Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: It Gets Better

  • Directed by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
  • Starring Penpak Sirikul, Bell Nuntita, Kawin Imanotai, Panupong Waraakesiri, Kisthachapon Thananara, Pavich Suprungroj
  • Released on February 14, 2012; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

In her third feature It Gets Better  (ไม่ได้ขอให้มารั, Mai Dai Kor Hai Ma Rak), Tanwarin Sukkhapisit takes a broader, more commercially appealing and far more subtle approach to addressing the issues of transsexuals than she did in her first, Insects in the Backyard, which had such vivid sexual depictions and violent, patricidal tendencies it disturbed Thailand's censors so much they banned it.

With a wide theatrical release on Valentine's Day under the full commercial backing of major distributor M Pictures and censor-approved 15+ rating, It Gets Better is ostensibly a three-segment drama, with story threads that intertwine increasingly tighter.

Tanwarin paints a pretty picture, with a beautiful woman standing by her red Alfa Romeo convertible sports car, overlooking a gorgeous green landscape in the mountain country of northern Thailand. But it's an illusion that's almost immediately defecated upon when the woman squats down by her car. Take it as a wryly humorous sign that all is not what it seems, neither in the movies nor in real life.

The woman, it turns out, is Saitan, an ageing post-op transsexual, and is motoring around on what looks to be a well-earned vacation. Stopping in a small town, she is waylaid by a strapping young man over a misunderstanding. But Saitan soon has the young lad Fai (Kawin Imanothai) wrapped around her immacutely manicured finger, and he spends a night with her and takes her on picnic.

Another story thread also takes place in northern Thailand, where a boy's father catches him dancing in front of a mirror wearing his dead mother's clothes. Soon, the boy Din (Pavich Suprungroj) is packed off to a rustic Buddhist temple, where he's to be ordained as a novice monk. The kid is at first apprehensive, but when he sees a handsome young monk (Kisthachapon Thananara) step out of the temple, something in him stirs, and the boy goes willingly.

And the third story has a young man returning to Thailand from growing up in the U.S. Tonmai (Panupong Waraakesiri) is met at the airport by a vanload of screaming ladyboys, including one with a billy goat's beard. All are dressed in their best black mourning dresses. He's there to oversee the closure of his dead father's bar – a ladyboy cabaret in Pattaya.

Penpak Sirikul portrays the older transsexual on vacation. A model and actress who came to prominence in the 1980s, it's genius casting, and Penpak proves ready and able to portray the colorful and alluring woman. She appears to come from a different era, with clothes and hairdo that suggest she stepped out of a 1960s magazine ad. An early scene has her taking in the town, vampishly dressed in a snug-fitting Chinese-style outfit that might have been borrowed from Maggie Cheung's character in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. And Penpak, with her high cheekbones and generally alluring attitude, could give Maggie a run for her money.

Back at the Buddhist temple, the little ladyboy Din isn't taking to the hardships of monastic life. Scared to sleep alone in his rustic quarters, he sneaks under the mosquito net of that handsome senior monk, who issues a quietly stern disapproval to the novice. At mealtime, the novice slips a spoonful of food onto his senior monk's plate – a common-enough gesture between Thais who are close, especially those who are in an intimate relationship – and the monk again disapproves, and tells the novice that it's inappropriate.

The novice's action also prompts giggles from the congregation of women, and among the crowd is Penpak's older-lady character, a sign that just in case you didn't know, the three stories do intertwine.

Down in Pattaya, the cabaret owner's son gets a special show from the girls, who go all out with their acrobatic eight-count song-and-dance routine to try and convince him to keep the place open. He shows signs of softening  after he sees the lip-synched performance of the show's star. She's the most-feminine ladyboy of them all, and Tonmai takes an interest, but still can't quite let go of his visions of the pretty young woman as a man. Another vision has Penpek's character stopping in for a drink, but it's clearly just a vision and not reality.

More pronoun trouble and confusion comes from the club's van driver Tonlew. She's an odd duck, being a ladyboy who dresses like a tomboy in loose-fitting men's shirt, trousers and baseball cap but under the surface is even more feminine than the pretty ladyboy star singer.

Tonlew is portrayed by "Bell" Nuntita Khampiranon who surprised a nation in her appearance on the "Thailand's Got Talent" TV show, where she demonstrated a multiple-octave singing voice. And, after the usual morning-after wake-up surprise, it's Tonlew's character who tries to help Tonmai sort out his confusion over whether he's gay or straight because he's fallen in love with a man who looks like a woman. In the end, it isn't labels or romance that are important but acceptance.

Of course, you can't have Bell Nuntita in the movie and not let her demonstrate her robust, flexible vocal cords. And indeed, there's even been a soundtrack album issued, with several of Bell Nuntita's songs that may well find their way into the repertoire of Thai cabaret singers alongside such anthems as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".

Up in the mountains, Saitan has her own heart-to-heart with her boy toy Fai, who reveals he's known all along that she's a ladyboy, and it doesn't matter. He's just out to have a good time, but beyond the simple physical pleasures, there's also a common decency in Fai, just one human to another, without worries about labels.

And at the temple, young Din is trying to sort out his feelings and his faith. He has a "but for the grace of God" encounter with a weeping, heartbroken ladyboy. Din then goes into the woods to cry, and he's found by the older monk Sang, who offers no comfort, other than give a look at Din that tells the boy the get a grip on himself. And somehow, Sang's serene guidance give Din inspiration to make it through this phase of life.

And if Din hadn't found this little kernel of strength, the whole movie wouldn't exist. It's a powerful mix of spirituality and sexuality, but is glossed over by the ending, which is typically slick and commercial, with a happy, affirming message.

But overall, It Gets Better is a sympathetic portrayal of transsexual characters, who in most movies are demeaning cardboard stereotypes used for comic relief.

