Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bangkok International Film Festival '09: Are you ready for the big dance?

Undaunted by a bribery scandal, the Bangkok International Film Festival gets under way tomorrow with an invitation-only VIP gala opening of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

It's an odd choice, considering the Hollywood producers now convicted of bribing the festival's former president produced Herzog's previous film, 2007's Rescue Dawn, which was actually made in Thailand.

But then maybe that's a connection to the festival's organizers that never occurred to the planners of the red-carpet galas and fancy black-tie parties. Or did it?

Perhaps it's a message to Hollywood that Thailand's movie business has a soul that's still dancing. And please, shoot it. With your film cameras.

Neither Herzog nor the zany Port of Call star Nicolas Cage will be present for the opening film -- a pity, since both have made movies in Thailand -- but Hollywood guests already arrived for the festival include James Belushi. He's being squired around to Thailand's tourism hotspots in hopes he'll return to Hollywood and tell everyone what wonderful place Thailand is -- for vacationing, to meet friendly people and most of all, to make movies. Yesterday, the Tinseltown entourage was treated to a night out on Phuket's Patong beach, with one of Belushi's classic films, K9, unspooling at SF Cinema City Jungceylon.

Other guests include Pulp Fiction heavy Ving Rhames, veteran Hong Kong actor Carl Ng, enduring character actor William Forsythe, young actresses Scout Taylor Compton (Rob Zombie's Halloween) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno), young actor Kyle Gallner (A Haunting in Connecticut), Sung Kang from Fast and Furious, Japanese actor Kazuaki Kiriya and action-film actor Gary Daniels. There's also a yogi, Master Kamal, to keep everyone limbered up. Many appear in a video, talking about how stoked they are to be invited to Thailand and the Bangkok film festival.

Also, the "Muscles from Brussels", action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is expected to make a return visit this year, after kicking it on the red carpet at last year's fest. Perhaps he'll even have the reels for his latest effort, The Eagle Path, tucked under his arms, ready for a surprise screening. The movie was filmed in Bangkok, which is dressed to look like a nondescript anywhere city, even though Bangkok's taxi-meters, one of which Van Damme drives, are unmistakable.

After the red-carpet gala on Thursday night, the stars will party at Bangkok's swanky Q Bar. And who knows what other events their Thai handler -- Tyler Brujah Panichpakdee -- has planned for them. He'll probably make them wear traditional Thai uniforms and dance around and sing Thai folksongs at the VIP-only Thai night on Saturday at the Siam Niramit theater.

Aside from that list of folks who don't have any films in the festival, and are just here to provide publicity -- mission accomplished -- the Bangkok International Film Festival's programming team of artistic director Yongyoot Thongkongoon from the Thai Film Directors Association and the programming directors, indie filmmakers Pimpaka Towira and Mai Meksuwan, have put together an incredible line-up that will unspool over six hectic days. Scheduled in two cinemas -- the SF World Cinema at Central World and Siam Paragon's Paragon Cineplex -- movie lovers will have to work twice as hard and walk twice as far to keep up.

Industry folks will be kept busy shuttling back and forth between the cinemas and the festival's seminar venue, the riverside Chatrium Suites, which will have talks on such things as “Films in Crisis?”, "Protecting Your Film in the Digital Era” and “Thailywood – Evolving and Involving”.

Film lovers, check the schedule (PDF). You'll surely find something you'll like. Tickets go on sale tomorrow.

In the World Cinema category, there is the Cannes Grand Prize winner A Prophet by Jacques Audiard, as well as Danish director Lars Von Trier's controversial Antichrist, for which the Cannes jury gave a best actress prize to Charlotte Gainsbourg. It had audience members passing out, walking out or vomiting. There's even something for genre-film films -- Nazi zombies in Norway in Dead Snow.

And there's one called Double Take by Johan Grimonprez. It stars the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, as a paranoid history professor, unwittingly caught up in weirdness during the Cold War period.

French director Claire Denis is expected to be on hand for screenings of her latest, 35 Shots of Rum, which is on the "to see" wish list of Bangkok cinephile blog Limitless Cinema. There's also Film Sick's wishlist. You would be doing pretty good to see half of what those two have planned.

More wish-list movies can be found in the World Competition, where there are directors' first or second films. These include the Cannes Directors' Fortnight Prix Regards Jeune winner I Killed My Mother by Canada's Xavier Dolan, Altiplano by Peter Brosens & Jessica Woodworth from Belgium, Inland by Tariq Teguia from Algeria, Everyone Else by Germany's Maren Ade and Huacho by Alejandro Fernández Almendras from Chile. Across the River by Iran's Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh, The Search by Pema Tseden from China and Breathless by South Korea's Yang Ik-june.

The jury for this selection is Chinese director Li Yang as jury head with Cannes-winning Filipino director Brillante Mendoza and Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham. Mendoza's controversial Kinatay from Cannes is showing in the non-competition Southeast Asian Panorama.

