Friday, June 24, 2011

Eternity (Tee Rak) among films deemed not 'crap' at LA fest

Interesting post by Robert Koehler at his Film Journey blog, in which he writes about the line-up for the Los Angeles Film Festival.

He starts out:

A running conversation at film festivals in the US and abroad (mostly abroad): The urgency of film criticism to advocate for certain cinema, and ignore the other cinemas. The best reason? Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored.

And he goes on to bemoan the presence of Green Lantern in the festival and that shadowy group he refers to as "them" being "scandalized by Tim Burton’s jury choice of Uncle Boonmee for the Palme d’Or". Go read the rest.

At the end he offers a list of "high masterpieces to excellent" films that are worth watching at the LA fest. Somewhere in the middle is Eternity (Tee Rak, ที่รัก), the melancholy romance and family drama by indie filmmaker Sivaroj Kongsakul.

Eternity screens in the LA fest at 7.30pm on Thursday, June 23 (LA time) and again on Saturday.

Meanwhile, "Karn" Sivaroj is still doing his Cannes Residency in France, and you can catch up with him and the rest of the Pop Pictures crew at their blog.

(Via Peter Martin)

Apichatpong-a-rama: Primitive, Hangover, jury in Venice, morning in Finland

Yeah, Bangkok has me again.

But I was in New York City for four days last week on the tail-end of a whirlwind escape to the U.S. that also took me to Illinois to watch baseball games and go sailing, and out to California to soak up Los Angeles culture and drive around in the Mohave Desert looking at cacti.

The main reason I went to the States this year was to check out the exhibition of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Primitive at the New Museum. The timing of my visit meant I was too late to catch Apichatpong himself in residence in NYC. Nor did I get to see any of the "Blissfully Thai" movies at the the Big Apple's Asia Society, or listen to the "conversation" between Apichatpong and fellow Thai indie filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

Though I was glad to make contact with a member of the Thai Artists Alliance there, and they're hoping to do great things with Thai filmmakers and artists. And, gosh darn it, I didn't make the time to get over to the Anthology Film Archives for a repeat viewing of Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia.

But seeing Primitive was probably enough. It blew my mind. Taking up the museum's entire third-floor gallery, it's a lot to take in. The seven-channel video installation is wall-to-wall Apichatpong. It's like walking into one of his movies, which is cool, and yes, even blissful, but also scary. Lightning strikes and a howling dog in one of the videos reverberate throughout the gallery, and it's pretty unsettling.

Of course, if things get too weird, you can always adjourn to another room and clamp on the headphones to jam to Moderndog while watching the video I'm Still Breathing.

Another video, a two-channel work, is an extension of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, with the uncle in a voiceover, talking about how he was a black-skinned princess or a wolf or whatever.

I visited the show twice, spending a couple of hours each day watching the videos and attempting to absorb it all. There's an iPod you can borrow from the museum's main desk, in which Apichatpong offers commentary about his show, and I recommend taking advantage of that service.

While the New Museum's show feels spacious, I somehow got the feeling that I'm missing something that had been part of Primitive in its incarnations in Munich, Liverpool and Paris.

I keep hearing that Primitive, or parts of it anyway, might come to Bangkok. But I'm glad I went to New York City to see it there.

You can read more of my ramblings about it an article for The Nation.

Primitive is at the New Museum until July 3.

Meanwhile, Apichatpong will serve as president of the jury of the cutting-edge, experimental Orizzonti (Horizons) program at the Venice Film Festival.

A festival statement praises Apichatpong for having "built a career that straddles both art and cinema, which has rapidly led him to be considered one of the most important young international directors and artists, and a key figure in new Thai cinema. His films poetically explore the themes of memory, politics and social issues."

His Syndromes and a Century was in the main competition at Venice in 2006.

Other jurors in Venice will include Italian director Carlo Mazzacurati on the Luigi De Laurentiis Venice Award jury for first films, Roberta Torre on the Controcampo Italiano section and Darren Aronofsky heading the main jury.

Apichatpong was among the official guests of the Midnight Sun Film Festival, which ran from June 15 to 19 in Sodankylä, Finland. He gave a morning conversation that went like this:

”There was a helicopter flying like a bird above water - a beautiful image. Since then I have been attracted to the floating experience.” This is how Apichatpong Weerasethakul (born 1970) described his first cinema experience.

