Monday, May 30, 2005

Wookiee home planet is Thailand

"Good relations with the Wookies have I."

I'd heard that Thailand was one of the locations for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and in watching the film, I picked up a certain Thai flavor now and then.

The excellent website,, validates this, identifying Krabi as the Wookiee home planet, Kashyyk.

Additionally, there were references to a planet Utapau. It's a common place name in Thailand, one of them being U-Tapao Naval Airbase, near Sattahip on Rayong province, along the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand. It was once used by the US Air Force B-52s in their missions over Vietnam and Cambodia.

2Bangkok also has a list of the Thailand-based crew used in the "additional photography" shoot:
  • Production Services Provided by Santa International Film Productions Co., Ltd. (run by Ratana Pestonji's son, Santa Pestonji)
  • Production Manager - Piya Pestonji
  • Location Manager - Somchai Santitharangkul
  • Director of Photography - Ron Fricke
  • Camera Assistant - Teera Boonsri
  • Key Grip - Surat Thongwang

Tony Jaa's third film

And some more news from Sebu, relayed from Twitch, but it really comes from Variety's Asian film blog by Grady Hendrix, Kaiju Shakedown: Tony Jaa's third film will be about sword fighting.

He reports that Sword will have Tony, director Prachya Pinkaew and mentor/action director Panna Ritthakrai delving into the ancient Thai art of double-handed sword fighting.

Up to now, the best example of this could be found in Thanit Jitnukul's Sema, Warrior of Ayutthaya, and maybe a bit in Bangrajan.

There's more from Kaiju: A look at acclaimed Thai films that have had a tough time on the international scene, notably Tears of the Black Tiger (bought by Miramax and shelved), Citizen Dog (bought by Luc Besson's Europa Corp, but no plans as of yet for distribution), Last Life in the Universe (lacklustre box-office receipts) and Tom Yum Goong (already sold, though it won't be released until August, which has Hendrix wondering if the film industry have Tony Jaa's best interests at heart, or are just trying to make hay while the sun shines on his career)

And lastly, from Kaiju, a link to an interview with stunt coordinator Xiong Xin Xin from, in which the former stuntman and actor (Clubfoot from Once Upon a Time in China) laments his place in the industry, talks trash about Crouching Tiger and has this to say about Ong-Bak:

When I saw Ong Bak in Thailand, I thought it was like giving the Chinese films a big, tight slap on the face."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

The ghost film

The lone Thai entry in the New York Asian Film Festival is P, a hybrid film that remains unreleased in Thailand. But it's been in Brussels Fantastic Film Festival, where it caused a "minor controversy", according to the Subway Cinema site. Here's more:

The movie tells the story of Dua (Suangporn Jaturaphut), a young girl from the country who becomes a bar girl in Bangkok. When her bar girl career doesn't take off she turns to the black magic taught to her by her grandmother in order to lure in customers. This is not a good idea. What makes this movie unique is that it's directed by Paul Spurrier, a Brit (and former child star – he appeared in Max Headroom and The Wild Geese) who moved to Thailand and spent four years learning the language before making this movie. Fully aware of how uneasy this makes viewers, Spurrier even casts himself in one scene as a sleazy white guy cruising for nubile young Thai flesh.

But the film is never exploitative, no matter how down market its subject matter. Its characters are given three-dimensions, and they all comport themselves with as much dignity as it's possible to have while pole dancing. The same for its actors. Its star, Suangporn Jaturaphut, comes from the slums of Bangkok and had never appeared in a movie before – her entire salary was given to her mother who required a major operation at the time. Her best friend in the movie, Pookie, is played by Opal, an adult film actress who will never be able to cross over into “legit” Thai films because of her background in porn. Several real bargirls were recruited to be in the movie, and they were all eager first-time actors, psyched to have a job that they could be proud of.

Constantly straddling the line between empowerment and exploitation, the production of the film mirrors the movie's narrative. But let's not get too caught up in the girl power: this movie is first and foremost a horror movie and it's a juicy, bloody, character-driven one. That's why we picked it.

So cool. Hope it eventually comes here, or at least gets a DVD release.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thai films for sale

Sebu is continuing to follow up on the Thai film market at Cannes and came across a piece on about more of the films, their distributors and the buyers (the comments are mine, however).

  • The Brutal River/CM Film/Germany, Japan, USA - Wow. I can't believe people are going for this. It looks bad. It's about a giant crocodile attacking. Trailers are in local theaters and are about the most unintentionally funniest thing I've seen in awhile.
  • The Bullet Wives/RS Production/UK - Fine. The UK can have this one. It's dreadful.
  • The Eye Infinity/Fortissimo - The Pang Bros. third installment in their Eye horror series. It hasn't fared well critically. Thaicinema is still fact-checking to see if anyone wants it.
  • Nanacha: Wily Child/CM Film/Canada - Slapstick and toilet humor featuring an unruly hilltribe child sent to an international school.
  • Re-cycle/Universal Entertainment/France, Germany, Japan, Spain, South Korea, UK - Another Pang Bros film. Looks like it's picked up more interest than Eye Infinity.
  • Sars Wars/Han Media Culture/Germany, Japan, Spain, UK - I don't know why I liked this one. It's extremely silly and disjointed, but there's just something about a Thai zombie film that I find appealing and entertaining. It's great fun and it's good to see it's picking up interest overseas. Local audiences didn't get it.
  • Tom Yum Goong/Golden Network Asia/France (TF1), UK (Contender Film Group) - A British company also got the rights? Hmm.
  • Zee-Oui/Han Media Culture/Germany, Spain - Pic about a Chinese immigrant in Thailand in the 1940s who turned into a cannibalistic serial killer of children. A true story, destined for bargain bins in Germany and Spain.

