Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Countdown

  • Directed by Nattawat Poonpiriya
  • Starring Pachara Chirathivat, Patarasaya Krueasuwansiri, Jarinporn Junkiet, David Asavanond
  • Released in Thai cinemas on December 20, 2012; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Three dope-smoking Thai hipsters living in New York City get what's coming to them in the New Year's Eve thriller Countdown (เคาท์ดาวน์), which features a drug pusher named Jesus dealing in retribution.

It's a gritty Rated 18+ story that's a departure of sorts for studio GTH, which usually focuses on feel-good stories involving squeaky clean teens. But there are of course consequences for this unholy trio of party animals, which makes it okay in the eyes of the studio execs and censors.

Director Nattawat Poonpiriya is in his big-studio debut, remaking his 45-minute short that screened as part of the Digital Forum at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival in 2010.

Produced by Jira Maligool, the expanded story delves more into the motivations and backgrounds of the three hipsters, portrayed by GTH stock-company players Pachara Chirathivat, Patarasaya Krueasuwansiri and Jarinporn Junkiet. David Asavanond reprises his role from the original short, back in the long hair and goatee for his indelible performance as the unhinged Jesus ("that's Hay-Seuss, genius").

Exterior shots establish that the story is set in the Big Apple, but most of the action takes place in the confines of an apartment, so it really could be anywhere – maybe even Bangkok.

Patchara is Jack, a feckless rich kid who is supposed to be enrolled in a university. His short-haired girlfriend is Bee (Jarinporn), a new arrival in the city who is there for mysterious circumstances. They share an apartment with the floosie Pam (Peak Patarasaya) and her little Pomeranian. She's the only real student among them, studying fashion design, but is having problems of her own.

It's New Year's Eve, and Jack wants to throw a party. His usual dealer, a fellow Thai who lives downstairs, is getting out of the business. But, conveniently, the weed guy's source has a business card. It's been torn up, but Jack manages to piece most of it back together.

Just before the stroke of midnight, Jesus arrives. The deal is quickly done, but the dealer is one of those talkative guys who wants to linger. His animated manner of conversation quickly grows old and Jack tries to pay him and get him to leave. But Jesus has other plans, and he pulls out a Bible. This causes hesitation from the three Thais until he opens it up to reveal a hollowed-out space filled with specially treated marijuana joints.

Tripping out on Sherm, Jack brings out a nail gun he acquired earlier in the evening, and uses it for target practice. The proceedings then turn increasingly hellish, with the devilish Jesus cornering the three in their bathroom and making them confess their sins. Not even the dog is safe. Maybe Jesus really is Christ. He knows so much, including how to speak fluent Thai. That nail gun comes back into play, just because the symbolism is too obvious to ignore.

There are also allusions to a recent high-profile traffic-death case from the Thai press.

And there was a good place to end the movie on an atypical dark note, with a karmic lesson learned once and for all.

But in typical GTH fashion, the punch is pulled, the sun shines and an indie-rock soundtrack plays to make sure movie-goers leave with smiles on their faces.

Related posts:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book: Southeast Asian Independent Cinema

Tilman Baumgärtel, a German film and media studies professor who until recently was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, released a book this year, Southeast Asian Independent Cinema, published in Singapore by NUS Press.

Adding to slim selection of English-language books on the subject, it's a collection of scholarly essays and interviews with the region's notable indie film figures, including Thai directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Filipino indie godfather Lav Diaz as well as Brillante Mendoza, Singapore's Eric Khoo and the late Malaysian visionary Yasmin Ahmad.

Academics grind away on the very concept of Southeast Asian cinema – is a regional cinema even possible? John A. Lent asks the question: "Independent of what?" in pondering the meaning of "independent cinema". Natalie Böhler surveys Mingmonkol Sonakol's 2002 indie feature Isaan Special, as well as the early shorts of Apichatpong in "Fiction, Interrupted: Discontinuous Illusion and Regional Performance Traditions in Contemporary Thai Independent Film."

