Friday, April 30, 2004

Bangkok Robbery

After a string of historical epics (including Bangrajan), director Thanit Jitnukul turns to modern times with the tale of a bank heist with 102 Pid Krungthep Plon or Bangkok Robbery.

On the surface, this looks like the kind of commercial action flick I tend to avoid. A review by the Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee didn't help matters.

An easy pitfall of film criticism, especially in the jagged cultural landscape of Bangkok, is when a critic tries to coax meaning out of something totally meaningless, and thus fooling himself and readers that every piece of cinema is born out of conceptual seriousness. That's what I always intend to avoid, especially in the case of this appalling 102 Pid Krungthep Plon -- so appalling and scatter-brained that the movie doesn't even explain what "102" means or how this term is related to the story (I'll buy the government lottery with that number next time, just to make some sense out of it).

The film uses the premise of the government's plan to repay the IMF loan, a move that triggers resentment among the opposing political camp. So vague and unintelligible is the script that I can only make out that these politicians want to screw up the cabinet's work by hiring a band of bandits, led by Nawin (Ampol Lampoon), to plant bombs at various buildings in downtown Bangkok and then rob the gold from the Central Bank. Or something like that. I'm not sure about anything any more. Neither have I any idea how the bad guys think the repayment will further corrupt the economy, or what they plan to do with the gold, or how the brilliant bandits believe they can get away with transporting tons of freshly-stolen gold in a flatbed truck covered with plastic sheets that would arouse the suspicion of the world's laziest policeman.

I've heard that the 102 refers to the number of minutes the criminals have to complete the heist. Not that I really care. After all, there's a film festival going on right now in Bankgok.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Legacy of Thai films overseas

The first Thai movie to be screened overseas was Santi-Veena by Marut (aka Tawee Na Bangchang) at the First Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo in 1954, according to an article in the Bangkok Post today. The film won cinematography and art direction awards.

Producer Ratana Pestonji was the first Thai filmmaker to send a movie, New Petch (Diamond Finger), to the Berlin International Film Festival in 1959. (Or was it Black Silk in 1961?)

The Post's recitation of Thai films overseas points to a long dry spell for Thai films overseas that lasted until 1981, when Cherd Songsri's Plae Kao (Old Scar) (later remade as Kwan-Riam) won Best Picture at the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, France.

At the 31st Berlin International Film Festival, Permphol Chuey-aroon's Luang Taa was entered into the contest, while four Thai movies - Theptida Rongram (Hotel Angel), Thongpoon Khokbhodi, Khon Poo Kao (Mountain People) and Phai Daeng (Red Bamboo) - were screened as part of Southeast Asia Panorama.

In 1984, Ampon Lampoon snatched the Best Actor award at The First Southeast Asian Film Festival for his role as a drug-addicted teenager in Nam Poo, directed by Euthana Mukdasanit. And in 1986, Euthana's Phisua Lae Dokmai (Butterfly and Flower) won Best Picture from the Hawaii Film Festival.

Since 1986, Chatrichalerm Yukol's movies, such as Khon Liang Chang (The Elephant Keeper)and Sia Dai 2 (The Pity 2 or Daughter 2) have been Thailand's submissions for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

After a decade of absence, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Fun Bar Karaoke went to the Berlin Film Festival in 1997 in the International Forum section. His latest film, Last Life in the Universe, earned Tadanobo Asano the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival 2003.

In 2000, the Pang Brothers' Bangkok Dangerous won the Fipresci award Critic's Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

In 2001, Wisit Sasanathieng's Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) went down in history as the first Thai film selected for the Cannes Film Festival.

Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours won in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2002, and his Tropical Malady will enter the main competition this year.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Review: The Eye (2002)

  • Directed by the Pang Brothers
  • Starring Angelica Lee, Lawrence Chou
  • Released in 2002; DVD with English subtitles available
  • Rating: 3/5

I'm not into horror films that much, but after hearing so much about The Eye, I decided to finally check it out.

It's pretty creepy and weird in an M Night Shymalan kind of way. I'm pretty sure this has been said before. But I couldn't help but think about Sixth Sense. There's even a nice twist that I think M Night might deploy in one of his films.

What I really enjoyed was the sound design. The sound was 90 per cent of the scare - the sound of the wheelchair as it tracked across the floor, the grinding sound of the raven, that crazy violin solo.

And the performance by Angelica Lee. Her big ol' brown eyes just can't ever get a handle on what she's seeing.

There's some good sight thrills as well. The elevator scene was especially nice.

This was a pan-Asian production. The directors live in Bangkok but are Hong Kong born. One of the backing studios is from Singapore. Part of the film was made in Hong Kong, part in Thailand. The credits are mostly in Thai. I'm not sure what language was used. I'm guessing it was mostly in Cantonese originally. The DVD I watched was either Mandarin or Thai. Finally, I settled on the Mandarin, as it seemed to match the speaking closest.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Reviews: Butterfly in Grey, Angel

  • Butterfly in Grey (Khang paed), directed by Sananjit Bangsapan
  • Starring Srungsuda Lawanprasert, Kanokwan Losiri, Pitchanart Sakakorn, Patharawarin Timkul
  • Theatrical release in 2002; DVD with English subtitles available
  • Rating: 2/5

Without really meaning to, I've watched a double feature of Thai films dealing with prostitution.

The first was Butterfly in Grey, a women's prison flick. It's really bad. It starts with a funeral rite of spreading someone's ashes in the river and in its long-winded way finally gets around to explaining that the woman who died was a famous author who went to prison for 10 years for killing her lover and his mistress.

Finally, in a flashback, they show the woman, Dao (Srungsuda Lawanprasert). She catches her boyfriend having passionate sex with another woman. She shoots the two of them then goes to prison. It's nasty. Dao and another newbie are assigned a space on the floor nearest the toilet in the cell, which they share with about two dozen other women. Suddenly, the two newbies are naked and rolling all over each other. Later on, there's some conflict with one of the "butch" prisoners. That is eventually resolved, but by the time this happens, another story thread has been introduced and exhausted to further confuse things.

See, without really explaining, the story goes from the prison to an apartment. It stays with this apartment stuff for a long time. I had to read about the movie afterward to figure out what was going on. The apartment scenes were after Dao got out of prison and she was living with some friends - all ladies who ran a call-girl service and were conflicted in various ways about what they did. Even outside of prison, women are caged it seems. I guess that's the message. But any social commentary was overwhelmed by the gratitutious sex scenes and the stereotypical depictions of prison life. Anyway, I'm guessing this is one of those movie titles that is purchased more for the soft-core porn content than any kind of message.

The head of the call-girl ring, Malee, was played by Patharawarin Timkul, whom I recognized as the demented Keaw from Jan Dara. I enjoyed her performance here and she helped bring the film up in my estimation.

  • Angel, directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Viyada Umarin, Sorapong Chatree, Sompop Benjatikul
  • Released in 1974; released on DVD by Mangpong (out of print)
  • Rating: 4/5

Angel is one of Chatrichalerm Yukol's earliest films, and it comes from a time when his works wore their social commentary on their sleeves. Angel or Hotel Angel is the story of a girl named Malee, played by Viyada Umarin.

