As the military strongmen took over and began to map out the country’s future, independent Thai filmmakers soldiered on in 2014 with more of their unique stories, told in a string of documentaries and dramas. And the mainstream film studios offered their own distractions, with a handful of gems among the usual crop of cross-dressing comedies, horror and weepy melodramas. Here are the 10 Thai films I most enjoyed over the past year.
The Songs of Rice (เพลงของข้าว, Pleng Kong Kao)
What’s it about? The colorfully festive rites that accompany rice cultivation across the length and breadth of Thailand are surveyed in this documentary that screened on the festival circuit last year. I saw it twice, and it blew me away both times. In Thailand, it comes to SF cinemas on January 22.
Who directed it? Uruphong Raksasad, completing his trilogy of rural films that began in 2006 with The Songs of the North and was followed by Agrarian Utopia in 2011.
Why’s it good? A genius lensman, Uruphong continues to demonstrate his knack for astonishing viewers with amazing photography. His eye-popping images are coupled with expert editing and sound design, so the blasts of those rockets in Yasothon or the thwacks of a whip on a racing buffalo in Chon Buri are all the more vivid.
Village of Hope (วังพิกุล, Wangphikul)
What’s it about? A young man on leave from the military returns to his poor farming village and feels uneasy as he gets reacquainted with his elderly relatives and the slow pace of life.
Who directed it? Boonsong Nakphoo, an indie director who specialises in hardscrabble stories, filmed with members of his own family around his hometown of Wangphikul in Sukhothai province. Village of Hope is a sequel to his 2011 effort Poor People the Great.
Why's it good? Somboon’s films are unpretentious and compelling portraits of folks who have been surpassed by society and are out of step with the increasingly urbanized, digitized, plastic-coated modern Thailand.
What’s it about? During the 1997 financial crisis, a New York currency trader (played by Ananda Everingham) returns home to Bangkok to settle affairs after the suicide of his father. While trying to bond with his younger brother (newcomer Prawith Hansten), he also seeks to rekindle romance with an ex-girlfriend (Jansuda Parnto), a former actress having mixed success as a businesswoman. And the brother strikes up a relationship with a lonely neighbor girl (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk).
Who directed it? Lee Chatametikool, making his long-awaited feature directorial debut after having helped shape Thai indie cinema as an influential film editor for the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong.
Why's it good? A fantastic cast, eye-popping visuals and cool ’90s music lift Concrete Clouds, which captures the anxiety of the era with karaoke-video vignettes – super-saturated dreamy asides to the bittersweet twin romances of the screenplay.
Vengeance of the Assassin (เร็วทะลุเร็ว, Rew Talu Rew)
What’s it about? A young man (Chupong Changprung) becomes an assassin while looking for answers about the death of his parents. As he gets closer to the truth, his brother (Nathawut Boonrubsub) joins in to help.
Who directed it? Action maestro Panna Rittikrai, who died last July at age 53 of liver disease. Aside from his string of gritty action films like Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior, Panna was best known as mentor and martial-arts choreographer to Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong star Tony Jaa, who last year broke from studio Sahamongkol to strike out on his own in Hollywood with Fast and Furious 7 and in Hong Kong on SPL2.
Why's it good? The first two minutes alone are worth seeking this out. Panna pulls out all his bone-crunching stops as he has his fighters playing combat football in a burning warehouse next to a lake of gasoline.
The Swimmers (ฝากไว้..ในกายเธอ, Fak Wai Nai Guy Ther)
What’s it about? Speedo-clad high-school swimming champions Perth and Tan come into conflict over a girl, who fell to her death from a diving platform into a drained pool.
Who directed it? Sophon Sakdapisit, GTH studio’s resident scare specialist. He previously did the 2011 psycho-thriller “Laddaland” and 2008’s “Coming Soon” and had a hand in writing the hit horrors “Shutter” and “Alone”.
Why's it good? The slickly produced flick keeps viewers off kilter with a taut psychological drama that has the added horror of having a message about teen sex.
What’s it about? A brainy college freshman is thrown into the deep end of campus life when she is assigned to the faculty that was her last choice – sports – where her only friend is a slacker classmate who hopes to copy from her test papers.