The interviews are snapshots in time.

Apichatpong is interviewed in 2009 in Munich where he was exhibiting his Primitive art installation. This was before he blew up big with a Cannes Palme d'Or win in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He covers his career up that point, from his days of learning to make 16mm films at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to have Syndromes and a Century censored in Thailand.

Pen-ek is interviewed as he was working on his 2009 forest thriller Nymph. This was before last year's Headshot went on to be one of his most-successful releases in a few years. In keeping with the book's theme, he ponders the term "independent".

"I am not really sure what independent means for a filmmaker, because you always have to depend on somebody." He goes on to talk about various times people have tried to hire him to direct an industry film. "There have been three or four attempts to do something like that, but it never worked out."

He also talks of his experiences making the pan-Asian productions Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves, which featured actors from other Asian countries and a multitude of backers from across East Asia.

"My way of working had to be compromised. You can say I had to step out of my comfort zone to work on both of those films. But nobody forced me to do that. I accepted both project and the liabilities, delightfully, as a challenge and an experiment. On one film, I did quite well, on another, not so well. But that's life."

Other fun parts of the book are the "Documents", mainly from filmmakers. Filipino director Khavn de la Cruz offers his "Four Manifestos". Here's a sample:

"In film, as in life, you make your own rules. You can shoot without a script or follow the words to the hilt. It's your film, it's your life."

Also: "Film is dead. Please omit flowers." Which Khavn uses to make his case for digital filmmaking, which has been wholly embraced by Filipino indie directors.

Baumgärtel includes his "devil's advocate" view in "The Downside of Digital", which according to him was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in September 2066 and "caused such an uproar ... that the newspaper felt obliged to print a number of statements by directors and producers," which are also included.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A bit of Thai flavor at the Asia Pacific Film Festival

The 55th edition of the Asia Pacific Film Festival, held December 13 to 16, was a glitzy, star-studded affair thanks to its venue, the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, and its organizers, which included its executive chairman, Hong Kong actor-producer Eric Tsang.

Big Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan were in attendance for the red carpet ceremony. And it was a Hong Kong film, Johnnie To's Life Without Principle, that came away the big winner.

The Asia Pacific fest, which bounces around to different cities and is not necessarily held every year, is primarily a function for industry figures to pat each other on the back.

In attendance for the shindig this year was the World Film Festival of Bangkok's Victor Silakong, who offered his view of the proceedings in an article in The Nation today.

The prizes were decided on by a jury of Hong Kong actress Carina Lau, Cannes Film Festival artistic director Christian Jeune, Chinese director Lu Chuan, Indonesian producer Mira Lesmana, Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr, Indian director Anubhav Sinha and Taiwanese director Su Chao Pin.

The films were selected by a committee of festival directors, critics and producers: Freddie Wong from Hong Kong, Lorna Tee from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Oh Jung-wan from South Korea, Kong Rithdee from Thailand, Indu Shrikent from India, Nashen Moodley from Australia, Shen Yang from China and Teruoka Sozo from Japan.

According to Victor, only one Thai film, M-Thirtynine's ghost-girlfriend thriller I Miss U, made it to the final nominations – for best editing by Nittipol Kositgnamdeewongse.

But there were also Thais up for awards in the technical categories for their work on films from other countries, thanks to Thailand's position as Asia's hub of post-production.

Traithep Wongpaiboon and Nopawat Likitwong from Kantana won the prize for best sound on Hong Kong's The Silent War.

Lensman Charin Pengpanitch was a nominee for best cinematography on the Malaysian underground-boxing drama Bunohan, which is set on the Thai border, and editor-soundman Sunit Asvinikul was a nominee for best sound on Malaysia's The Wedding Diary.

Here's the list of winners:

  • Best Film: Life without Principle, Hong Kong
  • Best Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda,  I Wish, Japan
  • Best Actress: Gwei Lun Mei, GF*BF, Taiwan
  • Best Actor: Eddie Garcia, Bwakaw, Philippines
  • Best Supporting Actress: Makiko Watanabe, Capturing Dad, Japan
  • Best Supporting Actor: Lo Hoi Pang, Life Without Principle, Hong Kong
  • Best Screenplay: Ahmad Reza Motomadi, Alzheimer’s, Iran
  • Best Cinematography: Jake Pollock, Starry Starry Night, Taiwan
  • Best Editing: Kwong Chi Leong and Wong Hoi, Cold War, Hong Kong
  • Best Music: Pritam Chakraborthy, Barfi, India
  • Best Art Director: Wasiq Khan, Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2, India
  • Best Sound: Traitep Wongpaiboon and Nopawat Likitwong, The Silent War, Hong Kong

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Super Salaryman (Yod Manut Nguen Duen)

  • Directed by Wirat Heng
  • Written by Wirat Heng, Thirawat Anuwatudom, Phongset Laksamiphong
  • Starring Jessadaporn Pholdee, Natchalai Sukkamongkol, Sakuntala Thianphairot, Settapong Piengpor, Jirapa Wongkosawan, Theeratorn Siriphunvaraporn
  • Released in Thai cinemas on December 5, 2012; rated 13+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5
From my own experience working in a Thai office, the quirky workplace practices of Thai cubicle drones are humorously and accurately depicted in Super Salaryman (ยอดมนุษย์เงินเดือน, Yod Manut Nguen Duen).

It's that Thai philosophy of sanook (fun) that pervades the country's corporate culture, in which socializing, snacking, surfing the web, taking smoke breaks – doing as little actual work as possible – is the rule. After all, there should be fun involved when outside the office, the generally low-paid workers face a life of torturous, hours-long commutes in crowded minivans.

In Super Salaryman, a comedy-drama from Work Point Entertainment and released by Sahamongkolfilm International, the employees of a beverage manufacturer must band together and push through a big project if they are to earn their coveted year-end bonus – the entire reason for being in the Thai corporate world.

"Tik" Jessadaporn Pholdee leads the ensemble cast. He's Pan, the hard-driving, no-nonsense company director, whose eye is always on the bottom line and looking toward a secure future.

But his orderly routine is disrupted by orders from the top. With just three months left before the end of the year, he and his team are tasked with coming up with a new drink brand or else he and his staff won't get their bonus.

Pan's tidy life is thrown into further disarray when he's assigned a new secretary Waai (new-face actress Natchalai Sukkamongkol), a daughter of a friend of the boss. She's a free-spirited, fun-loving aspiring artist. She doesn't even need to work, but has taken the job to gain experience. She is loved by her new co-workers, but her disorganized manner clashes at first with the uptight Pan.

The story bounces around as it focuses on a handful of other characters:

  • Nan (Sakuntala Thianphairot), a veteran female employee who has reached the glass ceiling in her current career. She'll have to leave the company if she wants to continue moving up. She pals around with a gaggle of other office gals, including a chubby woman who is always eating.
  • Jeu (Settapong Piengpor), a young trainee who, for the sake of his upcountry mother, is pretending to be a high-ranking junior executive. "Hold on mom, I've got go. My driver is here," he tells her on the phone. He then jumps onto the back of a motorcycle taxi.
  • Nuon (Jirapa Wongkosawan), the long-suffering secretary to the big boss Annan. She endures long van rides for her commute, and works late hours tending to her boss's every whim, from taking on more job assignments to making late-night deliveries of New Year's gift hampers to clients.
  • Chai (veteran actor-director Theeratorn Siriphunvaraporn), a senior manager who is obsessed with saving energy. He makes sure all the lights and computers are turned off and frets over the waste of copier paper. He also has his eye on the vacated job of human resources manager.

