Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tribute to Pen-ek in Bangkok's Italian Film Festival

Bangkok's annual Italian Film Festival is set for next month, and this year's edition is one of the biggest and most ambitious in terms of programming.

Not only will the Moviemov Italian Film Festival show a line-up of contemporary Italians films as it has in the past, this year they have added a selection of classic films – a retrospective on comedy director Mario Monicelli, who died last year.

And, in the spirit of Thai-Italian cultural exchange, the Italian Film Festival will show two films by Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

Also, according to the festival website, Pen-ek will receive the Best Thai Director 2011 Award from Italy's Ciak magazine in Rome this year.

Pen-ek's chosen two of his movies for the fest:

  • Ploy, 2007 – A jet-lagged Thai-American couple (Pornwat Sarasin and soap actress Lalida Panyopas) check into a Bangkok hotel after a long-haul flight from the U.S. and their tenuous marriage is tested when the husband invites a young woman (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) up to their room. Meanwhile, the hotel's bartender (Ananda Everingham) is engaged in a playful tryst with a maid (Porntip Papanai). Ploy premiered in the Directors' Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival. Pen-ek will present the film along with Goffredo Bettini, artistic director of Moviemov, and Piera Detassis, artistic director of the International Rome Film Festival and director of Ciak Magazine.
  • Last Life in the Universe, 2003 – Tadanobu Asano stars in this quirk-filled black comedy as an eccentric, suicide-obsessed librarian living in Bangkok, hiding from his secret past. Violent circumstances lead him to take up with a young Thai woman (Sinitta Boonyasak) at her ramshackle house by the sea. Last Life is one of a pair of pan-Asian co-productions Pen-ek did with Asano and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (the other is 2006's Invisible Waves). The cast also includes cult Japanese actor Riki Takeuchi and a cameo by filmmaker Takashi Miike. Asano received the Upstream Prize for Best Actor at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.

Pen-ek just wrapped up his Shoot the Music concert down in Hua Hin over the weekend and is still at work editing his latest feature Headshot.

With the honors coming from Rome, I wouldn't be surprised to see Headshot screening at the festival there this fall.

The full line-up of the Italian Film Festival is over at the Bangkok Cinema Scene blog.

Pen-ek blew up the music

Pen-ek Ratanaruang put on his Shoot the Music concert down in Hua Hin over the weekend.

Similar to Bangkok's 9 Film Fest, which also combined beer, film and music, Shoot the Music was sponsored by Heineken and had Pen-ek orchestrating a combination of short films and live music.

From what I can gather, the shorts were shown in between or maybe during musical performances.

There were dozen or so local acts leading up to the headliner, R&B musician Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

At one point, there was a small explosion on the stage.

"The lights went out and everything froze," writes Manta Klangboonkrong in her review of the show in The Nation.

There were a number of amusing promo spots and short films made for the event. These include the It's Personal shorts Boxer and Mafia, featuring Tarr Barbie as a slick gangster. Singer-actress Ploy Horwang also appears. They are combined in a playlist and are embedded below.

She finally gets married in Sabaidee 3

Director Sakchai Deenan completes his Sabaidee trilogy of cross-border romantic comedies with this story of a Thai magazine writer ("Boy" Pakorn Chatborrirak) who visits Laos and falls for local lass Kam (Khamly Philavong).

The series started in 2008 with Sabaidee Luang Prabang, which starred Ananda Everingham and Khamly. Ananda was also executive producer. The film was co-directed by Sakchai and Laotian director Anousone Sirisackda.

Then came last year's Sabaidee 2: From Paxse With Love, which starred Ray MacDonald as a down-and-out filmmaker hired to take wedding photos who becomes smitten with Khamly.

This third episode was filmed back-to-back with Sabaidee 2.

There's a teaser that has highlights from all three movies and one that's just for this one.

It opens in Thai cinemas this week.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: The Hangover Part II

  • Directed by Todd Phillips
  • Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Crystal the monkey
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 28, 2011; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Did money talk when it came to making The Hangover Part II in Thailand?

According to the Thailand Film Office, approximately half a billion baht (around $16.7 million) was spent on the Hollywood comedy during its 40 days of shooting in Thailand, making it one of the biggest productions to visit the Kingdom in recent years.

So if a Thai filmmaker wanted to shoot scenes that involved a drug-dealing, cigarette-smoking monkey simulating fellatio on a monk, would they be allowed?

Perhaps as long as the monk in question is not technically a Thai Buddhist monk, but one dressed in robes usually associated with Burmese monks.

Other scenes involve a transgender go-go dancer exposing her man parts, and that's been controversial because depictions of male genitalia have traditionally been taboo in Hollywood films.

Of course, the naughty bits – male, female or otherwise – are blurred out by Thai censors. Never mind that the movie is rated 18+, and that the ratings system enacted in 2009 was supposed to put an end to that antiquated way of censorship. However, even under the Film and Video Law of 2007, genitalia is generally frowned upon, even in a movie released under the restricted 20- rating.

Watch just about any Thai comedy released in local cinemas today, and there's usually scatological hijinks involving monks and/or ladyboys. The Hangover Part II is essentially the same schtick, only with a much-bigger budget and Hollywood actors.

The big difference is those Thai comedies are rarely shown overseas, and never in worldwide releases like The Hangover Part II. Certainly, more people are going to remember The Hangover Part II than folks who've watched an ad from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

So Thailand's image as a tourist destination is perhaps taking a big hit, and many viewers have to be wondering what the Thai authorities were thinking when they allowed this movie to be filmed here, reveling as it does in all the stereotypes of the city's dark side of drugs, drinking, transvestite hookers and activities that involve Ping-Pong balls.

It's not all bad though. There are also scenes of a five-star luxury resort on the Andaman Sea – just two hours across crystal blue waters from Bangkok by speedboat, according to the movie.

And Bangkok's exclusive State Tower, home to a high-end hotel and ultra-expensive eateries that offer a panoramic view of the city, also figures prominently.

