Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Yuthlert gives up hope on Fatherland

While opponents of film censorship in Thailand chalked up a rare victory with the recent banning and unbanning of the Thai-Cambodian border documentary Boundary, it appears the fight has been lost on another politically sensitive film, Yuthlert Sippapak's Deep South action-drama Fatherland (ปิตุภูมิ พรมแดนแห่งรัก, Pitupoom).

The Thai social media was buzzing yesterday after Yuthlert posted a cryptic message on Facebook, translated as: "It's certain now that Thais will not be able to watch this film. Thank you." He signed off with a frowny-face emoticon.

Yuthlert's comments led to stories in the Thai mass media, including Thai Rath and Prachachat.

According to a story in The Nation, it appears that the backer of Fatherland has gotten cold feet and decided not to release the drama, which deals with the complex issues of separatist violence in Thailand's Muslim Deep South. The matter is especially sensitive right now, due to embattled peace talks that have just started between the Thai government and a small faction of the insurgents.

Long in the works, production was wrapped on Fatherland last August. Trailers surfaced (embedded below) and posters were made. It was penciled in for release last December, but never materialized.

Fatherland was highly anticipated, thanks to its popular stars, leading man Ananda Everingham, plus actor "Wier" Sukolwat Kanaret and Pee Mak Phra Khanong starlet "Mai" Davika Hoorne. Appetites were further whetted with slick-looking production stills.

The film, which captures the problems in southern Thailand through the eyes of two police officers and a female Muslim scholar, looked to be yet another serious shift for Yuthlert, a prolific director who is famous for his frequent genre-jumping but is mainly known for his action and horror comedies, Killer Tattoo and the Buppha Ratree series. His more recent films, the hitman films Saturday Killer and Friday Killer, have been more serious in tone while still retaining many comedic elements and starring noted comedians.

The case of Fatherland not being released is made murky by the fact that it hasn't been submitted to the censorship board for rating. So it's not banned, officially. Instead, it appears to be a case of self-censorship by the film's backers who fear it's not liable to be approved for release because it deals with issues that are too politically sensitive.

The Nation story included comments by film critic and blogger Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, better known as Filmsick:

"This is a society that just doesn’t want to debate. Something is missing in our [social] structure."

“Maybe they just want to ‘play safe’ by not screening it,” he said, adding that he had heard some movie theatres were reportedly reluctant as well.

“In the end it has crippled [society], because now everyone engages in self-censorship, which is an indicator that we are not free. This a problem that is very difficult to solve.”

Read the rest of the article for more comments.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Countdown wins runner-up at FEFF15

Nattawut "Baz" Poonpiriya at the Far East Film Festival in Udine. Photo via Facebook.

Countdown added a runner-up prize to its trophy shelf at the 15th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy.

Film Business Asia details the other winners, the South Korean romantic comedy How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, which took the top-prize Audience Award, the other runner-up, Hong Kong martial-arts actioner Ip Man: The Final Fight, and the Black Dragon Audience Award to Taiwan's Touch of the Light.

Countdown director Nattawut "Baz" Poonpiriya was among the festival guests. His debut feature, Countdown was adapted from his student short film shot in New York. It won several awards this season for its performance by David Asavanond as an unhinged drug dealer named Jesus who terrorizes three Thais in their apartment on New Year's Eve.

Also at the FEFF was Chookiat Sakveerakul, supporting the screening of Home.  Other Thai entries in the fest were the gangster drama Antapal, the nine-segment horror 9-9-81 (recently reviewed at Film Business Asia) and Thongsuk 13, a.k.a. Long Weekend.

Further coverage of FEFF 15 is at the Coventry East Asian Film Society, including a review of Home.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Boundary unbanned, censors apologize for 'mistake'

In a surprising and historic move, the Thai censors have admitted they were wrong, saying their decision to ban the documentary Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong), was incorrect.

Directed by Nonatwat Numbenchapol, the film about the politically sensitive topic of Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple and the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, has been rated 18+ and cleared for release with one very minor change.

Here's the explanation from the film's Facebook page:

The Film and Video Board, attached to the Office of Cultural Promotion, contacted the filmmaker of Boundary on Thursday to apologize for the “technical mistake” regarding the ban order on Tuesday, April 23. The filmmaker was informed that the ban order was the decision of a sub-committee that in fact has no authority to issue such verdict. Only the main committee has the jurisdiction to do so. When the main committee saw the film on Thursday, April 25, they decided to let the film pass. Also, before banning any movie, the committee is required to allow its director to defend himself, but that didn’t happen on Tuesday.

However, the censors asked the director to remove two seconds of ambient sound in an early scene. That scene is the New Year’s celebration at the Ratchaprasong Intersection during which an MC announces on stage: “Let’s count down to celebrate HM the King’s 84th anniversary”. The censors expressed concerns that this might lead to misinterpretation.

The filmmaker realizes that the sound has no significance to the story of the film and agreed to mute it.

The sub-committee who banned the films cited several inappropriate issues and presentation, but the main committee does not object to any of them. Besides those two seconds of audio, the entire film remains intact.

Citing concerns about national security, the subcomittee had earlier objected to text that referred "nearly 100 deaths" during the crackdown on the 2010 red-shirt anti-government protests, as well as a Cambodian soldier's monologue criticizing the Thai government. The censorship sub-committee was also worried about nudity (a little crying Cambodian boy bouncing up and down on his toy car if I remember correctly).

And there was concerns that the film's Thai title Fahtum Pandinsoong, literally "low sky, high land", was a reference to the monarchy, which Nontawat denied in a story in The Nation today.

