Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami strikes Thailand

Thailand's southern island of Phuket was hit by a tsunami on December 26, 2004. The wave was spawned by an earthquake in Indonesia and the ripple hit the entire Indian Ocean region. More than 150,000 people were killed in the disaster.

WANT TO DONATE? The Red Cross is one of the best. The Thai Visa Forum has a list of local Thai charities.

Aid is coming to the region. The US, under heavy criticism for donating the least among the wealthiest countries, has now upped its aid tenfold to $350 million. The US is now coordinating the relief efforts, using Thailand's air force and naval bases as staging areas. Now, more than a week after the quake, relief and recovery efforts have finally hit their stride. A US Navy helicopter rescued some stranded villagers in Indonesia.

And it's the Ex-Presidents to the rescue! Bill Clinton and George HW Bush are joining for an effort to raise more funds for the relief effort. Also Colin Powell and Jeb Bush were in the region to survey the damage.

Among the dead in Thailand is a prince, Khun Poom Jensen, the 21-year-old Thai-American grandson of His Majesty the King.

Varying stories are emerging about the death toll in Thailand. The Times of London recently discovered a mass grave, said to have as many as 10,000 bodies.

The worst-hit country was Indonesia. But there was at least one incredible story of survival: A woman was led to safety by a giant snake.

Animals are also helping out in Thailand. Six elephants that performed in Oliver Stone's Alexander were helping the clean-up efforts in Phuket. Before the wave hit, animals were giving villagers warning signs. Among many places where this is being discussed is the Thai Visa forum. Specifically, elephants alerted villagers to the danger in one place. In another, a water buffalo's behavior caused concern.

However, it was a water buffalo that created problems in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The bovine draft animal was blocking the runway when a cargo jet was trying to land, causing the aircraft to crash and closing the airport for a time, delaying the relief effort.

In other places, it was a child who sounded the warning call. In one case, a 10-year-old British schoolgirl, who had just learned about earthquakes and tsunamis, was able to clear a beach before the wave hit.

A tale of hope: A Swedish toddler, found sitting alone on a roadside in Phuket, was reunited with his father. His mother is still missing, though.

Another survival tale: A pregnant Swedish woman and her 2-year-old son survived the wave by grabbing a passing log.

Celebrities caught up in the disaster include Jet Li, who was vactioning in the Maldives. He's okay. Others include:
  • Lucy Holland, the 14-year-old granddaughter of director Richard Attenborough, died in the disaster at Phuket. The Attenboroughs elder daughter, Jane, was also presumed dead, as was Jane's mother-in-law.
  • Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova was swept into the water off Khao Lak near Phuket. She clung to a palm tree for eight hours until she could be rescued. Her boyfriend, British fashion photographer Simon Atlee, 33, was still missing.
  • Swedish skiing great Ingemar Stenmark was sunbathing at Khok Kloi, about 50 kilometres from Phuket, when he saw an immense wave roaring to shore. He ran for his life and survived.
  • Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his entourage were holidaying in Sri Lanka. They were evacuated on Tuesday from a hotel by the Sri Lankan air force.
  • A diving school built by author Arthur C Clarke, a resident of Sri Lanka, was lost to the wave.
Celebrities are now pitching in to help the recovery effort. In Hong Kong, an all-star concert was planned, featuring the likes of Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung. Jet Li was to appear and tell his survival story.

Musicians are helping out in other places, too. Willie Nelson is headlining one benefit show. Cliff Richard and Boy George will appear on a single recorded for the occasion.

In Thailand, songs-for-life guru Carabao has written a song especially for the survivors.

Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock are among the Hollywood types putting up money.

Foreign tourists have bore the brunt of the disaster in Thailand. Word is that 1,000 of the dead on the island resort of Koh Lak are Swedish. This is just one nationality on one small island. Experts and relatives are now racing to Thailand in an effort to identify the dead.

More stuff:Having recently visited Phuket for some canoeing, the news is pretty sobering. I need to get word out to some friends down there and see if they are okay.

I heard from John Gray, my canoe man in Phuket. He's okay. A former resident of Hawaii, he'd seen tsunamis before and knew it was coming because of the tide quickly receding before the wave rolled ashore. He had also felt the earthquake. He was able to get some people back. "We saved many lives," he told me. John recounts that morning when the rumbling began in a story he wrote for Saturday's paper.

I have also written an account of my own tsunami experience, undramatic as it was. It appears in The (Harrisburg) Daily Register, the first paper I worked for out of college.

The Thai meteorological department held an emergency meeting about the tsunami before the wave hit. They had heard word of the quake on Sumatra and debated issuing a warning. Two years ago, a similar quake occurred in Indonesia and a tsunami warning was issued. Tourist activities were halted and people were ordered to safety. The waves never came and the meteorological department was reprimanded by the prime minister. So this time, out of fear for their jobs and disrupting tourism, they decided to do nothing. Very sad how the culture of fear and greed rules decisions that affect people's lives.