As a child Weerasethakul adored Steven Spielberg, Hong Kong kung-fu films and B horror movies. “I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When was it again? I think I was seven. I created my own movies by creating the unseen films in my imagination.” After his architecture studies Weerasethakul started studying film in Chicago.

Weerasethakul, who was raised in a small town hospital area, described how strongly his childhood landscapes affected him. ”As you grow older childhood becomes more vivid. But the human mind is always objective. As Gabriel García Márquez said, memory is very vivid but may not be true.” Weerasethakul’s doctor parents are present in his films as references in the dialogue or as a photo on a shelf.

”In my childhood we believed in spirits and ghosts. Each tree had a name. In film people are immortalized. In my films there is re-incarnation of actors but also of the story. I copy and paste from the same script.”

And there's more. Read the rest at the festival website.

Lastly here, Apichatpong is name-checked in an article for Time magazine by Andrew Marshall on The Hangover Part II, and how the Hollywood film seemingly got away with stuff that Thai filmmakers aren't allowed to do. Here's the paragraph:

While brainless foreign movies get the prime-ministerial seal of approval, Thai filmmakers receive scant government attention — except from prudish censors. In his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul showed monks playing a guitar and with a radio-controlled toy. The censors told him to cut these scenes. Apichatpong balked, and it was two years before a heavily edited version of the movie was released in Thailand. While celebrated abroad, Apichatpong remained relatively unknown at home until his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year.

There's a monk in Hangover 2 drinking shots of liquor and snorting coke. Another monk hauls off an d whacks Zach Galifianakis with a stick, which reminded me of the scene with the nun in The Blues Brothers. But I guess the Thai censors let those shenanigans slip by because the monks weren't dressed as Thai monks – they looked more like Tibetan monks, Marshall says.

In my own review of The Hangover Part II I alluded to the same disparity as Marshall does, but didn't get specific. I figure most readers here would know where I was coming from. But perhaps not.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

PiFan 2011: Four horrors, two Killers and one SuckSeed

Four Thai films are part of the line-up of the 15th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.

They are the Sahamongkol horror anthology Four; Yuthlert Sippapak's Friday Killer and Saturday Killer and GTH's rock 'n' roll romance SuckSeed.

Asian Media Wiki has the line-up of all the east Asian films.

Four (Lud 4 Lud, , a.k.a. 4 Pyscho) makes its international premiere. The four-segment horror-thriller anthology features the work of writer-directors Ekkasith Thairath, Kongkiat Khomsiri, Phawat Panangkasiri and Chookiat Sakveerakul, and features such stars as Ananda Everingham, Alex Rendel, and "Boy" Pakorn Chatborirak.

Friday Killer and Saturday Killer make their Korean premieres after screening at the recent Shanghai International Film Festival, where the moody tragicomedy Friday Killer won the Jury Prize and award for Best Cinematography.

They are part of the Mue Puen 3 Pak trilogy of hitman comedies that pair veteran comedians with young actresses. Made for release by Phranakorn Film, Friday Killer, starring Thep Po-ngam and Ploy Jindachote, screened at the Phuket Film Festival last year and has yet to be released in Thai cinemas. Meanwhile the hilarious Saturday Killer, starring "Nong" Choosak Iamsuk as a gunman with erectile dysfunction chasing Cris Horwang, jumped the gun and played last year. A third entry in the series, Sunday Killer, starring Kohtee Aramboy and May Pitchanart, has yet to be released.

SuckSeed, a fun-filled tale of buddies who form a crappy rock band and have their friendship tested when a girl joins up, is making its "international premiere" at PiFan.

But interestingly, SuckSeed has been playing in Indonesia at the Blitz Megaplex – gotta love the critic's blurb they chose. A bunch of Thai movies have been making their way into Indonesian multiplexes during an embargo by Hollywood studios in protest of taxes on their blockbusters. Other Thai films programmed at Blitz include Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Recent changes in Indonesia's tax structure means Hollywood movies will be returning to the archipelago. However, here's hoping Blitz Megaplex will keep bringing in Thai films, since they've proven to be pretty popular.

PiFan runs from July 14 to 24.

Monday, June 20, 2011

NYAFF 2011: Two pairs tickets to Bangkok Knockout given away

The New York Asian Film Festival is back this year with one Thai film in the line-up: Panna Rittikrai's stunt extravaganza B.K.O: Bangkok Knockout (โคตรสู้ โคตรโส, Koht Soo Koht Soh).

