Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 10 Thai films of 2013

Slickly commercial horror thrillers and comedies, among them the record-setting blockbuster Pee Mak Phra Khanong, were the dominant force of 2013 and made for an entertaining year.

But the joy was balanced by documentaries and indie productions such as Boundary and Tang Wong, which offered sobering commentary on contemporary Thai society and politics.

Furthermore, politics and censorship left marks on two documentaries, Boundary and Paradoxocracy, and were directly addressed in a third, Censor Must Die.

Looking back, here’s 10 films that made 2013 a memorable year.

Tang Wong (ตั้งวง)

What’s it about? Four Bangkok schoolboys pray for success in their various endeavours at a spirit house. In return, they must fulfil a vow by performing a traditional Thai dance, which they know little about. A transgender dancer tries to teach them.

Who directed it? Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, the veteran screenwriter-director who made his debut as an “indie” filmmaker last year with the critically acclaimed P-047.

Why’s it good? Tang Wong has a refreshingly pessimistic view of contemporary Thai culture. While other teen comedies bubble with idealised optimism, Tang Wong doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality that cultural traditions are in a constant state of flux, influenced by technological advances and globalisation. Kongdej keeps things grounded, setting the action in a lower-middle-class apartment block, where life is an uphill struggle. And Thailand’s political problems also colour Tang Wong, with the backdrop being the 2010 red-shirt anti-government protests.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

What’s it about? The tweets of a schoolgirl, 410 of them to be exact, are fashioned into a teen comedy following the ups-and-downs of Mary and her best friend as they work on their school’s yearbook.

Who directed it? Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, who continues to innovate after making his feature debut last year with the award-winning experimental romance 36. Mary was a low-budget project generated out of the Venice Biennale College – Cinema.

Why’s it good? On an ultra-low budget and with an interesting cast of characters, Nawapol has succeeded in creating a fantastically entertaining and weird little world out of snippets from our fleeting digital conscious.

Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong)

What’s it about? The Cambodian border conflict around Preah Vihear temple is the main focus for this documentary that also surveys the colour-coded political divide in Thai society.

Who directed it? Nontawat Numbenchapol, making his feature debut with “Boundary”, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Why’s it good? With an artful, observational style, Nontawat takes a snapshot of a timely, complex issue. Though it was well received in Berlin, at home the director had to overcome censorship issues, and his film was initially banned when he sought a commercial release. After an outcry in the social media and coverage in the international press, the ban was rescinded. But the film’s political subject caused Thailand’s Major Cineplex movie chain to have second thoughts about showing it. In the end, Nontawat had to make his limited release even more limited as he hired out the theatres and sold tickets himself, shepherding the film around the country.

Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย)

What’s it about? Filmmakers chronicle their efforts to appeal against the banning of their controversial and politically tinged Macbeth adaptation, Shakespeare Must Die.

Who directed it? Ing K., with producer Manit Sriwanichpoom.

Why’s it good? While on the long side, as Ing’s films tend to be, Censor Must Die is an important and instructive look at the Culture Ministry and its role in administering a brand-new bureaucracy – the film-ratings board that was created by the Film and Video Act of 2007-08. Censor Must Die hasn’t been banned, but in a paradoxically non-committal ruling, the censors said “Censor Must Die is exempted from the film censorship process ... because [it is] made ... from events that really happened.” However, it wasn’t given a rating that would clear it for commercial release. nonetheless, Ing and Manit gave it a limited one-week run in Bangkok at a new private cinema, the Friese-Greene Club, which opened this past year.

Prachatiptai (ประชาธิป'ไทย), a.k.a. Paradoxocracy

What’s it about? Featuring interviews with academics and activists, this documentary covers the history and paradoxes of Thai democracy since the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Who directed it? Well-known filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang and former A day magazine editor Pasakorn Pramoolwong. Thailand’s continuing political crisis spurred them into finding out for themselves why things are so messed up and confusing.

Why’s it good? In a relaxed, conversational tone, academics and activists patiently explain the history of Thai politics and the cycle of coups replacing democratic rule with dictatorships. The film was censored, with a few words about the monarchy muted out. But it was given a G rating and cleared for commercial release. However, during the film’s initial run at Paragon and Esplanade, the theatre chain removed it from the schedule, making it difficult for viewers to determine if it was indeed showing. Happily, there was a later limited release at House cinema, and now it’s out English-subtitled DVD.

Last Summer (ฤดูร้อนนั้น ฉันตาย, Rue Doo Ron Nan Chan Tai)

What’s it about? High-schoolers are haunted by the spirit of a classmate, a star pupil who died during a weekend of partying at a beach house.

Who directed it? Kittithat Tangsirikit, Sittisiri Mongkolsiri and Saranyoo Jiralak each helmed different segments of the story, which was scripted by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. The first release by a new film shingle, Talent One, producers included industry veterans Rutaiwan Wongsirasawad and Pimpaka Towira, with further behind-the-scenes help from indie film figures Aditya Assarat, Soros Sukhum and Pawas Sawatchaiyamet as line producers.

Why’s it good? Indie filmmakers who are better known for their slow-moving arthouse dramas proved they can craft a cracking horror thriller that’s as slick as anything put out by the big studios. It’s also notable for strong performances by the two more-experienced of the young cast, actor Jirayu La-ongmanee and actress Sutatta Udomsilp. They usually play more-wholesome teens, so it’s refreshing to see them rise to the occasion of portraying darker, flawed characters.

Pee Mak Phra Khanong (พี่มาก...พระโขนง)

What’s it about? It’s the classic ghost story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong – husband Mak returns home from war to his loving wife and newborn child. But he doesn’t know that she’s a ghost, having died giving birth to a stillborn baby. The tragic tale is given a comic spin as Mak’s four war bumbling war buddies try in vain to clue him in.

Who directed it? Banjong Pisanthanakun, co-director of the GTH studio’s immensely successful horror thrillers Shutter and Alone and director of the hit romantic comedy Hello Stranger.

Why’s it good? Banjong and his co-writer Chantavit Thanasevi put a fresh twist on a ghost legend that’s been told dozens of times already. It’s the usual historic setting of a hundred or so years ago and hits all the expected story beats, but is updated with contemporary comic references. But more than being hilarious, there’s real heart and sweetness to the romance, which is lifted by appealing turns from Mario Maurer as Mak and especially Davika Hoorne as the powerful ghost wife. They are well supported by Nattapong Chartpong, Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk, Pongsatorn Jongwilak and Wiwat Kongrasri, the quartet of actors from Banjong’s comedic contributions to GTH’s Phobia horror compilations. Further polish on the production comes from art director Arkadech Keawkotr, who also was the set designer on Nonzee Nimibutr’s version of the tale, 1999’s Nang Nak. Everything clicked into place and Pee Mak proved to be a winner at the box office, earning more than Bt500 million to beat the 12-year-old record held by Suriyothai. GTH estimates it’s earned more than Bt1 billion, which may or may not include revenue from releases all across Southeast Asia and other Asian territories.

Thongsuk 13 (ทองสุก 13, a.k.a. Long Weekend)

What’s it about? Teenagers head to an isolated island for a weekend of merriment. They are met there by the disabled classmate they hoped to leave behind, and the savant is in turn possessed by evil spirits who pick the kids off one by one.

Who directed it? Taweewat Wantha, director of the genre-blending zombie comedy SARS Wars and the sci-fi comedy The Sperm. Long Weekend was the first release from a new company called Wave Pictures, with veteran producer Adirek “Uncle” Watleela among the guiding hands.

Why’s it good? Taweewat’s trademark outrageousness is toned down only a bit for this slasher-thriller. Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, they do. In a memorable turn, Cheeranat Yusanon emerges as the film’s heroine, and it’s her character’s lifelong friendship with the disabled kid Thongsuk (Chinnawut Intarakusin) that gives the story emotional depth.