Who directed it? Chonlasit Upanigkit, who made W. as his undergraduate thesis film at Silpakorn University. He had previously served as film editor on director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s indie hits Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy and 36. A jaw-dropping three hours when he turned the film in, W. was shepherded by veteran indie filmmaker Aditya Assarat, who became a producer and guided it through an editing process that trimmed an hour off. It became bankable enough to enter the Busan film fest and secure a limited run at Bangkok’s House cinema.
Why's it good? With a burbling electronica soundtrack, moody natural lighting and overall dreaminess, W. fits solidly in the realm of “contemplative cinema” or “shoegaze”, sort of like Drive, though instead of Ryan Gosling staring blankly in silence over his steering wheel, you have college girls nattering as they double up on a bicycle for a ride across campus.
The Teacher’s Diary (คิดถึงวิทยา, Kid Tueng Wittaya)
What’s it about? A man and a woman, teachers at the same rural schoolhouse, but a year apart, fall in love over their writings in a shared diary.
Who directed it? Nithiwat Tharatorn, one of six directors of 2003’s Fan Chan, the film that built the highly successful GTH studio. He went on to direct the hit romantic dramas Season’s Change and Dear Galileo.
Why's it good? Toeing a fine line between sweetness and mawkishness, the sentimental romance mostly sticks to that line thanks to a fairly tight script, top-notch technical work, a memorable location and, of course, appealing performances by two fine lead actors, Sukrit “Bie” Wisetkaew as an ex-jock teacher whose enthusiasm makes up for his lack of brains, and Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak as a bright schoolteacher whose rebellious streak lands her in the rural post.
Fin Sugoi (ฟินสุโค่ย)
What’s it about? A young woman’s boyfriend becomes jealous after she gets to be in the music video of the Japanese rock star she’s been obsessed with all her life.
Who directed it? Tanwarin Sukkhapisit followed up the critically acclaimed transgender drama It Gets Better with two well-made, solidly commercial entries this year. In addition to Fin Sugoi, Tanwarin made Threesome, an entertaining romantic comedy about a woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and starts dating a ghost.
Why's it good? A surprisingly provocative script and a fun premise gives Fin Sugoi the edge over Threesome as well as the overly formulaic GTH blockbuster rom-com I Fine … Thank You … Love You. But the highlight of Fin Sugoi was the bravura performance by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, whose portrayal of an obsessed fan was quite a departure from the usual quiet dramatic roles she lands in indie films like Concrete Clouds. She also was in a third film last year, the lesbian marriage drama 1448: Love Among Us.
Somboon (ปู่สมบรูณ์, Poo Somboon)
What’s it about? The documentary follows an elderly man as he cares for the overwhelming medical needs of his chronically ailing wife of 45 years.
Who directed it? Krisda Tipchaimeta, making his feature debut.
Why's it good? Documentaries were huge in 2014. Veteran writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee turned in his first doc, So Be It, a portrait of two boys and Buddhism; and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit did The Master, in which Kongdej and other film folk share memories about Van VDO, the infamous pirate-movie dealer. But the bittersweet Somboon, about a stand-up guy who doesn’t shirk his responsibilities, felt the most pure and poignant.
The Last Executioner (เพชฌฆาต, Petchakat)
What’s it about? The biographical drama spotlights Chavoret Jaruboon, the executioner at Bangkwang Prison, the “Bangkok Hilton”. He was the last to dispatch death-row inmates with a rifle before the switch to lethal injection.
Who directed it? Tom Waller, a Thai-Irish filmmaker who has for many years run a company that provides services to foreign movie productions. He broke into making his own indie arthouse films with 2011’s Mindfulness and Murder.
Why's it good? Chavoret struggled to reconcile his lethal duty with his Buddhist spirituality, and whether his killing in the name of justice was good or bad. Giving weight to that conflict is another excellent performance by Vithaya Pansringarm from Mindfulness and Murder and Only God Forgives, and a fine supporting cast that includes Penpak Sirikul as Chavoret’s wife and David Asavanond (Countdown) as a shadowy spirit figure. The backdrop, the inner-workings of Thailand’s prison system, is also interesting. Unfortunately, Thai audiences didn’t find the film’s morbid subject matter compelling, and The Last Executioner was largely gone from cinemas after just one week.
(Cross-published in The Nation)