The five-man censorship panel under the Culture Ministry cited risk of creating misinformation and rifts in society for banning it, considering the film as a threat to national security and bilateral relations between Thailand and Cambodia. The committee also cited the title of the film as possibly creating a negative impression of the Thai monarchy because the word 'fah' or sky, can also be used as a casual alternate reference to the monarchy and the film's title stated the sky is low.

Nontawat, a Bangkokian, said he was surprised by the ban, but vowed to fight on. "Since they are not banning my life, I can speak, write and convey my message as to how real local people think about the issue." He also denied his film had anything to do with the issue of the monarchy, saying that the title of the film was adopted from an old love song dated from the 1970s about how people who think differently should be able to coexist.

But now Boundary, which premiered at the Berlin International Festival and also screened at Salaya Doc, has been cleared for release, and the initial confusion over it being banned should help other filmmakers clear hurdles as well as clarify the procedures for the authorities in charge of enforcing the film law.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boundary banned

Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong), director Nontawat Numbenchapol's documentary on the politically thorny issues regarding the Preah Vihear temple and the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, has been banned by Thailand's Culture Ministry.

A director's statement is on the film's Facebook page.

The story of the ban is getting widespread coverage, with articles by the Bangkok Post, The Hollywood Reporter, Film Business Asia and the Associated Press.

According to the Bangkok Post, the censors feared the film could "'persuade viewers to falsely believe' incorrect information."

Film Business Asia carries the official statement from the Culture Ministry's censors:

"The Film and Video sub-committee do not permit the documentary film Boundary (Fah Tum Pandin Soong) to be screened in Kingdom of Thailand. The film's content is a threat to national security and international relations. The film presents some information on incidents that are still being deliberated by the Thai court and that have not yet been officially concluded."

According to the Bangkok Post, the censors had issues with "groundless" points made by documentary, particularly a text caption early in the film that sets the stage for the film's political context, explaining that there were "nearly 100 deaths" during the government's crackdown on the red-shirt political rallies in Bangkok in 2010. The government insists the official figure is 89.

Censors also took exception to a long monologue by a Cambodian soldier who criticizes Thailand.

On the ongoing Thai court proceedings, I am guessing the censors are referring to the cases regarding the red-shirt crackdown.

The border dispute is being debated at the moment by the International Court of Justice, with the Thai legal team recently celebrating its return to Thailand and possible success.

Boundary premiered at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. It has also already screened for festival audiences in Thailand, at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival, where it was the opening film and screened once more.

Nontawat had submitted Boundary to the censors in hopes of obtaining a rating so that it could be screened in a general theatrical release.

He tells The Hollywood Reporter:

"I really didn't expect this film to be banned. Everyone I’ve spoken with who’s seen it says the film shows the point of view of every side, and that the film is neutral. My intention was to let the film be a space for the people in the troubled territories to voice their views and feelings to the outside world, which they haven’t had a chance to express in other Thai media."

With Boundary, three films have been banned under Thailand's film classification system enacted in 2009. The other two are Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's transgender fatherhood drama Insects in the Backyard and Ing K. and Manit Sriwanichpoom's political satire Shakespeare Must Die.

Thailand has a six-tiered film ratings system – G for general audiences, P for "promote" as educational, 13+, 15+ and 18+ suggested viewing ages and the restricted 20- rating, which requires ID checks. "Ban" is the hidden seventh tier of the system.

Nontawat says he'll appeal the censorship board's decision, but isn't optimistic of the outcome.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: Koo Kam

  • Directed by Leo Kittikorn
  • Starring Nadech Kugimiya, Oranate D Caballes
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 4, 2013; rated G.
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

Koo Kam (คู่กรรม), the story of star-crossed romance during World War II in Bangkok, has been made for the big screen and television perhaps dozens of times. There's probably an adaptation that remains true to the novel that's also compelling to watch.

Unfortunately, I've only seen one – the version of Koo Kam that's on Bangkok big screens right now. So I really have no idea how it compares to the earlier versions. But I can't imagine it holds up very well.

Directed by "Leo" Kittikorn Liawsirikun and produced by M-Thirtynine, the production of Koo Kam reportedly cost 35 million baht (not including the 20 million baht for marketing) and looked to be the most ambitious effort yet by the still-fledgling studio, which has made a mint on its year-end romantic comedies.

And Koo Kam at times does have an epic feel, with wartime explosions, including a CGI-assisted bombing of Bangkok's historic Memorial Bridge (it was an intended target of an actual Allied bombing raid in 1944, but the B-29s missed). There's also scenes with a hundred or so extras, such as a wedding and times when the Japanese troops are boarding the steam train to head for the Burmese border. Slick stylization spices things up during key action scenes.

But mostly this new Koo Kam has the hermetic, Thai-TV-series feel of M-Thirtynine's extremely profitable and extremely dumb small-budget comedies. It also suffers from a dull and dragging pace, especially toward the end.

And the score doesn't help either. The same two or three intrusive cues of piano or electronic-keyboard orchestra are used over and over. The score is put too high in the mix and robs all scenes of what little life they had.

Well known to most Thais, Koo Kam is the story of a Japanese officer named Kobori who falls in love with a fiercely independent young Thai woman named Angsumalin. She turns out to be helping the Free Thai resistance.

Koo Kam's earlier adaptations include a series that's on Thai TV right now, starring "Bie" Sukrit Wisetkaew and "Noona" Nuengthida Sophon, which National Artist author Thommayanti herself has declared to be the definitive version. A famous movie version was 1996's Sunset at Chaophraya by GMM Pictures (the only version to officially have that title), starring Thongchai "Bird" McIntyre and Apasiri Nitibhon and directed by Euthana Mukdasanit. Apparently a true epic for its day, 50 million baht was spent to make it.

