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.