The film opens during the Thai New Year, Songkran, in Chiang Mai. There is some excellent footage from this event, in which people splash water on one another. In northern city of Chiang Mai, people are shown wading out into the middle of the Ping River to get water and frolic.

Malee meets her new boyfriend, who sweet talks her and convinces her to run away with him to Bangkok. They check into one of those motels that have curtains around the carport. The car pulls in, the curtain is drawn and the people get out to head upstairs, undercover, to their little love nest. Malee wakes up the next morning. The boyfriend is gone. She has no money. She's been duped. If she can't pay for the room, she must work it off. She protests, but a couple of slaps by the hotel's pimp, Tone (a cool, smooth Sorapong Chatree), sets her straight. Violent as he is at times, Tone is actually a sweet guy - a pimp with a heart of gold. He's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent. He fights to protect his girls, only he doesn't take off his glasses to do so.

Making some money, Malee's able to send some home to her Pa. Soon, Pa is building a new house. She's pulling tricks in the love motel and the house goes up. She opens her bra. Quick cutaway. Pa opens the shutters on a new window. Some great editing during this sequence.

She's told her dad that she's making money as a seamstress, while in fact she's only learning to be a seamstress, when she's not working as a prostitute.

Malee is the one the pimp calls when a girl is being difficult. One is a girl from her hometown. She's stubborn and is beaten severly. She doesn't listen to Malee.

Back up in Chiang Mai, Pa invites the neighbors over. Their daughter is in Bangkok working as a "seamstress", too. So why did she come home sick with syphllis and die? Pa is in denial.

After a spectacular fight with a customer (some great action by Sorapong) and a smart-mouthed prostitute, there's a police raid at the hotel. Malee is forced onto the streets. This is a major turning point for the film, and unfortunately it never really regains the momentum it had during the first half.

But it's still really heavy on the message. Malee gradually comes to see that the life she has fallen into is not good. She's in a difficult trap to get out of, but by making the right choices, it just might be possible to make it in this old world without selling your body. More choices are presented by a handsome stranger (Sompop Benjatikul). At first this character seems like a nice guy, but as more is revealed about him - he doesn't work, he keeps borrowing money, he disappears for days at a time, etc. - he seems to be a first-class jerk, just like all the other men in the movie.

In addition to the fine performances, excellent direction and editing, this 1974 Thai film is chock full of retro goodness. For example, during that kick-ass fight scene in the hotel, shades of the Shaft theme can be heard. It's the real thing in an age when new movies are trying so hard to be retro they simply fail.

Pulling no punches for Ong-Bak

The promotional blitz for Ong Bak is continuing in France, where director Luc Besson's company is handling distribution. The promotional appearances by star Tony Jaa have been so heavy in fact, that they have cut into Tony's work on the sequel, Tom Yum Goong, which was due out in the coming months. Meanwhile, Ong Bak is scheduled to open in Japan and Korea. It also has been playing in Hong Kong.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Review: Song of Chao Phraya (Nong mia)

  • Directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Chatchai Plengpanich, Passorn Boonyakiart, Pattamawan Kaomoolkadee
  • Released in 1990; DVD released by Mangpong (out of print)
  • Rating: 4/5

Never get off the boat.

That's the message of this excellent drama by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol about life on Thailand's main river, about a family on a sand barge. The wife, Prang (Passorn Boonyakiart), bored of the crying kid and the aimless life of floating the river, gets off the boat in Bangkok. A shifty taxi driver takes her to a beauty parlor. There, another woman sizes her up as fresh meat. She promises to make her a star.

Meanwhile, back on the barge, the husband, Sang (Chatchai Plengpanich), is obsessed with finding Prang. He leaves his 15-year-old sister-in-law, the plucky little Tubtim (Pattamawan Kaomoolkadee), to care for the kid and manage the barge.

Sang hooks up with the same no-good taxi driver, who takes him for a ride. They find the beauty parlor. This offers some leads that must be checked out. The helpful taxi man offers to drive Sang to check out the bars of Patpong and a massage and bath parlour, all paid for by Sang.

What happens is typically soul crushing - another depiction of lower-class folks who have higher aspirations but cannot easily break the ceiling to the next level without getting caught up in vice.

What I liked about this is it is handled with tact and realism, without the usual melodrama and overacting.

This was a remake of a 1978 film, also directed by Prince Chatri, called Sister in Law.

The DVD of this had fair picture quality, which conveyed the beauty captured by the cinematography. The only quibble I have is with the subtitles, which are burned in and are white, making them hard to read about 30 percent of the time.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Thai classical music crossroads

Renewed interest in Thai classical music, sparked by the recent film The Overture, is continuing, with the release of a new album by one of the film's stars, who is an actual musician.

In the movie, Narongrit Tosa-nga portrayed Khun In, who represented the dark side of xylophone playing with his black costumes and arch manner.

I like to liken him to Steve Vai's appearance in the Ralph Macchio movie, Crossroads.

The musician found his life in a whirlwind after the overnight success of the movie, the Bangkok Post reported recently. Response to his portrayal of the devilish Khun In has been overwhelming, the Post said. "I'm glad to be part of a film that has stirred up the popularity of Thai classical music," Narongrit told the Post. "Many parents have tried to send their children to learn ranad with me."

At first, director Ithisoontorn Vichailak approached Narongrit because he wanted one of Narongrit's students to be cast in the role of Sorn, the Post said. The young hero of the film who ended up being portrayed by Anuchid Spanpong from Mekhong Full Moon Party.

"After I saw Acharn Narongrit, the character of Khun In became clearer to me," Ithisunthorn told the Post.

Khun In was meant to be a minor role, that of a great musician who was challenged by a young-blood talent, the Post said. But Narongrit created a Darth Vader-like character who ended up stealing the show with a minimal amount of effort. This was especially the case during the movie scenes in which he does battle on the ranad (xylophone) with the lead actor, audiences felt like they were watching Gladiator, the Post said.

Though it took a long time to persuade the ranad veteran to join the cast, the results were certainly worth it.

As a musician, Narongrit's own story closely mirrors that of the hero character's in The Overture. He follows in the footsteps of his father, Supot Tosa-nga, one of the great Thai music teachers of his era (1939-1996).

Exposed to Thai classical music from his childhood, playing music was a "piece of cake", Narongrit told the Post. At two, he picked up small cymbals and played with a band; when he was three, the little boy replaced a drunk musician playing the drums.

As for the ranad, he said, "I just sat down and was able to play. My dad never taught me before. It happened just like that." He was two years old at the time.

At age five, he performed on local TV station's "Star Search" show, recruited by an aunt, who worked for the station.

His mother taped the performance for posterity. The audio portion of that tape ended up being used 30 years later in The Overture, in the scene when Khun In and Sorn first encounter each other? "I wanted to play it again, but my mum found the tape and we used it for the movie. I didn't have to replay it!"

