Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ong-Bak 2 VOD 'overpriced'

If you're in the U.S. and are anxious to watch Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning, which made it's video-on-demand premiere last week, be prepared to shell out some dough.

Kung Fu Cinema has the rundown on the deal. Here's a snip:

Amazon is charging $9.99 to stream the movie to your PC. In order to watch it on Xbox Live without a premium subscription you’ll have to purchase 1200 “Microsoft Points” and the cheapest option is to buy two bundles of 500 and 1000 points totaling $19.00. I couldn’t find a price point for Comcast but a lot of their premium On Demand titles cost $3.99, although this requires both a Comcast subscription and a digital cable box which costs extra.

The first Ong-Bak is currently selling on DVD for $10 to $15 new. In other words, you could be spending the same amount the future DVD release of Ong-Bak 2 costs to own just to watch it once in a lower-quality format on your computer.

Bottom line, says Kung Fu Cinema, wait for the Region 1 DVD, which shouldn't be too much longer.

Or, heck, go watch it in the cinema. A limited U.S. release is planned by distributor Magnolia for October 23.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Petchara making an appearance

Petchara Chaowarat, the biggest-name actress in the Thai movie business in the 1960s and '70s, had her career sidelined by blindness. Legend has it that make-up to give her trademark "puppy-dog eyes" even more sparkle combined with the bright lights of film sets to take her vision.

Public appearances by her are extremely rare, but tomorrow, she'll be on TV as a presenter for the Mistine cosmetics brand. Her classic image is being used for the 70-million-baht campaign to sell the "Diamond" lipstick collection. The Nation/Daily Xpress has a story today:

It is not easy for a famous actress to return to the limelight after so long. She told us she’s worried about being ignored because her looks have changed so much,” said Danai Derojanawong, managing director of Better Way, which owns the Mistine brand.

Petchara says the comeback will be a one-off to help her charity work for the blind. Her decision was made easier when the company agreed to give a percentage of the lipstick’s sales revenue to the Thailand Association for the Blind.

Danai said that as this will be the last time we see Petchara on our screens, the company has created something special to remember her by. “We want to bring down the curtain on this legend’s career with a commercial that becomes the talk of the town.”

Better Way are making a habit of breaking records with budgets for adverts with a social conscience. Last year they spent Bt100 million on “To Be Number 1”, which tagged a drug-prevention message onto the launch of a limited-edition lipstick in a campaign that starred Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya.

In addition to her TV campaign, an exhibition based on the 20 things Petchara most values in life is running at CentralWorld shopping complex in Bangkok.

Tomorrow will be the first time viewers see Petchara’s face since she gave up appearing in public three decades ago. Confirming that she is still an extraordinary beauty, makeup artist Apichart Norsetthaporn says it will be the highlight of his career to work with such a screen legend.

Will it really be the last time we see her? I hope not.

Petchara is also the face of this year's Bangkok International Film Festival. Her classic 1960s look adorns a poster designed by filmmaker and illustrator Wisit Sasanatieng. In a glamorous pose inspired by Gone with the Wind, she 's dancing or embracing with a non-specific Westerner-looking man.

As part of the festival, there's an exhibition sponsored by Mistine, dedicated to Petchara in the first-floor Dazzle Zone at CentralWorld. It has film posters, her awards and a dozen or so of her costumes, including swimwear and evening wear. It'll be up through October 4.

Update: Here's the commercial at YouTube. In addition to a percentage of lipstick sales going to the charity, Petchara's fee, reportedly 10 million baht, is being donated to the Foundation for the Blind.

Update 2: Petchara has also posed for Lips magazine.

Update 3: Kong Rithdee writes about her comeback in his Saturday column.

Update 4: A lengthy profile in the Bangkok Post (cache).

BKKIFF '09: Capsule reviews and notes part 2

Flooding in Manila
I've been watching a lot of Filipino films. So my thoughts are with the residents of Manila right now, who are experiencing their worst flooding in 50 years. And I thought I had it bad, slogging through shin-deep water on my little residential soi. Filmmaker Raya Martin has been posting about the flooding on Facebook. Among the links is a page that lists places you can donate to. Update: Here's another link, which says relief supplies and donations are being taken at Bangkok's Philippine Embassy.

According to Jim and CNNGo
CNNGo is a new travel website with a portal for Bangkok. Among the websites new features is coverage of the Bangkok International Film Festival with an an interview with James Belushi, one of the festival's guests. Jim says he's seen bootleg copies of his TV show, According to Jim on the streets, and he thinks it's great -- as long as people are watching the show. I hope Jim isn't cornered by the MPA's Asia-Pacific honcho, who is also in Bangkok for the festival. Belushi and the other foreign guests also turned out in traditional Thai regalia for Thai Night at the Siam Niramit theater and theme park in Bangkok. Event organizer Red Bamboo Productions has a gallery of photos on Facebook. It looks like that had fun playing with the elephants.

Dude! Seminars! Sweet!
Away from the festival, at the swanky riverside Chatrium Suites, there have been seminars. Harold and Kumar and Dude, Where's My Car? producer-director Danny Leiner is in town. He was stopped in his tracks by news that popular Bangkok event organizers Dudesweet took their name from Dude, Where's My Car? Leiner was speaking on Monday on "How to Make Films That Sell!" Dude. Sweet! Other topics have included "Films in Crisis?", which had Mr. Commentary Track himself, Bey Logan, as a panelist. Wonder if his job at The Weinstein Company is secure? Oh, never mind, he's leaving the company to set up his own shingle. There's also "Protecting Your Film in the Digital Era" with, watch out Jim!, MPA Asia-Pacifuc watchdog Michael C. Ellis, and talk about location location location in "What can Thailand Offer?" Today from 10 to 2 is "How to Get Into Hollywood" and the final seminar from 2 to 5 today is "Thailywood: Evolving & Involving Thailand". On the sidelines, there's been talk about the BKKIFF's former head.

Singapore Today blogger Mayo Martin (Raya's brother) is covering BKKIFF. His reviews include Agrarian Utopia and Dogtooth, Adrift and Burma VJ, 2022 Tsunami and the overall scene.

To rate or not to rate
Not every film being shown in the festival is rated. Because it is just getting started, Thailand's new film ratings system is only concerned with movies being released commercially. The part-time ratings board wouldn't have been able to physically see everything being shown in the festival. But some films that have been deemed as sensitive, mainly because of sexual content, have been assigned a 20+ rating which requires ID checks at the box office. They are the Greek black comedy Dogtooth, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay and the German old-folks romance Cloud 9. They might've added the 3.5-hour Filipino film Imburnal to the list. It's quite explicit.

