Tuesday, November 27, 2012

10th WFFBKK capsule reviews: Mekong Hotel, Parts of the Heart, Return to Burma, Elephant Shaman

Mekong Hotel – A lullaby to fans and cinema, I believe that Mekong Hotel is a transitionary work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, perhaps signaling a move away from feature films toward more shorter art films. He talks a bit about that in a recent Nation interview. Mekong Hotel is rife with commentary about Thai society and politics that goes way over the heads of foreign audiences, which is why, since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it's left overseas audiences largely puzzled. There are things said that are left untranslated in the subtitles. There's so much subtext, I can't even begin to explain it. Mekong Hotel will speak volumes to Thai audiences and perhaps even experts of Thai culture, but for ordinary movie lovers (like me), that subtext will not register. It's a mixture of experimentalism and storytelling, with workshop footage of his actors for another project called Ecstacy Garden. The actors, including Apichatpong's longtime cast members Sakda Kaewbuadee and Jenjira Pongpas, engage in dialog that alternates between conversation about their real lives and talk about the gut-munching pob ghost. Jenjira is a mother pob ghost who laments passing on her eternal curse to a daughter. They surreptitiously feast on bloody, raw meat. Throughout it all, a classical guitarist noodles on a Brahms-like tune by a famous Thai composer. It beckons heaviness of the eyelids. Shot at a riverside hotel on the Mekong in Nong Khai, Laos is across the waters, prompting talk of Lao refugees. The film was made last year around the time that Bangkok and the central plains were heavily flooded. One character comments that the floods are the tears of the Emerald Buddha, a controversial icon that's still a sore point in Thai-Laotian relations. At the end, the focus is on jetskis on the river as they circle about, making figure eights – more subtext that I can't explain. (4/5)

Parts of the Heart – The struggles of being an out-and-proud gay man in Indonesia are examined in this comedy-drama by Paul Augusta. The life of a gay guy named Peter is tracked in eight segments, with the character played by different actors. It runs from boyhood, when Peter is Boy Scout and he steals a kiss from his best friend and tentmate. Next, the two friends are in their early teens. They confide their long-buried feelings for one another and experiment in heavy petting. In subsequent segments, the goth-attired Peter is in a deep depression over loss and breakups, and dealing with boyfriends who won't commit to an open relationship. A colorful circle of campy friends emerges, bringing comic relief to Peter's sadness and self-pity. A particularly funny segment has Peter and his boyfriend engaging the help of another friend in finding a partner for their threesome, in which they audition various applicants from a gay matchmaking website. Filmmaker Joko Anwar portrays Peter in another segment, The Couch and the Cat, in which a happily situated couple shares a coach with an extremely hairy feline. Their life has become routine, and they appear content to just watch TV and smoke (What would an Indonesian film be without lots of smoking?) When his partner starts sneezing, Peter is forced to act. The story comes full circle with Peter happily married to a husband and running a coffeeshop in Jakarta. A young customer who is going through many of the same problems Peter had in his youth comes in. Peter is tempted but comes up with a more-constructive solution. (4/5)

Return to Burma – Taiwan-based Myanmar filmmaker Midi Z directs this loosely autobiographical tale of a young man returning home after years of working as construction laborer in Taipei. Ostensibly, he's making the trip home to deliver the ashes of a friend who was killed in a construction accident. He's been away so long, that when he finally arrives at his home, he has to introduce himself to his mother. He then sets about to reaquaint himself to the hard realities of the country where much as changed but other things have not changed at all. At the time of filming, Burma was preparing for elections that would pave the way for much-heralded democratic reforms. But the lives of ordinary people haven't changed much. They still must struggle mightily just to make a little money and earn a living. Throughout the film, the young man Xing-Hong probes for an angle, asking everyone he meets if there's work, how much it pays, how much to set up a business, etc. Meanwhile, his brother and other friends are preparing to head to Malaysia to find work. Others talk about working in China, and bad experiences there. Shot on the fly, documentary-style, it's an engrossing portrait and it's easy to forget that a camera crew is involved. You feel like you are right there beside Xing-Hong, step by step with him (except for when he visits a brothel; the camera takes a time out as Xing-Hong is led across the street to the sex den). Later, there's a brief respite from Xing-Hong's wanderings as the camera focuses on children playing with toy guns. A boy and a girl reenact the diner robbery scene from Pulp Fiction. Without all the swearing, it's cute. Other kids engage in a battle, and everyone ends up "dead". Most of the action takes place in a border state populated mostly by Yunnan people who speak the Chinese dialect – a reminder of the diversity of Myanmar's population. In the end, the message is reinforced that no matter what's happening with Myanmar politically, not much has changed for most folks, who have few other choices than to toil away in hardship. (5/5)

