Tuesday, November 28, 2006

That voodoo you do so bad

It's not only in Thailand where movies and other works run into trouble with the culture police.

In Malaysia, there's a film called Dukun that would probably be a big earner, if only it could be released.

The Associated Press covers the tale.

It's a fascinating story, really, about a female witch doctor who was convicted and hanged in 2001 for the murder and hacking up of a politician. Reportedly, on the gallows, her last words were "I will not die!"

The movie, Dukun, has a fictional character whose actions closely mirror the true-crime story.

The movie is highly anticipated and would likely do great business for audiences who are still very much fascinated with the case and with the occult in general. However, the Malaysian censors take a dim view of such things.

It's uncertain at this time if the film will be released or if the director will submit to editing and reshoots.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Focus in The Possible

While Charlie Trairat has had a few film appearances since Fan Chan, in Dorm, The Kingmaker and the upcoming Legend of Sudsakorn, not much has been seen from his co-star, Focus Jirakul. She's in The Possible, though. That's her there. Keep in mind she's still probably only around 14.

It makes sense that a good-luck charm from Fan Chan would be in The Possible, seeing as how it's the solo directorial debut of another one of the "Fan Chan six", Witthaya Thongyooyong.

The story involves a 1970s Thai band (patterned after The Impossibles) who are given a mysterious microphone that turns out to be a time machine that transports them to present-day Bangkok.

A number of actual Thai pop stars are in the cast, chief among them Apisit Opsasaimlikit. I kept looking at that guy with the long hair and moustache, trying to figure out where I'd seen him before. Well, he's Thailand's first hip hop star, Joey Boy. Members of other bands, including Yokee Playboy and Paradox, are also in this onscreen band.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Release dates shuffled by Naresuan

Folks waiting to see Nang Nak star Intira Jaroenpura as a warrior woman will have to wait awhile longer.

Continuing delays with King Naresuan have pushed the film's release back to January 18. It's still an auspicous day, since it's Royal Thai Army Day.

I've lost count of how many times the film's release has been delayed, but with such an ambitious film, by an ambitious director, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, it's par for the course.

The big news, according to Kong Rithdee in yesterday's Bangkok Post, is that the film is now "films", and will be released in two parts. Audiences can watch both in one go, or just see one. If they like what they see, they can come back for more.

The shuffling around has affected other films. Dynamite Warrior, originally planned for release on His Majesty the King's birthday, December 5, has moved to the December 21 date vacated by King Naresuan.

Kong speculates that maybe Borat will be shown in Thailand, but it's highly doubtful, even though it's the film everyone wants to see.

That December 5 date was pretty crowded anyway, with the GTH musical time-travel comedy The Possible opening the day before on December 4, and Legend of Sudsakorn on November 30.

It's going to be a long weekend.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tears of the Black Tiger to get U.S. theatrical release

I saw something about this on Twitch awhile back, and now Five Star Production has confirmed it.

After around three years of talks, Magnolia has succeeded in acquiring the rights to Tears of the Black Tiger from Miramax's vaults. The theatrical release by the Landmark Theater chain is planned for January.

This is big news. It looked as if Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone) would never see the light of day after it was bought by the Weinsteins, who then had the ending changed and then locked it in a vault for no one to see.

While it's hoped (and very likely) that Magnolia will release the original version of the film, the exact details of this will be forthcoming from Magnolia. Director Wisit Sasanatieng "is extremely delighted about this," says Five Star's spokeswoman.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Jim Thompson returns to Bangkok

Jim Thompson was a former OSS agent who came to Thailand right at the end of the Second World War. His mission was to turn to the Thais against their Japanese occupiers, but just as he landed the Japanese surrendered. He stayed in Thailand anyway, though his activities in the Kingdom remain the source of much speculation. One thing he did for sure, though, was revitalize the art and industry of Thai silk, and to this day a brand of Thai silk bears his name.

In 1967, he vanished without a trace in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and his disappearance has also been the source of much speculation, with writers and conspiracy theorists all weighing in. A TV movie about it was produced by The Nation some years ago. It was a disaster. Teleplay writer Prabda Yoon probably wishes it would be forgotten about, but I've got the VHS tapes to prove it happened.

A co-worker once asked me what I thought about the Thompson legend, and I said I figured he was still alive, probably hanging out in Bangkok. It turns out I wasn't too far off the mark. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to celebrate it, Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul has put together a show called Lost in the City that celebrates the life and legend of Thompson. It's on until March 31 at Jim Thompson House, which is a collection of old Thai-style wooden houses on the banks of Klong Saen Saeb near National Stadium in Bangkok.

They have some pretty cool art to promote the exhibition, including an ad that looks like an old Thai movie poster, and a slick composite photo that makes it look like Thompson is riding the Bangkok Skytrain.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The opera's over

That old saw about the opera being over is going to have to change. Now, as the latest work by Somtow Sucharitkul, Ayodhya, demonstrates, it's not over until the press conference is held.

The opera, based on Thailand's national epic, the Ramakien, premiered over the weekend in a two-performance run. But in the ensuing days, a controversy has arisen that has hit the international press. It seems that the Culture Ministry made Somtow sign a contract to make him change his opera so that one of the principle characters, Thotsakan, dies offstage. To have him die onstage, the Culture Ministry said, would bring bad luck to Thailand.

Yeah, you read that right: If a character in an opera dies, it will bring bad luck to an entire nation.

Somtow went along with the decree, though, I suppose, so he could get his ambitious project staged. If he had protested beforehand, it might not have come off at all.

The Nation covered the story today, and it hit the international press over the weekend, including the BBC, AP and UPI.

The foreign press, which have a limited understanding of the issue, are quick to blame the junta and the recent coup for the crackdown. Let me put it as nice as I can: the Culture Ministry have always been thorny about the issue. Their stance on the opera mirrors a performance earlier this year (and before the coup) by Thai rock musicians in New York for the Ramakien: A Rak Opera.

It has nothing to do with the coup. It has to do with aspects of Thai culture and religion that go back thousands of years. As with the Rak Opera, the ministry holds that Ayodhya falls under the guidelines of khon dance performance, the form of masked dance in which the Ramakien is depicted. It is held sacred in Thailand, and there's no room for monkeying around with it, in the Culture Ministry's eyes.

Somtow, in The Nation today, said that khon experts disagree as to whether the taboo against the onstage death of Thotsakan is an ancient tradition or whether it was established in the early 20th century.

"This is not a matter on which the Ministry's experts hold the sole, unanimous opinion. So, even if the traditions of khon did apply to opera, the argument can work both ways. My personal problems with this matter have nothing to do with the death of Thotsakan at all - as I have said, both the director and I did a great deal to accommodate the tradition as it was stated to us. My personal problems as an artist are that the Ministry feels it has the right to impose a blanket restriction on a work of art. This is a chilling and positively Stalinist concept.

"The word culture is a holistic thing. It is about ancient traditions, but it also about modern explorations of tradition. A culture is alive precisely because it grows and is continually reinvented. Our job as artists is to mirror society and the human condition, and, most of all, always to speak the truth no matter what the cost."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Shutter, Dorm picked up by Tartan

Tartan has picked up the GTH ghost thrillers Shutter and Dorm for release in 2007, according to Kaiju Shakedown.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tons of extra features but no subtitles

You think of Thailand and DVDs, legal DVDs aren't usually the first ones to come to mind. But it's because of piracy that distributors of licensed DVDs are getting creative with their packaging.

The Nation yesterday had a story about the cool designs for DVD packages for such films as Khan Kluay and Dear Dakanda. Most of them have been by a company called Dodisc.

For Fan Chan, they packaged the special edition DVD in a scaled-down replica of a school book bag. They did elaborate layouts for Tom Yum Goong and Invisible Waves. Check out Twitch for an example of The Tin Mine.

They are beautiful, with tons of extra features, gatefold sleeves and lots of photos. There's a catch though: No English subtitles. Not on any of them.

Since 2004, there has been a steady decline in the Thai releases of Thai films with English subtitles. And there have been plenty of great and good films that deserve a wider audience, but will likely never see the light of day.

