Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Review: The Overture

  • Directed by Itthisoontorn Vichailak
  • Starring Anuchit Saphanphong, Adul Dulyarat, Arratee Tanmahapran, Narongrit Tosa-nga, Pongphat Wachirabanjong, Phuwarid Phumphuang, Somlek Sakdikul, Sumeth Ong-Ard
  • Screened commercially in Thailand in 2004, submitted to 77th Academy Awards, will screen in North America in 2005.
  • Rating: 3/5

When biopic films about musicians come to mind, I think about Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, The Buddy Holly Story, The Benny Goodman Story, La Bamba or Amadeus. So I have to give the Thai film industry credit for putting Thai classical music on the radar with The Overture, even if it is pure fiction that is only based loosely on the life of a court musician.

Overly melodramatic and theatrical, what works in The Overture are the musical moments.

The story is about Sorn (Anuchid Spanpong from Mekhong Full Moon Party), a young boy growing up in a musical household. One day, just a mere toddler, he sneaks into music room, picks up the mallets and starts playing a tune on the xylophone, or ranad-ek as it is called in Thai. His brother and father catch him and are astounded.

Sorn grows up wanting to be a musician, like his brother. Then his brother shows up dead after a music contest - possibly killed by the rivals. Thai classical music is taken pretty seriously.

Not wanting his only surviving son to end up the same, the father bars his son from playing ever again.

But the kid sneaks off to the jungle to keep practising his xylophone. Practising with chains on his wrists to weigh them down, he becomes quite a prodigy. This is one of the aspects of the story that seemed shortchanged. You expect the kid to avenge his brother's death somehow, maybe meet the killer and beat him in a musical face off. But he never does, at least not in a manner that is made clear.

Eventually, he catches the ears of a palace official, and goes off to join the palace ensemble.

There he sees a beautiful palace servant girl and plays the Thai violin for her. He helps carry some things for her. But there's no love scene. Him making love to her with music will have to suffice. Did they hook up? Who knows? Later in life he has a daughter, though, so he must've gotten married at some point. And, indeed, it was to the girl from the palace, but this wasn't made clear.

The film shifts back and forth from his time as a young man in the early 1900s (King Rama V or Chulalongkorn) to the dark days of the 1940s and the Japanese occupation.

In the early times, the drama has to do with the musical battle between the kid and an intense bearded musician named Khun In (real musician Narongrit Tso-nga who performed much of the music on the soundtrack). The kid wears white, the bearded man wears black. He is the devil. The kid is, well, he's the kid.

Earlier, the kid is intimidated by Khun In's playing at a local temple fair. The black-beared man's performance is so intense, it literally whips up a storm. So later on, everyone is nervous during a palace music contest - the famous duelling xylophones scene. For the record, I thought Khun In's performance was better - just as the bad guy's performances in such films as Crossroads, Purple Rain and Blues Brothers 2000 were better. But he's the bad guy, so he must lose, no matter how much better he sounded.

In the 40s, the drama has to do with modernisation decrees handed down by the government. No more sitting around on the floor or listening to traditional music. People must sit on chairs at tables. Musicians and performers must have permits. The kid, an old man now, fights these by keeping on playing, and emboldening the townspeople against the government enforcers.

Oh, there's one other cool musical moment. It happens in the 40s, and Sorn's son has ordered a piano. For a minute you think the old man is going to explode and scold his grandson for bringing a Western instrument into his house. But he asks his grandson to play for him. He plays a nice little jazzy number. Then he asks him to run through it again, and Sorn joins him on the xylophone. A split screen shows the mallets and the hands at the keyboard at the same time.

Really, The Overture is about the music. The drama is overwrought and fragmented. Too many loose ends, with things not explained clearly.

However, this film did create some new interest in Thai classical music, and it was used to spread a positive image about Thai culture around the world, so it's not all bad, is it?

Saturday, February 21, 2004

DVD reviews: One Night Husband, Fake, Province 77

The performances are stupendous. The imagery, in this debut feature by indie director Pimpaka Towira, is stunning. But the story in One Night Husband doesn’t make any sense. Pop singer Nicole Theriault is Sipang, a hi-so woman whose husband disappears into the rainy darkness on their first night together. When he fails to return, Sipang reports the incident to the police. She also calls her new brother-in-law, who shows up at the police station angry at being bothered.