It's performed modestly enough at the box office to demonstrate that there's probably an appetite for more of these types of movies. And, thanks to strong performances by Penpak, Bell and others, and the competent, assured direction and writing by Tanwarin, It Gets Better should find critical acclaim as well.

See also:

Related posts:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Joey Boy is the exorcist in Ghost Day

Making his directorial debut Gangcore Gud last year, rapper-actor Joey Boy got Bang Rajan director Thanit Jitnukul to serve as technical adviser. And I guess the zombie comedy must've been a successful-enough collaboration because they've teamed back up for more scares and laughs in Phranakorn Film's Ghost Day (Gang Tob Phee, แก๊งค์ตบผี)

With Thanit directing, Joey Boy stars with Jazz Chuancheun. They are a pair of ghostbusters whose YouTube video of an exorcism becomes a viral hit. They are then invited to do a demonstration for a TV show, which at first underestimates the pair as mere tricksters, but then they show just how real ghosts can be.

Young actress Phimnara Wright from last year's Do+Nut also stars, along with Boriboon Chanruang and Surasak Wongthai as well as some of the usual comedians, including Kom Chuancheun.

The trailer is embedded below.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Call for entries: 10th World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 9th World Film Festival of Bangkok was just held last month, but organizers are already getting ready for the 10th edition of the fest, set for November 16 to 25, 2012 – that's back to the time of year it's usually held, after last year's was postponed to January because of the Great Flood of 2011.

So there's a call for entries of shorts and features.

Entry forms, rules, etc. are available on the festival website.

The deadline is September 15, 2012.

9 Film Fest's 'Hollywood Night' is on Saturday

Now in its second year, Bangkok's 9 Film Festival is set for June 17.

It's a short-film competition, in which entries are nine minutes long, purposely made for the festival and must include the festival's "signature item", which this year is "heart". More than 1 million baht in prize money is at stake.

Organizers are getting geared up by holding a "Hollywood night" on Saturday, February 25 at Witch's Tavern on Soi Thonglor.

The networking night will feature Iron Pussy actor-director Michael Shaowanasai playing tunes from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.

Check the fest's Facebook page for more details.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Headshot wins the most Starpics Awards

Thailand's (and quite possibly the world's) most unpretentious movie awards, the Starpics Thai Film Awards, were given out recently, with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot winning six of the 12 prizes.

With no fancy red-carpet ceremony, tuxedos or slinky, revealing evening gowns, the winners are photographed with their acrylic trophies, wearing regular clothes in their homes or other ordinary surroundings. The awards are now in their ninth year.

Headshot (ฝนตกขึ้นฟ้า) took the prizes for best picture and best director. "Peter" Nopachai Jayanama won best actor for his role of a hitman who can only see upside down. It also took the awards for editing by Patamanadda Yukol, cinematography by Chankit Chamnivikaipong and art design by Wittaya Chaimongkol.

Here's the other awards:

  • Actress: Piyathida Woramuksik, Laddaland (ลัดดาแลนด์)
  • Supporting actress: Arissara Lemuan, Love Not Yet (รักจัดหนัก, Rak Jad Nak)
  • Supporting actor: Nattawut Sakidjai, Pumpuang (พุ่มพวง)
  • Screenplay: Sophon Sakdaphiset and Sophana Chaowitwantkun, Laddaland
  • Score: Koichi Shimizu and Desktop Error, Hi-So
  • Popular film: GTH, SuckSeed

If you're into keeping count, that's two for Laddaland, including one for the actress who played the mother in the family psychological thriller. The supporting actress winner portrayed the lesbian basketball player in the Tom Hang segment of the teen pregnancy omnibus Love, Not Yet.

(Via Thai Audience,

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Twin-sister filmmakers take the train in Wish Us Luck

Indie filmmaking twin sisters Wanweaw and Weawwan Hongvivatana make their feature debut with the documentary Wish Us Luck, chronicling their one-month journey by train from London back home to Bangkok.

Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, their trip took them through France, Germany, Russia, Mongolia, China and Vietnam, as well as  Laos.

It's part of their Master's project for the University for the Creative Arts in the U.K.

It's screening at 4pm on Sunday, February 19 in the Eat@Double U Restaurant at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld as part of the Third Class Citizen screening series. Admission is free.

There's a trailer, embedded below.

They previously made the short films Saturday Night (2006), (Application) (2007) and Dear Mom and Dad, and appeared in Tulapop Saenjaroen's After the Wind, which screened in competition at the 2010 Thai Short Film and Video Festival.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Outrage, Headshot up for Asian Film Awards

The Asian Film Awards nominations were announced back in January, but I missed it somehow and just now heard that Thailand is actually represented in the sixth annual kudosfest.

Mario Maurer is a best supporting actor nominee for The Outrage. He played a young monk whose faith is shaken after he takes part in the trial over the murder of a nobleman in the woods.

And Cris Horwang is a supporting actress nominee for Pen-ek Ratanaruang's hitman thriller Headshot (Fon Tok Kuen Fah, ฝนตกขึ้นฟ้า). She plays a mysterious woman who comes to the aid of the beleaguered main character, a former policeman turned assassin who is shot and wakes up from a coma to see the world upside down.

The Outrage (U Mong Pa Mueang, อุโมงค์ผาเมือง), a retelling of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, also received a nomination for costume designer Noppadol Techo. Directed by ML Bhandevanop Devakula, it's a lavish production, set in northern Thailand's Lanna kingdom of the 16th century.

Thai composer Chatchai Pongprapaphan is a co-nominee for Best Composer for Wu Xia, Hong Kong director Peter Chan's martial-arts thriller starring Donnie Yen. It was also scored by Comfort Chan and Peter Kam.

