarong as the reason for the choice of old vs new technology. Nonetheless, the colourful artwork is engrossing, especially the backgrounds.

    Brought to Earth by angels, and swaddled in a loin cloth, the baby Buddha entered the world walking on a path of golden lotus pods. Creatures of the wood cavort in a scene that owes more to a Disney cartoon than the Tripitaka – no coincidence, because many of the animators on this film actually worked for the Mouse.

    The son of a king, Prince Siddhartha, as he was known early in life, was to become a great ruler and was schooled in swordplay, archery and all things kingly. He even took a wife.

    But he saw people suffering, and wanted to know more about the root causes. So at age 29, he left the palace, cut his air and took to meditating on the banks of a river, letting his body waste away to near nothing. It is then that the notion of the “middle path” – not taking things to either extreme – struck him.

    Not as much the action-packed video game as the posters promise, the best sequences have to do with the demon Mara summoning all the dark forces in the world to attack Lord Buddha. But nothing, not even a trio of the most voluptuous women yet committed to celluloid, can penetrate Buddha’s shell of meditative goodness.

    Another cool episode has to do with the hulking serial killer Anguilimala being swayed from his murderous ways by Buddha. It’s kind of anti-climactic, but then too much blood would scare the kids. More action would have been preferable, however, over the political intrigues of Buddha’s various disciples.

    A Bollywood-style song-and-dance number, smack-dab in the middle, livens things up. In fact, the music, which is a mix of Indian, Thai and Western classical, is one of the joys of this film.

    More information: