Wednesday, June 13, 2012

IBFF 2012 Bangkok review: Thai Panorama

On the Farm, by Uruphong Raksasasad.

Six films – five shorts and a feature – were brought together for the Thai Panorama at the International Buddhist Film Festival 2012 Bangkok.

The shorts were a mix of old and new with 2007's Emerald (Morakot, มรกต) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul leading off the package and taking on new significance as a Buddhist parable. Originally conceived as a video loop for an art installation, Emerald was filmed in the derelict Morakot hotel at the corner of Thong Lor and Petchaburi roads in Bangkok. The hotel still stands there, with an outdoor beer garden on the grounds doing a brisk business each night. Apichatpong's usual cast members Jenjira Pongpas and Sakda Kaewbuadee take on the roles of spirits who tell their stories to each other until they no longer exist. According to the festival program, it's inspired by the 1906 Buddhist novel, "In the Pilgrim Kamanita". Meanwhile, the camera pans lazily around an old room in the now-closed hotel, with the bed still made, oddly, but there's a weird stain on the sheets. TVs are stacked in the hallway. And feathers, or maybe snow, are falling or floating, thanks to work by a special-effects studio.

Nirvana (นิพพาน), a 2008 by Siwadol Rathee that was previously shown in the 14th Thai Short Film and Video Festival and programmed short as part of the travelling S-Express Thailand package, is about a young man who wants to be ordained according to his mother's wishes that she see her son enter the monkhood in her lifetime. Problem is, the young man is blind, which prevents him from being able-bodied enough to carry the message. Nirvana also questions the motivations behind the mother's merit-making, a driving component of contemporary Thai Buddhist culture.

The inaugural edition of Bangkok's Buddhist film fest also commissioned three new shorts by well-known filmmakers, Sivaroj Kongsakul, Chookiat Sakveerakul and Uruphong Raksasad.

All are extensions of recent work by them.

Sang-Yen (แสงเย็น) by Sivaroj could very well be inserted into his award-winning debut feature Eternity (Tee-Rak). With the same cast as Sivaroj's partly autobiographical Eternity, a young-adult son and daughter sit down for dinner with their mother and talk about relationships, business and life. The mother wonders if her son will ever ordain as a monk. Father is missing, which goes unspoken but still carries weight. The family parts after dinner, with the offspring going their separate ways from their rural-village home, with the son driving off into the sunset listening to a dharma tape.

I Dreamed a Dream (ในฝัน) by Chookiat plays like a lost segment from his recent feature Home. The festival program says it's about  a man who feels attached to things and feelings and is full of anger and hatred. But it's mainly about friends driving around Chiang Mai, talking about a ghost of a man who drowned in the city moat. While it was experimental and wildly entertaining, I had a hard time figuring out what's Buddhist about it.

In the Farm (ในสวน) by Uruphong is an extension of themes he explored in his acclaimed feature Agrarian Utopia, about the use of chemicals in farming. A young woman who spends her days on a rubber plantation clearing weeds by hand, gets into a debate with her mother over the use of pesticides and fertilizer. The mother is all for it because it would mean the end of back-breaking work and probably result in a higher yield of rubber sap. But the young woman sees fields below, where the family's food is grown, and worries about contaminating the water well. Again, I'd have to have an expert explain to me what's specifically Buddhist about this, but it is an enlightened discussion, environment-wise. And it's capped off with close-up, high-def shots of insects and reptiles, which would surely perish if chemicals were used.

Three Marks of Existence.

The festival also featured the world premiere of a new feature, Three Marks of Existence  (นมัสเตอินเดีย ส่งเกรียนไปเรียนพุทธ) by Gunparwitt Phuwadolwisid.

A road movie about a young man's pilgrimage to significant Buddhist sites in India and Nepal, it was supported by the Culture Ministry's Strong Thailand fund.

Basically, it's a low-budget Citizen Dog on a Buddhist pilgrimage, with same type of whimsical, wry humor and episodic nature as Wisit Sasanatiang's 2004 comedy.

The main character is M (Yossawat Sittiwong), a twenty-something guy who is having difficulty finding a job after graduating from college. When his girlfriend breaks up with him, he decides to go in search for answers at the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

His first stop is Bodh Gaya, the place of Lord Buddha's enlightenment. Staying at the Thai temple there, he shares a room with an older man (Wanchai Thanawangnoi), who is into meditation, seemingly addicted to it for its supernatural properties. At one point, he sees a ghost while meditating by a swimming pool. M makes an assumption about the man's motivations for meditating, which later turns out to be a false assumption.

Hiring a taxi – another situation played for humor – M spends nine hours crammed into the back seat with a sleeping Indian man's head on his shoulder headed to Sarnath, the place of Buddha's first sermon. There, he introduces himself to an attractive young Japanese woman, Yuiko (Kobayashi Ayako), and the two become travelling companions as they take in the sights and discuss Buddhist scripture.

But then there's a hitch in M's plans to get closer to the woman when another Thai guys turns up. Slightly older than M, Jen (Patchrakul Jungsakul) comes from a wealthy background and was a playboy before he set off on the road to enlightenment. Yuiko is of course attracted to Jen, which causes M to be jealous.

The trio takes in the sights around Kusinara, where Lord Buddha died, with Jen expertly negotiating a ride with the same taxi that had earlier ripped M off.

M takes action to prevent Jen from travelling with them to Nepal, which it turns out was unneeded because Jen planned to head his separate way anyway.

So M has Yuiko all to himself in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, and they grow closer as they head back to India and go their separate ways.

In his travels, M encounters a Thai monk (Saifah Tanthana), who offers wisdom for M to mull over as he heads back to Thailand.

The proceedings are enlivened by motion-graphic animation that introduces each character, and by the animated "yes" or "no" motif of M's travel journal, in which he records his likes and dislikes as well as things to do and not to do.

The world-premiere screening itself was a lesson in Buddhist tolerance and humility after more movie-goers than seats turned up, thanks to double-booking of complimentary seats. But some chairs were set up in the aisle to accommodate those folks.

The International Buddhist Film Festival 2012 Bangkok opened on June 6 with a screening of The Light of Asia, a 1925 German-Indian silent that was previously banned in Thailand, according to reports. Playing at the Scala theater, the movie was accompanied by live music from a band of Thai and Indian traditional musicians.

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