Thursday, February 10, 2011
Top 10 Thai films of 2010
First of all, apologies to the couple of readers who've been asking me when I'm going to get around to posting this. Not sure I can explain why it's taken until the middle of February to complete it, but here it is.
The year in Thai cinema of 2010 started out triumphantly, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives winning the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Powered by its Cannes win, Uncle Boonmee quickly secured a limited release in Thai cinemas, heralding a growing acceptance in Thailand for Thai independent cinema.
A pair of festival favorites from my 2009 Top 10 list, the indie films Agrarian Utopia and Mundane History, also had limited runs in Bangkok in 2010 and along with Uncle Boonmee are nominated for many awards here in Thailand. Meanwhile, the film industry experienced lucrative success with teen romantic dramas like Guan Muen Ho and First Love, which means that there will be more commercial films along those lines.
Thailand's film-ratings system looked to show some daring with the release of the 20- movie Sin Sisters 2 – probably the worst movie of the year. It showed lots of skin and some sex. There was also the release of the rated-18+ Brown Sugar "erotic" movies from Sahamongkol Film International.
But then toward the end of the year, the censors showed they were just as stubborn and intolerant as ever with the banning of Insects in the Backyard, a sexually explicit gay-themed social drama by independent director Tanwarin Sukkhapisit.
Well, without further ado, let's get to my favorite Thai films of 2010.
10. Tai Hong (Still, a.k.a. Die a Violent Death)
Horror from the Thai film industry was on the wane in 2010, giving way to romances and slapstick comedies, but there were still a few decent examples, including Tai Hong, a quartet of short thrillers produced by Poj Arnon for Phranakorn. Joining Poj in his fun were indie directors Chartchai Ketknust, Manus Worrasingha and Tanwarin Sukkhapisit. Among the tales was a topical drama about the agonized spirits of a New Year's Eve nightclub fire, echoing 2009's Santika tragedy. The foursome of loosely interlinked stories had decent performances from top stars like "Golf" Akara Amarttayakul, "Kratae" Supaksorn Chaimongkol and Mai Charoenpura.
9. Unreal Forest
Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Singaporean director Sherman Ong and a few other indie filmmakers, Jakrawal Nilthamrong makes movies that aren't necessarily designed to be shown in cinemas. While Unreal Forest has been shown in film festivals, in Bangkok its major release was as an art installation at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. That's just a smidgen of what made Unreal Forest unique. The film was the result of an interesting experiment by the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which commissioned Asian filmmakers to travel to Africa and make movies. With a low budget, Jakrawal's approach was to make a documentary of his process of recruiting Zambian filmmakers, watching them work and then showing the story they came up with, which is about a shaman coming to a village to try and heal a sick boy. There's also an ironic message of Dutch colonialism and colonialism in general and how it relates to Thailand. As a bonus the film makes stunning use of Zambia's landmark Victoria Falls.
8. Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai)
This Eternity is a breathtakingly lavish and steamy romantic melodrama, set in the 1930s, with sumptuous costuming and a fantastic cast, led by Ananda Everingham and "Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak as cheating lovers chained together "until eternity". Breaking at 13-year hiatus from filmmaking, veteran drama teacher ML Bhandevanop Devakula directs this adaptation of Malai Choopanit's 1943 novel. The initial theatrical release was a sleeper summer hit that became one of the year's top 10 movies at the box office and it looks set to rule this year's movie-awards season. The original was rated 15+ while the three-hour director's cut was rated 18+ and showed more skin and sex.
7. Eternity (Tee Rak)
The other Eternity, the indie Eternity (ที่รัก, Tee Rak), by director Sivaroj Kongsakul – making his feature debut – is an existential romance that's an autobiographical ode to Sivaroj's late father. It traces the man's thoughts and memories in his afterlife, from a tearful ghost, riding a motorcycle around his old haunts, to memories of his youthful courtship and finally to a time when recollections about him have faded. Full of nostalgia, tears and longing, it's slow and quiet with that far-away camera work that's a trademark of indie arthouse cinema. Eternity is an lingering emotional musing. Following its recent Tiger Award win at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Eternity will be making its way around the film-festival circuit in the year to come and making sure Sivaroj is another Thai name to be reckoned with.