But Leo Kittikorn's Koo Kam basically boils things down to the relationship between the officer Kobori, played by Thai TV-and-commercials heartthrob Nadech Kumikaya, and Angsumalin, new-face actress Oranate "Richy" D Caballes.

Like a sitcom, it starts out cute, funny and full of energy. For just a little bit, it fooled me into thinking I might be charmed by this version of Koo Kam.

A young Japanese engineering officer, Kobori is working at the navy yard when he spies Angsumalin lurking around in the water by the docks. He tries, ineptly, to introduce himself to the bathing beauty, but Ang will have none of it and tells him no uncertain terms to leave her alone.

Kobori persists though, finds out where Ang lives and tracks her down to an old-timey colonial-style Thai mansion on an orchard neighboring the navy yard. For a brief instance, the girl's frowny little mouth turns right side up, showing that perhaps she likes the goofy Kobori just a little bit, and she tries to clue him in that maybe he shouldn't walk through the orchard at night.

Various entanglements thrust the two together, like destiny. The dorky Japanese officer's efforts to charm Angsumalin don't stop. He annoyingly gives her a Japanese name, Hideko, and tries to make teriyaki for her and her mother. I wanted to scream at Kobori "her name's not Hideko!" Or at least have Angusmalin scream it.

Meanwhile, the girl's estranged father, who is a muckety-muck of some sort in the Thai government, thinks it might be a good idea if Angsumalin and Kobori got married, as a sign of the strong Thai-Japanese alliance. Of course, the wily Thai politician is also using the marriage to further blind Kobori and his superiors that the Thais aren't really doing anything at all to aid the Japanese war effort or hinder the resistance.

So the relationship between Angsumalin and Kobori is bit like Colonel Klink and Hogan on Hogan's Heroes, in which Kobori turns a blind eye to Ang's resistance activities as long has she'll love him. She doesn't and apparently never will. But she'll throw him a bone every once in awhile if it'll keep him off her back. But he doesn't stay off.

A curious choice that weakens the film is the decision to go for the G general-audience rating instead of the censors' spicier 18+ or 15+, making the climactic wedding-night scene for Kobori and Angsumalin a huge anti-climax. Fans hoping to see a shirtless Nadech, like Mario Maurer in Jan Dara, will be disappointed by a clumsy scene of drunken grappling, Nadech's blurry shoulder blades and an awkward morning-after apology to Ang.

A more-interesting choice was the casting of the ingenue Richy Oranate as Angsumalin. A Chiang Mai native plucked from the relative obscurity of the Thai national badminton squad to make her debut as an actress, she was intriguing to watch during the scenes early on when she determinedly rebuffs Kobori's advances. She reminded me of another frequent M-Thirtynine player, the prolific young actress Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, or perhaps Kristin Stewart, and Richy really made me believe she hated Kobori.

Later, Angsumalin has a change of heart, spurning her long-haired rock-star resistance-agent boyfriend, and she decides too late and too melodramatically to pour out her romantic feelings to Kobori. Then Richy reminded me of another M-Thirtynine regular, "Gypso" Ramita Mahapreukpong, an inexplicably popular actress and TV personality who irks me for reasons I can't put my finger on other than she always seems to come across as fake or affected in some way.

As for Nadech's performance, I guess he's fine as the lovable tortured idiot Kobori. He'll continue to rake in the dough, doing TV dramas, commercials and endorsements of every product under the sun.

Koo Kam follows the current trend of remakes of popular old classics, with other recent regurtitations being ML Bhandevanov Devakula's sex-filled but oddly boring two-part reworking of The Story of Jan Dara, starring Mario Maurer, and the GTH studio's insanely popular and entertaining Pee Mak Phra Khanong, a romantic-comedy twist on the Mae Nak Phra Khanong ghost story that also stars Mario.

The box office shows where the Thai audience's preferences are – Pee Mak is nearing the record-breaking 550-million-baht mark or has possibly already surpassed it depending on how the beans are counted, while Koo Kam, released just a week after Pee Mak, has been clobbered and is struggling to break even.

Oh, and another thing or two, fans of Thommayanti's novel have reportedly criticized this version for its contemporized language. Historical purists have knocked the production as well, pointing out such minutia as a water slug on a boat that didn't exist in Thailand back in the 1940s. I can't speak to those things. However, I appreciated the decision to go with a soundtrack that's about half Thai and half Japanese. In most cinemas, the film was released with Thai subtitles for the Japanese and English bits, however Paragon Cineplex had a version with English subtitles. So thanks M-Thirtynine, for making it possible for me to see your film and trash it. As much as I grew to hate watching it, I've enjoyed the chance to see the story and write about it.

See also:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Apichatpong-a-rama: Mirage City Cinema at the Sharja Biennial

The Mirage City Cinema. Photo courtesy of Kick the Machine.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is taking part in Sharjah Biennial 11 (SB11), curating a film program in the Persian Gulf city with the open-air Mirage City Cinema.

Designed by Apichatpong in collaboration with architect Ole Scheeren, who created the floating cinema for Apichatpong's exclusive little Film On the Rocks Yao Noi festival last year, the Mirage City Cinema features programming by such folks as Steve Anker, dean of the School of Film and Video at CalArts, Apitchatpong's Film on the Rocks collaborator Tilda Swinton, Mehelli Modi, founder of Second Run DVD and Filipino filmmaker-poet Khavn De La Cruz.

Here's more about it from Ole Scheeren's blog:

Mirage City Cinema interweaves elements of Sharjah’s historical fabric with filmic scenarios to create an ethereal courtyard cinema experience. Inspiration is drawn from the historical traditions of Sharjah. Floor carpets, which were traditionally used for sleeping and relaxing, are scattered around the courtyard; this draws upon the common practice of using carpets to sleep on rooftops – a tradition now largely defunct due to the prevalence of air-conditioning units occupying roof space. Coral, which was formerly mixed with mud plaster to build the outer walls of houses and whose use as construction material is now forbidden, is recycled from decaying walls and used for the ground of the cinema space.