Capsule reviews

Raya Martin stylistically mimics the look and feel of a stagey old black and white movie, with flickering movement and painted backgrounds, yet it's a lush and gorgeous thing to look at and listen to. Compared to other Filipino films I've seen, it's so clean. The story is about a mother and son (Tetchie Agbayani and Sid Lucero) who retreat to the woods in advance of the American invasion of the Philippines in the late 19th century. The son finds an abandoned young woman, presumably raped by a hilariously mustachioed American soldier, and soon the mother passes away. Not long after that, the couple has a mixed-race boy they call their son, and so another generation of Filipinos begins. Will it be free? (5/5)

Here's another one from Raya Martin, with help from Adolfo B. Alix Jr. The two young directors pay tribute to their forebears, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal with two stories set in their nation's capital, which is now under water. Piolo Pascual stars in both segments. In the first, he's a junkie, looking for a fix. Meanwhile, his mother (Rosanna Roces) is looking for him, with help from a flamboyantly mincing group of gay transvestite men. This takes place during the day, so the street scenes give a sense that yes, this is Manila. The second segment takes place mostly at night, and is more tightly focused and action-oriented than the first. Here Piolo is a bodyguard for the son of a politician. He's treated well by his subject, until he's pushed too far in an incident outside a nightclub. This gives the sense of what Manila is like at night, and features one of the city's biggest landmarks -- the garbage dump. The "day and night" two halves are in black and white, with opening credits between them. These pay tribute to another figure that looms large in Filipino indie cinema -- Lav Diaz, who is shown directing a film. His films are in black and white too, but ironically, this footage is in color, as is a short segment from the Diaz film after the closing credits. Neither Martin and Alix are credited with directing the specific halves, but Oggs Cruz says Martin's is first and Alix's is second. (4/5)

Sherad Anthony Sanchez filmed this documentary-style drama in his hometown of Quezon City, taking his inspiration from the vigilante killing of street children. Because of the killings, the children had all taken to hiding in the sewers. Here, Sanchez shows them sniffing glue, drinking, having sex and just generally idling about, bored. For 3.5 hours it goes on, and is intentionally a test of patience. Sometimes there are rewarding, surreal moments, other times it's just plain annoying and puzzling -- just as if you were hanging out with these messed up kids and trying to figure out what makes them tick. And the shame of it is there is apparently no one who is doing that. No one cares what these kids are doing or whether they live or die. (4/5)

BKKIFF '09 review: The Gem from the Deep (Ploy Talay)

  • Directed by Cherd Songsri
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Sinjai (Hongthai) Plengpanich, Chanutporn Wisitsopon Aranya Namwong, Witoon Karuna
  • Released in 1987; screened as part of the Cherd Songsri Retrospective at the 2009 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Greed, ambition and conflicted love twist tighter and tighter in Cherd Songsri's The Gem from the Deep, about lovers in a fishing village on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. Their love for each other and their peaceful way of life changes after a gigantic red ruby is found.

The film itself is also a gem, with beautiful cinematography, including pretty stunning underwater sequences.

Sorapong Chatree stars as Rung, a strong, highly capable swimmer, diver and fisherman. He is Aquaman, apparently, for he has no need for oxygen tank or snorkel. Self-describing himself as the "king of the seas" with perhaps only a bit of pride, Rung is deeply in love with village beauty Kratin (Sinjai Hongtai). He flirts with her and courts her non-stop, pausing only to dive beneath the waves to fetch a horn-shaped shell, which he then blows on as a love call for Kratin -- the horn speaks only her name, he says.

After a night spent together cuddling in a cave, Kratin declares Rung her husband, but has to keep it a secret from her family and the rest of the village because Kratin's family wants her to marry a more prosperous man. Little do they know that from the depths of the ocean, Rung has uncovered a flawless ruby that would choke a whale.

Now, add to this scenario Rung's mother, whose illness weighs heavily on his conscience.

And then there is another young woman -- Sampao. This is Chanutporn Wisitsopon, playing much the same kind of character she did in Cherd's Puen Pang -- a spirited, singing, tomboyish young woman. As part of Cherd's Thai cultural display, Sampao is introduced singing a folksong with a baby monkey on her head while she is holding a rope tied to an adult macaque that has been trained to climb trees and harvest the coconuts. The plucky Sampao has essentially been raised as Rung's sister in one of those typically Thai ways of stretch and confuse the meaning of family. They are not related. Nonetheless, Rung enjoys a playful relationship with his "sister" Sampao, remarking that he'll kiss her until her cheeks are bruised.

Word of this gets back to Kratin, who is quickly given to pettiness, and the complications of jealousy arise. Kratin's anger is soon smoothed over by the butter-voiced Rung, but then a boat arrives to complicate things even more. The people on this remote island want off, and the infrequent boat that stops by to buy fish and coconuts is their ticket out of there. But places are limited. Rung thinks he has secured a spot by secretly offering his ruby to the boat's captain. But the gemstone has also secretly been entrusted to Kratin. Meanwhile the other men of the island jostle for a berth. In the fight that follows, it appears Rung is left for dead. Kratin and her family depart. Sampao has stayed behind, and when the die-hard Rung washes ashore, Sampao nurses him back to health and the bond between them evolves to the cusp of romance.

Ashore, Kratin's family is fitting in to their new surroundings. The harbor city is run by a benevolent, fair-minded "boss lady". This is the regal Aranya Namwong. She sees the brooding, silent and mournful Kratin and takes pity on her, and invites the girl to stay in her home. Of course, she probably also had it in mind that her gem-trading brother Samniang (Witoon Karuna) would probably like Kratin. And the way the camera zooms when he first spots her, there is no mistake.

Back on the island, Rung is desperate to get ashore to get his sick mother to a doctor. He convinces the fishing boat captain to haul them all in. The arrival of Rung stirs up trouble for Kratin, who hasn't told her wealthy new sweetheart Samniang she "married" Rung.

There is more jealousy and greed for that big gemstone. Loud-mouthed, plain-spoken Sampao is ordered to be beaten for speaking the truth.

The dramatic net is pulled in and drawn tighter. There are only so many more places for these fish to flop.

There is yet another situation where Rung is thought to be dead and an ending that is explosive, with possibly the harshest language I've heard used in a Thai film yet. In the subtitles, it was translated as "two-faced bitch".

As critic and scholar Adam Knee told me after the screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival, "Rung may have forgiven Kratin, but the film does not."

