Thursday, December 23, 2010

Outdoor movie dubbers stage swordfights with forks and spoons

Movies on the Beach in the nang klang plang tradition of Thai outdoor cinema are continuing this week at the Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside Bangkok.

I caught last Saturday's double feature of 1966's Suek Bang Rajan and 2000's Bang Rajan.

The setting is a sand-covered plaza on the riverfront at the Ramada hotel, which is downstream from the Saphan Taksin pier. It's easily reachable from the pier by a shuttle boat from the hotel that runs every half hour.

Instead of movie-theater seating, there are beach-style lounge chairs set up in rows.

Starting well after dusk, at around 7.30, the first feature was 1966's Battle of Bang Rajan, starring Sombat Metanee in a commanding performance that won him a Tukata Tong (Golden Doll) award, which was handed to him personally by His Majesty the King.

Instead of the soundtrack, a team of five dubbers handled all voice work, music and sound effects. They worked from a table next to the projector tent, which was set up behind the beach chairs.

Two men and two women handled all the voices, from the heroic leading man to the comic-relief characters. Sound effects for this historical action epic were simple but effective – forks and spoons from dinner provided the clanging of swords, a pair of small coconut shells were the sound of pounding horse hoofs. Braying horses, trumpeting elephants, gunshots, cannon fire and the cries of dying men and women were all covered by the men and women behind the mic. A fifth member of the team worked a cassette player, swapping tapes in and out with music suited to the mood – rousing orchestral cues for the action scenes, and slow Thai traditional instrumentals for the romantic settings.

Fantastic as the movie was – it's the Alamo-like tale of heroic villagers who put themselves between the capital at Ayutthaya and the entire army of invading Burmese – it was hard to not turn around and see how the dubbers worked their magic.

Just how effective they were became evident when director Thanit Jitnukul's 2000 remake Bang Rajan was the second feature and the dubbers went away to let the soundtrack play. I felt like it was missing something, even with all the modern movie magic of CGI blood and digitally hacked-off limbs.

Compared to the newer version, the first Bang Rajan is lots more colorful, with lots of reds, yellows and greens, especially the women's costumes. The stories are the same. The village is up against overwhelming odds. Even the women get in on the two-handed swordfighting action. And yes, the village drunk climbs aboard a water buffalo to gallop into battle, though in the old version, the ride is short-lived – a letdown compared to the awesomely heroic ride Bin Binluert takes in 2000's version.

They showed films. Actual film reels, running through a projector. That was good to see in this age of DVDs and digital projectors. In previous outdoor film screenings I've been to, they have two projectors, which the projectionist uses to keep the flow steady, with no discernable interuption between reels. I swear I've even seen that feat accomplished with one projector, but the projectionists handling Saturday's screening had trouble keeping up with the cigarette burns, so there were pauses between reels.

And I was surprised at just how bad a shape the print of 2000's Bang Rajan was in. It seemed just as scratched up and jaggedy as the 1966 film.

Shows just how fragile a medium film is.

Movies on the Beach continue through Sunday.

Tonight's show is the 1970 smash-hit musical Monrak Luk Thung (Magical Love in the Countryside), starring Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat. Back in the day, it played in cinemas for six straight months.

Christmas Eve has 1970's Insee Tong (Golden Eagle), which features the fateful helicopter stunt that killed Mitr on October 8, 1970. I expect the dubbing team will be handling that one.

It's on a double bill with this year's Insee Dang (The Red Eagle), an action-packed reboot of Mitr's long-running franchise by director Wisit Sasanatieng, featuring Ananda Everingham in the lead role of the masked vigilante crimefighter.

Christmas night has a pair of monastic comedies, Luang Ta 3: Seeka Khang Wat from 1991 and Phranakorn's 2005 smash-hit Luang Phee Theng (The Holy Man).

The screening series closes on Sunday with the 2001 romantic drama Khang Lang Phab (Behind the Painting), the final film by the late director Cherd Songsri, starring "Ken" Theeradej Wongpuapan and Cara Pholasit.

The price is a bit steep, which may be the reason audiences are so sparse – 350 baht for the one-movie nights and 450 baht for the double-feature nights. That includes your choice of beverage and/or food.

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