Here's what the NYAFF folks have to say about it:

Tony Jaa’s mentor, Panna Rittikrai, will school you now. This exploitation stunt-tacular features all his best stuntmen and women unleashing muay thai, capoeira, dirt bike fu, shovel beatdowns, fights on fire, fights in the water, fights under trucks, fights in mid-air, and two back-to-back climactic smackdowns that have to be seen to be believed.

Bangkok Knockout is playing at 12:15pm on Saturday, July 2 and at midnight on Saturday, July 9 at the Walter Reade Theatre of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Courtesy of NYAFF and Variance Films, I had two pairs of tickets to give away. The operative word here now is had. They are gone. Better luck next year if you weren't fast enough on the draw to get them.

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from July 1 to 14 at the Lincoln Center and at the Japan Society.

Shanghai IFF 2011: Two prizes for Yuthlert's Friday Killer

Yuthlert Sippapak's genre-bending crime comedy Friday Killer (Meu Puen Dao Prasook) won two prizes at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival, which wrapped up last night.

In the main competition for the Golden Goblet, Friday Killer won the Jury Award, with the panel saying it was "most entertained by a colorful, atmospheric, good-looking gangster epic paying open tribute to Quentin Tarantino." And Friday Killer lensman Tiwa Moeithaisong won Best Cinematography for "the extremely exquisite combination of moving and tranquil scenes [that] makes the film full of wit and humor."

The jury was headed by Rain Man director Barry Levinson, with British screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Japanese director Yoichi Sai, Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung, Spanish actress Paz Vega, Chinese director Wang Quan’an and Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu.

The full list of winners is at the festival website, and there's coverage at Film Business Asia.

Friday Killer, which premiered at last year's Phuket Film Festival, is part of Yuthlert's Meu Puen 3 Pak trilogy of hitman movies that pair veteran comedians with young actresses. Friday, which has yet to play in Thai cinemas, stars Thep Po Ngam as an ageing assassin who's let out of prison and discovers he has a daughter, played by Ploy Jindachote, who's a police officer and is gunning for him.

The Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee has a review of Friday Killer, summing up that it's a "a kooky, genre-bending hitman tragicomedy".

Another entry in the 3 Pak trilogy, Saturday Killer, which actually did play in Thai cinemas last year, also played at the Shanghai fest as part of the Panorama program's "Thai Week", a massive line-up of commercial-hit Thai movies from the past year or so. Other movies playing during "Thai Week" at SIFF were:

  • 32 December Love Error, Reukchai Poungpetch
  • A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Wasin Pokpong and Puttipong Promsaka na Sakon Nakon
  • Bang Rajan 2, Thanit·Jitnukul
  • Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story, Adisorn Trisirikasem
  • Cool Gel Attacks, Jaturong Phonboon
  • Hello Stranger, Banjong Pisuntanakul
  • Phobia 2, Paween Purijitpanya, Visute Poolvoralaks, Songyos Sukmakanan, Pakpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun
  • The Little Comedian, Vithaya Thongyuyong and Mez Tharatorn

Update: According to the National News Bureau of Thailand, Actor "Ter" Chantavit Thanasevi won a Star Hunter Award in Shanghai for his performance in Hello Stranger.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Italian Film Festival 2011: Good films, big crowds, bad communication

Bangkok's annual Italian Film Festival was the biggest ever this year, with a huge line-up of recent Italian films, a retrospective on classics by a famous Italian director and even a pair of new classics by Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

I've been traveling, so I missed what I thought would be a pretty good festival. But Bangkok-based movie buff Lekha Shankar was able to attend, and she sent this report.

Story and photos by Lekha Shankar

Moviemov, the first of a "moveable" Italian film festival that will travel to other Asian countries, had its inaugural session in Bangkok last week, and from all accounts, was a big success. A record 10,000 people partook in the five-day event, which is a very impressive record by Bangkok standards.

For a five-day event, the festival managed a lot – a good mixture of old and new movies, an exotic exhibition of movie-costumes, lectures and workshops.

The major disadvantage of such a short, packed festival, is that there were only single screenings of films, which considerably reduced the festival's reach to Thai audiences.

Nonetheless, Italian Ambassador Michelangelo Pipan was proud of the mega film festival, which received huge support from the state-aided Rome Film Festival. In fact, it was a big delegation from the Rome fest, led by the burly senator and former festival-director Goffredo Bettini, who conducted the festival in Bangkok.

This was both a good, and a bad thing.

