Sunday, March 28, 2004

Eye 2 eye

According to Channel News, The Eye 2 is the biggest-grossing horror film of all time in Singapore, where its studio, Raintree Productions, is located.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to find reviews about it. I like posting about this movie, though I'm too much of a fraidy-cat to actually go and see it.

The Bangkok Post has been running a review in recent editions. Reviewer Kong Rithdee wasn't too impressed:

Instead of the chilly, cerebral, scare tactics of the first The Eye, the Pang Brothers work with a much less effective script in this sequel, supplying us with a less-than-decent dose of crude visceral fear.

Taiwanese starlet Shu Qi, lush-lipped and bloodshot-eyed, plays Joey, a pregnant woman who's spurned by her boyfriend and then stalked by a sepia-tinted ghost.

Apparently her pregnancy has attracted a swarm of malicious, wandering spirits looking for an available womb for their reincarnations, and we witness a peculiar scene when one of them tries to penetrate the woman's body while she's trapped in an elevator.

But the creepy visual stratagems of the original movie are absent here, and the feeble script is unable to orchestrate a genuine sense of the macabre which the story seems to be striving so hard to achieve.

Thai heart-throb Jetsadaporn [Tik] Poldee shows his face in only three scenes, making him more like a supporting act than a first-billed star magnet. And despite Shu Qi's efforts to infuse Joey with strength, her character appears weak and improbable, which is the main reason why the whole enterprise is ultimately so disappointing.

(Via Bangkok Post, Outlook section, Page 6, Saturday, March 27, 2004)

Friday, March 26, 2004

Or is it Ai Fak?

It appears the previews for Ai Fak or I-Fak or The Judgement do a grave injustice to what is apparently a moving and emotional movie. The previews make the film look like another one of those overly broad Thai slapstick comedies that I have grown to find pretty annoying. Then a comment to an earlier post I made about it clued me in to something deeper going on.

Thai film critic Kong Rithdee, in his review for the Bangkok Post, has more:

Save the annoying, totally unoriginal turn of 19-year-old Bongkoj Kongmalai as a fashion-conscious nutcase, this populist interpretation of the SEA Write Award-winning novel is a moving, pungent romantic drama that deserves to be seen. Mainly this is because the film's - actually, the book's - depiction of human's moral hypocrisy and the persecution of the innocent exposes the weaknesses underneath the Thai myth of compassion and gentleness. Men are as gleeful to pass judgement on others out of their self-righteousness, or political advantages, today as they were in 1981 when the book was first published, or since countless centuries ago at the dawn of that thing called civilisation.

Ai Fak, adapted from Chart Kobjitti's Kham Pipaksa by Pantham Thongsang, begins with an erratic note of a romantic farce, before its sensitively-paced final hour pulls off an unlikely slapstick-tragedy that retains the novel's savage emotional blow. What's absent is the sharp-edged, black-comedy coolness of Chart's source prose, but the movie works eventually as a carefully-wrought melodrama. Reading the book you're likely to feel numbed, as if hit by a hammer; watch the film and the melodrama-maniac would want to cry.

Most credits should go to Pantham's direction, especially in the solid third act, and to newcomer Pidisak Yaovanaan, who plays the titular tragic-hero Fak: The actor is this year's major discovery. He seems to get better in successive scenes, his initial sparkling gaze getting increasingly moribund as we see Fak's spiralling down the grimmest path of existence from being the village's goody-two-shoes to becoming its filthy alcoholic in residence.

This represents the society's punishment for the crime the boy never commits. Fak's problem has its root in Somsong, a mentally unstable woman whom his father has taken to live at the house. When the father dies, Fak, a school janitor smitten by this loony chick who has the bold habit of taking her clothes off in public, continues to be her protector as hateful gossip circulates around this peaceable community that the man has shacked up his old man's wife. Fak endures the accusation, brutalisation, and finally the marginalisation that relegates him to the ranks of society's worst outcasts, as repugnant as a dog with rabies. This verdict is passed on by the villagers to Fak and Somsong during the period when fresh material development -- electricity and telephone -- reaches this remote outpost and promises its inhabitants a better life, setting a contrast between the physical improvement and climate of questionable conscience.