Super Salaryman starts off funny and full of energy. In its own way is a bit of a Thai version of Mike Judge's cult classic Office Space, with a quirky cast of sad-sack cubicle dwellers and passive-aggressive dickhead bosses. A one peculiarity that's highlighted is the Thai penchant for wearing plush-animal bedroom slippers around the office instead of your street shoes.

However, toward the end, the story veers into syrupy melodrama as Pan and his Bohemian rich-girl secretary form a friendship and learn things from each other.

Strong performances make it worth watching. Especially good are the supporting roles, particularly Theeratorn in a solid dramatic role as the penny-pinching energy miser, Jirapa on her long taxi and van commutes and Settapong as the trainee, who strikes up a stairwell-smoking friendship with an English speaking female office worker.

See also:

Jesus is a drug dealer in GTH's Countdown

GTH is perhaps best known for its feel-good romantic comedies and dramas, but the studio also has a reputation for its slick horror thrillers.

Nonetheless, GTH's release in Thai cinemas this week, Countdown
(เคาท์ดาวน์, Kaadao), is a departure of sorts, venturing into Rated 18+ territory with a dark tale involving Thai stoners.
Indie filmmaker Nattawat Poonpiriya makes his major-studio feature debut directing this remake of his 2010 short film about three young Thai hipsters who share an apartment in New York City. They want to have a rocking New Year's Eve party and call a drug dealer named Jesus to help out. However, the druggie Jesus has other ideas about how to have fun, and he makes the trio's night a living hell.

GTH regulars Pachara Chirathivat, Patarasaya Krueasuwansiri and Jarinporn Junkiet star.

There's an English-subtitled trailer. Check it out below.

Film Virus goes wild this weekend

The indie film group Film Virus is screening Thai independent experimental shorts this weekend in Film Virus: Wild Type 2012 at the Reading Room. The shows are on Saturday and Sunday, starting at 2pm. The full program is here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Three Marks of Existence journeys into Thai cinemas

Two movies were released in Thai cinemas this week. One's about an Average Joe on a life-changing adventure. The other is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Premiering earlier this year at the International Buddhist Film Festival Bangkok, indie director Gunparwitt Phuwadolwisid's spiritual road-trip romantic-comedy Three Marks of Existence is screening at Major Cineplex as Namaste India (นมัสเตอินเดีย ส่งเกรียนไปเรียนพุทธ, Namaste Song Krian Pai Rian Bhud).

The sometimes quirky and cartoony tale follows a young guy named M (Yossawat Sittiwong), a recent college graduate who is washing out at job interviews, has just been dumped by his girlfriend and doesn't know what to do with his life. So he decides to take a backpacking trip to the major Buddhist holy sites.

Along the way, he meets various characters who both challenge and guide him. Among them is an older Thai fellow whose reasons for meditating cause M to have questions. A female Japanese backpacker becomes quarry for M, but he finds himself in competition for her with another Thai guy. And a Thai monk poses more questions than he answers.

Check out the trailer, embedded below.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: 3 A.M. (Tee Sam 3D)

  • Directed by Patchanon Thammajira, Kirati Nakintanon, Isara Nadee
  • Starring Focus Jirakul, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Toni Rakkaen, Shahkrit Yamnarm, Ray MacDonald
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 22, 2012; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Following the ghosts-on-an-airplane drama Dark Flight 407 earlier this year, Five Star Production continues its trip into the third dimension of horror with 3 A.M. (ตีสาม 3D, Tee Sam 3D), which offers three short scary stories, all taking place during the wee hours when ghost powers are said to be the strongest.

While Dark Flight was a meandering, overlong journey, 3 A.M. is tighter, thanks to the short-film omnibus format. The strong performances by the cast, including many well-known stars, is another mark in the plus column for 3 A.M. The 3D effects are mostly gimmicky though, with shards of broken glass flying out of the screen, a string used to stitch up a corpse inviting you to grab hold or a bill spike from an office desk piercing through your forehead. When there weren't any gimmicks happening, I took my 3D glasses off, and didn't see much need for them.

