Monday, January 7, 2013

Top 10 Thai films of 2012

Kongdej Jaturanrasamee and Aphichai Trakulkraiphadejgrai on the set of P-047.

This past year seemed longer than usual, thanks to the floods of 2011, which pushed films and events into 2012 and packed the calendar with plenty to see.

The Thai film industry suffered a bit though, with only one Thai studio movie reaching the benchmark 100-million-baht threshold. That was the GTH workplace comedy, ATM Er Rak Error, which had actually been scheduled for release in 2011 but was postponed because of the floods. According to The Nation's year-end roundup, the second-place earner was GTH's Seven Something, which posted around 70 million in earnings.

Other industry films fared worse. Sahamongkolfilm International's major tentpole release Jan Dara: The Beginning, had box-office takings of just 40.4 million baht, despite the promise of uncensored nudity and sex scenes. The studio still has a chance to earn a bit more on the project with part two of the saga due out next month.

Independent films did a better job of landing bums in the seats, attracting capacity crowds to limited-release screenings.

After running just a Top 5 for 2011, I return to the Top 10 format for my 2012 roundup.

1. P-047

Writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasamee’s movies have always been oddball affairs, even when he’s been restrained by the conservative studio system. For P-047 (Tae Peang Phu Deaw, แต่เพียงผู้เดียว), his first release with indie producer Soros Sukhum, the veteran helmer spun a surreal tale that mused on the concepts of identity and possession. The film seemingly came out of nowhere, being selected at the last minute for last year’s Venice Film Festival. It made its Thai premiere at the ninth World Film Festival of Bangkok in January, and had sold-out screenings in a limited run in Bangkok and around Thailand later in the year. Fans of indie musician Aphichai Trakulkraiphadejgrai packed in to seem him portray a taciturn locksmith who helps an aspiring writer (Parinya Kwamwongwan) break into apartments while the tenants are away. The pair hang out and “borrow” the lives of others. But the story takes an unpredictable turn after they pry too far into one apartment owner's life, prompting the man to return home earlier than expected.

2. Antapal

Another colorful and stylish entry in director Kongkiat Komesiri's canon of Scorsese-like retro-crime sagas following Muay Thai Chaiya and Slice, Antapal, a.k.a. Gangster, is about young gangsters in 1950s and '60s Bangkok. It's another take on the story of greasy-haired James Dean-obsessed hoodlums that was previously covered in Nonzee Nimibutr's 1997 debut Dang Bireley's and Young Gangsters. Kongkiat sweared it wasn't a remake or a sequel even though it had a gangster named Dang and dealt with the same crew of real-life hoodlums as Nonzee's film did. The focus of the gritty and violent Antapal was on Dang's No. 2, Jod, played with the usual quiet intensity of Krissada Sukosol Clapp. Humorous documentary-style asides by purported old-timers remembering the old days add to the fun. One codger recalls when fighting gangsters would hold a rope in one hand and slash at each other with a knife in the other. "I don't know why they did that," he says. But probably it was because it looked cool. After Dang is unceremoniously sidelined, Jod rises to the top. He's an old-school gangster, but isn't against shaking up the game, and proves it when he trades in his knife for a gun. A crab claw also comes in handy. But there are even younger gangsters who are challenging Jod's leadership, and when the military dictatorship arises to crack down on the gangsters, Jod finds himself caught in the middle with no escape. The only way is to come out with machine guns blazing.

3. 36

After self-releasing his debut feature to sold-out shows in Thailand, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit hit the road with 36, sharing the New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival, where the jury led by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr hailed it as a new form of cinematic language. Nawapol, whose varied career includes curating indie film screenings, making award-winning shorts and writing acclaimed mainstream studio screenplays, takes a uniquely spare and fragmented approach that reflects the story of a film-company location scout (Vajrasthira Koramit) who gets into a relationship with an art director (Tee-Rak's 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 story is told in 36 static camera set-ups, with each scene preceded by a numbered title card. It's making its away around to other festivals now, sharing the best director prize at last month's Cinemanila. Later this month, it'll be competing in the Tiger Awards in Rotterdam.