The Cop (สารวัตรหมาบ้า, Sarawat Maa Baa)

What’s it about? A hard-driving, hard-drinking “mad dog” cop investigates the murder of a government minister’s daughter while a figure from his past aims to cause him more trouble.

Who directed it? MR Chalermchatri “Adam” Yukol, son of veteran director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, making his feature directorial debut.

Why’s it good? In a year dominated by horror, horror-comedies, documentaries and indie dramas, “The Cop” provided a welcome change of pace with gritty police-procedural action. Somchai Khemklad is perfectly cast as the hot-headed police inspector, supported by veteran comedian Note Chernyim as his cooler-headed world-weary partner and fresh-faced actress Krystal Vee as a rookie lieutenant with a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, The Cop received only minimal marketing support and didn’t exactly set the box office on fire – I’m not even sure it registered on the charts. Hopefully that won’t deter Adam from directing another feature.

Oh! My Ghost Khun Phee Chuay (โอ้! มายโกสต์ คุณผีช่วย a.k.a. OMG!)

What’s it about? A talent-show contestant (Sudarat “Tukky” Butrprom) gets hair extensions and is haunted by the spirit of her new hair’s former owner – a dancer-model (Cris Horwang) who seeks Tukky’s help in patching things up with her old boyfriend.

Who directed it? Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon, co-director of the 2011 cult-hit teen romance First Love and director of last year’s romantic comedy 30+ Singles on Sale.

Why’s it good? The initial appeal is in the pairing of diminutive cherub Tukky with the lithe and long-limbed actress-model Cris. Lifted by the unlikely pair’s easy chemistry, the ghost comedy sticks to a script that clears the way for Tukky to show off her considerable comic talents, playing an essentially ordinary northeasterner trying to make it in Bangkok.

See also:

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Funds from Rotterdam for Anocha and Apichatpong

Projects by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong are among the 14 supported in the fall 2013 round of the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Both are being backed for script and project development.

Apichatpong's is Cemetery of Kings, his first feature-length film since 2010's Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Cemetery of Kings is about soldiers coming down with "sleeping sickness". It was previously pitched at last January's Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum.

Meanwhile, Anocha is seeking to move ahead with her sophomore directorial feature, By the Time It Gets Dark, which was previously supported by the Prince Claus Fund of CineMart in Rotterdam. It will be her followup to 2009's Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Jao Nok Krajok). By the Time It Gets Dark deals with a young woman in a factory who embarks on a quest to find her freedom.

(Via Film Business Asia)

Friday, December 13, 2013

LPFF 2013 reviews: Mater Dolorosa, What Isn't There, Rising Sun on the Horizon, Contradiction

Mater Dolorosa – Film blogger Oggs Cruz, the Philippines' Motion Picture Ambassador to the Luang Prabang Film Festival, introduced this screening, noting that director Adolfo Alix Jr. has made something like seven feature films in just the past year or so. At least that's what I thought he said. I couldn't hear for all the jaws dropping to the floor.

Alix is a practicing filmmaker, and with each film, he gets better. Mater Dolorosa, a Cinema One entry, is his Godfather. No, really, it's The Godfather, only instead of Al Pacino or Marlon Brando you have Gina Alajar as the classic domineering matriarch and head of a small crime family in Manila.

Two sons are in the business, with the more clean-cut of the two running a "carnapping" ring and the tattooed and thuggish other one running dope and gambling. A daughter is a police officer and early warning system. And a third son is the family's great hope – he's a medical student.

It's Christmastime, the most wonderful time to set a Filipino film, and the mother is trying to herd her family together for the holidays. Meanwhile, the mayor has promised a war on crime for the new year. But behind it all is a rival gangster.

The mother, a widow of a gangster who took over her man's rackets after he was gunned down beside her, works hard to keep the status quo and the peace. She uses money to smooth things over. When her husband's drug-addicted mistress stops by, there's no screaming. The mother just hands over a stack of cash and asks when the other kids can see their brother. And when the tattooed hothead younger brother beats up the rival gangsters' henchman, the mother pays him off too, and tells him to get out of town. The two sons want blood, but the mother will have none of it.

The New Year's holiday is the backdrop for the climax. The sense of dread is palpable as the family sits down to dinner while outside the streets are filled folks milling around carrying sparklers and fireworks are going off. Then the real fireworks start to happen. It's all made eerier because it's in black-and-white – Lav Diaz style. It really is The Godfather, but is perhaps even more remarkable in that it's done on an indie budget and in under 90 minutes. (4/5)

What Isn't There (Ang Nawawala) – Marie Jamora directs this lively portrait of well-off hipsters in contemporary Manila. It channels in the preciousness of Wes Anderson, though not overly cloying, and also recalls the movies of Cameron Crowe (thanks to wall-to-wall music) and John Hughes (thanks to its star Dominic Roco looking almost like Ferris Bueller).

Roco is Gibson, a 20-year-old overseas student who has returned home to Manila for the holidays. He's met at the airport by his worrywart sister, and he can't get a word in edgewise because she doesn't stop yammering.

Then Gibson arrives home and greets the rest of his family – youngest sister and parental favorite Promise, doofus sweatervest-and-bowtie-wearing dad (Boboy Garovillo) and cold, distant mother (Dawn Zulueta). And Gibson doesn't say a single word. "Still not talking Gibson?" says mom.

He goes to his room, pulls out an old lunchbox and rolls a joint. And then he starts talking to his alter ego (Felix Roco), a more fashionable, slightly less dorky version of himself. Turns out it's his twin brother Jaime, who died 10 years before in an accident, and Gibson hasn't said a word since. He instead takes in all he sees with his ever-present little digital camera.

Somehow, even though he doesn't speak, he manages to have at least one friend, the lovable goofball Teddy (Alchris Galura), who introduces Gibson to the latest swinging music scene in Manila. And there he meets Enid (Annicka Dolonius), a Ramona Flowers-like vision who forms an instant bond with Gibson. They have similar tastes in music and movies. "I'm thinking of dressing as Margo Tenenbaum for New Year's," she tells Gibson, her hipster cred zooming off the charts. He writes on his smartphone notepad that he and Teddy are going as Thompson and Thomson, and she should be Tintin.

It goes on like this. Gibson clamps on his oversized headphones, leans back and closes his eyes while he listens to a vintage nugget of Filipino pop, on vinyl, of course. And I am not sure if its adorable or annoying or adorably annoying. There's a heart and sweetness to it all, and that's what's appealing. (4/5)

Rising Sun on the Horizon – I fell asleep during this old-fashioned social-problem drama from Myanmar. But, with exposition telegraphed by sledgehammers, I don't feel I missed out.

It's about a pair of young fishermen in a Coral Islands village. They are happy as heck, hauling their catch from the sea and spearing rays with their tridents. U Bant Nant, his sweetheart Hla Htaik Khaung and his best friend, her brother, all skip along merrily on the beach.

But then gangsters come to the island try to pay for the fishermen's catch with opium. One of the guys, Michael, wants to make Hla Htaik Khaung his own. U Bant Nant vows to stand up against them and improve the lives of the villagers. Salvation comes through knowledge when an elderly professor comes to visit and takes U Bant Nant under his wing.

With the sun reflecting off the sea, a felt drowsy and drifted off. When I awoke, the simple, long-haired fisherman U Bant Nant was now a bespectacled businessman and head of a fish-canning empire. He is no longer U Bant Nant.

He heads back to the island. Hla Htaik Khaung has died. But there's a young girl who looks just like her skipping merrily about. And those gangsters are still around, making trouble. Fisticuffs and sound effects ensue, leading up to an explosion. (3/5)

Contradiction (Kontradiksi) – This moody Malaysian drama was the closing film, and was an edgy choice for the outdoor screen, given the depictions of violence and drug use in contemporary Kuala Lumpur.

