Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review: Fun Bar Karaoke

  • Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
  • Starring Fay Atsawet, Ray MacDonald, Champagne X
  • Premiered at 1997 Berlin International Film Festival; released on English-subtitled VCD (transfer from VHS) by Solar Marketing (out of print).
  • Rating: 5/5

Pen-ek Ratanaruang's first film is the last one of his features I've seen. Since his debut in 1997, he has gone on to become an auteur whose films are highly anticipated worldwide. Fun Bar Karaoke is a show-reel for Pen-ek's roots as a director of TV commercials and music videos. It's a mish-mosh of styles and influences: the masculine flash of Scorsese, the sensuality of Wong Kar-wai, the deadpan wit of Jarmusch, the madcap folksy whimsy of the Coen Brothers, and even the the rock 'n' roll sensibilities of Tarantino are all apparent.

The Thai title is Fan Ba Karaoke, literally "dream crazy karaoke", but a clerical error stated the English title as Fun Bar Karaoke, which is better than most English titles of Thai films. The central theme is dreams, and the main character, a young woman named Pu (Fay Atsawet), keeps have ominous dreams involving her dead mother building a model house, and when it is completed will mean the death of her widower father.

Dad is a fun-loving sort, who loves to hang out at a certain pub, sing karaoke and drink until he can no longer stand. Somehow, this debauched Ward Cleaver figure makes it home in the wee hours, where he passes out on the floor and is cleaned up by daughter Pu.

She works as a production assistant for a commercial production company, giving Pen-ek a chance to get in some digs ("Evain" face cream) against the industry where he got his start, against sponsors who are unhappy their product isn't shown enough, producers who belittle every little asthetic choice, right down to an actress who "closes her eyes too much".

Pu's father sets himself up for a run of bad luck when he sets his sights on the lovely Yok, a statuesque, curly haired, exotic beauty played by Champagne X (whatever happened to her?). Yok is the girlfriend of a jealous mobster, Toeng, and after Yok shares the stage with karaoke-singing dad, he is beaten by a bunch of Mafia Toeng's sunglasses-at-night-wearing, uniform-clad henchmen, in a scene that recalls Michaal Madsen's dance of torture in Reservoir Dogs.

Pu had consulted the fortune-teller father of her friend the 7-Eleven clerk, who told her to boil 51 eggs and rub them on her face. But it turns out he was wrong -- the number should have been 52. Nonetheless, after his beating, Dad appears to have turned over a new leaf, and to the tune of Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me", Dad brushes up on his cooking skills and runs the vacuum cleaner. The whole soundtrack is cool, by the way, with Thai rock songs from Yokee Playboy and some moody musical cues played on the ranad-ek (Thai xylophone).

Meanwhile, Pu has started up a mild fling with Noi (Ray MacDonald), a half-Thai guy who is a regular customer at the 7-Eleven, and is, unbeknownest to Pu, a gunman employed by Toeng. Noi saves all the cash from the people he kills in order to emigrate to America.

Bangkok's legendary traffic jams (even more gridlocked in economically prosperous 1997, and before the skytrain and subway) put Dad, Yok, Noi, Toeng and Pu on a collision course.

The production design is cheery, with plenty of swimming-pool blues and bright reds, and enlivened even more with Dad's wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts and a jaunt by Pu and her friend Pui to the beach. Also, Pen-ek shows an obsession for mirrors and other reflective surfaces.

Fay Atsawet, plainly dressed in jeans and baggy T-shirts, has an expressive face and pouty lips -- she has apparently only done this one movie. Pity she didn't make more films.

Despite an exposed boom microphone and a narrative that is strung together by a series of commercials and music videos, or perhaps because of all those things, Fun Bar Karaoke is a classic. I'm not sure what Fun Bar Karaoke is selling, but whatever it is, I'll buy it.

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