Monday, January 5, 2009
Top 10 Thai films of 2008
Since I started doing my year-end best-of lists of Thai cinema in 2004, I've only listed my Top 5. But for 2008, as I look back with fondness for some of the films I have seen, I found I had the hardest time ever limiting myself. So I've doubled the length of my year-end list this time, in recognition of what I thought was a notable year for Thai cinema.
1. Syndromes and a Century: Thailand's Edition
Now why do I have a film at the top of my list for 2008 that was also at the top of my list for 2007, and was on the top of many critics' lists for 2007? Well, it might seem strange, but the way things are in Thailand it makes perfect sense. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's almost universally acclaimed arthouse masterpiece was supposed to get a limited commercial run in Thailand in 2007. A press screening was held but it was pulled from release by the director after the Censorship Board demanded he cut four scenes. A year later, he resubmitted the film, and the censors demanded that he cut six scenes. So, rather than pull it from release again, he let it run, replacing the scenes the censors cut with lengths of silent black scratched film leader, ranging in time from a few seconds to nearly seven minutes. The result was a trashed, hollow shell of a film that probably shouldn't have ever been shown. But it's good that it was, because it made a poignant statement about censorship and art in Thailand. The censorship also inspired responses from the indie filmmaking community, most notably the short film Diseases and a Hundred Years Period by Sompote "Boat" Chidgasornpongse, who worked as an assistant on Syndromes. Apichatpong served on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival and was made a French knight. He and his works are celebrated overseas, but at home this soft-spoken guy who likes to be called Joe is treated with disdain by the conservative faction of bureaucrats who are determined to control the Kingdom's culture -- he is alienated in his own country. In the meantime, the Ministry of Culture was supposed to have enacted a new motion-picture ratings system to replace the censorship regime. But the ratings system didn't come into effect, probably due to the year's tumultuous political scene with violent protests in the streets, both of Bangkok's airports closed for a week and three prime ministers. Movie ratings might seem inconsequential in the face of all that. And the proposed system still allows for censorship, if a film is deemed harmful to Thai society. Still, the rating system is an important development, and I think it is a building block for a society that sees a value in respecting free expression over the current culture of apathy, fear, repression and censorship.
2. Soi Cowboy
This is a potentially controversial pick, and not because this film is a bit polarizing, but just because director Thomas Clay isn't Thai. But the production company, DeWarrenne Pictures, is a Thai company, and it had Thai actors and a Thai crew, and was set in Thailand and told a story that is about Thailand. So to me, Soi Cowboy is Thai. From the opening strains of an old-timey American country song, to its monochrome look at the humdrum life of the mismatched couple of a portly European man and his tiny pregnant Thai girlfriend and then its full-color Lynchian second half, I found myself succumbing to the charms of Soi Cowboy. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at the Cannes Film Festival, and then played in a single, sold-out screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival. Happily, Soi Cowboy is getting a limited commercial run in Bangkok from January 8, so I'll have a chance to see it again.
3. Citizen Juling
Last year, it was another political documentary, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong, that made my Top 5. And Citizen Juling is a complement to that film. Spanning nearly four hours, Ing K's documentary on the fatal 2006 beating of teacher Juling Pongkunmul in Southern Thailand was an exhaustive look at the country's political ills, with a focus on the violence that has wracked the Muslim-majority South. For artist Ing K, just getting the film shown during the Bangkok International Film Festival was a triumph. It was the first time one of her films had been shown in a Thai cinema. Her last film 10 years ago had been deemed too controversial and was banned from public screening. Citizen Juling premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it's set for this year's Berlin Film Festival.
4. 4bia (See Phrang)
This highly entertaining omnibus of four short films is by four directors from GMM Tai Hub -- the Shutter/Alone pair of Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, with Body #19's Paween Purijitpanya and veteran producer-director Yongyoot Thongkontoon (The Iron Ladies). Tightly edited, each 25-minute segment explored a different fear. Yongyuth's Happiness (fear of being alone) channeled Hitchcockian suspense in its story of a young woman alone in her apartment, nursing a broken leg. Paween's Tit for Tat (fear of reprisal) trafficked in black magic, blood and gore. Banjong's In the Middle (fear of things that go bump in the night), about four smart-alec boys on a camping trip, was flat-out hilarious, mainly for the way it satirized and spoiled classic suspense films. And Parkpoom's Last Fright (fear of the dead) will make you wonder about those smiling flight attendants next time you fly. 4bia was a sensation with festival audiences in Canada and is set to be among a gathering of Thai horror in the Hungry Ghosts program at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Also, another anthology is being planned with Ha Phrang -- five shorts with Dorm director Songyos Sugmakanan in the mix and a punny English title that somehow uses the number 5.
From Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong director Prachya Pinkaew and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai comes a discovery -- "Jeeja" Yanin Vismitinanda -- a tiny young female martial artist who is wound up and let go on a rampage of flying fists, elbows, shins and knees. Jeeja trained at an early age in ballet and then tae kwon do, and Chocolate is the culmination of four years of hard work for her. It paid off in her performance as an autistic young woman who learns martial arts by watching Tony Jaa movies and then goes on a chocolate-fuelled rampage to collect money owed to her sick mother. After its Thai theatrical run early in the year, Chocolate went on to play across Asia and wow audiences at film fests, including Toronto, and then closed out the year with a DVD and Blu-ray release in the U.K. and North American discs due in February.
6. Wonderful Town
This quiet, lyrical romantic drama is set in a small town on the Andaman coast, where the 2004 tsunami had struck and left scars. Into this shell-shocked atmosphere comes a big-city architect. He strikes up a relationship with the manager of a rundown hotel, but the woman's gangster brother doesn't approve. Like a wave slowly rolling in, the drama builds and crashes. Since winning the New Currents Award at the 2007 Pusan festival, Aditya Assarat's assured solo debut feature film burned up the festival and arthouse circuit throughout 2008, winning more prizes and gathering critical acclaim. It played in Bangkok in a limited run as the first entry in the Directors' Screen series by indie producers Extra Virgin and was also part of the Thai Panorama at the Bangkok International fest. It's due out on Region 1 DVD in March.
7. Queens of Langkasuka
Celebrating a decade of filmmaking, one of the pre-eminent directors of the Thai New Wave (and a 2008 Silpathorn honoree), Nonzee Nimibutr, made his most ambitious film yet with the historical fantasy Queens of Langkasuka. In production for three years, the movie was originally to be called Queens of Pattani, but the title was changed to avoid the connotation of Thailand's southern violence. The film had also been planned as a two-parter, but commercial considerations again forced a change, and a version of around 140 minutes debuted at the Cannes Film Market and also played at Venice to tepid reviews. But being a star-studded spectacle featuring Ananda Everingham, Dan Chupong, Winai Kraibutr, Sorapong Chatree and Jesdaporn Pholdee, as well as the comeback of '80s starlet Jarunee Suksawat, the buzz for Queens started to build with a red-carpet gala screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival. When it finally had its wide theatrical release in Thailand in October, the film clocked in at around 120 minutes or so, and moved briskly, with loads of special-effects-driven action and big explosions in a story involving pirates, magic, flaring nostrils, opulent costumes, flying sea gypsies, stingray surfing and extremely large cannon. In short, it was entertainment for the popcorn-munching masses that happily did well at the box office. Hopefully the coming year will see the film featured in genre fests and rack up some international sales.
8. A Moment in June
English-schooled director O Nathapon's feature debut is a stylistic masterpiece with costumes, lighting and a color palette that recall Thai cinema of the 1960s and '70s, a notion that is strengthened with the use of the lilting melody of "Tha Charom" by Charoen Nathanakorn -- a popular song from the era -- as a major refrain. The story seamlessly and artfully toggles back and forth from 1999, when a stage director and his boyfriend are going through a breakup and an older couple have an uneasy reunion, and 1972, when a destructive love triangle is formed. Starring Shakrit Yamnarm, Krissada "Noi" Sukosol Clapp, "Noon" Sinitta Boonyasak, Deuntem Salitul and Suchao Pongvilai, the performances are moving, and by the end everyone is crying. A Moment in June premiered in competition at the Pusan International Film Festival before coming home to Thailand to serve as the opening film of the 6th World Film Festival of Bangkok, which had backed the film's production through its Produire au Sud Bangkok funding workshop. It also played at the International Film Festival of India. A Moment in June will receive a theatrical release in Thailand on February 12.
