Saturday, January 29, 2005

Oscars snub Asia

I've always thought the Academy Awards were pretty meaningless as far as recognizing a year's truly great cinema. I won't go into all the shortcomings here.

I'm most disappointed in this year's nominees for best foreign film.
  • As It Is in Heaven (Sweden)
  • The Chorus (Les Choristes) (France)
  • Downfall (Germany)
  • The Sea Inside (Spain)
  • Yesterday (South Africa)
What's missing from that list? How about a film from Asia? Why is it so heavily weighted toward European films?

No Hero nor House of the Flying Daggers. No Old Boy nor Spring Summer Fall Blah Blah Blah. No Nobody Knows nor Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (in fact, the animation selections this are horrid, except for The Incredibles) And no Tropical Malady.

The way the nominees are chosen is the big part of the problem. An article in the New York Sun highlights some of these. Each country picks a film and sends it to the Academy. So not only are there problems within the Academy, each country is susceptible to hang-ups, favoritism and graft when it comes to the "byzantine" system of submitting films for consideration. The Sun mentions Thailand:

Which films countries choose to submit tells a lot about how they want to be perceived by the rest of world. Thailand snubbed Tropical Malady - which won the Prix du Jury at Cannes - presumably because the film's gay content violated the government's recent order to cut down on the portrayals of homosexuals. Instead, they sent The Overture, a conventional story of Thailand's last great classical musician, Luang Pradith Phairao.

What if Tropical Malady had been sent instead of the overly commercial Overture? Well, judging from this year's choices, which eschew Asian cinema altogether, it probably wouldn't have been selected, though it would have been a better choice. It's difficult to really discern the entire list of films that are submitted each year, except for fragmented, anectdotal evidence. It's a process that needs more light shed on it.

The Sun offers the entire list of films submitted for Oscar's consideration, noting the The Overture will be shown in North American sometime in the summer of this year.

  • Afghanistan - Earth and Ashes
  • Argentina - A Lost Embrace
  • Austria Antares
  • Belgium - The Alzheimer Case
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina - Days and Hours
  • Brazil - Olga
  • Bulgaria - Mila From Mars
  • Canada - Far Side of the Moon
  • Chile - Machuca
  • China - House of Flying Daggers
  • Croatia - Long Dark Night
  • Czech Republic - Up and Down
  • Denmark - The Five Obstructions
  • Ecuador - Cronicas
  • Egypt - I Love Cinema
  • Estonia - Revolution of Pigs
  • Finland - Producing Adults
  • France - The Chorus
  • Germany - Downfall
  • Greece - A Touch of Spice
  • Hungary - Kontroll
  • Iceland - Cold Light
  • India - Shwaas
  • Iran - Turtles Can Fly
  • Israel - Campfire
  • Italy - The House Keys
  • Japan - Nobody Knows
  • Korea - Tae Guk Gi (Brotherhood of War)
  • Macedonia - The Great Water
  • Malaysia - A Legendary Love (The Princess of Mount Ledang)
  • Mexico - Innocent Voices
  • The Netherlands - Simon
  • Norway - Hawaii Oslo
  • Palestine - The Olive Harvest
  • Philippines - Crying Ladies
  • Poland - The Welts
  • Portugal - The Miracle According to Salome
  • Romania - Orient-Express
  • Russia - Night Watch
  • Serbia and Montenegro Goose Feather
  • Slovenia - Beneath Her Window
  • South Africa - Yesterday
  • Spain - The Sea Inside
  • Sweden - As It Is In Heaven
  • Switzerland - Mein Name Ist Bach
  • Taiwan - 20:30:40
  • Thailand - The Overture
  • Uruguay - Whisky
  • Venezuela - Punto y Raya

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, January 28, 2005

Something in Rotterdam

The International Film Festival Rotterdam has started and runs until February 6. As usual it boasts a number of Thai films. In fact, this year it has a huge category devoted to Southeast Asian cinema called SEA Eyes that features films from just about every Southeast Asian nation.

The Thai feature films being shown are:
  • The Adventure of Iron Pussy - The gender-bending musical spoof of James Bond films and bad Thai dramas.
  • Beautiful Boxer - A more commercial gender-bender, this is a biopic about kickboxer Nong Toom who underwent a sex change.
  • Birth of the Seanama- A silent experimental film by Sasithorn Ariyawicha.
  • Happy Berry - Documentary about a clothing boutique by Thunska Pansittivorakul.
  • The Overture- Mainstream historical epic about a Royal court musician.
  • Tropical Malady - Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes-winning indie triumph.
There is also a package of short films compiled for a showing called Thai Dusk, Thai Dawn.

Among the shorts is Unseen Bangkok, from Happy Berry director Thunska. It's about a cameraman trying to have a serious conversation with a man who has an erection. Thunska runs a network of independent directors and has a website,

Other films include Malaysia's, The Beautiful Washing Machine, which won the Asean Award at the Bangkok International Film Festival. Another noteworthy film is Perth, from Singapore, which was also in competition at BKKIFF and was one I wish I had seen. An independent film, it focuses on the seamy side of emmigration for Singapore's rarely heralded underclass.

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee joined a seminar on What is Thai Cinema?, featuring filmmakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ekkachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer), Sasithorn Ariyawicha (Birth of the Seanema) and film critic Chuck Stephens (Peter/Andre from Citizen Dog).

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

BKKIFF 2005: Hit Man File is the closing film

The action thriller Hit Man File, or Sum Mue Puen, was the closing film at the Bangkok International Film Festival.

It is directed by Sunanjit Bangsapan, who was responsible for the abysmal women's prison drama, Butterfly in Grey.

The movie depicts the life of a hit man, a former soldier, who lives on contracts to kill people. This basic plot outline mirrors Chatrichalerm Yukol's Gunman, and I have to wonder if this isn't just an out-in-out remake, dolled up with new, pretty stars.

An article in the Borneo Bulletin gives everything away. However, it points out the futility of the hitman business and says the film is trying to "demonstrate that killings are not necessary, as they will never end especially when a death is being revenged." Probably, I'll wager, this film was not necessary, either.

The Borneo Bulletin report said the stars of the film were present at the closing ceremony, and they demonstrated their ability in martial arts for the crowd.

The cast is huge and has impressive credentials.
  • Chatchai Plengpanich, a veteran actor who starred in Chatrichalerm's Song of Chao Phraya and appeared in Salween and Suriyothai.
  • Saranyoo Wongkrachang, an actress, was in the 1995 Cherd Songsri film, House of the Peacock.
  • Suntisuk Promsiri, who played the father in Jan Dara.
  • Bongkote "Tak" Kongmalai, who was in Ai Fak and is in the upcoming Tom Yum Goong.
  • Pitisak Yaowananont, who portrayed the titular character Ai Fak.
  • Nirut Sirichanya, who was in Siam Renaissance and is the father of actress model Porchita "Benz" na Songkla (Jeaw).
  • Sompop Benjatikul, from Macabre Case of Prom Pirum.
  • Thanit Jitnukul, the director of Bangrajan, makes an appearance.
Released under the Sahamongkol Film International marque, it's produced by Somsak Techaratanaprasert, written by Sananjit Bangsapan, photographed by Teerawat Rujintham, edited by Sunit Asvinikul with production design by Withaya Chaimongkol, sound by Ramintra Sound Recording Studios and score by Chatchai Pongprapaphan.

Hit Man File was put in the BKKIFF schedule to replace Tom Yum Goong, which organizers hoped would be ready in time for the festival. I noticed the schedule change when I was at Siam Theatre to see Wai Onlawon. The movie's title had been hastily pasted onto the board.

I had noted earlier that Ong-Bak star Tony Jaa had been injured in shooting and the release had been pushed back to April. I am still unaware of the extent of his injuries. But I should have also noted that Tony Jaa was present in Hong Kong recently for a tsunami relief benefit.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, January 24, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 awards: Beautiful Washing Machine wins top Asean Film

A low-budget, independent Malaysian film, The Beautiful Washing Machine, was named the Best Asean Film at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival.

Directed by James Lee and produced by Lorna Tee, the film cost 50,000 Malaysian ringgits (about US$13,000) to make.

Here's more from the New Straits Times:
The Beautiful Washing Machine is Lee's fourth feature after Snipers, Ah Beng Returns and Room To Let. The festival marks his 18th participation at an international film festival.

Lee was not [in Bangkok] to receive the award as he was busy wrapping up two short films he was producing.

He was heading for Rotterdam International Film Festival, where his movie is among the entries.

"The film was shot on the Panasonic DVX-100, which was generously loaned to us. And we couldn't have made it without the support of F&N Sarsi [a popular brand of sasaparilla-flavored soda] and Alexis Bistro," a beaming Tee said.

Teo Gay Hian's handiwork as the director of photography, she said, gave the film a visual quality comparable to Lee's previous productions.

"The director, producer and actors didn't get paid, you know."

The movie tells the funny story of Teoh's second-hand washing machine, from which emerges a woman, who washes when she wants and stops when she feels like it.