Patchanon Thammajira, who previously did the baby-in-a-blender thriller Colic, directs the first segment, The Wig, which follows two sisters (Focus Jirakul and Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) in a haunted wig shop. Kirati Nakintanon, who earlier this year directed the romantic comedy First Kiss, switches to horror for The Corpse Bride, about a young medical student (Toni Rakkaen) who develops a creepy attachment to the corpses of a bride and groom. And former Ronin Team member Isara Nadee (Dark Flight) directs O.T., a workplace horror-comedy about a couple of bosses (Shahkrit Yamnarm and Ray MacDonald) who play elaborate pranks on their office workers.

Focus, who made her debut as a child actress in 2003's Fan Chan, leads The Wig. She's a kind soul who runs a shop where she specializes in making wigs for cancer patients. She lives in the shophouse with her bitchy older sister (Saipan Apinya). Things get creepy when a bundle of long hair that's been unceremoniously hacked off a vengeful corpse is delivered to the shop. Shelves full of dummy wig heads have an unsettling effect late in the evening when the older sister has brought back a couple friends from a night of drinking.

The scares turn kinky in The Corpse Bride, in which singer Toni Rakkaen is a medical student charged with looking after the corpses of a bride and groom who died under mysterious circumstances in their creaky old teakwood mansion. The bodies are dressed in their wedding outfits and laid out in coffins. The student is shown around the sprawling place by a stern nurse (go-to horror gal Watsana Chalakorn from The 8th Day), who warns the whippersnapper to not go into the couple's bedroom. But of course the kid scoffs at the warning, and barges right in to the bridal suite and makes himself at home on the bed. He then finds himself strangely attracted to the lovely bride, and removes her from the coffin for his own personal playtime. He then starts to have visions of what he thinks might have happened to the young woman. Meanwhile, the groom's coffin starts to shake and rattle. A tookay lizard crawling up the bride's dress also gets the audience squealing.

The proceedings turn comic in O.T., about office workers earning overtime by working after hours. They are scared out of their wits when chairs start moving around and computers turn on and off by themselves. It's only their bosses, Shahkrit Yamnarm and Ray MacDonald (almost unrecognizable in his off-kilter haircut), playing pranks on them. As the hour grows later, the office drones try to top their bosses with ever-more-elaborate hoaxes and scares. But soon, the horror turns very real. And the final look on Shahkrit's face is priceless.

Lensman Teerawat Rujintham, who's also been shooting rival studio Sahamongkol's first 3D production, Tom-Yum-Goong 2, has been brought aboard for some segments in 3 A.M.

Like Dark Flight, Five Star pre-sold distribution rights to 3 A.M. to many overseas territories, including Hong Kong, so you can likely expect to see the movie turn up on English-friendly DVD and Blu-ray at some point in the future.

See also:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cinemanila awards 36 and Sahamongkol

Awards were presented last night at the 14th annual Cinemanila International Film Festival, with Nawapol Thomrangrattanarit sharing the the best director prize in the international competition for 36 and Sahamongkol Film International being recognized for Outstanding Achievement to Asian Cinema.

Nawapol shared the best director prize with Mexico's Carlos Reygadas for his latest, Post Tenebras Lux.

Sahamongkol was paid tribute in a special program called Very Thai, featuring mostly films from the past year, ones that will likely gain further acclaim during next year's awards season in Thailand: Home by Chookiat Sakveerakul, Antapal (The Gangster) by Kongkiat Khomsiri, Jan Dara: The Beginning by ML Bhandevanop Devakula and Nonzee Nimibutr's Distortion.

Also part of the Sahamongkol tribute was Chookiat's now-classic gay teenage romance Love of Siam, for which Jan Dara the Beginning star Mario Maurer won best actor at Cinemanila in 2008. That was the start of idolhood for Mario in the Philippines, which was further cemented with Thai teenybopper romance Crazy Little Thing Called Love and led to Mario starring in a mainstream Filipino romance, Suddenly it's Magic.