A working musician, Narongrit practices daily. "Being a professional ranad player is a lifetime effort. You need to work hard. Practice makes perfect," he told the Post.

A habit learned from his father, who was known as Ranad Namkang for playing the ranad at the crack of dawn, he carries on the tradition. "During sleep, the muscles become stiff, so practising ranad in the morning is a kind of exercise, a way to stretch the body," he told the Post.

To avoid complaints from neighbours, the early bird musician covers his ranad with cloth to dampen the sound, the Post said. The cloth makes it harder to play the instrument, which helps to strengthen the player's wrists. Consequently, when he performs, he has both power and delicacy.

After graduating from the Bangkok Dramatic Arts College, he taught Thai music at Huay Chorakhae Wittayakom School in Nakhon Pathom, for 19 years. During that time, Narongrit composed many traditional Thai songs, as well as the soundtrack for the Thai music-oriented television drama called Thippaya Duriyang, directed by noted actor-director Nopphol Komarachoon.

His song "Phandin Thong" ("Golden Land") earned him an award from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in 1994.

He's an artist keen to share his knowledge, and was a co-founder of the contemporary Boy Thai band.

To attract a larger audience, he combined Western and Thai musical instruments for the Bangkok Acoustic band, in which he also employed pop music with a Thai sound.

His new album, Khun In Ranad Bangkok, features ranad and piano, similar to the jazz-Thai classical fusion scene from The Overture.

"The scene marked the first contemporary Thai music, so I wanted to carry on this (new kind of music)," Narongrit told the Post.

The music on this album is light, easy listening, approachable, Narongrit said, in keeping with his intention to help others learn to appreciate Thai music.

In addition to his private music school, he plans to open another school for the public.

"I don't mind if people want to study with me because of the trend from Hom Rong, as long as the trend provokes interest in Thai music."

Review: One Take Only (Som and Bank: Bangkok for Sale)

  • Directed by Oxide Pang
  • Starring Pawarith Mongkolpisit, Wanatchada Siwapornchai, Chalermporn Paprach
  • Released in 2003; available on English-subtitled DVD
  • Rating: 3/5

The third in the loose trilogy of urban youth dramas that the Pang Brothers started with Bangkok Dangerous, Oxide Pang's One Take Only (or Som and Bank: Bangkok for Sale) is about a slacker drug dealer named Bank (Pawarith Mongkolpisit) and a student/prostitute named Som (Wanatchada Siwapornchai). They live in the same apartment block but don't become acquainted until they meet in Siam Square, where Som is visiting with friends from school and Bank makes an appearance to tell a joke. Som is captivated.

They are reunited when Bank goes to beat up some thugs who beat up one of his friends. Bank ends up on the losing side of the battle. Passing by, Som sees this and loads her backpack with bricks and wallops the thugs, saving Bank.

They get to know each other a little better, but neither know too much. Then Bank finds out Som is a hooker and is less interested. Eventually, they get back together and she agrees to come aboard with him to do a big drug deal. The money allows him to buy her that cellphone she always wanted. Another big deal comes up, but it goes bad.

It's a sad story that doesn't really go anywhere. Vaporous as it is, it's not entirely without merit. Most memorably it portrays the gritty side of low-class urban Bangkok - of one-room apartments with no air conditioning. Of a drug dealer who wears a DARE T-shirt. Of a guy who puts on a cool appearance but is imagining that he is beating the tar out of a convenience store clerk or a guy in a parking garage. Of a student who prostitutes herself to pay for school and send money back to her mother upcountry.

At times, the colors are washed out, giving the film a black-and-white look. Other times they are supersaturated, giving a red appearance that is especially effective during the fight scenes.

I can see how the direction would translate well to horror films, as the Pang Brothers directed The Eye. There were some moments, during the fight scenes, where people had their arms raised, that I thought I was watching a zombie movie. So now I'm interested in actually checking out The Eye.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Return to Cannes

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose erotic slow-burner Blissfully Yours won an award in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, will return to the festival this year to premiere his new film, Tropical Malady.

It's a first for the Thai industry - having a film competing for the Palme d'Or. Thai movies had previously been invited to Cannes, but only to compete in second-tier categories. No Thai films were shown at the festival in 2003.

The first Thai film to be shown at Cannes was in 2001. It was Tears of the Black Tiger, which competed in the Un Certain Regard categories.

Tropical Malady tells the story of a gay man's search for his lover, who is transformed into a tiger while walking in a forest.

"It's not a fantasy movie, and it's not a drama," Apichatpong told the Bangkok Post in an interview from his home in Khon Kaen.

The 125-minute movie fuses horror into its sexual-political plot, Apichatpong said. It explores a passionate relationship between two men that has unusual consequences.

The film stars new faces Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi. Produced by France’s Charles de Meaux, it received funding from Thailand, France, Germany and Italy.

“I feel like swimming in the sea, after one hard year making this film,” the director told The Nation.

The new film is the second one for on the festival circuit this year for the director. Apichatpong's gay spy comedy, The Adventure of Iron Pussy, was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. That movie, shot in digital format, likely won't ever see a general release in Thailand, due to its subject matter. It was scheduled for the Bangkok International Film Festival, but pulled at the last minute. It has been shown for small, unadvertised art-gallery gatherings, though.

As much as I admire Apichatpong for his daring, I would have liked to see some other Thai films in the festival, like Ai-Fak. Hopefully Ai-Fak will be featured at other festivals in the next year or so.

Also of interest to Asian film lovers at Cannes will be the new film by Wong Kar-Wai, 2046. Details about it are hard to come by, as it is difficult to get the director to say what his film is about. And even after watching his films, it's still tough to explain. The provided link goes to a China Daily story that managed to get him to talk. Briefly, it's a sci-fi story about Hong Kong, 50 years after the 1997 handover of the British colony to China. It stars the usual suspects, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, as well as Zhang Ziyi as a robot looking for love. Gong Li also is reportedly in the cast.

More information:

Last Life in the Universe at Tribeca

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe will have its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

According to the website, it will show at 9.30pm on May 1, 9.45pm on May 6 and 8.30pm on May 8.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Beautiful Boxer, Last Life at SF Fest

Two Thai films are being shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival. One is Last Life in the Universe, starring Tadanobu Asano, directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and photographed by Christopher Doyle. I heartily recommend this, but be quick, as its last showing at the fest is on Monday, April 19. If you miss it, you can get the DVD by mail order from Thailand.

Also at the SF fest is Beautiful Boxer, the biopic about Nong Toom, a devastating Thai kickboxer who had a sex change operation.

In addition, Beautiful Boxer has started showing in Singapore. I expect the film will be marketed very heavily internationally before it is finally released on DVD. A press blitz follows the film wherever it goes. National Geographic even has an article on Nong Toom.

I regret to say I missed this movie when it played in Bangkok.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Thailand's Sundance

Yet another film festival is in the works for Bangkok, which already has the government-sanctioned Bangkok International Film Festival and the World Film Festival of Bangkok, sponsored by The Nation newspaper.