When Teoh discovers the secret soul of the temperamental slave, he exploits her for all his other household chores.

"When our filmmakers go to festivals, they don't only represent their films but also the country. It's important for the authorities to recognise this," said Tee.

She also hoped to prove that independent films didn't necessarily spell empty cinema halls.

"There is a discerning public, at least in the urban areas, that appreciate the cutting-edge works of independent filmmakers.

"I really hope to see a Malaysian film festival that showcases a good balance of mainstream and independent works," she said.

Beautiful Washing Machine beat out 14 other entries from Southeast Asia, including the lavish Malaysian historical epic, the Princess of Mount Ledang. According to NST, that film cost 16 million ringgit. It was reportedly the most expensive film ever made in Malaysia.
In a later interview with the New Straits Times, Lee said his triumph in Bangkok has opened a new chapter in his career.

“I’m confident and have more faith in my work now,” said Lee, who has completed two short films, A Moment of Love and Bernafas Dalam Lumpur, which is his first attempt in Malay and stars Namron, Mislina Mustaffa, Azman Hassan dan Mohammad Hariry.

More Golden Kinnaree Awards:
  • Best Picture - The Sea Inside, directed by Alejandro Amenabar.
  • Best Director award (tie) - Christophe Barratier, Les Choristes and Park Chan-wook, Old Boy.
  • Best Actor - Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside.
  • Best Actress (tie) - Annette Bening, Being Julia and Anna Geislerova, Zelary.
  • Best Documentary - Born Into Brothels.
    • Special Mentions:
      • Touch The Sound - for giving inspiration through sound and artistic treatment.
      • Final Solution - for the courage of reflecting realities
  • New Voices Award [for new directors] - Bharatbala, Hari Om.
  • Lifetime Achievement Award - Vichit Kounavudhi.
Being Julia co-star Jeremy Irons accepted the trophy on Bening's behalf.

Recognition was also given to Wong Kar-Wai for his contribution to the Asian film industry. His 2046 and In the Mood for Love were both shot in Bangkok and had post-production work done at Kantana in Bangkok.

Director Joel Schumacher was honoured with the Career Achievement Award for his work over the last two decades. In his acceptance speech, Schumacher said: "I think it shows great courage and compassion of the Thai people to have given us a festival after the tragedy they've suffered", in reference to the devastation left by the December 26 tsunami.

Schumacher's latest film, the adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, had its Asian premiere at the festival. Four of Schumachers films, The Lost Boys, Falling Down, A Time to Kill and Phone Booth, were shown in a retrospective.

Other celebrities who attended were director Oliver Stone, Michael Douglas, Gerard Butler, Miranda Richardson; Being Julia actress Lucy Punch; Julianna Margulies and Bai Ling. Christopher Doyle, Dante Spinetti and Rodrigo Preito were on hand for a cinematographer's discussion on how to film sex scenes.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Son of the Northeast

  • Directed by Vichet Kounavudhi
  • Starring Tongparn Phontong, Chanpen Siritep, Krailad Kriang-krai and Pailin Somnapa
  • Screened as part of the Vichet Kounavudhi Retrospective at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

This is Vichet Kounavudhi's masterpiece. Screened as part of a four-film retrospective, I saw three of his films, all from the early 1980s. The only one I missed was First Wife, which didn't have subtitles.

Based on the book, A Child of the Northeast (Luk Isaan) written by Kampoon Boontawee (winner of the 1979 Seawrite Award), this is Vichet's strongest film. The pandering and racism of Mountain People and heavy-handed melodrama present in Her Name is Boonrawd - is less evident here.

Son of the Northeast is more of a slice of life film about a group of close-knit familes living in hardscrabble northeastern Thailand - an area known as Isaan - in 1939. A drought has stricken the region, as it always seems to, so rice growing isn't happening. The families are reduced to eating whatever they can find - lizards, snakes, dung beetles (picked from cow manure piles that are territorially defended by the young boys), spiders, turtles, small birds, etc.

The king of the little manure pile is the titular son - Keng, and his parents are rock solid. Around them are the village drunkard, a younger horny guy, a pretty niece (object of a horny guy's affections) and a Vietnamese merchant.

Culturally, the area was traditionally rural and settled by farmers who speak a different dialect - more a mix of Lao and Khmer than Thai. This dialect was adhered to in the film. So there were Thai subtitles in addition to some haphazard English subs.

Part documentary, the wildlife photography is particularly vivid - lizards on tree limbs, turtles and snakes crawling through the grass.

The film opens with another group of families leaving the area. It's just too damn dry. But Father of Keng (as he's referred to by his friends and neighbors) wants to hold on. It's his ancestral land.

After about an hour and a half of sweating it out in the arid region - and dealing with an old drunkard, a greedy Vietnamese merchant, a horn-dog guy forced into marrying the pretty niece at machete- and gunpoint - the families decide enough is enough. They pull together and build nets, forge tools and build carts and head for the river to catch enough fish to make it through the season and have some foodstuffs to trade on. So more travelogue. But it's all really vivid and beautifully shot.

The only quibble I have with the film is one girl's character - a girl who wanted to run off with a folksinger but was locked up naked in her room by her mother. The girl escapes, gets some clothes and goes to the city. She returns wearing an outfit that is straight out of 1982, or 1965, or 1973. Whatever. I don't think they were wearing those colorful getups in 1939.

But other than that, the way of life in Isaan is depicted as it had been lived in 1939 and probably for hundreds of years before that and for at least a couple of decades afterward. Today, water buffalo are replaced by diesel-powered tillers and tractors. Pickups have taken the place of ox-carts. Grass and wood huts are replaced by stifling hot, land-eating concrete monstrosities. Rice paddy acreage is gobbled up by superhighways, factories, housing estates, military bases and golf courses -- progress.

Son of the Northeast is a love letter, a picture postcard, a souvenir to a long, lost, romantic past - a simpler, though very impoverished and hard-ship filled time in Thai history.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

BKKIFF 2005 review: Mountain People

  • Directed by Vichet Kounavudhi
  • Starring Montree Jenaksorn, Walaikorn Paovarat, Supavadee Thiensuwan and Petcharat Indharakamhaeng
  • Screened as part of the Vichet Kounavudhi retrospective at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

A well-meaning movie in its day, Mountain People comes off today, in these more politically correct, sensitive times, as being horribly racist and condescending to the hilltribes of northern Thailand.

It starts out as a documentary, showing the various hilltribes and their characteristics as if the various groups were zoo exhibits to be gawked at. And if the specimens happen to be virgin Karen girls (you know their virgins because they wear white dresses) wading in the river, pulling up their dresses and showing their bare butts, there's really something to gawk at. Later on, there's some more skin shown with a whole bevy of hilltribe girls in the buff, bathing in the rapids of a stream.

The men, the documentary notes, know only four things: Eating, drinking tea, drinking whiskey and having sex with their women. That's all there is to life. The women do all the work.

The documentary ascends up the mountain. It depicts the all knowing, caretaking Thai government going into the village, telling the tribespeople about family planning. But they are stupid. A doctor demonstrates how to put the condom on his thumb. And that's exactly what one man did and he ended up with two kids. But another guy has had 12 kids. The doctor suggests a vasectomy. He is taken to a covered army truck for the operation. When it finally dawns on him what is to happen, he gets the heck out of there. So he's not so stupid.

After that bit of uncomfortable comedy, the drama starts, centering on a young guy named Ayo in Burma's Shan State who goes from village to village, selling dogs for people to, well you know, eat.

Back in Ayo's home village, he sees his best girl. Turns out she's pregnant. They have to get married. The woman has twins - a bad omen in the village. Rather than being seen as a blessing, the two fine strapping baby boys are viewed as the spawn of the devil and are killed. The new mother and father are banished from the village. Their hut is burned. But he gets some opium to take along so he can trade it for food. They are to go into Thailand and live with the guy's uncle. It's a long journey, involving a river crossing. The young woman doesn't make it.

Ayo forges on. He comes across a village that has been converted to Christianity. There is a white guy preacher leading the choir - singing hymns in hilltribe dialect. They help their fellow man, even though he's from different tribe. With some food and parting gifts, he's on his way.

Soon he spies a the bevy of primitive beauties bathing. A column of Chinese traders soon comes on the scene and heck breaks out. The Chinese are all over this part of the country. They are the bad guys in this movie. It's true, though way overdramatized. When Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomingting Nationalist forces fled China, some went to Taiwan and some went to northern Thailand and Burma's Shan State, where they remain a powerful force today.

Ayo ends up with a big bump on his head and is taken in by yet another tribe until he heals. Being a randy primitive guy, he gets involved with another tribal girl.

Soon it's time to move on. They head back to the Christian village and are given land and a hut. It's an interesting couple - different tribes, different governing spirits now under God and orders not to grow opium. But those pesky Chinese guys show up with pretty trinkets and the lure of opium growing can't be denied. Of course it leads to more soul-crushing drama.

