Thursday, October 1, 2009

BKKIFF '09 review: Sawasdee Bangkok

  • Directed by Bandit Rittakol, Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawasdi, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Wisit Sasanatieng, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Prachya Pinkaew, Aditya Assarat, Chukiat Sakveerakul and Santi Taepanich
  • Starring Supakorn Kitsuwan, Intira Jaroenpura, Arak Amornsupasiri, Winai Bandurak, Ploy Horwang, Nopachai Bongkot Kongmalai, Nopachai Jayanama, Ananda Everingham, Louis Scott
  • World premiere on September 30, 2009 as closing film of the Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Bangkok's sights, sounds and smells, the city's landmarks and characters are all captured in Sawasdee Bangkok (สวัสดีบางกอก). It's a beautiful portrait of the capital, one that frankly and humorously depicts the love-hate relationship I think all Bangkokians have with their metropolis.

A nine-segment short-film anthology commissioned by Thai Public Broadcasting Service, what's surprising is the brutal truthfulness of it all. Virtually all the shorts dealt with street characters -- the homeless, the disabled, the crackpots -- who are part of daily life here.

Nine directors offer their views on life in the capital: Bandit Rittakol, Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawasdi, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Wisit Sasanatieng, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Prachya Pinkaew, Aditya Assarat, Chukiat Sakveerakul and Santi Taepanich.

Veteran director Bandit, of the long-running Boonchu teen comedy series, starts things off with light humor in Maha Nakorn, as a rural husband and wife -- Supakorn Kitsuwan and Intira Jaroenpura -- come to the city to photograph its landmarks. They start with the iconic riverside temple Wat Arun, but are disappointed to be informed by a man who charged them 40 baht for taking a photo from his river pier that the Temple of the Dawn isn't even in Bangkok, it's in Thonburi. They get a whirlwind ride in one of Bangkok's noisy, three-wheel motorized rickshaws -- the tuk tuk -- and photograph other sites before nightfall arrives and they find themselves stranded. During the night spent on the ground in Sanam Luang park, their camera is stolen, but all is not lost, thanks to the helpfulness of strangers.

Ruethaiwan (Wai Onlawan 4, aka Oops, There's Dad) keeps things light while veering deep into nostalgia in Lost But Not Forgotten with an elderly man carrying a sackful of bamboo desserts finding himself lost in the city. On the same No. 40 ordinary bus to Chinatown is a young long-haired guitarist (pre-hair-cut rock musician and actor "Pe" Arak Amornsupasiri) who is either suspicious of the old man or is wondering who the guy is. The old-timer ends up wandering around Chinatown and sees Pe's character in a guitar shop. He then flashes back to his younger days when he was the leader of a rock band. Turns out the guy (actual singing star Winai Bandurak) was a star back in the day, and his still remembered in Chinatown. Music by '70s band The Impossibles -- their Thai version of "One Toke Over the Line" -- is used here, and a treat is Winai and Pe singing the song over the segment's credits.

With Silence by Pen-ek, the anthology starts to delve into Bangkok's seedier side, with two young women out for a night of drinking and the puking that goes along with it. After dropping off her friend, one of the young women, played by Ploy Horwang, is driving home when her Mini breaks down. And her mobile just happens to be dead. And the nearby phone booth is shattered and out of order. And there's a creepy guy covered in grime hanging around. Well, it turns out this guy (Nymph's "Peter" Nopachai Jayanama in another great performance) is an ace mechanic, so the young woman's fright turns to relief and then to sadness after she learns why the guy doesn't seem quite right -- he's deaf, and only wishes he could hear her say thank you.

Wisit's Sightseeing also deals in disability, with "Tak" Bongkot Kongmalai portraying a blind lottery-ticket seller who lives under the Klong San Saeb bridge at Pathumwan. Living rough, she's somehow managed to keep an old tape-cassette player going so she can fall asleep to an old song about Bangkok. She has an old photo of her mother tucked away, and instead of looking at it, she sniffs it -- though what good that does is a mystery, given the ever-present stench of dead dogs emanating from the San Seab. And any wonder about how the young woman has managed to survive at all is quickly put to rest when two men attempt to rape her, but then stop when they discover she is blind and take pity on her. The woman is then visited by another man, who claims to be an angel. And the Bangkok he describes to her is not at all like the city we see today. It's the Bangkok of yesteryear and fantasy, with vast networks of canals, everyone riding elephants and those are not pigeons you're hearing -- they are kinaree, the mythical half-woman, half-bird. It's a vision that Wisit actually pulls off by the end, allowing for just a taste of his customary stylistic and fantastic flourishes.

