Monday, November 5, 2012

Capsule reviews: 36, Fighting Fish, Yak, In April

Due to time constraints, I've let several recent Thai films pass under the transom without writing any actual reviews. Here then is an attempt to remedy that situation.


Winner of this year' New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's 36 was hailed for its inventiveness by the jury led by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Indeed, 36 takes a uniquely spare, minimalist approach in telling the story of a film-company location scout (Vajrasthira Koramit) who gets into a relationship with an art director (Wanlop Rungkamjad). After the guy moves on, she struggles to reconstruct those memories after a hard-drive crash erases the photos she took with him. Nothing, it seems, is the way she remembers. The film is comprised of 36 scenes, each a single-camera set-up, preceded by a title card. They feel like the pages of a storybook. The camera angles, sometimes close and sometimes from far away, are often odd and obscure the faces of the actors. Or, the light sources will cause things to be obscured or fragmented, just like the memory on that broken hard drive. It's the debut feature from Nawapol, a young filmmaker whose varied career has included making many award-winning short films, writing a film column for a magazine, scripting mainstream films at big Thai studios and organizing screenings of indie Thai short films. He self-released 36 to sold-out screenings at alternative venues around Thailand before taking it to Busan. It'll be interesting to see what he can come up with if he's ever given a big-studio budget and support. (5/5)

Fighting Fish

Bromance forms between a foreigner and a Thai boxer in Fighting Fish (ดุ ดวล ดิบ, Du Duan Dib), a welcome Thai martial-arts movie, which have become a rarity in local cinemas, except for Tony Jaa films every two or three years. Stuntman Jawed El Berni stars as a mysterious expat who checks into a five-star Bangkok hotel and then falls for the oldest trick in the book when he's taken for a ride in a tuk-tuk to a boxing match and is then robbed. He runs in to further trouble when he sells his gold watch to a hilarious pair of pawnbrokers (real-life twin-brother boxing champs Khaosai and Khaokor Galaxy). He's then cheated out of his last bit of cash of by street hustler ("JJ" Jakkris Kanokpojnanon) who turns out to be an expert Muay Thai fighter. A run through back alleys and an electronics factory echoes the rough-and-tumble street chase of Ong-Bak. Afterward, the guys become best pals as they enter matches in an underground cagefight club. But there's conflict again when the foreigner talks his way into the top-tier to-the-death "fighting fish" matches. There's lots of gritty, sweaty close-quarters boxing action, which is choreographed by David Ismalone ("Mad Dog" from Ong-Bak) who also stars as a vicious top henchman. The story is scripted by David's wife "Ying" Julaluck Ismalone, a former model and VDO star who makes her directorial debut. The wafer-thin plot provides just enough motive for the two protagonists – the foreigner is desperate for cash and redemption while his Thai buddy has a disabled wife who needs an expensive operation. The soundtrack keeps it real by being mostly in English despite it being hardly anyone's first language. Other stars include Ong-Bak baddie Suchao Pongvilai as the gangster in charge of the fight club, Raging Phoenix leading man Kazu Patrick Tang as a fighting fish combatant and former boxer Somluck Kamsing as a dogged police detective. (3/5)

Yak: The Giant King

From its look and setting, Yak: The Giant King (ยักษ์) might be most often compared to such Hollywood animated features as Blue Sky Studio's Robots or Pixar's Wall-E. But it's really closer to Brad Bird's traditional animation The Iron Giant, as it tells the story of a giant robot who is gentle and kind but is actually a weapon of mass destruction. The tale, inspired by the Ramayana, is set in a post-apocalyptic future when only robots exist. It's a million days after a big battle between the army of the little monkey robot Hanuman and the giant Totsakan. The two combatants awaken to find their memories wiped. They are joined together by an indestructible chain that's attached to Hanuman's rear end. They then set off on an adventure to break the chain and find out the truth of their identities. Interestingly, Yak, produced by Work Point Entertainment and released by Sahamongkol Film, was offered in Thai cinemas with a Thai soundtrack as well as a well-done English soundtrack. The highly polished English version was supervised by Thailand-based American musician Todd "Thongdee" Lavelle, who also penned several catchy tunes. The animation is about as artful as can be possible when ramshackle robots are involved. However, it's unclear as to what kind of audience it might attract. The action might be too intense for small children, but there are long moments when the robot pals are just walking and talking that might make it boring for grown-up animation geeks. The slack times are made up for by the end with a climactic battle, in which Totsakan's fearsome power – 10 evil little heads and 10 arms that think independently, just like Spider-Man's Dr. Octopus – is revealed. (3/5)

In April the Following Year, There was a Fire

The long title might come off as pretentious, but it's really not. Lifted straight from a line of dialogue about a childhood tragedy, In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (สิ้นเมษาฝนตกมาปรอยปรอย, Sin Maysar Fon Tok Ma Proi Proi), is a heartfelt and laid-back stream-of-consciousness recollection of filmmaker Wichanon Sumumjarn's own life, growing up in Northeast Thailand. It starts off rather puzzlingly, with someone collapsed on a beach and rescuers shouting for "beach morning glory". The story then follows a young man who works as a supervisor on construction projects in Bangkok. Tossed out of work by the political instability of Thailand, he goes back home to Khon Kaen, ostensibly to attend a friend's wedding but mainly to spend his days boozing and crashing on his father's couch. Midway through the 70-minute debut feature, Wichanon switches from fictional narrative to documentary, interviewing his father as well as his brother, who bears the scars of a jellyfish attack. "You can't just tell it like that. You have to use some technique," the brother says in an unscripted moment as he's being quizzed about that painful incident at the beach in which the morning-glory folk remedy was rubbed too hard. Other humorous self-referential moments come earlier in the movie, when the construction foreman Nuhm happens by a movie-location shoot and strikes up a conversation with one of the film crew about whether the indie movie he's working on will ever be released in theater or come out on DVD. "You never know about these things," the guy tells him. However, in a hopeful sign, Wichanon and his producer Anocha Suwichakornpong did manage to secure a limited release for In April in Bangkok cinemas after it premiered at the Rotterdam festival this year and toured the festival circuit. So there's hope yet for Thailand's hard-working underfunded indie directors. (4/5)

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