He takes out his anger on his meek, little wife Bussaba (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh). Sipang and Bussaba eventually develop a friendship as they try to track down the missing husband. In the course of the film, which is beautifully photographed, Sipang becomes more careworn and less glamorous; the cowed Bussaba stronger and more sensual.

But then there’s that story. Because, if Bussaba is Sipang’s sister-in-law . . . well, to raise questions would be to give too much away.


. A more aptly named movie has probably not been made before or since this Thai indie arthouse flick graced screens last year. Fake is an enigma. The only tangible fact you can derive from it is that it exists and that you have to spend 109 minutes of your time to see it. There’s a DVD, and you can hold it in your hand. But what’s happening here?

Actually, this quirky film isn’t so bad. Ostensibly, “Fake” is about three young slackers, all with scruffy hairstyles, T-shirts that are too small and jeans that ride halfway down their butts, revealing the tops of their boxer shorts. The three guys – Soong (Ray MacDonald), Poe (Leo Putthipong Sriwat) and Bae (Paopol Thephasdin) – share an apartment and, unbeknownst to each other, the same girlfriend (Pachrapa Chaichua). Or are the three guys really just one guy and the one woman actually three different people?

You reach this suspicion in watching this. It’s all part of the fun. Nothing seems to make sense. Especially since the DVD doesn’t have English subtitles.


A Thai soap opera infused with the spirit of The Fast and Furious and the language of Eminem’s 8 Mile, this dramatisation of life in a six-block area of Los Angeles known as Thai Town starts off with a gunshot and a flashback.

Province 77 goes back to an illegal race of imported cars through the LA streets – just like Fast and the Furious. Even the actors are trying emulate the characters of that Hollywood racing flick. Jeremy Thana is entertaining as Goldie, the leader of the Thai street gang. With his shaven head and gold tooth, Jeremy has all Vin Diesel’s attitude, and is even more charismatic. The Paul Walker in all this is Pete Thongchua playing a “fresh off the boat” Thai – a former cop who has come to LA looking to put an end to criminal gang.

Meanwhile, there’s Pat (Mike Kingprayom), a young Turk seeking to make a name for himself on the streets. In a subplot that adds little to the film’s appeal, Pat’s sister is played by his real sister, Methinee Kingprayom. Overall though, there is a streetwise energy to Province 77 that make entertaining enough to at least rent. The DVD includes English subtitles, as well as a music video.

(Originally published in The Nation on February 20, 2004; retrieved from Archive.org cache)

Friday, February 20, 2004

Arthouse theatres in Bangkok

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee had an excellent article today on the arthouse theatres in Bangkok. If you have registered with the Post, giving the name of your dog and your dog's birthdate, you can read the article.

The feature includes a bit about the Lido, which is my favorite place to be to see a movie. It also goes into the creation of a new arthouse theater, House, at the UMG RCA along the nightlife-zoned Royal City Avenue - a place frequented mainly by young Thais. Maybe with the opening of the subway here later this year, it'll be a place frequented by older foreigners as well.

Here's an excerpt from Kong's article:

Lido, as part of Apex chain, is the only venue in Bangkok that realises the virtue of variety. An idiosyncratic multiplex with three screens - with middle-aged, bespectacled ushers in bright yellow suits and box office staff who look uncannily like your average aunties - the theatre has had a fair success alternating blockbuster flicks with small, sometimes obscure titles released under its campaign 'Apex Exclusive', thus canvassing a unique reputation among regular film-goers.

'Three years ago a small distributor had this Iranian film called Children of Heaven,' says Suchart Wuttichai, creative consultant of Apex who's overseen the programming of Siam, Lido and Scala theatres for 30 years. 'They saw no commercial prospect and wanted to dump it. I saw the film, and thought it was good enough to give it a try. So we showed it in original soundtrack with Thai and English subtitles, and it became a huge success for us. That was how we came up with `Apex Exclusive'.'

Apex, as a theatre operator, usually does not buy the right to distributing films, but accepts to screen movies from different importers. Among the hits of Apex Exclusive were the French fantasy flick Amelie, Korean soft-core La Belle, and surprisingly, an edgy Swedish comedy Songs from the Second Floor. 'This is an open floor,' Suchart beams. 'We screen movies from every distributor if they're interesting movies. Our aim is not to become a pure arthouse, but to offer a menu of something unusual and rare that you can't find anywhere else.'

