Saturday, June 7, 2008

Review: Sabaidee Luang Prabang

  • Directed by Sakchai Deenan and Anousone Sirisackda
  • Starring Ananda Everingham and Khamly Philavong
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on June 5, 2008
  • Rating: 3/5

If Laos had cheeks, you'll want to reach out and squeeze them after seeing Sabaidee Luang Prabang, which captures the quaint, mountainous country as an adorable picture postcard.

Ananda Everingham stars as Sorn, a Bangkok-based Lao-Australian photographer, who is sent on assignment to Laos. Starting in Pakse, in Champasak Province in the south, he has a nearly disastrous first meeting with the young woman who is to become his tour guide.

Her name is Noi, and she's new to the tour-guide scene and a bit naive. And being cute as a button, with cheeks that scream to be pinched, she always has guys hitting on her. So when she's caught in a monsoon-season downpour, and the umbrella-toting Sorn happens upon her and offers to walk her home, she brusquely refuses.

Of course it's all a big misunderstanding that causes her even more embarrassment when Noi is roped in to being Sorn's solo tour guide the next day. And from then on, Noi finds she likes the guy.

Sorn, for his part, seems a bit distracted, and doesn't catch on to Noi's batting eyelashes. He's still getting used to the whole Laotian scene, and he's concentrating on taking photos that capture the heart and soul of his subjects, as his editor (cameo go-to guy Theeratorn Siriphunvaraporn) back in Bangkok has ordered. And it doesn't help that a cheeky little boy with a case full of tourist trinkets keeps turning up everywhere Sorn goes, trying to pull a fast one on him.

As with any road movie, there are misadventures, but the tone throughout is light. The worst that happens to them is a missed connection for a boat ride. They debate, with Sorn arguing that she shouldn't have paid the guy up front, while Noi firmly believes that payment guarantees he'll show up (e.g. Laotians are trustworthy). Sorn and Noi then spend the night with a local family, where Sorn learns that trying to hand over money is an insult to Laotian hospitality. Even a missed connection for a bus ride is easily remedied by flying Lao Airlines. There is always a solution in Laos.

Places of interest include the Mekong rapids at Don Khone, where the French colonists built a narrow-guage railway, long since in disrepair, with the rusted remains of a steam locomotive left behind.

Sorn, who's been receiving phone calls from his Austalian mother and Laotian father, decides he wants to know more about his father's family, and makes a sidetrip to a town near the capital Vientiane. There, he's greeted as if he were his father come home, and has his wrists bound with string. And he also meets his surprising namesake, a woman named Sorn (Sorn is apparently a female name), who was his father's old flame.

Like any romance film, there's a wedding scene that changes everything, and puts Sorn, finally, on the road to the Luang Prabang of the title. The journey is over a twisting, mountainous highway.

He wakes up during the ride to ask the driver how many more curves there will be.

"Three," says the driver. "A left curve, a right curve, and a dangerous curve," he says, cackling away like cafe comic.

The movie was shot over 12 days on a shoestring budget that saw one producer mortgage his house. Ananda waived his usual fee for acting to take an executive producer credit.

This is a different movie for Ananda, who is relaxed and smiling much of time -- a marked contrast from the brooding or terror-stricken characters he plays in dramas and thrillers.

The actress, Khamly, is a pageant queen with an expressive, delicate face like porcelain. The lens loves her, and her beauty shines brighter as the picture progresses. A red blouse is the killer.

Even better are the normal Laotian people -- the ever-present boy street vendor and Noi's precocious little sister are a couple of the best characters that enliven this production.

Sabaidee Luang Prabang (Good Morning Luang Prabang) is the first privately funded film to be made in Laos in 33 years, and 20 years since a film was made there at all. Hopefully it won't be that long for another film to come out of this sleepy, breathtakingly gorgeous country.

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(Cross-published at The Nation Weblog)


  1. The first from from Laos in 20 years? The figure I usually see in relation to this title is 33 years.

    The Hollywood Reporter article in your sidebar, for example, says it is the first commercial film made in Laos in 33 years.

    One Thai language report says it is the first film to show in Laos in 40 years.

  2. Is it politically incorrect of me to think about Red Lotus made in 1988 by Czech-trained director Som Ock Southipone, as the last feature film made in Laos?

    The 33 years figure points to the film industry before the fall of Laos to the communists in 1975. I feel this discounts the work of filmmakers in Laos since then, even if they were making communist propaganda.

    And Good Morning Luang Prabang works as propagandistic travelogue even it was funded by private interests. Anything that would have offered a grittier picture probably would not have been allowed to be made.

  3. Thank you. In that case, you might like to make that point in one of your posts. You are taking issue with the 33-year figure, and for these reasons...

    The rest of us are at the mercy of a mainstream media which knows no better, so we tend to swallow whatever information we are given.


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