The cast and crew all stayed at five-star hotels during their stay in Thailand. Nonetheless, star Ed Helms said he suffered from severe food poisoning. "Let's just say my body exploded," he says. And Justin Bartha says he wishes he could unsee the "dirty shit ... that got burned into my eyes".

For many viewers, the gut reaction is that they'll want to steer clear of Bangkok and Thailand on their next vacation. They won't take into account that the Hangover boys are behaving like idiot low-lifes and associating with scum. The things that happen to them are the consequences. Keep your wits about you, use common sense and don't take part in illegal activities, and Bangkok and the rest of Thailand are generally safe.

As for the movie itself, it is a clear cash-in to build a franchise out of the 2009 hit that became the most lucrative R-rated comedy ever. The sequel has already bettered that, ensuring there will be a Hangover Part III and beyond.

As with the first Hangover, the Wolf Pack boys Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are running around the morning after, trying to piece together the events of the night before, which in their inebriated state, they've forgotten.

They and their buddy Doug have traveled to Thailand for Stu’s wedding, and Stu, hoping to prevent a repeat of the out-of-control bachelor party they had for their buddy Doug's nuptials, aims to just go to bed after the dignified pre-wedding dinner at a luxury resort on Krabi.

However, at the urging of his bride-to-be (Real World and Sucker Punch star Jamie Chung), he relents for one celebratory beer on the beach with his buddies and his fiance's younger brother Teddy (Mason Lee, from Ang Lee's The Hire short).

Somehow they wake up the next morning in a seedy Bangkok hotel room, having been magically transported overnight from the Andaman Sea to the "city of squalor". Teddy is missing. All that remains is his finger. Bearded Alan has his head shaved. And Stu has a facial tattoo that's just like Mike Tyson's.

Their old enemy, the international criminal Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is there. Only now he's like an old friend.

Also, they have a monkey. This is Crystal, a Capuchin monkey (native to South America) who's been in Night at the Museum and many other movies. Smoking CGI-enhanced cigarettes and dealing drugs, the cheeky primate steals the show from the three main actors, and the scenes in which she doesn't appear feel slack.

And an elderly wheelchair-bound monk turns up, wearing Teddy's Stanford sweatshirt.

Apart from the mute monk played by Aroon Sriboonruang, there's only a handful of Thai talent onscreen. The most prominent is veteran actor Nirut Sirichanya as Stu's overbearing and disapproving father-in-law. He's currently known for his role on the judging panel of the Thailand's Got Talent TV show, but film fans might remember him as Tony Jaa's serene mentor in Ong-Bak 2 and 3. Stay and watch the end credits for the endless list of Thai names who worked on the crew.

Other cameos include Paul Giamatti as a criminal cohort of Mr. Chow and director Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist (he got the role after Mel Gibson was vetoed by the cast and Liam Neeson's scheduling didn't work out). Bill Clinton was on set during the filming in Bangkok, and had photos taken with the cast, but his people apparently came to their senses and he doesn't appear. Chiang Mai's quirky band the Ska Rangers also appear, playing a cover of Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran", which is tragically cut short to make way for another cameo. But the full-length version of the Rangers' song is on the soundtrack album.

Eventually the movie's tagline “Bangkok has them now” emerges as a mantra. And Stu is wrestling with his inner demons, embodying that love-hate relationship many Bangkokians have with their city.

There's vivid cinematography of the metropolis. And there's a car stunt that's probably the most memorably epic thing done by a Hollywood film in Bangkok since the 1974 Bond picture The Man with the Golden Gun.

It should be noted, however, that one of the car stunts left an Australian stunt double severely injured.

Overall, there's a been-there-done-that feel to the movie, despite the location change from Vegas to Bangkok. The jokes aren't as funny as the first film.

Galifianakis tries hard, setting up the monkey-to-monk fellatio scene: “When a monkey nibbles on a penis, it’s funny in any language.”

And everyone does laugh. But who will have the last laugh?

See also:

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

9 Film Fest 2011: Winners and notes

The first 9 Film Fest was held last night, mixing short films with live music and beer under a tent in the Parc Paragon outside Bangkok's Siam Paragon.

Nine short films, each nine minutes long and incorporating something about the No 9 in them, were chosen from a reported 184 entries, each made specifically for this festival. All but two were by Thai filmmakers, and all but one were filmed in Thailand.

The shorts were screened in three "acts", broken up in between by performances by the musical acts Calories Blah Blah and Buddha Bless. After the third act, was the awards presentation. A mini-show by the rock band Paradox closed out the evening

The festival was created by Brian Bennett, who started the original Bangkok Film Festival back in 1998. He's patterened the 9 Film Fest after the TropFest in Australia. The Bangkok Post emerged as the major sponsor of the fest, and took it over, driving it with considerable marketing muscle.

Judges on the short-film jury were directors Nonzee Nimibutr, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Pimpaka Towira, actor Ananda Everingham and the newspaper's film critic Kong Rithdee. All except Pen-ek were on hand to give out the awards. Pen-ek was down in Hua Hin, staging his Shoot the Music concert.

The total prize purse was 300,000 baht, split across the various categories.