The fragmented shape of the cinematic space, and the choreography of projection and sound from different directions create a sense of disorientation and surrealism. The idea of sleep, dream and memory is central to the project.

In the words of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: "Mirage City Cinema reflects the idea of a place where a cinema of illusion arises and flourishes. A place of ghosts. I was interested in the moment when we free our minds and bodies of preconceived ideas, and allow ourselves to be possessed."

In Mirage City Cinema, the use of recycled matter and the drawing upon the ancient traditions of Sharjah connects the past with the present. Personal memories and stories are central. As Scheeren explains: "The idea was to create a city within a city, or rather, to evoke memories of the city’s past. Plaza, courtyard and rooftops all melt into a texture of shared stories of the city and the people who inhabit it."

The full program is at the festival website. The Sharja Biennial started on March 13 and runs until May 13.

Meanwhile, Apichatpong has been keep busy, hunting in Hong Kong last month for funds for his next feature project, Cemetery of Kings. Although it's been thought he's taking a break from filmmaking, he told The Hollywood Reporter:

"I’m not sure you could call it a break, really – even though that’s what some people have been saying. I’ve made short films, curated a film festival, judged a film festival, did some installations and have been busy raising two dogs – which is actually a lot of work."

Chookiat aims for laughs with Grean Fictions

Chookiat Sakveerakul, the acclaimed director of the teenage coming-of-age romantic drama Love of Siam and last year's award-winning three-segment sentimental drama Home, turns to light-hearted comedy with Grean Fictions (เกรียน ฟิคชั่น). It opened in Thai cinemas yesterday.

Dealing with high-school boys in Chiang Mai, the story centers on a kid named Tee ("Fiat" Pattadon Jan-Ngern) who finds an outlet for his teen angst when he joins the school's film club. With his pals, he starts making short documentaries and posting them on YouTube under the name "GreanFictions". Grean (also transliterated as krian), is the slang word for the style of short hair that Thai schoolboys must wear. It's also used to describe anything that's uncool or unfun. The videos attract a following among other teens but melancholy Tee finds himself struggling with a crush on a female classmate.

Wanida Termthanaporn (a.k.a. Gybzy Girly Berry) from Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Nymph, also stars. She portrays Tee's older sister and gets involved in shenanigans of her own when she catches the eye of one of Tee's teachers (Boriboon Janruang) but she already has a boyfriend.

I've been looking around for an English subtitled trailer, but no luck finding one. However, Chookiat's own Studio Commuan cut special extended trailer. You can give it a watch below.

With Grean Fictions out of the way, will Chookiat return to work on the big-budget 14 Beyond, his long-awaited sequel to the psycho-thriller 13: Game of Death? Of course there are also fans who want to see a Love of Siam 2.

Chookiat is slated to be among the guests of the Udine Far East Film Festival over the next week. Home makes its European premiere there. If you see him, say hello and ask him what's next on his plate.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bangkok fight flick Only God Forgives enters the fray in Cannes

No Thai films made the official selection announced today for the 66th Cannes Film Festival, but Thailand still has a role to play at the prestigious event as the setting for Only God Forgives, which is one of the main competition titles.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives reunites the Danish auteur with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, who plays a gangster who operates a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok. He runs into conflict with a steel-pipe-toting Thai policeman portrayed Vithaya Pansringarm, the soft-spoken actor who previously played a monk detective in Tom Waller's Mindfulness and Murder.

Other stars include Kristin Scott Thomas and Thai singer-actress Ratha "Yaya Ying" Po-ngam, who was recently on the Bangkok big screen in the remake of Jan Dara.

Refn, who took the Cannes best director prize in 2011 for Drive, filmed Only God Forgives here in 2011. A short documentary on YouTube captures Refn during filming in Bangkok's Chinatown.

The red-band teaser for Only God Forgives (embedded below) hit the Web a couple of weeks ago. It features everyone's name written in neon Thai script.

And just to show how deeply Refn geeked out on Thai culture while he was living here with his family, the trailer features a incongruously cutesy Thai pop song, "Tur Kue Kwan Fun" ("You Are My Dream"), a 1995 release by a band called Proud.

Only God Forgives is among the titles tipped for Cannes' main Palme d'Or competition, which also includes Steven Soderbergh's made-for-TV Liberace biopic Behind the Candleabra, Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers and Nebraska by Alexander Payne. The Palme d'Or jury is headed by Steven Spielberg.

The edgier Un Certain Regard competition, which has welcomed many Thai films in past years, features three Southeast Asian entries: Cambodia’s Rithy Panh with L’Image Manquante and the Philippines’ Lav Diaz with Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan and Adolfo Alix Jr. with Death March.

Film Business Asia details the Asian selection.

Update: Two more trailers have hit the Web.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Boundary

  • Directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol
  • Screened at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival, April 1-7, 2013, Bangkok
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

The thorny topic of Thailand and Cambodia's border dispute around the ancient Preah Vihear temple is made much more interesting and easily digestible when it's set to an indie rock and electronica music soundtrack.

In Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong), filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol approaches his subject with the artful aesthetic that's the calling card of other indie Thai filmmakers, with static camera set-ups, tracking shots in cars, slow-mo and blurs offering comment on the subject matter.

Known for his debut Weirdrosopher World, a documentary about Thai skateboarders, Nontawat apparently stumbled on the Boundary story by chance, at the New Year's Eve celebration at the end of 2010. By coincidence, it was at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection, which earlier in the year had been occupied by the "red shirt" protests that ended badly, with dozens fatally shot by government forces and arson attacks. There, at the New Year's countdown, he met a soldier on leave who was headed to his village in the Thai-Cambodian border area. Nontawat asked if he could tag along.