Good, because they were professionals. Bad, because they were ignorant of the Thai movie-going culture.

There were many plus-points in the Moviemov festival that Bangkok’s local film festivals could learn from. The choice of films was varied, making them accessible to a wide range of audiences, leading to the rare sight of full houses. Often a second theatre space needed to be used, thanks to the long queues. (Admission was free, and booking seats was more difficult than for paid movies.)

It was a clever move to invite students to attend the screenings, which also contributed to the full houses. More importantly, the films reached out to the youth of the city, whose staple cinema diet are Hollywood blockbusters.

At this festival, they were lured to watch the classic, black-and-white films of comedy master Mario Monicelli, which they would otherwise never get to see.

Films like Cops and Robbers and The Great War were as moving as they were funny.

It was also a clever move to open the festival with a romantic comedy, Manuale de Amore 3, portraying three couples of different ages, the last one being none other than the grand Robert De Niro in a clinch with the voluptuous Monica Belucci. Yes, De Niro actually spoke Italian in the film, confirmed producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who attended the screening.

The producer, the nephew of famed producer Dino De Laurentiis, said it was a "fantastic" experience to screen the film in Bangkok, a city he had heard a lot about.

To the question as to why this film was the third in a series on love, the dashing producer quipped, with true Italiano spirit “isn’t love the most important thing in the world?”

Love was the central theme in most of the films in the Italian festival, which again, was a big draw with Bangkok’s audiences.

And one heard that the films were chosen with specific Thai audiences in mind.

The issue of family-love, which included gay issues, was brought out in two thought-provoking films – Loose Cannons, by Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek, and I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton.

When questioned about the gay theme that's present in most of his films, Ozpetek said pointedly, before his film's screening, “I’m dealing with different kinds of people in society, and gays are a part of society, aren’t they?”

The director had screened his Facing Windows at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2004, where it had won the Best Actress Award. He seemed excited to be back in the City of Angels.

Claudio Cupellini, director of A Quiet Life, a riveting Mafia drama that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, was also excited to be in Bangkok. It was a his first visit. He admitted his film was a challenging story, especially since it used two languages – German and Italian – but top actor Toni Servillo’s intense performance won him the Best Actor award at the Rome Film Festival.

While the choice of films was excellent, the main complaint one had about the festival was the lack of communication with the organizers, which offered very little prior information about the films or the films' delegates, losing out on a lot of media and public excitement. This is especially important in a country with limited cinema audiences. While the short-term aim of full halls was achieved, the long-term goal of interaction between the film communities of the two countries was lost.

That was a pity, as it was obvious a huge budget had gone to bring the Italian film folk all the way down to Bangkok. However, the locals did not got to meet or interact with them- neither the Thai film industry, nor media, nor film lovers.

The Italian directors and stars were perfunctorily introduced at the film-screenings, which created no impact whatsoever.

The introductions were done in two languages – Italian and Thai. Technically this is right, but in actuality, a lot of the film audiences in Bangkok are English-speaking foreigners, who missed out totally on this verbal interaction, which is very important to any cultural festival.

One learns that the festival will come back to Bangkok, next year, with the same combination of cinema and couture.

In fact, the couture-house Gattinoni, one of the few who were communicative, informed that the fashion exhibition next year would include the specially-created clothes for Her Majesty the Queen Sirikit, when she had attended their fashion show during an official visit to Italy in 1956.

While this definitely would interest Thai fashionistas, one also hopes that the Moviemov festival will learn a few lessons from this year’s event.

If the organizers and film delegations do not interact with the film community of the city, then, the festival loses out on its core purpose.

Hopefully, the Italian Embassy in Bangkok will play a stronger role next year and set right the communication problems. Otherwise celebrating 150 years of friendship between the two countries remains a mere verbal celebration.

From the Rome Film Festival delegation’s point of view, however, they made one more clever move.

Even if they did not communicate with the media or moviephiles, they got in touch with local production houses, in order to try and acquire Thai films for their festival in October. The Rome Film Festival has never had a strong Thai segment, unlike the Udine Far East Film Festival, except for occasional visitors like Ekachai Uekrongtham .

Ekachai, in fact, served on a jury at the Moviemov festival to judge the “Italian film which represents its country the most.”

In keeping with the communication gap of the festival, one never got to know which film won this honor!

In the same vein, there was a tribute to Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, with two films, Last Life in the Universe and Ploy, added to the Italian package. There was no connection between them and Italy, except the obvious one of celebrating 150 years of friendship between the two countries. It would have made more sense to have a discussion between the Thai director and an Italian one, but that did not happen.