Brian Bennett, former organizer of the Bangkok Film Festival (which morphed into the Bangkok International Film Festival) is back with a new edition of the Bangkok Film Festival.

According to an article in The Nation, he sees his festival as a sort of Sundance for Thailand, featuring independent films.

The Bangkok Film Festival will be held at the Emporium from April 29 to May 9, with a Video Film Festival at the Dusit Thani Hotel from May 13 to 16.

This is good news for film lovers, as it gives a wider choice of films to see during the course of the year.

In addition to the already mentioned festivals, the European Union sponsors a festival, as does the British Embassy. The Goethe Institut puts on regular screenings of German films, and I expect the Alliance France to start offering films again at some point. The Japan Foundation has regular screenings, but most of those films are only subtitled in Thai.

I hope Mr Bennett's latest festival will be better organized than the last one he organized in 2002. At that one, constantly changing schedules made it impossible for me to budget my time in order to see any of the films. It's fine if you're on vacation or are a freelancer with no fixed schedule, but if you're a working man like me who has a specific window of time, being able to plan and have reserved tickets is a must.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Elephant Keeper (Khon liang chang)

  • Directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Ron Ritthichai
  • Released in 1987; DVD released by Mangpong (out-of-print)
  • Rating: 4/5

This environmentally themed movie is pretty sad, but powerful.

It's about an activist forestry chief named Kamroom who is waging war against the corrupt local police and an influential local timber baron who is conducting illegal logging on the forest. Caught between these two forces is a man (Sorapong Chatree), with an elephant. With Thailand's forests being rapidly depleted and more tightly controlled, it is difficult for the elephant keeper to find work. The more work he finds, the less there will be for him to do. It's a sad paradox.

Directed by Prince Chatrilacherm Yukol, The Elephant Keeper also features songs by the original songs-for-life band, Caravan, and the current kings of the songs-for-life movement, Carabao. Carabao's singer and Beer Chang commercial spokesman, Ad Carabao, has a small part in this movie.

In addition to Sorapong Chatree as Boonsong, the elephant guy, and the guy who plays the hot-headed ranger Kamroon, the best thing in this movie is the elephant, a magnificent animal who is said to possess a sixth sense about which people are good and which ones are evil. This is a trait I believe elephants really do possess, but unfortunately cannot always act on their senses as the elephant in this movie does with violent conviction.

A note about the DVD: Not a very good release. The subtitles are not removable and are done in white lettering against a full-screen presentation. Consequently, they are only readable about half the time.

Review: Krasue (Demonic Beauty)

  • Directed by Bin Bunluert
  • Starring Ekapun Bunluerit, Natthorn Somkanae, Nak-rob Traipoe, Lakana Wattanawongsiri
  • Released in 2002; DVD with English-subtitles distributed by Mangpong (out-of-print)

A Thai ghost story, Krasue, or Demonic Beauty, deals with the legend of the what's referred to in the subtitles as the will o'the wisp, but it's the krasue - a vampiric flying head that trails its entrails. The ghost legend is common across Southeast Asia, where it is called manananggal in the Philippines, penanggalan in Malaysia or leyak in Indonesia. Other depictions on film include Mystics of Bali.

In Krasue, the CGI special effects are cartoonish and not scary enough, but I had a high level of tolerance for this movie because the story is presented in an understandable form.

In the story, a Khmer princess, Tarawatee, is captured and is to be wedded to the conquering Thai king. But she is seen consorting with a guard. The guard is executed in a beheading - the first of the comically cartoonish CGI. She is sentenced to die as well, by burning. Tarawatee's grandmother pays a visit. A young actress in bad makeup to make her look old, granny is a witch and casts a spell on Tarawatee.

At the same time, in a Thai village, an identical looking girl, Daow, is the subject of coercion by a creepy tattooed guy. She doesn't want to marry him, and spurns the guy. The guy then goes to his father, a practioner of black arts, to cast a spell on Daow. She is struck by great pain and is taken to a local doctor who can do nothing to help her.

At the same time, Tarawatee is being burned. The old witch grandmother is chanting. Tarawatee's vengeful spirit - in the form of her head and entrails - flies out and is drawn to Daow because of the black magic karma that the old man has cast upon her.

Daow comes out of her pain, but is not the same. Soon, livestock in the village turn up mutilated and the villagers have a mystery on their hands.

Happy New Year

Today is the final day of a three-day holiday celebrating Thai New Year. Thailand's biggest holiday, traditionally Songkran is a time of happiness and family togetherness. For me, it breeds nothing but fear and resentment.

The hottest days of the year, the tradition developed that friends, family and neighbors would lightly sprinkle water on each other to cool off. Sometimes the water was perfumed, or some cooling power was used to make people feel better. The water sprinkling has escalated, though, into all-out water wars. Powder clouds fill the air in big celebration places, like town centers and the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road in Bangkok.

If you're in the holiday mood, it can be fun. I've been there. Done that. These days, I really don't want to get drenched. The light sprinkle is fine, but that is hard to find in this land of buckets, barrels, hoses and high-pressure water guns. It's difficult to travel anywhere without getting drenched, unless precautions are taken. I take taxis with the windows rolled up and keep my PDA and phone in a Ziploc bag.

It's a time of death, too, as people are driving to their upcountry homes. Inevitably there is drinking going on, as well as many tired drivers.

This year, there were 654 deaths as a result of road accidents, and more than 36,000 injuries, according to The Nation.

But what Thai government is concerned with is the wearing of "spaghetti strap" tops by women attending Songkran festivities. The stroppy tops have been banned. Yet the last couple days, the local newspapers have shown foreign women wearing bikini tops. So there's a double standard being applied. It's okay for foreign women to show off their stuff, but Thai women are being told to put on a sleeved shirt. The "spaghetti strap" ban is ridiculous anyway. Looking back at traditional Thai garments, there were no straps. In the historical epics, women are wearing a wrap-around tube-top garment as a top, exposing their midriffs. And I suspect at one time, women wore no tops at all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Smart pet tricks in Ai-Fak

One of the more gut-wrenching scenes in the recent Ai-Fak was of the title character clubbing a supposedly rabid dog with a gardening implement.

How did they do it? It's one of the biggest questions about the film - other than whether it was really actress Bongkote Kongmalai's breasts that were seen on film (prevailing opinion is that it was a body double).

The dog-beating scene comes along after Fak has been thoroughly humiliated by his "nutcase" widowed stepmother and his neighbors had all turned against him. When this stray dog wanders onto the school grounds, it's Fak, the janitor, who is tasked with disposing of the animal. Fak, taking a sharpened hoe, clubs the animal and with a glancing blow that only cripples it. It is seen pathetically dragging its hind legs as it tries to escape. It takes Fak a couple more bloody blows to finally finish the suffering creature.

It's symbolic of the mob mentality of the villagers - everyone believing the dog was rabid and that Fak was having an affair with his stepmother. Also, Fak, in beating the dog with such conviction, was hoping to redeem himself in the villagers' eyes, and for a hopeful time, he thinks he may have.