Monday, September 28, 2009

BKKIFF '09 review: Agrarian Utopia

  • Directed by Uruphong Raksasad
  • Reviewed at Bangkok International Film Festival, September 27, 2009
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Although the images are beautifully captured, the unblinking high-definition digital camera lens does not shy away from the hardships two farming families endure over the course of a year in Agrarian Utopia.

For his documentary project, filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad engaged two families to work a plot of land he rented in his home village in Terng district, Chiang Rai, for one year. This is the same place he filmed his short-film anthology Stories from the North. Agrarian Utopia is a unique piece of filmmaking. It has a loose script providing the framework, but the picture is filled in with toiling, back-breaking work. It really is a documentary.

The rhythms of life depicted are reminiscent of Vichit Kounavudhi's Son of the Northeast (Luk Issan), a 1980s documentary-style drama set in the 1930s that followed a group of northeastern Thailand farming families.

Not much has changed, aside from a few motor vehicles. There's still no electricity nor indoor plumbing for the farm houses. But the difference with Agrarian Utopia is that it is real and it's happening now. And it has a fresh injection of Thai politics, with its color-coded red- and yellow-shirted protesters, neither of which seem to make any difference in the lives of the poor farmers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And the bank is still going to take your land if you can't pay back the loan, no matter what financing schemes are being promised by whatever party is in power.

And this is the situation that the two families are in. One family has been evicted from their land -- it's easy to get loans, and so hard to pay them back, one man laments. Another man was squatting in an abandoned construction project. According to the script, they are tasked by a Chiang Rai land owner to work his land, planting rice for a season. Neither the land owner nor the farmers can afford any of the modern machinery like tractors or harvesters, so they'll work the paddy fields by hand, and till the earth with an untrained and generally unhelpful water buffalo.

A neighbor is there to give advice and lend a helping hand with training the stubborn draft animal. But this long-haired, bespectacled professor -- a real character -- has his own way of doing things. He's totally into self-sufficiency and growing food to have something to eat, not for the money.

The rice crop brings in less money than is expected, and the land owner takes a bigger share than originally planned, because he wants to buy a car.

Meanwhile, the families are finding other ways to make due and eat. There is a mushroom crop that brings in supplemental cash. There are fish in the paddy fields and streams. Waterfowl and snakes are captured and fried up or roasted. Ants' nests are raided and larvae eaten. Honey-laden beehives are a delicacy. One hive is found on the landmark golden Buddhist stupa that sits on a hill above the valley. It's perched right above the Buddha statue, proving to be a conundrum for the hungry families.

Conversations do turn to politics. But politicians of whatever stripe or color are about has helpful as that recalcitrant water buffalo. But mostly the talk is about food -- one evening's bedtime conversation starts by the husband's mention of a particularly large frog they ate that day, and circles back to it. Food is an obsession when there is little to eat.

What's striking about Uruphong's films is the intimacy of his photography and camera angles that clearly show a willingness to get right down in the thick of things. Not only do the subjects appear to forget the camera is there, for the audience it seems as if the camera is bypassed altogether, and what's on the screen is being transmitted by the naked eye.

Among the joyful moments are when the families' young boys are playing in the fields, rolling around and tossing mud back and forth. As they run, the camera follows close behind or right beside them, with muddy droplets suspended in the air. The infectiousness of that youthful energy transmits right into the cold dark multiplex screen, and it's heartwarming.

Other times the camera observes nature -- of a kingfisher spearing its prey, or in time-elapsed frames, black storm clouds rolling in, or a jaw-dropping look at night after night of the star-filled skies.

But there is sadness too, when the land owner tells the families he has to sell his land in order to pay off the car loan. The news comes just after the families have put in a great deal of hard labor in the rain to plant a new season's rice crop.

The professor says the families can work one or two of his plots of land, but they'll have to follow his rules, the chief one being that he does not allow the use of chemicals. They can't agree to those terms, but the path they choose to take themselves is not any easier. It's leading away from the countryside, to Bangkok and other cities, to jobs that involve working with cement and not the soil.

The title of Agrarian Utopia initially struck me as a bit chilling. It was an "agrarian utopia" that the Khmer Rouge sought to make in Cambodia. But in the case of Uruphong's film, it's not a reference to communism at all. For the families in the film, the "agrarian utopia" is unattainable. The title is simply meant to be ironic, as was explained in a Q&A session after the movie's screening in the Documentary Showcase section of the 2009 Bangkok International Film Festival. The Thai title is Sawan Baan Naa (สวรรค์บ้านนา), which roughly translates to "heavenly home [in the] field".

It was the Bangkok premiere for the film. Fittingly, the Thailand premiere was in Chiang Rai a few months ago, to an audience of around 300 -- bigger than the BKKIFF crowd, it was noted. There is hope for a limited theatrical run in Bangkok later this year.

The film, which debuted at the 2009 International Film Festival Rotterdam and has won several awards since, is produced by Pimpaka Towira, with associate producer Mai Meksuwan for Extra Virgin. It received funding from the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund and the Thailand Ministry of Culture's Office of Contemporary Arts and Culture.

See also:

Related posts:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

BKKIFF '09: Capsule reviews and notes part 1

With this year's Bangkok International Film Festival split between two cinemas, with double the screening slots but crammed into just six days, everything seems rather perfunctory and abrupt. And that's just how it's going to be. There are movies playing. And I've seen some of them.

Double Take
With the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, as both a focal point and a MacGuffin -- a plot device that he discusses -- this documentary by Johan Grimonprez looks back at the Cold War and the early days of television and how the politics of fear shaped media coverage of the Soviet Union's superiority in space and in the nuclear race. Even more fearsome it seems, was the inability of American housewives in the 1950s to the 1970s to make a cup of coffee that would satisfy their husbands. To think -- the horror of it! -- that they would resort to using instant coffee to win back their hubby's love? Double Take seamlessly blends the old Folger's commercials, newsreel footage, clips of Hitchcock's TV series and interviews with modern-day Hitchcock double Ron Burrage to dizzying effect. With Nixon and Krushchev, as well as Kennedy and LBJ, it's a rollicking ride through history that doesn't quit. As the end credits role, it's a fast-forward through the Carter and Reagan years and then George HW Bush, Clinton and the other Bush, ending with the inscrutable Donald Rumsfeld and his rationalizing about "unknown unknowns". Hopefully that will be a springboard for another take. (5/5)

