Sunday, October 9, 2011

Top 5 Thai Oscar submissions, 1984-2011

Over at CNNGo, there's a rundown of all 18 of Thailand's Oscar submissions, spanning the years from the first pick in 1984 – Euthana Mukdasanit's teen drugs drama Story of Nam Poo (คนโขน) – to this year's critically panned flop Kon Khon.

The CNNGo piece is a long one, and I'm grateful they actually ran it. I believe it's the most comprehensive list of Thai Oscar submissions anywhere on the Web.

And from there, I want to cherry pick, and offer a Top 5. At first I thought it would be easy – just choose the three Pen-ek Ratanaruang Oscar hopefuls and add two more. But then I got to thinking, which is always dangerous, and came to the conclusion that I'd have just one Pen-ek, in order to make the list more diverse.

5. Ahimsa...Stop to Run (อหิงสา จิ๊กโก๋ มีกรรม), 2006

There have been better Thai movies submitted to the Oscars, but Leo Kittikorn's loopy Buddhist morality tale, with its confusing predestination paradoxes, is nonetheless hard to ignore by virtue of its batshit craziness.

Visually, Ahimsa ... Stop to Run has some pretty stunning moments, which include the Pattaya party scene. But the most eye-catching is Ahimsa's red-haired, red-tracksuit-clad karma ghost (Teeradanai Suwanahom), wielding a two-by-four to whack Ahimsa (Boriwat Yuto) upside the head. Even better is when red-karma dude is driving a fire-engine red Chevy convertible with painted-on flames, chasing Ahimsa down. He's a fun character, who squeals like Bruce Lee when he's kicking Ahimsa in the gut.

Another highlight is Joni Anwar as Ahimsa's eccentric bar-owner friend, Einstein, who is always conducting "experiments" and sits in a powered wheelchair even though he doesn't need one.

4. Once Upon a Time ... This Morning (กาลครั้งหนึ่ง เมื่อเช้านี้), 1995

I was fortunate enough to see Once Upon a Time back in 2008 at the Bangkok International Children's Film Festival, and it made me cry like a little kid.

Directed by Bhandit Rittikol, this was one of the string of acclaimed social-problem movies that were among the first to be submitted to the Academy Awards. The issues include divorce, broken homes, homeless children and child prostitution – unflinching portraits of contemporary Thai society that just aren't seen that often in movies these days.

The story is about three kids ho run away from their vain mother (Jintara Sukkapat) to be with their doting dad (Santisuk Promsiri), who told the kids stories using paper dolls. The children fall in with a gang of drug-dealing homeless boys and are chased by gangsters.

What trips my emotional trigger is that recapturing of lost childhood innocence. There's no way to go back, except in the movies.

3. The Elephant Keeper (คนเลี้ยงช้าง), 1989

Before veteran director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol was making epic palace-intrigue dramas, he was into social-problem movies, which go back to the 1970s, and they remain his best work.

One of my favorites is The Elephant Keeper (Kon Liang Chang), an environmentally conscious drama that has its share of rip-roaring action.

Chatrichalerm's regular leading man Sorapong Chatree stars, playing the title character, a mahout named Boonsong who works the forests with his magificent elephant Tang-on. It's a time when logging companies are shifting to mechanization and the authorities are clamping down on timber harvesting, so Boonsong and Tang-on are put out of work. Feeling sorry for himself, Boonsong gets drunk on white liquor, which sets up a scene that likely hasn't been done in any other film – a man puking down the side of his elephant. Maybe The Hangover boys can come back to Thailand and do that.

The action ramps up thanks to Chatrichalerm's designated hitter for badassery, Ron Rittichai, playing the hardened, shotgun-toting forestry department officer Sergeant Kam. He comes to respect Boonsong and Tang-on after initially insulting the elephant and getting his Land Rover pushed into a creek for his harsh words. He apologizes to the elephant, who then pushes the Land Rover back out. Later, Boonsong and Tang-on help the officer battle the bad guys, which makes Boonsong a target. He's a desperate working man caught in the middle, and the machine-gun-equipped outlaws look to be the ones who put the squeeze on.

Ittisoontorn Vichailak, who would later go on to direct another Thai Oscar contender, 2004's The Overture (โหมโรง), also stars, playing the rookie deputy forestry official who narrates the tale as a campfire story. And one of the youngsters listening to the story is singer Ad Carabao.

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ), 2010

A snorting buffalo, an awkward dinner with a ghost wife and a monkey ghost and the story of the princess and her talking catfish boyfriend make for one of the weirdest movies ever, but Apichatpong Weerasethakul's tale of reincarnation and karmic retribution is also one of the most magical and heartfelt.

I don't know what else to say about it at this point, except that I'm glad Thailand's industry-leaning Oscar panel put aside its differences with indie director Apichatpong and submitted Boonmee, which was the winner of last year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

1. Monrak Transistor (มนต์รักทรานซิสเตอร์), 2002

Pen-ek Ratanaruang's musical comedy was among the first Thai movies I ever saw and it remains one of my favorite films of all time. Monrak Transistor one of those breathtakingly sprawling, shaggy-dog tales in which I see something new everytime I watch it.

For all its sunny humor, the story of a simple country boy who goes AWOL from the army to pursue his dreams of being a singer, meanwhile leaving behind his wife and baby, is actually pretty bleak.

On the CNNGo list I was dismissive of its actual cultural significance, except for its role in showcasing the songs of luk thung singer Suraphol Sombatcharoen. But really, the whole movie is a tableaux of Thai culture, awash in the things folks see and do everyday in Thailand but take for granted, things like temple fairs and canal villages.

Of course, it isn't the high-minded stuff the Culture Ministry usually likes to promote as "Thai culture", so I suppose it's easy to dismiss. And I missed mentioning something that I believe is unique to Thai culture – the travelling medicine show that puts on a movie screening, with the medicine salesman dubbing all the live voices. And the movie he's showing? Why it's Tears of the Black Tiger, of course.

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