ThaiCinema has lots more reports from Cannes, plus news about the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Twitch catches up with Joe

Twitch has an interview with Apitchapong Weerasethakul, and talks to the avant-garde Thai director about his work - Mysterious Object at Noon, Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours, Iron Pussy, what it's like to be an independent director in Thailand, and plans for the future. He tells Twitch he's planning a movie to commemorate Mozart's 250th birthday, and is due out next year.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Tom Yum Goong sold in France

On the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival, distribution rights to the Ong-Bak follow-up, Tom Yum Goong were sold to TF1, the film division of the major French TV network. The news comes via comments from Sebu, who cited Screen Daily, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, and says the deal is for worldwide distribution, except Asia.

Hollywood Reporter said it was "the biggest single acquisitions deal yet done for a film from Thailand's burgeoning industry", though an amount has been attached to any of the reports. Will be checking the local press for more on this.

Tom Yum Goong stars martial-arts sensation Tony Jaa and is directed by Pracha Pinkaew. Petchtai Wongkamlao also returns, though he's playing a different character. The action takes Tony to Australia on the trail of an elephant stolen by a Chinese triad led by Xing Jing. Johnny Nguyen and Nathan Jones are among the heavies encountered. It's due for release in August.

Also sold at Cannes, was the Malaysian historical epic, The Princess of Mount Ledang. This is according to the Malay Mail.

The feature was sold to distributors in Britain, Thailand, Greece, China and Germany.
The buyers were especially impressed with the relatively "low" budget of the film, which is the Malaysian film industry's most expensive movie to date.

"When we showed the trailer, the people were very impressed because they never thought something worth US$5 million could look that good," a film company rep told the paper.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Friday, May 20, 2005

Review: The Tin Mine

  • Directed by Jira Maligool
  • Starring Pijaya Vachajitpan, Anthony Howard Gould, Niran Satta, Sonthaya Chitmanee, Jaran Petcharoen
  • Released in cinemas in Thailand on May 26, 2005
As ambitious as the miners it takes as its subject manner, Maha'lai Muang Rae (The Tin Mine), is really just a simple coming-of-age tale.

The sophomore film from producer-director Jira Maligool (Mekhong Full Moon Party), The Tin Mine is a sight to behold, making the raw, industrial process of dredging for tin look like a thing of beauty. Indeed, the filmmakers thought about using A Beautiful Mine as the English title, but thought better of it because it would’ve been deemed as too silly a word play on Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. So it’s best left to the headline writers.

Though there are hardships in the story, they are overridden by a spirit of giddiness and nostalgia.

Set in 1950 and based on the series of autobiographical short stories by Archin Panjabhan, the beginning finds Archin (Pijaya Vachajitpan) expelled from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in his sophomore year. He is packed off to southern Thailand, where he has supposedly has a job waiting for him. It's in a remote, mountainous jungle that doesn't even "rate a spot on the map", a place that is little but all-consuming red mud and seemingly endless, torrential downpours.

Archin arrives, letter of recommendation in hand, at the mining company office, only to be told that there are no jobs. But a stern voice beckons the boy further into the offices. It's the company's superintendent, Sam (Anthony Howard Gould), a stern Australian veteran of the Death Railway who asks Archin if he is willing to do manual labour.

The first sight of Sam is with his feet propped up on his desk. There are English words are coming out of Sam's mouth as this rude image is conveyed. But then Sam takes his feet down and switches to fluent Thai. He's one with his workers.

Archin answers to the affirmative and he's hired. He's even given a house of his own, and it comes with its own ghost - a pregnant woman whose husband left her to die alone. She visits Archin one night, in one strange, chilling scene.

Archin is about to learn more than just ghost stories, however. He's to start his education all over again, serving four years at the mine before "graduating" his "senior year".

Everyone, from the lowliest Malaysian labourers to John (Niran Satta), the burly chief of the mining staff, derides Ajin as a "Bangkok boy" who isn't fit for hard work.

Eventually Ajin is shown the heart the mining operation -- the steam-powered dredge, with a conveyor belt of buckets that bring the ore-laced soil up from the bed of the river. As part of the set on this movie, it's an impressive sight, with immense, twin boilers.

Production designer Ek Iemchuen, who’s worked on period films like Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters, Jan Dara and Nang Nak, built it from scratch, relying on old photos and the author Archin’s memory. He’d hoped to find an old dredge and renovate it, but all them were scrapped years ago. The hand-built one cost 7 million baht, or about US$175,000. Maybe it could be used to mine some tin, now that the filming is over?

Archin is put to the test -- asked to stand guard duty one night to stop thieves from stealing the ore. The culprits are surprising, but Archin does not fail. Soon, he's trusted and becomes an integral member of the company, working as a surveyor.