The Moviemov Italian Film Festival moves to Manila later this year and to Mumbai next year.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A conversation with Pen-ek and Apichatpong in NYC

Films by directors Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and works by other Thai filmmakers have been featured in the Blissfully Thai series at the Asia Society in New York City. Both filmmakers were on hand to talk about their films and together they took part in a "conversation" that encompassed the current state of Thai cinema.

Separately, the Thai Artists Alliance sponsored an event with Pen-ek as well. And Apichatpong has his Primitive exhibition at the New Museum on the Bowery, and has been the artist-in-residence for the past month, giving talks and introducing his shorts and features.

New York-based writer William Owens was able to attend some of these events and has prepared a guest post. He's an independent scholar specializing in Southeast Asian/Thai cinema and the public sphere and is currently working on an essay for publication with Wimal Dissanayake, Ph.D at the University of Hawaii, about the relationship between the public sphere and cinema in Thailand. He's involved with the Thai Artists Alliance in NYC, helping with their upcoming exhibition Siamese Connection. And he's working on an essay on Apichatpong's Mysterious Object at Noon, which will be presented this summer in Bangkok at the Thai Studies Conference.

Story by William Owens

For Thai cinema enthusiasts in New York City this past few weeks, there have been unprecedented opportunities to see the work of Pek-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul thanks to the Asia Society, the New Museum and the Thai Artists Alliance. The Blissfully Thai film series opened on May 13 at the Asia Society in New York City with a screening of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy. This series of Thai films, under the direction of the Asia Society’s La Frances Hui, is a remarkable program that brings together some of the most interesting films of the last 15 years to emerge from Thailand.

After the screening of the first film of the series, Ploy (2007), Pen-ek Ratanaruang was on hand to respond to questions and to mingle with the audience afterwards. It was an extraordinary opportunity for Thai film fans in New York.

Ploy circulated on the international film festival circuit in 2007, and generally did not receive as much of the critical acclaim as 2003's Last Life in the Universe or 2009's Nymph. This is unfortunate. As the screening here showed, the hypnotic Ploy rewards multiple viewings, and its dreamy narrative evokes the kind of anonymous and jet-lagged sensations of the modern traveler. The print screened here in New York was the director’s uncut version, also difficult to view in Thailand. Authorities there deemed many of its sexually explicit scenes too steamy for Thai cinema-goers.

After Ploy was shown, Pen-ek responded to questions from the moderator, Ms. Hui, whose questions were both apt and well-informed, and helped to shape the evening’s conversation. Pen-ek also took questions from the audience, which was an eclectic mix of Thais, Asian cinema enthusiasts and film students. He spoke at length of his interest, both in Ploy and Nymph in exploring sound as a part of atmosphere. For example, there is ambient noise from an airport on much of Ploy’s soundtrack. This sense of “hearing things” is a condition of the sensations of jet lag as he explained in his own experience as a traveler.

“Sometimes [when] you ask me a question, it takes a minute to respond,” he added. This kind of sensorial delay, aggravated by international travel’s alterations in time perception, helps to “create this kind of dream, a blurry feeling with sound.”

According to Pen-ek, Ploy was a kind of experiment for Nymph in which sound design was very much a conscious part of the overall film. But while sound is one element of the picture that helps create the atmospheric tension of his work, at the heart of them remains the story itself. Pen-ek clarified here that he is very much motivated by the stories themselves, and setting, while an important part of the stories he chooses to tell, is ultimately subordinate to the plot. He does not set out to show ready-made images of Thailand, or to confound western expectations of an exoticized Thailand, but to explore the ways that mood and atmosphere interplay with dramatic tension.

Ploy is a comedy about a couple who quarrels about nonsense,” he said. Both characters (Wit and Dang) are playing games, exploring jealousy for the sake of jealousy. In a discussion about the erotic subplot involving the maid and the barman, Pen-ek humorously noted his own attraction to various hotel maids and receptionists he has encountered in his travels. He noted the beauty of the hotel maids found in Buenos Aires, for example, and the attractive qualities of receptionists in Vietnam.

He also explained the scene in which the maid, in post-coital bliss, sings a Thai love song directly to the camera. He received mixed responses to this scene, and at one point in the conversation, stated playfully, “I have to apologize for this scene.” While Pen-ek said that some filmgoers and critics saw the scene as a rude interruption, others have had a more positive response to the scene. It represents the kind of cinematic risk-taking that is so sorely missing from most commercial films today, and has even been absent from much of what is considered “experimental.”