Okay, with respect the drugs message - and today yaa baa (amphetamine) production is the big problem - the movie scores some good, socially conscious points. But it is still so heavy handed with showing how simple and stupid the hilltribe guy is. Those people need the Thai government's help, doesn't everyone see that?

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Pisaj (Evil)

  • Directed by Chukiat Sakweerakul
  • Starring: Ammara Assawanon, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Theeranai Suwanhom, Alexander Simon Randell
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004; in the Asean Competition at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

With the Thai government's drug war as a subtext, Pisaj (Evil) is a far smarter thriller than it appears.

The story involves Oui (Pumwaree Yodkamol), a big-eyed young woman who turns up at the door of her aunt Bua. The aunt lives in a shophouse and runs a printing plant in the building. She lives upstairs on the third floor. Bua is given the job of caring for her nephew, Bua's grandson, Arm, as well as cleaning the place. There's a fourth floor, but nobody lives up there, because, well you know, it might be haunted.

Arm (Simon Randell) is a tough little kid, but he seems kind of strange. Turns out he sees - what else? - dead people. He forbids Oui from using a cabinet to store her things because ghosts live there.

Things go bump in the night. "We must have cats again," says Auntie Bua when the three of them are eating and something makes noise on the vacant floor above.

Oui is haunted by the vision of her parents being killed, which she witnessed on the roadside when the family had stopped to change a tire. A couple guys on a motorcycle walked up. Now Oui sees one of the motorcycle men. She needs to take tranquilizers to get some sleep, but even those don't seem to help. The motorcycle man slits her throat and she lays bleeding on the floor.

The tale gets weirder and weirder. Auntie Bua wants Arm to finish all the liver on the plate. Arm can't stomach it. He eats a piece of liver and pukes it up in the sink. What the heck is that all about? Arm has some strange scars on his back. He had a nanny before, who locked him in the bathroom and left him there. So now he's scared to use the toilet at night. He uses the cabinet instead. Did she put those scars on his back? What is he scared of?

Well, Arm has acknowledged that there are ghosts in the building. But if you see them, he advises, do not acknowledge that they exist, because they don't know they exist. Understand? Also, there are some spooky noises being made. Oooooooooo.

Auntie Bua has something weird going on. Turns out she's a mystic or a physic, involved in some sort of Indian mysticism. She has a whole shrine set up in her house, which is not unusual in Thailand. But as is noted later, there's not a Buddha image to be found in the room.

The suspense ratchets up when one day Oui and Arm are locked in the house with no way to get out. They do get some help from one of the print-shop workers (Theeranai Suwanhom, from Goal Club), who brings them some food. Later, he breaks into the place, though it is unclear how he got in.

It seems there are ghosts in the print shop. One of them gets in a cabinet Arm is hiding in, and he can't ignore her because she's all bloody and has blood drooling from her mouth. Then granny, Auntie Bua, comes home. She's in her full Indian Goddess regalia. She seems to be in some sort of trance and pulls out a sword and starts stabbing things. The print shop guy (can't remember his character's name) climbs in the cabinet and tries to use his phone. He calls the print shop and the ghosts answer. He tries to call the cops and his phone dies, of course. Why didn't he call the cops first? Well, Auntie Bua is stabbing the cabinet.

When the story resolved itself, I was left wondering what the heck I'd just seen. Was it all an illusion, a dream, a nightmare? Very strange. But I enjoyed it.

I especially enjoyed watching Pumwaree Yodkamol, a slight young woman with an expressive face. She was the female lead in Ong-Bak, and played a one-dimensional character. Here, she had a chance to show her acting chops. There was another actress, too, who I believe portrays a Karen hilltribe woman in the comedy, Jaew, who I enjoyed was well.

What really struck me was how there would be a television or radio playing the background and news about the 2003-04 drug war would come on, citing deaths and concerns by human rights groups. I can't help but wonder if this was a statement by the filmmakers, branding the drug war as "evil" by virtue of it being mentioned in a movie titled "evil". Maybe the ghosts on the fourth floor were victims of the drug war.

I've been thinking about this movie since watching it. I now feel that it didn't go far enough. Though there's a subtext about the drug war, it didn't directly have anything to do with the action on the screen. This connection should have been made, and made strong. As it was, the action was all goofy, with people running around, and that Indian mystic waving her sword around. But it still didn't go far enough either way - being a campy comedy, or a serious, scary thriller.

Though confusing at times, I did feel a pretty high level of suspense, and was entertained as well. It appears this film has gone to VCD without so much as a peep (or English subtitles). I hope it gets more international recognition, though.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

French Muay Thai

Likely hoping to building on the success of Ong-Bak's 1-million-served theatre run in France, there's now a French kickboxing movie called Chok Dee, according to Kung Fu Cinema.

Opening on February 16, the movie stars Dida Diafat, one of the France's top Muay Thai competitors. He plays a convict named Rayane who is introduced to Muay Thai while in prison and upon his release travels to Thailand to join a Muay Thai training camp where he undergoes strenuous conditioning and must prove himself as a foreigner. He eventually ends up fighting in an underground circuit.

Kung Fu Cinema says that from the trailer, Chok Dee appears to be a more serious film about Muay Thai fighting than Ong Bak. While it may lack the insane action, it looks promising nevertheless, the website says.

This is at least the second French Thai boxing film I know of. There's another one out there called Fureur, which I thought was horrible. Avoid that one.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Top 5 Thai films of 2004

1. Tropical Malady

As a frequent contributor to this site, Sebu, has said, this film has revolutionized storytelling. It's taken me awhile to come around to the greatness of this film, which won a jury prize at Cannes. Now out on DVD, I was able to fully appreciate the film. I'm still unable to pinpoint what it means to me personally, but I recognize its greatness and especially think the performances by the two actors, Sakda Kaewbuadee (the country boy and the tiger shaman) and Banlop Lomnoi (the soldier), were especially superb.

2. Citizen Dog

It didn't seem possible that Wisit Sasanatieng could top his first effort, the visually stunning homage to westerns and classic Thai melodramas, Tears of the Black Tiger. And he didn't quite, as Citizen Dog bogs down somewhat with narrative. But visually and conceptually, it's even more of a feast than Tears of the Black Tiger because it reimagines contemporary Bangkok's urban scene and has some insightful moments of great satire. It has a great soundtrack as well. Hopefully it will be picked up for the festival circuit in the next year. I also have my fingers crossed that the DVD release will have English subtitles, but then I might buy it anyway, just for the music.

3. Ai Fak

Though it starts out light, Ai Fak, or The Judgement, moves into heavy, depressing drama, but is still well acted (especially by Pitisak Yaowanon, in his feature debut) and beautifully filmed. I was very disappointed that the DVD release didn't have English subs, but I have been chided by more literary types that the source material, the S.E.A. Write Award-winning novel by Chart Korbjitti, Khamphiphaksa, is available in English translation. I hope to see this film get some attention on the festival circuit in the coming years.

4. The Adventure of Iron Pussy

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has had a busy year. When funding mechanisms bogged down for Tropical Malady, he switched to this campy low-budget musical, which is co-directed by the star, Michael Shaowanasai, who portrays the title character, a transvestite secret agent. He tackles the role with relish, even in his alter ego as a male 7-Eleven clerk. All the dialogue and songs in the digitally photographed movie were post-dubbed by famed Thai voiceover actors. The effect is highly entertaining. This is one to pick up on DVD!

5. Shutter

I'm not a big fan of horror, and admittedly, I'm scraping the bottom of my barrel here. There were 43 Thai films released last year, and I only saw about six or seven of them. But I did honestly enjoy Shutter, though I recognize that it is pretty much a stock thriller that relies on music cues to make you jump at the right (and wrong) moments. Still, great visuals and a decent performance by Ananda Everingham make this film. It was the top box office earner among Thai films and is being exported to other Asian countries, including Hong Kong and Singapore. I expect it will be picked up by film festivals in the coming year.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Urging the industry

The Bangkok Post sent a business reporter to attend a discussion on Thailand's film industry at a film market exhibition that was part of the Bangkok International Film Festival. Not surprisingly, the experts said more needs to be done.

The industry needs to not only address its local obstacles to growth but also look for opportunities abroad. They noted that other countries, particularly China, are opening their doors to investment in the movie industry, with Hollywood studios such as Columbia TriStar already having set up a studio on the mainland.

Christopher Knight, a senior manager of PricewaterhouseCoopers (Thailand) Co, said that Thai producers should form ties with producers in China and Hong Kong to position themselves for future growth.

At the same time, Thai producers needed to team up to lobby for stronger incentives from the government if they were to compete with other countries.

Film standards also needed to be improved to meet international levels, while more had to be done to crack down on piracy.

Rick Griffiths, partner in technology, information communications, entertainment and media group of PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada, said the Thai industry had lost opportunities to produce films for foreign studios due to the lack of bilateral treaties with other countries.

Canada, for instance, maintained treaties with both Hong Kong and China to allow production crews of the two countries to take advantage of financial aid for film projects.