Directed by Nazri M. Annuar and Aloy Paradoks, it's in two segments, with interlinking stories about different women.

First up is Mira, an artist who has broken up with her gangster boyfriend. Then another guy, a cohort of her ex's, starts hanging around. And Mira is dragged down. A finger is chopped off. And someone ends up dead.

The other story, which is more positive, is about Fynn, a young musician who earns a living busking on the street next to a hamburger cart. She develops a crush on a customer at the hamburger stand, follows him to his apartment building and leaves a note in his mailbox. That's the only way they communicate. Eventually the guy figures out who his mysterious admirerer is, but nothing comes of it. Fynn has more going on. (3/5)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

IFFR 2014: Concrete Clouds among early selection for Tiger Awards

Having been supported by the festival's Hubert Bals Fund, it's no surprise that Lee Chatametikool's debut feature Concrete Clouds is among the "early Tigers" selected for competition in next year's International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Here's a teaser description from the IFFR:

Father jumps off the roof. The economy caves in. The childhood sweetheart remains out of reach. The nice girl next-door slides into prostitution. The elder brother knows better. The younger brother has no idea. Only a very special filmmaker could turn that into something light-footed and moving. Lee Chatametikool has worked as an editor and producer in New York and Bangkok. He edited films for emerging Thai directors including Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Concrete Clouds (2013) is his first feature film as a director.

Other early entries are Happily Ever After by Tatjana Bozic (Croatia), Vergiss mein ich (Lose My Self) by Jan Schomburg (Germany), Riocorrente (Riverrun) by Paulo Sacramento (Brazil) and Anatomy of a Paper Clip by Akira Ikeda (Japan, 2013).

Concrete Clouds makes its European premiere in Rotterdam, following its world premiere in Busan.

A Thai release is being eyed for sometime early next year.

LPFF 2013 reviews: Grean Fictions, What's So Special About Rina?, Huk Aum Lum

Grean Fictions (เกรียนฟิคชั่น) – I somehow missed Grean Fictions when it was in Thai cinemas back in April. But I think it was probably better seen on the big outdoor screen in Luang Prabang than in some random cookie-cutter Bangkok mall multiplex.

The latest opus from Love of Siam director Chookiat Sakveerakul, Grean Fictions (the title is probably best translated as "punk fiction") is the sprawling, shaggy-dog tale of Chiang Mai schoolboys who upload their prank-filled phone-cam video clips to YouTube. But with a 133-minute running time that covers three years, there is much, much more to the story than that, with the focus on Chookiat's frequent touchstones of friendship, family ties and belonging. It was marketed as a teen comedy, but isn't.

The story centers on Tee and his crush on the school's prettiest, most virtuous girl, Ploydao, a diva in the drama club. A conflict between them develops when they act in one production. Later, Tee is betrayed, and feels angry. His home life is dysfunctional, and he runs away, falling asleep on the train and ending up in Pattaya with no money and no phone. He is taken under the wing of Mone, a biker dude with dyed blond hair. He brings Tee to dance with him in a Pattaya male strip club. Later, they join a comedy troupe. As the months pass, Tee's friends from school wonder what has happened to him.

The cast is particularly strong, with Pattadon "Fiat" Jan-ngern making an endearing screen debut as Tee and Kittisak "Jack" Patomburana as Mone. Wanida "Gybzy" Termthanaporn and her cut-off jeans shorts are lovingly captured. She's the wonderfully conflicted character Tip whose role in the film is hard to describe without ruining it for you. And Boriboon Chanreuang is a fun as the boys' goofball teacher who runs the film club. He has a thing for Tip that never really goes anywhere. Also, keep your eyes out for a barely recognizable Love of Siam star Witwisit Hiranyawongkul in a scene-stealing unbilled turn as a Pattaya gangster.

Thanks to the kids being in the drama club, there are many musical sequences, with the multi-talented Chookiat and his Studio Commuan team again showing off their songwriting abilities. They include Snow White and the Huntsman: The Musical. Given the popularity of Thai musical theater in Bangkok, perhaps Chookiat ought to consider making it for real. (4/5)

What's So Special About Rina? (Ada Apa Dengan Rina) – Brunei, an oil-rich Muslim-majority sultanate on the island of Borneo, is little known to folks in the film circle because very few films have been made there. What's So Special About Rina? should change that.  Directed by Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani and produced by Harlif's wife Nurain Abdullah (she's actually Thai, originally hailing from Khon Kaen), What's So Special About Rina? firmly puts Brunei on the filmmaking map, allowing the Luang Prabang Film Festival to have a historic first with entries from all 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It's the first feature film from Brunei since 1968 and the very first in the native Brunei Malay dialect.

Another thing that most folks probably don't know about Brunei is that Bruneians can be funny, and What's So Special About Rina? is flat-out hilarious. The stylish romance comedy centers on a sad-sack advertising man named Hakim (Syukri Mahari) and his ladies-man roommate Faisal (an irrepressible Tauffek Ilyas). Hitting 30, the pressure is on Hakim to finally get married. Man-on-the-street interviews (okay, there are nice Muslim ladies as well) affirm what everyone in Brunei society thinks. "Oh, you're 30? When are you going to get a nice girl and settle down", etc., etc.

Shaven-headed smoothie Faisal, ever the player, somehow convinces Hakim that he is destined to marry a woman named Rina. And wouldn't you know it, the next day, a new marketing manager joins the firm. Her name? It's Rina (Dayangku Moniri Pengiran Mohiddin), of course. The pair do end up working closely together, and it seems Hakim's destiny will come true.

Meanwhile Faisal falls for a pretty waitress named Trini but must compete for her affections with a rotund Elvis impersonator. This leads to the two men competing on a TV talent show that's a showcase for Faisal's talent as a dangdut singer. That's the popular Indian-flavored Indonesian music genre that gets toes tapping.

Reflective moments lead to many fantasy asides, and at times it's hard to tell fantasy from reality. There are also animated flourishes, such as Rina blowing cartoon flowers. Another scene has a guy's eyes popping out of a pair of binoculars, Tex Avery style.

Harliff Haji Mohamad says his biggest influence was perhaps the Farrelly Brothers' comedy There's Something About Mary, and the riotous humor is much the same, though obviously without all the gross-out stuff. He and his wife run Regal Blue Production and have been working in television for more than 10 years. Having tackled their first feature film, and made fans with an easygoing comedy, they next plan to to do drama. And they say other filmmakers in Brunei have been encouraged by the success of Rina, which had sell-out runs in local cinemas and won an award at an Asean film fest earlier this year. (4/5)

Huk Aum Lum – Commercial filmmaking has only recently emerged in Laos, and the results have been hit and miss with mostly misses. But one outfit that has demonstrated its reliability to produce quality work is the young folks behind Lao New Wave Cinema.

The enjoyable country comedy Huk Aum Lum is their second feature. It follows Anysay Keola's At the Horizon, the first Lao thriller.

Directed by Phanumad Disattha (Anysay is still behind the scenes, taking a credit as editor), Huk Aum Lum follows the exploits of a famous singer (Athisak "Sacky" Ratanawong) when he returns to his rural home village and tries to woo back his old girlfriend (Phailinda Philavan). It's the kind of hayseed humor that Lao people have been laughing at for years, only they were all Thai films from the likes of Isaan comedians Mum Jokmok and Thep Pho-ngam. With Huk AUm Lum, everything clicks into place, with polished production values.