The Moon at the Bottom of the Well
Veteran director Vinh Son Nguyen opens a window -- okay, several windows actually -- on the historic central Vietnamese city of Huế in this beautifully composed, methodical and engaging portrait of a devoted wife and her fall after her husband is involved in a scandal. A popular schoolteacher, Hanh (Anh Hong), spends her days making sure that everything is just so for her fussy husband Phuong, the school's headmaster. She awakens early to make his lotus tea from fresh petals, go to a food vendor to buy breakfast because he won't eat on the street and grind fresh chilies for fish sauce that she serves but he never uses. "It entices him," she explains later. The couple, who are childless, live in an old-style wooden house, fronted by a wall of perhaps a dozen or so narrow wooden door-windows that are ritualistically opened and closed. Scandal breaks and all is not what it seems. The perfect wife Hanh is infertile and has allowed her husband to take a second wife to have children with. The other wife lives in a village outside the city, with the headmaster's mother. Word about this eventually reaches the Party officials, and it's an arrangement that simply won't do. Her husband and focal point of her life taken away, co-dependent Hanh struggles to find a replacement. When a stray dog proves too fickle, she finds her match in a general -- but not the type of military man that the Party would approve of. Hanh's solution, involving mysticism and spirituality, is a side of contemporary Vietnam that seems at odds with its pragmatic communist rule. (4/5)

Thai politics -- the pre-coup yellow-shirt rallies of 2006 -- makes a Singaporean man snap and strangle his wife. The episode causes him to lose his voice, and he's deemed criminally insane and taken the Island Hospital. Actually, the guy was reading the paper, about the Bangkok protests over the sale of Thai assets to a Singapore company, and then the story is coincidentally on TV when his wife switches the set on. He thinks the TV, via cracks in the ceiling, is reading his thoughts. Now the only way his thoughts will be read is if he writes them down in a little black notebook. This wonderfully existentialist rumination blurs the lines of reality and fiction as it interviews the patients and staff of the mental hospital, where they practice a revolutionary treatment -- the "videocure" -- in which each patient re-enacts the moment where they went crazy on video. They then edit the short film and it's screened for the rest of the patients and staff. As each character is introduced, they sign a release form to participate in the film Here. There's a sleepy, dreamlike quality to the proceedings and if you nod off for just a bit, then probably experimental filmmaker and video artist Ho Tzu Nyen will consider his job done well, because in the Q&A that followed the film, he explained that was one thing he set out to do. It's as if everyone is being drugged to make them calmer. Oh, the scenes of the yellow-shirt protesters are actually taken from Pimpaka Towira's documentary, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong. (4/5)

Each year at South Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival, three directors are commissioned to make short digital films, and this year South Korea's Hong Sang-soo, Japan's Kawase Naomi and the Philippines' Lav Diaz were tasked with making shorts under the theme of Visitors. The visitor of Hong Sang-soo's Lost in the Mountains is Misook, a young woman writer visiting Jeonju, where she meets her old college professor, her old boyfriend, also a writer, and another female classmate. It gets pretty awkward when Misook is spotted coming out of a short-time hotel with her old professor, and even more awkward later when she and her old boyfriend get back together for an embarrassing public snog during a night of drinking, the other female classmate hooks up with the professor and they all meet by coincidence at the same restaurant in the morning and try to pretend neither are there. The visitor of Kawase's Koma is a Korean man in Japan, who visits an elderly couple in a mountainous district, to return an ancient hanging scroll that his grandfather had been given long ago as a reward for saving child's life. The young man finds himself attracted to the couple's adopted daughter, who takes the man on a tour of the area. I liked Lav Diaz's Butterflies Have No Memories the most. The visitor here is not the protagonist, but a plot device. It's a young Canadian-Filipino woman who grew up in an impoverished former mining village and is back for a visit and to take photos. One of the girl's father's former employees then hatches a scheme to kidnap her. The angry gun-toting man recruits two other men to help, but the youngest -- a childhood playmate of the girl -- is reluctant. They wear masks, but it all seems so stupid and useless. She will know who they are. Surreal, absurd and sad -- all hallmarks of a Lav Diaz film -- Butterflies, and indeed there are actually butterflies, is all the more haunting in that it seems to be foreshadowing a real-life event -- the killing earlier this month of Canadian-Filipino film critic Alexis Tioseco and his partner Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, likely by people they knew, but were not wearing masks. (4/5)

This controversial film is neither as bad as Roger Ebert makes it out to be nor as fantastic as the jury of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival would have us believe for awarding director Brillante Mendoza the best director prize. Unrelentingly dark -- literally, it's just dark, like all the time, in keeping with Mendoza's "indie" aesthetic -- Kinatay matter-of-factly follows a young newlywed criminology student (Coco Martin) on his rite of passage in a gang of criminal cops as they abduct, beat, rape and kill a prostitute and then hack her body up and dispose of the pieces in various places around the city. Oh, there's an arm. And there's a foot. And there's her head. Martin's character and the audience are more a victim than the woman is. He is unwillingly dragged along on this crime. The implication is that he can't escape the situation because even as a cadet or whatever, he's already resigned to the fact that corruption is a fact of life and is the only way he'll get paid enough to keep his new wife happy and their baby fed. Mendoza's message is that this is taking place, all the time, and has been going on for a long time. And so? Yes, it's taking place, and thanks for sharing Mr. Mendoza, but it all seems rather pointless and hopeless. And maybe that is the message if there is one. Maybe he should have added a few butterflies? (3/5)

Bangkok International Animation Festival: Southeast Asian animation

Pulled out of the hammerspace of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology just three weeks ago when the budget was approved, the inaugural Bangkok International Animation Festival is playing around 40 features and shorts alongside the bigger Bangkok International Film Festival.

Crammed into just six days, the two festivals share schedules and venues, and combine for some special events. It's all a bit much to take in, and I wish I could give it more attention.

The animation fest opened on Friday with the world premiere of Yona Yona Penguin by Japanese animator Rintaro. A Thai firm, Imagimax, had a hand in the production.

The aim of the festival, backed by MICT, the Software Industry Promotion Agency and various other organizations and agencies, is to highlight Thailand's emerging role as a hub for computer graphics and animation, and try to inspire local animators.

Every Thai animated feature is in the festival: the computer-animated Khan Kluay from 2006 and this year's Khan Kluay II, about King Naresuan's war elephant, last year's Nak, which makes the character from Thailand's beloved ghost story a kid-friendly heroine, and the 2D animated Buddha, a reverent depiction of the Lord Buddha's birth, enlightenment and nirvana.

Of course no Thai animation festival would be complete without a tribute to the father of Thai animated film -- Payut Ngaokrachang. The 80-year-old artist will have a tribute night on Tuesday, and his Sudsakorn Adventure will get a special gala screening at Paragon at 8. Released in 1979, it was the first and only Thai animated feature, until 2006 when Khan Kluay came out.

