Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: Vanishing Point

  • Directed by Jakrawal Nilthamrong
  • Starring Ongart Cheamcharoenpornkul, Drunphob Suriyawong, Chalee Choueyai, Suweeraya Thongmee
  • Reviewed at premiere screening on October 16, 2015 at the Laem Thong Theatre, Bangkok; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

What is the point of Vanishing Point (วานิชชิ่ง พอยท์)? That’s a question that has vexed me since I saw the film in a rundown porn cinema in Bangkok.

Directed by Jakrawal nilthamrong, Vanishing Point is the culmination of everything the artist-filmmaker has done up to now. It won the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and has been selected for many other fests. Like another prominent Thai artist-filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jakrawal is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he’s much-respected in the art and indie filmmaking community. In his art installations and short films, Jakrawal explores strict Buddhist themes, reflecting on the dangers of greed and materialism.

An unapologetic art-house film, Vanishing Point is a cavalcade of experimental techniques and abstractions. The story, as nearly as I can make out, has two central characters, a journalist and a family man, whose lives run in parallel trajectories until they converge at that “vanishing point” on the horizon.

The film is also autobiographical in nature, since it opens with an image of a car twisted horrifically in half. The picture is from a 1983 newspaper report on a car being struck by a train, which left Jakrawal’s own parents with severe physical and emotional scars.

The wrecked car is something this Vanishing Point shares with the 1971 Hollywood counterculture film of the same title. Both movies are about existential crises, with the earlier film’s Kowalski at first having a purpose for driving his Dodge Challenger at flat-out speeds across the desert, but as that story goes on, he just drives for the sake of driving.

In Jakrawal’s Vanishing Point, the two central characters’ reasons for living are murkier. They are headed for the same destination as Kowalski – just far more slowly.

There’s also a sleazy 1970s vibe about the new Vanishing Point, an aesthetic that Jakrawal highlighted in choosing a cinema from that era as the venue for its debut in Bangkok. This business of life can be a dirty thing, and amid the mould and grime of Klong Toey’s Laem Thong Theatre, he wanted his audience to revel in it.

In the Thai universe of Vanishing Point, the fractured timeline shifts to the forest, where a reporter (played by Drunphob Suriyawong) is covering a police crime re-enactment. They have a suspected rapist acting out his deeds with a giant teddy bear. It’s a scene that will probably seem routine to Thais who see such things in the newspapers every day, but to foreigners it’s a bizarre situation. I too wonder just what these re-enactments really prove.

The reporter, who thinks the same, departs the scene to follow the police. He eventually turns up at a short-time motel, where he spends time with a senior hooker (Suweeraya Thongmee).

His visit is recorded on video by the movie’s other major character, a businessman (Ongart Cheamcharoenpornkul) who is in the midst of an existential crisis. He’s got a large stack of videotapes of hotel guests having sex, but appears to get no joy from watching them. At home he shares a meal in total silence with his wife and daughter. It seems there is no joy there either.

The guy, who runs a condom factory in addition to his sideline as the maker of amateur porn films, eventually turns up at a Buddhist temple, where a monk is meditatively sweeping the grounds. Played by the charmingly impish Chalee Choueyai, the saffron-wrapped clergyman launches into a long monologue that’s right up there with Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis story in Jaws.

In short, the monk’s lesson – and the movie’s – is that there are no easy answers. Not for the journalist, nor the businessman, nor me.

The ones who seem to fare best in Vanishing Point are the sketchiest characters – that monologuing monk and the senior hooker. They are at least honest about who they are and what they do, while the journalist and the factory owner seem only to be seeking merit or approval.

And perhaps that monk might not be a monk after all. Or perhaps Jakrawal is musing on what makes a monk. Is a monk still a monk once out of his robes? In this way, Vanishing Point offers more potent commentary on the state of contemporary Thai Buddhism that is potentially more controversial than the briefly banned Arbat, with its scenes of a misbehaving novice monk. That picture had to be toned down to get unbanned and was released as Arpat, but it didn’t really have much to say about Buddhism at all.

Dazzling cinematography by up-and-coming filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng is a highlight of Vanishing Point, and his work includes a bravura tracking shot that follows the businessman’s teenage daughter roller-skating through her small town, with the cameraman seemingly towed from behind and the girl’s knees framing the shot.

More technical prowess is displayed by score composer Pakorn Musikboonlert and sound designer Chalermrat Kaweewattana, who come up with an ominously hypnotic series of pulsating burbles and bloops to give the film a sickening heartbeat.

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(Cross-published in The Nation)

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