Tuesday, November 27, 2012

10th WFFBKK capsule reviews: Mekong Hotel, Parts of the Heart, Return to Burma, Elephant Shaman

Mekong Hotel – A lullaby to fans and cinema, I believe that Mekong Hotel is a transitionary work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, perhaps signaling a move away from feature films toward more shorter art films. He talks a bit about that in a recent Nation interview. Mekong Hotel is rife with commentary about Thai society and politics that goes way over the heads of foreign audiences, which is why, since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it's left overseas audiences largely puzzled. There are things said that are left untranslated in the subtitles. There's so much subtext, I can't even begin to explain it. Mekong Hotel will speak volumes to Thai audiences and perhaps even experts of Thai culture, but for ordinary movie lovers (like me), that subtext will not register. It's a mixture of experimentalism and storytelling, with workshop footage of his actors for another project called Ecstacy Garden. The actors, including Apichatpong's longtime cast members Sakda Kaewbuadee and Jenjira Pongpas, engage in dialog that alternates between conversation about their real lives and talk about the gut-munching pob ghost. Jenjira is a mother pob ghost who laments passing on her eternal curse to a daughter. They surreptitiously feast on bloody, raw meat. Throughout it all, a classical guitarist noodles on a Brahms-like tune by a famous Thai composer. It beckons heaviness of the eyelids. Shot at a riverside hotel on the Mekong in Nong Khai, Laos is across the waters, prompting talk of Lao refugees. The film was made last year around the time that Bangkok and the central plains were heavily flooded. One character comments that the floods are the tears of the Emerald Buddha, a controversial icon that's still a sore point in Thai-Laotian relations. At the end, the focus is on jetskis on the river as they circle about, making figure eights – more subtext that I can't explain. (4/5)

Parts of the Heart – The struggles of being an out-and-proud gay man in Indonesia are examined in this comedy-drama by Paul Augusta. The life of a gay guy named Peter is tracked in eight segments, with the character played by different actors. It runs from boyhood, when Peter is Boy Scout and he steals a kiss from his best friend and tentmate. Next, the two friends are in their early teens. They confide their long-buried feelings for one another and experiment in heavy petting. In subsequent segments, the goth-attired Peter is in a deep depression over loss and breakups, and dealing with boyfriends who won't commit to an open relationship. A colorful circle of campy friends emerges, bringing comic relief to Peter's sadness and self-pity. A particularly funny segment has Peter and his boyfriend engaging the help of another friend in finding a partner for their threesome, in which they audition various applicants from a gay matchmaking website. Filmmaker Joko Anwar portrays Peter in another segment, The Couch and the Cat, in which a happily situated couple shares a coach with an extremely hairy feline. Their life has become routine, and they appear content to just watch TV and smoke (What would an Indonesian film be without lots of smoking?) When his partner starts sneezing, Peter is forced to act. The story comes full circle with Peter happily married to a husband and running a coffeeshop in Jakarta. A young customer who is going through many of the same problems Peter had in his youth comes in. Peter is tempted but comes up with a more-constructive solution. (4/5)

Return to Burma – Taiwan-based Myanmar filmmaker Midi Z directs this loosely autobiographical tale of a young man returning home after years of working as construction laborer in Taipei. Ostensibly, he's making the trip home to deliver the ashes of a friend who was killed in a construction accident. He's been away so long, that when he finally arrives at his home, he has to introduce himself to his mother. He then sets about to reaquaint himself to the hard realities of the country where much as changed but other things have not changed at all. At the time of filming, Burma was preparing for elections that would pave the way for much-heralded democratic reforms. But the lives of ordinary people haven't changed much. They still must struggle mightily just to make a little money and earn a living. Throughout the film, the young man Xing-Hong probes for an angle, asking everyone he meets if there's work, how much it pays, how much to set up a business, etc. Meanwhile, his brother and other friends are preparing to head to Malaysia to find work. Others talk about working in China, and bad experiences there. Shot on the fly, documentary-style, it's an engrossing portrait and it's easy to forget that a camera crew is involved. You feel like you are right there beside Xing-Hong, step by step with him (except for when he visits a brothel; the camera takes a time out as Xing-Hong is led across the street to the sex den). Later, there's a brief respite from Xing-Hong's wanderings as the camera focuses on children playing with toy guns. A boy and a girl reenact the diner robbery scene from Pulp Fiction. Without all the swearing, it's cute. Other kids engage in a battle, and everyone ends up "dead". Most of the action takes place in a border state populated mostly by Yunnan people who speak the Chinese dialect – a reminder of the diversity of Myanmar's population. In the end, the message is reinforced that no matter what's happening with Myanmar politically, not much has changed for most folks, who have few other choices than to toil away in hardship. (5/5)

Elephant Shaman – Anyone who's watched the Tony Jaa martial-arts movies featuring elephants might be interested in checking out director Shane Bunnag's National Geographic documentary Elephant Shaman, which delves into the mysticism and symbiotic relationship between man and pachyderm in the northeast of Thailand. Bunnag's hour-long doc is an important chronicle of the dying custom of the Kuy people, who were known for their work with elephants. At the centre is an 85-year-old man named Miw, the last elephant shaman. He holds the highest ranking among the Kuy people who handle elephants, a sadam, or senior priest. Other rankings include jaa, a senior handler, and ma or mahout, the most junior. Long ago, the kuy elephant handlers and trackers played a key role in Siamese culture, capturing, training and caring for the elephant herds that were used by armies, loggers and in royal and religious ceremonies. According to tribal custom, their methods could only be passed on in the jungle, during the hunt. Today, the jungles have been mostly cleared, with only small tracts of wilderness left. Elephants are only used by man for two purposes – hauling tourists around or begging on the streets. There is no elephant hunt, so there's no chance for Miw to pass on his knowledge. However, an opportunity for one last hunt arose when a rogue bull elephant started trampling crops. Out of desperation, the Wildlife Department called on Miw to capture the beast. Returning the stubborn 15-year-old wild bull to his herd was deemed impossible, so it was left to Miw and his followers to tame and care for the elephant. It might be difficult, in this day and age, to see a need for men like Miw, but Bunnag makes the case that we need them now more than ever because the borders between men and wilderness have broken down. The elephant shamans, with their respect for the remarkable beasts, are needed to protect the elephants from poachers and overdevelopment, and preserve a way of life that shouldn't be forgotten. (5/5)

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