Mr Griffiths said developed nations would play a supporting role in promoting the local industry by providing financial support for independent filmmakers.

Pantham Thongsang, producer of Tifa Co, a production house wholly-owned by GMM Grammy Plc, said that Thai independent film producers faced difficulty in the market due to the lack of state support.

''Last year was a diamond year for the Thai film industry, with many films like Cannes-winner Tropical Malady, Beautiful Boxer or Ong Bak succeeding in the international market,'' Mr Pantham said.

''But what next? I worry that the industry will not have quality films to go abroad.''

The government should offer state subsidies to local independent filmmakers, and thus support industry growth, Mr Pantham said.

He pointed to countries such as South Korea, France, Australia and Canada as good examples of how state support helped spur industry growth.

More examples how tough it is for filmmakers, especially indie directors, can be found in the documentary Malady Diary, which chronicles Apichatpong Weerasethakul's struggles in getting Tropical Malady made.

Of course, some business is getting done at the festival, the Bangkok Post reports. Film deals worth at least US$250 million are expected to be concluded during the five-day trade show.

Last year $100 million of film deals were done at the film market. The number of exhibitors this year - 300 - and attendance - 500 - is triple last year's.

The largest foreign delegations are from China, India, Japan and the US.

"Bangkok has quietly and quickly become what I believe to be the premier film capital of Southeast Asia. Some of that is because of the brilliance of the independent films that are made here," film market organizer Christine Rush told the Bangkok Post.

She said Bangkok featured some of the most advanced production facilities in the world and Thailand had become a favourite shooting location.

Here's more on the deals from the Post:
Tae Sung Jeong, chief operating officer of Mediaplex Inc, a movie production house in South Korea, said the company was in talks with partners from Japan, China, Thailand and Hong Kong to set up a company to finance films that would be released worldwide.

The move would tap the growing popularity of Asian movies, with $30 million injected into the company to finance about 15 films a year within the next five years.

The Thai partner would be Matching Studio Plc, he said.

Director Nonzee Nimubutr (Nang Nak, Jan Dara) said a $6-million movie project called Queen of Pattani was in a pipeline by partners from Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. The Thai investor would chip in around $1.5 million on the film based on the history of Pattani and due to be released in late 2006.

Nonzee said the films would be released in Asian countries and western markets. There would be more collaboration between Asian partners in the film industry in the future to expand the target audiences and share expertise between film makers.

However, Nonzee suggested that the government should exclusively promote the film market instead of connecting the event with tourism.

In another development, Matching Motion Pictures has joined with Universe International (HK) Co in a 200-million-baht production of a thriller entitled Re-cycle, featuring Thai movie star Jetrin Wattanasin and Hong Kong starlet Lee Sinje.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Elephant boy

Yuya Yagira, the young star of the Japanese drama Nobody Knows, for which he won the best actor nod at Cannes last year, has been in Thailand, making his next film. The movie is about a boy who has developed an empathy for elephants, and in order to make the film, the crew came to Thailand. The Bangkok Post was on the scene.

Yagira comes across as a rather quiet teenager, his shyness accentuated by those deep, mournful eyes, which struck a chord to many cinema-goers.

This undeniable appeal is probably the reason why he's landed himself a role in another touching drama called Little Randy and Shining Boy, due to be released in Japan around May. The movie was inspired by the real-life story of Tetsumu Sakamoto, a boy born into a Japanese family with an animal-import business. Painfully withdrawn, Tetsumu had major problems socialising with his peers. Then one day he encountered elephants for the first time and realised that he had the ability to communicate with them.

"Elephants are forced to come to Japan. They try their best to heal the human spirit but they have to live and die in small concrete pens,'' the boy wrote at some later point.

After he graduated from primary school, Tetsumu's parents agreed to send him to Thailand to be trained as a mahout. And the task of portraying this latter-day Dr Doolittle is Yagira's latest cinematic challenge. The young actor was recently in Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai for a location shoot.

"One, two, three, down," he orders in broken Thai. Wanpen, the two-year-old female elephant he's been working with the whole day, responds to the awkward command and kneels, lowering her enormous bulk to the ground. She then lifts her trunk to support the teenager as he climbs down from her back. They've practised the manoeuvre umpteen times already so it goes off relatively smoothly. Up on her back again Yagira gives every appearance of being the professional mahout, controlling Wanpen skilfully, showing no sign of discouragement or exhaustion.

After the training session ends, he rewards the animal by hand-feeding her some bananas.

The interview gets off to a slow start, the actor initially coming across as nearly as painfully shy as the character he's playing. "I'm enjoying this very much,'' he allows.

So what attracted him to the film?

Well, the story is so inspiring. I almost cried after reading the script.''

For this is ultimately a tragic story. Tetsumu Sakamoto's dream was to find a place where elephants could live out the last years of their lives after they had become too old to work. But before he got a chance to put the plan into action he was killed in a car accident. He was only 20 years old.

Sayuri, his mother, later set up an elephant camp in Japan in remembrance of her son. It now houses nine elephants and Tetsumu's younger brother, Taka-aki, has become a mahout [an elephant handler]. Now the same age as Tetsumu was when he died, Taka-aki is helping to train Yagira for the elephant-handling scenes. His mother, now 50, has travelled to Chiang Mai to act as a consultant for Little Randy and Shining Boy.

"This is the story of a hero. Tetsumu was a real hero with a big heart," said Chunsaku Kawake, best known in his native Japan for directing TV drama series. This, his cinematic debut, is being co-produced by Fuji TV and Toho Film.

"We plan to use Thailand as a base location to produce more projects -- such as a samurai film and an action film -- in the near future," said producer Hiroyoshi Koiwai.

"Professional teams. Superb service. All the standard equipment. We can get everything we want here," he added.

The Japanese title of the film could be literally translated as The Boy From a Star, a reference, perhaps, to a belief in life after death. Well, if that is the case, perhaps Tetsumu is looking down on us now, proud that his dream of an elephant refuge has materialised but also pleased, perhaps, that his life, short as it was, has inspired a full-length feature film.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

6ixtynin9 in 6eattl9 - and beyond

Ruang Talok 69, or 6ixtynin9, a 1999 crime thriller by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, has been playing in the Seattle area. It's encouraging to see a resurgence in interest in this film, before it is remade.

I'm hoping my local arthouse cinema here in Bangkok will screen it, along with Fun Bar Karaoke - two Pen-Ek films I've not yet seen.

And now, it's available on DVD from Amazon.

Here's what Seattle Weekly had to say about it:

"I'm lucky," says Tum (Lalita Panyopas), an attractive young Bangkok secretary, but she's being ironic, having just been fired from her job. Returning home, however, she discovers a box full of cash that changes her fortunes and creates a growing number of corpses in her apartment. Who's the killer? Surely not the meek, mousy Tum, right? Well . . . let's just say the girl discovers some hidden resources while caught between two incompetent criminal gangs. This low-key 1999 black comedy by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang recalls Into the Night and Apartment Zero as Tum is led into darker and darker territory during the course of one long day. It's "just like a movie," exclaims one friend, and 6ixtynin9 does indeed feels assembled from other movies. (The title of this SIFF favorite from 2001 refers to Tum's flipping apartment number, not to your smutty thoughts.) While lacking one outstanding scene or a big climax, the leisurely film does maintain an amusingly drab, deadpan comic tone throughout, plus a wealth of colorful supporting characters.

And the Seattle Times:

Bangkok is in an economic crisis at the beginning of "6ixtynin9," a stylish, deadpan thriller from director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. A group of blue-blazered secretaries at an unnamed financial corporation draw straws to find out which three are being laid off; an elevator at the apartment building of Ms. Tum (Lalita Panyopas), the last woman fired, is out of order (even the "Out of Order" sign, which lies dirty on the floor, is out of order); and the number on her apartment door, "6," keeps slipping into a "9."

It's this last detail that proves the most important. Shocked by her sudden dismissal, Tum walks dazed through the rest of her day. The economy stinks, she doesn't have much money, she resorts to shoplifting. At home, she contemplates suicide by drinking cleaning supplies. The next morning, she finds a noodle box filled with 1 million baht outside her door — left there, we find out later, because of the 6/9 mix-up.

At first she doesn't know what to do; the money's obviously not legit. This becomes painfully clear when two bruisers show up — one young and good-looking in a neck brace, the other pockmarked and pony-tailed, both wearing warm-up suits emblazoned with "Kanchit's Thai Boxing" on the back.

When the two deadpan thugs begin to argue over which brand of noodles is imprinted on the box, you suddenly realize we're verging into Pulp Fiction territory. These are the quirky-but-deadly variety of crooks. Less proficient than Quentin Tarantino's bad guys, they are just as prone to calamitous happenstance.

Before long, they're dead. Before long, more bodies are piling up in Tum's apartment.

Their boss is Kanchit (Black Phomtong), a fat Buddhist who lovingly combs his long hair and runs a kickboxing dojo where his students/gangsters, all clad in the same warm-up suit, sport bloody bandages. The next two flunkies he sends to Tum's apartment include a deaf kickboxer who answers phones.