The Bangkok Post now reports that the head of the meteorological department has been "transferred to an inactive post" -- a popular euphemism for being sacked -- and the department is being probed about why it issued no warning. Well, I've just explained why it issued no warning. But somebody's got to take the blame. Also, a former head of the department, who was "transferred to an inactive post" several years ago for warning about the lack of a tsunami warning system, has been put in charge of setting up just such a system.

The UN is also calling for a tsunmai warning system in the Indian Ocean.

In Malaysia, an early warning system modelled on that used by lifeguards in Baywatch TV show helped save lives. Lifeguards in a tower at Batu Feringghi beach noticed rough and choppy waters around noon on Sunday and raised a red flag to warn the people that the beach was not safe. Beachfront hotels in turn warned their guests to keep away from the beach and stop all activities there.

John Gray referred me to the USGS Earthquake Center. The quake was a magnitude 9, was the biggest since 1964 and was the fourth-largest quake since 1900.

It echoes the 1883 explosion of a volcano on Krakatoa island, which rocked Java and much of the world. Some Thai minerology officials said the December 26 quake was the worst in 459 years.

The earthquake was so strong, it altered the Earth's orbit, resulting in making our days one ten-thousandth of a second shorter, reports the Chicago Tribune. Some small islands might have been moved by as much as 20 meters, changing the map, a USGS expert told AFP. A report in the New York Post, citing the same source as AFP, says the changes might have been more dramatic, with small islands moving as much as 12.5 miles.

This was apparently a rare occurrence in Thailand, with the Thai prime minister saying something like this had never happened before.

Rare as they are, tsunamis are a part of the culture and folklore. Just a couple of years ago there was Thai film out that featured some hokey CGI of a giant wave wiping out a southern Thai village.

In Bangkok, New Year's celebrations were cancelled.

Here is a gallery of photos from the tsunami.

(Cross published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Last Life on Salon's Top 10 for 2004

A Thai film is on Salon's top 10 for 2004. Last Life in the Universe came in at No 4 on both lists compiled by Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor.

Says Zacharek:
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's spun-sideways love story has the element of surprise working for it. A handsome librarian (Asano Tadanobu) falls for a young mystery woman, but it's that woman's sister (Sinitta Boonyasak) who ultimately holds the most mystery of all. "Last Life in the Universe" is stunning to look at, evocative and passionate in its abstract beauty. And it reminds us that gangsters are people too.
And says Taylor:
Working in various countries, Asian directors are delivering something approaching the excitement and sense of discovery that the nouvelle vague filmmakers gave French film in the '60s. One of two contemporary Thai directors on this list, Pen-ek Ratanaruang made what is perhaps the year's most dreamlike picture. Shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who also shot Hero, Last Life is a sort of deadpan screwball comedy in which a lost man (Asano Tadanobu) is brought back to life by a kooky young girl (Sinitta Boonyasak). Only he's not really lost and she's not really a kook. Pen-ek doesn't use the conventions of screwball comedy here as much as he evokes its melancholy ghost. The tone is one of retreat from the messiness of life and finally acceptance of that messiness as the very essence of life. Seemingly light as air, the film achieves real emotional weight, and leaves an aura that stays with you.
Zacharek headed her list with Before Sunset, House of Flying Daggers and Hotel Rwanda. Taylor had Flying Daggers, Hero and Before Sunset.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Tax breaks offered to foreign filmmakers

Thailand pulled in nearly 1.1 billion baht (US$28 million) this year from 413 productions, including features, TV series and music videos, shot on location.

Japanese shot the most, 140, in 2004, while 77 were by Europeans and 20 by Americans.
The Thai government hopes to increase revenues to 4 billion baht within five years. To lure foreign filmmakers, the government has given an eight-year tax break for companies, foreign or local, to invest in film production and reduced income tax on foreign actors to a 10 percent flat rate.

More collaboration with foreign filmmakers could help the local industry build up its know-how, said Surasak Sunpituksaree, of Thailand's Federation of National Film Associations.

Export income from Thai-produced films in 2004 increased fourfold, from 800 million baht (US$20 million; euro15 million) baht to 3.2 billion baht (US$82 million; euro61 million) as more Thai films have been screened abroad, Surasak said.

Foreign films made in Thailand this past year include Oliver Stone's Alexander, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and the critically lauded Two Brothers.

Iconic films shot in Thailand include the Bond thriller The Man With the Golden Gun (shot in Bangkok and Phuket's Pang Nga Bay), the Cambodian war drama The Killing Fields (see Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia for more about this), Brian De Palma's Vietnam War drama Casualties of War (made in Phuket), Bruce Lee's feature debut The Big Boss, and Danny Boyle's The Beach, which set off an environmental controversy as it was shot in a pristine national park island lagoon.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Ratings system considered by Cabinet

Thailand's Cabinet is considering two bills that promise to mark the beginning of a new era in the country’s film industry through the introduction of a rating system that may make censorship a thing of the past, The Nation reported.

