Wednesday, December 10, 2014

LPFF 2014 review: Vientiane in Love

Longing for Love

  • Directed by Anysay Keola, Phanumad Disattha, Vannaphone Sitthirath, Xaisongkham Induangchanthy
  • World premiere at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, December 6, 2014
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

There's a feeling of urgency or maybe even impatience when it comes to the burgeoning Lao film industry. In the decades since the Vietnam War era, filmmaking in the Lao People's Democratic Republic was strictly for propaganda efforts under the purview of the government, but it was chronically hampered by a shortage of funding, resources and properly trained professionals.

The digital photography age has changed all that. And after decades of being pent up, commercial filmmaking in Laos is beginning. Showing an eagerness to get to work and tell their stories, the directors involved with the collective called Lao New Wave Cinema have put together the five-segment omnibus Vientiane in Love (ຮັກນີ້ທີ່ວຽງຈັນ), telling short stories about romance and relationships in Laos' capital city.

For the world premiere at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the package was led with Longing for Love (Kid Hod Kuam Hak), written and directed by Anysay Keola, a founding LNWC member who made his debut with the thriller At the Horizon.

Here, Anysay shows his knack for broad comedy and the conventions of Asian rom-coms – slide-whistle sound effects, bloody noses and all – with an amusing story of a photographer who earns his living taking pictures of couples at the city's Patuxai arch monument. One day a single young woman asks Mon to take her photo and as she comes into focus, she starts crying and says she's just out of a bad relationship. The two strike up a friendship, but the comically homely Mon has fallen hopelessly in love and thinks he has a chance for something more with the pretty red-haired girl.

Next up was I'm Fine, Thank You (Kob Jai), written and directed by Phanumad Disattha, director of LNWC's sophomore feature, the country comedy Hak Aum Lum. Just as Anysay switched gears from thriller to comedy, Phanumad goes for impressionistic drama in a story about the reunion of a rock musician (Deuk, the former guitarist of the popular band Cell) with his ex-girlfriend. They had an ugly break-up, as shown in flashback scenes, but are on friendly terms as they stroll the streets of Vientiane by night. It's a glimpse of an increasingly cosmopolitan city and its hip clubs and a reminder that I am long overdue for a visit. Skateboarders and BMX bikers cavort behind the handsome couple – he with his augered earlobes, hipster goatee, skinny jeans and Bob Marley T-shirt, and she with her high-waisted slacks, crop top and glamorous updo.

The proceedings turn dark with The Truth (Kam Tob), a neo-noir thriller that I thought for sure was directed by At the Horizon's Anysay. But, nope, it's written and directed by newcomer Vannaphone Sitthirath. The shadow-filled tale follows a businesswoman who suspects her husband is having an affair, and she sets up a situation so she can confront the girl.

I'm Fine, Thank You

Social networking enters the fray with the intriguing Update Status (Juud Lerm Ton) by Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, in which two boys sitting a coffee shop spot a schoolgirl at a table with a middle-aged American man. They post about the sighting on Facebook, and soon the girl's reputation is in tatters. Meanwhile, the girl has spotted the boys and catches one of them flexing his biceps for his friend, and she posts potentially damaging comments about him. And there's that weird expat guy, who is yammering on and on about the government, channeling Noam Chomsky as he warns of the impending "idiocracy".

Xaisongkham, also a newcomer, is one of two recipients of this year's edition of the Luang Prabang Film Festival's Lao Filmmakers Fund, which dispensed $15,000. He's working on a drama, Those Below, which addresses the deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance left by the American carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam-era "Secret War". A crowd-funding campaign was also held to boost the film's budget. The other recipient of the Lao Filmmakers Fund is Vilayphong Phongsavanh, whose at work on a short documentary on the trendy sport of freerunning, which he aims to capture using a flying drone camera.

Finally, there's a fifth segment, Against the Tide (Kuam Sook Kong Por), written by Xaisongkham and directed by Anysay and Phanumad. The story involves an elderly fisherman who is compelled to leave his Mekong River island home and move in with his daughter and son-in-law in the city. It's a segment that doesn't seem to fit with the others, and could be titled "Vientiane, I Hate You", because the old man can't stand living in the city and he feels trapped in his daughter's fancy modern home.

Of the five segments, I liked Anysay's comical Longing for Love the best, followed by The Truth. I had a hard time following I'm Fine, but Lao viewers will probably dig it for its rock-star leading man. And Update Status is as I said, intriguing, for its look at the spread of social media in the Socialist country. Against the Tide feels like another movie entirely, but is anchored by a strong performance by its lead character.

According to Anysay, plans are to release Vientiane in Love in Laos' cinema around Valentine's Day, perhaps with the order of the segments swapped in order to give viewers some more upbeat in the end.
The Truth

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