The love story between Fak and Somsong, which is not discussed in the book, has raised many purists' eyebrows, as well as the movie's (initially at least) groovy, love-is-all-around look that seems to contradict the story's pessimistic punch. I have no quibbles at all regarding this interpretation. But what I find troubling is Bongkoj's impersonation of a crazy woman. She's obviously an actress trying to act mad, when in fact we should be looking at a madwoman who believes, like most mad people do, that she's behaving perfectly normal. Her pretty, eye-arching red dress gives the film an interesting, part fairy-tale, part mythical context. But her nude scenes, which are mentioned in the novel, attain a visceral, erotic elaboration when we witness the actress' flesh and blood, especially when the camera seems to feast on Bongkoj's fertile hips and curves almost gratuitously on a few occasions.

Curiously yet admirably, the movie's shift towards the conclusive theme in the final hour is achieved with subtlety, and its Dostoyevskian, final conflict has a choking bitterness that outweighs the frisky, almost trifling first act.

It's Pidisak's display of Fak's bruised innocence that lends the climax its moving finality. But it's also the film's refusal to pass on an arbitrary judgement on the villager's ugly abuse -- had it done so it would be playing God and committing the same unjust act as those hypocrites -- that allows Ai Fak to derive its chilly, undeniable power.

(Via Bangkok Post Real Time, Page 7, Friday, March 26, 2004)

All eyes on Shu Qi

Shu Qi was in Bangkok recently, attending a press screening of her new movie, The Eye 2. She sat for a quick Q&A with a Nation reporter, who asked some pretty silly questions, like whether she thought her Thai co-star, Tik, was "sexy".

The Nation also printed a review:

Right from the movie’s profoundly creepy opening moments, the scripting-directing team – Hong Kong twins Oxide and Danny Pang – maintain a perpetual state of dread, with their stylish and unique ways of making the audience jump in their seats.

Another review, on Movieseer, was less kind, saying The Eye 2 "is more likely to send you off for a quick 40 winks".

Myself, I haven't seen it. The previews were scary enough for me.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

I-Fak up

I'm not trying to be vulgar here. I-Fak is the title of a Thai comedy that opened in local theatres today.

I've been seeing previews for it for a couple of weeks and was mildly interested, as any red-blooded heterosexual male would be I guess, because its female star, Bongkoj "Tuk" Kongmala, is always in various states of near undress.

One scene involves her bathing in a lily pond. Thai people have traditionally swam and bathed with their clothes on. In this case, she is wearing a clingy wrap-around dress, or sarong. The effect is sort of like those Bollywood musicals that invariably involve women in saris singing and dancing in the rain.

The star of I-Fak is also an exhibitionist. So when she catches a boy, named Fak, watching her bathe, she taunts him and acts suggestively. In another scene, she raises her red dress, and since nudity is not allowed in Thai films, the camera cuts away to the astonished expressions of onlookers. An idea of what I mean can be found on this animated webpage.

Provocative as it is, the movie appears to fall back on broad physical comedy involving cartoonish sound effects - a staple of Thai television and a big turn-off for me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Foreign breasts yes, Thai breasts no

As the film industry continues its renewed push for modernization of Thailand's film oversight, filmmakers decried a double standard in censorship standards, saying Thai films are more rigorously censored than Hollywood films.

"The question is why foreign films are not censored. People have said Thai breasts are not approved of but foreign breasts are," Visute Poolvoralaks, owner of film production company Tai Entertainment Co, was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.

Director Manop Udomdej said censoring committees banned pornographic scenes while approving violent and bloody ones.

The comments came at a public hearing on Monday in parliament in preparation for a new bill governing the film industry.

Director Bandit Rittakol (The Moonhunter, Tigress at King River), president of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, said the censorship system was substandard and inconsistent. (Good) movies had been censored when they should not have been while surprisingly bad movies had passed censorship, he said.

"State agencies ask staff who have nothing else to do to watch and censor movies. They do not use the officials who have expertise and understand the arts.''

Bandit seeks a new regulating body that would include both government officials and representatives from the film industry and provide a supportive role, rather than a controlling one.

