Monday, June 14, 2010

Phuket Film Festival 2010: A bang-up ending

The hitman drama Friday Killer (Meu Puen Dao Prasook, มือปืน ดาวพระศุกร์) closed the second and likely last edition of the Phuket Film Festival with a bang on Sunday night.

In the chill-out atmosphere of the Stereolab lounge on the surf-kissed Surin Beach, prolific filmmaker Yuthlert Sippapak unveiled his latest movie, a crime drama that bears all his trademarks of artful and fun genre-blending, with lots of comedy and cheeky self-referential nods.

Like his first film Killer Tattoo and the many that have followed, Friday Killers has a comedian in the lead, playing a solidly and refreshingly dramatic role. Iconic comic Thep Po-ngam, who starred in Killer Tattoo, is a hitman named Pae Uzi, released from 20 years in prison to find out he has a daughter. She's played by Ploy Jindachote, the actress who made her feature debut in Yuthlert's Krasue Valentine. She's a cop, and she's gunning for him. A chance for father-daughter reconciliation is lost due to a case of mistaken identity and the rest of the story has both characters seeking to redeem themselves.

Along with a sharp and bold depiction of Thailand's money politics, there are many humorous scenes. There's also the all-out slapstick that attracts Thai audiences, though apparently not enough for Yuthlert's producers at Phranakorn Film to be gung-ho about releasing Friday Killer as the first in a trilogy of hitman films that has veteran comics teaming up with starlets. As it stands now, it looks like the still-in-production Saturday Killer will be released first, then Sunday Killer before coming back to Friday Killer.

The version of Friday Killer that screened Sunday, on a DVD hastily subtitled at the last minute and brought to the Phuket by Yuthlert himself, was termed a "first cut", and will still likely have another few shots added to tie it in with the characters in the other Killer movies.

I'll refrain from writing a review of it until it hopefully gets released, but I will say I think it's probably the best movie Yuthlert's made in awhile, which means it's probably doomed to fail at the Thai box office.

Along with Yuthlert, Ploy added star power to the screening for 30 or so festival-goers.

The Nation has a video of the after-film chat by Yuthlert, Scott and Ploy.

As an added treat, Yuthlert was accompanied by veteran producer-actor "Uncle" Adirek Watleela, an industry titan who's produced such films as Tears of the Black Tiger, 1999's Bangkok Dangerous Bang Rajan and Sars Wars. He's working on a sequel to his latest effort, My Ex (Fan Kao), which if you know how the first one ended, should be interesting to see.

As with many of Yuthlert's films, Uncle has a cameo in Friday Killer as a policeman, making one last appearance with his partner in comedic crimefighting, production designer Boonthin Thuaykaew, who died in February of cancer. Uncle and Boonthin appeared as cops in Yuthlert's ghost story Buppah Rahtree and its sequels, as well as Krasue Valentine and several other films by other filmmakers.

It was a positive, if subdued ending for the Phuket Film Festival, which has been beset by troubles.

Festival director Scott Rosenberg says he probably won’t attempt another festival in Phuket.

The first was held in 2007 and the second edition was scheduled for last year, with the cancellation blamed on Thailand's unstable politics.

This year, the lack of audiences prompted Rosenberg to curtail the schedule, dropping a number of indie titles that were to screen on digital projectors that were expensive to hire.

Among the films hit by the cutbacks was Do Elephants Pray?, which was enthusiastically promoted by English filmmaker Paul Hills, screenwriter-star Johnnie Hurn and actor John Last. The trio had rented a small car and had been burning up the roads from one end of the island to the other, passing out leaflets at bars, beaches and shopping centers, encouraging people to turn out and see the movie.

When their film was dropped, they took matters into their own hands, hiring the projector themselves and screening the movie at the Green Man pub for what was probably the festival's biggest audience of around 90 people.

The documentary Who Killed Chea Vichea? had also been dropped, not because it was banned by the Cambodian government, but because of the expenses in showing it, much to the profound disappointment of director Bradley Cox. It was shown in a double bill with Do Elephants Pray?, thanks to Hills and his team.

The cast and crew of the indie English comedy, who are bucking for a distribution deal, campaigned heavily for viewers to vote in the festival's People's Choice Awards. It's a popularity contest based on hits on the B-Squared festival-website program. A quick glance looked like Elephants had easily secured the lead, but Rosenberg said he still needed to compile the results and so Hills and his team left without a photo-op hand-over of the festival's acrylic conch-shell trophy.

But everyone received a free bottle of South African wine, which had been provided by a sponsor in exchange for promotional considerations – just one of the myriad of "partners" that also included an official festival tailor, chocolatier, beer, boat service and resort hotel-spa.

From a movie-goer's perspective, the big disadvantage of this year's edition of the Phuket Film Festival was the spread-out nature of the venues. The first edition in 2007 was contained mostly to Patong Beach and its newer, touristy Jungceylon mall and the SF Cinema there. This year's viewers had to trek the breadth of the island to watch movies. The films were shown in the venerable Coliseum Cineplex in Phuket Town – more of a haunt for resident Thais than the foreigner expats and tourists the festival is geared for. Aside from the movies at the Coliseum, other activities were at far-flung bars and resorts outside of town.

For visitors, transportation is a sore point on Phuket, where taxicabs charge extortionist rates, four to 10 times what it costs in Bangkok. These so-called "black-plate" taxicabs and tuk-tuks are so powerful, they can even blockade the U.S. Navy. So unless you can figure out the bus schedules or rent a car like the Elephants boys did, be prepared to shell out anytime you have to go someplace.

I can't bitch too much though. Thanks to the festival's sponsorship deals, I was put up in The Vijitt Resort the first weekend and half the second weekend. I spent a night in the festival headquarters at Two Villas. Both warmly hospitable places to stay for which I'm extremely thankful, especially considering if left to my own devices I would have probably stayed in Old Phuket Town's On-On Hotel, like Asano Tadanobu in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, or maybe the former-five-star Pearl Hotel, also seen in Invisible Waves, just down the street from the Coliseum Cineplex.

And like the tagline of Do Elephants Pray?, "the journey is more important than the destination", I found myself not sweating it so much when I needed to be someplace. This past Saturday, I bummed rides in the festival pick-up. I hung with local cinephile Filmsick at Bo(ok)hemian and feasted on Chinese food in Old Phuket Town. On Sunday, I took a spine-tingling journey across the island crammed into the Elephant car with Hurn, Hills and Last at the wheel, tapping his inner-Thai to drive like a madman. The ride back was much more sedate, in a roomy SUV co-piloted by Ploy, and seated in the backseat next to Yuthlert and Uncle. The movie stars stopped a roadside 7-Eleven and and were treated like any other schnuck buying midnight snacks. Uncle bought me burgers.

I doubt I'd have the same type of adventure at a film festival in Bangkok. And for that, I'll miss the Phuket Film Festival.

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