Last year Lido, in an unprecedented move, put an independent Thai movie I-san Special in its programme (usually if a Thai film-maker makes a film without the support of a big studio, the theatre will refuse to show it). Suchart knew from the start that the film, a conceptual experiment in staging a narrative on a moving bus, bore little commercial pull despite the guerilla promotion blitz around Siam Square. 'But we decided to show it because, first of all, it's a good Thai movie, and because we think the film could strengthen our position as a venue for different flavours. We're always ready to give opportunities.'

The art of the Art of the Devil

Thanit Jitnukul, director of Bang Rajan and other Thai historical epics is shifting gears. His next project involves black magic in the form of a teen thriller, according to this week's column from The Nation's resident film industry reporter, restaurant critic, travel writer and dart-league organiser, Ken Ywin.

According to Ken, the Art of the Devil relates the mysterious and weird murder of a millionaire’s entire family. Not a clue is uncovered; not a person can be fingered as the killer. The killings baffle everyone.

A crime reporter decides to investigate the murders. His probes lead to a beautiful and delicate lady. How can he convince the others that she is the mistress of the occult skilled in the “Art of the Devil”?

The Unedited Cuts column also revisits the set of Oliver Stone's Alexander, reporting on low pay and bruised and battered stuntmen. Also, as can be expected from this column, news of Steven Seagal.

He also says Rush Hour III is rumoured to be coming to Bangkok for filming. That's great. I didn't even know the movie was in the works at all.

Additionally, there's some rot about the National Film Commission wanting to take over approval of all film projects, which is pretty disturbing. Hey, why wasn't this the lead item?

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Sexy, naughty, bitchy, censored

The Orwellian Ministry of Culture is in the news here in Thailand again.

This past Sunday, one of the ministry's vice ministers (an ironic title if there ever was one) was profiled in an interview in which he issued forth in standard Harvard Law doublespeak, thereby not really saying anything.

“We think the government ought to step up the regulation of this segment of the motion picture industry to ensure that sex is not abused to the extent that our cultural norms are damaged. Don’t forget that our country has one of the highest Aids infection rates in the world. We also have gone a little bit too far when it comes to sexual norms. Besides homosexuality, which was common before, we now hear about swinging sex, or even anal sex,” he told The Nation in this interview.

The ministry also wants to limit what pop singers can sing about. The latest target is Thai superstar Tata Young (pictured above), whose song Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy has come under fire. I haven't heard the song, but I've read the article. There was a great letter to the editor in reaction to the flap, pointing out that the traditional folk music so treasured by the ministry is in fact even racier than most of the pop stuff. Or perhaps the ministry will seek to have centuries-old rice-farming songs censored as well.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

San Francisco gets some Iron Pussy

Thailand will be represented in the upcoming San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival by the gay spy spoof, The Adventure of Iron Pussy, which had its world premiere in Berlin.

Is North America ready for this? I don't know if I'm ready for this. It has yet to appear in Thailand. However, a co-worker is close with the filmmakers and stars, and she's threatened to get me a copy of a DVD of the film. I will be careful in what I wish for.

There also will be two short films, Full Moon, by director Anocha "Mai" Suwichakornpong about two boys, a girl and a carload of secrets on a road trip to the full moon festival; and Waiting, by Aditya Assarat; a 50-year-old memory of love compels a man to journey from one rural part of Thailand to another.

Other Asian entries of note include the long-awaited US big-screen premiere of Hero.

If I were there, I would try to see Come Drink With Me, a classic 1965 sword-fighting flick from the Shaw Brothers studio. It stars Cheng Pei-Pei, better known to modern-day audiences as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I have this on DVD and consider it one of the most watchable of the recent remastered Shaw Brothers releases. I've bought several, but Come Drink With Me has found its way back into the DVD player more often than the others for repeat viewings.

Also, Stephen Chow's hilarious Shaolin Soccer, which I have on DVD, and his God of Cookery, which I haven't seen.

Rithy Panh's S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine will be shown. As dry as I found this documentary, it's still important and makes for compelling viewing if you have any interest at all in Cambodia.

Cambodia also is featured in a short French film, Mekong Stillness. The story is about a son's frustration is set against the stillness of the Cambodian landscape as he searches for connections to his absent father and French girlfriend.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Government gets tough on X-rated movies

There's apparently a strong underground film industry in Thailand that I've never given much thought to before.

