Monday, November 25, 2013

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)

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