The reason, I've been told, partly has to do with the licensing of the subtitles. If they are left off the Thai release, the companies don't have to pay royalties. And, there's the exclusivity that they can use to sell foreign distributors on if they pick up the films for overseas release. But it's a big if.

It was good to see The Nation's Parinyaporn Pajee address the issue by talking to Thai film critic Je-ngor Sor Bai of Pulp magazine. She feels that Thai DVDs should come with English subtitles.

"We all know it's just a trick they use to keep prices as low as possible," Je-ngor was quoted as saying. I think we are losing an amazing chance to introduce Thai films to a much wider audience."

The critic points out that only a few Thai movies are released in foreign cinemas. Even those that travel on the festival circuit rarely receive the kind of exposure they deserve. Adding English subtitles would benefit the entire Thai film industry.

It makes me think about the old days, back about, oh, 2003, when just about every Thai film released had subtitles. It meant there was great exposure: Tears of the Black Tiger, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe, Mekhong Full Moon Party and more.

But now, no more. No Citizen Dog (not yet anyway). No Ai-Fak. No Yam Yasothon. No Midnight My Love. No Sai Lor Fah. No Tin Mine. These are all wonderful, loopy films that I'd love to watch again, but anyone who doesn't speak Thai is cut out of the loop by the language barrier. So on the store shelves the DVDs will sit and unwatched the films will be.

A great many films have been released overseas that are worthy. Buppha Rahtree is one worth ordering from Hong Kong. Fan Chan is another.

Born to Fight and The Bodyguard have become available, but mainly because they appeal to the action genre. Films like Ai-Fak, Yam Yasothon or Midnight My Love (even with the presence of "Dirty Balls George") are harder sells. It's really too bad they don't have English subs. They deserve a wider audience.

Anymore, you have to wait for the overseas release, like in the case of Invisible Waves, which is due out in Hong Kong.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Dynamite Warrior trailer

Tabunfire, Dynamite Warrior, Kon Fai Bin. Whatever you call it. It's insane. And it has Panna Rittikrai. Acting. On screen.

Trailers have been posted at Twitch, where they're all raving about virgin's menstrual blood. There's a YouTube link (embedded below). Then they unleashed a downloadable. Yeah. Go on, go get it.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's criminal

I don't know what I was thinking, but I've missed the chance to see two films that were released back-to-back in local cinemas starring two of Thailand's hottest actresses.

First there was The Passion, starring drop-dead bombshell "Tak" Bongkot Kongmalai, known worldwide as the mudbath girl from Tom Yum Goong (or The Protector - can't imagine the Weinsteins would cut that scene). The other is The Victim, starring "May" Pichanart Sakhakorn, who portrayed the love interest in Pattaya Maniac and the blind woman in Buppha Rahtree 2.

In The Passion Tak portrays a woman who is sexually assaulted in a movie cineplex by the theater owner and spends the rest of the film trying to get out of the mall, which if you've been to movies late at night in Bangkok multiplexes, you can probably relate to.

The Victim deals with the weird Thai custom of having criminals re-enact the crimes they've committed for the benefit of the media. You'll see pictures in the paper all the time, mainly featuring people pointing at things. It's bizarre. May portrays a young struggling actress who tries to get a job as a professional laugher for a game show. She parleys the audition into a job working for the cops as a "victim" for crime re-enactments. This leads to her being connected with a case involved a murdered Miss Thailand. The posters make it look like a pretty grim affair.

Both films are still in theaters, but are only in outlying areas where its likely no English subtitles are needed.

However, I'm not totally out of luck: there's reviews of them both (interjected with a tourist's view of Thai culture) at the blog, Asian Cinema -While on the Road.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Pen-ek directs footie flick

Soccer is an extremely popular sport in Thailand. People love to play it, but ever more they love to watch it on TV and bet on it.

Its influence has extended to such Thai movies as Pattaya Maniac, which had a character who was into gambling on Premier League football matches. There was Leo Kittikorn's Goal Club several years back, which was also about football wagering. The sport has even spawned full-length features, such as the recent Lucky Loser, and at least one other comedy film, Sagai United.

Now Pen-ek Ratanaruang has co-directed a short film about football that will be shown before the main features on the Apex Circuit starting December 14, reports Soopsip yesterday in The Nation.