But the newly formed Ministry of Culture has been thinking about it. And they want to do something about it. A story in today's paper (Happy Valentine's Day) reveals a bit more about the crackdown plans, which were first revealed in a story about a week earlier.

I don't know anything about these films. Some I guess are just b-grade soap operas with some racy sex involved. Others I guess are hard-core. Nonetheless, this Culture Ministry wants it stopped.

Since the Culture Ministry has been formed, it's been the butt of jokes and subject to much derision. So it feels it must do something to justify its existence. Typically, it is doing so in an authoritarian manner, which is worrisome. But it dovetails with the moves by the government to clamp down on nightlife - the so-called morality campaign - that involves bars closing at midnight.

Not that I personally care what time the bars close, or whether I have easy access to crap Thai films - but I am concerned with the continued erosion of freedoms - something that's in precious supply anyway.

After all, the 1930 Censorship Code is still on the books and is applied to films that are screened locally. So from time to time, sex scenes are clipped or smudged out. Scenes showing intercourse action are generally smudged out. A couple of examples I can think of were rental VDO copies of Tailor of Panama and Three Kings. But bare breasts are okay on video and film, as evidenced by Suriyothai.

On television, cigarette smoking and drug using is pixelated out.

Violence is, too. I have a Thai-subtitled VCD of From Dusk till Dawn and a scene where a vampire's head is blown off is pixelated.

Pictures of people smoking cigarettes may not run in the newspapers, and from time to time, in order to use a picture of a celebrity, I have to spend some time with Photoshop to remove the offending cancer stick from between someone's fingers or lips. That's always a bit of fun. These are just a few examples of the censorship that is actively practiced - even by me, in my gatekeeper function as a responsible editor.

Thankfully, the government's itchy hands have not extended to DVD releases yet. I supposed if they head in that direction, I'll change my tone.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, February 13, 2004

Light, camera, elephants

Thailand is the new, cheaper, Tinseltown, Oliver Stone tells The Guardian in a recent story.

We can shoot anywhere. We couldn't have made Alexander in Hollywood - the human resources were too expensive. It's impossible to make a movie like Alexander in America any more.

We have to look further afield - and my first choice was Thailand because of its technical proficiency, its terrific crew and the elephants. The elephant schools here are second to none - well managed and willing to work until it's right.

The writer, David Smith, makes a big deal in the article about Bangkok being a "party capital". This is pretty odd, because right now the government plans to have all the bars close at midnight, from March 1 on. What's even odder is that David wrote about this very issue just a few days before his article about filmmaking came out.

It's the latest big news after the bird flu, and could possibly be even more devastating, say the tourism operators and night-life businesspeople. Myself, I could really care less. The government will do whatever it wants. I guess it will take daily police harassment of checkpoints and "papers please" to get my attention and make me think about leaving Thailand for good.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Farrell f's up foot

I'll admit, it's a pretty lame forum when all I have to report is Colin Farrell injuring his foot. I'd like to be able to follow the dude around and see what kind of trouble he's really getting into. The best story I can find about it is a recent story on Yahoo News.

But I'm not so much of a fan boy for Colin that I would take away the precious little time I have to enjoy some movies. I've got Legend of Suriyothai sitting on top of the DVD player, and have yet to even watch it. It's sitting amongst a stack of a half dozen or so unwatched DVD. The shame of it all!

Meanwhile, The Overture is playing in local theatres, and I have yet to make time to see it. The historical drama about a Royal musician back in the time of Rama V (early 1900s) to WWII, has been pretty well received. But, consarn it, life happens and sometimes gets in the way of seeing movies.

Friday, February 6, 2004

Review: The Iron Ladies (Satree Lek)

  • Directed by Youngyooth Thongkonthun
  • Starring Jesdaporn Pholdee, Sahaphap Tor, Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi, Giorgio Maiocchi, Ekachai Buranapanit, Kokkorn Benjathikoon, Shiriohana Hongsopon, Phomsit Sitthijamroenkhun, Sutthipong Sitthijamroenkhun, Anucha Chatkaew
  • Released in Thailand in 2000; reviewed on DVD
  • Rating: 3/5

Well, I finally got around to seeing this one. It's about a men's volleyball team comprised of mostly gay transvestites who smash their way into the Thailand national championship. It's pretty funny, though cliched. But, since it's based on a true story, I have to wonder if the cliches don't hold true. Some clips of the actual players are shown with the closing credits, and they really do seem to act like that. So do the other Thai ladyboys I've run into here on the streets of Bangkok.