Politics are an unavoidable subtext to the images that the camera captures of a road trip from Bangkok to northeastern Thailand, accompanied at times by pulpy-sounding electronica beats.

A contentious topic for decades, Preah Vihear was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 International Court of Justice verdict. The simmering border dispute boiled up again around 2008 when the Thai government at the time supported Cambodia's bid for Unesco World Heritage status for the temple. It would benefit both sides, and boost tourism was the reasoning. But the move riled the royalist "yellow shirts", who played the nationalist card and used Preah Vihear as a political cudgel. At issue is a disputed 4.6 square kilometer area around the temple that some contend is Thai soil. The yellow shirts conducted a campaign of activism that stirred things up and eventually resulted in the Thai and Cambodian sides sending in troops and lobbing shells at one another.

Popular YouTube footage from one of the firefights, looking like a grainy outtake from Full Metal Jacket, is included in Boundary.

Nontawat kept out of the line of fire, but visited spots that had been shelled. He accompanies Royal Thai Army officers has they inspect damage, including a rice granary that's had its roof smashed, a bullet-pocked house and a vehicle with holes in it that aren't decals. Another scene shows a school that had its roof damaged by the shelling.

His interviews with Thai residents reveal their upset about the hostilities at the border and being dragged into the dispute by the yeller shirts. They had enjoyed a good living off the tourism trade, and selling things on the Cambodian side of the border.

They also expressed indifference and perhaps disdain for the color-coded shirt movements. At dinner one night, it's pointed out the hostess is wearing yellow, while another at the table is in red. "I am wearing no shirt," the man of the house says. "I am too poor."

Given an "in" to Cambodia by one of his producers, French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou (Golden Slumbers), Nontawat also sought the other side of the story. Thai film expert Donsaron Kovitvanitcha is another producer, making Boundary a Thai-Cambodian production.

In his talk at Boundary's April 6 screening at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival (it had its Thai premiere on April 1 as Salaya Doc's opening film), Nontawat explained he had to tread lightly because Cambodians are generally suspicious of Thais. He didn't want to end up like pair of yellow-shirt activists who were jailed as spies (a topic not covered in the film). So he posed as a Chinese-American student and got his interviews, which are punctuated by a toddler boy bouncing up and down on his toy car until he falls on his rear and bursts into tears.

In the end, Nontawat finally visits the temple itself, which is dramatically situated right on the border, on the shoulder of a mountain, overlooking the Cambodian valley below. I went there 12 years ago, and the only way in was through Thailand on a chicken bus from Aranyaprathet. Now there's a sturdy road on the Cambodian side, which winds its way up the rugged slopes of the Dangrek Mountains, finally connecting the Angkorian treasure to the country that lays claim to it.

Boundary is one of those rare Thai political films. Most don't end up getting a general release, but Boundary might be okay because the opinion from the Thai side of the border tends jibe with that of the "red shirts" and the sympathies of the current government.

While the documentary makes things clear, the reality of the situation is cloudy. Just as Boundary is beginning to be screened in Thailand, the International Court of Justice is holding hearings about the Preah Vihear issue. Cambodia called for the hearing in the face of the yellow-shirt activism, and will ask that the ICJ reinterpret its 1962 ruling. For its part, the Thai side says there is no dispute and asks that the case be thrown out.

It's not expected to go well. Protests by the Thai interests are expected, adding much tension an already politically tense time.

Related posts:

Mom Noi's Rashomon remake lands on DVD as At the Gate of the Ghost

Director ML Bhandevanov Devakula's Northern Thailand take on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon has been picked up by Magnet Releasing, given the new title At the Gate of the Ghost and put out on English-friendly Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray.

Peter Nellhaus has a review at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.

Headlined by a cast that includes Ananda Everingham as the warlord, Cherman Boonyasak as his wife and Mario Maurer as the monk, the film was released in 2011 as U Mong Pa Mueang (อุโมงค์ผาเมือง) with the provisional international English title of The Outrage, which was the same as the 1960s Hollywood western Rashomon remake that starred Paul Newman and was directed by Martin Ritt (check out Hombre instead).

The release of U Mong Pa Mueang in Thailand was heavily promoted, thanks to the star power of Ananda and Ploy Chermarn, who had previously starred in "Mom Noi" Bhandevanov's hit erotic drama Chua Fah Din Salai (Eternity). It was also a tie-in with the centennial birth anniversary of Thai statesman, author and artist MR Kukrit Pramoj, who had translated a stage version of Rashomon, which Mom Noi had a one time directed. He then used the stage version as the basis for his film adaptation.

The DVD package, featuring Ananda and the bandit (Dom Hetrakul) swordfighting against a backdrop of a Thai-style structure, touts the awards and nominations of U Mong Pa MueangAsian Film Awards noms for Mario and costumes, Bangkok Critics Assembly Awards for art director and supporting actress for Radklao Amaradit as the medium, and Subhanahongsa Awards for costumes and visual effects.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pee Mak is coming for you

Davika Hoorne, third from right, poses with fans in Jakarta. Director Banjong and other cast members are also present. Photo via GTH.

It's the hottest time of year in Thailand, and Pee Mak Phra Khanong fever has gripped the Kingdom. The hit ghost movie has reportedly reached 300 million baht in box-office takings and will rake in much more over the Songkran New Year's holiday weekend.

According to figures tracked down by blogger Richard Barrow, Pee Mak is now the all-time No. 2 Thai film, behind 2001's Suriyothai by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, which earned 550 million baht. It's ahead of three of Chatrichalerm's Naresuan epics.