In the short-film program are several Thai entries. Among them are the runners-up for the Payut Ngaokrachang animation prize at the 13th Thai Short Film and Video Festival, What Is My Art? by Thodsapon Thiptinnakorn and the music videos Abtakon (Quiet Shout) by Thawatpong Tangsajjapoj (recently seen in Singapore) and Carabao's Pee-Bok Song by Chatchai Thammaphirome. Others are The Forest by Sirisak Koshpasharin, 2lor by Rattasat Pinnate, Grand Peeed by Rattasat Pinnate and Pandet Bootkyo, Little Wall by Asanee Tejasakulsin and Salute by Itipon Apijalernchaikul.

And there are animations from Singapore/Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Dayo, the Filipino entry, has received fair praise. A fantasy about a boy trying to rescue his grandparents from a magical realm, it's been compared to Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

The Malaysian entry, Geng: Pengembaraan Bermula (Geng: The Adventure Begins) is touted as Malaysia's first 3D animated feature. It's about boys trying to solve the mystery of missing durians in the their village.

And then there is Sing to the Dawn, a joint production by Indonesia and Singapore that was released almost a year ago. A story a of village girl who wants to break out of the traditional female role, it has generally been poorly received. Check out A Nutshell Review and MovieXclusive for the reviews.

A common theme that runs through reviews of the Southeast Asian entries is that none of them are as good as Pixar, because they don't have the manpower, the money or the time to make their movies as good as A Bug's Life, Toy Story or The Incredibles.

Anyway, makers of animated films are viewed by others in the industry in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong as quite possibly insane, not out of concern for their mental health but because animation costs more than live action, and to do animation well, it takes a lot of money.

But I also think it just presents an opportunity for local animation teams to innovate and try different approaches, rather than try to copy the Pixar way of doing things.

What's interesting is that two of the films I wish I could find time to see at this festival are stop-motion clay animation, Mary and Max from Australia and Edison and Leo from Canada. There's also Nina Paley's wonderful Sita Sings the Blues, which I'd love to see on the big screen again. Also of interest is Azur et Asmar by French director Michel Ocelot, an Arabian tale that seems to want to kick Aladdin's butt.

The schedule is rounded out by Shane Acker's intensely bleak and but awesome 9, about "stitchpunk" ragdolls who literally carry the last breaths of humanity.

China's The Magic Aster, which features voice work by basketball star Yao Ming, the 3D animated Goat Story from the Czech Republic and the anime Chocolate Underground are in the competition lineup with Mary and Max, Edison and Leo and Khan Kluay II.

Feature-film judges are Singaporean producer Mike Wiluan, French producer Regis Ghezelbash, and Thai singer-artist Petch Osathanugrah. There's a short-film jury too: Pixar animator Mark Oftedal from the US, Thai filmmaker Nonzee Nimibutr and Dennis Chau from Hong Kong.

Winners will get the newly created Inthanin Award, named after a popular flowering tree.

The festival closes on Wednesday night with Hayao Miyazaki's latest, Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

BKKIFF '09: Return of the Filipino independents

Once again this year, one of the most prominent contingents of filmmakers and films at the Bangkok International Film Festival comes from the Philippines. For a look at where these indie filmmakers are coming from, Lekha J. Shankar went to the Cinemalaya festival in July in Manila, where she had a firsthand look at the Filipino independent cinema scene.

Story by Lekha J. Shankar

No Asian country is as much in the news for its cinema today as the Philippines.

Their new indie cinema is creating waves at the top festivals of the world, and a kind of climax was reached when Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza won the Best Director Award for Kinatay at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

In fact, there were as many as three films from the country in Cannes this year. All of them and more will be seen at the Bangkok International Film Festival, with Mendoza himself being on the main jury.

“I’m excited to come to Bangkok, especially as I won an award there last year,” Mendoza told me at the Cinemalaya festival in July in Manila.

The director was referring to the top Golden Kinaree award which he won for Serbis at BKKIFF last year. Serbis had premiered in the Palme d'Or competition at Cannes last year too.

The dynamic director has quickly followed up Kinatay with yet another feature, Lola, which was a surprise entry to the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

Filipino independent cinema seems to be on a roll.

So why is a country noted for its scenic islands suddenly becoming noticed for its smart cinema?

Answers were to be found at the Cinemalaya independent film festival in Manila.

There’s much Thailand can learn from this festival, which would give a big boost to the Kingdom’s sizable indie talent.

Cinemalaya has been called “the big, small festival” because it discovers the "big" talents through their "small" indie films, which are all made in the highly affordable digital format

Speaking of their talent-hunt, artistic director Nestor Jardin explained that the Cinemalaya Foundation holds script "tests" every year, in which participants are asked to write two-page treatments of their film stories.

Once the best scripts are selected, the Foundation helps the writers to get started on their projects, with basic funding of about 500,000 pesos (US$10,500). The filmmakers are also introduced to potential producers.

Jardin says thanks to the digital format, the filmmakers can bring the work in on the modest budget.

That’s one reason why the country produces so many indie films. The Cinemalaya Foundation also helps the makers to market and distribute the films internationally.

According to Jardin, the Cinemalaya festival has a competition section for the 10 best features and 10 best shorts from among projects made from the script contest. Other Cinemalaya projects films are shown outside the competition.

With ticket rates as low as 100 pesos, they had as many as 30,000 people at their festival this year.

Can the Bangkok International Film Festival boast of such figures?

Jardin said Cinemalaya awarded cash grants to the award-winning directors , which would help the latter to improve the technical quality of their films, and possibly partake in the international festival circuit. That’s probably why the new Filipino cinema is creating waves at the top festivals of the world.

To quote a Screen International article, “The local film industry in the Philippines is showing an upward trajectory that has defied expectations."

This year’s Cinemalaya had programmers shopping for films to take back to Cannes, Pusan, Hawaii, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.

Jardin spoke of young director Francis Xavier Pasion, whose film Jay won many awards at the Cinemalaya last year and went on to create waves at top festivals like Venice and Pusan. Jay also won a Special Jury Award at the BKKIFF last year.