At the heart of Pen-ek’s vision is a humanistic impulse toward universality. In his stories he tries to explore universal themes about relationships, but also, ultimately, the stories that are more internal and that represent a kind of “inward journey.” Asked about his cinematic influences, Pen-ek noted that he likes “sad films”, but did not name any filmmaker specifically. He admitted, for example, that he was influenced more by funerals than weddings. At funerals, he noted, people dress in a more elegant way and become more modest in demeanor and behavior. “I’ve fallen in love many times at funerals.”

A Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang at the Asia Society, Saturday, May 14, 2011

As if a visit from an influential Thai filmmaker Pen-ek were not enough to satisfy the Thai film enthusiasts in New York City, a rare appearance by Pen-ek along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul for a conversation on cinema further set the stage for a frank discussion on some of the challenges within the filmmaking community.

Flying in just for the occasion was Dr. Sorajak Kasemsuvan, the secretary-general of the National Federation of Film Associations of Thailand.

In prefacing the discussion with Pen-ek and Apichatpong, Dr. Sorajak gave a brief overview of Thai cinema and discussed some challenges within the industry, including copyright protection, pirated DVDs and recording in theaters, which all remain problematic. Copyright protection weakness in Thailand also has a direct impact on Thai filmmaking, as it reduces incentive to become a filmmaker. That said, Dr. Sorajak also stated that the independent film movement is a growing trend in Thailand, led by the likes of Pen-ek and Apichatpong. Dr. Sorajak also talked at length about changes to the Censorship Act of 1932 having implemented a new rating system in 2008 based on age restrictions and according to content.

He specifically mentioned the challenges that filmmakers face within the new rating system, which has a total of six separate ratings, and there was a general tone that suggested that it is more onerous than the act that it replaced. However, the new rating system does achieve one semantic victory: it moves censorship decisions away from the police department and into the purview of the Ministry of Culture directly. He also cited filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's banned film Insects in the Backyard, noting that it would not have become so sought after had it not been banned entirely from exhibition in Thailand.

Dr. Sorajak further reported that 62 films were made in the Thai domestic market last year, roughly only half of which turned a profit. The others posted losses. Together, the films comprised approximately 140 million baht. Location shooting for Hollywood films also accounted for a significant part of the industry, with the American comedy The Hangover Part II bringing much hype and publicity. With that, Dr. Sorajak turned it over to Ms. Hui and the filmmakers.

One of the overall impressions of the discussion conversation between Pen-ek and Apichatpong was how genuine and passionate they are about their art. The role of the independent filmmaker in Thailand was the starting point for this comprehensive conversation. Both describe filmmaking as “like taking drugs”, or as a “virus”, with Pen-ek pointing out that he was always looking to “increase the dose” as though filmmaking were a potent narcotic. As a mainstream commercial artist, Pen-ek saw his films as a way of extending the thirty second timeframe typical of a commercial to the longer narrative of the art films he made. His background in New York City at Pratt Institute informed, to a certain extent, his narrative vision. Apichatpong’s training in Chicago also certainly affected his filmmaking, and his knowledge of experimental films is brought into sharper focus by his work at the New Museum, where his Primitive exhibition is being shown.

One of the more interesting conversations (out of many) emerged from the question posed by Ms. Hui, “Why is Thai cinema so wild?”

Whereas Pen-ek likened the variability in Thai cinema as akin to the blending of styles in Thai cuisine, Apichatpong pointed out that given restrictions imposed by censorship, politics, in a way, has had to find alternative ways of expression. It is okay, for example, to make a film about a gay volleyball team, but not okay to produce something that is politically provocative in Thailand.

Pen-ek also lamented how commercial films in Thailand now seem “manufactured” and not “made” in the artistic sense. He feels that “strangeness” has been eliminated by commercial Hollywood concerns.

For both filmmakers, it is clear that Thailand inflects their art. They are rooted in Thai culture, but whereas Pen-ek is less likely to be bound to indebtedness to Thai visual traditions in favor of the demands of the particular story he wishes to tell, Apichatpong pointed out how deeply Thailand informs his vision. He gave a brief example of how a student assignment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that required the filmmaker to make a short film about Lake Michigan. For Apichatpong, the exercise illustrated that he still viewed Lake Michigan through a uniquely Thai lens.