Visute Poolvoralucks, executive producer at GTH studio, told The Nation he thinks Pee Mak will surpass Suriyothai, especially if receipts from the new multiplexes upcountry are factored in. For now, only Bangkok and Chiang Mai cinemas are reported for the industry's box-office figures. As head of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, Visute might be able to fix that.

And soon there will be revenue from overseas to count.

Pee Mak premiered last Friday in Jakarta, with 1,000 screaming fans – mainly female from the looks of photos – turning up to be greeted by director Banjong Pisanthanakun and his stars, including Mario Maurer and "Mai" Davika Hoorne.

According to an Instagram from Banjong, the Hong Kong release will be on May 16 and Cambodia on May 23. Malaysia gets it on June 6 followed by Singapore on June 13. The Taiwan release is set for August 9. A Philippines release is also likely, given Mario's huge popularity there.

Fans with iPhones might want the Pee Mak phone cover. There are four cartoony designs of Mak, the stretchy armed Nak and Mak's four bumbling pals.

There's also a Nation editorial, praising the "artistic courage" it took to make the horror comedy. But be warned, if you haven't seen the movie, then don't read that editorial, because it contains spoilers.

Tony Jaa saddles up for A Man Will Rise

Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundren. Photo via Twitch.

Doggedly pursuing any news of Tony Jaa, TwitchFilm is reporting on the martial-arts star's long-awaited first foray into "international" action filmmaking, A Man Will Rise, in which Jaa co-stars with the great Dolph Lundgren.

Others taking part are David "Mad Dog" Ismalone, Jakkrit Kanokpodjananon and Game of Thrones original Ser Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane himself, Conan Stevens.

Set in 1950s Thailand, it has a sort-of Tears of the Black Tiger sound to it, with Jaa as a plucky local hero standing up to gunslinging foreigner cowboys.

The Nation's Soopsip column today implies that Jaa's father figure at Sahamongkol Film International, executive producer Somsak “Sia Jiang” Techaratanaprasert, is involved. He's nicknamed the project Ai Noom Kangnam or Kangnam Boy, which has to be a joke. Soopsip also names a possible director – Vitidnan Rojanapanich. He's best known as the first Thai to scale Mount Everest, which seems like the perfect training for someone to be able to deal with the troubled artist that is Tony Jaa.

Jaa had earlier been rumored to be in a project with Jean Claude Van Damme.

Meanwhile, it appears that filming has finally wrapped up on the long-awaited Tom-Yum-Goong 2 (ต้มยำกุ้ง 2), which had earlier been tipped for possible release in May. That ain't happening, Twitch says.

TYG2, which is Sahamongkol's first foray into 3D and is likely undergoing some pretty extensive post-production work, is being positioned as a major tentpole for an auspicious date in December. Or maybe an auspicious date in August.

Production on TYG2 was troubled to say the least, with Jaa taking a break from the shoot to get married to his feisty pregnant bride (whom he met while making Ong-Bak 3). If that weren't enough, co-star Jeeja Yanin hooked up with an assistant director and got pregnant.

So who knows who and what was actually captured on film for TYG2. We'll only know for sure if and when it unspools in front of our eyes.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Salaya Doc 2013: Wedlock House, Denok and Gareng the winners

Liao Jiekai, right, receives his award from Thai Film Archive director Dome Sukwong. Salaya Doc programmer Sanchai Chotirosseranee and juror Panarai Ostapirat are at left. Photo by Wise Kwai. 

A cousin’s wedding video and a profile of a Muslim family that raises pigs were the winning entries of the Asean competition of the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival last weekend.

Before the Wedlock House by Singapore’s Liao Jiekai won in the short documentary category. With his cousin getting married, the director who made his feature debut with 2010's Red Dragonflies agreed to make a short film of the wedding as his gift to her.

The resulting video, shot in black and white, captures the bride sitting on the edge of her bed in her wedding dress. She’s in her room at her parents’ house, waiting for her groom to come take her away.

Shooting the 15-minute film was spontaneous, Liao said at last Sunday’s awards ceremony at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. However, it took him a year to get around to editing it because it was so personal.

Salaya Doc’s feature documentary prize went to “Denok and Gareng” by Indonesia’s Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni. It’s about a young Muslim couple who make a controversial choice for a livelihood – they raise pigs in a country where pork consumption is largely taboo because of their religion.

While trying to stay on the straight and narrow and be responsible, the former denizens of the street face daily struggles as they pick through trash piles for scraps to feed their pigs.

Their extended family includes Gareng’s sweet-natured mother and his brothers, one of whom is involved in one scrape after another, adding to everyone’s burden.

Among the jurors of this year’s competition was Panarai Ostapirat, an anthropology and sociology lecturer at Thammasat University. She said she had a hard time choosing the best of the entries and was particularly struck by how they were all about “common” people.

Other jurors this year were Singaporean film-festival programmer Philip Cheah and Thai documentary filmmaker Panu Aree, who became ill and was hospitalized during the festival.

In all, 73 entries were submitted. The other finalists were Durga from Singapore, The Hills are Alive from Indonesia, Overlay and Saleng (Recycle Trishaw) from Thailand, Tondo, Beloved: To What Are the Poor Born? from the Philippines, Where I Go from Cambodia and With or Without Me from Vietnam.

Home, Countdown, Thongsuk among Thai selection at FEFF 15

The Udine Far East Film Festival, which annually attracts enthusiasts of Asian films from all over the world to Italy, will put on its 15th edition from April 19 to 25.

The Thai selection is some of the past year's celebrated industry titles, all making international festival or European premieres.

Director Chookiat Sakveerakul will be there with his Love of Siam star Witwisit Hiranyawongkul and their sentimental drama Home, which won many awards.