Filipino films at this year’s Bangkok fest are:

  • Kinatay, by Mendoza. Winner of the Best Director Award at Cannes, it's showing in the non-competition Southeast Asian Panorama. It's the story of a young man who unwillingly takes part in the killing and dismemberment of a prostitute.
  • Aurora, by Adolfo B. Alix Jr., about a social worker kidnapped by guerrilla fighters, makes its world premiere.
  • Imburnal, by Sherad Anthony Sanchez. This 215-minute view of adolescents growing up in a sewer premiered at the Cinemanila International Film Festival last autumn, winning the festival's Lino Brocka Award. It swept the awards at this year's Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea, taking the Grand Prize, the Woosuk Award and the NETPAC Award. It's in the Southeast Asian Competition.
  • Independencia by Raya Martin, also in Southeast Asian Competition. This story of a family living in the jungles during the American occupation of the Philippines, premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes.
  • Manila, two short films by young directors Alix and Martin, who pay tribute to their forebears, directors Lino Brocka and Ishmael Burnal. It premiered in a special screening at Cannes this year. It's in the Southeast Asian Panorama.
  • Butterflies Have No Memories, the long-haired Filipino indie godfather Lav Diaz has a short film, as part of Visitors, this year's Jeonju Digital Project by the Jeonju International Film Festival. Last month in Bangkok, Diaz had a retrospective, and he was here to show a rough cut one of his in-progress works.

As an aside about Independencia, it was among the films pitched at the 2nd Produire au Sud Bangkok script workshop at the 4th World Film Festival of Bangkok. The 7th World Film Festival of Bangkok, to be held from November 6 to 15, will likely boast strong Filipino films too.

Also, the Philippines has another film-financing scheme and festival, the Cinema One Originals, which also commissions low-budget digital works for screening at its festival and broadcast on TV.

Clearly, from looking at what's happening in the Philippines, it's time that Thailand's film and culture establishments woke up and got started on a long-term plan to tap the latent film talent in the Kingdom. The annual Thai Short Film and Video Festival is proof of the huge pool of indie talent in the country. It’s about time this talent is tapped, discovered, supported and promoted.

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.

9th Asian Film Symposium: Notes and reviews

I was right where I wanted to be this past weekend. In Singapore of all places. Watching seemingly endless screenings of short films from throughout Southeast Asia as well as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It was the 9th Asian Film Symposium, which this year became a program under the formerly biennial Singapore Short Film Festival.

Held at The Substation, a powerful generator for independent cinema and contemporary arts and theater in Singapore, the symposium featured a forum discussion, screenings of the S-Express traveling short-film series and a tribute to the late Filipino film critic and programmer Alexis Tioseco and Slovenian critic and programmer Nika Bohinc.

Starting on Saturday afternoon, there was a panel discussion, "Film Associations in Asia", and "their functions, uses and lack of presence compared to our European and American counterparts." Panelists included the S-Express programmers from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand as well as filmmakers and programmers from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Southeast Asia, the film associations tend to be informal ones, such as the close-knit, often cross-pollinating independent film movements in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. The Thai Film Foundation's role was noted in fostering independent film with its annual Thai Short Film and Video Festival. Others noted included Minikino in Indonesia and Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia.

There are also schemes in the Philippines, such as Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals, that commission independent films, but the budgets offered for those projects are usually quite small, and, particularly with the Cinema One scheme, the filmmakers have limited rights to their own work.

Another school of thought being voiced was that the collegial, friendly associations that exist might possibly be prone to cliqueishness and ought to be formalized, with guilds formed for cinematographers, editors, directors, writers, etc.

Also noted was the lack of government support for filmmakers, or, if there is government support for film, there will be the "stupid" use of money. An example cited was one government's move to create a large budget that could potentially support dozens of independent films, but then the money was given to make just one film. Another example mentioned is a film-financing scheme that frequently awards only well-known commercial directors.

And then there are laws, such as Indonesia's new draconian film law that requires script approvals and other harsh measures -- more stringent than under the Suharto dictatorship -- such as a rule that members of film crews have to have certificates, despite there being only one film school in the country, and many on film crews simploy learning on the job.

"The best way to oppose the law is to ignore it," said one filmmaker. "What are they going to do? Arrest thousands of us?"

Well, they might.

Capsule reviews

S-Express: Indonesia
Curated by Varadila of the Minikino film club, the idea was to show the diversity of Indonesia film. The first, Drum Lesson by Tumpal Christian Tampubolon, was made while on a Young Asian Filmmakers fellowship in South Korea with the Jeonju International Film Festival. Filmed with a Korean cast and crew, it's the whimsical tale of an elderly woman who wants to learn to play drums for her church band, but the teacher she finds is the former member of a death metal band. Thou Shall Not Wait (Tak Kau Kunanti) by Riri Riza, is a look at work by an accomplished filmmaker. The poetical piece stars veteran actress Jajang C. Noer as an elderly woman who arrives in the city with her luggage and is waiting to be picked up by her son. New Couple (Pasangan Beru) by Salman Aristo has a young couple (another famous actress, former Indonesian Playboy model Andhara Early and film editor Cesa David Luckmansyah) who are faced with a burglar breaking into their home, but struggle with the absurdity of knowing the gossip about their neighbors but not their phone numbers, so they can't call anyone for help. The First Nation on Mars by Nala is a satire on the space race with American astronauts being bizarrely played by Frenchmen who sound like Russians.

S-Express: Malaysia
Curated by Amir Muhammad, this collection came from Amir's discovery of a group of Tamil filmmakers who organize an annual informal "under the bridge" outdoor shorts fest. Shanjhey Kumar Perumal's Machai, about a pair of hapless salted fish vendors -- do those poor guys ever sell anything? -- is full of energy, with a soundtrack that features a dizzying mix of American funk, R&B and blues with Tamil songs. The comedic story has its roots in the loss of a community -- Sungai Besi, an old-style, multi-racial kampong village that has since been redeveloped in the name of "progress", a living, breathing heart, ripped right out of Kuala Lumpur. Shanjey also offers Thaipoosam, a video diary of a traditional festival that's known for its colors, and men with spears in their cheeks and fish hooks in their backs. He films it in black and white, and I think it's even more beautiful. Director Sasitharan Rajoo was there to introduce 13:17, a single-take work about a guy who just bought a video camera and is showing it to his friend. But something is wrong with his friend's girlfriend. This is how Cloverfield should have been. And then there's 18MP by "Anonymous", and I think it is meant to be the final word on Amir Muhammad's beleaguered and banned The Last Communist -- statements by Malaysian politicians after they saw Amir's gentle and comic documentary. The more they talk, the stupider they sound.