Here's the line-up of shorts:

  • 9 Days, directed by Meechai Tubphete. This Cloverfield-like home movie is about couple facing nine crisis-filled days, barricaded in their apartment during the apocalypse.
  • The Elevator, directed by Suphasit Tanprasertsupa. A man goes from boyhood to old age in the course of nine floors on an elevator. It's a rather sordid life for the guy. I thought this one was quite clever – one of the best of the evening.
  • Touch Screen, directed by Katan Thammavijitdej. A teenage girl talks with her boyfriend on her touch-screen mobile phone. She is seen through the vertical frame of a cellphone screen, and the text messages are off to the side. This one had an interesting story but was hard to read.
  • The Numberman Theory, directed by Eeji Shimada. A rather odd Japanese man who's obsessed with numbers tries to contort his body into the shapes of the numbers from 1 to 9. The nine minutes are padded out with documentary-style interviews of the bespectacled dude, who admits he's not especially limber. He dons a head-to-toe black Spandex bodysuit anyway and gives it go.
  • Death of a Butterfly, directed by Pongpun Yuencheewit. A woman’s voice reads a sad letter to a man over experimental-film imagery.
  • Navigator, directed by Kanin Ramasoot. A driver and his GPS device get into a fight, break up, then make up. It's a romantic comedy, starring My Girlfriend the Car.
  • Half, directed by Rakphong Rakrien. A political satire by a Thai who lives far away from Thailand and feels ashamed about what’s happening there. Some nice black-and-white imagery.
  • 9 Years Later, directed by Krisanai Piriyarangsan. A soldier trying to find a right spot for an uninterrupted radio signal runs into an enemy. Always ambitious, trying to make a war movie on a tiny budget.
  • Man with a Video Camera, directed by Kris Clijsters. It's Bangkok, post 05/19/2010. Lots of vivid images. A beautiful snapshot of the always-changing, fitfully modernizing city.

And the prizes went to:

  • Best Cinematography: Man with a Video Camera.
  • Jury Prize: Death of Butterfly
  • Special Mention: 9 Years Later
  • Best Actor: The Numberman Theory, Yuto Tanabe
  • Best Actress: Touch Screen, Asia Kohpetch
  • Runner-up: Touch Screen
  • Best Short Film: The Numberman Theory

The Japanese director and actor of The Numberman Theory were both present, which was apparently a surprise, since they had earlier said they couldn't make it. "It's destiny," director Shimada said upon receiving his giant 100,000-baht check from Nonzee Nimibutr.

Overall, it was a fun event, though a bit weird, with the films broken into three acts and then a band coming on to perform for about a half hour in between. So was it a concert or a film festival? Yes is the answer. It was both. And I'm not really sure either worked. Folks who wanted to see films were annoyed at having to listen to the pop music of Calories Blah Blah and the DJ/rap sounds of Buddha Bless. And fans of those bands were annoyed at having to sit through 30 minutes of weird short films. Many of the film fans I know left the event during the musical interludes and did not return.

The seating was arranged in such a way that the audience was forced to schmooze with one another, which was the likely intent of the organizers. It was a party-like atmosphere. There was a couple rows of VIP sofas down front, blocked off by a nylon-ribbon barrier. Then there was an area of little squat tables and little cube-stools you could perch on, chat with your friends and drink Singha beer (a sponsor). In back, off to one side, there were tables and chairs and more sitting, chatting and drinking. Folks were constantly on the search for a place to sit down and stealing and scamming for chairs. There was a big open area under the beer tent, where people stood. They should have put more chairs in.

The atmosphere of conviviality made it difficult to actually see and hear the films. By the end of the evening, most folks where I was sitting were just talking (loudly) and drinking and not watching the films or the music or anything.

Finally, the awards were handed out in a rather dramatic, special-effects laden ceremony.

The bands, the beer, the smoke machines, the shooting confetti, the marketing campaign. How much money was spent? Seems like a lot for one night and nine short low-budget films. Especially when there are other film festivals around Thailand that show dozens upon dozens of features and shorts over the course of a week or more and struggle to find sponsors and raise money for budgets.

For me, the highlight of the night, aside from the films, was seeing the costumed rock band Paradox live. Their performance closed out the event. Paradox is one of the Thai rock bands that performs frequently at festivals and are an audience favorite for good reason – with two back-up singers, one in a luchador mask and the other looking like a character out of Ultraman – these boys put on a show and are solidly rocking. One of their gimmicks is to throw out balloons, balls, beach toys, candy and other prizes. They also spray water, so watch out. They were featured in that recent romance shorts anthology, Love Julinsee. And flamboyant bassist Song Paradox, who usually dresses as a schoolgirl, like a demented little sister of AC/DC's Angus Young, has been featured in a couple of films as well, The Sperm and The Possible, playing a musician.

So music and film do go together. And sometimes it works.

Monday, May 23, 2011

August Band hits the road in Puan Mai Kao

Formed as a fictional musical group for director Chookiat Sakveerakul's 2007 gay teen romance Love of Siam, the August Band played at a few promotional appearances for the movie and proved so popular it became a real act.

The band, which appeared in an animated Yellow Submarine-like fantasy segment in the shorts anthology Four Romances, now has a whole live-action feature built around them in Puan Mai Kao (เพื่อนไม่เก่า, a.k.a. August Friends).

Singer "Peachy" Witwisit Hirunyawongkul and the rest of the guys hit the road for a bicycling journey from Bangkok to Lampang that will test their friendships.

Kriangkrai Wachirathammaphon, who was a co-writer of Four Romances, directs with Chookiat as co-screenwriter.

Here's the trailer. It pedals into Thai cinemas this week.

Charlie the odd man out in lesbian romance Do-Nut

Fan Chan star Charlie Trairat is caught in a confused and heartbreaking romance in Do-Nut (โด๋ นัท), a love-triangle tale that is similar to last year's surprise hit lesbian love story Yes or No, So I Love You.

Charlie's an art student named Do who finds himself left out when his tomboyish friend Nut (Pimradapha Wright) pursues a romance with the pretty Jane (Phulada Luechatham).

Nirun Thampreecha directs this picture, in cinemas this week. It's distributed by Golden A Entertainment.

Here's the trailer (embedded below).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Laddaland

  • Directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit
  • Starring Saharat Sangkapreechat, Piyathida Woramuksik, Sutadta Udomsil, Atipit Chutiwatkajornchai
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 28, 2011; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Family dysfunction and ghosts combine for genuine terror in Laddaland (ลัดดาแลนด์, a.k.a. The Lost Home), an intense, dread-filled drama about a father struggling to keep his family together in a haunted housing development.

It's the second feature directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit, who previously co-wrote the hit GTH horror thrillers Shutter and Alone and made his debut with the haunted-film flick Coming Soon. The tale is loosely based on fact – producer Jira Maligool gave Sophon the idea, telling him about a haunted theme park in Chiang Mai, and the story was shifted to the housing estate.