And debuting helmer "Baz" Nattawut Poonpiriya will be on hand to present his psycho-thriller Countdown, which pretty much swept the awards in Thailand this year for its performance by David Asavanond as an unhinged drug dealer named Jesus.

Udine will also screen Kongkiat Khomsiri's gritty period crime drama Antapal, a.k.a. The Gangster, which won at least one award for the performance by the always-intense Noi Sukosol.

And there will be a couple of horror films – the nine-segment 9-9-81, which was nominated for several awards, and, from this year, Taweewat Wantha's highly enjoyable "cabin-in-the-woods" slasher-horror Thongsuk 13, a.k.a. Long Weekend.

The festival also hosts the European leg of the Ties That Bind producers workshop, which will have Pimpaka Towira pitching her new project, Malaria and Mosquitoes.

Film Business Asia details some of the other films at FEFF15, which has 57 titles in all, mostly from Japan, South Korea and China.

Thailand International Destination Film Festival wraps up

Pimchanok "Bai Fern" Luevisadpaibul and Vithaya Pansringam were among the Thai stars gracing the fest. Photo via Facebook.

Hastily thrown together in just one month by the Thailand Film Office under the Department of Tourism, the first Thailand International Film Destination Festival ended on Wednesday, attracting industry pros and celebrities to seminars and red-carpet events, plus regular cinema-goers to watch free screenings of made-in-Thailand foreign features.

Due to conflicts with the previously planned Salaya International Documentary Film Festival and my usual work responsibilities, I was unable to attend.

If it's held next year, I hope organizers will make an effort to check the calendar for conflicts with other film events in Bangkok, and give folks a bit more time to make plans to attend.

Nontheless, Film Business Asia was there and they report good attendance at the film festival's handful of actual movie screenings, among them Dutch director Mads Mathhiesen's romantic comedy Teddy Bear, the Taiwanese-Hollywood political thriller Formosa Betrayed, Oxide Pang's gritty The Detective and even Danny Boyle's The Beach. All were shown at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld for free.

The festival's centerpiece was the Amazing Thailand Film Challenge, in which foreign and Thai teams of filmmakers raced around to make low-budget shorts im in competition for the 1-million-baht ($30,000) top prize. Check Film Biz Asia for the winners.

Primarily geared for film professionals, with various seminars and other events, a resounding theme by folks in attendance was that while Thailand remains attractive, due to the diversity of locations and the many experienced film crews, the government needs to follow through with promises of incentives to foreign productions or else risk being bypassed in favor of places like Singapore or Malaysia.

There were other complaints too, which are chronicled here.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: Pee Mak Phra Khanong

  • Directed by Banjong Pisunthanakun
  • Starring Mario Maurer, Davika Hoorne, Nattapong Chartpong, Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk, Pongsatorn Jongwilak, Wiwat Kongrasri
  • Released in Thai cinemas on March 28, 2013; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

The Thai film industry has its first bonafide monster hit in awhile with “Pee Mak Phra Khanong” luring viewers into cinemas like moths to the flame.

The horror-comedy earned around 21 million baht on its opening day, setting a record for the GTH studio (only Sahamongkol's Ong-Bak has had a bigger opening, at around 30 million baht). It reached the benchmark 100-million-baht in its first four days in cinemas, and was still packing them in at a midnight screening at midweek.

But the real news is that Pee Mak is actually pretty good. Distinguishing itself from most other Thai horror comedies that are loosely structured, this one follows an actual script, which is smartly co-written by director Banjong Pisunthanakun. The production values are slick as is usual for the GTH studio. And there are strong performances, including a sweet and surprisingly funny Mario Maurer as Mak and the well-cast Davika “Mai” Hoorne, whose expressive eyes put across the fierceness of her character.

It’s yet another version of the famous Mae Nak Phra Khanong ghost story that’s been told on the big screen dozens of times. Other versions have included the 1999 hit Nang Nak by Nonzee Nimibutr and screenwriter Wisit Sasanatieng, as well as the lackluster 3D version of the tale last year, starring Bongkot Kongmalai as the long-armed ghost.

Everyone knows the story by heart. Set 100 or so years ago, long before the rustic river village of Phra Khanong became part of Bangkok and was paved over with condos, the young man Mak goes off to war, leaving behind his pregnant wife Nak. While Mak battles for his life in the trenches against whomever it was the Siamese were fighting back then, Nak struggles to give birth but both she and her baby die. However, the love between Mak and Nak is so strong, her spirit survives. When Mak returns home, he doesn’t see that anything is wrong even though the villagers are all in hiding, cowering in fear of the powerful ghost.

I laughed at a gorgeous scene of a thumping spider, a shot lifted from Nonzee and Wisit's version. But Banjong adds other critters, like centipedes, to give you the sense that even the insects are running for the hills in fear of Nak.

Pee Mak has just enough twists to make it interesting and it keeps you guessing by hinting at the various what if’s that might race through your mind, such as, for example, “what if Nak isn’t the one who’s dead?” It also plays on the assumptions that perhaps Mak (and by extension Mario) is a bit dimwitted if he can’t see that his wife is a ghost.

Pee Mak Phra Khanong adds four characters to the usual tale, army buddies of Mak who accompany him back home. They almost immediately figure out that something isn’t right, but have trouble finding the right moment to clue Mak in without making Nak angry.

The four guys are the bespectacled Ter (Nattapong Chartpong), moustachioed Aye (Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk), trendy-haired, goateed Puak (Pongsatorn Jongwilak) and the top-knot-haired Shin (Wiwat Kongrasri). The actors are the same four goofballs who went camping in director Banjong’s comedic segment of GTH’s Phobia. They also featured in the comedy segment of Phobia 2.