Elephant Shaman – Anyone who's watched the Tony Jaa martial-arts movies featuring elephants might be interested in checking out director Shane Bunnag's National Geographic documentary Elephant Shaman, which delves into the mysticism and symbiotic relationship between man and pachyderm in the northeast of Thailand. Bunnag's hour-long doc is an important chronicle of the dying custom of the Kuy people, who were known for their work with elephants. At the centre is an 85-year-old man named Miw, the last elephant shaman. He holds the highest ranking among the Kuy people who handle elephants, a sadam, or senior priest. Other rankings include jaa, a senior handler, and ma or mahout, the most junior. Long ago, the kuy elephant handlers and trackers played a key role in Siamese culture, capturing, training and caring for the elephant herds that were used by armies, loggers and in royal and religious ceremonies. According to tribal custom, their methods could only be passed on in the jungle, during the hunt. Today, the jungles have been mostly cleared, with only small tracts of wilderness left. Elephants are only used by man for two purposes – hauling tourists around or begging on the streets. There is no elephant hunt, so there's no chance for Miw to pass on his knowledge. However, an opportunity for one last hunt arose when a rogue bull elephant started trampling crops. Out of desperation, the Wildlife Department called on Miw to capture the beast. Returning the stubborn 15-year-old wild bull to his herd was deemed impossible, so it was left to Miw and his followers to tame and care for the elephant. It might be difficult, in this day and age, to see a need for men like Miw, but Bunnag makes the case that we need them now more than ever because the borders between men and wilderness have broken down. The elephant shamans, with their respect for the remarkable beasts, are needed to protect the elephants from poachers and overdevelopment, and preserve a way of life that shouldn't be forgotten. (5/5)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Soob Ku Kuu Lok

  • Directed by Naruebadee Vejjakam
  • Starring Petchtai Wongkumlao, Nakorn Silichai
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 8, 2012; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Although it's marketed as a special-effects-driven sci-fi comedy, flying saucers and space aliens make up probably less than half of the half-baked movie Soob Kuu Ku Lok.

Most of Soob Kuu involves comedians Petchtai "Mum" Wongkumlao and Nakorn "Ple" Silichai riffing on homophobic jokes. They are a pair of biker dudes who run a custom chopper shop in a sleepy fishing community in Chanthaburi.

The film is a new venture for the comedian Ple, who after many years has split from his old Saranae comedy troupe, which has made several movies but is mainly known for its TV series that pulls elaborate pranks on celebrities. The remaining two of the Saranae trio, Willy McIntosh and the dreadlocked Kiattisak “Sena Hoi” Udomnak, went their own way with the recent Saranae Osekkai, a feature-film spoof of Japanese pop culture. Willy and Sena Hoi also packed up their Lucks 666 production shingle and moved it to the new studio M-Thirtynine after their previous films had been released by Sahamongkol.

Sticking with Ple is director Naruebadee Vejjakam, who helmed the first three Saranae movies. He follows a similar template to the last two Saranair films, with a very loosely scripted approach that allows for gag after gag by the comedians, irregardless of whether the jokes are actually funny or have anything at all to do with advancing the plot.

Soob Ku Kuu Lok starts out amusingly enough with Mum and Ple as motorcycle-taxi drivers, each with a schoolchild on their bike. They race through the streets to be the first to their destination, scaring their passengers out of their wits. Of course, things are not what they seem – Ple's passenger in a Boy Scout uniform is actually a dwarf, and he turns abusive when the wild ride comes to an end.

