Wednesday, October 1, 2008

BKKIFF '08: Capsule reviews

Aside from Soi Cowboy, Citizen Juling and the restored print of The Boathouse, I spent most my time at this year's Bangkok International Film Festival catching films from other Southeast Asian countries. Here's what I saw.

Invisible Children

  • Directed by Brian Gothong Tan, Singapore, 2008

Intertwining storylines depict alienation, confusion and dysfunction in Singapore -- moral beacon of the world. A little boy and his older sister run away from their broken home after a fight with their recently-made-single mum. An obsessive-compulsive mosquito abatement officer with no social skills comes to the aid of a suicidal neighbor lady, who it turns out is the glamorous face of "Merlion Air". He cleans her apartment. A young woman working in a lawyer's office keeps breaking dates with her army-officer boyfriend in order to complete assignments for her demanding boss (who's the asshole brother of the mosquito guy). And the army officer has problems of his own with an undisciplined soldier. The narrative is disjointed, and goes off in certain directions for too long, making me start to wonder, "Hey, what's happening with those kids?" (3/5)

Now Showing
  • Directed by Raya Martin, Philippines, 2008

Spanning nearly five hours and employing a lot of experimentation that taxed the patience of many in the audience, this is really a simple story about a girl and her relationship with her mother. But it's also a survey of the cinematic soul of the Philippines, and the part films play in Pinoy culture. Beginning in her childhood, the girl's mother is present, but it's really her aunt who is the parental figure. Still, the mother-daughter bond is sealed over a late-night viewing of a television horror-movie show. The girl and her mother are then packed away one night, leading to a middle section in which a scratchy 1939 black-and-white film is played. There's a spooky visit to a graveyard. And suddenly, the little girl is a young woman, hanging out with friends and gossiping. She's working in her aunt's pirate DVD stall. There are tears. And a boy gets involved. (4/5)

The Photograph
  • Directed by Nan Triveni Achnas, Indonesia, 2007

Beautifully lit, with a haunting quality and a worn, timeless production design, this is the story of a karaoke-bar hostess/prostitute and the odd, tender relationship she strikes up with an elderly Chinese photographer. The woman has dreams of hitting it big as a singer, so she can support her daughter and mother. The eccentric old man is dying, and he's trying to find an apprentice to take over his dusty old photo studio. At times it's whimsical, especially when the apprentice he thinks is perfect is far from it. The woman is played by Indonesian singer Shanty, who is utterly charming. The man is portrayed by talented Singaporean actor Lim Kay Tong, who was so convincing that people in the audience were genuinely concerned for the man's health. But he's more than okay. "He skips rope for 40 minutes a day," the director assured us after the final credits had rolled. The Photograph is among the films chosen for the 2009 Global Voices Initiative. (4/5)

  • Directed by Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 2008

Inside the adult-movie house they've run for generations, a family is coming apart at the seams. The chief matriarch, the grandmother Flor (Gina Pareño), is off to a court hearing, where she hopes to see her husband sentenced to prison on bigamy charges. Her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose), an equally strong woman, is left in charge of the place. The men working there are either shiftless or a little bit stupid. These include Nayda's husband Lando and her cousins, the artist-handyman Alan (Coco Martin) and the projectionist Ronald (Kristofer King). The setting is at times erotic - helped along by an opening sequence of teenage daughter Jewel (Roxanne Jordan) getting dressed and admiring her naked body in the mirror. There's also lovemaking session by Alan and girlfriend Merly (Mercedes Cabral), but there's a hideous boil on Alan's butt. The gay and transvestite prostitutes who ply their trade in the cinema add a great deal to the seedy environment. A footchase with a thief and a goat on the loose get the heart pumping. A pregnant girlfriend makes for even more melodrama. Ironically, the theater is called "Family". (5/5)

Days of Turquoise Sky (Kurus)
  • Directed by Woo Ming-jin, Malaysia, 2008

Rushmore without the quirk - not necessarily a bad thing - this is a sweet tale of a schoolboy's crush on his pretty new English teacher (Carmen Soo). It's not quite coming-of-age, because it's all very innocent. The boy Ali is struggling with home life, living with his kind-hearted but apparently gambling-addicted father (Nam Ron), and being bullied by an big bespectacled boy and a heavyset girl. He goes fishing with his friend, Hassan, who is moving off on his own in pursuit of a new girl in town who eats pasta for lunch. A neighbor lady (the riveting Mislina Mustapha) is angling to be a maternal figure, and Ali at first keeps his distance, but when she starts teaching the boy how to properly throw punches, Ali comes around. Meanwhile, the teacher has a boyfriend who is not everything he seems. (5/5)