Saharat Sangkapreecha stars as a dad determined to make his family happy. He's just moved to a housing estate in Chiang Mai, where he's taken a new job. Dad lovingly prepares for the arrival of his family, setting up all the furniture and preparing bedrooms for his young son and teenage daughter. After pouring over his wedding-photo albums, he sits down at the little four-seat dining room table and practices the speech he's going to give his family at their first meal in their new home. Which is kind of creepy from the get-go.

The housing development is one of those suburban gated communities, where row upon row of single-family homes stretch for as far as the eye can see. Each house is the same, with the same green patches of yard and a driveway to park the family station wagon.

It's the American dream, with children scampering in the lawn sprinklers and Golden retrievers playing fetch. Only it's in Thailand, and it doesn't take long before the dream is shattered.

The teenage daughter doesn't like the new house. She misses the grandmother who raised her and her friends in Bangkok. Though she softens a bit when she sees the flowering tree her dad painted on her bedroom wall. But dad doesn't get to give his little speech, because the daughter's BlackBerry rings as they are starting dinner. It's grandma – the mother-in-law who's made life miserable for dad.

Other blots on the family's idyllic existence include the neighbor's intrusive black cat – now there's a subtle omen. The mewling feline leaves a deposit on the lawn. It belongs to an unfriendly neighbor who abuses his wife. No, all is not well behind the walls of these homes.

And then a Burmese maid ends up found murdered in a house down the street, stuffed inside a refrigerator with her face burned off by acid.

And so the suspense builds and hardly lets up. Misdirection, fake jumps, plenty of don't-go-in-there moments and scary soundtrack cues are deftly played. And just what is that air-conditioner's magic eye looking at?

Meanwhile, more and more about the father's background is revealed – a shady, pyramid-scheme sales job, financial pressures, the ungrateful, rebellious daughter, jealousy about his wife's former boss and that darn, disapproving mother-in-law.

It's enough to make a man crack and go out and buy a gun. Which he does. And the dread edges a notch higher.

Mother's feeling the pressure too. It's those pesky ghosts. And when the little boy swears up and down he was playing with one of them, mother doesn't believe him. And the back and forth between the two – "you're lying", "I'm not lying", "you're lying", "I'm not lying" – escalates to the point that mom is smacking the kid around and bringing the audience to the point of tears.

More than a truly scary ghost thriller, Laddaland is a terrifying picture of family dysfunction, reminiscent of Tokyo Sonata in more than a few notes, with a bit of Poltergeist thrown in. Even a bit of Shutter is recalled, thanks to the cat-cam around the black kitty's neck.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Jakkalan (This Girl Is Bad-Ass)

  • Directed by Petthai Wongkumlao
  • Starring Yanin Vismitananda, Petthai Wongkumlao, Athit Amonwet, Akhom Pridakun
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 28, 2011; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

The just-revealed international English title of Jakkalan (จั๊กกะแหล๋น) is This Girl Is Bad-Ass. And yes, Jeeja Yanin is all that. Unfortunately, her fierce brand of martial-arts action is secondary to an extremely lame-ass collection of one liners and sight gags by director Petthai "Mum Jokmok" Wongkumlao and his comedian cohorts.

Playing like an outtake reel of scenes from various Sahamongkol comedies, romances and action flicks, the problem with Jakkalan is a lack of focus. A bit of Bodyguard here and Chocolate there, with some Crazy Little Thing Called Love (and even Love of Siam) tossed in, it could've been decent, but it's instead a disaster.

An unwieldly, kitchen-sink blend of comedy, romance and action, Jakkalan is too loosely plotted, with unfunny jokes, fight scenes that have no resolution and a cast that's overstuffed with Mum's showbiz pals who were apparently allowed to run wild with whatever dumb gags they could come up with. By comparison, past directorial efforts by Mum, like his first Bodyguard movie, the soap-opera satire Wongkumlao or his country comedy Yam Yasothon were much more tightly scripted and way more entertaining.

But those movies were mainly for Thai audiences. And if Jakkalan is to be made a success internationally, it'll need to be significantly retooled, but then there isn't that much there to begin with. Folks overseas want to see Jeeja, but her scenes come too few and far in between the nonsense.

Jeeja is a tomboyish young woman named Jakkalan who's been raised by her uncle (Mum). She works for a bicycle messenger service, and, in bowing to the current fad in Thailand for fixed-gear bicycles, Jeeja pedals a fixie. She even uses the bike as an effective weapon in the first big fight scene. But that takes forever to get to because first there are scenes of Mum taking care of little Jakkalan as she grows up, from a precocious rugrat to a rebellious 10-year-old who beats up all the bullies in the neighborhood.

Uncle Mum runs a street stall selling movies, which gives him a chance to note that he only sells authorized copies (only by Sahamongkolfilm of course) and issue a frustrated but ultimately self-serving and unfunny diatribe against movie piracy.

More "comedy" is provided by ubiquitious yukster Kom Chuanchuen, who wears outfits that seem to have been put together from the discount bin of the BDSM department at a thrift store. The only way you can protect yourself against the heinousness of what the clown Kom is wearing is to close your eyes whenever he's onscreen, which is a lot. He plays the boss of the bicycle messenger service.

Meanwhile, there's a weird young guy (Akhom Pridakun) with bad teeth who has a crush on Jakkalan and is always hanging around, asking Mum for advice on how to approach her. The fact that he keeps calling Mum's character "Uncle" seems strange, even if you owe that to the convention of Thai people referring to their unrelated elders as "uncle", "auntie", "older brother", etc.

But Jakkalan has her eyes on a long-haired neighbor guy (Athit Amonwet) who's a rock musician, and this gives her a chance to act like a goofy teenage girl in puppy love – a side of Jeeja that hasn't been seen, and it's actually pretty adorable. There's also a couple scenes where Jeeja forgoes the T-shirt, jeans, trucker's hat and sneakers and is dolled up in a dress and make-up.