Eed (Ple) and George (Mum) dream of riding their choppers on the open road. However, they are heavily indebted, thanks to Eed's gambling, lottery playing and fruitless get-rich-quick schemes. At one point, they think about robbing a 7-Eleven, which is just one of the jokes that goes on for too long.

There are always some mobsters hanging around, threatening them.

Still, there's plenty of time of idle chatter by Eed and George, who make jokes about gays even as they take a bath together and Eed enthusiatically grabs for the "soap". Tiresome as their nattering on becomes, the sexual ambiguity at least keeps people guessing. Or, with Ple's ridiculous fake facial hair, the guessing might have more to do about when the false moustache is going to fall off.

Eventually, the actual story starts to take shape – of George's live-in nephew Pong (Phoom Rangsrithananon) acting strangely. They think he might be on drugs, but Pong is actually a little grey space alien with a bald head and huge eyes, pretty much like the being Seth Rogen voiced in the sci-fi spoof Paul starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Unfortunately, Soob Ku Kuu Lok is nowhere near as funny or smart as Paul.

The alien's mission on Earth is mysterious – something to do with the "black Buddha" that's gone missing from a local temple. Using various stolen electronics and other spare parts, he's built a communications array in his room in an effort to "phone home".

When the alien nephew's powers are revealed, he actually helps George and Eed earn some much-needed money in a motorcycle race, only to let them lose the stack of cash in a night of boozing.

There's also a romantic interest for the alien kid, with a pretty local schoolgirl (Arpa Pawilai) wooing him.

Meanwhile, the community's suspicions about who stole the black Buddha start to zero in on George and Eed, and soon they are pursued by the mobsters, the cops and other townspeople.

Various well-known actors join in the fun. Monrak Transistor and Tears of the Black Tiger star Supakorn Kitsuwon is a friendly cop. Bad-boy actor Peter Thongchua is the tough gangster George and Eed owe money to. And musician-actor "Kong" Saharat Sangapreecha turns up for seemingly no apparent reason other than to be there and serve as a good-natured foil for Mum and Ple.

The special-effects, when they are actually used, are convincing enough. The little grey alien being interacts seamlessly with his live-action counterparts, and CGI sequences involving the huge lighted flying saucers are generally breathtaking. But it's all too little, too late

An ending-credits gag reel has Mum getting revenge for being pranked by Ple in the first Saranae film.

Soob Ku Kuu Lok actually has an international English title, tentatively How They Saved the World! (English-subbed trailer embedded below), but given the preponderance of below-the-belt Thai-style shenanigans over actual sci-fi wackiness, I'm uncertain whether the film will attract much interest in foreign markets.

36 takes New Talent Award at Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

Award presentation by Josie Ho. Via Facebook.

The Hong Kong Asian Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday night, presenting its New Talent Award to Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit for his debut feature 36
Here's the festival synopsis:

A poetic visual experiment with 36 cameras, 36 is the first mid-length feature by Thai film activist Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, in which depicts a lady’s search for lost love, and an incredible journey of soul searching when all the photos of her and the one she admires are lost as her computer broke down. Between forgetting and remembering, all there is left is a constant yearning for pieces of memories, and the ambiguous sense of longing for love. 36 is one of the entries in the New Current Sections at the 17th Busan International Film Festival, 2012.

Nawapol previously shared the New Currents Award at Busan for 36, after self-releasing it in a limited theatrical run in Thailand.

Other nominees for the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival's New Talent Award were Miss Lovely from India, Our Homeland from Japan, Cha Cha for Twins from Taiwan, Love Me Not from Hong Kong, Egg and Stone from China and Peculiar Vacation and Other Illness from Indonesia.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

10th WFFBKK: Victor is awarded

Victor Silakong accepts the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government.

World Film Festival of Bangkok director Victor Silakong is usually the one giving the awards, but on Friday, at the opening of the 10th edition of his annual fest, Victor was on the receiving end, as he was inducted into the French government's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and given the ranking of chevalier, making him a knight.