12 Lotus
  • Directed by Royston Tan, Singapore, 2008

What a letdown after the raucous, highly entertaining, smash-hit musical 881. The story starts out strong, with Mindee Ong (Little Papaya in 881), playing another getai singer. But she grows up with single father who is abusive, and is then sold to repay gambling debts to a handsome young singer (Qi Yu-wu - also returning from 881, and he actually speaks and sings this time around). The story keeps getting darker and darker until Mindee's character cracks up, locks herself inside her apartment and gorges herself on cream crackers until she turns into heavyset actress Liu Ling Ling, also from 881. It's shades of Memories of Matsuko. The only thing that kept me interested in the rest of the movie was watching Liu's performance. She made me believe that Mindee Ong was somehow trapped inside her body. But she never gets out. (3/5)

Otto; or, Up with Dead People
  • Directed by Bruce LaBruce, Canada/Germany, 2008

This was a drastic change of pace from the Southeast Asian dramas I'd been watching. Perhaps too drastic. While hilariously camp -- and pretentiously so -- Otto veers into the realm of hardcore gay porn as only a zombie movie can -- after a zombie eats out the guts of a guy, he explores the new orifice in a manner I would rather forget. But thank goodness for Hella Bent, the black-and-white, silent-film girlfriend of Medea Yarn. Even in color frames, Hella appears monochrome, and "speaks" with title cards. Medea is the underground goth filmmaker of Up with Dead People, the zombie movie within this zombie movie. At times, it's hard to tell what's "real" and what "isn't". The titular Otto is a young gay zombie who is trying to hide his undeadness by signing up to star in Medea's movie. He's so good at being dead, because he is, that the other cast members are jealous. Otto, meanwhile, is trying to patch together the memories of his past life. And then there's a gay zombie orgy. (3/5)

  • Directed by James Lee, Malaysia, 2008

The director moves from his Love Trilogy into low-budget horror that is generously bloodsoaked but lacks any suspense. Scares are punctuated by the musical score, which if it wasn't there, you wouldn't know to be scared. Instead of any frights, the overwhelming feeling I had was impatience as I waited for six snobby, troublesome teenage girls at a rural boarding school to be picked off one by one by an unseen force. I just wanted it over with, quickly. When that force is finally glimpsed, it's a major disappointment, because the action takes place in the dark and the fearsome power of what's killing of the girls can never be fully seen. A vastly better effort by Lee is his family drama, Breathing in Mud, which I saw earlier this year at the Singapore International Film Festival, and was in the Southeast Asian competition in the Bangkok fest. Update: Asian Cinema - While on the Road has a positive review of this film. (2/5)


  1. Wise Kwai, your capsule reviews and coverage of the Bangkok International Film Festival have been terrific. We are lucky to have you.

  2. Man, I didn't know you did a short review of DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY here. Didn't know anything about the technical glitch either.

    Glad you enjoyed the film and mentioning Mislina's performance too. She's really awesome. I would love to share tales of how we would both take long train journeys home after rehearsals and during the shoot.

    Eli the bully in the film isn't really Indian but Malay. The actor, Fad (nice kid), IS pretty dark though.

  3. Thanks Edmund! I should have given you a heads up about the review. I'm really glad I saw the film. I've changed the descriptive detail about Eli.

    I need to watch more Malaysian films. In the Malaysian indie-film community, I notice there's a lot of cross-pollination. It seems very tight knit and friendly.

  4. Yup, we do. Even my short film, Chicken Rice Mystery, has the older kid from Flower In The Pocket and James Lee himself in it. And filmmaker Tan Chui Mui has quite a big role in Ming Jin's previous film, The Elephant And The Sea too (and James had a cameo too). Yup, most of the indie filmmakers have a really close and tight-knit relationship which I think it's pretty rare.

    I was also asked about the cross-pollination when I was at the Santiago Film Fest last year. And hey, this is one thing about the (indie) film industry that I wish will never change.

    P. S. I've offered myself up for cameo appearances, unfortunately, people know that I suck so much at acting that they don't want me to ruin their films. Guess I won't get an acting career :(


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