More mind-blowing stuff can be found a parallel festival, the inaugural Bangkok International Animation Festival, unveiled and hammered together when its budget was approved just three weeks ago by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. It'll have the world premiere of Yona Yona Penguin by Japanese director Rintaro, as well as Australian claymation in Mary and Max and Irish fantasy in The Secret of Kells.

The schedules for both the BKKIFF and the BKKIAF (PDF) are merged, so taken together, there's something like a dizzying 120 features and shorts to try and wrap your head around.

Personally, I prefer to concentrate on the Southeast Asian films, because those will be harder to find once they are gone from the festival circuit. And I think that's where the Bangkok International Film Festival is strongest and most relevant. It is well positioned to be a major platform to showcase the region's cinema, offering premieres, retrospectives and competitions. Bangkok is easy to get to from all the region's capitals, so many of the directors will be on hand for Q&A sessions after the screenings.

In the World Cinema competition is Adrift by Thac Chuyen Bui from Vietnam.

The Southeast Asia competition has the world-premiering Aurora by Adolfo B. Alix, Jr. of the Philippines, Call If You Need Me by Malaysia's James Lee (a past winner at the BKKIFF), the Cannes-premiering HERE, by Singapore's Ho Tzu Nyen, Imburnal by Filipino indie filmmaker Sherad Anthony Sanchez, In the House of Straw by Singapore's Yeo Siew Hua, a Cannes Un Certain Regard selection Independencia by the Philippines' Raya Martin, genre-fan approved horror-suspense in The Forbidden Door by Indonesia's Joko Anwar and The Moon at the Bottom of the Well by Nguyen Vinh Son from Vietnam.

Two juries will hand out awards for the regional competition. The festival's own jury is headed by the German film critic Vincenzo Bugno with Singaporean director Royston Tan and Tul Waitoonkiat, the singer of the Thai indie rock band Apartmentkhunpa.

And new to the festival this year is a jury from the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema, an international Asian film business and cultural organization whose members are authorities on and professionals within Asian cinema. This year’s NETPAC jury consists of Jung Soo-wan from South Korea, Thai film critic and writer Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Ranjanee Ratnavibhushana from Sri Lanka.

Other important films for Southeast Asian cinema fans and political observers are in the documentary category, with Burma VJ, featuring videocam footage of the 2007 democracy uprisings smuggled into Thailand and made into a feature by Denmark's Anders Høgsbro Østergaard. There's also Malaysian director Amir Muhammad's latest, Malaysian Gods, revisiting the case of Malaysia's persecuted and imprisoned former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. And the late Malaysian director, Yasmin Ahmad, who died in July, will be remembered with a retrospective of three of her films: Chocolate, Sepet and her latest, Talentime.

There are also two more short-film packages -- the 10-film Indonesian shorts anthology 9808 and this year's edition of the Jeonju Digital Project, with shorts by Hong Sang-soo (Lost in the Mountains), Naomi Kawase (Koma) and the Philippines' Lav Diaz (Butterflies Have No Memories).

And don't forget this is a Thai film festival, please! So in the Southeast Asian Competition there's Nymph by Pen-ek Ratanruang, which premiered in Cannes and recently played in Toronto to good reviews.

Making its Bangkok premiere will be another favorite of this year's festival circuit, the politically tinged rural ode Agrarian Utopia by Uruphong Raksasad. It's playing in the Documentary Showcase.

There is the Thai Panorama, intended as a "best-of" of Thai cinema from the past year or so. It includes Yongyoot's Best of Times, now tipped as Thailand's submission for the Oscars, as well as another festival-circuit hit, martial-arts star Tony Jaa's feverish and troubled magnum opus Ong-Bak 2.

Rewardingly, there's a retrospective for director Cherd Songsri (1931-2006), who would have been 78 this month. An avid attendee of film festivals around the world, he was a pioneer for Thai cinema's presence on the international stage. Four of his films will be shown: 2001's Behind the Painting, 1994's historical women's rights tale Muen and Rid, the seaside romance Ploy Talay (The Gem from the Deep) and his masterpiece, The Scar (Plae Kao).

And don't forget to check out the CentralWorld exhibition on actress Petchara Chaowarat, the "Queen of Thai cinema". The leading starlet of the 1960s and '70s, before she was tragically sidelined by blindness, the classic Petchara is featured on this year's festival poster.

Closing the festival will be Sawasdee Bangkok, an anthology of nine shorts by big-name Thai directors -- Pen-ek, Wisit Sasanatieng, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Aditya Assarat and Prachya Pinkaew among them -- who offer their views on the city. Commissioned by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TV Thai), four of the shorts were cherry-picked to premiere to a decent reception in Toronto. But BKKIFF09 will likely be the only time to see all nine of them at once -- full-length running around three hours -- before they hit the airwaves.

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