4. Echo Planet

Kantana Animation's Kompin Kemkumnird, who made the first Thai computer-animated feature, 2006's Khan Kluay, innovated further with Echo Planet, the first Thai computer-animated 3D movie. It was ambitious, aiming for a broader appeal with its mix of Thai traditional and Western cultures in a story that carries a strong environmental message. The adventure tale comes as heat-loving little monsters are invading our gadgets, turning them against us and causing environmental havoc. To combat this scenario, the Boy Scout son of the president of "Capital State" teams up with a Karen hilltribe boy who can talk to plants and animals and the Karen boy's tough older sister who wears the traditional neck rings. They travel from the Thai highland jungles to "Capital State" to stop a plan that will mean even more environmental destruction. I thought it was an entertaining and handsomely rendered tale. Blame for the environmental problems is laid on the modern, materialistic, gadget-obsessed culture, which was apparently a turn-off for the majority of Thai movie-goers. They stayed away from Echo Planet in droves. Further, there's an anti-American message, even if the trouble-making country is called "Capital State", so that might limit Echo Planet's international appeal. Still, I thought Echo Planet was the better of the two Thai animated features released this year. The other was Work Point Entertainment's Yak: The Giant King, which seemed derivative of other tales, like Robots, Wall-E and The Iron Giant. Nonetheless, Yak had its own innovations by having two versions released in Thai cinemas – the Thai soundtrack and an English version.

5. Countdown

Following the workplace romantic comedy ATM Er Rak Error and the seventh-anniversary love poem to itself, Seven Something, GTH chipped in at the end of the year with the somewhat atypical psychological thriller Countdown (เคาท์ดาวน์). Bordering on torture porn, it's the story of three young Thais living in New York City who are terrorized in their apartment by a drug dealer named Jesus. Nattawat Poonpiriya directed, making his big-studio debut with a remake of his 2010 short film. GTH regulars Pachara Chirathivat (SuckSeed, The Billionaire), Patarasaya Krueasuwansiri (The Last Moment, Cool Gel Attacks) and Jarinporn Junkiet (Dear Galileo) are the three Thai hipsters with David Asavanond (Tom-Yum-Goong) reprising his role as the off-the-hook Jesus. Claustrophobic thrills ensue as the three youngsters party hard with their dope-smoking savior who later becomes their interrogator and gets them to confess to a multitude of sins. Nails and the Bible add to the symbolism in what is ultimately a tale of redemption (and resurrection) for the Thai trio.

6. 3 A.M. (Tee Sam 3D)

The Thai film industry finally entered the modern 3D age in 2012. In addition to Echo Planet being the first 3D animated feature, in March, there was the long-delayed Mae Nak 3D, the first Thai live-action fictional 3D feature. "Tak" Bongkot Kongmalai starred as the stretchy-armed ghost wife. Apparently, the 3D effects were added in post-production, which took years to accomplish. But it was still pretty awful. That same month, Five Star Production came out with Dark Flight 407, touted as the first Thai film actually shot in stereoscopic 3D. The haunted airliner tale had some decent, if cheesy, effects, but the story meandered too much as the passengers and crew ran around and screamed aboard a way-too-spacious Boeing 737 that was also strangely empty. The same team from Five Star followed that up in November with the comparatively better 3 A.M. (ตีสาม 3D, Tee Sam 3D). The 3D scares were still gimmicky, but in falling back to the tried-and-true horror omnibus format – three ghost stories that occur at 3am, when ghost powers are the strongest – the storytelling was tighter and more enjoyable. Strong performances by a cast of well-knowns, including Focus Jirakul, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Shahkrit Yamnarm and Ray MacDonald – added to the fun. It turned out to be one of the better horror-omnibus releases in Thai cinemas last year, the others being the also-fun 9-9-81 and Yuthlert Sippapak's found-footage assembly Heaven and Hell.