9. Pid Term Yai Huajai Wawun (Hormones)
One of the "Fan Chan Six", director Songyos Sugmakanan made the switch from the suspense of Dorm back to youth-oriented romance with the ensemble comedy-drama Hormones. Though light, fluffy and frivolous, Hormones was a cut above the usual melodramatic trifles, showing a bit of maturity that was sometimes thought provoking as well as a lot of fun. The movie wove together four stories of young romance over a summer-school holiday. A pair of hyper-competitive schoolboys (Charlie Trairat and Michael Sirachuch Chienthaworn) race to win a girl's phone number. A sensitive geek (Ratchu Surajaras) makes a play for the campus queen (Chutima Theepanat). A teenybopper (Focus Jirakul) is crazy about a Taiwanese pop star. And a porn-obessed college guy (Chanthavit Sunasewee) has his faithfulness to his long-time sweetheart tested when he goes to the beach with a bouncing bikini-clad Japanese tourist (former AV star Sora Aoi). Hormones performed well at the box office, topping it for two weeks in a row.
10. Ong-Bak 2
What a year it was for martial-arts star Tony Jaa, who attempted to make Ong-Bak 2 his debut as director, action choreographer, producer, writer and star all in one go. But it was not to be. Strange tales emerged in July that Tony had walked off the set over financial difficulties, and had gone into hiding in a cave. Execs at Sahamongkol Film International struggled to downplay the troubles and get the over-budget film back on track. A tearful Tony told his side of the story, and issued demands. There were lawyers and rumors. And then a handshake and Tony was back, but with his old mentor Panna Rittikrai as co-director and the seemingly last-minute addition of a new co-star. With all the troubles on set, nothing short of a trainwreck was expected, and perhaps it is a trainwreck -- the kind you can't turn your head away from. An extravaganza of non-stop action featuring a cavalcade of martial-arts styles and almost constant bloodletting as seen through the veiled mysticism of a historical epic, Ong-Bak 2 has turned out to be the biggest-grossing Thai film of the year at the domestic box office. It's polarizing though, with critics either gushing with praise or heaping scorn on the film. Aside from the bit of Lucasian revisionism that makes Ong-Bak 2 a prequel to the contemporary-set Ong-Bak of 2003, the real deal-breaker appears to be the abrupt ending -- signs of a rush-job and the production's troubles the critics say -- that gives the film no place to go other than to Ong-Bak 3.
Honorable mention: Somtum
After years of a playing a heel, giant wrestler Nathan Jones finally got to play the good guy, cast in Somtum as a timid, soft-spoken Aussie bloke named Barney who runs into a bit of bad luck while vacationing in Pattaya. After he's robbed of everything but his trousers, he's taken in by a pair of girl street urchins, one of whom is a ferocious little Muay Thai fighter (Sasisa Jindamanee). They make the mistake of feeding Barney some ultra-spicy somtum (sweet and sour papaya salad), which turns him into a raging red hulk. Foreigner diamond thieves (including the even bigger Conan Stevens) are added to the mix, and Barney is force-fed more somtum so he can unleash a few piledrivers and save the day. What a blast! I haven't heard of Somtum getting any release beyond Thailand, despite its obvious appeal to the WWE crowd. Meanwhile, Sasisa is due to co-star in another kiddie-action comedy, Power Kids, also featuring Johnny Nguyen from Tom Yum Goong and The Rebel.
Actor of the year: Ananda Everingham
Hardly a week went by in 2008 when an Ananda Everingham movie wasn't playing. The Lao-Australian star -- Thailand's hardest-working film actor -- was featured in six movies. He closed the year out with Happy Birthday, playing a guy cracking up as he cares for his comatose girlfriend. He muscled his way into an action role, playing a magical, stingray-riding sea gypsy in Queens of Langkasuka. He climbed into The Coffin, co-starring with Karen Mok in a thriller by Ekachai Uekrongtham. At midyear there were three movies in cinemas at the same time: His road-trip romance in the Lao-Thai co-production Sabaidee Luang Prabang (which he executive produced), the Singaporean romance The Leap Years and the psychological thriller Memory with Mai Charoenpura. Ananda also helped pitch Pepsi Max and Motorola phones. He served as a juror at the Bangkok International Film Festival, and headed to Goa with his girlfriend, actress-model Jeed Sangthong, to promote The Coffin. The coming year may see Ananda playing a Filipino soldier in Adolfo Alix Jr.'s Kalayaan, as a member of Aditya Assarat's High Society and donning the mask as a vigilante crimefighter in Wisit Sasanatieng's reboot of Red Eagle.
Update: Thomas Crampton has produced a videocast of me doing my Top 10 Thai Films of 2008. Thanks Thomas!