Anyway, the scene is pretty brutal, leading animal rights activists to question it. After all, Thailand is a place where the ASPCA isn't present on every set, monitoring the animal action. Not only were the activists concerned for the welfare of the animal, they protested the scene being included at all.

Pantham Thongsang, the movie's director, insisted the scene was a crucial part of the film.

"The dog-beating scene is the symbol that shows how human beings like to judge something they don't know anything about,'' he was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post recently. "To make viewers get this message, we had to make them sympathise with the dog - make them feel the dog didn't deserve this."

The scene was actually played by two dogs, one called James Bond from the Chaipak Dog Training Centre, who impressed the movie's makers with his acting ability, barking threateningly, lying still and running away when instructed.

Other parts of the action were played by Nam Tan, a disabled dog from the Disabled Animal Aid Pak Kret Foundation. His role mostly entailed running back and forth in different directions, dragging his hind legs. He responded well to the director's commands, the Bangkok Post reported, and Nam Tan soon won the hearts of the crew. At present, he is enjoying a break from the movies and lives at dog trainer Chaipak Jiampahdi's house.

The dog actor, James Bond, has been on film before, for a two-part drama called Ab Khon Khang Ban (Peeking neighbours). For Ai-Fak the white-haired mongrel (who appears to have a bit of border collie in him) had his hair dyed black. Make up artists also did some work on his eyes and mouth.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Review: Blissfully Yours (Sud sanaeha)

  • Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Starring Kanokporn Tongaram, Min Oo, Jenjira Jansuda
  • Limited release in Thailand cinemas in 2002-3; DVD release in Thailand was censored; uncensored DVD available from Strand Releasing (U.S.) and Second Run (U.K.)
  • Rating: 5/5

Winner of the En Certain Regard award at the 2002 Cannes Films Festival, this is a film I was glad to get my hands on just to watch.

I had heard horror stories about it from people who hated its slowness and lack of point. But the film wasn't screened at Cannes for being a piece of shit.

Sure, it had no point. And when it ended, I was like ... huh? That's it? And I guess that IS the point.

It was refreshing to watch, having just immersed myself in a few major Thai melodramas - some good, some bad. Blissfully Yours is what it is. There' s no melodrama. It unfolds naturally. This was achieved, apparently, because the actors weren't professionals. As it goes, I felt like I was a peeping tom, spying on the private lives of these folks. And they do some pretty crazy stuff - like mix a veggie skin cream concoction and feed it to their husband and have sex in the jungle.

Set along the Thai-Burmese border, the story centres around Min, an illegal Burmese immigrant; his young Thai factory worker girlfriend, Roong; and Orn, a middle-aged businesswoman who is acting as a broker to assist Min.

The film opens at the doctor's office, and Min is being examined for a terrible flaking skin condition he has. He won't speak, for fear of revealing his Burmese-accented Thai. Orn tries to get the doctor to issue him a health certificate. No go. She can't do it. Orn also lingers to have a prescription filled for stress and she proceeds to fill the doctor in on the fact that she isn't getting any sex at home.

Roong heads off to work and Min walks with Orn around town, holding a pink umbrella over her as she walks through the market, buying some fruit and complaining to the vendor about the prices.

Later on, Orn and Min go to see Roong at her factory. Min hangs with the guards - Burmese guys. Roong hand paints clear laquer on little white ceramic statues. She only does it for a little bit and it looks painful and pointless. She asks her boss if she can leave, feigning illness. He says no, but she leaves anyway. She's off into the jungle for a picnic with Min. Somewhere in here the opening credits roll - halfway through the movie. The theme song, playing on the car radio is "Summer Samba (So Nice)", composed by Marcos Valle and sung by the Thai artist, Nadia.

There's a little more to this, but I've probably revealed too much already. As I said before, I was glad to get ahold of this, as sales of the DVDs of this movie has recently been banned for showing too much sex.

More information:

Friday, April 9, 2004

Review: Kun Pan - Legend of the War Lord

  • Directed by Tanit Jitnukul
  • Written by Sarawut In-phrom, Kongkiat Khomsiri and Marisa Mallikamarl
  • Starring Watchara Tangkaprasert, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Apichai Nipattahuttapong, Pimpan Chalaikupp
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2002; available on DVD with English subtitles
  • Rating: 2/5

Another disappointing Thai historical epic. This one involves an ancient Thai warrior with mystical powers. He could raise an army from the dead and had an evil spirit fetus that he could send out as a scout for his army and help him vanquish the enemy.

Kun Pan's powers also gave him an insatiable sexual appetite. He quit the monkhood to be with the beautiful Pim (Bongkot Kongmalai from Ai-Fak). But Pim had been coveted since childhood by the fat rich kid Kun Chang, thus setting up some dramatic tension with the ubiquitous love triangle.

To make matters more dramatic, Kun Pan can't keep himself to one woman, and he easily seduces Pim's maid and also finds himself married to a northern warlord's daughter. He also seduces a gypsy king's daughter, who then bears the fetus he uses as his evil ghost baby soldier.

There are many plot holes, so the story loses its thread a few times. There are some great special effects involving the use of Kun Pan's occult magic, but sloppy editing take away from what could have been a decent movie.

Review: Garuda

  • Written and directed by
  • Monthon Arayangkoon
  • Starring Sornram Theppitak, Sara Legge, Dan Fraser , Chalad na Songkhla, Yani Tramod, Phairote Sangwaribut
  • Release in Thailand cinemas on April 1, 2004; English-subtitled DVD available
  • Rating: 3/5

"Any god or man who tries to determine my life is nothing but a beast."

It's a pretty poignant political statement coming about 2/3rds of the way through this cheesy monster movie.

Later on, there's another one, when the military commanders and government officials are arguing about why they weren't notified earlier.

"Why are Thais like this?" questions a veteran commander. "We only argue and think of ourselves. We must focus and work together." Wow. Pretty strong indictment of how petty people can be.

The story is about the half-man, half-bird creature of Hindu lore, which has been hibernating for thousands of years underneath Bangkok. The digging of subway wakes it up. A secret military unit, devoted to killing "gods", is on the case, along with a half-Thai, half-French archaeologist whose father was on the trail of one of these beasts. They are unable to contain the garuda though, and he's unleashed on the city where he causes a small amount of mayhem.

As bold as some of the statements made were, I was disappointed that more citywide destruction wasn't depicted, and I thought the ending was pretty lame. But, another garuda could arise.

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Hard line on soft porn

The Thai government is cracking down on obscene DVDs and VCDs, according article in the Outlook section of yesterday's Bangkok Post.

Looking to see if the Ministry of Culture followed up on its vow to wage war on made-for-home-viewing movies with lewd content, the reporters found that movies with covers featuring semi-nude actresses in raunchy poses have vanished from major stores.

"This is a social problem, especially when we can't control [the videos] from getting into the hands of a young audience," Weerasak Kowsurat from the Ministry of Culture was quoted as saying.