The French government's cultural honor has been bestowed on a few other Thais. By happy coincidence, another member of the order is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who was also present on Friday with his Mekong Hotel as the opening film. He has been decorated twice by the French order, and now holds the rank of "officier". He appeared on stage with Victor wearing blue suede shoes, a dark suit jacket and a T-shirt that says "No 112", in reference to Article 112, Thailand's lèse majesté law.

Teem and Joei and "No 112".
Victor's cultural achievements aren't only limited to putting on the film festival. A native of Betong in southern Thailand (Nonzee Nimibutr made a movie about the border town, Okay Baytong), Victor's Thai-Chinese upbringing put an emphasis on education. He eventually won a scholarship to study theater at L'Ecole Florent in France. He's fluent in several languages, including French. He's staged several plays, including an adaptation of Carmen that mixed contemporary dance with Thai shadow puppets. Another was his staging of Pierre de Marivaux's The Isle of Slaves as a likay (Thai folk opera) production, complete with singers in sparkly traditional costume. This year, Victor was at the helm for the ambitious musical Reya, an adaptation of a hit TV soap that in turn was adapted from a novel by Taitao Sucharitkul. The musical was composed by Taitao's son, conductor Somtow Sucharitkul.

More about Victor can be found in a Nation article and in the Bangkok Post's Sunday Brunch section.

On Friday, Victor was more excited to have as his guest the French director Leos Carax, who is the recipient of the festival's annual Lotus Award, which is essentially a lifetime achievement honor.

The award was handed to Carax by Sonthaya Kunpleum, a member of the powerful Pattaya political clan who was made culture minister in the latest Cabinet reshuffle. The post had been held by his wife, but Sonthaya, who just came off a five-year ban from politics, is now back. He made a long speech in Thai that was not translated.

Upon receiving his award Carax said just one word that needs no translation: "Merci."

But the press-averse Carax had more to say yesterday after the screening of his latest movie Holy Motors – a tour du force for actor Denis Lavant – treating the audience to a question-and-answer session. Lavant stars as an actor who rides around in a limo and dresses the part as he services various "clients". His adventures include being a green-suited homeless man who violently disrupts a fashion shoot and absconds with model Eva Mendes. He explained that he shot the movie very quickly without viewing the dailies and that it's science fiction, though "more fiction than science".

The festival is taking place at the Esplanade Ratchada as it did earlier this year (the ninth edition had been postponed from last November because of the flooding).

Yesterday's first full day of screenings saw a good crowd for Holy Motors. Festival-goers had to contend with long lines at the ticket counter due to the fact that the festival coincides with the opening weekend of the latest (and hopefully last) Twilight movie, which is playing on every screen at the Esplanade except for the three in use by the festival.

Aside from Holy Motors, other noteworthy films include Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre, and a package of Dutch films like Win/Win, Meet the Fokkens and The Happy Housewife, that are offered as part of the concurrent Dutch Film Festival in Bangkok.

In addition to Holy Motors and The Happy Housewife, I saw a Ukrainian film, Gaamer, because when else will I ever have a chance to see a Ukrainian film?

Folks have lamented that there aren't many Thai films this year, except for Mekong Hotel. Though several notable indie Thai films have been made this year, the directors have all opted for limited local theatrical releases rather than to submit to the WFFBKK. They reach a broader local audience and qualify for industry awards that way, but film-goers who come to Bangkok specifically for the World Film Festival in hopes of seeing new Thai films are left disappointed.

There is director Shane Bunnag's documentary The Elephant Shaman, which is tipped as a "must see" by Victor and deputy director Dusit Silakong.

And there are packages of Thai shorts in the Short Wave programs, including some of the award-winning shorts like A Belt and a Comb and The Farmer that were made by ethnic filmmakers in a workshop put on by the Chiang Mai NGO Friends Without Borders and screened at the Fly Beyond the Barbwire Fence Festival. Sadly, because of niggling digital projector problems yesterday, the Message from the North package was not shown.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Luang Prabang fest sets schedule, adds Doc Talks

Click to enlarge.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival, running from December 1 to 5 in the historic former royal capital of Laos, has completed its lineup, released the schedule and added a sidebar benefit event, Doc Talks.

A Myanmar film has been added, 2009's The Dance of an Alchemist by Me Pwar.