Others on the mining crew include Kai (Sonthaya Chitmanee), a big, curly headed oaf who constantly goofs off, and becomes Ajin's best friend and assistant. Another friend is an old man, Grandpa Deang (Jaran "See Tao" Petcharoen), who dispenses advice to Archin.

And there's a greedy shopkeeper (Jumpon Thongtan), whose store serves as a bar, where the miners drink their boredom -- and their pay -- away. Archin, especially, falls prey to the demon alcohol, with his wages being garnished by the shopkeeper immediately on payday.

But no one seems to mind. Bosses Sam and John are a couple of the biggest drunks of all, insisting that their workers join them for all-night binges that involve singing and dancing to the American country tune "You Are My Sunshine" (a major refrain in the lush score).

What money doesn't get spent on booze is gambled away on absurd wagers, such as how many seeds are in a durian or how many lines on a mangosteen or whether a miner’s wife’s baby will be stillborn.

The film is not without heartbreak. In leaving Bangkok, Archin left behind his girlfriend, who seldom sends letters during his first two years at the mine (much to the frustration of the company clerk who has to pedal his bicycle 100 kilometres to get the mail), except for a wedding invitation. Later on Archin finds a love interest in a local girl La-iad (Donlaya Mudcha), but nothing really comes of this, except perhaps a perilous tumble in a rain-swollen river.

Music was a focal point of the May 17 press screening/premiere gala, with the Chao Phya Symphony, which was assembled to record the soundtrack, performing parts of the score to a packed lobby at Major Cineplex Rathchayothin. Sonthaya Chitmanee and Jumpon Thongtan appeared to sing one of the Thai folk songs that is used as the theme song, "Sieng Khruan Jaak Duangjai". Another common refrain in the film was the "Tin Mine Theme", composed by cellist Edgar Meyer. "You Are My Sunshine", composed by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis and a feature on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, cost the filmmakers 200,000 baht, about US$5,000, to use. For the premiere, it was given a full orchestral treatment with none other than a tuxedoed actor-director Somchai Sakdikul belting out the tune to the gathered press.

The author Archin also put in an appearance at the premiere. He shows up at the end of the film, in a documentary clip from the set when he was reunited with his old friend Kai, who still lives in the Phuket area where this was filmed.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rithy Panh's Burnt Theater at Cannes

Cambodian director Rithy has returned to Cannes, bringing his latest film, The Burnt Theater, for an out-of-competition screening.

A documentary, it traces the fate of Cambodia's national theater and its performers under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. It's a harrowing tale, fraught with the kinds of tragic absurdities that are a part of everyday life in Cambodia.

"The theater was built in the 1960s but the Khmer Rouge did not destroy it. They kept it to show propaganda plays and receive delegations but they didn't blow it up," Rithy told Agence France-Presse. "After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, some survivors managed to revive the traditional Khmer theater but it burned down 10 years ago and no one has rebuilt it."

The surviving performers continue to use the space for rehearsals in a bid to keep the traditional Khmer arts alive.

"I believe in the role of art in society, especially in the case of Cambodia where it was attacked under the Khmer Rouge regime," he said. "This story of my film is that hole in the middle of the city, practically a hole in its memory."

Panh traces the story of the theater's actors, who were also abandoned without a job and without a future, left only to get by with their memories.

"We speak of cultural diversity these days but not of the broad spectrum of memory. But it is memory today that is at stake today -- countries that come to terms with their memories continue to develop but under-developed countries find themselves imposing another memory which is not their own," he warned.

"All my films deal with memory," said Rithy, who escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge labor camps himself at the age of 15.

Rithy is a regular at Cannes, where he presented his drama, Rice People, in the 1994 competition, One Evening After the War in the Un Certain Regard section in 1998 and S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine in 2003 in which he depicted an unexpected meeting between victims and perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide.

"People's expression has never been as threatened as it is today. The technology is there, the economy is there. It is strange that no place is given to cultural expression," he told AFP, blaming the popularity of television and a nationwide desire to forget.

His 1989 documentary Site 2 confronted the horror of the camps while the 1999's The Land of the Wandering Souls told the story of a fiber-optic cable stretching from Thailand to Vietnam, the digging for which turned up the remains of dozens of victims of Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Philippine films at Cannes

Four films from the Philippines are showing at Cannes in the non-competition "Cinemas of the World" category.

Agence France-Presse has an authoritative article covering the current state of the beleaguered Philippine film industry:

In the three decades after World War II, Philippine cinema revelled in its glory years as one of the world's largest movie industries, packing out cathedral-sized cinemas and creating the country's biggest and most idolised stars.
By its heyday in the 1970s, the local industry regularly was churning out 200 feature films a year, mostly gangster and romance flicks in Tagalog language for domestic movie-goers in the world's 12th most populous state.

But a brutal tax regime, creeping mediocrity and later piracy drove the industry into the ground the following decade and, despite a short-lived upswing in the late 90s, it remains in a poor state.

Laurice Guillen, head of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, said realised how far the local film industry had fallen behind as she wandered around the huge global film bazaar at the Cannes festival last year.

There was not a single booth for Filipino films.

"We felt so sad," she says. "It's the biggest film festival and market in the world. If you don't have a film there they forget about you."

