Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reviews: First Flight, Siyama

  • First Flight (Rak Siam Tao Fah), directed by Thanit Jitnukul
  • Story by Bhandit Rittakol, Suthakorn Santithawat, Pisuth Praesengaien, Thanit Jitnukul; screenplay by Kongkiat Komsiri
  • Starring Sornram Thepitak, Songporn Thongmark, Khajohnsak Rattanisai, Wuttichai Maikan, Padungsak Kitwanitkajorn, Nattawut Suvanarat, Kritsada Tatcharatipat, Chirakit Suwannarath, Tom Claytor
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on January 31, 2008
  • Rating: 3/5

Two Thai films, released in Thailand cinemas on the same day, take place at different times, but both deal with crucial moments Thai military history.

The more serious and earnest of the two, First Flight (Rak Siam Tao Fah), deals with the pioneering days of aviation in Thailand, and the formation of Asia's first flying corps, the Royal Thai Air Force.

Siyama: Village of Warriors, meanwhile, is set in 1766, just ahead of the fall of Ayutthaya, and concerns a small village that is determined to stop an overwhelming force of invaders. The villagers receive some unexpected help by three modern-day young Thais, who are transported back in time in their Toyota Fortuner by a time-shifting Buddhist monk's incantation.

Both films aim to stir up nationalism and nostalgia for a Siam of old. But of the two, RS Film's First Flight has the most heart and tries the hardest to tell a compelling story. Mono Film's Siyama is essentially a pretty Toyota commercial that uses a historical war epic as a backdrop.

Both have their problems, mainly that too much time is spent talking rather than doing. For a movie about flying, First Flight sure does spend a lot of time on the ground. And with Siyama, the opposing sides use the bulk of their time sitting around in camp, planning and scheming.

Directed by Thanit Jitnukul, First Flight has been in production since 2002, and has been bogged down with various technical delays.

The story begins in 1911, when Belgian pilot Van Den Born gave the first demonstration of an airplane in Siam. One of the main characters is Luang Gat (Khajohnsak Rattanisai), a brash, cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking (and unpixellated!) Royal Thai Army officer who takes a demonstration flight. The Belgian pilot puts his CGI biplane through some aerobatic manoeuvres, and when they return to the ground, Luang Gat promptly throws up.

Nonetheless, Luang is tasked with heading up the new Aviation Department. From France comes an adviser, Pierre (Tom Claytor, a pilot who also served as technical adviser and producer on the film), who is an old friend of Luang. Only commissioned officers from the ranks of the priviledged and nobility are allowed to sign on as pilots. But the airplanes have captured the imagination of a local farm boy, Duang (Sornram Theppitak), who tries to join the flying unit.

While Duang does his best fit in with the upper-class flyboys and capture the heart of Malai (Songporn Thongmark), a local rich man's daughter who's also interested in airplanes, Colonel Luang struggles to keep his unit together, against the wishes of skeptical functionaries and jealous pinch-pennies in the Defence Ministry.

Before they can even take to the air, the flyboys are bogged down by mud, because their airfield is located in a swamp, just like Bangkok's new airport. There is also a troublesome water buffalo who habitually chases the airmen and gores biplanes with his massive rack of horns.

Eventually, the daring young men take to the air in their flying machines, putting on a demonstration for palace officials. They then fly to France to engage in dogfights against the Germans.

The film mixes actual aerial footage with CGI biplanes and actors sitting in grounded aircraft against a blue screen. Put together with the sweeping score, the effect is surprisingly moving.

  • Siyama: Village of Warriors, directed by Preecha Songsakul
  • Starring Thun Thanakorn, Thitima Maliwan, Nuttanan Juntarwet, Boriboon Chanruang, Sompop Benjatikul
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on January 31, 2008
  • Rating: 2/5

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Siyama: Village of Warriors. Directed by Preecha Songsakul, Siyama features battle sequences that are mostly mounted in the dark, with lots of fast editing and odd camera angles to further obscure the action.

A lot of exposition is necessary to get things under way, with a narrator explaining that the 3,000-strong "Knife Fighting Troop" of Hongsa (Burma) has become separated from the main body of the army. To find its way back to the main columns and eventually Ayutthaya, this army of black-magic warriors must pass through the small village of Siyama, which inhabited about around 1,000 people.

The village headman, Master Jom (Sompop Benjatikul) is determined to stop them. A band of the village's nine bravest, strongest fighters is formed and dubbed the Black Cats. Wearing masks and sporting all kinds of cool weapons, the Black Cats go tear-assing around, looking for the shit and causing trouble for the Knife Fighters. The village also builds a wall, with the aim of repelling the invaders.

Now, one of the things that's been talked about regarding this film is a time-travel element. And it was probably 30 minutes or more into the film that I had given up on any such thing happening, and had contented myself to just watch a straight historical battle drama.

But then the villagers are engaged in battle, and the village's monk is leading a prayer ceremony for non-combatants in the temple, the scene jarringly starts to shift back and forth between 1766 and 2006 Ayutthaya, where three friends are driving around in their Toyota Fortuner. They are Ana (Thitima Maliwan), a doctor and former Olympics archery champion, her perky friend Gib (Nuttanan Juntarwet), and a geeky guy named Boat (Boriboon Chanruang). Through some smoke and lights, the Toyota passes into a time portal and comes out in the middle of the battle in 1766.

Informed by the monk that they have 14 days in the past, the kids from the future immediately step up to contribute to the fight. Gib, who demonstrates her knife-throwing abilities, is the first to volunteer to take part in the battle. The geeky comic relief Boat will use his soldering iron, laptop and ever-changing punk hair styles to build terrifying new weapons. And Dr. Ana will organize a medical ward, but she won't fight, oh no, because she has sworn to never take a life. Of course, this notion is later dispelled when a little girl she has bonded with is killed, so Ana emotionally takes up a bow and arrow and channels her anger and her Olympic prowess towards killing Burmese.

At one point, Ana treats one of the wounded Black Cats, a guy with a wispy moustache named Pry (Thun Thanakorn). She removes an arrow by shoving it through his back and out his chest, narrowly missing his beating heart (which is represented in CGI). The two develop a sort-of cute relationship.

The Burmese, led by the ridiculously eyebrowed, mullet-headed Vantra, who is advised by a vampish, scantily-clad black-magic lady prophet, Kinya, are about as one-dimensionally bad as villains come in these type of films. They have no faith, and believe in nothing except defeating the Siamese. The Siamese, on the other hand, are reverent Buddhists. They have their religion on their side. And, in a contrived, heartfelt monologue by Pry, another high institution is invoked, possibly in an effort to put this film above criticism.

Ultimately, the test between First Flight and Siyama for me is the water buffalo. First Flight only has one, but is a real, live, cud-chewing beast. In Siyama, an entire herd of kwai is released into the final battle scene, but it's only CGI, and not very good at that.

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