When the festival started back in 2010, all screenings were held outdoors in the city's central Handicraft Market. At least that's the way I remember it.

Since last year, there's an indoor venue, which screens movies during the day, starting at 10am, with such offerings as Malaysian director James Lee's Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire!, Edwin's Postcards from the Zoo from Indonesia, the Philippines' Boundary. It's at the Amantaka hotel.

But the main event will still be the outdoor screenings.

After the Saturday night opening ceremony on December 1, the fest will screen the Lao feature, Chanthalay. Directed by Mattie Do, it's about a young woman who thinks she is seeing her mother's ghost.

The opening night will also feature Thailand's The Cheer Ambassadors, Luke Cassady-Dorion's rousing documentary on the scrappy Thai cheerleading squad that overcame all odds to win world championships.

Other evening "main event" evening films during the rest of the festival also concentrate on Lao and Thai movies because those are what will appeal to the greatest number of local folks.

These include the Lao films Bounthanh: Lost in the City, Hak Aum Lum and Always on My Mind, while other Thai highlights include Tom Waller's monastic mystery Mindfulness and Murder and Wichanon Sumumjarn's experimental In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire. Tongpong Chantarangkul's sisterhood road-trip drama I Carried You Home is the closing film.

One Indonesian film, Shalahuddin Siregar's documentary Land Beneath the Fog, will be featured in the evening, and it will also be included in the Doc Talks program, which features documentaries screened at nice hotels for a minimum donation of $10, to benefit the festival. Directors will be present for Q-and-A sessions. Others are The Cheer Ambassadors, Bradley Cox's Who Killed Chea Vichea?, and With or Without Me, Ian Bromage's look at two young Vietnamese heroin addicts living with HIV.

There will also be panel discussions, "Cross-Border Filmmaking" and "Documenting Southeast Asia", and screenings of short films in the festival's project space and dance and music performances in the evening at the main outdoor venue.

Update: The festival has a Kickstarter campaign to raise much-needed funds.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Capsule reviews: 36, Fighting Fish, Yak, In April

Due to time constraints, I've let several recent Thai films pass under the transom without writing any actual reviews. Here then is an attempt to remedy that situation.


Winner of this year' New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's 36 was hailed for its inventiveness by the jury led by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Indeed, 36 takes a uniquely spare, minimalist approach in telling the story of a film-company location scout (Vajrasthira Koramit) who gets into a relationship with an art director (Wanlop Rungkamjad). After the guy moves on, she struggles to reconstruct those memories after a hard-drive crash erases the photos she took with him. Nothing, it seems, is the way she remembers. The film is comprised of 36 scenes, each a single-camera set-up, preceded by a title card. They feel like the pages of a storybook. The camera angles, sometimes close and sometimes from far away, are often odd and obscure the faces of the actors. Or, the light sources will cause things to be obscured or fragmented, just like the memory on that broken hard drive. It's the debut feature from Nawapol, a young filmmaker whose varied career has included making many award-winning short films, writing a film column for a magazine, scripting mainstream films at big Thai studios and organizing screenings of indie Thai short films. He self-released 36 to sold-out screenings at alternative venues around Thailand before taking it to Busan. It'll be interesting to see what he can come up with if he's ever given a big-studio budget and support. (5/5)

