Friday, February 10, 2012

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:


  1. thank you for the in-depth review! indeed a good movie. as i have seen it only in laos i woul like to know the "original" ending you are mentioning in your review. thnx

  2. Hi, actually, the ending is not really "different", it's sounds more like censorshiped sayed "oh, you have to say one more thing". The Lao censorship demanded the addition of a picture at the very end of the movie. This, in order to point out a fact that director Anysay Keola, for his part, was desirous to leave that up to the own audience's choice. Finally, apart from this image appended to the end of the movie, nothing is different from the director's original script and so on for the cut editing.


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