One of the most heavily-taxed industries in the world, Philippines film production shrank to 53 last year, down from an average of 82 films yearly between 2000 and 2003 and 164 films annually between 1996 and 1999, according to Espiridion Laxa, head of the Film Academy of the Philippines.

Hollywood films are now more prominently featured at huge movie houses in Manila and other cities.

Guillen says high taxes, piracy, cable television, and low-quality films drove many of the moviegoers away, while fading movie stars are taking their acts elsewhere by running for public office, giving the word "entertainment" a whole new dimension in the Philippines.

"There are fewer people with jobs now because there are fewer films being made," says Guillen. "They say that first, they do films. And then when their films don't do so well anymore they go into television. And then when their TV stints end they go into politics," she chuckles.

At its nadir in the 1980s, soft-porn films that were shot in seven days were practically the only productions making money.

"The local film industry is dying and will make way for something new," says independent Filipino director and film distributor Tony Gloria of Unitel Pictures. "I think we just lost the audience because our films were not evolving. People got sick of the 'hero, shoot 'em up, bang bang,' and the 'hero gets the girl'-type films. And the low budget, star-led, B-grade sexy movies."

Yet amid the gloom, the industry has high hopes this year could see a turnaround. Four of its better-quality releases of the past four years, along with two short films, are to be screened at Cannes.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Bagong Buwan (Crescent Moon), Dekada '70 (Seventies) by Chito Rono, Olivia Lamasan's Milan and actor-filmmaker Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River) were among four films from seven countries invited at the inaugural Tous les Cinemas du Monde (Cinemas of the World) screenings.

The films provide a socio-political tableau of the impoverished former US colony, which exports millions of citizens abroad to earn hard currency as its government grapples with social unrest and bloody communist and Muslim separatist rebellions.

Guillen says Cinemas du Monde official Serge Sobczynski told her he was "very impressed by the originality and the quality of the films".

These films present "something specific to the Philippine setting, something that they (Cannes organisers) are not accustomed to seeing," French embassy cultural attache Martin Makalintal says.

The plight of Filipino maids in Italy is the subject of the drama Milan, while Bagong Buwan has the rebellion-wracked Muslim regions of the southern Philippines as its backdrop.

For Robbie Tan of Star Cinema, which produced three of the Filipino entries, Cannes offers the mouth-watering prospect of a global market. "We will not only be depending on the Filipino market anymore," he says.

"The only way we can sustain the industry is if we market outside," Guillen agrees.
If filmmakers depend on the local market alone, turning a profit would require two-week box receipts that are more than three times the capital outlay, she says, because the producer, moviehouses, and the government split the proceeds equally.

Under these conditions, few businessmen are willing to risk the 10-30 million pesos (about US$180,000-550,000) capital to produce a film, while of those that are made even fewer make money.

"We are paying the highest taxes in the world," says Film Academy chief Laxa, who estimates the total levy to be at least 50 per cent of gross receipts. On top of a 30 per cent amusement tax, there is a 10 per cent value-added tax on film companies plus a 10 per cent tax slapped on the moviehouses.

By contrast, Hollywood only has to deal with corporate income taxes, he says. "Our counterparts from other countries tell us we are geniuses because we're still alive," he added.

The film sector saw a false dawn when one of its own, Joseph Estrada, became the first movie star to be elected president in 1998. The hard-drinking action star's short rule brought more entertainment than what the people bargained for, at least in the political arena, and he was toppled in a military-backed popular revolt in 2001.

The hated amusement tax stayed and Estrada remains under house arrest while standing trial for corruption.

Even then, a second actor and Estrada's friend, Fernando Poe Junior, came within a million votes of unseating President Gloria Arroyo in last year's polls. Poe died of heart attack in December.

Industry players note that the local television industry, which is not subject to amusement tax and where stations earn money through advertising revenues, is not doing as badly.

"TV has had an impact on the local film industry. Some of the TV stories are even better than film," Gloria says.

"People just migrate to television because it's free, and our telenovelas (soap operas) are doing well regionally in Malaysia and Indonesia," Guillen adds.
The late Lino Brocka, widely considered to be the greatest Filipino film director, broke ground at Cannes with the showing of Insiang in 1976. Four of his other films were shown over the next 13 years, some in competition.

Mike de Leon's Batch '81 and Kisapmata (Blink) followed in 1982, but there was to be a long drought before Filipino director Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman at the Breakwater) was given an out-of-competition screening at Cannes last year.

And here's more from the director of Crescent Film, who talked to Cecil Morella of Agence France-Presse:
"When a Filipino goes to the movies," Philippine film director Marilou Diaz Abaya says, "he wants to be healed."

Abaya, director of Bagong Buwan (Crescent Moon) will learn Friday if this notion is universal as she makes her debut at the Cannes Film Festival in the non-competition showcase, Tous les Cinemas du Monde (Cinemas of the World).

It is a politically tinged drama set in Mindanao, a lush, tropical southeast Asian island mired in decades of Muslim separatist rebellion.

"Cinema is only one of the many, many tools in the vocabulary of peace," Abaya, 49, said. "I think filmmakers ought to use it more for peace, which is a challenge to obtain not only in Mindanao but even in our own home. I prefer it to a military instrument for political change."

