Tuesday, September 7, 2010

14th TSF&VF: The R.D. Pestonji competition films

I only caught all of one of this year's competition programs at the 14th Thai Short Film & Video Festival, because of scheduling conflicts and a general lack of English subtitles on the White Elephant and Duke documentary sections.

So for me, it was the R.D. Pestonji Awards competition, featuring films from "general individuals", usually film-school graduates and experienced Thai indie filmmakers.

The first program opened with Siam Concerto, a handsomely mounted drama by Kuanta Pongnarawan. It didn't have English subtitles, but was pretty easy to follow. Recalling recent Thai music-themed movies like Seasons Change and The Overture, the story is set in a music school and is about an indecisive student who can't make up his mind whether to be first fiddle in a Thai classical music ensemble or lead singer with a rock band. He eventually finds a way to harmonize his conflicting tuneful ideas.

Thailand's color-coded politics were the inspiration for Karaoke: Think Kindly by the filmmaking collective Scene 22. Trippy, with I guess a Hindu-fantasy theme, pinwheels of red plastic footclappers and yellow plastic handclappers spin in the background behind a cross-legged yogi as the music and lyrics of national reconciliation float by on the screen.

Now, I don't know if this is a new trend, or just something unique to this year, but I noticed a number of films from overseas-schooled Thais, more than usual it seemed.

Among this foreign wave was Hush!, directed by Tanis Pintong, with art direction by Nattawut "Baz" Poonpiriya, the director of the Digital Forum entry, the New York City-set Misbehavers. In Hush!, a Thai teenage guy is dragged off on a vacation in the U.S. with his mother. She's remarried an American guy and the mother and son haven't seen each other for10 years. The poor Thai teen doesn't understand a word of English, and just sits bored in the backseat while his new stepdad chatters on and on about banalities, sort of like any classic American TV dad. The kid also has a challenge in his teenage stepsister, who's just as unexcited about being on vacation with her father and stepmother. A wet T-shirt at a picnic-ground swimming hole has the boy thinking America might not be so bad after all.

Censored comes from Japan and Waseda University film student Kong Pahurak, a collaborator with Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo, who wrote and produced another film of Kong's, The Ladybird's Tears. Featuring a multi-national cast, Censored is a wryly comic sci-fi tale, set in an Orwellian alternate reality in which a German man lands a job as a censor so he can ensure his love letters to his girlfriend will be delivered. The highlight is the sight of shotgun-toting Chinese actress Zhu Dan. Both Censored and Ladybird will be featured at the upcoming Doi Saket International Film Festival.

Defunct by Pathompong Lomchai brought me back to Thailand, for an abstract tale of a boy covered in a white substance and then covering himself in black mud.

Nirvana by Siwadol Rithi goes deep into Thai Buddhism, with a visit to a rural temple by a mother and her son. The mother wishes that her son be ordained, but he's disallowed because he's blind. The abbot explains that a monk must be fully abled to serve the spiritual needs of worshippers. Nirvana examines the motivations behind merit-seeking and Buddhist prayers.

Opening the second bloc of competition films, Deathless Distance by Taiki Sakpiset is an experimental film, with a view of the ocean horizon while electronic music plays.

Heaven, another New York movie by Nattawut "Baz" Poonpiriya, is a 9-minute romantic thriller about a woman meeting a man in the afterlife.

Week-End by Sereeroj Jayaphorn is another Japan-set short. It's a highly stylized and colorful crime thriller, perhaps inspired by Seijun Suzuki or maybe Takeshi Kitano.

Were Can I Find Seripap, which won a special mention award, is a humorous story of a slacker living in an office building. The narrative is jumbled around in a non-linear way, so bits and pieces of the guy and his relationship with a girlfriend are gradually revealed. Meanwhile, the main character Seripap is being contacted by an old classmate who is looking for another man in their class also named Seripap. The two eventually meet and form a humorous relationship as they go looking for this other Seripap.

Own by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, the film writer, programmer and critic perhaps better known as Filmsick, is an experimental musing on the concept of "own", with audio from an interview Wiwat conducted with French director Claire Denis when she was in Thailand last year for the Bangkok International Film Festival's screening of her 35 Shots of Rum. Shot from a high vantage point, the camera pans around the city and highlights the vast gap between wealthy and poor, from tin shacks to high-rise condos and a muddy vacant lot to a green lawn. I thought it worked out well and so did the jury. The gave it a runner-up prize.