Typically, the AFAs are dominated by Hong Kong and Chinese films, and that's pretty much the case again this year.

Other Southeast Asian nominees include Lovely Man from Indonesia. Teddy Soeriaatmadja is a best director nominee for the tale of a young traditional Islamic teenager from a small town who travels to Jakarta to meet her father for the first time. There, she finds out her dad's a transvestite prostitute. He's played by Donny Damara, earning a well-deserved best actor nomination.

Up for best actress is Eugene Domingo for The Woman in the Septic Tank, a Filipino indie comedy that also earned a best screenwriter nod for Chris Martinez.

Gita Novalista is nominated for best newcomer for The Mirror Never Lies from Indonesia, which is also nominated for best cinematographer for Rahmat Syaiful.

Also, young Indonesian indie filmmaker Edwin will be given the Edward Yang New Talent Award. His first feature was Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and his sophomore effort Postcards from the Zoo, about an orphaned girl living in the Jakarta Zoo, is in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The AFA jury is headed by Singaporean director Eric Khoo.

The complete list of nominees is at the AFA website.

The Asian Film Awards are set for March 19 alongside the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Mart.

I Carried You Home and Pen-ek retrospective in Deauville

I Carried You Home, the debut feature by Tongpong Chantarangkul will screen in competition at the Deauville Asian Film Festival, which will have Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot out of competition as well as a retrospective of a couple more of Pen-ek's other films.

I Carried You Home (Padang Besar, ปาดังเบซา), screened at the recent Rotterdam fest and was the opener of the World Film Festival of Bangkok, and also played in Marrakesh as well as Busan last year.

Headshot, also playing in Berlin, where it got picked up for distribution in Australia by Madman, will play alongside Pen-ek's earlier films, Invisible Waves from 2006 and 2007's Ploy.

Past editions of the Deauville Asian fest have included an action-movie competition, but if it's happening again this year, I don't see it listed yet on the festival website or its Facebook page.

The 14th Deauville Asian Film Festival runs from March 7 to 11.

(Via Film Business Asia)

P-047, Lumpinee screening in Singpore's Southeast Asian Film Festival

The second Southeast Asian Film Festival is set for March 2 to 31 at the Singapore Art Museum, screening 20 films, including the Singapore premiere of the mind-bending P-047 (Tae Peang Phu Deaw, แต่เพียงผู้เดียว) by Kongdej Jaturarasamee
Kongdej will also sit on a directors panel, "When the Going Gets Tough, the Indies Get Going", with Filipino filmmakers Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.  and Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr., Singaporean actor Sunny Pang and film expert Philip Cheah.

Another Thai entry is Lumpinee, about youths growing up in a Muay Thai camp.

There's also Bunohan (Return to Murder) by Dain Said, a Malay crime drama set in the "badlands" along the Malaysian-Thai border involving three estranged brothers, one of whom is on the run from a hitman after a Muay Thai deathmatch.

The opener will be Fable of the Fish by Alix. Other highlights include The Mirror Never Lies by Indonesia's Kamila Andini, daughter of director Garin Nugroho. Dancing With Dictators, a documentary by Australia's Hugh Piper, marks the first Burmese-themed film in the festival. The closer will be Mother’s Soul by veteran Vietnamese director Pham Nhue Giang. Its 12-year-old star Phung Hoa Hoai Linh won the best actress honors at last year's Dubai International Film Festival.

Most of the films will have post-screening discussions. Check the full schedule at the SAM website.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A public service announcement from Lao New Wave Cinema

Lao New Wave Cinema, the collective of Lao filmmakers who made the country's first thriller, At the Horizon, have put together a public-service video, Dos and Don'ts at the Cinema (embedded above), which aims to educate moviegoers in a nation that's still fairly new to movie theaters, at least in the last few generations of post-war history in Laos. In fact, there are just three working cinemas in the whole country.

The video is unsubtitled, but you'll get the gist.

At the Horizon, by the way, will screen in Bangkok at 8pm on March 12 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Director Anysay Keola will be present for the screening. Just do yourself a favor if you haven't seen the film yet and avoid reading the synopsis on the FCCT website. It gives away entirely too much.

Monday, February 13, 2012

It Gets Better & The Melody open on Valentine's Day

Even though police and cultural watchdogs will be doing all they can to stamp out Valentine's Day fun by teenagers, Thai cinemas and movie distributors are enamored with the day of love, and they think it's cute to release romance films on February 14, even if that day falls in the middle of the week, like this year's, which is on a Tuesday.

So there are two Thai films being released.

One of them is It Gets Better (ไม่ได้ขอให้มารั, Mai Dai Kor Hai Ma Rak), directed by controversial filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkahpisit. The ensemble romance has three stories about transsexual love. Veteran actress Penpak Sirikul stars in one story, playing a post-op transsexual. There's a recent Bangkok Post story about her.

Released by M Pictures, It Gets Better premiered at the Hua Hin International Film Festival, where it was given the Audience Award.

Sahamongkol Film International brings out The Melody รักทำนองนี้, a romance that was scheduled for release last year but was delayed because of the flooding. Singer "Dan" Worrawech Danuwong stars. He plays a famous pop singer who retreats to the northern tourist town of Mae Hong Son after his career goes down the tubes. There, he meets talented pianist Mork (Pariyachat Limthammahisorn). There's an English-subtitled trailer, embedded below.

Getting a jump on this pair of Valentine's Day releases is studio M-Thirtynine, which rolled out Valentine Sweety (วาเลนไทน์ สวีทตี้) last Thursday. It's a sequel to the hit New Year's holiday release Bangkok Sweety (Sor Khor Sor Sweety, ส.ค.ส. สวีทตี้). Director Rerkchai Paungpetch kept his cameras rolling, following the five groups of lovers into Valentine's Day. Dan Worrawech, Keerati and Ramita Mahapreukpong, Kavi Tanjararak, "Pae" Arak Amornsupasiri, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk and Kotee Aramboy star.