For Pen-ek, his own experience with cinema in New York City also informed his art. He related the incomprehensibility of Fellini’s 8 ½ that he watched on Bleecker Street, but that he was compelled to see the film again even though it was difficult to understand.

“Attraction can come in many ways,” he added. “You don’t have to understand everything.”

While the conversation at the Asia Society invariably turned toward censorship and the doubtful effectiveness of the new ratings system, responding to it as a reality in Thailand for a filmmaker is an experience characterized by struggles with bureaucracy, red tape, and artistic integrity. Pen-ek, for example, recounted the story of his first feature Fun Bar Karaoke and how he illegally carried the film print to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival. As the print circulated among international film festivals, it was ultimately (and mistakenly) sent to Pen-ek’s personal address in Thailand where it was subject to an added customs duty that was prohibitively expensive. By not claiming the print at customs, Pen-ek effectively forfeited it to the Thai government and after three years it was brought to the Thai Film Archive where it now resides. This helps to explain one of the reasons why obtaining a copy of the film today in VCD or DVD form is quite challenging.

A clip of one of Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century, which showed a Thai Buddhist monk playing an acoustic guitar (which Thai censors deemed offensive) was played for the audience to highlight what seems to be the relative ambiguity of censorship’s far-reaching effects. While censorship certainly motivates self-censorship for Thai filmmakers, one of the unintended effects is that a banned film tends to become more popular than it might have otherwise. A case in point that was raised was the Insects in the Backyard film that was singled out by the Thai Ministry of Culture for its objectionable content. Regarding the differences between a multi-point, aged-based rating scale that has been enacted in Thailand, and the use of an outright ban, Pen-ek playfully remarked on the ambiguity of an age-based sliding scale.

Pen-ek said, “If you are 19 years old, you are really frustrated.”

On May 15 the Thai Artists Alliance held a reception for Pen-ek at the Roger Smith Hotel. He reiterated some of the ideas that were discussed at the Asia Society. The TAA, a group of New York-based Thai and Thai-American artists, which co-sponsored the Blissfully Thai film series with the Asia Society, invited Pen-ek to speak to a mostly Thai audience about his work and to answer questions. The reception was well-attended and the Royal Thai Consulate was represented as well. Dr. Sorajak Kasemsuvan, the secretary-general of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, appeared to introduce Pen-ek and to discuss the Cultural Ministry’s involvement in Thai cinema and the new ratings scheme.

(Photos by c. bay milin)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review: White Buffalo

  • Directed by Shinoret Khamwandee
  • Starring Patarapon Tua-on, Anusara Wanthongtak, Luafah Mokjok, Rungrawan Tonahongsa
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 12, 2011; rated 13+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Fractured stereotypes blend with mixed metaphors in the country comedy White Buffalo (E-Nang Ei Khoei Farang, อีนางเอ๊ย...เขยฝรั่ง), which examines the phenomenon of the dusky women of Isaan getting hitched to pale-skinned foreigners.

Singer “Ron AF5” Patarapon Tua-on stars as a young man who returns to his Northeastern village after failing his English course and flunking out at university in Bangkok. Mark is shocked to discover that the women back home are crazy about farang men, and the white-skinned fellows are everywhere. There's even one working in the market, sweating away and talking up a storm in the Isaan dialect as he grinds up a spicy somtum.

Mark still has feelings for his boyhood crush, Waewdao (singer “Preaw AF2” Anusara Wanthongtak). Her shrewish mother, who harbors a long-standing grudge against Mark, wants her daughter to have nothing to do with him. She's hoping to marry Waewdao off to an elderly Westerner.

Scripted by Sumitr Thiangtrongjit and helmed by first-time director Shinoret Khamwandee, White Buffalo was chosen from the Thailand Script Project four years ago and developed by Sahamongkolfilm International. It also received backing from the Culture Ministry's "Strong Thailand" fund.

Though the script was already pretty commercial, producers at Sahamongkol sought to make the movie even more bankable by focusing more on the comedic elements of the story. With slapstick pratfalls and scatological gags, White Buffalo has a similar feel to it as Mum Jokmok's Yam Yasothon movies.

A lot of time is spent with Mark just sitting around with his old buddies, drinking white liquor and trying not to vomit.

The story jumps around in fits and starts.

Mark, riding around the village on his white bull water buffalo, woos Waewdao, who plays hard to get and insults Mark at every turn, showing him the bottom of her foot. Then she just gives in.