She has some comedic bits as well, and acquits herself in a scene in which she delivers rapid-fire insults to that weird guy who keeps pestering her.

Jeeja's even funny when she's fighting, and the key to that is pretty simple: Instead of frowning, all she has to do is turn on that sweet smile while she's punching a dude's face.

Her job at the messenger service involves delivering mobsters' cash and some kind of illegal "stuff". It's never explained what the "stuff" is, but it's probably drugs. She's actually keeping a chunk of the mob's money, as well as some of the "stuff", which gets her in trouble with the two ridiculous mobster outfits she's working for. Like the samurai Sanjuro in Yojimbo, she finds a way to play the rival mobsters off each other. But that's a plot point that gets lost amid all the drawn-out jokes and tiresome romantic overtures.

The fight scenes don't come often enough, and when they do, they don't last very long.

The first fight has Jeeja taking on a crew of bad guys trying to retrieve the mobster's dough. They come tumbling out of a small van like clowns from a tiny car in the circus. And Jeeja wastes them all with a combination of muay Thai kicks and fixed-wheel, backwards-riding shenanigans. One of the bad guys even gets stabbed with a knife, repeatedly, borrowing Stephen Chow's schtick from Kung Fu Hustle.

Another fight has Jeeja tangling with a female fighter (Alisa Sonthirot) in a schoolgirl uniform, like Go-Go in Kill Bill. But the schoolgirl isn't really all that fierce, and soon Jeeja faces a half dozen or so guys, and gets creative by using bicycle sprockets as throwing stars, hexagonal nuts as knuckle dusters and bicycle-tire innertubes to tangle things up. The CGI blood sprays and again it's all over too soon as Jeeja is pointlessly faced off by a group of trash-talking female mob enforcers brandishing pistols.

The frayed and frazzled plot threads finally come together for a long, dragged out ending, involving a shootout between the mob factions and the police in a warehouse. Jeeja again faces the schoolgirl, but the focus isn't on her so much as letting Mum's comedian friends get in on the action. Even Mum and his stunt double throw a few punches and kicks.

The cavalcade of comedians is endless, with all the Chuanchuen family taking part (they beat up their dad, though since he's not playing their father in the movie, that's apparently okay). There's also appearances by Sudarat "Tukky" Butrprom, Pongsak "Teng Terdterng" Pongsuwan, Yam Yasothon co-star Janet Khiew and others.

The best part of the movie is the end credits, where the identity of one of the mobster's sycophants – a guy in a zipper-mouthed mask like the Gimp in Pulp Fiction – is revealed, and he lets loose with a tirade against Mum that keeps going until the screen is dark.

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Agrarian Utopia, The Rocket and Stories from the North in New York

Along with the Blissfully Thai series at the Asia Society and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Primitive exhibition at the New Museum, there are also the films of Uruphong Raksasad in New York City.

His Agrarian Utopia will be at the Anthology Film Archives and his short film The Rocket is Stories from the North at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Agrarian Utopia starts on June 11 at the Anthology Film Archives. It won many awards at film festivals around the world in 2009 and 2010, and was honored at this year's Thailand National Film Awards and the Bangkok Critics Assembly Awards.

Here's the blurb from the Anthology Film Archives:

In Uruphong Raksasad’s ravishing documentary/fiction hybrid, two rural families, facing the seizure of their lands, come together to work the same rice paddy for a season, using pre-industrial farming methods. The title is, of course, ironic. The film shows a vanishing utopia that in reality is already essentially extinct: the plot of land was rented for the shoot, with Uruphong hiring locals to play the farmers. The serenely beautiful imagery – golden fields, time-lapse skies – bespeaks a nostalgia for a simpler time, but Agrarian Utopia is also clear-sighted and tough-minded in its assessment of the present-day economic and political realities that have transformed Thailand’s agricultural community – among other things, the film provides a partial back-story for the recent clashes in Bangkok between the Thai government and the red-shirt protesters.

The New York premiere is presented by the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar as part of their "Flaherty On the Road" initiative.

Meanwhile, the Museum of the Moving Image will show two of Uruphong's earlier films, his short, The Rocket and his short-film anthology on rural life, Stories from the North – fertile soil in which the seeds of Agrarian Utopia was planted. It's screening on June 5.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On DVD in the U.S.: Naresuan, Somtum, Vanquisher

Magnolia's Magnet Releasing continues to mine Sahamongkolfilm International's back catalog for action titles to release on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S.

Due out on June 7 is MC Chatrichalerm Yukol's The Legend of King Naresuan Part I and Part II. They have been retitled by Magnet as Kingdom of War, which I guess is an okay title. And for film buffs who've been waiting for an English-friendly release of these movies, this is actually a pretty good deal, since it's the first two parts of Chatrichalerm's historical action drama in their entirety. Remember, his previous royal epic, Suriyothai, was edited way down for U.S. release by Than Mui's friend Francis Ford Coppola, though a five-hour version with English subtitles is available from Mangpong in Thailand. Meanwhile, The Legend of King Naresuan Part III: Naval Battle is still playing in Thai cinemas after nearly two months, and I would expect Magnet to pick it up along with the still-in-production Part IV, after whenever that ends up being released. Kingdom of War Parts I and II will be on Blu-ray and DVD.