Paichit Supawaree, former president of the movie federation, pointed out more inconsistencies, saying the government strictly censored ordinary movies while ignoring underground pornographic CDs and movies screened in second-class theatres which existed thanks to bribes. (Hey, where are these places?)

Culture Minister Anurak Jureemat said public hearings on a new movie bill would be completed in two months. The bill would replace several outdated film laws, some going back 74 years.

That's the news. Now the comment. I have no problem with modernization of film oversight. It's a system that is long overdue for the scrap heap. A ratings system has been mentioned before and the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Thailand has no movie ratings system right now. Having one in place would at least give filmmakers a guideline. Right now, they have nothing. They just make their films - some good, most shit - and hope for the best.

But I am wary of these moves and the concerns of these industry representatives. First, I worry all this talk might result in more rigorous censorship of foreign films, or at the extreme end of things, the outright ban of foreign films. Such extremism isn't unheard of in other places. In the short term, I wonder if Bandit's comments will simply make the censors angry and they'll get more busy with the scissors and Vaseline as a result.

Second, I am concerned that the proposed regulatory body would give independent filmmakers the short shrift and their creative efforts (and funding) stifled. Certainly the above mentioned underground porno industry exists, but I wonder if this isn't really this industry group's code for "independent film"?

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Ong-Bak a knockout

The Thai martial arts film, Ong-Bak, is continuing to wow audiences as it is shown in film festivals around the world.

The film played to sold-out crowds in France and has the backing of Luc Besson, who's company is distributing it.

What's amazing to me is that the huge buzz around this film is pretty much from the theatrical version.

It came out early last year in Thailand, and is now available on DVD - but only with the Thai soundtrack and no subtitles. Not that you really need the subtitles. There are some moments of slow melodrama, but you can fast-forward through those until to get back to Tony Ja and his amazing muay thai action.

Given the increasing worldwide popularity of Ong-Bak, I have my hopes up for an international DVD release with subtitles and other extras.

Meanwhile, the sequel, Tom Yum Goong (named after the sweet-and-sour shrimp soup that is a staple of Thai menus), is due out later this year. Details are sketchy, though the film is comprised of the same cast and director and has a bigger budget.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Cruise buys The Eye

The Eye 2 has opened in local theatres, the followup to the 2002 Asian horror cult hit. In the publicity blitz accompanying the movie, the directors Danny and Oxide Pang are giving interviews. In one, they talk about Tom Cruise's production company buying the remake rights to their first film. For some reason, I fail to be excited by this.

Another Thai horror flick is due out soon. Garuda is a fearsome figure out of Asian mythology - some kind of winged beast. Similar to gargoyles, many garudas are seen adorning buildings around Thailand. In the forthcoming movie, one comes alive and tears Bangkok apart. It could be kind of cool, but the previews don't inspire me to see it.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

What's the point? Movie ratings.

With the issue of new legislation for the Thai film industry, it seems I missed a major point - movie ratings. Right now there are no ratings and so one measuring stick is used for all films - no matter what audience they are intended for. I've never been a big fan of film ratings. I was always the kid trying to sneak into an R-rated picture, if I could get near a theatre playing such things. The Nation's Veena Thoopkrajai makes a good point in her column, Venus' Vision. Check it out.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Eye 2 trailers showing in Bangkok

The Pang Brothers' followup to their international hit The Eye is being promoted in local theatres. Admittedly, I'm not a big horror fan, but this one looks pretty good. But as I haven't even seen the first one, I feel kinda funny about jumping on the bandwagon just now. More about the film is here. Once again a pan-Asian production by the Hong Kong-born, Bangkok-dwelling directors, The Eye 2 should be an even bigger draw, banking on the success of the first film and its new lead actress, Shu Qui.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

A self-regulating film industry?

In what hopefully will mean less stringent censorship of films, legislation is receiving a lobbying push by the clumsily named Federation of Film Association of Thailand. The move would replace the 1930 Censorship Code and the board of police and government censors with a body comprised of film industry experts. This is according to an article in The Nation.