That was followed by another eventual runner-up, In Space, a short by Visra Vichit-Vadakan. It's a quiet tale set in New York City about a young Thai man living there with his grandparents. The short hooked me with the opening shot of the gentle Thai guy working in an Asian grocery, playing with a caterpillar at the check-out counter, and some shoppers almost smash his little worm friend with their cans. The grandparents (Visra's grandparents Arunee and Yongkiat Pattaphongse if I understood the credits correctly) still listen to old Thai pop songs, read Thai newspapers, watch Thai TV dramas and love each other. Grandmother wants the boy to enter the monkhood, and he does eventually, for a reason Thais probably already know. He's not really into it, but then gets into deep, deep meditation and finds that place where he was always happy. In Space is fairly well traveled on the festival circuit. It played at last year's World Film Festival of Bangkok, as well as Rotterdam, Tribeca and other festivals. Visra, a student at New York University, is another name to be watching.

The third and final competition program opened with Safe Zone by Chakorn Chaiprecha. It's inspired by the curfew imposed on Bangkok and several Thai provinces in the aftermath of the May 19 crackdown on the anti-government protests. Two young Thai guys are holed up in their apartment keeping contact with friends through SMS, Internet messaging and their trusty BlackBerry. But not everyone honors the curfew, and that makes their little apartment not so safe.

My Mother and Her Portrait by "Teem" Chaisiri Jiwarangsan was in contention. The short, made within Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Primitive project in Nabua, has footage of the villagers shooting off fireworks. The weird lighting and smoke combine for an ethereal effect, subtext for the subtitles in which the mother is commenting on an old photo. The short was featured at last year's World Film Festival of Bangkok and other festivals. Given that Apichatpong's Cannes Golden Palm winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a pop-culture icon among the Thai short-film community, My Mother and Her Portrait felt very familiar and meta.

I really liked The Last Shot, a 30-minute crime procedural by Kanin Ramasoot. Police Sergeant Dum is on his last day before retirement. He takes it upon himself to solve an apparent murder and attempted suicide. The plot and characters are pretty stereotypical, right out of CSI, Law and Order or Dirty Harry. The older policeman can't use a copy machine, isn't computer literate, etc., but he stands up against his superior to seek the truth. An outcast on the squad, he gets help from a wheelchair-bound computer hacker. I liked The Last Shot because it seems pretty rare anymore for a mature character to be the focus of a Thai film. Most movies these days are romantic dramas about young people. I'd like to see more gritty Thai crime stories like The Last Shot.

Monster by Pasweepitch Sornakkharapha and Prin Lomros channels Lady Gaga and the kitsch of Werewolf Women of the SS and The Night Porter for a story a female SS officer in love with a Jewish woman, with a final twist.

The eventual winner of the R.D. Pestonji Award, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's Cheri is Korean-Thai, takes pokes at the Thai infatuation with Korean pop culture and soap operas. The short was commissioned by the anti-poverty NGO Action Aid. Actress Cherie has invited a pair of female Thai laborers to her grand villa in a gated community. Researching a role in an soap opera, she interviews the woman about what it's like to work at a construction site, lifting heavy things, working in the heat and being tired. Though she's probably worked on a TV set under hot lights, she wants to know what it feels like when it's "wicked hot". And what's "heavy"? How does it feel to be sore? She's so out of touch with reality. She doesn't bother asking what it's like to try and live and support a family on the 100 or 200 baht a day these builders of luxury high-rises make. The absurdity of what Cherie is doing and the character she's playing is deliciously and hilariously underlined right at the end. As Nawapol writes on his blog, the laughter by the audience is the "real prize".

Cherie was pretty powerful and I guess in my mind it overshadowed the final short, director Tulapop Saenjaroen's After the Wind, a quiet drama about twin sisters, hanging out and dreaming together and playing music before one heads off to school overseas.


  1. Thanks for the plug, brotha. Just wanna mention though, CENSORED actually pre-dates LADYBIRD'S TEARS. That was Kong's first short. Dude premiered it in Japan last year, hohoho.

  2. Thanks Edmund! I get confused easily. Saw Ladybird before I saw Censored.


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