Bangkok film lovers should also take note of the Cinema Picnic by Moonlight, an annual Valentine's Day outdoor screening at the Museum Siam that's part of La Fête, the French-Thai cultural festival. This year's show is pretty special, with the screening of the restored hand-colored version of the 1902 proto-science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) by pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès (who's featured as a character Martin Scorsese's Hugo). The show time is at 7.30.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Laddaland wins four at 9th Kom Chad Luek Awards

Thailand's movie awards season is underway, with one of the first major kudosfests held on Thursday night. Now in its ninth year, the Kom Chad Luek Awards honors film, television and music.

The big winner in film was GTH's haunted subdivision thriller Laddaland, which scooped four awards, including best film, best director for Sophon Sakdaphiset and best screenplay for Sophon and co-writer Sophana Chaowitwantkun. Best supporting actress went to Sutadta Udomsil, who played the teen daughter of the haunted family in Laddaland. The film's troubled dad Saharat Sangkapreechat and the mother Piyathida Woramuksik were nominees for best actor and actress.

Pumpuang, the biopic of the late luk thung superstar Pumpuang Duangchang, took the prize for best actress, rightly earned by newcomer singer-actress Paowalee Pornpimon, who also sang at the ceremony. (Though the headlining singer at the show was probably Palmy.) Paowalee's co-star Nattawut Sakidjai won best supporting actor and also won Best Actor in the TV drama for Channel 3’s Khoo Duad. Released by Sahamongkol Film International, Pumpuang (The Moon) was also nominated for best film.

Best actor went to "Peter" Nopachai Jayanama for his performance as a hitman who sees everything upside down in Headshot (Fon Tuek Kuen Fah). Pen-ek Ratanaruang's thriller had also been nominated for best director, best film for studio Local Color and supporting actress for Cris Horwang.

The popular award went to M-Thirtynine's romantic comedy 30 Kamlung Jaew, which was nominated for best actress for "Aum" Patcharapa Chaichua.

In past years, the Kom Chad Luek Awards have set the tone for other awards shows leading up to the industry's "Thai Oscars" the Suphannahong Awards, so Paowalee and Peter could be in line for more trophies this season.

While the big studios were the winners at the Kom Chad Luek Awards, indie players were among the nominees. Sivaroj Kongsakul's Eternity was nominated for best film, director, screenplay and actress; Aditya Assarat's Hi-So was up for best film, director, screenplay, actor (Ananda Everingham) and supporting actress (Sajee Apiwong); and the documentary Baby Arabia was up for best director.

Another leading nominee was Top Secret Wairoon Pun Lan, for screenplay by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, best actor for Patchara Chirathivat and best supporting actor for Somboonsuk "Piak Poster" Niyomsiri.

Put on by the Nation Group's major mass-market Thai daily newspaper, the red-carpet ceremony was accompanied by the usual sights of actresses in low-cut gowns, among them "Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak, who wasn't a nominee despite having been in two movies last year, the romantic comedy 30+ Singles on Sale and the Rashomon retelling Umong Pa Mueang (which did score a supporting actress nod for scene-stealing Rudklao Amratisha).

Review: At the Horizon

  • Directed by Anysay Keola
  • Starring Khounkham Sidthiyom, Khamhou Phanludet, Thipphakesone Misaybua, Vatsana Sayoudom, Loungnam Kaosaynam
  • Screened at the Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival, Chiang Mai, February 4, 2012; unrated
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

A young man is tied to a chair in a dank room. Another man comes in and, without a word, showers the hostage in cash. How did they get there? Who are these people?

At the Horizon, the first thriller from Laos, a country that has long lagged behind its neighbors in moviemaking, keeps you guessing.

The guy in the chair, with a bad haircut, is a rich college boy named Sin (Khounkham Sidthiyom). He likes to tool around Vientiane, acting like a gangsta rapper, driving an Escalade, listening to Lao hip-hop and brandishing a handgun.

The silent man is Lud (Khamhou Phanludet), a motorcycle mechanic and family man. He's also mute, although he can hear, and he communicates with his wife and young daughter with sign language. The filmmakers say Lud's disability is there to hammer home the point that "the poor are voiceless".

The story cuts back and forth from past to present, explaining how the two men from opposite ends of the social spectrum found themselves in their predicament.

The suspense keeps going right to the very end, but the sense of dread is palpable. Something bad is going to happen. The question is when, and just how bad it's going to be.

The debut feature by young Lao director Anysay Keola, At the Horizon is a solid effort. But what makes it even more commendable is that it was made without a budget in a country that has no film industry under strict censorship laws that discourage these types of movies from being made at all.

A bar fight, smoking, drinking, men wearing earrings, car chases and gun violence - ordinary elements of contemporary thrillers elsewhere in the world – are frowned upon in official Lao media.

But Anysay, a master's student at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, was determined to make his movie in Laos, and showed his script to the government's cinema department to seek approval.

The first draft was banned. "But we didn't give up," Anysay said after the screening at the Lifescapes event hosted by Chiang Mai's Payap University.

He approached the authorities again and explained that it was a "student film" and would only be shown to his academic adviser at Chula. With that caveat, his request to start production was granted.

The result was above and beyond the average student short film. Here was a full-length feature, with polished and professional production values and a compelling, thrilling narrative.

Even the censors were impressed, and At the Horizon screened at the second Luang Prabang Film Festival in December.