A recent release by Magnet is Sahamongkol's fun action comedy Somtum, which gets a rather dumbed-down new title, Muay Thai Giant. Nathan Jones, who fought Tony Jaa in Tom Yum Goong, gets to play the good guy in this one – a hapless tourist who is drugged and robbed during a visit to Pattaya. He's then taken in by a pair of little girls, one of whom is Power Kid Kat Sasisa, who tries to teach him muay Thai boxing. But they instead discover the gentle giant's superpower when they feed him spicy papaya pok-pok salad, and he turns into a red, raging hulk. Meanwhile, the even bigger and meaner Conan Stevens is smuggling jewels, and somehow these two big men meet for a WWE-style throwdown that tears apart an airplane. Watch for guest appearances by Dan Chupong and his Born to Fight sister Nui Kessarin. Panna Rittikrai and his team provide the stuntwork. I liked Somtum a lot and am glad to see it get a U.S. release, even if it does have a dumb title. It's on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Finally, Magnet has put out Manop Udomdej's convoluted swords-and-spies thriller Suay ... Samurai, a.k.a. Vanquisher. And they just call it ... Vanquisher. Not Legend of the Vanquisher or Vanquishing Samurai or Sword of the Vanquisher or Vengeance of the Vanquisher or anything like that. Just Vanquisher. The story has pony-tailed catsuit-clad sword-toting female spy Sophita Sriban left for dead and betrayed while on a mission for the CIA. She then goes back to work for the police in Bangkok and nothing happens until stuff starts happening again. It's a mess, involving a duplicitous lady CIA agent (Jacqueline Apithananont), terrorists from southern Thailand and samurais and I don't know what else. But at least Born to Fight's Nui Kessarin in this one too, so there's at least one decent action scene. It's on Blu-ray and DVD.

B is for Banjong in The ABC's of Death

After directing the hit romantic comedy Guan Muen Ho (Hello Stranger), Banjong Pisanthanakun will return to the horror genre with 25 other directors in the international anthology project The ABC's of Death.

Initiated by Alamo Drafthouse, Timpson Films and Magnet Releasing, the project assigns a letter of the English alphabet that represents a word to act as a springboard for a short story of death.

"It is up to each filmmaker to interpret the letter they are assigned to create a celebration of death from the accidental to murder most foul. The sum of these parts, from A to Z, will be The ABC's of Death," says the press release.

It's not stated at this time what letter will be assigned to Banjong, the co-director of the hit GTH horror thrillers Shutter and Alone as well as the director of the comic segments of GTH's Phobia and Phobia 2 horror-shorts anthologies.

Other directors taking part in the project include Indonesia's Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre) and Japan's Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Tak Sakaguchi and Yuji Shimomura (Yakuza Weapon).

In all, 25 established directors and emerging new filmmakers are being chosen with the 26th spot being held open for the winner of a worldwide competition to find a new filmmaking talent.

Production is set to begin next month, with completion slated for January 2012, six months, six weeks and six days after the start date.

(Via The Hollywood Reporter)

Legal-defense fund started for Insects in the Backyard

Director Tanwarin Sukkhapisit is doggedly pursuing a legal remedy against the Culture Ministry's ban on her gay-transvestite family drama Insects in the Backyard.

Having had a request to allow the movie to be screened for educational purposes rejected by Thailand's Administrative Court, the next step up the legal ladder is the Constitution Court.

Ultimately, Tanwarin and activists hope to see changes in the Film and Video Action of 2007, under which the Culture Ministry is empowered to regulate films. The ministry bans the movies if they are deemedto be harmful to Thai morals or national security.

To support the efforts of Tanwarin, activists, Bioscope magazine and the lawyers from the iLaw legal-reform NGO, a legal-defense fund has been started by the Facebook group “Radom Tun Su Kadee Insects in the Backyard”, a.k.a. "Fight for Insects".

The fund details are as follows: Bangkok Bank savings account 035-0-0466-0, Krungthep-Tesco Lotus Ladphrao branch. Anything left over after court expenses will go to the Thai Film Archive.

Apichatpong-a-rama: Residence in New York, Boonmee on Blu-ray

With the Cannes Film Festival going on now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's name has been in the news again, just because he won the Palme d'Or last year for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LIves.

The Cannes win launched Apichatpong on a global journey, touring the world with Uncle Boonmee to talk about it at film festivals and special screenings – too many for me to keep track of (though the unofficial Nashville Film Festival poster by Sam's Myth obviously caught my eye).

It's a trip Apichatpong's still on, and most recently it's taken him back to New York City, where he's begun a monthlong residency at SoHo's New Museum, where his Primitive video-art installation is being exhibited from May 19 to July 3. The Wall Street Journal online has more on Primitive.

He's also taking part in the Blissfully Thai film series at the Asia Society, which started yesterday with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy, and today he and Pen-ek will sit in the same room together in front of a live audience for a "conversation". Who knows what might happen? Should be interesting.

At the New Museum on Sunday, he'll present Around the World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a four-hour show-and-tell in which he'll discuss excerpts from all his features. On May 19 and May 22, he'll present selections of his short films. And on May 26 he'll present Quick Billy, a 1960s “horse opera" by Bruce Baillie, an experimental filmmaker that Joei cites as a major influence. IndieWire has more about these programs.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives comes to Region A Blu-ray and Region 1 DVD in July.

This is the U.S. edition by Strand Releasing, which looks to be stepping up its game with the Blu-ray – a first I believe for both Strand and Apichatpong. Bonus features on the Blu-ray include the companion Primitive short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, deleted scenes, an interview with Apichatpong and trailers of his other films. The Strand DVD does not list the Letter short as an extra.

And curiously, the cover art that's shown at Amazon is not the Chris Ware poster design. Rather, it's the red-eyed monkey ghost that's been used a lot already.

Anyway, if you're into Blu-ray, then by all means get the Blu-ray of Boonmee, I guess. But for viewers still stuck with just plain-old DVDs, maybe the Region 2 British release would be better if you have a player that can handle it. Maybe wait for the comparison.

A few other odds and ends I've been accumulating over the past couple months or so:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hitching up the White Buffalo

The phenomenon of the dusky ladies of Isaan getting hitched to pale-skinned foreigners is the basis of the romantic comedy E-Nang Ei Khoei Farang (อีนางเอ๊ย...เขยฝรั่ง ), which is in Thai cinemas this week.

The English title White Buffalo is a metaphor from the superstition of Thailand's Northeast that if a family receives a white water buffalo as a gift, the animal cannot be used for work or killed for food – it can only be kept as a pet.