Although everyone around Tum is absurd in some fashion, she is not, and that's one of the movie's strengths. Her stunned, halting reactions, as she finds herself in the middle of a gang war, ground the picture. Her point of view is often surreal, but in a real way.

But it's Ratanaruang's stylish direction that recommends the movie. From the first shot, a silent close-up of a woman's face, we know we're in the hands of someone talented and assured. Ratanaruang knows which detail to place in the foreground (a ringing phone) and which to let us search for in the background (a Princess Di coffee mug). His colors are vivid and pure under "natural" lighting and sickly under low-grade fluorescence. The soundtrack is uncluttered. Clocks tick. Birds chirp sweetly after people die. The pace is unhurried.

There is a plan to remake "6ixtynin9" in Hollywood, with Jim Fall (The Lizzie McGuire Movie) directing. Be the coolest person on your block and see this one first.

And the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

The critical success of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's lovely Last Life in the Universe has encouraged the belated release of his sophomore feature (which played at SIFF back in 2001). 6ixtynin9 has been described as Tarantino-esque and it's an apt comparison. Ingeniously engineered, self-consciously clever and directed with snazzy style, it's played as a violent black comedy with often-gruesome punch lines.

Mousy, meek Tum (Lalita Panyopas) has just been downsized from her secretarial job practically at random (she drew the short straw) and reduced to shoplifting her dinner from a local market. Just as randomly, a small fortune in small bills stuffed in a suitcase is dropped off at her door.

It's a mistake, of course. The number 6 on her apartment door keeps slipping down into a 9, which just happens to be the apartment number of a shady fight promoter and a pair of thugs returns to rectify their mistake. They bat her around until the mouse roars and fights back, improbably killing the two and frantically searching for some place in her little room to stash the corpses.

As she makes plans to flee the country with her fortune, a parade of brutal gangsters, corrupt cops and nosy neighbors converge on her tiny studio. Tum transforms from retiring victim to ferocious survivor as she masters the art of scrubbing a murder scene clean of blood and corpses and her apartment gets a lot more crowded.

Ratanaruang never quite reconciles the jaunty tone with the ruthless nihilism and Panyopas' Tum remains something of a blank, a corrupted innocent at the center of a cast of larger-than-life eccentrics.

More interesting is the culture around it -- a depressed, desperate world that makes this fortune all the more attractive. It's Tum's way out of an existence that has beaten the hope out of her, but as each casualty makes her more desperate and determined, it also saps a little life from her.

Although 6ixtynin9 doesn't really offer the audience anyone to root for, the vivid figures in an overcrowded, underemployed, bleak urban landscape remain fascinating, if only for the cruel humor of their fates.

6ixtynin9 is also available in New York, notes the New York Post:

There are multiple references to Psycho, but the director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, whose Last Life in the Universe had a theatrical run here last year, told Cine File that he was more influenced by the Coens' Fargo.

Oh, yes. The title has to do with the number on the door of the unfortunate woman's apartment, not what you might think.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

BKKIFF 2005 review: Wai Onlawon

  • Directed by Piak Poster
  • Starring Pairoj Sangworiboot, Lalana Surawan, Jirawadee Issarangkool na Ayuthaya, Somkuan Krachangsatr, Somjit Subsamruai
  • Originally released in Thailand in 1976; reviewed at 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 4/5

According to a Thai co-worker the title can be loosely translated as "time of confusion", which is certainly apt, because confusion reigns in this story of a young man named Tum and his struggles in courting a young neighbor girl, Oh, and working his way through college.

If there were such a thing as a metrasexual Thai man back in the 1970s, it would been this character. He's a country boy and can do hard, physical labor, like farming or construction, but he can also make tasty desserts and can sew. A real renaissance man, you'd think he'd be a cinch to pass the university exams and get into the Faculty of Architecture. He doesn't get in, though, and has to sit out a year before trying again.

In the meantime, he takes on some young students as a tutor. Not only is the guy a regular handyman at anything, he's a math whiz as well. His troubles begin when his landlady brings over her youngest daughter for help with her schoolwork.

A nosey neighbor is watching Tum and sees something going on and lets her imagination run wild. Soon, the neighbor lady and her husband are at Oh's parent's house, blabbing about what they thought they saw. It's all a big misunderstanding, but face has been lost. Oh's old man forbids her from seeing Tum again.

The eldest daughter, whom Tum had taken a liking to earlier in the film, goes over to try and patch things up and get Tum to move out. Tum refuses and drives a wedge between him and the older girl.

A rivalry then develops between Tum and Oh's domineering, drama-prone father.

Tums goes over to the family's home and confronts the father, declaring that "someday I will marry your daughter", which was just plain weird.

Tum grows obsessed with the younger girl, angling for ways to meet her and talk to her and help her with her schoolwork. It's kind of sick, really -- at least while she was wearing a junior high uniform and the short hair. Later in the film, she's a college student and the relationship seems more natural. Anyway, by then it's a given -- Tum and Oh are destined for each other.

Another co-worker briefly bumped into me after the film and said "everything about that film was morally wrong".

But it was funny.

Tum devises a plan to spy on Oh and help her with her schoolwork by crawling under her house and slipping notes up through the crack in the floor where she sits to watch TV. In order to do so, he needs to bribe the dog with some meat. The smiling, happy, friendly dog with its tongue wagging got some of the biggest laughs.

But the plan goes awry when Oh's mother sits on the floor to watch some television and feels Tum's pencil poking at her from underneath. Think it was some "bugs" that Oh fibbed about earlier when she was seen fooling around with the crack in the floor, the mother gets a pot of boiling water and pours it through the crack. That took care of the bugs.

Other notes:
  • The restored print seemed choppy, like it was several films spliced together. It seemed like it be five or six episodes from a well-done television sitcom.
  • When Oh is celebrating her birthday, Tum devises a plan to wrap her present up in plastic, swim in the canal to her house using a makeshift snorkel and somehow give her the gift. The Jaws motif is used while Tum is swimming.
  • At the party, Tum is mistaken for a thief and the shotguns come out. Oh's father and the neighbor across the canal are blasting away. To escape, Tum runs through some debris and steps on a board with a nail sticking up. He is seen limping the next day but nothing ever comes of it. The injury is forgotten about.
  • Oh spends a lot of time learning how to dance for Tum's big graduation ball. Tum instead gets drunk and doesn't want to dance. This is another bit that seemed to go nowhere after a big buildup.
  • The multi-talented Tum gets into the university play. He's playing Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire. Oh plants herself onstage and refuses to budge because she's upset about Tum's intimate interactions with the actress portraying Stella. A school official gets Oh to leave the stage by promising the play would be canceled. But the play goes on anyway.
Tum eventually gets into the university to study law. So suddenly he's a legal expert and starts quoting the law to Oh to help her argue against her father.

Eventually, the father, seeing that he can't keep Tum and Oh apart, stops being confrontational, and tries to psychologically pit Oh against Tum. It almost works, but not quite.

They get married, but the old man still has the last laugh.

Wai Onlawon was a revolutionary film for its time. A huge hit, it was the start of a string of youth-based films from director Piak Poster and others. With some hit pop songs (performed by Tum of course; being a multi-talented guy, he can sing and play guitar), it was one of the first films to attract Thai teen-agers to the movies.

Before the festival screening, the lead actor was chatting in a press conference as part of a promotion for a new sequel to this film, Tum and Oh Return.

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Translations found

When Hollywood films play in Thailand, the titles are often changed to make them more marketable. SmartLife, a weekly teen supplement to The Nation recently did a rundown of these titles, translating them back to English:

Hollywood may make great movies, but its titles aren't always up to snuff. So the Thai film industry employs an army of experts who tweak English-language titles to make them more palatable.

Kill Bill becomes Samurai Angel. Ocean's Twelve morphs into Twelve Crowns Robbing the World. And White Chicks is renamed The Crazy Couple Dressed in Big, Sexy Bodies.

Conjuring up new titles is a tough job, especially since Thai marketers rarely see the movies before they pen their names.

"We have to come up with the Thai titles three to five months before the movies are released, but the films only arrive a month before they're show on the screen," says Pratoun Dithiphan, marketing director for Columbia Tri-Star Thailand.

Pratoun relies on a brief synopsis, a list of stars and a 30- to 90-second trailer supplied by the studio to formulate five to 10 titles. His titles are then submitted to an in-house board that votes for the best one. He says some of the best titles use words that raise curiosity among moviegoers. "I renamed Anacondas as Crawling, Shocking the World. I think it catches the eyes and ears of Thais who see or hear it," Pratoun says.

Other marketers do extensive research to devise titles. "We read film reviews in overseas magazines and surf the Web for information," says Supakorn Terasetpisal, planning supervisor for BNT Entertainment.

Based on the synopsis, trailers and research, I, Robot - a thriller about a robot rebellion - became Killing Plan of the Machines Trying to Swallow the World. And Ladder 49 - a tale of firefighters risking their lives - was re-titled Wild Unit Fighting the Fire of Hell.