Pi Makham by Kongdej gets even grittier, with the story of a young man who engages the services of one of the prostitutes who ply their trade in Sanam Luang. Unable for some reason to perform with her, he asks her walk with him and show him the sights of old Bangkok, and he finds himself falling in love with her. But the woman has a dark, violent past that prevents that from happening.

After an intermission in what turned out to be a marathon four-hour viewing session, the remaining four segments were more diverse thematically and livelier.

Ong-Bak director Prachya let his geek-flag fly with Bangkok Stories, a hilarious documentary on all the daily truths we face in the city. Among Prachya's targets are technology, the traffic-light countdown clocks, the dynamics of eating in food courts and censorship. But the biggest laugh came in the interview of a young man who shows how to make a bum wiper out of a 1-inch-square city bus ticket for those times when you don't have two baht change for the toilet-paper dispenser that's pretty well standard in most parts of the city.

Aditya keeps the humor going in Bangkok Blues, about a guy (singer-actor Louis Scott) who's finding notes from his former girlfriend in his books. He then goes to visit his friend (Ananda Everingham, oddly wearing a neck brace) and brings him along while he goes to confront his fiery ex. Left alone, Ananda sits in an abandoned, rubble-strewn playground and records its ambiance with his tape recorder and bayonet microphone. There, he meets a university student who is vomiting for no other reason than she is simply sick. Ananda then gives the young woman some salted prune (bui khem) snacks and lets her listen to a tape he made of Central Park in New York City. The sounds of children laughing and of nature on tape contrast with the trashed playground and noisy environment of Bangkok, so that despite the good-natured, funny banter by the two actors -- friends in real life -- Bangkok Blues is actually very wistful.

A major shift in tone comes with Sisters by Chookiat Sakveerakul. Here, the director of the hit teenage romance Love of Siam goes back to school for a colorful teen romantic drama about the school's top student -- a star gymnast named Ann and her considerably less-swan-like younger sister Ung, who has a crush on the school's star swimmer Vee. He is showing interest in Ann. Trouble arises when Ung spots Vee at a restaurant with another girl and posts photos of it on the Internet, and later comes to regret her actions. This segment has the least to do with Bangkok per se -- it's simply a backdrop for the engaging story. It's more about the characters of Bangkok -- people on the fringe, like the less-attractive, less-popular Ung and her best friend Man, a male classmate who wonders what his parents would think if they knew "what I am". They probably do know. At least Ann's and Ung's parents have an idea, because their eyebrows raise slightly when, at a farewell at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Vee introduces himself as a friend of Man, even though he's there to say goodbye to a girl he's in love with.

The final segment, Santi's I Love BKK is so powerful, it nearly blows all the other shorts away, even if it recalls bits and pieces of all them. A construction-helmeted homeless man spotted in Bandit's segment is interviewed here. Familiar city landmarks like the green Memorial Bridge and the Giant Swing, seen in earlier segments, are revisited. "One Toke Over the Line" pops up again. Santi continues on the theme he explored in his feature documentary Crying Tigers, with interviews of natives from outside Bangkok who were drawn to the capital for work. These are people firmly on the fringe -- transsexual bar workers, an eccentric dancer in Lumpini Park, the elderly woman who sings and bangs her drum outside Chatuchak Market and the city's biggest nut of all -- Chuwit Kamolvisit, the former massage parlor king who became a crusading politician and unsuccessful candidate for governor of Bangkok.

Bangkok is a city that caters to all tastes, Chuwit says. And Sawasdee Bangkok is a short-film compilation made for that city.

I think it's more cohesive than another city compilation, Paris, Je T'Aime and Sawasdee Bangkok does a better job of celebrating its city.

Overall, the shorts tend to run long, with some clocking in at around 30 minutes. As one package it would be unwieldy for Sawasdee Bangkok to have a theatrical release, beyond perhaps something very limited. Commissioned by Thai PBS (TV Thai), the shorts will eventually be broadcast on television, probably as a mini-series. If other film festivals pick up Sawasdee Bangkok, they will probably opt to take the four-segment short version of shorts by Pen-ek, Wisit, Kongdej and Aditya, which was prepared for the Toronto International Film Festival. An extra bit tacked on, just for the Toronto crowd, is a music video that Pen-ek directed. It's not part of the full nine-segment version.

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