One example of a problem title is Tong Choo (The Crime of Passion), which displays an actress wearing only white panties revealing her sexy back and face. Another is E Lon Saa (The Sexy Bald), depicting a bald actress holding her hands to cover her breasts. It's sold with a free Thai karaoke VCD featuring nude models from Japan.

"We pulled all the movies that have overly revealing covers. We have only kept those with decent covers for sale. Still, obscene movies could be disguised under decent covers," Chai (not his real name), a vendor at a store at a SkyTrain station told the Post.

For example, one new release looks decent under the name of a literary character. But the movie Kinnaree, which involves a mythical half-bird half-human character, is still soft porn. Many producers use names that will grab attention from the general audience, such as Nang Lom (A Courtesan), but keep the cover art toned down.

With the crackdown, the movies are going underground.

"If you really want [pornographic movies], check out Klong Tom and the outskirts of Bangkok. Street vendors may also have them," said Chai.

While the big department stores have cleaned their shelves, some small shops are still selling the controversial products.

The reporters also found imported pornographic movies dubbed in Thai; for example, B-grade Hollywood movies bearing blatantly sexual names such as Amy's Orgasm and the India-produced Jism.

The article then questioned whether a double standard was being applied, in which foreign movies, unlike Thai movies, are rated as generally meeting proper standards for public viewing.

"Why attack only made-for-video movies? There are still [made-for-theatre] porn movies available on the street," a vendor of pirated CDs and DVDs in the Patpong area, was quoted as saying.

There are also some Thai movies, such as the erotic family drama Jan Dara, the women's prison drama Butterfly 8 and the arthouse favorite Blissfully Yours, with sexual content that have played on the big screen and have become available in disc format. Given that they have already been through official censor channels to get on screen, they're assumed to be acceptable for public viewing. But some of these discs feature special uncut scenes. A Cannes winner, Blissfully Yours, features an eight-minute sex scene between two major characters in the jungle. Sales of DVDs and VCDs of that movie have been recently banned in Thailand.

Video producers see the movement to ban lewd-content movies and the apparent double standards as a threat.

"There are both good and bad producers and filmmakers. Just don't generalise that all direct-to-video makers are irresponsible," Vorachart Rodthanom, managing director of Inter Movie Ads, told the Post. His company produces several direct-to-video titles every month.

"We provide an option different from the mainstream media. The cover and the title of the movies are generally a sales gimmick. It's the unique content and artistic presentation that counts," he added.

Some direct-to-video movies claim to feature social taboos that are normally ignored by mainstream media, such as the homosexual romance and tragedy in Thang Rak Si Roong (Rainbow Love) or the life of a male prostitute in Phuchai Pai Lueng (Gigolo).

Some say the movies also benefit the film industry as they provide a first step for independent directors and artists.

"Since the local entertainment industry is centred among a very few moguls, it's hard for a newcomer to break in. Direct-to-video movies, which have a cheaper cost of production, could be a stepping stone for future directors and actors," Vorachart told the Post.

The controversial movie Phra Apaimanee, a masterpiece by the great Thai poet Sunthorn Phu, can be seen as a breakthrough for made-for-video movies. Due to its soft-porn images, it fell to the scissors of film censorship and was banned from the big screen. Ultimately however, it found life on disc and is available for sale nationwide.

Its controversial success opened the gate for other producers like newcomer starlet Julalak "Ying" Krittiyalak (pictured above). Labelled the "Queen of the VCD movie", she is considered a pioneer for made-for-video movies with her role as a semi-nude mermaid in Phra Apaimanee. Her work in other direct-to-video movies shows more of her flesh, and now she runs her own VCD/DVD movie production house.

Since then, about 20 new made-for-video movie companies have started up in response to high demand. But the current ban has caused an uproar. Producers see it as a form of government interference and, perhaps, violation of freedom of expression in our democratic society.

"We are filmmakers, not criminals. We do not produce bad content to tarnish our society. Society should allow good film-makers to grow," said Vorachart, who formed and now chairs a group of direct-to-video companies and affiliate networks.

Recently, he took part in a public hearing at Parliament House to work on a new National Film Bill with other mainstream film-makers and producers in the hopes of reviewing the outdated law and establishing new measures and a self-censorship body for the business.

In the meantime, the group is using different colours to indicate ratings for film content; for example, yellow denotes general public viewing, red for violence and sexual content.

"Hopefully this system will show we're being responsible and show our goodwill in producing entertainment to standards for home viewers," Vorachart told the Post.

But what about those producers who see sex and violence as a gold mine?

"Media that is not sensitive to sex issues could perpetuate bad values among young viewers," said Dr Yongyut Wongpiromsarn, adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng. From viewing irresponsible media, he added, viewers might conclude that it's not uncommon to have sex without love, or have sex without responsibility and protection. Some could become indifferent to sexual abuse and violence, he said.

Comment: This is not an issue for the Culture Ministry or the government to decide. Moviegoers have a right to derive their own thoughts from the films they've watched.

If keeping soft porn out of the hands of youths is the concern, then parents and schools should become involved in teaching children what is proper, then when the kids are old enough and if they choose to watch trashy movies, they will see the movies for what they are - just movies.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Review: The Judgement (Ai-Fak)

  • Directed by Pantham Thongsang
  • Screenplay by Somkiat Vituranich, adapted from novel by Chart Korbjitti
  • Starring Pitisak Yaowananon and Bongkoj Khongmalai
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004; no English-subtitled DVD
  • Rating: 5/5

Society's hyprocrisy, prejudice, selfishness, vanity and lack of compassion are on full display in Ai-Fak, the story of a young man named Fak who is saddled with caring for his beautiful but insane stepmother. It's a gorgeous film, at times funny and sensual, but mostly heartbreaking.

The story opens with townspeople turning out to the temple to hear the respected novice monk, Fak, give a sermon. He's very well thought of. His sermon, however, is ominously disrupted when his father has a loud coughing fit and must be carried out. He struggles to maintain serenity and carry on the message.

Fak soon leaves the monkhood, promising his ailing father that he will come home to help him. He promises the head monk that he'll follow the five Buddhist precepts:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not commit adultery.
  4. Do not tell lies.
  5. Do not use intoxicants. (This was translated in the subtitles as stimulants which caused me to wonder about the monks I've seen getting jacked up on instant coffee and Red Bull energy drinks.)

Okay. Fak is good to go. He's a good kid. But first there's a hitch in the military he must complete.

That done, he returns to the village. It's an isolated place. There's one dirt road leading to it, with one broken-down farm truck providing transport. There is no electricity nor phones. But things are looking up. The village headmen are making plans for power any day now. And the driver of the broken-down truck is hoping for an upgrade.

On the way home, the old truck does indeed break down. Fak gets out to take a leak, praying to the tree before doing so. It's beside a lotus pond. He hears someone bathing. It's a woman. A beautiful woman. She's bathing fully clothed, which is how it is done in Thailand. But her clothes are clinging to her, revealing her sensual shape. Fak is captivated. He and the woman stare into each other's eyes. Then the truck gets working and Fak has to go.