6. Shadow of the Naga (Nak Prok)
One of the reasons I began feel hopeful about the future of Thai cinema under the ratings system was this film – a film-noir thriller that took a serious look at Thai Buddhism and tackled taboo subjects with a story about three bank robbers who hide their loot in a temple and then pose as monks in order to retrieve it. In this place of contemplation, greed and rage boil to the surface. There's strong, showy performances all around by the cast of Somchai Kemklad, Ray MacDonald, Pitisak Yaowanan, Inthira Charoenpura and Sa-ad Piampongsan. Director Phawat Panangkasiri's drama languished in Sahamongkol's vaults for three years before producers decided the time was right to release it. The ratings board passed it with an 18+ rating though there were pop-up warning messages for scenes that go against Buddhist practices.
5. Baby Arabia
A soulful, spiritual triumph, the lively Arab-Malay music of the band Baby Arabia propels this documentary by Panu Aree, Kaweenipon Ketprasit and Kong Rithdee. Unusually for a Thai film, it's not about Buddhism but about Islam, a faith that isn't ordinarily heard about in Thailand unless it's connected to the extremists, violence and deaths in southern part of the country. And aside from showcasing the infectious music and telling the story of the band, that's the point of the movie. It's an effort to show a side of Islam that isn't ordinarily heard from – presenting the moderate viewpoint that by its very nature doesn't make itself heard.
Thunska Pansittivorakul's 2008 documentary This Area Is Under Quarantine was an explosive combination of political commentary – banned video footage of Thai army brutality against Muslim men – and young men having sex. It was prevented from being screened at the 2009 World Film Festival of Bangkok on a technicality by censors who said they weren't authorized to permit it. Whatever that meant. Essentially, they banned it, though not officially. Anyway, Thunska became unrepentant, and he ups the ante in Reincarnate, which screened at the Rotterdam fest, in Berlin and Buenos Aires last year. Featuring an on-screen masturbation and ejaculation with risky metaphorical social commentary, Thunska didn't even try show Reincarnate in Thailand. He looks to be continuing on that track with The Terrorists, produced by Germany's Jürgen Brüning, and screening at the Berlin International Film Festival.
3. Insects in the Backyard
Tanwarin Sukkapisit's soul is poured into Insects in the Backyard, a magnum opus from the gay cross-dressing director. It's by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Tanwarin stars as the flamboyant, Audrey Hepburn-inspired transvestite father of a troubled teenage son and daughter. The kids, confused about their own sexuality, rebel against their eccentric father by entering the sex trade. There's fetish sex, with the teenage characters in school uniform. The explicit film, with a damning social message, screened in Vancouver and at the World Film Festival of Bangkok, but efforts by Tanwarin to secure a limited release for Insects have been thwarted by censors, who deemed the film to be against public morals. It's Thailand's first officially banned film under the ratings system. They were disturbed by fantasy images of the son killing his father. Another scene that had the culture watchdogs barking was when Tanwarin is watching porn and her dress is pulled back to reveal her man parts.
2. The Red Eagle
At first look, Wisit Sasanatieng's Insee Dang (The Red Eagle) is a dark, brooding, ultra-violent affair that is quite unlike his colorful cult-favorite earlier efforts like Tears of the Black Tiger or Citizen Dog. A deeper look will reveal Wisit's cheeky sense of humor and sly digs against product placement and the cliches of Hollywood action films. Perhaps it's Wisit's frustration boiling to surface, since making The Red Eagle – a much-anticipated reboot of the 1960s action franchise that starred Mitr Chaibancha, with Ananda Everingham taking over the storied role – left Wisit feeling so creatively hamstrung he vowed it would be his last studio film. But it's not his last film. So even if Wisit doesn't come back to direct Insee Dang out of his cliffhanger ending, there's hope he'll get his indie Muay Thai film Suriya off the ground.
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or – the first for a Thai film – Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee is a bit different form his previous features like Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, which had elliptical qualities that told abstract stories. Here, the stories are just fractured as ever but there's a solid narrative that makes Boonmee perhaps more accessible than the previous films. Sure, there's still viewers who haven't a clue what to make of such things as the Monkey Ghost with the glowing red eyes, the ghost wife and the princess and the catfish. Apichatpong has said his movie channels his movie memories, mainly from when he was growing up and going to the Khon Kaen cinemas in the 1980s. The magic of Uncle Boonmee is that in its blissfully weird way it can speak to anyone's movie memories. For example, I felt like I was watching Apichatpong's version of Star Wars, even though he's said he wasn't influenced by George Lucas. Though perhaps Planet of the Apes fit in there somewhere.