Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Meat Grinder

  • Directed by Tiwa Moeithaisong
  • Starring Mai Charoenpura, Rattanaballang Tohsawat, Duangta Tungkamanee
  • Released in Thai cinemas on March 19, 2009
  • Rating: 4/5

Despite a few cuts by squeamish, national-security-fearing censors, Meat Grinder remains a bloody, violent and gore-filled dish, but it's also a satisfyingly and surprisingly tasteful thriller with a social message.

Society and the vicious cycle of domestic violence are the metaphorical meat grinders in this tale of a woman who is reared by abusive parents and as a result copes with life's problems in the only way she knows how -- grabbing a big sharp knife and hacking away.

Mai Charoenpura plays Buss, a noodle vendor who's inherited her mother's noodle stall. She's struggling to care for a limping little girl named Bua. Buss pushes her noodle cart through the warren of narrow alleyways and canal-side footpaths in her neighborhood. Her only escape from the drudgery is to immerse her head into a water-filled klong jar and drown out the voices in her head.

Her's is a lonely existence. But one day she's caught up in a riot of students being chased by soldiers. The setting is the 1970s, and the students are pro-democracy activists pursued by soldiers as part of an anti-communist crackdown.

One of the students, Attapon (Bangkok Love Story's Rattanaballang Tohsawat), beckons Buss into a side alley to escape the soldiers. Hardly a word is spoken between them, but with the fog of smoke bombs enveloping the scene, it has a tense sensuousness. Attapon smiles, and Buss acknowledges curtly. It's clear she has little use for other people -- especially men -- but a connection has been made nonetheless.

Attapon later goes looking for one of his friends who is among the many missing after the riot, and the trail leads back to Buss and her noodle cart.

More is revealed to show Buss' family background and why she has such a low opinion of men. Turns out she's learned everything, including her noodle recipe, from her mother (a serenely wicked Duangta Tungkamanee).

Mai gives a uncharacteristically understated performance. Sure, she gets to fly into a murderous, nostril-flaring rage, which is as much a delight to watch as her best scenery-chewing moments in Suriyothai, but she's also not overplaying it.

Gangsters, led by Somchai Sakdikul -- bizarrely outfitted in lumpy prosthetics so he looks 100 pounds heavier -- come around looking for Buss' husband. He's a gambler and owes money. Maybe they can take it out on trade with Buss?

Out come the knives and meat cleavers. Chop chop. Slash slash. Cut cut. Pound pound.

But what about Buss' new boyfriend Attapon? Can he tame the beastliness of Buss?

Director Tiwa Moeithaisong, the editor and cinematographer who breathed kinetic life into the modern city of Poj Arnon's Bangkok Love Story, does triple duty on Meat Grinder, handling the editing and lighting chores on Meat Grinder himself. (Poj is one of the producers of Meat Grinder. And it's by Phranakorn Film, representing the studio's grand arrival into the international marketplace -- yes Meat Grinder is that good.)

It's an eye-popping effort by Tiwa, with plenty of stylization, slow-mo, dramatic blurring and shifts from color to black and white and back again. When there is color, it seems muted, except for Buss' blue blouse, which becomes less colorful as the story progresses. Red -- as in blood red -- becomes the main primary color later on.

The alleyways, wooden shophouses, market stalls and railroad tracks that serve as this movie's setting are timeless places, isolated from the bristling concrete hi-rise jungle that Bangkok's become. The setting adds an element of claustrophobia -- a feeling of being trapped and disoriented -- lost in a maze.

A fresh breath is the sparse score, which also adds tension. Instead of screeching violins or thudding percussion to announce scary moments, the soundtrack drops away to silence, making things more frightening as Buss stalks her prey. For surreal effect, when Buss is working on her killing floor, a haunting easy-listening romance ballad is playing.

Oh to be sure, there are elements of "torture porn" in Meat Grinder, but it's in the classic sense of old slasher movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original) and not so much Saw.

Instead of being gross or nauseating, Meat Grinder is beautiful to look at -- sometimes even sexy -- and it made me hungry afterwards, though a bowl of noodles wouldn't really satisfy -- maybe a big, thick juicy steak?

Meat Grinder's Thai title is Cheuat Gon Chim (เชือด ก่อน ชิม), which literally means "carve before tasting". It was originally Guay-dteow Neua Kon (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว เนื้อ คน), literally "human meat noodles", but that was changed at the behest of censors.

The censors have also had a whack at the film in the name of "national security" -- can't have the general public believing that all Thai noodle vendors are going to poison you, slice you up and serve you to their next customers.

There's a warning message preceding the opening credits that I think says something to the effect of "the government censors think you all are so stupid, so they've ordered us to place a warning message on this film to let you know it's just a work of fiction and does not represent the standard practices of Thai noodle vendors. Really, Thai noodle soup is the yummiest, best quality noodle soup in the world, and all Thai noodle vendors are wonderful, kind and friendly people. Eat more Thai noodles!"

The warning message is in Thai so I really don't know what it says. Thing is, if the censors are so fired up about "national security" -- whatever that means -- which is presumably tied to Thailand's international image, then why just have a warning message in the Thai language only? Did the censors really think this movie would cause riots?

The cuts may have made things a bit unorganized as the film was being printed. There's a couple of places where the narrative jumps -- similar to the missing-reel effect of Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez' Grindhouse. I think it actually adds to the '70s vibe of the movie -- not that I'm in favor of censorship.

Don't worry gorehounds -- Meat Grinder is still very violent and bloody, and there are moments that will make your fingers and toes curl.

I would like to see a director's cut of Meat Grinder, though I am uncertain whether the new film law would allow that, since movies about murderous noodle vendors have become an issue of Thailand's national security.

This serving of Meat Grinder may be all you're going to get. Bon appetit!

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  1. Though you may say it's GREAT, it's a definite pass for me. I saw the promotional pics at Pantip forum, it freaked me out for days. Especially the one where Duangta is brewing something, a human stew?

  2. Oh isn't Duangta awesome?

    I was put off by the promo stills, posters and trailers too, and was ready to dismiss this movie as cheap torture porn, but it's better than it appears.

    But yeah, if you have a weak stomach for gore and food-related horror, then maybe it's best to steer clear of Meat Grinder.

  3. Definitely looks good for gory film fans. After read your review, I think I want to check this film.

  4. This movie looked scary at first but after viewing it, sure there was gory or whatnot, but it wasn't that bad.


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