Vice Minister for Culture Veerasak Khowsurat explained that a new National Film Policy and Planning Board (NFPPB) would issue guidelines and rules about the rating system, with detailed explanations of how the movies should be rated.

Seats on the NFPPB are to be shared equally among three parties: filmmakers; film viewers; and civil servants, academics and media members.

Veerasak said the bills would also require the establishment of a Film Promotion Fund, which would encourage research and development in the film industry.

Thailand has no ratings system for films. It relies on the Censorship Board, set up under 1930s legislation, in which a board of police officers and other officials view the films and snip offending scenes with scissors or cover naughty bits with Vaseline.

At various times, the censorship was heavily applied to Western films, as well as Thai films. I remember a sudden cut in crucial but carnal love scene between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in the theatrical screening of Monster's Ball but in the past year or so I have not noticed many scenes being cut or smudged in imported films.

Thai filmmakers, on the other hand, tend to practice self censorship, to avoid having their work held up by the Censorship Board. Recent films that came under the board's scrutiny include Nonzee Nimibutr's Jan Dara, which had explicit sexual themes, and Bandit Rittakol's The Moonhunter, which was political in nature.

While I think that any regulation that provides a much-needed update to the 1930 censorship law is a good thing, I wonder if ratings will really change the way Thai films are produced?

And it's not just Thai films. All directors in the studio system are encouraged to pander to the biggest common denominator -- mainly the treasured 18-34 demographic.

In the US, NC-17 ratings are generally avoided, as they are too restrictive in terms of audience. So the films are toned down in violence, drug-use and sexual themes to make them rated R, PG-13 or even PG. The result is films that are homogenous, dull and forgettable.

So rather than a draconian government board wielding power, it is industry itself, dumbing the films down to make a buck. The filmmakers themselves have to fight a more formidable foe in expressing their art. Their enemy is the system itself.

Within the confines of that ratings system, a few decent films emerge each year. And in Thailand, where the film output is miniscule compared to Hollywood, the number of truly great films will continue to be just a trickle of one or two a year, maybe even less frequent.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Film conservation gets political

Now I understand why the Culture Ministry has an axe to grind. Its head, Anurak Chureemas, is a former (I read failed) filmmaker. So when a film conservation festival was set up, one of the films was his 1981 feature, Sai Sok, which was produced by none other than Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The festival runs on December 24 at the National Film Theatre, which I think is somewhere in Bangkok. I haven't heard anymore about this or what other films are being shown.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Pangs for Hollywood

The Hong Kong-born, Thailand-based twin-brother directing team of Danny and Oxide Pang are headed for Hollywood. They have been signed by producer-director Sam Raimi to direct Scarecrow, which starts production in 2005.

At the same time, The Eye, the film that elevated the Pangs to worldwide cult status, has been bought by Tom Cruise, who is doing a remake.

Nothing new about the Cruise development and The Scarecrow. But it's all part of a story by Agence France Presse that trumpets Hollywood's continuing infatuation with all things Asian.

The focus of the story is that Hollywood is looking to Asia for other things besides kung-fu and action films, citing recent remakes of Ringu (The Ring) and Japan's Shall We Dance.

Of course action and martial arts remain a big staple, and the story mentions Thailand's Tony Jaa and Ong-Bak, saying "perhaps the hottest new Asian talent to emerge in 2004 was Thailand's Tony Jaa, billed as a successor to the legacy of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for his amazing dexterity and daredevil stunts during fight scenes.

"He sprang to prominence in Ong Bak, which proved a huge hit in Thailand, and also drew audiences around Asia and in France, where it was distributed by Luc Besson's EuropaCorp.

AFP appears to still be outside the loop on Tony's big-budget followup, Tom Yum Goong, due out next year.

The story mentions the taut HK police drama, Infernal Affairs, which will be remade by Martin Scorcese as The Departed, with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio taking the roles played by Andy Lau and Tony Leung in the original. It will be reset in Boston.

Wong Kar-wai will start shooting next year on The Lady from Shanghai, starring Nicole Kidman.

The story also mentioned Wong's 2046, which due out sometime soon I hope in Thailand. A lawsuit by Thai pop star Bird has held up the Thai release of the film. Filmed in Bangkok, scenes involving Bird ended up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps his scenes could be included on a DVD? Come on, let us see it.

The story mentioned Clean, due to screen at the Bangkok International Film Festival. It stars Wong's "longtime cinematic muse", Maggie Cheung, who portrays a junkie rock star in the film directed by her ex-husband, Olivier Assayas.

South Korean director Kang Je-gyu, whose Korean War epic Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (now playing in Bangkok), told AFP: "I don't want to limit myself to making films just for Koreans." The film has been widely reviewed by the US press.

Oh, and Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy, is also being remade by Hollywood. Nicolas Cage said during a visit to Seoul that he was keen to play the lead role.