Huk Aum Lum has proven be a great experiment for Lao New Wave Cinema. After its run in Laos' one or two working cinemas, they tried a number of distribution platforms. It's been a huge challenge because Laos has no official film distribution channels – the only way to buy film DVDs is from pirate dealers. They released a low-cost DVD in a plastic sleeve just like the pirated discs, but vendors balked because the price was slightly higher than pirated movies. So they had to put it in a plastic DVD box. There's also a special edition DVD, with various extras. They even did a Vimeo on Demand release, hoping to capture the overseas Laos market, but it fared poorly. Turns out the older Lao overseas folk are more used to old-fashioned soap operas, and younger Laotian expats have been so thoroughly Westernized they weren't buying either. Huk Aum Lum was also released in Thailand, but wasn't heavily marketed, so it didn't do as well as they expected. (3/5)

Monday, December 9, 2013

LPFF 2013 reviews: I Love Souvanh, Ah Boys to Men, A River Changes Course

I Love Souvanh – The opening film was supposed to be Big Heart, about a young boxer and his romance with a young woman. But it wasn't ready for its world premiere on the opening night of the 2013 Luang Prabang Film Festival. So the program was switched to another world premiere, I Love Souvanh, a romantic drama about a young Japanese businessman who is sent to Laos to buy textiles. Skeptical at first of being in a "less developed" country, he falls in love with a local lass, a designer at a small company that weaves traditional fabric, and is charmed by the local culture.

Produced and directed by Bounthong Nhotmankhong, a managing director of a textile handicraft company in Savannakhet, I Love Souvanh is a throwback to the propaganda films that extolled the virtues of hard work and traditional culture. It's a chore to sit through, especially because of the sound, which is brutal. If car doors aren't being slammed right in your ear, there's an endless wash of Lao classical music to drown everything out. It's beautifully shot though, and it better be, since it's also a tourism reel for Savannakhet. The Japanese man is shown the various sights around the Mekong River city, which is joined to its Thai neighbor Mukdahan by the Second Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge. Of course praises are also sung in the name of Savannaket's most famous native, the late former prime minister Kaysone Phomvihane.

The camera-toting Youki is quickly sized up by three young ladies at the textile shop, and two of them are flirty. But of course he's immediately drawn to the shy and standoffish one, Phim. She storms off in a huff when he picks up a piece of fabric she's working on to examine the detail. Turns out it was a skirt, and it's improper for a man to touch the hem of a good Lao lady's garment, even if she's not wearing it.

The kindly uncle who runs the textile firm takes Youki under his wing. They get stinko on the local brew. Hah hah. Drinking and driving is funny.

But eventually Youki and Phim end up working closely together and much screen time is devoted to her prattling on about the natural and organic ways of Lao cotton and textile production (Thai fabrics have too much chemicals, we're told early on), as well as the Lao work ethic and how wonderful in general life is in Laos.

With sales pitch like that, Youki decides to stay on a bit longer and learn the ways of the Lao people. And eventually an actual story starts to happen when the truck Phim is riding in gets stuck in the mud. It's the most authentic moment in the whole movie. (2/5)

Ah Boys to Men – Singaporean director Jack Neo can do whatever he wants. He can even blow city landmarks to hell, lay waste to Housing Development Board flats and kill thousands of his countrymen. It's all CGI of course, involving a slick Top Gun style air attack by a shadowy invasion force, which also has troops on the ground, in a Black Hawk Down urban warfare scenario, shooting and killing civilians. Good thing Singapore has its own formidable military, with well-trained fighter pilots, tanks and seasoned infantry, ready to sacrifice their lives.

It's the fantasy opening to Ah Boys to Men, a comedy about young men doing their National Service bit. It's like Full Metal Jacket, but with more comedy and without all the swearing and lethal insanity.

The main focus is on a hot-headed rich kid who is angry about being separated from his girlfriend. He'll do anything to get back with her, even play sick. Along the way, a few old-timers remember their time in the National Service, and their flashback basic training scenes are among the most entertaining.

Through his comedy on the National Service, Neo is able to portray the vast tableaux of Singaporean culture. He even works in a way to comment on the news scandal a couple years or so ago in Singapore, when a family's Filipina maid was photographed carrying a young soldier's backpack, running up behind the uniformed man. Another fun fantasy bit has the boy's mothers as soldiers, who send their eager-to-please Filipina maid running ahead to see if the coast is clear. It's not.

In the end, the rich kid buckles down and concentrates on his training. "Singapore has no enemies," he says. "The enemy is us." (3/5)

A River Changes Course – An opposite bookend to I Love Souvanh, cinematographer-director Kalyanee Mam (Inside Job) paints a dire portrait of her native Cambodia, where the traditional rural ways of living off the land are quickly being outpaced by modernity and environmental degradation. The focus is on three families – subsistence farmers in the forests of northern Cambodia, a Muslim teenage boy working with his father on small fishing boat on the Tonle Sap lake, and a young woman on a rice farm in the central plains near Phnom Penh.

For the forest dwellers, the threat is logging, and all around their property, the trees have been cleared to make way for other plantations. On the Tonle Sap, the fish are scarce and it's no longer possible earn a living. And for the rice farmers, the family makes the tough decision to send the daughter to Phnom Penh to work in the garment factories, where she in fact earns a pittance and can't really afford to send as much back home as everyone hoped. The farm girl remarks that she feels like she's been split in two, having yearned for city life but wanting to be back in the country and belonging to neither place.

The fisherman's family decides that it too must send a child away in order to have one less mouth to feed, and so the oldest boy is shipped off to a Chinese casava plantation. His story is especially sad, and he starts to tear up when the filmmaker presses him about what he said three years before when she started her project. He wanted to go to school, get a degree, get a good job and get his family off the water and onto a piece of land. Now he likely never will.

And the forest family finally bows to mechanization, buying a small rice mill. The father, who is always seen weaving baskets, looks the saddest, even though it appears he no longer has to spend hours on end as a basketmaker.

An honest, unflinching portrait of modern Cambodia's rampant, unchecked development, it won an award at Sundance and other fests, and was such a hit in Luang Prabang, the 40-seat screening room was filled to the gills and another screening was added. (4/5)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wanna sing? Let Chang show you how

While views of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bangkok crime flick Only God Forgives have been wildly polarized (though The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw really liked it) most folks will agree that the highlight of the movie was Vithaya Pansringarm's superpowered avenging angel, the sword-wielding former police office Chang.

And the soundtrack by Winding Refn's frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez also gets high marks.

Here then are the two best parts of the movie together – Chang singing karaoke (embedded above).

It's actually a song by the '90s Thai pop group Proud,  "Tur Kue Kwan Fun" ("You Are My Dream").

But Vithaya himself pops up on another track from the film, "Can't Forget" ("Mai Luem"), a chestnut popularized by luk thung superstar Suraphol Sombatcharoen and featured in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Monrak Transistor.

Vithaya will next be seen in Tom Waller's Chavoret: The Last Executioner, which is in production right now.

Only God Forgives hit Blu-ray in the U.K. this past week. It's also out in the States.

(Via Deknang)

Review: Oh! My Ghost Khun Pee Chuay (OMG!)

  • Directed by Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon
  • Starring Sudarat Butrprom, Cris Horwang, Anusorn Maneeted
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 28, 2013; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

A case of haunted hair extensions is played up for laughs in Oh! My Ghost Khun Phee Chuay (โอ้! มายโกสต์ คุณผีช่วย a.k.a. OMG!), a comedy that is lifted by the considerable talent of Sudarat "Tukky" Butrprom, her easy chemistry with co-star Cris Horwang and slick production under the direction of Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon (First Love, 30+ Singles on Sale).

Tukky is Kitty, a young Northeasterner in Bangkok who is struggling to break into showbiz. She auditions for all the TV talent shows, only to be turned down at every turn. To earn a living, she wears a lizard costume as a mascot to a trio of campily catty "pretties" – presentation models in the bathtub section of a home-improvement store. Kitty desperately wants to show she is every bit as glamorous and talented as the plastic, botoxed models and so she decides to get hair extensions.

But soon after, she has the feeling that she is being followed, and it turns out she's right – it's a pale-faced ghost of a woman with bright red lips, played by none other than Cris Horwang.