When Bagong Buwan was being shot in 2001, the New York's World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists. The polemical filmmaker Michael Moore would later use the fallout of the attack to make Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Golden Palm award for best picture at Cannes last year.

"As you know France is vigorously against any kind of aggression in response to 9/11," Abaya says. "They were hospitable to host films not only from Iran but also other Muslim nations, but I don't know that they will look at [Bagong Buwan] as a political film."

"They don't have the Philippines really in the equation of terrorism," she says. "I think they are going to be surprised that there are Muslims in the Philippines."

With nearly two dozen films to her name the multi-award-winning Abaya, one of an emerging breed of Filipino directors who has had formal training, is a local rarity because of her knack for making films with daring subject matters that also reap box office success.

Her filmography tackles violence against women, incest, gender issues, environmental damage and child labor, among others.

A 1998 release, the historical drama Jose Rizal broke new ground as the most expensive Filipino film ever and introduced the tragic Philippine national hero, executed by firing squad by Spain a century earlier, to a new generation.

"You can make [the Filipino filmgoer] laugh, you can make him cry, but I think that for 90-110 pesos (US$1.66-2, the price of a movie ticket) he'd like to feel a little better about himself. He'd like to feel a little bit more hopeful."

Abaya has said Bagong Buwan was inspired by what she saw in the camps for tens of thousands of displaced civilians amid a bloody military campaign launched by the government against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrilla group in Mindanao in 2000.

"I actually saw people die the way the are shown in the movie. The people died like flies," she said in one press interview.

After graduating from the Roman Catholic Church-run Assumption College in Manila, Abaya honed her craft at the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where she obtained a masters degree in film and television.

From the United States she pursued her post-graduate studies at the London International Film School.

Her career flourished amidst a general decline of the Filipino film industry, once one of the largest in the world outside of Hollywood and India's Bollywood.

"I'm not surprised that we've been producing fewer films, but we're also producing better films," she insists.

Of the 53 films produced in the Philippines last year, "I'm willing to stake my reputation that more than half have raised the level, on both creative and technical merits, [to one] which happens to coincide with what the international market demands or expects from an imported film," she says.

"You can't expand without raising the quality. You raise the quality, you automatically expand. We are now at the very least a regional product. We're a very good regional product."

Abaya urges Filipino producers to "put their money where their mouth is" and "take risks" by investing in films designed for the foreign markets.

Seven countries have been invited to participate at Cannes' Cinemas of the World section. The others are Peru, Mexico, Austria, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Morocco.

(Image via AFP: Cesar Montano during the filming of Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River); cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shutter remake rights sold

Remake rights for the 2004 Thai horror, Shutter, will be sold to Hollywood's Regency company, according to The Nation.

The $1 million deal is the biggest ever for remake rights to a Thai film and is worth twice as much as remake rights for the J-horror hit The Ring.

The agreement between Regency and Thailand's GTH Co will be signed on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival.

Roy Lee is the key player. The Korean-American businessman has brought other Asian remakes to Hollywood, including The Ring, The Grudge and My Sassy Girl.

GTH president Visute Poolvoralak made the following comments on the deal:

We used to be envious when other Asian movies were bought to be remade. Now it’s our turn, and moreover the chance comes with the highest price too. This negotiation is good experience for us in international legal contracts. It has a lot of detail that we have to look through carefully. The problem for Thai producers is that we lack a strategy to set a price. That is why Thai movies have never fetched a high price for remake deals before."

Shutter is a co-production of GTH (a merged company from GMM Grammy, Tai Entertainment and Hub Ho Hin) and Phenomena Motion Pictures. Directed by the young duo of Banjong Pisanthanakul and Parkpoom Wongpoom, the film was Thailand's top box-office hit in 2004 with 110 million baht in ticket sales.

GTH is bringing three other finished projects to sell at the Cannes film market: Jira Maligool's followup to Mekhong Full Moon Party, Maha’lai Muang Rae (The Tin Mine), which is due for release on May 26, the comedy Jaew (Maid) and Yuthlert Sippapak's 2004 crime comedy, Sai Lor Fah (Pattaya Maniac).

Sahamongkol Films has brought Tom Yum Goong to Cannes, where a huge poster for the followup to Ong-Bak dominates the Croissette, according to comments from Sebu, who also cites a Hollywood Reporter story.

Also in Cannes are the Pang Bros., shopping Re-Cycle and something called Forest of Death, according to Twitch.

Other Thai movies that have previously been sold for remake include Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ruang Talok 69 (6ixty9ine), which is being directed by the Lizzie McGuire Movie's Jim Fall and Kittikorn Liawsirikul’s Saving Private Tootsie, which has stalled in Hollywood.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Singapore censorship in the news

Singapore has eclipsed Bangkok as the nightlife capital of Southeast Asia, and the island city-state has been beefing up its cultural offerings as well, with the opening of the Esplande complex in recent years. But it is still an authoritarian place, and freedom of speech is a concept that is still foreign.

Now a director is facing up to two years in jail for making a movie about a leading government opposition figure and also criticised laws that forbid the screening of any movie discussing government policy. Here's the rest of the story from the Associated Press:

Martyn See is under investigation for Singapore Rebel, a 26-minute movie about Chee Soon Juan, a frequent critic of the government. Police said he was under probe for violating the Films Act for possibly knowingly distributing or exhibiting a "party political film.''