Fighting Fish

Bromance forms between a foreigner and a Thai boxer in Fighting Fish (ดุ ดวล ดิบ, Du Duan Dib), a welcome Thai martial-arts movie, which have become a rarity in local cinemas, except for Tony Jaa films every two or three years. Stuntman Jawed El Berni stars as a mysterious expat who checks into a five-star Bangkok hotel and then falls for the oldest trick in the book when he's taken for a ride in a tuk-tuk to a boxing match and is then robbed. He runs in to further trouble when he sells his gold watch to a hilarious pair of pawnbrokers (real-life twin-brother boxing champs Khaosai and Khaokor Galaxy). He's then cheated out of his last bit of cash of by street hustler ("JJ" Jakkris Kanokpojnanon) who turns out to be an expert Muay Thai fighter. A run through back alleys and an electronics factory echoes the rough-and-tumble street chase of Ong-Bak. Afterward, the guys become best pals as they enter matches in an underground cagefight club. But there's conflict again when the foreigner talks his way into the top-tier to-the-death "fighting fish" matches. There's lots of gritty, sweaty close-quarters boxing action, which is choreographed by David Ismalone ("Mad Dog" from Ong-Bak) who also stars as a vicious top henchman. The story is scripted by David's wife "Ying" Julaluck Ismalone, a former model and VDO star who makes her directorial debut. The wafer-thin plot provides just enough motive for the two protagonists – the foreigner is desperate for cash and redemption while his Thai buddy has a disabled wife who needs an expensive operation. The soundtrack keeps it real by being mostly in English despite it being hardly anyone's first language. Other stars include Ong-Bak baddie Suchao Pongvilai as the gangster in charge of the fight club, Raging Phoenix leading man Kazu Patrick Tang as a fighting fish combatant and former boxer Somluck Kamsing as a dogged police detective. (3/5)

Yak: The Giant King

From its look and setting, Yak: The Giant King (ยักษ์) might be most often compared to such Hollywood animated features as Blue Sky Studio's Robots or Pixar's Wall-E. But it's really closer to Brad Bird's traditional animation The Iron Giant, as it tells the story of a giant robot who is gentle and kind but is actually a weapon of mass destruction. The tale, inspired by the Ramayana, is set in a post-apocalyptic future when only robots exist. It's a million days after a big battle between the army of the little monkey robot Hanuman and the giant Totsakan. The two combatants awaken to find their memories wiped. They are joined together by an indestructible chain that's attached to Hanuman's rear end. They then set off on an adventure to break the chain and find out the truth of their identities. Interestingly, Yak, produced by Work Point Entertainment and released by Sahamongkol Film, was offered in Thai cinemas with a Thai soundtrack as well as a well-done English soundtrack. The highly polished English version was supervised by Thailand-based American musician Todd "Thongdee" Lavelle, who also penned several catchy tunes. The animation is about as artful as can be possible when ramshackle robots are involved. However, it's unclear as to what kind of audience it might attract. The action might be too intense for small children, but there are long moments when the robot pals are just walking and talking that might make it boring for grown-up animation geeks. The slack times are made up for by the end with a climactic battle, in which Totsakan's fearsome power – 10 evil little heads and 10 arms that think independently, just like Spider-Man's Dr. Octopus – is revealed. (3/5)

In April the Following Year, There was a Fire

The long title might come off as pretentious, but it's really not. Lifted straight from a line of dialogue about a childhood tragedy, In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (สิ้นเมษาฝนตกมาปรอยปรอย, Sin Maysar Fon Tok Ma Proi Proi), is a heartfelt and laid-back stream-of-consciousness recollection of filmmaker Wichanon Sumumjarn's own life, growing up in Northeast Thailand. It starts off rather puzzlingly, with someone collapsed on a beach and rescuers shouting for "beach morning glory". The story then follows a young man who works as a supervisor on construction projects in Bangkok. Tossed out of work by the political instability of Thailand, he goes back home to Khon Kaen, ostensibly to attend a friend's wedding but mainly to spend his days boozing and crashing on his father's couch. Midway through the 70-minute debut feature, Wichanon switches from fictional narrative to documentary, interviewing his father as well as his brother, who bears the scars of a jellyfish attack. "You can't just tell it like that. You have to use some technique," the brother says in an unscripted moment as he's being quizzed about that painful incident at the beach in which the morning-glory folk remedy was rubbed too hard. Other humorous self-referential moments come earlier in the movie, when the construction foreman Nuhm happens by a movie-location shoot and strikes up a conversation with one of the film crew about whether the indie movie he's working on will ever be released in theater or come out on DVD. "You never know about these things," the guy tells him. However, in a hopeful sign, Wichanon and his producer Anocha Suwichakornpong did manage to secure a limited release for In April in Bangkok cinemas after it premiered at the Rotterdam festival this year and toured the festival circuit. So there's hope yet for Thailand's hard-working underfunded indie directors. (4/5)