Kitty, desperate to find out why she's being haunted, seeks help from a bar owner (Kom Chaunchuan) who dabbles as a spirit medium. Turns out the ghost is Bee, a model, actress and dancer whose soul is somehow been left to wander, but she's become attached to Kitty because the hair extensions are from her head.

After Kitty's initial shock wears off, she lays down a few ground rules, such as not appearing scarily pale and generally refraining from being frightening. Which is a genius move, because it would be insane to have cute Cris Horwang in your movie and have her be in scary ghost makeup the whole time.

Bee wants Kitty to contact her fashion-photographer boyfriend (Anusorn "Yong Armchair" Maneeted) and somehow patch things up with him because the last time they were together they fought because he wanted her to cut her hair.

So, while trying to devise ways to get close to the man, the gals bond, and dancer Bee, whose speciality is bungee-assisted ballet, helps Kitty come up with an act for her next talent show audition.

This is fun stuff, with Bee "inhabiting" Kitty's body. Here's where Tukky's gift for physical comedy really comes through, with the diminuitive round-figured actress somehow able to telegraph the graceful moves of the lithe, long-limbed Chinese-Thai Bangkokian Cris.

Eventually there's a plot twist that leads to shenanigans in a hospital. Charoenporn "Kotee" Onlanmai is brought aboard as an undertaker who is part of the solution, but he gets sidetracked during an unplanned detour to the cosmetic surgery department and comes back with breast implants (they're actually his real man boobs). Also, Tukky dresses as a nurse, which is more fun.

There's probably a message in Oh! My Ghost about how folks shouldn't feel limited because of their body type, etc., but perhaps I'm overthinking it. Quite simply, it's an enjoyable, smartly scripted comedy that clicks right along and lets Tukky shine.

Review: Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laa

  • Directed by Pornchai "Gun" Hongrattaporn
  • Starring Paowalee Pornpimon, Pai Pongsathorn, Sunaree Ratchasima, Apaporn Nakhon Sawan, Ekachai Sriwichai
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 28, 2013; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

The outfits of the young stars are skimpier and the waistlines of the older stars have expanded, but the music of luk thung has stayed more or less the same since the last all-star luk thung movie, 2002's Mon Pleng Luk Thung FM (มนต์เพลงลูกทุ่งเอฟเอ็ม, a.k.a. Hoedown Showdown).

Unfortunately there isn't actually much music in this sort-of sequel, Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan (รวมพลคนลูกทุ่งเงินล้าน). The earlier movie, about folks from various walks of life coming together for a luk thung singing contest, turned into a virtual concert film, with song after song. This new offering skimps on songs, with just one proper musical number during the film. If you want more, you have to wait for the end credits.

So without songs, we're left mainly with the lame comic antics of rotund luk thung diva Apaporn Nakhon Sawan, whose screaming matches with rival diva Sunaree Ratchasima chew up a lot of screen time.

The premise is that singers from the first film, now all big stars, are brought together by the first film's singing monk for a merit-making trip at his down-at-the-heels forest temple. It literally takes forever to get going, as the singers' tour bus moves in fits and starts as it struggles to leave Bangkok.

And, like the first film, the "masked bandit" (Ekachai Sriwichai) with the treble clef tattoo on his wrist has returned to make trouble. The budget for this new effort by M Pictures was apparently not enough to license popular songs or give the bandit actual Mission: Impossible-style rubber masks like the first film. Here, director Gun Hongrattaporn makes due with a quick cut when the bandit assumes a new identity. He's wired the bus up with a bomb like in Speed.

The ghosts of Mae Nak and doomed Japanese officer Kobori from Koo Kam show up, as does Dracula (Swedish luk thung singer Jonas Anderson), though I'm not sure why. And the comic cops from the first film emerge from the bus' toilet, and their appearance was sickening.

Somehow they make it to temple, put on a temple fair and perform that one song. There's muay Thai from a girl fighter, just to get a bit of action in. Then they end up in Buddhist hell, which is appropriate because this stinker of a musical comedy is hell.

If there's one redeeming thing about Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan it's young singer Paowalee Pornpimon, the perky performer who made her film debut playing doomed superstar Pumpuang Duanchan in last year's biopic The Moon. Appealing as ever, she's given the one musical number, a duet with young heartthrob male singer Pai Pongsathorn. And there's a bit of romantic wrangling as a triangle forms between Paowalee, Pai and short-skirted star Yinglee.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

  • Written and directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
  • Produced by Aditya Assarat
  • Starring Patcha Poonpiriya, Chonnikan Netjui, Krissada Sukosol Clapp
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 28, 2013
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

It's the world's first Twitter movie – Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy – a fancifully weird comedy about teenage angst by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

The inventive writer-director took 410 consecutive messages from the Twitter feed of a Thai schoolgirl named Mary Malony (@marylony) and created a story around them.

The result is a dense narrative that is repetitive and sometimes hard to follow. Mary’s tweets are displayed as intertitles, accompanied by the click of a computer keyboard’s return key. Sometimes they will quickly be followed by Mary pretty much repeating the message. Other times, what’s happening will be completely different.
And if you’re stuck reading the subtitles, good luck at keeping up.

But Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is the kind of movie you might want to see two or three times, just to get feel of it.

And it’s fun to watch, for Nawapol has succeeded in creating an intriguingly bizarre world, a place that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.

Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) is an often-depressed, accident-prone high-school senior. She’s constantly in need of encouragement from her more-level-headed friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui). They are assigned to work on the school’s yearbook.

Their boarding school seems to be in a warehouse, which is stacked up with old computers and dusty school desks. They walk to school along a railroad track, often stopping along the way to hang out by a pancake vendor, whose cart is right by the tracks.

It’s the same kind of insular universe Wes Anderson creates for his movies, and of those, Mary is most like the schoolboy comedy Rushmore. And the comic-strip nature of a film formed by 140-word snippets also reminds me of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts and by extension the Charlie Brown animated TV specials.

The cartoon-character feel is enhanced by the girl’s uniforms – they wear the same 1983 school sport day T-shirts and red shorts everyday, just like Charlie Brown has his zigzag shirt.

The school’s faculty are a bunch of oddballs, especially their first yearbook sponsor, played by SEA Write Award-winning author Prabda Yoon. His nose is bandaged for some reason. And then he abruptly announces he’s quitting to become a movie stuntman.

His replacement is the quietly intimidating singer-actor Krissada “Noi” Sukosol Clapp, whose awkward intensity is harnessed for laughs. He’s always invoking the name of the school’s headmaster, a man who never actually appears, but is filling the classrooms with the canned coffee and soup his factory makes and forms the basis of the student body’s diet. His picture is on the cans. Turns out it’s Noi’s brother, musician Sukie.

Several Thai indie film figures make cameo appearances, including director Kongdej Jatruranrasmee as a drama coach. Veteran filmmakers Pimpaka Towira and Boonsong Nakphoo are Mary’s mother and father. Musician, photographer and actor Apichai “Lek” Tragoolpadetgrai has a crucial role as head of the audio-visual department. And there’s a chuckle to be had when producer Soros Sukhum’s name comes up in the credits – he plays “Uncle Boonmee”.

Seems relevant at this point to mention the teachers’ uniforms look like something a prison guard or security guard might wear.

Mary’s tweets are often a launchpad for fantasy sequences, including a whirlwind trip to Paris, which mopey Mary sleeps through because she is so jetlagged.

Other moments are repeated, such as Mary’s insistence at taking photographs only during the “magic hour” when the light is just right at the end of the day at a certain location of the school’s roof.

It seems that the yearbook will never be finished.

There’s Mary’s fleeting romance with a boy who hangs around the pancake cart.