He could be fined up to 100,000 Singapore dollars (US$60,606; euro 47,259), or imprisonment for as long as two years.

"The current state of legislation poses unintended dangers for sincere filmmakers,'' said director Tan Pin Pin in an open letter on behalf of 10 other filmmakers to authorities published in The Straits Times on Wednesday. "It appears that there is a ban on work in which we intend to state or imply a stand on current government policy, regardless of what that stand is.''

"Are filmmakers expected not to render any opinion at all to be considered neutral?'' asked Tan, who is the director of Moving House, a documentary on the administration's policy of exhuming graves for development.

Singapore Rebel was yanked from the 2005 Singapore International Film Festival after authorities warned that it was a "party political film,'' and that See could faced jail time if it was screened.

"I thought the matter would be dropped once I withdrew it from the film festival. The call from the police came as a surprise,'' See told The Associated Press. He is scheduled to meet police investigators on Monday.

But See said his maiden movie will be screened at two film festivals later this month -- the New Zealand Human Rights Film Festival and the Amnesty International Film Festival in Hollywood.

Singapore, a wealthy Southeast Asian city-state widely criticised for its tight controls and political activity and the media, has been trying to promote itself as a regional hub for the arts. Its film festival is one of the country's cultural highlights.

Chee currently faces bankruptcy after he was ordered to pay 500,000 Singapore dollars (US$303,000; euro236,275) to Singapore's former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, for defaming them during an election campaign in 2001.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Asian films at Cannes

Though Thailand and Southeast Asia have been frozen out of the Cannes running this year, limited to some sidebar forums (see Sebu's comments here), Asian directors still have a presence at Cannes, according to Agence France-Presse:
Asian cinema's growing global profile will be in focus at the 58th Cannes Film Festival starting Wednesday, with its young guns doing battle with Hollywood hot shots.

Five Asian films are jostling for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, including Shanghai Dreams, a tragic love story by Wang Xiaoshuai, one of the leading lights of what has been dubbed China's "Sixth Generation".

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien will unveil Three Times about lovers who meet in three separate lifetimes, and Hong Kong's Johnnie To will make his competition debut with Election, a thriller starring Nick Cheung and Cantonese heart-throb Tony Leung.

Japan will be offering up Masahiro Kobayashi's topical Bashing about a young woman struggling with her return home after being freed as a hostage in the Middle East.

And a last-minute entry by South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, Tale of Cinema, will follow up on his 2004 entry Woman is the Future of Man, which drew a lackluster reception.

Mark Yoon, managing director of Seoul-based production and distribution company, MK Pictures, told AFP that the strong Asian showing in the competition was a boost for cinema throughout the continent.

"Cannes brings out much more awareness about our films because this is where all the major players gather," he said in an interview at the festival's sprawling market section.

"When you're making a big budget film you have to look beyond the Japanese market, for example. And to do that you need to come up with subject matter that everyone can relate to."

Despite the strong crop, Asian filmmakers will be in for a fight for the top prizes in an impressive field which includes heavyweights such as Wim Wenders, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg and Lars von Trier.

Last year Asians scooped up the awards for Best Actress (Maggie Cheung in Clean), Best Actor (Yagira Yuuya in Nobody Knows), the runner-up Grand Prize for South Korea's Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy and a Jury Prize for Thailand's first-ever bid for the Palme [Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul].

But an Asian film has not won the Palme d'Or at Cannes since The Eel by Japan's Shohei Imamura in 1997.

Out of competition, Asian movies will stand out from the crowd too with two Japanese films, one from South Korea and one from Sri Lanka competing in "Un Certain Regard" section on the sidelines of the main competition.

The "All the Cinemas of the World" section will showcase undiscovered gems from countries including Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Meanwhile a major Chinese delegation is expected at the French Riviera resort to mark 100 years of Chinese cinema.

Hong Kong's John Woo and Bollywood actress Nandita Das are serving on the nine-strong Palme d'Or jury headed this year by Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica.

And Taiwanese director Edward Yang is heading the jury for the Cinefondation -- a section devoted to young new talent.

( Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Head of the Five Star family

The Bangkok Post business section on Tuesday offered up a story about Aphiradee Iamphungphorn, the 28-year-old head of Five Star Production, the iconic Thai film studio that has been making movies since 1973.

Five Star is behind some of my favorite Thai films -- Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe and Citizen Dog among them. The company also is backing Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, and is counting on it to revive the company.

Here's the story:

Aphiradee Iamphungphorn drove six hours from Arizona to Thailand Plaza in Los Angeles to buy a DVD of Mon-Rak Transistor. She didn't particularly want to watch it but was seeking an answer to her friends' questions about the Thai film's cross-border popularity.

Ms Aphiradee, now 28, grew up on Hollywood films. She was sceptical that even award-winning Thai films could be found outside of the country. She was doubly surprised when she found it was produced by Five Star Production Co, founded by her father.

Her father, Kiat Iamphungphorn, died when she was only four years old. At 16, she moved to the United States with her mother and two younger brothers, resulting in a separation from the film production company for 10 years.

But at age 26, she found herself at a crossroads with two options open to her: staying in the US and applying for citizenship or returning to Thailand and trying her luck in the film business.

She chose the latter.

