Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: Chalui Tae Khob Fah (Lost in Seoul)

  • Directed by Adirek Watleela and Suchart Makhawimarn
  • Starring Mek Mekwattana, Nachat Juntapun, Zuvapit Traipornworakit, Nichkhun Horvejkul
  • Released in Thai cinemas on June 4, 2015; rated 13+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Rags-to-riches stories of struggling musicians looking for their big break are a dime a dozen, so journeyman producer Adirek "Uncle" Watleela got a real bargain with Chalui Tae Khob Fah (ฉลุย แตะขอบฟ้า, a.k.a. Lost in Seoul), which is a remake of a movie he first did in 1988.

The original, about two country lads looking to take Bangkok by storm, is repurposed for the K-pop era, and sends the bumbling heroes from Bangkok to Seoul, where they dream of bringing Thai rock to the uptight corporate ranks of South Korea's entertainment machine. Their big inspiration is a fellow Thai, Nichkhun Horvejkul, who is famous as the Thai guy in the boyband 2PM.

The story starts off in a dream sequence with Nichkhun as a pizza-delivery guy. Uncle and co-director Suchart Makhawimarn seem to be taking their cues from Christopher Nolan as they aim to keep things as off-kilter as possible, with a rapid succession of dreams, flashbacks and sight gags to propel the action as they introduce the two lead characters – long-haired guitarist Pong (Mek "Jessie" Mekwattana) and his singer pal Tong (Nachat "Nicky" Juntapun).

Amid this rapidly moving shell-game of a comedy, one thing becomes quickly apparent – Pong and Tong are no-talent hacks. But they're nice enough fellows, and their enthusiasm makes up somewhat for their lack of finessed dance moves. But behind their earthworm-like shimmying, it's all empty – they are lipsynching to a recording, and their instruments, which are just hollow shells, are unplugged.

But it doesn't matter. Uncle, well-versed in the art of showbiz hocus-pocus, manages to keep up a breakneck level of energy. The Thai Blues Brothers continue to practice their music on their rooftop and dream of their big break, with support from their endlessly cheerful comic neighbor (Phongthep Anurat), who becomes their manager. The suspense comes from the wonder of how long can the energy be sustained, and, will these sad clowns somehow have what it takes?

Uncle, as always, can't resist inserting references to his other movies. So the boys, in their apartment decorated by a Black Sabbath vinyl clock (points added), a Good Charlotte poster (points deducted) and toilet stool for a desk chair (points added), pop a DVD into a portable player. It's Tears of the Black Tiger, the melodramatic western by Wisit Sasanatieng that Uncle co-produced. It's a scene where two male characters pray together and seal a blood bond.

And, I'm pretty sure that's the two actors from the original Chalui Tae Kob Fah (literally Touch the Sky) popping up in another scene to give the younger lads encouragement. Later on, Pong and Tong find a DVD for Yuthlert Sippapak's Chiang Khan Love Story, which Uncle produced only last year. And watch for Uncle in a cameo as a cop.

Like the movie's characters, Chalui Tae Khob Fah gets by on sheer amiability. The boys are guys you wouldn't mind hanging out with for a night, and the movie is like that too. It spends roughly half its time goofing around in Bangkok before jetting off to Seoul, and I hardly noticed an hour had gone by.

Once in Seoul, where the production values are eyepopping, the boys rapidly go through the usual succession of adventures – getting mixed up with mobsters, street hoods and bent cops. Only the Illinois Nazis are missing. They lose their money and passports and then fumble their way into another situation that leads to them making friends with colorful locals.

There's the usual succession of nods to Korean culture, which have become stock-in-trade for Thai-South Korean productions. The gold standard of these remains GTH's blockbuster romance Guan Muen Ho (Hello Stranger). Others have included Poj Arnon's Kao Rak Thee Korea (Sorry Saranghaeyo), Wisit and Michael Shaowanasai's short Iron Pussy: A Kimchi Affair for the Busan-backed Camellia and Prachya Pinkaew's Bangkok-set South Korean martial-arts comedy The Kick.

Thanks to Oldboy, we must have a wriggling octopus, and I'd be disappointed if there weren't any octopuses. But there's also Korean theater and music, thanks to a young woman named Meehwa, her mother and their friends. Of course, she turns out to be half-Thai, and can serve as the boys' translator, helping them get jobs and fast-talk their way out of sticky situations. If it seems like she's everywhere, it's because she is. It's singer-actress "Baitoei" Zuvapit Traipornworakit in a dual role as Meewha and as Bangkok neighborhood doll Tukdta. So there's enough of Baitoei to go around for both of the guys.

One convenient situation after another befalls Pong and Tong as they try to land an audition with an executive at a Korean record label who they first met on a drunken night out in Bangkok. Boyband member "Buck" Nichkhun turns up again, and agrees to help the guys, because they are fellow Thais. Because that's overseas Thai code. Or something.

Soon, we're all singing along to a street-performer backed rendition of the anthem "Arirang", complete with classical Korean instruments, a bicycle drum set and crunchy Thai rock-guitar power chords.

Chalui Tae Khob Fah is the third release for Transformation Films, the new company formed by the former Film Bangkok producer pair of Uncle and Sa-nga Chatchairungruang. Other features so far have been last year's award-winning Chiang Khan Love Story by Yuthlert and this past February's romantic comedy Single Lady Phror Khoei Me Fan, directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan (Fireball).

Like the others, Chalui Tae Khob Fah has performed very modestly at the local box office, with earnings of 1.5 million baht in its first week, trailing far, far behind the Hollywood behemoths Spy, San Andreas, Tomorrowland and Mad Max: Fury Road. At last count, Chalui had only doubled its first week's earnings, but it remains in theaters thanks to Transformation's partnership with Major Cineplex, Thailand's biggest multiplex operator. If it were anyone else's film, it would have been booted out after a few days.

Despite iffy box-office prospects – hardly anyone in Thailand is watching Thai films these days unless they come from GTH – we'll likely be seeing more of this type of thing. Also backing Chalui Tae Khob Fah was the Korean entertainment mega-firm CJ E&M Film Division, which is separately joining up with Major Cineplex in a three-year 10-film deal for more Thai-South Korean co-productions, likely from Transformation, or the half-dozen or so other Major Cineplex-backed production companies.

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