Put together a mostly Lao film crew working as a collective under the name Lao New Wave Cinema, At the Horizon has a cast of first-time actors. Sin is played by Khounkham Sidthiyom, a pop singer, while Lud is portrayed by Khamhou Phanludet, a graphic designer. Miss Lao 2012 runner-up Thipphakesone Misaybua is Sin's disapproving girlfriend Mouk, while DJ and television VJ Vatsana Sayoudom is Lud's sweet wife. Seven-year-old Loungnam Kaosaynam, who plays the motorcycle mechanic's bubbly daughter.

Aside from Luang Prabang and Lifescapes, At the Horizon also screened at the Hua Hin International Film Festival, where though the audience was extremely tiny, it did attract the attention of a Thai distributor.

And I would urge them to show it, because the story has resonance in Thailand, where the above-the-law scions of wealthy families could end up in a similiar situation as the character Sin.

Like Thai thrillers, there's a message of karma, and the arrogrant rich brat getting what he deserves. But what's a bit different is that it's not necessarily what the audience thinks he deserves – a welcome bit of ambiguity among films that always have neat, tied-up endings.

At the Horizon will open later this month in Lao cinemas – there are three, in Vientiane, Pakxe, Savannakhet. It'll be censored, with the blurring of handguns, alcohol consumption and smoking, similar to Thai television. Also, the ending will be changed.

Censorship aside, At the Horizon is a good start and offers a glimmer of hope that more movies like it will come out of Laos, a country that's been cinematically silent for too long.

See also:

Review: ATM Er Rak Err

  • Directed by Mez Tharatorn
  • Starring Preechaya Pongthananikorn, Chantawit Dhanasevee
  • Released in Thai cinemas on January 18, 2012; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Depending on whether you love it or hate it, GTH's workplace romantic comedy ATM Er Rak Err (ATM เออรัก เออเร่อ) could be called an homage to Office Space or a rip-off of Mike Judge's eminently quotable 1999 cult-classic.

I merely only "like" ATM Er Rak Err, and perhaps "like" is still too strong a feeling, but I'll call it an homage to Office Space anyway, and I appreciated the appearance of a red staple gun and the shout-out to flair-adverse Chotchkie's waitress Jennifer Aniston.

They were welcome diversions from the cloying cuteness of the comedy, which is as typically contrived as any Hollywood rom-com. And probably the folks at GTH will take that as a compliment. Anyhow, this slickly made movie has quickly racked up the Thai industry's benchmark of 100 million baht in box-office earnings, so any criticism is beside the point. The money spewing ATM on the poster is as apt an icon as any for this film.

The setting is the Bangkok corporate offices of a Japanese bank and the set-up is that employees are forbidden from dating each other. I don't know if banking corporations actually have that rule, but whatever, they couldn't make this movie without it.

So cue a hilariously mismatched couple, who are busted after their stupidly-posted Facebook photos from a drunken coupling are found.

The chief enforcer of this policy is Jib (Preechaya Pongthananikorn), a no-nonsense female executive who's worked hard to get her own office and position as overseer of the ATM department. The problem is, the boss lady is dating a guy from the office floor, Suea (Chantawit Thanasevee, who's lanky frame and thick eyebrows were made for comedy). And they've managed to keep their relationship a secret, despite sharing the same car on public roads and eating in the same restaurant (albeit with their backs to one another in separate booths).

Jib is eager to take the relationship to the next level, and so Suea impulsively pulls her through a whirlwind of wedding arrangments, going as far as booking a hotel ballroom for their wedding party on October 31, Halloween night.

But then Jib points out one of them has to quit their jobs, and she automatically assumes it'll be Suea who'll tender his resignation. But Suea insists he never promised he'd quit.

Meanwhile, outside a soccer stadium in Chon Buri, an ATM is being updated with new software by a couple of bumbling workers. They mess it up of course, and go to watch the Thai Premier League football match between the Chonburi Sharks and their beloved Buriram FC.

A kid on a motorbike stops by the ATM to get some cash, and when it spits out double the amount while only debiting his account once, he draws out the rest of his meager savings and calls his loudmouth friend (Chaleumpol "Jack Fan Chan" Tikumpornteerawong). Soon, the entire football stadium empties out and everyone is trying their luck with the malfunctioning ATM.

Back the Bangkok office, Jib and Suea decide that whomever manages to retrieve the wayward cash first gets to keep their job, and so the race is on.

What follows is a diminishingly funny sequence of slapstick gags as Jib and Suea are city fish in the country pond, racing around the small town, trying to find out who has the money.

The increasingly belabored situation has Suea impersonating a police officer as he enlists the aid of the rotund local branch manager, a pickup truck taxi driver (Jack Chaleumpol), his motorbike-riding buddy and the motorbike kid's teenybopper girlfriend – folks who are actually on the list of users of the errant ATM.

It's hard to not think the Bangkok folks are looking down their noses at the provincial rubes in Chon Buri who've blown their windfall of cash on a new motorbike, a gold tooth, a new set of washing machines and a crocodile.

And just how solid a relationship do Jib and Suea have if their jobs at this bank come first?

Aside from the colorful townsfolk, another supporting character is the bank boss' hair-flipping son who thinks he's so smooth with ladies but is really pretty annoying.

The ickiest bit in this movie is a routine the biker kid does with his girlfriend – a pantomime of his cutting out his heart, ripping it from his chest, kissing it, and then throwing it to his gooey-eyed girlfriend, who then pretends to catch it, kiss it and put it in her chest.

Thank goodness for the expression of nauseous disbelief from Jack Fan Chan and the others.