Animator Hayao Miyazaki also appears set to conquer new frontiers in 2005 with his latest fantasy, Howl's Moving Castle, which broke box office records on its debut in Japan in November and will be released in 50 countries this year.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Personal cute stuff

The Jakarata film festival screened Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's take on the moody yakuza drama, Last Life in the Universe as well as a Singaporean schoolboy comedy, I Not Stupid.

It was a chance for filmmakers from neighboring Southeast Asian countries to meet and greet, according to the Jakarta Post.

"Southeast Asia is close in terms of each other, we are next to each other but never see each other's films," said Thai film activist Chalida Uabumrungjit.

She met with Singaporean director Yuni Hadi and Malaysian director Amir Muhammad at the Kuching Film Festival in 2001, and they decided to establish S-Express, a network of filmmakers who concentrate on short films.

"We want to encourage people to do it. The independent film scene has improved. At the Rotterdam Film Festival next year, there will be a new segment called Southeast Asian Eyes. That is a good opportunity for filmmakers," Chalida said.

In terms of quality, Chalida said the region's filmmakers were now more technically savvy.

"The content is quite diverse, but since there has only been Hollywood and Chinese films, short films still tend to be like those. Everybody, like, wants to be Wong Kar-wai. But there are also filmmakers who want to do something else, an experimental semi documentary," she said of Thailand's short film scene.

Chalida said that Indonesian films were more political in content compared to those in her homeland.

"Most Thai films are about personal cute stuff."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Big names for Bangkok International Film Festival

Bangkok's biggest, glitziest film festival, the Bangkok International Film Festival, will be held from January 13 to 24.

The organiser, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, is throwing around some big names to get people excited about what is one of at least three competing festivals held in Bangkok each year.

Among the celebs said to be attending are Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irons, Sigourney Weaver, Colin Farrell, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joel Schumacher, Bruce Beresford, Kevin Spacey, Penelope Cruz and Francis Ford Coppola.

About 150 movies have been selected, including 16 Thai films, among them 2004’s top-grosser, the slick thriller, Shutter. No word on what some of the other Thai films will be.

Shutter will be in competition with acclaimed movies like Old Boy (the Cannes’ Grand Prix winner), Clean (which won Maggie Cheung the Cannes’ Best Actress award ), The Motorcycle Diaries and Spain’s The Sea Inside.

The festival will be spread across Bangkok, encompassing the Apex cinemas, Major Cineplex Central World Plaza, Grand EGV and SFX the Emporium. Even the little boutique art cinema House has been drafted to screen films for next year's festival.

The festival warms up on January 8 with an open-air screening in Benjasiri Park of The Sound of Music, complete with sing-along subtitles. The show starts at 8pm.

The opener is Red Dust, a post-apartheid courtroom drama that stars Hillary Swank as the lawyer of a promising South African politician (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who confronts a police officer who tortured him years earlier.

Among the celebs, Joel Schumacher will received a Golden Kinnaree Award for Career Achievement. His Phantom of the Opera will have its Southeast Asian premiere on January 20 at the festival. It's the second year the award has been bestowed.

In 2004, the career Kinnaree went to Oliver Stone, who just happened to be in Thailand anyway, filming Alexander. Related to that, the recipient of the festival's Crystal Lens Award will be presented to Rodrigo Pietro for his body of work including Alexander.

Many of Schumacher's films also will be screened in a tribute category, including Veronica Guerin, Tigerland, Phone Booth, Bad Company, Batman and Robin, A Time to Kill, Falling Down, Dying Young, Cousins, The Lost Boys and St Elmo’s Fire. Actors from a number of these films will participate in the tribute.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Overture to Oscars

Thailand's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards is The Overture, a historical drama by director Itthisoontorn Vichaitak.

The biggest question this begs is why The Overture and not Tropical Malady, which played the Cannes Film Festival and won a jury prize? The answer has to do with the process of choosing which film to send to the Oscars, something I still don't understand. The film industry or a body overseeing the film industry of each country makes this decision. And in Thailand, the process favors the mainstream companies and the Culture Ministry. So an indie filmmaker like Malady's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has to go outside Thailand to find backers, is clearly out of the loop.

The decision to send The Overture particularly smacks as work by the Culture Ministry and Thai government, which absolutely fell in love with the film when it came out in 2003. Ever eager to promote its vision of Thai culture -- traditional, chaste, polite -- I can see why The Overture appeals. The epic story is about a Royal court xylophonist, following his career from the late 1800s to the Japanese occupation of the 1940s. A crucial scene involves a xylophone duel. It's a rich display of traditional Thai classical music, but overall the film is overly melodramatic and bland.

Contrast this with Tropical Malady, a contemporary look at the Thai countryside and the romance between a soldier and a local boy. But then the film breaks off into a second part in which the soldier is alone in a foreboding jungle, searching for a lost man but is dogged by the ancient spirit of a tiger god. Though the second part has to do with an old folk tale and is a fine example of Thai culture, it's the lighthearted romantic comedy of the first part that likely turned off the government, squeamish about putting a gay story out there for everyone in the Academy to see.