I'm all for abolishing the 1930 Censorship Code, as it does more harm than good when it comes to snipping and smudging films. But I am leery of a law that gives an industry group total control. Does the proposed law give outright approval of films to the Association? The move could make it harder for independent filmmakers and stifle creativity.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Censors snip Zatoichi

I caught Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi again in Bangkok theatres. I first saw it at the Bangkok International Film Festival. Anyway, the film was back in Bangkok for a wide commercial release, playing with a Thai soundtrack in most theatres, but with Japanese and Thai and English subtitles at a couple of theatres. So I was pretty excited to get to see it again. I just love this film.

However, I was dismayed that it was cut. There's a scene where the geisha boy prostitutes himself. It's a flashback linked to a scene as a grown-up where he is practicing dancing while his sister plays the uh, well, I'll just call it a banjo (with a blade hidden in the neck)!

I guess the scene was sliced because the censors were squeamish about showing child prostitution. I don't see why it needed to be cut. What are the censors protecting us from? Child prostitution and pedophilia continue to exist regardless of the censor's snips and smears. Perhaps leaving it in would have affected some people to take action against it. I doubt very much the scene would have inspired men to go out and bugger small children. They were out there doing that anyway, not watching a movie.

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Review: The Siam Renaissance (Tawipop)

  • Directed by Surapong Pinijkhar
  • Starring Florence Vanida Faivre, Pisek Intrakanchit, Rangsiroj Panpeng, Peeruth Tulananada
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004
  • Rating: 3/5

The Siam Renaissance is difficult to classify. It's about a woman who travels back in time from Bangkok of 2003 to the capital in the 1850s, during the time of King Mongkut - Rama IV. So it could be science fiction. But there are no flashing lights or swirling trips through the vortex for this woman, played by Thai-French actress Florence Vanida. Her time shifts just happen. One minute she's there, in her bedroom in a house in Thonburi, the next she's back in the old days, wearing a silk sarong of the period.

It could also be a love story, as the character, Maneejan, gradually falls in love with a young, shirtless official in the Rama IV administration. And basically, I guess, this it what it is - based on a famous Thai historical romance novel, Tawipop.

The story actually opens in Paris, where Maneejan works for the Thai consulate. She has something or other to do with studying a trunk of letters and other artifacts from the Rama IV area that surround a strange incident. A French diplomat recorded the appearance of a strange Thai woman who could speak English and French and foretold of incredible events, such as the U.S. being the strongest country in the world, man going to the moon and that all Thais would be educated in reading and writing. She then heads home to Bangkok, ostensibly to further study these materials. To do so, she must consult with a Thai university history professor - a man who happens to be her father.

She stays at her mother's house (her mother and father are separated, adding an unneeded bit of soap-opera melodrama to this situation), and then the time-shifting begins. Each time there's the shift, she disappears from one era and reappears in the other, causing much running around and screaming by the supporting characters in each time zone.

At first, she lands in the house of an English doctor, Dr. Bradley, and is cared for by the doctor and his English wife. They are among a handful foreign actors in this Thai film who do their best to not appear too stiff or confused as they make their way through this period film.

Manee is brought to the attention of the palace officials, who are suspicious of her. She is thought to be insane, or she could be a spy. This is a politically turbulent time for Thailand, as Britain and France are fighting for territory in the region. Both have sought to colonize Thailand, but have reached a compromise that Thailand would simply be a "buffer" between French Indo-China and Britain's India and Burma. Thailand comes up with the short end of the deal, losing land to both empires. In the film, the palace is under stress because a British warship is in the harbor and it's carrying Lord Bowring, who wants to wear his sword in the presence of the King.

So the palace guys think Maneejan is a spy. Or maybe she's just insane. They don't believe her when she says the USA is the powerful country on earth and that it has sent men to the moon. They really don't believe her when she says that all Thais will be able to read and write, although they "only read six lines a year". I'm not sure what that means, but it got a good laugh from the audience. She also says Thais will be westernized, wearing Western clothes, eating Western foods, thinking Western thoughts.

