Monday, June 14, 2010

Phuket Film Festival 2010: Capsule reviews part 2

Bitter/Sweet (ข้ามฟ้า หาสูตรรัก, Kam Fah Ha Sut Rak), Jeff Hare, 2009 – After more than a year of hype and making the rounds of film festivals, and even winning awards here and there, this coffee-flavored Thai-Hollywood romance finally comes home. The Phuket Film Festival had a star-studded Thai premiere for it on Friday at Phuket Town's Coliseum Cineplex, and a cozy reception afterward at The Vijitt Resort. It opens in a wide release in Thailand this week. But what an embarrassment. Stilted, awkward dialogue and laughable contrivances make this movie more bitter than sweet. Kip Pardue stars as a young, uptight executive for a coffee company, sent by his boss (a clearly bemused James Brolin) to Thailand. On a buying trip to the robusta-growing region of picturesque Krabi, the man makes contact with a fiery public-relations executive, played by Mamee Nakprisit. Her parents are the growers in the region. She hates the guy at first sight, but then falls in love with him. None of it makes sense. What would she see in a cold, anal-retentive jerk who won't take his shoes off because "they're Italian"? And he's already engaged. And why would he be attracted to a woman with such obvious emotional issues, whose bitchiness is just a mask for her teary-eyed insecurities? Along for the ride are Spencer Garrett as a drunken Austrian expat – a comic-relief wingman for Pardue's character – and Kalorin Supaluck Neemayothin as the drunk's long-suffering girlfriend. Pakkaramia Potranan is Mamee's even-bitchier sister with a boxer boyfriend (Akara Amarttayakul, putting on a brave face and diving right in). Mr. Muay Thai is in for a shock late in the film. Veteran actors Viyada Umarin and Sompob Benjathikul are obligingly used as the mom-and-pop coffee farmers. Singer Tata Young appears briefly, so her name and face can be used on the posters. A Thai-pop soundtrack keeps things bouncing along, even when they don't need to be. Coffee lovers will perk up at the lovingly photographed bushes and beans. Interestingly, the producer and co-writer of Bitter/Sweet, Urs T. Bruner, also runs the Bon Cafe coffee company in Thailand. The coffee's not bad, but this movie is pretty undrinkable stuff. (2/5)

Bẫy Rồng (Clash), Le Thanh Son, 2009 – This is the kind of serious movie I wish Thai martial-arts heroine Jija Yanin had made instead of the silly nonsense that was Raging Phoenix. Pop singer "Veronica" Ngo Thanh Van gives an eye-popping performance as the leader of a band of thieves tasked to steal a laptop by the shadowy Black Dragon. Performing all her own hard-hitting stunts, Ngo has clearly been training diligently in order to considerably step up her game since her turn as the plucky romantic interest in 2007's The Rebel, the Vietnamese historical martial-arts drama that starred Johnny Tri Nguyen. The same team is at work on Clash, a crime thriller set in modern Ho Chi Minh City. Johnny is among the criminals who Ngo, codenamed Phoenix, recruits. Like a blend of Reservoir Dogs and Fight Club, there are rules, among them no real names. One comic-relief guy complains about his name being Ox when others have handles like Snake, Tiger and Hawk. He might as well have been named Mr. Pink. But the tough-as-nails Phoenix puts him in his place. The tight plot has a steamy relationship between real-life partners Ngo and Johnny forming. And the characters have their own motivations, ultimately leading to the clash, which involves lots of gunplay and intense close-quarters hand-to-hand fighting. Director Le Thanh Son brought the stunning 35mm print to screen at the festival himself, and enthusiastically took part in festival activities, at one point presenting a garland to English director Paul Hills and praising him for his film Do Elephants Pray?. (4/5)

Who Killed Chea Vichea?, Bradley Cox, 2009 – This 50-minute documentary's title asks a question it doesn't answer. It does clearly sum up that the two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were convicted of the murder of labor activist Chea Vichea, didn't do it. Dozens of witnesses corroborate that the man the police say pulled the trigger was nowhere near the newsstand in Phnom Penh's Wat Langka neighborhood on Chinese New Year's day, January 22, 2004, when Chea was gunned down. The news vendor, since relocated to another country, says the shooter wasn't the man who was in the police sketch. Through repeated use of their mugshots, fingers are pointed at top police officials, cronies of self-proclaimed strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose picture is also in the photo array. Those men, among them former national police chief Hok Lundy, are either dead or in prison. All the viewer needs is the big fat finger of a police detective to tap on Hun Sen's smiling visage to say, yeah, he's the one who did it. The documentary, the work of a filmmaker who was close to Vichea, is a depressing and damning portrait of Cambodia, a country that despite decades of international aid, cannot break free of the rule of lawless thuggery that has dominated the so-called democracy since the end of the genocidal Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s. The voices of dissent are stifled by intimidation. Their absence is even more incriminating. And to prove that point, the Cambodian government has banned Who Killed Chea Vichea? and says it intends to stop screenings of the film “wherever they are held". They missed one during the Phuket Film Festival, which had canceled the documentary, not because of intimidation but for a lack of money to hire the equipment to show it. But thanks to the efforts taken by English director Paul Hills, who hired a projector to show his film Do Elephants Pray?, Who Killed Chea Vichea? was shown and hopefully it will be shown many more times in many more places until its message is heard and its question answered definitively. (5/5)

1 comment:

  1. Shame about "Bitter/Sweet", I had high hopes. Well, not TOO high--romcoms can be pretty insipid stuff. But the prospect of a "Sideways"-style adult romance set in Thailand's coffee culture sounds good to me. On the other hand, I hadn't heard of "Clash" before this, and it sounds great!


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