Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thai film review roundup: Fun Bar Karaoke, Top Secret and more

While I've been out gallivanting around, riding boats with wine-swilling hipster freeloaders and chatting up underground filmmakers -- with not much yet to show for my efforts -- real bloggers are doing the real work of writing real reviews about real Thai films.

Over at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee, Peter Nellhaus has been dishing up all Thai, all the time, with recent reviews of Fun Bar Karaoke, The Unseeable and the first two Art of the Devil films.

Fun Bar Karaoke is Pen-ek Ratanaruang's first film, which is only available on VCD (from a VHS transfer). I recently acquired the VCD myself, but have been so busy with work and trying to attend the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, that I put my own copy of Fun Bar Karaoke on the shelf to save for a day when I could give it my full attention. Until that day, I will let Peter say a few words about Fun Bar Karaoke:

Pen-Ek's background in advertising is very much at play with a scene of a photo shoot for a face cream, part of the action taking place in a 7-Eleven, and some unusual product placement for Coca-Cola. There are a couple of scenes of people dancing, not dance numbers per se, but still it suggests that it would most likely be Pen-Ek who might create the great Thai musical.

Many of the elements of Pen-Ek's future films are already in place. Characters are connected to each other in ways they don't expect while the family unit is often fractured. One of the characters, a young man named Noi, is a small time gangster whose dream is to walk away from that life. The film is in part about the clash between traditional Thai beliefs and like in modern, crowded and international Bangkok.

The Unseeable, is, of course, Wisit Sasanatieng's quickie, low-budget ghost movie from 2006. Though it lacks the colorful panache of Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog, it still oozes old-timey Siamese style. It played at the recent San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. It's one I also have on DVD, and I enjoy watching it very much.

Peter notes while it gives into the conventions of horror films, The Unseeable still has Wisit's style:

Too often, the soundtrack blares to instruct the audience to be startled. As the film was made primarily for a Thai audience, the concessions genre conventions emerge strongly during the last half hour. And yet what Wisit achieves a more genuine sense of poignancy that a less capable director could only wish for. Unlike too many Thai filmmakers who think nothing of playing down to their perceived audience, Wisit aims a bit higher. Wisit's artistic aspirations may have hurt The Unseeable at the box office, but it made for a much better film.

As for Art of the Devil, I want to save Peter's comments about that film series for another day, so I can move on to another blogger, Todd Stadtman, who writes Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!, which is a supplement to a film review website called The Lucha Diaries, which covers 1960s international action cinema.

On Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! Thai action hero Mitr Chaibancha has his own label, and three of his films are covered: Top Secret and Operation Bangkok (both directed by Vichet Kounavudhi) and Mitr's final film, Insee Tong.

For Top Secret and Operation Bangkok, Todd is reviewing VCDs he's ordered from eThaiCD. These are not subtitled, and because they are from the 16mm era, the sound is post-dubbed, poorly. But Todd is very much into the look and atmosphere of the film, and Thai action films of the 1960s had those to spare. Here's a bit of what he has to say about Top Secret:

I'm not going to pretend that I even bothered to try to follow that plot, but from what I could see, it looked like it could be a fun film if watched in a context that didn't threaten permanent eye damage. There's a squadron of female karate commandos, a cool mod villain's lair with all kinds of hidden doors and booby traps, and plenty of shootouts between our very similar looking heroes and the villain's uniformed, tommygun toting hench-army. The production values are quite good, with an impressive display of military hardware on hand. (I've concluded that either the Thai government was very supportive of the film industry, or their military was just movie mad.) Finally, it's also something of a musical, with characters taking time out from the action to burst into song, and as such has it's own, equally distressed, audio track--which you can't always count on with Thai films of this vintage.

Todd goes on to note that Wisit Sasanatieng is in the process of making a new Insee Daeng film, possible rebooting the movie series that starred Mitr Chaibancha as a masked vigilante crimefighter, assisted by his faithful girl Friday, played by Petchara Chaowarat. He says:

So here's my--undoubtedly naive and completely unfounded--hope: That Wisit Sasanatieng's upcoming revival of Insee Daeng (aka Red Eagle) will be so awesome that it will inspire renewed interest in both the films of Mitr Chaibancha and 1960s Thai cinema in general, and that as a result we'll finally get to see more of these older films restored--if that's even possible--and subtitled on DVD.

Don't let me down Wisit. You've got me a little nervous, because The Unseeable kind of sucked.

More information:


  1. Weird, I just watched and wrote a short review of Fun Bar Karaoke today. The quality of the vcd was really bad and I didn't like the movie much. I'm having a hard time with pre-Last Life.. Ratanaruang, maybe Last Life.. and Invisible Waves are more products of him working with Doyle, Yoon and the music of Riddim than anything Pen-Ek could make himself (maybe that is stating the obvious). I'm looking forward to seeing Ploy though that I've had laying around for a while.

  2. Monrak Transistor is one of my favorite films. I love the craziness and sprawl. And the music. Ruang Talok 69 is more compact, but fun - great characters and wonderfully dry, dark comedy. I've only taken time to watch a bit of Fun Bar, and what I saw I really enjoyed.

    Ploy is in the same mood as Last Life and Waves. Where did you get the DVD? I've not seen it for sale anywhere else except Thailand, and I have assumed it is Pen-ek's edited version for Thai censors. I have heard of a Korean release, but I was under the impression it was sourced from the censored Thai print. I've been waiting for a release that definitively says it is the original "erect nipples" version.

  3. It is the thai dvd, I use ethaicd for thai dvds, I usually buy the original then download a fansub to make my own dvd. It seems to be the only way to watch thai films now if you don't speak the language :| I would also like the full version but I have no idea when it'll be released.

    I couldn't get into Monrak Transistor at all, but it was a long time ago that I watched it, maybe I should give it another chance. 6ixtynin9 I haven't seen, but I ordered the dvd last week so I'll be watching it soon.

  4. Thanks for the mentions. I decided to "celebrate" the anniversary of my last week in Thailand. Thank you for also explaining about the source material for the Fun Bar Karaoke VCD.


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