And then it's on to the next plot point, which involves one of Mark's drinking buddies (comedian Luafah Mokjok), whose hairdresser wife leaves him for a farang living in Bangkok.

Another local lass (Rungrawan Tonahongsa) plays hard to get with a farang who's been calling and writing and finally comes to visit. The sweet guy turns up dressed like a farmer to help her in the sugarcane patch and eventually wins her heart.

Meanwhile, Mark and his drinking buddies hatch a scheme that they hope will prevent Isaan women from ever marrying another foreigner. It involves building a sufficiency-economy farm, and they have to work hard to accomplish their goal.

Ironically, the men's plan also involves Mark having to learn English, so he can talk to the farang and learn how they think.

Stereotypes are reinforced and then clumsily shattered. Farangs are all wealthy and treat their wives better. They live in Western-style houses and drive nice cars. Except some farangs aren't so rich, and they are abusive. One the other hand, Issan men are poor, lazy, drink too much and pay no attention to their wives. But then some wives spend their days gossiping, are greedy and go sneaking around behind their husbands' backs.

Mark goes charging around on his big white bull buffalo, the symbolism of which is potent even if I can't quite explain why.

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Review: Khob Khun Thee Rak Kan (Loving Me, Loving You)

  • Directed by Peerasak Saksiri, Putipong Saisikaew, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom,
  • Starring Patchai Pakdisusuk, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Somchai Sakdikul, Lalida Sasiprapha, Songsit Rungnopphakhunnasi, Phaibunkiat Khieowkaeo, Udom Songsang, Napat Banchongchitphaisan
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 12, 2010; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating 3/5

Three directors combine for three stories about three family units, each with three main characters, in Loving Me, Loving You (Khob Khun Thee Rak Kan, ขอบคุณที่รักกัน, a.k.a. Love First).

Produced by Pattaya Film and released by Five Star Production, the drama is directed by Peerasak Saksiri, who previously wrote the screenplay to the hit historical musicial drama The Overture; Putipong Saisikaew, who was one of the "Ronin Team" behind Art of the Devil 2 and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the lensman for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's features.

In unrelated yet intermingling storylines, the three families deal with various crises.

These are all gentle tales, full of sentiment with lovely cinematography, a lush score and some strong performances. They aim to show different kinds of family love in different cultures in different parts of the country.

Patchai Pakdisusuk, better known as "Pup" from the band Potato, is a talented but egotistical music student. A violinist, he's been kicked out of the orchestra for leading it through a bouncy, hip-hop flavored rearrangment of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. So he's persuaded by an eccentric composer-professor (Somchai Sakdikul) to assist him in field research that involves recording the sounds of nature. Along for the road trip to waterfalls, forests and other outdoor spots is Pup's mentally ill sister. She's played by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, who nearly disregards the advice of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and almost goes full retard. She's uncomfortable with the professor and the new situations, but she copes by dressing up in a pink Energizer bunny costume and hopping around the forest. Donning headphones and listening to the sounds of babbling brooks also helps calm her. While protective of his sister, Pup has less tolerance for the ways of the weird professor, who has him tracing cracks in the earth to compose music on. Will this headstrong young man learn anything from the exercise? Meanwhile, the professor has his own secret.

Another thread deals with the owner of a shoe factory, the man's spoiled college-student daughter and the Thai-Chinese grandfather, a cobbler who adheres to traditional shoe-making methods and lives in his one-room shop. The daughter has done poorly in school, so dad won't buy her car unless she proves herself some other way. So she's tasked with helping out at her grandfather's place. There, granddad will teach her how to make shoes, if she can tear herself away from texting friends on her BlackBerry. Meanwhile, the son has got away from the basics his father taught him and overextended himself.

Perhaps the strongest story has soap star Lalida Sasiphrapha nee Panyopas as the wife of a Royal Thai Army doctor stationed in Southern Thailand. She is angry with her situation and wants to move back to Bangkok, her hometown. Making her even more upset is that her little boy models himself after his dad and wants to be a soldier. Raised in a Buddhist household, he's nonetheless made many friends in the Muslim community and wants to remain in the South. The soldier dad, meanwhile, hovers around but says nothing to try and change Lalida's mind. There's something not right about this picture. Lalida keeps the worried mother act going and keeps the sympathies in her court right up to the end. A shadow-puppet show by the boy and his friends shed light on everything.

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