As in the Phobia films, the lads offer up a plethora of pop-culture references, even if such things as movies like The Last Samurai (or maybe they said Bangrajan) or magician David Blaine didn't exist back in Mak and Nak’s time. At one point, the boys holler at Mak, accusing him of bad acting and asking if he’d been coached by “Mom Noi”, Mario’s director ML Bhandevanov Devakula on the critically assailed, box-office-bombing Jan Dara epics (the English dubtitles say “Ang Lee”, which makes no sense – stop with the dubtitles, please).

The humor works better when the cultural references are potentially appropriate to the era or there’s no translation needed, like when one of the boys doesn't realize he needs to look backwards through his own legs to see that Nak is a ghost.

But there is a clever moment when Mak explains his name is really “Mark”, and as his four chums try to wrap their tongues around that, Mak tells how his father was a missionary from the US, making Mak a luk khrueng, or "half-Thai". Of course the joke is that Mario himself is half-Western, as is his co-star, the big-eyed Davika. I'm not sure how that joke will play in other countries, if Pee Mak does indeed find overseas buyers.

The fun really gets going when Mak takes his wife to a temple fair. Never mind that they probably didn’t have Ferris wheels or electric lights back then. On the run from the vengeful Nak, the four buddies hide out in the carnival’s haunted house, and disguise themselves as other spooks from Thai folklore – Nang Tani, the banana-tree ghost; Phi Krahang, the flying ghost; Krasue, the flying head-and-entrails ghost, and Kuman Thong, the little-boy ghost.

After a terror-filled boat ride, the guys end up taking refuge in the Buddhist temple with the monk, and the truth finally comes out.

But while other Mae Nak stories have ended tragically, this is a GTH movie, and even GTH’s sad movies make the audiences leave with smiles on their faces. Plus, given the windfall of cash Pee Mak has brought the studio, perhaps they’ll find a way to make a sequel and create more smiles.

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Review: A Century of Birthing

A tortured artist's soul is on a collision course with a hokey religion in Century of Birthing, a 2011 drama by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz.

It's two stories, one about a cult run by a man who only lets virgins join his church. They sing a weird song that's repeated over and over again until it gets under your skin. If you're not careful, you'll be brainwashed too.

The other story is about a filmmaker named Homer, whose work on his latest film is never-ending. He wants to complete just one more scene to make it perfect.

The film-within-the-film joins the topics of art and religion. In it, a woman who says she was a nun makes a bold request, causing the shaven-headed hero covered with Christian tattoos much distress. There was also a humorously surreal aside about colonialism, with masked Spanish conquistadors parading through the streets of town, scaring passersby.

The filmmaker Homer also allowed for more commentary on the state of the arts. At one point, he's interviewed by a journalist who then lists the various ways in which the filmmaker can be called "pretentious", which is basically all ways. Just the very act of making the film, no matter how sincere, artful or entertaining, can be criticized as "pretentious". At another point, the filmmaker's friend and sometimes actress reads an essay from the Philippine Inquirer that muses on the difference between "artist" and "entertainer", the meaning of the National Artist title in the country, and, that woman who is wormed her way into the hearts of all Filipinos, Imelda Marcos.

Tragedy brings the two storylines together for a resolution that's ultimately full of joy and faith-fulfilling.

As always with Diaz films, it's an emotional ride, and it's hard to not get caught up in the lives of the characters during the 5.5-hour running time.

The first Diaz film I watched was Heremias: Book One, and there were several callbacks to that, with a photographer character having photos of the white oxen who is central to the story of Heremias. Another scene featured a similar caravan to Heremias, of Diaz firmly planted camera unblinkingly recording the passage of caravan of buffalo carts, coming from far away, down from the mountains, passing through a floodplain that is shin-deep in water for as far as the eye can see. It's a majestic shot.

Other times, it's the characters who stay still, lost in thought as the camera fixes on them. I was often given to wonder if the film file had seized up, but then the wind would blow a leaf in the background or the constant roar of motorcycles endemic to all Southeast Asian films would be present to tell me I wasn't going crazy.

Watching a Diaz film may be to some an act of insanity, but for me it's a sanity check, an affirmation that yes, I'm still here.

This was my first Diaz film since 2009, when Diaz himself and several of his films came to Bangkok for a series put on by the Film Virus crew. Also in town at that time was passionate Filipino film expert Alexis Tioseco and his girlfriend, Slovenian film programmer Nika Bohinc. A month after their visit, they would be murdered in a brutal crime.

Century of Birthing was dedicated to both Nika and Alexis. As a bonus, the Film Virus group screened Diaz' 2012 documentary on the still-unsolved crime, An Investigation on the Night that Won't Forget. The bulk of the one-hour film, screened in black and white as all Diaz films are, is an interview with Tioseco's newspaper editor and friend Erwin Romulo. The camera is again firmly planted and doesn't blink as Romulo sits in a chair and, with a leg nervously shaking, he spills his memory of that terrible night when he got the call and then turned up at the crime scene. He's never given up on the case, and recalled the various times the Philippines' Keystone Kops have been close to catching the main perpetrator. Romulo has gone as far as loaning his car to the cops so they could track down leads. Apparently, police in the Philippines are too poor to have their own vehicles. It's a story so full of injustice and absurd bumbling, it could very well be a film by Diaz or any of the other Filipino indie filmmakers Tioseco championed. But the way Diaz handles it is the most sensitive way of dealing with it, and I was for some reason reminded of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man in which he records himself looking at brutal footage but doesn't actually show the footage to his viewers – you just see his reaction. The two-part doc is capped by footage of a busy open-air night market in a town square and then a candlelit procession of a some kind that serves as a poetic and heartfelt tribute to two people who are sorely missed.