The highlight is a bar fight sequence. The sports sequences are overly dramatised and made implausible.

Still, a great story and something I don't regret watching. There's a sequel that came out last year, though I won't be in any rush to watch it.

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Where's Colin?

It's well known by now that Oliver Stone is in Thailand, filming his epic Alexander, which stars Colin Farrell. Stone has been seen around Bangkok, mainly at last week's Bangkok Int'l Film Festival.

But Farrell hasn't been seen or heard from - or has he? Turns out, according to an article in today's Nation, the Hollywood badboy has dyed his hair blond, rendering him unrecognizable. So it's possible that he's been running amuck in Bangkok's infamous gogo bars, pubs, massage parlors and brothels, causing trouble like any normal tourist would.

Farrell was spotted at the award ceremonies for the film fest, and the above-mentioned article gives a glitzy, cutesy rundown of the colors and fashions during the week. Besides the news of Colin's hair color, the article noted that Oliver Stone is actually a nice guy, and that people didn't recognise Val Kilmer, who is wearing a big, shaggy beard.

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Thai movies at Berlinale

Thailand is being represented at the Berlin International Film Festival by four films, though none are in competition for the Golden Bear.

Among the titles is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s The Adventures of Iron Pussy, which was turned down by the Bangkok International Film Festival because it was shot on digital and was apparently too controversial to be shown.

However, Apichatpong, whose previous film Blissfully Yours won the Un Certain Regard at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, will introduce Berliners to his latest, The Adventures of Iron Pussy, the story of a transvestite super-spy (Michael Shaowanasai) hired by the Thai government to foil a wicked scheme hatched by an evil megalomaniac.

Another gay-themed film, Beautiful Boxer, will show in Berlin as well. The debut film by director Ekachai Uekrongtham, it is based on the true story of transvestite muay thai champion Nong Toom.

Sexuality is among the issues dealt with another film, Nonzee Nimibutr’s OK Baytong. It’s about a young Buddhist monk who leaves the monkhood to care for his niece after his sister is killed in a terrorist attack in South Thailand. Cloistered in the pagoda since he was a young boy, the monk is confronted by feelings of sexual longing for a neighbouring businesswoman, as well as hatred and fear for the Muslims he thinks are responsible for his sister’s death.

More innocent times are dealt with in last year’s box office hit Fan Chan (My Girl). Berliners will have a chance to feel nostalgic about growing up in a small town in 1980s Thailand – even if they’ve never been to Thailand. Even if they can’t relate to the music, the universal themes of childhood memories, young love, two quarrelsome hairdressers and the dangers of sleeping in will resonate.

Sunday, February 1, 2004

The Elephant Man

One of the reasons Oliver Stone is in Thailand filming Alexander is because he can have ready access to elephants.

Elephants need good work when they can get it. In looking into the conditions for elephants here, I've seen a lot of problems.

But people are trying to help. One is Tony To, a Thai-born Hollywood exec who recently made a donation to help the big beasts. He's talked about a recent article in The Nation.

Val-ley boy

Wearing a shaggy beard, Val Kilmer had guts showing up in public looking like he did as he hit the red carpet for the gala closing ceremonies of the Bangkok Int'l Film Festival.

His new movie, Spartan, was the official closing film. It's a crime story by David Mamet. Should be good. I hope it's on wide release. As it was the "official closing film" normal (read non-wealthy, non-celebrity) film fans like myself could not get within several hundred yards of the theater.

I do know that his Wonderland inexplicably opened on wide release here a couple of months ago. It played for a week in dozens of theatres and then vanished. I managed to catch it at an odd showtime in an odd theatre and felt pretty good for doing so, even though it's an extremely violent, depressing movie. Good one, Val. A great followup to Salton Sea, which I also liked.

Kilmer is apparently here in Thailand working on Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great, which stars Colin Farrell. Angelina Jolie is also in the cast.

Haven't seen badboy Colin around.

Oliver was at the film fest, though, accepting a Golden Kinaree for lifetime achievement.

Other Golden Kinarees are chronicled in this Nation story.