"Many filmgoers, particularly those living upcountry, pay more attention to the Thai title than the original title because they lack English-language skills," explains Chavana Pavaganun of Mongkol Films. "So we search for the movie's strength and emphasise it in the title."

Often that strength is the movie's star. Arnold Schwarzenegger is known as Iron Man, the Thai title for Terminator. Bruce Willis is called Tough, the Thai moniker for Die Hard. Mel Gibson is Dangerous Man (Lethal Weapon), and Jackie Chan is Fight, which is what he does in movies.

But the strategy sometimes backfires. Julie Roberts has long been known as Blossom Woman, from the title of her first hit, Pretty Woman. When Notting Hill was released in Thailand, it became Blossom Love in Notting Hill.

"But Julia Roberts isn't a ban-cham [blossom] anymore. She has become ban-chae [withered] now that she has two kids," says Chavana. So, her pet name has been dropped.

Similarly, Richard Gere's appeal as an American Gigolo (his first hit movie) has long waned.

"Gere used to be so attractive, especially to girls, that I called him 'Prince Charming' [Theb-Pha-But] in his movies.

"But times change and the phrase Theb-Pha-But doesn't fit him anymore," observes Henry Tran, the Thailand general manager for Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp and Warner Bros.

The elements that make a good title remain elusive. "But if there's a criteria for renaming English titles, then it should describe the movie and convey its context and theme," says Chavana, a lecturer in journalism at Thammasat University. "Just reading or listening to the movie title, viewers should know what the movie is about."

So, Blade Trinity is billed as Blade 3: Cold-Blooded Immortal Species. Finding Nemo is Nemo: Tiny Fish with a Giant Heart. And Freddy vs Jason is Freddy vs Jason: The Night of Bursting Hell.

Other titles are simply transliterated into Thai. Troy and Shrek 2 use Thai characters that sound exactly like spoken English.

"Thirty years ago, all movie titles had to renamed because so few Thais spoke English," says Tran of Fox and Warner. "But now more Thais speak English, so the importance of Thai titles has decreased ever so slightly and transliterations are being used more.

In the future, it's possible there will be no more renaming of movie titles and we'll just use English titles."

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: The Beautiful Washing Machine

  • Written and directed by James Lee
  • Starring Loh Bok Lai, Len Siew Mee
  • Reviewed at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 4/5
I had heard good things about this film by James Lee, set in Malaysia. But after it was all over, I kind of wondered what all the fuss was about. Perhaps I should have stayed for the Q&A with the producer, but I didn't, as I was in a rush to get to another film at the festival. Had I stayed, I would have learned more about indie filmmaking in Malaysia.

My first reaction to this quiet, meditative film is that it was cute. It's about a guy, a bespectacled cubicle drone who has just lost his girlfriend. She's either taken all his possessions, or maybe he was such a shit that he made her do all the housechores. Whatever, he's in the market for a new washing machine. He settles for a second-hand machine, a green, front-loading Electrolux. He gets it and sits around watching the clothes go around.

A single guy, he has no clue how to get by in life. At the supermarket, he has to follow a single woman around, buying what she buys. Some stuff here, some stuff there, a 2-liter bottle of Sarsi. He's so clueless, he even follows her into the sanitary napkin aisle and actually picks up a pack of Tampax but throws it back on the shelf.

At home, the machine seems to have a mind of its own. One day, it simply stops mid cycle. There was no warranty from the store and the company that makes the machine says it's obsolete. An electrician comes over to fix it, but it works just fine.

Then one night, out of nowhere, a woman appears. She's crouched down by the machine slurping noodles and the noises of her rustling in the kitchen/utility room wake the guy up.

He promptly starts ordering her around. Do this, do that, mop the floor, wash the clothes, make me dinner. She has to handwash the clothes because the machine is still broken. He takes her out and gets her a sexy short dress, and that's all she's allowed to wear.

What happens next is even weirder, and I don't really want to go into it.

On that trip to the supermarket, another character is introduced - an old man whose has an oblique connection to the young loser.

The last half of the film focuses on him. He has the same kind of washing machine and by a twist of fate, the girl - did I mention she doesn't speak at all? - ends up with him. The old man's daughter is very suspicious. And the old man's son takes a liking to the girl.

I guess this movie is making a statement about the role and the repression of women in society, especially Asian society? I guess there are guys out there who would dream of a mute woman who was fairly attractive, put up no fuss or fight and did all the housework. The only thing missing, I guess, was that she should turn into a pizza after sex - for the total misogynist!

But it all went over my head at first. A couple of weeks later, I began to appreciate the film.

The first guy - the young loser - was a horrible character. I didn't like him at all. And the old man had some weird traits that were just laughable. Won't say too much about them, though. I supposed I'll really come to appreciate this movie if my washing machine starts acting up. But then, I have a manual washer and don't mind doing my own chores.

An anomaly at this film festival showing: during the grocery store scene, some random music by a boy band kicked in at ear-bleeding levels. Some people thought it was part of the movie, but I knew something was wrong. It didn't match the tone of the film, even if the song - crap that it was - seemed to go with the scene. It wasn't until dialogue started up (subtitles but the crap boyband sounds were still coming out) that the projectionist realized something was wrong with the soundtrack. They had to start the film over again. Very embarrassing, as the producer of the film was present at the screening.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

BKKIFF 2005 review: Malady Diary

  • Directed by Teekhadet Vucharadhanin
  • Starring Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Reviewed at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 5/5

A documentary that should be a companion piece on the DVD reveals the how hard it is to be a working, independent filmmaker.

Self produced by Apichatpong Weerasethakul's aptly named Kick the Machine production marque, Malady Diary follows the talented Thai new wave director as he tries to make Tropical Malady, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 and has received accolades from critics worldwide for its revolution in storytelling. However, the film has been all but shunned in Thailand, where it received only limited screenings and is all the more conspicuous in its absence from the line-up of the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival, given that two other films that received prizes at Cannes - Palm d'Or winner Old Boy and Clean (best actress for Maggie Cheung) are in the main competition at BKKIFF.

Apichatpong, or Joei as his crew calls him, started out trying to make the film with money from Thai mainstream studio, Sahamongkol Film. But typical flakiness when it comes to business dealings in Thailand forced Joei to look for money elsewhere, in fact from a consortium of various European sources, which was a very difficult process as well. Once shooting Malady had started, it had to stop for a week because money didn't come from France.

But the project, planned as a sequel to Blissfully Yours (indeed, Malady was partly inspired by Joei's meeting a forest ranger during the making of the earlier film), almost didn't get off the ground at all. The documentary chronicles the crew brainstorming sessions. Joei had a vision, but without the funding, it would have to be scaled back -- no tiger, no dead cow.

Time was critical, because a crew was amassed, actors' schedules were tight and the foilage in the jungle was changing. Eventually, the project was abandoned and Apitchatpong went to work for Ray Productions to make The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a campy, low-budget farce which was co-directed with Michael Shaowanasai, who starred as a drag-queen secret agent.

However, Joei was considering making a zombie movie, Zombie Truck, possibly for Sahamongkol. Hey, I'd like to see that happen at some point.

The Iron Pussy out of his system, and the funds lined up to wrap the film, they started shooting. The documentary covers the first day of shooting (the tiger) and the last day of shooting (the dead or dying cow, which was a model with two guys underneath making it appear to breath).

Other elements to the admittedly serendipituous doc are wardrobe planning, with the cast members trying on outfits and a long interview with the two main actors.

Iron Pussy herself, in character as Michael Shaowanasai was on hand with the director of the documentary for a Q&A session. This revealed even more trouble. The doc wasn't included as a DVD extra because those rights went to European producers, which put their own extras on the disc (a puff-piece, glamorous look at Joei in Cannes, though there's also a Thai commentary track by Joei). The Europeans also did not permit their visits to be filmed for the documentary. So some pieces are missing. I detected some bitterness from Michael about the Europeans' involvement. And the big question: why was Tropical Malady itself not in the Bangkok film fest? That went unanswered.

I didn't come up with a question of my own until later. I wonder if a firm like the Criterion Collection could possible sort out all the rights issues and put together a comprehensive edition of Tropical Malady, with Malady Diary, as well as an English commentary track from Joei? I'd be one of the proud owners of that DVD if it existed.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

BKKIFF 2005 review: Her Name is Boonrawd

  • Directed by Vichet Kounavudhi
  • Starring Linda Bancharoen
  • Originally released in Thailand in 1985; reviewed at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival as part of the Vichet Kounavudhi Tribute
  • Rating: 3/5

Set in Thailand during the Vietnam War era, Boonrawd (Linda Bancharoen) is a young woman living on the fringes of the prostitution scene outside an air base used by US Air Force troops stationed in Thailand.

The film opens with her enduring long hours and hard work washing dishes. Then one night her boss appears beside her bed. He takes off his Buddha amulet, prays to it and lifts the mosquito net. Boonrawd awakens but can't stop him. The two roll around under the netting and Boonrawd is left dishevelled, nauseated and emotionally scarred. The mere mention of her boss' name makes her vomit.