Total Bangkok
runs for just under 30 minutes and is co-directed by Passakorn Pramunwong, who founded a day magazine and now runs an advertising agency. The film is sponsored by Nike.

The film tells the story of footie fever in Bangkok and touches on street football matches to the talented Thai players who've achieved their dreams.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Seeing the Unseeable

One of the things that's always interesting about Wisit Sasanatieng's films is that there's more than meets the eye -- at least to the perspective of a Westerner like myself.

Take for example my reaction when I first saw his Tears of the Black Tiger: I thought for sure I had seen something that had taken influences from the Wizard of Oz, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone and put them in a blender.

I wasn't until much later that I learned there actually been movies like Tears of the Black Tiger made in Thailand back in the 1960s and '70s, featuring the likes of Mitr Chaibancha, Petchara Chaowarat and Sombat Metanee. Sure, those films were likely influenced by Western westerns too (much as Akira Kurosawa was influenced by John Ford), but it wasn't a conscious effort, I don't think. And for production design and acting direction, the influence of pioneering Thai director Ratana Pestonji is there too.

For The Unseeable, Wisit had a reach back into Thai pop culture history again, and what he pulled out of his trick bag this time was the works of Hem Vejakorn, an illustrator of 10-satang graphic-novel ghost stories. I was first turned on to his work back in 2004 when the Queen's Gallery in Bangkok put an exhibition of his work.

Kong Rithdee points out this influence in his article about and review of The Unseeable in last Friday's Bangkok Post. He says the Hem connection was so strong, the foundation that claims to protect Hem's works sent a warning letter to the filmmaker about possible copyright violations. Wisit had to respond that the film was not an adaptation of any one of Hem's stories, but was an homage to the overall style and tone of Hem's works.

Of course, there were Western influences as well, with Wisit looking at such 1930s icons as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to model his strong, practically all-female cast after. And the class-conscious sniping between the simple, youthful Nualjin and the hauty, upper-class Madame Runjuan could have easily come right out of a Bette Davis movie, not to mention the hairstyles.

Wisit's restraint from his usual stylizations was due to budgetary concerns, but it forced him to create something else and get back to a style of old-time movie making, so that not only were the production design, costuming and acting direction an homage to the 1930s, the entire method of making the film was an homage.

The best news, though, out of the recent article by Kong Rithdee is that Wisit says for sure he's going to be doing Armful. "It's gonna be a tribute to the Shaw Brothers films," he was quoted as saying. "They're another of my obsessions."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Dynamite Warrior to be released on King's Birthday

Via Popcorn and Deknang, Twitch has the posters for Dynamite Warrior,
the movie formerly known as Tabunfire. The Thai title is Kon Fai Bin. Here's more images from Deknang.

Also, the release date for Sahamongkol Film International is set for December 5 - His Majesty the King's birthday and Father's Day in Thailand. It's an important, auspicious day.

Another film I'm watching out for, The Possible, is due for release by GTH the day before, on Monday, December 4.

The new Dynamite Warrior posters are a bit of disappointment. They are explosive enough, to be sure, but I was particularly attached to the teaser image's use of head-butting water buffalo. The new ones, bafflingly, have a picture of one of the villains smoking a pipe - something I thought was a no-no in Thai media. I expect the Thai DVD release will be heavily censored because of this. But Magnolia has already picked up the rights for North America, so a classy DVD release can likely be expected sometime in the future.

I know at the newspaper, we're prohibited from printing photos of people smoking or even photos that depict tobacco advertisements. It's a major drag sometimes. Pun intended.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Monday, November 6, 2006

Chocolate Dynamite

Kaiju Shakedown has some new.

First, it has details about Chocolate, for which Panna Rittikrai is choreographing martial arts and Baa Ram Ewe's Prachya Pinkaew (of Ong-Bak/Tom Yum Goong fame) is directing. It's about a young autistic female martial artist who goes on a rampage to collect money owed to her cancer-ridden mother. No release date is given, with Kaiju reporting only that the film is in post-production.

Then there's the latest on Tabunfire, which was recently given a new Thai name, Kon Fai Bin. Now it has a new English-language name as well: Dynamite Warriors. The film has been picked up for North American release by Magnolia, Kaiju says.