So the lacklustre Overture will be up against such powerhouse films as Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, The Sea Inside by Spain's Alejandro Amènabar or Les Choristes by Christophe Barratier from France.

In all, there are 49 countries vying for the foreign-language Oscar. Among them is Malaysia, which submitted an entry for the first time. Saw Teong Hin's tragic romance, A Legendary Love, is the most expensive film ever made in the Malaysia. The film is also known as The Princess of Mount Ledang, which was shown at the recent International Film Festival of India.

(Via Rotten Tomatoes forums, cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Boxer wins Silver Peacock

Beautiful Boxer took second prize, the Silver Peacock, at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, while the top prize, the Golden Peacock went to Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's The Beautiful City.

More than 60 films were in competition at the festival.

Among the other films was Law Teong Hin's Malaysian epic, The Princess of Mount Ledang about a Hindu-Muslim romance in the Hindu Majapahit Empire centred around a royal princess in Melaka. Said Law Teong Hin about his film: "Our hope is that films like mine would get picked up for distribution in India."

He said The Princess is "by far the biggest made in Malaysia".

"There's not much awareness of Malaysian films anywhere in the world. They've hardly travelled," the filmmaker admitted.

But things are changing with a whole new wave of younger producers. The number of films made in Malaysia has grown from 12 a year to about 30.

"Censorship is really tight. Even exposed armpits can be a problem. Our film got cleared with no cuts though," Law said.

Ekachai Uekrongtham's Beautiful Boxer also made a big splash.

"It's pretty overwhelming to be here. I was unsure how my film would be accepted because India has its own strong culture. But people were coming out and hugging me. One lady was in tears," Ekachai was quoted as saying by New Kerala.

The film is a real life story about a kick-boxer who believes he's a girl trapped in a boy's body and sets out to master the most masculine and lethal sport to achieve his ultimate goal of total femininity.

Beautiful Boxer will be hitting INOX multiplexes in the subcontintent, after it was picked up in a sidebar film market.

Multiplex operator Arun Sharma struck the deal. "[Beautiful Boxer] has already been sold in more than 30 countries and I liked it so much that I approached the distributors and decided to take it up for screening at my multiplex," Sharma said.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Review: Citizen Dog

  • Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng.
  • Starring Mahasamuth Boonyarak, Songtong Ket-Utong.
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on December 9, 2004.
  • Rating: 5/5
Wisit Sasanatieng focuses on the contemporary urban scene in his romantic comedy Citizen Dog. It’s an even stranger world than the one he depicted in his stunning debut four years ago, Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger),which embraced the concept of cowboy-hatted gunfighters riding horses across the plains of Central Thailand in the 1940s.

First and foremost, Wisit’s world is a colourful place. To the untrained Western eye (like mine) it appears to be influenced by The Wizard of Oz withYellow Brick Road yellows, Dorothy dress blues, Emerald City greens and ruby slipper reds. But really, Wisit's sensibilities are 100 percent Thai. His true influence is the Thai melodramas of the 1950s and 60s -- the true "Golden Age of Thai Cinema" -- something he wanted to recreate in Tears of the Black Tiger and updates in Citizen Dog.

It's a weird world. Red motorcycle helmets rain down from the sky, conking an ironically helmet-less motorcycle taxi driver on the head and turning him into a zombie. There's a cute little girl named Baby Mam who dresses like a stroppy 20-year-old, smokes cigarettes and ignores her teddy bear Thanchai. And Thanchai? He’s a foul-mouthed wise guy who drinks whisky and also smokes.

Grandmas are reincarnated as geckos. The characters from a serial romance magazine step from the pages to knock on doors. And a mountain of plastic bottles dominates the Bangkok skyline, reaching clear to the moon.

Oh, and there's a taxi-cab passenger who has forgotten where he is going and compulsively licks everything with his tongue.

This is the world that Pod (punk-band guitarist Mahasamuth Boonyarak) lives in. He’s a country boy who moves to the city and takes a job in a sardine factory. One hot day, in a scene right out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, the assembly line goes haywire and, in all the confusion, he chops his finger off and it ends up in a can on the shelf at the grocery store. He searches everyday, buying can after can of sardines. Eventually he sees a can jumping around and opens it to find a finger. He attaches it simply by pressing it into place.

But something doesn’t feel right. He must have someone else’s finger. During a lunch break, he recognises his own finger on a guy who’s getting ready to pick his nose. He wrests the finger away and gives the guy the other finger in return. The nose picker is named Yod (Sawasdiwong Palakawong na Ayudhaya), and the two become friends.

Not wishing to lose any more fingers, Pod quits the factory and becomes a security guard. On the job in an office, he meets Jin (fashion model Sangthong Ket-uthong), a maid who has her nose perpetually buried in a mysterious white book written in a foreign language that she dreams of someday understanding. She has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which makes her want to constantly clean and set things in order. This is an admirable trait for a maid, but it doesn’t make her very popular with her co-workers.