At home, he is reunited with his father. Something's different around the house, though. Yes, there's some bright colored dresses on the clothesline. Dad is different, too, appearing light-headed. The answer is inside the house, and from behind the mosquito net the vision from the lotus pond appears. Her name is Somsong and his father has married her.

Soon it appears that the woman is not all there mentally.

"She's a little unstable," Dad explains.

Fak takes on the role of defending "the nutcase" around the village, where she makes trouble.

"She's not unstable, that woman is crazy," Fak's "auntie", a shopkeeper, says.

Still, Fak makes the best of the situation, helping his father out in janitorial duties at the school and performing pratfalls to entertain Somsong. Among the many beautiful scenes in this film is when Fak and his father are fixing a roof and his father explains that Somsong is angel sent from heaven. He then stands up to offer his prayer to skies and asks Fak to stand as well. As this is going on, thunder is heard in the distance. You half expect lightning to strike both these idiots down. "Look at the crazy men on the roof," Somsong calls out.

After an episode in which Fak's father feels faint, he asks Fak to care for his stepmother. Fak promises he will. Dad then dies. Fak had hoped to return to the temple to be ordained, but now he must put aside that aspiration in order to care for this crazy woman.

Next thing Fak knows he's watching a village stage performance. He's left Somsong to watch the show while he gets some sweets. She turns around and sees the candy vendor flirting with Fak and hollers out for the woman to leave her "man" alone and then goes to beat the vendor up. It's an extremely embarrassing moment for Fak. The villagers now all believe that Fak is sleeping with his widowed stepmother. It's a beautifully done scene, fantastically performed as if it were a traditional Thai folk opera.

Later on, Somsong takes her clothes off and starts streaking around. Fak, in an effort to subdue her, tackles her and wrestles her to the ground just as an elderly couple is walking up. It looks bad for Fak and it doesn't get any better.

But Fak stays true. Until he is offered some rice whiskey. He can't bear the pain of rejection by the villagers or the temptation of living with a beautiful young woman any longer. The bottle offers salvation and he dives in wholeheartedly.

There's a temptation to see this movie as a comment on strictly Thai society - pointing out that Thais have strayed from the Buddhist precepts and evolved into a selfish, materialistic people with concern only for their electrically powered gadgets and flashy new cars. There is no compassion for people less fortunate, like the mentally ill; no sense of family loyalty. But the brush is broader than that. While it certainly does appear damning for Thailand specifically, the comments really apply to everyone - whether they are in Thailand, Europe, North America or other parts of Asia.

The performance by Pitisak Yaowananon, in his film debut as Fak, is worthy of some awards. Somsong is portrayed by 19-year-old and Bongkoj Khongmalai. Her character sees a transformation through the acts. By the end of the film, you might think Somsong is the only sane one in the village.

Ai-Fak was promoted in the previews as a slapstick romance with nudity as a punchline. That did a great disservice to the film and audiences. People who heard the truth that this movie was a true work of art based on a Seawrite Award-winning novel had to contend with boorish crowds who thought they were seeing a broad comedy. Also, I had the misfortune of seeing this on a school holiday. Inconsiderate parents brought their impolite, noisy small children to the theater.

I have little tolerance for this and wish the theaters would refuse entry to little kids. Ai-Fak, with its nudity and domestic violence, was definately inappropriate fare for the young ones. I am beginning to see the sense of having a ratings system in place for the Thai theaters, one that might provide a guideline to ticket sellers and ushers and handling the crowds. Ai-Fak is rated R or at least PG-13 fare and children should not be allowed in.

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Review: Sema the Warrior of Ayutthaya (Khun Suk)

  • Directed by Thanit Jitnukul
  • Starring Woravit Kaewphet, Poomarin Janjit, Jaran Ngamdee, Sawinee Pookaroon
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2003; DVD with English subtitles released by Mangpong
  • Rating: 2/5

Another historical battle epic from Bangrajan director Thanit Jitnukul. Ho hum.

This is a swordfighting movie - excellent examples of 17th-century Thai swordplay. They use some big blades that go CLANG! when they hit each other. Often, the guys use two of them, one in each hand. They must be heavy, but they are handled with grace.

The bigger guys are wielding big battle hammers. I don't know how they could swing those big things around with any agility at all. They make it look pretty easy.

Unfortunately, the great battle scenes are broken up by melodrama involving the title character - a commoner - who is in love with a beautiful princess. She fancies him as well but is promised to a rat-faced colonel who is the court's top swordsman. Just so happens Sema is pretty good with the blade as well, having grown up making swords and studying the art.

Ratface has a sister who is the loanshark for the village. When Sema's dad falls behind in payments, Sema's sister is put to work in the lady's household. The girl and Sema's best friend are in love, so this sets up more conflict that distracts from the battles.

Well, I guess movies can't be all battle scenes, now can they?

There's a big dumb guy who makes for comedy relief. At one point he is chased by a very fake looking, giant cobra. Not sure what that had to do with anything.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Garuda falls flat

I tried to see I-Fak last night, but was turned away at my local Major Cineplex branch by the lack of subtitles. So rather than see anything else, I went home. The other choices were Adam Sandler's 50 First Dates or Garuda (which oddly offered English subtitles). The Sandler I could've probably gotten into, but I wasn't sure about Garuda. Reading the review by Kong Rithdee in today's Bangkok Post made me feel a bit better about my decision.

At best, this idiotic monster-unleashed pic has the dramatic integrity of a PlayStation role-playing game. That means the digitally-drawn monster ends up giving a better performance than the human actors, who're maddeningly cold and inanimate, while the sci-fi setting is a childish farce.

Paksa Wayu [Garuda] takes pride in claiming that it is the first Thai movie to be shot entirely on high-definition digital video (HD), the kind that did the job for George Lucas in his new Star Wars trilogy. But that technological prestige just cannot redeem this whole mess from both its sloppiness and poor taste.

Of course, the HD camera will soon open up a new horizon for local film-makers. It's cheaper, faster to work with, gives freedom to shoot longer takes, and ideal with heavy CG touch-up; many film-makers even believe that the HD will eventually replace traditional, clumsy movie camera whose fundamental functions have hardly been altered since the Lumiere brothers invented it over a century ago. That vision will be realised only when theatres are equipped with digital projectors; as of now, the digital footage of a movie shot with HD will have to be transferred back into rolls of film to be screened through a light bulb in the classical way.

Unfortunately, the HD issue is beside the point here because no matter what the medium is, Garuda is fundamentally a bummer. It's a monster movie that's seems eager to be unoriginal, to be a loyal copycat of Hollywood prototypes -- the obvious reference is the dragon flick Reign of Fire. Its few smartly-staged action sequences are not a consolation, but an emphasis on how amateurish the whole enterprise is.

One innovation is the timely use of the new Bangkok subway as an arena of disaster. But I don't grasp how the beast, the bird-god Garuda, has scurried its way to hibernate under our city in the first place; the film opts for a sci-fi mode, not the mythological mode, even though the Garuda acquires an honourable position in this society as an emblem of the Royal Thai government. Anyway, a pretty archeologist (Sarah Ledge) is called up to investigate the ancient beast believed to be sleeping, whereas a special military task force, led by the constipated lieutenant (Sornram Theppitak), is hell-bent on using their magically-blessed weapons to annihilate all mentally sick birds, sacred or profane.