“Ron AF5” Patarapon Tua-on stars as a young man who returns to his Northeast village after flunking out at a university in Bangkok. He is shocked to discover that the women there are crazy about farang men. Even the mother his old crush, Waewdao (“Preaw AF2” Anusara Wanthongtak), is determined to marry her daughter off to a Westerner. Mark then rallies his old buddies in a campaign to stop Isaan women from marrying farangs.

Rungrawan Tonahongsa, who previously played the troublemaking Isaan maid in Noo-Hin: The Movie, also stars.

The feature directorial debut by veteran industry hand Chinoret Khamwandee was chosen from the Thailand Script Project four years ago and picked up for production by Sahamongkolfilm International. It also received backing from the Culture Ministry's "Strong Thailand" fund.

Read more about the movie in an article in The Nation.

And check out the trailer (embedded below).

Three family dramas for the price of one in Love First

Five Star Production brings together three stories about families in Love First (Khob Khun Thee Rak Kan, ขอบคุณที่รักกัน), which hits Thai cinemas this week.

The directors of this romantic-drama anthology are Peerasak Saksiri, who previously wrote the screenplay to the hit historical musical drama The Overture; Putipong Saisikaew, who was one of the "Ronin Team" behind Art of the Devil 2 and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the longtime lensman for Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The cast includes veteran soap actress Lalita Sasiprapha nee Panyopas, best known outside Thailand for her roles in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's 6ixtynin9 and Ploy, and the young starlet Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, who made her debut in Ploy.

However, the two Ploy actresses appear in different segments – Lalita as the wife of a soldier in southern Thailand while Saipan Apinya is the mentally ill sister of a music student (Patchai "Pup Potato" Pakdeesusuk) traveling around the countryside with an eccentric professor (veteran character actor Somchai Sakdikul) .

There's a trailer (embedded below).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eternity (Tee Rak) in LA Film Fest

Sivaroj Kongsakul's indie drama Eternity (Tee Rak, ที่รัก) has been selected for the Los Angeles Film Festival

The award-winning film will play in the International Showcase.

The LA fest follows Seattle.

Eternity has also been playing at the International Eskişehir Film Festival in Turkey, where actors Oom and Fon are representing the movie. You can read more about that at the Pop Pictures blog.

The LA Film Fest runs from June 16 to 26.

(Via 24 Frames, Los Angeles Times)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Mindfulness and Murder

  • Directed by Tom Waller
  • Starring Vithaya Pansringarm, Prinya Inthachai, Jaran Petcharoen, Charina Sirisingha, Abhijati Jusakul, Wannasak Sirilar
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 6, 2011 (limited); rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

When a murder is committed in a Bangkok Buddhist temple and all the suspects are shaven-headed monks who wear the same orange robes, you know this is no ordinary whodunnit. Even the detective on the case is in saffron robes. He's Father Ananda, a former homicide detective.

That's the setup to Mindfulness and Murder, a movie directed by Tom Waller and adapted from one of the "Father Ananda Mystery" novels by Thailand-based expat writer Nick Wilgus. The Thai title is Sop Mai Ngeap (ศพไม่เงียบ) – literally, "the corpse is not quiet".

The corpse in question is that of a teenage boy, found stuffed into a klong jar with feet protruding. His eyes have been gouged out and a candle is jammed down his throat.

It's determined that he was a temple boy who lived in the monastery's homeless shelter. What really chills the blood is that needle tracks on the kid's arms make it appear he was a drug addict, raising the specter of dope in the temple.

But the cops are busy and don't care. "Investigate it yourself," the wonderfully weary police inspector ("Muek" Abhijati Jusakul, who died in September 2010 after filming) tells Father Ananda (Vithaya Pansringarm). And the temple's abbot (veteran thespian "See Tao" Jaran Petcharoen), eager to have the case cleared up, orders Ananda to get cracking.

So, methodically, the former homicide detective uncovers clues by piecing together a paper trail, asking around the neighborhood and checking the bottoms of other monks' sandals.

He gets help from a bespectacled computer-nerd monk (Sunon Wachirawarakarn) who works in the temple's office, as well as a cheeky temple boy with a bum leg (Pakapong Sangkasi). There's a helpful newspaper reporter (Charina Sirisingha) and even former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova pitches in with a cameo that serves to make an example of the non-existent state of national health care in Thailand.

Meanwhile, there are furtive glances from various monks, among them rough-looking types who smoke cigarettes and have what appear to be gang tattoos. They are all suspects.

There's even humor, thanks to an elderly bespectacled gossiping monk (Sin Kaewpakpin).

The tension ratchets up. Fake monks, fake cops, corruption and other symptoms of society's ills come slithering out.

It's worth noting this movie was passed without cuts by Thailand's censors, following a trend set by last year's "monks-with-guns" crime thriller Nak Prok, which showed the saffron-robed brethren in less-than-favorable light.

Fine performances keep the movie clicking along. As Father Ananda, Vithaya (who also co-scripted the screenplay) is a serene paragon of meditative calm but becomes gradually more intense as the stakes mount. Rapper-actor Way Prinya is appropriately menacing as one of the thuggish monks. And a surprise is performance artist "Kuck" Wannasak Sirilar in a role eerily similar to the conflicted clergyman he played in the 2008 short film Observation of the Monk by Pramote Sangsorn.

Mindfulness and Murder was made for about 5 million baht, the cost of craft service of the recent filmed-in-Bangkok, straight-to-video Hollywood actioner Elephant White, for which Waller's De Warrenne Pictures provided production services, and the two films share a director of photography, Wade Muller, whose work here is highly polished and atmospheric.

There's hope for a further entry in this "Father Ananda" series, with Waller and his De Warrenne crew already at work to develop a sequel.