Pod is smitten. He sees her face everywhere – in a light bulb, in a plate of fried rice, even in his Bruce Lee Game of Death movie poster. He wishes to be closer to Jin, like Yod and his unbelievable sexy Chinese empress girlfriend. Those two consummated their relationship on a crowded bus and have the tickets to prove it. Pod asks Jin if she would like to ride the bus. But Jin refuses, saying she breaks out in a rash whenever she takes crowded public transport. Pod quits his job as a guard and becomes a taxi driver so he can drive her to work. Bangkok’s red and blue taxicabs fit especially well with the set design, by the way.

Though she wears the same bright blue uniform everyday, Pod makes a point of telling her how beautiful the dress makes her look. She thinks he’s crazy. Maybe he is. From the fat cop directing traffic to the puppies in Pod’s dog’s litter, everyone is wearing the same blue dress.

Eventually, he expresses his true feelings for Jin, but by then she’s become obsessed with a hippie Westerner (Asian film critic and subtitlist Chuck Stephens) whom she believes is an environmental activist. She starts collecting plastic bottles, gathering enough to create a literal mountain, and joins an environmental protest rally.

On the surface, Citizen Dog is a romantic comedy, but really it’s a satire, poking fun at hectic urban life, cell-phone chatterers and kids hooked on video games and ignored by their parents. Wisit wants to comment on materialism and conformity. Something that reminded me of all the generaic products in Repo Man, the characters in Citizen Dog are given labels. Depending on his job, Pod’s uniform says “Factory”, “Security” or “Taxi”. Jin’s label is “Maid”. And Jin revels in the conformity of joining a crowd of protesters.

Both the lead actors are making their feature-film debut. Mahasamuth is a guitarist, singer and songwriter in a punk band called Saliva. Songtong is a fashion model with aspirations of making it big in the art world. Both are wonderful in this film, especially Songtong who reminds me a lot of Audrey Tautou or even a Steven Soderberg-directed Julia Roberts.

There's a dog motif that manifests itself in many ways. The sardine brand is called "Dog With Helmet". There is a concrete dog statue outside the office building where Pod works as a guard. Also, the company is called Good Boy Industries. Baby Mam's parents have a statue of a dalmation in their living room. Pod has a mother dog and a litter of puppies outside his home. And the name of the band that does the theme song (which is played over and over in many variations throughout the film) is Modern Dog.

From the zombie biker to the granny gecko to the talking teddy bear, there's a lot to take in. We're helped along the way by folksy narration from one of the other leading lights of Thai cinema, Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

But there' still some confusion. Somehow, Pod becomes a celebrity because he’s the only guy in Bangkok without a tail. His grandmother warned him he would grow a tail if he moved to the city. But somehow, he escapes that fate, and his hounded by reporters and packs of teens wanting to see his tailless derriere. If he does grow one, he’ll just be one of the crowd, the “citizen dog” alluded to in the title. The Thai title is Mah Nakorn, translated as "Dogville", meaning Bangkok is a city of dogs. It’s a confusing, oblique concept because the tails that everyone supposedly has aren't ever seen. And this is despite tons of other photographic tricks. It detracts a bit from the overall enjoyment of the film. But that’s part of its appeal. It gives you something to think about long after you’ve left the cinema. There is a lot to enjoy in Citizen Dog and enough to make repeated viewing worthwhile. I hope it will be out on subtitled DVD and on the international circuit soon.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, December 6, 2004

Tokyo catches Malady

An article in the New York Post reports that the top prize at Tokyo FilmEx went to Tropical Malady, "an inscrutable jungle yarn by that Thai director with the unpronouncable name, Apichatpong Weerasethakul".

Co-sponsored by Office Kitano, Tokyo Filmex was founded five years ago as a thinking person's alternative to the city's glitzy, long-running International Film Festival.

(Thanks Sebu! Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Tom Yum Goong press junket

Pushing to top the cult-hit success of Ong Bak, Sahamongkol Film International spared no expense recently in flying 60 Thai journalists down to Australia for the filming of Tom Yum Goong, the big-budget sequel.

Buzz about the movie has also hit the web, with some posts at KungfuCinema, among other places. There's also tons of pictures here and here.

The Nation's Parinyaporn Payee and Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee (sorry, link is now archived) were there. Here's some of Kong's story:

"We want to show that a Thai film can be made with an international standard, with international locations and crew," Sahamongkol's big boss Somsak Techaratanaprasert beamed. "With the blockbuster success of Ong-Bak overseas, we hope to push it up to the next level."

That level means a 200-million-baht budget, making Tom Yum Goong the second most expensive Thai film ever after Suriyothai. The next level also means 90 percent of the shooting will take place in Sydney ... Australian crew, required by the Aussie law, shuffle about along with the Thai ones. Foreign cast, though their names are not entirely familiar, include the two-metre-tall giant Nathan Jones, a wrestling star, and the hunkish Johnny Nguyen, an LA-born stuntman who arrives with a unique reputation: he was the stunt double for Toby McGuire in Spider-Man.