"I become the de facto head of the company since I was the oldest member of the third generation of the family-owned business. At first I thought the business should be run by one of my brothers and not a woman. But it has been no problem having me heading up the company's operations," Ms Aphiradee said.

The business had been in the hands of her father's younger brother, Charoen Iamphungphorn. Today Ms Aphiradee works with her two brothers, Kiatkamon, 26, who is executive director of the company and Kiattikul, 25, who holds the title of junior executive director. Mr Charoen is the company's president and consults with her on key projects.

Her ambitious dream is to revive Five Star to its glory days and develop it into a key player in the international market.

"I began working at Five Star after it had lost its top position in the market. It has been a real challenge for me. If I didn't take charge of the company, who would?" she asked.

Five Star was established in 1973. It has produced 232 films in total with its latest release being Citizen Dog in 2004.

In its peak years of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1989, the company released 12 films annually. But, over the years, Five Star has faced the ups and downs for which the Thai film industry is known, along with the economic crisis and the lack of a strong leader to help drive growth.

The company has made inroads since 2000, gaining more recognition both locally and abroad, with the release of award-winning films. Last Life in the Universe, released in 2003, won the the best leading actor award at the Venice Film Festival, and Mon-Rak Transistor has been shown in more than 20 countries.

Also, the rights for the thriller 6ixtynin9, directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and starring Lalita "Mew" Punyopas, which flopped at the box office in Thailand, were sold abroad and it [is being remade] in Hollywood for $20 million.

However, along the way the company has hit some bumps. Last year it released only four films [including Citizen Dog] before it lost 50 million baht.

Ms Aphiradee said Thai movies still had a lot of potential both at home and abroad, but a movie as a product must be attractive, interesting, and high quality.

Ms Aphiradee, who holds a degree in international business from Arizona State University, has worked to make the company more professional, hiring more skilled staff as well as market researchers to determine consumer demand.

Each project is considered carefully in terms of potential before going into production in order to reduce business risk.

"Investing money in the stock market or keeping money in the bank is less risky than producing a film," she said.

Currently, Five Star is looking for joint production partners from Thailand and abroad, not only to reduce financial risks, but to gain experience from foreign crews.

Its latest thriller, Invisible Waves, is a joint production involving companies from five nations: Hong Kong, the Netherlands, South Korea, Italy and Thailand.

The film is being directed by Mr Pen-ek and will premiere by the end of this year. It is being pre-sold in 15 nations while in Thailand Five Star holds exclusive distribution rights.

Also, under the wing of Five Star are [the remake-sequel of the 1970s smash hit] Wai Un Lawon, to be released on July 28, and Sakod Roi Choo, set to premiere in the first quarter of next year.

Ms Aphiradee said the company ultimately aimed to become an integrated entertainment business.

She cited the establishment of a subsidiary, Star Dio Co, which makes movie posters to promote Five Star films as well as those of other companies.

{Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sars Wars hits festival circuit

The sci-fi horror comedy Sars Wars (Khun Krabi Peerabad) flopped when it was released domestically, but it's found a life at film festivals.

I remember seeing some positive reviews from the foreign press after it was screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival.

Since then, says the Bangkok Post, which had this news in a brief last week in their Real Time section, it has gone on to the Hong Kong Film Festival, where members of the audience got up on their feet and let out a loud cheer as they followed the story of a clumsy superhero battling a horde of zombies.

Starring Thep Po-Ngam and Supakorn Kitsuwon, the debut feature by Taweewat Wanta has also been invited to the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival, the Puchan Fantastic Film Festival and (possibly) the New York Asian Film Festival, the Post said.

{Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Zee Oui DVD with English subs

It's been out for awhile, but seeing it noted at Twitch prompted me to move this up to the top of the pile.

Worth checking out daily for all kinds of news on Thai, Asian and generally cool films, Twitch referred me to an Asian film blog called A Better Tomorrow, which reviews Zee Oui, a thriller about a Chinese immigrant in Thailand in the 1940s who became a cannibalistic serial killer who preyed on children. About the only thing that makes the DVD worth watching, it appears, is that it is a Thai movie and it has English subtitles.

Penniless farmer Li Hui (Duan Long, the lead in the excellent Chinese film Drifters) emigrates from China to Thailand in 1948. His abuse and humiliation by his would-be countrymen begins from the moment his name is misunderstood by immigration officials to be Zee Oui -- which he vigorously protests.

Lacking the funds for the necessary entry fee, he is locked up until his Uncle Dong finally shows up, days later. Dong gets him a job with a butcher and promptly disappears.

Li Hui's first task is to kill chickens by slitting their necks. This proves to be ill-fated employment because the throat slitting brings back fatal, unpleasant memories.

It doesn't help that the butcher's wife restricts his diet to white rice, while the family enjoys a full repast of meats and vegetables, nor that the two bratty children are only too happy to ridicule him. When Li Hui can't take it anymore, he steals money from the family and heads off to another part of the country.

The bodies of dead children soon start appearing, and Dara, a hot young reporter (Premsinee Rattanasopar, the love interest in Bangkok Dangerous) has personal reasons for pursuing the story, despite the cautions of her editor, Santi (Chatchai Plengpanich).