But mostly the stories are about the friendship between Mary and Suri. Until one day Suri is no longer there. Her absence leaves Mary rudderless, and the story also suffers a bit because Suri isn’t there to propel things along.

Nawapol made his feature directorial debut last year with 36, an experimental effort that constructed a story out of 36 static camera setups with a story that involved a movie location scout losing her digital images when a hard-drive fails. She then tries to reconstruct the memories of those photos. It shared Busan’s Currents Prize in 2012, and won praise for creating a new cinematic language.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy continues that experiment in creating new ways to tell cinematic stories out of our fleeting, digital consciousness. It’s much more complex than the stripped down 36, and also almost twice as long, running 127 minutes.

But, as it turns out, that’s exactly the time needed to make a story out of 410 tweets.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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Brunei enters the picture at Luang Prabang Film Festival

In a historic first, all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be represented at next weekend’s Luang Prabang Film Festival, which has completed its schedule.

With all the other Asean countries involved in filmmaking – Laos stepped up production in just the past few years – only Brunei has been left out of the spotlight.

But now the sultanate on the island of Borneo has produced its first feature film since 1968 – Ada Apa Dengan Rina, aka What’s So Special About Rina?

“This is the first time we have ever been able to showcase films from all of the Asean countries, as Brunei never had anything to submit,” festival director Gabriel Kuperman says.

Rina, the first feature in the Brunei Malay dialect, is a romantic comedy about a 30-year-old man named Faisal who is still searching for his true love. Turns out the perfect girl is a work colleague, but winning Rina’s heart won’t be easy.

Featuring an all-Brunei cast and crew, Ada Apa Dengan Rina was shown Brunei cinemas in February. It also screened at this year’s Asean International Film Festival and Awards in Kuching, Malaysia, and won a special jury prize.

Directed by Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani, it’s among the highlights of the Luang Prabang Film Festival’s screenings at the Amantaka, a five-star hotel that is back as the festival’s daytime venue.

There were persistant technical problems with the daytime screenings last year, but Kuperman says it’ll be better this year with the movies projected from a file on a hard drive that will be looked after by the festival staff. It should be a vast improvement over the previous unreliable method, which involved a balky DVD player attached to a TV and no one around to fix things when it broke, which was often.

What Kuperman is really excited about is the number of filmmakers and celebrities who will be coming to the festival.

“More than half of our feature-length films will have filmmakers in attendance, more than we have ever had,” he says.

Among them will be Thailand’s Chookiat Sakveerakul, who has two films in the fest, the teen comedy Grean Fictions, which is showing in the home of the festival’s now-iconic blue plastic chairs – the big outdoor screen in the 1,000-person-capacity Handicraft Market. It’s where the popular crowd-pleasing films are shown. Meanwhile, Chookiat’s three-segment family drama Home, which covers several thorny topics, will be featured indoors, where the audience is smaller, with around 40 seats.

Joining Chookiat on his Lao sojourn will be his Love of Siam star Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, who also appears in Home, and Kittisak Phatomburana from Home and Grean Fictions.

Chookiat will take part in “Distribution Methods in Southeast Asia”, talking about getting his films out there with Indonesian director Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni, whose documentary Denok and Gareng is featured this year. Others panellists will be Lao director Anysay Keola, Hong Kong film critic Clarence Tsui and Vietnamese producer Tran Thi Bich Ngoc.

Another panel talk will cover a subject that's near and dear to the hearts of Southeast Asian film folk, “Fund-raising for Low-Budget Filmmaking”, with Thailand’s Nontawat Numbenchapol taking part. His Thai-Cambodian border documentary Boundary is another “indoor” movie. Others joining the talk will be Filipino critic Oggs Cruz, Vietnamese director Siu Pham, whose Here ... or There? is showing, Cambodian producer Fatily Sa and Lao filmmaker Vannapone Sittirath.

And Phil Jablon, the American scholar behind the Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, will show his photos and give a talk about the cultural significance of saving what remains of the region’s landmark single-screen cinemas, such as the Scala in Bangkok.

The world premieres of two Lao movies take centerstage at this year’s fest. The boxing drama Big Heart directed by Mattiphob Douangmyxay is the opening film. The other is I Love Savanh by Bounthong Nhotmanhkong, about a Japanese expat falling for a traditional cloth weaver.

Another intriguing title is 13.00 Sunday, a Thai-Lao mystery by Bis Srikasem and Pume Peerabun, about a hospital where deaths occur at exactly an hour after noon on Sundays. Not taking any chances, the festival is screening it outdoors at 9pm on a Tuesday.

Thai films are always a big hit with the Luang Prabang crowd. Among them will be the lively comedy-drama Tang Wong, which will give folks in the Handicraft Market a chance to laugh at how Bangkok schoolboys can’t master a traditional dance. Director Kongdej Jaturanrasamee will be on hand for that, and he’ll take questions after an indoor screening of another of his films, the weird and subversive pyscho-drama P-047.

Another Thai pick for the outdoor screen is Karaoke Girl, with director Visra Vichet-Vadakan on hand to see the response to her hybrid documentary-drama about a young woman caught up in the seedy (but beautifully filmed) world of Bangkok’s hostess bar scene.

In all, there’s 28 features, screening from 10am indoors and then two outdoor shows each night from 7, along with live performances.

If that’s not enough, the festival’s centre offers dozens upon dozens more films, including a “best of” programme from the Vientianale shorts fest and documentaries from Indonesia’s Chopshots. And nearly a dozen more venues around town are also showing films as a sidebar to the fest.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival runs from December 7 to 11. All screenings and activities are free and open to the public. For more details, see or

Also, check out the festival teaser, embedded below.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Pee Mak nominated for best art direction at Asia-Pacific Film Awards

The venerable Asia-Pacific Film Festival, an industry-oriented awards event now in its 56th edition, has announced its nominees for this year, with the GTH ghost comedy Pee Mak the sole nominee from "Bangkok".

It's nominated for art direction by Arkadech Keawkotr.

Others in the category are The Grandmaster from "Hong Kong" and Snowpiercer from "Seoul", along with the Unforgiven remake and Why Don't You Play in Hell from "Tokyo".

Leading the nominations is Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster, with nods in nine out of 12 categories including Best Picture.

Other leading nominees are Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer with seven nods, including best director, and The Lunchbox from "Mumbai", with six nominations, including Best Actress for Nimrat Kaur.

Film Business Asia has more details.

Interestingly, the list of nominees only notes what "city" the films are from, not the "country". Presumably, this is to alleviate the sensitivities of authorities from such places as "Beijing" and "Taipei".

Other nominees from around Southeast Asia include Ilo Ilo from "Singapore" (the city, not the country). It got four nods, including screenplay, best actress for Angeli Bayani (who comes from country where the capital is "Manila") and best supporting actress for Yeo Yeo Yann from "Singapore". What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love from "Jarkarta" [sic], a tuneful coming-of-age romance and social drama, is up for best music.

The Asia-Pacific Film Festival is set for December 13 to 15 in "Macau".

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy rides acclaim into Thai cinemas

Messages from a teenage girl's Twitter stream – 410 consecutive tweets – are adapted for Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, a fancifully weird comedy by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

It's getting a limited release in Thai cinemas this week, going head-to-head with a couple of mainstream Thai studio efforts, the horror comedy Oh! My Ghost Khun Phee Chuay (โอ้! มายโกสต์ คุณผีช่วย, a.k.a. OMG!) and the musical comedy Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan (รวมพลคนลูกทุ่งเงินล้าน).

And while it might not command as many screens as those two major-studio efforts, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy has something neither of them have – positive critical acclaim and at least one major award from the festival circuit.

This week, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy was named Asian Film of the Year by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. The Nation had more on that.

It's a win that adds to the personal triumphs of Mary producer Aditya Assarat, whose wife Yuni Hadi was behind the Golden Horse Awards best feature, Ilo Ilo from Singapore, which scooped three other trophies, including Best New Director for Anthony Chen.

