Wednesday, December 11, 2013

LPFF 2013 reviews: Grean Fictions, What's So Special About Rina?, Huk Aum Lum

Grean Fictions (เกรียนฟิคชั่น) – I somehow missed Grean Fictions when it was in Thai cinemas back in April. But I think it was probably better seen on the big outdoor screen in Luang Prabang than in some random cookie-cutter Bangkok mall multiplex.

The latest opus from Love of Siam director Chookiat Sakveerakul, Grean Fictions (the title is probably best translated as "punk fiction") is the sprawling, shaggy-dog tale of Chiang Mai schoolboys who upload their prank-filled phone-cam video clips to YouTube. But with a 133-minute running time that covers three years, there is much, much more to the story than that, with the focus on Chookiat's frequent touchstones of friendship, family ties and belonging. It was marketed as a teen comedy, but isn't.

The story centers on Tee and his crush on the school's prettiest, most virtuous girl, Ploydao, a diva in the drama club. A conflict between them develops when they act in one production. Later, Tee is betrayed, and feels angry. His home life is dysfunctional, and he runs away, falling asleep on the train and ending up in Pattaya with no money and no phone. He is taken under the wing of Mone, a biker dude with dyed blond hair. He brings Tee to dance with him in a Pattaya male strip club. Later, they join a comedy troupe. As the months pass, Tee's friends from school wonder what has happened to him.

The cast is particularly strong, with Pattadon "Fiat" Jan-ngern making an endearing screen debut as Tee and Kittisak "Jack" Patomburana as Mone. Wanida "Gybzy" Termthanaporn and her cut-off jeans shorts are lovingly captured. She's the wonderfully conflicted character Tip whose role in the film is hard to describe without ruining it for you. And Boriboon Chanreuang is a fun as the boys' goofball teacher who runs the film club. He has a thing for Tip that never really goes anywhere. Also, keep your eyes out for a barely recognizable Love of Siam star Witwisit Hiranyawongkul in a scene-stealing unbilled turn as a Pattaya gangster.

Thanks to the kids being in the drama club, there are many musical sequences, with the multi-talented Chookiat and his Studio Commuan team again showing off their songwriting abilities. They include Snow White and the Huntsman: The Musical. Given the popularity of Thai musical theater in Bangkok, perhaps Chookiat ought to consider making it for real. (4/5)

What's So Special About Rina? (Ada Apa Dengan Rina) – Brunei, an oil-rich Muslim-majority sultanate on the island of Borneo, is little known to folks in the film circle because very few films have been made there. What's So Special About Rina? should change that.  Directed by Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani and produced by Harlif's wife Nurain Abdullah (she's actually Thai, originally hailing from Khon Kaen), What's So Special About Rina? firmly puts Brunei on the filmmaking map, allowing the Luang Prabang Film Festival to have a historic first with entries from all 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It's the first feature film from Brunei since 1968 and the very first in the native Brunei Malay dialect.

Another thing that most folks probably don't know about Brunei is that Bruneians can be funny, and What's So Special About Rina? is flat-out hilarious. The stylish romance comedy centers on a sad-sack advertising man named Hakim (Syukri Mahari) and his ladies-man roommate Faisal (an irrepressible Tauffek Ilyas). Hitting 30, the pressure is on Hakim to finally get married. Man-on-the-street interviews (okay, there are nice Muslim ladies as well) affirm what everyone in Brunei society thinks. "Oh, you're 30? When are you going to get a nice girl and settle down", etc., etc.

Shaven-headed smoothie Faisal, ever the player, somehow convinces Hakim that he is destined to marry a woman named Rina. And wouldn't you know it, the next day, a new marketing manager joins the firm. Her name? It's Rina (Dayangku Moniri Pengiran Mohiddin), of course. The pair do end up working closely together, and it seems Hakim's destiny will come true.

Meanwhile Faisal falls for a pretty waitress named Trini but must compete for her affections with a rotund Elvis impersonator. This leads to the two men competing on a TV talent show that's a showcase for Faisal's talent as a dangdut singer. That's the popular Indian-flavored Indonesian music genre that gets toes tapping.

Reflective moments lead to many fantasy asides, and at times it's hard to tell fantasy from reality. There are also animated flourishes, such as Rina blowing cartoon flowers. Another scene has a guy's eyes popping out of a pair of binoculars, Tex Avery style.

Harliff Haji Mohamad says his biggest influence was perhaps the Farrelly Brothers' comedy There's Something About Mary, and the riotous humor is much the same, though obviously without all the gross-out stuff. He and his wife run Regal Blue Production and have been working in television for more than 10 years. Having tackled their first feature film, and made fans with an easygoing comedy, they next plan to to do drama. And they say other filmmakers in Brunei have been encouraged by the success of Rina, which had sell-out runs in local cinemas and won an award at an Asean film fest earlier this year. (4/5)

Huk Aum Lum – Commercial filmmaking has only recently emerged in Laos, and the results have been hit and miss with mostly misses. But one outfit that has demonstrated its reliability to produce quality work is the young folks behind Lao New Wave Cinema.

The enjoyable country comedy Huk Aum Lum is their second feature. It follows Anysay Keola's At the Horizon, the first Lao thriller.

Directed by Phanumad Disattha (Anysay is still behind the scenes, taking a credit as editor), Huk Aum Lum follows the exploits of a famous singer (Athisak "Sacky" Ratanawong) when he returns to his rural home village and tries to woo back his old girlfriend (Phailinda Philavan). It's the kind of hayseed humor that Lao people have been laughing at for years, only they were all Thai films from the likes of Isaan comedians Mum Jokmok and Thep Pho-ngam. With Huk AUm Lum, everything clicks into place, with polished production values.

Huk Aum Lum has proven be a great experiment for Lao New Wave Cinema. After its run in Laos' one or two working cinemas, they tried a number of distribution platforms. It's been a huge challenge because Laos has no official film distribution channels – the only way to buy film DVDs is from pirate dealers. They released a low-cost DVD in a plastic sleeve just like the pirated discs, but vendors balked because the price was slightly higher than pirated movies. So they had to put it in a plastic DVD box. There's also a special edition DVD, with various extras. They even did a Vimeo on Demand release, hoping to capture the overseas Laos market, but it fared poorly. Turns out the older Lao overseas folk are more used to old-fashioned soap operas, and younger Laotian expats have been so thoroughly Westernized they weren't buying either. Huk Aum Lum was also released in Thailand, but wasn't heavily marketed, so it didn't do as well as they expected. (3/5)

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