"We are more accepting of the Westerners than we are of ourselves," she tells the handsome young palace dude. This is one of the more profound statements of the film, as it reflects on where Thailand is today. Not only did it lose land and influence in the region to the British and French, it lost its cultural identity, as Thais today embrace anything Western (and Japanese!) but relatively little that is truly Thai. Even the country's name has changed, from Siam to Thailand.

"Do we still have our King?" the palace guy asks, to which Maneejan replies, "It's the only thing that we keep as ours."

That earlier quote had me thinking during the rest of the film. And it was a good thing, too, what with the mess of melodrama, syrupy soundtrack music and wooden acting by the Thai and Western performers. I had trouble even going to see this film, as I knew it was directed by Surapong Pinitka, who last directed a dully abysmal television miniseries, The Silk Knot, about the strange disappearance of the silk exporter, Jim Thompson.

At first blush, I think most Westerners based in Thailand would laugh that Thailand "is more accepting", as recent actions by the government are anything but accepting (more like excepting) - the raising of visa fees, the stiffer enforcement of immigration and now the still-proposed early closing of bars, which Westerners see as a backlash against them and their culture. But maybe the statement is true - that Thailand is so insecure, so uncomfortable with itself, that its current government does such outlandlishly foolish things as a result.

Back to the movie. A passing reference was made to Anna Leownens, the famous Anna of The King and I and Anna and the King - films that are banned in Thailand because they make light of the Throne. I half expected Maneejan to run into Anna in her time travels, and they very well could have met, since Anna was present in the court of King Mongkut.

Besides the humor in the film (like when Maneejam is ridiculed for her "unclear Thai" - the actress had only learned Thai for the purpose of making the film), there was a nice plot twist reminiscent of The Planet of the Apes. All that is needed would be Charlton Heston, jumping down off his horse and pounding the sand.

Saturday, March 6, 2004

The Thai classic movies channel

I've been away for awhile, taking some time to relax. While staying at an small island resort, I caught parts of a couple of Thai movies from the 1970s playing on the UBC Film Asia channel.

Generally, the movies were being shown around 10 o'clock in the mornings.
Sorry, no titles. I asked the others at the resort who remembered the movies (my girlfriend related how small she was when the movies were out) but no one could recall the titles.

The first scene I saw was a couple of guys in hand-to-hand combat atop a bus that was suspended on the edge of a cliff. It was all pretty nicely stylized, with their silouette shown against a blazing setting sun. I was riveted. But that was the only martial arts (Thai boxing!) scene I caught. The rest of the film, which had to do with a gang rivalry of some sort, degenerated into gun battles. But the action and acting was all still pretty cool. It was comparable to the Shaw Bros films of the same era.

One thing that really bugged me was the sound. It was all in Thai and pretty well in synch, but it had been dubbed. The voices were all too loud and everpresent for it to be the actual recorded soundtrack.

The music was also pretty hokey, coming off way too dramatic and elaborate in comparison to the action it was accompanying. This formula has been carried to present-day Thai soap operas. The music is always gushing with intensity, even though the action might be an intimate scene with just two people talking. It makes things unintentionally hilarious, especially when the actresses really get going and starting screaming and throwing fits.

The second 70s film I saw was a Korean War drama - a Thai soap-opera take on MASH. Along with troops from many other countries in the world, Thailand sent troops to participate in that 1950s UN "police action" to stem the tide of communism from North Korea from invading South Korea. The Thai troops all took Korean girlfriends, and much of the drama had to do with the fact that the Thais were leaving their Korean mistresses behind - at least one pregnant.

There was some decently staged battle scenes, with the help of the Royal Thai Army and Air Force. Even these were a mishmosh, though. In some far-off shots, 60s-era jet fighters were used. American tanks were dressed up with brush in hopes they would look like Chinese-Soviet tanks. Close up shots used some stock footage of American World War II fighters and bombers. Things really got bad when a bridge was blown up and the vehicles falling off it were clearly Matchbox cars.

Overall though, I liked the style of these Thai films from the 70s. If anything, I'm interested in watching more and looking for the stars and tracking what they are doing now.

Thai World View offers some more information about old Thai films, as well as more contemporary stuff. There's even a smattering of Thai "westerns", including Fah Talai Jone.