For Nawapol, the acclaim for Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy adds to the accolades he won last year for his experimental feature debut 36, which won the New Currents prize in Busan. And 36 is still winning awards on the festival circuit, most recently the Best Feature Film Screenplay at L'Alternativa A 20 Festival de Cinema Independent in Barcelona. It also took part in the competition at the Three Continents Film Festival, which wrapped up on Tuesday in Nantes, France.

Mary is the quirky story of a mopey, accident-prone high-school student (Patcha Poonpiriya) and her level-headed friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) as they work on the school’s yearbook. The film is peppered with all sorts of strange characters, mainly the teachers at the girls' boarding school. Among them is Krissada Sukosol Clapp, whose the awkwardly intense manner is played for laughs. Seriously, the dude is kind of scary.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy was developed out of the Venice Biennale College – Cinema, which picked Nawapol to direct one of three micro-budget films that premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival. It's since screened at several other festivals, including Busan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and Torino, earning glowing reviews.

In some Thai cinemas, it's playing alongside Oh! My Ghost, a comedy starring sweet cherub "Tukky" Sudarat Butrprom. She's an ordinary young woman haunted by the ghost of a tall, gorgeous lady – hey, it's Cris Horwang! It's directed by Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon, one of the guys behind the hit teenybopper romance Crazy Little Thing Called Love or First Love and last year's 30+ Singles on Sale. It's produced by Workpoint Entertainment and released by Sahamongkol. The other major Thai release this week is Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan, a comedy featuring a cavalcade of luk thung singers. It's directed by Pornchai "Gun" Hongrattaporn (Bangkok Loco, Second Sight) and is released by M Pictures.

But it's Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy that I'm already saying is one best Thai films of the year. Catch it at Apex Siam Square's Lido, House on RCA and Esplanade Ratchada, as well as at Major Cineplex Chiang Mai Airport Plaza and EGV Lotus Khon Kaen. I'll have more to say about it in a day or so.

Meanwhile, check out the trailer, embedded below.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Chanthaly in outdoor double bill with Pee Mak in Bangkok

Lao's first horror film Chanthaly (also the first Lao feature by a female director) will make its Thai debut in an outdoor screening next month as part of the Asean Arts Festival at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Chanthaly will play on December 14 as the first of an all-horror double feature. It precedes the blockbuster Thai ghost comedy Pee Mak Phra Khanong.

Directed by Mattie Do, Chanthaly premiered at last year's Luang Prabang Film Festival (this year's is set for December 7 to 11). It's since screened in a few other fests, most notably Austin's Fantastic Fest. It made its U.K. premiere earlier this month as part of the Abertoir fest in Wales.

In Bangkok, Chanthaly is part of a three-day festival, Asean Nights: Asean Beyond Frontier, featuring music and films from December 13 to 15.

The Thai-Muslim band Baby Arabia will open the festival, playing its ear-wormy blend of Malay and Arabic folk and rock at 5pm on December 13, followed at 6.30 by the Indonesian childhood drama The Rainbow Troops

Music by the Paradise Bangkok Molum International Band precedes the screenings of Chanthaly and Pee Mak on Saturday, December 14.

And the fest's closing day on December 15 offers music by DJ Maft Dai and a double feature of Chou Davy's Golden Slumbers, a documentary on Cambodia's lost golden age of cinema, and Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's teen Thai culture drama Tang Wong.

You can read more about the festival in an article in The Nation.

And check out the trailer for Chanthaly, embedded below, or if you'd rather, there's the "director's cut" so you can experience the film as Mattie intended – "from the back of a crowded Asian cinema surrounded by 300 people who won't shut up."

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: The Isthmus, After Farewell, By the River

The Isthmus (ที่ว่างระหว่างสมุทร, Teewang Rawang Samut) – Hypnotic and mesmerizing ... okay, I'll just say it – this film almost put me to sleep. And it was the middle of the day, just after I'd had coffee. Directed by a pair of university film-studies lecturers, Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint, The Isthmus isn't a boring film, and there are in fact some amusing moments. But it does have a sedate, deliberate pace. Sangthong Gate-U-thong (Citizen Dog, Muay Thai Chaiya) stars as a hi-so single mother whose daughter (Marisa Kidd) starts speaking only Burmese after her migrant-worker nanny dies. Desperate to find out what's wrong with the girl, the mother journeys to Ranong, a coastal border province on that skinny part of Thailand that's between two oceans. It's home to a vast community of Myanmar migrants, and it's believed the late nanny's sister lives there. Their first stop is a local doctor, portrayed by the wonderfully named Saw Marvellous Soe. "Why does everyone come to me when someone goes missing," he laments. "You go to the police for missing persons." But, as an activist and musician in the Myanmar labor community, as well as their primary physician, he knows well that the Thai police won't do anything to help. So, wearily, he sets about helping the mother. The daughter bonds with local kids and starts drawing pictures of red umbrellas. And for added quirk, there's a weird Japanese priest who hears reports about sinkholes opening up all over the area. A former geologist, he turns catatonic and hilariously freezes up when he sees one of the sinkholes. The action, such as it is, culminates in a festival and musical revue at an immense half-built resort hotel on a hilltop, featuring a parade of red umbrellas. Previously reviewed at the Busan film festival, it's a worthy attempt to address the issue of Myanmar migrant workers and show their place in society, but I'm not sure the audience for this type of film are the ones who need to be told about it. (3/5)

Cambodia, After Farewell – Cambodian filmmakers are still finding their voice, and as they do, more stories about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era are coming out. Directed by young French-Cambodian filmmaker Iv Charbonneau-Ching, Cambodia, After Farewell will seem familiar to anyone who's watched any of Rithy Panh's films, particularly S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Indeed, Panh's Bophana Center film archive was one of the backers of this film. What makes Charbonneau-Ching's film unique is that it's from a very personal point of view, that of his mother and aunt, who were sent to France by their parents during the dark days leading up to 1975. When the KR took over, the Ching family felt hopeful and were among the Paris-schooled elite who supported the Khmer Rouge. Two of his uncles actually went back to Cambodia. Neither were heard from again. In Cambodia, After Farewell, the filmmaker accompanies his mother and aunt on their first trip back to their native land in an effort to find out what happened. Among their stops is the Documentation Center Cambodia. They get bad news that leads them to Tuol Sleng, the former high school that became the S-21 torture center. They meet Bou Meng, the last of the seven surviving prisoners from that center. He's a wiry and tough little old man who, like another survivor, the late Vann Nath (featured in Killing Machine), was an artist. He was spared because he made a great painting of KR leader Pol Pot. The aunts also meet a surviving nephew, and it's an emotional, tearful reunion. Cambodia, After Farewell is an engrossing documentary and packs a punch thanks to the director's discovery of home-movie footage and photos of his mother, aunts and uncles in their youth in Phnom Penh. (4/5)

By the River  (สายน้ำติดเชื้อ, Sai Nam Tid Shoer) – Boundary director Nontawat Numbenchapol's award-winning new documentary turned out to be a polarising choice for the closing film of the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok. Most folks didn't like it. Some even hated it, saying beautifully filmed images are not enough to make a documentary. But I liked it. I appreciated Nontawat's approach. Instead of launching right in with important-sounding narration or boring talking-head interviews as a lot of pure documentaries tend to do, he simply shows the rural scene, and follows a lone man who walks with the aid of one crutch as he checks a fishing line by a pretty little creek. The scene then moves to a schoolhouse, where the man chats with some of the boys about spearfishing, and you get the sense that there aren't many fish these days. It's not until about halfway through this hour-or-so documentary that there's text intertitles that explains the village of Lower Klity was settled by the Karen people 300 or 400 years ago. They paid tribute to the Ayutthaya kingdom with lead. Later, when a mining company turned up to extract those lead deposits, they dumped the waste in Klity Creek, ruining the livelihood for the village. Today, death and illness are the legacies of that history. A recent court ruling said the Thai government is responsible for fixing the environmental damage, but not much is being done. "Don't eat the fish," the villagers are told, and that's that. By the River is admittedly short on the information you'll need to be fully brought up to speed on the Klity Creek case. Ideally, it would be part of a bigger multimedia project or television series (Thai PBS is one of the backers). It is nonetheless an engaging portrait of the current state of the village and a handful of its inhabitants who are scraping by to survive. (3/5)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Apichatpong named Tropfest SEA ambassador

Apichatpong is flanked by Tony Nagamiah of Malaysia Major Events and Joe Sidek of Tropfest SEA.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been appointed "ambassador" of Tropfest Southeast Asia ahead of the inaugural regional edition of the short-film competition, which is set for January 25 in George Town, Penang, Malaysia.