Twitch had news on this as well.

Variety reports that it will be released in Thailand in December.

Panna is involved in this one as well, starring as a sorcerer. The hero is named Zieng (or Singh, if you prefer), and will be portrayed by Changprung "Dan" Choopong. He's "a young man riddled with grief and bent on revenge after witnessing his parents' murder by a callous and malicious killer. The only information Zieng has as to the killer's identity is the tattoo-covered man who is part of an organized group of cattle rustlers. Zieng makes it his mission to stop all cattle rustlers and in the process return each head of cattle back to its rightful owner."

Yee haw! Another Thai western!

Chalerm Wongpim (Heaven's Seven's) is directing.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Review: The Unseeable

  • Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng
  • Written by Komkiat Khomsiri
  • Starring Supornthip Choungrangsee, Siraphun Wattanajinda, Tassawan Seneewong na Ayutthaya, Visa Kongka
  • Wide release in Thai cinemas on November 2, 2006

One of those kinds of suspense yarns that can't really be written about without giving away too much, The Unseeable might cause you to question your very existence.

This intelligent, spooky ghost story is expertly directed by Wisit Sasanatieng, who is restrained in his usual colorful style, but it still oozes old-timey Siamese atmosphere and for that alone, it's a beautiful film to watch.

Set in 1930s rural Thailand, the story concerns a young pregnant woman named Nualjun, played by Siraphun Wattanajinda, who had the title role in last year's Dear Dakanda.

Nualjun's husband, Chob, has gone missing. Her search leads her to a rambling, rundown mansion in the countryside. The place is way too scary, with creaking wooden floors, squeaking doors, locked rooms and an overgrown garden. There's a stern caretaker, Somchit, and the mysterious, delicate mistress of the house, Madame Runjuan (Bangkok businesswoman and socialite Supornthip Choungrangsee, in her film debut), who mustn't be bothered.

As Nual takes a tentative stroll around the grounds, the sense of decay is palpable. She takes note of a dilapidated spirit house. Later, a hand – like The Addams Family's "Thing" – pops out of the spirit house to grab some food. There's an apparently insane crone named Grandma Erb who plays with a doll. A little girl plays hide and seek. And there's some guy digging a hole at the back of the property. Eventually Nual wanders into places that the imperious Somchit (Tassawan Seneewong Na Ayutthaya) has told her not to and is rightfully scolded.

Why is it that people in these kinds of movies go into places they shouldn't? And why the heck would Nual come to this forbidding place in the first place? That is the overarching mystery, and the way the answer is revealed is the magic of this film.

Nual is able to confide in another resident of the mansion, Choy (Visa Kongka), who explains some of the mysteries behind the place. The helpful Choy, who's the comic relief, acknowledges that, yeah, it sure is spooky here. Just check out the blood spots on the laundry, she says, likely left there by the "gut-sucking vampire". Yikes!

Meanwhile, Nual's story is told in flashbacks, showing that she met her husband, Chob, an itinerant violinist, in a country pub. But then he mysteriously disappeared. And, even more mysteriously, his face is not shown.

Nual eventually has her baby, and the tension ratchets up as the new mother is instructed to bring her child to the mistress of the house on a daily basis.

This is the first film that Wisit has directed but not written. The script is by Kongkiat Khomsiri, one of the seven-member "Ronin Team" that was credited with directing last year's supernatural gorefest Art of the Devil 2.

The colorful stylizations that were present in Wisit's Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog are absent, but it is still overflowing with period details that show one of Wisit's big influences – pioneering Thai director Rattana Pestonji. The short pub scene seems lifted directly from Rattana's 1950s drama Country Hotel. The settings are also reminiscent of Nonzee Nimibutr's Jan Dara – with more scares than sex – with a mood similar to Nang Nak, for which Wisit wrote the screenplay, so he's no stranger to ghost tales.

Steeped in Thai spirit lore, The Unseeable can also be easily (and favorably) compared to some top-flight Western chillers, but doing so would give too much away.

Ghosts do exist, one of the characters says. That is a fact you just have to accept.