S-Express: Philippines
It's interesting how the context of real-world events affect how films that aren't related to those events and shape the way those films are viewed. That's about all I could think about while watching curator Alexis Tioseco's latest and last batch of eclectic and highly experimental works by Filipino filmmakers from the past three decades. The death of Alexis and his partner Nika at the hands of robbers in their home in the Philippines last month has shaken the film community worldwide, but the grief has been especially profound I think in Southeast Asia, where Tioseco championed and chronicled the region's independent cinema on his website, Criticine. Not only is it hard to look differently at the films he's chosen, I also wondered how time had changed the first piece, Ang, Magpailanman (Eternity), which lives up to its description as "possibly one of the strangest Filipino films ever made". Made in 1983 by Raymond Red, it has the jumpy quality of a silent film, and a very old one at that, with the film purposefully marked on and distressed as part of the process. I think it's probably improved with age. Auraeus Solito's 1995 work, Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy (The Brief Lifespan of Fire):, Act 2 Scene 2: Suring and the Kuk-ok is also pretty jumpy, but that's because it's a mostly stop-motion photography piece that revels in the beauty of its actress and the natural surroundings. Director Tad Ermitaño was on hand to talk about his short, 1996's The Retrochronological Transfer of Information, in which a scientist (Ermitaño himself) seeks transmit a picture of the present back in time to communicate with slain Filipino independence hero Jose Rizal. The transmitter is a video camera with the lens shooting through a sliced-up Filipino banknote bearing Rizal's likeness. I think the experiment worked. Last was the most disturbing bit, Surreal Random MMS Texts para ed Ina, Agui tan Kaamong ya Makaiiliw ed Sika: Gurgurlis ed Banua (Surreal Random MMS Texts for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscape with Figures), made last year by Christopher Gozum. The narrated dialogue is Filipino-American writer-activist Carlos Bulosan’s 1942 poem Landscape with Figures over surreal, random and found digital images, including footage that must be like Buñuel's and Dalí's Un chien andalou, which I'll never know for sure because I'm too squeamish to look.

S-Express: Thailand
Curated by Sanchai Chotirosseranee, this is nearly a "best of" this year's Thai Short Film & Video Festival. The exception is Jakrawal Nilthamrong's Man and Gravity, a short that was in competition in Rotterdram earlier this year (another of Jakrawal's shorts, his Japan-shot Man and Gravity: Plateau was in competition at the Thai shorts fest). For this second viewing, I appreciated the otherworldly landscapes captured as a man on a wheezing motorcycle attempts to cross rugged terrain while hauling all his worldly possessions. It's karma on wheels, too weighed down to move. Thawatpong Tangsajjapoj's Abtakon represented the animated shorts. It's a colorful music video from the singer Yui about a young woman coffee shop worker trying to get a male customer's attention. Appropriately, there was Nattapong Homchuen's university-student film Red Man, which covers Thailand's color-coded political divide. Instructively, it was showing on the anniversary weekend of Thailand's September 19, 2006 military coup. This year, to observe the anniversary, pro-coup yellow-shirts stoked nationalist sympathies by storming the border areas of Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple, declaring the land is Thailand's. Meanwhile, anti-coup red-shirts rallied in Bangkok. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit was there to introduce Francais, his poignant documentary-style drama about a blind college student who has to study for a French philosophy exam but her materials haven't been translated into Braille.

S-Express: Singapore
Now here's an interesting concept -- a multi-segment ensemble piece in the form of a short film. That's the 16-minute We, the Real People of Singapore, by Ghazi Alqudcy, with vignettes taken from real experiences. The stories bleed right into one another seamlessly. I'm still thinking about the husky boy on the bus, and the two women who are making fun of his weight, believing he can't hear them. But he's listening and understanding every word and just smiling. Next in the program by curator Low Beng Keng, or just BK, is National Day, another "uniquely Singaporean" piece about a family that has finally collected hard-to-come-by tickets for the National Day celebration at the stadium, but the family's patriarch and biggest patriot has just died. The family is going to stay home and wait for his spirit, according to Chinese custom. But what to do with those tickets? Kissing Faces by Wesley Leon Aroozoo features a karaoke hostess who wishes her life was like those karaoke videos. And then there's A La Folie by Sanif Olek, who loosely adapts an episode from the Ramayana in telling a comic story about a young urban couple, Sinta and Arjuna, who've gotten back together after a break up, during which Sinta spent time with another man, Rawana.

S-Express: Chinese
Yes, it really is "Chinese" -- shorts from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, curated by Maggie Lee, who's best known for her work as a critic for The Hollywood Reporter. Her selection is a mix of brief animated works and longer live-action pieces. There are two by China's Chen Xuegang, Spallation of Ardour and Tremble, that Lee thinks might cause audiences to have seizures because of the strobe-like flashing of them both. Ardour is a parade of Chinese Communist-inspired pop art while Tremble laments the rapid bulldozering, backhoeing and jackhammering in the rush to modernize China's ancient cities. Audiences who had seen the Thai shorts got another look at sight-impaired person's life in The End of the Tunnel, a medium-length drama about a blind piano student at a Taiwanese arts academy who becomes friends with a dance student. The girl dancer, played by Miao Miao's French-Taiwanese actress Yung-yung Chang (or Sandrine Pinna), treats the blind boy to his first trip to the beach since he lost his sight. Lee brought with her a pair of young Hong Kong independent animators, Chui Chun-yu and Chan Wai-yee, who made Yim in their spare time -- away from their day jobs preparing motion graphics for a TV station. It's an interesting work about the karma of a devilish man who sinks in a submerged city. In the discussion forum, the pair related that it's pretty hard being an independent filmmaker in a city where commercial filmmaking is everything, and doubly hard being pure animators in an industry where live-action and CGI pretty much rule. More animation comes in the stop-motion piece, The Empty Body by Wong Sze-ming from Hong Kong. The program wrapped up with Life Must Go On, a documentary-style video diary by Hong Kong's Sham Ka-ki that captures bored teenagers hanging around housing projects, a little boy who's 3 going on 5 and a mist-enshrouded city that looks like a rainforest.

Out of all the programs, I think I enjoyed S-Express: Malaysia the most, just for the spirit of entertainment and it's feeling of new discovery.

And it was pretty cool to meet Maggie Lee, Amir Muhammad, BK, the Asia Film Archive's Bee Thiam, Indonesian director Tumpal and the Malaysian guys, Shanjhey and Sasitharan.

Earlier programs I missed were the opening films, She Shapes a Nation, a short documentary by Dana Lam from Singapore on the role of women in the city-state's first five decades, and At Stake, an anthology on women in Indonesia by Ani Ema Susanti, Iwan Setiwan & M. Ichsan, Lucky Kuswandi and Ucu Agustin.