But the brightest star is our local lad Panom "Jaa" Yeerum. Dubbed the next Bruce Lee, the new Jackie Chan, the kick-butt maestro, etc etc, this humble Isaan boy who catapulted into the global spotlight after his neck-cracking opus in Ong-Bak generated flurries of ticket sales everywhere from Bangkok to Paris and Tokyo to London.

"I'm sure the action will be more intense," Jaa says wiping sweat from his forehead. "We have foreign action stars joining us, and we've planned more stunning Muay Thai moves. It's going to be fun."

In Ong-Bak Jaa plays a country bumpkin who travels to Bangkok to retrieve a stolen Buddha image. In Tom Yum Goong, he plays a country bumpkin who travels to Sydney to retrieve a stolen elephant. The culprit is a femme fatale who runs an evil empire out of her Thai restaurant called, what else, Tom Yum Goong. No wonder the motive behind the film's title is to advertise the saucy Thainess of the action to foreign markets -- just like the famous shrimp soup has done to the world.

Jaa, bent on finding the lost elephant, clashes with three baddies as the Sydney Monorail rumbles over his head, and ends up teaching them a few physical education lessons with his elbows.

"What's the movie?" a woman asks me. "A Thai movie" I say. "Who's in it?". I tell them. She nods and says "Hmm." Never mind, Ong-Bak will open in Australia next February, at about the same time Tom Yum Goong will open in Thailand.

Jaa sprints along, springs himself up, double-kicks two minions mid-air with each of his legs, and on the way down training his right elbow to the unfortunate skull of Johnny Nguyen, who duly collapses to the ground. Such magnificent athleticism, even more stunning in real life, is the genesis of Ong-Bak's no-stunt, no-wirework motto.

Shoddy narrative and subpar acting are not a nuisance, instead easily compensated for with a series of cool, photogenic setpieces administered by the hero. That worked with Ong-Bak, and director Prachya's certain it'll work again in this sequel.

Indeed, Jaa's skull-smashing move is so cool that, perhaps for the first time in the brief history of contemporary Thai cinema, the journalists successfully plead with the director to call for a retake so we can snap up photos. Unusual reason for a retake, but for an investment of this magnitude, the promotion blitz starts even before the film's finished.

Prachya and his crew plan to spend a month shooting around Sydney. The more time Down Under, the more the budget balloons. But Prachya bites his lips to admit that it's his own call; the writer-director wrote a script with Sydney in the story. And now, rushing to finish the final shot of a long day, he can't refute that it's all more burdening that he'd first imagined.

The director says he's chosen Sydney because he'd shot two music videos here back in the early 1990s, and fell for the laid-back charm of the city. "But when we're working full scale, with 50 crew people, it's more complicated than I first thought. I happened to specify Sydney in the script, so we've got to stick with it. But back then I had yet to scout locations in France and the US, and come to think of it now, perhaps those two countries might've been more convenient for us!"

Prachya's big headache now is a key scene which involves a live elephant, one that the Jaa character comes to rescue. "Australia, as you know, is so strict about forbidding the import of any live organism," the director says. "Bringing an elephant here is a giant task. But we must find a way to do it. There's no other way else to shoot that scene."

Topping one's own hit is an equally giant task. Prachya's erected a formidable barrier for himself when Ong-Bak raked in 120 million baht -- plus a few hundred million more in the international market. In Paris alone the ticket sales were something close to seven million euros. "I'm aware of the stake. But I think this is going to be a better movie. I believe that."

Before the evening folds, Sahamongkol screens a freshly-cut teaser of Tom Yum Goong to the journalists and the crew, who rub their hands in anticipation.

Reportedly this teaser created quite a stir among foreign buyers when it was shown at the recent American Film Market, and indeed the two-minute promo clip is packed with the same kinetic vigour that constituted the rough appeal of Ong-Bak, complete with Jaa's lethal choreographs and a chase scene in long-tailed boats (it was a pack of tuk-tuk in the first film).

Parinyaporn offers more on the plot and cast:

In the story, a young man named Khon (Jaa) who grows up with an elephant named Kham tries to help rescue Kham’s brother, who has been sold by Thai gangsters to Australian thugs. Khon ventures to Australia, where with the help of a Thai prostitute (played by Bongkot "Tak" Kongmalai from Ai Fak and Bang Rajan), he endeavours to find Kham’s brother and bring him back to Thailand.

Mum Jokmok, who also appeared in Ong Bak, also pops up again in a buddy role, this time as a Thai policeman.

"It’s not the second episode. Actually, we worked a lot to develop a new plot so it shouldn’t seem cliche," said Prachya.

And in order to head off gripes that too much muay Thai might make the new film too similar to his last one, the director has spiced up Tom Yum Goong with different martial arts like wushu and kung-fu, which are practised by the villains.

This time, the muay Thai hero played by Jaa squares off against a bad guy played by Australian Nathan Jones, a former wrestler and contestant in the Strongest Man in the World competition, who previously appeared in Jackie Chan’s First Strike, and more recently in Troy as the guy who gets stabbed by Brad Pitt early on in the film.