The rest goes by the book. The Garuda wakes up and starts stalking and killing the young soldiers, all of them exhibiting boy-band hairstyles and the line-reading that was cool 15 years ago in bad American teenager's flicks -- and making me so happy when the actors are crushed by those giant feet.

Meanwhile, upholding the tradition of a animal-loving heroine in all monster movies, the sensitive archaeologist tries to prevent the use of force and eventually offers herself as bait to lure the creature in a final showdown in front of MBK Centre -- adhering to another Hollywood code that the destruction is more tantalising with the backdrop of a metropolitan landmark.

Groomed to be the showpiece, the CG-animated Garuda has a slick visual texture, a funny proportion, and not a distinguishable personality. The Garuda in the local myth is a corpulent, sarong-wearing, fearsome ornith angel with a look that also suggests a wry sense of humour. In the movie the creature is a big clumsy bird influenced by Western monsters, a localised version of a shrieking, rampaging dragon (and in some close-up shots it looks like a frightened chicken).

To be fair, however, it's not a bad CG job at all, and the climactic setup at Pathumwan intersection has a few startling shots. But is that all the movie wants to achieve? Special-effects are never a strength of Thai cinema, and never will be. The idea of making a movie that shows off eye-popping effects is valid as a technical exercise, though we all know we can't dream of matching the level of even a poor Hollywood sci-fi. And even if we do in the future, movie-making -- good movie-making -- requires the firm pillars of story-telling and cultural relevance. Paksa Wayu has neither of these. It's an albatross -- a big awkward bird that can only dream of flying.

(Via Bangkok Post, RealTime, Page 7, April 2, 2004)

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Bangkok Beats

Thai popular music these days sucks. It's all a bunch of syrupy, oversentimental ballads, or it's over-the-top pounding techno dance. Kind of like pop music in the States, I guess.

But there's an alternative scene, where some cool stuff can be heard.

One of the better bands out there is called Apartment Khun Pa. I wish there was a decent website for the band, but there's nothing yet. They do have a CD out though. Their sound is a mixture of funk, punk and jazz and features some excellent guitar work.

Next up is a band called The Darlings, who sing Ramones-type harmonies. I could see them pulling off A Quick One by The Who. These guys are best experienced live, as I managed to this past Saturday night, where they were playing with four or five other punk bands.

I heard one other band here that simply blew me away, but I didn't get their name. They had a guitarist who could really play, though.

What's this got to with film? Well, Bangkok's indie music scene and its indie film scene are closely linked. There's a record label called Hualampong Riddim, which was credited for the music in the soundtrack to Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's latest film, Last Life in the Universe.

Also, the indie scene is the subject of a German documentary, Bangkok Beats: From Pop 2 Punk by Peter Stein and Gabi Krauss. It will premiere at 7pm on April 7 at the Goethe Institut in Bangkok. It features Apartment Khun Pa and Hualampong Riddim. A live gig will accompany the premiere party, featuring Darlings' label mates, the Eastbound Downers, and other acts.

Name change for Siamese Outlaws

The English title for the upcoming stylised Thai "western" remains the same - Siamese Outlaws. But the Thai title has undergone some changes, due to the increasingly sensitive political situation in southern Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported today.

Based on a true crime that took place in 1965, the movie was initially to be called 2508 Plon Krom Tamruad, meaning "the siege of the police headquarters in year 2508".

But, after the scandalous robbery of a military camp in the south earlier this year, the military requested that Five Star Production change the title.

The original suggested that the bad guys could outsmart the authorities while the new title, 2508 Pid Krom Jab Tai, means something like "the entire police force are out to catch those bastards, preferably dead", the Post's Kong Rithdee reported.

"This was not an exaggeration," he continues. "On December 5, 1965, 17 bandits armed with the most sophisticated weapons of those days laid siege to a town called Tha Rua, in Ayutthaya province, systematically took control of the police station, blocked off the people's escape route, and cleaned out six gold shops. They made off unscathed, though a shoot-out with the police left four civilians dead.

"The radical stunt enraged and humiliated the police. The iron-fisted prime minister of the period, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, issued the notorious "Mor 17", the equivalent of an execution order, and virtually the entire police force were deployed to track down the perpertrators. One by one the bandits were arrested, executed, or shot dead during shoot-outs. It took over two years before the authorities could finish off the whole gang."

"It's a terrorising case, perhaps the most terrorising robbery this country has ever seen," director Vinai Pathompong told the Post. "I had to streamline the story, since it was tough to cram 17 main characters in one picture, plus many more on the police side. But I intended from the beginning to make this an action-caper movie, with lots of action sequences, and I spiced it all up by making some of the bandits a super-fighter protected by the amulets and voodoo art, which is something people in those days really believed in.

"But of course I'm not trying to glorify these outlaws. I'm not making them into Robin Hood. They're busted and they met their deserved ending, as it actually happened."

Vinai is a cinematographer who shot Nonzee Nimibutr's 2499 Dang Bireley and Young Gangsters in 1996 and also did some work on the recent Home Rong (The Overture).

Siamese Outlaws is his directorial debut. It opens in theatres on April 8.

Now for some comment: I'm not too anxious to see this, as I see it as a loud, boring excuse to put some ageing Thai characters actors to work as they use massive amounts of firepower in battles with the cops. This is like any other big-budget Hollywood action movie - something I look toward Thai movies to steer clear of. Instead, I should pop Fah Talai Jone - Tears of the Black Tiger - in the DVD player and watch it again.

Accolades for Ai-Fak

The Nation this week played catch-up in its coverage of the release of what will likely be the best Thai movie of the year - Ai-Fak.

Released last week, The Nation ran two reviews this week, one from a reporter and the other from its regular film critic, Hanuman. This was surprising, as Hanuman usually steers clear of Thai movies, preferring to concentrate his critical darts and roses on the Hollywood releases.

They also had an interview with director Pantham Thongsang and author Chart Kobjitti, who wrote the SeaWrite-award winning novel, Kham Phiphaksa, upon which Ai-Fak is based.

Now if I can just find the time to go see this myself, which I'm planning to do tonight.

Garuda flies in

Touted as a breakthrough for digital moviemaking in Thailand's film industry, Garuda opened today. It's a monster movie, featuring the half-man, half-eagle of Hindu lore.

From what I can tell of the preview, the digging of the tunnel for Bangkok's subway wakes one of these fearsome beasts up, and it takes to the skies, laying waste to Bangkok, including the overly crowded, firetrap of a shopping mall, MBK. Yeah!

There really wasn't much more than a glimpse of the actual critter in the preview. Mainly, it's a lot of buff-looking Thai actors, pointing guns around - sort of like some of the Korean military thrillers like Shiri or 2009 Lost Memories. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, so Garuda may get a view from me when I've cleared some other items from my plate first.