Other winners at Cinemanila included Juvenile Offender by South Korea's Kang Yi-kwan with the Lino Brocka Grand Prize; If It’s Not Now, Then When? by Malaysia's James Lee with the Grand Jury Prize; Oula Hamadeh for best actress in Kayan, about the Middle-Eastern community in Vancouver, and Seo Young-joo for best actor in Juvenile Offender. Check the full list at the festival website.

The festival also paid tribute to Filipino film figures who died during the past year. Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who died of cancer in September, was honored with a retrospective and Celso Ad. Castillo, who died of heart attack this month, was honored with a screening of Burlesk Queen.

Producer Tony Veloria, who died in a bus accident this month, was paid tribute with a screening of Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side, which Veloria co-produced. Veloria was also behind actor-director Mario O’Hara’s telemovie Pusang Gala – lost footage that according to festival founder Tikoy Aguilez was recovered by Diaz from old cabinet owned by the late director Joey Gosiengfiao (1941-2007). O'Hara died in June of cancer.

Diaz's latest film, the 300-minute Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, was featured as part of the Made in Manila program. And there was Diaz's tribute to the late film critic Alexis Tioseco, Pagsisiyasat sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot (An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget).

Cinemanila wraps up on Tuesday, with 36 as the closing film. The fest was to have closed with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mekong Hotel, but that was unavailable due to the film's busy print-trafficking schedule, and the festival's own changing schedule.

36, meanwhile, is headed to the Tiger Awards at next year's International Film Festival Rotterdam. It's also in the World Cinema lineup at the International Film Festival of Kerala. And the film's New Currents win at the Busan International Film Festival is recalled by Nawapol in a recent photo essay at Cinemas of Asia, the NETPAC online journal.

(Via Panu Aree's Facebook)

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)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Luang Prabang Film Festival 2012: Capsule reviews part 2

Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak (Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire)

Niggling technical problems continued to plague the Luang Prabang Film Festival. On Sunday, Day 2, in its daytime screening venue, the Amantaka Hotel, the DVD failed for Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire. It was dodgy at the beginning, but continued to play, but by the end, everything seized up. It was the only DVD provided. What I did see was a highly enjoyable throwback to the Hong Kong horror-comedies of the 1980s. More contemporary eyes might see it being influenced by Shawn of the Dead, especially because of its videogame-playing protagonist Bob (Zahiril Adzim) and his afro-haired slacker roommate Pian (Sufian Mohamed). There's a colorful, episodic romance aspect to this that made me think for some reason about Wisit Sasanatiang's Citizen Dog. Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire is a commercial Malay comedy by James Lee, the Malaysian filmmaker who gained traction on the festival circuit with his slow arty movies like My Beautiful Washing Machine. He's making slick commercial movies like this now though. He earlier made the girls-boarding-school horror Hysteria, but I liked Help! better, thanks to its wacky cast of characters, including he sad-sack Bob, who works at an advertising agency run by two horrible bosses. After a breakup with a stuck-up girlfriend who falls for a biker dude, he and his roommate move to a rundown apartment block. Bob becomes close to a young woman who is actually a vampire. Actually, she's a pontianak, a Malaysian version of a vampire, a female ghost who appears to be a beautiful woman until she pulls a pin from her hair and turns into a fanged monster. Decent makeup and wirework make the vampires jump. Anyway, at some point, I hope to see this movie again, on a DVD or file that actually works. (5/5)