She runs off. A local teacher takes Boonrawd back to her home, where Boonrawd works as a maid. She gets a few baht in her pocket and goes home to the rural northeast to visit her mother. There, her lottery-addicted mother wonders why more money can't be sent. The right numbers just aren't coming up in the spots on the gecko's back. The water buffalo has run off. The farm is in debt to its landlord. There has been a drought for two years. Sister has shown up with a half-African-American (negro is the term used in this film), half-Thai baby. And she's planning on going back to the airbase and leaving the baby behind for mom to take care of.

Despite the hardships, Boonrawd refuses to go the way of her sister. She returns to her maid's job at the teacher's home. She has fallen in love with the maid's son. She gets her hair permed in the popular style of the time and wears bright-colored clothes to call attention to herself. But nothing develops. Then the teacher informs Boonrawd that she and her family have to move to Bangkok. She offers Boonrawd a job making dresses, but it will be hard work and she recognizes Boonrawd is more ambitious. Boonrawd wants her family to stand on its own. She has brought her brother to live with her and has found him work.

So she ends up having to move near the airbase at U-Tapao and starts work in a restaurant. There she is confronted by soldiers who think she's a prostitute. Aren't all Thai girls prostitutes? Even other Thais who work around the base think she's a prostitute, from the way she looks, dresses and acts. But she's not and she doesn't.

However, she strikes up a friendship with an Air Force officer, a guy who speaks fluent Thai. He likes her style, but they only remain friends. The officer goes to other girls for his pressure release. Gradually, though, Boonrawd develops feelings for the guy, which sets her up in a shrill confrontation with the alpha of the prostitute dog pack.

While delving into the Vietnam War's effect on Thailand, Her Name is Boonrawd, is overly long, too melodramatic and somewhat stale. It displays decent production values, but still had a low budget. There was little attention to anachronisms, such as the presence of vehicles newer than the 1970s and newer clothing and hairstyles on some of the extras (a Carabao T-shirt was spotted). Also, some of the "American" soldiers spoke with Aussie or Brit accents. And I don't know about some of the military materiel, whether the jets and bombs shown were the types used in the Vietnam War. I suspect not.

The scenes involving the top-dog prostitute were really annoying, as the actress overplayed her part and screamed her lines. Hmph!

But the actress portraying Boonrawd was solid all the way through. As the movie went on (and on and on and on - it was definitely more than the 104 minutes listed in the film catalog, more like 2 hours, 15 minutes), I began to appreciate her more and more.

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Born to Fight

  • Directed by Panna Rittikrai
  • Starring Dan Chupong, Santisuk Promsiri, Kessarin Ektawatkul, Nappon Gomarachun
  • Released in 2004 in Thailand cinemas; reviewed at 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 4/5

With a fine low-budget sheen to it, this ultra-violent action flick is akin to the movies made by the likes of Jean Claude van Damme or Steven Seagal.

But this is better, because neither of those guys are in it.

Instead, there's a charismatic kickboxer-stuntman as the star, backed up by Thai national athletes of varying sports.

Directed by Panna Rittikrai, the action choreographer for Ong-Bak and a B-movie director in Thailand for decades, Born to Fight, is his bigger-budget debut. But the action is all seat-of-the pants stuff - hard hits, long falls, bone-jarring crashes, big explosions - and it's all real.

The story involves a young police officer who helps capture a Burmese drug lord but loses his superior officer and mentor in the raid.

Grieving, he accompanies his sister, a star Tae Kwon Do team member (Kessarin Ektawatkul), on a trip out to a rural village, where the national athletes are donating goods to a local school.

At the village, the older brother gets into a fight with a local troublemaker (Somluck Kamsing). Then, all hell breaks loose, as villagers are cut down by gunfire. It's pretty shocking and bloody action.

It's the drug lord's army, and they are going to kidnap the village and hold them for ransom until their leader is released. They wire the village up with webcams and broadcast their demands to the Cabinet and the media.

And, they have a nuclear missile, aimed at Bangkok (there is a CGI sequence, depicting a nuclear strike on the City of Angels).

The young cop, the athletes and the villagers aren't going to take it. Soon they are using all their abilities. A number of actual national athletes take part in the action. Among them is a male gymnast, who conveniently finds parallel bars where he needs them to place kicks against bad guys. There's a takraw player (it's like volleyball, only with the feet) who kicks a grenade. The Tae Kwon Do girl gets some. There's a female kickboxer who plays a villain and so there's a girlfight. There's a little girl Muay Thai boxer who kicks some head as well. A rugby guy knocks down a wall. And an aging soccer star shows he can still score. And an even older Muay Thai man has some action left in his limbs as well. There's even an amputee, who must be a paralympic athlete, showing he can use his one leg and crutch to kick takraw balls.

When there's action going on, it's great. Born to Fight's weakness is a display of overwrought melodrama (fathers being shot while kids are watching, old monk lying dead with villagers weaping profusely, hero rushing in to defuse bomb and redeem himself for his superior's death, etc).

Also, it was hard to suspend disbelief. Why would the drug lord's army indiscriminantly shoot the elderly, women and children, but only disable the fine young strapping lads of the village with a rifle butt to the head?

Still, for fans of Van Damme or Seagal, or even better for fans of Ong-Bak, this is a fun film, just for the stunt work and action sequences.

It opened in August 2004 in Bangkok, but I missed it then. But I caught it at the Bangkok International Film Festival. It will likely be out on DVD, but am unsure about the subtitles, which are helpful when the villagers are caught up with flag-waving, nationalistic fervor singing the Royal Anthem and then rushing forward to fight for their freedom. Yaaaaaaaah!

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Bearish on Thai film

The Bangkok Post today ran a financial analysis of the past year in Thai film. The article by Christopher E Knight of PricewaterhouseCoopers Thailand noted that the Asia-Pacific region will be the spot that will see the fastest growth in the entertainment and media industries over the next five years.

However, he questioned whether Thailand's local film industry would reflect similar growth.

An indicator used for measuring growth in the filmed entertainment industry is box office revenues. In most countries, US films are consistently predominant in generating box office revenue. The exception to this is primarily in countries, such as China, that impose quotas to restrict the number of foreign movies that may be exhibited.

Local films are a variable component and the key to box office revenue growth. Improving local product should therefore increase audience interest and generate box office revenue growth. Note that the emphasis is placed on improvement of the quality of local product rather than increased quantity. In 2004, the number of Thai feature films released increase to 47, but only two Thai films managed to place in the top 10 (see chart).

In contrast, only 13 Thai films were released in 2001, but two of these films, Suriyothai and Bang Rajan, were in the top five and generated more than 240 million baht in box office revenue. Only eight Thai films, a low for modern Thai cinema, were released in 2000, but the number one film for that year was Satree Lek (Iron Ladies).

Despite the importance placed on box office revenue, it should not be equated with profitability. Of the 47 Thai releases in 2004, it is estimated that the average box office return per film was approximately 16 million baht. The average cost to produce and release a movie is Thailand is approximately 25 million baht. It doesn't take a chartered accountant to determine the sustainability of the industry given these numbers. The growing trend of shorter theatrical-to-video release windows, as well as film piracy, further impair theatrical box office returns.

Given the creative and artistic elements involved in film, it can often be overlooked that film making is a business, and like other businesses it must to profitable to grow and survive. What strategies should producers be looking at to get a fistful of dollars? There are many and as each picture is different, so too are the models and strategies used.

Product placement does not necessarily create an additional revenue stream, but it can generate funds allowing a producer to reduce production costs. Outside of Hollywood, product placement appears to be underutilised.

Merchandising rights, which include the manufacturing, distribution and sale of items such as posters, T-shirts and toys bearing the names of film characters, movie stars, film company logos and still photos from a movie, are licensed by production companies creating additional revenue from a movie. With Thai movies getting broader releases, there is a greater potential to exploit these rights successfully as musical rights and compact disc sales have been successfully exploited.

DVD and home video sales are changing the way studios view their returns. Hollywood studios have realised that theatrical flops as well as blockbusters stand to make greater returns in DVD and home video sales. Studios are therefore offering home video and DVDs sooner to increase revenues and piggyback on the marketing investment made for the film's theatrical release. With consistent enforcement of intellectual property rights in Thailand, the home video window could turn out to be more lucrative than the theatrical window.

I have to agree wholeheartedly on the merchandising aspect. For example, Citizen Dog boasted an eye-catching series of ads. But that was about it. Some cartoon characters were designed along with the campaign, but underutilized. They could have been given away at the theaters or offered as free gifts at petrol stations or fast-food restaurants. Also, where was the soundtrack album for Citizen Dog? Music was integral to the film. I would have been interested in a soundtrack CD, but it wasn't released. Seems there isn't enough interest in the old songs used in the film. But I feel more merchandising would have helped sell this film to the Thai public.

Oh, and I'm still looking for a figurine of Boonlueng, the water buffalo from Bang Rajan. That would have been cool.