Oh, and a final nitpick. GTH is continuing with the use of "dubtitles" for Thai pop-culture references, with a mention of actress Chompoo Araya A Hargate being translated in the subs as Zhang Ziyi. They are nothing alike, and Thais who read that burst out laughing. So how about this – if pop-culture references must be used (and I guess they must), then consider using parenthesis to explain who (popular Thai soap-opera actress) Chompoo Araya is to international audiences.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Berlinale 2012: Erotic Fragments in competition, Headshot in Panorama

The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival gets underway on Thursday with two Thai films in the program, Erotic Fragments No. 1, 2, 3 and Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot.

Directed by Anucha Boonyawatana (อนุชา บุญยวรรธนะ), the 6-minute Erotic Fragments No. 1, 2, 3 was a special mention winner at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival. Anucha previously directed the 2002 student short Down the River. Erotic Fragments is in the Berlinale Shorts Competition and is also a nominee for the Teddy Award.

Here goes the synopsis from the Berlinale website:

"Three” is the rule. The film has three parts. Each part has three shots and each shot is thirty seconds in length. Three characters share their erotic desires from the point of view of a third class citizen in contemporary Thai society.

Pen-ek's hitman Headshot (Fon Tok Kuen Fah (ฝนตกขึ้นฟ้า) heads back out on the international festival circuit after a homestand in Thailand that saw it get a limited theatrical release and a screening at the inaugural Hua Hin International Film Festival, where it reportedly screened without English subtitles, which must've taken a special effort since to my knowledge it was mostly subbed prints that ran in the cinemas.

It's the third time for Pen-ek in Berlin. He was previously there with the premieres of his 2006 hitman comedy-thriller Invisible Waves and back in 1997 with his debut feature Fun Bar Karaoke.

The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival runs until February 19.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lifescapes 2012 reviews: Golden Slumbers, Art of Freedom shorts

Cambodia's Golden Age of cinema lasted just 15 years, starting in 1960, and was at its height in 1975 when the country's amazing pop-culture scene was abruptly and violently shuttered under the deadly Khmer Rouge. Cinemas were closed and actors and filmmakers were considered "enemies of the people". Some of those who survived fled to places like France, which is where young director Davy Chou, making his debut feature with the documentary Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil D’Or), comes from.

Chou,  the grandson of Van Chann, a prominent Cambodian producer in the 1960s and 1970s, deftly mixes talking-head interviews with old movie clips, photos and images of the old cinemas and studios as they appear today. Interviewees include screen siren Dy Saveth, who's still in Phnom Penh giving acting lessons and talking about the old days to anyone who'll listen. Others are the avuncular Ly Bun Yim as well as Huy Vathana and Ly You Sreang.

Movie titles like Screaming Gibbon, Snake Lady and Snake Man are mentioned in a conversation between cinephiles that takes place in a car as it bumps along a Cambodian dirt road and into the capital.

Former studio owner Yvon Hem reveals his past life to his children – a second family started after his first died during the KR era – and the youngsters wonder why dad never told them he was a producer. But it's too painful to remember, he tells them, as he surveys the location of his old studio, now apparently being turned into an outdoor beer bar.

It's these visits to the old haunts of Cambodia's cinematic heyday that are most poignant in Golden Slumbers. A love ballad from one of the old movies plays while the camera pans around the room of a karaoke parlor, while men clink glasses with young women. The joint used to be one of Phnom Penh's movie palaces. And remember, the rock music of the era by singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea. Those jangling surf-rock sounds were also part of the movies. Another former cinema is a tenement, home to more than 100 squatter families living among the ruins. Pink bougainvilla petals blow across the pavement as another filmmaker talks about the lost era. Another interview is offset by the spark from a construction laborer's arc-welding torch.

Most of the films from Cambodia's Golden Age are lost, though there are various clips and ephemera to be found. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cambodian filmmakers have struggled to restart a once-vital industry in the face of cheaply produced karaoke videos and TV variety shows. It's filmmakers like Davy Chou and Chhay Bora, whose Khmer Rouge family drama Lost Loves also played in the Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival and has opened in Phnom Penh cinemas, who, by reassessing and seeking to reconcile their country's past, stand as symbols of hope for Cambodia's cinematic future.

In addition to the Lifescapes festival, where it played twice, Golden Slumbers was also shown this past weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival presented a selection from the historic Art of Freedom Film Festival held in late December-early January in Rangoon. Organized by none other than newly freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi along with outspoken comedian, filmmaker and formerly jailed political activist Zarganar, it was the first "free" film festival held in Burma, which is undergoing democratic reforms after decades of brutal military dictatorship.

Three shorts, all with the filmmakers there for a Q&A, were presented.

Min Htin KoKo Gyi, a co-organizer of the Art of Freedom festival, directed Uninterruptedness, in which the Burmese script of one of his poems about death and the circle of life is mixed with images.

Click in Fear by Sai Kyaw Khaing, which won the best documentary award at the Art of Freedom fest is about a photographer who has to leave Burma after his photos of the 2007 uprising by monks in the "Saffron Revolution" were used in the international press. The short has been presented before in the 2009 World Film Festival of Bangkok, but I think this was a slightly longer and re-edited version.

The highlight of the program was Rope, a 6-minute drama that won the Best Short Film Award at the Art of Freedom fest. Director Min Thaike said he wanted to present the daily lives of residents in Rangoon hi-rises, who've developed a system of ropes that they use to pull things up to their apartments. The ropes are used for items delivered daily, like newspapers. The main character in Rope has his breakfast delivered – a bag of milky tea and fried bread snacks. But pulling the vittles up to his ledge proves difficult when it gets snagged along the way, and there are hungry kittens in pursuit.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

BEFF6: An Escalator in World Order

Held every other year or so, or just whenever the eclectic group of film scholars, art curators, critics and filmmakers get around to it, the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival's theme for its sixth edition is "Raiding the Archives", and its focus is on finding new contexts for archival material, especially home movies and old footage.