Here's more from a press release:

The celebrated Thai independent film director, screenwriter and producer will attend Tropfest SEA's festival day on 25 January. He joins a distinguished judging panel at the live judging ceremony, including Tropfest founder John Polson.

Weerasethakul is the first of Tropfest's regional Ambassadors who will be announced in the weeks leading up to the festival.

The support and involvement of film personalities around the world is one of the trademarks of the festival, as seen in Tropfest editions in Australia, New Zealand, Arabia, and United States. Southeast Asia is Tropfest's newest edition.

Weerasethakul is currently developing a multi-platform feature film with Illuminations Films in London, Primitive, about a sleeping sickness in a small town near the Mekong River in Thailand. His work as a visual artist has seen participation in international exhibitions and galleries including at prestigious biennale dOKUMENTA (13) in Kassel and at the Sharjah Biennial. His recent solo art exhibition Photophobia in Oslo, Norway was unveiled in November; exhibitions in London and Mexico City are scheduled for 2014.

"We are honoured to have Weerasethakul's support to represent narratives and personalities for our region. His journey as an independent filmmaker and winning the 63rd Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, is an inspiration to us; similarly, his support for independent filmmakers and experimental film works," said Tropfest SEA managing director, Joe Sidek.

"Adding to Malaysia as the first ever country to host Tropfest South East Asia in January 2014 is Weerasethakul's engagement and involvement in Tropfest's debut. This is a big boost for the event's programme which will also add value to the international promotions of the event. Hopefully, with such an Ambassador, the profile of Malaysia as an exciting hub for creativity, arts, lifestyle and entertainment events will also increase exponentially," added Tony Nagamaiah, general manager of Malaysia Major Events (MME).

On DVD in Thailand: Paradoxocracy

Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย, Prachatiptai), Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Pasakorn Pramoolwong's documentary on the paradoxes of Thai democracy, has been released on DVD in Thailand.

It's a limited-release two-disc set, with the package adding deleted scenes, a music video and a poster. Oh, and it has English subtitles, which hardly ever happens with DVD releases in Thailand. It's available at Boomerang, B2S and other retailers.

The film, which interviews around a dozen academics and activists, surveys Thai contemporary politics since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, was back in cinemas last month during the 40th anniversary of the October 14, 1973 student uprising.

It was originally released on a limited run in Bangkok in June and July, but was poorly handled by a cinema that apparently didn't want people to see it.

Shakespeare Must Die wins in Tripoli

Banned in Thailand, Ing K.'s Macbeth adaptation Shakespeare Must Die  (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย, Shakespeare Tong Tai), is finding its way onto the big screen in other countries, most recently winning the Grand Prize in Fiction and NETPAC Prize at the inaugural Tripoli International Film Festival in Lebanon.

The NETPAC Prize, from the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema, was shared with Liberta by Kan Lume.

Shakespeare Must Die, which is a political satire, has been banned on the grounds that it is a "threat to national unity".

The banning of the film was extensively covered in a followup documentary by Ing K. and her producer Manit Sriwanichpoom, Censor Must Die.

Shakespeare Must Die previously screened overseas at last year's Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs – I didn't fall asleep during Tsai Ming-liang's latest piece of contemplative cinema, but I did hear snoring. And it's easy to be lulled by this hypnotic film, reputedly Tsai's last. It holds its gaze for long periods of time on people sleeping, or just standing there staring at a painting in an abandoned building. Staring at people staring. It's at it's best for the first 100 minutes or so, as the story follows a homeless family through their daily routine. While dad works as a "human billboard", holding a sign at a busy city intersection, the young son and daughter scavenge for food in the supermarket, filling up on samples. Wearing a brightly colored poncho, dad braves the typhoon-like wind and cold rain. The camera zooms in on his face. Hey, it's Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's go-to leading man! Dad is at first loving, but becomes creepier and creepier as the movie goes on. Smoking more cigarettes and turning to booze, he's like a desperate animal as he devours his daughter's cabbage-head doll. Later, in a interminable scene that is likely still playing, he stands behind a woman and the tension mounts as he gets closer and closer to her, and I half expected him to take a big chomp out of her face. There are three actresses – Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching and Yang Kuei-mei – and I'm not certain if they are playing the same woman. I liked Lu Yi-ching the best. She's a frozen-foods manager at the supermarket who takes sympathy on the kids. (3/5)

Tabu – And now for something completely different. This Portuguese drama Miguel Gomes left me gape-mouthed in wonder. It's an homage to a 1931 F.W. Murnau film of the same name that I've never seen. In fact, Tabu is like nothing I've ever seen, though it did remind me of Aki Kaurismaki or early Werner Herzog. There's actually three segments, beginning with a prologue about an explorer in Africa a long time ago. The scene then cuts to present-day Lisbon, where a woman named Pilar frets over the well-being of her elderly neighbor. I suppose Pilar is attracted to the colorful neighbor lady because her own life is so rather dull. As the feisty old Aurora is dying, Pilar is dispatched to track down an acquaintance, a rugged old man who lives in a nursing home. They are too late, but the man tells Pilar his story. And so the scene flashes back to 1960s colonial Africa, following a steamy romance between upper-class white expats – the fiery, big-game-hunter Aurora and the adventurous Ventura. The man's narration is the sole source of dialogue during this segment, so it is almost a silent film, except for key atmospherics, crucial sound effects and some great music from the rock band Ventura drums in. Also, there's a scene-stealing little crocodile. The aspect ratio is old-school squarish, and caused the subtitles to be cut off. But someone noticed, and they fixed it. They then stopped the film and started it over, about five minutes in. (4/5)

Instant Mommy – "It's about a woman who fakes a pregnancy," director Leo Abaya told me. So it's a comedy, right? "Not exactly," he replied, an answer that intrigued me enough that I made the trip across Bangkok in the middle of the day to catch this entry from the Cinemalaya Film Festival. Eugene Domingo stars as a middle-aged Filipina who's in the midst of an online love affair with a Japanese man. Through their Skype chats, it's revealed that she's pregnant. She's shopping for a new house in the suburbs for him and his new family, but he's also bogged down by a messy divorce in Japan. Meanwhile, Bechay continues working as a wardrobe mistress at a film company, an occupation that comes in handy later. Because she ends up having a miscarriage, and her life falls apart. The Japanese dude cuts off contact and Bechay, biological clock exploded, questions her self-worth. But she somehow gets through to her boyfriend, and impulsively tells him "false alarm ... baby ok". Borrowing a fake belly from the wardrobe department, she then has a hectic time, racing around, constructing her illusionary pregnancy. This includes enlisting the help of her brother's pregnant ex-girlfriend (he's not the dad), and getting a film crew to pose as doctors in a hospital's operating room while Bechay acts out a birth scene. It's a plan she really hasn't thought through, but is going ahead with anyway. The real fun comes when the Japanese dude comes to town, and Bechay has to navigate her way through a succession of awkward situations. (4/5)