Here's a look at the overall top 10 at Thailand's box offices last year. It gives a better reflection of the state of the Thai movie industry (figures in millions of Thai baht):
  1. Spider-Man 2 157.4
  2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 148.8
  3. Shutter 115.8
  4. The Day After Tomorrow 109.4
  5. Anaconda 2 94.9
  6. The Bodyguard 78.5
  7. Troy 77.9
  8. Resident Evil 2 67.5
  9. Van Helsing 67.3
  10. I, Robot 65.2

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tony Jaa injured

Tony Jaa has been injured during the filming of Tom Yum Goong in Australia, according to some press reports I can't put my hands on right now. I'm unaware of the extent of his injuries, though I am led to believe they are minor. However, completion of the followup to Ong Bak has been put off until April.

In the meantime, Tom Yum Goong is expected to be the closing film of the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival, something I didn't think was going to happen anyway, since the film was due to be released until March. Festival officials are going to be doing some fast talking for this gala closing event, which will really amount to no more than a screening of a preview reel or maybe some daily rushes from the set.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

2005 Bangkok International Film Festival preview

Glitzy and overdone as it is, this year's Bangkok International Film Festival from January 13 to 24 still has some good stuff in store. What's most exciting is a great line-up of Thai films.

In addition to bunch of Thai films from last year, including Ai Fak and Citizen Dog, there's a retrospective category for the late Vichit Kounavudhi, who will have four of his films shown. There's also a 1976 film by Piak Poster.

Shutter is in the main competition, which is somewhat embarrassing. Yes, Shutter was the top Thai film at the box office last year, but I think a stronger film could have been chosen to go up against these heavy hitters - like maybe Tropical Malady?

Ai Fak is in the Asean competition, along with a good one I missed called Pisaj, or Evil. More embarrassment comes in the form of the exploitive sports comedy Sagai United and the melodramatic tear-jerker The Letter are also in the Asean slot from Thailand. Why isn't Citizen Dog being put up for competition?

International Competition:
  • Being Julia, directed by István Szabó, Canada/USA/Hungary/UK
  • Clean, directed by Olivier Assayas, France/UK
  • Don’t Move (Non ti muovere), directed by Sergio Castellitto, Italy
  • Les Choristes, directed by Christophe Barratier, France/Switzerland
  • Innocent Voices (Voces innocents), directed by Luis Mandoki, Mexico
  • The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta), directed by Walter Salles, Argentina/UK/USA/Germany/Peru
  • Old Boy, directed by Park Chan-Wook, South Korea
  • Red Dust, directed by Tom Hooper, South Africa/UK (Opening Night film)
  • The Sea Inside (Mar adentro), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, Spain
  • Shutter, directed by Pakpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, Thailand
  • The Syrian Bride, directed by Eran Riklis, France/Germany/Israel
  • Vera Drake, directed by Mike Leigh, UK
  • Zelary, directed by Ondrej Trojan, Czech Republic
ASEAN competition
  • The Beautiful Washing Machine, directed by James Lee, Malaysia
  • Buffalo Boy (Muoa Len Trau), directed by Minh Nguyen-Vo, Vietnam
  • Crying Ladies, directed by Mark Meily, The Philippines
  • Homecoming, directed by Gil Portes, The Philippines
  • The Judgement (Ai-Fak), directed by Patham Thonsang, Thailand
  • Keka, directed by Quark Henares, The Philippines
  • The Letter, directed by Phaoon Chandrasiri, Thailand
  • Perth, directed by Djinn, Singapore
  • Pisaj (Evil), directed by Chookiat Sakvirakul, Thailand
  • Princess of Mount Ledang (Puteri Gunung Ledang), directed by Saw Teong Hin, Malaysia
  • Rainmaker, directed by Ravi Bharwani, Indonesia
  • Sagai United, directed by Somching Srisuphab, Thailand
  • Spirits, directed by Victor Vu, Vietnam
  • True Love, directed by Kyi Soe Tun, Myanmar
  • Women of Breakwater, directed by Mario O'Hara, The Philippines
Out of that, I'm interested in seeing the Vietnamese film, Buffalo Boy. I am curious to see what Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar, has to offer in the way of cinema. I also have heard good things about the Philippine movies, Keka, The Crying Ladies and Women of the Breakwater. And for sheer epic scale, Princess of Mount Ledang, will be hard to beat. Malaysia's answer to Suriyothai, it's the most expensive film mounted by that country. I also hope to catch up with Pisaj, or Evil, which I 've heard good things about.

And more Thai films in the schedule. Many of these I have not seen and know nothing about_:
  • ART OF THE DEVIL - Supernatural thriller directed by Thanit Jitnukul.
  • BE VERY QUIET - Directed by Mona Nahm, it's the story of a young man who witnessed the rape and murder of his prostitute mom when he was a child.
  • BICYCLES & RADIOS - Directed by O Nathapon, it's about two wounded souls meet on a radio talk show.
  • BIRTH OF THE SEANEMA - Directed by SASITHORN ARIYAVICHA, I have no idea what this is about.
  • BORN TO FIGHT - Directed by Panna Rittikrai, the action choroegrapher for Ong Bak, it's about a team of national athletes (portrayed by real athletes) who use their various skills to save a small village from bad guys. I want to see this!
  • CITIZEN DOG - Wisit Sasanatieng's urban love story is told with the colorful, comic style he introduced in Tears of the Black Tiger.
  • DOWN THE RIVER - Directed ANUCHA BOONYAWATANA, a young gay guy searches for the truth of his love life.
  • ENLIGHTENMENT - Directed by TANON SATTARUJAWONG, a monk attempts to retrieve his meagre possessions when his bag is stolen.
  • IS AM ARE - Directed by CHANATIP KUNASAYEAMPORN, two strangers cross paths while discovering the other dimension of life through the mysterious palm reader.
  • MAID - By the director of the slapstick gay volleyball movie Iron Ladies, Maid or Jeaw is a comedy about secret-agent maids.
  • MY FIRST BOYFRIEND - Directed by ISSARA MANEEWAT, it's about a gay guy with aspirations of making a movie and being in love.
  • MY SPACE - By WITIT KUMSAKAEW and RITHICHAI SIRIPRASITPONG, students at Thammasat University, it's about a guy and a girl living in the same apartment building who break out of their isolated routines and actually talk to one another.
  • OUR FILM - Directed by ATTHASIT SOMCHOB, a wife brings her husband for rest in Pattaya. Well, I know that doesn't make any sense, but that's what the synpopsis says.
  • PATTAYA MANIAC - The latest crime comedy from Killer Tattoo director Yuthlert Sippapak.
  • PIK-BAAN-HAO - Directed by SUPAWUT BOONMAHATHANAKORN, it's about Odd, who wishes there would be something better for his family and beloved, Yao.
  • ROOM NUMBER 3 - A mother comes to visit her daughter in Bangkok and finds that her daughter has a new roommate.
  • SARS WAR - Fluent Thai-speaking Australian TV presenter Anthony Biggs is a zombie!
  • SOOTH - Directed by PATANA CHIRAWONG. I have no idea.
  • THE ATTEMPTS - Directed by DEJA PIYARHTKUL, a mother with her newborn son desperately waits for her husband.
  • TOM-YUM-GOONG: MUAY THAI FIGHTER - I'll believe it when I see it, mostly likely not at the festival. It will be in the multiplexes soon.
  • WAI ONLAWON - From 1976, as far as I can tell, this is the debut film by Piak Poster, who made a string of (mostly youth-based?) movies throughout the 1980s. Certainly, this was the first film that really got Thai audiences and the movie industry interested in making movies about teens.
And the retrospective to Vichit Kounavudhi (PDF).
  • FIRST WIFE - From 1978. Stars Jatupol Phuapirom, Wongdeaun Indharavud and Wiyada Aumarin. Husband-and-wife, both doctors,
    Dr Vikanda has to face her husband’s unfaithfulness.
  • HER NAME IS BOONROD - From 1985. Set during the Vietnam War era, it depicts the burgeoning sex trade that developed in Thailand to service the US military. Boonrod is labeled as one of them just because of her rough appearance. However, she proves herself to be a virtuous woman.
  • SON OF THE NORTH-EAST - From 1982. Stars Tongparn Phontong, Chanpen Siritep, Krailad Kriang-krai and Pailin Somnapa. This iconic film is a semi-documentary film derived from the work of award-winning author Kampoon Boontawee, who wrote from first-hand experience of life in rural Isaan - northeast Thailand.
  • MOUNTAIN PEOPLE - From 1980. Stars Montree Jenaksorn, Walaikorn Paovarat, Supavadee Thiensuwan and Petcharat Indharakamhaeng. In another semi-documentary, Vichet focuses on hilltribe life along the Burmese border. Ayo, a young man of the Egor tribe, and his wife as they are driven away after she gives birth to twins who, according to Egor folklore, will bring bad luck to the village. Adventures lead to Ayo's involvement with a Chinese opium trafficking gang.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)