7. In April the Following Year, There was a Fire

It seemed like it took forever for the indie film with a really long title to make its way into Bangkok cinemas after numerous film-festival appearances and special screenings following its premiere at the beginning of the year in Rotterdam. The debut feature by Wichanon Sumumjarn, maker of Four Boys, White Whiskey and Grilled Mouse, In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (สิ้นเมษาฝนตกมาปรอยปรอย, Sin Maysar Fon Tok Ma Proi Proi), takes a laid-back stream-of-consciousness approach as it recalls the filmmaker's own life. It starts off as a fictional feature about a construction foreman thrown out of work in Bangkok. He returns to his Khon Kaen hometown, where he reconnects with old friends and crashes on his father's sofa. Midway through, it becomes a documentary, with the filmmaker's actual father and brother interviewed, revealing a sometimes traumatic life in which, indeed, one April, the following year, there was a fire, as well as a jellyfish attack, the scars of which are still sensitive.

8. The Cheer Ambassadors

Here's another well-traveled Thai indie movie that hit the festival circuit this year. Directed by Luke Cassady-Dorian, The Cheer Ambassadors also premiered at the postponed ninth edition of the World Film Festival of Bangkok last January and screened at several other events, including last March's SalayaDoc fest. It's about an underdog squad of Thai cheerleaders who beat the odds to win world championships. The version that screened at the Luang Prabang Film Festival boasted retooled animation sequences and new remastering by the filmmakers in their quest to secure a commercial release in Thailand. I've seen it a couple times now. Although it's the type of uplifting, inspirational story I usually run screaming from, the relentless enthusiasm of The Cheer Ambassadors wore me down and made me a fan.

9. It Gets Better

Last year was the year of Penpak Sirikul, a veteran model and actress who came to prominence in the 1980s. At age 50, she's well past the age of most Thai leading ladies, but thanks to her well-preserved good looks and strong talent, she remains a favorite of indie directors. She starred in two high-profile features, both of them examining sexuality issues, the transgender drama It Gets Better and the lesbian romance She. The better of the two was It Gets Better, in which Penpak entertainingly portrayed an ageing ladyboy on vacation in a small town in northern Thailand. Directed by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, It Gets Better was a slicker, far-more-commercial followup to her banned Insects in the Backyard. Penpak was featured in one of three intertwining storylines, which deal with transgender issues across three generations. Another deals with a novice monk and his sexuality issues and a young man who returns to Thailand to discover the secret of his estranged late father and the ladyboy cabaret he owned. In a bit of synergy with another Thai film released this year, some of the male cheerleaders from The Cheer Ambassadors appear in drag and high heels as members of the acrobatic cabaret troupe. They had been picked from an act they did on the TV show "Thailand's Got Talent", as did transgender singer Bell Nunthida, who also stars in the film.

10. I Carried You Home

The journey that Tongpong Chantararangkul's debut feature made to get into Bangkok cinemas was almost as languorous as the road trip the main characters took in the movie. I Carried You Home (Padang Besar, ปาดังเบซา) follows a pair of estranged sisters (Akhamsiri Suwanasuk and Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) as they accompany their dead mother’s body on a long, slow ambulance journey from Bangkok to their southern border hometown. The more I've thought about it over the past year, the more the movie has grown on me, for underneath the slowness that is typical of many Southeast Asian indie films, there's also a quirkiness and bizarre, dark sense of humor. The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival and was scheduled to open that November's ninth World Film Festival of Bangkok. But then the WFFBKK was postponed by the floods until last January. Along the way, I Carried You Home made festival stops that included Marrakesh, Vancouver, Rotterdam, Tokyo and Deauville, France. It also screened at last month's Luang Prabang Film Festival. This past September, it secured a limited release in Bangkok at the Lido cinemas in Siam Square and at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.

3 comments:

  1. just a suggestion.... 99% of the people reading this really don't care about the film's director and how they came about making the film, they just want to know what is the film about to decide if they should watch it or not.
    For instance, in your #1, you went on and on but didnt even say what the film was about until the next to last sentence.

    ReplyDelete
  2. yah thats true....we just wanna know about the synopsis and the casts... :D

    ReplyDelete
  3. that's way we should watch those films. after that we need to know who is the director from the best film that we already watched. :)

    ReplyDelete

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