Already Famous

Actress Michelle Chong makes her directorial debut starring in this sunny comedy about a starry-eyed small-town Malaysian girl who goes to Singapore with dreams of being a TV actor. Working in a shop selling televisions, Ah Kiao thinks she can make it big like another native Malaysian, Singapore superstar Christopher Lee. Encouraged by her grandmother, she makes her way to Singapore and works her way up, starting with a job hawking beauty products in a drugstore while she tries to get on at modelling agencies around the city. Eventually, she is picked up by an extras casting agency, which leads to her big break witha bit part in a soap opera. In her spare time, she keeps her eyes glued to the television in a local coffee shop, where she develops friendship with the young man who runs  the place (Alien Huang). Other colorful characters include Ah Kiao's gambling-addicted mother, her pirate-DVD salesman brother and a cohort extra actress who specializes in acting like she's been hit by an explosion. As her fortunes rise, Ah Kiao begins to have misgivings that fame might change her. Singapore's entry to the the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is filled with cameos by local celebrities, which makes it an ideal primer if you're looking to get hooked on Singaporean television. (4/5)


Laos' first horror film is also the first Lao feature by a female director. Mattie Do's Chanthaly is about a young woman (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) with a congenital heart defect who's been raised by her overprotective widowed father. The willowy girl has hardly ever left the confines of her gated home. Aside from her father and a female cousin who delivers laundry for Chanthaly to wash and fold for her home-based business, her only contact with the outside world is a neighbor boy. They speak through the fence by a spirit house whenever Chanthaly offers prayers to the shrine. And her father barely tolerates that little bit of interaction. She is haunted by the past, and may have witnessed her mother's suicide attempt. However, her father swears that her mother died in childbirth. The pills Chanthaly takes to keep her heart condition in check may be causing hallucinations, and she believes she is seeing a ghost (Phenmaly Pholsena), and it might be her mother. Later, her father brings a young doctor home, not only to treat her but as a possible suitor. Chanthaly is suspicious of him at first, and demands to know where he was educated – schooled in Paris, he assures her. The helpful doc wants to switch Chanthaly's meds, but doing so will mean the visions she's having of her mother will disappear. Eventually, Chanthaly's disposition grows stronger, and the meek girl is transformed into a headstrong young woman who is determined at all costs to keep the visions of her mother coming. As her character develops, the movie gradually shifts gears to horror, with ghosts in white dresses inhabiting a parallel realm of the house where it's daylight all the time. Gore aspects are kept to a minimum, except for a puddle of blood on the floor. For the most part, the film is quiet and slow-moving, with a minimalist soundtrack – the scares aren't tied to shrieking violins or sound effects, and yet it still managed to have members of the audience screaming. The film also prominently features Mango, the pet dog of the director and screenwriter Christopher Larsen. Possibly the mellowest dog ever in cinema, Mango is the namesake of the film's production company, Sleepy Whippet. Chanthaly was supposed to be the opening film of the third Luang Prabang Film Festival, however a problem with the digital file prevented that from happening and caused embarrassment for the festival organizers in front of various dignitaries. Luckily, another Lao film in the program, Huk Aum Lum, was pulled at the last minute because of a conflict with a distributor, so a later spot was opened for Chanthaly. What was screened on Monday night was a work print, so perhaps the film's slow pace will pick up speed in the final cut. (4/5)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Luang Prabang Film Festival 2012: Capsule reviews and notes, part 1

Sherman Ong, Ananda Everingham and Kong Rithdee take part in the panel talk on  Cross-Border Filmmaking.

After introductions, speeches by government officials and a gong-ringing ceremony, the third Luang Prabang Film Festival got off to a rocky start on Saturday night. It was supposed to open with Chanthaly, billed as the first Lao horror film. However, a problem with the digital file prevented the movie from being shown. So the next entry in the program, Thailand's Cheer Ambassadors became the de facto opening film.

A work print of director Mattie Do's Chanthaly was completed in time for a premiered on Monday night for the outdoor screening in Luang Prabang's Handicraft Market. A capsule review of that will be forthcoming.

Among the dignitaries introduced during Saturday's opening festivities was actor Ananda Everingham. He also took part in the "Cross-border Filmmaking" panel discussion on Sunday, along with Malaysian-Singaporean filmmaker Sherman Ong, Bangkok Post film critic and filmmaker Kong Rithdee, Cheer Ambassadors director Luke Cassady-Dorion and Hollywood producer Nicholas Simon.