Review: Nang Phee (The Cinderella)

  • Directed by Sarawut Intaraprom
  • Starring Niranart Victoria Coates, Pattaranan Deerassami, Sarunyu Prachakrit, Wasit Phongsopa, Anchalee Saisoontorn
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 12, 2011; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

The gore-filled low-budget Nang Phee (หนังผี), a.k.a. The Cinderella works better as a horror comedy and satire of the Thai film industry than it does as a thriller.

The scares are predictably hilarious in this tale of a egotistical jerk of an actor named Rashane (Sarunyu Prachakrit) who dies in an accident on the set of a torture-porn thriller.

The movie-within-the movie's co-starring actor, played by Wasit Phongsopa, then auditions to take the place of the dead leading man, whom he idolized.

The cast and crew are trapped on Si Chang island at a boutique resort that conveniently resembles a horror castle. Here's where Rashane, back from the grave thanks to the black-magic incantations of his sorceress mother, plods around killing everyone.

Like Hannibal Lecter, he peels back the scalp of the movie's director and exposes his brains. And that's not the only Silence of the Lambs reference in this movie. Rashane then attacks the director's busty, scantily clad girlfriend and removes one of her breast implants.

The movie's female stars Niranart Victoria Coates and Pattaranan "Nannie Girly Berry" Deerassami are left with not much to do except run around, scream and somehow stay alive.

And something's not right about the undead Rashane, who appears as though he's been stitched back together after an autopsy and his skin isn't properly fitted. His face fits like a mask, with black sockets for eyes. And as for the equipment on this nude marauder, he's as atomically correct as a zombie Ken doll.

Thank goodness then for the appearance of Wonderful Town actress Anchalee Saisoontorn, who portrays an acting coach. Her radical teaching techniques spark a dramatic transformation in the wooden performance of the replacement actor.

Anchalee gives the movie dramatic weight as she plays it straight. But there's a slight sideways glimmer in her eyes, offering a clue that maybe she's in on the joke.

Indeed, Anchalee is also credited as one of the movie's acting coaches, alongside Insects in the Backyard director Tanwarin Sukkhapiset. And this gives director Sarawut Intaraprom a chance to make cheeky references to both Wonderful Town and the banned Insects (in which Anchalee also stars).

Her character is the key to the movie, and offers the reason for the English title The Cinderella (to follow last year's thriller by Sarawut, The Snow White). As an acting coach, she's the fairy godmother for the young replacement actor, who grants him his wish. Only when midnight comes, he isn't turning into a pumpkin.

Related posts:

Review: Ha Zard

  • Directed by Pornchai Hongrattanaporn
  • Starring Kom Chuanchuen, Charlie Trairat, Thanachart Tulyachat, Boribun Chanruen, Pimchanok Ponlaboon, Inthipon Thamsukin, Kirk Schiller
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 7, 2011; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

One trademark of Pornchai "Mr. Pink" Hongrattanaporn's movies is a colorful, action-filled opening-titles sequence in which the names of the cast and crew are incorporated into various objects as the characters run frantically to start the story off.

In the Bangkok Loco director's latest comedy Ha Zard (ฮาศาสตร์), the conceit is kept up for a laugh-filled 20 minutes or so as a parade of characters and guest stars are introduced. The tale is set at a fairyland-like comedy university, where the students dress in blindingly colorful uniforms and the faculty are all of Thailand's top comedians.

The headmaster, the ubiquitious Kom Chuanchuen, dresses like Bozo the Clown, only he's grouchier. So maybe he's more like Krusty the Clown.

The students include young actors Charlie Trairat from Fan Chan and the new Boonchu boy Thanachart Tulyachat, along with Boribun Chanruen (who for some reason dresses as a panda), frizzy-haired actress Pimchanok Ponlaboon and newcomer starlet Inthipon Thamsukin.

The teachers school the kids in the use of slapstick head-bashing props, outlandish costumes, goofy dances and cross-dressing. The parade of well-known comedians includes Jaturong Mokjok, Jazz Chuanchuen and Joey Chernyim (as an African witch doctor). The Thai pantomime trio Babymime has a cute cameo appearance as teachers of physical comedy. There's even a funny monk to tell humorous Buddhist parables.

It's a time of crisis, with Thais tired of the comedians and their same old schtick. At the school, the top comics are being killed off. And the ultimate goal by the cross-dressing villain(ess) (Kirk Schiller) is to transform Ha Zard University into Handsome University to train the next generation of South Korean-style boybands.

So it's up to the five young students to save the school and the institution of Thai comedy itself. They are pitted in a sort of showbiz olympics against a bunch of boyband stars. All the singers have to do is strut around and the crowds go wild. They don't sing a note. The young comedians have to work harder. They even put on an old-fashioned likay (folk opera), but the teenybopper crowds are uninterested. Maybe the comic kids are working too hard, as their jokes fall flat, their antics become belabored and fail to rise above the gags that are presented nightly on Thai TV variety shows. But somehow they save the day anyway.

The underlying commentary, is, I suppose, that the Thai cultural fascination with boybands is somehow "unThai" and completely ridiculous, while dressing up in black face to portray a policeman in order to save a suicidal man is perfectly okay.

Related posts:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thai Film Archive aims to rescue old home movies

The Thai Film Archive and the Ministry of Culture have officially launched the Film Rescue Unit, a squad of archivists that will be mobilized to wherever there are reels of film that need a new home.

"Don't throw away film," is the primary message of the campaign, which was initiated by Thai Film Archive Director Dome Sukwong and Culture Minister Nipit Inthrasombat.

The Bangkok Post has more:

"There are so many films that people want to throw away – something shot by their fathers or grandfathers and locked away somewhere in the houses," said Dome. "We have been campaigning for the people to understand the importance of visual documents that exist in their own homes. They're the cultural heritage of the country.

"Today, we prefer to transfer films to digital storage, but digital devices are not stable and the quality of the picture is incomparable to good old film."

There's more information at the Thai Film Archive website, including the number for a 24-hour hotline.

There's also an official commercial spot, available for viewing at YouTube and embedded below. It includes clips from many iconic films, including animator Payut Ngaokrachang's debut short, Haed Mahasajan.