Saturday, December 8, 2012

Luang Prabang Film Festival 2012: Capsule reviews and notes part 3

The Shadow Play Association of Champasak performs live accompaniment to Chang.

The third edition of the Luang Prabang Film Festival wrapped up on Wednesday night with a screening of the 1927 silent Chang: A Drama in the Wilderness, with live musical accompaniment by the Shadow Play Association of Champasak.

Owing to Laos being a former French colony and the screening's sponsors being French, the intertitles were presented in French rather than the original English from the Hollywood version.

In an introduction, it was stated that the film took two years to make, starting in 1924. The film crew set out from Bangkok and made their way to Sayabouri, where they found a thick jungle and an abundant population of elephants and other wildlife. There is confusion over whether the filmmakers knew whether they were in Laos or Siam, though the intertitles state the movie takes place in Siam.

Chang is directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who had earlier done the docu-drama Grass about the nomadic Bakhtiari goat-herder tribe in Iran, and later went on to make King Kong. Presented as a documentary, Chang is the story of a family whose home is trampled by elephants. They then rally other village men to round up the rogue pachyderms. It was a pure Hollywood fabrication, with the main character Kru the Lao tribesman being an actor who wasn't actually married to his wife in the film. However, the carnage against wildlife is very real. This was before a time when there was Humane Society oversight of films, and before PETA could launch an Internet protest campaign.

The musicial accompaniment consisted of a 14-piece orchestra of traditional instruments, including ranand xylophones, khaen reed pipes, saw bowed instruments, drums, gongs and a phin (lute). The musicians also provided sound effects for axe blows, gunshots, and the various animals, including elephants, tigers and monkeys, as well as the hollering of men. The effect was an entertaining combination of a traditional classical music concert and comedy-variety show. The outdoor plaza, which seats 1,000, was absolutely packed, with everyone's eyes glued to the screen.

Documenting Southeast Asia

The Documenting Southeast Asia panel: Tae, Ian Bromage, Shalahuddin Siregar, Peter Livermore and Bradley Cox.

On Tuesday was the panel discussion, Documenting Southeast Asia. Panelists were "Tae" Thanapanont Phithakrattanayothin, associate producer of Cheer Ambassadors, Ian Bromage, producer of the Vietnamese HIV-and-drugs documentary With or Without Me,  Indonesia's Shalahuddin Siregar, director of the farming documentary Land Beneath the Fog, documentarian Peter Livermore, who had a selection of his work exhibited at the festival's visitor's center, and Bradley Cox, director of Who Killed Chea Vichea?, about the murder of the Cambodian labor leader.

Among the questions posed: "Can you make money off of documentaries in Southeast Asia?"

There was no answer. The panelists all just simply looked at each other in hopes one of them had an answer.

There was much lamentation about the lack of funding, or if there is funding, then the backers, such as NGOs, have a stake in the film and that always skews the documentary's objectivity.

Much of the discussion gravited toward censorship.

Who Killed Chea Vichea? won a Peabody Award and has been aired in the U.S. on PBS television. However, it's banned in Cambodia. Cox said the authorities knew he was making the documentary. He even put in a formal request to interview Prime Minister Hun Sen, but was denied. With many cases of videotapes, Cox eventually left Cambodia, exiting by land through a low-profile border checkpoint. He has't been back since. "I'd be more worried if they did let me in," he said.

In Vietnam, With or Without Me, about two heroin addicts and their different approaches to their addiction, was made with the government's okay, though officials were wary of the coarse language and the men's continued drug use. It was shown on television, but because censorship is more stringent for theatrical exhibition, it wasn't approved for a public screening.

Festival director Gabriel Kuperman, moderating the panel, also answered questions, revealing that there's a three-tiered censorship system for the Luang Prabang Film Festival. Uncontroversial films are okayed for the open-air screening. Controversial ones are okayed for the daytime venue, indoors, with the understanding that few Laotian citizens are likely to attend the screening. The third tier is that the film won't be shown at all.

Further, with cinema growing in popularity in Laos, there's a new law - all foreign films must be dubbed in Lao, though that does not yet apply to the Luang Prabang Film Festival.

Final notes

Doughnut, Gabriel Kuperman and Ananda.
With the addition of panel discussions, the Luang Prabang Film Festival is emerging as an important platform for Southeast Asian cinema.

The guest list this year was headed by Ananda Everingham, who was accompanied by actress Manatsanun "Doughnut" Phanlerdwongsakul. Filmmakers in attendance included Tongpong Chantharangkul (I Carried You Home) and Tom Waller (Mindfulness and Murder). Wichanon Somumjarn (In April the Following Year, There was a Fire) and his producer Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner was also screening, arrived on Tuesday after driving all the way from Bangkok.

A sidebar to the festival featured documentaries by Luang Prabang-based lensman Adri Berger, in his handsomely appointed shophouse screening room at T'Shop Lai. Three titles were shown, Free the Bears, about a bear rescue center near Luang Prabang's Kuang Si waterfall; Portraits from Luang Prabang, featuring profiles of 10 artisans and laborers; and Song of the Lao Elephant, about logging elephants and the struggles to preserve the Lao elephant herd. It was made for KBS television in South Korea.

Filmmaker Sherman Ong led a team from Singapore's 13 Little Pictures to conduct the festival's Film Lab, with 17 participants from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore taking part in workshops, film production exercises, screenings and networking over six days.

A party last Saturday's opening night provided a chance for much networking and discussion between filmmakers, film experts and fans. More opportunities like that are needed – there should be a designated venue for filmmakers to gather each night.

Most importantly, the festival must overcome its technical problems. They simply cannot be excused. The daytime venue, the Amantaka Hotel, was especially full of glitches. Movies were screened on DVD or Blu-ray on a large flat-screen TV. Two screenings I attended there were ended early by problems with the DVD or the DVD player. Only the hotel staff were in attendance to deal with the problems. It's a pretty lousy setup.

Postcards from the Zoo


Edwin, who like many Indonesians has only one name, directs this quirky comedy-drama about a young woman who has grown up in a zoo. Abandoned there as a child, Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is taken in by the colorful group of homeless people who squat at the zoo. She is raised to learn to care for such animals as the giraffe and hippo, and perform other chores, such as leading tours and operating the cheesy amusement rides. Eventually, the homeless people are told to leave, and so Lana takes up with a mysterious magician who dresses as a cowboy (Nicholas Saputra). She dresses as an Indian maiden to his cowboy, and becomes his assistant for him to throw knives at. Her face is framed in a box where she is cut in half. This leads them to a spa that's really a brothel, where Lana has further formative adventures. Here, she puts her hands on a different kind of animal, which later leads to the urge to reconnect with her beastly friends at the zoo. The world is a zoo, where we are watching other animals, or the animals are watching us. (5/5)

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