Last Saturday's opening program, An Escalator in World Order, perfectly encapsulated that aim. Directed by Kim Kyung-man, the South Korean documentary was a remix of South Korean propaganda films and newsreel footage in which leaders pour on the vitriol that's just as staggeringly potent as anything cooked up by their Northern counterparts or by the Soviet Union at its height.

There's marching bands, processions of missile launchers and visits by U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Religious leaders take the pulpit to invoke the United States as South Korea's higher power, and only the might of the U.S. military can possibly protect the nation from the hell that is north of the 38th Parallel.

It's a perverted, twisted message – a wicked blend of Korean traditional culture and old-timey "America, fuck yeah" patriotism that could have only been created by the Statue of Liberty eating kimchi and then puking. It would have played nicely alongside Team America: World Police and Robert Altman's MASH.

Escalator, an audience-award winner at last year's Jeonju International Film Festival, was preceded by Ghosts in the Classroom by Ukrit Sa-nguanhai, which is a weirdly looping 2-minute short showing a bizarre discipline practice in a Thai schoolroom.

"History of Thai Experimenta 1" sampled Thai experimental films from several eras, going as far back as 1985 with Dome Sukwong's Nang Sod to last year's Cutter, Trimmer and Chainsaw by Pathompon Tesprateep. The program aimed to be "a historical ... arrangement of collected materials, where special memories dwell, magically brought alive." The highlight was an early effort by Panu Aree, 2000's Once Upon a Time, in which he used home-movie footage filmed by his father of the family's visit long-gone Dan Niramit amusement park and combined it with voice-over interviews of people remembering the place. It was mixed in with a bunch of highly experimental works like Boring Blinker by Surabongse Binichkhah (1985), that were flashing lights, blurry images and rushing sound that all seemed to coalesce into one mind-numbing work for a stylistic overload that wouldn't have been out of place in a Tony Scott action movie.

Nguyen Trinh Thi was present with some of her Hanoi DOCLAB team to present three short- and medium-length documentaries. A Soldier's Song Sample Experiment took an old Vietnamese social realism war movie and laid over new audio. Chronicle of a Tape Recorded Over is a road movie inspired by Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon, in which Thi travelled the Ho Chi Minh Trail asking people to tell stories. At one point she and her camera crew are detained by officials, but the camera keeps rolling, capturing the bureaucrat as Thi tries to pin him down on the differences between tourists shooting video and what she's doing. The third entry in the program was Hard Rails Across a Gentle River, a four-segment package of short documentaries of life around a railroad bridge and riverbank neighborhood. They'll also be showing a selection of other films at the Lifescapes festival this week in Chiang Mai.

Sunday's program opened with "Now You See It", "adventures in perception and a timely return to the politics of looking". The varied program made things interesting. Blur Luminous by Taweewit Kijtanasoonthorn looked at the world through an oddly refracted lens so that everyday scenes became geometric patterns. UK director Jessica Mautner's Phi used footage of the Greek riots with "puff, puff, puff" sound effects coming from her lips. Re-banho (Wash Herd) by Tales Frey had a half dozen men and women performing an odd washing ritual, fully clothed in front of a church. 724 14th St by Taiwan's Ching Yi Tseng was Super 8 footage shot a few years ago in San Francisco and is a memory of the streetcars and other sights from that address. The Big Picture by Suporn Shoosongdej has Siamese fighting fish and other images from "a broken record called Thainess [that] goes round and round and round and round." Coms Device by Nadav Assor has an actress performing an Israeli soldier's monologue about using a backpack radio transmitter as a "scanning device" to relieve boredom by messing with Palestinians passing through a checkpoint. The image is the actress reflected in the cameraperson's eye. And Pulsation by Pieter Geenen captures the last 14 minutes and 30 seconds of a night from the Greek side of Cyprus, looking to an opposite mountain, where a giant lighted Turkish Cypriot flag flashes on and off throughout the night. And that must be galling to folks trying to sleep on the Greek side.

"Women on the Move, Men at Home" was a program of home movies with talks by experts, beginning with clips by amateur female filmmakers in New Zealand of the 1920s and '30s, curated by the late Kathy Dudding of the New Zealand Film Archive and presented Mark Williams. The "Men at Home" portion was home movies from Taiwan and Singapore in the 1960s. Presented by George Clark, Zhuang Ling's works captured his wife's pregnancy and the newborn baby. Richard MacDonald was tasked with finding home movies in Singapore and Malaysia. From the National Archives of Singapore came films by Charles Ong of his son's 6th, 8th and 10th birthday parties. But sadly in Malaysia, no one seemed to understand the concept of home movies, or least the concept of archiving them.

The Singaporean birthday parties were complemented nicely in the next program, "Was Here, Was Now" in The Impossibility of Knowing by Tan Pin Pin, who captures old spaces in rapidly changing Singapore. The program, which sought to capture "cinematic acts of remembrance in the land of the victors’ amnesia", began with Untitled #1 from the series Eight Men Lived in the Room by Hyewon Kwon in which 45-seconds of newsreel footage of a Korean factory workers dorm is replayed several times, each time with different narration, telling the story of the building from its triumphant opening, to an accidental death, a fugitive hiding there and its eventual decay and demolition. It's surprising how effective and entertaining it was, even though the same footage is repeated a half-dozen times or so. Sutadi Ain’t Here Anymore by Marthen Luther Sesa chronicles the filmmaker's fruitless search for a bicycle taxi driver named Sutadi. And who knows, maybe Sutadi never existed. OZ@1950 by Dirk De Bruyn harks back to the "white Australia" era with hilariously remixed and zoomed newsreel footage of a speech about what defines the "new Australian". A Brief History of Memory by Chulayarnnon Siriphol recalls the April 2009 "Black Songkran" in which red-shirt political protests turned violent, and one woman lost her son. It was an award-winner at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival. And Lay Claim to an Island by Chris Kennedy remembers the 1969 American Indian occupation of San Francisco's Alcatraz.