Also appearing as a mafia boss is transvestite Jing Xing, who was the first Chinese ballet dancer to get a scholarship to study in New York with the famous Martha Graham. Today she has her own ballet team and performs around the world with them when not portraying pretty but scary villains on the big screen.

Jaa said that the film’s action scenes, which he helped his mentor Phanna to choreograph, will use an ancient muay Thai style loosely based on the movement of elephants.

"In the movie you will see martial arts that remind you of the elephant," he said.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Alexander's elephants

Alexander was partially shot in the central Thailand province of Saraburi, which stood in for India. The Nation's Ken Ywin wrote about the Thai angle recently.

Along with the Royal Thai Army serving as extras, the cast included actor Bin Bunluerit of Bang Rajan, playing an Indian king and Jaran Ngamdee a prince.

The battle to be filmed in Thailand was the fierce forest conflict that takes place while the Macedonian king and company are traveling through India and clash with the troops of an Indian king at the River Jhelum. The soldiers face dramatic weather, a landscape inhospitable to their military formations and, of course, war elephants. The Macedonians had never encountered anything akin to the giant beasts that the Indian soldiers employed in combat.

Working with the Thai army "was a very interesting cross-cultural exercise,” said retired Marine Corps Capt Dale Dye, who was hired to train the crew. Dye is a long-time cohort of Stone, having served as the military adviser and action director on Platoon. “I had just given up an entire Moroccan army, and immediately picked up an entire Thai army. They were great, and very, very quick to learn, despite the fact that we were teaching them tactics and weaponry that are 2,300 years old.

“We were able to quickly form them into phalanxes and teach them how to break apart and regroup, which was necessary when navigating the foliage of the forest, unlike on the open desert battleground of Gaugamela.”

In the thickly forested landscape, Dye was faced with the same practical challenges that would have confronted Alexander – the phalanx was forced to break up, separate and lose its cohesiveness and unity in order to navigate around natural obstacles.

The presence of enormous, strikingly costumed war elephants added a dramatic new dimension to the battle scenes.

“An elephant is going to do what an elephant is going to do,” said Dye. “They aren’t interested in hitting marks. But we had an extraordinary bunch of elephants who were trained by mahouts since they were calves. They were extremely well disciplined.”

To assure the safety of the film’s animals, conservationist Richard Lair, co-founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, and the Thai government’s chief veterinarian, Dr Preecha Puangkham, were present during the training and filming.

Miraculously, throughout the two-and-a-half-week filming of the forest battle, no injuries were caused by the elephants, nor were any animals harmed.

“They were amazing,” said Oliver Stone of his pachyderm thespians. “It really seemed as if they were enjoying themselves, and their discipline was extraordinary.”

Needless to say, the mayhem inflicted upon the elephants in the course of battle was entirely fabricated by the special and visual effects departments, along with Steve Painter’s busy prosthetics division, which was responsible throughout filming for providing extraordinarily realistic depictions of the cruel physical effects of war on humans and animals alike.

While none of the animals was hurt, the ferocity of the forest battle, however carefully planned and staged, resulted in a fair share of bruises among the actors and stunt players, including Farrell.

Joining Farrell on the injured list were a few of his co-stars, none of whom sat out the battle on the sidelines. Like the warriors they became on film, the actors sucked it up and hurled themselves back into the fray when they were needed.

Around 1,500 soldiers per day had to be equipped for the forest scene with 14,150 pieces of equipment: 1,000 sarissas (five-metre lances), 2,500 shields, 2,500 swords, 900 bows and 11,000 arrows for the Macedonian and Persian cavalry, as well as for the elephants.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Winter crop

In addition to Citizen Dog, there's a bunch of other homegrown movies out in Thai theaters at the end of the year, reports Parinyaporn Pajee in The Nation.

Among this winter crop, there's MAIDS, or Jaew, about secret, crime-fighting maids. It's by Yongyooth Thongkongtoon, the director of Iron Ladies. Early teasers, featuring maids with M-16's hidden in their broom closets, made this film look pretty entertaining. New longer previews play on the fact that one of the characters is a Burmese hilltribe woman and therefore doesn't understand things about elevators and elevated trains, implying the stereotype that she's just a dumb hillbilly. This is getting a lot of laughs, but I don't find it funny. Too bad.

Other year-end films include:
  • Khun Krabi Phee Rabad (SARS Wars), an action comedy from debuting director Thaweewat Wanta.
  • Er Rer!, a heart-warming story of a friendship between a boy with Down’s Syndrome and a naughty girl.
  • Sagai United, an exploitive sports drama from Mae Bia director Somching Srisuphab about members of the elusive Sagai hilltribe from southern Thailand who come to the city for a soccer tournament.
  • My Space, a student-produced film from Thammasat University, it's a drama about a man and a woman who live in the same apartment building and strike up a friendship.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)