Much of the talk naturally gravitated toward Thai-Lao co-productions, and Ananda talked of making Sabaidee Luang Prabang, the first of a string of cross-border romances by Thai director Sakchai Deenan. The Lao-Australian actor attached his name as producer on Sabaidee, gaining valuable experience. "To be honest, we spent too much on it," he said, and it's a mistake he's hoping not to repeat as he embarks on producing more projects. He's recently connected with Lao filmmaker Anysay Keola, having been duly impressed by Anysay's first feature, the thriller At the Horizon, and the two are looking develop another project, one that might indeed cross borders.

Kong Rithdee revealed that with the coming Asean Economic Community scheme in 2015, the Southeast Asian trade and diplomatic bloc is looking to start an Asean film fund – Asean just needs filmmakers to submit a proposal on how such a initiative might work.

Problems with cross-border productions include language and cultural differences.

Ananda spoke of his disappointment with the Thai dubbing of The Coffin, the Pan-Asian horror drama he starred in along with Hong Kong superstar Karen Mok. "It ruined the film," he said.

Language issues are easier to overcome when two countries share similar languages, like Thailand and Laos or Singapore and Malaysia.

Cultural differences and censorship, especially in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, were brought up as obstacles. However producer Simon said dealing with censors is much easier than dealing with the demands of investors and studio executives. "At least with the censors, you know what the rules are."


Benito Bautista directs this hard-boiled crime thriller about a taxi driver who takes a mysterious passenger. But just who is taking who for a ride? The motivations of the two men remains unclear throughout much of the picture. Prolific actor Ronnie Lazaro stars as the taxi driver Lemuel. His face is full of weariness, weighed down by dread and shame. His slick ponytailed passenger (Raymond Bagatsing) is a friendly enough chap, but there's an underlying threat and hidden meanings in every word. The title refers to the quota the taxi driver must make each day, and Lazaro's character isn't making enough. Eventually, the driver and the passenger have a run-in with a gang of glue-sniffing thugs, who commandeer the taxi, and soon it becomes clear what Lemuel's deal is. The short-tempered glue huffers bring a bit of comedy to the otherwise tense proceedings. One guy lets a fart and stinks up the cab. And then there's an ordeal to fetch cash from an ATM, and you can't help but laugh at the result. But no one is laughing at the end, with the ultimate fate of the taxi driver left unclear. (5/5)

Bounthanh: Lost in the City

Sabaidee Luang Prabang director Sakchai Deenan offers Laos' answer to Thailand's long-running Boonchu comedy film series, about a daffy college student and the humorous adventures he has with his zany group of friends. Like Boonchu, Bounthanh is from a farming village. He's too poor to attend the university, but is considered a bright enough boy that the local Buddhist temple's abbot gets up a support fund to send him to college to study forestry. He's given a hen – for eggs, not for meat – to take with him. So the country boy arrives in the big city of Vientiane with his chicken in a cardboard box tied with plastic twine. He's such a hick, he doesn't realize he has to pay the tuk-tuk driver, no matter that the driver is from his home village. His influential "uncle" is not the university president as everyone back home was led to believe, but the janitor. And Kamla, the girl from his hometown, who was supposedly his best friend, doesn't remember him at all. She's part of a group of snooty girls, and perhaps her affiliation with these hi-so drama queens has completely changed her. Bounthanh's efforts to reconnect with Kamla are hampered by a trio of goofball classmates. They befriend Bounthanh with the intention of conning him into paying their house rent. Later, the four boys get up to all kinds in shenanigans to try and impress the ladies, such as comically dressing up as Korean pop stars. They also have an encounter with a "ghost", which is a bit controversial because depictions of supernatural beliefs are generally frowned upon by Lao censors. In all, it's cute but squeaky-clean fun, totally in keeping with traditionally modest and polite Lao culture. (3/5)

The governor of Luang Prabang bangs the gong to open the third Luang Prabang Film Festival.