Last Sunday's closing program was a pair of works from LUX, the London-based artists' cinema agency. New It New John by Duncan Campbell is a look back at John Z. DeLorean and the founding of his company in Northern Island to make his iconic stainless-steel sports cars. News footage chronicles the story of of DeLorean's Pontiac GTO musclecar, the oil embargo that ended that gas-guzzling era and then the promise of the 1980s, only to be followed by financial troubles. It ends with befuddled and contentious union auto workers who've occupied the shuttered DeLorean factory being interviewed, and one by one they trickle away from the camera. Sack Barrow by Ben Rivers is footage from some old factory. Not even sure what they do there, but it involves strange liquids, all in an dilapidated and decaying facility.

BEFF6 continues this week, with programs at the Goethe-Institut and the Jim Thompson Art Center's William Warren Library. This Saturday, the festival is back at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, starting at noon with "History of Thai Experimenta 2" – home movies collected at the Thai Film Archive. Another program on Saturday, "Poetics of Longing", features shorts by the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (his debut student short 0016643225059) and Wichanon Sumumjarn (Four Boys, White Whiskey and Grilled Mouse). A highlight on Saturday is the Thai premiere of World Without End, a 1953 documentary, partly shot here by experimental filmmaker Basil Wright. That's at 6.15. The closing day on Sunday starts at noon, and among the highlights are "From Experimenta India", "Hong Kong Bohemia" and "KLEX @ BEFF6", featuring selections from the Kuala Lumpur Experiental Film and Video Festival. Click the link for the full schedule.

Top Secret gets deluxe treatment on DVD

I don't ordinarily get too excited by the release of Thai films on DVD in Thailand. After all, most don't have English subtitles and therefore hold little interest for most folks outside of Thailand. They might as well not exist.

But the recent release of GTH's teenage billionaire comedy Top Secret Wairoon Pun Lan caught my eye as I was passing a Mangpong outlet the other day.

The deluxe box set features special artwork by none other than Somboonsuk Niyomsiri, a man better known as Piak Poster, who made his name back in the 1960s as a movie-poster artist. Back then, artists would painstakingly encapsulate all the movie's highlights into the sweeping canvas of the posters and billboards. It's a trade little practised these days, though there are still some around. Piak later turned to directing, making a string of popular teen-oriented films in the 1970s. Now in his 80s, he made his acting debut in Top Secret, portraying the kindly "uncle" of the teenage entrepreneur who created a popular seaweed snack brand. Anyway, I like how out of all the big floating heads in the design, Piak's is the biggest.

And as if that illustration weren't enough, inside the box is a Monopoly-like board game with young star Patchara Chirathivat's face on the money. There's also a calendar with more artwork.

GTH has always done elaborate box sets for its DVDs, but this one is probably one of their best. It's in shops for around 600 baht. But of course, there's no English subtitles.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

9th WFFBKK review: Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours

  • Directed by Rirkrit Tiravanija
  • Starring Lung Neaw
  • Thai premiere at the 9th World Film Festival of Bangkok, January 26, 2012; no rating
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

Following the trend of visual artists breaking into making feature films that has been largely spearheaded by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a contemporary of his, Rirkrit Tiravanija, offers a counterpoint of sorts to the magical realism of Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Rirkrit has his own "uncle", an elderly Chiang Mai laborer and farmer named Neaw. But Rirkrit's debut feature, Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours, has few magical moments. Basically, it's 2.5 hours of Rirkrit and his Mexican producer Cristian Manzutto following Neaw around with their cameras, not blinking as the old man goes about his day sleeping, bathing in the river, getting dressed, eating, drinking, smoking and praying. His sufficiency lifestyle involves wandering around the hills and forests of rural Thailand, foraging for food, subsistence farming and chatting with friends.

Rirkrit, a Hugo Boss Prize recipient and honoree of the Thai Culture Ministry's Silpathorn Award for visual art, is known worldwide for his "relational aesthetics". His exhibitions have seen him serving up spicy curry dishes for his guests. He's used Neaw before in art projects, among them an eight-hour video loop.

And like that eight-hour video, which had Neaw picking his nose, combing his hair, dozing and eating, the feature documentary Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours would perhaps best work as the accompaniment to a larger art exhibition. Because as a movie that you have to sit down and stay awake for in a cinema, Lung Neaw is a challenge. And after watching it, I felt as if I'd just been the victim of a hoax by Rirkrit, which is perhaps his intent, to hoodwink film-festival viewers in Venice and Bangkok into becoming part of his art project.

"It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people," Rirkrit is quoted as having said one time about his work.

And what you would have seen following the screening of Lung Naew was people walking out of a theater, shaking their heads, wondering what the point was.

And maybe that's the point.

The film is broken up by intertitles with slogans like "no fire, no ash" and "tomorrow is another day" in big block letters. I could easily see the slogans silkscreened in huge black letters on a white T-shirts and sold for high prices in clothing boutiques, maybe for charity.

Only occasionally does Lung Neaw offer what might be called excitement in contrast to the paint-drying, like when Neaw grooves to a song by Thai alternative rock band Moderndog on a tinny little radio while laying in his rice-field shelter. (He was actually listening to a Thongchai "Bird" McIntyre song, but Rirkrit preferred to involve his hip pals in Moderndog than pay for the rights to use the Bird song.)

It's only towards the end, when Neaw is finally resigned to the camera and starts engaging it, do things pick up, with Neaw talking a bit more and revealing a little about himself and his 60-plus years of hard living. He then goes for a pop of rice whiskey and reels and staggers off down the road.

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