Dara uncovers Li Hui at his new location, wracked with coughing fits from what the English subtitles call "asthma" (actually, tuberculosis). Eventually, the tortured histories of both Li Hui and Dara are revealed, but not before more children are ripped open so that their hearts and kidneys may be used as part of an (ahem) alternative heath therapy.

Though the plot description may sound like a diabolical tale of horror, the filmmakers had something else in mind. Li Hui doesn't make wisecracks or laugh maniacally as he kills -- he coughs.

And that's part of the overplayed melodrama that ultimately sank the picture for me. I have no fear of melodrama, but it needs to be fine tuned in order to be effective in anything beyond a soap opera.

After a suitably creepy prologue, filled with foreboding and bloody guts, the plot begins, and so does Li Hui's mistreatment by others. But we never see Li Hui as anything but a future child killer.

He's a victim himself, as demonstrated over and over again in scenes that are cruel to watch and punctuated by bombastic minor-key music that booms like organ music in old radio dramas (dum dum DUM!!).

{Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Sunday, May 1, 2005

Review: Midnight My Love

  • Directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
  • Starring Petchtai Wongkamlao, Woranut Wongsawan
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on May 12, 2005
  • Rating: 4/5

Petchtai Wongkamlao is Thailand's answer to Takeshi Kitano.

He's a comedian, better known as Mom Jok Mok. He's an actor, with many roles to his credit, mainly in action comedies (including his role as Dirty Balls or George in Ong-Bak). And he's a director, with 2003's action-comedy Bodyguard under his belt and another project, Hello Yasothon on the way. He's also an author, with a book out.

In Midnight, My Love, he does his best Beat Takeshi impression, portraying a lonely taxi driver with a moon face and impassive expressions.

Sombat works the night shift. Driving long after everyone has gone to bed, he has the streets to himself. He eats alone -- always the same food, at the same shop. And he lives alone. His only friend is one AM radio station that plays the "golden oldies" and old-time soap operas that he favors. He even visits a ballroom where the old music is played -- alone -- and contents himself to sipping a Coke while listening to the tunes and watching everyone else dance.

He barely exists. At the taxi garage, a co-worker washing the car next to his doesn't notice that he has thoroughly soaked Sombat with his hose. In a busy lobby, people just storm on through, bumping into Sombat as if he wasn't there.

But in his cab, he lays down the law. When a guy (the same actor who was the incessant licker in Citizen Dog) gets in and starts picking his nose, flicking snot everywhere, putting his feet on the seat and is yakking loudly on his cellphone, interrupting the radio drama, Sombat pulls over and tells the guy to get out, thus a losing a fare.

His other co-workers give him grief. Customers don't like the old music. Are golden oldies going to pay his fares? He should listen to FM radio (to say nothing of the CD player many taxis are sporting these days). AM is dead. And he should get a cellphone.

While waiting for fares one night at a big Bangkok massage parlor, a group of massage girls get in after work and have Sombat change the station. One of the girls in his backseat is different, though. While the others are flirty and noisy, this one is sitting there quiet and withdrawn.

Another night, she gets in his cab alone. She likes the old music and she likes Sombat and she asks him to eat with her.

He takes her to his standby joint, where he eats the same thing nightly. "I like this shop," he explains. "Another shop might not be so good."

Eventually Sombat becomes Noal's driver every night, and Sombat starts to come out of his shell.

He recognizes that he and the girl have a lot alike, even though he is a humble cabbie and she is tall and beautiful. One of the things he does is write letters to the host of the Golden Oldies program, hoping that someday his letters will be read on air. In one of his letters, he notes that he takes people to their destinations, but he must keep going because he hasn't reached where he is going. And Noal, a massage parlor girl, is the same, taking men to their destinations, but never to where she needs to be going.

And there is more to Sombat than the straightlaced, quiet cabbie. He has a dark past that catches up with him and strains his relationship with Noan, because there's unforeseen circumstances that make it impossible for him to be there at the end of the night when she finishes work.

The best part of Midnight, My Love, is the connections to the old radio dramas. The old soap operas are used as fantasy interludes, with Sombat and Noan becoming the characters in a old movie that is synched up with the old-time radio play. The images during these 1960s-style vignettes are stretched unanamorphically, with scratches, replicating an old film, with the acting coming off very melodramatically. Reminiscent of the Mit-Petchara era of Thai film, it's style that was experimented with in I-San Special and The Adventure of Iron Pussy. Here, it's gone mainstream and the effect is pretty cool.

The melodrama and sadness intrude on the present-day action and things get going pretty grim, and for a bit, downright twisted, so strange in fact, it feels like a different movie.

But Mom Jok Mok gives a winning performance, and Woranut, a television actress in her first film role, shows some restraint, portraying her character with dignity, in spite of the thankless job she's doing, working as one of the girls in the fishbowl at a soapy parlor, just to send money home to her ungrateful family. There is also some great photography of present-day Bangkok, as seen from the seat of a taxi, passing by many recognizable intersections and landmarks.

This isn't all from Mom. He's in Cannes right now, helping promote the Ong-Bak followup, Tom Yum Goong.

And there's Hello Yasothon. According to ThaiCinema, it's a rural love story set in 1967. I also understand it's a throwback to the musical "look thung" films of that era. What little exists of them today have proven to be fun, so I'll be checking that out as well.

More information:
(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)