And there was 9808, an anthology reflecting on 10 years since the 1998 "reform" movement in Indonesia by directors Anggun Priambodo, Ariani Darmawan, Edwin, Hafiz, Ifa Isfansyah, Lucky Kuswandi, Otty Widasari, Ucu Agustin, Wisnu Suryapratama and Steve Pilar Setiabudi. It's also showing in this week's Bangkok International Film Festival.

Having already returned to Bangkok on Monday morning, I missed that afternoon's tribute to Alexis and Nika, as well as the closing program, Edwin’s Short Film Retrospective and Malaysian director Azharr Rudin's Punggok Rindukan Bulan (This Longing).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pe replaced in Sabaidee Luang Prabang 2, has sex in Slice

I have a couple of items to pass along about actor "Pe" Arak Amornsupasiri.

First, he's been replaced in the sequel to last year's Thai-Laotian romance Sabaidee Luang Prabang by "Boy" Pakorn Chatborirat. The move follows Pe's disparaging remark about the physical attractiveness of Laotian women.

According to a Soopsip item in today's Daily Xpress, Boy was on the defensive when reporters kept peppering him with the same questions over and over, saying he didn't know he was being cast to replace Pe. “I was told my co-stars would be Pe and Ray MacDonald, so I thought Pe was still in the cast. I found out later what had happened, but there are no hard feelings between us.”

Boy appeared in RS Film's gangster comedy Hode Nha Heaw 966 earlier this year.

Dirtii Laundry has more on the cast change.

The movie also stars Laotian beauty queen and actress Khamly Philavong, who made her debut in the first Sabaidee Luang Prabang opposite Ananda Everingham. The plan is to make a trilogy with the same actress playing different characters with different Thai leading men.

When Pe was initially cast in Sabaidee Luang Prabang 2, the gossip press hounded him with questions about how his girlfriend Koy Ratchawin felt about him going to Laos to work on a romance, the Pe said Koy shouldn't be worried because "Thai girls are much more beautiful".

Pe went to Laos last month and started work on the film with the hopes that his gaffe wouldn't cause problems, but he was soon back in Thailand after shooting was suspended. Initially Pe was saying the production halt was because of weather delays, but he later admitted his remark about Laotian women probably had been part of the reason.

The Bangkok Post's Mae Moo column on September 13 quoted Pe:

"All I mean to say was that Koy had no reason to get anxious. I didn't mean it to come out the way it did and would like to say sorry to the production crew who as a result cannot carry on work."

While Pe regrets that his comments were at least partly responsible for derailing the film production, he's not too worried about his career. The actor and rock musician has a full schedule for the rest of the year, with his next film, Five Star's crime thriller Slice due out on October 22.

And that brings me to my second item about Pe today: The filming of a sex scene with Pe in Slice caused quite a bit of stress for debuting lead actress "Jesse" Jessica Phasaphan, even though she says Pe was a gentleman.

Lyn's Lakorns has more on that, with lots of photos.

With the sex scene, which looks to be more graphically expressive than Thai audiences are accustomed to seeing in their homegrown films, as well as what will likely be high levels of violence and gore, it definitely does appear that Slice will be a test of Thailand's new censorship and ratings regime.

Hopefully Slice will break ground and show just how far filmmakers can take things under the system. If what they’re filming is actually allowed to be screened, even under the strict 20+ age restriction, it’s going to change things.

Boundary-pushing filmmakers will demand more of actors and actresses, and Thai audiences. It’ll finally be time for Thailand’s entertainment culture to grow up and knock off the junior-high tittering and hypocritical puritanism over sex and nudity on film.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On DVD in the U.K.: Sick Nurses

Sick Nurses, a movie I didn't appreciate when it was released in Thailand in 2007, but has since gone on to be something of a cult hit internationally, is being released on Region 2 DVD today in the United Kingdom by Revolver Entertainment.

The story of six saucy, misbehaving nurses and a doctor being terrorized in a hospital, perhaps I would have tolerated Sick Nurses if, right before it was released, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century hadn't been censored because it contained hospital scenes deemed inappropriate. Some friendly old-lady doctors enjoying a wee nip of whisky or a doctor kissing his girlfriend and getting a chubby in his trousers while in a hospital are not okay, but doctors and nurses engaging in illegal activities, having sex and being hunted down by a vengeful spirit in a hospital is okay?

Okay. Whatever. Maybe one day I'll get over the ridiculous, blinkered hypocrisy of it all and sit down to watch the generously English-subtitled DVD and at least appreciate the pretty cool cinematography and production design.

Interestingly, I think Sick Nurses (สวยลากไส้, Suay Laak Sai) was one of the reasons producer Prachya Pinkaew became involved in the process of helping to implement Thailand's motion-picture ratings system, because Sick Nurses faced censorship too. Seems the authorities thought that having a giant spinning first-aid cross sign falling off a building and spinning across a lawn to kill someone was going over the line.

Under today's rating system, I'm not sure Syndromes and a Century or the spinning cross of Sick Nurses would fare any better. Must not criticize the Thai medical establishment. Or criticize Thailand at all for that matter.

Anyway, here's the sales blurb from Revolver Entertainment:

From the makers of Ong-Bak and Chocolate comes Sick Nurses, a superlative supernatural Thai splatterfest directed by Thodsapol Siriwiwat (Suicide Me) and Paraphan Laoyont (making his feature directorial debut) and concerning the fate of a group of unfeasibly sexy nurses who make the deadly error of murdering one of their own.

Out of the operating theatres of the relatively quiet hospital in which they work, seven young nurses and their handsome, well-respected doctor, Taa, are running an illegal but highly profitable business harvesting dead bodies and selling their parts on the black market. When one of the nurses, Tawan, discovers her love affair with Taa has been compromised by his infidelity with her sister, a fellow nurse, she threatens to expose the scam to the authorities. Quickly deciding they have too much to lose, the other nurses viciously murder their colleague in order to protect themselves.

However, a week later, a local superstition claiming the dead often return to their loved ones seven days after their death is fulfilled when the tormented spirit of Tawan pays an unexpected visit to the hospital to exact a terrifying revenge on her murderers, in each instance playing on their individual obsessions and weaknesses.

Hostel meets The Grudge in this innovative and bizarre horror” (Slasherpool) as the filmmakers pull out all the stops to present one of the most imaginatively grotesque and original shockers you are likely to see in a long while. Vividly shot in a gloriously lurid style that recalls the early work of Dario Argento (Suspiria, Inferno), Sick Nurses will delight hungry gore-hounds with its increasingly rapid succession of inventive death sequences that build to a totally unpredictable and deliriously gory finale.

There's a trailer too. It's embedded below.

Update: DVD Times as a review.