Thursday, October 20, 2005

Review: Tsunami Digital Short Films - Program 1

  • Premiered at the World Film Festival of Bangkok, October 20, 2005; part one of two programs.

Ghost of Asia, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Christelle Lheureux

A fitting beginning to the package of six short films made to memorialize the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. Apichatpong served as the creative consultant for the project, which includes 13 films in all.

Funded by the Culture Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, directors were given a budget of 200,000 baht (about US$4,800) and five days to shoot their film somewhere in Phuket or other provinces in southern Thailand that were hit by the tsunami.

For Ghost of Asia, the directors engaged three local children to direct their actor, Tropical Malady's country boy-tiger shaman Sakda Kaewbuadee, making him a "ghost" or "puppet" who had to do their bidding.

Basically anything you could think of doing at the beach or in Thailand, these kids made their ghost do - swim in the ocean, take a boat ride, hunt for crabs, go fishing, pick and eat every conceivable kind of fruit, sleep, drink milk, "go poo", paint a house, climb a mountain, climb a tree.

The film is presented all sped up, giving it a kind of silent-film feel. It was the most hopeful, celebratory and entertaining of the package, presenting a normal, everyday life. Even if the guy was supposed to be a "ghost", it shows a Phuket that is okay and fun to visit.

One of Apichatpong's most accessible works, Ghost of Asia has actually been shown in Montreal and other film festivals before being screened as part of the Tsunami Digital Short Film program. It's also part of a multi-media art exhibit in Berlin.

Waves of Souls, directed by Pipope Panitchpakdi

The Nation Channel documentarian catches up with the Moken, or sea gypsies, a tribe that takes pride in self sufficiency and survival. After the tsunami, organizations came to help, and in this particular case, a Christian charity came to build houses and offer money - with a catch. Pipope lays it on the line, offering the definition of "proselytize" from Webster's dictionary in white text on a black background. "I don't even feel like I'm part of my own village," says one woman, who didn't want to convert or wasn't allowed and is now left out of the evening get togethers where traditional music is played - and Bibles are read.

Aftershock, directed by Thunska Pansittivorakul.

For quicky, low-budget films, one of the first things to be sacrificed is audio. Like many of the films in the program, Aftershock relied mainly on images. Indeed, while showing scenes of a carnival, a guy selling hats and other trinkets and a boat ride, there is no sound at all. The tension in the audience was palpable.

I'm sure people were thinking: "What the fuck?" I know I was, but I rode with it. It's on that boat ride where things go to hell. The camera pans lazily around, finally locking in on the boat driver's crotch, and there it stays until some sort of sound kicks in and we're looking at a pale, white foot. Someone's dead? No, nobody's dead. It's a guy covered in some kind of brown substance, chocolate syrup I hope, and he's licking it off his fingers. Oh, he's got some milky substance on his lower lip.

Perhaps as a clue as to where Thunska's going with this, I kept looking at Tsai Ming-Liang, who was sitting in front of me at the screening.

Out of all the tsunami shorts, this is one that'll keep me up nights.

Andaman, directed by Sompot Chidgasornpongse

Another short that sacrifices the live audio, but instead of going silent, it substitutes the sound of surf and waves as the camera looks around at the island. You get a sense of a Phuket, still recovering after the tsunami. The beaches are a bit empty and lonely feeling. There are some tourists and locals making living from the tourist trade, and the camera stops to talk to them. Their lips are moving but you can't hear what they are saying. Just the sound of waves.

Then a rainstorm kicks up and the sound ratchets up. It made me jump. A mini tsunami on film. In a headline on its story previewing these films yesterday, the English-language ThaiDay said: "News crews showed us what the tsunami looked like. Now, filmmakers show us what it felt like." Especially in Andaman's case, this is dead-on accurate.

Trail of Love, directed by Suchada Sirithanawuddhi

With the most traditional narrative of the short-films package, Trail of Love is a cyber romance set around the days just after tsunami. Picha is a young woman who's visited the island and has found a message in a bottle that contains a map to a remote beach. She e-mails a long-time net pal about the beach and bottle, and the friend agrees to meet Pricha on December 29. But the tsunami strikes three days before. Pricha loses touch with her friend. She sends a plaintive e-mail, asking for a response. What happened? She's left alone to follow the map.

Tsu, directed by Pramote Sangsorn

A young man limps across the beach. All color is washed out. It's almost black and white. The wind blows ominously. Slowly, color comes into focus. The man approaches a green flag, flapping in the strong ocean breeze. He takes a knife and cuts the flag down. He then pulls out a red flag and ties it on to the post, and takes things further by painting the flagpole red.

There are dozens of these flags, perhaps 100 or more, lined up all the way down the beach, just at the waterline, flapping in the wind. He goes to the next flag, cuts it down and replaces it with a red one.

The source of his limp is revealed - a big open sore on his left leg that is the shape of Thailand. A lot of people gasped when they noticed that. He limps along, replacing the green flags with red ones.

Eventually, he leaves his flags and turns his attention on a battered boat that's in the shape of a swan, hitching a rope to it and trying to pull it out to sea.

Despite the calm and deliberativeness of Tsu, this is the one that really channels the anger that a lot of people must have felt about a lack of an early warning system that could have gotten people away from the beaches and saved lives. Thai meteorological officials were warned hours in advance of the possibility of a tsunami, but did nothing with the information out of fear it would be a false alarm and business and tourism would have been disrupted.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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