Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Ma-Mha 2 (Mid-Road Gang 2)

  • Directed by Pantham Thongsang
  • Starring Jirayu La-onggamee, Pitisak Yaowananon
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 5, 2012; rated G.
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

"Never work with children or animals" is an old showbiz adage that's been incorrectly attributed over the years to W.C. Fields. In fact, it's drawn from a 1939 roast of the pugnacious comedian in which writer Leo Rosten said, “The only thing I can say about W.C. Fields is this: Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

Whoever said it, Pantham Thongsang has surely heard it, but he's chosen to ignore it as he directed Ma-Mha 2 (มะหมา 2, a.k.a. Mid-Road Gang 2), a movie that has dogs as stars and a baby as a main plot element. And all the human actors are secondary, or just idiots.

It's a sequel to 2007's Mid-Road Gang (มะหมา 4 ขาครับ, Ma-Mha 4 Ka Krub), bringing back most of the old dogs and adding a few new dogs and new tricks. A motion-comic opening credits sequence recaps the events of the first movie and introduces the old characters, including the main human villain Ong-Art, portrayed by Pitisak Yaowanon, who was left insane, put in an institution and now hates dogs.

The main character this time around is Jer, voiced by Jirayu La-onggamee. He's a Buakhaew, a Thai purebred dog that is said to be descended from jackals, a point that isn't in his favor later on. They are known for their fierce loyalty and protectiveness, but also need lots of attention.

Jer is owned by a famous actress and her architect husband, and becomes a celebrity himself after a TV show broadcasts a video of his exploits, which depict him growing from puppyhood, pushing a shopping cart and, in grainy CCTV footage, killing a large snake that was about to bite his architect master. But then his loving owners bring home a baby, and, one night they leave Jer and the infant in the care of the actress' slacker brother.

It just so happens that Ong-art and a female inmate have escaped from the insane asylum, and Ong-art is obsessed with the actress Wan. They break in to the house and kidnap the baby, but not without first tangling with the fiercely protective Jer. He's caught with a bloody diaper in his jaws and the baby is gone. The actress and her hubby return from their function followed by TV cameras and cops, and the dog is accused of taking the baby.

Now here's an Imperial star-destroyer-size plot hole – if the couple had a trusted maid/nanny, as most Thai couples of their stature in movies/TV would, this whole problem would have been avoided. But then there would be no movie franchise.

The only solution is for Jer to clear his name by tracking down the telepathic baby that can talk to him and bring the kid home.

Meanwhile, the gang of old dogs from the first movie are being taken from their comfortable lives in Dogtopia by a mysterious dog-catching mafia. The remaining original "Mid-Road Gang" are Piak, the plucky little showbiz dog (indeed, he's in lots of movies and commercials) and Geng, the shaggy mutt who "married" the poodle Sexy. They have a daughter Pong-Pong, a silky-haired white sort-of Lhasa Apso type, who becomes the romantic interest for the hero dog. Also back for more is Pikun, a kindly and wise older female street dog.

All the madcap action is played up for laughs. I attended a screening that started at close to midnight on a weeknight, and, surprisingly, there were a few children in the audience who thought everything was hilarious, especially the jokes about poop and flatulence noises. At one point, an elephant comes to the rescue as an ally of the dogs, and the pachyderm farted in our general direction, with help from wind machines that blew the hair of the villains onscreen.

In-the-know filmgoers might pick up on a few references, with the baby-snatching asylum escapees being a reminder of the desperate childless couple in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona. And the head of the dog-catching mafia is a weird chubby little boy who dresses just like Anton Chighur, the terrifying villain Javier Bardem played in the Coens' No Country for Old Men. With his bowl-cut hairdo and cowboy boots, he even carries an air tank that he uses to incapacitate (though not kill) his captured prey.

With viral social media tracking the dogs' progress, the chase leads them to the Dreamworld amusement park, where the dogs outwit the bumbling dogcatchers by riding cable cars and log flumes. They also create chaos at a stunt show. They hop a freight train and the action eventually moves to the streets of Ayutthaya, where the dogs run through alleys and dodge obstacles just like Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak. And just in case no one picks up on that reference, the dogs actually invoke the name of their stunt god, "Tony Jaa". They also swim, pull a wagon and walk across beams.

It's good old-fashioned fun moviemaking, harking back to the talking-animal shorts and features that were shown on TV's "Wonderful World of Disney". Refreshingly, the dogs don't "talk" with the help of any distracting CGI like they do in Garfield, Cats and Dogs or other recent "live action" talking-animal flicks. Camera movement and framing are used to indicate the animal speaking, with the dog actors just panting away, like they were trained to do. Okay, there is some CGI, like for a pair of helpful bird characters who get the dogs pointed in the right direction.

Pantham Tongsang, the director of the acclaimed social drama Ai-Fak and producer of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century perhaps never imagined he'd be directing talking-dog movies. But now, after directing two Ma-Mha movies he's got a franchise on his hands. The only way to proceed is with Ma-Mha 3. Hopefully it won't take 35 dog's years for that sequel.

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